Love Songs

This summer, in Provincetown, I rediscovered an old friend. Her name is Holly Near.

My parents are pretty typical examples of those who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and since our family car trips when my brother and I were growing up predated ipods, ipads, hand-held video games and mini-vans with DVD players (we were still watching VHS back then), the hours were filled singing along to the folk music of my parents’ generation: James Taylor, Joni Mitchel, Carol King, Cat Stevens, Peter, Paul and Mary Crosby Stills Nash & Young and a somewhat lesser-known artist (at least to those of my generation) named Holly Near.

 A quick Google-search of Holly Near will tell you that a “significant arena of (her music & activism) is the LGBTQ community. Her interest (in this cause) was both personal and political. She was one of the first celebrities to discuss her sexual orientation during a pioneering 1976 interview with People magazine.”

The songs on the CD that my family owned, entitled “Imagine My Surprise”, are mostly songs about women: strong, empowered women; women facing oppression; and most of all, women loving women.

But as a young girl in the 80’s, belting out the lyrics, I didn’t have any real comprehension of the significance of Holly’s music or the barriers she had begun to break down with her music only a decade before.

While it’s true that her music was probably the first awareness I had of non-heterosexual relationships, I was lucky to have parents who lovingly explained to me that sometimes men love men, and sometimes women love women, and that, really, anyone can love anyone and that’s okay.

Just like my parents told me that being a woman and being a Jew no longer meant that I couldn’t pursue any dream I had. Just like they told me that a person’s skin color or ethnicity or religion doesn’t matter.

 I was raised on the rhetoric of equality and it was decades more before I began to realize that when my parents said that these kinds of things didn’t matter, what they really meant to say was that these things shouldn’t matter. Because of course, all too often, all too sadly, they still do.

But back then I was an awkward kid with a loud voice and a love for the folk music of my parent’s generation – even if I didn’t really understand it. So I happily belted along to Holly Near’s lyrics, unaware that they were any different than anyone else’s.

I identified strongly with the songs about women who were oppressed or bullied, and when I sang out: “I have dreamed on this mountain since first I was my mother’s daughter and you can’t just take my dreams away – not with me watching,” the words flowed from my heart –a heart that knew about bullying all too well – and with my mind that,looking back now, I suspect unconsciously connected these words to the words of my families other beloved musical genre – Jewish folk music.

Holly singing “you can’t take my dreams away” was just like Debbie Friedman’s musical rendition of Theodore Hertz’s famous line: Im tirtzu ain so agadah – if you will it, it is no dream – wasn’t it?

But somewhere along the line, we lost Holly Near’s CD. Countless times, I combed through the house, looking for it to upload to my itunes playlist. Countless times I searched itunes to download it directly. But alas – the CD was nowhere to be found and itunes didn’t carry that particular CD (or much of her music at all for that matter) and so Holly’s music slowly faded from my mind.

Flash forward to this summer, where I found myself driving down a Las Vegas suburban street with my three cousins. Sydney is a 17 year old gorgeous teen-aged girl who grew up in California’s OC; Asher is a 21 year old, Orthodox, yeshiva-kid-turned-Israeli-soldier, and Elli is a 26 year old, rambunctious, outspoken, tattoo-covered vegan who is studying to be a midwife. And I’m a rabbi. So we make a pretty interesting crowd.

Despite our vast differences, our love for one another is deep and being together during those difficult weeks was a tremendous blessing. We did have some difficulty agreeing on what radio station to listen to in the car however.

That is, until we discovered Macklemore’s song, Same Love, which seemed to be on the radio every 5 minutes this summer (in case you didn’t notice).

Macklemore is a straight, white rapper, and Same Love is his commentary on the fight for marriage equality and on the irony of the Hip Hop world using the word “gay” as a derivative since it is, in itself, a culture that, as he puts it is, “founded in oppression”.

What a Jewish song! I thought, (although likely, I was the only one in the car thinking that particular thought).

Jewish, because we too concern ourselves with oppression everywhere – not just Jewish oppression – because we too, are a people “founded in oppression”.

So when Macklemore raps about how even though he himself is not gay, the cause of marriage equality is a cause worth fighting for, and when he states: “It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!” I found that tears had come to my eyes.

How refreshing for a contemporary artist to promote love and not hate.

It seemed revolutionary, which, of course, it isn’t. Maybe it’s sadly all too unusual as of late, but wasn’t I raised on the socially conscious folk music of the 60’s & 70’s? It certainly wasn’t unusual then. But by then, on that Las Vegas street, I had forgotten all about Holly Near.

Until a few weeks later, in Provincetown, where my mother and I got some pretty strange looks as we crowed with joy, having stumbled on a copy of Holly Near’s greatest hits, including all the songs from our long-lost Imagine My Surprise CD. We could barely contain ourselves as we bounded over to the counter to pay for it, and it was all we could do not to rush back to the car and play it immediately!

When we finally, hours later, made it back to the car and began to listen – I discovered Holly Near anew. No longer a child, I was now fully aware of the meanings and significance of her music, and I found myself, for the second time that month, moved to tears by an artist singing about the struggle for a person’s right to love anyone they want to.

Only weeks before, Marriage Equality had become a Federal reality. How far we have come!

How far we have yet to go.

After all, if Macklemore’s message profoundly silences a car full of diverse young adults in 2013, some 40 years after Holly Near began sharing the same message, then the problem is most certainly not solved.

And that’s because the problem isn’t gay rights. The problem, as Macklemore so strongly emphasizes, is human rights  – for all. Winning one battle does not entitle us to declare the war at an end. “No freedom till we’re equal” Macklemore declares. And he’s right.

And so was Holly, who writes on the cover notes of the album we discovered, entitled “Simply Love”, that she and other women musicians of her era, “made music in the face of homophobia, racism, misogyny, poverty, war and patriarchy.” What I had sensed, but not been old enough to fully understand as a child was true. Holly’s music was not “Lesbian music” it was Civil Rights music; it was Equal Rights music. As is the music and so much of the liturgy of Judaism. Long before the 60’s and 70’s – before Civil Rights and Women’s Rights and Gay Rights – Jews were singing about freedom and praying about freedom and fighting, when they could, for freedom. Mi Chamocha Ba-eilim Adoni – what is this prayer, if not a daily liturgical reminder of the moment of our own freedom?

During the past week or so, I have shared with you how important it is to have a cause that you stand up for, and I talked about how Judaism is my cause, and should be the cause for all of us, because it’s values are at the root of all the things we care about and fight for.

But what I have so far neglected to say, and what I sometimes forget, is that just as we can’t exclude Judaism for the sake of our other causes, neither can we neglect other causes when we are mired in Jewish causes.

This year, I happily watched and cheered and supported many of my rabbinic peers as they fought the good fight. My friend, Rabbi Melissa Simon, who is a proud Lesbian and social activist, was on the front lines of the fight for marriage equality in Minnesota. All year I read about her achievements and “liked” her Facebook posts and told her I was proud of the work she was doing.

And I didn’t get involved because marriage equality was already a reality in New York and Massachusetts, the states where I’ve been a rabbi these past 3 years, and because I’m not a Lesbian, and because I think of Judaism as my cause and it takes up all of my time. . .

Which is exactly the reverse argument of what so many of you say, about being too busy to commit to Judaism because of all of your other important commitments.

I am guilty too. We all have some work to do I guess.

But Holly Near’s music – rediscovered and finally truly understood – sparked something in me. If she had only sung about women loving women – the cause of her own heart, her impact on the world would have been so much less profound. And if Macklemore had abstained from his important message because he’s white and straight and therefore shouldn’t reprimand the black community for being apathetic (or worse) to the gay community …Well, I think the loss would have been immeasurable.

We cannot stand up for only one cause and count ourselves among the righteous. We all have to figure out how to balance the causes of our hearts with other important causes – causes that we cannot responsibly abstain from supporting.

I will work harder at this. I hope you will too.

And I hope that this year we will all find times to belt out the words of justice – be they spoken or sung; be they poetic or liturgical; be they in Hebrew or English or any other language; be they Hip Hop or folk or another genre; Let us sing out these love songs – Macklemore’s Same Love, Holly’s Simply Love – Debbie’s Ahavat Olam – a song about God’s love! – because all songs for justice are love songs, if you really think about it.

So in the words of Holly Near:

“You bet I sing love songs / Songs that carry me along / Through fearful times and tender times / Songs of mother-love / Songs of my lover’s love / Singing the songs of loving myself”

This year may we love ourselves and others enough to carve out the time to perfect the broken world around us.

“No Freedom ‘till we’re equal.”

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

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Standing Up For Judaism

This sermon is dedicated to Rabbi Eugene Lipman (z”l), whose passionate and devastatingly brutal words inspired and shamed me into a courage to confront – successfully – my congregation, with this important message. He didn’t know me, but I like to think he’d be proud.

 

On Rosh Hashanah, I shared with you my discovery of the television show Doomsday Preppers, and I suggested that in order to be preparing ourselves for the days and years ahead we needed to have an acute awareness of what it is that we stand for.

 I talked about my Great Aunt Bryna’s devotion to her chosen causes, and I also mentioned that Doomsday-prepping is not altogether unlike preparing for Yom Kippur, with the doom-and-gloom liturgy we have come to expect, and, perhaps dread.

 Not all that long ago, the language of gloom-and-doom was not relegated to the words in our prayer books. Rabbis, less than a century ago, felt comfortable and confident, shouting down their disappointment at their congregants and sharing their predictions of a gloomy Jewish future.

 Rabbi Eugene Lipman (z”l) was one such Doomsday Prepper. He was formidable and foreboding. On the High Holidays, in 1961, Rabbi Lipman shared the following words with his community At Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C.

After discussing how the music of Kol Nidrei is found by many to be deeply moving, he shared his concern about what happens after the music fades, saying:

 “It is good that something Jewish can stir you deeply once each year. It is good that, for these few moments each year…that all this can bring tears to your eyes, that something can break through the protective shell you have built around your souls and make you, for these few moments each year, unhyphenated Jews, undiluted Jews, total Jews.

But it is also too bad.

 It is tragic and frustrating that the impact of these few soul-stirring moments must inevitably be dissipated, rapidly dissipated.

 It is tragic for you as individuals, it is tragic for the future of the Jewish people as well.

 It is tragic for you because you return so fast to your surface-centered, thing-centered, bland-leading-the bland American way of life. You miss so much joy and life by doing so!

 It is tragic for the future of the Jewish people because Judaism and our people require more for survival.”

 His words, not mine.

And he didn’t leave it at that, either. In 1972, he was still railing:

“For the majority of this congregation,” he said, to the assembled group of D.C. lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, “adults and children alike, for the majority of American Jews I know,” he continued – “being Jewish is not very important.

 Being Jewish is not important enough to most of the members of this congregation for you to have any level of involvement in the Jewish community, in the life of the Jewish people – beyond paying dues, beyond making a contribution to the UJA…Being Jewish is not important enough to most of you for you to invest any of your time in Jewish communal institutions, to invest any emotion, to invest any of your amazing talents. Most of you…have no meaningful Jewish communal activities as part of your routine, of your expansion of yourselves beyond work and family and pleasure. You do not by your affiliations and your actions speak Jewishness to a world which needs it. You do not make Jewishness important – not to yourselves, not to others, not to your children. Being Jewish is not important enough to most (of you) to consider it part of your business to learn about Jewishness, about Judaism, about the Jewish people…(or)…to claim any significant amount of your time at home. Aside from Chanukah candles and a seder, your homes remain bare of Jewish observances.”

He goes on and on like this. What Chutzpah!

Most rabbis today know that this isn’t the most effective way to argue for religious adherence and commitment. And of course, it goes without saying, that this community demonstrates a higher degree of commitment, and seems to value Judaism more than the congregation of twice-a-year-Jews to which Rabbi Lipman was speaking.

And yet, we can understand where he was coming from.

More than 40 years later, these words ring far too true and I suspect  many rabbis today read Rabbi Lipman’s sermon with the same sense of awe that I did, when I first discovered it.

It was a different time, to be sure.

Today, as my colleague Rabbi Larry Freedman points out, “Our society is consumer oriented, fee for service, (and) Reform synagogues, (sadly, all too often) echo society.  Our synagogue structures are based on a membership model where we assume you’ll join, assume you’ll pay and assume you’ll be happy.   And,” he quips, “if you’re not happy, you should show up more and (then) you’ll be happy,”

But of course, as Rabbi Freedman knows,that’s a limited, narrow-minded, and unfair perspective, and it has been proven unsuccessful. People are voting with their feet, and rightly so.

Today’s liberal Jews expect Judaism – and Jewish communities and organizations by extension – to offer them something of value before they’ll commit to it.

Now, whether or not you believe as Rabbi Freedman does, and as I do, that Judaism can “inspire the mind and lift the soul,” it is now the synagogue’s job  – our job, my job – to change and adapt to the expectations of today’s liberal Jews and to come up with a model that doesn’t assume anything but positions itself as a place of value.

The reality is that if Temple Beth David doesn’t give us something that enriches our lives then we will all have difficulty justifying a commitment of our time and financial resources – because in a consumer society, if it doesn’t bring benefit, if it doesn’t add value, then why would we spend money on it?

I say “we” and not “you” because outside of the Jewish community, I can be accused of the same kind of thinking.

It’s societal. It’s generational. It’s contagious.

And so if we feel that Judaism needs to offer us something of value before we will care and invest and commit to Judaism in return then I say, “fair enough”, but I also want to call our attention to the fact that Judaism has already offered us something of value: our VALUES.

When I spoke about my Aunt Bryna on Rosh Hashanah, I shared with you that she committed her whole life to her chosen causes. But Bryna was also deeply devoted to the Jewish community and to Jewish causes. She understood that her commitment to women’s equality and social justice, were core Jewish values going all the way back to Torah. And so the daily commitments she made to the causes of her heart did not come at the expense or exclusion of an equally deep commitment to Judaism itself.

All too often I am challenged by those who suggest that universal values and Jewish values are the same, and so if they are dedicating their time and money to a cause or charity outside of the Jewish community they are somehow absolved of a commitment to the Jewish community.

Not so.

Or rather, the first assertion is somewhat close to the truth but the second is altogether misguided.

In an explanation of Jewish practice published by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press, there is a list of Jewish attitudes, beliefs and values. The list includes:

Love; humility; environmentalism; gratitude; intention; menchlechite; commitment to community; working to free those who are enslaved and oppressed; serving our societies in order to contribute to their welfare; avoiding wastefulness; valuing health and wellness and protecting our bodies; not wasting time; keeping the commitments we make to both God and fellow human beings; remembering that every human being is created in the image of God; pursuing peace; pursuing a relationship with God and/or spiritual experiences; Respecting and valuing Diversity; speaking and seeking truth; having a relationship with the Land of Israel; caring for one another; valuing human dignity; prioritizing the unity and survival of the Jewish people; valuing rest and renewal; having compassion; creating peace in the home; guarding our speech; celebrating with joy; improving the world; (and) pursuing social justice.

Now, I’m going to channel Rabbi Lipman for a moment and show a little chutzpadik by saying that if the majority of these values are not your values, than I can certainly understand why participating in the Jewish community is not a high priority for you.

 But if these values are our values (and I certainly hope that they are), then I cannot understand how any of us can say or suggest or think that Judaism hasn’t already offered us something meaningful; and if so, then I cannot understand how any of us can excuse placing Judaism low on our priority lists.

 Yes, many of these seem to be universal values but, without giving a long history lesson on the evolution of world-religions and Western values, if these are universal values today, they are so BECAUSE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE, or at the very least, because of the Five Books of Moses, the Bible, the Old Testament – whatever name you know it by – it is this book – our Torah! – that brought these values into universal appreciation.

If these are your values, you should connect yourself with pride to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion because we have been the messengers of universal values to the world for millennia.

You see, what makes the Torah and Judaism special is that they are more than just a belief in a higher power they are about what we do and how we treat each other.

This is something worth being proud of.

This is something worth committing to.

This is something worth standing up for.

Recently, a number of Reform rabbis discussed the difference between the consumer model I spoke about earlier compared to a model of relationship. 

 One Rabbi said, “in a consumer culture we are defined by what we have, but in a relationship culture what we have is defined by the moments we’ve shared with others.” 

 Another rabbi wrote this:  “Consumer culture: we use things up and throw things out.  Relationship culture: we fill one another up and build lasting memories.”

And another take:  “In a consumer culture, we look at individuals as commodities to be acquired. In a relationship culture, we respond to the other’s dignity and humanity.”

And finally:  “In a consumer culture we focus on what we can get. In a relationship culture we focus on what we can give.”

I am proud to share with you, in case you are not already aware, that Temple Beth David is working hard to instill and maintain for ourselves a culture of relationship. We value people, not proceeds. We work hard to make participation affordable – often at our own expense – and we strive to be welcoming and accessible to all.

 If Rabbi Lipman had met this community, I know he would have been more optimistic about the future of Judaism. But I also know that he would have been quick to point out that our successes do not excuse us from reaching even higher, from committing even more of ourselves, from viewing Judaism as the root of the values we stand up for, and therefore worthy of being stood up for as well.

And Rabbi Lipman would have cautioned us not to let our guards down. We still need to channel the Doomsday Preppers. We still need to arm ourselves with what we need and what the world needs in order to facilitate a successful future.

And for my two cents,  I firmly believe that what we need is Torah.

We need to be stockpiling Torah.

Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz writes, “I am optimistic about Judaism’s future, despite the persistence of ignorance and apathy because Judaism offers a richness of values, sacred texts, and tools to transform the mundane into sacred moments.”

 If we stockpile Torah, If we arm ourselves with the richness of Judaism’s values, texts and traditions, then our lives will be infused with meaning, and we will be more than prepared for whatever lays ahead.

The ancient Israelites understood that to get something they had to give something, and what they gave were the animals they sacrificed. These animals had to be blemish-free – an incredibly difficult thing to find. As Rabbi Freedman writes, “Imagine how hard it must have been…Just try to pick out an animal from your herd that hasn’t gotten a few thorn scratches. How about an animal that never tripped (or) was on the losing end of a head-butt…” Animals destined for sacrifice had to have been carefully selected and tended to with an overly watchful eye – segregated from the herd, gently guided away from danger, fretted and watched over at all times of day and night.

“To bring that animal to Jerusalem for an offering,”  Rabbi Freedman writes,  “must have been a very powerful gesture. This wasn’t just some animal. This was personal. The animal represented years of preparation. When you offered this animal up to God, You were offering a piece of yourself, your sweat and tears.”

I am going to borrow Rabbi Freedman’s metaphor, and encourage you, this year, “to bring your own well-cared-for goat – and by goat, I mean sacrifice.”

In return for the value that Judaism and this community have to offer, I am asking you to give up just a little of what is precious to you, and these days what is most precious to most of us (aside from our loved ones), is time.

If you can’t make the time to be here, you will miss out on the chance to stockpile Torah for yourself, and to contribute to the future of the Jewish people.

I know that it’s challenging but I firmly believe that it’s worth it.

If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do what I do.

I wouldn’t stand up here today.

I wouldn’t stand up for Judaism each and every day of my life.

Judaism is my chosen cause. I am arguing, with every fiber of my strength – with the memory of my Aunt Bryna and the chutzpah of Rabbi Lipman as guides – I am arguing that Judaism should be your chosen cause too.

You cannot survive without it. And it cannot survive without you.

This year, may we hold to the commitments we make in our hearts during moments of passion and inspiration;

May we keep to them long after the stirring music of Kol Nidrei has faded.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.

 

 

#Renewal

Near the Jaffa Gate, inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, there is an ancient block of stone.
It sits in a very busy place, and most people rush by without really noticing it. But if you stop and look closely at it, you can see, carved on that stone, the letters LEG X.

It is a relic of Titus’ Tenth Roman Legion, the legion which destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple almost two thousand years ago.

Recently, something quite interesting has happened to that block of Roman stone. It has been recycled. It now serves as the base for a perfectly ordinary street lamp.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in teaching about this new, yet ancient, lamp-stand, observes: “Giving light:
a strange renewal of the old Menorah. And a strange reversal of the Arch of Titus: where the Arch turned the light from the Menorah into stone (by depicting an engraved image of the capture of the Menorah on its side), this street lamp turns (a) stone (of Titus’) back into light.”

Judaism is filled with clever teachings and metaphors about renewal. This day, Rosh Hashanah,
the beginning of the year, is often filled with references, teachings and discussion about forgiveness. Its proximity to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, necessitates that our attention be grounded in the work of repentance, preparing ourselves and our souls for that holiest of days.

But Rosh Hashannah is not just about repentance and forgiveness.

Lest you are in doubt, look no further than your Twitter feed – or, if you’re not into that sort of thing,
the Twitter feed of someone who is. In the Twitter community, or the “Twitterverse” as it’s more commonly known, one can organize Tweets thematically with the use of a hash-tag.

For example, when tweeting about their jobs, Rabbis will often conclude their tweet with #whatrabbisdo. Then, if one were to do a search within Twitter, using that hash-tag, one would come up with a list of all the tweets that used it, and thus an interesting study on what rabbis do,
or more accurately, what rabbis tweet about doing.

A recent phenomenon comes under the hash-tag “PopCultureElul”, which is like a game that Jews in the Twitterverse play with one another by quoting pop culture references (usually lyrics from contemporary songs) that relate to the month of Elul (we also have PopCulturePurim, PopCulturePesach, PopCultureChanukah, and so on).

A recent Twitter search of PopCultureElul brings up quotes from Bob Dylan (“You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone”), the Indigo Girls (“the sweetest part is acting after making a decision”), Philip Phillips (“If you get lost, you can always be found, just know you’re not alone”), Mumford & Sons (“Awake my soul”), the Broadway Musicals Wicked (“Some things I cannot change, but ‘til I try I’ll never know”) and Les Mis (“To love another person is to see the face of God”) – Even the Hokey Pokey gets a mention, since “You put your whole self in and you shake it all about”.

Interestingly enough, these quotes focus less on ideas of repentance and forgiveness, and relate more strongly to the theme of renewal.

Really, Rosh Hashanah is about all of these things.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky writes, “(This is) the beginning of a new year. We have examined our deeds,
made amends, and been renewed. But recovery and spiritual renewal do not come quickly or easily.
Repentance, teshuvah, is hard work. That’s really why when we finally – after the long hot summer – get to Rosh Hashannah we call it a New Year, because through honest repentance we are given the opportunity to begin life anew and get a fresh start on the year, and our lives…”

The Gaon of Vilna taught us: “Each day should be a new experience Each day we have the opportunity of a fresh start. A person who has made teshuvah is like a newborn child.”

Similarly, Rabbi Leila Gal Berner teaches that, “With the New Year, we have a chance for newness within or hearts, a newness that can change the course of our lives.”

But it isn’t only on Rosh Hashanah that Jews think about and pray for renewal. In fact, whether you are aware of it or not, each time you come to temple and participate in worship services, you sing or read or listen along to the G’vurot. Over the course of this year, you may have noticed this prayer more than usual – it’s the one where there are bracketed words in the Hebrew; the one where sometimes Howard sings one word and I sing another.

Maybe you have found this to be confusing. Maybe you even thought one of us was making a mistake! But the truth is, like with most of what we do during our Jewish prayer service, there is a reason for there being two different words that can be said during this prayer.

This prayer, the G’vurot, acknowledges God’s divine power. G’vurot in Hebrew, means great or mighty. The prayer emphasizes how God is so great that God able not only to take life but to restore it – by setting captive people free; by restoring health to those who are ill, and – according to the original, traditional version of the prayer – by restoring life to the dead.

We often think of resurrection as a Christian notion. Many liberal Jews, when asked, might even say it’s a very un-Jewish idea. But the truth is that techyat hameitim, the Jewish belief in resurrection has been around for centuries, if not longer.

If we go all the way back to the time of the Ancient Israelites though, we find that the Torah has very little to say about notions of resurrection or life after death. However, as our religion evolved, our Rabbis and Sages devised clearer answers to the question of what happens to us after we die. According to the traditional rabbinic understanding, we are taught that at the time of death, the soul separates from the body and journeys to God, while the body returns to the dust of the earth. After the End of Days, we are taught, the body and soul will be reunited and individual human beings will be reconstituted as during their time on earth, in order to stand before God’s judgment.

This is an idea that contemporary Judaism focuses very little attention, if any, on. But until the early 19th century, this is what all Jews believed!

But as Jews emerged from the ghettos into the Enlightenment, they found their traditional ideas
increasingly challenged by modern science, and time-honored doctrines were replaced with more secular, liberal, rational, and universal ideas.

Judaism, like everything else in early modernity, was subjected to scholarly criteria, and the belief in bodily resurrection slowly gave way, in non-traditional circles, to a belief in spiritual immortality, the idea that the physical body dies, never to be restored, but the soul lives on forever.

In 1885, Reform Judaism formally rejected belief in resurrection, declaring that it, “has no religious foundation.” Throughout the Classical and modern periods of Reform Judaism, many argued in favor of these innovations. Understandably!

After all, for modernists and post-modernists (that’s us), belief in bodily resurrection is almost impossible. Everything we are taught about the physical world flies in the face of the belief that Maimonides included in his Thirteen Principles of Faith – the belief in the resurrection of the dead.
And even though the traditional words of the G’vurot teach us that nothing is impossible for God,
who is all powerful, to accomplish, our modern and post-modern sensibilities leave us, at the very least, with an ongoing paradox.

Maybe God can resurrect the dead, but the Laws of Physics teach us that whether or not God can, it seems pretty clear that God doesn’t, and it is hard for us to image that one day God might.

Even for those who are willing to suspend disbelief, it’s still an incredibly uncomfortable notion.

More than that, Rabbi Richard Levy explains that techiyat hameitim, the doctrine of resurrection, not only violates our understanding of the natural and irreversible process of decay and disintegration of the body, but psychologically, “it impedes what is perhaps the most important part of grief-work, accepting the finality of a loved one’s death and resisting fantasies about the person’s return.”

All of which leaves us with a prayer- the G’vurot – that means less and less to us the more we understand its traditional wording. If we don’t believe that God can or will resurrect the dead, then how can we rise each week and declare, “Great is your eternal might O Lord Our God, you give life to the dead in your great mercy”?

Well…we don’t. Or at least, for the past 200 years or so we – Reform Jews – did not.

Classical Reform prayer books, from the 19th century on, replaced the G’vurot’s image of physical resurrection of the dead with a more generalized imagery. Instead of saying mechayei ha’meitim, the One who gives life to the dead, we declared God to be mechayei haKol, the One who gives life to all.

It seemed like a good solution, and it lasted through many revisions of liberal Jewish liturgy. However with the creation of our most recent Siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, another revision, or rather, a reversal, was introduced.

The rabbis who worked on the new Siddur felt that the traditional wording, mechayei ha’meitim, could be reintroduced to Reform Jews, not as a way of encouraging us to reconsider a belief in physical resurrection, but as a metaphor for rebirth and renewal.

Two verses from Talmud are cited in our Siddur to affirm the idea that these words can be used metaphorically. In both cases, the verse from G’vurot is recommended to be said at a time of renewal – in the first case, when greeting a friend after a lapse of seeing the person for twelve or more months, and in the second case, as a verse which can be recited upon awakening from sleep.

Using these sources as a guide, we can see the traditional language of the G’vurot as symbolic. We can declare God to be the One who gives life to the dead, not because we believe we will one day rise from the grave, but because we experience moments in our lives where we feel the revival of our spirits, our energy, or our health.

Imagine how powerful it might be to say these words after recovering from a period of illness or depression, where one feels close to death and then returns to life.

And so we find in the new Siddur, both the traditional and Classical Reform wordings, so that contemporary Reform Jews can choose the language they are most comfortable with. Thus, Howard, our esteemed Cantorial soloist chants the prayer using the Reform language of mechayei hakol, and I chant the prayer using the traditional language, mechayei hameitim – understanding it to be a symbolic and not literal resurrection that God bestows upon me, each time I am healed; each time I wake; each time my spirit is revived.

Regardless of which language you choose (and you need not worry about fitting it into the melody –
both options work!), you will likely agree with Conservative theologian Elliot Dorff who writes, “Most (liberal) Jews prefer to interpret “life after death” as living on (through) the influence that they have on others, possibly through their children…Even those who doubt that God’s power extends to restoring life to the dead can appreciate the assertion here that God is manifest in the many things that transcend our understanding and control.”

Thus the words of the G’vurot can also be a weekly reminder to us that our lives will continue on through those we love even when we are no longer physically living among them.

At this time of year, as we contemplate our past behavior and ruminate on our goals for self-betterment, the G’vurot acts as a motivational prayer as well. If we are to live-on through those who remember us, we must strive to live lives worth remembering.

It’s never too late.

Even if we have spent our whole lives as an unnoticed block of stone, we can recycle ourselves into something useful; Something needed; Something that makes a difference.

I can’t tell you how to do this. For each of you, it will be different. But I can tell you that it probably won’t be easy. And I can tell you that it will be well worth it.

Atah Gibor L’olam Adonai: Great are you, O God, who revives the dead; Who can turn stone into light; Who provides for us, each year, a chance to consider how to recycle ourselves,
renew ourselves and revive ourselves.

And who has granted us Torah, and one another, so that we never have to do that difficult work alone.

This year may we be inspired by the vision of renewal – by the vision of ancient stone becoming new light. May we seek out the parts of us that have been turned to stone for too long, and may we begin to seek out the light within.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

What Do We Stand For?

One night, while flipping channels, I discovered a particularly disturbing show called Doomsday Preppers. According to National Geographic, whose television channel airs the show, “Doomsday Preppers explores the lives of otherwise ordinary Americans who are preparing for the end of the world as we know it. Unique in their beliefs, motivations, and strategies, preppers will go to whatever lengths they can to make sure they are prepared for any of life’s uncertainties.”

In the one episode I watched, I learned about a girl in her mid-twenties who goes on daily runs with a backpack full of food and supplies so that when the energy apocalypse comes she can get out of the city, on foot, in under an hour, with all of the possible routes out of the city memorized and all of the items she needs to survive on her person.

Another segment of the show introduced me to a family who stockpile canned food and guns in a homemade, fortified, stronghold in the middle of their farm. And yet another prepper spends all his time studying zombies and how to kill them so he’ll be prepared for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

We laugh, but what we’re doing today is not so different. Our High Holiday liturgy is full of doom and gloom as it urges us to prep our souls for Divine judgment. We may not be focused on a particular impending apocalyptic event involving aliens, zombies, title waves and flocks of black birds, but in its own way, Yom Kippur each year, is a mini spiritual apocalypse.

We bare our souls and plead for forgiveness as if this was our last day on earth.

The custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur even encourages us to dress as if we about to be buried – in white clothing that mirrors the white shrouds of Jewish tradition.

And yet, during the rest of the year, Judaism is not a religion of doom and gloom. In fact, compared to many other religions, Judaism is much more focused on this life, the one we are living right now, than it is on ideas relating to what happens after we die.

Judaism is a “live for today” religion. Everything we do has value in the moment, not just because we’re hoping to be redeemed in some other world or other life. Although Judaism affirms a World to Come and even reincarnation, the emphasis is on how we cultivate our soul in this world through good deeds.

The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yaakov, who described this world as only a passageway into the next also said, “Better is one hour of bliss in the world to come than the whole life of this world; (but!)
better is one hour of repentance and good works in this world than the whole life of the world to come.”

Similarly, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught, “A soul may wait for a millennium to descend to earth, and then live a whole lifetime for the one moment when he will be able to do another a favor.”

Contemporary rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitzer writes, “We live this life with an opportunity to grow our soul
so that we will be ready to respond when needed. We are responsible for how we behave in this world and can use our free will to shape our soul for good.”

This is the message of Judaism and of Torah:
we are responsible for our behavior.
We have the ability to shape our souls for good.

And how do we do that?

Well, for starters, we need to have something we believe in;
something we care about;
something we are passionate enough about that we are willing to stand up and fight for it.

We need to stand for something.

In many temples and synagogues, there is a powerful statement displayed on or above the doors of the sanctuary or Aron HaKodesh (the holy ark). It says: Da lifnei mi ata omed – know before whom you stand.

This is not a direct quote from Torah, but the idea comes from a Talmudic discussion and is often linked to the narrative of Moses and the burning bush, where God reminds him to remove his sandals, for the ground he is standing upon is holy.

In a synagogue setting, as the Talmud emphasizes, da lifnei mi ata omed reminds us to have a reverent and focused attitude during prayer. We should be filled with respectful awe when in the presence of God.

But wait a minute Rabbi, you might be thinking.
Aren’t we ALWAYS in the presence of God?

Yes, true.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that, “to know that we stand before God wherever we may be is to rise to a higher level of living.”

And so knowing before whom we stand is actually something we should be thinking about at all times. We are always standing before God. It’s not really something we can or should check in and out of when it is convenient or desirable – like an atheist who suddenly finds they are praying in a moment of extreme duress.

God isn’t just there when we are in need.
We must always know before whom we stand.

In the same way, the chosen causes of our heart are not something we can set aside when they are no longer easy or convenient or inexpensive. Knowing what you stand for should be as eternal as knowing whom you stand before.

Many of you know that during this past summer, I lost my Great-Aunt Bryna. My Aunt Bryna was someone who really knew what she stood for. During her funeral, my father shared the following words about her:

“We are told that difficult situations make us strong, and Bryna’s life is the proof text. She emerged from the experiences of her childhood and first marriage as the strong, independent and determined woman that we all came to know and to admire…Bryna’s divorce from (her first husband) gave her an awareness, borne of her own experience, of women’s economic and social vulnerability, and…
ever since then she became a strong advocate for women and women’s rights.”

Not only was my Aunt Bryna committed to women’s equality, But her dedication to social justice also extended to supporting the underprivileged and in particular, those who struggled with addiction. Before retirement, she was the director of the Easton Neighborhood Center, the Drug Treatment Program, and New Directions in Pennsylvania, and during her retirement years she continued her commitment to social justice by directing Sun Cities Charities.

Bryna’s commitment to women was felt strongly by those she worked for and with, but also by the women in her family and her extensive group of female friends. In her final days, Bryna was determined to plan her funeral and as a final tribute to women, she asked to have 12 women pallbearers.

As I reflected on this in the final days of her life and in the days after her death, listening to her husband, sons, sister-in-law and niece (my mom), reflect on the life she lived, both before and after I was born, I was struck by the level of commitment my Aunt Bryna demonstrated to the causes she believed in. Bryna didn’t just fundraise and donate to causes, she devoted her life to them. They were her livelihood – she was bound to them every working day of her life.

And when she couldn’t work anymore she volunteered.
And when she couldn’t volunteer anymore, she sent donations.

And she ensured that her message of support for women outlasted her, so that even when she was no longer living, no one could doubt that women were important to her.

This is true commitment.

In Hebrew, the word for commitment is hit-ha-ye-vut. It is linguistically connected to the idea of obligation. When we commit to something fully, we obligate ourselves to it – body and soul.
The Chinese Philosopher, Confucius said: “Where you go, go with all your heart.”

The dictionary gives two different definitions of commitment but all too often, we think of commitment as “an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action” – the 2nd definition –
rather than its first definition, simply, “the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc.”

Judaism’s take on commitment can be summed up by a passage from Pirkei Avot: Lo Alecha Ham’lacha Ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena, which means, “It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”

In other words, it is not up to you to take on the full weight of what you are committing to, but you also cannot abstain from commitment altogether.

Apathy and inaction are not options from a Jewish perspective.

A year or so ago, a popular musical group called FUN wrote a song called Some Nights, about a man who is wrestling with the choices he has made in his life. The chorus repeats the line:“What do I stand for? What do I stand for?” and concludes, “most nights I don’t know, anymore.”

The song has a catchy tune, but I often wonder if it was so popular, not because of its melody, but because of its message.I think all too many people today do not know what they stand for.

It’s incredibly sad to think about.

While writing this sermon, I googled the phrase, “Why is commitment so important?” I was directed to prismltd.com, where I found the following statement:

“The most important single factor in individual success is commitment. Commitment ignites action. To commit is to pledge yourself to a certain purpose or line of conduct. It also means practicing your beliefs consistently. There are, therefore, two fundamental conditions for commitment.The first is having a sound set of beliefs. There is an old saying that goes, “Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” The second is faithful adherence to those beliefs with your behavior. Possibly the best description of commitment is “persistence with a purpose.”

I have no idea what prismltd.com is or who wrote that text, but I couldn’t agree more.

Whether or not we think the folks on Doomsday Preppers are a little crazy (or a lot crazy), we might want to consider taking a page out of their book – not the part about Doomsday perhaps, but the part about being a prepper. Doomsday Preppers know what they stand for, and they commit to it wholeheartedly.

My Aunt Bryna also committed her life to the chosen causes of her heart. I believe that Bryna’s choice to have 12 women accompany her to her resting place was also her way of telling us that she was at peace,that she was proud of the work she did in the name of women, and that she felt satisfied, knowing she had made the world a better place for women, and that she was leaving a world that was safer for women than it was when she was born into it.

If Yom Kippur is a mini-appocalypse – if we heed Judaism’s teaching to live each day as if it may be our last – then taking the next 10 days to really consider what it is that we stand for, and committing ourselves to that cause, fully and completely, is the way we can prep ourselves and our souls – not for the World to Come, but for the days to come;

For however many days we have left;

So that we can leave this world satisfied that we contributed to making it a better place than we found it.

This is the message of Judaism.
This is the message of Torah.

In the name and for the sake of the memory of my Aunt Bryna.
In the name of the Holy Blessed One and for the sake of us all…

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.

Returning

I have been away. I have been negligent.

I am returning. It’s the right time of year for it. 🙂

I went to the Mikvah to come clean before God on the holiest of days.

I am me, so I wrote a poem, because that’s what I do when I’m moved.

I thought I’d share it with you.

Here it is:

 

Usually I am above,

looking down

I avert my eyes as they descend

and then connect with them to say the prayers

to share the joy

to complete the process

to witness

 

I am the rabbi

I lead

I accompany

I affirm, confirm, and reaffirm

I am the guide

I am with them

But apart

A part

of their experience

but my own experience is secondary

(as it should be in such moments)

 

How nice

to return to this place for my own purposes

for me

for my soul

for my spirit

 
It is I who descend this time

I, who am embraced by God’s warm and welcoming waters

I, who get to immerse

and emerge

 

Alone

with God and the water

and the words on the page

 

renewing my spirit

repairing my soul

preparing for the year ahead

 

I know what I look like,

a body

distorted as I submerge

hair floating around me

as the splashes echo

I can see myself as I have seen so many others

I know I am glowing as I come out from the water

I know I am walking straighter

head held higher

changed

by the waters of God

 

Usually I am looking down

But today I immersed

and I looked up

through those beautiful windows

through light streaming in

and God was my witness

and the waters, my rebirth

 

–          Rabbi Emma Gottlieb

Mayyim Hayyim

09/02/13