Monthly Archives: May 2015

Ireland’s Vote on Gay Marriage

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 5/30/15

One week ago today, Ireland became the first country ever to legalize same sex marriage by a popular vote. When the results were tallied, a resounding 60 pus percent of Ireland’s people voted yes, and Ireland joined a growing list of now 20 countries where same sex marriage is legal, to include Belgium, Canada, Spain, and France, among others. One of the striking things about this list, and Ireland is a perfect example, is how Catholic many of these countries are. About 85% of Irishmen are Catholic – 85%! And not just by birth – they are also relatively traditional in their practice and observance of Catholicism.

So what is particularly striking about the vote on gay marriage is that you would expect a country of observant Catholics to follow Church teaching, and to vote no on the issue. In fact there is precedence in Ireland for this – the official teaching of the Church, for example, is that contraception use is not permitted. And believe it or not, in Ireland it was actually illegal to buy or sell any kind of contraception until 1980. Even today, abortion is illegal in Ireland in most situations, again following Church teaching. But somehow that very same country, as Catholic as it is, and as committed to its Catholicism as it is, voted yes on gay marriage. Given the fact that the United States Supreme Court will be ruling on gay marriage this summer, it might be interesting to think about what happened in Ireland, what was the impulse behind the vote?

On the surface you might think it is simply a case of individual freedom trumping organized religion. It is certainly not a secret today that individual freedom is more valued than it has ever been before, probably in the history of humankind, so you could explain the Irish vote as an affirmation of that freedom. If individuals want to marry, they should be free to do it in any way they choose. And I am sure this was a factor in the vote in Ireland, and it is clearly a factor here in the States as well, where the sense of gay marriage being acceptable has risen dramatically in a very brief time, really just a 3-5 year window.

But I don’t think the individual freedom answer is the only explanation for what happened in Ireland, and I actually don’t even think it is the main answer, the most important answer. After all, as I explained a moment ago, on other very similar issues – abortion, contraception – which are also individual freedom issues – Ireland has by and large remained staunchly conservative, following Church teaching. So there must be something else. What might that something else be?

The answer I am going to give you will at first seem contradictory, but bear with me for a moment and I’ll see if I can make sense of it for you. I have a feeling the Irish voted so overwhelmingly to allow gay marriage precisely because of the Catholic values that are so deeply embedded in their culture and their society. Now you are saying ‘wait a minute rabbi, you’re not making sense! Catholic values teach against gay marriage.’ And you are right about that. But that is one value in a sea of values that the Church teaches. The Church also teaches, for example, that one should care for the underprivileged, the poor, the sick, and the needy. The Church teaches that special rewards come to those who uphold the rights of the marginalized. The Church teaches that being kind to one’s fellow human beings is one of the, if not the, highest value. The Church teaches that you should love your neighbor as yourself.

And if you are Catholic, and you take all of those messages seriously, if you believe in your heart and soul that God wants you to be kind and caring, to stand up for the oppressed, to help the marginalized, to give voice to those who do not have a voice, if you believe all of that – and then you see another value in your faith tradition which is exclusionary and oppressive, you might say to yourself because I am a Catholic, I am going to reject a message of exclusion that I see in my tradition, and I am going to embrace the larger, more important message of inclusion, common humanity, and dignity for all people. And I can’t prove it, but I do wonder if that was what drove that vote in Ireland.

Now the liberal Jewish community – and when I say that I mean Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform – has been far ahead of the Church on the issue of gay rights. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have been ordaining openly gay rabbis for many years already, the Reconstructionist movement from the mid 80s, the Reform movement from the late 80s. It took the Conservative Movement almost 20 years to catch up, and in fact when I was at the Seminary there was a lot of discussion about the issue, and it wasn’t until 2006 that the first openly gay conservative rabbis were ordained. And all three of the movements at this point permit their rabbis to officiate at gay weddings.

Now it is true that there is a specific verse in the Torah, in Leviticus 18, that forbids homosexuality. But Judaism has long understood that the Bible contains its fair share of anachronistic material. You can find a perfect example of this in the Torah portion we read this morning, which contains the passages about the Isha Sotah, the adulterous woman. The Torah instructs us that when a woman is accused of adultery – even if there is no proof – she is put through a cruel and potentially life threatening ritual that will indicate whether she sinned or not. It is the biblical equivalent of tying rocks to a woman accused of being a witch to see if she’ll sink in water, thus proving she actually is a witch. There are few passages in the Torah that are more disturbing, more out of touch with modern values and ideals.

But the Torah is also filled with powerful stories about the innate dignity of every human being. The Torah also tells us that every person is created in God’s image. The Torah reminds us again and again that we as Jews have a particular responsibility to guarantee the rights of the orphan, the widow, the stranger, those with no voice, those who otherwise would have to live their lives on the margins of society. And when you read the Torah looking for an overarching message, when you develop a sense of the direction the Torah wanted to move us in as a culture, as a civilization, you can clearly see that these are the overriding messages, these are the fundamental, core values of the Torah, and hence of Judaism. To bring people in, and not turn them away. To care for those who struggle to care for themselves. To remember that every person – regardless of race, faith, sexual orientation, or anything else, is created in the image of God, and should be treated with dignity and compassion.

And so when you see a series of verses about the bizarre ritual of the adulterous woman, or when you see a single verse that forbids homosexuality, you have to be able to say to yourself this reflects an ancient time, and it is simply not in line, not a part of, the greater and more important message of life, dignity, and freedom for all that the Torah wants us to learn.

The Talmudic rabbis knew that lesson well, and they made it clear in the Talmud that the ritual of the adulterous woman should never be practiced. In the liberal Jewish community today we have proudly followed in their footsteps, with the issue of gay rights and many other issues as well, and by doing so we have not rejected our tradition, but instead we have honored it. And I would say that is what the Catholics in Ireland did with their historic vote last week. Someday soon, I hope, all nations, and all of the world’s faith traditions, will follow Ireland’s example.

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The Age of Indifference

A play on the title of Edith Wharton’s 1920 serialized novel, ‘age of indifference’ was the title of a Pew Center report of a year or so ago that suggested the younger generation was less concerned with the news, with what was going on in the world around them, and more concerned with their own lives, their ‘inner circle.’ I am not convinced. Anecdotally the young people I come into contact with have a sense of what is happening in the world, probably even more so than I did at their age. In my day the challenge was to find the information. Even if I was interested it in, I couldn’t always track it down. Today, a young person’s challenge is separating out the wheat from the chaff. There is so much information, so much news available, so much detail about anything and everything, how do you decide what to actually read, what to spend time with, what is worthwhile? It is less the age of indifference and more the age of information overload. We’ve been talking about compassion fatigue for some time now. Perhaps we need to spend some time thinking about information fatigue.

There are two traditional ways to study Talmud. One, ‘bikiut,’ means something like ‘survey course style (technically the word means ‘expertise’). The idea is to get through a lot of material, as many pages as possible, with a decent level of competency, and along the way you become somewhat ‘expert’ in Talmud. But then there is ‘b’iyyun’ study. This is a study of depth, of digging deep into a short section of text, of going through level after level of analysis on one idea. Peeling away the layers. Imagine wringing the washcloth out, squeezing and squeezing it until every last bit of moisture has been extracted. That is the way ‘b’iyyun’ study works.

There is pleasure in both kinds of study, and either approach to the text can help one to grow Jewishly and humanly. But I’ve always felt it is the ‘b’iyyun’ study that most accurately reflects the approach of the talmudic sages themselves. There is something meditative about it, prayerful even. A way to access God’s presence, to open up a sense of higher consciousness. From Ben Bag Bag in the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 5:22): Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn from it, and never move from it, for there is no better portion. We are living in a time of ‘survey’ learning. Snippets of information pass quickly before our eyes, even more quickly into short term memory and out again. But what about cogitation? Mulling over a problem, an issue, taking the time to actually think all the way through something? That is the kind of thinking Talmud study requires. A skill I would argue that we need more than ever.

So it is for this reason (and a few others) that I am starting a Talmud class. We will work slowly, taking our time, word by word, idea by idea. Hoping to meet regularly, once a week or close to it. Work in the original Hebrew or Aramaic or both. Student’s will need to be able to read Hebrew, although translations will be available. It is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. Years even. But, as they say in Hebrew, היגיע הזמן, the time has come. And then you have this, also from the Mishnah, also Pirke Avot, this time from Rabbi Tarfon: You don’t have to finish the work, but you have to at least get started!

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Yizkor remarks – Shavuot and Memorial Day 5775/2015

It is something that happens off and on over the years, this coincidence of Memorial Day and the second day of Shavuot, when we are asked to recited the Yizkor service. The last time the two days overlapped it was 1985, and before that 1971. Memory is of course a central component of both experiences. The word ‘memorial’ simply means a structure – whether that structure is physical like a tombstone, or a structure in time – like a day or a liturgical structure – the enables us to remember a person who has died. And the word ‘yizkor’ comes from the Hebrew root that means ‘to remember.’ So it somehow feels appropriate that the two days fall together, with their shared themes and feelings.

The history of Memorial Day is an interesting one, albeit much more recent than you might expect. The holiday was first established in the late 1800s, as a day to remember those killed during the Civil War, still America’s bloodiest. At first the holiday was called Decoration Day, because of the custom of taking flowers and laying them on the soldier’s graves and tombstones. For many years the date was fixed as May 30th, regardless of which day of the week that was, and it wasn’t until the early 70s that the date was fixed as the last Monday of May, and the day was recognized as a national holiday. So it has only been for the last 40 years or so that Memorial Day has been observed as the last Monday of May. And as recently as 15 years ago the holiday was still being tweaked. It was in the year 2000 that congress passed a law that every citizen should pause at three o’clock in the afternoon on this day for a moment of silence, to acknowledge those who have lost their lives fighting for this country and for our freedom.

At the heart of Memorial Day is the idea that collective memory is important. It creates national identity, it reminds us of what connects us as Americans, that we share a narrative and a history, that our triumphs and our tragedies bind us together as a nation, as a people. But Memorial Day is also about personal loss. Families gather today at Arlington National Cemetery. They bring flags and flowers to specific graves. This is their brother or sister, their father or mother or grandfather. Their friend. On Memorial Day the nation gives thanks, and honors, and remembers. But the individual mourns. The bitterness and sadness and grief of a loss comes back into the heart. In the midst of a holiday that has become largely about sales and barbecues we would do well to remember that, and perhaps this year pause at 3 for that moment of silence.

Yizkor is Judaism’s moment of silence. We Jews learned long ago the importance of remembering and memorializing. If you think about it all of our holidays are at least in part an exercise in memory. Passover is about recalling the exodus. This holiday, Shavuot, reminds us of the giving of the Torah. Each summer we celebrate Tisha B’Av, a commemoration of the day the Temple was destroyed in ancient Jerusalem. Hanukkah and Purim also mark historical events in the history of the Jewish people. Judaism is a deeply memory-centric faith, but most of the remembering we do in Judaism is not personal, it is national. But Yizkor is different. It is the most personal memory exercise we have in Judaism. In the midst of recalling our national stories, our collective historical experience, the tradition carves out for us this moment of silence, this opportunity for personal reflection and recollection, this specific moment to remember the loses of our lives. The very people we have shared these holidays with over the years who have passed from this world to the next.

As we rise today for the Yizkor service, may we remember the sacrifices of those who defended our nation, even as we call to mind those we have loved and lost, whose lives continue to touch us each day, and whose memories we honor in God’s presence, during this watchful hour –

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There but for the Grace of God…

It was a shaft of early morning sunlight that caught my eye, just coming from the east and touching the edges of a small wood near our home. It gently rested on a young maple sapling, perhaps a year and a half old, spindly trunk, gangly branches, over sized leaves stretching for warmth and light. I watched the sapling for a time. A light breeze rustled those leaves, shifting the shadows formed from the sun’s illumination. It was at the very end of the woods, the liminal space where the trees give way to moss, then green grass and dandelions, and eventually concrete and blacktop.

Had the sapling’s seed fallen deeper into the woods it would not have had a chance. Surrounded by the other trees, unable to access the sun’s light, it might have grown for a time. But then what? There in the middle of the wood, surrounded by giant oaks and fellow maples, spruce and pine, wrestling with thick undergrowth. What then? Eventually that tiny sapling would have given way, the darkness of the forest floor swallowing it up, or perhaps the deep fall leaves smothering it as the cold fall nights set in.

But that was not to be its fate. Instead, for whatever reason, in whatever small but miraculous way, its seed had come to rest in just the right place. Between a stone and a low plant, close enough to the soil to send its first tendrils downward searching for nourishment and home and connection. Where it would feel the touch of the sun each morning, the moisture of the rain, the refreshing wind of the little valley. And there it could grow, stretching away from the other trees, the ancient giants brooding in the deeper forest, wondering perhaps what a young sapling was doing taking such a chance.


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How to Create a Sports Fan

This the text of my Shabbat sermon from 5/16/15. One brief note. I decided just before I spoke to change the beginning of the sermon, switching what I had written for a few remarks about the recent Pew Study results on America’s religious landscape and how the new data indicates that ‘millennials’ are far less likely to be involved in or connected to congregational life.

We often talk about the idea of ‘l’dor vador’ in congregational life, the sense that the tradition is transmitted from one generation to the next. Just this morning we celebrated together two baby namings, and a bar mitzvah, and these are generation to generation moments, expressions of our hope that Judaism will play an important role in the lives of the young people in our community. So you give a Hebrew name to a child as a way of setting her on a Jewish path at an early stage of her life, you ask teens to prepare for bar or bat mitzvah, in part to give them a formative, hopefully positive, Jewish experience when they are young, that they will carry for the rest of their lives.

Of course the idea of generation to generation doesn’t only apply in a religious sense. There are many traditions that are maintained in families that are passed from grandparents to parents to children. It might be an annual summer family vacation in a particular spot, where year after year everyone comes together as the family. Food can actually play this role – sometimes there is a recipe, a particular dish that is passed down that everyone in the family knows and loves. And another thing that is passed down from one generation to the next is a love of sports. And I would like to think about that with you this morning for a few minutes. How do you take a child, and as he or she grows, create a Ravens fan, or an Orioles fan, a young person who grows to love sports in the course of their young life?

I actually suspect that if we opened the floor and talked about that question for a few minutes we would be able to come up with a pretty clearly defined plan, one that had a good chance of working well. In fact many of us in the room have probably already done this, taken a son or a daughter, a grandson or granddaughter, and given them the tools that they needed to be a serious fan of a particular sport and a particular team. But how exactly does this happen? What are the particulars, the details, the necessary elements that will one day magically come together to create a devoted, knowledgeable, passionate, connected, Ravens fan?

One crucial element, it seems to me, is that you have to start them young, and we do! Most of the babies born here in Baltimore are wearing Ravens or Orioles gear within the first week of their lives. When they get a bit older they play with their friends in front of the TV on gameday, and by the time they are 6 or 7 years old they are watching the games themselves.

And that leads to crucial element number two, which is that they are knowledgeable about the games. They know the rules, how to keep score, what the difference is between a touchdown and an extra point, how many yards it takes to get a first down, and how many balls and strikes it takes in baseball to send someone to first base or to send them back to the dugout. As they get older their knowledge increases, until by the time they are young teens they know more about football or baseball than they know about anything else. Each player, the statistics, the team’s schedules, you name it and they know it. And why are they so interested in it? Initially, because their parents are interested in it. They see how passionate their parents are about it, how important it is to their parents, they see how much time, effort, energy, blood, sweat, and tears their parents put into this stuff. And it rubs off. It makes a difference.

And then you begin to bring the kids to the games. I bet you just about everyone in this room can remember the first time their father brought them to a Colts game, or Ravens game, or the first time they sat in a seat at the ballpark next to their father or grandfather and watched the Orioles jog out onto the field at Memorial Stadium or Camden Yards. And I think you mix all of that stuff together, and it is pretty straight forward at the end of the day. You make a passionate sports fan by starting them young, by sharing with them the knowledge they need to understand and appreciate the game, and most importantly of all, you let them know how important it is to you, how passionate you are about it, how much you care about it. That formula works so well that I feel confident in saying that for the rest of my career in the rabbinate, during the fall people will be showing up here in shul on Saturday mornings wearing purple ties and purple sweaters, shirts, blouses, skirts, socks, you get the picture.

But what I am wondering more and more these days is this: will those future purple wearing folks in the pews be able to daven, to participate in the service, while they are sitting there? Will they care enough to be here in the first place? Will they want to be part of a Jewish community, will they feel that Judaism brings meaning into their lives, will they be as passionate about their Judaism as they are about their Ravens or Orioles? Are we making young Jews as successfully as we are making young sports fans? Let me ask the question I asked a moment ago, but I’ll change the last word. What are the particulars, the details, the necessary elements that will one day magically come together to create a devoted, knowledgable, passionate, connected Jew?

Well, you’ve got to start them when they are young. That includes a baby naming or a bris, it includes a Jewish pre-school, it includes bringing children to synagogue for holidays and programs so the shul is a natural and familiar part of their lives. Then, just like with sports, you have to give them the knowledge. A fundamental understanding of our sacred stories, of the flow of Jewish history, the ability to read Hebrew, familiarity with the service and the most significant prayers. But most importantly of all, you need to let your children and grandchildren know how important Judaism is to you, how passionate you feel about it, how much you care about it.

Two things about that last piece: first, that is something that is very difficult to communicate in a conversation. Because you can tell your children and grandchildren Judaism is important to you, but unless you show them it is important, I don’t think the message will get across. You have to do things – using the sports analogy, you have to watch the games with them, take them to the games, talk with them about the team, show them you feel passionate about it, that it is one of the most important things in your life. If you said to your child ‘I love the Ravens’ but you never watched a game with them, never took them to a game, never talked about the Ravens at home, your child is not going to be a Ravens fan! Why would we imagine that Judaism is different? So bring them to shul – and come with them! Make Shabbat at home, say the blessings, light the candles, have dinner together. Talk with them about what they’ve learned in Hebrew school, read Jewish books, take Jewish courses, so that they can see Jewish learning is an important part of your life, go to Israel and bring them along.

Which leads me to the second thing. It is not a synagogue that makes a child Jewish. It is not a rabbi, or a cantor, or a Hebrew school teacher. We can help. We can give them some of the tools they’ll need. We can provide programs that will give them the chance to immerse in Jewish life, to learn about their heritage and history, to see Judaism as something that is meaningful and powerful. But at the end of the day their sense of being Jewish has to come from you, their parents and grandparents. A child’s Jewish identity isn’t formed in a synagogue, it is formed in a home. So lets make our homes the kinds of places that foster Jewish life and identity, and lets make our lives models for the kinds of Jewish lives we hope our children and grandchildren will one day live themselves. If we can do that, then a decade from now during football season our pews will be filled with purple wearing Jews who will be just as excited about Jewish life as they will about the prospect of the Ravens winning another Super Bowl. And folks, that is pretty excited. Just imagine that.

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Summer Reading List – 2015

Summer Reading List 2015

At Home in Exile – Alan Wolfe
The author, a professor of political science at Boston College, argues that the diaspora community is integral to Jewish life, and plays as important a role in the world wide Jewish community as the State of Israel. (269)

My Struggle vol 2 – Karl Ove Knausgaard
The second book in the multivolume autobiographical novel by the Norwegian author. Freud’s impulse to look inward motivates Knausgaard’s astonishing work. By following the author in his soul directed journey, the reader also reaches a place of deeper understanding and wisdom. (573)

Bringing Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Volume 2 of the author’s Wolf Hall series follows the fate of the narrative’s protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. A progressive, but at the same time a cunning and ruthless player of the political game (the real game of thrones) Cromwell stands as a powerful literally creation who reflects many of the our modern struggles. (432)

The Art of Dancing in the Rain – Garth Stein
This year’s beach read. Because every once in a while it is good to see the world from a dog’s perspective. It truly is a dog’s life.

Capital in the 21st Century – Thomas Piketty
The French economist produces a stunning survey of the history of wealth and inheritance over the last 500 years. In so doing, he argues that the market economy may increase, not decrease the wealth gap. An important book for our time, when that gap grows larger by the day. (long and technical!)

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
The beautifully written book is a moving mediation on life, loss, love, the natural world, and the art of falconry. If you choose one book from this list, this is the one to choose!

Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare
In a year when anti-semitism is on the rise it makes sense to look back to Shakespeare’s great play with the central Jewish character Shylock. The speech that begins “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes…” is one of the greatest in all of the Bard’s cannon.


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Into the Looking Glass Darkly

The words have a familiar ring to them, but they actually are a garbling of two distinct phrases. ‘Through the Looking Glass (and What Alice Found There)’ was the title of Lewis Carroll’s 1871 novel about Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. And then in 1 Corinthians, 13:12, we read ‘for now we see through a glass, darkly..’ (yes rabbis know a bit of the Christian scriptures).

When the two disparate sources come together, we get a memorable, maybe even a haunting, image. What does it mean to go through the looking glass? That in and of itself is a hard thing to puzzle out. But to do it darkly? There is something ominous about the idea, a sense of disappearing, perhaps even of losing oneself.

It was that sense of the image that came to my mind this week when I saw a picture of the famous Bolshoi ballerinas backstage during a performance. The dancers were lined along a corridor, fading into darkness and distance. But each dancer’s face was illuminated by the mobile phone they were holding, peering into intently.

I imagine these days were are all familiar with this phenomenon to one extent or another. A friend or family member constantly looking at their phone during a meal. At any meeting these days half of the attendees’ hands are under the table, attempting to surreptitiously monitor email, texts, stocks, scores, whatever it might be, on their ‘smart’ phones. A child who spends hours, and then more hours, staring into the screen of their laptop, only called out of their trance like state by a parent’s insistence that they come down to dinner. I could give you some of the astonishing statistics, but suffice it to say that we spend more and more of our time staring into digital screens, and the amount of time we spend doing this is increasing. Where (and when) it will end no one knows.

It is tempting, I understand. All of that information at our finger tips. The sense of instant availability, the need to respond to every ding, beep, ring, buzzer. But do you notice it is a bit harder to concentrate, to focus on an idea, to read a book, to study a text? Have you been sitting at your computer only to realize that somehow an hour has gone by when your intent was to just check something on Facebook for 10 minutes? The screen is always there, tugging at us, diverting our attention, taking our time, and giving us – what in return?

The Bolshoi dancers looked almost as if they were disappearing into their screens, drawn into some endless tunnel of data, 0s and 1s whipping past them at unfathomable speed, unable to withdraw their gaze. Alice tumbled through her looking glass into a new and bizarre world. We are fallowing her in our own way. What we will find and where we will land is anyone’s guess at this point. But more and more I am convinced it will not be a Wonderland.

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