Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Rabbi as Proxy

A word usually used regarding voting.  As in someone may vote by proxy, meaning on another person’s behalf.  They are substituting for you, carrying out a responsibility that is really yours, but that for some reason or another you are not able to fulfill.

Rabbis are often asked to serve in proxy roles.  Not in the sense of voting, but in many other ways.  I’ve had people say to me ‘Rabbi, I just can’t go visit my grandfather, it upsets me too much to see him this way.  Will you go for me?’  I’ve had people ask me to say something to another person for them, something that they felt they were unable to say on their own behalf, that was too difficult, or they were worried they would be too emotional.  I’ve been asked to go in to a room where someone had died to be with the body, when family members felt they were unable to enter that room themselves.

You may remember a 2009 film called Up in the Air.  Starring George Clooney, the movie told the story of a consulting firm that helped companies carry out successful ‘terminations.’  When the company needed to lay off workers, it brought in a proxy to do the job for them.  Someone who was a ‘professional,’ who knew how to do the job the right way.  Clooney played the master ‘terminator.’  He had heard every response, seen every situation, encountered every possible reaction.    He was cool and calm, never raising his voice, patiently sitting and listening and to the best of his ability comforting (as long as it didn’t take too long – he often had a long list to get through!).  It all worked – clean, efficient, unemotional.

Of course that is not the way life works.  If anything, life is the opposite.  Messy.  Just slightly out of control (sometimes more so!).  Emotional.  In fact, very emotional.  Certainly not clean and efficient, and, by the way, not easy either.

The thing about it is this:  proxy works with voting because it doesn’t actually matter whose hand turns in the ballot – the result is the same.  But with real life, my sense is proxy doesn’t work so well.  I can’t, for example, educate children Jewishly in lieu of their parents.  I can go to make the hospital visit, but in the end it is my visit, not someone else’s.  It is the old idea of politicians not being able to get to events and sending aids in their stead.  Just never worked for me.  If you can’t make it, I understand.  But sending someone else?  That is something I guess I’ve never fully understood.

There is a well known statement from the Sage Hillel, found in the Mishnah:  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Somethings you just have to do for yourself.  No one else can do them for you, and get them done the right way.  Not even the rabbi.

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Dueling Bibles – the Importance of Defending and Supporting the LGBT Community

This a text version of my sermon from 6/18/16.  My thanks to Bob Weir for his comments at  the conclusion of the Dead and Co show from Bonnaroo .  Folks often ask where sermons come from, and this one in large part started with those comments.

Just a few hours after the horrific events in Orlando last Sunday morning the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, a man by the name of Dan Patrick, sent out a tweet on his official Twitter account that read ‘God cannot be mocked – a man reaps what he sows.’  It is a well known quote from the Christian Bible, Galatians chapter 7 verse 6, that is generally read as a warning to people to remember that their actions have consequences.  But in this context, with the posting of the tweet right after the shooting, and with Patrick’s history of hostility towards the LGBT community, the message was seen in a different light – namely, as his way of suggesting that people who are gay deserve to be punished because of who they are, the lifestyle the live, and the people they love.

As you may imagine the reaction to the tweet was swift and fierce.  It was widely condemned, and within a short time Mr. Patrick had deleted it from his account, once again demonstrating that politicians will stay strong in their views until they realize just how unpopular those views are.  But you almost can’t blame Mr. Patrick for what he did, in fact you might have expected it.  He comes from a religious community and religious background where such views are not only common, but also commonly accepted.  People in his community will often justify the homophobic positions they take by citing scripture, knowing that there are verses in the Hebrew Bible – what they would call the Old Testament – that on the surface seem to forbid homosexual behavior.

There are two things I would like to say about that this morning.  The first is this – if those folks want to read their scripture literally, then they should stick with it all the way, and not just pick and choose certain verses.  Because it also says in the Hebrew Bible that a child who insults his parents should be stoned to death at the city gate, and I don’t see these folks tweeting about that.  It also says, by the way, that pork is a forbidden food, but the last I checked the Great State of Texas was pretty well known for its BBQ pork ribs – not that that is something a rabbi knows much about – and I don’t see anyone in the Texas legislature trying to ban pork ribs or Dan Patrick tweeting about them.

And by the way, when thinking about how we should relate to the LGBT community there are many other biblical verses we might consider.  How about the one in Genesis chapter 1 where it says that human beings are created in God’s image.  All human beings – white, black, brown, gay, straight, man, woman.  All people, regardless of their background, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, are a reflection of God’s image on this earth – and therefore deserving of equal respect and dignity.  Maybe the Lieutenant Governor forgot about that verse when he sent his tweet.  What about the verse in Leviticus 19, perhaps the best known verse in the entire Bible – Love your neighbor as yourself.  Or the first half of that same verse, less frequently cited but worth mentioning today – לא תקום ולא תטור את בני עמיך – you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellow – that might have been a better one for Lieutenant Governor to send out after what happened in Orlando.

So that is thing number one.  If you want to talk scripture we can talk scripture all day long, and what you’ll see, if you are honest and looking at the big picture, is that the Bible is far more interested in protecting the fundamental rights and dignity of a person than it is in the person’s sexual identity.

Thing number two is this – the Bible should not be read literally anyway.  It is an ancient document that expresses a deep wisdom about the world, that defines values that we use to guide our lives even today, and that for Jews certainly lays out the history of our people and our covenant with God.  But it is also a reflection of what the world was like 2500 years ago, and so it expresses certain ideas and values that today we simply know are wrong.  That is why Judaism has never read the Bible in a fundamentalist way, in other words literally.  Instead, Judaism figured out a way to keep the Bible meaningful and central to faith and worship – after all, here we are this morning, still taking the Torah out of the ark and reading from it – but while keeping it central to introduce changes into the practices the Bible lays out, so the tradition over time can come to terms with new understandings we have of our world and ourselves.

These changes don’t happen all at once.  Sometimes they take years, sometimes even decades.  But they happen.  If they didn’t we wouldn’t be gathered today in a prayer service in a sanctuary, we would instead be offering animal sacrifices, as the Torah tells us to do on the Sabbath day.  If the tradition didn’t change over time there wouldn’t be Hanukkah, or a Passover seder, or the lighting of Shabbat candles, all of which are not mentioned in the Bible.  The changes in terms of how the tradition understands gay rights have been slow, but they have happened, in the Conservative Movement mostly over the last decade.  When I was in rabbinical school if you were gay you had to be in the closet, and if it was discovered you were gay you were asked to leave the seminary.  That was 20 years ago.

But today the Conservative Movement ordains openly gay rabbis.  That became official policy of the Movement, and the first openly gay rabbi was ordained in 2011, just 5 years ago.  The Movement has created a wedding ceremony for gay couples in the last couple of years.  And in response to the Orlando shootings, the Movement released an official statement that in part reads as follows:

“This shooting rampage targeted the LGBT community in the midst of Pride month, a time where the LGBT community comes together to publicly acknowledge and celebrate their identities, their common history, and their struggle for social recognition and equality. The RA has passed multiple resolutions calling on the community to ‘work for full and equal civil rights for gays and lesbians in our national life, deplore violence against gays and lesbians, encourage inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews in our congregations, and increase our awareness of issues facing gay and lesbian Jews.’ We know that we stand with people of good will of all faiths in continuing this work.”  And the statement concluded with this sentence:  “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the members of the LGBT community, their families, their friends, and their loved ones.”

That is the kind of statement that makes me proud to be a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi.

I am about ready to wrap up my remarks this morning, and I suspect you are about ready for me to wrap up my remarks, but if you’ll permit me there is one last verse I would like to point out from the Bible, actually from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse I feel the Lieutenant Governor of Texas should be more familiar with.  This from Numbers chapter 5, verses 6 and 7  – “When a person commits any wrong toward a fellow, thus breaking faith with God, that person shall confess the wrong he has done and make restitution for it.”

If he does know that verse, then the next tweet Dan Patrick sends out might just be an apology.  But while we wait for it, we’ll move forward, supporting the LGBT community in any and every way we can.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, civil rights, community, gay rights, LGBT, loss, politics, preaching, religious fundamentalism, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Community, Healing, and Hope

This a text version of yesterday’s introduction to Yizkor (Shavuot 5776) –

Judaism has long understood that one essential component of coping with loss is community.  From the very moment that a family loses a loved one community is there.  Friends begin to gather at the home, to offer comfort, guidance, and help.  The funeral is a communal moment structured to honor and remember the life of the person who has died.  Shiva is a paradigmatic communal exercise – at least 10 people are required for each service held in the shiva home, the days of shiva are filled with visits by friends and family members, the mourners are guided from one conversation to the next, from one moment to the next, always surrounded by people who care about them.

And then there is the period of saying the kaddish, for some 30 days, for others who have lost a parent a full eleven months.  The minyan is again required because the kaddish is only fully valid when said in the presence of community.  The services, morning and night, bring the mourner out of the home, into the synagogue, into the service with its sense of communal life and connection.  I have watched many times as mourners have connected with our minyan, making new friends, finding a sense of purpose and resolve, finding in the community a reason to get out of bed and begin a new day.  People are waiting here for you, they call when you don’t come, they care, they understand where you are and how you feel, because they’ve been there and they’ve felt those things, and they somehow made it through.  And they will tell you that the community helped them do it.

We saw this in Orlando yesterday, that terrible, unimaginable, unthinkable tragedy that we will long wrestle with as a nation.  Immediately community came together.  People set aside political divides and racial differences and religious perspectives, and came together as one, came together as community to support and console the families of the victims and also one another.  There was a powerful sense of fundamental humanity – it didn’t matter if people were black or white, gay or straight, young or old, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, conservative or liberal.  There is a powerful picture on the front page of the Sun this morning, a black clergyman embracing a white man and a white woman, the three of them weeping together.

In community there is hope.  In community there is healing.  In community there is a sharing of difficult burdens, a sense that one does not have to walk alone on a path of sadness and loss, and perhaps sometimes even despair.  Not that there is a magic formula, not that there is a secret ritual that will wipe the grief away.  But there are people who will share the journey with you, and you are not alone.

The people in Orlando are not alone.  They are surrounded by the thoughts and prayers of an entire nation, 300 million strong, a nation that believes in equality, in peace and freedom, and in the common human dignity that unites us all.  In the months ahead they will come to see how this powerful sense of communal caring and sharing helped to ease the burden of their grief.  They will gradually rediscover how beautiful it is when the wind blows gently through the leaves of a tree on a warm summer day.  They will one day realize that they have begun to laugh again, to sometimes feel joy, to emerge from the darkness and the shadows to go back out into the world with purpose and courage and hope.  This is the journey from loss to life, from sadness to meaning, from darkness to light, and it is a life long journey.

In Judaism part of that journey is Yizkor.  A stopping point along the way that brings you back to community, to tradition, to the shul, to the minyan, that reminds you of the pain of loss but also, as time goes by, of the sacred power of life.  As we rise together for this last Yizkor service of the year, as we prepare to say our personal Yizkor prayers, we also pray for hope and healing and peace, in our own hearts, in our lives, in our communities, and in the world.

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Record Revival, Digital Divide

You may not even realize it, but vinyl is making a comeback.  Records, the ‘old fashioned’ kind, pressed vinyl, flat discs played on turntables, spun at a precise 33 and 1/3 rpms.  They faded so suddenly in the late 80s, giving way to the onslaught of CDs and the crisp, clean sound of digital music.  CDs were smaller, they didn’t scratch or wear out, they could even be played in a car, for crying out loud!  (Try doing that with a record!) Before you knew it, almost overnight, CDs were ubiquitous and records were assigned to the dust bin of musical history.

But now they are back.  You’ll find them in funky new record shops with names like The Sound Garden or the True Vine, Human Head Records or the Turntable Lab.  Online as well.  You’ll find them on college campuses and in the rooms of high school students.  The young leading the way, the record a new counter cultural expression in the classic counter culture milieu.  If you haven’t held a recored in your hand  for a while the sheer size of it, the colors of the album cover, the printed lyrics and liner notes, will virtually take your breath away.

Of course the debate has been quietly raging for some time, mostly in audiophile circles.  Digital versus analog.  The pristine sound of the CD, pop and crackle free, clean to a fault, its 0s and 1s somehow forming the melodies that make up the music that we love.  Compare that with the old records, their scratchy quirks, the hiccup at precisely that lyric, the sound of the needle touching down on the grooves.  Some argue that there is a warmth and resonance, an ambience, a physicality and presence that digital sound can never reproduce.

I would say it is not just music.  There is a fundamental coldness to digital life.  A loneliness.  You can see it in subway cars and restaurants and libraries, where groups of people gather but spend all of their time staring at their phones.  You sense it in the workplace, walking by office after office only to see yet another worker typing on a keyboard, staring at a screen.  You can feel the coldness in social media, the Facebook posts and Instagram photos, digital snapshots of our lives that are one dimensional, that lack feeling and vibrancy and messiness and unpredictability – the true substance of human life.  No wonder young people are embracing vinyl again.

And so it was that I found myself poking around in the back corner of our basement storage area.  My old record albums were in there somewhere.  I hadn’t seen them in years, but I knew I would never have thrown them away.  Buried in the bottom of a shelf, inside a box, inside another box, wrapped in plastic, dusty and neglected.  It was a charge to lug them out, bringing them back into daylight, flippingIMG_3736 through the covers, remembering old images that will always be ingrained in my mind, and the memories of moments and people and even a time, a feeling, that match the images and songs, the melodies and lyrics, the soundtrack of my life.

Anyone have an old turntable lying around?

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Sports Here, Sports There, Sports, Sports…

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/4/16

This is the time of year when the Jewish community begins to plan for next year.  Jewish professionals all over Baltimore are sitting down with the calendars and blocking out dates for programs that will not occur for months, and in some cases almost for a full year.  And one thing we’ve learned, in terms of fall programming particularly, is that if there is any way to help it, never, ever plan an event during a Ravens game.  And believe it or not, when we sit down to calendar the fall, we always have a Ravens schedule right in front of us.

That may seem almost like a no brainier to us today, but it wasn’t always that way.  Even when I first came here the football schedule was not the first thing we thought of when we were thinking about dates.  But today it is just another example of the power, prevalence, and priority placed on sports in our lives.  We are all familiar with this in one way or another.  Maybe for your family it is the Ravens, and you have a twenty week period of your year, from early September to late December, or later if the Ravens go into the playoffs, where absolutely nothing happens on Sunday, because the day is dedicated exclusively to football.  Maybe you are one of those families that spends all weekend, pretty much all year long, schlepping your children around from one sporting event to the next, traveling on weekends for games, running kids to practices during the week, and suddenly you realize that six weeks have gone by and the family hasn’t eaten dinner together one time.

Before I continue, I want to first say something clearly – I think sports is terrific.  I think playing a sport is a great experience for young people, and I think rooting passionately for a team is a great experience at any age.  I grew up playing soccer, and was the captain of my high school varsity team, so it was a big part of my life.  If you know me well you know I love my teams, follow them closely, don’t sleep at night when they lose – which unfortunately, with last year’s Mets the rare exception, my teams seem to do most of the time.  But two recent incidents have me wondering – as I have often recently – if our priorities have shifted just a little too much in one direction.

The first has to do with our military academies.  I became a football fan in the 70s, and if you watched football in the 70s you certainly knew about the Dallas Cowboys.  Whether you loved them or hated them – there didn’t really seem to be a middle ground – you probably admired them, Tom Landry their coach with his ever present fedora, their so called Doomsday defense, but most of all, with the all American quarterback Roger Staubach.  Staubach was a great player, one of the great quarterbacks of his generation.  He played at the Naval Academy, and in 1963, his senior year, won the Heisman Trophy for best college football player in the land.  And then, as required, he served our country in the Navy for six years, to include a tour in Vietnam.  So Staubach took possibly the best 6 years of his athletic life, and set them aside to serve our country.

Contrast Staubach’s experience with that of Keenan Reynolds.  Reynolds has been the star quarterback at Navy over the last few seasons, one of the best football players on the Annapolis campus for decades.  When he went to the academy he knew he was going to play football, but he also knew that after he graduated that he  – like Roger Staubach – would have a five year obligation for active duty.  But just a few days ago the Secretary of Defense announced that Reynolds would not have to serve any active duty time – not a single year.  Instead, he’ll be wearing a Ravens jersey and trying to make the team this fall as its back up quarterback.

The contrasting stories of Staubach and Reynolds are really an illustration of a change in values in our society.  In Staubach’s day duty and country were number one, and they were non negotiable – even if you were a star athlete, even if you were a Heisman trophy winner, when you graduated you owed the Academy and the country five years of service, and you paid that dept.  Today that has changed – duty and country are still obviously important in the Naval Academy – but when you have a top athlete like Keenan Reynolds, suddenly the old values are set aside.  In our sports crazy nation, where people have become used to prioritizing sports since they were little, sports has become number one, and everything else is secondary.

Which is exactly how you arrive at the other sports related situation that has been in the newspapers this week, the goings on in the football program of Baylor University.  Over the last years Baylor has become one of the top football programs in the country, but we now know its climb to the top was fostered by corruption at the very highest levels of the school’s administration.  It was discovered that over the last few years a series of players on the team were involved with documented sexual assault cases.  Some of them were actually convicted in court.  But most of them, believe it or not, kept playing for the team.  What made that possible was that the coach of the team conspired with school leadership to cover up what happened.  It took a while, but the coach was finally fired, and just last week the president of the university, a gentleman by the name of Ken Starr who you might remember from Bill Clinton’s presidency, was forced to resign.  The full extent of the scandal is not yet known, but it seems the motivating factor in many of the decisions made was fairly simple – the success of the football program takes precedence over everything and anything else.

You know, actions have consequences.  This morning’s Torah portion contains one of the most troubling and problematic passages in the entire Bible, so notable the passage actually has its own name – the Tochecha – the Rebuke.  It is a series of curses that the Torah explains God will bring on the Israelites if they do not follow God’s commandments.  Terrible things.  Famine.  Disease.  Destruction.  The list goes on and on.  The problem with the passage, of course, is that we don’t believe that God works that way – we know from our experience that there are times when good people suffer for no reason, and when bad people have long and easy lives.  We don’t believe in Divine reward and punishment anymore.  But the way I read the passage there is a fundamental idea in it that rings true to me – what you do does make a difference.  Poor choices result in bad things happening.  Setting aside good values for bad, living deceitfully, whatever it might be.  There are conscious choices that we make, actions that we take, that will have either a positive or negative impact on our lives, and on our world.

Maybe it is just me, but in my mind it is all connected.  If we are teaching our children from the time they are little that sports is more important than anything else, if we are creating a culture where win at all costs is the operative value, if we are willing to make exceptions for the star athletes, then it is only a matter of time before you arrive at a Baylor University like scandal.  Actions, choices, decisions, have consequences.  The sage Ben Azzai says it well in the Talmud – מצוה גוררת מצוה עבירה גוררת עבורה – one good deed brings another good deed – but in the same way, one bad deed brings another bad deed.

Perhaps it is time to think about how to shift our intense focus on sports, reminding ourselves that at the end of the day it is just a game, and hopefully – there is so much more to life.

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