A SERMON IS MORE THAN A SPEECH
Recently, an excellent Jewish web site called “My Jewish Learning” published a brief article called “How to Prepare a D’var Torah.” It is a good guide to how to select material and to structure this kind of brief exposition of an idea from the Bible or another piece of Jewish literature. I would like to suggest two elements that were left out, aspects of preparation that are often omitted even in training rabbis to deliver sermons and other public discourses.
These are the questions that the guide suggests in deciding on a topic, and they are important:
Absent from the list are the considerations that are the difference between an intellectual exercise and a teaching that can make a difference in the lives of listeners and speakers alike. They both begin with the same word.
Without considering these two questions, intertwined with each other, a d’var torah becomes either a display of dispassionate text manipulation – clever, but inconsequential – or a paternalistic scold.
This insight, I think, is far from original. I believe it begins with an almost elementary teaching that shapes the student’s engagement with the first (and perhaps greatest) commentator on the Bible, Rashi. (Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Solomon, son of Isaac, and he lived in France at the end of the 11th century.) When encountering his prolific observations, the student is supposed to consider this question: mah kasheh l’Rashi. You may translate that simply as “what’s Rashi’s question” or more contextually as “what difficulty concerns Rashi.” The student then delves into the kasheh, the question or difficulty.
But equally important, in my opinion, is l’Rashi, the part of the challenge that identifies the teaching with the teacher. We have a long and explicit tradition of crediting the author with his or her words, designed to maintain the integrity of original thought and “bring redemption to the world.” But considering the source of an insight keeps alive not just the teaching but the teacher by bringing the wholeness of the person to the words that express a thought. Our common interest in this particular interpretation is, in no small way, because of our common humanity. Words that come from the heart enter the heart. (Ironically, this profound aphorism is reported anonymously in the Talmud!)
There are many communities in which the answer to the question of why this should matter to the listener is “because Torah.” Yes, there is inherent worth in broadening and deepening an understanding of the sacred text for its own sake. Sometimes (in fact, maybe often), Torah for its own sake is the beginning and end of the conversation.
However, I suggest that for most listeners outside of the very rarified atmosphere of people involved in immersive study, the questions of why the speaker is motivated to speak and why the listener is motivated to listen are essential if the words are to be more than an intellectual exercise.
It is correct to say that if the only motivation to present a d’var torah is to impress an audience with how well the speaker can manipulate text and commentary, then the lesson is nothing more than an indulgence of ego. Similarly, if the speaker is focused entirely on his or her internal landscape, then the words serve the self, not the Spirit. One without the other is incomplete.
The guidance that the brief article offered on how to prepare a d’var torah is one hundred percent accurate, but incomplete. Words of Torah, as the prayer reminds us each evening, are our life and the length of our days, meaning that they must be integrated into more than our imaginations. They are not for amusement or entertainment, mental gymnastics or labyrinthine thought, mere oratory or competitive public speaking, or only rebuke or sycophancy. They must matter. And it is incumbent on the speaker to decide why it is that whatever narrative, linguistic or ethical entry-point becomes the focus of remarks is important enough to consider in the preparation and in the reception.
The speaker, rabbi or not, who does not address those two questions of “why” has only done half the job.
This short essay is the first of two on the same subject, and easily the more positive.
If you haven’t watched “Joe’s Violin,” take a short break from whatever you are doing and watch it now. You can find it on its website. Have a hankie or a box of tissues at hand. If you don’t watch it before you read this, then be prepared for lots of spoilers.
This short film was nominated for an Academy Award (I think I have to put this little ® about here) but it did not win the Oscar (add another ®). The director, Kahane Cooperman, was robbed. After a very long run producing the “Daily Show” in the Jon Stewart years and during a longer run as my cousin Jacki’s buddy, she told a simply gorgeous story about an old man, a young girl and a violin.
The story can be briefly told – and this is your last warning – but not without its essential elements. A drive to collect used but currently unused musical instruments to provide to students in New York City schools prompts an old man, Joe, who is a Holocaust survivor, to donate the instrument he bought in a DP camp after he was liberated. He played it for much of his adult life. It winds up in the hands of a 12-year-old girl from the Bronx. That is the whole story, but does no justice to the telling.
We learn a little bit about Joe – he learned to play as a boy; his life and music were interrupted by the Nazis; he spent his entire cigarette ration to buy the instrument because he loved to play; he got old and, at 91, he had to be particularly attentive to his disabled wife. The violin was gathering dust. So he donated it.
We learn a little bit about Brianna – she is a student at Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls; she is the daughter of immigrants; she is chosen from among all of the students to be the custodian of this particular violin (every girl in the school learns to play the violin).
They meet. And it turns out that Brianna has learned the melody Joe used to play for his mother, who was among the murdered. But, as you know if you watched the movie, everyone is crying before you find it out.
The story, as I said, is simply gorgeous. But it is also a metaphor that has helped me come to terms with a surprising turn in my own spiritual life. The music of traditional Jewish practice (literal and metaphoric) has sustained me all of my adult life. But since I left the pulpit, much of the music is gone. I have my theories about why that is. Some of it, I am certain, is that only my own expectations impel me to observe, and my energy has waned. Some of it is the dissipation of community that once sustained me as I tried to sustain it. And some of it is being tired, my spiritual energy being siphoned in other directions.
In fact, where I used to be an active and even boisterous participant in Jewish observance, I am now quiet, even silent. Especially in synagogue, which I attend on Shabbat out of a sense of doing the right thing rather than nurturing my soul, it is the prayers of others that carry my spiritual aspirations heavenward. I listen much more than I speak or sing.
I won’t appropriate anything about Joe other than our common humanity. His story includes life experience I am sorry he had and I hope no one else will ever know. But that violin that he played, practicing over and again the melody that connected him to his youth and optimism, is the metaphor for the cherished memories we all try to incorporate and preserve as we get farther and farther away from the source. We deepen their meaning and enrich their expression, leaving our own imprint on them. We put them out into the world for others to share, but they always mean something unique to us.
One of my memories that was deepened and enriched was Jewish observance. My imprint was on my practice. But, like Joe’s violin, what it represented has become more than it currently is. The fading clarity of those memories is not enough to sustain them.
Fortunately, the world is filled with Briannas, hoping for the chance to pick up the violin and bring the music to life again. I can tell you that her musicianship at 12 years old is certainly not what Joe’s must have been in his prime. But the promise she shows, and the promises she makes, have a profound effect on Joe. She doesn’t play the way he played, but listening to her embrace the music and caress the violin makes it clear that what brought him meaning in the world has been passed along to someone who will cherish it, deepen its meaning and put her own imprint on it.
Mostly, that is how I feel in the presence of people who embrace and caress Jewish observance. They don’t do it the way I did – the only correct way, of course – but they cherish it, deepen its meaning and put their own imprint on it.
Joe’s violin is no longer in Joe’s hands. But someone very different from him will make it sing.
This gorgeous story is so much more than a survivor’s redemption or a pre-teen’s opportunity. It is a gift to the old and the young and a reassurance to them both. And to me.
THE ONLY EXCUSE LEFT IS COWARDICE
CIt is August 16, 2017 and I am on a river ship sailing along the Danube River from Budapest to Vienna and onward to Nuremberg, eventually to conclude this journey in Prague. I arrived in Central Europe the same way my father did almost 75 years ago -- on a plane. Only he jumped out before landing.
I have watched the unfolding of the most horrendous weekend of a horrendous year from afar. In my professional life with a non-profit, I have had much to say with the help of my team. I do not need to comment on the dangerous man in the White House in this column; just about everything I might say has been published already. But I do want to speak to rabbis and the people who pay their salaries.
I am reading anguished messages from colleagues on Facebook and in blogs, many of them beginning with the disclaimer that they assiduously avoid politics in their rabbinic capacities. They continue to proclaim that the Battle of Charlottesville has alarmed them to the point that they can no longer be restrained. And they conclude with words reminding us of the truly frightening conduct of everyone from a reckless bigot with a car to the President of the United States.
Those are the rabbis I address. They are the ones who have held their tongues out of some combination of humility and self-preservation. Synagogues are filled these days with unpredictable Jews; not just their convictions on public policy are unpredictable, but the bad behavior they will exhibit if they hear something about the world around us of which they do not approve. "I'll have you fired!" has become more than an empty threat from bombastic blowhards. It has become the sacred mission of tiny minds, right and left alike, who take the word "sanctuary" far too literally and want the rabbi locked up in it. Rabbi and congregant alike have come to the conclusion that the tradition is only about matters of theoretical ethics and internal yearnings. Any intrusion of the world with which we interact -- the body politic --by the rabbi is considered a betrayal worthy of dismissal and an actionable offense.
All of you, take a look around you. Do you believe that Nazis with torches materialized since January 21? Do you think that the path to the White House chosen by its current occupant was simply a fluke? Are you so naive as to consider yourself blameless for the frightening world that must now be explained to our children and grandchildren?
Shame on you. This is our fault, the fault of everyone who was sanguine about society and polite about politics. "Let me not offend, lest people turn from synagogue, from Judaism, from God!" Every pulpit should resound with the defense of innocent citizens, including the children of African Americans or any other race, the faithful of Muslims, the people who eschew a Western faith or any faith at all, and, yes, the Jews. No one should walk out of a kiddush or oneg shabbat without having been reminded of their responsibility to seek justice, to love mercy, to raise up the fallen and to deny a foothold to bigotry and oppression.
And if people disagree, insist that they make their case in terms of this tradition we seek to preserve. None of this, "I come to synagogue to get away from this stuff" or "who are you to tell me what to think." Laziness -- physicial, spiritual or intellectual -- is a betrayal of the Jewish call to activism. What is a mitzvah if not a commandment to act in a particular way when the inclination is to abstain?
I know that there are synagogues in which prayers and homilies could be transplants from any time in history. Believe in God, trust in God, pray to God. Focus on the words of prayer, on the words of the Torah reading, on the hafatrah, where timeless thoughts reside outside the turmoil of the world beyond these walls.
The rabbi unwilling to speak to the challenges of the day is no rabbi. The congregant unwilling to engage the mandates of the tradition is a heretic. And both are cowards.
It is not too late to reclaim the promise of this country nor to gift America with the better angels of our tradition. The Nazis and nationalists and narcissists who are distracting us from the real work of preserving this world in all its diversity take another step forward every time a rabbi, teacher and preacher in Israel steps out of the way. The chasm between neighbors widens every time the sermon topic looks only backward, only inward, never forward, never outward. The worth of our ancient and modern wisdom is devalued when the rabbi is shackled to his desk, warned by bullies on the right or the left not to go into the streets. That's how we got here.
Yes, it is my opinion. It is how I have tried to live my adult life since this title was attached to my name. I never had the courage that my father showed when he parachuted into Europe to fight the good fight. I tried to find it in my own way. Rabbinic collegues, fellow Jews, open your mouths and step up.
The only excuse left is cowardice.
LET’S DO AWAY WITH TISHA B’AV
I have not observed Tisha B’Av in twenty years or more. I object to it. And I am going public.
I know how much effort has gone into preserving this commemoration. It is the only Jewish observance other than Shabbat that occurs during Jewish summer camp, which, ironically, is a tragedy. It has become a catch-basin for every catastrophe in Jewish life – we have a list the length of my arm of the disasters that occurred on this day throughout the centuries. (I suspect a similar list could be made about the 12th of Cheshvan or the 3rd of Sivan.) It is the only liturgical use for the Book of Lamentations.
But the real reason for Tisha B’Av is to mourn the destruction of the Temples, first and second, which occurred on this day almost 2000 and 2600 years ago. We mourn them because we want them back. And I don’t want the Temple back. Ever.
If you think the political and verbal battles over who gets to pray where at the Western Wall are extreme and fractious, imagine the return of a hereditary priesthood, animal sacrifice and mandatory tithes and taxes. A restored Temple would not be subject to the evolutionary practices of Reform, Conservative or even Orthodox Judaism. Synagogues, unlikely to disappear, would no longer substitute for the atonement rituals of Yom Kippur or, for that matter, of everyday sins. The rich heritage of Jewish liturgical music would disappear there to be replaced by a chorus of male Levites chanting the Psalms.
The first stone of the Third Temple would be the first shot of the Third World War. The mosques and shrines that sit atop the Temple Mount would need to be razed to rebuild the Temple. A billion Muslims would be outraged – rightly or wrongly – and some percentage of them (let’s say one percent, or ten million) would want to do something about it. Blood would flow, and not from unblemished heifers.
Why would I wish for that? Why would I pray for that?
It was the destruction of the Second Temple that liberated us from debates over whether Judaism moved into the expanding horizons of the expanding world or remained bound to the bickering over whether the Bible was to be followed literally or interpretively. It was the destruction of the Second Temple that made the individual responsible to preserve Jewish life wherever she or he lived. It was the destruction of the Second Temple that made it necessary for us to rely on ourselves and not only God to determine Jewish destiny. Those are good things, in my opinion.
And even if they are not good things in your opinion, they are, as they say in that part of the world, facts on the ground. There is no turning back the clock, however golden the good old days may have been.
It is about now that someone will make a comparison to remembering the Holocaust and ask me if I think there will come a time we should stop commemorating that destruction. It is an apt question, and I have an unpopular answer. If the purpose of remembering death and destruction is, perversely, to keep the death and destruction alive, then the time for that remembering will pass. The vitality of our lost millions is what we should seek to preserve and renew. We remember death and destruction to prevent its recurrence, not to lift it up above the victims.
The same is true of the Temple. The pageantry of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur keeps alive the glory of those days past. We remember what once was and can never be again. We promise to renew it in our own way in our own day. Seeing in the demise of the Temple a cautionary tale about climate change or pollution or bigotry or political extremism is a desecration of its holiness and an admission that its destruction is of greater importance than its function.
Lots of ink has been spilled on this topic. The people who insist that there is a value in preserving this observance and its traditions make compelling cases that are based on a predisposition to find modern justification for ancient rituals. And I am under no illusion that my contrarian position, even if widely accepted by people who mostly don’t observe Tisha B’Av to begin with, will persuade others who fast, grieve and lament.
But I myself am willing to let this one go. Like the water-drawing ritual and the dance of the unmarried women, it should be remembered, not observed. Like the Tu B’Shvat seder and Kabbalat Shabbat, new rituals should emerge if there are spiritual values to renew. But Tisha B’Av as it remains observed today strikes me as false and futile, and its use to remind ourselves that we are an “ever-dying people” stands against the evidence that 2000 years later, here we are.
MORE THAN THE MONEY
There has been another op-ed published about how expensive it is to be a Jew in America. I agree with the general assessment, but the circumstances that provoked the author’s complaint – finding a bar mitzvah tutor and feeling the sticker shock – require a little closer look.
We have a tendency to think of synagogue membership as a right rather than a choice, even though we treat it as a choice rather than an obligation. We also have a notion that, unlike college tuition, milk, gasoline, denim jeans and a cup of coffee, synagogue membership should cost closer to what it did in 1975. (In 1975, people complained that it was too expensive, by the way.)
But blaming the perceptions of the consumer does not help us with the situation. Neither, by the way, does pointing out that the synagogue has floated downstream in American Jewish priorities, including for the author. At the end of the column comes the admission that baseball and sleep-away camp have spoken for discretionary funds that might have been put toward a more comprehensive Jewish involvement.
Synagogues are the victims of Jewish success in America. As we have climbed from immigrant status to middle class to closer to the one-percent, the institutions of our lives have kept pace. It is not a new phenomenon. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of blessed memory, proposed three generations ago that the synagogue needed to expand its role from house of prayer and study to cultural and activity center. The modern exodus from compact urban neighborhoods to more expansive areas of the cities and then the suburbs brought with it a need for a building that reflected the community. And the staff of the congregation – especially rabbis, cantors and educators whose educational accomplishments and professional status matched the upwardly mobile members of the congregations – needed to earn what was necessary to maintain a comparable lifestyle with easy access to their pulpits and classrooms.
In the neighborhood where I live outside of Washington, DC, it is impossible to buy a home for less than $650,000. More likely, a comfortable home for a family of four will approach a million dollars. That’s more than twice the average home price in the same neighborhood when we moved in thirty years ago (and began living in the parsonage because we could not afford a home). The synagogue facility expanded during my tenure to accommodate the increased membership and bursting classrooms. More than twenty years later, it still carries a mortgage even as membership and revenue has declined.
The synagogue has been priced out of the housing market for young families looking for a long-time home. A tight-knit local community like the one that built on our current site in the 1950s eventually dispersed to larger homes farther away. The families that took their place, some of whom I helped to recruit during my tenure, have (like me) aged out of large homes and moved to smaller quarters, often in distant cities. Like the author of the op-ed, it is hard live where you want to pray…and that’s before the cost of maintaining an institution nestled among million-dollar homes.
I applaud the innovators who are looking for a way to make comprehensive Jewish life more affordable. The answer partly rests with relying on the commitments of Jews to maintain communities and their functions. And it is here that I wish to defend prioritizing synagogue involvement over discretionary spending of money and time.
It costs a lot to belong to the synagogue where I used to be the rabbi. Like the op-ed columnist’s former congregation, there are dues and tuition to pay, fundraisers to support and contributions to make if you want a soft seat near the front on the High Holy Days. And there is a bar/bat mitzvah fee. At the moment it is about $700.
The disgruntled parent balked at tutoring fees of up to $175 an hour to train her son to recite a few incomprehensible words in Hebrew. Once again, I agree. That’s a lot of money to pay each week for an event that will last for 26 hours, from L’kha Dodi to “That’s What Friends are For.”
But one of the reasons our synagogue has maintained itself (and charges only (!) $700) is that the comprehensive and long-term commitments that members develop as part of an intentional community. The students who study for bar and bat mitzvah, one event on a continuum that can begin in preschool and include regular instruction, youth groups, participation in age-appropriate worship and spiritual development, service projects, high school-level instruction and classroom aide opportunities, get the benefit of three months of tutoring from adult members who themselves developed a skill set (not just a performance proficiency) and three more months of attention from the cantor, who is salaried and not paid a la carte. (By the way, our tutors are paid a small honorarium for their time.)
In the process, those students, and the families that choose to involve themselves as full participants, come away with the proverbial roots and branches – a planting of perennials, if you will, rather than a spectacular but short-lived annual. Like music lessons, gymnastics, robotics clubs, soccer and other activities that nurture the incremental achievement of long-term goals, preparation for bar or bat mitzvah ought to be the reason for larger life lessons. Like algebra, chemistry, grammar and social studies, the value is not in a single test or a grade, but in the development of a comprehensive knowledge of the world that may never draw on a particular equation or Fiji custom, but better prepares a student to live up to the best that he or she can be. For a Jewish kid, that especially means being a knowledgeable Jew.
My small heresy here is that one need not participate in a ceremony at age 13 to be a competent Jew, and lots of people who do not or did not belong to a synagogue of any kind are nonetheless perfectly capable Jews. But if the ceremony and the synagogue are what you want for your kid, then it makes sense to prioritize the depth of the experience over its affordability.
I plead guilty to spending 35 years persuading people to spend more than they think they can afford on synagogue, summer camp, day school, kosher food, homes near the shul and, on top of all that, the charitable obligations of tzedakah (and not just for Jewish causes). It has cost people vacations, newer cars, larger homes, dining experiences and an active life on buy-me-dot-com. That is my personal experience, too, not just reportage.
It is too expensive to be an active Jew in a Jewish community that has schlepped its activities and institutions into the more expensive strata of society. We are not going back to being poorer, and we should not turn to minimalist experiences in the hopes of reducing the overall costs. Rather, taking a comprehensive look at the values we want to inculcate in our kids and then living them will make our approach to this dilemma more necessary, more creative and more fruitful.
ME AND INTERMARRIAGE
Once again, we are debating intermarriage as if there is a debate. Intermarriage is a fact. The only question we can debate is whether officiants will participate in the ceremony and surrounding festivities.
I have long believed that marriage is the purview of the state. In a country like ours, this legal arrangement is subject to the prevailing laws of the secular authority. The state has a vested interest in defining such relationships, which I do not challenge. These same interests protect my ability to live my life as a practicing Jew, subject only to the restrictions that protect similar rights of others regarding their faith or philosophy.
As such, I accept grudgingly the courtesy extended to me as a rabbi to act on behalf of the state when I solemnize a marriage. I do not think that clergy should be authorized as agents of the secular authorities, unless that authorization is separate and distinct from their ordination. Were those functions separate, I would not seek such authority because I do not wish to be in the position of devout county clerks who believe that they have the right to limit access to civil rights and privileges.
When I officiate at a wedding, I do so in the context of the “religious society” to which I belong and my personal religious convictions. I believe that my role is to solemnize a ceremony according to the requirements of “Moses and the people Israel,” and I believe that my rabbinic association – in my case, the Rabbinical Assembly – is the arbiter of that standard.
If you gather that it is all about me and not the couple, you are mostly correct. Any couple that is unencumbered by the laws of their state may enter into marriage. I celebrate their love in my heart. But the mandates of my own convictions govern my actions.
Many years ago, I was approached by two couples in a single week. Couple number one was a middle-aged Jewish man and his decidedly younger (and pregnant) fiancée. She had blonde hair, blue eyes and an Irish surname, and was raised on a farm among people of good Christian stock. She discovered, as a result of her relationship with her then-boyfriend, that her mother was a Jew.
Couple number two was a young man from a modern orthodox family and his fiancée with a Jewish surname and a Jewish upbringing from a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She never thought of herself as anything other than Jewish. She discovered, as a result of her relationship with her then-boyfriend, that her mother was not Jewish, ever – a detail shared with her only because mom knew enough about orthodoxy to know it would make a difference.
I asked my rabbi – a respected Talmudist – how to respond to the two couples. He sighed and told me I had no reason to deny the wedding canopy to the first couple, but absent a conversion, I had no reason to offer it to the second couple. Couple two accepted the conversion option, not without frustration, and I officiated at both weddings.
For very different reasons, I felt uncomfortable at both weddings. But my feelings of discomfort did not compromise my sense of personal integrity as a Conservative rabbi. An Orthodox rabbi would not have agreed to a formal conversion on the basis of upbringing, and a Reform rabbi would not have agreed to the first wedding because the bride had neither education in nor commitment to the Judaism her mother abandoned to marry her father.
Many years later, I responded positively to a request from a friend and colleague to ask about revisiting a restriction on all members of the Rabbinical Assembly; at penalty of expulsion, we are (still) prohibited from attending an intermarriage, including the celebration. Read that carefully – attending, not just officiating. My very understanding family has accepted my absence from such events involving people I love. I observe the restriction because I agreed to. I don’t like it, so I asked about reconsideration.
Just the asking produced an extreme and defensive reaction. The rationale, I was told many times, was to protect rabbis whose personal convictions were at odds with demanding congregants and who could therefore claim that they would be present except for this binding rule. I was importuned to remove my very request. Since I was a supporting actor in this drama, I recognized that the moment was not mine. Even after I agreed to un-ask the question, I was contacted regularly to be certain I would stick to my withdrawal.
Now, dear reader, you have one of two reactions thus far. Either you understand entirely (even if you disagree) or you are filled with some sense of disdain.
I can’t help you if you are disdainful, even if I get it. The culture of our society emphasizes inclusiveness and self-fulfillment, and as people saturated with America we are easily outraged if two people who want to share their love are denied because of what appear to be arbitrary and repressive rules. I have championed marriage equality, and I have a carefully cultivated intolerance of those who would deny the benefits of marriage validated by the secular government to any citizen.
But the standard I maintain as a Jew (who is also a rabbi) is a different standard, which is why I prefer not to be an officiant on behalf of the secular government. If you want my participation, then my declared principles about personal identity, freedom from previous marital obligations, day-and-time of the ceremony and more are part of my protected civil rights. I do not need an association to enact sanctions on my behalf if I have the courage of my convictions. But, likewise, I am ready to challenge rules and regulations that seem arbitrary and of dubious principle.
But, hey, that’s me. Some people believe laws without enforcement are ineffective. Some believe in building a fence around our principles to prevent encroachment. Some believe their autonomy supersedes existing standards. Bless them all.
One of these days I will ask the forbidden question again, along with others who have provoked a “blue ribbon panel” to consider it. And when the answer comes I will decide if I am in or out of the community of rabbis, and that will determine my behavior. But I sure wish the state would take back the gift of public agency. It’s none of my business.
(This past week marked the 35th anniversary of my ordination. It happened that I also was asked to reflect on the impact of one of my teachers, and it brought to mind a midrash that changed my theology and allowed it to evolve. That midrash came from the collection Sifrei Devarim section 313 and the relevant piece is below. What follows are the remarks I delivered at Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, VA, where I hold the title of Rabbi Emeritus.)
"He built Him" (Deut 32:10): Before Abraham came to the world, it seemed (as it were, kiv'yakhol) as if the Holy One Blessed be He were king of the heavens alone, viz. (Gen. 24:7) "O L-rd, G-d of the heavens, who took me, etc." But when Abraham came to the world, he enthroned Him over heaven and earth, viz. (Ibid. 3) "And I will have you swear by the L-rd, G-d of heaven and G-d of earth."
I just came back from a wonderful trip to Israel with an interfaith group. I was approached by Rev. Larry Hayward from Westminster Presbyterian to repeat the success of our first trip together 5 years ago. The timing did not seem right for Agudas Achim, so Beth El Hebrew Congregation agreed to partner with Westminster and I came along for the ride. A few members of this congregation participated. We had a great and meaningful time.
Among the questions that were raised in the evening we all sat together in Jerusalem to process our experiences was one about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. If you have been there, you know that the reported site of the manger has been embellished and expanded. At least three different Christian traditions claim to mark the official location of the holiest site, and they are not the same as the others. Which one is the right one, the questioner wanted to know.
In a different context, I had been thinking about the authenticity of holy sites. Jewish, Christian or Muslim, all of the sites we visited were dependent on some received tradition that was passed along and modified by word of mouth for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The Bible, the Gospels, the Qur’an and various historical documents made many claims. Some of them have evidence discovered by archaeologists, but there is no definitive proof of any of them.
So I offered my answer, not just about the Church of the Nativity, but about all the holy sites, and this was it:
Nothing happened there. No matter what anyone says, nothing happened there. It is the same at every holy spot. Nothing happened there.
Yet, the world depends on you believing the sacred lies we tell each other. Just as our ancestor rabbis radically affirmed, God is not present in this world without our belief – kiv’yakhol.
But you have to ask, what makes our sacred lies different from the falsehoods we deride and the stories we insist are fiction? Why does our belief in God mean something holy rather than merely a version of clapping to save Tinkerbell’s life in a play?
And the answer is that we cannot live without truth. And let me tell you a truth. There is no reason we should be here in a universe of ten billion billion galaxies. The existence of this world is a statistical impossibility. The existence of the human race is a statistical impossibility within that that impossibility. And the existence of you? You would finish reciting every digit of Pi before writing all of the zeroes after the decimal point of that possibility.
Plain lies are an insult. Pretending and contrived magic tricks are a diversion from the reality of our world. But faith, the suspension of disbelief, is necessary to give the impossibility of our life meaning. Without meaning, the literal miracle of our lives is of no more significance than a fruit fly.
And we are more significant than a fruit fly. How much more?
How much faith do you have?
So which sacred fabrication, which holy lie should you believe of the many we encounter? It is the one that insists you love the other impossible miracles among whom you live, your fellow human beings. It is the one that makes you recognize that you are part of something larger – your family, your community, your religion and, ultimately, your universe, the universe from which you impossibly appeared and to which you will most certainly return.
Annie Dillard is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who wrote these words in her beautiful book For the Time Being, a title I encourage you to say in as many ways as you can. This is what she said, slightly edited:
"There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death.
“It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree. There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said ‘Maid, arise’ to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture...
“‘Each and every day the Divine Voice issues from Sinai,’ says the Talmud. Of eternal fulfillment, Tillich said, ‘If it is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all.’… ‘God’ is the awareness of the infinite in each of us. “
Before Abraham, it was as if God was not present in this world – kiv’yakhol.
HOW CAN THIS BE?
I wrote to offer comfort in the midst of the epidemic of bomb threats when they landed locally, and now I write again. The apparent perpetrator has been apprehended, and he is American, Israeli and a Jew. It is almost incomprehensible, of course. Not since Son of Sam terrorized New York forty summers ago have Jews been more surprised to hear someone Jewish attached to such terror – and David Berkowitz, crazy though he was, did not target Jews or lay claim to his Jewishness.
Let’s keep a couple of things in perspective. Most important, the children and senior adults who spend their days at JCCs or day schools will not be subjected to this young man’s tactics any more. They were always safe from him, but now they (and we) know it.
Next, the government and private agencies tasked with protecting us did their job. I am not the only one who criticized the tone-deafness of the President throughout this nightmare, but his Attorney General and FBI Director deserve the credit for pursuing this matter beyond the borders of their jurisdiction and bringing it to successful resolution.
And finally, no one got hurt. The psychological damage may need to be addressed, but no life or well-being was compromised. I made that point in the midst of all of this tumult to distinguish the wave of terror we experienced from the attacks on other religious minorities.
At this writing, we know very little about the teenager who seems to be responsible, but we know some things about ourselves.
Let us take the time we need to learn the facts and process them. Please be suspicious of anyone (including me!) who thinks he or she can wrap this up in a bow and walk away. And anyone who solicits money on the emotions generated by these discoveries should be considered reprehensible. We need to learn, to cocoon, to grieve
And then we need to go back to our lives.
DON’T BE AFRAID
I know I have written about this before, but the time has come again. My readers in and around Northern Virginia have just been touched by what has occurred in so many other communities over the last month: Gesher Jewish Day School (the original Jewish day school in Northern Virginia) was evacuated this morning following a bomb threat. There was no bomb. After a well-planned response, the children returned to their classes and activities. A similar occurrence took place at Charles E Smith Jewish Day School’s upper campus in Rockville, MD. The JCC in Rockville was targeted in a previous hoax.
My kids are long past the age of school and not yet at the age of having family members at a JCC during the day. But I have been where parents and staff members are. With apologies for repetition, here is my story.
The Jewish Community Center in Annandale, Virginia was completed in 1993. It was the first new JCC constructed in a long time and the excitement in the community – including from my in-laws, who had been on the ground floor of founding the institution a generation earlier – was unbounded. Of course, it did not take long before someone (teenaged vandals, as it turns out) defaced the new building with symbols of racism and anti-semitism, including mistakes in their spray-painting that confirmed that they were as ignorant as they were bigoted.
The community, Jew and non-Jew alike, rallied a couple of nights later in support of the JCC and in the middle of the program, as our representative to Congress held forth, a bomb threat was phoned into the JCC. Of course. The building was evacuated to the parking lot where the program continued. (The same idiots who sprayed the building made the call. They were caught.)
With me that evening were my two daughters and my wife’s parents. My wife was home with our preschooler. When the rally ended, we got into our car and drove off, headed home on the Capital Beltway. A safe distance from the JCC, but traveling 55 mph, my eight-year-old burst into tears and cried out, “Why would anyone want to hurt us?”
I had been pretty philosophical about the events to that point. But now I felt the rage in my toes travel all the way my body until it was ready to explode through the top of my head. How dare these cowardly dunderheads steal the innocence of my child!
The police were great. The press was diligent. The non-Jewish community was outraged and sympathetic. But I had to look up a lot of details about this event 23 years later. My rage on that night, on the other hand, is immediately and viscerally accessible.
Parents of day school and preschool students, I know what you are feeling. Most of us have never experienced the virulent Jew-hatred that is so much a part of our history. But the fear of it has been inculcated in us so that our wariness is never far from the surface. And because the brand of anti-semitism most usual in this country is addressed by well-established non-profits filled with lawyers and scholars who speak to sympathetic police, press and community leaders, we are unfamiliar with the need to defend ourselves directly – or flee – that our family ancestors knew first-hand when that history was being lived. So we are furious and we are casting about for what to do beyond the security briefings and the statements by our defense organizations.
This recent spate of anti-semitic terrorizing has been enabled by the campaign season just concluded and by some of the people who have attached themselves to the current President of the United States. If you are a Trump supporter, read that sentence again so that you do not misrepresent what I wrote. Here is fact – not alternate fact, not fake news, not “lying” – the current administration has done precious little to distance themselves from overt and subtle threats to non-Christian minorities in this country. What more could they do? Well, in 1993, the President of the United States sent a letter of solidarity to the JCC that was read at the ill-fated rally. The current President took a month to answer a direct question about anti-semitism.
The bomb threats and the cemetery vandalism and the alt-right and the understatement of support from the federal government may make you worry that Jewish life in the United States has reached the end of the road. Do not be afraid. A very small minority of people with proximity to power may wish us ill, but the vast majority of Americans, including almost all of them who voted for the current President, do not. Evangelical Christians, Muslims, Protestants, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists (to name a few) are not having any of it, just as we Jews are having none of the discrimination directed against them. The good news is that when it comes to standing up for others, as good as our community can be, we are not better than everyone else. You do not need to be a Jew to recognize prejudice.
But please let me not sound too sanguine. The threats we are experiencing are not because of a new wave of anti-semitism. This bigotry has been contained under a layer of permafrost that prevented it from poking its ugly shoots above the surface. When political climate change thawed the surface, the seeds of prejudice took first advantage to sprout like invasive species in an ecosystem where natural predators have been eliminated. Few as these dangerous morons are, if the weeds are not pulled, they will flourish. And this administration is out of the weed-pulling business.
And your anger, your fury, your protective rage for the stolen innocence of our children is real and it should be maintained. Don’t calm down. Don’t rationalize it. Don’t wish it way. Don’t repress it. What is indeed in your hands is the ability to prevent more of the same. Eventually, we will have better gardeners, but only thanks to you.
That’s what I did. I was always ready for a good cause, but that experience at the JCC rekindled my passion on behalf of justice and kindness and every version of the Golden Rule. It led me to where I sit today: leading Interfaith Alliance, a national organization seeking to preserve faith and freedom and the positive role of religion in society.
But more important than what that rage about my sweet little girl did to me is what that evening did to her. Somewhere in her heart a switch was thrown. She has devoted her life to preventing people from suffering. If she was afraid that night, she caught some of the rage the next morning and it has animated the choices she has made at every stage of her life.
So at the risk of sounding like the baby boomer that I am, don’t be afraid. By temperament and example, teach your children well.
The Johnson Amendment to the IRS code prohibits 501c(3) non-profits from participating substantially in campaign activities. The price such an organization – including synagogues – must pay for accepting donations that are tax exempt is that they will not use them to support candidates who would benefit them or their concerns. I support the Johnson Amendment, and as an American, you should too. If public endorsements from the pulpit became protected speech, the flow of tax-deductible campaign money to religious institutions would make the Citizens United decision look like a good alternative.
But a rabbi who refrains from discussing current events (in Talmudic Aramaic, inyanei d’yoma) from the pulpit ought to be ashamed.
I understand the struggle. First of all, people come to synagogue for worship. It is why I always tried to avoid teaching or preaching in the middle of any segment of the service on Shabbat or the holidays. If someone wanted to step out before I offered a challenge, they could fulfill their need to pray or say kaddish without interference from me.
And secondly, my conclusions about public policy and values, if they represented only my opinions, were bound to conflict with the considered opinions of some segment of a diverse congregation. What gave me the right to offer twenty minutes of self-indulgence to a captive audience? Only if I had something to offer that was grounded in the tradition.
And that’s where I understand the responsibility to originate. With more than 2000 years of recorded scholarly deliberations behind us, contemporary rabbis could spend any amount of time exploring the intricacies of Biblical verses or Talmudic passages. It is the responsibility of any Jew to know about charging interest on loans, visiting the sick, how much time to wait between meat and dairy, the mandate to rise before a white-haired elder and how to check for mixtures of linen and wool. The peculiar way a word is used in a scriptural passage can fill an entire lesson. There are thousands of stories and rulings that reveal fascinating details about times past and how our forebears understood commandments, customs and conduct.
But Jewish tradition, as we so often say, is not just about preserving the past. It is about living in the present. And we sometimes overlook that all – and I will defend the word “all” – of our past scholarship is about contending with the contemporaneous circumstances of the scholars’ lives. The rabbis of the Mishnaic period didn’t talk about government in general – they talked about the Romans. The decisors of the Middle Ages weren’t merely wondering about the status of a wife whose husband disappeared on a journey – they were answering questions about actual occurrences. Even Rashi, the “plain-meaning” commentator on the Bible and Talmud, put some of his concepts into French so that students would understand them in their own context. (And never mind that his rulings on whether certain wines were kosher might have had something to do with his business as a producer of kosher wine.)
The rabbi of any community has a responsibility to speak to the people who put their trust in her or him in a manner that makes Torah crucially relevant to their lives. To neglect “current events” on the basis that they are political – that is, that they deal with the process of making decisions applying to all members of society – is to compartmentalize Jewish consciousness and imprison Torah in the classroom.
The resistance of some people to hearing a message of Jewish values that challenges their own commitments is nothing new. In contemporary times, just discussing Shabbat, kashrut, tzedakah, Jewish learning and Hebrew language skills is enough to generate resentment and pushback. Public policy is neither sacred nor trefe in that regard – it is part of the stuff that surrounds us just as much as art, science, commerce and every other venue in which we interact as Jews and as Americans.
The resistance of some rabbis to presenting a message of Jewish values that challenges his or her listeners is an abrogation of duty. In my experience, people came to shul with all sorts of yearnings, some personal and some global, some practical and some existential. They all deserve their moments. But what was true when the pews filled to capacity after the 9/11 attacks is just as true when a smaller crowd is living through a policy debate on taxes, foreign policy, social concerns or homeland security: people want to know what my tradition has to say to me about these issues. If the rabbi says nothing, then the impression is: nothing.
Rabbis are not pundits with pulpits. But they are presumed to be fully-formed human beings whose lives are guided by their learning and their piety. To be sure, some few of my colleagues have understood that presumption to be a license to pontificate, but most of them recognize their responsibility to share their own struggles with the often-conflicting demands of our traditions and our society. We have a mandate to be exemplars, not just of ritual rectitude or spiritual sophistication or academic aptitude, but also of navigators of the body politic.
Not to tell people how to cast a vote. Not to tell people how to affiliate with a political party. But indeed to remind people that the authentic Jewish life is one to which the critical issues of current events are as important as what time to light shabbes candles.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession