Hanukkah and the Blessings of Assimilation

Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, also known as the Festival of Lights is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Hanukkah is one of the best-known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many people think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of Christmas customs such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. Ironically, Hanukkah has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of the Jewish religion. 

Hanukkah traditionally teaches us that assimilation is BAAADDDD…  but what exactly is assimilation? 

  • Assimilation:   the act or process of absorbing information and experiences 
  • Assimilation:   the state or condition of being absorbed into something 
  • Assimilation:  the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation 

The story of Hanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great.  Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.  More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar.   

Two groups opposed Antiochus: a nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidim). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.   

According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, in tractate Shabbat,page 21b, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle of the oil.  

The take away- message of Hanukkah is to stay true to your tradition; miracles happen; that assimilation is bad; and we are here today because of efforts like the Maccabees. 

I recently read “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History” by Gerson D. Cohen.   Cohen was an Associate Professor of History at Columbia and he delivered the commencement address to the Hebrew Teachers College in 1966.   

I love this title.  The Blessing of Assimilation – Good can come from assimilation.  Quoting from Cohen “The first outdated principle that we need to reconsider is that Jewish survival and, above all, Jewish vitality in the past, derived in large measure from a tenacious adherence on the part of our ancestors to all basic eternal traditional forms.”   i.e.,  we survived because we did not change…. 

In the 2nd century, Bar Qappara stated “Owing to four factors were the people of Israel redeemed for the land of Egypt”: 

  1. They did not alter their names 
  2. They did not change their language 
  3. They did not spread malicious gossip  
  4. They were free of sexual license  

Addressing these slightly out of order,  

  1. They did not spread malicious gossip… Trust me, Jews gossip… and we are REALLY good at it…    
  2. They were free of sexual license… We did not sleep around… seems highly unlikely given Biblical stories like Judah and Tamar, or Reuven and Bilhah… 
  3. We did not alter our names?  Thinking back to the evolution is my own families’ names, from Mandelbaum to Manning to Shakdiel, Cohen shows that while Jacobs’ children had Israelite names, their grandchildren were named Aaron, Moses, Hofni and Phinehas, all which had their roots in Egyptian names.  Over time, a pious Israelite might choose names from the broader culture – Ishbaal, Abiyam, Daniel, Zerubbalbel… and later in the Greek period, Jason, Alexander, Hyrcanus and so on.   And today, Jews are named Jamie, Jackie, Steve, Zoe, Chleo, Dita and Lisanne. 
  4. And we didn’t change our language?  Here he means the language of prayer and text study.   Of course we did.  Vibrant communities all over the world study Torah and pray in English, Spanish, French, Ladino, Yiddish, German, and yes, Hebrew. 

The second principle Cohen tackles is that Jewish communities that did not create in Hebrew, did not leave their stamp on Judaism.  The misconception is that the Jewish communities of Alexandria and Cordova, who wrote in Greek and Arabic respectively, failed to contribute anything enduring to Jewish culture; whereas Rabbi Akiva and Hillel the Elder have lived forever because they were recorded in Hebrew. 

 Cohen asks “isn’t a teacher’s first duty, to his students, and not to posterity?”  Tradition gives us at least two ideas to ponder: 

  1. dibber ha-katuv ba-hoveh, divveru hachamim ba-hoveh, (the text speaks in the present reality, the words of the wise sages are in the present).  Good teachers teach in contemporary and relevant terms, in languages people understand.  Most of us would be lost if the first time we opened a Bible or a prayerbook, there was no translation or transliteration. 
  1. Secondly, “dor dor v’dorshav” – one generation goes and another comes … Future generations will take a core idea, reinterpret it and maintain its authenticity through change and thereby through contemporary relevance.  Let’s take a clear example of this – how we connect to and serve God.   In ancient times we served G-d through sacrifice in the Temple(s).  When the 2nd temple was destroyed, we morphed the tool of our connection from sacrifice to prayer.  Over time, many communities prayed 3 times a day with a fairly consistent liturgy, with only subtle differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions.   In the late 19th and through the 20th centuries, with the emergence of the reform, conservative, reconstructionist, humanist and renewal movements in the United States, our prayers and our methodology to connect with the divine continued to evolve.  Today, in California, in my shul, if there is no bar mitzvah, there is no Torah service and my community practices Jewish yoga.  The concept that there are many ways to praise God is not new.  As Psalm 150 illustrates, there are many ways to connect to the divine.  “Halleluya…Praise Him with blasts of the shofar; praise Him with the harp and lyre.  Praise Him with timbrel and dance; praise Him with strings and flute.  Praise him with crashing cymbals; praise Him with resounding cymbals.  Let all that breathes praise the Lord.  Halleluya!”  Diversity of expression is imbedded in the Torah. 

 

For the Jewish community of Alexandria, a certain amount of assimilation was good.  They were unique among Hellenistic ethnic groups in their ability to survive as a living culture, precisely because of its ability to undergo a considerable amount of assimilation.  The translation of the Bible into Greek allowed the Jews to bring their message to the broader world or their own people as well.  It allowed community to stay connected to the core texts, in their own mother tongues, even as their ability to stay connected in Hebrew, evolved away. 

Evolution is inevitable.  Politics, climate, fashion, aliens, we can’t control everything.   Nothing is certain in this world but that it will change.  And whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all influenced by outside factors.  So, if our language, our names and our particular ritual practices differ between time periods and cultures, what holds us together?   

In the Babylonian Talmud, Moses finds himself sitting in the back row of the beit midrash of Rabbi Akiva, hundreds of years in his future, trying to follow a lesson but not understanding a word of the concepts under discussion.  Finally someone asks Rabbi Akiva for the source of his ruling and Akiva answers “In the name of my teacher, Moses” and at that moment, Moses understood that the body of rabbinic decisions had evolved since his time, but the students were engaged in serious study of text and commentary and they could trace the logic of their arguments back through the various permutations and layers of decisions, back to him and to Mt.Sinai.  

What holds the Jewish people together is engagement with Jewish ideas and Jewish texts.  Ethnicity, language, geography, rituals are not enough on their own. Each of these factors alone, not grounded in the ideas that underpin them, eventually become something else.    

What does it mean to be an assimilated Jew?  According to Wikipedia, “Jewish assimilation refers to the cultural assimilation and social integration of Jews in their surrounding culture, a continuous process over centuries.”   

What typifies an assimilated Jew?   Does it mean to wear the clothes of the majority culture?  To speak their language?  Does it mean you look like you walked out of Fiddler on the Roof in 1910?   

What typifies an unassimilated Jew?  Does it mean you are shomer shabbat and follow the dietary laws?  Does it mean that you believe in a God that acts in history?  Do you look like a chasid in a streimel?  Charlton Heston in “The 10 Commandments” or Ari Ben-Canaan in “Exodus”?  All 3 caricatures represent stereotypical Jews of a certain period and historical circumstances; all are totally different from one another; and all would be out of place if replaced one with the other.   

Are there core beliefs that we hold as Jews, regardless of in what millennium we live and the clothes that we wear?  What binds us together as Jews?  And where is the line between unassimilated, assimilated, and lost? 

My answer is to what we have in common is found here, sitting in community, learning Torah.  As we engage in d’vrei Torah (words of Torah), all of us will claim our place in the links of Jewish peoplehood.  I claim my place in Jewish history as a native Californian Jew in the 21st century.  I claim my voice around Jewish issues that pertain to me and my community. I claim my right to interact with text, to interpret, to question and yes, to say it like I see it, through the eyes of a modern Jewish woman, a relatively soon-to-be rabbi, wearing bike shorts and a Sponge Bob cycling jersey :-).

 

Parashat Vayeshev – Tamar: A Biblical Feminist Role Model for Modernity

It is always interesting to me how a text can be interpreted so differently depending on the perspective of the listener.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, we are presented with the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar.   Tamar is the wife of Judah’s son, Er.  When Er passes away and Tamar is left childless, a levirate marriage takes place and Tamar is married Judah’s 2nd son, Onan in order to carry on the line of Er.  But Onan is selfish and spills his seed so as not to build up the house of his now deceased brother.  When Onan passes away, and Tamar is still childless, she rightfully is supposed to be married to Judah’s 3rd son, Shelach.  But Judah does not want this marriage to take place perhaps fearing for the life of his 3rd son.   By denying Shelach to Tamar, Tamar is left in a state of perpetual childless widowhood.  This is unacceptable to Tamar and she forces the issue by disguising herself as a harlot and seducing Judah.  She negotiates collateral objects from Judah as security that he will pay her for her “services”.  When Tamar is found to be pregnant as an unmarried widow, she is accused of adultery by Judah and threatened with death.  Tamar reveals her identity to Judah by returning the collateral items she received from him during their encounter.  Judah upon seeing the items realizes why she has orchestrated these events and acknowledges that he was wrong to not give her as a wife to Shelach and that she was right to force the issue thus carrying on the family line.

What are we supposed to learn from this story?   Different commentators draw different lessons depending on their theological bent.

The Stone Chumash, whose traditional commentaries always justify the biblical narrative within an overall plan of God for the Jewish people, states “Tamar was a great and righteous woman, who was Divinely ordained to become the ancestress of the Davidic dynasty, and she wanted to passionately fulfill that mission.  …. Consequently, to bring about the union between herself and Judah, Tamar decided she had to seek unconventional – even distasteful – means by posing as a harlot and enticing Judah.”   Here we learn here that the ends justify the means to ensure that Tamar, through the house of Judah, will be the ancestress of the Davidic line.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a contemporary orthodox rabbi firmly rooted in our modern world, draws another lesson. Says Rabbi Sacks “But the real hero of the story was Tamar.  She had taken immense risk by becoming pregnant.  She had done so for a noble reason: to ensure that the name of her late husband was perpetuated. But she took no less care to avoid Judah being put to shame.  One he and she knew what had happened.  Judah could acknowledge his error without loss of face.” Rabbi Sack’s lesson, never put anyone to shame.

A non-Jewish site on the internet, www.thediligentwoman.com offers yet another take. “Tamar’s story shows what happens when the protections of marriage are not there. As we saw in Ruth‘s story, God had made provision for keeping the blood lines of Israel pure and the clear handing down of inheritances within each tribe by requiring that a widow be married again within the family of her husband (Deut. 25:5-10)…Judah’s obligation as her father-in-law was to see to her security. Judah did not do as he promised. Tamar was left without protection, so she sought to get it for herself. Judah’s own sins, fornication, laid him open for her to accomplish her plan. He should not have failed to give her to Shelah, he should not have gone into a harlot, and she should not have played the harlot to try to seal her future.”  The lesson here is that one sin leads to others.  

Three lessons, all quite different, each reflective of the values of the author:  the ends justify the means, never put anyone to shame, and one sin leads to others.  These three voices are illuminating but what do I, Reb Jamie take from this story? Who is the voice of Reb Jamie? Reb Jamie is a 20th century woman, the daughter of a fiercely feminist woman and a much more conservative father, who firmly believes in the documentary hypothesis and like Jacob several weeks ago, wrestles with God.

Traditional commentators rationalize Tamar’s behavior saying that she knew she was to be the ancestress of the messianic line so she went to these lengths to ensure it came true. To me, this is the imposition of the idea that all actions within the Torah are a part of God’s plan and if you search hard enough, you’ll find a way to justify anything.

From my perspective, as a woman firmly rooted in modernity and as one who wrestles with the idea of an intentional God, Tamar is a shining example of a woman exercising her power to secure what is rightly hers within the societal context of her times – parenthood and a place of stature within the house of Judah. While her actions may at first seem unseemly, in fact, she is whip smart and she knows how to move the pieces and to play the game.  This is a rare case in the biblical narrative of a woman, on her own, deciding to control her destiny, without shame.  At the end of the day, Tamar’s use of her sexuality as a tool to secure what is rightly hers is upheld.   For me it is less important that her actions secure the Davidic line, than that she claimed her rights and was not a passive player.   And I don’t have to work hard to justify her actions as part of God’s ultimate plan for the Jewish people.  Her actions in the moment stand on their own.  For this, Tamar is a feminist role model for modernity.

Thoughts on “What will sustain Judaism in the future?” 

The New York Times recently published a list of five new books that touch on issues of American Jewish identity.  The focus of the books is the question “What will sustain Judaism in the future?”  According to the writer, the outlook does not bode well for the future of a Judaism that most of us grew up with.   Diminishing affiliation and increased socialization into the majority culture suggests that remaining distinct in our practice and particular in our outlook seems less and less likely.

The title of the article caught my attention, “American Jews Face a Choice: Create Meaning or Fade Away.”  The Judaism in which I grew up provided me with friends from camp and youth group, and a strong identity (never forget), but there was no intellectual content. We didn’t study text and we were taught to practice rituals we didn’t understand, and worse yet, that weren’t practiced in our homes. In short, the Judaism of my childhood could not stand on its own two feet as I grew into adulthood. What drew me into Judaism as a teenager was protection from a strong sense of “otherness.” I felt ugly as a child and unrooted, and in my synagogue, I felt grounded. If I had been accepted and popular at school, perhaps I too would have drifted away. “Never forget” as a reason to remain a practicing Jew was not enough to sustain me.  It is only as I grew into adulthood that my passion to uncover meaning in my Jewish life emerged.

I am a strong advocate of creating meaning, taking our tradition and using it as a framework and a resource to help us meet the challenges of modernity. If you and I don’t find meaning in what we do here today, how can we expect our children and grandchildren to be interested in what our tradition offers for their future?  Yes, I am interested in building for the future, but in the immediacy of this moment, I use my energy and knowledge to create a vibrant community of meaning here and now. And so, while the future of the Judaism we knew growing up may be less certain, the Judaism that we are living today, and that we create together, is bright.

After Pittsburgh

(11/2/18, Congregation P’nai Tikvah)Statue of Liberty

It has been a long week and as Rabbi Mintz wrote in our communication to the community, last shabbat was not a shabbat of shalom, a shabbat of peace.  Today, many of us feel more vulnerable, more raw, and more scared then we were.  Seemingly overnight our sense that in America we are safe has been shattered.  We’ve been shocked out of complacency.  We ask ourselves how do we move forward?  How do we regain our sense of equilibrium and our sense of safety?

Earlier this week, I joined with 1500 other congregational and agency leadership from across the country for a call on security.  Sponsored by the reform, conservative and reconstructionist movements, the call was facilitated by the ADL who were in conversation with national law enforcement agencies and security experts.  The call focused on securing our synagogues and institutions and there are several key points that I want to share.

First, the man who perpetrated this attack appears to have acted alone.  He was not a part of a larger movement and as of Wednesday night, according to the FBI, there were no credible threats against the Jewish community.

Second, while we may feel under siege because there has been an increase in the number of harassing phone calls and emails reported in the last year, until last Shabbat, there had been only one reported physical assault in the past two years.

So, what can we do now to feel secure as we return to our daily lives?  As a community we can no longer be complacent.  We must take control, and empower ourselves.  We take our security seriously.  Just like we plan for fires and earthquakes, together with security experts, we will develop a plan that will keep us secure as is possible.  God willing, we will never need to use it but at the Tree of Life, Rabbi Meyers saved lives because he had recently undergone security training and he knew what to do when the unthinkable happened.

As I think back on the events of last Shabbat, what confuses me is that what so bothered the perpetrator, Jewish involvement with helping the downtrodden and oppressed, is what I thought was a core American value. I ask myself how anyone could find fault with that?  As if this tragedy was a rational act.  As if the perpetrator was a rational man.

The Jewish people were forged into being through the formative event of our master story, the exodus from Egypt; the journey from slavery to freedom, from oppression to redemption.  Zecher yitziyat Mitzrayim – remember you were slaves in Egypt.   Everything we do is colored by this framing.  No matter what financial or professional success we achieve, we always carry within us a connection to our history as slaves.  This connection guides us to be empathetic advocates for others who are suffering today.  We see ourselves in their eyes. That empathy puts many of us at odds with current immigration policies.   For most of us it is only one or two generations ago that we were immigrants trying to get into America and to create a better life.  We see ourselves in their eyes.

Remembering that we were slaves in Egypt calls us to follow in the footsteps of the prophets who advocated for change, to make the world a better place… to change the status quo…from Isaiah of old, to Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Martin Luther King and who famously said, “When I marched in Selma, I prayed with my feet.”   Many in our community are politically active, using their voices as Mahatma Gandhi said to “’Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Last weekend I was in New York for a conference.  My son Will came down from Vermont and we spent Shabbat together.  We walked the streets of lower Manhattan where we caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.  The iconic Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American values, upon whose base is engraved, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  Jews have proudly fought to uphold the values inscribed here, and yet in today’s world, “Give me your tired, your poor” seem not to be the values of a segment of our society.

In the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Shabbat we read of Hillel and Shammai, two great sages of the last century before the Common Era who founded opposing schools of Jewish thought.   “Once there was a person who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside, dismissing him as a not serious student. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  Treat others how you would want to be treated.  In moments like this, it is easy to feel alone and isolated.  But we are not alone.  Last night at the community vigil, and in this room tonight, are people of good faith and love and warmth, who choose to stand up against hate, and to stand with us when we really need it.

Standing up on the bima at the vigil last night, looking out at the sea of faces that included so many of you, members of all the synagogues here, clergy people of all stripes and collars, political leaders across the aisle of the political divide… standing on that bima was a beautiful site.   And as the lieutenant governor said, we cannot, we should not, forget that there are millions of people standing with us, as we stand with them.  We cannot let the terror perpetrated by the very few, outweigh the goodness of the majority.

We see ourselves in their eyes.

I looked out from the bima and in my eyes I saw all of you, and I know that I am not, that we are not alone.  We are a community made up of many, many parts, and we see each other, we find each other, in each other’s eyes.

 

“Respect for multiple points of view is a core Jewish belief”

Lately it feels like the political scene overwhelms everything. Last night I said that God can be sensed when you look into the eyes of another person and recognize that they too were created in the image of God.

One of the many things that upset me in the past two years was when I saw one of our political leaders mocking a person with a disability. That act, more than anything, symbolized for me what is currently wrong in our society. Clearly when this man looked at that person, he did not see an equal, or someone created in the image of God. When I marched in the first Women’s March, I carried a sign “Make America Kind Again.” It is basic and simple, but our society seems to have moved in a very different direction of late.

What makes a society strong and healthy? What are its defining characteristics? A powerful military? Common beliefs and values? An abundance of natural resources? A benevolent government that treats all its citizens equally, and with dignity and respect? In the crazy world in which we live today, does civility and civil discourse still exist? Have we lost our ability to discuss difficult issues with people with whom we have fundamental disagreement?

Respect for multiple points of view is a core Jewish belief. The Talmud, the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law, models this by preserving not just decisions made, but the arguments upon which those decisions are based. Minority opinions are recorded and respected. An example of this is found in tractate Shabbat. The Mishna (the earliest written form of Jewish oral law) puts forth the statement that “all sacred writings are to be saved from a fire on Shabbat, whether you read them [aloud] or not, regardless of the language in which they are written.” Discussions ensue to clarify what constitutes a sacred writing? What if the text is one of the books that is not read on Shabbat or is from outside the established canon? What if the text is a translation? Are you required to save the texts from the fire when the use of fire itself is forbidden on Shabbat? Two 3rd century Babylonian sages engage in a lively debate on this topic. Rav Huna stated “You do not save them on Shabbat.” Rav Hisda disagreed and said, “You do save them on Shabbat.” Rav Huna then asked, “Why should I save them if we don’t use them (if they aren’t read)?” Rav Hisda responded “We save them because otherwise it is disrespectful of the sacred texts.” Of course, the conversation continued, but all the ins and outs of the discussion are recorded there, modeling civil discourse and respect.

I’ve just started the novel, The Orchard by Yochi Brandes. Like The Red Tent, it is a fictional account of the legend of the four sages, who went into an “orchard” and what happened to them there. The orchard is a metaphor for encountering God through meditation and/or text study. Now remember, these four sages, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Ayuyah and Rabbi Akiva were flesh and blood people. They each, like all of us, brought their personal experiences, their perspectives, and their metaphoric baggage with them on the journey. What they encountered in the orchard, and what happened to them as a result of this encounter, was colored by all that made them who they were as individuals.

Think about the last walk you took with friends and the things you experienced. Did you see the trees above or were you focused on the smell of pine? Did you hear the bees buzzing or were you focused on the conversation you were having with your friend? Even on the same walk, your friends come away seeing things differently than you. You remember the trees, they remember the noise of the passing cars. It is like those group painting parties where everyone is given a canvas and you all paint the same bowl of fruit, and no two paintings are alike. So, when the four men entered the orchard, they each reacted differently. Ben Azzai died; Ben Zoma went mad; Elisha Ben Abuyah became a non-believer; only Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace. Each reacted based upon the lifetime of experiences, emotions and knowledge that he brought into the orchard. We bring our baggage with us no matter where we go.

A portion of the Torah we read on Rosh Hashanah was Genesis 22:1–22. It tells the story of the “Binding of Isaac.” In the portion, God tells Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac and to offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham dutifully sets out to fulfill God’s request, but at the last moment, God stops him saying “I know you fear God.” Abraham has proved he has unshakable faith and in return God promises Abraham “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore….”

How are we to interpret this story? What are you thinking when you hear this? Each of us brings our unique selves to the table as we hear the “Binding of Isaac.” Some will say it a good story, about pure faith in God. Some will say it shows a compassionate God who stops a child sacrifice. Others might possibly observe that it is a story of bad parenting in an act of blind faith.

Other questions we might ponder include:

1. What did Isaac think about these events?

2. What about the ram in the thicket who was sacrificed instead?

3. How do we apply this teaching to our lives here in 2018, in 5779?

4. Should I listen and act upon “the voice of God” in my head, if I should ever be so blessed as to hear it~?

We are not alone in asking “Does this make sense? How is it relevant to me? The Torah commentaries preserve for us the opinions of rabbis and sages across the centuries. The section opens with והעלהים נסה אתאברהם and “God put Abraham to the test.” What does it mean to “put Abraham to the test?” The Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, a 13th century Catalonian sage) says “The issue of this test, in my opinion, shows that a person has the absolute authority to perform an action; one can do what they want, and not do what one doesn’t want. It is called “nissayon” for the individual being tested, but the blessed Tester will command him to bring out the thing from ability to actuality, giving a reward for a good heart. Every test in the Torah is for the good of the one being tested.” Ibn Ezra, (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ben Ezra, an 11th century sage from Navarre, in northern Spain) notes “Some say we need to read the word for test/נשא instead of נשה, “uplifted” instead of “test.” Sforno, Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, an Italian sage from the 16th century) notes “The purpose of man’s existence is to emulate the virtues of G’d, and by means of this “test” Avraham had an opportunity to demonstrate this.” Each of these three sages read the same text and yet commented on different aspects and came to different conclusions.

In modernity, both from within and outside of the Jewish community, there are plenty of people who given the same facts and the same issues, will see things differently than you or me, and who will come to different conclusion on any given issue. We are like the four sages who entered the orchard, or the three sages who commented on the previous passage. We view and react to something based on who we are and the baggage that we carry.

Returning to the issue of civil discourse, we all care about democracy. In our community are those who have voted on both sides of the aisle. Sometimes we vehemently disagreed with the ideas put forth in the political realm. We make our opposition known through raising our voices and casting our ballots. At the end of the day though, we accept the decision of the majority and we work together to build a better future. But recently, something fundamental has changed in the public sphere. It seems that we have lost civil discourse, the ability to enter dialogue with another person, to listen to what they have to say, to analyze point by point. In the end, even if we don’t agree with one another, we continue to work together, to be friends, for the common good.

We have a great example of this in the famous friendship of supreme court justices “Notorious RBG” (Ruth Bader Ginsberg) and Antonin Scalia. They were diametrically opposed philosophically. Scalia was an originalist who believed the constitution should be interpreted as the founding fathers meant for it to be. RBG felt the constitution was a living document which changes as society changes. Tradition and precedent matter but they did not determine her legal judgement. These differing outlooks invariably led them to extremes in legal interpretation of the law, but it didn’t stop them from dining together travelling together and enjoying the opera. They kept their arguments intellectual and didn’t let philosophical differences intrude on a good friendship.

It is noteworthy that in both antiquity and modernity, we hear echoes of the same fundamental arguments. Justice Scalia sounds a lot like Rav Hisda who was a literalist and followed the letter of the law… “It says “all sacred writings are to be saved from a fire on Shabbat, whether you read them [aloud] or not, regardless of the language in which they are written.” That means you save them. Justice Ginsberg sounds like Rav Huna, “Why should I save them if they aren’t read?” Like Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of reconstructionist Judaism who famously said, “The past has a vote, not a veto.” Just because it says they should be saved, in light of the fact that no one is reading this material today, perhaps we can change the law?

Some of what is going on in our country echoes the differences between Rav Huna and Hisda, and Justices Scalia and Ginsburg. Huna and Scalia choose to follow the letter of the law, Hisda and Ginsberg, chose the spirit. Like Rav Huna and Justice Scalia, some people want things to stay exactly as they were, and like Rav Hisda and Justice Ginsberg, others want to adapt to meet the needs of the current moment. If there is a commonality in these scenarios, then I take heart knowing that in all generations there is a tension between what was and what will be. The question is how to balance the needs of the present, with the needs of those who long for the past, and the needs of those who drive us toward the future. We must follow in the footsteps of our Talmudic sages who valued a broad diversity of opinion and remained in dialogue with one another despite their differences of opinion. We must follow the example set by Justices Ginsberg and Scalia to engage in civil discourse with those with whom we disagree. We must forge bonds that go beyond philosophical differences. And we must always recognize in the eyes of the other that they too were created in the image of God.

The reconstructionist prayerbook for Shabbat includes a prayer for our government by Rabindrananath Tagore, a Bengali poet who lived 100 years ago.

What do I desire for my country? How do I vision the land I love?

Let it be a land where knowledge is free,

Where the mind is without fear, and men and women hold their heads high,

Where words come out from the depth of truth,

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection,

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreamy desert sand of dead habit,

Where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action,

Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake.

Ken yi’hi ratzon. May it be Your will.

Breathe In, Breathe Out (Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5779)

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“The prophet Isaiah said: “Seek God where He is found, call on Him when He is close.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the orthodox former chief rabbi of Britain, tells us “the rabbis wrestled with this verse. What could it mean? For them, God was the God of everywhere and all time. He was always to be found, always close. The verse seemed to make no sense at all…. This was their reply: These are the Ten Days of Repentance [of Teshuva/ of returning to ourselves] between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” Says Rabbi Sacks, God is always close to us, but we are not always close to God. God is always to be found, but we do not always seek out God. To sense the closeness of God needs some special effort on our part.”

We stand at the beginning of aseret yamei teshuva, the 10 days of returning. We have the opportunity to set our houses in order, to chart a course into a better future. It is a time when the world is being judged for the coming year and we hope that God has decreed for us a good and sweet year. But what, or who, is the God that is doing the judging? Is he an old man with a white beard up in heaven benevolently looking down on us with the Book of Life in his lap and a quill pen in his hand? Who is the God, according to Rabbi Sacks, that we need to seek out?

I have just finished reading a great book, “Seeing God” by Rabbi David Aaron. Rabbi Aaron is an orthodox student of the kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Mysticism is the search for hidden meanings in text and ideas. In thinking about God, Rabbi Aaron begins by saying “Quite frankly, the word “God” does nothing for me. If anything, it interferes with my true faith. Personally,” (says Rabbi Aaron), “I don’t believe in “God.” It’s an English word of German derivation and is not found in the Bible, if you read the Hebrew original. The word “God” has been so overused, abused, and misunderstood that it actually stands in the way of our discovering the ultimate truth we are seeking.” As Rabbi Aaron says, given the misunderstanding and abuse of the word God, it is likely that if there are 100 people in this room, there are probably at least 100 different ideas on the nature of God.

In Judaism, the entity God is referred to in many ways – Elohim, El Shaddai, Adonai to name but a few descriptors. The word God itself is a descriptor. To Torah uses the letters יהוה. If you were looking at God’s name in the Torah, which has no vowels, you would not know how to pronounce it. Some would guess at the vowels and pronounce it Yahweh, some would say Jehovah. Jews choose not to guess and to perhaps accidentally utter the name, instead we choose Hashem (the name), Adonai, or “Hakadosh Baruch Hu“, the holy one, blessed be He.” There are at least 70 names for God. Personally, I prefer “the Source of Life.”

As to the nature of this entity, the name יהוה is revealing. For those of you who like to play word games, and who know a bit of Hebrew, you’ll see that יהוה contains three other words… יהיה הווה היה hayah – it was; hoveh; it is; yihiyeh, it will be. Past, present, and future. The word for the name of God, that describes what God is, is a word that includes all that was, all that is, and all that will be. With this understanding, God is an all-encompassing continuing energy which connects everything that ever was and ever will be. And so, I ask you to take a moment and reflect on how you understand the God concept.

Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism said. “God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.” Jewish tradition ascribes three main themes to Rosh Hashanah – malchuyot, kingship; zichronot, remembrances; and shofarot, shofar. Paraphrasing Rabbi Aaron, “Malchut literally means “kingdom,” that is, a collective of people who acknowledge a particular king.” Generally, when we think of a king, we think of someone who rules over a group of people. But who gives a king power? The people. The people, by accepting the king, give them the power to rule. They don’t rebel, they don’t choose another to rule over them. They accept kingship. And that, in part, is what Rosh Hashanah is, the annual affirmation by the Jewish people of the kingship of יהוה ,the Source of Life, the Oneness of all that was, all that is, and all that will be.

What does it mean to accept the kingship of God? Through the lens of Rabbi Aaron, the mystic who reveals the hidden mystery, kingship means “you experience yourself as a participant in a communal consciousness that recognizes and acknowledges the Source of Life as the ultimate supreme sovereign power. That collective recognition of the Source of Life channels the Divine Majestic Presence into this world.”

Personally, I take this as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of everything. For understanding that we are not unconnected individuals, rather that we are all part of a living force, connected to the planet, connected to heavens, and connected to each other.

Reiterating Rabbi Sacks’ question, “How do we “bring close the Source of Life?” How do we know that God is close? I touched on this several weeks ago on Shabbat. We are given a hint every time we say the Shema. The word Shema is spelled עמש and means to hear or to listen. The word Nishama, נשמה means soul. The word לנשוםmeans “to breathe.” Nishimaנשימה means breath. Shhh…mmmm….aaahhhh, shhh…mmmm….aahhh. Each time we say the Shema, we listen, we hear and we know that we are part of the One, part of the source of life. When we breathe, we breathe in from the Source of Life. Our souls, our breathe, the sound of the source of life, nishima, nishama, Shema.

We are part of everything. We are created in the image of the divine. We are made up of the divine.

And what does Rabbi Aaron mean when he says, “That collective recognition of the Source of Life channels the Divine Majestic Presence into this world?” We are expressions of the Source of Life. We are the “channel” that he describes. We express godliness/the Divine Majestic Presence in the world through our humanity, through how we treat each other as expressions of the Source of Life, through our kindness.

The community and the energy within a community that accepts the kingship of the Source of Life, that recognizes godliness in the eyes of every person, that community brings God, the Divine Majestic Presence, into the room.

In this new year, may our actions bring about a better world, may our interactions with each other be framed by the recognition that we are all expressions of the Source of Life, and may we be the “channels” that Rabbi Aaron describes.

May we be inscribed for a good year.

My Mother Prays With Her Feet

IMG_3021I am spending much of my summer thinking about the purpose of public prayer.  What do we hope to accomplish when we come together and engage in worship?

As part of my summer reading, I just finished “The Art of Public Prayer” by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman (which is much more interesting than the dry title would imply).  For Hoffman, one of my favorite teachers as a Wexner fellow, public prayer connects us to our past, enriches our present, and directs our future.   Communal prayer reminds us that in our past our people were slaves in Egypt and a wandering tribe, and that memory informs our lives today.  Our present lives are both enriched by our connection to those with whom we are praying and grounded by our awareness of God/Oneness/Source of Life.  And our future, the world that we hope to bring about, is made real through our actions which are shaped by our past and our present.

At the end of June my mother turned 80.  Our multiple generations gathered from across the country to celebrate my mother and her vibrant spirit.  To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, my mother “prays with her feet.”    Not much of a shul-goers an adult, she grew up in a synagogue full of form but bereft of spiritual content.  She has spent much of her life protesting for change to create a more equitable world.  From women’s rights and Vietnam to El Salvador and disability rights, my mom is either marching in the crowd or writing letters to the editor stating her views.   I am my mother’s daughter, but in this arena of spiritual practice, she takes the lead.

As our family gathered to enjoy the warmth of each other’s company, to welcome in the sabbath, and to share our lives, we were acutely aware that not far away, protests were occurring against the current administrations’ immigration policy, that other families were torn apart and not together.  Sitting on the couch in our vacation home grousing didn’t seem to be enough and so as a family, we chose action.  We drove 20 miles and joined the protests in Watsonville, a small farming community nearby.   It was a powerful moment for all of us.  To know that we were standing up for what we believe, as a family, with our parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren, our cousins, and our brothers and sisters.  It was a moment where you could see that the lessons and values of one generation had been passed to the next, and now the torch was burning to light the way for the youngest in our family. M’dor l’dor – from generation to generation.

If public prayer reminds us our past and where we came from; if it enriches our present as we encounter community and Oneness; and if informs our future as we build a better world; then my family spent that Shabbat morning publicly praying in Watsonville, praying with our feet.

May the memory of our past, and the warmth of our community in the present, help us to build the world of our future, the world to come.

Reb Jamie

 

Finding Meaning While Waiting for the Morning BART Train

As part of my rabbinic training I am learning to deepen my daily prayer practice. My initial motivation was the graduation requirement to be fluent and facile in our understanding of the services and to be comfortable in leading them. As I grow in my understanding of the components of prayer, I see that the service takes one on a journey.  Most often these days, from the time I rise, make my way to BART and stand on the platform waiting for the train, I internally engage in Shacharit, the morning service.  My morning begins with gratitude that I awoke; awareness that each day is full of potential and thus one has the responsibility to do good in the world; and acknowledgement that there is a power that nurtures and directs all things (some would say God).

Initially I was wary of embarking on this prayer journey. After all, I am a rational woman with my feet grounded in science. How could I find meaning in this mandatory endeavor? As I have become more familiar with the words on the page, as the Hebrew has morphed from just sounds which I struggled to enunciate, to words with meaning, I have begun to recognize the signposts of the prayer journey. The path through the service has become comforting and profound. Much to my surprise, the words and the concepts have begun to resonate… bein yom oovein laila (who gives the heart understanding to distinguish day from night…Shema (Listen Israel, everything is One)…v’natati esev b’sadcha (the rain will fall, or it won’t because our actions have consequences)… honen deah (You grace humanity with knowledge and teach mortals understanding).  The service has come alive for me in ways unexpected, meaningful in a profoundly personal way.

In the morning service on many days we recite is a section entitled “Tahanun,” supplications. Until now I generally have dismissed this section as just another thing to get through… but the translation “supplications/pleadings” does a disservice to the immediacy of the endeavor.  Behind this lofty language is the opportunity to express what we personally need in our lives now. For example, it may sound trite, and I acknowledge that this is “a first world problem,” but my morning commute gives me a lot of stress.  Every day from the moment I open my eyes to the time I board the train, I worry I won’t find a parking place and I won’t get a seat.  Today, after these thoughts ran through my mind, happily and surprisingly, I found an open spot on the street as close as possible.  And as I stood this morning on the BART platform, thinking “please may I get a seat for the hour journey into SF,” I realized that I was actually pleading to the powers that be for something that I needed in the moment.  Tahanun came alive for me.

As I grow in my comfort with personal prayer and my skills at leading community services, both are profoundly meaningful to me and I feel blessed to share this journey with you. (And yes, I did get a seat on the train this morning!).

May we grow from strength to strength,

Jamie

“Zoom” and My Modern Family

 

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I spend a lot of time in my car between San Ramon and Los Angeles.  Lately I’ve been listening to the podcast Judaism UnboundJudaism Unbound explores out-of-the-box thinking about what is working and what is not and where the Jewish community is headed.  Their first guest was Rabbi Benay Lappe who spoke about the way people react when the structure around them (in this case institutional Jewish life) no longer works for them.  According to Rabbi Lappe, people have 3 options – they can stay, they can leave, or adapt or innovate to create something that does work.   I fit into the third category.

For years, since my kids went off to college, most Friday nights you will find our family gathered to light Shabbat candles and to share our week.   This might not be so unusual in some circles but for the fact that one son lives in Irvine, one in Vermont, my father and step-mom are in Idaho and we live in Northern California.  Come sundown and 7:30 PST we all gather via Zoom technology, on our computers, as a family.  We sing, we bless, we eat, we laugh.  Our pets meow and bark and we create special, sacred time.  We could let the distance get the better of us and we could drift apart but using the structure of Shabbat, we are strengthening our connection as a family and experiencing a time-honored Jewish ritual.

Judaism Unbound asserts that in today’s Jewish world our focus should be on the quality of our interactions; rather than how big our congregations are.  They observe that it seems to many that to lead an authentic Jewish life you must buy into the “whole package” – to do every ritual and every prayer.  But their point is that we can be “unbounded’ from this notion and “unbundle” the different elements of the package.  We can do the things that are relevant and meaningful in our lives, and not focus on what is not.

There are some who say that we shouldn’t be using computers on Shabbat, and others who might take umbrage with the cats and dogs in the background, and others who for whatever reason say that our Shabbat gathering doesn’t work, but this works for us.  It infuses our lives with connection to each other, with connection to our family’s history and our family’s future, as well as with ideas of creating sacred Jewish space.   And it is no small thing that on a Friday night, my 27-year old son chooses to light Shabbat candles, to mark Jewish time, before he does whatever a single 27-year old does on a Friday night.

With age and experience comes understanding.   It used to sound cliché but now I really understand the expression “The Jews don’t keep the Shabbat; the Shabbat keeps the Jews” because it is my reality.

Wishing you all a Happy Passover filled with food, friends and family,

Jamie/Reb Jamie

 

Inspiration, Food and Maimonides?~!

MaimonidesHow do we bring Jewish ideas and ethics off our bookshelves and make them come alive to inspire our lives today?  Sometimes inspiration comes from left field when you least expect it.  Inspiration takes you out of your normal status quo and beckons you to try something new.  And, if you combine your inspiration with a bit of whimsy, you get something really special.

As you may have gathered from the repeating food references in my writing, I love to cook, and I love to bring my friends and community together under the umbrella of Jewish life and values.  I have been traveling a lot and so with an open Friday night at home, we decided to invite over a couple, of which the wife is a ceramicist.  She commented to me that she is finishing up a piece based on the Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides, that she created for a mutual friend who really is taken by him. As it happens, a third friend and I have both been reading the same biography of Maimonides.   What are the odds that besides me, three of my friends would be aware of and interested in Maimonides at the same time?  Very, very, very small.

Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam) was born in Spain around 1135.  Maimonides was a renaissance man, extremely learned and well-read, he was “one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages (Wikipedia).”  He wrote a magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, which distilled the oral tradition into the essence of the ideas presented and provided a comprehensive “how to” manual for Jewish life.  The Mishneh Torah continues to be studied today, almost 1000 years later.

With this weird convergence of interest in this great scholar, our small Shabbat dinner morphed into an ode to him with the meal inspired by the physical journey of his life.  Forced to flee from Spain, Maimonides made his way to Fez, Morocco; Jerusalem; and to Egypt, first to Alexandria, and finally to Fustat which is now modern-day Cairo.  In his honor, we are having appetizers from Spain, a starter course from Morocco, the main dish from Jerusalem, and dessert from Egypt.   And while I am sure the food will be delicious, I am most excited about the conversation that will flow.  In addition to talking about our children and how the Warriors are doing, Maimonides will come alive at our Shabbat table.   I imagine that it would please him to know that he is the honored guest after 1000 years.

So next time you are inspired to have friends over, throw in some whimsy and invite a Jewish scholar who has been dead for almost a 1000 years.  The past will come alive and your present will be richer for it.

Reb Jamie