Tag Archives: Conservative Movement

Setting Aside Shabbat

There has been a bit of a brouhaha in Conservative Movement circles about the United Synagogue’s decision to allow their teens, in the context of a United Synagogue Youth program, to ride public transportation on Shabbat in order to participate in the march for sensible gun control on March 24th, in Washington DC.  This is a departure for USY, an organization that has done wonderful work with young people in the Movement, but has been for the most part rigidly and strictly devoted to a narrow interpretation of how Shabbat should be observed.

A couple of thoughts –

First, (and maybe foremost) doesn’t a loosening of Shabbat restrictions make sense given the observance level of the vast majority of people affiliated with the Conservative Movement?  Do we imagine that most of the young people who participate in our USY programs are Shabbat observant?  Do we think they don’t drive on Shabbat, use their computers and mobile phones, even go to the mall for that matter?  This is not to say we should throw the baby out with the bath water, but rather to suggest that we realistically look at who our teens are, and for that matter, who our adult congregants are as well.  It may be time to acknowledge that a narrow and strict definition of and adherence to Shabbat observance has become a thing of the past for the vast majority of Conservative Jews.

And secondly, if we want to stay in the realm of halacha (Jewish law) for a moment, lets think about the question of when it is appropriate, and even required, to set aside Shabbat observance for some other value.  In ancient times this was done so that on the Sabbath day the Temple’s sacrifices could still be offered.  In modern times this idea exists in a number of different areas, most prominently vis a vis the principle of preserving life, where virtually all halachic authorities agree that a physician may set aside Shabbat observance in order to attend to patients.  Brit milah (ritual circumcision) is another example.  If the 8th day fall on Shabbat, the bris is supposed to take place regardless.

Along these lines, doesn’t it then make sense to teach our teenagers a lesson.  Shabbat is important, one of the defining institutions of Judaism.  But there are times when other ideals, other values, other commitments, should take precedence.  Our teens this weekend will experience a meaningful sense of Shabbat, with Friday night dinners and services, Saturday morning study sessions, and sleeping in local synagogues.  But then on Saturday they’ll take their prepaid Metro cards, climb onto the DC subway, and join thousands of other teens in an effort to make a better, safer, holier world.

Some might in fact argue that there is no better way to spend our most sacred day.

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Kehilah

Kehilah is a term the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue began using a couple of years ago to describe congregations.  The sense of the word is ‘sacred community,’ going back to the Torah’s use of the word as meaning a ‘gathering-together’ for religious celebration.  But the idea of a sacred community is more than that.  Sacred communities  support their members, sometimes during difficult times, sometimes during moments of joy.  In sacred communities people show up for one another.  Being part of a sacred community means that your phone might ring if you haven’t been in shul.  It means that you feel safe in a class environment to ask questions or make comments.  It means that you feel respected, valued, and cared for.  It means that you have a home away from home, and it also means that you feel part of something that is greater than you.

Over the last months I have been privileged to witness the ideal of kehilah at work over and over again.  I’ve also discovered that when I see sacred community in action I feel enormously proud of the congregation I serve.  During those moments Judaism becomes a living entity, a binding force between people with a common goal and vision – to bring God’s presence into their lives, their synagogue, and their world.  Let me give you just a few examples.

A beloved member of our Shabbat morning minyan lost his wife and life partner at a young age.  They lived some distance away, a drive of 30 minutes or so, much of it over back roads.  It was important to the family to complete a traditional seven days of shiva, but they knew it would be difficult to make the minyan because of where they lived.  But members of the kehilah – the congregation, the sacred community – showed up each night, making sure that the requisite ten were there for the bereaved husband to recite kaddish for his wife.

Here is another example of kehilah at work.  I received a note from a woman who had lost her husband.  She was not initially a member of our congregation, but after her loss began coming to our morning minyan.  The note she sent expressed how touched she was at the welcome she received.  People greeted her each day, sat with her, helped her follow the service, made a spot for her at the breakfast.  Many shared with her their own experiences of loss, and talked with her about how helpful the minyan had been in terms of navigating that terribly difficult moment of their lives.  She knew each morning she had a community with which to share her burden.  She knew she would be greeted by a smile (really multiple smiles!) every day, and that people would ask how she was and if she needed anything.  She knew she was not alone in her grief, and that she could honor her husband’s memory through the structure of our tradition.

There are countless other examples.  Dozens of congregants ‘schlepping’ to Washington to honor our Associate Rabbi, who was receiving a significant national award.  The pride our Friday night regulars feel each week when the bar or bat mitzvah of that Shabbat chants the kiddush.  The work our members to do give back to the community in meaningful ways, whether through in-house blood drives or participating in food delivery for a local food band on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Congregants who help to lead shiva minyanim, or host congregational events, or come in to affix labels to prayer books.  In each case there is a sense of mitzvah, of the performance of a sacred deed, and in each case there is connection to kehilah, to sacred community, and through the kehilah to tradition, to history, to faith, and to God.

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Dueling Bibles – the Importance of Defending and Supporting the LGBT Community

This a text version of my sermon from 6/18/16.  My thanks to Bob Weir for his comments at  the conclusion of the Dead and Co show from Bonnaroo .  Folks often ask where sermons come from, and this one in large part started with those comments.

Just a few hours after the horrific events in Orlando last Sunday morning the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, a man by the name of Dan Patrick, sent out a tweet on his official Twitter account that read ‘God cannot be mocked – a man reaps what he sows.’  It is a well known quote from the Christian Bible, Galatians chapter 7 verse 6, that is generally read as a warning to people to remember that their actions have consequences.  But in this context, with the posting of the tweet right after the shooting, and with Patrick’s history of hostility towards the LGBT community, the message was seen in a different light – namely, as his way of suggesting that people who are gay deserve to be punished because of who they are, the lifestyle the live, and the people they love.

As you may imagine the reaction to the tweet was swift and fierce.  It was widely condemned, and within a short time Mr. Patrick had deleted it from his account, once again demonstrating that politicians will stay strong in their views until they realize just how unpopular those views are.  But you almost can’t blame Mr. Patrick for what he did, in fact you might have expected it.  He comes from a religious community and religious background where such views are not only common, but also commonly accepted.  People in his community will often justify the homophobic positions they take by citing scripture, knowing that there are verses in the Hebrew Bible – what they would call the Old Testament – that on the surface seem to forbid homosexual behavior.

There are two things I would like to say about that this morning.  The first is this – if those folks want to read their scripture literally, then they should stick with it all the way, and not just pick and choose certain verses.  Because it also says in the Hebrew Bible that a child who insults his parents should be stoned to death at the city gate, and I don’t see these folks tweeting about that.  It also says, by the way, that pork is a forbidden food, but the last I checked the Great State of Texas was pretty well known for its BBQ pork ribs – not that that is something a rabbi knows much about – and I don’t see anyone in the Texas legislature trying to ban pork ribs or Dan Patrick tweeting about them.

And by the way, when thinking about how we should relate to the LGBT community there are many other biblical verses we might consider.  How about the one in Genesis chapter 1 where it says that human beings are created in God’s image.  All human beings – white, black, brown, gay, straight, man, woman.  All people, regardless of their background, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, are a reflection of God’s image on this earth – and therefore deserving of equal respect and dignity.  Maybe the Lieutenant Governor forgot about that verse when he sent his tweet.  What about the verse in Leviticus 19, perhaps the best known verse in the entire Bible – Love your neighbor as yourself.  Or the first half of that same verse, less frequently cited but worth mentioning today – לא תקום ולא תטור את בני עמיך – you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellow – that might have been a better one for Lieutenant Governor to send out after what happened in Orlando.

So that is thing number one.  If you want to talk scripture we can talk scripture all day long, and what you’ll see, if you are honest and looking at the big picture, is that the Bible is far more interested in protecting the fundamental rights and dignity of a person than it is in the person’s sexual identity.

Thing number two is this – the Bible should not be read literally anyway.  It is an ancient document that expresses a deep wisdom about the world, that defines values that we use to guide our lives even today, and that for Jews certainly lays out the history of our people and our covenant with God.  But it is also a reflection of what the world was like 2500 years ago, and so it expresses certain ideas and values that today we simply know are wrong.  That is why Judaism has never read the Bible in a fundamentalist way, in other words literally.  Instead, Judaism figured out a way to keep the Bible meaningful and central to faith and worship – after all, here we are this morning, still taking the Torah out of the ark and reading from it – but while keeping it central to introduce changes into the practices the Bible lays out, so the tradition over time can come to terms with new understandings we have of our world and ourselves.

These changes don’t happen all at once.  Sometimes they take years, sometimes even decades.  But they happen.  If they didn’t we wouldn’t be gathered today in a prayer service in a sanctuary, we would instead be offering animal sacrifices, as the Torah tells us to do on the Sabbath day.  If the tradition didn’t change over time there wouldn’t be Hanukkah, or a Passover seder, or the lighting of Shabbat candles, all of which are not mentioned in the Bible.  The changes in terms of how the tradition understands gay rights have been slow, but they have happened, in the Conservative Movement mostly over the last decade.  When I was in rabbinical school if you were gay you had to be in the closet, and if it was discovered you were gay you were asked to leave the seminary.  That was 20 years ago.

But today the Conservative Movement ordains openly gay rabbis.  That became official policy of the Movement, and the first openly gay rabbi was ordained in 2011, just 5 years ago.  The Movement has created a wedding ceremony for gay couples in the last couple of years.  And in response to the Orlando shootings, the Movement released an official statement that in part reads as follows:

“This shooting rampage targeted the LGBT community in the midst of Pride month, a time where the LGBT community comes together to publicly acknowledge and celebrate their identities, their common history, and their struggle for social recognition and equality. The RA has passed multiple resolutions calling on the community to ‘work for full and equal civil rights for gays and lesbians in our national life, deplore violence against gays and lesbians, encourage inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews in our congregations, and increase our awareness of issues facing gay and lesbian Jews.’ We know that we stand with people of good will of all faiths in continuing this work.”  And the statement concluded with this sentence:  “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the members of the LGBT community, their families, their friends, and their loved ones.”

That is the kind of statement that makes me proud to be a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi.

I am about ready to wrap up my remarks this morning, and I suspect you are about ready for me to wrap up my remarks, but if you’ll permit me there is one last verse I would like to point out from the Bible, actually from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse I feel the Lieutenant Governor of Texas should be more familiar with.  This from Numbers chapter 5, verses 6 and 7  – “When a person commits any wrong toward a fellow, thus breaking faith with God, that person shall confess the wrong he has done and make restitution for it.”

If he does know that verse, then the next tweet Dan Patrick sends out might just be an apology.  But while we wait for it, we’ll move forward, supporting the LGBT community in any and every way we can.

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TRAIPAC

Yes it is true that AIPAC has a long standing habit of inviting presidential candidates to speak at its annual conference. McCain, Clinton, and Obama spoke at the conference in 2008, Romney did it in 2012 (via satellite), and the list goes on and on. So it was no surprise that yesterday (3/21/16) on the AIPAC main stage there was a parade of potential presidential power with each of the remaining candidates, (except, oddly, Bernie Sanders, the only Jew in the bunch) giving their two cents to the crowd, in various and sundry ways repeating the same mantra over and over again – America will always stand by Israel. It was business as usual at AIPAC, and even if the candidates jabbed at each other in the course of their remarks, they all stuck to the central AIPAC talking points, as expected – or is that required? Anyway, you get the picture.

What was different this time, however, was the controversy surrounding AIPAC’s invitation to Donald Trump. On the one hand, he is the leading Republican candidate – how could they not invite him? On the other hand, there are many in the Jewish community who feel that his public statements are often in direct conflict with Jewish values. A group of rabbis organized a silent protest to Trump’s AIPAC talk, getting up and walking out just as he began his remarks. The leaders of the Conservative Movement (Chancellor Arnie Eisen and Rabbis Julie Schonfeld and Steve Wernick) published an Op Ed the day before Trump’s speech, raising four objections to Trump’s character and candidacy, and wondering whether it was wise to highlight him at a conference that is in many ways about Jewish community. (you can read the text of their statement here: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/jewish-americans-wary-trump-takes-aipac-stage-article-1.2570993)

It was an interesting conundrum for the AIPAC leadership to navigate. It is true, everything is a trade off, and politics makes strange bedfellows, etc. etc. But did we really have to go there? Are we prepared to set aside core communal values for political expediency, for a potential leg up should the unimaginable happen and Trump actually ascend to the presidency? By inviting Trump AIPAC answered that question in the affirmative. I wonder if they were surprised at the references to ‘Palestine’ in his remarks? For someone who ‘studies the issues, who knows them better than just about anyone,’ that was a noticeable slip that gave the faithful in the crowd pause. I have no doubt it will be corrected and explained in the days ahead.

If you are a lover of roots music, you have probably heard of Robert Johnson, the original blues man. Johnson came from the Mississippi delta, a poor black man who somehow almost singlehandedly created a style of music that would become famous world wide. He only lived into his late 20s, and recorded a mere 30 or so songs in his entire career. But without Robert Johnson it is possible to argue that you wouldn’t have the Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton or the Allman Brothers, possibly even Bob Dylan. The question about Johnson was this: how did one man have such a huge influence? Where did his almost preternatural talent come from?

The legendary answer to that question is that Johnson one day met the Devil at dry and dusty crossroads in the deep delta. A deal was made – Johnson secured his short term talent and a long term legacy. But he lost his soul. Whether you believe the story or not, it is hard not to read it as a cautionary tale.

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When in Shul, Do as the Romans

You are more familiar with the traditional version of the quote, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans.’ That is to say, when you are somewhere with a different culture you should by and large conform to that culture. At the very least be sensitive to the fact that a culture that might seem strange to you can have deep meaning and familiarity to others. Be respectful, don’t look down on it, and sometimes just go with it. It is, minimally, the polite thing to do.

One of the challenging things about shul life today is that many Jews feel like foreigners in their own sanctuaries. They are so unfamiliar with the service, so uncomfortable with the rituals, and so detached from a sense of meaning and connection to the tradition, that the experience of shul is alien to them, foreign, something they watch from afar but do not engage in.

Of course the synagogue has some responsibility for this. This is at least in part our failure. We have not successfully communicated the knowledge and skills that people need to participate in our services. I know this, I feel bad about it, I sympathize, and yes, we have our work cut out for us. We will keep trying!

But we need partners. We need people who want to learn, who feel that their lack of connection is important, is something they would like to change. I’ve noticed recently how fewer and fewer people even bother to pick up a siddur during services. They come and sit, they watch the proceedings, they seem to pay some attention when sermons are delivered. But I just don’t understand why you would sit in a two hour service and not want to pick up the prayer book. We call the pages. We do a fair amount in English. There are responsive readings you can participate in, even if you can’t read Hebrew.

Think for a moment of the message you give to your children if you sit there with them and don’t open the prayer book. You don’t have to say anything to them – they’ll know. Mom thinks this is boring! This must not be important, dad isn’t following what is going on. And then the obvious question – why should I?

And I know many people can’t read the Hebrew. And I also know that many people are not comfortable with prayer (both of those issues, by the way, we can work on!). But out of common courtesy, please pick up the prayer book. Follow the service. You don’t have to believe it! You don’t even have to believe in God! Besides, you might be surprised, and something in those pages might be interesting, moving, meaningful, dare I say it, even spiritual. But just by picking up the book you are showing you are part of the community. You are saying ‘even if I don’t understand this, I respect it.’ And you are showing your children that this is something to participate in, something to be taken seriously, something that might one day have meaning for them, even if it doesn’t for you.

So when in shul, please don’t do as the Romans. Do as the Jews.

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Walls and Mosques

On the surface this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is a disparate collection of laws, covering everything from what to do when a man steals another man’s ox to the proper lending of money to the spreading of gossip in a community. Scholars have long debated about what the central organizing principle of the portion might be, and various theories have been suggested over the years. I’ve always believed at the heart of the portion is a fundamental concern about an idea that we probably think of as modern, but an idea that the Torah was very interested in almost 3000 years ago, namely the meaning and application of a system of civil rights.

In the United States ‘civil rights’ is a loaded term, with a historical context and a modern application. Hearing the phrase many of us probably think back to the civil rights struggle of the African-American community in the 60s, a struggle that many would say is still going on today. In a contemporary and legal sense, civil rights is a broad category that includes freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to vote among other things. Today we might say it like this: a person’s civil rights should guarantee that that person will not be discriminated against because of their race, gender, religion, age, physical limitation, national origin, and sexual orientation.

But three thousand years ago the Torah also had a sense of civil rights, probably for the first time in human history understanding the idea of individual rights in a way that would lead us to where we are today, to how we think about it today. First of all the Torah proposes that all human beings are created in the image of God. Jews and non-Jews, men and women, people of all nations. And what follows logically from that premise is that all human beings are deserving of being treated with equal dignity, that all human beings deserve to have the same rights. And in this week’s portion the Torah tries to apply that idea. It talks about orphans and widows, the stranger, the poor, criminals, and slaves. And in each case the Torah makes sure to tell us that although we might think this person wouldn’t enjoy the protection of the law, that in fact, they do – they have rights. Even a criminal. Even a non-Israelite. Even an orphan. Even a slave.

And it is sad, on one level, but also important to say, that we still need reminding of that message in modern times. We know that there are still slaves in the world, that the poor still struggle to protect themselves and to find dignity, we know that race and religion and sexual orientation and gender are all too often sources of discrimination and hostility and misunderstanding, even still today. We know it! These issues were a problem three thousand years ago for the Israelites, and they are still a problem for us today. And sometimes we begin to wonder – how long does it take to begin to get it right?

This week we saw two examples of getting it right on civil rights. One happened in the Jewish homeland, the state of Israel, and the other right here in our own backyard. Last night Rabbi Saroken spoke about the long ongoing struggle of the group called ‘the Women at the Wall.’ For years they have been working to create a space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where woman can be treated as equals in terms of prayer and ritual. And if you heard Rabbi Saroken last night you certainly know that there have been ugly incidents over the years, to include verbal and even physical assaults on the women. But with strength and courage they have persistently and publicly insisted, time and again, that as women they deserve equal access to Judaism’s most sacred place, and equal access to Judaism’s most sacred rituals. And this week it was announced that the government of Israel has finally listened to their pleas. A section of the wall at the southern excavations will be expanded and opened up where women will be able to pray and read Torah, to put on tefillin and tallit if this is their custom, to sing in full voice in praise of God, and also where Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews will be able to hold services where men and women sit together, where the rituals of that group can be enacted without fear of recrimination. So that is example number one of getting it right.

I said example number two was in our own back yard, and I meant that literally. I am referring to President Obama’s visit to the mosque in Catonsville this past Wednesday. Let me for a moment set some context for you regarding the President’s visit. You may recall that in 1790, President George Washington sent a letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport RI, thanking them for their kind wishes after his visit to their city. That letter contains one of the best known phrases in the history of this country, and perhaps the most famous expression of religious freedom and the role government has to play in maintaining it in of all time. Here is what Washington wrote:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. That phrase still rings true today, some 226 years after Washington wrote it. As Americans, and I think also as Jews, we immediately identity with what it means, and we understand intuitively that it is one of the primary values that has made this country great. But I will let you all in on a little secret today. George Washington did not create that phrase. It was a quote – he was quoting from a letter he had received just a few weeks earlier. And that letter was written by a Jew, Moses Seixas – the spiritual leader of that Rhode Island congregation.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that that phrase came originally from the mind of a Jew. On the one hand a Jew knows as well as anyone how precious the gift of religious freedom is, having lived for so many years without it. And on the other hand – a Jew’s spiritual and philosophical roots can be traced back to the Torah itself, and the Torah is the greatest expression of human freedom, dignity, and liberty found in the ancient world.

I think visiting a mosque was President Obama’s way of sending a letter like the one George Washington sent so long ago. The visit was an affirmation of the ideal expressed in that famous phrase – to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance – and it was a reminder to all of us that that value must remain one of America’s most important as we move forward into the future.

may we live that value in our lives, encourage it in our communities, and be thankful for this great nation where it resides

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Sharing Truth

There will be anger and outrage from certain segments of the community about the Israeli government’s decision to create a pluralistic area of the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. Israel’s government should not stand for only one stream of Judaism, and it should not enforce a single religious ideology. Israel is the “Jewish state,” and if so, all of Judaism’s expressions should feel welcome and respected. I look forward to being in that pluralistic area some day soon and experiencing the kind of Judaism I live every day, where women participate fully, where all types of Jews are welcome and all viewpoints respected. Can you imagine minyanim at the Kotel with men and women participating together and equally? With women reading from the Torah and leading the prayers without being heckled or attacked? With Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist groups visiting from the States and being able to enjoy their style of service without constantly looking over their shoulders? Can you imagine that? Soon you won’t have to, it will simply be reality.

In the meantime, when bitter arguments arise, let us remember that at the end of the day no one holds the sure truth in their hands. No one knows with absolute surety what God wants, how God wants us to act, who God prefers. It is all just a best guess, and often even less. And in guessing we should be humble, we should remember we might be wrong. Are there great issues at stake? Perhaps. But we should remember that even if that is the case the tradition is clear that God wants us to resolve these issues together. Didn’t Rabbi Joshua walk to Rabban Gamaliel’s home on the day he, Joshua, thought was Yom Kippur? (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, 2:8-9)

Yes it is easier to claim the truth and stand by that claim. To believe that what you do is what God wants, to think that with every action properly taken you are in some way fulfilling God’s will. But I choose to live in a more difficult space, where doubt often trumps surety. Where someone else might be right when I am wrong. Or perhaps better expressed, where someone else might be right while I am also right. The challenge is simply this: to look across the way and say: your truth is real, and valid, even if it is not mine. And then to maintain hope that one day another will look back and say the same to me.

You might ask, what kind of place is it where there are multiple truths, where two ideas that are different can be equally true and valid and meaningful expressions of God’s will? And I would say in response – that is God’s place.

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