Monthly Archives: November 2019

Followup –

To my previous post about Stephen Miller.  The leading bodies of the non-Orthodox Jewish communities have released a statement about the developing Stephen Miller story – you can find it at this link:  Miller Statement

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A Shanda

Usually understood as meaning shameful or scandalous, from the Yiddish.  What other word can we use to contextualize news reports that Stephen Miller, the current administration’s ‘immigration policy expert,’ and a Jew, is a frequent reader of white nationalist websites and magazines?  It is indeed a shanda – both shameful and scandalous – that a Jew should immerse himself in such hateful and racist writing, and not only immerse himself, but seemingly buy the entire worldview, hook, line, and sinker, including the paranoid conspiracy theories so often championed on those sites.

There had long been rumors about Miller.  In high school he was already staking out a far right political position that included hateful anti-immigrant ideology.  Then at Duke he worked with Richard Spencer, a self avowed white supremacist, to put on a program.  His background was, to say the least, checkered.  But a week ago the release of close to 900 of his emails shines the plain light of day on his thinking and focus, and also on what he reads.  These emails are recent, most of them written within the last 5 years.  They contain frequent references to racist websites, books, and articles.  It seems that Miller has fully digested the material and uses it systematically as he continues to shape the current administration’s immigration policy.

Much has been made of the fact that Miller’s own family emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States.  But what I can’t get my head around is how a Jew can embrace this kind of racism.  He is a young man, but doesn’t he know his history?  Can’t he see the connections between the websites he reads and antisemitism?   Is he so blind (or so filled with hate of the other) that he can’t recognize that people who hate minorities, of any kind, also hate Jews?  Does he not know that while the Germans were killing Jews, they were also killing people who were gay, that the Nazis hated blacks, that they slaughtered Gypsies?  Whatever was ‘other’ was caught in the hateful quicksand of the Nazi machine and dragged down.

It would be no different here.  If the world view that Miller espouses fully became reality the Jewish community in the United States would be destroyed.  Either he knows that and doesn’t care, or he hasn’t been able to connect the obvious dots.  Either way, to see a Jew embrace this rhetoric and help – or even lead – in the implementation of these policies – is a true shanda.  When Stephen Miller entered the bizarre and hateful space occupied by white nationalism he left his Judaism behind, whether he realizes or not.

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The Stranger

IMG_1028 2     It was 42 years ago this fall that I asked my mom to drive me to the Oakdale Mall, in Binghamton NY, where I walked into Tower Records and bought the first rock and roll album of my life.  Knowing me as many of you do, you might be surprised to find out that that record was not a Grateful Dead album – it would be another year or so before I began to get into the Grateful Dead.  Instead, the record was Billy Joel’s ‘the Stranger.’  

     The record had been released in September, and by November of 1977 you couldn’t help but hear one of the songs from the album every single time you were in the car.  The love song Just the Way You Are was the biggest hit, rising to #3 on the billboard charts, but the album had three other songs in the top twenty five, including She’s Always a Woman and Only the Good Die Young.  Rebel that I was, that was my favorite at the time.  

     You may remember the cover of the record, a photograph of Billy Joel, dressed in a suit, reclining on a bed, and staring intently at an object that lay next to him.  Anyone remember what it was?  A mask, resting on a pillow, its vacant eyes looking up towards the singer.  The image reflected both the title of the album – the Stranger – and also the lyric of the song of the same name, found on side one – it was the second track.

     I’ve always understood the image, and the song, to be about the way we separate our public and private selves.  We all have a public persona, generally our ‘best face’ that we use when we are in front of the world.  We want not only to look our best, but to be our best – calm and organized, satisfied with life, funny and fun to be with, patient and kind, competent and wise.  But for many of us there is also a private face – in the photo on the cover of the Billy Joel record it is represented by the mask resting on the pillow.  Here is how the song lyric describes it:  we all have a face that we hide away forever, but we take them out and show ourselves when everyone is gone…

     It might seem like a strange thing to say, but I often think about that song, and that lyric, when I read this week’s Torah portion, called Vayera.  Abraham is the portion’s main character, and I’ve always been deeply puzzled by the contradictory Abrahams that the text portrays.  On the one hand there is a heroic Abraham.  This is the Abraham who argues with God about whether or not the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah should be destroyed.  You’ll remember the passage – one of the Bible’s most famous.  God tells Abraham of the plan to destroy the cities, and Abraham, in a direct dialogue, challenges God.  Is this the just thing to do? Abraham demands.  And then Abraham pushes God – what if there are fifty righteous people?  What about forty five?  Forty?  Thirty?  Working his way down to ten, Abraham demands of God, would you spare the cities to save the ten?  And somewhat astonishingly, God agrees, saying if there are ten righteous people, I will spare the cities.

     This is the Abraham we can all stand and cheer for!  This is the Abraham who is fearless in his pursuit of justice, not even afraid to challenge God, if it means that innocents will be spared.  To me this is the outer Abraham, the person Abraham wants the world to see.

     But then there is another Abraham in this morning’s portion, what I call the inner Abraham.  This is the Abraham we meet at the beginning of the binding of Isaac story.  God comes to Abraham and demands that he offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  And after Abraham’s eloquent argument with God about Sodom and Gomorrah – arguing so passionately for the lives of people he didn’t know – we expect him to stand up to God here also.  To say ‘God, he is my son.  I am not going to sacrifice my son.  Even to you.’

     But what does he actually say?  Not a single word.  Not one.  Instead, he quickly and efficiently follows God’s instructions, gets up early in the morning, saddles the donkey, takes the servants and Isaac, splits the wood, and sets out for the mountain, where, at least as far as we know, he intends to sacrifice his son.  Not one word.

     And I’ve always understood the dichotomy in Abraham’s responses to be indicative of his public and his private sides.  On the outside, Abraham is just, a great leader of men, brave, compassionate, wise, and strong.  On the inside he has a stranger – an Abraham you rarely see, conflicted, filled with doubts, worried about disappointing others, and unable to stand up for what he truly believes in.  

     I suspect many of us can identity with both Abrahams.  What is it we see when we look at that mask on the cover of the Billy Joel record?  What is the inner side that we rarely if ever expose to the world.  Maybe there is anger there, or fear, or doubt.  Maybe it is poor self image, or a deep sadness about something that happened to us long ago, or guilt.  Whatever it might be, we keep that part of ourselves out of the public view.  We might know it is there, but we certainly don’t want others to know about it.  So we cover it up, close it off, compartmentalize it in some way, remove it and set it aside.  

     You might guess this can be a difficult challenge for people in the clergy business.  We are public figures, and we often have public faces, personas that we show to everyone, that reflect, at least we hope, our very best selves.  And so we smile and we laugh, we are attentive in our conversations, we are witty and engaging, we are thoughtful and patient and hopefully we are also compassionate and wise.  We are like the Abraham in the Sodom and Gomorrah story.  

     But the real challenge, the real test, what will really define our lives, is this:  how are we when we get home after a long day of being our best?  Is the compassion still there?  The wit and wisdom?  The attentiveness and caring?

     Those of you who were here last week heard Rabbi Saroken tell a classic Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya.  At the end of the story the Rabbi tells his students he now knows when he dies, he will not be asked ‘why weren’t you Moses?’  Instead, he says, I’ll be asked ‘Why were you not Rabbi Zusya.’

     I’d like to put a finer point on that story this morning.  Because my sense of it is this – when my time finally comes, and I am standing before the great Heavenly Court, I will not be asked ‘Why weren’t you Rabbi Schwartz?’  But I think I will be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Steve?’

     If you’ll permit me, I’ll wrap it up this morning going from one great lyricist to the next, from Billy Joel to another Billy – William Shakespeare.  You may remember the wonderful line from Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, the advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes, who is about to leave for Paris:

“This above all:  to thine own self be true, 

And it must follow, as the night the day, 

thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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Strong Winds

With a promise of winter a stiff and chilly wind blew in from the east this morning, doing its best to wrest the last leaves off the trees and drying the ground from last night’s rain.  I stood for a time at an upstairs window looking out over our back yard.  My eyes were level with the tops of the trees.  The evergreens and the giant willow at the edge of our yard bent and flowed with the gusts, an elegant and ancient dance.

There was something majestic about it all.  The wind itself has a certain power – physically, yes, but also over the imagination.  That sense of shifting, of being lost in the midst of great movement, the ebb and flow of it, the whooshing as the air and the remaining leaves enact their annual fall battle.  Sometimes it seems as if the trees are passing the wind from one to the next, down the street, from bare branches to red and gold leaves and back again, as one tree top after another will begin to sway.  A great and intricate pattern, known only to nature.

The animals sense it too.  Winter is coming!  The squirrels have been furiously busy, canvassing the yards for undiscovered acorns and then stashing them away in some secret place.  The deer have been nervously pacing the neighborhood, wondering where their winter food will come from, especially now that the woods has been virtually taken away by the new housing development.  And in the late afternoon, as the sun began to sink and the cold intensified, a great hawk sat for a time on a low branch.  Surveying the ground stoically, the wind ruffled its feathers.  Suddenly it took to the air, cruising low over the ground, and then disappearing from view in a copse of trees.

You may remember the song Four Strong Winds.  Written in 1961 by Ian Tyson, the best known version of the song is on Neil Young’s classic 1978 record Comes A Time.  With haunting harmonies sung by Nicolette Larson, it is a song about loss and longing, about moving on when the chill of winter begins to creep in.  And also about how hope endures in the human heart, even in darkness.  From the song’s chorus:

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may…

Here is a link to the Neil Young version of Four Strong Winds – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTMMS88gi6c

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Shining A Light

Below is a text version of the brief remarks I will deliver tonight at a special program we are hosting at my synagogue called Freedom Song.  The program was created by Beit Tshuvah, a residential addiction treatment center in the LA area, and explores the issue of addiction in the Jewish community.  The stage setting is in and of itself a symbol both powerful and provocative – half the stage is set as a Passover seder table, where the generations of a Jewish family gather to tell the story of our people.  The other half is a 12 step meeting, where addicts gather to tell their personal stories of struggle and salvation.

The program tonight begins at 6:45 with a performance by the Helping Up Mission Choir, to be followed by a performance of Freedom Song.  It promises to be a moving evening.

My remarks:

     During my now more than two decades in the rabbinate I have become intimately familiar with the terrible struggle that families face when a loved one becomes an addict.  All of the emotions – the fear, the guilt, the sense of shame, the bewilderment, the worry, the sleepless nights, the pervasive sense of pain, and sometimes despair, and always, always, the desperate search for a solution.  

     For too long the Jewish community has either ignored the issue of substance abuse in our midst, swept it under the rug, or talked about it only in hushed whispers and behind closed doors.  The old myths of ‘this can’t happen in a Jewish family,’ or ‘Jewish children don’t do such things,’ or ‘Jews don’t drink or use drugs’ have been perpetuated for too long in our community – and that has hurt our families, and made it harder for them to find the help they need, and the support from their community that they deserve.  

     That is precisely why we are gathered together in a synagogue tonight.  The synagogue is the public face of Jewish life, it is the place where Jews gather to celebrate and mourn, to mark sacred time, to learn and study, and to grow in soul.  It is the public square of the Jewish community.  And so tonight, we are gathered together as Jewish community, in our public square, in a public setting thinking about addiction, acknowledging its pain and its presence, but also, I hope, letting our families know that we are there for them, and that they are not alone in their journey, or their struggle.

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Changing Clocks

It has always been a bit odd to me that we decide, on a given night in early November, to just switch the time on our clocks, setting them back an hour.  And then, in the spring, to change them all back.  Is time that malleable?  Is our power over time that simple?  It is just a matter of getting everyone to agree, to be on the same page.  Yes, OK, on that night we’ll all do it, and then the time will be what we say it is.

What hutzpah!  It is precisely because we can’t control time that it so fascinates us.  All those books and movies about time travel – HG Wells’ The Time Machine, the Prisoner of Azkaban installment in the Harry Potter series, A Wrinkle in Time, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Time Traveler’s Wife, the Terminator movies, Back to the Future, Planet of the Apes, Arrival, the list could go on and on.  We love the idea that in some secret, mysterious way – whether through technology or magic – we can control time, manipulate it, scroll it backwards or forwards, relive it, dash from the present to the past, to the future and back again.

But of course that only happens in movies and fanciful books.  In reality, as we often say, Time marches on.  And not only marches – sometimes it flies!  Tempus fugit!  Like a great river roaring and rolling, and we are just caught in the current, watching wide eyed as the moments pass us by, one by one.  A new year!  A bar mitzvah, a wedding, a baby naming, a graduation, another anniversary, or birthday.  How could it be?

Judaism’s approach to the ‘time problem’ is this:  we cannot control time, but we can sanctify it, we can make it holy.  Abraham Joshua Heschel describes this idea in his beautiful book The Sabbath.  Time’s passage in Jewish life is celebrated and marked by the weekly Shabbat, the Rosh Hodesh days when we welcome a new month, and the seasonal festivals that bring in fall and spring and summer.  One of the most beloved blessings in all of Jewish liturgy is the Shehechiyanu blessing – Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has renewed us, sustained us, and brought us to this time.

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