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.  



“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…. 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.


[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 :-).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We see ourselves in their eyes.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other questions we might ponder include:

1. What did Isaac think about these events?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let it be a land where knowledge is free,

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

Where words come out from the depth of truth,

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

Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection,

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

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

Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake.

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