Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Clothes Make the Rabbi (or is that Jedi?)

There was no way the new Star Wars film could escape the media maelstrom surrounding it entirely free of controversy. First it was George Lucas, creator of the original films and characters, criticizing the new movie is overly ‘retro,’ as if he hasn’t realized that pretty much the entire country is doing its best to return to the 70s and 80s. Retro? Does he know that a remake of Full House will be airing in the upcoming year? What about the X Files? And what is more retro than Downton Abbey, the last season of which begins this Sunday night on your local PBS station?

And then we’ve had the business about Carrie Fisher and her appearance. In a back and forth Twitter battle Fisher asked fans to stop remarking about how she looked in the new film, many saying she hadn’t ‘aged well.’ Fisher fired back with this tweet: youth and beauty are not accomplishments – they are the temporary byproducts of time and DNA. And we all might say ‘amen’ to that.

But the truth is, we do have a tendency these days, perhaps more than ever, to judged people based on the way they look. How they dress, what kind of jewelry they wear, or makeup, or hairstyle, or how they’ve ‘aged,’ among other things. She looks good for her age! Boy, I haven’t seen him in a while and he looked old! I have no doubts we can all relate.

Rabbis certainly can. Public figures, we are constantly being evaluated and judged. “That sermon wasn’t one of your best, rabbi. I am sure you’ll do better next time.” “Nice class, rabbi. One of the best you’ve given” (note that implies some of the others weren’t too terrific!). “Rabbi, did you know the deceased?” (implications left to your own imagination). “Rabbi, we spend all of Rosh Hashanah lunch talking about your sermon.” Really? And in terms of Carrie Fisher’s recent experience, the rabbi’s appearance is fair game.

I understand from my female colleagues that this is a particular challenge for them. For men it is much easier – there is only so much variety in terms of picking out a suit a tie. But I’ve been told I need a hair cut, and I’ve been told to let my hair grow. Folks have remarked that they like my beard, as if they’ve never seen it before, despite the fact that I’ve been wearing a beard now for more than twenty years. I wear bow ties, and someone once told me they don’t trust people who wear bow ties. While I was wearing one. And when I wear a regular tie, I am often asked why I didn’t wear a bow tie.

After a while you get used to it, and the truth is you are in the public eye in a way that many other people in many other professions are not. And there is probably a certain expectation of how a rabbi should look. The ‘typical’ rabbi. Conservatively dressed. Not too fancy, but not too shabby. Never jeans (I think some rabbis don’t even own them!). For the guys, dark suit, light shirt, subtle tie. For the gals, business suit, also dark, nothing too showy, careful of the neckline. You know – like a rabbi – sort of retro.


Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, clergy, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

Saying is Believing

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recently wrote about the ugly anti-semitic slurs that began to fill his inbox after he published an article in which he called Donald Trump a racist. Milbank was called an ‘anti-white parasite,’ a ‘kike-supremecist,’ and was told he was loyal to a foreign state (read Israel). He was sent a traditional anti-semitic cartoon image of a large nosed and dirty looking man wearing a black kippah. He was also accused of being a ‘kike-communist.’ In the column he wrote that he had been covering politics for a quarter of a century, now working on his seventh presidential election. He is more than familiar with the ugliness that is all too easily bred on the internet. But, he wrote, he has never seen anything like this. In his experience, the intensity and specifically anti-Semitic tone of the comments he received from some of Trump’s supporters is unprecedented.

It seems to me we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. You can’t go around saying some of the things that Trump has been saying without attracting people who are racist. And people who are racist are generally racist. To say it oxymoronically, their racism is non-discriminatory. They extend it to any minority – to African-Americans and Jews, to Asians and Arabs, to Muslims and people in the LGBT community. They hear Trump saying things that are anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, and they think to themselves ‘finally someone is publicly articulating what we think and feel!’ Feeling empowered and emboldened, they step more assuredly into the public arena, but when they do they bring all of their ‘antis’ with them. The dark ugliness of their thought and rhetoric, the irrationality of their sentiment, is deep and powerful. It is also extremely dangerous. Not just to Muslims, but to all minorities.

In the end the Trump tower will crumble. The infrastructure is already beginning to crack, with a rapidly rising Ted Cruz now leading in many polls in the impending Iowa caucus. But the close minded and bigoted sentiment, energy, and rhetoric that Trump has released may be around to plague us for a long time to come. And ‘us’ means any minority group, to include the Jews.

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, civil rights, Jewish life, politics, Uncategorized

White, Black, Technicolor

My guess would be that virtually everyone in the room this morning – and quite possibly just about everyone in the western hemisphere – is aware that a new Star Wars movie is playing in theaters this weekend.  I vividly remember going to see the first Star Wars film, in 1977.  The week that movie opened Star Wars was on the cover of Time magazine, and I remember the excitement I felt settling in to my seat at the movie theater.  The larger than life characters in the movie, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Darth Vadar and Princess Leia, the spectacular special effects, and the swashbuckling narrative combined to leave a deep impression on my then 13 year old brain which in some ways remains to this day.  And yes all five members of the Schwartz clan will be trekking to the theater Sunday night to see the newest version.  And we won’t be the only ones.  Early estimates are that this new Star Wars film may be the highest grossing movie of all time before all is said and done.

It is natural to wonder what is at the root of the enormous popularity of the Star Wars franchise.  It must be more than just good movie making, and in fact some of the later films were not particularly good movies at all.  Part of it I feel is the yearning that we all have in one way or another for a simpler time.  George Lucas has said that his inspiration for the initial Star Wars film, the one I saw in ’77, was in large part the classic western, with a wise and noble sheriff wearing of course what color hat?  White!  And a nasty and immoral villain, in the old westerns always dressed in black, and of course wearing a black hat.  Transfer this to Star Wars and you have Luke Skywalker, in his white tunic, the young hero who has arrived on the scene to restore order to town.  And of course you have Darth Vadar, played in the original movie by the great James Earl Jones, all in black, flowing black cape, and the black hat replaced by a black metallic helmet and mask that would become iconic.

The black and white color themes are symbolic, and we all understand how that symbolism works.  In the movies white is goodness, purity, morality, clarity, the truth and what is right.  Black is the opposite – it is dangerous, violent, evil, immoral, deceitful, whatever is disruptive to the proper order of the world.  At the heart of that color symbolism is the fundamental assumption that there is a right and a wrong that can be plainly distinguished, that it is entirely clear which is which.  Luke Skywalker is unambiguously good.  Darth Vadar clearly and completely evil.  And that also appeals to us.  We would like to believe that those distinctions are possible, that we can look at something – or someone – or some group – and know precisely what it is, good or bad, moral or immoral.  It would be easier, it would be simpler, if things were clear – and what is the phrase we use to express that? – black and white.

If you don’t mind I would like to detour from Star Wars to the Torah for a moment, and to move from Luke Skywalker’s white tunic and Darth Vadar’s black robes and mask to easily the most recognizable and famous piece of clothing in the entire Bible, Joseph’s ‘coat of many colors.’  Joseph is unquestionably the hero in the last third of Genesis, the main character who will ultimately save the Israelites from famine.  We know his story well – when he is young he is favored by his father Jacob, this brothers are jealous, they sell him into slavery, and he rises to power in Egypt to become second in command to only Pharaoh.  Finally in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, he is able to reconcile with his brothers as the Joseph narrative comes to a conclusion.

The coat of many colors plays a crucial role in Joseph’s story.  It is understood as being one of the main causes of the brother’s jealously.  Later when they capture Joseph and intend to harm him the Torah notes that the first thing the brothers do is to take the coat of many colors away from Joseph, and then it is that coat that they dip in goat’s blood and bring to Jacob – the father-  to prove to him that Joseph has been killed.  The colored coat and Joseph are clearly intertwined, connected, in the minds of the brothers, Jacob, and I would argue even Joseph himself.  And it is interesting that the coat has an ambiguity to it.  To go back to Star Wars, it is not something that could be worn by Luke Skywalker or Darth Vadar.  It is not white, or black – it is a bit of both, with other colors thrown in.  That doesn’t play very well in the movies, especially a movie like Star Wars, where you go to the theater expecting to enter a universe where things are black and white, where there is clarity about what is right and wrong, who is the hero and who is the villain.  But the coat of many colors is very much at home, very comfortable, in the Bible.  The world the Bible describes is a place where things are not clear, where right and wrong are not always easy to distinguish, where characters are complicated – not all good, and not all bad.

Joseph is a perfect example of this.  He is understood as being one of the great figures in the history of the Jewish people.  He is wise, able to interpret dreams, with a clear charisma and a talent for always winding up on top.  But at the same time he is a morally conflicted person.  Early in his life he is arrogant and insensitive.  We do see in this morning’s portion that he ultimately forgives his brothers for what they’ve done to him, and the reconciliation described at the beginning of the sedra seems heartfelt and genuine.  But he plays some nasty tricks on them along the way, and takes advantage of the fact that he has complete and total power over them.  Joseph is a complicated and conflicted person, in many ways ambiguous in his character, and the coat of many colors reflects that ambiguity.

It also of course reflects the world we live in.  It might be nice to enter the Star Wars universe for a couple of hours, but when the movie is over we return to the real world, and the real world cannot be painted in simple colors.  We live in a world where we wrestle with issues like abortion, immigration, refugees, health care, gun rights, poverty, and religious freedom just to name a few.  These issues are complicated, ambiguous, and difficult.  One of the problems with today’s political discourse is that the different sides have become so starkly oppositional, the lines so clearly defined, that people begin to look at these very complicated issues as if they were black and white, easy and clear, and totally unambiguous.  But the opposite is true, and issues like these do not have easy answers.  And if we can’t talk about them – if the minute someone says something that you disagree with, you shut it down – we’ll never be able to get anywhere.

That actually may be an opportunity that is presented to us all as we move into a presidential election year.  The issues will be on the table.  There will be debates – one after another after another.  My hope is that is that our political leaders can grapple with these issues in a real way, with all of their complexity and nuance.  If they can do that – with respect and dignity –  then they might help all of us to find a way to have meaningful dialogue about some of the most difficult, but also without question some of the most important issues of our time.  May we have the grace, the compassion, and the wisdom we need to speak about these issues not with anger, but with hope in our hearts for a better future that we can only make together.

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, community, Genesis, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

The Ouroboros of the Synagogue

The Ouroboros is a mythic snake, vast in proportion, sustaining its life force by eating its own tail.  Commonly the great snake is understood as a symbol of continual renewal, of regeneration and the endless cycle of life.  But I’ve always felt the symbolism of the Ouroboros has a darker side, for in feeding itself it consumes itself, thereby diminishing what it is and the amount of time and energy it has left.

Lately I have been wondering if an Ouroboros has quietly grown larger and larger in the synagogue community over the last fifty years.  For decades now the bar and bat mitzvah has in many ways been the bread and butter of synagogue life, the driving force behind so much of what we do.  New (and often young) members join synagogues because they want to have a bar or bat mitzvah for their child.  Parents enroll their children in Hebrew school so they can properly be prepared for the ‘big day.’  And the bar and bat mitzvah structure is an important foundation of synagogue income (membership dues, Hebrew school and tutoring fees, post event meals, etc).  As the structure evolved over time, it became a kind of ouroboros – self feeding and self sustaining.

It wasn’t long before a significant slice of the synagogue’s time, effort, and energy was directed towards the bar and bat mitzvah experience.  The ritual itself grew in importance, becoming something that is larger than life.   Commonly today families understand bar/bat mitzvah as a final destination, instead of a stopping point along the way in a Jewish education.  The shul, in turn, focused on it more and more as way of connecting with families and engaging them in synagogue life.  As the ritual grew in importance in the eyes of families, the synagogue put more and more effort into training the students, focused the service on the bar/bat mitzvah ritual, and relied more and more on the celebration attendees to bolster service attendance.   Before our very eyes the Ouroboros grew and grew.

But what happens when it simply can’t sustain itself anymore?  In today’s Jewish world Hebrew school takes a back seat to sports leagues.  Jews are less interested in general in religious life and ritual behavior, both of which serve as traditional pillars of the synagogue.  And more and more, families feel free to create a custom bar/bat mitzvah experience for their child outside of the shul walls, just for family and friends, without clergy, and entirely outside of the synagogue community.

In the near future it seems as if these trends will continue.  The bar/bat mitzvah experience will not nourish and sustain the synagogue as it has in the past.  The challenge for the synagogue community will be to adjust.  Can Hebrew school be reimagined?  Can the bar/bat mitzvah ritual, fundamentally a way to mark a young person’s coming of age, be redesigned so that it remains Jewish, but may not be what it has been for as long as most of us remember – a public reading of scripture by a child?   These are the pressing questions that synagogues are facing.

In a sense the challenge is this:  how do you turn a large ocean liner?  The answer is not easily.  But if talented, committed, caring, imaginative people work together, you have a chance.  One thing we are learning – the time to start trying has arrived.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, celebration, clergy, community, continiuty, Jewish life, ritual, synagogue, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

Winter Reading List

When the days grow short, the weather cold, and the pull of a comfortable chair next to a warm fire almost irresistible, we imagine we will weather our way through various and sundry winter storms while sipping hot chocolate or tea (or a fine Islay whisky!), cuddling up, and reading.  Here are some books that are on my winter reading list.

First up, I am almost finished with Ta Nehasi Coates’ slim memoire/social justice essay/letter to his son called Between the World and Me.  This 150 page volume should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about the roiling racial tension in our society today.  With stark courage and unflinching honesty Coates describes the life shaping experience of growing up as a black man in white America.

Secondly, there are books a rabbi wants to read, and books a rabbi has to read.  Michael Oren’s Ally falls into the latter category.  It will be the topic of the Sisterhood book review on January 20, and also the topic of my talk during our annual ‘Snowbird’ program in Florida.  Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US from 2009-2013, has written a book that traces the Israeli-American relationship during his tenure.  His premise:  although the bonds between the two countries may stretch and strain at times, they are ultimately unbreakable because of shared values and goals.

Last (but not least), the English historian Mary Beard has written a new, comprehensive (but short!) history of the Roman Empire called SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome.  The civilization, thought, and values that were at the heart of Rome’s rise are still at work in our culture today, two thousand years later.  Understanding where we’ve come from better positions us to move forward into the future with eyes wide open.

Enjoy the books!

1 Comment

Filed under books, civil rights, clergy, Israeli-American relations, Uncategorized, winter reading

The Times They Are A Changin’

Troubling times.  It is getting ugly out there.  Things are being said that we never would have imagined would be said.  Ideas are being floated that are outside the main, beyond the pale, whatever you want to call it, and they aren’t being rejected outright.  Reason is on the retreat, fleeing blindly from fear and irrationality, from bigotry and hatred, from xenophobia, like some lost hiker crashing through the overgrowth and trying to get away from a terrifying pursuer.

Is this how it happens?  A bizarrely twisted confluence of events, words, personalities, that suddenly and shockingly come together at the right (wrong) time in the right (wrong) way, and suddenly we are all going over the cliff.   Like the proverbial lemming.  Follow the leader.  Forget about what is real, thoughtful, sensible, logical, caring, and kind.  Release the better angels of your nature.  Banish them even.  But when you do you must be prepared to live with whatever is leftover.

What to do?  Stay the tide.  Hold the line.  Speak out against the lies and misconceptions that are so easily spoken and all too easily believed.  Go back.  Remember who we are, what we are, what we stand for, how much that means.  Grasp the values that help to make us great.  Name those that will make us small.  Pay attention, keep informed, do not – do not! – put your head in the sand.  This is real, it is serious, and it is seriously dangerous.  For all of us.

Maybe it will pass like a troubled dream, soon fading from memory and leaving only the faintest traces of psychic discomfort.  But it feels different this time, and that should be acknowledged, not ignored.

These lyrics from the great Bob Dylan’s classic song ‘the Times They are a Changin’ ring true in a new way:

Come gather round people wherever you roam; and admit that the waters around you have grown; and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone;  If your time to you is worth saving, then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone;  for the times they are a changin’

1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, community, politics, preaching, Uncategorized

Hanukkah and Hope

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/5/15 about the tragic events in California  –

Tomorrow night Jews around the world will gather together around their menorahs, chant the ancient blessings, light the candles, and welcome in the festival of Hanukkah.  Many people say that the lighting of the menorah is one of their favorite Jewish rituals, and we know statistically it is the most observed Jewish ritual of the entire year.  More Jews light Hanukkah menorahs than do anything else Jewish.  In my mind it is not only because of the holiday, or the themes of the holiday – it is the ritual itself that makes it so popular.  There is something about the warm glow of candles in the darkness that speaks to the human soul.  Perhaps in some way we are reminded of our distant, distant ancestors, many thousands of years ago, gathered around some primitive campfire and looking towards the heavens.

It is no accident, no coincidence, that Hanukkah falls at the time that it does.  Always in the early winter, during the shortest days of the year, and in the Hebrew calendar beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, at the end of the month when the moon has almost entirely disappeared from the sky.  When you combine one of the longest nights of the year with one of the darkest nights – moonless – it is precisely at that moment that human beings feel the need to make light.  It is a way of pushing back against the oppressive darkness, and reminding ourselves that before long the days will again grow longer, and that the moon will soon begin to wax, returning its brightness to the evening skies.

We all know the story that lies behind the menorah ritual.  Some 2400 years ago the Maccabees rose up against the Syrian Greeks and were able to retake control of the Temple in Jerusalem.  They wanted to relight the Temple’s menorah, but found only a single cruise of properly prepared oil.  Deciding to light anyway, they were astonished when the single cruise burned for many days, 8 all told, when new oil was finally prepared.  And this is the miracle we commemorate by lighting our menorahs for 8 nights.  But the symbolism of the ritual has always revolved around darkness and light.  Because it was one of the darkest periods in Jewish history, when the very existence of Jewish life was about to be extinguished.  And that little bit of oil reminded the Jews of that time – בימים ההם – that even after the worst desecration, something pure can remain.  And so throughout the ages the Hanukkah lights became one of the great symbols of Jewish hope.

There is a story about the prisoners in the Bergen-Belson concentration camp finding a way to celebrate Hanukkah.  They saved little bits of fat they found in their watered down soup, they took spare threads from their clothes to use as wicks, they managed to steal a few matches, and they carved a raw potato into a miniature menorah.  They gathered in the barracks, they softly recited the blessings, they lit their makeshift menorah, and a tiny light flickered in the darkness.  That act was a fulfillment of the mitzvah, the commandment, to light the menorah.  But it also was an act of faith, that somehow God could still be felt in their world.  And it was a statement of hope, that despite all they had been subjected to, despite their terrible suffering, somewhere inside they had enough hope to bring new light into the world.  In the very darkest place imaginable Jews found a way to make light, and in the space that that light created, hope could exist.

This is a week when I suspect we could all use a little extra hope.  You begin to think after a while that what happened this week in California and the week before in Colorado is just going to happen, that violence in general, and gun violence in particular, is inevitable, that it is something we can’t do anything about, and that we will have to watch it happen over and over again until we become numb, until it seems like a regular occurrence, just something that is the new normal, part and parcel of life in America.  Are we closer and closer to giving in to that sense of helplessness, to letting the darkness creep in and not believing that there is any way to create light?

There is a talmudic term, יאוש, that means despair.  It is generally used when discussing a lost object.  At what point is there yeiush, at what point does the owner of a lost object despair of ever finding it again?  But the concept assumes that despair does not come easily.  That people in general, and Jews in particular, cling fiercely to hope.  In the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, in the Hasidic shul, the Bratslaver shul there, a sign hung on the wall:  Jews Never Despair!  Judaism finds yeiush unacceptable.  Despair is not an option.  It is no accident that the Israeli national anthem is called HaTikvah – which simply means, the Hope.

In fact I would argue that hope is the key to Hanukkah itself.  Without hope, the Maccabees would have never defeated the Syrians.  Without hope, the Temple would have never been rededicated.  And if you think about hope, it is exclusively a future oriented idea.  Imagine the person who thought to hide that vial of oil.  What was that person doing?  The Jewish world was in a shambles.  The Temple was desecrated, unusable.  There was no way any reasonable person would have thought that one day the Temple would be in Jewish hands again, that one day there would even be a reason to have that oil.  But they hid the oil.  And they hoped.  And a miracle happened.

It is that Jew – whomever he or she was – that I’ll be thinking of as I light the menorah tomorrow night.  What I need this week is some of his – or her – hope.  But what we all already have is that person’s light.  The light of the menorah will grow into the room in our home and seep from our window into the troubled outside world.  That light will remind me of those who lost their lives this week and the week before.  And it will also remind me that despair is not an option.  And I will continue to hope.  To hope that one day we will find a way to create sensible gun control laws in this country.  To hope that our government officials will have the vigilance and wisdom, our soldiers the strength and courage, to keep us free from harm.  To hope that somehow a time will come when the worship of God is synonymous with the idea peace.  To hope that one day, if not in my lifetime, perhaps in the lifetime of my children, Israel will be able to exist in safety and security.  To hope that somehow, in some way which I don’t even know, through my own actions and in the course of my own life, I can participate in making that kind of world a reality.

To hope that the darkness, which can sometimes feel like it is all around us, can be pushed back by the light of our lives, our traditions, and our faith.  And that the ultimate light – the light of God – will grow stronger and stronger, and brighter and brighter, one day filling the world with goodness, kindness, compassion, and peace.

the middle line of the ancient priestly blessing we use to conclude services is this: יאר ה׳ פניו אליך ויחנך – may God’s light shine in our lives – may God grant us all grace

1 Comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, community, grief, Israel, Jewish festivals, loss, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized