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

Finding God on the BART Train

As I write it is early morning and I am on BART headed to San Francisco. The full train is silent with people half awake. The woman sitting next to me crosses herself having completed her morning prayers. As I look around, I see a Sikh man a few rows down, and a woman reading the Bible. Conversations with God are taking place all around me.

I too use this quiet time for morning tefillah/prayer. I begin as I leave my car and walk to the station. I am usually at the Amidah, the central prayer and time of highest connection, by the time I board the train.  The Amidah begins “Blessed are you, Lord/Spirit of the World. God of Abraham, god of Isaac, and god of Jacob.” The compilers of the prayerbook asked why the text says, “god of” three times and does not condense the opening into “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”  The sages answer rings in my ears as I look around at my fellow travelers engaged in prayer. This formulation was no accident.  The author of this prayer was telling us that though each of the patriarchs believed in one God, he experienced that God in different ways.

There are many approaches to and ideas of the nature of God. In Judaism, the view varies from a deity who micromanages the world and acts in history, to the pantheism of Spinoza, the religious naturalism of Kaplan, to the aspirational humanist ideal of Fromm. If across the ages our sages and theologians came to know God differently, why wouldn’t Abraham’s understanding differ from Isaac’s, and Jacob’s differ from theirs?  The opening to the Amidah reminds us that diversity in the way we know God is part and parcel of holiness. As the train hums along the tracks to San Francisco it is playing out before my eyes.

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 :-).