Category Archives: community

Loneliness and Community

A text version of my comments during Shabbat services on 2/15/20 –

     The narrative of Revelation and the giving of the Torah, which occurs in the middle of this morning’s potion, is so compelling that we often overlook the events that take place at the beginning of Parshat Yitro.  Compared to what is to come the text begins quietly, with Moses’ father in law Jethro arriving at the Israelite camp, and a discussion between the two men about, of all things, administrative details.  Moses has set up a legal system in which he is the only judge, an untenable situation – it is simply too much work for one man to do.  So Jethro, being a good father in law, suggests that Moses create a new system in which he appoints others who know the law to judge the simpler cases, while Moses will handle the more difficult ones.  And the text tells us Moses thought this was a good idea – וישמע משה לקול חתנו – Moses listened to his father in law.  Problem solved.

     But this morning I want to focus on the initial criticism that Jethro gives to Moses.  When he sees Moses at first, trying to do it all by himself, he says this to his son in law:  לא טוב הדבר אשר אתה עושה.  Let’s do a little bit of Hebrew work and translate this verse – what does לא mean?  Tov?  Davar? Asher?  Atah?  Oseh?  To accurately reflect the Hebrew we’ll have to translate the verse Yoda style – Not good, this thing you are doing.  Or as it is translated in our Humash ‘the thing you are doing is not right.’

     Torah scholars have long noted that there is something unusual about that snippet of a verse, having to do particularly with the first two words, that phrase לא טוב.  And that is that that phrase appears only one other time in the entire Torah.  It is also found in Genesis chapter 2, the Adam and Eve story, where Adam has been created, but Eve has not yet come into being. God looks at Adam and says this:  לא טוב היות האדם לבדו – it is lo tov – it is not good for a person to be alone. 

     Rabbi Saroken last night in her sermonette spoke about the problem of loneliness in our society today, particularly the pervasive loneliness in the lives of young people.  On the surface this seems like a strange thing, because we think of young people as being continually connected to each other, through the phones that they hold in their hands and the constant messages they send back and forth.  But what sociologists are finding is that virtual connection is not the same is real connection, in fact it may be that virtual connection – being in relationship with someone through a screen – actually diminishes the sense of real connection to others.

     This idea was first explored in Robert Putnam’s book ‘Bowling Alone.’  Believe it or not that book came out twenty years ago!  It is an exploration of the decline in American life of civic organizations, like churches, synagogues, country clubs, parent teacher associations, and yes, even bowling leagues.  That is where the title of the book comes from – Putnam found that more people are bowling, but fewer people are doing it in the context of a bowling league.  And he blames technology for this erosion of public life.  Simply put looking at a screen is an individual activity, and the more time you spend looking at a screen the less time you spend looking into the face of another person, having a real conversation, and feeling a true sense of what it means to be connected.

     You have to wonder what Jethro – Moses’ father in law – would say were he to be transported to our world for a few hours.  Imagine Jethro walking through the Towson Mall food court, and noticing that at each table people were sitting together, but instead of looking at each other and talking to one another they were looking at the devices in their hands.  Or if he came to a work place, filled with cubicles, each cubicle a computer, each computer a screen, each person staring at that screen for hours on end.  I suspect, if he saw that, he would say, as he did to Moses, ‘lo tov.  This is not good!  And what about God – could God have ever imagined that human beings would figure out a way to be so isolated even while they were with other people?  You have to think that God also would say ‘lo tov.’

     We might think of the two ‘lo tovs’ – Jethro’s to Moses in this morning’s portion, and God’s comment in Genesis 2 – as two different antidotes for the problem of loneliness, both having to do with being in relationship.  In Genesis 2 it is pretty straight forward – God is saying that human beings need to be in caring relationships with other human beings.  With family members, with friends, people with whom they share history, common bonds, and values.  These individual relationships nourish and sustain us, and bring meaning to our lives.  I don’t think anyone would argue with that.

     But Jethro’s ‘lo tov’ to Moses is a little bit more complicated.  I would argue that Jethro is saying it is necessary for people not only to be in relationship with one another, but also to be in a relationship with a community, with something larger than they are.  When we stood this morning, together, as a congregation, to listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments, there is a power to that, a sense of being connected not only to one another but to something that is greater than we can ever be as individuals.  And that can only be found in the context of a community.  

     There is one other layer to this idea of being in relationship with others that Judaism brings to the conversation, something that Robert Putnam was not concerned with when he wrote his book.  And that is that Judaism believes when we are in meaningful relationships with one another, we are also in relationship with God.  There is an old idea that we’ve all heard a million times, which is that in a Jewish house of worship you will never see a representative image of God anywhere.  In fact, the second commandment we read this morning says specifically לא תעשה לך פסל וכל תמונה – you should not make yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness.

     But the truth is our sanctuary is filled with images of God.  Our tradition teaches us that each human being is created in God’s image, and so each human face here this morning – each and everyone of us –  is a reflection of God’s presence, and a representation of God being in our midst and in our lives. 

     It is always striking to me how powerful the simplest things can be.  How two hours in shul, surrounded by friends and community can lift our spirits and lighten our hearts.  How looking into the eyes of a person we care about can in an instant remind us of the blessings in our lives.  How a kind word or a warm handshake can so powerfully give us a sense of connection and caring.  May we give that to others each and every day, and may we find it time and again in our own lives. 

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Winter of Discontent

The seemingly endless rain in the northeast over these last days is a fitting match for the mood of the country.  We walk in a collective daze, heads bowed under grey skies, feet stomping over soaked earth, faces averted from the chilly winds.  Gazing downward we fail to notice the starless nights.  It is all unsettling, a bizarre semi-winter concoction created by the rapidly changing climate and the warming of the planet.  The dark and dreary weather is the perfect background for our political bitterness, the shameful impeachment proceedings, the angst of the Democratic party nominating battle, and the inept Iowa caucus process.  One begins to wonder if the climate, both weather-wise and political, will ever change.

There is something strikingly dystopian about it all.  From the weather itself to the rejection of truth and the embrace of conspiracy theories, it feels like we have lost our way.  Remember Blade Runner, that bleak portrait of a future world where robots and humans struggle for dignity and control?  In Ridley Scott’s brilliant film the rain was constant, slicking the filthy city streets with slime.  We aren’t there yet, but one wonders what will happen if we keep going this way.

The synagogue, for those who still come, is a refuge from the darkness and gloom.  There is fellowship there, community and caring, a sense of connection, and also the understanding that in the long stream of time represented by the tradition the current moment is just a blip on a radar screen.  The liturgy is filled with cautious messages of hope, reminding us of the power we have, even as individuals, to change the world for the better.  If we are lucky we leave the synagogue calmer, a bit wiser, perhaps with a better understanding of the current moment and its context in a far grander narrative.  All is not lost, at least not yet.

But there is a sense of urgency that grows stronger and stronger.  What do they always say?  Follow the money!  And the proposed budget released by the White House yesterday is a clear illustration of where the country is headed if we don’t change course.  It shows an America that takes away from the neediest and most vulnerable, that ignores (and even contributes to) the dire plight of the planet, that invests in the most destructive weapons imaginable but leaves people out in the cold.  In the last few years we have become crueler, more angry, more divided, and less caring.  Can anyone honestly argue that makes us greater?

Truly a winter of discontent.

That phrase, of course, comes from the very first line of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Richard III.  The full line is ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”  The imagery of the sentence plays winter against summer, expressing the idea that darkness and cold will eventually give way to warmth, that the low points inevitably fade, and that in some mysterious way humanity pushes forward towards the light.

The problem is that some winters are longer than others, and sometimes discontent is deeper, more corrosive.  After all of the rain that we’ve had it will take the sun a long time to dry things up.  At this point even a little bit of sun will be appreciated, reminding us that spring and summer will come, helping us discover the hope we need to get through the dark times.

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Reflections on Antisemitism

If you’ve been to Europe you know that the vast majority of Jewish institutions there have armed guards at their doors.  Certainly any large and recognizably Jewish organization – a synagogue, a museum – will have an armed guard.  This past summer we were in Prague, and on Shabbat morning the city’s main shul had two guards outside, one actually giving each and every person who wanted to enter a full interview (where are you from, what is your Hebrew name, do you belong to a congregation, etc).  Along the same lines,  if you’ve been to Israel, you know that many public places have armed guards at their entrances, to include pubs, food stores, shopping malls, let alone the museums and shuls.

I’ve been wondering if this is the place where the American Jewish community is headed.  A few years ago it would have been inconceivable to most American Jews that they would have to set up a security station in the entranceway of their synagogues, JCCs, or Federations.  But over the last two plus years virtually every Jewish organization in America has increased its security, from simple locks on doors to the physical presence of an armed guard, to metal detectors.  Last winter I went to Shabbat services in Florida, and passed through three stages of security before I entered the sanctuary – at the parking lot entrance, walking through a metal detector to enter the building, and then the presence of an armed guard.

In my synagogue we’ve gone from almost no security two and a half years ago to an armed guard on duty at all times and an ID scan requirement for entry.  We have panic buttons on the bimah.  We’ve run active shooter drills with our Hebrew school children and our day care staff.  With each successive assault  – whether on a synagogue, a home, an individual, a grocery store – we grow more concerned, and more careful.  And the simple truth is, our members are scared.  My synagogue is about as visible as a Jewish institution can be – a large building, right off a major highway, easy access from multiple directions.  Oh, and since our name begins with the letter ‘b,’ we are right at the top of the phone listing.

I must confess, full disclosure, I am not quite sure what to do with the various statements of condemnation and outrage that are released after these antisemitic incidents take place.  After a while it seems like they are filled with the same stock phrases and say the same things, things that we all know.  Of course this is horrible, heinous, awful.  Of course we stand in solidarity with those affected.  Of course we must be vigilant.  Of course we must reject hate and embrace tolerance.  Of course we are thinking of those whose lives have been changed for ever, and yes, we are actually praying for them.  I suppose it all must be said, and perhaps it even helps in some way.  I just worry that it is almost starting to sound like a form letter, and we just cut and paste the date and place where the tragedy occurred.

And yet we can not turn away, or become indifferent, in the face of these repeated and hateful acts.  Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and I am afraid tragedy fatigue might be as well.  These antisemitic incidents can all too easily be lost in the ever increasing national plague of gun violence.  The truth is, they can even become lost in themselves, one after another.  How much can one pay attention to?  How much can one’s soul truly and deeply feel?

We must be vigilant, and we can control that.  Our campus is significantly – significantly! – safer that it was two years ago, even a year ago.  We have been proactive, and we have embraced the consideration of worst case scenarios, something that is necessary in today’s world.  We have been willing to inconvenience ourselves, put ourselves out a bit here and there as individuals, to increase the security and safety for all.  We are doing this communally as well, and virtually every morning I receive an emailed security briefing from a trusted security expert about what is happening around the country, and in our community.  This email is sent to every Jewish organization in Baltimore.

We must also continue to speak out, to raise awareness, to keep each antisemitic incident and comment in the public eye.  And while doing that to remember that this is not happening in a vacuum.  Incidents of antisemitism are treated as hate crimes, and hate can extend to many other minority groups, whether Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, the LGBTQ community, and the list could go on and on.  What we must remember is that one minority group will not be spared while another is attacked.  Ultimately hate and prejudice become like a viscous scum, seeping through the streets and affecting everyone.  Jews are not hated in a vacuum.  Instead, Jews are hated along with other groups that are hated.

My last thought after this overly long posting:  I am hopeful.  When the Pittsburgh shooting happened, the response was over whelming and powerful.  One of the most touching experiences I had during those difficult days came from receiving hundreds of hand written letters from members of a local church, each note telling us we were loved, respected, and cared for.  Later that day, my neighbor walked down the street a ways to greet me, offering me words of support and condolence.

The vast majority of people are good, kind, and caring.  The common humanity that binds us all together is more powerful than hate or prejudice, small mindedness or fear.  We must remind one another of this everyday, as we continue to work – together – to create a world of justice, tolerance, and peace.

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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 11/30/19 –

     Who could have imagined that more than a half century after the very first episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted – on February 19th, 1968 – that Fred Rogers would be a virtually ubiquitous personality.  With not one, but two major movies about his life, the most recent starring Tom Hanks; with article after article and op ed piece after op ed piece, Fred Rogers – now 16 years after his death – has suddenly become one of the most thought about and prominent public figures in the country.  

     On the surface this is an odd phenomenon, to say the least.  I am guessing most of the people in the room this morning remember Mr. Rogers.  Soft spoken and gentle, kind and caring, sneaker and red sweater wearing, his TV show ran for 31 seasons, influencing generation after generation of children as they grew up and watched TV during their formative years.  A child of the late 60s and early 70s, I remember settling in front of an old black and white TV with a screen smaller than the screen I currently use for my computer, and watching Fred Rogers spin his stories, relating life lessons, unpacking issues like anger and sadness, and in his gentle way teaching moral and ethical principles that could help you to be a better person, the kind of person your parents and grandparents clearly thought you should be.

     Mr. Rogers died only a couple of years after his show went off the air.  The TV episodes were still on, replayed usually as part of the early morning PBS schedule, but the person of Fred Rogers entered a sort of quiescent period.  He was remembered, but mostly in a  nostalgic way, the way we remember with fondness a time in our lives – or in the life of our country – with a golden sheen.  Fifteen years ago – probably even ten years ago – if someone had told you there would be two major motion pictures made about the life of Fred Rogers, you probably would not have taken that person’s investment advice.  And yet here we are.  Fred Rogers is so popular right now that there is even an article about his wife – whose name is?  Joanne!  – in yesterday’s New York Times.  She is still alive, and in good health, God bless her.

     I’ve always believed we create the hero we need at the time when we need him – or her – and evidently at this contentious time in our country there is a sense that we need Fred Rogers.  Maybe it is the soothing tone of his voice during a time when people, especially public figures, seem to mostly yell at each other.  We might be attracted to his calm demeanor when everything, and everyone, seems to be so frantic.  Perhaps it has to do with the way he listens in an age when all anyone seems to want to do is talk.  Or maybe it is his fundamental and unshakable optimism that appeals to us, when so much of the world seems dark and hope is hard to come by.  Most likely it is some combination of all of these things.  We are living in unsettled times, and Fred Rogers had a way of making us believe everything would be OK, and reminding us that at the end of the day, we can trust one another. 

     I know that evidence often seems to be to the contrary.  Forget about our country and the deepening divisions that we see everywhere, whether racial or political or economic or otherwise.  All you have to do is take a cursory glance through this morning’s Torah portion to remember how difficult we humans can be, even to the people closest to us.  This morning’s reading contains some of the Bible’s best known stories, all of them focusing on the family of Isaac and Rebecca, and their sons – what are their names?  Esau and Jacob!  

     I imagine you know the narrative well.  It begins with one of the most fundamental of all parenting mistakes, namely one parent favoring one child, while another parent favors the other child.  In this case it is Rebecca who loves her son Jacob but doesn’t care much for his older brother Esau.  But just to make sure things in the family are truly impossible, Isaac does the same thing in reverse, always proud of and talking about Esau, but seemingly not too fond of Jacob.  If you’ve ever known a family like this, you know this is a recipe for disaster, and that is in fact what ensues.  By the time this morning’s reading is done Jacob has deceived his older brother Esau into selling him the family birthright.  Then Isaac tells a group of men that his wife Rebecca is his sister, putting her in a very uncomfortable position, to say the least.  And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the portion ends with Rebecca and Jacob, mother and son, hatching a plot to trick Isaac, their husband and father, into giving the family inheritance to Jacob.  

     And you thought Washington DC was bad.

     Of course the sad truth is that people do nasty things to one another all the time.  Cheat, steal, and lie.  Betray.  Physically harm one another.  The list could go on and on, but you get the point.  It is not always easy for us – and in fact sometimes it is quite difficult – to treat one another the way God wants us to.  To respect one another, care for each other, help and support one another,  sacrifice for one another, give one another the benefit of the doubt.  To live honestly and admirably, and to regularly ask, paraphrasing JFK, not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them.  You see, the Torah lays out the very worst human behavior in front of us, because once you see the worst you have a deeper appreciation for how important it is to strive to be the best.

     Mr. Rogers came at that idea from the other way around.  He also wanted to show us that we should strive to be the best we can be, but he illustrated that by focusing on the positive.  It wasn’t that he denied the difficulties of human nature.  He acknowledged that people make mistakes, hurt others, and fall short on a regular basis.  But in Fred Rogers world that moment of failure was seen as the beginning of something better.  Growing, changing, understanding more deeply, and figuring out how, the next time around, to do it right.

     And I think that is why – at least one of the reasons why – Mr. Rogers is at the front of the national consciousness these days.  We are getting tired of all the negativity.  And we like seeing the spirit of a person who said, over and over again, there is a better way, and you can, with a little help from your friends, figure out what it is.  What was the name of Fred Roger’s show?  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood!  I am sure the choice of the word neighborhood is very intentional – a place filled with all kinds of people, and animals, different backgrounds and ethnicities, but working for a common goal.  

     Anyone happen to know the Hebrew word for neighborhood?  שכונה – it comes from the root that means ‘to dwell.’  So the שכונה is the place where people dwell together.  And of course if you just change one letter  – take that ‘vav’, and make it a ‘yud’ – you have what?  שכינה – one of the names we use for God, a name that reminds us particularly of God’s sheltering presence.  The sense seems to be that when we dwell together – truly, not just in place but in spirit – God’s presence is brought into our world.  Mr. Rogers spent his life teaching children – and maybe all of us – that that kind of world is not only ideal, it can be real.  His job was to teach us that lesson – and the rest is up to us.

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Same as it Ever Was

In the fall of 1980 the Talking Heads released their fourth studio album, entitled ‘Remain in Light.’  Jimmy Carter’s presidency was winding down, and in November, a month after the record was released, the country would elect Ronald Reagan to be its 40th president.  The signature song of Remain in Light would become Once in a Lifetime, a charged blending of funk and world music beats overlaid with David Bryne’s surrealistic ravings delivered in a series of preacher-like cadences.  Here are the lyrics of the memorable first verse:

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

In the band’s live version of the song, recorded for its 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Byrne shakes, trembles, and sweats as he sings, conveying the sense of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  It is all too much.  Too much going on.  Too much to understand.  Too much information.  What is real, what is important, what is true, what false, and how, indeed, did we get here?

One answer to that question is found in the song’s haunting refrain, that Byrne hypnotically chants over and over, slapping his hand against his forehead – ‘same as it ever was.’  It is in essence a reframing of the famous biblical line from Ecclesiastes 1:9:  ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’  Here is that verse in its entirety:  “What was will be again, what has been done will be repeated, for there is not a single new thing under the sun.”  In other words we get to ‘here’ because it is inevitable.  We don’t have a choice because we are doomed to repeat the same story lines over and over.  Make the same mistakes, never grow, never change, never break new ground.  Same as it ever was.

I’ve been thinking about both the song and the verse from Ecclesiastes over the last weeks, while finishing Jill Lepore’s masterful one volume history of the United States, entitled ‘These Truths.’  In vivd and elegant prose Lepore recounts moment after moment in the history of our nation.  Many of those moments are glorious, stirring tales of the human spirit at its very best.  In generation after generation Americans stepped forward to risk everything for values that we hold to be true and eternal – human dignity, freedom, justice, and mercy among them.

And yet.  Reading through the book’s 800 plus pages also reminded me that so many of the sorrows and troubles we live with today have been a part of our country from the very beginning.  Lepore makes it clear that racism is chief among those.  But we must also add to that list populism, political partisanship, poverty, the conservative / liberal divide, wealth inequality, and the list goes on and on.  Just like in the Talking Heads song, or the verse from Kohelet, we got here because we’ve been here before, and we just can’t seem to figure out a way to move forward.  Same as it ever was.

But I did not put the book down in a state of despair.  Instead I felt inspired, touched, moved, and reenergized.  In a way what is truly astonishing is that we have not given up.  We keep trying.  There are lights along the way, great figures and thinkers that show us who we are and encourage us to be better.  They help us to move down the road just a bit, a step or two.  Sometimes we slide back, sucked in by selfishness or fear to past mistakes and hatreds, repeating and revisiting them as if for the very first time.  But other times we are better.  We do better.  We live up to the ideals that we believe should define our country, our lives, and ourselves.

Of course the true question is how can we more consistently follow, using Lincoln’s term, ‘the better angels of our nature?’  There is no clear answer to that question.  One thing we should all know – it is not easy work.  Another is that Lepore’s splendid book can remind us all of where we’ve been, which will help us chart a safer and straighter course through the storms of the future.  Perhaps that is why she concludes the prayerful last paragraph of her history with the metaphor of a boat sailing on choppy seas:

“It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea.  If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky.  With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true.  They would need to drive home the nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill.  Knowing that heat and sparks and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals.  And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art:  how to navigate by the stars.”

In that clarion call Lepore reminds us all that the stars are there if we have the vision to see them, and the strength and will we need to chart the course.

For those interested here is a link to the classic Talking Heads performance of ‘Once in a Lifetime.’

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A Bad Week for the Jews

There were three Jews prominently featured on the front pages of American newspapers this week:  Michael Cohen, Bibi Netanyahu, and Robert Kraft.

Think about that for a moment.  As my Bubbie used to say, ‘Oy vey iz mir!’

It started with the Michael Cohen testimony.  A congregant came to see me the day he was on the hill and said she had been watching but had turned the TV off, feeling physically sick from what she was seeing.  I asked her if it was because of what Cohen’s testimony symbolized in terms of the state of the union, or because he was a Jew?  ‘Because he is a Jew,’ she said, ‘because I was watching a Jew stand up in front of the country, in front of the world, talking about cheating others, paying off prostitutes, lying, bullying, seeking power and money at any cost, having no morals or ethics, and serving those with no morals or ethics.  I was ashamed.’

Then there was Bibi.  Yes, the indictment (s) – it won’t make his life any easier, particularly with an election a little over a month away.  But much more disturbing was his willingness to play in the same political sandbox as Otzma Yehudit, a far-right politically organized Israeli group that unabashedly expresses racist views and advocates the ‘removal’ of most if not all Arabs from ‘greater Israel.’  Three men tangentially connected with the group were convicted of setting fire to a school where Jewish and Arab children studied together in 2015.  Opposition to Bibi’s willingness to engage this group was so strong that even AIPAC supported a statement from the American Jewish Committee condemning Netanyahu’s actions.  When AIPAC is condemning Netanyahu, you know something serious is going on.

Finally, last, and probably least, Robert Kraft.  One of the wealthiest men in America, and one of its most prominent Jews, a generous donor to Jewish causes, and best known as the owner of the New England Patriots, Kraft was arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution at a Florida massage parlor.  He entered a not guilty plea, but word is there is video tape evidence that will be submitted should things progress to a trial.

When I was going to Hebrew school while growing up we were taught to have pride in the Jewish community, in Jewish identity, and in Judaism’s deep belief in the importance of living a moral and ethical life.  We learned that Jews give charity (tzedekah), that Jews make the world a better place (Tikkun olam), that Jews stand for justice (tzedek).  And we understood, not just from our Hebrew school teachers, but from our parents and grandparents, that we were supposed to live our lives by those values.  That to be a moral and ethical person, to be a person of integrity and honor and honesty, in short to be a mensch – was what it meant to be a Jew.

Perhaps it is just coincidence.  Everyone has a bad week here and there.  After all, the Golden State Warriors, the best team in basketball, have lost their last two games in a row.  But we expect more, and we should.  The Torah teaches that Israel is supposed to be a light unto the nations.  It is hard enough to do that in the very best of circumstances.  With the headlines of the last week about three highly visible and prominent Jews, it makes it feel almost impossible.

In his closing statement at the public phase of the Michael Cohen testimony, Representative Elijah Cummings said ‘we are better than this.’  Jews around the world may be saying the same thing about this week’s news.  Let us hope we are right, and let us live our lives accordingly.

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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.

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