Category Archives: Rabbi Robert H Loewy

Rabbi Robert H. Loewy is the Rabbi of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA. He assumed that position in August of 1984. Prior to that, he was the Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas for seven years.

Rabbi Loewy is a native of Hempstead, N.Y. He received his B.A. degree from Cornell University in 1972, M.H.L. degree from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1975, and was ordained as a Rabbi from that institution in 1977.

In addition to developing an active synagogue program, Rabbi Loewy is currently President of the Greater New Orleans Rabbinic Council, Program Chair for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Board Member for the New Orleans Jewish Day School, Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Henry S. Jacobs Camp and the East Jefferson General Hospital Pastoral Counseling Program.

In addition he has been President of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis, President of the New Orleans Jewish Days School, Chairman of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Secretary of the Greater Houston Rabbinical Association, Executive Board Member of the CCAR, ARZA and Dillard University Center for Black/Jewish Relations, and Jewish Chautauqua Society Lecturer at University of New Orleans and Loyola University, .

Rabbi Loewy is married to the former Lynn Rosenfeld and has five children, Karen, and her husband David Widzer, David, Sara and Mica and one magnificent grandson- Judah Benjamin Loewy Widzer.

The Serious Side Of Purim

February 26, 2010

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Let’s play a word association game. I say one word and feel free to call out the first thought that comes to your mind: Purim..… grogger…. Hamantashchen….., megillah….. spiel….., drinking….. adloyadah…. costumes… Clearly there are lots of positive, fun connections with our Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins tomorrow night and will be celebrated Sunday morning at 10:30 with the Megillah reading and our own version of Purim Idol.

I have some wonderful memories of Purim. It starts in my childhood, as it does for many of you. I recall Megillah readings and the first Purim spiel in which I performed: West Side Shushan- “When you’re a Jew, you’re a Jew all the way, from your first Bar’chu to your last dying day.” As a student in Israel, the whole city of Jerusalem celebrated with an odd custom of patishim- little plastic hammers. You walk through the city and gently bop people on the heads. As a rabbi over the years, some of my most inspiring moments have come dressed in a variety of costumes: Incredible Hulk Haman, The Wizard of Shushan, Darth Haman and too many times in drag as either Esther or Vashti to the chagrin of my children. Purim is fun for all ages.

But only in New Orleans can one teach about Purim by referring to it as akin to Mardi Gras. Think about it: Costumes, drinking, the sanctioned breaking of all sorts of social norms, parades and more. There is another level upon which it can be compared. Mardi Gras is an unofficial, unauthorized response to the serious time of Lent, a last bash before dealing with issues of denial, repentance, death and resurrection. In a similar way, Purim is a communally blessed loosening of social norms, but also in response to some serious concerns. Before we have all the fun on Sunday, let’s spend a few minutes considering the more profound aspects of the day.

We begin by examining how we as Jews function in a non-Jewish society. In the Purim story, the locale is Persia. Jews were exiled from Judah to Babylonia and then migrated to Persia as the Persians took over Babylonia. Mordecai is described as having arrived in that fashion, as well as his ward, Esther. Their status in Persian society was ambiguous. They were treated fairly and based upon the fact that Mordecai seems to be highly positioned, they must have had access to power. He is later described as one of the King’s courtiers. Still, when it came time for Esther to be a potential Queen, we read: “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it.” (Esther 2:10)

What is going on here and how does this resonate with us? Historically we recognize that in the past prejudice towards Jews existed, but many believed that if we blend in like all others, maybe we will go unnoticed. This was true in 19th century American history as my ancestors, the German Jews, wanted to be like everyone else. People changed names to be less identifiable or gave children good American names. For example one wealthy German Jew in the 1870s named his first son George Washington….. Seligman; the second was Thomas Jefferson….. Seligman, but then came the third son. He was all set to name him Abraham Lincoln Seligman, but decided not to do so. “Abraham” was too Jewish sounding.

Though we live in a time of great acceptance as Jews, there are still moments when we hide our identity. Sometimes it is for the sake of protection, lest we become targets; sometimes it is for advancement, when we are concerned that who we are might prevent what we would like to become, and occasionally it will be to avoid confrontation or simply conversation. Some of these reasons we can respect, while others not.

In our Purim story Mordecai’s advice and her decision to agree were strategic and eventually result in her being in a position to save lives. Though it is just a story, (I hate to break it to you. There is no factual base to this saga.) Still, like many good stories, it serves to instruct us. Their decision enabled them to save Jewish lives from the persecuting Haman. Perhaps that can become our guiding principle. Pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life is the only real justification for denying who we are as Jews.

The second and probably the most prominent concern found in the Purim story is that of anti-Semitism and genocide. This is the story of a man, who not only wanted to persecute Jews. It was his goal to totally eliminate us. We call this today, genocide. It all begins with Haman’s words to the King, words which have been reiterated in one form or another for centuries:

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people, and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”

This is the classical presentation of Jews as “Other.” We are perceived as different, all over the world. We don’t play by the same rules, worship God differently, have different holidays, customs, values, and are therefore to be feared, certainly not tolerated. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the great Talmudists of our time writes:

“It was the first display of anti-Semitism in history. Haman and all his collaborators were indeed defeated, yet over the generations we discovered that anti-Semitism may have started with Haman, but it did not end with him. Amalek’s seed is still in the world, and it flourishes even in our cosmopolitan and enlightened era.”

The Purim story prompts us to ask the question: Why has there been and does there continue to be anti-Semitism? Over the years as I have taught on this subject, I provide a number of approaches, to understand the origins of antipathy toward Jews, none of them definitive.

First is nationalism. From the time we were a nation, like all nations there have been conflicts and competitions, attempts to defeat and conquer us. I think of the Biblical stories of the Egyptians, the Philistines and the Babylonians in this way. Similarly, though we speak of religious freedom, the roots of Chanukah are really more of battle between two nations. Jumping two thousand years, I would argue that much of the rhetoric and violence in the world today towards Jews by Moslems is really more nation based than religious.

Of course religion has played a significant role in anti-Semitism, particularly after we had no national base of our own. Judaism and Christianity were competing ideologies at the beginning. However, once Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire and became the dominant faith of Europe, anyone who did not embrace that position was a heathen. I need not go into all the various attitudes and teachings about Jews that have been the result.

Suffice it to say that for centuries and for some, but NOT ALL, even to this day, the continued existence of Jews and Judaism is an affront and an ill that needs to be eradicated.

Contrary to popular opinion, Jews do not have all the money. However, going back to the Middle Ages, we have been depicted as avaricious and unscrupulous. The origin of this is the roles in which we were placed: Money lenders- where we all know how much we like to receive loans when needed, but dislike when the loans come due with interest; Tax collectors- a role which to this day, though necessary, is always looked down upon. Ask anyone who works for the IRS. Merchants- in a time when the middle class just started, we became the intermediaries between the rich and the poor. We supplied products, which were attained by bargaining over price, where each side haggled to gain position. Again, I allude to the comparable modern attitude towards car salesman. From those roots and the relative success of Jews in America come the contemporary stereotypes with which we are familiar.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, concepts of race evolved out of Darwin’s teachings on evolution. A biological observation and theory mutated into a formula for Nazi genocide.

I can go on with explanations as to the origins and continued reality of anti-Semitism, prejudice towards us, discrimination and acts of violence. The various explanations over the years mix and mingle depending upon the time and the incidents. However, understanding origins does not change or justify reality. To some extent we delude ourselves if we think that rationality and education can eradicate prejudice. While it might be successful in most cases, it certainly will not in all.

Rabbi Steinsaltz comments further: “The fact such explanations are so numerous proves there is no truth to them and that they merely serve as a veneer for a more basic and hidden matter. That is, just like the existence of the people of Israel, despite all the suffering and distress, is an inexplicable mystery, anti-Semitism is also mysterious.”

This is a rather fatalistic attitude. He argues, that no matter what we do, anti-Semitism will reappear in one form or another. Our continuing challenge is that we know the disease, but not the cure. Sad to say, like many diseases there is no absolute cure, only strategies to work on prevention and then approaches to deal with outbreaks.

We turn to educational programs like the Jewish Chautauqua Society, providing education about Jews and Judaism on the college campuses; Like the Anti Defamation League’s programs on tolerance and understanding; Like Tulane’s Southern Institute, which for many years has brought Holocaust survivors to high schools throughout the south, bursting myths and creating connections.

When anti-Semitism rears its ugly head whether locally, nationally or internationally, we must label it for what it is. We cannot hide or gloss over it, as we have learned that that posture is ineffective. Like Mordecai, we adopt strategies which can deal with it and fight against it. We can use the laws of our land to denounce it for what it is, seeking like minded allies, people of all faiths, in the process. We can enlist our government to deal with global expressions. Ultimately we have learned that we must protect ourselves, lest we underestimate those who would do us in.

And then there is the Purim approach, where when dealing with hatred towards us, we laugh at its absurdity as a way of coping, lest we make ourselves paranoid. We make fun of the perpetrators. We use humor. Recently I heard a recasting of an old joke:

Two Israelis were on a bus each reading a newspaper, when one looked at the other and asked, how could he be possibly reading a Palestinian newspaper. The man responded, “when I read Haaretz, I hear about Jewish struggles, violence and economic woes. When I read the Palestinian paper I read that the Jews are a united community, who control the world, have all the money and all the power. I like their version of us better than our own.” The first time I heard this joke it was about two Jews riding on a subway during World War II and one was reading the Bundist paper. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

My friends, we are Esther. When danger to the Jewish community loomed on the horizon, Mordecai told her, she should not think that she is immune. Rather he asks: “Who knows perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?”

Reflecting upon our relative comfort and safety here in America, we can ask ourselves the same question. We are not as powerful as others think, but neither are we impotent to respond and react when needed.

Let us celebrate Purim with song and joy, silliness and fun. Shake our groggers, laugh at the Purim shpiels, drink until we do not know, eat lots of Hamantaschen, but let us also remember the serious concern that is at its root.

AMEN

The Mitzvah Of Marriage

May 21, 2010

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, this evening we are celebrating Shabbat as Melanie and Richard Blitz will be hosting our Oneg in honor and gratitude of their 35th wedding anniversary. Earlier this week one of the more precocious Nursery School children came up to Richard and asked: “Did you know that in some parts of Africa a man doesn’t know his wife until he marries her?” Without missing a beat, Richard quickly responded, “Why single out Africa?” Marriage is indeed a continual revelation of one person to the other … In truth, while speaking with Melanie and Richard about tonight, theirs is a deep and abiding love, the kind of love that grows and deepens over the years, forged by triumphs and challenges.

Part of my joy as your rabbi is performing weddings, particularly for the children of the congregation, now grown into adulthood, many of whom I have known from their earliest years. In the next few weeks I will be conducting four such ceremonies. So, with those in mind and with the context of this Shabbat, I thought it might be a good opportunity to speak on the Mitzvah of Marriage from a variety of perspectives.

From the Gates of Mitzvah, published by the CCAR, written by Rabbi Peter Knobel we learn: “It is a mitzvah for a Jew to marry and to live together with his/her spouse in a manner worthy of the traditional Hebrew designation for marriage- Kiddushin- set apart for each other in a sanctified relationship. In Judaism the decision to marry implies a willingness to enter wholeheartedly into a sacred covenant with another person.” (p. 29)

Like many mitzvot, no where in Torah does it actually say that you have to marry. In truth it is no sin to be single. Still, marriage is the norm. The starting points for marriage are the statements in the Book of Genesis Chapter 2. First God comments, “Lo tov heyot ha-adam l’vado- it is not good for a person to be alone. I will make a helpmate. (18) and then later concludes, “So it is that a man/woman will leave his father and mother and cleave unto his/her spouse.” (24) Hence the institution of marriage is designed for men and women to be with one another, support one another, as they separate from parental ties. We call this growing up, not that one discards parents at marriage, but there is a significant reorientation as a new generation prepares to continue the cycle of life through love.

I thought you might be interested to know my process for dealing with marriage and the Jewish ceremony that I conduct. My technical title when it comes to marriage is the “M’sader kiddushin.” I am the person who sets the order of the Kiddushin rituals, which set a couple apart from all others according to Jewish tradition. I consider this a great responsibility as well as pleasure.

However, my first concern is not what happens on the day of the wedding, but more upon the days, weeks and years after the wedding. And so I conduct multi-session pre-marital counseling meetings, based upon a program in which I have been trained. During these discussions we cover issues such as communication, conflict resolution, goals and values, personality challenges, sexuality, Jewish genetic diseases about which couples should be aware, creating a Jewish home and much more. Most couples find these talks enjoyable and helpful.

And of course we cover the wedding itself, inclusive of the meaning behind the rituals, much of which links bride and groom to a variety of aspects of Jewish history.

A typical wedding ritual begins with what we think of as pre-ceremonies. Prior to walking down the aisle, we usually have a Bedecken and Ketubah signing. As opposed to non-Jewish weddings, bride and groom do see one another before the chuppah. First is the Bedecken, where the groom places a veil over the bride’s face, just as Rebecca wore a veil prior to uniting with Isaac. The groom also ensures that this is in fact the correct bride, lest he make Jacob’s mistake of marrying the wrong sister. In an egalitarian way, I also confirm with the bride that this is the right groom. As Rebecca was blessed by her family, I invite the parents of the couple to offer words of blessing at this juncture.

Then we sign the Ketubah. Traditionally, this was a legal document inclusive of terms for dowry and essentially contracted the bride from her father’s house to her husband in a patriarchal society, signed by two witnesses not related to either bride or groom. Our Ketubah is a statement of equal commitment of husband to wife in the context of creating a Jewish home. Today there are magnificent artistic expressions available on line, not the simple certificate that I imagine Richard and Melanie received years ago from Rabbi Share.

Now it is time for the wedding to begin. Participants will proceed down the aisle to the chuppah, which is a reminder of Sarah’s tent and the Jewish home that the couple is committed to create. There are many customs as to who walks down the aisle and in what order, but in truth no absolute rules. After all is said and done we need the rabbi, bride and groom to arrive. All else are nice, but not required.

Many have seen the tradition of bride circling the groom either seven times or three. This has multiple explanations, but primarily reflects the old concept that the bride is leaving the parental orbit and entering into her husbands. There is also a nicer concept that she is building an invisible wall around the new couple entity. The number of times links to different verses of the Bible. Today, if my couples circle at all, each will circle the other three times and then united, circle once and proceed to the chuppah, with the bride standing to the groom’s right, according to a verse in the Psalms.

Now we really begin. We welcome bride and groom and can proceed with the Kos Erusin. I say “can proceed,” since some couples choose to skip this Cup of Betrothal. Its roots are in a time when betrothal was a formal process with strict rules concerning contact between bride and groom, which no one kept. So, the rabbis merged two separate ceremonies. Still, we do this to mark the idea that couples are engaged and now committed to one another in all ways.

Next come vows and rings. In truth the vows are purely a modern insertion. This is where bride and groom respond, “I do” to a pledge, usually “to love, honor and cherish one another through good fortune and adversity and to seek together with the other a life hallowed by the faith of Israel.” It is not unusual today for couples to create their own vows.

What is more significant from the Jewish perspective will be the exchange of rings. This is the key legal aspect of the Jewish wedding ceremony. The groom will place the ring, which historically is symbolic of the support that will be forthcoming for the bride upon her right index finger (not the ring finger). The lore is that there is a vein that leads to the heart, but practically, she can publicly show all in attendance that it has been bestowed upon her.

Today all of my brides and grooms wear rings and then recite: “Harei at/atta mekudeshet/m’kudash – With this ring, be consecrated unto me as my husband/wife in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.”

This is followed by the sheva brachot, seven wedding blessings, essentially a seven part toast to the couple with the Kos Kiddushin, the cup of sanctification. The blessings commence with blessing the wine, then expand to bless humanity, men and women coming together, the reality that this couple is unique, such that there never has been a couple like them since Adam and Eve. Then it focuses upon the fact that they are married in the context of a Jewish community which celebrates their joy and culminates in multiple forms of good wishes for the happiness and fulfillment of the couple. The couple will then drink from the cup of wine, often sharing it with parents.

As we near the end of the ceremony, I will publicly read the Ketubah, pronounce the couple married according to both Jewish and civil law, and pause for a moment of silent prayer on their behalf, followed by the Priestly Blessing, found in this week’s Torah portion… “May God bless you and keep you.”

Then comes everyone’s favorite ritual, the breaking of the glass. With multiple explanations available, we realize this is simply a custom, but a very popular one. No, it has nothing to do with being the last time the groom gets to put his foot down in the marriage. Rather, it links to shattering moments, either historically linked such as the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem, or personal moments that will occur in life. My take is the hope that there will be few, but when they occur, the love that is consecrated that day will fortify the couple for all such occasions.

Bride and groom then kiss and go off for a few moments to be alone, known as yichud. Traditionally, this was to break the fast that they had been on prior to the wedding and consummate the marriage, which along with the ketubah and the exchange of rings are the three different ways that one technically can marry in Judaism. Realistically this is a moment for the couple to catch their breath and enjoy some brief intimacy in what otherwise is a very public day.

Our hope is that they will live happily ever after. Of course we know the reality is otherwise. The divorce rate amongst Jews is probably not that different from the rest of the population, somewhere between 40-50%. I have not done an absolute study, but I believe my success rate among couples is approximately 75%, but I take no credit. It has more to do with the couples with whom I am privileged to officiate.

When speaking of marriage in the Jewish community, of course there is always discussion of interfaith marriage. A recent headline in our Times Picayune read: “Reform Rabbis Embrace Intermarriage- New position meshes with growing trend.” The headline was actually somewhat misleading if you read the article. For the past three years a Task Force on the Challenges of Intermarriage for the Reform Rabbi, consisting of a spectrum of well respected members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, some of whom do and others who do not perform interfaith ceremonies, explored the many facets of how Reform rabbis can best respond to the reality of interfaith marriage. This study did not rescind the long held resolution on the performance of interfaith marriage, which would have been highly divisive. Rather it focuses on the many different paths that rabbis can positively pursue to interfaith couples who are part of our Reform Jewish community. This includes everything from simple sensitivity to finding ways of respectful inclusion, while maintaining Jewish integrity and respect for the beliefs that others hold.

While we open the door to the possibility of conversion for the non-Jewish partner at some time, that is not something we should or do push. Education about Judaism? Yes. Encouragement to convert? No. That is up to the individual should he or she ever so choose. At Gates of Prayer we already incorporate much of what has been suggested by the study in our culture.

As many of you know I am among the majority of rabbis who do not perform interfaith marriage ceremonies. If you reflect upon how I have described that ritual this evening, I think you can see how it would not be appropriate unless both partners are committed, not only to each other, but to Judaism. My position is not a judgment on the couple, but based upon how I see my appropriate role as a m’sader kiddushin and rabbi.  In response to the request to be involved with an interfaith couple and their wedding, I do not simply turn them away, but instead offer alternatives. First, I provide pre-marital counseling as I do for all couples. Marriage is a holy opportunity and I am willing to guide them towards success. I also assist couples to create loving, meaningful ceremonies, which will incorporate themes that the couple fully share, love, family, friendship and faith, but not those they do not. Then I help them find an officiator who can conduct the ceremony. Is it the same as a Jewish wedding with a chuppah and breaking the glass? No. Those symbols have specific Jewish meaning, thus not reflective of whom the couple is, but it can be a lovely, spiritual ceremony.

Many studies on interfaith couples and their subsequent involvement in Jewish life have shown that the wedding alone is not a significant indicator of future commitment. Rather, how they are treated and how synagogues provide programming, policies and opportunities to feel comfortable are more important. I believe we do a pretty good job of that here, but can always do better and welcome input.

Friends, all weddings begin with hopes and dreams. Many are fulfilled, some shattered. For the successful marriages, couples learn to adjust, change and grow, continually nurturing the relationship. On this Shabbat we celebrate one couple and their marriage, as we honor all couples who participate in the mitzvah of marriage.

AMEN

Sacred Season

Rosh Hashanah Eve 5771

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

 

My dear friends, at this particular time, on this date, we find ourselves in the midst of a sacred season, in truth it can be argued, 3 sacred seasons. We have recently observed the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, an indelible event in our hearts, minds and spirits. Most will agree that it is good to have K-5 behind us.  Yet, personally and communally we are still healing. Of course tonight is Rosh Hashanah 5771, a new year, time for reflection on the past and preparation to approach the future. And I know the thought in the minds of many seated here, tomorrow night is the beginning of the 2010 Saints Football season.

As I do each year, I read a number of important books to prepare for this holy day season, to present the right messages. In some ways a Rabbi is like the Coach before the big game. So I read Sean Payton’s “Home Team.” I was fascinated to discover the numerous techniques he employed to motivate his team- movies, speakers and videos.

Some of you may recall that last year I resorted to my various tallesim to spark your thinking with a rabbinic fashion show. This year I was tempted to wear my black and gold jersey with #18, which simply reads: THE RABBI on the back. I wear it proudly on game days, but decided it was not quite appropriate Yuntif attire.

I needed something that would speak to the soul. So, my spiritual text for this year is not from Abraham Joshua Heschel or Reb Nachman, but is entitled “Coming back Stronger- Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity written by Rabbi Drew Brees with help from Chris Fabry. While Sean Payton’s work is essentially a football book, I found Drew Brees’ to be instructive and deeply spiritual. It includes aspects of theology with which I agree and some not, as he provides a retrospective on the last few years, not only of the Saints and Drew Brees, but of all New Orleans.

Some might think that referencing a football player’s book and the Saints’ Super Bowl victory seems mundane, even trite. I might agree generally, but truly believe that this past year’s Saints story was much more than about sports. The climactic moments- an overtime field goal in the NFC Championship and the interception at the end of the Super Bowl were transcendent spiritual experiences. They served as the metaphor for our community as we continue to heal from Katrina and confront our own personal issues.

The premise of “Coming Back Stronger” is that all of us face challenges. Drew Brees, not a tragic figure in any way, still had problems like all of us: a dysfunctional family with a mother whose mental illness and suicide haunted him; his talent being doubted throughout his career from high school, college and into the pros; debilitating injuries to the knee and a torn shoulder, either of which could have ended his career and losing what he thought was his dream job in San Diego. We may not be NFL quarterbacks, but we confront similar challenges- families that are less than ideal, sweet relationships that turn sour, physical illnesses and injuries that compromise our days and potentially limit our future, loss of jobs through no fault of our own or sometimes with fault; and storms of all varieties that come into our lives with which we must cope. Through a combination of his insights and Jewish wisdom we can gain perspective to deal with life’s challenges.

How do we theologically make sense when reversals come our way? I’m not sure that all will buy into his approach. I do not. Still, we all can appreciate that faith provides an anchor in a storm. In his words: “God, I know that if you bring me to it, you will bring me through it.

I know you have a plan, but quite honestly, I don’t see it right now. But I know it’s there. I know I have to believe. I know I need to have faith. I have to trust you. And I do trust you. But it’s hard right now.” (pp. xxi-xxii)

If that approach speaks to you, you are welcome to it. He embraces it as a good Christian, but there is nothing non-Jewish about it. Personally, I’m not a “It’s all God’s plan” kind of believer. Instead, I prefer the 23rd Psalm approach. As I walk through the valley of hurt, pain, loss and crisis, I seek a good companion and feel that God is with me. Or consistent with the 121st Psalm, I lift my eyes/my mind up to the mountain, believing that God will be there to help. I know that this theology has helped me as I absorb deaths in my family, crises in my life or major disappointments. Reflecting upon 5 years ago, my prayers were to help me take care of family and congregation with the faith that God would be there for me, not so much that it is God’s plan, but that adversity too is part of God’s world.

Theology is good for reflection, but we need a game plan to tackle life’s hurtles. Rabbi Brees provides a number of effective strategies, consistent with our Jewish traditions. As a child he was teased because of a prominent facial birthmark. He chose to see it as something that made him unique, not ugly. I am reminded of my nephew, who at the age of 5 lost all body hair, due to an auto immune disease. He has been totally bald since then, but never allowed it to impact his drive in life. He earned his BA and MBA, found a great job, met a wonderful woman on J-date, who easily saw past his lack of hair and just became a father. No matter our physical marks, perceived imperfections, which others use for ridicule, each of us is unique; each of us is created b’tselem Elohim in the image of God and no one can take that away from us.

When life takes unexpected twists: you don’t land the desired job; you’re rejected by the college of your dreams; you lose the election, are not chosen for the committee chair or the promotion you deserved- how can you react. Drew Brees confronted such disappointments. As a Texas High School All Star, he had dreams of playing at the University of Texas or perhaps Texas A & M. They were not interested and instead he travelled to Indiana to play for perennial loser Purdue. He expected to be a first round pick in the NFL draft earning big bonus dollars, but instead was chosen in the second. Later as a professional free agent, Brees thought the Miami Dolphins would become home, but instead was relegated to storm ravaged New Orleans.

How did he respond? “I could get stuck in disappointment because I hadn’t gone in the first round like I envisioned, or I could be thankful I’d landed in the right place. Sometimes it’s not how you get to your destination that’s most important. The key is ending up in the right place…” (p. 43) He made it so.

In 1977 when I was ordained, I assumed I’d be a rabbi in the northeast. Instead, I landed in Texas for seven years with wonderful colleagues and teachers. It became the right place. I accepted this pulpit in New Orleans in 1984, thinking I would remain a few years and then move elsewhere. Instead we have shared 27 years of a close, caring relationship. Gates of Prayer was and is the right place. I’m not going to say, “we plan and God laughs.” I will say that one never knows what will become the Promised Land.

In response to those in San Diego, who doubted his ability as a football player, Brees could have adopted an “I’ll show them, chip on your shoulder” attitude. Being “dissed,” not respected, motivates many, but it is negative. Brees assumed a more positive stance: “I made a choice: instead of spurred on by those who doubted me, I’d be motivated by those who had faith in me. These were the people who mentored me, supported me, and believed in me, everyone from my parents to my teachers, coaches, mentors, teammates, and now the City of New Orleans.” (p. 66)

Jewish tradition teaches that vengeance is not the right path for living. Getting even, showing others how wrong they were may bring temporary satisfaction, but not real fulfillment. Negative energy can be very draining, while positive energy is invigorating.

And when we stumble, make mistakes, disappoint others and embarrass ourselves, how shall we respond? Certainly we can dwell upon them if we like. More importantly we must learn from the fumbles and interceptions of life. These holy days focus on that theme of teshuvah, repentance, recognizing mistakes, correcting them, asking forgiveness of those who may have been adversely impacted by our deeds and committing not to repeat them again.

For Drew Brees and for so many of us, New Orleans became the ultimate challenge. Looking for a new football home he envisioned Miami. New Orleans was a consideration, but under the circumstances, a new coach, history of being losers, a city barely functioning, he was dubious at best. Then he and his wife Brittany came for a visit. They were wined and dined at Emeril’s. Keep in mind, though, this was January of 2006, when our world was still topsy turvy. Driving back with Coach Peyton from the North Shore, they inadvertently detoured through devastated Lakeview. Perhaps it was fate, as Drew and Brittany, like so many others who have chosen to settle here in recent years, felt a sense of being called. They arrived here recognizing that life is bigger than football, with a faith commitment to give back and help in the healing process. We call that Tikun Olam in our tradition.

Following his own personal shoulder rehabilitation, Brees understood that the September 2006 first game back in the Dome held great psychological significance. I was present and remember the evening distinctly. Tears filled my eyes as the team ran out onto the field. Their mere presence was a statement. An early blocked punt and Saints touchdown lifted us. Yes, it was just a game, but it served as a transcendent spiritual moment towards recovery and Brees appreciated its significance that night, as well as in the Miami Super Bowl victory, when he wrote:

“Whether you’re talking in terms of the physical, the emotional or the spiritual, healing has its own timetable. When there is a tragedy in your life- perhaps a health crisis or the death of a family member or something else that upends your world- there is a mourning period you have to go through in order to cope with it and come out on the other side healthy and mentally whole.” (p. 120) Jewish tradition has always understood this reality, which is why we have prescribed periods of mourning over time. We never fully cease mourning.

Healing requires time and can be very frustrating. How well we know. I have always opined that it will be at least 10 years before this community can say it is recovered. We are at the half-way point with a city government in which we have some faith, revival of Lakeview and other areas, public education improving, medical infrastructure being rebuilt and many other  hopeful signs, cognizant that there is still much more to be done. As a congregation our numbers are not what they were, but our strength and vitality may be even greater than before. We have learned many lessons along the way, especially in our relationship with Beth Israel, which has become a model for the nation.

On this evening of Rosh Hashanah, we find ourselves in the midst of sacred seasons. Drew Brees’ mantra of last year- “Finish Strong”- seems to apply to our city, how we conduct our lives and to our beloved football team. He comments: “The story isn’t over for New Orleans. We’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s too soon to relax. It’s not like every part of the city has suddenly been rebuilt overnight… the story of our recovery is still being written.” (p. 299)

Rosh Hashanah and our entire High Holy Days are an opportunity for us to reflect and prepare for the year to come. We can learn from the past, knowing that we can cope with whatever is presented to us. Our story is still being written and we are doing the writing. And with tomorrow’s kick-off, comes the reminder that the game continues for us all. L’shanah Tovah Tikotevu.. May it be a good year, one of continued growth and recovery, appreciating the spiritual sources that enable us to succeed.

AMEN

200 Years And Counting

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5771

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

 

There is a new phrase circulating around the Jewish world- “Post Denominational.” Individuals do not want to be identified with any one of the particular movements, so they are Not Reform, Not Conservative or Not Orthodox, but – “Post Denominational.”

Other self-definitions that I have heard or perceive include:

  • Cultural Jews, who love dancing the hora at weddings or B’nai Mitzvah or at least mindlessly whirling in circles numerous times, as long as they don’t have to step foot in the synagogue
  • Spiritual Jews– “I’ve got that Jewish feeling.” They believe in God, as long as they don’t have to step foot in the synagogue.
  • Gastronomic Jews love lox and bagels, chopped liver, matzah balls and all Jewish foods, as long as they don’t have to step foot in the synagogue, except to eat.
  • Cardiac Jews claim to be Jewish in their hearts, as long as they don’t have to put the rest of their bodies in the synagogue

 

You can hear the common theme in all four. Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco addressed this post denominational phenomena at a recent gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1), adding a number of additional categories, some serious, some not, including:

  • “Not very Jewish Jews”, who know little, are detached from organizational life, but may occasionally pop up when they need something, then quickly disappear.
  • “Formerly affiliated,” who voluntarily drop membership, (No one has to resign. This synagogue always works with need issues.) but who still speak of “my synagogue” or “my rabbi” and have no qualms about asking for, if not demanding services as needed
  • “Very Jewish Jews,” who affiliate, support and participate. They just can’t get enough. Rabbis love these folks.
  • “We’ve always done it that way Jews” for whom however it’s been done is the absolute norm- it’s tradition; any changes –“you’re ruining the congregation.”
  • “Suddenly Jewish Jews” are people who find a Jewish ancestor on their family tree and realize they are Jewish, embracing it with fervor;
  • “Jews by Choice” are similar, formally converting and actively living as Jews.
  • Half-Jewish Jews with one Jewish parent, often raised with no religious instruction or a little of each, resulting in a confused identity.
  • Non-Jewish Jews, precious people who have not chosen Judaism for themselves but are supportive of their Jewish family, often participating actively.
  • Unconventional or Renewal Jews are generally young and disconnected from traditional Jewish institutions, technically savvy, environmentally aware, programmatically creative and care deeply about Jewish life.

My guess is that each and every one of us could identify with one or more of these categories. Yet here we are as one congregation on this day, one community. Though there are those who proclaim that we are in a “post denominational era”, I will argue that all of us can sit under the same umbrella of our particular denomination, Reform Judaism, which this year can claim to celebrate its 200th year.

Specifically on July 17, 1810, Israel Jacobson a wealthy German Jewish community leader built and dedicated a small “temple” building next to an educational center he constructed in Seesen, Germany. Jacobson’s first goal as a leader was to have Jews receive full civil rights as German citizens. With his school and synagogue he advocated that Jews be modern, maintain their Judaism, but also fit into surrounding society. Borrowing from the Christian Church’s practices, he initiated organ music, choral song, German language prayers and sermons as part of the typical worship service. Confirmation on Shavuot became a new ceremony as young people affirmed their beliefs as Jews, first just boys then soon after to include girls, as opposed to Bar Mitzvah, which represented adherence to Jewish law.

Michael Meyer (2), a leading historian of early Reform Judaism, describes the dedication ceremony as unique, bringing Jews and Christians together in a way that was previously impossible. He summarizes Jacobson’s message from that day: Speaking to Jews: “He assured his coreligionists that he was a faithful and observant Jew who did not desire that Judaism should disappear or be merged into a universal religion of reason.” To Christians: “He asked that they accept the Jews into their midst without prejudice, and he thanked God for creating man as a rational autonomous being.”

Along with many other lay and rabbinic leaders, Jacobson began the process of reforming Judaism, beginning with ideas that were revolutionary in their day and are now conventional convictions. But it was a challenge for Reform to fully develop in Europe, where State governments appointed committees to oversee Jewish matters and controlled finance. Dominated by old guard traditionalists, who opposed reforms, growth was limited. In that environment, where there was not a full modern alternative to be Jewish, many of Jacobson’s grandchildren ultimately were not Jewish, contrary to his vision.

German Jews brought reform to America, a totally different religious climate. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise lobbied for a single unique expression of Judaism for this new land, embracing both German reforms and traditionalism. He published a German/Hebrew and later English/Hebrew prayer book, called “Minhag America- the Custom of America,” organized a congregational structure for all synagogues, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and a modern American seminary- Hebrew Union College. However, one united expression of American Judaism was not to be, especially with the influx of Eastern European Jews starting in the 1880s, who were so very different from the Germans.

And so a distinctive path for Reform Judaism was outlined by Reform’s leading rabbis in 1885, historically known as the Pittsburgh Platform. Like Jacobson, American leaders wanted Jews to be Jewish and part of the society in which we live. Among the ideals they stressed were:

 

  1. The belief in God as an Idea, taught and developed by Jewish texts and teachers
  2. Recognition that Scripture and science and modern scholarship are not antagonistic
  3. Here comes a major break from tradition in the realm of Jewish law: moral laws are binding, ritual laws are not; Related to this is the idea that rituals and customs are good if they speak to us. They supported ceremonies that elevate and sanctify our lives, but specifically rejected Kashrut and ritual garb as being anachronistic.
  4. Our identity as Jews and our covenant with God is not dependent upon a land, Zion. Rather, we looked upon ourselves solely as a religion like everyone else.
  5. They embraced the hope for a better world by committing to a messianic age, not a personal messiah.
  6. Related to that hope came a pledge to partner with brother and sister religions to establish a reign of truth and harmony, to be involved with alleviating separations of rich and poor, dealing with the problems of society based upon justice and righteousness. For decades we called this Prophetic Judaism.

 

Keep in mind, this was 1885. Reform Judaism has evolved from those early days. One of my pet peeves is when we are referred to as ReformED Jews, when the term is Reform. We changED and continue to change. Our relationship with Israel, politically and spiritually is a prime example, as it is basic to our understanding of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. What our Reform ancestors rejected, we now often reclaim, embracing ideas and practices once deemed anachronistic and anti-modern, now seen as relevant and uplifting, reshaping customs to address our needs. While rationalism was a foundation of Reform, we have sought the spiritual as well. Subsequent official statements about Reform more clearly delineate who we are and what values we uphold. As opposed to what happened to Jacobson’s family and in response to those who criticize Reform as the last stop before leaving Judaism, we have many Jews who are second, third, fourth and fifth generation Reform Jews. I am among them as are many seated here this morning.

After 200 years I truly believe that our Reform approach to Judaism is relevant, inclusive of a wide spectrum of people, interests and needs, yet still distinctive and compelling. Over the past few months I conducted an exercise, first with our Board and then a group of teenagers at Jacobs Camp, where I asked them to list what it particularly means to be a Reform Jew today, then compared it to a statement by Rabbi Eric Yoffie (3), President of the Union For Reform Judaism. Responses were essentially the same.

 

  1. We view the Jewish tradition as growing, evolving and always changing, and we celebrate creative change in all areas of ritual and practice.
  2. We assert that the equality of women in Jewish life is non-negotiable.
  3. We draw the boundaries of Reform so as to include rather than exclude, and we welcome gays, lesbians, the intermarried, non-Jewish spouses and all who bind their fate to that of the Jewish people.
  4. We embrace Jewish worship that is creative, dynamic, vibrant and participatory.
  5. We see tikun olam-repairing our world as an essential element of our Reform identity- in fact, as the jewel in the Reform crown.
  6. And we believe in real partnership between rabbis and lay people as essential to our Jewish future.

 

These concepts are underlying principles of Reform Judaism. They are descriptive, but

not prescriptive. As important as it is to know where you stand and what you believe, actions are the key. To be what I will simply call a “serious Reform Jew,” not just a twice a year Jew, who makes excuses or self-justifying rationalizations as to why you are not behaving in a way that you intellectually believe is the right way, consider the following:

  1. Struggle with how you think about God- don’t sit pat with childhood beliefs; don’t absent yourself from Jewish life due to adolescent rebellion still raging years later; stop blaming God for perceived injustice, either personal or global; Instead- read, reflect, accept, reject, reconsider; When you find a comfortable personal theological position… struggle some more
  2. Grow educationally. Ignorance is nothing we tolerate in jobs, raising children, evaluating current issues, purchasing major items. Instead, we study, research, explore and then commit. Why should we do less in our Jewish lives, short-changing ourselves of the wealth that is our inheritance? Participate in adult learning- Shabbat mornings, Continuing Education programs; learn Hebrew; search the internet, but be careful of sources; read a book, two books, one every month from the Lake Library.
  3. As you have done today, set your watches, Palm pilots, I-phones and Blackberrys according to Jewish time with a primary focus being the 7th day of the week, Shabbat. On that day rest, break away from routine; renew your spirit; come to synagogue; reflect upon the week that is past with appreciation; rekindle important relationships with your partner, your children, your friends, your community and recharge for the week ahead.
  4. Serious Jews live by morals and values that are distinctly, though not uniquely Jewish- standing up for the oppressed- the widow, the orphan, the stranger; caring for parents, family and friends, pets and the environment; opposing bigotry of any kind- racial, religious, sexual, xenophobic; having compassion for those who suffer whether from the ravages of illness or nature or human failures; Outrage is good, but action is better. Conduct your daily activities and relationships with integrity, honesty and humility.
  5. Celebrate life as a Jew. Recently, Irl Silverstein, a long-time congregant, invited me to visit his home as he surprised his wife for their 40th anniversary with a ketubah. In 1970, their Reform rabbi did not use such a document. With tears in his eyes and a quavering voice he read words of love and commitment surrounded by a devoted family shaped by Jewish tradition. A few weeks later there was not a dry eye in the house, including my own, as I performed an impromptu renewal of vows for Larry and Judy Rudman as they celebrated their 50th anniversary. Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha- As Reform Jews, we can serve God, not out of fear or dread or guilt or solely a sense of obligation, but with joy.

We are at 200 years and counting. Are we at a turning point in history, a new Post Denominational Era? Will Reform be a footnote in history like other approaches to Jewish life from the past? Only time will determine the ultimate answer, as we write the history by our commitments and actions. To be continued..

AMEN

  1. Pearce, Stephen, “Postmodernism Cultivates Postdenominationalism,” Presented to the CCAR Annual Convention, San Francisco, March 7, 2010
  2. Meyer, Michael, Response To Modernity.. A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism

p. 42

  1. Yoffie, Eric, Comments to CCAR Annual Convention, March 9, 2010

When We Disagree With Torah

MARCH 23, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

 

I’m so excited, Spring officially arrived on Tuesday, the azaleas are blooming, the grass is growing, and buds are on the trees. Before you know it, we will be back to 90 degrees and 90% humidity! O.K. I can wait longer for that to arrive.

But then, even more exciting is the fact that in our weekly Torah reading cycle we just completed the Book of Exodus with its tales of redemption from Egypt and the inspiring legislation, which continues to this day as the basis of modern morality. And now, we begin with the Book of Leviticus- the rules of sacrifice, telling me what I can and cannot eat, leprosy and priestly purity. Yuch!

In the yeshiva world, Leviticus was customarily the first book of the Torah which a young student might study. Perhaps the thinking was if you start with Leviticus, there is no place to go, but up! If only we could leisurely just pick and choose what to follow and what to ignore, it would be so simple. The problem is that this is Torah, the basic document of what it means to be a Jew, the Constitution of the Jewish people. Tradition attributes the words, all the words to God, passed on to Moses as he lovingly transcribed it all. You just cannot cavalierly disregard Torah, or can we?

When asked the difference between Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy, most focus on levels of ritual observance, the amount of Hebrew in the service, separation of men and women in worship or perhaps observance of the dietary laws. While these are all areas where we differ, the major divergence has to do with how we intellectually approach Torah, both the five books and the oral interpretations. All else is secondary.

In 1885 a group of leading Reform rabbis staked out a series of positions to differentiate Reform Judaism from all other expressions. In the document they created, known as the Pittsburgh Platform, the word “modern” was repeated numerous times. Their goal was to fashion a Judaism that spoke to their time. In regard to Torah and particularly this delightful book of Leviticus, they wrote:

“We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

For the reformers of the 19th century, keeping kosher, wearing kippot, talesim and tsitsit, the division of the community among priests, Levites and everyone else may have been appropriate in days gone by, but was no longer. They were willing to reject the Torah teachings in these areas referred to as “Mosaic laws”, along with all of the Talmudic expansions of Torah in this area, which they refer to as “rabbinical laws.” They were not discarding the entire Torah, but making a major break from tradition in the realm of ritual. So called “moral laws” continued to be considered critical for living a Jewish life. Thus it is not surprising that generations of Reform Jews appropriately understood being a good Jew to simply mean leading a good moral life. As we will see shortly, they followed in the footsteps of giants.

However, since 1885 Reform leaders have been uncomfortable with the wholesale discarding of Jewish legislation. Subsequent platforms and statements sought to reclaim that which had been summarily cast aside. The most recent statement was formulated by the CCAR, our Reform rabbinical body in 1999. Regarding this subject of how we approach Torah, my colleagues wrote:

“We affirm that Torah is the foundation of Jewish life.

We cherish the truths revealed in Torah, God’s ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people’s ongoing relationship with God.

We affirm that Torah is a manifestation of (ahavat olam), God’s eternal love for the Jewish people and for all humanity.”

In other words, we cannot lightly discard those teachings of Torah with which we might be uncomfortable or for that matter those requirements, which are not convenient. Torah may not have been dictated to Moses on Sinai, but it remains as the document reflecting our relationship with God. Throughout the centuries, men and women have plumbed its depths in search of meaning. There are live guiding truths to be found. It is up to us to discover them.

Still we have Leviticus. What are we going to do with all of this material which is seemingly either uncomfortable for us, irrelevant to our modern lives or even worse, repugnant to our modern understandings? Let’s start with sacrifices, perhaps the easiest of the challenges.

Leviticus describes a system of relating to God, just as other nations/tribes of that era connected to that which was transcendent. In our system of worship, the people brought a variety of offerings, depending upon their means. There were the daily offerings, which simply suggested to God that we are aware of the Divine continual presence. Some of those offerings were totally consumed by fire, but most were a token for the deity and dinner for the priests. I’m not suggesting corruption, simply a compensation system for their service. In addition to the daily offerings came the theme offerings: guilt, sin, thanksgiving, vows and other messages for the Almighty. People needed to relate to God. That reality has not abated over time. All of these offerings first were brought to the Mishkan- The Tabernacle of the wilderness. Later, small bamot, sacrificial alters were established throughout the land of Israel and finally the Temple of Jerusalem became the one and only address for the sacrifices.

Yet even during the Biblical period, there were those who questioned whether this ritual was what God really desired. The Prophets railed against mindless sacrifice without complimentary moral behavior. The Prophet Micah 6:6-9 said it quite dramatically:

“With what shall I approach the Lord, do homage to God on high? Shall I approach God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins?..It has been told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The Reformers embraced this text. Forget about ritual, just act morally. But that is not what Micah was saying. He called for worship in a ritual sense and a moral sense. Then came the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and exile in Babylonia. During that time, sacrifices ceased with prayer and study taking their place. Upon return to Jerusalem, the urge and need for sacrifice resurfaced and the Second Temple was built.

By the time the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE my sense is that the efficacy of sacrifice as a means to relate to God had diminished. While scripturally we continued to be tied to the concept of sacrifice, practically it was discarded. The rabbis and priests had precedent to establish temporary sites for sacrifice, but chose not to do so. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai among others taught, “we have a means of atonement that is equal to sacrifice the performance of mitzvot.” Another of the early rabbis (Yitzchak- Midrash Samuel 1:7) declared that prayer took precedence over sacrifice.

Clearly, with our modern sensibilities, few if any wish to see the sacrifices reestablished as a part of Jewish life. But, it is there in the Torah. How are we to deal with the text? Very simply, using the thinking of our 1999 Statement, we see in the sacrificial laws the record of the ongoing relationship of our people with God. In the past they expressed themselves in one fashion, which has now evolved into a different process. There are two Hebrew words for sacrifice: Korban and Avodah. Korban is related to the word “to draw near.” Avodah is the term for sacrifice, but also connects with prayer and labor. In 2007 animal sacrifice is not how we draw near to God; prayer, study and deeds is our path. We respect the past, but embrace our tradition for our times.

On this Shabbat of all Shabbatot I am compelled to confront another section of Leviticus. In Leviticus 21:16-23 we read that no man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to bring the Eternal’s offering. Having a physical defect such as being blind, lame, hunchback, deaf, being pock marked or short limbed, an abnormal growth on the eye and I could go on… any of these disqualified one from priestly service.

How are we to deal with this text, which certainly goes against the Americans with Disabilities Act, not to mention our basic sensibilities? I picture my colleague, Rabbi Jack Stern, past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as brilliant and gentle a soul as God has created. He has also been crippled by polio throughout his life. Are we saying that such a giant should be excluded from priestly service? I certainly am not about to say that.

I do understand that when bringing sacrifices, one was not allowed to bring animals with defects. Your offerings were intended to be the best you have to offer, not the lamb that was damaged goods, one that was of lesser value on the open market. Extrapolating from this, the priest who brought the offerings should be physically whole. But what of these two beautiful young people who led us to bring our offering to God through prayer in such an inspiring fashion this evening? Should they be excluded?

Let’s start with Hillary. If you had not noticed, she is a young woman. Our text only speaks of men and rabbinic tradition made it very clear that all the worship responsibilities were the domain of men. In my mind the text from Leviticus is trumped by one of the first verses in Genesis. Zachar u’nekevah, bara otam- male and female God created them. God created men and women at the same time. That equality is basic to our society, our sensitivities and our understanding of God’s creation. As Reform Jews we will break with tradition and part of Torah if need be to maintain that ideal.

And then there is Ben. In ancient days our ancestors had no idea what autism was all about or how to deal with autistic men and women. Ancient days? How about until a few years ago? Researchers are just beginning to understand the mystery of autism and we pray they will continue to discover the keys which will unlock the doors to assist these boys and girls, men and women to lead meaningful lives. This day we are witness to the miracle of research. Ten years ago we never could have imagined what we have all experienced this evening. The soul and brilliance of this beautiful child was barely visible, locked away. Modern technology, dedicated teachers and family have helped to create a new reality at which we marvel.

I am not about to allow Leviticus to tell me that he is not fit to lead us in prayer, to walk in the footsteps of the priests. Once again, I turn to Genesis to trump Leviticus. In the first chapter of Torah we learn that each of us is created in the image of God. Just as God is multi-faceted, so too is God’s image! Is God’s image limited to me, a middle aged, bald man or perhaps Tory, an attractive woman with two bad feet? I certainly hope not. Each of us is created in God’s image, male and female, short and tall, autistic or not. And we offer our thanks for the diversity of God’s creation.

On this Shabbat we embrace God’s Torah, the basis of what it means to be a Jew, even as we struggle with hidden meanings. May we possess the insight to learn and the commitment to search!

AMEN

The News From Israel

JULY 6, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, there is so much to tell you about Israel that it will take four weeks and more. I won’t force you to hear everything tonight. By touring the length and breadth of the land it is apparent to all that the economy is booming for many. That is not to say there is not a significant problem of poverty, there is. Still construction is constant in all the cities with cranes all over, and apartment buildings soaring into the sky. The tourists are back, not as many as before 2000, but they are back, especially busloads of Birthright young people.

Tonight, I will limit myself to a review of the major news stories, but from the Israeli perspective. Let me share what we heard from others and read in the daily papers. It makes a big difference in view when you are in the middle of the story, as we well know.

As we left the States, Civil War in Gaza was the major issue. Hamas and Fatah fighting for power is nothing new. The so called unity government between Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Haniyeh of Hammas was a sham. Each side was literally attempting  to kill the other. Fatah had a superior force militarily and with armaments, but when challenged by Hamas, Fatah officers fled and their soldiers followed. Massacres of Fatah soldiers ensued with disgusting barbarity. This was Palestinians killing Palestinians.

According to the Israeli newspapers, Hamas is as surprised as anyone to be in the position of power in Gaza. They never expected this result, but now have to deal with the responsibility. Essentially we have two Palestinian entities, one in Gaza and the other on the West Bank. Abbas claims both, but his words are empty.

Israeli policy continues to be a mess. The hope of the Gaza pull-out is now in shambles. The goal was that if they unilaterally withdrew, the Palestinians would leave Israel alone. It did not happen. Instead it emboldened Hamas and the foes of Israel.

The newspapers kept referring to the reality of Hamastan, a radical Islamic Taliban style religious government now on Israel’s border, a source of great fear and consternation. There is a recognition that the Palestinian have no unified leadership, not even in Hamas with a variety of factions and militias taking action. While in Israel, we daily read of the the British journalist, Alan Johnston of the BBC, being held captive by what was believed to be a group linked to Al Queda. He was released this week. There seems to be another group holding kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, whose story continues in Israel’s news daily along with those held in Lebanon. While in Israel Hamas leaders released a tape of Shalit asking to be free, claiming that he was not well. This was timed to take away the focus of Arab leaders meeting with Prime Minister Olmert in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. We know that Shalit is alive. There are serious doubts about those captured by Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, as a result of the civil war there are starving people in Gaza who need supplies that have to come from and through Israel. Here is the irony. Hamas wants the end of Israel, takes over Gaza, but Israel is criticized for not getting supplies to them fast enough. And still the Kassam rockets continue to fall on Sderot. Damage and death are light; terror and trauma are constant. The community is being strangled. Citizens never know when the next rocket will fall and if it will be deadly. You can imagine the stress.

Following the civil war, the United States has called for support of Abbas, the opening of funds and training his troops, now that his government is no longer linked to Hamas. Ehud Olmert is on board, though many question this policy. The fear is that the same inept, corrupt government that could not rule Gaza will not be any better in the West Bank. Hamas will wind up with the weaponry, just as it now has in Gaza. Newspapers reported that if a vote were taken today in the West Bank, Hamas would still win. Palestinians do not trust Fatah based on decades of arrogance and missed opportunities. They may not support Hamas in its violent positions, but they believe that Hamas can improve their lives more than Fatah.

Israel continues to be living in dangerous times in what seems like a no-win situation. If they retake Gaza, then what? Our guide suggested that for every Kassam rocket fired into Israel, shut off electricity, which Israel supplies for 3 hours…. Do something!!! All of a sudden Fatah is Israel’s friend? (in comparison to Hamas), but Fatah’s track record is not much better.

We know one thing- whatever Israel does to protect its citizens, it will be criticized by the world as wrong; it’s all Israel’s fault! The latest insult came while we were there. Britain’s University and College Union voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, in spite of attempts to thwart the move by ADL and others. Israel is depicted as the South Africa of the 21st century; of course it is hard for us to see it that way. David Forman, who spoke at Gates of Prayer two years ago and with our group, penned a column in the Jerusalem Post. He points to the hypocrisy of singling out Israel for being an oppressor, for having blood on its hands. As if the United States and the British are not occupying Iraq at this time; as if the division fence in Baghdad and along the Mexican border are somehow different from the defensive fence that Israel has been forced to build; as if the Palestinian Authority is a benevolent haven for academic freedom, while not considering suicide bombers, kidnappings and threats to destroy the country.

Forman is a realist, but also a liberal, part of Rabbis for Human Rights. The world is hypocritical, but he notes a grain of truth. Arabs in the West Bank do not have real democracy, though they are better off than many other Arabs, but we have higher expectations. In the name of security Arabs experience checkpoints, arrests and detention without trial, a security fence in some areas that makes no sense, but creates great hardship and numerous other injustices. Forman expects more of Israel, a society based on prophetic social justice. He does not believe Israel’s critics are justified, but concludes: “We have created a moral morass- and if it takes the hypocritical self-righteousness of some foreign pseudo-intellectuals and pig-headed unionists to open our eyes and alter this unacceptable reality, then something positive will ultimately be served.” We can agree or disagree with him. There is no doubt that similar words will not appear in the Palestinian newspapers or for that matter in most Arab countries.

Israel is a free and open democracy. The new/old leader of the Labor Party was elected- Ehud Barak, now Israel’s Minister of Defense. Ehud Olmert is in big political trouble with very low ratings in opinion polls. If elections were held today, Bibi Netanyahu would probably be the next Prime Minister. It was pointed out to us that a problem of Israel’s political system is that it recycles old leaders and limits upward mobility. We see the same people over and over again.

Shimon Peres finally wins a prestige position, but not Prime Minister, rather the Presidency of Israel- a role of honor, but not much power. He was elected to follow Moshe Katsav, drummed out of office for sexual harassment and charges of rape. Now the controversy is over the lightness of his sentence. Can you imagine a government leader receiving preferential treatment?

One last area arose in the news, which is dear to us as Reform Jews. The Jewish Agency for Israel was meeting in our hotel during our stay. They deal with many issues regarding programs and funding of cultural and humanitarian activities. Leaders from ARZA, including our own Bill Hess, were very much involved. A resolution calling for the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, followed by an editorial in the Jerusalem Post calling for a severing of the link between the Orthodox political and religious parties from the State became a significant news story. It is one thing for this call to come from Reform and Conservative leaders, another from the Head of the Jewish Agency and others. There is a growing recognition in Israel by so-called secularists, even some religious, that there is a value for non-Orthodox Judaism in the land, that the restrictions upon recognition of our conversions in Israel, (particularly as concerns Russian and Ethiopian Jews) as well as other limitations is ultimately not in the best interest of Israel. We are few in number, but our influence is growing. We can see this by the popularity of the few Reform/Progressive synagogues that are operating in Israel. Parenthetically, one Reform rabbi shared that while we Reform Jews rightfully feel discrimination, there is a certain oppression of the observant by the secularists that is also felt.

Friends, I am glad to be home. I love New Orleans and this country, even with all the flaws of which we are aware. At the same time, as a Jew I have a special link to the land of Israel. We all do. As Yehuda Halevi, the Sephardic Jewish poet of the Golden Age of Spain, put it: “My heart is in the east, while I am in the west.”

 

AMEN

It Can’t Start With A Lightbulb

May 12, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            This coming Sunday, GoPTY our synagogue youth group will start selling light bulbs as a fund raiser. The proceeds of the sale will help our teens underwrite the program for the Fall conclave of NFTY Southern, which we will be hosting. So, for that reason alone I encourage you to purchase these light bulbs.

Of course GoPTY is not the first youth group to sell light bulbs nor will they be the last, but these light bulbs are different. They not only illuminate, they reflect Jewish values and a contemporary moral commitment. It all started when our teens returned from the NFTY National Convention. Mica, my daughter, comes home and informs us that we need to replace all of our light bulbs with the new “compact fluorescent bulbs,” since they not only last longer, but they use less energy, thus saving money in the long run on electric bills and more importantly contribute to preventing global warming. Now, I love my daughter and she is often politically conscious, but environmentalism was something new for her.

Then along comes Sally Bronston, another one of our super-charged committed teens, who also attended the same convention. She advocated for a religious school wide awareness program on saving energy, which we may do in the Fall, but have run out of time in this school year. So for right now, the teens are selling light bulbs, which is part of a national project by NFTY to not only sell bulbs, but raise awareness. My friends, our youth are at the vanguard of a major social movement. What the civil rights movement was to the youth of the 50’s and 60’s, what the anti-war movement was to the generation of the 60’s and 70’s, where in each case it was the youth who took the lead to bring about major social change in our society, the cause of environmentalism and climate change is the issue for our youth in our time. And the solution can all start with a light bulb.

Of course I am not so naïve as to believe this is an uncomplicated non-partisan issue. Oprah is encouraging these bulbs on her program, so of course Rush Limbaugh is mocking it on his airwaves. I imagine that many of you have seen the academy award winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth”, primarily connected with former Vice President Al Gore. His “inconvenient truth” is that there is a major environmental challenge to the world as we know it and that if we do not change our lives, it could be devastating. We might have to inconvenience ourselves, even pay more in the process, but the danger is before us. He deserves credit for championing this issue, but in some ways I wish the film was not linked to him. His prominent involvement creates a political target, when it primarily deserves center stage as a global crisis. On the other hand, without his advocacy the film might never have been produced. Regardless, it is hard to keep this kind of issue out of the political realm, since it will primarily be addressed by global governmental action, which means it is a political issue as well.

What is the issue and why are we talking about it in the context of our worship service? Scientists have determined that as a result of emissions from cars, factories and power plants producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, there is now more of this gas in our atmosphere than there has been in 650,000 years. When this gas remains in the atmosphere it acts like a blanket holding in heat, raising the overall temperatures throughout the world, having the effect of a greenhouse. So far the resultant problems are relatively minor, but there is the potential for cataclysmic events.

Among the problems that we are already facing is the melting of the ice caps at the North and South Poles. They are measurably diminishing, pouring massive amounts of water into our oceans, raising their level worldwide. If this continues it could result in flooding along major coastal areas. We are not just talking about the Louisiana wetlands of which we here are very aware, but also south Florida, coastal Massachusetts and California, even Manhattan, not to mention locales throughout the rest of the world.

Doctors at the Harvard Medical School have reported an increase in outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, encephalitis and others. These are all carried by disease carrying-mosquitoes and rodents, which seem to flourish with these warmer temperatures.

And what of the impact upon our weather? There are those who argue that the super powerful hurricanes that have been experienced in recent years may also be attributable to the warmer waters off our coasts. Is it a coincidence that the number of category 4 and 5 storms has increased significantly since 1970? Yes, there are also those who disagree with that assessment. Perhaps you read Tom Friedman’s article this past week on the drought in Australia and how Aussies of all political colors are very much concerned about the climate change issue there.

I am not a scientist, nor the son of scientists. For that matter, science was always my worst subject. However, I am bright enough to realize that something is going on here which can have a major impact upon my life and more likely the lives of my children and grandchildren. There are too many people throughout the world, who do not have a political or economic agenda sounding the warning bells. We are not just speaking about events that will occur centuries from now, but it is much more imminent and we cannot ignore it.

I am not a scientist, but I am a Jew and our Jewish values speak to this moment and this issue as well. We begin with the concept that is based in the Book of Genesis. The rabbis understand that when God instructs Adam to use the earth as he sees fit, it was for the purposes of protection and development, not destruction. A later ideal evolves from the Book of Deuteronomy, known as Baal Tashchit. Just as we are not to destroy the fruit trees when making war, so too we are to care for our environment and avoid that which might threaten it. Perhaps most poignantly is a core concept of Judaism, “choose life that you and your descendants might live.” This problem, if not addressed immediately, will impact us and generations to come.

What steps can we take to make a difference? Let’s start with these light bulbs, which you can purchase from GoPTY, but also in most stores. It is estimated that lighting accounts for approximately 25% of the electricity we use, which is why for generations parents keep telling their children to turn off the lights. These CFL bulbs use 75% less energy than regular incandescent bulbs, while lasting much longer. One evaluation projects that if you replace 3 frequently used bulbs, you will prevent 300 lbs of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere and save $60 per year on your electric bill. Extrapolate from there if you change all the bulbs in your home. If every household in America replaced one bulb with a CFL, it might have the impact of removing the emissions of 1.3 million cars from the road.

Gasoline burning cars are of course another major source of the greenhouse gasses contributing to the problem. Ultimately we need to all be driving hybrids or cars that run on alternative fuels, but in the meantime, by simply ensuring that our tires are properly inflated and the air filters are clean, we will reduce gasoline consumption and carbon emissions. Try walking occasionally or carpooling.

One of my many frustrations since Katrina has been the cessation of recycling pick-ups. Have you noticed how much fuller your trash cans are now, by adding all those newspapers, glass and plastic bottles? Since I have not heard that it will start again, I propose that we place one of those big ugly paper dumpsters in our parking lot, so that we can bring our appropriate paper products for recycling. Just think every time you come to services, you can drop off the week’s newspapers first, thus performing two mitzvot at one stop. Save a tree and you add more oxygen into our air.

There are numerous other ways that by our own actions we can make a small difference, such as: only run the dishwasher when it is completely full, adjust thermostats down when it is cold and up when it is warm, replace air conditioning filters regularly, check and insulate the water heater, plant a tree, take shorter showers, un-plug unused electronics, weatherize the house, switch to double pane windows and many other relatively easy steps. All of these will contribute to less energy use and therefore fewer emissions into the atmosphere. The side benefit will be lower energy costs.

Each individual, doing his and her part can make a difference. This requires not only a personal commitment, but a national commitment. Our elected officials from all parties need to know that this is an essential issue for the ultimate well being of us all. The reduction in air pollution, higher standards for gas mileage, cleaner burning power plants can only be accomplished with governmental action. The United States, which produces 25% of the greenhouse gasses in the world, though with only 4% of the population, has a responsibility to be leading the world to address this problem, not just contributing to it, along with the other major industrialized nations.  I realize that lesser dependence on fossil burning fuel will adversely affect the economy of this region. Oil profits and a flush state treasury are nice, but it will not do much good when we are covered by water. We have already had a taste of that possibility and it is unacceptable.

Our Torah portion this Shabbat includes a series of blessings and curses, the response for adherence to God’s teachings. Clearly, blessed shall we be if we care for the earth that God has entrusted to us and cursed shall we be if we do not. It can all start with a light bulb.

AMEN

 

 

Resources for this sermon came from The Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) and the North American Federation of Temple Youth. (NFTY)

Annual Meeting Rabbi’s Report

MAY 6, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            The Jewish calendar and the synagogue calendar are not always in sync, but occasionally they mesh just right. This Shabbat we will read the end of the Book of Leviticus, including a series of blessings that come from fulfilling God’s commandments and curses if one does not. Next week we commence with the Book of Numbers. So too, with this annual meeting we close one book, one administration of leadership and reflect on the year past, as well as look to the next administration and the year to come.

The Haftarah, from Jeremiah continues on the theme of blessings and curses with the verses: “Blessed are those who trust in the Eternal, whose trust in the Eternal! They shall be like a tree planted near water, sinking its roots into the watercourse, never noticing when the heat comes, its leaves green, careless of times of drought, never failing to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)  The suggestion is that faith, not simply belief in God, but active faith, which includes prayer, study and ongoing acts of goodness, can be an anchor to people; faith, which links an individual with a community of likeminded men and women, can make a difference in people’s lives.

Interestingly, recent studies in our Jewish community have indicated the truth of this. Those who are faithful, who are linked to their religious communities, who attend services statistically feel less stress than those who do not, as they deal with the ongoing challenges of post-Katrina New Orleans. Specifically they have less trouble concentrating, sleep better (not during the services), have more energy, are not as nervous and have less difficulty settling down. While I would like to tell you that this is unique to the Jewish community, that would not be true. Nonetheless, this study simply validates what Jeremiah taught over two thousand years ago.

Our goal this past year, even more so than in other years, was to provide outstanding programs, recreate a sense of the normal, build upon the strengths of the members who are here and start thinking about the future. I believe that we have been eminently successful in our endeavors, as you will hear from our President Miriam Latter in a few minutes.

This was a year where lay and professional leadership really needed to step up and I believe all have succeeded. I begin with our lay leaders and as you read in our May bulletin, I cannot provide any more accolades for Miriam. Her caring soul was the perfect fit at this time in our congregational history. Through her commitment to outstanding programming, she has nurtured, fed, entertained and led us with excellence. She wisely surrounded herself with capable officers, board members and past Presidents, taking charge where she deemed it appropriate and strategically delegating as well. Chazak, you have been strong as you complete this term of leadership and with a new slate of officers to be approved later today, Chazak, we will continue to be strong as we move to the future.

Our professional team continues to be creative and responsive to the challenges of New Orleans synagogue life. The addition of Melanie Blitz as Nursery School Director has already lifted that program tremendously. Many of us knew Melanie primarily as a gifted caterer. However, her talents, insights and abilities extend beyond the kitchen.

With her life-long links to this congregation, she fit in perfectly with the total operation and the rest of the professionals. We continue to be blessed with Phil Gaethe as our Temple Educator and I am so pleased for him that this summer he will participate in the NATE Educators Seminar in Israel; with Victoria May, whose multiple talents both musical and editorial and care for this synagogue are apparent to all; with Louis Geiger, our Temple Administrator, who has the duty of managing this physical plant and the constant level of activity, making sure we are fiscally sound, while calming the nervous B’nai Mitzvah parents, who want everything to go perfectly. They all work hard and do a marvelous job, supported admirably by Dianne Green, Monica Dittfeld, Sheila Freedman, Jenny Ermatinger and Michelle Bassham, along with the various men and women who comprise our custodial staff. This is a big operation and it takes quite a team to make it run smoothly.

I must confess that as I look at the coming year, I am excited about the opportunities that are before us. Our members can continue to sink their roots.

Twenty years ago, we celebrated Israel at 40 with a year long program of activities relating to Israel on a variety of levels. This year, the entire community unites to celebrate Israel at 60. We will try to coordinate, so that the whole community can enjoy activities without overlapping on individual programs. Our Fall and Spring Continuing Education classes will relate to Israel and I am hopeful that our friend Rabbi Micky Boyden will be back to share a weekend of learning. I am encouraging Brotherhood and Sisterhood, always vital components of our synagogue life, to plan Israel related programs as well in addition to their other numerous possibilities.

I am pleased to see that our Friday evening worship attendance is picking up a bit. Tot Shabbats have been enhanced by the involvement of Melanie Blitz, who has created complimentary art projects to go along with the worship. Similarly our Family Shabbat services have been popular and well attended by and large.

However, I would like to introduce a new program a few times in the coming year called “Synaplex”. Just as you walk into the Cinemaplex of the Palace Theater and choose among a variety of options, the same can take place here on a Shabbat. All begin with dinner, but then there will be a variety of Shabbat activities from which you can choose: a Jewish theme related movie, yoga, Jewish meditation, a regular service, Israeli dance, Torah study, art activities and I can go on. This kind of program has energized many a congregation throughout the country and I would like to see us give it a try. I think it will be fun.

I envision new liturgy in the coming year. The much anticipated and delayed Mishkan Tefillah, the new siddur for the Reform movement, should be available shortly. We will examine it carefully and then decide if we would like to adopt it for the congregation. In addition our Yom Kippur Reflections service continues to be popular, but could use revision. I invite any who are interested in working on that project to let me know. We are also searching for new High Holy Day youth service options.

I’m also looking forward to renewing our Shabbat morning Torah Study program. Minimally it will entail me leading the study generally on the first Shabbat morning of the month, beginning with Bereshit in October. Hopefully the group will build and we will have weekly study offerings before we know it.

 

Our teens will be quite busy this Fall, as we host NFTY Southern’s Fall Conclave. With the theme of Jews Around the World, they will become more aware of what Jewish life is like beyond our borders. As a congregation we will have the responsibility of hosting teens from around the region, offering them home hospitality, so please be available the weekend of November 2-4. Phil Gaethe will present a special curriculum for Post Confirmation students and parents, called “Packing For College,” a URJ program to look at the Jewish challenges of selecting and going to college.

Katrina is still influencing who we are and what we do. We are preparing for the coming storm season with the lessons learned in the back of our minds. If you have not submitted updated contact information, please do so. The Religious Action Committee and Katrina Response Committee have provided us with opportunities to physically repair our city, gutting one house and building others. We continue to try and create a meaningful relationship with the Upper 9th and 7th Ward Women’s shelters. I am a bit frustrated that more of our members have not stepped up in these endeavors. I realize that some are still in the process of repairing their own lives, but many others do not have that excuse. In the year to come it is my hope that we will do better. Tikun Olam, repairing our world continues as one of our essential mandates.

Of course a fascinating outgrowth of Katrina has been the relationship with Congregation Beth Israel, which is still evolving. Last year we cooperated in one or two programs and I anticipate more of that in the coming year. They have hired their own rabbi, Uri Topolofsky, a man who is fully supportive of pluralism in the Jewish community. Truly, the linkage of our two congregations may be ground breaking in American Jewish life, but rest assured that it will not impact our approach to Judaism.

And so, as one year ends, a new one begins, just as in our ongoing reading of Torah. We pray that it will be another year of blessing.

 

Thank you

 

The Meaning Of Life – Vayechi

December 17, 2010

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            Friends, over the years I have never been one to shy away from challenging topics. However, tonight I am here to address the question of questions, the conundrum of conundrums, the ultimate of ultimate challenges. Perhaps you became excited as you noticed the title in the Temple bulletin, which arrived in your homes two weeks ago and was submitted to the editor over a month ago. Or maybe as you entered this evening and perused your program, you were surprised. But tonight is the night. Here, in this sanctuary, I, your humble rabbi, will attempt to answer the question: “What is the meaning of life?”

You might ask, “what chutzpah prompts me to tackle this subject?” As is often the case, the bulletin deadline was drawing near and I had to come up with a subject for the evening. Per usual, I looked to see what the Torah portion might be and discovered, “Vayechi,” which literally means, “And he lived.” Hence the subject- The meaning of life. Don’t become too excited. I am not so arrogant as to suggest that I have THE answer, but I will at least try to offer some insights based in our Jewish tradition.

In truth when people ask this variety of existential question: “What is the meaning of life?” what they are really asking is: Why am I in this world? Is there a purpose to my existence? These are questions to which there may not be an answer and like many questions, the reality is that regardless of how they are answered, we nonetheless have to deal with the related situations. For example: Someone who loses a job, experiences painful illness or a major disappointment might ask, “Why am I suffering?” Yes, an explanation might make coping with the moment easier, but it will not change the reality. You still have to adapt by looking for a new job, fighting the illness and dealing with disappointments. At times of death it is not uncommon to hear, “Why did so and so die?” Yet, no answer will bring them back.

So it is with our question for tonight, “What is the meaning of life?” Even if we find a satisfactory response, we still have to deal with each and every day. Thus the useful question is not “What is the meaning of life?’ but “How can I make my life meaningful?” Perhaps that is what we are really asking in the first place.

Let’s start with the Torah portion, the last in the Book of Genesis, the culmination of the story of Jacob and his family, Joseph with his brothers. The text begins by telling us that Jacob lived 17 years in Egypt and enjoyed a lifespan of 147 years. Ironically, Joseph was 17 when he was sold into slavery, so that means Jacob cared for Joseph during his first 17 years and reciprocally, Joseph care for Jacob for 17 years. Some suggest that during those intervening years, it was as if he was dead inside, living with the loss of his beloved son, along with the uncertainty as to what really happened. So perhaps the meaning of life is to be born and cared for by parents and then in their later years, we are here to care for those who gave us life. Many sitting here this evening are living that reality.

The portion then goes on to explain that knowing death was near, Jacob blessed his children and grandchildren. Rabbi Joseph Hertz comments by saying: “Of how few men can we repeat a phrase like, “Jacob lived”? When someone dies, a death notice appears in the press. In reality, it is a life notice; because for it the world would never have known that the person had ever been alive. Only those who have been a force for human goodness can be said to have lived.” From this we might say, that the meaning of life is to be a force for goodness.

Ironically there are two Torah portions that have a variety of the word for “life” in their titles: Chaye Sarah- The Life of Sarah and Vayechi- And he lived. In the first, we immediately learn of Sarah’s death and the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah for her burial, as well as for the future repose of the other matriarchs and patriarchs. Then with this week’s portion, we have the death of Jacob. The portion then goes on to focus on the legacy of Jacob, or in other words, the meaning of his life.

Clearly nothing prompts us to look at life and its meaning more than death. We attend funerals and hear the eulogy, to some extent reviewing and evaluating how an individual filled his/her life with meaning. Jewish tradition teaches us that each individual is different. Though we are all created in the image of God, how we fill our days with meaning will not be the same. Some will fashion great works of art, while others will uncover the scientific truths of the universe. Some will assume roles of public leadership, while others will privately make a difference in their small niche of the cosmos. Some will embrace large families, while others will live alone. There is no one formula, no single definition of living in a meaningful way. Just listen at those funerals and if you are like me, you will be amazed, uplifted and inspired to hear how each of God’s creatures has gone about the task of attaining meaning in their lives.

Fortuitously, while reflecting upon having to write this sermon and in truth having no idea what I might say, I came across a cassette tape that had literally been sitting in my brief case for over five years. When many of us were in Houston in the aftermath of Katrina, one of my former colleagues from Congregation Emanu El gave me a recording from a radio interview of Rabbi Levi Olan that I had conducted in 1978. Rabbi Olan, the eminent sage and philosopher, former rabbi of the other Emanuel in Texas in Dallas, was going to be a scholar in residence and was dedicating his lectures to be in honor of one of my mentors, Rabbi Robert I. Kahn, who was about to retire from Houston Emanu El after 35 years as founding rabbi. (It’s usually at this point when telling a story at home, that Lynn will say, “Get to the point already!”) I know, this is way more detail than you probably want, but there will be a point to what I am saying.

Rabbi Olan’s subject was to address the role of the prophets in their time and in ours. So I’m listening to this tape, primarily focused upon how inexperienced and naïve I was to be interviewing this giant of Reform Judaism, when I hear Rabbi Olan provide the answer to our question for tonight. Very succinctly, he states that the prophets teach us: “The meaning of life is for man to be the helper of God for ultimate salvation.” Let me repeat that in 2011 terminology: The meaning of life is for everyone of us to be an aide to God in perfecting our world, so that one day all will be perfection. The Jewish teaching is that each of us must look at the world as imperfect, but we cannot wait for God to wave a magic wand and make it all better. We must take it upon ourselves to bring about salvation, another word for wholeness, perhaps temporary, but leading to continual peace. In this way we are God’s helpers, to act in God-like fashion, an alternative way of understanding the idea that each of us is created in the image of God.

Rabbi Olan then goes on to cite a few prominent prophetic teachings to support his thesis. Isaiah provides us with the image of salvation, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when swords will be beaten into plowshares and we will sit under our vines and fig trees with none to make us afraid. The prophetic meaning of life is to be an “Or lagoyim- a light unto the nations,” as we spread God’s teachings. Lest you feel as though you must perform Nobel prize worthy acts to fulfill this exhortation, the prophet Micah comes along with his wisdom: “It has been told you what is good and what God requires of you, only to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

Later on Rabbi Akiba in the Talmud will suggest that the greatest single teaching, which will lead to that same sense of wholeness and perfection in the world is found in the Book of Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Through our daily activities, acting in caring and decent fashion with a sense of fulfilling God’s teachings, we can discover the meaning of life.

As you might imagine, I was quite excited to have found the answer to “what is the meaning of life,” so I called a dear colleague, currently serving Rabbi Olan’s congregation in Dallas. First I wanted her to know that I was sending her the tape for their archives and how it helped to answer the question of questions. She then reminded me how timely this message was, serving as a contrast with our Christian neighbors. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, who according to Christianity came to this world to bring about ultimate wholeness and by Easter time to die for the sins of humanity. For our Christian friends and neighbors salvation comes through faith, whereas for Rabbi Olan and Judaism, salvation comes through our actions.

Much of what I have presented so far is quite abstract and theoretical. Perhaps another response to our question might feel more personal and so I continued my search. I did not have to go far. Here’s where Rabbi Robert I. Kahn, one of my mentors, another giant of Judaism, one of the two men who first brought me on as an Assistant Rabbi comes in. I looked through a collection of his sermons and in his very last found another answer. Upon the occasion of his retirement weekend, he shared the following:

“If I have led, it’s because you have followed. This is the deepest truth I have learned as a rabbi: that nothing really important gets done in the world except by volunteers, people who are not content just to go to work and bring home a paycheck and raise a family, but people who are concerned for their world, and for the quality of life that their children will have.”… He goes on to describe the everyday activities of synagogue life in partnership with his congregation, men and women performing the basic deeds to make programs, sustain institutions, help others and then I became excited as he states… “the real meaning of life and the achievements and quality of life come out of this sharing of work beyond any material reward.”

The meaning of life for Bob Kahn is to be found in relationships, not financial and material awards or accomplishments, not recognition or fame, but working in this world, shoulder to shoulder with others to make a difference, not necessarily anything grandiose, but basic everyday living.

My friends, I’m sorry to tell you that I do not have THE answer to the meaning of life, but I do have a variety of responses that will make our lives meaningful. We learn from Joseph and Jacob that we bring life into the world, care for our children when they are young and with the passage of time, they care for us. If that is all we do, we have glimpsed the meaning of life. We learn from Jacob’s death that each of us leaves a legacy behind and only then can we determine if we have led lives of meaning. Rabbi Levi Olan, with the support of the Prophets of Israel, teaches us that the meaning of life is to be a helper of God in bringing about salvation, or as we might say it today, to be partners with God in Tikun Olam, repairing our world. Or with Rabbi Kahn we find meaning in everyday relationships and making a difference. There is no single answer to the meaning of life, but many paths to making life meaningful. Let us all continue together on that journey.

AMEN

Iraq

March 30, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

      We are in the midst of March Madness, the time of year when many of us become

avid fans of college basketball. I was listening to two sports reporters the other day describe a classic past battle between University of Michigan and Southern Illinois, teams which included NBA legends, Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd. The commentator recalled how while watching the game, his co-announcer said, “looking at these two teams, if I was to start an NBA franchise, I would select… Greg Kelso.” So much for insight and prognostication!

In a similar vein, but on a much more serious subject, I am here to say that I was

wrong! As many will readily tell you, I do not use those words too often, but tonight I am here to tell you that I was wrong. Granted I was wrong along with many others and I was wrong due to misinformation. Note, I am qualifying and rationalizing, but nonetheless I was wrong.

What was I wrong about?…. Supporting the war in Iraq in 2003. Four

years have passed, more than the time of U.S. involvement in World War II. I’m not sure which is more frustrating for us in New Orleans, the governmental response to Katrina or the handling of the war in Iraq. There are many similarities. It began with high expectations, then plummeted by reality. Clearly we are witness to a failure of Federal Government to do what it says it will do. There has been open deception, which leads to suspicion and lack of faith in leadership. The big difference is that 3000 U.S. troops have been killed, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and there is no end in sight.

The War in Iraq is continually in the news, as it should be. Congress has now voted for a pullout with timetables. President Bush threatens a veto, trying to paint opponents as undermining the good men and women fighting for freedom and democracy and the War on Terrorism, appealing to a macho mentality when suggesting that his opponents simply wish to “cut and run” by surrendering.

Let’s be clear on what all of us support: We all care about our men and women, and other nations’ soldiers, who risk their lives for duty; this includes the chaplains who serve them. We all want to see continued funding for the troops who are in Iraq to be able to do their jobs. This includes armor, supplies and weaponry, some of which have not been adequately provided throughout this war. We also recognize the need for generous health care and benefits for military members and their families. The effects of war last long beyond the battlefield. The Veterans Administration must also be provided with quality facilities and funding in order to offer life-long care for the wounded and their families.

So far what I have said is no different than what you can read in the newspaper, Newsweek or Time. What is it that I can say that is different? You should know that I am prompted to speak at this time based on a resolution passed by the board of our Union for Reform Judaism in recent days. What is a URJ resolution? These resolutions are a way that we as an organized Jewish community bring the strength of numbers as we speak what we see as truth to power. Our message reflects an interpretation and application of Jewish values to critical issues of our time.

They are not simply Jewish Democrats outnumbering Jewish Republicans. As in all Jewish matters, there are different opinions, so that the resolution in its body makes it clear that it does not represent the views of every Reform Jew, nor does it imply that if you do not agree, you are a not a good Jew. It reflects consensus and is consistent with earlier resolutions.

In preparing for tonight I looked at my archives and the sermon I wrote for January 31, 2003. At that time, using traditional Jewish legal understandings, we spoke of a possible war with Iraq as a “milchemet reshut- a discretionary war.” This type of war was permitted, only when there was a clear threat, following serious and honest deliberation with appropriate authorities, and only then with a variety of restrictions. And so I wrote the following in 2003: “I believe it is fair to say that Iraq is a threat to the United States and its allies. Iraq has attacked Kuwait and Israel in the past, both allies of the United States. Iraqi links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups which have attacked either the United States or its allies seem clear. Whether it is an imminent threat or simply potential is no longer meaningful in our day… The goal is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. The goal is to end the regime of Saddam Hussein, to rid them of a reign of terror that has swept that nation for a generation or more.”

The problem is that not only me, but most Americans reached this same conclusion, but based on erroneous information. The bi-partisan 9/11 Commission has made it clear that “Saddam was not close to developing or obtaining nuclear or biological weapons, that his chemical weapons capacity was almost eliminated, and that he did not cooperate with Al Qaeda in attacks on the United States.” (URJ Resolution) I now believe that the Bush Administration had this information and did all in its power to mislead the American public in order to proceed with a tunnel vision agenda.

I am certainly no fan of Saddam Hussein and I might still have wanted to see him removed regardless of the faulty information, but the missteps that followed are grounds for a reassessment. David Saperstein, the head of our Reform Religious Action Center has put it this way: “The war has vividly demonstrated the limits of American power to reshape the world in accordance with our vision and interests…. Our bombs may be smart, but our tactics from the moment the occupation began, have not been. American setbacks curtail our ability to project our power and pursue our interests.”

So where are we now and how do our Jewish values speak to the situation? Jewish tradition teaches us to continually “seek peace and pursue it.” U.S. policy has been heavy on military and light on diplomacy from the very beginning. With the factional fighting, outside influences and a light base of support for U.S. involvement within Iraq, the diplomatic path is required, including to dialogue with those with whom we disagree.

The reality of the war has been that thousands of Iraqis have been killed. Their land is in turmoil including their agriculture and economy. The URJ resolution looks at the Jewish value of Baal Tashchit, the Biblical idea that we are not to destroy fruit trees in the course of war. In later Rabbinic teachings, this principle has evolved into the idea that “war should be fought in a manner so as to allow normal civilian life to resume after the war…. The failure of the U.S. government to secure the civilian infrastructure in the aftermath of the successful invasion and the failure in the following three years to rebuild effectively ignores these values.” (URJ resolution)

These are not simply the views of the URJ, but they are cited as a major reason of the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq by the bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton Report, a group created and then ignored by the Bush administration.

In halacha, Jewish law, we learn that if the rabbis apply law to a situation and unintended consequences are the result, then the implementation of the law can be changed or suspended. In other words, as any fool knows, “my mind is made up don’t confuse me with the facts” is not a sound maxim for foreign policy. There is a time to say “I was wrong.” and change course. The American people have voted to make that statement. Now the Congress reflects that vote. I concur with the URJ and many others that now is a time for a change in policy.

Last March in a statement on Iraq by the CCAR our Reform Rabbinic body shares our dilemma in trying to decide what is right. “Some who supported the war now think we should withdraw immediately, while some who opposed the war believe we cannot begin to leave until the situation stabilizes. Opponents of immediate withdrawal argue that the U.S. should not establish a timetable for withdrawal because if we withdraw too soon, Iraq will devolve into civil war and become a haven for terrorists. Opponents also note that if we set deadlines and then fail to meet them, we will be perceived as weak by our enemies. Supporters of a more imminent withdrawal argue that Americans and Iraqis continue to die as a result of the insurgency, and that rather than maintaining order in Iraq, the presence of the United States as an occupying power engenders resentment and resistance from the populace and creates sympathy for the insurgents to continue fighting.”

That was last March. This is now and hundreds of lives have been lost in between. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but can see that the current policy of our government is not the way. Stay the course, does not always reach the desired destination. Stubbornness and arrogance are closely related.

I support the basic message of our URJ resolution which begins by first calling for the moral and financial support of our troops in the field and when they come home, along with economic support for Iraq to rebuild its infrastructure. Most significantly the resolution states that the President should announce a clear timetable for the phased and expeditious withdrawal of troops from Iraq and opposes an escalation in troop strength. Third there is a call for reconciliation talks among all effected interested parties, including international involvement. At this time, this seems to be the prudent course of action to bring peace and a future to the region and the world.

Friends, I could be totally wrong again. But I can not be silent and we should not be silent. I approach this issue not in a partisan way, but according to the Jewish principles that I believe apply to this situation. I certainly can respect those who disagree and interpret tradition and the political possibilities differently than I do.

I conclude with the same words I wrote in 2003: “May God bless America with the vision to see the full diplomatic landscape with clarity, with the wisdom to discern between truth and deception, with the strength to bring greater peace and security to our land and the world. Oseh Hashalom- May the ultimate source of peace bring peace.”

AMEN