Category Archives: assimilation

Hanukkah’s Hypocrisy?

This is a text version of my sermon from the Shabbat of Hanukkah, 12/8/18 –

     There has been a bit of a hullabaloo in the Jewish community over the last few days about an op-ed article that appeared in the NY Times last Sunday, just on the eve of Hanukkah.  The title of the article was ‘the Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,’ in and of itself provocative, like any good title, and enough to get you to read further.  The author, Michael David Lucas, claimed that in contemporary times the celebration of Hanukkah has become hypocritical.  Why? Because most of the Jews who gather to light their menorahs during the 8 days are secular, but the real story of Hanukkah – he says – is a story of religious zealots – the Maccabees – fighting to impose their religious worldview against Jews who were secular and assimilating into Greek culture.  So the author argues that the Maccabees would not have accepted the secular lifestyle of most of us who celebrate the Hanukkah today.   

     Obviously this is not the understanding of Hanukkah that you learn about in Hebrew school.  The story of Hanukkah that we tell our children and grandchildren has nothing to do with an internal Jewish struggle.  Instead, it is a story of right versus might, of a small and relatively weak people rising up against one of the most powerful armies in the ancient world, and somehow defeating it.  It is a story of freedom and the triumph of the human spirit, of what people can accomplish when they come together and fight for a cause they believe in.  The story of the Maccabees has also been a point of pride for Jews for more than 2,000 years, an example of the strength of the Jewish will to survive, and the loyalty and dedication of Jews to their tradition and heritage.

     Which I think is precisely why this article has been so controversial.  The story of Hanukkah that I just summarized is the one we all grew up on, the one we’ve believed in our entire lives, and when someone challenges that story, or even tries to take it away from us, we get upset and angry, and we push back.  A number of you have asked me about the article, emailed me, called me, or actually in Shirley’s case brought the article in to show me, and I can tell that you are feeling a bit perplexed.  So let me try to clear it all up a bit if I can in the few minutes I have this morning.  I am not sure whether I’ll leave you feeling better, worse, or the same, but I suppose you’ll let me know.

     The first thing I would say is that the author is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong.  And he is a little bit right and a little bit wrong about a couple of different things.  He is right in that we do know there was an internal Jewish battle that was going on in the year 165 BCE, the time that the events of Hanukkah took place.  Ancient Israel was controlled by the Assyrians who had adopted Greek culture, and many Jews had become Hellenized – that is to say, they were more and more thinking and acting like Greeks.  In other words, many Jews at the time were what we would call today ‘secular’ Jews.  And there was tension between those secular Jews, who were comfortable assimilating and living more modern lives, and the Maccabees, who did argue for a strict and traditional adherence to Jewish law.  That is all true.

     But the Times article is wrong in assuming that the primary struggle was a Jew against Jew struggle.  There is no question that the real enemy the Maccabees were battling was the Assyrian army, and there must have been some kind of consensus in the broader Jewish community at the time that that was a struggle worth waging.  Why? Because it is impossible to imagine that the Maccabees by themselves, without the support of their fellow Jews, could have accomplished what they did.  So it is odd, to say the least, that the article in the Times barely mentions the Maccabees’ defeat of the Assyrian army.  As Lincoln famously once said, there are things you can prove by telling part of the truth that you can’t prove by telling all of the truth.  And that is one area where the article misses the mark.

     I would argue that the other is in the article’s misunderstanding of what it means to be a secular Jew.  And the author of the article – in a way pokes fun at himself and his own Judaism – his own discomfort with being Jewish – and by doing that he diminishes the role of the so called secular Jew, both today and historically, in terms of Jewish community and Jewish continuity. 

     Because of the way he described himself, I would say it is highly unlikely that that author of the article is sitting in shul this morning.  Which is a shame, because it would be a good thing for him to spend some time thinking about the Joseph narrative that we reading from the Torah right now.  He might be surprised to realize that Joseph is without question two things:  one, the person who enables and ensures Jewish continuity for his time.  It is the foothold that he has established in Egypt that gives him the power to ultimately bring the rest of his family there, to feed them and give them shelter, so that they will survive through the terrible famine afflicting the ancient near East at that time.  You can very plausibly make the argument were it not for Joseph, Jacob’s family would not have survived, and Judaism might have ended right there.

     But the other thing about Joseph that would surprise the Times author is that Joseph is the most secular Jew in the entire Torah.  It isn’t even close!  Joseph is so secular – he has become so Egyptian – that his own brothers can’t even recognize him, because he is wearing Egyptian clothes, he has completely adopted Egyptian culture, and he is speaking Egyptian like a native.  It is not a stretch to say that Joseph – one of the great figures of the Bible – one of the great heroes of Judaism – is just as secular as anyone sitting in this room this morning, and probably more secular than many of us!

     But being secular doesn’t mean that your Judaism isn’t important to you.  Being secular doesn’t mean that you haven’t been lighting Hanukkah candles each night, or that you don’t go to a Passover seder or come to synagogue on the HHDs, or care about Israel, or donate to Jewish causes, or enroll your children in Hebrew school so they can become Jewishly literate and educated.  So called ‘secular’ Jews do all of those things, and because they do them Jewish continuity and Jewish life are assured for a next generation, and a next, and a next.

     This is not to say that we don’t need our Judah Maccabees, our religious zealots.  We do, and it goes without saying they have an important role to play in Jewish life.  That is part of what Hanukkah reminds us of, and celebrates.  But I don’t think it is a coincidence that every year when we are celebrating Hanukkah and remembering the Maccabees, we are reading about Joseph from the Torah, Joseph the great secular Jew.  

     Few of us can be Maccabees – I know I certainly can’t.  But all of us have a chance to be a Joseph.  And when we are proud of our Judaism, when we care about Jewish community, when we play a part in ensuring Jewish continuity, we are walking in his footsteps.  And I don’t know about you, but for my feet those shoes feel pretty comfortable.  חג שמח ושבת שלום!

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continuity, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, religious fundamentalism, sermon, Uncategorized

A Shifting Ground

Almost right under your feet, and you may not even realize it.  A recent NY Times Book Review issue dedicated its core article to the changing conditions and dynamics of America’s Jewish community.  ‘God is in the Crowd,’ ‘the Jewish American Paradox,’ ‘ ‘The New American Judaism’ – these are a few of the books reviewed in the article, itself tellingly entitled ‘Lamentations.’ (see the NY Times Book Review from November 18th)

Lamentations is of course the name of the biblical book traditionally chanted on Tisha B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples in ancient times.  It is a book about, in a narrow sense, the destruction of a Jewish city, Jerusalem.  But in a larger sense the Book of Lamentations is about the destruction of an entire Jewish community, even a Jewish way of life.  Once the Temple was gone the foundation of Jewish living and religious observance no longer existed.  The Jews at that time (the second Temple destruction occurred in 70 CE) were forced to entirely reinvent themselves, their culture, and their religious life.  Temple rituals were shifted and reflected symbolically in synagogue and home observance.  Study and prayer replaced animal sacrifice.  The rabbi became the central focus of Jewish life, and the role of the Priest began to diminish.  Over time Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the ashes of the Israelite sacrificial cult and Temple-centric worship.  As the process unfolded it was at times torturous, certainly filled with lamentation.  But when it was all said and done, we had become ‘rabbinic’ Jews, following the system of law the talmudic rabbis established some two thousand years ago.  And to this day, that system has defined Jewish life.

What the ‘Lamentations’ article seems to suggest is that the era of Rabbinic Judaism may finally be coming to an end.  We are living, some have suggested, in a ‘post-halachic’ (post Jewish legal system) age.  Understandings of religious life are changing rapidly, particularly for young Jews.  Ideas of traditional Jewish structures like synagogue affiliation, bar and bat mitzvah, worship, and holiday and Shabbat observance are shifting, and in some cases even being discarded.  Recent surveys suggest that today’s Jews identify ethnically, more as lox and bagel and Jerry Seinfeld Jews, as opposed to Jews who define themselves through a religious lens.  Pick your catchy phrase.  This is not your father’s synagogue/Judaism comes quickly to mind.  Perhaps even better, however:  we aren’t in Kansas anymore!

Traditional Jewish institutions are rushing to catch up.  The bar and bat mitzvah ritual is being reimagined, in some cases not even involving reading from the Torah.  So called ‘spiritual centers’ are springing up in synagogues from coast to coast, dressing up modern self improvement programs like yoga or meditation with a Jewish flavor.  Synagogues are becoming cultural centers, hosting music programs, adult education classes, cooking and bridge playing classes and movie nights.  Some of this is Jewishly oriented, some of it is entirely secular, some of it is somewhere in between.  All of it is an attempt, in one way or another, to cope with the shifting Jewish landscape of modern America.

The million dollar question, of course, is will it work?  The answer is, we don’t know.  We may, for a time, convince Jews to keep coming into the synagogue, if not to sit in services and listen to the rabbi’s sermon, at least to learn to play bridge.  But long term will this new kind of Jewish connection enable the Jewish community to retain a sense of distinct identity and to live meaningfully through Judaism?  After all, not everyone even likes lox, if you understand my meaning.

Of course the challenge is to have our cake and eat it too.  In an ideal world we would entice people into the building to meditate or learn to play bridge, and then figure out a way to connect them to Jewish life so they’ll end up more knowledgeable and practicing Jews.  Certainly Jews can meditate and also study Talmud, or play bridge on Thursdays and come to services Shabbat mornings.  Whether they will or not is something we are about to find out.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, community, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, synagogue, Uncategorized

Flat Tires and Other Tests

     You may be familiar with the old story of a group of four college friends who decide to take a holiday weekend before a big exam they have on Monday morning.  Despite their best intentions, they realize Sunday night that they haven’t studied one lick all weekend, and so they devise a plan.  Early Monday morning they will call the professor, and tell him they’ve had a flat tire while traveling back to school, and won’t be able to make it back for the test.  This way they’ll have extra time to study.  The professor says OK, not to worry, you’ll take the exam Wednesday morning, and she gives them a time and a room to come to for the test.

     Wednesday morning precisely at 9 AM they arrive and find the room set in an unusual way.  There are only 4 desks in the room, one in each corner.  On each desk is a single piece of paper, turned upside down hiding the writing on its front side.  The students sit down at their desks, take out their pens, and the professor says ‘you may begin!’  The students turn the papers over and are surprised to find just a single question each sheet – which tire was flat?

     This is a time of our year when we begin to think quite a bit about exams and being tested, not because soon students will be going back to school, but instead because the HHDs are coming, and one of the metaphors we use to understand the importance of those days is the idea of being examined, of being tested.  Certainly the most powerful prayer of the holidays is the Unetane Tokef, where God is imagined as a sort of austere professor, grading our exam books, in which are written the deeds we’ve performed during the past year, both good and bad.  The sense of the metaphor is very much that we are being tested, and even graded, even if it is a pass/fail course, passing meaning our names are written in the Book of Life.

     The truth is the idea of God testing us is much older than the HHD liturgy.  It is a concept that appears often in the Torah itself, our oldest text, most prominently known from the story of the Binding of Isaac which begins ‘And it was after these things that God TESTED Abraham…’   That is obviously an individual test, but there is another kind of testing in the Torah that grows more prominent in the Book of Deuteronomy, namely the idea of God testing the entire Jewish people, en masse.  And there is a reference to that kind of testing in this morning’s Torah portion, Parshat Eikev, where we find the following passage from Deuteronomy 8:  “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, – למען ענתך לנסותך that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts.

     And then the text gives a series of things which it seems to understand as part of that test.  But two of the things in the list – one, the manna, the food they were given to eat every day, and the other, that fact that their clothes would not wear out, are puzzling.  Why?  Because they are positive things.  How can something that is positive be a test?  Think of it like this – if you want to test someone’s physical endurance, you do that by making them run, or walk uphill.  You don’t do it by telling them to go take a nap!  

     So the commentators on the text are puzzled, and they try to understand how something positive – food to eat every day, and clothes that don’t wear out – how those things could be a test.  And the answer that they seem to settle on, that they find most acceptable, is this:  the Israelites didn’t know for sure whether or not the manna would appear every day, and they didn’t really know that their clothes wouldn’t wear out, so they worried about it!  Every morning when they woke up they didn’t know if they would have food to eat that day, and so the test was to see if they would have enough faith to go out and look for the manna, to see if their belief was strong enough in the idea that God would provide for them, and they would survive.  In other words, the test was a hardship – when things were tough, when things were difficult, when they were afraid they might not have food – would they still have faith?

     But there is another possible explanation of the test – sort of the reverse side of that coin – that I’ve always found compelling, which is this:  would they remain faithful to God even when they knew that every day that manna would be there, and there was no question in their minds that they would have food to eat and clothes to wear in the wilderness, it didn’t matter how long they wandered.  That test is almost exactly the opposite!  It is a test that comes from things being good, things being easy, and the question is, when everything is great, when you have absolutely no problems, when life looks like easy street – will you still look to God then?

     If you think about it, we have the answer to situation number 1, the hardship test.  The answer comes from Jewish history.  I am about chest deep now in Simon Shama’s Story of the Jews volume 2, and any broad read through of Jewish history immediately reminds you of how difficult it has been historically to be Jewish.  It didn’t matter where the Jews lived, it didn’t matter when, it didn’t even really matter if it was a more tolerant culture or a less tolerant one – it was enormously difficult to be Jewish.  And yet generation after generation after generation, those Jewish communities and the Jews that lived in them kept their faith.  That is the test of hardship, and the Jews always passed.

     We have a lot less information about the other kind of test, the test of a good and easy life.  That experience has been so rare for Jews, particularly in the modern period.  It has really just been the last 40 or 50 years when the doors have fully opened for Jews here in the States.  And that goodness, that openness, that opportunity, is testing us, no question in my mind.  And whether we will pass this test or not I think is a very open question at this point.  We can minimally say that this test of the good life is not an easy one.  Because when every opportunity is open, we take fewer Jewish ones.  When we can study any subject and work in any profession, we spend less time studying our tradition and thinking about our Judaism.  When we can belong to  – almost – any country club, we spend more time of the golf course and the tennis court and less time in shul.  When our bubbies and zaydies are no longer around to remind us of the old country and the importance of traditional observance, we forget where we’ve come from, and do fewer Jewish things in our homes.  

     The final results are not in yet, but in terms of the test of a good life, the mid term results have not been very positive for the Jewish community so far.  The good news is I think there is still time to study.  The professor will give us a couple of extra days, or we might say a couple of extra generations, to prepare.  The real question is will we be able to identify which tire is flat?!  Shabbat Shalom – 

2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, High Holy Days, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Esther & Intermarriage

This a text version of my sermon from 2/24/18 –

Many of you know that before I went to rabbinical school I was a psychiatric social worker, and in my training for that work I completed a Masters Degree in Psychology, which I proudly hold from the University of Maryland.  The most difficult course – at least for me – in that program was the statistics class.  It was required for the degree, the thinking being you’ll have to read studies and you’ll have to be able to understand how the numbers behind the studies – the statistics – came together.  Despite my challenges with math, I somehow did well enough with that class to complete the program and earn that degree, and I figured that was the last I would see of statistics for a long time, if not ever.

Little did I know how important statistics would be in rabbinical work.  I didn’t really learn this until I was out in the field, and when every couple of years or so a new demographic study of the Jewish community comes out, as the rabbi I am expected to be an expert, to know the numbers, what they mean, and how they were calculated.  I have learned over time that professional Jews are obsessed with demographic studies.  We try to understand from them what the current trends in the community are, how old or young the Jewish population is, how many school age children it contains, how observant Jews are, the list goes on and on.  And of course the one number that professional Jews are concerned with more than any other in these studies is – the intermarriage rate!  We want to know how many Jews are marrying non-Jews.

Generally when we find out the newest numbers we wring our hands, we worry, we fear for the Jewish future – the Yiddish word geschrei comes to mind.  And there are valid reasons for this.  One is that the intermarriage rate is going up – the most recent numbers tell us that in the non-Orthodox community the intermarriage rate is around 60%.  A number this high is a potential threat to Jewish continuity, because statistics also tell us that the children and grand-children of intermarried parents are also highly likely to intermarry, and if the intermarriage rate continues to rise rapidly and exponentially there will be fewer and fewer Jewish families.

There is no question that this is a serious issue and also a serious concern, but there is also no question – at least in my mind – that it is an issue that is not going away.  That is to say, it is not ‘solvable.’  The Jewish community has top notch leadership, bright minds, and deep pockets, but despite worrying about intermarriage and working on the issue for decades at this point, we have only watched the rate grow higher and higher.  There are some things that increase the chances of a child marrying Jewishly – home observance is one, and Jewish camping is another – but by and large this is not something that we are going to have a lot of control over and in all likelihood in the years ahead the intermarriage rate will continue to rise.

If so, I would argue that we should worry less about the number, the percentage of Jews intermarrying, and we should worry more about how we connect with these Jews and their families so that they feel welcome in the Jewish community in general and in synagogue life in particular.  Because if the intermarriage rate is at 60% and we don’t figure out a way to welcome those families then we are saying to 6 out of every 10 Jews we can’t help you.  And it is hard for me to understand how that is good for us, or how that is good for them.  After all, if we are saying we want the children and grandchildren of intermarried families to be Jewish, doesn’t it make sense to open the door as wide as possible so that those families might be able to find a Jewish home.  Without a Jewish home, we will certainly lose them.

And the truth is, those families have a tremendous amount to contribute to our community.  I imagine you know that Wednesday night is Purim.  I hope you’ll all be here, we have an evening planned that should be a lot of fun for everyone, from the young to the not so young.  Just for a moment I would like to think with you this morning about the story of Esther that we will read Wednesday night.  It is one of the best known stories of the entire Bible, and I don’t feel I have to recount the narrative, because you know all about Esther and Mordecai, Vashti and King Ahashverosh, and of course the wicked Haman.  As the old joke goes, Purim tells the classic Jewish story – they tried to kill us, we won, lets eat!

But the Book of Esther is much more than that, and in fact I would argue it is the most modern of all the biblical books, at least in the way it understands and describes Jewish life.  The Jewish community of Persia in the story is highly assimilated.  Mordecai and Esther are secular Jews who still feel connected to their Jewish identity, even if they aren’t ‘religious’ in any traditional sense – which is exactly the way many Jewish describe themselves today.  And although we don’t have the intermarriage statistics for 6th century BCE Persia, we do have the story of an intermarried family from that time – the family of Esther and Ahashverosh.  The story of Purim is at least in part the story of an interfaith family – because when Esther wins that beauty contest and marries the King, she is a Jewish woman marrying a man who is not Jewish.

This is not the way we normally read the story, it is not the part of the narrative we usually focus on, but it is the truth.  Queen Esther is one of the great Jewish heroes in the Bible.  With courage and pluck (and her Uncle Mordecai’s encouragement) she fights back against Haman, and risks her life so that her people might be spared.  But that same Esther’s husband is not Jewish.  In fact, we might say lucky for the Jews that Esther is in the marriage she is in.  If not for her access to the King, it is likely the Jewish people of that time and place would have perished.  Esther alone doesn’t save the Jews in the story of Purim – her family does.  And her family is an interfaith family.

On the surface it might seem strange to think about the Purim story this way.  But we shouldn’t really be so surprised.  In today’s world, our interfaith families are some of the most devoted families we have at Beth El.  They bring their children to Hebrew school, celebrate at their sons’ and daughters’ ‘b’nai mitzvah, participate in congregational life, give generously to Jewish organizations, speak out positively about Israel, and create Jewish homes.  Our congregation is in part the kind of community we are all proud of because of the commitment and connection of our many interfaith families.

Which is why we should keep the doors open as wide as we can.  That is why we have an interfaith havurah at Beth El, a group that meets multiple times a year to talk about interfaith issues and to explore together the interfaith journey.   That is why Beth El has always been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue, from the days of Rabbi Jacob Agus to the present.  That is why we welcome non-Jewish partners and spouses to the bima for the baby namings and b’nai mitzvah of their children.  It is why we have readings for Friday night and Shabbat morning services that non Jewish family members can participate in.  Those families are a part of our larger family, and their journeys are intertwined with ours.  They may not save the Jewish people in one fell swoop the way Queen Esther and King Ahashverosh did, but their presence in our midst will help us all build a stronger Jewish community for many generations to come.

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, holidays, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, synagogue, Uncategorized

Spiritual Multitasking

While most of Baltimore gears up for the Ravens in the playoffs, true baseball fans will tell you that it is now less than 2 months before pitchers and catchers report to begin the early spring training season.  One thing that will make that start especially interesting this year is the presence of a rookie player from Japan by the name of Shohei Otani who just signed with the LA Angels.  He is the rarest of rare breeds in modern baseball – a two way threat who can both pitch and hit.  At one time in baseball, and even in other sports, it was common to have “two way players.”  But today common wisdom dictates the opposite, and that it is not possible to do two things, and to do them both extremely well.  We will see if Otani can be the exception to that rule this year in Major League Baseball.

I will confess to you long before he throws his first pitch or hits his first home run that I do not have high hopes.  There is a classic talmudic statement that Rabbi Loeb used to quote all the time – tafasta meruba lo tafasta – if you grasp too much, you end up with nothing.  It seems to me that in today’s world specializing is the key.  The problem is we have trouble remembering that, particular in an age when we talk all the time about ‘multi-tasking.’  Multi tasking means that you are doing multiple things at the same time.  A harmless, or at least relatively harmless example is talking on the phone with someone while surfing the internet at the same time.  I suspect many in the room have done exactly that at one point or another, and if so I can almost guarantee you that while doing it you’ve missed something the person on the other end of the line said.

A much more dangerous, but unfortunately probably just as common example comes from texting and driving.  Current statistics suggest that over %60 of traffic accidents today are at least in part caused by the driver using a cell phone.  %60!!  Research in the field of psychology shows that in general multitasking impairs cognitive function.  When people multitask at work production goes down.  When students multitask while studying for an exam they don’t do as well.  It seems that the human mind works best when it focuses on one thing at a time, finishes with whatever that thing is, and then goes on to the next thing.

But as a rabbi I am more in the human soul business than the human mind business, and so I wonder – does spiritual multitasking have the same kind of negative impact on our souls that cognitive multitasking has on our minds?  And I would like to spend a few minutes with you thinking about that question this morning, and to begin investigating it by looking into something that happens in the story of Joseph that we’ve been reading the last few weeks, and that finally comes to its conclusion in this morning’s portion.

You’ll remember the narrative.  Joseph has become the most powerful person in Egypt next to Pharaoh, and the famine that he predicted by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams has come to pass.  And then fate seems to come in to play.  Joseph’s brothers, who betrayed him and sold him into slavery, come looking for food for their families.  And although Joseph recognizes them, they don’t know who he is.  This is his opportunity, the moment he has been waiting for!  He has his brothers in his power, and he can take his vengeance upon them.

Of course we know the end of the story.  What happens?  Ultimately he decides to forgive his brothers, and that leads to the moving reunion with all of the kissing and hugging that is the opening of this morning’s portion.  But the decision doesn’t seem easy for Joseph, and in fact he toys with his brothers, and is quite cruel to them, before finally deciding, in the end, to let go of the past and to move forward with mercy into the future.

Commonly commentators explain Joseph’s behavior as having to do with his emotional state.  He both loves his brothers and hates them.  He wants to be merciful, but at the very same time he wants revenge.  He is trying to forgive, but he is having a difficult time letting go of his anger over what happened.  And so he wavers back and forth, sometimes acting cruelly with them, and other times being merciful and kind.  But there is a curious scene in last week’s Torah portion that might explain Jacob’s behavior in another way.  The Torah tells us that at one point, when his brothers still didn’t know who he was, Joseph served them a meal.  And here is the odd way the Torah describes that meal:  וישימו לו לבדו  – they served him – Joseph – by himself – ולהם לבדם – then they served the brothers by themselves – ולמצרים האוכלים אתו לבדם – and then the Egyptians by themselves.

Picture this scene in your mind for a moment!  There are three rooms.  In one room Joseph’s brothers are eating their meal.  In another room the Egyptians in the household are eating their meal.  And then in a room in between, Joseph sits by himself, eating his meal alone.  Because he is an important Egyptian his brothers may not eat with him.  But as powerful as he is, the Egyptians won’t eat with him either, because they know he is a Hebrew, and according to the Torah the food of the Hebrews is not acceptable to Egyptians.  So he has to eat by himself.  To use a classic Yiddish expression, Joseph is nisht a hin un nisht a her – he is neither here nor there.  He is a little bit Egyptian and a little bit Hebrew, but because he is a little bit of both – because he is a spiritual multitasker – he ends up being neither.

And I think the reason he ends up reconciling with his brothers is because he comes off of that neither here nor there fence, and he chooses to be true to his roots and to understand himself as a Jew.  What is the very first thing he says to his brothers?  אני יוסף –  I am Joseph!  This could simply be revealing his identity to his brothers, but it could also be understood as  a moment when he fully embraces his identity as a Jew.

So maybe it is no coincidence we are reading Joseph’s story every year right around the time that Christmas comes along.  It is a time of year when we Jews can feel pulled by the culture that is all around us, and conflicted in terms of how we should relate to that culture.  Research is showing that more Jews are dabbling in Christmas.  If you will, they are spiritually multitasking.   Some are exchanging presents on December 25th, some are having parties on that day, some are putting up trees in their homes and decorating them.  And as Christmas itself  becomes more and more secular it becomes more and more enticing because it gets easier and easier to say ‘it isn’t a religious thing, it is just a nice time of year.’

Joseph sets a good example for us all.  We should not be sitting on the fence, we should not be a bit of this and a bit of that.  We should not be spiritual multitaskers.  We should be Jews.  Christmas is a wonderful day for our gentile brothers and sisters, but it is their day, not ours.  Let them celebrate it and God willing find true meaning in its message of peace and hope for a better world.  But let us remember that we have our own distinct and proud religious heritage, and our own beautiful spiritual realm in which to dwell.  May we find meaning in it this weekend, and every day of our lives –

2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

The Best Colleges for Jewish Students

This a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 4/29/17 –

This coming Monday, May 1, is the final deadline for high school seniors around the country to commit to the college or university of their choice.  Thousands upon thousands of students are wrestling with that decision this weekend, knowing that the process that began for many of them almost two years ago is down to these last couple of days, maybe even the last few hours.  Today students and their families take into account a whole series of factors that I never even considered when I was applying to college.  Does the school have a food court, for example, or state of the art work out facilities, or Starbucks coffee available on campus 24/7?

In the Jewish community there is also an additional factor that families wrestle with that was not on the table even 10 years ago, and that is what is the school’s attitude towards Israel in particular and towards Judaism in general?  We are probably all aware of the complexities of navigating Jewish life and identity on the college campus today.  The Boycott Divest and Sanction Movement – often called BDS – a movement that very publicly, and often provocatively, challenges Israeli policy vis a vis the Palestinians, and sometimes also challenges Israel’s right to exist – that movement is strong and active on many college campuses.  And there is a growing perception that those campuses are not friendly places for Jews – that they are becoming anti-semitic – and that Jews should perhaps shy away from attending those schools.

Just this past week, the Algemeiner, a right of center web site that covers Jewish news, released a list it entitled ‘the 40 Worst Colleges for Jewish Students.’  The list was compiled based on an attempt to assess some of the following:  the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campus, the number of anti-Israel groups, public positions taken by faculty – in other words are there faculty on the campus that are vocally anti-Israel, and also the success or lack of success of boycott-Israel efforts undertaken by campus groups.

The list is not just a list – it is also a ranking – #1 on the list is the absolute worst in terms of anti-semitism, all the way down. Among the 40 schools you will find many of the top colleges and universities in the country, to include:  Harvard, Stanford, Brown, and Swarthmore;  the University of Chicago, UCal Berkeley, UCLA, and McGill University in Montreal;  Oberlin, Tufts, Michigan, Northwestern,  UNC Chapel Hill, Wesleyan, Syracuse, and Georgetown, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  As you now have a sense, the list is a virtual who is who of the top schools in the country.

Now on the one hand a list is just a list.  Like a list of the top 10 greatest guitar players of all time, or the best quarterbacks of all time, or the worst draft picks of all time, one person puts this list together, one person puts another, one person says its Unitas, one person says it is Marino, one person says Brady, you can argue and debate about it, but it is largely subjective.  The problem with this list is that people are starting to believe it.  So much so that a congregant recently said to me they didn’t want their child – who is a great student and a great kid – they didn’t want their child applying to Tufts – one of the top schools in the country! – because they had heard it was an anti-semitic campus.

The Jewish community has long prided itself on its academic orientation.  Education is a powerful value in our culture.  When our grandparents and great grandparents came from Europe and settled here it was education that enabled us to make better lives for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren.  That value is as old as Judaism itself.  The Torah portions we read this morning, Tazria and Metzora, describe the role of the Kohen, the Priest, in ancient Israelite culture.  And the Kohen was a combination of religious leader and medical man, a kind of rabbi-doctor hybrid.  Call it what you will – a docbi or a rabtor?  But he was respected for his knowledge, for the fact that he was learned in the tradition, that he knew the laws of the Torah, that he had studied and mastered his material.  And that respect for study, for education and learning, for the intellect, has stayed strong in Jewish life to this very day.  Which is precisely why, by the way, you find a high percentage of Jewish students at these top universities.

And that is also why I am proud to say that Becky and I will have children at the top two school on that Algemeiner list.  You heard that right – two of the rabbi’s children will be enrolled as students at the top two schools on that anti-Semitic university list.  And why am I proud of that?  Reason #1 – could you imagine what would happen if the Jewish community en masse decided not to send its children to those schools?  We would first of all be depriving our children of the opportunity to study at some of the world’s top universities.  Is this the way we fight anti-semitism?  Or is that the way we let anti-Semites win?  I know a number of you in this room remember a time – not so long ago – when Hopkins had a quota in terms of the number of Jewish students it would admit per year.  After what we fought for – to have equal access to any university in the country – are we going to impose a quota on ourselves?

Secondly, if we don’t get our children onto the campuses of those schools, who on the campus is going to stand up for the stand of Israel?  Who on the campus is going to represent Judaism and the Jewish people?  Who will be on the campus when someone says something outrageous about Israel or the Jewish people, who will be there to stand up and say ‘that is a lie, and here are the real facts?’  Who will be there if our children aren’t there?

We should not be telling our kids to stay away from those schools.  We should instead be telling our kids to flood those schools with applications, we should be strengthening the Hillels on those school’s campuses, we should be talking with our kids when they are in high school about what they might encounter when they arrive on the campus of their choice, so that if they see BDS in action, or if they are in a situation where they need to defend Israel or need to respond to anti-semitism they will know how to do so.  And I would argue that the higher the school is on the list, the more young Jews should try to go there.

So far, that has actually been the case.  Almost every school on the list has a large, active, and vibrant Jewish student body on its campus.  Those students are traveling to Israel on Birthright trips.  They are filling Hillel and Chabad houses.  They are defending Israel on campus, and calling out any anti-Semitism they experience.  They are also having positive and powerful experiences at colleges and universities they love, during their four years in school growing as people and as Jews.

So at the end of the day, Algemeiner compiled a terrific list.  They just gave it the wrong title.  It should have been called ‘the 40 Best Colleges for Jewish Students.”

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

A Seder of (In)Convenience

This a text version of my Shabbat morning sermon from 4/1/17

In my very first year of rabbinical school, in one of my classes, one of our assignments was to read the weekly Torah portion and to be prepared to discuss it.   This was the first time in my life I had ever read through the entire Torah week by week, and everything was going along very smoothly.  Genesis was wonderful, all of the great stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs, their various trials and tribulations.  Exodus was terrific, with the Passover narrative, and Moses, and Pharaoh, and the plagues, even if it bogged down a little bit at the end with all of the information about the tabernacle.  Then we got to Leviticus.  And I began to read this morning’s Torah portion, Vayikra, with its descriptions of the various animal sacrifices, and how the animals were killed, what was done with parts of their bodies, how the blood was sprinkled, and I had no access to it.  There was no narrative at all, but even worse the material was so obscure and arcane, there was no way for me to feel any connection to it.

So I went to a young rabbi who was teaching at the time at the University of Judaism where I was studying, and I told him there seemed to be no way for me to connect to Leviticus at all.  And this is what he said to me – “Think of the most valuable thing you own.  Something that is important to you, something you need in your day to day life, maybe even rely on.  Maybe your car.  Now imagine this – you’ve got a nice new Lexus.  But you feel that maybe you’ve done something wrong.  So you go to the rabbi in your neighborhood, and the rabbi says ‘here is what you are going to do.  Take your new Lexus, and offer it up as a sacrifice to God.  Take it to the local junk yard, hand it over to the worker there, and watch as the car is put into one of those car compactors, and crushed to bits.’”

Then my teacher said “that is probably the best way for us to get into the mind of an Israelite who brought an animal to the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice it as an offering to God.  That animal was the most valuable thing that Israelite owned.  By far.  It was something he relied on, maybe every day, for food, or plowing his field, or both.  And yet he was willing to take that thing, as valuable as it was, as important as it was to him, and to hand it to the priest, watch the priest slaughter the animal, and in his mind give that animal over to God.”

Now I didn’t have a new Lexus back in those days – but the idea –  the image – helped me understand the book of Leviticus, helped me connect to it – and also gave me a powerful insight into what our ancestors experienced as they approached the Temple, the Priest, and they believed God’s presence, willing to sacrifice something that was enormously valuable to them for a chance to feel closer to that Divine Presence.

So with that sense of sacrifice as context, I would like to think with you for a moment about a growing trend I see in the community today, and about how maybe we should be willing to make some sacrifices – not talking about your car! – relatively small sacrifices – sacrifices of time, maybe of inconvenience, maybe travel – so that this trend does not continue to grow.

The trend itself I would guess you probably have all heard about, maybe even experienced.  I’ve seen it with Hanukkah, and it is happening now with Pesah – where a family will decide to take their celebration of the holiday and move it to the closest convenient weekend evening – even thought that is not the actual holiday.  So for example people will have their Hanukkah dinner and party on a Saturday or Sunday evening before the holiday starts, because it is more convenient for members of the family.  This in my mind was not ideal, but Hanukkah at the end of the day is not one of our major holidays.  And by the way, even if people move their Hanukkah dinners, they still seem to light the menorah on the right nights.

But now people are starting to do it with Pesah.  So for example this year the seders are held on Monday and Tuesday evening, the 10th and 11th of April.  And I know there are some people who are planning to have the seders on the weekend before, say on Saturday night the 8th.  And I understand how much easier it makes the holiday!  First of all you don’t have to worry about getting up for work on Sunday, like you do on Tuesday or Wednesday.  On Saturday people don’t have to rush to get home from work to make it to the beginning of the seder.  If people want to travel from out of town, it is much easier and much less disruptive to travel for the weekend, and not miss work.  I get it!   And if you push me, and say is it better to do it on Saturday night than to not do it at all, I would probably say yes.

But I would ask you to keep the following things in mind.  The first is there are a series of commandments that each Jew is supposed to fulfill on the evening of Passover at the seder.  The eating of matzah is only one, but also the eating of bitter herbs, the 4 cups of wine, even the telling of the story at the seder table is considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment.  And the tradition is very clear – if you don’t do those things on the night of the seder you have not fulfilled the commandments.  The only way you can is by doing it on the right nights.

The second thing is I think it is an important lesson to teach our children and grandchildren by saying this takes priority.  The Passover seder takes priority.  It takes priority over work, or inconvenience, or time or travel issues.  And if you take children out of school to travel to get to the Passover seder on the right night, or if they miss school the next day, or if you take a half a day off of work, it shows your children and grandchildren how important this is.  And they will remember that – they will remember “my family put everything else aside so we could come together for the seder.”  It was that important.  It is a great lesson to teach our kids.

And the last thing is this.  Sometimes to live a full and meaningful Jewish life, you have to make some sacrifices.  In fact I would argue that sometimes making sacrifices helps us to live a full and meaningful Jewish life.  We are not talking about sacrificing the most valuable object that we own, something our ancestors were willing to do for God and for the tradition.  But if our ancestors were willing to do that, shouldn’t we be willing to make some small sacrifices here and there to give our Judaism the respect and honor it deserves?

Having the seder on the right night may require some sacrifice.  It may be inconvenient, it may create logistical difficulties or travel problems.  But it is the right  thing to do.  For us, for the tradition, maybe most importantly of all for our children and grandchildren.  May we all be blessed to sit with the generations of our family at the seder table – on the eve of Pesah – for many, many years to come.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, holidays, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, sermon, Uncategorized