Gems in the Torah - for Charlotte Pride

Gems in the Torah, by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Message for Interfaith Worship Service “Treasured Jewels, Reflections of the Divine”

Sunday, August 10, 4:00 PM, Caldwell Presbyterian Church

Some comments inspired by Deuteronomy, Chapter 4:15-19a:

"Now keep close watch over your selves - for you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you at Horev from the midst of the fire -  lest you wreak-ruin by making yourselves a carved form of any figure, the pattern of male or female, the pattern of any animal that is on earth, the pattern of any winged bird that flies in the heavens, the pattern of any crawling-thing on the soil, the pattern of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth or lest you lift up your eyes toward the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the forces of the heavens, and be lured-away to bow down yourselves to them and worship them…"

These verses, from the Torah reading yesterday [Saturday, August 9], warn us against idolatry.

“Oh yawn rabbi, more about idolatry – really, who is worried about praying to statues?” I can hear you all thinking that, and why not? What possible relevance could this ancient prohibition of Judaism, one enthusiastically included in Christianity  through the Ten Commandments, have for us today, as we celebrate the opening of Pride?

We do still suffer in the throes of idol-worship. Only our idols are far more sinister and subtle now than ever. Body-image, gender-image, heterosexism, and homophobia – these are forms of idolatry. They take a graven image, usually one air-brushed, or unrealistically depicted without nuance, or one constructed out of fear of the beauty of diversity and complexity in humanity, and hold it up as one we should all aim for.

Let us not “wreak-ruin” upon ourselves by holding up any carved form in the pattern of male or female as one that we must all universally adhere to!

We must instead embrace the idea of God from these verses as beyond depiction. We must remember the poetry of identifying our humanity as a reflection of that form that cannot be described, that infinite within each of us, and burst open those graven images and instead see in each other the jeweled facets of holiness, the depth and beauty of something that can never be captured in a piece of sculpture, art, or photograph. We cannot be contained in a graven image.

When we gaze upon our selves and each other with reverence, seeing in one another the beauty that comes from a reflection of God’s infinite diversity, we get to stand in awe of our shared humanity. In doing this we fulfill another sparkling jewel of wisdom from yesterday’s scriptural reading:

Deut. 4:29 "But when you seek Adonai your God from there, you will find God, if you search for God with all your heart and with all your being."

A key aspect to avoiding the pitfalls of idolatry is to avoid complacency – we must continue to seek with all our hearts and all our beings. When we don’t understand someone, when we are frustrated by someone’s actions, when we feel hurt or wronged, yes, we must stand up for justice, and even more, we must seek in the object of our difficulty for their humanity. When we go beyond the conflict and connect on the grounds of our infinitely varied humanity, we offer others that opportunity too.

In this we see that seeking that divine spark within all people, within even all things, gives us this opportunity to overcome the complacency of idolatry, that thinking that says, “I know what I need to know.” Let us accept that our knowledge can always be expanded so that we can continually search for greater insights into the people around us.

One more shining thought from this biblical selection. Moses reminded the People of Israel that:

Deut. 5:2-3 "Our God cut with us a covenant at Horev/Sinai. Not with our ancestors did God cut this covenant, but with us, yes, us, those here today, all of us (that are) alive!"

We are all responsible for upholding the good teachings of our multitude of teachers.

We are all part of a contract between us and creation – to see deeply into our surroundings and celebrate the facets of the divine in everyone and everything.

Each of us contributes, and each of us plays a part.

As we celebrate our Queen City’s Pride this year, the crown jewel of Charlotte, shine up the faces of our gems, share them with each other, and take moments to notice even the diamonds in the rough.

We all get to shimmer together with Pride.

Siman tov u'mazal tov!

I could not be more honored than when I got to help Steve and Jefry celebrate their wedding at Temple Beth El last week. It coincided with their 25th anniversary of being together, and completed the Jewish part of their legal wedding that took place in Washington DC last fall. I am so grateful that TBE made them feel so welcome that they thanked all the TBE staff, saying they never felt like we treated them as anything but a normal couple, which of course, they are!
Except for the fact that they are exceptional and wonderful individuals
:-)

Summertime Judaism

A quick look back on the last week at Temple Beth El tells you just how vibrant our Jewish community is:


- We had our weekly events - Shabbat evening and morning - including two B’nei Mitzvah, Anniversary Blessings, Torah Study, FIJI Class, and Tot Shabbat too!

- We celebrated: two baby-namings and a same-sex marriage ceremony.

- We mourned our losses and comforted our mourners with two shiva minyanim and a memorial service.

- We had some intriguing conversations about tattoos, organ donation, marijuana, the novel The Golem and the Jinni, Taste of Judaism, The Porch Torah, and even Talmud, in a myriad of locales including the Temple Beth El building, at The Village Tavern, Whole Foods, and at the Bechtler Museum Cafe.

- We ate together at a SPICE Potluck on Shabbat, and shopped together at our Attic Sale.

- Our Annual Congregational Trip to Israel returned with Rabbi Judy - everyone had an amazing and meaningful adventure, and four kids became Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

- And even though it is summer, B’nei Mitzvah preparations continue with a full schedule of training for our soon to be Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

I hear that other Jewish communities slow down in the summer.

I feel so honored and blessed to be part of our Temple Beth El family, to be all together so often for important times and moments of thoughtful discussion.

Looking forward to a great summer!

Check out the next book we will read for our August Book Club, or enjoy the last - links below:

Next book for August 3, 11:00 AM:

But Where is the Lamb?

Last book, a fun summer read:

The Golem and the Jinni

Awe, gratitude, and the Wilderness

A reading for Shabbat B'midbar - the Sabbath of the reading of the first section of the Book of Numbers:

In the desert simmered a small miracle,

a bush that burned and was not consumed.

The prophet was moved by awe,

and removed sandals going barefoot.

When the noises of our minds settle,

and we notice the wonders of the world,

when our eyes clear so that we can see,

and focus on the sparks in all creation,

then our hearts may expand in thanks,

and our breath speak words of praise.

Kaplan's, and my, Reconstructionism

Here is why I am a student of Kaplan, and continue to be so:
"Reconstructionism is a method, rather than a series of affirmations or conclusions concerning Jewish life or thought. Whatever I am about to state concerning my conception of God is Reconstructionist, only in the sense that I have arrived at it through the application of the Reconstructionist method.  I do not, by any means, claim that it is the only legitimate conception, even from a Reconstructionist point of view.  Nor should it be regarded as a Reconstructionist conception of God. It is not within the province of the movement to pronounce any one theology as truer than another.… As far as Jewish religion, with its teachings and rituals, is concerned, it matters very little how we conceive God, as long as we so believe in God that belief in Him makes a tremendous difference in our lives."                         
(Mordecai M. Kaplan, Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers, 1956, pp. 81-86)

Jewish Voice of Celebration

Kvetch, defined by the OED as:
to complain habitually, gripe; as a noun, a person who always complains,
describes our people from the start. After our liberation from slavery in Egypt we complain:
“Freedom is nice. Where’s the water? Where’s the meat? Slavery had better accommodations.”

As we read Exodus this month and next, I am newly inspired to leave the kvetch behind and embrace instead our expressions of enthusiasm, our words of welcome, our voices of celebration.

This past summer Rabbi David Wolpe offered a giant complaint about a Bar Mitzvah celebration that went way over the top. Rabbi Wolpe called the celebration, in which young Sam Horowitz descended on stage amid Las Vegas style showgirls and danced in front of all the guests at his reception: “egregious, licentious, and thoroughly awful.” He then ranted for multiple paragraphs about the great tragedy this was for contemporary Judaism.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson publicly disagreed with Rabbi Wolpe in an open conversation before Rabbi Wolpe’s congregation. Rabbi Artson reminded us that it is a good thing that Judaism doesn’t demonize materialism. And then he asked us to imagine ways to teach the Jewish message of an over the top celebration.
He concluded that as this kid’s rabbi he would offer:
“Remember that when your parents chose to do this over the top celebration, they did it for your Bar Mitzvah, not your twelfth birthday, not your fourteenth birthday. They did it because however far people drift from piety and religion, saying ‘Our kid is connected to Torah’, is even for ostentatious Jews, still important.
“Now let’s build on that. Why is it that specifically your ‘Torah birthday’ is the one when people go over the top? Then we could segue into: Are there other ways that we could celebrate that in ways that might be more compatible with standard and traditional Jewish values?”

Rabbi Wolpe’s kvetch feels a lot like many Jewish reactions to the latest Pew survey.

Or like calls from Jews worried about the Jewish identity of kids and grandkids because the kids don’t observe Judaism like their grandparents. They fell in love with and married Jews and non-Jews and almost all of them have vibrant Jewish homes where they raise their kids as Jews. They don’t keep kosher the same way though.

In response to these concerns and others, I would like to follow Rabbi Artson’s example - let us offer some reasons to celebrate.

In the wake of the last century, that Jews have become desirable spouses for non-Jews is a victory. That Judaism has become a desirable path for non-Jews, even those not married to Jews, is also a victory.

When we find creative and new ways to support each other with our Judaism - through our synagogues and communities - we succeed.

Our Judaism thrives and grows and evolves when we open doors.

Our ancestors took risks - they braved the desert, they entered into a contract with the universe to pursue life, and they built a Judaism that survived exile. In the last hundred years we have built a new nation and multiple enthusiastic reactions to a changing world.

In this season of celebration, let us liberate our voices of celebration.

Closing Prayer at Medicaid Expansion Press Conference

Our fates rely on each of us caring for our selves and our whole community.

Every person is touched by the fate of everyone else,

and so we must pursue compassion for all.

A Jewish tradition imagines each and every one of us as a reflection of God.

We are all unique echoes of the infinite.

We must aim to engage with every person as we would with God.

I must try to revere God who I find in everyone I talk to.

We must have compassion for each other as reflections of the most sacred.

I must care for each person because we are all holy sparks.

Let the embers of God that live in all of us inspire every North Carolinian to come together.

Let us care for the sacred warmth in each of our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies.

Let us act out of our passion for a creation that relies on us as stewards.

Let us be moved by the strength of our combined spirits to care better for each other, and let us say, Amein.

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Reform Judaism is Traditional Judaism

Erev Rosh HaShanah – 5774

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

“Hineni,” I am here.

I am present, in this moment, to celebrate the New Year, atone for the mistakes of the past year, and turn towards the future ready to do better. I am present to connect with my self, the people around me, and with our God.

“Hineinu”

We are present to begin our holy days together.

This sentiment of presence at this moment connects us to historical and traditional Judaism – the traditions of Jews for thousands of years.

Though we call ourselves Reformers much later, reform in Judaism has been with us from the beginning. The principles of reforming – individual choice, creativity, innovation in the face of change, the use of wisdom from all sources – all have been present in the Torah, and in Judaism, from the start.

We evolve, we think about the future and how to respond to it, we respect each other’s differences, we create priorities among values, so that some, like compassion and hospitality, come before others, like keeping kosher and laws of purity.

We follow very closely in the footsteps of our ancestors in the Torah, in the Talmud, in the Middle Ages. In this way we are like Jews have always been.

Most Jews coming to synagogue tonight will say or hear this word “Hineini”, “Here I am”.

These are the words of Abraham, the first Jew and the first Reform Jew. At the beginning of the Binding of Isaac God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham responds,

Hineini, “Here I am”.

We all know the story…

God tested Abraham.

We are left to figure out exactly what the test was. We say it was a test of faith and obedience. Will Abraham sacrifice the child promised to him, the child through whom Abraham’s reward from God – a great nation – will emerge?

Every year we return to Binding of Isaac and every year I try to find a new take on it. In this way, we are like Jews throughout history trying to figure this story out. This year, reading through some of the Hebrew commentaries on it, I found one small comment by a 12th and 13th century scholar, Rabbi David Kimchi. Rabbi Kimchi noted that if this had been about obedience alone, wouldn’t God would have told Abraham, “Do this now”? But no, God said:

Go to the land of Moriah…

Moriah was far away. God asked Abraham to take a three-day journey. Abraham was eager to obey. He got up early and went, avoiding Sarah, knowing that what he planned to do would upset her, to say the least.

Rabbi Kimchi said that God meant to send Abraham on a long walk, to allow him “l’hitbonen”, “to gain insight for himself”. Obedience was not the whole test. God also tested Abraham’s ability to think, reason, and learn. God intended Abraham to deliberate as much about the life of his son, as he did about the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, for whom he argued with God.

Then, along the way Isaac stopped and said:

Father!

And Abraham answered: Hineini/Here I am, my son.

First Abraham was present for God, and now Abraham was present for Isaac. Abraham showed us that we must be present for God AND for our families.

Isaac suspected something. He said: “Hey Dad, looks like we are going to go make a burnt offering – what’s on the menu?”

They had been on the road for a few days, Abraham pondered God’s demand, and had some doubts when Isaac asked this question. Obviously, he could not be upfront with his son about the idea of offering him up as a sacrifice, so Abraham decided to express trust in God – God would see to the offering.

At first Abraham was eager, and now, in the middle of the journey, perhaps less eager. Our classical rabbis didn’t like to imagine Abraham boldly lying to Isaac, so they note that Abraham knew that things would work out differently, since what he said, that God would see to the lamb for the offering, was pretty close to how the it ended up.

In no time we have Abraham holding the knife over Isaac. At this instant, God’s messenger, called out to Abraham from heaven, and Abraham again responded,

 “Hineini/Here I am”,

ready to hear you. And this moment of hesitation, brought on by Abraham’s doubts from the long walk to Mount Moriah, let Abraham lift up his eyes, and see the ram caught in the thicket, and then offer the ram instead of Isaac.

Abraham listened. He obeyed one command. And then Abraham didn’t say to God, “Hold on, I’m in the middle of doing your command.”

Instead, that still small voice of his conscience held his hand, gave him pause, and allowed him to lift up his eyes and see the ram that had been there from the start. Abraham’s openness to change, to an actual change what God wanted, and Abraham’s devotion to the value of all life, saved Isaac.

We do what Abraham did.

We look at our actions and think about them. We do not obey without question.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud were reformers of the most radical order – they created new traditions and institutions when Judaism faced the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. In fact, they had been crafting a new Judaism for over 200 years before the destruction of the Temple, and so were best prepared to propose something new that could survive the loss of our center.

The famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai lived long before the destruction of the Second Temple, and already they developed and debated home observances like Chanukah and Shabbat, and worship outside the Temple. Synagogues and Houses of Learning were built far from Jerusalem long before the Temple’s destruction. We don’t have to rely on our rabbis’ memories of these buildings, many of us here have visited the remains of ancient synagogues throughout Israel, including the synagogue at Masada, many of them dating to over 100 years before the common era.

In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, with some places of learning and practices already established, our ancient rabbis began centuries of conversations about how to live their new Judaism, and wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud. These rabbis wrote the first book of the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, the Chapters of the Ancestors, and explicitly connected the giving of Torah to Moses at Sinai in a line of transmission of scholars all the way down to the themselves. Our ancient rabbis wrote themselves into the Torah! What chutzpah!

 “Hineinu.” The rabbis were present.

They were present for to make the changes that helped Judaism survive.

Abraham became present and opened up to the change that a long walk might offer him. The rabbis who created our Judaism opened up all Jews to new ideas: the synagogue could evolve from the Temple, prayer could evolve from sacrifices, and books could contain our legacy of wisdom.

The rabbis of this early Rabbinic Period revitalized Passover, and made it into a home observance. They promoted the head of household into the master of ceremonies for the Passover Seder, which they created to celebrate one of our most central holidays. They took things out of the Temple court and made them part of our home lives.

When faced with a need to change and evolve, these early rabbis rose to the occasion and spent 500 years crafting a process for figuring out how to do Jewish – today we call the record of that work the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Not only did they create new Jewish rituals and institutions, the rabbis also knew that they couldn’t push it too far. At one point in the Talmud’s discussions of Shabbat they actually admit that they could derive more restrictions for Shabbat than they could convincingly ask Jews to observe. The rabbis knew that our opinions mattered too. Our Talmudic rabbis were present for the what Jews cared about.

 “Hineinu.” We are present to learn from everyone.

Like our reforming ancestors before us, Reform Jews today revere knowledge from all sources. We aim to incorporate any wisdom that seems to work.

Maimonides, one of the most important Jewish scholars in our history, wrote in the 12th century that should the popular understanding of the creation of the world ever differ from the one described in Genesis, then we Jews should read our story as a good story, not a description of reality. We have been a scientifically minded people for a long time, always attempting to find a path that includes our historical writings and the truths of the times we live in.

Maimonides was also an esteemed authority in secular learning – he was revered by non-Jews as a doctor, as an astronomer, and as a philosopher. Before Maimonides, the rabbis of antiquity incorporated Greek philosophy into the Talmud. After Maimonides Renaissance commentators on the Torah used the same psychological thinking that informed Shakespeare. We love to learn, and we love to learn from any source.

The Torah is the symbol of our wisdom, not the entirety of it.

We Reform Jews understand this, we have been present for it, and we follow along paths that were well-trod long before the founding of the Reform movement.

“Hineinu.” We are present to learn from any and all sources of wisdom.

Our modern Reform Judaism emerged when 19th Century German Jews needed an authentic Jewish experience that connected them to their pasts and also allowed them to say,

“Here we are,

in a synagogue with others who share our values.”

Jews with secular educations began to succeed and live well in German cities of the early 1800’s. The Judaism they found there reminded them of the little synagogues in the shtetls that their grandparents had left behind decades before. They no longer dressed, spoke, worked, or lived like people from the country, so the religion from the country no longer spoke to them either. They began with a few simple innovations: a prayer book written with German translations, a sermon given in German instead of Yiddish. Tthey followed the teachings of the Talmud, that emphasize that prayer must be said in a language that people understand.

These urban Jews spoke German and not Yiddish, and needed to understand the holy words of their prayers, and the sermons of their leaders.

These early Reformers met their new needs. With thought and deliberation, over time, they followed Abraham’s model of “l’hitbonen”, to build insights for themselves, and in turn to build a Reform Judaism out of the Judaism of the past, using historical values and principles and applying them to their new situation, exactly like the rabbis of the Talmud.

Reform Judaism is mainstream, traditional, and historical Judaism. When we innovate we respond in a traditional and evolutionary manner to changes in our situations.

The reaction against these innovations became Orthodoxy.

Yes, that’s right – Reform Judaism came first, and the reaction against it, Orthodoxy, second. And in perfect Jewish form, early Orthodox Jews felt Judaism was in crisis and created a new idea about Judaism, a rigid conservatism, a resistance to change that in and of itself was a new form of Judaism. Judaism reacts to the times, and we often come up with different reactions.

 “Hineinu – here we are!”

         We Reform Jews are heirs to a long line of Jews who took reforming seriously.

We are here and present to listen and learn from our ancient traditions, and see how best to apply them to our situations today.

We are here to learn from each other, from other Jews, and from the best that science and human thought has to offer.

We are here to be present for each other as Jews who care deeply about who we have always been, and who we may yet become.

We are here, and we stand between the rich history of the Jewish people, and the promise of a future that we will build together.

Hineinu – we are present.

         Like Abraham, the ancient rabbis, and all of our sages:

We are present for God, we are present for our families, we are present for our greater communities, and we are present to be Reform Jews.

L’shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of growth and reform, a year of authentic Judaism which is ours to make, a better and brighter 5774 for us all.

 

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Quality same-sex ketubah texts!

Check out Ginny Reel's amazing coverage in the Huffington Post - she is one of the only Ketubah artists who creates a real wedding contract for same-sex couples. Just another reason why I love and respect her so much! (I am so thrilled that she consented to marry me).

Ginny will offer the advocacy clause from below as an option to include in all Ketubah texts too!

From the article:

A company called Ketubah-arts.com has gone so far as to include the option for a couple to affirm their commitment to equal marriage rights along with their commitment to each other:

"We promise to work to reform the laws of our country so that our marriage, and the marriages of others who come after us, will be recognized by law, not just by our community, friends, and families," one template reads.

Link to article.

Getting a handle on things one holiday at a time

Many of us are list-makers. I imagine I am not the only one who thrills in checking items off of those lists. We get to bring some order to our worlds that often seem out of control when we take all those things we have to do and itemize them. Then, with some sense of small victory, we concretely show that they have been completed with the stroke of a pen.

The Torah offers us the same kind of teaching this week in Parashat Pinchas. Two full chapters – Numbers chapters 28 and 29 – itemize the holidays of the year, from daily offerings to New Moon offerings, to all the celebrations around each holiday.

In these directions we see the need to establish regular customs and practices, expected times of gathering and prescribed things to do at those moments. So our ancient Israelite ancestors developed a structure to their lives and the calendar, allowing them to see the scope of the year in acknowledged weeks, months, and seasons.

However we manage to encounter a world that may often feel like mayhem, Judaism offers us frameworks in the calendar as models of breaking things down into smaller bits that may help us handle the whole more easily.

Happy list checking!

To fast or not to fast - summer mourning?

Today is the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz – one of a series of holidays in the summer that most Jews have never heard of.

This one begins a three week period remembering the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that culminates in the observance of Tisha b’Av – the 9th of Av – arguably the worst and saddest day in Jewish history. On this day both Temples were destroyed, the First Crusade started, the Spanish Expulsion began, and more.

Why fast and/or maintain these days when we have Israel, when perhaps the reasons for our fasting – the longing for a return – may be obsolete?

Tal Becker reminds us in the article below that longing for a repaired world is part of the fundamentals of the Jewish psyche, and I agree – the metaphor of being lost and needing to find our way, to repair ourselves and our community, may not be removed from our Jewish consciousness.

Thanks to Rabbi Judith Schindler for pointing out this piece, and don’t forget to join us for a detailed discussion of this and other topics around the 9th of Av on Monday evening, July 15 – a pre-fast dinner and start the fast learning starting at 6pm at Temple Beth El in Charlotte.

Tal Becker on Summer Fast Days

Another Response to a Jewish Atheist

On why we should explore Judaism beyond what we learned in Religious School before our Bat or Bar Mitzvah, and how much more there is out there than what is read in the headlines about Judaism...

Not liking one philosophy class or professor doesn't make all philosophy classes or professors not to our taste. Pop culture headlines do not define a culture. I wouldn't trust my views alone, anymore than I would trust pop culture, anymore than I would dismiss a large set of ideas based on a small sample size. How much time have you spent looking at "progressive Judaism"? Jews NEVER read the Hebrew Scripture alone - we always have read it with commentary and interpretation. We never lived it literally (I mean really, executing people for Shabbat violations and for disobeying parents - we are a small group, and that would explain our extermination more than our small size). The Torah is meant to be the beginning of conversations not the end of them. The same with the Talmud. Judaism has undergone radical changes in the last 175 years - most of them from the side of radical reactionary movements, not progressive, secularist, reformers. The changes to the Judaism on the right have been far more dramatic than any on the left. How could anyone have afforded 6 sets of dishes (or two dishwashers!) in the shtetl?

Let's bring God into our midst

This week, in parashat T'rumah, Exodus25:1-27:19, the Torah details the commands for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernace, or portable Temple. We can understand about the need to bring God into our presence, even today, when we imagine God to be beyond the ideas of a tent or an ark of the covenant that might actually contain God. After all, there are moments in our lives when we feel God much more powerfully, and there are places we go in order to experience God more fully too. Life cycle events, Shabbat services, holidays, family get-together's – we often identify these times as filled with greater meaning, and even the presence of God. Synagogues, holy places, sites of tremendous natural beauty – these loom large in our mind as places where we might feel connected to God.

The Israelites in the desert, after the encounter with God at Sinai, where God visibly showed up in an impressive array of special effects, built a Mishkan, literally a dwelling place for God. Do we think that they really imagined that the entirety of God could fit in a little box inside a tent?

I don’t think our ancestors believed that, and I certainly don’t expect all of you to believe it either. Rather, I think that they understood what Abraham understood before them. Abraham knew that the presence of God entered into a place when we behaved in a certain way – in his case, when he welcomed strangers into his tent. The ethic of hospitality brings the presence of God into our midst. The Israelites understood that when they worked together to build something, when they came together for the improvement of the entire community, that God would dwell in their midst too.

In this way, we read the building of the Mishkan, the bringing together of many different items from many different people with many different skills and advantages, as a way of uniting to transform the Israelite community into something better. The actions of the people of Israel united behind a common cause and helped them overcome their difficulties from the past – like grumbling about being brought out of Egypt, and building the Golden Calf.

To bring God into our midst means acting in a way that transforms people from individuals with different desires and agendas into a community, united around projects and causes that bring benefits to everyone.

While we no longer build a Mishkan and all of its ornaments, including the ark of the covenant, we do reap the rewards of united actions. We come together to pray and to learn, to celebrate and to mourn, and to mark the end of the week and the beginning of Shabbat.

I wish that all of us take moments on this Shabbat to come together with each other, to find family and friends and do something that we couldn’t do on our own. Celebrating Shabbat in community transforms our time together, and brings God to dwell in our midst.

After Newtown...

[A sermon from Friday, December 21, 2012]

Genesis 46:28 Now Judah, he had sent on ahead of him, to Joseph, to give directions ahead of him to Goshen. When they came to the region of Goshen,
29 Joseph had his chariot harnessed and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen. When he caught sight of him he flung himself upon his neck and wept upon his neck continually.
30 Israel said to Joseph: Now I can die, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive!

    In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph and his father Jacob, who we also call Israel, accomplish an amazing thing – a reunion between parent and child when the parent had thought his son dead for many years.

    Would that we could only guarantee this for everyone.

    Jewish tradition embraces and discusses almost every difficulty, and yet the difficulty of losing a child – whether because infant mortality was so common, and therefore not requiring a story to respond to it, or some other reason – seems to be something our rabbis and scholars and writers avoid.

    We cannot avoid it.

    We cannot stop thinking about it, crying about it, and longing to fix it.

    There is no easy fix.

    Guns are not the problem by themselves – although impassioned pleas like this one may make us think so…


Here is an observation from Rabbi Shoshana Hantman:
    My husband, Rich Weill, spends a lot of time on a website called Banjo Hangout, especially when there's not much happening at work.  these banjo players (insert joke here) discuss all sorts of things not related to bluegrass music; and many of them seem to be right-wing fundamentalist Second-Amendment types.  Not Rich's natural cadre.
    He wrote this today on the website:
    When people get "pleasure, gratification, or relief" from the act of starting a fire, and are "fascinated with fire, its consequences and related activities," we call that "pyromania."  (DSM IV-TR, Diagnostic criteria for 312.33 Prymonania.)  But, for some reason, when people get "pleasure, gratification, or relief" from the act of starting an explosion inside a metal cartridge containing a lethal projectile, and are fascinated by the consequences and activities related to that potentially deadly explosion, we're supposed to consider that "being an American."
    Guns are about one thing and one thing only: destruction.  Whether it's a paper target or a tin can or a clay disk or an animal or a human being, guns exist only to destroy whatever they're aimed at.  How unlike a banjo.
    I'm also getting a little tired of hearing people excuse the often-scary American obsession with the destructive power of guns as a deeply embedded part of our culture, particularly in certain regions of the country. Slavery was also once a deeply embedded part of the culture of a region of the country, which even called it its "peculiar institution." Domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace were once deeply embedded parts of our culture, tolerated by most women without question.  A lot of things are deeply imbedded in the culture somewhere -- until they aren't anymore.
    Guns are necessary tools for those who defend our country and our communities, or for those who must hunt for food. They shouldn't be implements of pleasure. Pick up a paintbrush or a musical instrument or some woodworking tools instead. Do something that creates for pleasure, not something that destroys.

    Better mental health maintenance and attention is not the only answer, and still we have to work on it.

This is from a piece by Liel Liebovitz, on Tabletmag.org:
    “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” she wrote. “I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”
    Amen to that. In Israel, still a somewhat socialist country, mental health services are ready available, for free, to anyone. And because so many young Israelis undergo traumatic experiences in the course of their military service, a whole host of nonprofit organizations are on hand to provide counseling and treatment. We must do the same. Rather than pretend that it was the objects in their hands rather than the afflictions in their minds that led Lanza and Holmes and Cho and the others to perpetrate their monstrosities, we should offer help to those young men and their families. We have no more compassionate route, and no greater hope for peace.


    And still, there must be more to it.

    There is something wrong with us, something rotting away at the heart of America. We are a frontier people with no frontier anymore except within ourselves. We are conquerors and builders with no conquest left, and no unifying project to devote ourselves to. We must confront that most frightening of places, the parts within us that need attention because we have no “west” left to go for our young men. Star Trek may have gotten it wrong – the Final Frontier is not out there in space, but in here, in our hearts and minds, in the seats of our humanity. We must evolve from within, as we can no longer rely on external resources to help us advance.

    The peace we long for we must create together, as a community of people from different backgrounds and with different opinions.

    We American Jews must take our role as part of the leaders in this. More than any other people in the world we have learned to live with others and collaborate. We must bring our wisdom to bear on these issues. The world needs America to improve and evolve, and our children need us to improve and evolve so that they may live.

    Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a third-century Jewish sage, once taught: Great is peace … if the Holy One had not given peace to the world, sword and beast would devour up the whole world. Let us all hope that through our discourse we silence the “swords and beasts” of our day, bringing about a world one step closer to peace.

TBE Women Stand With Women of the Wall

Temple Beth El women stand with Torah scrolls wearing Tallitot to show solidarity with Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall who peacefully and justifiably demand equal rights to pray at Judaism's holiest site, the Kotel (the Wall), in Jerusalem.

Temple Beth El women stand with Women of the Wall
Temple Beth El women stand with Women of the Wall

Realistic Theology

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:

Today we look at B'chukotai, Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34 - two chapters, almost, with the first focused on the outcomes of following or not following God's commandments, and the second on the rules about vows, concluding with the last verse of Leviticus:

These are the commandments that Adonai commanded Moses for the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

As rationalists, we often bristle at the idea that following commandments would result in blessings and not following them would result in curses. Reward and punishment theology seems unrealistic at best, we even have a Biblical book arguing against it entirely - the Book of Job.

So how do we learn from these texts?

When we follow reasonable practices that help us get along with each other better, when we treat the planet better, we will likely find our lives turn out better. Following a social contract creates better society. Noticing that certain practices hurt the environment, and in turn our livelihoods and fates, and then changing our behavior, leads us to a better life for all.

Our theology should support demands for improved behavior, without threatening supernatural rewards and punishments.

Celebrating Our Vulnerability on Sukkot

[From Sukkot Worship at Temple Beth El, on Monday, October 11, 2012 - 15 Tishrei 5772]

Our pilgrimage festivals seem to follow a natural pattern:

Passover – celebrate freedom

Shavuot – celebrate the giving of Torah

Sukkot – if we were to complete the pattern, we should be celebrating the arrival in Israel, the completion of our journey.

Instead, we celebrate our vulnerability – we celebrate the sources of our sustenance – how the planet provides for us through harvest and shelter, and how fragile all of that is.

Seems strange, as the finale of a three-part series – freedom, wisdom, vulnerability – this is something of a let down.

Yet, this may be one of the central keys to Judaism.

When we arrive in the Promised Land, when we complete the journey, our history has just begun. We do not celebrate a final sense of redemption in this world. We are not a people who believe that our work will be, or has ever been, complete.

Instead, we choose, as the most celebratory of our three primary festivals, to take in the harvest, eat, drink, and be satisfied, for a moment, while still knowing that the seasons will yet change again, and there will be more work to be done.

We do not have a holy day that marks completion, instead we sit in our temporary structures on Sukkot, happy to have brought in a good harvest, and see how fragile it all is. We notice that our completion is momentary.

Sukkot sends us a fundamental message about the nature of life. As we have come through our seasons of inspiration, our celebration of the creation of the world on Rosh Hashanah, and our deep time of repentance on Yom Kippur, Sukkot gets us back to the everyday – our needs being met by the earth, and our need to reconnect with those physical needs. We live in the desert forever – we do not reach completion. We get through the desert with the blessing of the bounty of our harvest, when we are lucky to have enough, and through the blessings of our communities coming together to share that harvest and make sure we everyone shares in our bounty.

Fragility, vulnerability, life as wanderers – this is life. As Jews we recognize it and celebrate when we succeed at living with it, as well as the need to make sure we don’t ignore it.

May this year be one where we live well with our fragile world, and guard against the hazards it brings by coming together to bring each other blessings of sustenance.