Monthly Archives: November 2018

Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

This is an article I wrote for the Rabbi’s Corner column in the JQ Baltimore November newsletter. We must continue to speak out for LGBTQ rights, especially during these turbulent times!

Freedom From Want is the title of the iconic Norman Rockwell painting that depicts an extended family sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Gathered family members smile and lean forward as the matriarch, appropriately dressed in white apron and blue patterned dress, gently lowers the meal’s centerpiece, a giant turkey, to the table. Rockwell captures in the painting the sense of family intimacy and connection that Thanksgiving is all about. His chosen title for the picture conveys another theme of the holiday, namely the gratitude we feel for living in America, a land of freedom and plenty.

The painting is actually one in a series of four ‘freedom’ paintings that Rockwell worked on and completed in 1943. Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Fear, and Freedom of Speech are the titles of the other three pictures. The themes were classic American motifs, all of them driving forces in a common American identity that kept the country united during the turbulent years of the Second World War. Rockwell’s great talent was in capturing the intimate moment that was simultaneously universal. We see ourselves sitting around that table, or worshipping in those pews, or listening respectfully to the man speaking, or tucking those children in to bed.

Nevertheless, Rockwell’s paintings come at their topics through a traditional lens. The characters he paints are all white, the families all traditional, grandparents and parents with their children and grandchildren. If the values Rockwell highlights in the paintings are traditional American values, the scenes are also traditional in nature, lacking a sense of the diversity of modern American life. How would Rockwell have painted those scenes today, in the United States of 2018? To ask that question in another way, who will be seated around our Thanksgiving table this year?

On the surface this is a simple question, but to members of the LGBTQ community it is filled with meaning. Can I sit at my family’s Thanksgiving table and be completely comfortable in my own skin? Am I accepted and respected for who I truly am? Can I give thanks this year during Thanksgiving, our holiday of gratitude, for the advancement and expansion of LGBTQ rights in our country? I’ve always felt that Thanksgiving is the most Jewish of all American holidays, with its focus on food and gratitude, two major Jewish concerns. May we be mindful of the identities of all those with whom we will celebrate this Thanksgiving. May we be grateful for the freedoms we are blessed to have. And may we be determined to do the work so those freedoms may be extended to every person

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A Shabbat of Solidarity

Following is a text version of remarks I made yesterday at our Shabbat of Solidarity service.  I am deeply grateful that over 800 people of many different faiths came together to honor the memories of those whose lives were taken away in Pittsburgh.  It was a powerful morning of memory, prayer, and hope.

     We Jews are well practiced in the exercise of memory, both individually and communally.  As individuals we observe the yartzeits of those we have loved and lost, we recite the Yizkor service four times a year, we visit the cemetery, placing our hands on the stones.  As a community we commemorate tragic events from our past, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, Tisha B’Av, the day the Temple was destroyed in ancient times in Jerusalem.  Even our holidays are often tinged with bitter memories – the slavery of Egypt that we remember on Passover, or the persecution and anti-Semitism of Purim and Hanukkah.  

     And we gather today in part to remember, to look back to exactly one week ago, to reflect on the tragic events that took place in Pittsburgh, to recall the victims, to read their names aloud, and to honor them.  And so we have done.  What happened in Pittsburgh was unprecedented in the history of the American Jewish community, and we know from our long experience that part of our task now as Jews will be to bear the weight of that memory as we carry it forward.

     As we do that in the months and years ahead it is important to say that remembering in Judaism has a purpose.  It is not only about the past, about looking back – it is also, and in some ways more so, about the future and looking forward.  This morning’s Torah portion records the death of both Sarah and Abraham, but the primary focus of the portion is on the future, on finding a wife for Isaac so that there will be a new generation to carry the covenant forward.  We are told three times in Genesis ‘vayizkor Elohim’ – that God remembered – God remembered Noah, and brought him to dry land.  God remembered Abraham, and then rescued his nephew Lot from the destruction of Sodom.  And God remembered Rachel, and gave her a child.  In each case God’s act of remembering was for the sake of the future, and of life.

     Which is why I am grateful today that we are also celebrating two events that are about the future.  I pulled Holden aside after services ended last night, and I told him that although he might not have even realized it, the very fact that he stood before the congregation, a young man, and proudly chanted the kiddish, and again this morning proudly was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah – in and of itself that helps us to heal, it gives us hope for a bright Jewish future, it reminds us that there is a next generation, that they will carry our communal memories forward, while finding meaning in their Judaism everyday.  

     And Lauren and Jason, our auffruff couple.  One week from tonight they will stand together under the huppah, a moment that is about faith and the future they will build together in their years ahead as husband and wife.  You cannot help but feel a sense of hope for the future when you see a groom and a bride walk down the aisle.  A new Jewish family has formed, a new generation committing to live a Jewish life and to create a Jewish home, as it was for Isaac and Rebecca so long ago, the love that they shared, the life they made, and the family they brought into the world. 

     And then the baby naming the Cantor and I officiated at last Sunday morning.  A beautiful baby girl, fussing and cooing and squirming in her parents arms, as she received her Hebrew name and was formally entered into the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  Her middle name in Hebrew is Aliza, which means joy.  And we were naming this child one day after Pittsburgh.  Almost exactly 24 hours.  But there was joy – in that child, for her family, in that moment, and in our hearts.  And there is nothing that is more abut the future than the naming of a baby.  Because that is the name by which she’ll be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.  That is the name that one day will be written in her ketubah, that is the name that will mark some of the most significant and sacred moments of her life, and some of the most significant and sacred moments of the future of our community. 

     We will make that future together.  Bearing our sadness, remembering our losses, honoring memory, but at the very same time walking forward with hope and strength, with resilience and dignity, with determination to make a better and safer and more tolerant world for all.  We will mourn our losses, as we have this past week, as we always do, but we will celebrate life, we will welcome babies, we will dance with brides and grooms, we will rejoice with young men and women who are called to the Torah for the very first time, we will celebrate our holidays, light the candles of our menorahs in a few weeks, and sit at our seders in the spring, and recite the words of our ancient prayers on this Shabbat of Solidarity and every Shabbat.  

     And so may this truly be a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace for us, for Jews everywhere, for the world.  May we dedicate today to the memory of those who lost their lives last week, but also to the future that we will build together – in the months and years that are ahead – God willing a future of hope and peace and dignity for all people in all places – 

May that truly be God’s will!

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