(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 The Bible, the Gospels, the Qur’an and various historical documents made many claims.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.
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.
Every now and then a rabbi gets expelled from my professional organization. Sometimes it is because of criminal conduct, unfortunately. Sometimes it is because of a serious breach of ethics. And sometimes it is because the rabbi has broken the non-negotiable rules of our association which include a respect for certain administrative norms that make all of our members secure and a very few ritual commitments.
Most recently, a long-time colleague lost his standing in our organization because he breached one of those ritual commitments. I don’t want to litigate his decision here. It provokes me, however, to consider again the question of who or what a rabbi serves.
There are three possible answers and only one of them is wrong. The rabbi who holds the title and position in service of him- or herself is no rabbi. But the other two possibilities are sometimes in tension. The first is that the rabbi serves God’s will, a sort of manufacturer’s rep. The second is that the rabbi serves the (Jewish) people in some smaller or larger sense, more a concierge than an authority figure.
My colleagues with a more traditional theology most often put God’s will first. By “God’s will,” they mean the teachings of the Bible as understood and applied by a hundred generations of scholars. Some (including me) call it halakha, Jewish law. Though the literalists among us believe that God revealed every detail to Moses atop Mount Sinai, the less literal and more liberal subset of us believe that human experience and deliberation is part of the revelatory experience, something that God actually factored into the process of divine decision-making.
Others – including those who wonder if attributing the notion of “will” to God is anything other than anthropomorphism – put people first. As recognized experts in the Jewish endeavor, they see their task as escorts into the meaningfulness of belonging to this diverse community with common concerns. Every encounter is a teachable moment and an opportunity to share the wisdom that has sustained this evolving civilization in its various iterations. The people who embrace Jewish life will sustain it, and therefore they see their sacred work as strengthening the ties that bind.
Of course, most of the time these two perspectives are entirely compatible. From the Passover seder to activism on behalf of social causes to interfaith engagement (my own current work), rabbis have found multiple avenues to promote contemporary expressions of ancient practices while welcoming individuals seeking a place in the jigsaw of Jewish life.
But sometimes, a rabbi has to choose. Sometimes, the answer to a question asked in one context is completely different when asked in the other context.
Here is an example that has nothing to do with the colleague mentioned above. Jewish law prescribes that a minyan, a quorum of ten, must be present for the recitation of Mourners’ Kaddish, a liturgical declaration that the bereaved recite during the initial mourning period and then on the anniversary of the death of a near relative. But what happens when less than ten are present when the time comes to recite? The law-centered rabbi omits the prayer, perhaps disappointing the grieving worshipper. The people-centered rabbi recites the prayer, perhaps disappointing the “traditionalist” worshippers. There is no way to uphold the legal requirement and to allow the individual to practice the personally meaningful ritual.
Believe me, I know that first-hand. In my earliest days in my congregation of many years, I discovered that the practice at daily worship was to recite Kaddish even in the absence of the quorum by opening the doors of the ark containing the Torah scroll and “counting the Torah” in place of the missing people – sometimes four or five of them. Not having a poker face, my discomfort with the practice was immediately noticed by an older (and not very diplomatic) member who summarily announced one morning that, per the rabbi, we were no longer observing that custom. A dear woman who had arrived on the first anniversary of her mother’s death burst into tears and ran out the door as I stood flabbergasted that a “solution” had been invoked in my name.
Those whose commitment to the obligations of Jewish law is unbreakable understand the painful decisions that are sometimes necessary when you can’t give people what they want. Those whose love for the people is primary understand that they may indeed be fraying some of the strands that (we assume) have been holding together our sacred tradition. If this sounds to you like the plot of “Fiddler on the Roof,” then you understand the soundtrack that plays in every rabbi’s heart.
As I said, I do not want to weigh in on the decisions made by my (former?) colleague. He was not the first and he will not be the last to make the choice in question. And the consequence of his actions was no surprise; it was not innovated on the spot the way my congregant proclaimed. This tension will always exist, even if/when the fierce disagreement that provoked this incident has been resolved. There will always be another frontier.
Congregations, communities and individuals choose a rabbi whom they believe will give dominant weight to the side of this fulcrum they favor – sometimes for philosophical reasons and sometimes for self-satisfaction. But the rabbi, unless she or he wrongly serves a personal agenda, will always struggle to consider the side of lesser weight. And sometimes, despite the consequence, will disappoint those on the other side.
I was once a guest at a synagogue in a town distant from mine. The rabbi there had a reputation for a very stern demeanor, on and off the pulpit. So I was surprised to notice a good deal of commotion from children in the very formal sanctuary. I mentioned it to the friend who hosted me who responded, “The rabbi never allowed children in the sanctuary unless they were silent. If a baby made noise during his sermon, he would stop until the child was removed by one or both parents. And then one Shabbat morning, his grandson bolted away from his parents and went running up to the pulpit yelling, ‘Grandpa!!’ From that day on, children were welcome to be children here.”
I know that ambience well. One of my rabbis (never mind which) once began a sermon very dramatically, only to be interrupted by a baby’s yelp. He stared down the mother until she slunk out of the sanctuary with her little one. I don’t think I ever saw them again. And clearly, I never forgot it either.
I love kids of all ages, but especially little ones. Each age has its special delights, but the tiny ones are the most delicious. During my first Yom Kippur as a congregational rabbi, I picked up a little girl from her frustrated mother just before the afternoon prayers and she promptly fell asleep in my arms as I conducted the service. (I did not beat my breast during the confessional for fear of disturbing her.) For all my years in the pulpit, when parents brought their babies to Saturday services for the first time, I would carry them in the Torah procession and up to the open ark as the congregation sang “all its path are peace.” I whispered into uncomprehending ears, “All of this is for you, and I will teach you anything you want to know.” When I had the chance to bring my own granddaughter to that place…well…
The noises of little children never disturbed me in the pulpit, even when I was speaking. I know it frustrated some members of the congregation to no end that I could ignore the babble and occasional crying. I not only tolerated but celebrated the ones who would toddle up to the bima, jump off the stairs, run around the place behind the ark or come to sit in the big chairs where the clergy and officers would sit. I could even mostly ignore the yellers. I meant what I said to them when they were tiny: all of this is for you. Only once in 34 years did I ask parents to remove a child; it was time for the Yom Kippur sermon and the topic was very difficult; it required my full concentration just to get through the words I had written. As I began, a child began to yell. The little one was not crying or complaining, just yelling as kids sometimes do. I could not focus. Stammering my apologies, I asked that the child be taken outside so that I did not have to outshout the yelling.
The only problem with babies is that we do not have enough of them. My father’s generation had 48 first cousins. Mine has 15. My kids’ has 11. There are all sorts of reasons for that decline, and I judge no one for the lack of desire, ability or opportunity to raise children. All the more reason to treasure the ones we have and to make them feel as comfortable as possible in the places we want them to frequent as they get older.
(Do they need instruction on respectful behavior? Yes. More on that at a later time, other than to say that my experience is that the ones who learn to love synagogue at an early age are the easiest ones to educate on the special nature of the place.)
I read a brief essay by a man who claimed he was “banned from synagogue” because of his baby. It made me very sad, though he wasn’t exactly banned and it wasn’t exactly his synagogue (I understand why he felt that way). What he described – a rule against children in the sanctuary before noon – excludes two generations from the community, so-called family services in a segregated location notwithstanding. I just don’t get it, and I never tolerated it.
Parents or designated caregivers have a responsibility to consider the people around them if a child’s behavior interferes with the ability of others to pray or learn. And congregants, with a little forethought and practice, can learn how to say, “Your little one is adorable, but I am having trouble hearing the cantor clearly. I am sorry to ask you this, but might you take her outside for a little while? Please bring her back when she is happier.”
But it is the rabbinic ego that insists that pronouncements from the pulpit carry more enlightenment and joy that the sound of a child being a child. Not every rabbi shares my interest is tuning out pint-sized competition. Yet, however long the rabbi toiled over a sermon or page announcements, the very people she or he wants to reach are the ones raising that organic noisemaker.
And neither is the rabbi the enforcer for impatient congregants. I think the rabbi should stick up for the kids.
When I am asked if I miss being in the pulpit, my answer is that I do not. I don’t avoid it, but my life remains full without the weekly need to present ideas and encourage prayer. But truth be told, here is what I do miss: escorting those infants to their first encounter with the Torah. I only wish I had done it more.
Bullying is a serious problem and it is wrong. I want to go on record with that statement because without making it explicit, you might think I believe otherwise.
A colleague of mine wrote a column in The Forward in which he discusses being bullied by his congregants. There was probably a sad smile of recognition on the part of every rabbi who read that essay because there are such people in every congregation.
(There are also devoted acolytes, sycophants, humble saints, deeply needy people, sociopaths, paragons of compassion and more in every congregation. Sometimes they are all the same person.)
Most rabbis, certainly this one, want to be loved. It comes as a shock when someone seems to be personally antagonistic or even downright cruel instead of appreciative and respectful. And when confronted by congregants who are aggressive or enraged, the dissonance a rabbi feels can be disabling.
Professional training and collective wisdom encourage conciliation and understanding. The rabbinic amygdala demands fight or flight. And even if the rabbi, certainly this one, could overcome the sense that “a rabbi ought to be wise enough to deal with these things alone,” there is never a guarantee that effective and reliable allies can be mustered.
I faced difficult congregants throughout my career. I came to two insights the hard way – that is, by ignoring the good counsel of others and taking much longer to come to the same conclusion myself. I actually wrote about this a little in a previous column, and the take-away is that my own inadequacies are always magnified by the history of previous rabbis (and other authority figures) with my challengers.
But it can be hard to remember that. A particularly forbidding member, used to getting her way with a predecessor of mine, sent me into a funk when she told me, “You are a cold person. Lots of people feel that way.” Another member accused me of “oppressing widows and orphans” (she was both) when the synagogue raised dues – and made a formal complaint to my professional organization that, ridiculous as it was, I had to answer. A third congregant kept track of how many lights were on in the (synagogue-owned) house we occupied for a few years, and reported it to the board. (By the way, all those people have been called to their eternal reward, so they are not you.)
So the first insight is that most people, seeing these interactions, recognize them for what they are: bad behavior. Synagogues are notoriously forgiving communities, accommodating difficult personalities and even enabling them out of love and compassion – no different than most religious institutions. If you need proof, compare the numbers of people who quit synagogues with the number who are disaffiliated. But just because you love someone does not mean you like them. I almost always discovered that lots and lots of people shared my frustration with these contentious folks.
And my second insight is that, except for the sociopaths (and there are a few), when bad behavior is pointed out to the offenders they are shocked at themselves. I should know it from personal experience, but when I am on the receiving end, it is hard to remember that my own excesses are usually unintentional. I remember speaking to a congregant about bad behavior and, after he shamefacedly owned it, hearing him say, “That’s not who I am.” I guess that’s what Yom Kippur and its preceding days of repentance are all about.
So I am not sure that clergy bullying per se is as prevalent as rabbis think it is. Sometimes we smack a label on something that helps us get a handle on it, but the complexities can disappear behind the generic category.
But to return to the beginning, bullying is a serious problem, and it is wrong. Even with all of the insight my decades in the pulpit inspired, there were times when I knew I was being pushed around by someone with personal animosities. The behavior was reprehensible; even so, I felt like a crybaby when I complained. And the gulf between the expectation that the rabbi will always be the adult in the room and the attempt by a bully to infantilize the rabbi can be impossible to straddle.
Any rabbi will also smile knowingly when you mention that there are friends of rabbis, too. They may have the best of motivations or some of the same pathologies, but they are quietly beloved by those of us deeply grateful for their support. It’s not all bad.
What is the solution to clergy bullying? Well, no different than on the playground or the campaign trail: good people need to stand up for what is right.
I never much liked preparing for the High Holy Days, but I loved them when they arrived. Especially as I became more adept at managing the long services with the flow of so many dear people in, out and through, there was a poetry to the days that was independent of the liturgy and the sacred tasks at hand.
I had the privilege to work with some terrific partners in the pulpit over the years (none better than hazzan who is yet at the synagogue I served) and a few people whose sincerity may have exceeded their talent. But it was the crowd before me that made the real difference. Each person came with two agendas – the official orders of the day, printed in the prayer book, and the personal priorities that impelled them to the synagogue. The list of items was limited: penitence, reflection, fashion, gossip, musical inspiration, display of (grand)children, and so on. The combination was unique in every congregant and part of the symphony of the day.
To succeed, I needed three things: services that provided ample opportunity for prayer, an inspirational set of messages and an eye on the clock. The first years in my most recent pulpit were not successful in that last item. The later years, thanks to pre-labeled post-it notes, allowed me to plan for the following season by tracking the actual amount of time it took to, say, do the full introductory service until the Torah service. (1:20, by the way). And even though the services for the first and second days of Rosh HaShanah are virtually identical, the scriptural readings for the second day are actually about twenty minutes shorter. Now you know.
The year after I stepped away from the pulpit was an emotionally difficult time. In my opinion, the transition was poorly handled all around. But my family knew we needed to be somewhere else for the High Holy Days, so we wound up with a short term rental on the Upper West Side in New York. We spent those holidays at the services of the Jewish Theological Seminary among a relatively intimate group of less than 400. After all, most of the rabbis and not-yet-rabbis were off conducting services in parts unknown. I was among a few friends and a lot of strangers.
The experience was like none I ever had. I credit the leaders – Julia Andelman, Alan Cooper, Danny Nevins and Lauren Henderson – with presence that was both gentle and intense. But I credit myself with letting go of my role as manager. And when I did, the liturgy flowed through me like a river. It washed over me like first love. It infiltrated my body – head and heart, eyes and ears, limbs and lips. Words and phrases jumped off the page and danced for me. Ideas I had considered aloud 100 times or more climbed into my tear ducts and baled streams down my cheeks. Freed of the responsibility to beat the clock, maintain (Jewish) law and order and keep everyone on the same page (literally), I became just a Jew in the pew.
I was grateful. Absolutely, I was grateful to JTS for the experience of worship, but at least as much I was grateful to the decades of preparation for those moments. Without the engagement from the pulpit, I likely would not have had such engagement off the pulpit.
Judging from the size of my long-time congregation, only one in a thousand people has my experience. I am that one. But over the years, I heard expressions of gratitude from lots of the other 999. They were grateful for lots of different things, flowing from those unique agendas. (I heard complaints, too, but fewer than you might imagine).
So I have come to understand that this annual pageant, lauded and lampooned, is a collective conspiracy. It has a stated purpose: to get individuals and the community right with God. But whether or not any or all of us believe that literally, High Holy Day services are also the Walmart of Judaism. (Ouch. Macy’s? Harrod’s? Amazon?) They are the place for certain business to be conducted that serves the local franchise and the larger endeavor, but does so only if they can provide what every individual comes looking to find.
Congregants pretend to come for the purpose of prayer, and rabbis and cantors are complicit in that pretense. But the fact is that prayer is most the excuse for people to come together; it is the one thing they all have in common. However, it is not necessarily the primary reason for anyone…except maybe the rabbi.
Accidentally, I guess I became the enabler of all of those private agendas. In the process, my High Holy Day experience became not so much prayerful devotion as it was managing the prayer experience for others. I had my few moments, tucking myself into a less-visible nook and creating private space with my large tallit pulled over my head, or free-falling into the chanting of “Avinu Malkeinu,” broken-heartedly aware that we need charity and love because our good deeds fall so short of our potential.
But once I relinquished that role to others, I rediscovered what I probably knew before page numbers and post-it notes – I was happy to be present for the collective endeavor as long as I got what I needed in the process. That’s as it should be, and not just for the pious of Israel, but for the co-conspirators from all aspects of Jewish life, too.
For a while, I attended a gym (no longer convenient to me) with an interesting regimen. I worked out twice a week for about twenty minutes at a time. During that time, I rotated among a few machines for very slow intensive muscle work. The notion was to exhaust the muscle in two minutes or so.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I investigated it thoroughly. The literature may or may not have had strong scientific grounding, but it changed my theology of Jewish law.
The founder of this program asked a basic question: how do you build muscle strength? His answer was: by breaking down the muscle tissue and allowing it to rebuild. That, he said, was best effected by slow and intense repetitions, not by rapid repetitive motions. He formulated it in an intriguing way. If the goal was to work the muscle, use his method. If the goal was to work the exercise machine, go for quantity over quality.
As a rabbi, of course I look for a sermon in everything. And here was one about Jewish law. I thought of a lesson I learned one day while waiting for the tenth man for a minyan at an orthodox synagogue. The rabbi discussed the change in liturgy that occurs at the end of Sukkot (Tabernacles). In the central prayer, words reminding God to cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall are added as the fall festivals conclude. But what happens if an inattentive worshiper, used to omitting those words during the summer, can’t remember if they were recited? In certain cases, the entire central prayer must be repeated. However, if it had been thirty days, it was assumed that the worshiper was habituated to it. Now, during thirty days, a pious worshiper would recite that prayer about 97 times (trust me). And so, said the rabbi giving the lesson, it became the custom of some seminary students to gather on the night the holiday concluded and chant those words 97 times. (Take one down and pass it around…)
I remember laughing (to the disapproval of the rabbi) at the absurdity. The notion was one of habituation, not literally repeating the words in rapid succession to tick them off a list!
But all those years later, here I was reading about the purpose of exercise and realizing I might very well have been doing the same thing…both on the bicep curl machine and in the performance of my religious duties. It wasn’t about speed and facility – that was just working the machine. If I wanted to strengthen my muscles and my soul, slow and intense was better.
This idea, of course, goes against everything I believed about Jewish law. It is comprehensive, made up primarily of mitzvot (commandments) meant to address every aspect of life. Mediterranean Jewish culture even commends reciting one hundred distinct blessings a day. There are grand expectations (compassionate behavior, formal garb for prayer, immersion in sacred literature) and small expectations (hand-washing, head-covering, pleasant greetings). Being a devoted Jew can be a full-time endeavor.
But the kind of rapid-fire devotion that goes for quantity over quality works the system, not the soul. The younger version of me, enamored as I was of my increasing immersion in Jewish life, collected observances like baseball cards. That sounds more frivolous than I mean it, but any kid who collects baseball cards will tell you it's very serious business.
The struggle over the years was to recapture the meaning that these practices held when they were new. Like the liturgical addition about wind and rain, initially I had to pay attention to be sure I got it right. After a while, when I became habituated, I could just presume I did it because I always did it.
Recapturing the elevating aspects of a traditional Jewish life has come to mean, ironically, doing less. Never mind what I have given up – don't worry that I am somehow no longer devoted or traditionally observant. But appreciating what makes Jewish law "work" for me means slower, fewer, more intense. It means mindfulness. It means being aware of God rather than just doing what (we have decided) God wants.
My dear friend Rabbi Irwin Kula has embarked on an audacious study of whether the commandments are achieving their purposes; can we develop metrics to determine if observance "X" makes you a better person, a wiser person, a more spiritually sophisticated person. I am anxiously awaiting the results that will make Jewish wisdom more readily available to a world in desperate need of it. But I know the answer for myself.
When I perform any mitzvah with heart, soul and might, that is, with intention, attention and intensity, it strengthens me in ways 97 mindless actions, even if those actions are what a God wants, simply cannot equal.
Early in my career, I served as the rabbi of a small congregation. How small was it? Small enough that I used to joke that our minyan was five people and a mirror. But actually, this small but dedicated community supported an almost-daily minyan and boasted an admirable attendance on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
The only time we had trouble gathering even the minimum of ten was when the festivals landed on weekdays. I learned to expect that most of those days would be spent with a couple of close friends in a mostly empty sanctuary.
The only exception was on the last day of the festivals when we conducted Yizkor, the memorial service. Then I had a (relative) crowd – sometimes thirty adults. Once I wised up, I moved Yizkor to the next-to-last day (the Biblically mandated final day). That’s when the crowd came. And many of them were delighted because there was an orthodox service nearby that had Yizkor the next day, so they got to double dip.
Now I belong to a much larger congregation which tries valiantly to sustain a twice-daily minyan. But it is hard. 7:30 am and 7:50 pm are perhaps less inconvenient than other times, but they are tough nonetheless for people who commute, have children at home or engage in evening activities. Each week, an announcement is made at the end of Shabbat services pleading with people to set aside a morning or an evening once or twice a month “so that people can say kaddish.”
Maybe the best and worst gift of our past suffering has been the institution of the practice of reciting the prayer called kaddish in memory of the dead. The prayer, which is in Aramaic, not Hebrew, dates back 2000 years or so and bears a suspicious resemblance to the Lord’s Prayer from the Book of Matthew (“Our Father who art in heaven…”). (Argue among yourselves as to who had it first.) It appears in various forms throughout worship services and in traditional study halls. It has no mention of death and nothing to do with death.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, kaddish became a memorial prayer. You can learn more about it here. My purpose is not an exposition of its history, but of what the custom of a “mourners’ kaddish” tapped into then and now. Older colleagues of mine, equally frustrated, have referred to the custom as ancestor worship or necrophilia. The terms are harsh, but they make the point. Our prayers, including kaddish, are about life and living. The only direct mention of death is in a blessing that acknowledges God as capable of bringing life to the dead, keeping the faith with “those who sleep in the dust.”
The memory of our deceased relatives drags us to synagogue, even if they themselves attended as infrequently as so many of us. And as a result, for that so many of us, the practice and discipline of prayer has become associated with death. How awful!
When I was in seminary, the hot book among many of my classmates was Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. In it, Becker contends that human civilization exists to avoid confronting mortality, the knowledge of which is the downside of consciousness. I leave it to you to decide whether our focus on death in our worship is part of that conspiracy or a repudiation of the theory, but I will propose that the fixation is not healthy. I do not blame our ancestors for including a moment of sacred remembrance in the context of worship, but I decry the contemporary result. Our modern skepticism has washed away the sense that prayer can be sufficiently efficacious to stand on its own merits and allowed the dark residue of bereavement to justify the continuation of the endeavor. And that, I believe, is a losing proposition.
Do I have a solution? It won’t be popular. First of all, I would eliminate all recitations of mourners’ kaddish except one, at the end of each service. I would de-emphasize the Yizkor service on festivals by encouraging rabbis not to give a “Yizkor sermon” and to set a context for private reflection for a few minutes rather than a ceremony that is decidedly not in the spirit of the Torah’s command to be “only happy” on those days (Deuteronomy 16:15). In fact, the Sephardic tradition does not include this service at all except on Yom Kippur.
But it is not enough to remove the pall of death from daily prayer. If we are going to sustain prayer, we need to find a better reason for people to engage in it. The inclusion of a memorial moment is one of a collection of sociological, psychological and anthropological overlays that have saturated our conduct of prayer. Rediscovering the inherent value of the practice of prayer (see my earlier columns below) is the essential ingredient. Otherwise, Yizkor days will be as sparsely attended as the others.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession