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Nurturing Souls: Learning for Life III. “Make Your House a Gathering Place for the Wise”

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

Stanford University
University Public Worship

19 July 2009/27 Tammuz 5769

Summer Sermon Series

(Ex. 19:16-25; Deuteronomy 5:6-19)

I have been rapt this past week, watching the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.  I have been fascinated not only by the dance on display between two of our branches of government or by the partisan sparring dressed in smiles.  It is the nominee herself I find magnetic– her calm demeanor when she is confronted by hostile questions about her temperament or her patient tone as she untangles the political and legal barbs thrown her way. She seems, you’ll pardon the pun, supremely comfortable with the battle being fought with words, with the challenges being thrown at her, an unflappable and capable choice worthy of the cool-as-a-cucumber president who nominated her.

In watching Judge Sotomayor, so at ease in the hallowed halls of government, it is easy to forget her origins, the oft-repeated story of her rise from the projects to the Ivy League. But hers is a hard fought accomplishment. As commentator Keli Goff has written, “Unlike many of her white classmates, and colleagues, Sotomayor has had to be fluent in multiple languages to make her way in the world. The languages I am referring to are not English and Spanish. I am referring to the additional cultural languages that those of us who are minorities learn to speak at our Ivy-league universities, or in the workplace or at a cocktail reception or on the golf course or at the country club. For some minorities making the transition from their ethnically, racially and economically segregated communities at home, into their predominantly white, predominantly middle and upper class colleges and universities, can feel a lot like heading to a foreign country. (I can imagine that going from a Bronx housing project to Princeton like Judge Sotomayor did, would be enough of a culture shock that one might feel the need for a Frommer’s travel guide),”  Goff says.

A journey, much like Judge Sotomayor’s, is movingly described in A Hope in Things Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League.  In 1994, Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind met a top student in a blighted D.C public school, where the principal told the journalist that this young man was “too proud” for his own good.  Wanting to understand what this could mean, for three years, Suskind shadowed Cedric Jennings, a smart black kid from the projects, the son of a heroin-addicted, incarcerated father, and a religious, single mother.  His mother worked tirelessly to protect Cedric from the surrounding drugs, bullets and despair, to make a home for him in the church and to instill in him, “a hope in things unseen.” That hope was to excel and to aim high.  Cedric strove to attend MIT.

The book describes Cedric’s junior and senior years in high school, the taunts he absorbed for being studious, and the isolation he felt holding fast to his dreams while the other smart kids chose instant gratification over long term accomplishment.  He did get accepted into and attended a summer math program at MIT designed for gifted minority students.  But Cedric’s excitement turned to confusion when he realized that nobody in the program came from the inner city–all of his classmates were from middle class communities with considerably more resources and better preparation at their disposal. There he struggled; eventually, the teacher who ran the summer program, informed Cedric that he wasn’t “MIT material”, and he need not apply. Realizing how inferior his school was, how far behind he was, even with considerable talent and single-minded determination, Cedric hopes were dashed.  He was forced to reassess his plans and to search again for new hope in things unseen.  Literally. Sight unseen, he applied early decision to Brown University and he was accepted.  Cedric’s first year at Brown, chronicled in the book, was filled with culture shock at every turn. He and his wealthy white roommate warily occupied the same space—but they lived in radically different realities. He bonded with just one friend over a mutual love of music—the son of the now doubly famous Bill Ayers and fellow radical, Bernadine Dohrn.

While academic life was what had drawn him to Brown, he was no more at home in the classroom than in the dorm.  This proud and accomplished high school student took all his first semester college classes pass-fail out of fear that he couldn’t make the grade.  But even in the midst of a struggling and difficult first year, an education class he casually added to his schedule set him on an unanticipated path.  Sitting in the back of a junior high school classroom for a field education seminar, Cedric identified with the poor kids in the crowded, underfunded Providence school.  Their teachers, the neighborhood and the state had forsaken them, but Cedric recognized their unacknowledged gifts. His empathy led him to learn more, to write passionately on their behalf, and ultimately to careful, thoughtful analysis and advocacy.  Cedric Jennings ended up majoring in education at Brown, and then getting a Masters in Education at Harvard. He has since earned a second Masters in social work from Michigan, and returned to D.C. to serve as a social worker and a youth minister, and to give others a hope in things unseen.

“Make your house a gathering place for the wise. Sit attentively at their feet and with thirst, drink in their words,” the Talmud teaches.   How tenacious and eager, yet how solitary Cedric was in his efforts to find a gathering place for the wise, to attain an education; yet, having done so, he has reached out his arms, working to open the doors to others, using his learning and wisdom to better the lives of those still suffering the poverty and deprivation he left behind. His time in a gathering place for the wise taught him how to straddle two worlds, two cultures, to learn two languages and then to translate from one to the other.  He models the value of bringing into the educational house, people who had previously had their faces pressed up against the windowpane. What is striking about Cedric’s experience is how hard won it was for him to be not just admitted, but actually welcomed, into that gathering place for the wise. What is the responsibility of the of the educational institution, of the scholars that fill its rooms with wisdom?

The rabbinic commentary, Avot d’ Rabbi Natan likens a gathering place for the wise to a religious enterprise. “When a renowned scholar comes to the city you shall not say: “I need him not,” but go to him; and do not sit before him on the bed, chair, or bench, but on the floor; and every word that comes from his lips, receive with awe, terror, fear, and trembling, for so our ancestors received the Torah from Mount Sinai… ‘Drink their words as a thirsty man drinks water,’ says Rabbi Akiva.”

Those whose path to learning is not one of ease, but one of struggle, those who metaphorically sit on the hard, cold floor, rather than in comfort, understand how precious is learning.  Such students know the cost of acquiring wisdom, of traversing worlds, of leaving the accepted familiar for the elusive, but beckoning dream.

This week, when President Obama spoke at the Centennial of the NAACP, he referenced those struggles—and the unending potential of education.  He said, “There’s a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools. There’s a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There’s a reason why the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob. It’s because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child’s God-given potential.”

Our colleges and universities are our culture’s gathering places for the wise.  The best scholarly minds in the country are found in their midst.  The most intellectually curious students fill their classrooms.  Those who shape educational institutions, those who create houses of learning, must remember that students come with all manner of thirsts.  Some who are thirsty may be like Judge Sotomayor and Cedric Jennings, whose initial experiences of being overwhelmed in the Ivy League led them not to abject despair, but to fierce determination—their thirst caused them to work hard, to prove themselves and to excel.  Others who are thirsty may be like the only daughter of two academics, who had been waiting all of her young life to go to college and find peers as enthusiastic about ideas as she is.  Still others who are thirsty may be like the college president who, after having survived cancer, went back to a liberal arts college as a freshman, wanting to learn not facts and techniques, but the meaning of life.   Or some who are thirsty may be like the students we see all too often here at Stanford who have, in the words of Duke President and former Dean of Yale College, Richard Brodhead, “a habit of chronic high achievement, an incorrigible addiction to success.”   Their thirst is for greater and greater accomplishment, and their nightmare is the ever-present threat of failure.  They live in terror of disappointing those who have faith in them, sometimes the very people with outsized expectations of them.  It is the responsibility of those shaping those gathering places for the wise not only to provide drink, but also to honor a vast array of thirsts.

Isaiah (55:1) teaches, “ Hoi kol tzamei lechu lamayim–All who are thirsty, come for water.” The rabbis explain, mayim chayim–living water– is a metaphor for the teachings of Torah, for teaching.  And Amos (8:11) prophesies, “Behold there will come a time when God will send a famine into the land.  Not a hunger for bread, or a thirst for water, but rather to hear the words of the Eternal.”

A house that is a gathering place for the wise honors the thirsts of those who enter it, and within its walls, scholars slake that thirst with teachings of truth, with learning that enters the heart, and with understanding that nurtures the soul.

My friend Lee Shulman, past President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes how he came to recognize such thirsts.  In his contribution to the NPR series, “This I Believe” Lee began by saying that he believes in pastrami. Or at least, the quality of pastrami that is marbled– mixed together, rather than layered– a metaphor for both life and teaching, a metaphor that came to Lee from his days working in his father’s appetizing store in Chicago. He says, “When I started teaching college, my mentors warned me against having any interest in my students’ lives outside the classroom. In my first month on the job, I taught a 500-student class. One day a young woman came to my office to tell me she wouldn’t be able to complete all the course requirements. It turned out her husband had been killed in a car accident the month before. She was a 19-year-old widow. I then began to wonder about the other 499 students. Their stories may not have been as extreme, but I would have been a fool to think their lives wouldn’t have an impact on the classroom. Learning and living were marbled in my students’ lives, not layered. To teach, advise and mentor them, I needed to be sensitive and aware of their tragedies and celebrations, their ambitions and their anxieties.”

I have been exceedingly fortunate in that I studied with teachers who, like Lee Shulman, were sensitive and aware of the tragedies and celebrations, ambitions and anxieties of their students.  One of my fondest memories of the undergraduate professor to whom I am most indebted took place at his house, a house that was, indeed, a gathering place for the wise.   His study was filled, floor to ceiling with books.  In his living room, countless students had laughed and celebrated at festive end-of-class parties and argued passionately in enthusiastic and animated seminars.   When he retired, he invited several generations of his students to a large and lavish dinner in that living room.  At the end of the dinner, he spoke about each one of us, what we meant to him individually, and he gave to each of us a carefully selected book from his library, reflecting our unique intellectual and emotional connection with him.  I treasure that book.  I am an educator because of this man.  I am a rabbi because he had confidence in me.

Gathering places for the wise, by their very nature, are at once intimate and communal. Such houses are not empty vessels.  They are filled with students and teachers, with friends and seekers, with experimenters and adventurers. Gathering places for the wise are where we might experience awe, terror, fear and trembling, like those who felt the thunder and heard the lightening when they gathered together upon receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai.  But they are also the places where, like at Sinai, we can hear again the lofty words that elevate us into believing in the unseen. They are places where the unique relationship of teacher who is friend and friend who is teacher can be affirmed.  They are places where vistas can be broadened and new possibilities can be made real. They are the places where a learner’s aspirations for becoming more than she could have imagined on her own are inculcated. They are the places where those hungering for learning and thirsting for understanding can find sustenance and bounty. In those places, the wise, who unite head and heart, nurture not only individuals, but also the very soul of a community, and even, as President Obama reminds us, the soul of a nation.

Aseh lecha rav.  Kneh lecha chaver.  Yehi beitcha beit vaad lachachamim.  “Make for yourself a teacher.  Acquire for yourself a friend.  Make your house a gathering place for the wise.”  May each of our lives be enriched by teachers and friends.  May we make our houses and our schools places where the wise are at home.  May we be thirsty for their words and sustained by their wisdom, so that we, too may find hope in things unseen.  Amen.

Finding Our Center

Rosh Hashanah Morning

September 9, 2010 / 1 Tishrei 5771

Rabbi Charles K. Briskin


On a pleasant Sunday afternoon in June, I went to a rally at the Israel Consulate to show my solidarity with fellow lovers of Israel. I went because I was sad, angry, and conflicted about the Gaza Flotilla incident and I needed to be with people who love Israel unconditionally. I knew that my perspective might be different from many who were there. But that shouldn’t have mattered; after all, we came to show our support.

I had hoped to be uplifted. Instead I was brought down. The crowd cheered wildly to the most strident and unapologetic speakers. They were polite to the very few who were measured and nuanced. They were antagonistic to David Pine of Americans for Peace Now. This progressive Israeli peace organization once attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters to rallies in Tel Aviv. At this Los Angeles rally, its message was not heard. As Pine tried to speak he was booed and heckled. Despite the organizers efforts to quiet the crowd, they failed. This lover of Israel was silenced.

Whether they agreed with his left of center message or not, didn’t the rally-goers deserve to hear from one of the invited speakers? I’m pleased that the organizers included Pine on the dais. I’m angry that the crowd was not willing to listen. Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of the rally’s moderate speakers lamented its turn of events. “[It was] a tragic episode, filled with complexity and nuance, [that became] a Lakers’ rally, complete with flag waving, chanting and sloganeering.”[1]  Like Brous, I too, felt uneasy. I hoped to feel connected and uplifted. I left alone and disheartened.

We begin this New Year, with two seemingly intractable sides coming to the negotiating table. Do the initial conversations between Netenyahu and Abbas represent a ray of hope that will uplift us, despite the deep pessimism of most outside observers? What about our conversations?  Can we overcome the intractability between the right and the left?  Can we regain our center and listen to one another respectfully because despite our disagreements we share much in common.

Lovers of Israel desperately want a safe and secure Israel that can live peacefully with her neighbors. Lovers of Israel want its secular Democratic values to prevail. Lovers of Israel want Palestinians, the Arab world and much of the world to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish State. Lovers of Israel want her to remain the most moral, transparent, and free nation in the region. We will fiercely debate how to advance these goals, but let’s begin with finding safe and common ground for our discussions. If we turn a deaf ear to our fellow lovers of Israel, we will become more divided and we cannot afford this in our current climate.

The Days of Awe provide us with time for solitary and serious introspection. We look to the texts of our tradition for guidance and moral clarity. These days are intense; yet by Neilah hopefully we are uplifted and prepared to meet the New Year enthusiastically with promise and resolve. We renew our commitments to one another and to the communities we care about during the Days of Awe. We have difficult conversations that lead to healing. High Holy Days services draw us together in large numbers to reflect upon the year that was and imagine the year that will be.

As we begin 5771, where is Israel in your conversations and commitments?  What promise does Israel’s future hold? Will you listen to a different perspective from someone who loves Israel as you do? Can we work together to reach those who are sympathetic yet confused about Israel? Or those who are disengaged or indifferent? Can we find the appropriate language to discuss Israeli policies openly and when warranted critically, with mutual respect?

Is that so hard? It is in the current environment, but mutual respect must remain a goal. We need not look far to see why. Look at the deterioration of civil conversations in our country. There’s so much seething anger; recriminations abound and people no longer talk or debate; they just yell. This discontent has seeped into the Jewish community too as well and has flared occasionally here at Temple Beth El.  Some of our disagreements are about Israel’s policies and conduct. And unlike Israelis who engage in vigorous debates about the decisions of its leaders, American Jews are finding it more difficult to do the same.

Let me be clear; we must be vigilant in defending Israel against the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic canards we see too much, in the Guardian Newspaper, the anti-Israel blogosphere, and this week especially, Time Magazine. I hold Israel to a high moral standard as many of us do, but Israel must not be held to a different standard than other nations of the world. Politicians and diplomats who delegitimize Israel must be held accountable for their words and deeds.

So too must we hold Israel’s leadership accountable. Too often these days, thoughtful and measured critique from within the Jewish community is out of bounds. The prevailing attitude is, “You’re with us or against us.” To be with us means; accepting the conventional party line, keeping your concerns to yourself, and not asking questions. It’s the attitude that Brous and many other Jewish leaders are trying to counteract, but are finding themselves drowned out by the masses. Some are so entrenched in their positions that they can no longer come together in a safe and private setting to find common ground and work together to combat some of the more sinister and threatening attitudes towards Israel. Those who ask tough questions or who present a different perspective are feeling alienated or silenced. This cannot continue.

Despite some gaps, lovers of Israel share common ground. For example, we can agree that 5770 was a tough year for Israel’s politicians and diplomats. Some distress was the result of external forces; some they brought on themselves. Last fall’s Goldstone Report on the 2008-2009 battle with Hamas militants in Gaza; the ill-timed announcement of new building permits for disputed Jerusalem housing during Vice-President Biden’s March visit; the response to the Gaza Flotilla in May; the controversial conversion bill that the Knesset tried to move through committee this summer. Journalists, pundits and bloggers had a field day in the Israeli, international, American, and Jewish press.

It was difficult abroad as well. Boycott, divestment and sanction efforts against Israel continue, especially on college campuses in the United States and throughout Great Britain; Ambassador Michael Oren was disrupted repeatedly by the Muslim Student Association during a talk at U.C. Irvine. Despite increasingly robust sanctions, Iran is still advancing its nuclear weapons program. Hezbollah is amassing more powerful rockets along Israel’s northern border, and Gilad Shalit is still being held captive. This week we’re reacting to the incendiary cover article in Time Magazine, titled “Why Israel Doesn’t Care about Peace.”

Ongoing delegitimazation efforts are forcing progressive lovers of Israel to tack sharply to the right in response.[2]  Many in the Jewish community are hunkering down and turning inward while many of Israel’s staunchest supporters have taken such a hard line stance that the nuanced and critical debate that once was commonplace between lovers of Israel has ceased. Loving yet critical voices like Peace Now’s David Pine, rabbis and activists who support J-Street, social justice organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights, the New Israel Fund, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are being attacked by other Jews through scurrilous attacks and defamation campaigns.[3]

Many people are confused and conflicted. They want to make sense of what they are reading in the newspapers and seeing on television, and perusing online, but are having difficulty cutting through the rhetoric and propaganda.

Most of us who love Israel unconditionally believe that Israel remains very good. Nevertheless, we believe Israel can still do much better. Talking more openly with one another about how Israel can do better and opening our ears to different points of view will enlarge the debate for additional voices. It won’t be easy; however that approach, I believe, will engage those who have been disillusioned and confused. If we can create more room in the center to allow a thoughtful and open exchange of ideas, we will move the debate forward, for the good.

A more tolerant and receptive debate will enable us to highlight more powerfully what remains very good about Israel. For example, did you know that Israel’s economy is growing at its fastest pace since 2008; and with Israel’s acquiescence, Palestinian led development of infrastructure and business especially in Ramallah has resulted in dramatic economic growth? Both economies, mind you, are currently more robust that ours.

Did you know that the intense lobbying of President Obama and his administration led to Israel’s invitation to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development[4]?  This elite organization brings together advanced democracies that work to coordinate economic, social, environmental and financial policy. This achievement is certainly one remedy to delegitimization efforts.

You may find this hard to believe, but according to a recent Gallup poll, Israelis are among the happiest people in the world.[5]  It’s remarkable that despite Israel’s many existential threats, from the Islamic fundamentalism of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian Mullahs, to the Ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism of Israel’s rabbinate[6], Israelis enjoy full and enriching lives on the beaches of Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem’s synagogues.

This has been Israel’s reality since our spiritual homeland became a nation sixty two years ago.   The Jewish state demonstrates many contradictions. It was established by mandate of the United Nations in 1948, joining many of the modern Arab nations that too were carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and the British and French Mandates. Yet for decades the U.N has treated Israel like a pariah state, applying a different standard to her than to other nations and targeting her disproportionately with punitive resolutions and sanctions.

Israel is a secular democracy. Yet, the small minority of Haredi—Ultra Orthodox Jews yearn to establish a religious hegemony based on their narrow definition of what it means to be a Jew. Freedom of religion is one of Israel’s core values. Government funding maintains synagogues, churches and mosques. Yet non-Orthodox synagogues receive minimal support and non-Orthodox rabbis have no rabbinic authority. The government pays salaries of Orthodox Rabbis, priests and Imams. But not Reform rabbis.

Israel is the only true democracy in the region. It is a Jewish and democratic state that protects the civil rights of its Arab minority–twenty percent of Israel’s citizens. Yet, Israeli Arabs are often treated like second class citizens; so democratically elected Arab members of the Knesset freely critique Israel’s policies towards them from the floor of the Knesset.

Freedom of the press provides space for independent journalists to examine accusations of corruption, misconduct or malfeasance. Opinion pieces offer scathing critiques of Israel’s leaders or policies, and also permits as well racist and hateful invectives from Israel’s most zealous and dangerous demagogues.

Israelis celebrate their egalitarianism. Women are drafted into military service; Golda Meir was Prime Minister almost forty years ago, and women today hold positions of power and leadership. Yet in front of the Western Wall, its police arrest prominent civil rights activist Anat Hoffman for the “crime” of carrying a Torah scroll.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel has been the homeland of the Jewish people for thousands of years. Our people were born there. Abraham and Isaac journeyed for three days from Be’er Sheva in Israel’s south, to Mount Moriah, in Jerusalem where Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son. Hannah wailed in prayer for God to grant her a child. She did so in a temple near Shilo, north of Jerusalem. Israel’s prophets preached throughout the land; the great sages, Hillel and Akiva lived, taught and died in Eretz Yisrael.

The land of Israel resonates deeply within the Jewish soul. Yet we cannot ignore that Palestinian Arabs were living on this land when Israel became a nation sixty two years ago, and many were displaced during the Arab led campaigns against Israel.

These existential issues and many others will result in passionate conversations and debates. I hope we conduct them from a place of love for Israel and respect for one another. We who remain deeply engaged with Israel and think critically about Israel need to recognize these contradictions and acknowledge that there are no easy answers. We can be proud of her accomplishments, question some of her decisions and regret her failures.

We must be willing and able to discuss openly all facets of Israel, for like any young and maturing country, Israel is far from perfect. Unfortunately the loudest voices in the conversation today, her supporters and her detractors tend to represent the ideological poles. We cannot allow those few voices label all Israelis as colonizers, all settlers as zealots, all Palestinians as terrorists and all Arabs as anti-Semitic. We cannot reduce two diverse and complex peoples into two simplistic monolithic stereotypes.

Instead, we must find the middle ground between the narrow-minded, chauvinistic and misleading messages that emanate loudly from both sides. Strong emotions occupy the poles, but solutions are found in the center. If we want to shift the conversation, find more common ground and suggest solutions, we must listen to one another. We must address Israel’s challenges with one hand as we fight off the attacks of her enemies with the other. Our heartfelt critique and defense of Israel must come from our deep engagement with Israel—its land, people and state.

We must stop alienating Jews who struggle to develop their relationship with Israel by asking tough questions, expressing concern for a moral failure, or offering bold solutions. They do this from a place of love for Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel. The old tropes of Israel right or wrong; Israel never wrong; or Israel, always wrong can no longer be sung.

We need to regain our center with the nuance and balance that is missing today. So as we begin 5771, let’s make these promises to one another. Let’s pledge to discuss Israel openly with the love and respect she deserves, from different points along the ideological spectrum.

Let’s work harder to better understand, even if we don’t agree with other viewpoints. Let’s ensure a place in our community and our synagogue for supporters of AIPAC, J-Street and the New Israel Fund.

Let’s understand that we span an ideological spectrum from right to left yet can come together because we love Israel and will do what is necessary to ensure her survival. Let’s narrow the gap between the ideological poles, and reduce the shrill tones of our conversations. Let’s acknowledge our differences yet find a way to listen to one another. Our different opinions will help us better understand and appreciate the complexity and the nuance that is at the heart and soul of thoughtful conversations about Israel.

I dream of a day when a rally for Israel will draw people from the left and right, where AIPAC can share the stage with J-Street, where voices of moderation, mutual understanding and tolerance will prevail. I dream of a day when a rally for Israel will truly unite all lovers of Israel. Above all, wherever rallies are held, I hope and pray that the maker of peace on high will bring peace to us, to all Israel and all the peoples of the earth. Oseh Shalom Bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al Kol Yisrael, v’kol yoshvei tevel, vimru,  AMEN

My thanks and appreciation to my friend, Steve Beitler for his thoughtful analysis, and to my friend and colleague Rabbi Zachary Shapiro of Temple Akiba, Culver City, CA for our fruitful exchange of ideas in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

[1] Rabbi Sharon Brous; The Narrowing of the Heart and Mind: American Jewish Response to the Flotilla. The Jewish Journal, June 11, 2010

[2] Look at blog postings by Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL for examples of these shifts.

[3] One of the most vicious has been the campaign to discredit the New Israel Fund.

[5]  Israel was tied for 8th on this list, with Canada, Switzerland and Australia. The United States was 14th.

[6] See Michael Oren “Seven Existential Threats” in the  May, 2009 edition of Commentary Magazine.

Sermon regarding women at the wall

Saturday January 16th, 2010 1 Shevat 5770

Rabbi Stephen Wise


Many of you probably heard the recent news out of Jerusalem, that a woman was arrested by Jerusalem police at the Western Wall, the Kotel, one of our most sacred sites in all of Israel. What was her crime? Publicly wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl traditionally worn by men.

Nofrat Frankel, the woman arrested, was participating in the Rosh Chodesh (first of the month) prayer service organized by the Women of the Wall.
Since 1988, this group has convened monthly on the women’s side of the Kotel to read from a Torah scroll, pray, and sing out loud.


Traditional Judaism does not accept these practices, and as Dr. Phyllis Chesler, one of the group’s founders writes, “Women have always prayed at the Kotel, often silently, and alone. What made this service radically different, certainly transcendent, was that we not only prayed aloud but we also chanted from the Torah.”


Ironically, the one place in the world where women cannot pray with tallit without fear of abuse – its not Iran or China…it is the Kotel.  In the past they have had chairs thrown at them, verbal assaults, even human feces.


Women at the wall are not a political group aimed to upset people.  Rather the opposite is true.  The group gathered the first time in 1988 following a women’s conference in Jerusalem.  Facing the beginning of the first Intifada, a small group of women walked together to the wall and began to pray together, and hope for peace.   An Orthodox man, watching the women pray, grabbed a can of tear gas from a police officer and threw it at them.  Out of that experience, women who came monthly to pray began calling themselves, the women of the wall.  The Kotel is the most significant place to pray to God, for centuries.  For generations people have come to the wall to put their prayers in the stones.  Commemorative events are held there, Israel army paratroopers are sworn in there, Tisha B’av memorials, Yom Hazikaron, all are held at this sacred site.  Shouldn’t every Jew have a chance to pray there, and feel the power of history and God at that spot?


Yet there is a law in Israel, which says that at the women’s side of the wall, no ceremony shall be held, including reading from the Torah scroll, blowing the shofar, wearing tallit or t’filin.  Violators shall be imprisoned for 7 YEARS.  7 Years for wearing a tallit.  In Israel.  It’s almost hard to believe.


What the women of the wall want, is equal civil rights at the wall.  Nofrat Frenkel was recently interviewed and talked about how she wore tallit since she was 15 to pray at home.  She said, “After leaving the army, I began to visit the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh. The atmosphere at the Kotel, the feeling that all those women praying around me were also turning to God and pouring out their hearts to Him, inspires me with the joy of Jewish fraternity. Here is one place in which, shoulder to shoulder, all the hearts are calling to God. Prayer at the Kotel is so different from private prayer at home, or from communal prayer at the synagogue. It is a mixed creation: I am in a communal place, with many worshippers, but not even one voice can be heard. Just soft murmurings, choked crying, mute requests.”


The sad part is that every month, the response of men and women at the Kotel was never a serene blessing, rather curses flew in Hebrew and Yiddish, venomous treatment toward her and her tallit, and speculation regarding her gender and religion: “A man in the women’s section!” “He’s not even Jewish!” “Perhaps she’s dressed up for Purim?”


How can we pray for the building of the Temple when the people are not ready for it? When someone performing a biblical mitzvah is derided and ridiculed?  The issue, of course, has two sides.  The Supreme Court, in trying to find a balance between the religious sensibilities of everyone at the wall, tried to find some middle ground.  The Kotel is the western wall, but the wall keeps going.  After Israel captured the Kotel Plaza in 1967, they immediately began excavating further down the wall.  It extended out double the length of the existing wall area, and then they hit the corner.  They excavated the southern wall and discovered the steps that the ancient Israelites would ascend to worship god in Temple times. The court’s compromise to its credit, was to permit public prayer of mixed sexes or women alone, complete with Torah reading, at either the excavated western wall area beyond the original plaza as well as the southern steps.  Non-orthodox gatherings especially bar and bat mitzvah, take place at one of these locations, which indeed are still as holy and as beautiful.  In fact it’s sometimes even more pleasant without the crowds and the potential for insults and abuse.  It was a compromise, and usually that means each group has to give up something, and that was what happened.


Yet there is something profoundly sad about being pushed out of the Kotel plaza.

To be allocated a spot away from the main Kotel plaza, a place for second-class citizens, reminds me of a ghetto.  There we egalitarian Jews can pray without, God forbid, forcing the offended public to be exposed to the brutal sight of women performing the mitzvahs of tzitzit and reading the Torah.


On the particular morning in question, Rosh Hodesh Kislev, November 18 2009, was a cold Jerusalem morning. They stood, 42 Women of the Wall, and prayed in the women’s section, in the Kotel plaza.  Tallitot were hidden under coats; the Sefer Torah in its regular bag. There was no booing, no pushing, and no shouting. The service passed off without any disturbance, perhaps, people had already become accustomed to the women’s presence and perhaps the time had come to read from the Torah, opposite the stones of the Kotel. But, just moments after the Sefer Torah came out from its bag; two men entered the women’s section and began the abuse.  The women quickly decided to forgo the Torah reading there and go, as on every other Rosh Hodesh, to read the Torah at the alternative site. As they were exiting, carrying the Torah, a policeman met the group and forced Norah, who was carrying the scroll, toward the nearby police station. The pleas and explanations that they were on their way to the alternative site were of no use.


Norah was transferred for questioning to the station at David’s Citadel, wearing her tallit, siddur and a Sefer Torah in her hands, a modern day Deborah the prophet.  In her interrogation, she was asked why she was praying with a tallit when she knew that this was against the Law of the Holy Places (1967).


She replied simply, “I am an Israel Defence Forces officer, a law-abiding citizen, a volunteer for the Civil Guard — I have never incurred even a parking fine — and the idea of having broken the law was most trying. Nevertheless, I cannot allow my basic right to freedom of religious worship to be trampled because of a court ruling given years ago”.


Would this law be accepted today?  Have we come to a point where we might have the audacity to proclaim that the Kotel belongs to all the people of Israel, men and women? The Kotel is not a Haredi synagogue, and the Women of the Wall and the reform movement in Israel, will not allow it to become such.


It seemed the issue had died down but just two weeks ago, Anat Hoffman, founder of Women of the Wall and director of the Israel Religious Action Center, said that police interrogated her for more than an hour on January 5 about her activities during Women of the Wall’s last monthly service in December. Hoffman said she did nothing differently that day than she had for the 21 years of her group’s existence.  There is a sense among the women in the organization that the Israeli authorities are stepping up their surveillance and intimidation of activities that challenge the ultra-Orthodox control of the holy site.


“It’s a sad moment,” said Hoffman. She has gone to the police station in Jerusalem many times to lodge complaints against people who she says have attacked and occasionally physically hurt members of her group; none of those people have ever been arrested, she said. But this is the first time that she has been subject to interrogation herself. A skilful advocate, she said that the questioning did not bother her, but the fingerprinting did. “There is something very violating about it,” she said.  In interviews she holds up the finger, still covered in black ink, her scarlet letter.


These outrages cannot be ignored by Jews in Israel and around the world and especially here in North America.  It must be viewed for it is: another chapter in the ongoing struggle to determine whether Judaism’s most sacred site will belong only to a distinct, intolerant minority or whether it can truly welcome all the Jewish people.
There’s a legitimate question as to how far we can and should go in challenging the Israeli government on internal matters of defence or national security, but this is different. The Kotel is not just another shul to be avoided for the more hospitable one around the corner. It is the iconic national, spiritual, religious heartbeat of the Jewish people, the destination of our prayers, and the symbol of our survival. It cannot become the sole province of the ultra-Orthodox.  In the last couple of years, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which answers directly to the prime minister’s office, has reduced the area allowed for female worshippers, by raising the height of the mechitza and moving it farther south.
The awe-inspiring, radiant entrance to the Wall has been turned into the foyer of a Haredi synagogue.


Meanwhile the southern steps space is overwhelmed by demand, in 2009, there were more than 450 services held there.  Those services are supposed to end by 10:30 every weekday morning; if they run into over-time, as they often do because of overcrowding, the participants must pay 30 shekels a person just to occupy the space.  Does anyone else pay at the Kotel?


We who care about maintaining an egalitarian, pluralistic presence in Jerusalem must do something. We must stand behind and with the brave consistency of the Women of the Wall, who have congregated at the Kotel every month for more than two decades, despite assaults from Haredim and, increasingly, from the government of Israel.  We must petition our consul general and ambassador to demand action and petitions are online through ARZA Canada.  Write letters call your friends or family in Israel; write a letter to the editor of the CJN or Israeli press.  Let your thoughts be knows.  Amir Gissin, our Israeli Consul General was here Wednesday. He knew this was an important issue because I had sent him multiple letters about it and he said it caused a stir in the Consulate.


Jerusalem is the city of holiness and justice for all humankind. From Zion, the voice calling for equality should be heard, for boundless love, for better understanding between people. Jerusalem was destroyed in Temple ties, due to unfounded hatred. Let us hope it will not happen again.

Reform Judaism at 200

Rosh Hashanah 5771/2010

Rabbi Kenneth Milhander

 Magen David

Rabbis Levy, Samuel, and Kosiner were “progressive” Reform rabbis and were talking one day about the recent advances made by their synagogues.  Rabbi Levy said, “We’re very modern – we allow cell phones to be used during services – we even have recharging points all over the synagogue.”

“Well,” said Rabbi Samuel, “we’ve installed a snack bar at the back of the synagogue for those who feel hungry or thirsty during services – we serve falafel in pita and hot salt beef with latkes and new green cucumbers.”

“That’s nothing to what we do, my friends,” said Rabbi Kosiner.  “We close our synagogue for the Jewish holidays.”

Okay, so we all know some jokes about Reform Jews or Reform rabbis, which usually focus on a lack of belief or observance, or a lack of Jewish knowledge, or a disregard for Jewish tradition.  These stereotypical jokes are often funny and as is true with most stereotypes, they have some minute element of truth to them, but overall, I think we sometimes get a bad rap.

Reform Jews and Reform Judaism are well ingrained into the fabric of American Jewish life, and our long history bespeaks of our incredible accomplishments, especially in the area of civil rights and advancement for women, gays and lesbians, and all minorities.  It is Reform synagogues that still stand in small towns across this nation and it is Reform Jews more often than not in those small towns and big cities alike that echo the Torah’s call for justice, righteousness, and peace.

This past summer marked the two hundredth anniversary of the official beginning of Reform Judaism in Germany.  On July 17, 1810, Rabbi Israel Jacobson, the then-president of the Jewish Consistory in the Kingdom of Westphalia, dedicated a small temple building erected adjacent to his educational gymnasium in Sessan.  Back in those days, they built the school building first, and the temple second!  It shows you where their priorities truly were.  Jacobson’s little temple is considered the first house of Reform Jewish worship because it introduced what was then considered pioneering liturgical changes: prayers and sermons in the vernacular, accompaniment by choir and organ, and mixed-gender seating.  On that day, before an audience of Jews and non-Jews, Jacobson spoke these words: “On all sides, enlightenment opens up new areas for development.  Why should we Jews alone remain behind?”  And ever since that day, not only have we not remained behind, we have been far out in the lead with respect to new areas of development that continued enlightenment has opened up.

Now, I have always held the radical idea that Reform Judaism did not begin with Jacobson in Sessen.  It did not begin with the philosophical foundations proposed by Mendelsohn a generation before Jacobson.  It did not begin with Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century Dutch Jew whose heretical-for-his-time views of modern biblical criticism, using Euclidean methods to demonstrate a metaphysical concept of the universe with ethical implications, led to his excommunication in 1656.  No, from my point of view, Reform Judaism began with Judaism itself.  Yes, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and later, the rabbis, were all good Reform Jews.  Where do I get such a crazy notion?

In true rabbinic fashion, I have to answer that question with a question:  What is it that Reform Judaism seeks to do?  If you understand Reform Judaism as the attempt to apply Judaism to the world in which we live, then that is what Jews have always sought to do.  That is until it really happened a few hundred years ago, when there was then a backlash against modernity, against enlightenment, against progress, and against the outside world.  That backlash ultimately became what today we call Orthodoxy – that is, Orthodox Judaism as a movement along the lines of the Reform and Conservative Movements.

Now I know my Orthodox colleagues, at least those who recognize me as a rabbi, would vehemently disagree with my assertions, and perhaps my theories are way off base.  But since I am not trying to defend a PhD thesis or sell any books, I reserve the right to have my own opinions just as I give that right to others.  So, let me provide just one historical example of what I consider to be Reform ideas and principles at work long before Jacobson and his little temple introduced what was then revolutionary liturgical changes.

Last night, I spoke about Rabbi Hillel, the first-century scholar of the Second Temple period.  Along with teaching a non-Jew the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot, Hillel is credited with many other familiar teachings, most notably among them: Im ein ani li, mi li / If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Uch’sheani le’atzmi mah ani / If I am only for myself, what am I?  V’im lo achshav eimatai / And if not now, when?  The following story is told about the famous Rabbi Hillel, known as Judaism’s model human being:

Every day, Hillel used to work and earn one tropiak, half of which he gave to the doorkeeper at the House of Learning, the other half he spent for his food and that of his family.  One day he found nothing to earn and the guard at the House of Learning would not permit him to enter.  He climbed to the building’s roof and went over to the skylight to hear the word of the living God from the mouths of the great scholars, Sh’mayah and Avtalyon.  It was Friday evening, in the winter, and snow fell upon him from heaven.  When the dawn rose, Sh’mayah said to Avtalyon: “Brother Avtalyon, on every day this house is light and today it is dark; is it perhaps a cloudy day?”  They looked up and saw a man’s figure in the window.  They went up and found him covered by four feet of snow.  They removed him, bathed and anointed him – acts not normally permitted on the Sabbath – and placed him opposite the fire, and they said: “This man deserves that the Sabbath be violated on his behalf.”  Within a few years, Hillel was Sh’mayah and Avtalyon’s successor, and acknowledged as the greatest scholar of his generation.

However, Rabbi Hillel’s greatest legacy is a revolutionary reform he instituted.  In order to prevent the creation of a permanent underclass of debtors, the Torah commands that all personal loans must be forgiven every seventh year.  Unfortunately, the result of this utopian law was that it hurt the very class it intended to help.  Imagine today if mortgages, auto and business loans, and all personal debts were forgiven every seven years.  I, for one, would love it.  But the banks would stop lending money, especially near the end of the seven-year cycle.  And that is exactly what happened in Hillel’s time as well.  Hillel realized that the Torah’s own legislation was destroying the Torah’s ethic of helping the poor and for providing for a stable economy.  So, Hillel in essence did what we Reform Jews do today.  He found a way of applying Torah to the world in which he found himself, given all its realities and complexities.  Hillel found a way around the biblical law by instituting a procedure that became known as the Prosbul.  He noted that the Torah only cancelled personal debts, but not debts due in a court in the seventh year.  So, he created a legal fiction whereby the lender only had to note before the court that he was going to collect his debt.  Having made such a legal declaration, the debt was simply transferred automatically from the lender to the court.  The Torah’s law was upheld along with the ethic of helping the poor.  The Talmud even later praised Hillel and his Prosbul procedure, saying that it was mipnei tikkun olam / for the betterment of the world.  Many later Jewish principles were also based on this idea, that tikkun olam sometimes takes precedence over tradition.

That is in essence, ironically, the tradition that I believe Israel Jacobson and the early Reformers in Germany were following.  They were responding to the new realities and complexities of the world in which they found themselves.  And today, we are the inheritors of that tradition, a set of ideals that once seemed ominously revolutionary but have become eminently conventional convictions.  Such erstwhile radical assertions are today the bedrock and foundation of Reform Judaism, pioneering values that the vast majority of modern Jews now embrace, regardless of their denominational affiliation.  There are many, of course, but let me name just four.

First, the early Reformers insisted that the modern Jewish prayer service must include more than mere rote recitation of meaningless words.  They adapted and changed the Jewish prayer service to include meaning, inspiration, comprehensibility, and personal relevance.  Now two hundred years later, these ideals have become so widely accepted that we are prone to forget that these values were once frighteningly unconventional propositions.  But they are not unheard of in Jewish tradition.  Even the rabbis in the Talmud taught that one must not pray in a fixed manner alone.  The Jewish worshipper must also have what they called kavannah or intentionality in addition to keva or rote recitation.  Today, that Talmudic notion has been expanded to include new prayers, new ways of praying, new interpretations of traditional prayers, and perhaps most importantly, the use of music and in Reform congregations, musical instruments to inspire and uplift the Jewish soul.  Our new prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, is designed to guide the worshipper on a personal prayer journey while at the same time making the ancient Hebrew words accessible to those who cannot read them so they can fully participate in the communal prayer experience at the same time.  Even in Conservative and Orthodox congregations, there is a concerted effort to make the worshipper feel welcome and included and to use texts that are what today we call user-friendly.

Second, contemporary Jews of all stripes embrace modern science.  This was not always the case.  Not long ago, modern science and religion were seen as incompatible systems of thought.  But the early Reformers were among the first and staunchest advocates of what was once a controversial contention.  Today, no matter what one’s level of piety, few if any argue that one’s religious life requires the abandonment of free scholarly inquiry.  Some Jewish communities in America and throughout the world may shun certain symbols of modern life, but the basic notion that science and religion are in conflict with each other has long been decided in the Jewish world.  And that is due in no small measure to the actions of the early Reformers who embraced Wissenschaft des Judenthums, the scientific study of Judaism, insisting that the tools of modern scholarship actually render Judaism more compelling and intriguing to present day Jews.  Almost no one today challenges that assertion.  As an ancient people, we have one foot firmly and solidly planted in our history, our tradition, our sacred values, teachings, and ethics.  But as Jews living where and when we do, given the incredible changes and challenges of the past 300 years or so, we have the other foot just as firmly and solidly planted in reality, modernity, and science.  How we balance and how much weight we put on each of those two feet is a matter of degree, personal preference, community standards, one’s upbringing, and a host of other factors.

Third, the Reform Movement has relentlessly promoted and pursued the value of religious equality, not just internally but externally as well.  Among the very first generation of reformers back in Germany, there were already those who recognized that without the full and equal participation of women, the synagogue would never achieve a truly vibrant future.  Unfortunately, it took at least another 150 years to achieve full and equal participation on the bima and in many leadership positions, but today women rabbis, cantors, synagogue and organizational leaders are not the exception or oddity they once were.

We have continued to expand the tent of Reform Judaism by welcoming the children of Jewish fathers, non-Jewish spouses, non-Jews interested in conversion, gays and lesbians, those with mental and physical limitations, and so many others once placed at the periphery of society and Judaism itself.  We have reinterpreted many ancient rituals and introduced new ones to address life events not considered by traditional Judaism.  We have also espoused loud and clear, perhaps louder and clearer than anyone else, the notion of religious equality not just for ourselves but for all of God’s children.  If you look at the make-up of interfaith groups throughout the nation, more often than not, it is Reform Jews who participate and who take up the mantle of leadership.  Equality is not just a sound bite or a nice catch-phrase we put on a bumper sticker.  Equality is the bedrock upon which we live our lives, and despite it once being a revolutionary idea, it is today widely accepted as the norm.

Finally, and to that point, Reform’s early thinkers insisted that Judaism’s distinctive ideals, teachings, and religious precepts exist not only for the benefit of the Jewish people, but also to promote the betterment of all humankind.  We have always sought to balance the notions of particularism and universalism.  While at the same time having to care for the well being of Jews throughout the world, we have used our traditions and teachings to inspire others raise the banner of hope, to light the way forward for all God’s children, and to work towards the fulfillment of the essential messages of the Torah, the prophets, and our Sages.  The idea that we – a mere two percent of this country, and an even smaller one-third of one percent of the world’s population – that we have something to offer the entire world is a remarkable assertion, but one that must be fulfilled.  We have been and will continue to be champions of justice and righteousness in this world as we have been for the past two hundred and two thousand years.   For the next two hundred and two thousand years, I know that, whatever the makeup of the Jewish community, there will always be Jews who uphold and fight for our essential principles, who take the words of Torah to heart and seek advancement, progress, healing, and betterment not just for themselves, but for all of God’s creation.  I also know that there will always be plenty of jokes about Reform Jews and Reform rabbis.  May they continue to be funny, but may we also continue to confront the issues and challenges we face with honesty, dignity, sincerity, a sense of history, and an embrace of modernity.



Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2011 – 5772

Rabbi Yoni Jaffe, Congregation Emanu‐El


In my final months of high school, my parents became increasingly afraid that I would one day marry my best friend. Let’s call her Lisa. That’s not to say they didn’t like Lisa. She was incredibly kind, generous, a straight A student; all of the things a parent would wish for their child. But as you might have guessed, Lisa was not Jewish. The great grand‐daughter of Protestant missionaries, Lisa’s family had two Christmas trees.

While Lisa and I were only friends, I bristled at the idea that my parents would reject even the notion of such a relationship. After all, they had left the Jewish community of Chicago to pursue careers and raise a family in the non‐Jewish wilderness of Honolulu. And though they did everything they could to imbue my sister and I with a love of Judaism, the question still nagged at me: How could my parents make the process of assimilation rather easy and then react so sharply when they encountered even the slightest chance of my acting upon it?

Later, I realized that I was not alone in this question. As we well know, post war American Jews made it their mission to assimilate into American culture. The melting pot theory dictated that one leave their Yiddish and European ways at the door. Identifying Jewish marks such a kippah, tallis or even a beard were removed. Meanwhile, American Jews entered into previously unchartered cultural territory. They flooded universities once kept out of reach through the quota system. They entered non‐Jewish suburbs and preached the virtues of public schools as the great social equalizer. All barriers and distinctions between Jews and Christian America were removed.

As anti‐Semitism dissipated, a funny thing happened. The children of these Jewish assimilationists began to marry their newfound neighbors. Only 60 years ago, less than 10% of American Jews were intermarried. By 1990, the National Jewish Population Survey reported that over half of American Jews were married to non‐Jews. In highly assimilated communities such as Marin, that number now reaches 75%. To this, the elder statesmen of the Jewish community wring their hands and frown upon their subsequent generations. To which we may respond – what exactly did you think would happen? If you raise us to look, act and feel like other Americans, then of course we will eventually fall in love and create families with them. It is as if you sent us to swim school, equipped us with goggles, snorkels and flippers and are then shocked and dismayed to see us jump into the water.

The issue of intermarriage is nothing new. Yet the Torah offers at best a mixed perspective on the matter. Our patriarch Abraham instructs his servant, Eliezer, to avoid selecting a wife for his son Isaac from the surrounding Canaanites. A generation later, Isaac’s wife Rebecca insists that her son Jacob not marry from the “daughters of the land”. And yet when Abraham’s grandson Joseph happily marries an Egyptian wife, her foreignness is not an issue. Moses, the greatest prophet of all, marries the daughter of a foreign priest. When his sister, Miriam, publicly criticizes Moses for his choice, God forcefully rebukes and punishes her.

This evening, I would like to consider how we may transform the reality of intermarriage into a blessing for the 21st century Jewish community. No, I am not encouraging intermarriage; but this issue need not be cast as the threat it is often made out to be. And since intermarriage is a fact and is here to stay, we ought to figure out how to incorporate or even benefit from this newfound reality.

Let us begin by observing that the high rate of intermarriage is a sign of the amazing success of our past generations’ mission to assimilate and to therefore ensure equality and opportunity for the Jews of today. The fact is, the average American considers a Jew to be an “up” marriage ‐ they like the idea of marrying and spending their life with a Jew. We are considered to be hard working, intelligent, educated and decent parents. As this is directly related to the assimilatory efforts of our earlier generations, the only way to dramatically reduce the rate of intermarriage would be to weaken this positive view. So unless you are hoping for an anti‐Semitic resurgence, you should probably get used to high rates of intermarriage. Take it as a compliment.

Nevertheless, intermarriage clearly poses a threat to Jewish continuity. Those refusing to officiate at intermarriage ceremonies often cite research showing that up to 90% of the children of intermarriage will intermarry themselves. The children of intermarried couples overall demonstrate lower rates of affiliation and expressions of Jewish identity. For a small and shrinking population of Jewish Americans, this should give us great pause when we consider such a sensitive issue. Rabbi Eddie Feinstein astutely summarizes this view when we writes, “If you love Shabbat candles and Passover seders, building a sukkah and lighting the Hanukkah menorah, going to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah; if you love hamantaschen, latkes, fried matzah, apples and honey, if you think about the Holocaust, about Israel, about Torah, wouldn’t you be happier spending your life with someone who shared all this with you?”

But at the same time, I believe that we do ourselves great damage when we hasten to write off the hundreds of thousands of descendents of intermarriage who think of themselves as Jewish or at least have the potential to do so. Furthermore, I believe that the low affiliation rate of intermarried couples is at least somewhat due to the frigid response often delivered by the Jewish community. What would the numbers look like if we developed a welcoming and encouraging posture towards interfaith couples?

Let us consider two narratives. Adam and Cristina meet with the rabbi, who explains that he simply cannot marry a Jew to a non‐Jew. Yes, he will happily marry two atheist Jews so long as their mothers are both Jewish. But a marriage between a Jew and a supportive non‐Jew is prohibited by Jewish law and therefore cannot be blessed as anything holy. Cristina is hurt and Adam ashamed that the rabbi does not deem them to be worthy of his blessing. Years later, this anger and resentment remains and Adam drifts away from the Jewish establishment which rejected him and his bride. Adam and Cristina raise their children as secular citizens or within Cristina’s religious community, sheltering them from the Jewish establishment that rejected their parents. I would surmise to say that many of us have family members who can identify with this story.

Now consider an alternate path. Adam and Cristina meet with the rabbi, who explains that a Jewish wedding is a celebration of the creation of a Jewish home. While Cristina is not ready to convert, she agrees that children thrive in a home united by a single religion and so agrees to build and sustain a Jewish household. The rabbi invites Adam and Cristina to take the year long introduction to Judaism class together, so that they may explore and discuss primary issues of Jewish religion and culture. They are guided through discussions regarding raising their children, Jewish education and how ritual and the Jewish calendar will exist in their home. On the day of their wedding, both Adam and Cristina understand and honor the symbols of the chuppah and the breaking of the glass. They embark on a life together with a deep appreciation for Jewish custom and a shared understanding of what part it will play in their lives. A month after the wedding, the rabbi invites the couple to discuss how they can be best served by the synagogue and incorporated into the Jewish community.

I believe such an approach presents a game changer and carries the possibility of significantly lifting the affiliation rates cited earlier. Through this example, I am urging us to reframe the discussion from how to limit intermarriage to how to best welcome and incorporate a spouse who is not Jewish into Jewish life and therefore sustain the Jewish home.

Already, the supportive non‐Jewish spouse plays a pivotal role in the Jewish community. Karen Kushner, chief education officer of (and wife of our own scholar in residence Rabbi Larry Kushner) uses the term “common law Jews” for those non‐Jewish spouses who support and sustain Jewish households. Here at Congregation Emanu‐El, I come into contact with many common law Jews. We are blessed by their presence here today. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who regularly brings your kids to religious school. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who encourages your Jewish partner to light Shabbat candles. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who finds comfort and support mourning for family members through Jewish ritual. You are the non‐Jewish spouse who carefully prepares food for your Passover Seder and perhaps even brings your ambivalent Jewish partner to Erev Rosh Hashanah services.

This evening, thousands of Jews throughout San Francisco are at home, still at work, maybe at the gym or the movies. Either way, they are not here. And yet tonight, hundreds of you non‐Jewish partners and spouses join us. You are here to support and be supported by the Jewish community. You are here for your partners and your families and for yourselves. Let me say something which you ought to hear from the Jewish community more often: Thank you. We really appreciate all that you do. You bless us with your presence and make us all into better Jews.

In researching the effect of supportive non‐Jewish spouses, UC Davis Professor Ari Kelman comes to a surprising conclusion: A weakly connected Jew is actually more likely to participate in the Jewish community by marrying a supportive non‐Jew rather than a fellow ambivalent Jew. Let me say that again – A person who is only ambivalently Jewish is actually more likely to raise their kids as Jews by marrying a supportive non‐Jewish partner than someone like themselves.

If you think about it, this makes sense. The curious spouse brings all sorts of questions to their partner. What is Passover? Why are some foods kosher? Why do we fast on Yom Kippur? The Jewish partner is forced to revisit issues long ago forgotten and to encounter Judaism on an adult level for the first time.

They are often embarrassed by their own ignorance and inspired to learn more about their heritage. This is not a curse but rather the blessing of intermarriage. The fact is, marrying Jews to other Jews alone doesn’t produce Jews. Jewish experience is the key, not Jewish lineage. And there is nothing to say that a non‐Jew cannot play a crucial role in this process.

Just last week, I asked my 8th grade class the following question – “who here believes it is important to marry someone Jewish?” Out of 40 students, not a single one agreed. I then asked, “Who here intends to raise their children as Jews?” Every single one agreed. Now you may simply call these students naïve. But remember that a majority of them are being raised themselves in interfaith households. And yet they are choosing to continue their Jewish education post‐bar and bat mitzvah. Their mere presence illustrates the fact that Jewish experience is not necessarily bound to Jewish lineage.

On the other hand, from time to time, I encounter interfaith families who choose to raise their children under dual religions, with the hope that one day the child will decide which one to follow. In this case, what sounds like a good idea can often turn into the projection of an unresolved argument onto the child. Ultimately, choosing a single religion may become akin to choosing the parent who subscribes to it. And if the child ultimately refuses to decide, they lose both religions, because to admire all religions is to lack a claim or identity with any religion. We must tread carefully in such situations.

It is for this reason that our clergy here at Emanu‐El adhere to a basic policy regarding intermarriage. We are honored to officiate over interfaith weddings, given that the bride and groom do three things. They must commit to creating a uniquely Jewish household. They must both take our nine month introduction to Judaism course. They must raise and educate their children uniquely as Jews. Thus we hope to welcome and embrace our interfaith families while at the same time protecting the continuity of the Jewish people. No, this system is not perfect, but I have yet to encounter another which so effectively answers these dual goals.

I have a second message beyond mere praise for the non‐Jewish members of this community. Please understand that Jewish custom surrounding proselytizing and conversion are based upon 2,000 years of anti‐Semitism and political powerlessness. The notion that we could be considered an “up” marriage was unthinkable until only very recently. Conversion to Judaism meant giving up one’s political and civil rights. And so we have built a societal habit of downplaying and even dissuading conversion. But as we no longer live in this world, tonight I say to you the opposite – as we enter into a new year, full of promise and opportunity, perhaps it is time that you think about formally becoming a Jew. Many of you have been trying on Judaism for so long – and it clearly fits you so well. Maybe it’s time to make public and certain what has clearly evolved over years of personal practice.

If this prospect intrigues you, I invite you to speak with me or any of my colleagues and to sign up for our introduction to Judaism course, which begins after Yom Kippur. Join Rabbi Bauer’s conversion discussion group, also beginning in a few weeks.

Despite all I have said, many of you might be surprised to hear that many non‐Jews attend RH services here at Emanu‐El. We as a Jewish community often make the mistake of assuming our own communal homogeneity. But this is clearly not the case. Professor Marc Dollinger, head of the Jewish Studies Department of San Francisco State University was recently posed the question: What percentage of American Jewish families qualify as traditional, which he defined as two heterosexual parents, both in their first marriage, both born Jewish, with children, who are not adopted. This family serves as the mythical target audience for Jewish policy and institutions even to this day. The answer: five percent. We cling to a mythical ideal of Jewish identity for which 19 out of 20 of us fail to qualify. The sooner we dismiss this idea, the better we will properly understand our constituency and effectively embrace the many non‐Jews who support and nourish us every day.

Tonight, I put myself in my parents’ shoes. How would I respond if one of my children were to consider marrying a non Jew? As a parent I would largely worry about continuity. It’s not that I think that people from other religions make for worse spouses. It’s that I worry that my grandchildren won’t inherit the precious gift with which we were bestowed; a gift which survived the fires of Auschwitz and expulsion from Spain – that I would become the broken link in this valuable chain of tradition.

As an active Jew, I see the world through Jewish eyes. My sense of time beats to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. I relate to the world in terms of mitzvot and the ideal of tikkun olam. I fear that my grandchild or even my child might not feel the same connection to Judaism and that we may become distant because of it. That I one day will invite my granddaughter to Passover Seder and she will ask me what it is. I am terrified by this prospect.

At the same time, I realize that my child’s future partner does not have to be Jewish in order to share and contribute to this tradition. That an interested, participative non‐Jew can play a significant role in the creation of a Jewish home. That there is no one set model for the Jewish family.

Most of all, I believe in Judaism and refuse to subscribe to our image as the eternally dying people. I believe in the traditions, rituals and structures that have evolved over thousands of years. I believe in Judaism’s malleability, in its ability to change shape to conform to the needs of every environment. I believe that we endure and prosper by the maintenance of a highly porous membrane, which brings in the best of external influences. Surely Judaism will adapt to this moment as well, so long as we focus less on what happens during the half hour spent under the chuppah and more on the lifetime that ensues once the couple walks down the aisle.

Two years ago, my parents’ prophecy came to fruition. I married my high school friend, Lisa. In fact, I married her to a really nice, Jewish guy. My high school friend and non‐Jew par excellence is now the proud step mom to two Jewish boys and mother to an adorable baby girl with another on the way. She is helping her oldest step son to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. This past December, I received my first ever Hanukkah card from my old friend. And I smiled and cried a bit when I saw it. Such things give me faith that this moment may not consume us, but rather, may bless us with the opportunity to make us better.

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5771

Rabbi Marci Bellows – Temple B’nai Torah – RH Morning Sermon 5771

Shanah tovah!


Each year, on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, many of us arrive with a sense of both trepidation and intrigue to this point in our worship, this moment right before we open the Torah to recount the story of the Binding of Isaac. The verses we are about to hear in Genesis, chapter 22, are some of the most memorable, yet also haunting and disturbing, words we read from our holiest text. We will listen, once again, to the story of God calling out to Abraham. He will be asked to take Isaac, his son, his precious one, his beloved, to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him on one of the mountaintops to prove to God how faithful he is. Abraham not only agrees without hesitation, but actually wakes up early, saddles up his donkey, and takes Isaac on a journey from which his son might never return.


So, let’s say that we want to analyze the story based on the various players who take part.

As an exercise, if I asked you to list the main characters of the story, whom would you identify? God…. Abraham……Isaac…. Who else? Who plays as important a role, but never seems to get enough credit? As I will suggest momentarily, there are two figures who are frequently forgotten, but, without whom, the story would not, and could not, take place.


Let’s first review the easy answers to the question at hand. If you are feeling particularly faithful and devoted this morning, you might answer that Abraham is the real star of the story. Abraham does not allow his conviction to waver, and is therefore anxious to show God how devoted a servant he is. At God’s request, he is willing to offer up Isaac to God

and sacrifice his beloved son, yet, we might be hesitant to view Abraham as a hero of any kind because we still are horrified at his willingness to do such a thing.


There may be some among you who would suggest that Isaac, poor, young Isaac, is the central character. As the pending sacrifice, the medium through which Abraham will show his devotion to God, this is definitely a convincing idea. In my own eternal need to cheer for the underdog, I find that much of my sympathy goes out to him, a seemingly passive victim in this religious interplay between his father and God. Isaac is about to sacrificed to Abraham’s God, and he doesn’t seem to have any say in the matter.


God could certainly be identified as the main character, for God, at the last possible moment, sends an angel to tell Abraham to put the knife down and not to harm his son.

God saves Abraham, the father, and Isaac, the son, and allows for the continuation of the Jewish people. Yet, after all this, wasn’t God the one who set this horrible ordeal in motion?


So, we’ve got Abraham, Isaac, and God. Who else is there? This morning, I have two more suggestions. In the midst of this tale are two characters forgotten by the text, often forgotten by commentaries, and missing from many of our discussions.


First, I must ask, where would Isaac be if it hadn’t been for his mother, Sarah? Where, in this story, is Sarah? Luckily, we aren’t the only ones noticing her absence. As I stated, the Torah text itself ignores her throughout this entire ordeal, mentioning only that she dies in the next chapter. It is at times like these that we must turn to our reliable midrashim,

those stories and legends that interpret the Torah, fill in gaps, answer our questions,

and explain the otherwise unexplainable.


So, imagine a group of rabbis sitting around, hundreds of years ago, asking this same question – where is Sarah? And there are many more interesting questions they may have asked: What did she know about the near-sacrifice of her son? Why didn’t Abraham tell her that he was about to kill their beloved child, born to them in old age? Why does she die, whether coincidentally or not, immediately following this ordeal? The midrashim are filled with a number of stories, designed to answer some of these questions.


One midrash states:

“Abraham meditated in his heart, saying: What am I to do? Shall I tell Sarah? Women tend to think lightly of God’s commands. If I do not tell her and simply take off with him – afterward, when she does not see him, she will strangle herself.

What did he do?

He said to Sarah: “Prepare food and drink for us, and we will rejoice today.”

She asked, “Why today more than other days? Besides, what is the rejoicing about?”

Abraham: “Old people like ourselves, to whom a son was born in our old age – have we not cause to rejoice?”

So she went and prepared the food.

During the meal, Abraham said to Sarah, “You know, when I was only three years old, I became aware of my Maker, but this lad, growing up, has not yet been taught about his Creator. Now, there is a place far away where youngsters are taught about God. Let me take him there.”

Sarah said, “Take him in peace.”

“Abraham rose up early in the morning.” (Gen. 22:3)

Why early in the morning? Because he said: It may be that Sarah will reconsider what she said yesterday and refuse to let Isaac go. So I’ll get us early and go while she is still asleep. Moreover, it is best that no one sees us.


How clever of Abraham, and how sneaky!


As for Isaac – did he have any concern of what his mother might think? Another midrash has Isaac saying to Abraham, while laying atop the altar:

“Father, don’t tell Mother about this while she is standing over a pit or on a rooftop, for she might throw herself down and be killed.”


With these midrashim in mind, it is pretty easy to see what the early rabbis assumptions about women – easy to trick, ready to fly into hysterics at any moment, unable to handle stress, and lacking in faith.


It takes a modern, Jewish female author to capture more of what Sarah might have been feeling. I think that the following poetic commentary addresses Sarah’s feelings best.


Sarah Talks to God, by Lillian Elkin

And why, Oh King, my God, should the blood of a child

Run precious in your house.

My small boy has brought wheat to your altar

And in the summer gathered fruits and wild flowers.

What will you do with small fingers

And the fright of little hands.

More feeble is he than a bird on your altar

And his heart is a wing.

If we have sinned against your greatness

We have been humble, too.

And in the shadows of your timeless sandals

The small gods were weeds.

We have set our house for your guests.

And I have brought water and blessed their coming.

I have left the home of familiar herds and shepherds

And my mother’s loom is silent.

I have wept in strange lands

But never have I questioned Abraham or his will

Which was your own.

But I am a woman and this is my child

And my love for him is greater than fear

And my sorrow surrounds me with knives

And I am bitter in my doubts.


A mother’s heart – a modern poet captures what the ancient rabbis could never have understood. And how much richer the story of Abraham and Isaac would have been

if it could have been, instead, the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. And how much more complete our own history could have been.


Besides Sarah, there is one more forgotten character – perhaps the greatest hero of the story – the one who really saves the day. Contemporary literary figure and popular Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, offers his view in the following poem, entitled, “The Real Hero” –


The real hero of The Binding of Isaac was the ram,

Who didn’t know about the collusion between the others.

He was volunteered to die instead of Isaac.

I want to sing a memorial song about him –

About his curly wool and his human eyes,

About the horns that were so silent on his living head,

And how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered

To sound their battle cries

Or to blare out their obscene joy.


Amichai ends his poem with the following words:

The angel went home.

Isaac went home.

Abraham and God had gone long before.


But the real hero of The Binding of Isaac

Is the ram.


In the end, it is not God, Abraham, or Isaac whom we are asked to commemorate on the High Holy Days. It is the ram, remembered when we blow the shofar each Rosh Hashanah.

Amichai inspires us to focus on the poor, little ram, innocently placed in the thicket, waiting for his integral and fundamental role in a story told and retold throughout the ages.


So, in this New Year, inspired by these silent characters, these figures without voices or viewpoints, these heroes whose stories were not properly told, may we learn this year to appreciate the unexpected gifts in our lives, and the various roles of all shapes and sizes that we all play. May we remember to thank those who contribute to our lives, who “save the day” in ways big and small, who provide heart, soul, compassion, and love when we least expect it or most need it. May we all come to acknowledge the smaller but crucial players in the stories of our lives. Those who may not always gain the fame, popularity or even notoriety, maybe even the silent, shy, and special ones, without whom we would never make it to this particular time, place, or moment.



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!


Shabbat Shuvah

Shabbat Shuvah

September 29, 2006

This week , my sister, a Rabbi in Miami, e-mailed me her Rosh Hashanah sermon.  I can’t tell you how tempting it was to use it tonight!  The problem is that I have too many family members present who were also on the e-mail list, and they would surely rat me out…

…Too many family members, is there such thing?  I think that’s like saying we have too many chocolate chip cookies!

However, they are the reason I am here today (the family, not the cookies.)  Not just tonight, but for the past 31 years.  I am a fifth generation New Orleanian and a fifth generation member of Congregation Gates of Prayer.  These deep roots are a large part of why Suzy and I feet so strongly about being here in New Orleans and giving our time and money to jumpstart our community.

I must say that sitting down to write some words to say to you tonight forced me to do something that I have been avoiding for well over a year…thinking.  But seriously, I had to sit down and reflect on what we have just been through.  I thought back to the week of Katrina, and I remembered that I didn’t let myself think about what was actually going on.  I simply acted.  There were too many people and too many issues to take care of to stop and think.  I’ve had the same excuse for the past year.  After the first couple of months of commuting from Baton Rouge, Suzy and I decided we needed to be here full time in order to move forward.  I then spent my time taking care of our clients, employees family and friends who we could help recover through our business.  Who had time to sit and think?

Then Suzy and I decided to start a family and we began to prepare for the birth of our first child.  I certainly didn’t have any time to reflect.  At the beginning of August, David arrived.  Now I don’t have the time or energy to stop and do anything! Nonetheless, I sat down this week to put some thoughts together to share tonight.  Upon reflection, I found that it is a lot easier for me to look forward then it is to reflect on the past year.   I believe that it is because I am excited about our future.

This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, contains Moses’ farewell song—a poem in which he calls upon heaven and earth to witness God’s dependability.  Moses is nearing death and offers a final reflection and call to action.  In his poetic summary of the Torah, Moses connects all generations of Jews with their past origins and future destiny; as he reminds Israel of their mission throughout the ages.  Moses tells his people that even though G-d gets very angry at their sins, he will always come back to his people.  The message of Shabbat Shuvah is clear. Return. Come back.  G-d is here.

Suzy said to me the other night that being a New Orleanian is not for the feign of heart. She is right – this new version of our old city will beat you down every opportunity she can.  Just when you think you’re finally making progress, it seems as though someone places another obstacle in front of you.  We can all fill in your own obstacle here – Federal government, local government, Insurance companies, landlords, contractors . . . Wait!  Not your contractor! They are all very honorable people who can have the job done in about 2 weeks!

Despite these huge obstacles, I believe that all citizens of New Orleans have a choice at this point.   We can choose to help the city by acting, being forward thinking and optimistic or we can choose to hurt it by being apathetic, complacent or dwelling in the past.  I think Ronald Reagan said it well when he said, “If you’re afraid of the future, then get out of the way, stand aside. “

There are things that I hate about what’s going on in the city right now though I can’t talk about them because to keep my sanity, I have to focus on the positive.  Our city is moving in a good direction.  The charter school system is blossoming, the clean-up has begun to move at an unusually fast pace (in some areas), the city got some great publicity aimed at tourists Monday night, and plenty of regional and national non-profit organizations (who before the storm would never have invested in our region) have committed to aiding the rebuilding efforts.

With all of it’s faults, and the challenges that go along with it, we love this city.  Suzy and I loved growing up here and we want our children to grow up here.  We love the food.  We love the music, we love the architecture, we love the history.  But most of all, this is home, it’s where our family roots are, and if nothing else, Katrina reminded us of how very important family is.  We feel so blessed that our baby son, David, has four grandparents and six great-grandparents in the city, and we take every opportunity to spend time together.

Rabbi Loewy asked me to speak about my thoughts on the future of our community.  I guess there should be some kind of disclaimer here in that  this is just my opinion.  I don’t necessarily think that anything I have to say is offensive or controversial, but I am aware that our community is very old and its traditions are deeply rooted.  And I believe that while these traditions are part of what make our city so special and unique, some of them are also holding us back.   If our community is going to succeed and even flourish, change is necessary.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said,We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”   The development of the charter school system is long overdue for our community.  Not only are students getting the education that they deserve, but as part of the charter system, parents are learning about volunteering, leadership and the importance of their involvement in the educational process.  I believe that this will build a new generation of people with the tools and skills to get involved.  More importantly, they will learn how easy it is to make a difference.  This will positively affect the whole city.  With their new found skill set these same people will get involved in their churches and synagogues, playgrounds, neighborhood associations, and city government.

And what about the Jewish community?   We have always known the importance of involvement and activism.  But, our participation is more critical now than ever.  This congregation’s membership includes many very influential people – educators, attorneys, medical professionals, therapists, business men and women, engineers and architects – and each of us can help the city move forward every day.   You could do something big, like recognize and remove an obstacle that you have placed in front of someone else who is suffering.  Or, you can do something as simple as not littering.  Every little thing that you do has the potential to help us all move forward. This recovery is a marathon.

It never has been easy being Jewish, it certainly was never inexpensive.  Our community needs us now more than ever.  Try to give of yourself to at least one cause.  I don’t have to tell you that there are less of us here right now.  If we want to continue to have a strong influence in the greater community, we need to step in and fill the shoes of those who left. The past year has certainly shown us the importance of community.

And I am proud of the way that our congregation reached out to members from the very beginning of this tragedy.  I am honored to be part of a regional Jewish community that worked tirelessly to rescue community members until everyone was out.  We are lucky to be a part of such a caring movement.

A few weeks ago, I was at an interesting meeting.  It was supposed to be a chance for local Federation professionals to discuss with Young Adult Division lay leaders the fact that we would need to move forward without a staff member assigned to work with us for a period of time.  The group responded, as I would have expected, with a discussion of the future no different than if there was a staff member to work with.  But, then the discussion took an unexpected turn.  We began to talk about how to make activities and events successful when we have a smaller target audience, but still a variety of Jewish groups for Young Adults.  We agreed that each of the organizations’ young adult groups need to work together to share resources (including the ever valuable mailing lists), ideas, and events in an effort to produce programs that fulfill the broader goal of bringing together young Jewish locals.  The result will hopefully be creative, meaningful programming that individuals look forward to attending.  This very simple concept of organizations working together instead of competing stands as novel in this community.

Today, there is no room for divisiveness.  I hope that all local Jewish agencies and congregations will try hard to work together and embrace this new paradigm of cooperation and unity as it will lead us to a brighter tomorrow.  We all need to keep our eyes on the real goal.

What do I see in the future?  I see a city similar to the city that I grew up in, but cleaner, smarter, more socially conscious and lead by a government that we can be proud of.  In the Jewish Community, I do see fewer members, yet a greater cohesiveness and more Jewish led community action.   At the expense of being trite, I’ll say the future is in our hands.  Our community is at a crossroads and we are together in the driver’s seat.

L’dor vador nagid gadlekha – may we continue to praise your glory O G-d.

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.”



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.




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)