Tag Archives: Shabbat

Loyalties of American Jews and Jewish Americans

Following is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/24/19 –

Just a few years ago I was vacationing at Bethany Beach with my family when I received a FB message from a young man, also vacationing at the beach.  He was with his extended family, and at conversation over dinner one night the topic turned to the difference between being a Jewish American, or an American Jew.  In other words, when push comes to shove, do you consider yourself first and foremost to be an American, and your Jewish identity is secondary, or is your Jewish identity the primary one?

    Of course the question was not a new one. For the better part of 1500 years it was clear that Jews were aliens in the country in which they lived. But when the Enlightenment began in the late 1600s, the thinking of that time began to embrace ideas about the humanity and equality of all people, regardless of race or religion.  And European nation states began to develop a sense of national identity so that everyone living within their distinct borders might be considered a citizen. In time, Frenchmen began to feel French, and Germans began to identify ethnically as Germans, or English people as English.  But Jews were different! At that point, if you were Jewish and living in one of those countries, you weren’t yet German or French or English, you were Jewish – you were of a different nationality. And for much of the next centuries the question was asked of Jews, “Are you able to join us in our national identity, to be a Frenchman or an Englishman or a German or a member of any nation state, or will you always be an alien, who cannot be integrated into modern society?”

      The problem was that the Jews, while they became more and more integrated into the societies and cultures they were living in, still maintained a distinct identity.  Most of the time they still lived in neighborhoods that were exclusively Jewish.  They kept their own religious practices – they wouldn’t eat gentile food, or drink gentile wine, or marry into the non-Jewish community.  They kept a different day as their Sabbath.  And so the Frenchmen or the Germans, the majority population in whatever country the Jews were living in, began to wonder whether the Jews could ever embrace national citizenship, or whether they were taking advantage or their new rights without taking on the obligations and loyalties accompanying those rights.  And suspecting that Jews were secretly, in their hearts and minds, first and foremost Jews.  

     That is why you have Napoleon, in 1807, summoning a group of Jewish leaders and and asked them to essentially fill out a questionnaire, the purpose of which was to determine whether the Jews of France were Jewish Frenchmen – in other words, they were first and foremost Jews, who happened to live in France.  Or whether they were French Jews – that is to say people who prioritized France as their nation, French culture as their culture, French as their spoken language, and they just happened to be Jewish.  (when they went to church, it happened to be a shul on Saturday)

     The 6th of the 12 questions that Napoleon posed to the Jews of his time begins in the following way:

Do Jews born in France, and treated by the laws as France citizens, consider France their country?

What Napoleon is really doing is asking the Jews a question of loyalty.  To which nation are you loyal?  To which culture?  To which ethnic identity?  Do your consider yourselves, at the end of the day, to be Jews, or to be Frenchmen?  And if you consider yourselves to be Jews first, then you are disloyal, and cannot be loyal Frenchmen.

     I’ve always felt there was a fundamental logical flaw in Napoleon’s question, and also in the question posed by the young congregant at Bethany Beach of whether one is a Jewish American or an American Jew.  Because the presumption of the question is that you can’t be both.  You can’t be both a loyal Frenchmen and a loyal Jew, or a loyal American and a loyal Jew.  You have to choose one or the other.  And the one you choose, you are loyal to, the one you don’t choose you are disloyal to.  

     But human beings, at least it seems to me, are structured in such a way that we can maintain multiple loyalties in our hearts and minds at the same time.  In a very mundane example, we might be die hard Orioles fans during baseball season, and Ravens fans during football season.  We can love and be loyal to multiple friends at the same time.  Or multiple children at the same time, for that matter.  When you are supporting, loving, caring for, helping one child, it doesn’t mean you are disloyal to your other children. 

     If anyone should know this, it is the Jews.  We are the masters of holding multiple ideas in our minds, we are invested in the idea of arguing an issue from one side, and then arguing it from the opposite side.  The Talmud, at least in part, is a record of that particularly Jewish kind of conversation.   

      Which is why when the young man asked me a few years ago are we Jewish Americans, or American Jews, I said – yes.  Because I believe that we can be loyal Jews and loyal Americans.  I believe we can be lovers of and supporters of the State of Israel, and at the very same time we can be deeply patriotic Americans, who love our own country.  To suggest otherwise is to create a false dichotomy.  

     The President made a similar mistake this week when he said you can only be a loyal Jew if you vote for a particular political party.  In fact, he made two mistakes.  The first is the same mistake Napoleon made, because the President’s statement presumes that being a Jew is a zero sum game, that one can only be loyal or disloyal.  He didn’t take into account the idea that one could be loyal to multiple entities, multiple traditions, and multiple nations at the same time.  And his second mistake was to assume that there is only one way to be loyal, and that is to be uncritical, and agreeable with his point of view.  But when you think about it, the greatest form of loyalty might be the very opposite – to be critical and demanding, and to have high expectations of someone, or something you love.  That is the way we love the people we truly care about, and our loyalty to America, to Israel, to our own Judaism, should be no less.

     The truth is loving people cast their love in many directions, they live their loyalty in many ways, to their family, to their community, to their ethnicity, to their nation. Whether that nation be Israel, or the United States.  

     It is my hope and prayer that our love and loyalty for the United States and for Israel remain strong and true in the years ahead, and all the other loves and loyalties that enrich and define our lives be continuous, fulfilling and rewarded.

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Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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Head Coverings and Harmful Words

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat morning services on 2/17/19 –

     It has been quite a week for Ilhan Omar, the freshman congresswoman from the state of Minnesota.  The 37 years old has a powerful background story.  She was born in Somalia, the youngest of seven siblings, and lost her mother when she was only 2 years old.  When she was in her early teens the Somali civil war began, and she fled the country with her family, spending four years in a refugee camp in Kenya.  When she was 14 her family’s application to come to the US as refugees was approved, and after living in the Virginia area they moved to Minnesota where she went to high school, and then on to college.  When she first came to this country she did not speak a word of English.

     By the time she was in high school she was already interested in politics, and throughout college worked on various political campaigns and issues.  Her rise in the political system has been rapid.  Three years ago she became the first Somali born Muslim legislator in the United States when she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives.  And then just a month ago she was sworn in as the first ever Somali born Muslim member of congress.  In her personal life she is a wife, and a mother to three children.  She is smart, charismatic, and out spoken.  She is also young and has grown up in the world of technology, and like many politicians these days, she is a Twitter user.

     And that is what got her into some trouble this week, and brought her into the national spotlight.  Mrs. Omar has a history of strongly supporting the Palestinian cause, and has in the past not hesitated to criticize Israel.  But earlier in the week she sent out two tweets that contained traditional anti-semitic motifs, one the idea that Jews are overly concerned with money, and the other that Jews somehow are secretly controlling the government.  

     Reaction to these comments was both swift and furious.  The Jewish community was quick to condemn the tweets, and various and sundry Jewish organizations from around the world released statements that called attention to the anti-semitic tone of what she wrote.  Mrs. Omar was also severely criticized from both sides of the aisle in Washington, and she was called to what our past president Jerry Schnydman would call a ‘come to Moses’ meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  Not long afterwards Mrs. Omar sent out a tweet that apologized for her previous statements, which in part read as follows:  

“Anti-semitism is real, and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-semitic tropes.  My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.  We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity.  This is why I unequivocally apologize.”  

     Some in the Jewish community have not been satisfied with Mrs. Omar’s efforts to mend fences, but at this point I think we need to take her at her word.  The truth is an apology is worthless unless it is backed up by action, so we’ll see in the months ahead whether her actions show a deeper sensitivity to the Jewish community and a stronger understanding of what anti-semitism actually is.  As the saying goes, time will tell the tale.

     We night have expected better from Mrs. Omar.  After all, her story is in many ways the same as the stories of our own families.  An immigrant, escaping war, time spent in a refugee camp, arriving in this country with no money and unable to speak the language, working hard, obtaining an education, and becoming successful, making a better world for her children.  That is a story that fits my family, it fits Becky’s family, and I am guessing many of your families, because it contains all of the classic elements of the Jewish journey to America.  Certainly Mrs. Omar knows what it feels like to be an outsider, to be marginalized, and we might have hoped that precisely that experience would have helped her to understand what Jews have struggled with historically.  It is a curious irony of this whole business that if anyone should understand Mrs. Omar’s experience it is the Jews, and if anyone should understand our experience it is someone like her – because we’ve both been looked at and treated as ‘other.’

     Mrs. Omar is easy to spot in halls of Congress as she is punctilious about wearing her hijab – what is that?  The religious head covering worn by observant Muslim women as a sign of their connection to their faith and respect for God.  Her commitment to wearing the hijab if anything shows the courage of her convictions, and it is yet another connection to the Jewish experience, b because as Jews we certainly know what it means to wear religious garb.  We have, for example, the tallit that many of us are wearing this morning.  We also have the kippah, and I suspect that if there were a young Jewish member of congress who showed up to work each day wearing a kippah as a Jewish community that would be something in which we would take a lot of pride.  

     In fact you might be able to make the argument that we were the ones who invented religious garb.  All you have to do is spend a few minutes reading through this morning’s Torah portion to get a sense of how important the ritual clothing of the priests was in ancient times, specifically from this morning’s portion what the High Priest wore, not only the robes but the special breastplate, and the head covering, and all of the intricate details the Torah discusses.  I don’t know of any other tradition that codifies the use and type of ritual clothing the way does.  The High Priest’s special garments made him stand out, and he was immediately recognizable to the entire community.  Also the clothing he wore held him to a higher standard, serving as a reminder of the special duties that he had to serve the people and to serve God.  

     Certainly Mrs. Omar’s hijab makes her highly visible, to the point where she is one of the most immediately recognizable members of the House.  I would argue that it is precisely because of her visibility that she has an opportunity to be an example, both to the Muslim and the non-Muslim world.  I think the question she has to answer for herself is what does she want to be an example of?  If the answer to that question is fairness and tolerance, justice and understanding, and equality and possibility, then her apology is a step in the right direction.  We can only hope and pray that she will take the lessons from this experience to heart, and that she will continue to walk on that path towards a better, brighter, and more tolerant future for all.  

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On Saturday the Rabbi…

Went to shul, of course!  Yes, even when I am away, even when vacationing, if I can I go to shul.  The truth is I’ve always liked it, going all the way back to my Hebrew school days.  The other students in my class would complain when we were brought in to sit in services, but I didn’t mind.  There was something about it, hard to identify, difficult to pinpoint, maybe impossible for me to explain.

The truth is, I would rather sit in the pews.  My guess is if you polled a group of rabbis about this question, a fair number would tell you they want to be on the bima conducting the service.  I’ve even known a few rabbis who have said to me ‘why would I go to shul if I am not running the service?’  But I enjoy just sitting quietly, doing a bit of davening, following the Torah reading and checking some of the commentaries, just the sort of quiet head space of it all.  Isn’t that part of what shul is supposed to be about anyway?

I also enjoy seeing how things work in other congregations.  It is a big Jewish world out there!  In our own spaces we can get so tied down to OUR way of doing it, the tunes we use, the readings we do, when we sit and stand, even where people sit – it can all become sacrosanct.  There is an old joke in the ‘business’ – you could cut the entire Shema out of the service and no one would say a thing, but if you change the tune of Aleinu, beware!  Of course it isn’t exactly true, but it is true enough.

But a little bit of traveling will remind you that there are a million and one customs, a million and one different ways to do it, each community with its own version.  And yet in some profound way it is all connected, and you can feel at home in any shul, big or small, local or far away.  In one way or another the Torah will be read, the Shema recited, the Aleinu sung.  And you realize, when all is said and down, it is your place, these are your traditions, the people here are your community.  And the shul is your shul, too.

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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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An Early Morning Singing Song

I’ve always been an early riser. Generally it is not the alarm that wakes me. Instead, there is some kind of internal ticking, a sense that the sun will soon be climbing over the horizon, the first rays of dawn, the birds chirping through our open windows, the thoughts in my head. Whatever it is I have grown accustomed over the years to being the first one up and out of bed. If you are familiar with that time of day, the grey of dawn turning to light, the shadows on the trees and houses, the world slowly but surely coming into focus, you’ll know it is a contemplative time, full of calm and possibility, of thought and reflection. There is something to be said for a quiet house, a fresh cup of coffee, a few minutes to glance at the paper or watch the rabbits in the back yard. A weighing of the day to come.

For a number of years now I am greeted first thing at the foot of the steps by our dog Brady. Loyal (perhaps to a fault) he will stagger out of his bed the moment he detects my upstairs movement, and each morning he waits for me patiently, yawning and stretching, especially extending his front paws in that way that dogs do. He knows the first walk of the day is imminent, and he is preparing, everything a ritual. He walks to the windows to consider the street. Anything interesting out there, anything we should know about before we venture out? He walks back and patiently waits for me to put on my shoes, to grab his leash, bows his head so I can hook it to his collar. Then to the door.

Shabbat is a special treat. A much quieter time, very few cars, people, other dogs at 6 on a Saturday morning. We leave the neighborhood and make our way into less familiar territory. He is intent now, reading the signs, tracking the movements of deer and raccoons, squirrels and foxes, even the occasional woodchuck. To the human eye it is invisible, but to the dog’s nose it is an open book. Here the deer stood for a few moments, munching thoughtfully on a bush. Here the squirrel stopped to gather acorns. Just in that spot a fox snuck under the fence. His nose snuffles, low to the ground, he is mesmerized by the narrative he puzzles out.

As the sun rises higher the world comes to life. A car passes. An old woman sits on her porch, smoking the day’s first cigarette. The long shadows at the foot of every tree grow shorter, the blue of the sky brighter. The old pines, the deeper woods, the worn paths where our feet have tread countless times. But the house too begins to call. Others are rising, tasks beginning, work approaching. He is disappointed when he senses my need to go back, but he knows the rhythm of his days and reluctantly he heads for home. After all there will be food there and a warm place to lie down, the comforts of civilization that are so familiar to him. And other responsibilities to fulfill. For now this one is done, but tomorrow there will be another early morning.

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The Ghost in the Machine

An interesting question was raised at last night’s board meeting, in the course of a discussion about our Saturday morning service. We were talking about the differences between Friday night (a service that has been growing in numbers for years) and Shabbat morning (a service that has been shrinking numbers wise). A comparison between the two services is instructive, and in and of itself lends some insight into the dynamic. The Friday night service is shorter, less formal, more participatory, very much in tune with the modern zeitgeist in terms of what people are looking for from their religious institutions. Saturday morning is more than twice as long, formal, tie and jacket for men, more structured, and has an older style and vibe.

We also spoke about the different demographics – Friday night younger, on average probably a good 10-15 years younger than Saturday morning. A thoughtful board member then raised the following question: is there a difference between the Friday night and Saturday morning groups in terms of their belief in God? That is to say, has there been some kind of theological self selection, more traditionally faithful folks tending towards one service, those less inclined towards another?

On the one hand, you just can’t take God out of the equation. After all, we are a synagogue, a house of worship. Without the worship part we would simply be a JCC, a social gathering place for Jews, where people could do some learning, participate in social action initiatives, stay connected to Israel. All important, but all things that can happen outside of a synagogue. What makes a synagogue a synagogue by definition is that it holds religious services. And if you are worshipping, engaged in prayer, at some point God is connected to that process. How might very well change dramatically for different people, but still the whole God idea is central. The synagogue is in some significant way about exploring the world of the spirit and soul, helping us to get in touch with our inner selves, our hopes and dreams, our faults and failings. Can that happen without God? Of course. But the premise of synagogue life is that it can happen better with God.

That being said, one does not have to be a ‘believer’ to be part of a synagogue, or even to find connection to the synagogue meaningful and important. There is an old story about Schwartz and Greenberg, both of whom faithfully attend their shul’s morning minyan. Greenberg is a true believer, but Schwartz has serious doubts about the Divine. One day Schwartz’s wife asks him about his service attendance: “Greenberg I understand,” she says, “he believes in God. But you don’t! Why do you bother to get up every day and go?” Schwartz responded to his wife: “Greenberg goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Greenberg.”

To answer my board member’s question, if I had to guess I would say there are more Greenbergs in attendance on Saturday mornings, and more Schwartzs on Friday nights. The Saturday morning crowd is still tied to the Judaism of my bubbie and zayde, still rooted in the experience of our ancestors who came from Eastern Europe, lived traditional Jewish lives, spoke Yiddish, kept kosher, and by and large were true believers. The Friday night crowd is one more generation removed from that experience, and also deeply immersed in secular life and all of its glitter (like most Americans, by the way!). The challenge for the synagogue is to maintain the one, to tend to the needs of traditionally oriented folk, while at the same time cultivating the interest of the other, that newer and younger demographic that is still connected, but a little bit further down the chain of tradition.

What a task! But at the same time it is good to know that there is meaningful and challenging work ahead. As for me, I’ll see you in services. Either Friday night or Saturday morning – I’ll be at both!

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