Monthly Archives: August 2015

Missing Mentors

A double entendre.  Missing as in they are gone, and also missing as in missing them, feeling their absence in our hearts.  There is something about the holiday season that deepens both meanings.  Maybe because it is a family oriented time, a time we shared with them.  Maybe it is because of the memories of holidays gone by, of sitting with a loved one at the table, or in shul.  Maybe it is because so many of the holiday’s themes are tied to loss, mortality, the fragility of life.  But that sense of absence is keenly experienced when the nights become cool and the leaves begin to fall.

I have a private ritual I enact every year a week or two before the holidays.  I make sure to get to our synagogue’s cemetery to visit the graves of the clergy who served Beth El over the years.  I visit the grave of Rabbi Jacob Agus, whom I never met, but whose presence is felt in the halls of the synagogue every day as a source of guidance and wisdom.  I linger at the tombstone of Cantor Saul Hammerman, a golden voiced Hazzan with an old world sense of humor and a deep love of the Jewish people, with whom I was lucky to share many a conversation.  And always last I visit the grave of  Rabbi Mark Loeb, my senior rabbi for more than a decade, and a true mentor and friend to me and to many others.

It is at the last grave where I crouch down, where I brush my hands over the metal letters, where I again read the words that I’ve read hundreds of times.  What I wish I could share!  What I wish I could ask!  The void can be sensed, almost palpably, but it cannot be breached.  And yet.  There is meaning in the visit.  A sacred sense, an honoring of presence, an affirmation that the connection still exists in some mysterious and inexplicable way.  And in that there is comfort and strength.  And purpose.  What  I do I do not do alone.  Where I go, others go with me.  And in that sense of permanent presence I find blessing and grace, courage and hope, laughter and longing, sadness and celebration.  I find life.  And a new year begins.

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Filed under clergy, High Holy Days, loss, memory, mentors

Transitions of Fall (the Movers)

A tell tale sign appeared, just in the middle of a front lawn in our neighborhood.  White post, sunk about 8 inches into the ground.  Cross post at the top, for-sale sign hanging down and swaying in the breeze.  It had rained in the early morning.  The wet drops clung to the sign, waiting for a sun that was running late.  Neighbors were preparing to move away.  A new place, a new stage.  Downsizing?  Upgrading?  Whatever the reason, they would soon be gone.

The truth is we know people, but not that well.  A wave on the street, a handshake, a ‘how are you today?’, even if sincere, means only so much.  Moving takes planning.  Thought, discussion, realtors.  Something the family must have been processing for a long time, many months at least.  Serious conversations, pros and cons.  And I, living just two doors down, had no idea.  Walls come in many shapes and sizes.  Some intentional, others unintentional, others just there.  And others that suddenly apppear.

There were other signs too.  The sprucing up of the landscaping.  Work on the walkway and a new street light.  I’ve always thought it strange that we’ll live in a home for years and years, and suddenly, just before selling it, we put the work into it to make it nicer than it was before.  Probably many of the things we always thought we should do.  Paint the dining room, clean the carpets (or install new floors!), update the kitchen, redo the bath.  And then we move?!  Why not do the work when we can live in the house and enjoy it, why not make the home more like we would like it to be now?  It seems so strange to make it beautiful and then say goodbye.

But so it goes.  Time and again, house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood.  Families come and go.  We share space, a street, a wave, a few years.  The children grow and leave, off to their own lives.  The trees, not so long ago mere saplings, now tower above the homes, spreading their leaves over entire yards in the fall.   A new family comes and the cycle begins again.  New furniture will come, new colors of paint, new appliances and window treatments and posters and paintings.  But the old house remains.  It is frozen in time, a photograph, even a movie, always there to play, in the minds of the people who lived there and shared their lives.

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To Deal or Not to Deal, That is the Question

We shouldn’t be surprised that a study this week conducted by Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University found serious flaws in all of the major polls being touted by Jewish groups on various sides of the Iran deal. J Street has been citing a study that shows a near 60% approval for the deal in the American Jewish community. AIPAC has been including statistics from another study that shows almost the opposite in its literature and advertising. Professor Saxe, a sociologist, is suggesting that neither study can be trusted. Where does that leave us?

Well, for one thing, we should know by now this is more about propaganda than it is about facts, more a war of public opinion than a serious discussion of the actual issues. Here is what I suspect a truly honest broker would say, from either the right or the left, either pro or con: “I believe my side is right, and the course of action we are recommending is safer for Israel and the US. But I don’t know that for sure. I also know that the side I am fighting for has some serious potential flaws, and is far from perfect. And we won’t really know which side is right for another 5 to 10 years.” Wouldn’t that be a refreshing message to hear? Make your head snap around, wouldn’t it? Reminds me a bit of Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail. All of that truth telling makes people uncomfortable. But there is something compelling about it.

And of course part of the problem is that no one knows the truth here. They are all groping in the dark. The proponents for the Iran deal don’t know what the true intentions of the Iranians are, nor the unintended consequences of easing back on sanctions, nor how fully effective the inspections will be. The opponents don’t know that Iran will actually find its way to a bomb because of this deal, or that Iran won’t become more moderate, or that the inspections won’t be effective. It is all a best guess. And I understand how challenging it is, how disturbing even, to be making a best guess when so much is potentially at stake. But that is all they’ve got. Ain’t nothing more. And as they say, you have to play with the hand you are dealt.

One thing I do know is this. The Jewish community does not have one opinion about this issue. You can find some experts that think the deal is the best option, others who think it is terrible. You can find some rabbis who like the deal, and others who hate it. In any given congregation, on any given Federation board, you’ll find some supporters and some nay sayers. Sounds like the Jewish community to me. So if you’ve made up your mind one way or the other, you’ll find experts and communal professionals and clergy who will be right there with you. Pro or con. Right or left.

My advice? Study the issues and make up your own mind. Look at it from both sides. Read the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times. Listen to Barak and Bibi. You don’t need AIPAC or J Street to tell you what to think. You don’t need me or any other rabbi either. What we know is as much as what anyone else knows. And we are forming our own opinions. Our own best guesses. Some of us on one side, some on the other. And all of us, if we are being honest, knowing that we might be wrong.

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Filed under Iran deal, Israeli-American relations, Jewish life, politics

Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home

You may remember the series of Rabbi Small books, written by Harry Kemelman. Popular in the 70s, each installment had a title that began with a day of the week – Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, etc. When he ran out of days of the week he used other titles – one was even called The Day the Rabbi Resigned, if I remember correctly. They were mysteries, and in each volume Rabbi Small solved a crime. Set in a fictional Massachusetts town outside of Boston, the Rabbi solves the crimes using logic learned from the Talmud and Jewish values. As they say, what could be bad?

I’ve always suspected that part of the reason the books were so popular is that the protagonist is a member of the clergy, and in a way even more curiously, a rabbi. In other words, your regular old detective character is just like everyone else, but he or she just happens to earn his or her living by solving crimes. But a rabbi ISN’T like everyone else. He is a bit holier. Man of God, and all that business. He thinks different thoughts, has a more direct relationship with the Divine. Heck, just reading about the rabbi would be interesting in and of itself. But a rabbi who solves crimes? Using talmudic logic? Go straight to the best seller list.

But of course the truth is rabbis are no more or less interesting than anyone else. Same foibles. Same problems. Same stresses, same things make us laugh, frustrated, angry, happy, relieved. Before games my old high school soccer coach used to say to us about our opponents “they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else.” The same can be said about the rabbi. No different from anyone else. No better or worse. No holier, no closer to God (maybe further!). Do we know more about Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish theology and text? I hope so! That is what we spent years studying in school, and just like you want your doctor to know more about physiology/biology/illness than you, your rabbi should know more about Judaism. But just like you know your doctor is a regular old person, just like you, the same is true of your rabbi.

Full confession. I neve read any of the Rabbi Small books. So I can’t comment on how accurately or inaccurately he portrays rabbinic life, the rabbinic family, rabbinic work. Could talmudic logic actually help to solve crimes? I suppose, although truth be told the idea strikes me as being a bit fanciful. And entitling one of the books ‘Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home?’ No rabbi I know. That is one way that rabbis are different from most folks – we work on Sundays.

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Filed under books, clergy, Jewish life, the rabbinate

Literally?!

this the text version of yesterday’s (8/1/15) Shabbat sermon –

The portion that we read this morning, called V’etchanan, is one of the richest in the entire Torah. It is marked first of all by the soaring language that is found throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy, some of the most beautiful language in all of the Bible, and I would argue in all of western literature. But it is not just style that makes the parsha so compelling, it is also the what the language is used for, the material that the portion contains. And within just a few passages you can go from the Aseret Ha’Dibrot, the 10 Commandments, to the Shema Yisrael and the v’ahavta paragraph that we are so familiar with from our services, by far the biblical passage that Jews know best.

But this morning I would like to think with you for a few minutes about a less well known verse from this portion. It is often over looked – with the 10 commandments appearing in the 5th chapter, and the Shema in the 6th, this verse is nestled in the 4th, before all of the fireworks begin. It is part of a theme that Moses returns to over and over again in Deuteronomy, namely that he is giving over to Israel the laws and instructions that he, Moses, received from God at Mt Sinai, and it will be Israel’s job to observe those laws. And the verse that I am interested in this morning adds a particular detail to how that process of transmission is supposed to work. It says this: לא תוסיפו על הדבר אשר אנוכי מצוה אתכם – you shall not add anything to what I command you – ולא תגרעו מימנו – nor shall you take anything away from it – BUT keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you.

The peshat – the plain meaning of the verse – is quite clear. You have these words that are contained in the Torah – these commandments that the Torah lays out for you to observe – these and non other! What it says you should do, and do exactly. What it doesn’t say, you should not create, you should not add something new that isn’t already there. In a way it lends a whole new meaning to the sense of a very well known verse, also in this portion, that we know from the Torah service – וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל – this is the Torah that Moses put before Israel – this exactly, no additions, no subtractions, this precisely.

I remember the very first time I came across this verse, reading through the Torah as an adult, in preparation for going to rabbinical school. It was immediately puzzling to me. The text was clearly saying don’t add anything to the tradition. But I know already that many things had been added to the Torah’s description of how we are to ‘do Jewish.’ Some of these things were relatively small – lighting Shabbat candles, for example, Some of them were quite big – having a Passover seder, for example, something that is never mentioned in the Torah, has become one of the most important rituals that Jews engage in today. The requirements of a prayer service would be another example. And it is not only rituals that we have added over time – think about Hanukkah, a holiday that is never mentioned in the Torah, or even in the entire Hebrew Bible, and yet in Talmudic times the rabbis added it in to our calendar. Or the second day of Rosh Hashanah, never mentioned in the Torah. Clearly we’ve added a tremendous amount over the years, and yet the verse from this morning’s portion says לא תוסיפו – do not add.

At the same time, it also says do not take away. And yet we absolutely have! The Torah, for example, says quite clearly that a disrespectful son should be taken out and stoned by the city gates. That one the rabbis got rid of. It also says in the Torah that the death penalty should be applied in certain cases. Says it plainly, with no equivocation. But the Talmudic rabbis didn’t like that idea, they didn’t believe in the death penalty, so they wrote it out of the tradition. There are many other examples – the laws of how an adulterous wife should be treated, the laws of the nazarite, the law of a woman whose husband dies and is supposed to marry his brother – all of these rules are clearly, plainly, stated in the Torah, and yet despite the fact that this morning’s verse says לא תגרעו – do not take anything away – over the centuries we have done exactly that.

The point of all of this is to show you that despite what the verse says, the fact of the matter is that the commandments have been changed over time, and in many cases dramatically so. Commandments have been added, commandments have been taken away. Sometimes this has been caused by circumstances – when the Temple was destroyed, the couldn’t fulfill the sacrificial commandments anymore. But sometimes the tradition was added to or subtracted from because the Jews of a particular generation thought that a commandment was not sufficient, or was no longer morally acceptable. And in fact it is really that process – adding to the tradition, taking away from the tradition, changing the tradition over time – it is that process that enables the tradition to stay meaningful and relevant not only for decades, or even centuries, but for millennia – for thousands of years.

And one of the keys to that process is that you cannot read the Bible literally. You cannot read the text as a fundamentalist reads the text, that every word in it is infallible, that every sentence is absolutely accurate. When you read the text that way, like a fundamentalist does, you can arrive at a situation where a man would take a knife to people walking in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem, as happened Thursday. That man – an ultra Orthodox Jew – stabbed Jews in the back in part because I imagine he is a very troubled soul. But he also did it because he reads the Bible as a fundamentalist reads the bible – that it can never change, and that every word of it is true.

But here is the irony of that. By reading the Bible that way – literally, as a fundamentalist – he was taken farther away from God and God’s will, and not closer. Reading the Torah literally made him forget that all people are created in God’s image, whether they are gay or straight, or Jewish or not Jewish for that matter. Reading the Torah literally made him forget that one of the central tenets of the Torah, one of its core values, that is in the 10 commandments of this morning’s portion, is לא תרצח – you shall not murder. Reading the Torah literally made him actually forget what it means to be a Jew.

So you simply cannot follow that verse from this morning’s portion about not adding or taking away. In fact you must sometimes add, and you must sometimes take away. You have to do that, I would argue, to be able to live a full, meaningful, committed Jewish life. Individuals have to do it. Communities have to do it, to put to bed old traditions that are no longer relevant, or to create new traditions that will help people in contemporary times access their Judaism. And in that process of change, of adding, of taking away, of creating new things and following new ideas, what we are actually doing is getting closer to God, and uncovering a deeper sense of what God expects from us and how we should live our lives.

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Filed under gay rights, religious fundamentalism, sermon, Torah