Category Archives: preaching

Adding Seats to the Table

This a text version of my sermon on Shabbat (4/22/18) –

     This past Wednesday evening, when many people were at Beth T’filoh, at the community celebration for Israel’s 70th birthday – which I heard was terrific – I climbed into my car and drove downtown to the Hopkins Hillel building, where I met with the chairs of the Johns Hopkins J Street U organization.  J Street U, as you may or may not know, is the college student branch of J Street, a DC based lobbying group that defines itself as pro-Israel, and pro-peace.  It is without question left of center politically, and so recently has often clashed with the Netanyahu administration, which is decidedly right of center.  J Street also focuses on the importance of a two state solution in terms of any ultimate peace deal with the Palestinians.

     The students I met with – one young man, one young woman – are bright, thoughtful, energetic, and deeply invested in their own Jewish identity, and deeply invested in the future of the State of Israel.  They worry that decisions that Israel is making today may have long term negative repercussions for the Jewish state.  In their work on campus they raise awareness about those issues – an example would be Israel’s building of settlements over the green line – which they argue will make it more difficult to disentangle the Israelis and Palestinians and to implement the idea of two states for two peoples.  

     Now you may or may not agree with their politics – I suspect many of you don’t.  But what I would ask you to consider this morning is whether those students have the right to express their views about Israel.  Can we be comfortable, as a Jewish community, when critical ideas about Israel enter the communal conversation?  Are we willing to listen to those ideas, to consider them, to respond thoughtfully to them?  Or has our community entered a space where we will not tolerate views on Israel that we don’t agree with?

     I personally hope we have not entered that kind of space, which is one of the reasons I went to meet with the Hopkins J Street U students.  I wanted them to know that someone who represents the community – a rabbi, and a rabbi from a large synagogue at that – would agree to spend time with them, would listen to their concerns, and would engage in thoughtful dialogue with them, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with everything they said or every view they hold.  The problem is this – if the community refuses to engage with young people like this, then we are shutting the door on young Jews who care about Israel, who are ready to work, to be active participants in the communal life, and once the door is shut we will lose their talent, their energy, and their love for the Jewish state.  And it is hard for me to understand how that would be good for anyone.

     It seems to me there are two challenges.  The first is we have to let young people like that know they are welcome at the communal table.  They have to feel safe in expressing their views, they have to be treated with the same respect as anyone else and not automatically and immediately shouted down every time they say something.  The double Torah portion that we read from this morning, Tazria Metzora, is filled with bizarre details about skin diseases and ritual purity and impurity that to us as modern people are extremely difficult to relate to, to say the least.  But at the heart of the double portion is one central concern – how can we bring people back into the community?  And that is the question we need to ask about these young people.  How can we let these young people know they are a valued part of the community, and that their views will be respected in the communal conversation about Israel?  That is challenge number one.

     Challenge number two has to do with a generational divide in terms of how the community understands Israel.  By and large folks who are in the 50s, 60s, and up still see Israel under what I would call the old mythology.  That is to say that Israel is a tiny country, that it is weak, that it is continually existentially threatened, and that it is continually overcoming enormous odds just to exist on a day to day basis.  And if you remember, as some of you here today do, when Israel was founded 70 years ago, if you remember the ’67 war, or the YK war in ’73, that mythology is probably an important part of the way you understand the state and relate emotionally to Israel.

     But many younger Jews today – Jews in the 40s, 30s, and 20s – don’t subscribe to that mythology.  They have lived their entire lives without Israel being in a war.  They know that Israel is strong economically and militarily, and they know Israel as the start up nation, a tech savvy, progressive, forward thinking country.  They don’t see Israel as weak, they don’t see Israel as existentially threatened, they don’t see Israel as struggling to survive on a day to day basis.  Their mythology is that Israel is a strong, established nation, now 70 years into its journey, powerful and secure and in charge of its own destiny.  

     And I would say in the course of the communal conversation about Israel both of those mythologies have to be recognized.  The young people are right – Israel is strong and secure and powerful and in charge of its own fate.  Just last month US News and World Report ranked the most powerful countries in the world, using a formula based on GDP, population, average salary, and military strength.  Here are the top 8 countries on that list – you may guess #1 – the US.  2?  Russia.  3 – China, 4 – Germany, 5 – the UK, 6 – France, 7 – Japan, and the 8th country on the list of most powerful nations in the world?  Israel!  8th in the world!  70 years into its history that is a remarkable, astonishing, incredible accomplishment.  With a GDP of 318 billion dollars, with a total population of 8.5 million people, with one of the world’s most powerful militaries, with an average citizen’s salary at around 35K per year, Israel is a true world power.  The young people are right.

     On the other hand, the older folks have a leg to stand on too.  There is truth to the old mythology.  Israel lives in a tough neighborhood to say the least.  With Iran and Syria and Lebanon, with an active Hezbollah on its borders, Israel’s sense of security is fragile, and without question Israel has to constantly be on its guard.  And when you take into account the growing Palestinian population, and the constant threat of terror attacks in Israel proper, Israel is facing challenges on a day to day basis that those of us who live in the US can barely get our heads around.  

     And I would argue that for us to be able to have a productive and meaningful communal conversation about Israel we have to take into account both the old and the new.  Talk bout the full picture, not just one side.  Israel is strong, powerful, established, but also at times threatened, and constantly facing danger and hostility from its neighbors.  And to have that full conversation – to acknowledge all that Israel is, and all of the challenges that she faces – we need everyone around the table.  Even – and maybe most importantly  – those with whom we don’t agree.  So lets open the doors as wide as we can – and with respect for one another – continue the conversation.

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Taking Out the Garbage

This is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 3/24/18.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had an experience that was both rare for me these days, and also I realized, refreshing, and perhaps even important in an odd way.  I was out and about in the Baltimore area, and as happens about 99% of the time, I saw from across the room someone I know from the congregation.  I figured I would go over to say hello and check in for a moment or two, knowing of course that the person would know I was there, and might feel slighted if I didn’t say ‘hi.’

I went over to the person and reached out my hand to shake hers, and said ‘how are you, good to see you.’  She looked at me with a blank stare, clearly in her mind thinking ‘who the heck is this?!’  Now I must admit my self esteem took a small hit.  One of my own congregants, and she didn’t even recognize me!?  How was this possible?  After an awkward moment or two I said ‘its Rabbi Schwartz, from Beth El,’ at which point she realized who I was, and began to profusely apologize.  I tried to reassure her – ‘please, no worries,’ I said.  ‘Just wanted to say hello.  Have a good time and I’ll see you in shul.’

Now in my poor congregant’s defense, I wasn’t exactly dressed in shul clothes.  She is used to seeing me in a suit and tie, often with a tallis on, and that evening I was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, plus I had a baseball cap on my head.  And it was probably in a place she was not expecting to see her rabbi.  So I was totally out of context for her, and for a couple of days in my mind that was how I rationalized what happened.

But then I began to realize that the problem had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me.  That is to say, why should I have expected to be recognized in the first place?  Am I so important, am I such a recognizable figure, that I think people should know who I am?  What we had here was a problem of humility – namely my own lack of said quality.  I had briefly forgotten one of my chief rules of rabbinical work, which is – never believe your own press clippings.

So it is perhaps propitious that we come to this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, in the week leading up to Passover, which as I expect you all know begins this coming Friday night.  Because in both this morning’s Torah portion, and also in my experience of the Passover holiday, are lessons of humility that I will try my very best to take to heart in the months ahead.  First of all, the Torah portion.

There is a wonderful story told of the Brisker Rav, who was the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  It seems that he had a student who was having trouble getting along with his wife.  One day the student arrived early at the Rav’s home.  The Rav invited him in, poured him a cup of coffee, and asked him what was wrong.  The student replied, ‘My wife is giving me a hard time because I refuse to take out the garbage.  Can you imagine that she wants me, a Torah scholar, to actually take out the garbage.’  The Brisker Rav sagely nodded his head, and simply said to the student, ‘let me think about this.’

The very next morning -early – there was a knock on the student’s door.  Much to his astonishment the Brisker Rav was standing at his doorstep asking to come in.  When the student invited his teacher inside the Rav went straight to the kitchen, found the garbage can, and took it out to the street.  When the student asked the Rav what he was doing he simply replied “It may be beneath your dignity to take out the garbage, but I thought I’d show you it isn’t beneath my dignity.”  By the way what the student’s wife said to him was not recorded in the version of the story I saw.  We can only imagine.

But the story does reflect a small and curious detail that our Torah portion relates about the Priests in ancient times, and their service at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Priests were the most important people in ancient Israel, honored and respected as religious authorities and sources of wisdom.  And this morning’s portion describes their day to day duties in terms of their Temple service.  One can imagine that the Priest arrived at work in the morning to great fanfare.  After all, he was going to be doing God’s work for the people, offering the sacrifices, making judgements about which things were pure and which were impure, helping people to recover from illnesses.

But the very first thing the Priest had to do when he arrived in the morning was to take off his fancy clothes, put on his schlepper clothes – old jeans and torn sweatshirt – and then he had to clean out the altar area from the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifices, and then carry those ashes outside.  So literally, the great Priests of ancient Israel started their days by taking out the garbage.  And that image is a very helpful reminder to me about he importance of humility – even when, and maybe particularly when – you find yourself in a position of Jewish leadership.

Which brings me to the second thing that helps to reset my humility needle, and that is Pesah, precisely because it is the family holiday of our tradition par excellence.  When I stand here and preach, or lead services, or help you with life cycle events, I am the rabbi, and always treated as such, with respect.  And believe me it is very much appreciated.  But when I sit down at the seder table with my family, even though I am leading the seder, I am not the rabbi.  I am Tali, Josh, and Merav’s dad.  I am Becky’s husband.  I am my parents’s son, Becky’s parents’ son in law.  My children remind me that I don’t know the proper tune to a number of the Passover songs. (which may simply be a comment on my singing)  Becky quietly reminds me I am talking too much, and that we need to get the food out on the table, something my congregants would never do while I am conducting services.  Becky’s parents remind me they knew me when.  My parents remind me they REALLY knew me when.  I think you get the picture, and as you may imagine, it is all very humbling, and it is wonderful.  Sometimes it is good to be reminded that you are no more special, no wiser, no more insightful or wonderful, than anyone else.

Of course in today’s world that is a lesson probably everyone could benefit from.  Certainly our politicians, so entrenched in their own views, so convinced of their own wisdom and that they know better than anyone else, could use a good does of humility.  Maybe they should take a cue from the Priests in the Torah, and show up early to work, change out of their suits, put on their work clothes, and spend a half hour taking out the garbage.  Lord knows there is enough of it in Washington DC.  But I am guessing the list could go on and on, and we could all think of someone we know – whether ourselves, or someone else – who could use a good dose of humility.

The question, of course, is where does that dose come from?  For me, the two best sources are my faith and my family.  My faith reminds me of how grateful I should be for every day and every blessing, of how little I should take credit for and how lucky I am.  My family reminds me of something even more important – who I truly am – which is, just a person like everyone else.

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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.

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Jacob Comes Home

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/25/17 –

Thanksgiving weekend is one of the times during the year when children, regardless of their age or whereabouts, come back to their hometown.  Our children are now living in New York – Tali and Merav in Manhattan, Josh in Poughkeepsie – but they all managed to find their way back to Baltimore for some home cooking and R&R.  Sarah King, the Cantor and Shazi’s daughter, is also a New York resident, but here she is on Thanksgiving weekend reading Torah at Beth El and spending some quality time with her family.  And the list could go on an on – one of the very reasons why we had four baby naming (as far as I know, a record at Beth El!) is because young people are back in town this weekend.  To one and all, welcome home!

The idea of a young person moving away is still a bit tricky in Baltimore.  Elsewhere it is common, in fact even expected, that young people after college will make their lives in some new place.  But here in Baltimore the expectation still exists that if you do go further than College Park for college, you’ll come back soon after and settle in Baltimore.  But the truth is that is happening less and less.  New York and Washington DC are towns that are filled with young people who grew up in Pikesville.  Boston is another place where Baltimoreans are making their new homes.  And these young people are not coming back to Baltimore – they are settling in their new cities, marrying, having children, crafting their careers.  And their parents – who want to see their children, and eventually their grandchildren – are schlepping to New York once or twice a month, or to Boston regularly, or two the DC area sometimes on a weekly basis.  What we do for our children!

I know this is painful for the family that remains here in Baltimore.  I will always remember the day when a member of the shul made an appointment with me, came to my office, sat down in front of my desk, and immediately began to weep.  AS I tried to console her I asked her what in the world could be the matter, fearing the worst.  When she managed to get control of herself she said ‘my son is moving away, moving out of Baltimore.’  I asked the only natural question – ‘to where?’  And her answer:  ‘Washington DC!’  So I understand, again, particularly here, how difficult this can be for some people.  But I want to argue this morning that it is actually a good thing for our young people to move away, at least for a time.  And I also want to think about a different understand of what it means to come home.

You may be familiar with the Amish tradition of the ‘rumspringa.’  Anyone know what that is?  It comes from a German word which means to ‘jump about’ and is a life cycle passage that Amish young adults go through – usually 16 – 24 year olds.  And the idea is that Amish children grow up in a very tight knit community, that they are only familiar with a small geographic area – the few miles around where they grew up, and that they know very little about the rest of the world.  So the rumspringa is a time in their lives when they are encouraged to be more independent, to see more of the world, to get a bit outside of their comfort zone, and to spend less time with their immediate family.  The hope is, of course, that when the rumspringa ends, they will come back to their community, to their family, and settle down into traditional Amish life.

On the surface it probably sounds like an odd ritual to us, but the truth is it isn’t all that different from what we do with our own children.  One could certainly say that the college experience is a kind of rumspringa.  Our children go away in their late teens, usually around the time they are 18.  For the first time in their lives they live largely independently, with full responsibility for making their own decisions and choices, about everything – from what to eat for dinner to when to study, and even if they’ll study at all.  They are expanding their horizons, meeting new people, and hopefully seeing the world for the first time without that world being filtered through us, their parents.  That is a necessary process for them to become fully independent, to realize all of the places where we steered them wrong – but also to realize, hopefully, all of the things we actually were right about all these years.

I would argue that perhaps the first rumspringa of all time occurs in this morning’s Torah portion.  Jacob is like an Amish youth or  Pikesville teen – he has very little experience with anything outside of his own small world.  At the beginning of this morning’s reading he is for the first time leaving his parents’ home, and he will spend the next 20 years of his life learning about the outside world.  He lives with his Uncle Laban, he marries – twice actually.  He becomes a father and learns a trade. He grows wealthy.  And then, after all is said and done, Jacob decides to return home.  The very last scene in this morning’s portion depicts that moment – as he crosses the border back into the land of Israel, the text tells us that angels of God met him, and at that very moment he reentered the land of his birth.

There is a traditional explanation for the appearance of those angels, which is that each person, when they enter the land of Israel, is matched with a sort of Israeli guardian angel, who will accompany that person during their time in the Holy Land.  In this sense the angels in the text are connected to a physical place, to the land of Israel itself.  My problem with this has always been that angels are not understood, even in the Torah, as being physical creatures.  They are instead spiritual beings, not bound to a place or a person.  But in my mind they are still symbolically connected to the idea of home, and I believe their appearance in the text is a sign that Jacob truly has returned to the place of his birth.

And for that to work, we have to think about home in a different way.  We have to understand the idea of home not as a physical place – home is not the land of Israel, it is not an Amish enclave, home is not even Pikesville in any physical sense.   Instead, home is a place of character, home is a place of values.  Our children return home to us in a spiritual sense when they decide to live their lives in a way that makes us proud.  When Judaism is an important part of who they are, they have come home.  When they make good choices, when they do something in their lives to make the world a better place, they have come home.  When they value family, when they are kind and caring, when their morals are strong, in all of these ways, they return to the place they were raised, they come home.  Not in any kind of physical sense, but in the spiritual sense of knowing where they’ve come from, of knowing who they are, and of knowing where they want to go and who they want to be.  And we have to remember that that can happen here, or in New York, or Washington, or Boston, or anyplace.

That would be my hope and prayer for the babies we’ve named this morning – for Harper and Brynn and Phoebe and Reese .  It may be hard for their parents to believe, but it won’t be so long before their little children are on their on rumspringas, whatever that will be.  But wherever they go, however far away, wherever they live, whatever they do, may they come home again and again, even as they learn and grow, and spread their wings, and fly.

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Idols Old and New

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/4/17

Three months from now, on Saturday February 3rd, I hope you’ll all be back for services.  That morning we’ll read from the Torah Parshat Yitro, which contains probably the best known text in the entire Bible, the Ten Commandments.  You may know that the 10 commandments are symbolically represented here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary – where?  Right!  On top of the ark just behind me, with the carving of the two tablets, and you’ll notice, even if you can’t read Hebrew, that there are 5 lines on each tablet, and each line has two words – those are the first two words of each of the 10 commandments.  Lets go through them quickly – they are –

There is a wonderful George Carlin bit about the 10 commandments, one of my favorite comedy bits, and in 3 or 4 minutes he deconstructs the 10 commandments to show that at the end of the day they are really only one commandment, or maybe one and a half at best.  I would like to play that game just a bit this morning, and to argue that of the 10, the two most important are the first two commandments. Number one, which is understood as ‘believe in God!’  And the second – which is understood fundamentally as ‘don’t worship idols.’  Those two commandments are at the core of Jewish life, they are overarching principles, while the rest of the 10 attend to details.  And I would also argue that the first two commandments – believing in God and not worshipping idols – define Abraham’s life as the first Jew.

The believing in God part is easy to see, both in last week’s Torah portion and this week’s.  When God suddenly appears to Abraham last week, asking him to leave his native land, to give up everything that is familiar to him, Abraham does not say a single word.  Instead, with a straight forward sense of faith, with an iron cast belief that the God speaking to him is authentic, he simply packs his bags and he leaves.  And in the portion we read this morning Abraham shows a similar strength of faith and belief when God comes to him and tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Again, Abraham says not a single word.  God’s message comes to Abraham, and the text simply says וישכם אברהם בבוקר – Abraham rose up early in the morning and went about the business of fulfilling God’s command.  Now I don’t know about you, but my faith is not strong enough to listen to a command like that, even if it did come from God.  But Abraham’s faith is so strong that he never for a moment doubts that God will do what is right in the end.

But if Abraham’s belief in God is one of the defining qualities of his life, his rejection of idols seems to be almost, if not as, important.  Perhaps the most famous midrashic text of all time is about Abraham and the rejection of idols.  It is so well known many people believe it to be in the Torah itself.  It tells the story of a young Abraham, working in his father’s idol shop back in Ur.  And one day while his father is away, Abraham smashes all the idols with a hammer.  When his father returns, he yells at his son – what did you do?  Abraham’s answer to his father is tongue in cheek – “I didn’t do anything, the idols were fighting and they smashed each other!”  “That is not possible,” his father replied, “they are made of clay, they can’t move, they don’t think!”  And Abraham had his opening – “Well then, father,” he said, “why do you worship them?”

And that rejection of idols, that rejection of anything or any culture that is not monotheistic, becomes a second defining quality of Abraham’s life.  Abraham is called in the Torah העברי, which we commonly translate as ‘the Hebrew.’  But the root means ‘over there,’ or ‘the other side,’ so Abraham is the one who stands apart.  That is one of the ways I read the Binding of Isaac story.  When everyone else was sacrificing their children to their gods, Abraham stood apart, ultimately refusing to sacrifice his son to God.  When everyone else buried their family members in a common burial area, Abraham stood apart, purchasing a distinct plot of land for his family.  And as a boy, when he was growing up in a culture where everyone else worshiped idols, he stood apart, rejecting the idea of idol worship, and embracing the idea of a universal creator of all.

Over time the prohibition of idol worship became one of Judaism’s most important commandments and values.  There is an entire Talmudic tractate, Avodah Zarah, devoted to the dangers of idol worship.  Over and over again the great biblical prophets of our tradition warn against the worship of idols.  And of the 613 commandments, there are only three that a Jew must never violate, even to pain of death – and idol worship is one of them.  That intense, almost visceral, rejection of idolatry all began with Abraham, and it has continued to this very day in the lives of individual Jews and in Jewish communities through the ages.

Of course many things can be idols.  I would guess just about everyone in this room knows that Apple released a new state of the art iPhone yesterday.  And isn’t there something just a little bit idol worshippy about how people line up from 6 in the morning to get their hands on that object, about how they walk out of the stores with reverent expressions on their faces?  Here is David Brooks writing about modern idols in a column that appeared in this week’s NY Times:  “idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work. The first sip of that martini tastes great. At first a new smartphone seems to give you power and control. The status you get from a new burst of success seems really sensational. But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you.”

Being honest, we all probably have our personal idols, objects or ideas that we worship to one degree or another in unhealthy ways.  It could be almost anything.  Food or alcohol or drugs.  Wealth and status and money.  Dare I suggest, the Ravens?  But there are times when communities also begin to worship idols.  In the Jewish tradition we have our very own example of that, in Exodus 32 and the story of the Golden Calf.

What are today’s communal idols?  One would be a culture that tells us success is defined by material possessions.  Another today would be political orthodoxy – worshipping at the feet of the political ideology of your chosen party, whether the right or the left.  Self interest might be a third – the growing trend to prioritize the needs of the individual over the needs of the community.  All of these things on the surface seem to offer you more control, but in the end, as Brooks pointed out, they end up controlling you.

So you see Abraham was a hero not only for his own time, he also is a hero for our time.  As we read about him in the Torah we are reminded of how important it is to identify the idols in our lives, whether communal or individual.  But we are also reminded that identifying these idols is not sufficient – they must also be confronted, and eventually destroyed.  It is when Abraham destroys the idols that surrounded him that he is finally free to begin his journey and live the rest of his life.  So it is for all of us as well – may we do that work in community, fellowship, and faith, with God’s help –

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Imagination

a text version of my sermon from Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot –

As the Nobel prizes have been awarded in the last week the winners have been making their media rounds, patiently engaging in interviews and answering questions about their work and what got them to where they are.  On the radio a few days ago I heard Rainer Weiss, one of the physics prize winners, talking about his work.  In the course of his interview he referred over and over again to Albert Einstein, saying that his life’s work had in large part been based on principles that Einstein had theorized about more than 100 years ago.  The problem for Einstein was that the technical ability to verify many of his own theories didn’t exist back then.  But today, that technology is in place, and Rainer Weiss’s Nobel prize in physics was awarded because he had finally been able to scientifically prove some of Einstein’s ideas.

It is an astonishing thing to think about.  Even with no way to test many of his theories, without any ability to do trial and error experimentation in a lab, the work that Einstein did more than a century ago has been proven right time and time again, and what is more, to this day remains the fundamental bedrock of modern physics.  Einstein himself often spoke about thought experiments.  He would, for example – in his mind! –  put an imaginary person on an imaginary train, and then imagine that the train was moving at the speed of light.  And then he asked himself questions.  If it was possible to actually make this happen, how would the person on the train experience time and space?  How would someone watching the person on the train experience the same things?  And as Einstein answered these questions, his theories came together.

These thought experiments were so important to Einstein that some believe it was his ability to imagine these things, and not his ability to do complicated math, that made him the greatest physicist of all time.  His original paper on the theory of relativity, written in 1905, is mostly prose with a few relatively simple algebraic equations sprinkled in.  It wasn’t a math brain that set Einstein apart and that made him a genius – it was his ability to imagine things, to look at something that anyone could see, but to understand it and think about it in a totally different way.

It is a little bit like the way another genius, Michelangelo, approached his work.  Art historians have long struggled to understand how Michelangelo created his great sculptures.  To this day the particular techniques he used remain largely unknown.  But the best possible explanation for his greatness may come from the way he was able to use his imagination.  Speaking about one of his statues, he once said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  You and I might look at the same block of marble and see it simply as a solid piece of stone.  But Michelangelo’s imagination was such that in his mind there was a figure locked inside that block – and all he had to do was take the stone away to reveal that figure.  In the same way Einstein could look out at the universe, and in his imagination he saw the physics in it that holds it all together and makes it work.

Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish household, with very little exposure to traditional Jewish life, and in fact he went to a Catholic school for his elementary education.  But I’ve always wondered if his Jewish roots helped to free his mind and imagination, giving him the ability to see things differently than other people.  Judaism would not exist without the ability of Jews and the Jewish people to look at the world at to imagine it in a different way – to use Michelangelo’s phrase, to ‘see the angel and to set it free.’

This is what Abraham was able to do, and Moses as well.  Abraham looked out on a world of idol worshippers, where the people around him offered their children as sacrifices to the gods.  But in his mind he imagined a different world, a world with a loving and forgiving God, a world where human sacrifice was forbidden, and a world where God was unique – where there was only one God.  And because Abraham could imagine this world, could see it in his mind’s eye, he worked his entire life to make that world a reality.

It was the same for Moses.  Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace, where Pharaoh was ‘god,’ in a culture where royalty was everything and slavery was part and parcel of every day life.  But Moses could imagine a different world, a world where values like freedom and human dignity were lived and embraced, a world where slaves deserved to be free.  And because Moses could see that world in his imagination when no one else was able to see it, he walked into Pharaoh’s throne room and demanded freedom for his people.

And that same sense of imagination is at the heart of the modern state of Israel.  Herzl’s famous phrase was אם תרצו אין זו אגדה – if you imagine it, it will come into being.  And he saw in his mind a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel, when almost no one else at the time could imagine that possibility.  The first settlers who came to the land looked out at a desert wilderness, a barren land, where nothing grew.  But what they imagined was ארץ זבת חלב ודבש – a land filled with milk and honey.  And in their mind’s eye they saw green fields, and orange groves, and vineyards.  And if you go to Israel today, you’ll see with your own eyes how that vision becomes Israel’s reality.

Even our celebration of the festivals is grounded in our ability to imagine a different world.  On Passover we sit at the seder table and imagine that we are slaves.  On Shavuot we stay up all night studying Torah, and in that exercise we imagine that we are at the foot of Mt Sinai, waiting for God’s revelation.  And on Sukkot, we build booths in our yards, eat and sometimes even sleep in them, and we imagine that we are wandering in the wilderness and searching for the Promised Land.

In each case the tradition asks us to look out at the world and to see what is – to acknowledge that fully and honestly –  but at the very same time to imagine what could and should be.  And then to imagine what role we will play in making that vision become a new reality for all.  As Einstein himself said:  “Logic will get you from A to Z, but imagination will get your everywhere.”

Shabbat Shalom, Hag Sameach

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The Blacklist – Yom Kippur 5778

My phone started dinging with unusual frequency early in the morning of July 9th.  Each text or email came with a strange question:  ‘Is it you?’  After the 3rd or 4th text message and 5th or 6th email I decided I had better figure out what exactly was going on.  With one quick google search I discovered that Israel’s chief rabbinate had released a blacklist of rabbis – 160 names of rabbis not to be trusted.  And as my eyes scanned down that list, about half way through it, I saw my own name  – Rabbi Steven Schwartz.

Most of the rabbis whose names appeared on the list are from the US.  Many are Conservative rabbis, although there are Orthodox rabbis and Reform rabbis listed as well.  We received no notification, no communication from the Chief Rabbinate, and no explanation.  But best guess, after speaking with some of my colleagues, is that you made that list if you had people who had studied with you for conversion, and then after they became Jewish they made aliyah, they moved to Israel.  And if you wrote supporting documents for their aliyah process, you made the blacklist.

Now please don’t feel bad for me, if you were inclined to do so.  My feelings were not hurt, my ego, such as it is, not bruised.  The timing was ironic, because when the list was released I had just returned from Israel, where for 10 days I had done my best to give a group of Beth El travelers a sense of pride in and love for the Jewish homeland.  But even while we were there there were storms brewing and controversies swirling, all revolving around the question of how Israel, in a religious sense, Israel as a Jewish state, relates to the Jewish community outside of Israel, those of us who live in the Diaspora.

If you follow Jewish news you probably came across these issues during the summer.  There have been two primary points of contention.  The first has to do with access to Judaism’s most sacred site, the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  If you’ve ever been to the Kotel you know it is run like an Orthodox synagogue – there is a men’s section of the Wall, and a women’s section.  The sections are divided by a mechitza.  It is clear that if you are a Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist Jew that your brand of Judaism is not looked upon kindly there.  And some of you who have traveled with me and Dr. Bor to Israel may remember how uncomfortable we felt when trying to have a Beth El service, not even at the wall, but in the general vicinity, usually at the back of the plaza.

Almost two years ago a compromise was negotiated with the Netanyahu administration that was supposed to resolve this tension.  The plan was to give Reform and Conservative Jews access to the wall’s southern section, where they would be able to have egalitarian services, with women and men participating fully and praying together.  But the government never implemented the agreement, giving one excuse after another, finally announcing this summer that the agreement would be indefinitely shelved.  And the message to the Diaspora community really was if you are a Conservative or Reform Jew your Judaism is not authentic, and you do not have the same Jewish rights in Israel, the Jewish homeland, as Orthodox Jews.  Controversy #1.

Controversy number 2, which connects to my being black listed, revolves around the status of Jews by Choice, who have converted in the Diaspora.  Since the establishment of the state 70 years ago in 1948, conversion status worked as follows – if someone converted under non-Orthodox auspices, they were considered to be Jewish by the state of Israel and they were allowed to make aliyah as a Jew under the Law of Return.  But just over the last number of months there has been legislation introduced in the Knesset that would make only Orthodox conversions approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to be considered valid.  It is another message sent – from the Israeli government – that non Orthodox Judaism, in their eyes, is not authentic.

This past summer the Conservative and Reform communities finally felt like they had had enough.  You may or may not know but you should that our President Denise Franz and I signed on to a letter a few weeks ago that was sent from the Conservative Movement to PM Netanyahu.  It was signed by 600 Conservative rabbis and the presidents of almost 400 conservative synagogues around the country.  In the strongest possible terms the letter expressed the deep disappointment we feel communally with the Netanyahu administration’s positions on these issues. (the text of the letter is easy to find online if you want to read it)

To this point there has been no movement from the Netanyahu administration, and no response that I know of to the letter or the points it raises.  And that lack of response, particularly at this time of year, when Judaism urges us to reach out to God and to each other, to admit oversights and promise to do better, is both hurtful and telling.  It is a rejection of our Judaism, and our Jewish way of life.

I don’t have to tell you that we are living in a world today that feels both dark and dangerous.  With violence, and terrorism, and mass migration, and a threat of nuclear war that we have not felt since I was in elementary school;  with challenges of modernization, and the feeling that technology is taking over our lives, and the recent natural disasters, and the growing threat of climate change – the list could go on and on and on.  To say the least, these are unsettled and troubled times.

And that is the general world!  Think for a moment about the Jewish world.  We have plenty of our own tzuras!  In Israel the unresolved situation with the Palestinians and the continuing occupation divides the country internally between left and right.  The left recognizes that the occupation cannot continue because A) it is morally compromising and B) it alienates the rest of the world. But the left has a problem because it doesn’t know if a full withdrawal from the West Bank will finally result in peace or if it will locate Hamas rockets 10 miles from Ben Gurion airport.  The right in Israel also has its problems.  It believes that the Israeli claim to Judea and Samaria is God given, even Messianic, and withdrawal is impossible. Yet it understands that something has to be done about the Palestinians, and also that making a single state will not preserve Israel’s Jewish identity in the long term.  That is internally.  And externally, Israel lives in one of the most challenging, unstable, and dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and has to share its backyard with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.  Israel can never seem to catch a break, and never seems to have an easy year.

But we Jews who live in the Diaspora haven’t had it much better this year.  I imagine many of us are still deeply disturbed by the events that took place in Charlottesville this summer, when Nazis and white supremacists marched in the streets of an American city chanting Nazi slogans and waving flags with swastikas.  Our brothers and sisters in Europe have their own concerns, with the left in England revisiting classic anti-Semitic tropes, and the right in Germany electing neo-Nazis to sit in the German parliament.  %13 in last week’s elections!

And in this kind of world, in this kind of year, do Jews have to spend their time telling other Jews they don’t practice Judaism the right way, that they aren’t authentically Jewish, they aren’t observant enough?  Does the Chief Rabbinate have to release blacklists of rabbis?  Does the government of Israel have to renege on its agreements with the liberal Jewish community, does it have to alienate Jews at a time when if anything Jews should becoming together?  I understand that we all have a tendency to pass judgement on others. That is one of the reasons why YK exits!  And in the Jewish community we seem to have a particular talent for judging others.  But don’t we Jews have other things to worry about, aside from judging each other?

The message of Yom Kippur is to look inwards, and to judge oneself, and to leave the judging of others to God.  In ancient times, when the High Priest went into the inner precincts of the Temple, to pray for a good year, he prayed for all Jews.  He didn’t say, ‘I am going to pray for the Jews of Beth El, and not Chizuk Amuno.’   And if we wake up in the morning, and somehow the Temple has miraculously been rebuilt over night, and a High Priest found, his prayer in that Temple would also be for ALL Jews – in Israel, and in the Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist.

In its introduction to the Avoda service, our mahzor quotes the teaching of a Hasidic master.  “Wherever a person stands to lift up eyes to heaven, that place is a Holy of Holies. Every human being created by God in God’s own image is a High Priest. Each day of a person’s life is the Day of Atonement. Each one of us can face God with the language of the heart. Each one of us can be forgiven. Each one of us can achieve atonement and be made pure in the eyes of God.”

That is a message that I hope and pray the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Netanyahu administration will take to heart.  But the truth is it is a message all of us need to hear and take to heart, in Israel and in the Diaspora.  It affirms every person and every place as part of God’s creation. That each of us despite our diversity, in age, in location, in language, in observance, in worldly goods can find God’s love and support as we journey through life.

We all pray in the same words on the HHDs, the pious and those less so. בספר חיים…וכל עמך בית ישראל. May we and the entire House of Israel be called to mind and inscribed for life, blessing, sustenance, and peace in the Book of Life.

May that be God’s wish, and the wish of all Jewish people, one for another, in this new year –

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