Fortune Cookies and 2021

Parashat Vayihi, 2021

Last Thursday night was Christmas Eve and like many Jews around the world, I celebrated with take-out Chinese food and Kung Pao Comedy.  The garlic eggplant and moshu vegetables were delicious but the fortune cookies were extraordinary.  My first fortune read “Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.”  Wow, that was a modern and politically motivating idea. The second read “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.”   WOW! There we go again. Modern and motivating, but where have we heard those ideas before? 

Jewish tradition, even 2000 years ago, would have served as a great source for fortunes. In the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, we read:

וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה

Study is not the most important thing, rather action.

Bingo!

2020 is thankfully in the rear view mirror and for most of us, 2021 couldn’t have come fast enough. Though the shift from 2020-2021 is an arbitrary one, and nothing magically changed at 12:01 this morning, we all breathed a sigh of relief.   Or as my husband’s fortune cookie read, “A fresh start will put you on your way.” 

I am up to my ears in reading and writing for my rabbinical thesis/capstone project which deals with different understandings of God over the span of Jewish thought.  As I devour my readings, I’ve been thinking a lot about P’nai Tikvah, who we are as a community, who we are as individuals, and what are the unexamined assumptions that we each bring to the table.  None of us come with labels on our foreheads.  If we did, mine would read “My image of God, what He or She expects of me, what kind of relationship we should have, was formed by a strong Jewish cultural identification in my youth which that later was deeply influenced by the born-again Christian understanding of God I encountered in college, which was later reinforced by antiquated translations of Hebrew when I began to explore Jewish ideas and practice in depth.”  Hmmm…I ask you, “How would your label read?”

As I read the piles of books on my desk, I am deep into what is known as Process Theology.   Process Theology puts forth that God, is not an external, all-powerful, all-knowing being who can make miracles outside of the rules of nature. God is understood to be a participant in a larger creative process, so that God influences and is influenced by other entities. God participates and interacts with a changing world.  Most importantly, God’s power to create change in the world is persuasive rather than coercive and exercised within the limits of natural law. Noted Jewish theologians who ascribe to aspects of Process Theology are Brad Artson, dean of the AJU Conservative rabbinical school in LA; Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism of which P’nai Tikvah is affiliated;  and noted theologian, Martin Buber, to name just a few. 

I am serious when I ask you “How does your label read?” I bring this up for two reasons. First, different ideas of the nature of God are playing themselves out all the time in our lives at P’nai Tikvah, we just don’t always note it head on. We see this in the effort it takes for us to write our community prayer and whether some of us feel comfortable saying “Oh, Most Merciful God” as we did at the beginning of this week’s prayer.  A Process Theology understanding of God does not contain these human attributes of mercy. We see it in our Torah study where some feel that God has a clear plan for the Jewish people, and others feel that God is not sentient or planful around a specific people, rather that godliness is found in our kind deeds as we build a better world.

The second reason I bring up ideas of Process Theology and Reconstructionism is for a teaching moment.  When I guide us in Shabbat candlelighting, we say the blessing “v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat” … who has commanded us to light the Shabbat candles. When I translate that for you into English, you hear me say “who has commanded/who has compelled us…”  This is a purposeful addition to our familiar translation and it reflects my understanding of our relationship with God through the lens of Process Theology.  

Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism wrote “God is the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.”  With this understanding of God, we are persuaded to light candles because we are part of making cosmos, or order, out of chaos.  I do not feel commanded to light Shabbat candles, coerced by the fear that if I don’t, a lightning bolt will strike me down. Rather, I feel compelled to light candles, pulled by the knowledge that in doing so, I am making sacred the time that  I will spend with friends and family in learning and rejuvenation over the coming 25 hours.  This urge, this lure to observe Shabbat and a day of rest to improve the world is God working though me.

Back to our fortune cookies… “Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.”  With all my reading and the insights I am gaining, it will be for naught if I don’t share it with you. P’nai Tikvah is an inclusive, warm, embracing community AND quoting from our website “the Congregation has close ties to both the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements. Reconstructionism provides a progressive view of Judaism as an evolving civilization, a way of life rich with tradition, where the past has a vote, not a veto. In addition, the congregation is inspired by the emerging Renewal movement, dedicated to the Jewish people’s sacred purpose of partnership with the Divine in the inseparable tasks of healing the world and healing our hearts.”

My second fortune read “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.”  We are clearly not indifferent.  By studying and understanding our roots in the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, by identifying the unique lenses through which each of us views the world, by opening ourselves up to the myriad of Jewish ideas on the nature of God and what it means to be Jewish, we develop deeper, more self-assured, more meaningful, and grounded Jewish lives.  More assured in who we are, we are moved to be active in the world, and through our actions, we will build the world we want to come, in 2021 and beyond. 

Ken yihi ratzon. May it be so.

Jamie/Reb Jamie

“We vs. Me” for the Greater Good

Reb Jamie, 12/04/202 – Parashat Vayishlach

Yesterday the governor of California announced a return to the strictest level of pandemic restrictions with masks mandatory outside of your house, period, through at least early January. I was listening to the radio broadcast of the announcement and someone asked if there would be fines if folks didn’t comply? Can mandates like this really be enforced? No. What will make this effective is voluntary compliance when people choose to do something for the greater good.

What would compel someone to comply voluntarily? Several of us have been exploring the question of “what Jewish texts have to say about voluntary compliance in a time of pandemic”*? We’ve explored several ideas including societies whose laws and values harm the victim and reward the perpetrator – like Sodomite society of which we read several weeks ago. We’ve explored the idea of “lifnim meshurat hadin” – discretion to choose NOT to do something, even though it is within your legal rights to do so.

As individuals we have rights, but as a society, we have responsibilities to one another.  Where is the line between the two?  How do we know when we should pull back on our individual rights (lifnim m’shurat hadin) for the good of the society as a whole? Our Torah portion Vayishlach gives us some hints.

We are in Genesis and you’ll remember that after Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, the two became estranged. Now, years later, they have arranged to meet. Jacob has sent gifts of apology to smooth the way and to appease his brother Esau but Jacob is clearly agitated. The text tells us:

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he (the man) saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.  Then he (the man) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he (Jacob) answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”

Who is the man/the being with whom Jacob struggles? Is he an angel, a messenger from God? An actual person? Or is Jacob struggling with his own guilty conscience and his own demons over what he did to his brother? Perhaps he is grappling with his individual desire to let the whole matter be in the rearview mirror and to do nothing, but he knows that for shalom bayit “peace in the family,” he needs to eat crow and apologize. Perhaps he genuinely feels sorry. In thinking about who the being is with whom he struggles, we are specifically NOT told the name of other, “You must not ask my name!”, but after the encounter, Jacob is changed. He is changed because he has encountered God. He “has seen a divine being face to face, yet his life has been preserved.”

I am struck by three things here:  Jacob is changed by the struggle.  He doesn’t know the name of the being with whom he struggles, and he looks into the face of the divine and his life is preserved.

First, Jacob is changed by the struggle. When thinking about the pandemic, or any aspect of living in a society in a time of crisis, I struggle with my individual rights and responsibilities. Should I go visit my mother? Am I risking my health or my husband’s by going into Walmart? Do I really need to wear a mask in the park? What happens if I do not and I run into someone rounding the corner? As I consider how I will respond to the tension between the need to go to the market, the need to get out of the house, and keeping myself and other people safe, I have wrestled with this and this struggle has changed me. I now consider every action I take through the lens of wearing a mask and my responsibility to my family, my neighbors and my friends.

Second, Jacob doesn’t know the name of the being with whom he struggles. Why did Jacob want to know the name of the individual with whom he struggled? The Italian rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno suggests that a name “describes your essence, your function, and how you would go about performing same.” By naming the being you begin to understand who they are, to define them… you see them a bit clearer…you start to know with whom you are dealing. And once you know with whom you are dealing, you can dismiss or validate them. Personally, I think Jacob wanted to know with whom he struggled to confirm his faith in God, that God would be with him as he faced a difficult morning ahead.

We live in a society comprised of individuals and strangers. It is impossible to know everyone, in fact, in our daily comings and goings (perhaps in the old world, if not now). We don’t know the names of 99% of the people around us. Who are they? If I don’t know them, why should I care about them? Why should they care about me? What would cause them to care about me?

Lastly, “he (Jacob) looks into the face of the divine and his life is preserved.” What would cause the unknown people who live around me to care enough about me to choose to act in way that circumscribes their rights, whether it is wearing a mask today, or putting up blackout curtains in World War II, or not taking 2-hour showers in a drought? Mutuality and reciprocity would cause people to circumscribe their rights, or in the wording of texts, to act “lifnim meshurat hadin.” When I feel I will benefit in some way by circumscribing my rights, now or in the future, I will do so. I will join with my fellow citizens for the benefit of our greater good.

We are all created in the image of God. Each of us carries a spark of the divine. When we forget that, when we ignore that, then our neighbors become nameless “others.” Jacob looked at the being with whom he wrestled, he looked into the face of the divine, he recognized in the “other” the image of God, and because of that his life was preserved.

As we enter into a period of new or continuing restrictions, let us remember that like Jacob, while we may struggle with the line between personal freedom and community responsibility, when we look into the face of the other, into the faces of those around us, let us see the image of God. By looking into the face of the other, may we see the face of the divine, may we act for the greater good, and may life be preserved.

Ken y’hi ratzon

*In grateful acknowledgement of the stellar teaching of Elana Stein-Hain of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

Steady as She Goes

It’s been quite a ride between the lockdown, the protests against racial injustice, the reopening, the continuing partial shutdown…. couple all of that with the particulars of our lives, and I think most of us are exhausted. Personally, I really want some peace and quiet, to sit INSIDE at my favorite coffee house, with an iced decaf coffee.

What I am craving is calm, constant, and familiar.  As I mapped out our Shabbat service, I sensed it wasn’t a night to innovate; it was a night to sink into the reassuring mundane.   

When things are swirling around us, how do we quiet the noise?  Our coming together for services quiets the noise for me.  I see familiar faces, I hear familiar melodies; and I carve out time to rest and rejuvenate. 

Our liturgy speaks of constancy…Ma’ariv aravim (brings on the evening)… m’shaneh itim(“changes the times”),  goleil or mipnei choshech v’choshech mipnei or(“rolling light away from darkness and darkness in front of light”),  u’maavir yom umeivi lailah(“causing day to pass and bringing on the night”). Every day we experience constancy as we know the sun will rise and the sun will set.

This week’s Torah reading is double portion Mattot/Masei. The second portion, Masei, begins by recounting the endless wandering of the Israelites before they conquered Canaan and entered the land. Almost 50 stops along the journey.

What can we learn from this exhaustive here and there, up and down, left and right…? Rashi comments that these journeys are recorded to make the Omnipresent’s benevolence known that He was with them on the journey. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments “We are all on a journey. And we must all rest from time to time. That dialectic betweensetting outandencamping, walking and standing still, is part of the rhythm of Jewish life.” I think this detail is there to remind us that our landscapes are always changing. That the ups and downs are nothing new.

If we break down out lives into the specific detail of every year, “I was born in LA, moved to SF at 6, Menlo Park at 8, Piedmont at 12, Palo Alto at 14, Portland at 17, Jerusalem at 21, Oakland, Menlo Park, Fremont, Pleasanton and now San Ramon,” it feels like a lot. But when we take the long view, we see that as Rashi says, God, the Omnipresent, is always with us; that as Rabbi Sacks says, we are all on a journey; and I said, change is constant.

So as we ride out this part of our journey with the ups and the downs, the shutdowns and the unexpected, let us remember that all journeys are filled with twists and turns; that as the sun is setting tonight, it will rise tomorrow; that the familiar faces of our caring community are here with you tonight; and that the Omnipresent is with us always. Here’s to the mundane that quiets the noise, and here’s to sitting INSIDE at our favorite coffee houses, with an iced decaf coffee.

Shabbat shalom. 

Silver Linings in a Virtual World

So, a friend sent me a joke – “Jewish irony~ Passover cancelled due to plague.”

While I know it supposed to be funny, I just keep thinking “Mother Earth woke up, looked around, and boy, is she pissed.”

Her skies were filled with carbon monoxide, her oceans were choking and polluted from millions of plastic bottles, and the people themselves were so caught up in the pace of modern life, no one really noticed.

In our daily liturgy, in the 2nd paragraph of the Shema, we read:  “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. … Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD is giving to you.”

Liberal movements of Judaism often skip this paragraph because they don’t like to think of a retributive, of a punishing god.   I suppose it depends on how you view God, on what God is…. I understand God to be everything that ever was, everything that is, and everything that will be.  By this definition, everything is God.  Everything is interconnected.  Everything is One…. Adonoi eloheinu, Adonai ehad…. We are having a pretty good demonstration of this interconnectedness now.  What started half a globe away in a marketplace has rippled around the world…  People forgot that everything is interconnected – that viruses can move from animals to people, and then spread like wildfire.

These are unprecedented times, and I am saddened by so much loss and economic insecurity, and I am scared for all of us.  But, there are silver linings…

The pace of modern life is slowing as we acknowledge that everything is interconnected and we must at accordingly.

As the pace of modern life slows, distance is no longer a barrier to participation in things I never thought possible.  Most mornings when I wake up near San Francisco, I say Modeh Ani, I roll out of bed, and I head the VBS morning minyan. In the evening, I join a class at one of the local shuls in Las Vegas, and then I head off to sleep listening to a free concert from Nefesh Mountain in North Carolina on Facebook. I have been gathering weekly with my cycling friends from across the country.  My son’s girlfriend in Ladera Oaks started a book club to introduce me in a casual way to her mother and sister in Austin and San Luis Obispo.And we’ve been invited at least once a week to meet them for dinner.  All of this has happened via zoom.

I’ve made havdalah with Rabbi Mel, had a happy hour with Bob Levy, live-streamed Friday night services from my kitchen and Torah study from my home office. I joined with people all over the world as we laid their father to rest in Mexico and on Wednesday night, I’ll gather with my father and stepmom in Idaho, my brother in Pasadena, and my son in Irvine for the first night of Passover. My life has been enriched by our communal adoption of online gatherings and while my physical world has grown smaller, my communal and spiritual life has grown exponentially.

As the pace of modern life slows, people are nicer to each other. V’ahavta et ra’echa c’mocha – love your neighbor as yourself….When the only people you see if you venture out to walk the dog are your neighbors, you begin to recognize their faces, and to know where they live… and you begin to feel a stronger sense of community, of belonging.

As the pace of modern life slows, Mother Earth is feeling better too. All over the world people are observing a dramatic decrease in the level of polluting emissions from cars, trucks, power plants and factories. The decrease in emissions has led to fresh air and a beautiful bright blue skies.  Water quality is improving, and in the morning, I can hear the birds chirping.

Passover is right around the corner.  In Deuteronomy we are told at Passover to read verses 26:5-11 which include “My father was a wandering Aramean,” and “God led us out of Egypt with signs and wonders.”  For whatever reason, when the original haggadot were compiled, they chose to leave out verses 9-11 “. “And God gave us a land, and now we bring the first fruits of the land, which you God, have given us.”  With Pesach upon us, let’s acknowledge that this planet is the land that God has given all of us, this it nurtures and sustains us, and that how we treat her has consequences, that the beauty of interconnectedness is a double-edged sword.

When the virus clears and we feel comfortable to move more freely, let us remember the silver linings of these days that everything is interconnected.  Let us remember, that distance doesn’t have to be barrier to participation. Let us recognize and get to know our neighbors. And let us live in awareness of this interconnectedness, of this Oneness, of Ehad, so that the skies will be blue and the air will be clear as we treat the planet with respect;

So that we may live מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם on the good land that God has given you.

Chag Sameach, Happy Passover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Online through Passover

Dearest Congregation P’nai Tikvah,

As we move our community online through Passover, here is what we are envisioning.

We will be using the Zoom video platform, which allows us to virtually come together as a community. You can easily navigate the screen settings, allowing everyone to appear on screen (kind of like the beginning of the Brady Bunch tv show), or you can set it to show whoever is speaking on the full screen. You can get a jump start by following the instructions below and getting set up in advance; then when it is time for services, you just will follow the link and voila! Zoom can be accessed from your computer, tablet or smartphone. If you don’t have any of these, you can still join in by telephone. We are here to help you if you need some guidance.

One of the warmest things about P’nai Tikvah is the participatory nature of everything we do and that won’t change. If you are interested in offering a prayer or a song or something else, please email me at rebjamie@pnaitikvahlv.org.

Our online schedule is as follows:

Shabbat Services
Friday, March 20th 7:30 pm
Friday, April 3rd 6:30 pm – Tot Shabbat, (please RSVP to rebjamie@pnaitikvahlv.org)
7:30 pm – Community services

Torah Study
Saturday, March 21st 10:00 am
Saturday, April 4th 10:00 am

Passover Seder
Thursday, April 9th 6:00 pm
$18 per household includes one Haggadah. Additional copies, $7 each. You can register HERE!

For those who would join me to light candles as a community with friends far and near, I’ll be hosting
Reb Jamie’s Candlelighting/Welcoming Shabbat
Friday, March 27th 6:30 pm
Friday, April 10th 6:30 pm

Getting Online
Here are some tips to help you prepare. If you have time, give it a try now so we can work the kinks out in advance. if you need help setting this up on your computer, call us at 702-436-4900 and leave a message. Someone will get back to you who can talk you through the steps.

To Join via Video Chat for Shabbat and Candlelighting*:
Go to https://zoom.us/j/5408815116

*You must have a camera on your computer to use this option.

The screen should launch or (the first time only) ask you download Zoom. You can choose to have the audio run through your computer or through your phone. (It is your preference, though your connection may be better with the audio through your phone.)

To Join via Phone:

Dial 1-669-900-6833
Enter your meeting ID: 5408815116

Note: This is my Zoom room information. We may be using additional Zoom rooms for our various activities, but we will always notify you as to which Zoom link to access.

We are so looking forward to coming together as a community next Shabbat.

B’Shalom,

Reb Jamie
Cantor Marla
Rabbi Mintz

Democracy, Humility, and Parashat Mishpatim

Our weekly community created prayer reads, “Help me to remember that we are all made in Your Image.  Give me discernment to seek the Spark of the Divine that exists in everyone and find it in those most different from me, so I can learn again.”

I learned a lesson and I want to come clean about something.  Last month at services, I made an error…  I let my nerves and my own political views get the better of me.  We are a broad community with differing political views, and I value that.

If we all live in our own silos, and we don’t talk across the aisles with people with whom we don’t agree, we divide and weaken our country.  If we don’t talk to each other, we can’t learn from each other.

Two things happen to me when I stand before the congregation.  I feel the honor and responsibility of nurturing and growing our community, and quite honestly, I sometimes get flustered which is what happened last month.

A congregant had sponsored the oneg in honor of President Trump and I did not say that out loud.  Would I have had the same concerns if it was in honor of President Obama? I am not sure.  I was worried that our Shabbat services would become a playing field for politics and tried to skirt the issue, but I bungled it by saying nothing, and that was wrong.  I apologize, and I thank you for your support of Pnai Tikvah, and I respect your opinion.

This weekend sees democracy playing itself out in Las Vegas.  We are surrounded by people, many of whom have views different from ours, from the democratic candidates running around to the President himself.  They all have different ideas of what our society should look like… what should our society look like?

Our Torah portion, Mishpatim (ordinances) gives us an idea… by showing what has been foundational to what it has meant to be Jewish these last twenty centuries and more*.

  • We learn about the shmita year and how to treat the environment
  • about Shabbat
  • about making restitution for damage done by your livestock.
  • Not to wrong a stranger, “because you were slaves in Egypt.”
  • That if you take your neighbor’s garment as security for a loan, you must release it before sunset – because if your neighbor is so poor that they’re using a coat as security, they’ll likely need it back that night.
  • Against false rumors
  • Against animal cruelty by boiling a kid in its mother’s milk
  • Against subverting the rights of the needy
  • And about making restitution if you started a fire or if your animals damaged someone else’s land.

Mishpatim shows us a glimmer of what a just society looks like.

As democracy plays itself out around us, and Nevada plays its part in shaping the future of our country, let’s remember our community prayer

“Help me to remember that we are all made in Your Image.  Give me discernment to seek the Spark of the Divine that exists in everyone and find it in those most different from me, so I can learn again.”

*List excerpted from drash by Rabbi Nigel Savage.

 

 

 

Choose Living Judaism

This week as our P’nai Tikvah online prayer group collected our thoughts, one of the undertones was the growing fear that the American Jewish community is under attack, that the times are changing, and that we need to take action to defend ourselves.  Many of us are asking “Is this what the Jews of Germany felt like as things began to change?’  “How will I know when it is time to go?”  “Are these acts a sign of things to come?” and most importantly, “Can I do anything about it?”  These concerns were in my mind as I pondered what I would say tonight.  The words of my former colleague and a spiritual mentor, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, reminded me that long ago, I had found an answer to the question of why not to just give up hope and walk away.

As a young man, Donniel’s family made aliyah settling in Jerusalem in 1971 where his father founded the Shalom Hartman Institute.   The Hartman Institute’s mission is to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity and pluralism; to enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and to ensure that Judaism is a compelling for good in the 21st century.  In 1982, Donniel’s father, Rabbi Prof David Hartman, wrote a groundbreaking essay Auschwitz or Sinai? which explored the paradigm under which the State of Israel, and by extrapolations, the American Jewish community would operate.   Referring to his father’s essay, Donniel wrote “The principle lesson of Auschwitz is ‘Never Again’. The principle lesson of Sinai is the challenge to become a holy people.  We need to fight anti-Semitism wherever it appears but fighting anti-Semitism must not exhaust or define the purpose of Jewish life.  Our responsibility is to protect and ensure the survival of the Jewish people, but our mission is to create a people guided by a tradition which challenges us to live lives of meaning and value and which can be a light both to ourselves and others.”

As a young person in the 1970’s, I don’t remember much about the specifics of our reform Sunday school curriculum other that we focused on the Holocaust – A LOT.   As an 11-year old in the 6th grade we were shown horrible films of what happened in the camps…   There were survivors in our congregation with numbers tattooed on their arms… they came to our middle school youth group and shared their stories.  We were taught to never forget. We were links in a chain thousands of years old and thus had a responsibility to remain Jewish and not be the ones who broke that continuous chain.   Quoting Emil Fackenheim, “continuing Jewish life and denying Hitler a posthumous victory was the 614th commandment.”    All of this traumatized me.  It taught me that danger was lurking behind every corner and to feel like the “other” much of the time.

The only times I didn’t feel like the “other” was when I was at synagogue, Camp Swig, or some kind of Jewish activity.  I certainly wasn’t going to be the broken link in the chain and so much of my teens and 20’s I was an identified “super Jew.”  President of my youth group, camp counselor, Israel trip leader, president of the Jewish Student Union for several years,  moving to Israel… and on and on…   And through all of this, I was a song-leaderI. I played the guitar and I sang my way through…   It gave me joy to belt out “Modah ani L’fanecha,” even if I didn’t really understand the context or the meaning.  It gave me joy…  And over time, I heard myself saying to people “I want to be a part of living Judaism, not a dying Judaism.”   The Judaism of my childhood was dying Judaism.  Not that it was slowly dying out, but with its focus on never forget, and don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory, it was all about Jews as targets, about being a hated minority, and about fear, about never being blond and beautiful like the iconic American ideal, Marcia Brady, about never being good enough.

My song-leading led me away from dying Judaism.  Like many others, I was highly influenced by Debbie Friedman who created music that spoke to the vibrancy of the times, that was accessible in English, and which gave me a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the mysterious prayers we said in a language I didn’t understand…  As I played L’cha dodi and shabbat shalom and erev she shoshanim, I began to explore what the words meant, and the context in which they were written, what the rituals associated with the songs signified… Understanding what I was doing drew me further in and I found meaning and grounding and that led me to start to lighting Shabbat candles weekly, to carving out time for friends and family on Shabbat…  to understanding the 2nd paragraph of the Shema which teaches us that our actions have consequences that ripple out and affect the wider community; to bowing in humility when I recite the Aleynu, aware that I am a part of something divine, that I have a role to play in the world.

As Hanukah has just finished, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that “the Maccabees are a symbol of Jewish activism, of refusing to live in fear.  As a symbol of this, the original custom was to light Hanukkah lights outside the from door of the house, or in a window facing the street, to publicize the miracle.  Today, we see the lighting of giant menorahs in the most prominent of public places in cities throughout the world.  Hanukkah tells us. Not to curse the darkness, but instead to bring light to the world.  To fight back, and to not be afraid.”

Another thing to remember is that we are not alone.  We have friends and allies who stand with us.  Tonight we are blessed to be joined by Pastor Char and the board of Indigo Valley Church who, as Pastor Char said quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel “are praying with their feet” by joining our Shabbat services and standing with us in solidarity.

And so tonight, as we grapple with what we each can do as individuals to protect our community and fight antisemitism, besides taking prudent security measures and raising our voices and exercising our political power, I suggest that we do more to lead lives of meaning.  I suggest that we bring Living Judaism to life, that we light shabbat candles, that we sing our hearts out, that we build community, that we treat each other fairly and with compassion… that we “Ivdu et haShem b’simcha”, that we serve God with joy… by living lives of meaning, by being a light unto ourselves and to others.  This is how we will build a strong Jewish community, a community of meaning, that will not stand alone as we stand up to whatever will come.

 

 

 

 

 

What Happened After Sinai?

I have been thinking a bit about our Judeo-Christian religious landscape in this country.

Two weeks ago, we gathered to celebrate Shavuot, the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai by the Israelites.  Tradition has it that all the Jewish people, all that ever were and will be, were there in that moment, and that each heard the revelation in his or her own way.  According to the Jewish scholar, Marc Brettler, “God’s word is, indeed must be, multi-vocal rather than univocal since it speaks to humans, and different people by their nature need different understandings of God.  Even the same person at different times may view God differently.”

If everyone standing at Sinai received the Torah but heard it in a different voice, what was going to happen over time AFTER the experience at Sinai?  Would there be unity going forward?  Would the Israelites express their understanding and acceptance of God’s word, of the Torah, in the same way going forward?

From this formative experience at Sinai, an experience that as Jews we trace ourselves back to, came multiple ways of being in the world – not all of them Jewish.   The Israelites became the Jews and out of the Jewish people, sprang Christianity.

But one of the hallmarks of Christianity is that it rejected Jewish law.  In their rejecting the adherence to the strictures of Jewish law, Christians chose “creed over deed.”  Paraphrasing Rabbi Howard Siegel, A Christian believes that “what one believes is ultimately more important than what one does.  One should, of course, live a moral and ethical life, but in the end, [a Christian] is saved by belief in Jesus regardless of past deeds.

For the Jew, it is the opposite: “Deed” over “Creed.”  What one does, and how one behaves, is more important than what one believes.  Doing God’s will i.e., (working to make this a better world) is the path to faith and understanding of God’s ways.”[i]

This semester I am taking a class through the Claremont School of Theology entitled Religion in America.  Timothy Beal, one of Christian theologians we are reading as a part of the class begins his short book of the same name by saying that there were 35 churches within a mile of his house. He describes Plymouth Church, which is part of the United Church of Christ, the North Union Farmers Market where the Amish sell their wares, Beaumont School which is part of a cloistered community, First Church of Christ, Science, Saint James African Methodist Episcopal, Emmanuel Baptist, the Original Church of God… The list goes on and on…

Beal described the many Christianities that dot his landscape in Cleveland, and in much of the United States, and how each doctrinal difference has led to a new form of Christianity.  I had never given much thought to the idea that there is more than one way to be a Christian.

Last semester I enrolled in a class in modern Jewish thought and one of the texts was Aaron Hahn Tapper’s “Judaism(s).”    Tapper’s premise is that there has never been one Judaism.

Dating back to the 1st and 2nd temple periods and continuing over the centuries with the spread of Jews across the globe, Jews had differences in practice which evolved due to outside influences including host culture, political realities of the moment, community circumstance and textual interpretation.  This led community practice from the relatively monolithic people standing at Sinai, to today’s reality of multiple denominations and ethnicities, each with different approaches to Jewish law and practice.

It took me a long time to understand that there is no one Jewish answer to a given question.  And yet, what is it that has kept Judaism, even with all its diversity, to a relatively small number of denominations while within the Christian world, so much bifurcation has occurred?

The diversity of Christian expression in America, Beal noted that the huge number of churches was an American phenomenon, tied to the separation of church and state.  The Puritans who first came to this county were escaping the oppressive nature of the Church of England.   Their desire to separate church and state was not so much that they wanted to be secular, rather, they wanted to practice their Christian faith differently.   The King of England was the head of the Church of England.  There was no separation of the governing structure from one’s spiritual life – the two were intertwined into the culture of England.  This intertwining was the norm in most places.  Jews, in England and elsewhere, were able to follow Jewish practice because we were a self-governing, autonomous minority.  It was our nationhood, which was embodied cultural and ritual practices, that was permitted to varying degrees by host nations.   England itself, while it might have had some diversity of Christian practice, did not permit the broad expression that we see now in America which is why the Puritans came to this country, so they could diversify in their Christian practice.  Even with what we think of today as separation of church and state, at its core, the United States was founded as a country where people would have the freedom to practice Christianity in different forms.

The separation of church and state reinforced the idea that the spiritual realm is separate from the governing structures.   The spiritual realm became known as “religion.”   Christian practice in America was expression of religion.

And what made Judaism different?

Judaism never fit neatly into this separation.   Are we a culture?  Are we nation?  Are we an ethnicity?  Are we a religion?  Yes, and yes, and yes, and yes.

And yet, 450 years after Jews first set foot into the shores of North America, while we have lots of synagogues with different names, we still only have a few named denominational expressions of being Jewish.  Reform, conservative, orthodox, and Reconstructionist, to name the top four, with Renewal, (a movement, not a denomination) being interwoven into all of them.  And many Jews preferring to be “just Jewish” trans-denominational Jews, or post-denominational.

What is it that has kept Judaism, even with all its diversity, to a relatively small number of denominations while within the Christian world, so much bifurcation has occurred?

Two things come to mind – the Talmud and standing at Sinai.

The Talmud, known also as the oral law is the great “how to” manual of the Jewish world.  Compiled over centuries, “the Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of halakha, Jewish religious law.  Halakha is the Deed that Christianity rejected.  Until the advent of modernity, in nearly all Jewish communities, the Talmud was the centerpiece of Jewish cultural life and was foundational to “all Jewish thought and aspirations,” serving also as “the guide for the daily life” of Jews.

Practice may have differed from community to community, but adherence to the Talmud held Jewish practice within relatively strict confines.  Even today, we look to the Talmud to inform our practices.  Our “how to” manual is a tool that focuses our practice and is a tool that others, who rejected Jewish law, do not have.

When we stood at Sinai, when we accepted the Torah, we accepted a set of ideas and ethics that are expressed through our texts.  What binds us together as a Jewish community, even with our diversity of interpretation and practice, is our interaction with the Torah, with the Talmud and more.  It is our understanding of our Creed.

In our earliest texts, it is written “v’talmud torah k’neged kulam”– Torah study is equivalent to all of [the other mitzvot]” which attests to the importance Jewish tradition assigns to learning because it leads to action.   Shabbat mornings we gather to study the weekly Torah portion.  Two weeks ago, we engaged in a night of study in observance of Shavuot, of accepting the Torah.

If you have never cracked open a Jewish text, maybe it is time to start.   Yes, we are a culture, yes, we are a nation, and yes, we are a religion, (Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan called Judaism a “civilization”) but all of those things are based on ideas that came out of history and our encounter at Sinai.   Understanding the way of life that we accepted, interacting with words of Torah and Talmud, which leads to Deed, a deepening of Jewish life and a thickening of Jewish practice, are what differentiates us on the religious landscape of America.

Jews didn’t choose Deed over Creed, we chose both Deed and Creed.  By opening our texts, using the discussions and the wisdom found in the Talmud and other books of Jewish law to inform our thinking, by diving in and deepening our knowledge, we bring both deed and creed to the table.

In all of our diversity, we remained a community focused on building the world we want to come.  

[i] https://blog.chron.com/faithandreason/2014/01/deed-or-creed-believe-it-or-not/

 

“Shavuot and God on the Horizontal Axis”   

(From a drash given at P’nai Tikvah in Las Vegas 6/7/19)

Tonight, I want to talk about God….  Not to go all “holy roller” on you but because so many of our interactions are based on assumptions that when we use the letters yud-hey-vav-hey, when we use the word God, or Adonai, or Source of Life, or haShem, or Lord, or Master of the Universe, we assume we are talking about the same thing….

As an example, as our synagogue prayer circle crafted this week’s prayer, it was clear that we were not all on the same page concerning understanding of God.  Group members differed on questions such as if there is a god?  If yes, is is omnipotent?  If yes, does it listen to and can it answer our prayers?   Tonight, I want to talk about God as a horizontal experience… not a vertical one.  I am not asking that my views on God become yours, but that we uncover the underlying assumptions so that we better understand each other.

What do I mean when I say God is not a vertical experience?   Take a moment, close your eyes and, if you believe in God, picture your connection to it.   Now open your eyes… What did you see?

For those of you who pictured God as up above, looking down, moving the pieces according to a long-term, strategic plan, that is a god that I call “God on the vertical axis.” If that is God on the vertical, what is God on the horizonal axis?

Tomorrow night begins the holiday of Shavuot.   Shavuot commemorates the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  It is said about Shavuot that “Every year we renew our acceptance of G-d’s gift, and G-d “re-gives” the Torah[1].”  What does this mean, to renew our acceptance of Torah, that God “re-gives” the Torah?   Aren’t the words of Torah written down in the scrolls behind me?  Can’t any one of us pick up an English version of the text and there it is?  And when two friends, two individuals with different life experiences, different political views, each unique in their own beautiful way, both created in the image of God and carrying a spark of the divine, pick up a text to read it, how do we begin our study?  With a blessing… L’asok b’divrei Torah – to interact with words of Torah….

Dictionary.com defines the word “interact” as to act one upon another.  Acting upon one another is the description of a relationship between two parties – each having an effect on the other – they are equal in what they bring to the table, and the end of the interaction, both are changed.  This is the description of a horizonal relationship.   When I close my eyes and picture God, I picture everything that ever was, all that is, and all that will be.  Everything is part of this energy, this interconnected Source of Life.   I am a part of this Source of Life, I am an expression of this Source of Life, and, through my actions and deeds, I am expressing this Source of Life. This is God on the horizontal axis.  God on the horizontal axis is expressed through human interactions and the good that we do in world that moves us toward a repaired world, as we build the world we want to come.

What does it mean to renew our acceptance of Torah, that on Shavuot God “re-gives” the Torah?   One of ways to observe Shavuot is through study.   Tomorrow night many of us will gather to study a variety of texts as a community.  We’ll bring our own unique perspectives and experiences to the table, we will interact with words of Torah, and we will emerge changed.   And through this interaction and study, we will renew our acceptance of the Torah and through this interaction, the Torah will be re-given to us.

And as we interact with the words of Torah, and with each other, will we each hear the same thing?  Will we each come away with the same understandings?

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes the following in “The Silent Alef”

Narrator: “No one really knows for sure what happened on Mount Sinai.” One time the rabbis were arguing about it.

RABBI 1: “At Mt Sinai God spoke the entire Torah to all the Children of Israel, and Moses wrote it down as God spoke.

RABBI 2: “No! It says in the Torah that the Children of Israel heard only the Ten Commandments that were carved in stone with the finger of God.

RABBI 3: “NO NO! The people could not handle hearing all of that. It would be too much for them. They only heard God say the first word of the Ten Commandments– “ANOCHI!” אנכי and then the entire world went totally silent, not even a bird chirped or a frog croaked.” Anochi means “I am” – Basically they heard God saying “I exist – I am real”

RABBI 4: “NO NO NO!!! ‘Not even the first word, Anochi אנכי, was heard. All that God spoke was the first letter, of the first word, of the first commandment. At Sinai, all the people of Israel needed to hear was the sound of the alef. It meant that God and the Jewish people could have a conversation.”

Narrator: Jewish mysticism teaches that Alef, contains the entire Torah. But not everyone hears the gentle sound of alef. People are able to hear only what they are ready to hear. God speaks to each of us in a personal way, taking into consideration our strength, wisdom, and preparation.

Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion said “but if two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, then the Shekinah abides among them[2]

Tomorrow night when we gather to study, when we are blessed by the insights and wisdom of our teachers, may we renew our acceptance of Torah.  May we grow in our understanding of each other, in our understanding of ourselves, and may the Shekinah will dwell among us.

[1] Chabad.org

[2] Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3, Mishna 2