Monthly Archives: December 2016

How much IS a picture worth?

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The Titanic Sails at Dawn

Those of you who are Bob Dylan fans will recognize the line from his song ‘Desolation Row,’ one of my personal favorites.  Written in 1965 the song appeared on Dylan’s 6th album, Highway 61 Revisited.  Reading through the lyrics today the great poet/songwriter seems eerily prescient.  The first stanza alone captures perfectly the zeitgeist of today’s America:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

A blind commissioner.  A riot squad.  The circus coming to town.  And where do you find yourself?  In Desolation Row.  At its core the song asks one central question:  where has the value of integrity gone?  The bleak answer Dylan seems to offer is this:  nobody knows.

We might say the same thing today, 51 years after Dylan first recorded ‘Desolation Row.’  Can you imagine – Bernie Madoff was just the tip of the iceberg!  This morning in the NY Times an article appeared describing yet another five star hedge fund that promised double digit returns called Platinum Partners.  Working mostly in the Jewish community, it turns out the managing partners were colluding to run a Madoff like ponzi scheme, taking out high risk loans and money from other investors to pay those who wanted to cash out.  Seven members of the firm have been arrested and face serious charges.

But why not?  What the heck?  It is everywhere, happening all the time, folks ignoring reality and just moving ahead to get their little piece of the action.  Look at Wells Fargo and their fraudulent accounts.  They have so much dishonesty to deal with they actually have a ‘how to report fraud’ tab on their website (if you like you can visit it at this link:  https://www.wellsfargo.com/privacy-security/fraud/report/).  Or what about VW, the ‘wagon of the people,’ company, knowingly and intentionally deceiving customers and governments about diesel emissions.  This wasn’t just a sin of omission, it was a sin of commission.  They had to plan it, create the software that would bypass the testing procedures, test that software, make sure it properly and effectively lied about the car’s status.  But faulty airbags, who cares?  To use a technical term, the chutzpah of it all.   When you can’t trust the people who brought you the VW bug, when you can’t trust the people who run your bank, manage your investment money, who can you trust?

So maybe it is more important than ever to fight to maintain a sense of personal integrity. What does it say in Ethics of the Fathers?  In a place where there are few people, strive to be a mensch (Avot 2:5).  It is precisely when values like integrity are under siege that you have to step forward and reaffirm traditional ideals.  Integrity matters.  Truth matters.  Right and wrong matter, and we can discern one from the other.  Doing the right thing makes a difference.  Doing the wrong thing is – well, actually wrong.  Even on Desolation Row.  It may be the case the Madoff was just the tip of the iceberg, and the Titanic is sailing at dawn.  But you don’t have to board the ship.  The shame of it is you can’t even make the journey in your old and trusted VW van.

You can read the rest of the Desolation Row lyrics on Dylan’s website.  Here is the link:  http://bobdylan.com/songs/desolation-row/

 

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An Ambassador to Israel

This a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/17/16 –

It has been interesting in the weeks since the presidential election to watch President Elect Trump fill the various cabinet and diplomatic posts that are required of a new administration.  And I have been waiting with particular interest to see who Mr. Trump would tap to be the US ambassador to Israel.  That question that was answered this week when he asked David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, and also the son of a Conservative rabbi, to fill that post.  Traditionally the ambassador doesn’t have any policy making power – instead, his or her role is to carry out the policies of the current US administration, while at the same time keeping an ear to the ground for what is happening in the host country.

That being said, the choice of ambassador is often seen as an indicator of where the current administration might be leaning in terms of how it intends to relate to the host country, in this case Israel, what policies it might hope to put into place, what strategies it intends to emphasize.  And if this is the case, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about who the new ambassador is, and what his known views on Israel are.  And although David Friedman has never been a diplomat, he has for many years now been very involved in Israel and Israeli issues, and has written a series of columns for prominent Israeli papers about the peace process, the settlements, the West Bank, a two state solution – if there is a controversial political issue in Israel, particularly regarding Israeli – Palestinian relations, then David Friedman has written about it or spoken publicly about it.

What is immediately clear from even a cursory examination of his writing and public speaking is that he is a hard line Hawk, so much so that many of his positions bring him to the right of the Netanyahu government, considered already to be a Hawkish administration.  He believes in the idea of a ‘greater Israel,’ that there should be full Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory of David’s kingdom as described in the Bible.  He has helped over the years to fund the Israeli settler movement, establishing Jewish outposts and small villages in Palestinian areas, and he is on the record as saying it is within Israel’s rights to annex sections of the West Bank.  He has also publicly said that he does not believe in a two state solution, and he has demonstrated a particular talent for overblown rhetoric, recently publishing an article in which he called President Obama an anti-semite.  In that same article he wrote that Jews who insist on supporting positions on Israel that he views – David Friedman views – as radically to the left are worse than Kapos, the Jews who worked with the Nazis in WW II.

All of this to give you a taste of David Friedman, and you can see he is strongly opinionated, controversial, and also seems to have no tolerance for views which do not agree with his own.

Now again, the job of the ambassador is not to set policy, but rather to carry out the policies of the administration he or she serves.  The question is will the Trump administration adopt the same views of their ambassador?  Or to take the question one step further, is David Friedman’s appointment an indication that the administration is already adopting those views?

As we let that question settle into our minds, let me turn our attention for a moment to this morning’s Torah portion.  I know that the President elect is not a religious man, and does not read the Bible, but David Friedman is an Orthodox Jew, and I would guess first of all he is in shul this morning, and second of all is very well familiar with the narrative in this morning’s sedra, the story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a mysterious unknown attacker.  I am sure you are also familiar with the story, one of the best known in the entire Bible.  Jacob is returning to the land of Israel after a 20 year absence.  While away he has grown wealthy, become a husband and a father.  But he is afraid to come home because he knows he will have to confront his brother Esau, from whom he stole the blessing and the birthright two decades ago.  He knows that Esau is coming to meet him at the border, and he takes a series of precautions – dividing his possessions, his children, and his wives into different groups with the hope that if one group is attacked the other will survive.  And then Jacob does something curious – he waits, alone, in the dark, on the far side of the border.

It is at that point that Jacob is attacked by a mysterious ‘ish’ – the Hebrew for ‘man.’  The man seems to become an angel, but the text is very obscure, and commentators have for centuries debated about the identity of that ‘ish.’  Who was he, and what did he really want with Jacob?

Many answers have been given over the years, but the one that interests me this morning understands the mysterious man to actually be Esau, the brother that Jacob fears.  Let us imagine for a moment that it is indeed Esau who crosses the river under darkness, and attacks his brother.  This is the language the Torah uses to describe that moment – ויאבק איש עמו – the man wrestled with him.  It is a curious term to say the least – so much so that the only the time the word is used in the entire Bible – the whole Bible! – is in this story.  Why didn’t the man sneak up on him in the dark and attack him with a sword or knife?  Or shoot him with an arrow?  All of these are forms of combat the Bible was familiar with – so what is this business with the wrestling?

Here is one answer from the biblical scholar and commentator James Kugel – “In wrestling the limbs of the two antagonists become so entangled that one does not know for sure which belongs to whom.  Wrestling simultaneously seeks closeness to and control over.  The loser does not die or leave;  though he must acknowledge defeat, he remains present, even near, in the continuing embrace of the victor.”

Jacob and Esau wrestle in the dark because they have become so entwined, so entangled, they they cannot figure out a way to separate one from the other.  They know that even if one of them is victorious the victory will be only temporary.  The other will still be there, perhaps damaged, perhaps injured, but still standing, and will not be going away.  They may not trust each other, they may even hate each other, but they are compelled to come together, time and again, limbs intertwined, foreheads touching, muscles straining, with neither able to achieve a clear victory.

When you think about it that is not a bad description of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  And it might be one that David Friedman, and by extension President Elect Trump, might want to spend some time mulling over.  There is no magic spell that will make the Palestinians somehow disappear in the darkness.  And there is no moral path to making them go away.   And the more settlements you build, the more entangled you will be with them.  That is the reality the next American ambassador to Israel will be facing, and the president elect’s administration will be dealing with.  Wishing otherwise will not make it go away.  So I hope they recognize that reality soon, and I wish them the very best of luck in dealing with one of the most difficult diplomatic dilemmas of modern times –

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S.Q.N

It stands for sine qua non, a latin phrase that means ‘an essential condition, a thing that is absolutely necessary.’  What is the bottom line ingredient that is required to make something what it is?  Scotch, for example, might be blended or single malt, it might be aged in casks made of sherry or oak, it might be smokey or peaty.  But it must be made from malted barley.  That is its sine qua non.  If it isn’t made from malted barley, it isn’t scotch whisky.

I’ve often wondered about the sine qua non of the synagogue.  Does it exist, and if so what would it be?  The study and learning?  The Hebrew school?  The adult education programs?  Social action?  All important.  But if I had to choose one fundamental piece, the one component without which a synagogue would no longer be a synagogue, I would choose the prayer service – the minyan.

After all, the study and learning can happen at a local university with a strong adult education program.  You can participate in social action with a local charity.  Even Hebrew school these days can happen in various and sundry locations – just look at the number of families choosing to hire a private tutor to prepare their child for bar or bat mitzvah.  But the one thing a synagogue does that is unique – its sine quo non – is the minyan.  When ten or more Jews come together to pray.  When the Torah is taken out of the ark and publicly proclaimed.  When the ancient liturgy of our tradition is recited.  The minyan is the synagogue’s raison d’être, its true reason for existing.  Without prayer, the synagogue becomes just another place where Jews gather to be with other Jews.

The problem is this:  the minyan is fading away.  We don’t often acknowledge this, we don’t like to look it right in the eye, but traditional prayer services in the liberal Jewish community are slowly but surely disappearing right before our eyes.  In part because people are busy, and Saturday morning is prime errand time, or golf time.  In part because people don’t have the skills they need to participate (the Hebrew is a serious problem).  In part because people don’t find meaning in it, they don’t believe the act of prayer can be transformative in their lives and characters.  What to do?

It is first important to recognize that there is no magic pill here.  It isn’t simply a matter of finding the right charismatic rabbi or cantor.  It isn’t just arriving at the proper recipe for the service itself, just a tweak here or there, or even a radical rearrangement, and all will be well.  It is a much more complicated equation, multi-layered, involving education, programming, community, and leadership.  Minimally – as a beginning – we need to create opportunities for people in our community to deepen their knowledge of and connection to our prayer services, our minyanim.  Some of this is familiarity.  Some of this is study and discussion.  Some of it is practice!  And some of it is having a safe space where all of these things can happen.

It is this space we are hoping to create with a new ‘learnin’ minyan’ that we will be holding at Beth El.  Meeting the first Shabbat morning of the month, from 9:45 to 10:30, this minyan will be a combination of prayer and study, of delving into the themes and motifs that drive our liturgy while at the same time (hopefully) increasing the number of tools that are available to access those themes and to participate in those prayers.  I have believed for a long time that there is deep meaning in prayer, and that the very exercise of praying can be truly transformative in our lives.  Join us on this journey and we’ll see if we can convince you of the same.  We will meet in the Rabbi Jacob Agus Library, immediately following the Torah study class.  Beginning January 7th.

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The Height

Of hypocrisy, that is.  The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel was in a pickle.  A bind.  Facing a conundrum.  They had vigorously and vociferously supported Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.  When Trump was elected one prominent Israeli rabbi publicly said it was a sign that the Messiah was about to arrive.  But there was a problem, and it had to be resolved fairly quickly.  Trump’s daughter Ivanka was a convert to Judaism, but Israel’s Orthodox rabbis had previously stated that her conversion was not valid.  What to do?  How could they not accept the Jewish status of the daughter of the man they so desperately wanted to be president?

It seems it wasn’t so complicated after all.  The very rabbis who deemed the conversion not halachic (not properly performed according to Jewish law) were now willing to ‘reexamine’ the issue.  Just last week Israel’s chief rabbis released a statement in which they said a check list for proper conversion procedure would be put together, and once a rabbi was determined to follow that list all of his conversions would be considered valid.  Interestingly the statement mentioned Ivanka Trump by name, adding that in a case like hers there would not be a need for investigation – her conversion would be valid, end of story.

What a relief!  Just in the nick of time Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate remembered that in fact Jewish law can be flexible.  It is a good thing, because it sure would have been embarrassing (awkward!  in today’s vernacular)  if those Orthodox rabbis had so warmly embraced Donald Trump while at the very same time so coldly rejecting his daughter.   What would the Messiah have thought of that?  We should be able to ask him soon.  Now that Trump is going to be president, he should be here any day.

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Born to Run, Born to Rabbi

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/3/16 –

I find myself thinking very much about children and parents this week, in part because of Gideon’s bar mitzvah, in part because Becky and I picked our son Josh up after his three months abroad, and in part because I just finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography, very appropriately entitled – take a guess – Born to Run!  The book has everything you’d expect from an autobiography of one the greatest rock stars of all time, from the purchasing of Springsteen’s first guitar, to paying his dues  playing in the bars, to hitting it big and forming the E Street Band. These are all the standard tropes of rock and roll narratives, but Springsteen, as he does with his music, plays them better than just about anyone I’ve ever seen.

What surprised me about the book – what I did not expect – was how focused the 500 or so pages are on one central relationship in Bruce Springsteen’s life – his relationship with his father.  Springsteen’s mother is a supportive presence in his childhood, warm and loving and in her own way proud of her son.  But his father was an entirely different kind of person.  Born in 1920, he served in the European theater during the Second World War.  He came back to the States to his home town and went to work in the factories.  He was an old school guy – a blue collar laborer, never went to college, emotionally closed and unable to express himself, a guy who hated his job but would never miss a day of work, a guy who stopped at the bar on the way home to have a few beers – every night.  And would have a few more when he got home, sitting in the kitchen of the family’s small house, often in the dark, waiting for Springsteen to come home.

In a series of vignettes that take place at that kitchen table, Springsteen describes some of the clashes and conversations, many of theme heated, that he had with his father over the years.  Slowly but surely the two men grew in starkly different directions, the factory worker father who valued traditional definitions of manhood and work  watched his son grow long hair and spend hours in his room playing the guitar.  The son who valued freedom and music and expression watched his father grow angrier and angrier, and more and more hostile and withdraw into a shell he used to keep others out his life.

At the end of this long trail of encounters between father and son there is one final, poignant scene that Springsteen brings to life in the book.  The 18 year old comes home, brings his parents into that kitchen, and tells them that he is leaving school, that he will not look for a regular job, and that he is going to dedicate his life to rock and roll.  To put it mildly, the conversation did not go well.  Within a year Springsteen’s parents had moved to California, and Springsteen remained behind, dirt poor, all of 19 years old, playing the clubs and bars of the Jersey shore.  He had no idea at the time that he was, as Jon Landau would later famously write, the future of rock and roll.

I imagine many of us have had conversations like that with our parents at one time or another.  Hopefully not as hostile, not as angry and bitter, but difficult, hard, conversations where we have to tell our parents that our intention is to set out on our own path, to leave behind in one way or another the life that they’ve lived, and maybe expected us to live as well.   My conversation like that with my father happened 25 years ago this month, on a cold December night in Binghamton NY, 1991.  Becky and I had gone to visit my parents to spend a few days catching up.  I had made a decision – a significant decision – about the direction of my life which my mom and dad did not know about, and I was determined to tell them during the time we were there.  One night after dinner my dad and I went into the den, and as I sat on the couch he settled into his beloved leather chair and was about to turn on the TV.  And it was at that moment – again, 25 years ago this month – that for the very first time my father found out I intended to go to rabbinical school.

Now you may remember the old joke about the first Jew elected president, and on inauguration day her mother stands proudly watching the swearing in ceremony.  And one of the dignitaries leans over to the mother and says ‘you must be so proud, the first woman AND the first Jew to be president!’  And the mother leans back and says ‘her brother’s a doctor.’  Well my dad IS a doctor – and I think in the back of his mind he always wanted his oldest son to go to medical school.  And I can tell you in the back of his mind he never had the idea that his oldest son might go to rabbinical school.  He was more than surprised.  He challenged me – ‘what about this?’, he asked.  ‘How are you going to pay for it?  You don’t know Hebrew!’  he pointed out to me.  And he mustered every argument to convince me that maybe this was a crazy idea I had gotten into my head, and that I shouldn’t go.  In the end, to his credit, he said ‘if you are sure go and give it your best shot’ – and I did.

You know the Torah also has a moment like that, a pivotal moment in the relationship between a father and a son.  We read about it in this morning’s portion, one of the Bible’s best known stories, when Jacob, dressed like his brother Esau, enters his father Isaac’s room, intending to trick Isaac into bestowing upon him the first born’s blessing.  I’ve always wondered what it was that was going through Jacob’s mind at that moment.  He knows already that his father doesn’t like who he is, doesn’t approve of his character and his interests, because Isaac has made it clear that Esau is the favorite son.  And maybe part of what Jacob was doing was simply trying to win the approval of his father. So he leaves his true identity at the door, and for a few moments, as he pretends he is Esau, he feels what it is like to be the favorite son.  Maybe the blessing wasn’t Jacob’s goal after all.  Maybe he just – for a little while – wanted to feel his father’s approval and love.

And maybe it would have been different if Jacob had walked into that room as himself.  Would it have been more difficult?  Absolutely – a much harder conversation.  But at least then he would have been true to himself.  And who knows, maybe Isaac would have responded to that, for the first time having a sense of who his younger son truly was.  It is a two way street that moment.  If the child can be honest, and true to him or herself, he’ll set out on his own path, and whether right or wrong, whether it succeeds or fails, she’ll know it is her path, her choice, and her life.

And isn’t the true trick of parenting knowing that a moment comes when we have to let go.  We may not understand, we may not agree, we may not even think its right.  Hopefully we’ve done our best, we’ve given them the tools they need to be the best they can be.  But we have to always remember that being the best they can be doesn’t have to mean being the best we can be.

Maybe that is why Jacob leaves, right after that conversation with his father.  He realizes he’ll never be able to be himself if he stays home, under his father’s roof.  So he walks away, into an unknown future, I am sure entirely terrified of what lies ahead.  But his head is held high, there is a purpose to his step, and he walks on a path that he knows is his own.  May all our children walk on that path when their own time comes – whether they are born to run, or born to rabbi –

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