Why I’m Going: As I Prepare to March

What bothered me most about last years cinematic representation of the march from Selma to Montgomery was the absence of the rabbis.

During the Civil Right’s movement, as you know, prominent Reform and Conservative rabbis became public civil rights activists, speaking out to their congregations, marching with Rev. Dr. King, and getting arrested at demonstrations (sometimes to the disapproval of their congregants and/or denominational leadership). Among the most famous was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose photo marching arm in arm with King in Selma in 1965 has become an iconic image of Jewish civil rights activism, and whose description of that march as “praying with my legs” is often quoted by Jewish activists.

In the movie however, as I’ve mentioned in the past, there is no Heschel standing next to Dr. King, although there was a quick flash of a kippah in the crowd. This bothers me for two reasons. To begin with, the way that Heschel and other rabbis put themselves literally on the line during the Civil Rights Movement has had a deep impact on my own Jewish identity and my understanding of Judaism’s call to fight for a just world, not only for ourselves but for everyone. I didn’t just feel like Heschel and the other rabbis were missing from the story, I felt that I was missing from the story.

The second reason their absence bothered me, is that it seemed like a wasted opportunity in terms of educating today’s youth about the role of Reform Jews in the Civil Right’s Movement. These days especially, as we find ourselves facing renewed fears of increased or visible Antisemitism in the world around us, it seems all the more important to take advantage of a little good PR when we can get it, and to find ways to teach others about the good we do in the world. It makes me sad to think that there may be young people today who don’t realize that a large part of what it means to be Jewish is to fight for the rights of others, and that indeed, Jews have done this in marked ways in the past, and in prominent moments in America’s history especially.

The Reform Movement has publicly supported civil rights since the beginning of the 20th century, first coming out against lynching in 1899 and passing resolutions throughout the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond), asserting their commitment to civil rights and racial justice. I was surprised to learn recently however, that Civil Rights activism was often more complicated for rabbis in the South than for their northern counterparts. Southern rabbis generally supported racial equality in principle, but were concerned about the practical implications of taking a public stand against segregation and for civil rights. A rabbi’s public support of civil rights, it was feared, might strengthen the segregationists’ claim that Jews threatened the southern way of life, and could put the Jewish community in economic and physical danger.

Jews in the South were facing discrimination of their own, with several communities experiencing the boycott of Jewish businesses and sadly, some synagogue bombings as well. Thus, the social position of Jews in the south was precarious –they were accepted as part of the social fabric of “White America”, but they were also seen as different. They had to work hard to fit in, and many Jews were reluctant to take action that would set them apart from the other white community leaders. They felt they needed to assure their own equality and security first. And some even went so far as to call segregation a “Christian problem”, punting the issue over to their Christian colleagues.

Although I cannot know what it is like to be a rabbi in such a time and place, I was saddened and disturbed to learn about this. Even though I can imagine someone making a similar claim today – that now is a time to lay low and not call extra attention to ourselves – I, personally,  would much rather stand up and demonstrate what Judaism is all about as a way to push back against Antisemitism, than bury my head in the sand and hope the storm passes. Racism or inequality of any kind is not a Christian problem. It is also not a political problem. It is an American problem, a human problem, and, I deeply believe, a Jewish problem.
Which is why, when the call came late last month, I was quick to answer.

The NAACP has organized America’s Journey for Justice, an historic 860-mile march from Selma to Washington D.C. In response, the Reform Movement, in keeping with our long history of involvement, partnership and collaboration with the NAACP, has quickly mobilized rabbis from around the country to participate so that our presence and support will not only be felt throughout the march, but will be visible on each day, as rabbis will take turns carrying a Torah scroll throughout the 40 day journey. Even though the call for action came at short notice, and even though the last days of the march lead right into Rosh Hashanah, 150 rabbis have already signed up to participate and more are joining every day. Each morning of the march, 2-3 rabbis will receive the Torah from the rabbis who marched the day before and will carry it forward, thus carrying the Jewish values that compel us to stand with our neighbors and fight for racial justice and equality.

I am incredibly proud to share that on August 12, this Wednesday, I will receive the Torah with two other rabbis and will carry it through an area of Georgia near Atlanta, participating with my own hands, feet and heart, in this historic event.

This 40 day march, this Journey for Justice, is focused on racial and structural inequality. Together we will be marching under the banner, “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools Matter”. The march is a peaceful protest advocating for economic and educational equity, voter rights, reform to the criminal justice system, and an end to racial profiling and police brutality. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of legislation designed to protect voting rights and prohibit discriminatory voting practices. And yet, despite this historic anniversary, there is still much work to be done as we continue to see racial disparities all across the nation, from the streets to the voting booths.

As we mourn the death of Michael Brown, just about a year ago today, we recognize that marching will not bring him back, but we hope it may be one step in ending the cycle of brutality in our country that has taken his and so many other lives. These steps we are taking – 40 days of steps; 860 miles of steps – are important steps toward acknowledging the humanity, dignity and equality of all Americans. Hopefully they will be just the first of many more steps to come.

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a joint partnership of URJ’s Religious Action Center and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, sent out this statement just last week:

Why do we march?

We march because we say enough. Enough of the tragedies. Enough of the subtle and overt racism. Enough of standing by. We march not only in the name of those whose deaths woke up our nation’s consciousness, but for the millions of others whose loss of life, loss of home, and loss of dignity never made a headline. Our hearts break for the world as it is–parched by oppression–constant, crushing, and unacceptable. We remember the slavery and oppression that bloodied our own past even as we recognize the privilege into which many of us were born. We, therefore, march arm-in-arm with other people of faith in our humble attempt to live up to our tradition’s demand to be rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice, equality, and freedom. We feel called by our God, our tradition and our consciences to march. At the same time, we know that simply marching in this remarkable forty-day Journey to Justice is not enough. We march for the forty-first day, the one-hundred and twentieth (day), and the years and generations to come. We march, as our ancestors taught us, to get from Egypt—the world as it is, filled with injustice—to the Promised Land. We march toward a vision of this land’s promise: our world redeemed, overflowing with chesed, tzedek, umishpat—compassion, justice and righteousness. 

On Wednesday, I will be marching with this vision at the front of my mind and my heart. On that day, I will be marching in the name of those Southern rabbis who did take action even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do, like Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, MS, who survived the bombing of his synagogue and home, as well as an attempted removal by some of his own congregants who did not agree with his public stances on civil rights issues; I will be marching in the name of Rabbi Heschel, along with Rabbis William G Braude, Saul Leeman, and Nathan Rosen, who came to Alabama to march with Dr. King; and I will be marching in the name of the 17 rabbis who were arrested in St. Augustine in 1964 (some of whom became my teachers at rabbinical school 40 years later).

In a joint letter entitled “Why We Went”, those 17 rabbis wrote, “Each of us has, in this experience, become a little more the person, a bit more the rabbi he always hoped to be (but has not yet been able to become. . .We came to stand with our brothers and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God.”

I too, am looking forward to Wednesday as a day when I will become a little more the person and a bit more the rabbi I have always hoped to be but have not yet been able to become. I too hope to learn more about myself and my God through physically and personally acting for what I believe in.

I march for equality; I march to maintain the history of Jewish involvement in Civil Rights that I care so deeply about; I march for myself that I may practice what I preach; and I march for you, my community, in the hopes that you might join me on this march, or on some march in the future; that you might follow my example and take up the call for justice; and that you might see our contemporary issues of equality and justice not as political issues, but as Jewish issues, and engage with them for the sake of Torah and the betterment of our world.

May each of us march on proudly; May our world be healed one step at a time.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.

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Debbie Friedman, Hachnasat Orchim & Radical Hospitality

Debbie Friedman was my hero. But she got really mad whenever I tried to tell her that.

Even though she was incredibly famous and influential, she never really liked people to acknowledge it. She was humble – unless you were singing her music incorrectly, and then she would pull rank and take you to task. The music was much more important to her, than the fame.

Although my earliest in-person encounters with Debbie were the kinds of stories you tell about meeting someone famous that you admire, I was lucky enough to get to know her when she came to teach at Hebrew Union College in my last two years as a student there.

For the first few months, I watched her from a distance, still star-struck and hesitant to approach her. I didn’t feel like I could just walk up to her and strike up a conversation. Lucky for me, my friend Adam had gotten to know her after he gave a sermon that she had particularly loved. She reached out to him and invited him and his boyfriend Shalom to come to her house for Shabbos. It became a regular thing, and when I shamelessly expressed seething jealousy, Adam nabbed me an invitation.

For me, being invited to Debbie’s house was a dream come true, but for Debbie, it was really no big deal. She lived alone, and she liked to have company over. She especially liked to host on Shabbat. Even though she was an extremely private person, she would stretch her comfort zone to include others so that she would be less alone on the Sabbath. In extending an invitation, she was doing something momentous for me, even if she wouldn’t acknowledge it, and because it was such a big deal to me, I didn’t realize it at that time, but she was also doing something momentous for herself.

We are taught that the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming or inviting guests, is one of the most important values in Judaism. Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague said, “Rising early to study Torah is the way we honor Torah, but when you welcome a guest, it is tantamount to honoring God. For when one brings a guest into their home and honors him because he was created in the image of God, then it is as if they are honoring the Divine presence, which is greater than honoring the Torah.”

The inspiration for hakhnasat orekhim goes back to our first patriarch Abraham, who would sit outside waiting for the opportunity to invite dusty wayfarers into the shade of his tent, and then run to prepare a meal of the choicest ingredients for them. Thus, our religion is full of traditions and teachings relating to inviting someone into our homes. During the Passover Seder, we invite Elijah the prophet, and we are supposed to invite those in need of a place to eat as well; Our wedding chuppot are open on all sides to symbolize our commitment to inviting others into the new home we are creating; And on Sukkot, we are supposed to invite both real and symbolic guests into our temporary dwellings.

The tradition is that for each night of Sukkot we should invite one of seven “exalted men of Israel” to take up residence in the sukkah with us. On the first day of Sukkot we are meant to say, “I invite to my meal the exalted guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.” On each day, a different one of these seven is singled out, in the order in which the invitation lists them. It has also become popular in liberal circles to invite the matriarchs and other important women of Israel – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther – either paired with the men or on their own.

Each of the patriarchs traditionally invited into our sukkot represents uprootedness. Abraham left his father’s home for the land God promised, Isaac left home during a famine, Jacob fled from his brother Esau, Joseph was sold to merchants and taken to Egypt, Moses fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian, he and Aaron wandered the Sinai for forty years, and David also spent time in the wilderness,  when hiding from King Saul.

But the real people we invite into our homes on Sukkot, and at other times, need not be physically lost or wandering. At many times in our lives, we will find ourselves emotionally lost and spiritually wandering. The year that Debbie first invited me to her home, was one of the hardest years of my life. She had no idea what was happening in my life, or that her invitation would be a much needed ray of joy in a very dark time, but that’s what it was.

Let’s look to our invited matriarchs as an example. Sarah and Rachel both suffer from infertility; Rebecca’s favorite son has left home and she’s feeling the emptiness of her nest; Leah’s husband loves another woman; Miriam has spent the day caring for those who are ill and she is exhausted; Abigail is leaving one marriage for another; and Esther feels she has to hide her true identity to feel safe.

When we invite someone into our homes, we don’t really ever know what baggage they might bring with them, and we can’t know whether feeling welcomed by us will make a difference to their silent sufferings or spiritual wanderings, but in all likelihood, most often, being welcomed and being with others instead of alone, does make a difference, whether you are aware of it or not.

It is because of this power of inviting, that Maimonides admonishes us that anyone who sits comfortably with his family, within his own walls, and does not share with the poor is performing a mitzvah, not for joy but for the stomach.  The tradition of welcoming guests on Sukkot however, has, over time, given way to making a donation of funds as a substitute – opening our homes symbolically. While this is a nice idea, it distances us from meaningfully connecting with other human beings in person.

Ron Wolfson, author of The Spirituality of Welcoming, teaches about the narrative in Genesis where Abraham welcomes the three messengers who come to deliver good news. Wolfson points out that the text itself feels like it’s in a hurry, using many words relating to quickness. Abraham, runs, hastens and runs again. He rushes three times and fetches four times.

The traditional commentators have different opinions about what Abraham was doing before he saw his guests approaching. Some say he was healing after his circumcision, which the Torah recounts just prior to this exchange; some say he was reciting the morning prayers. But neither pain nor prayer prevents Abraham from jumping up and running to engage in hospitality.

Wolfson also teaches that Abraham doesn’t know anything about the strangers. “They could be wealthy donors and community big shots,” he writes, “or they could just be beggars off the street. (Abraham) has no idea they are angels…” It is from Abraham’s example that the Talmud derives the teaching: “Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Shechina, the Divine presence.”

So what do we learn from Abraham? Firstly, we shouldn’t just engage in Hachnassat Orchim, inviting people into our homes, but we should hasten to do it! We should start doing it immediately!

We also learn that it doesn’t matter whom you invite over, or whether or not you know them well or know anything about them – “just invite them over!” the Torah implores us.

Ron Wolfson calls this kind of invitation, one in which we push ourselves outside our comfort zones and invite people into our homes – even if we don’t think we have the time or energy, even if we don’t really know them very well – “radical hospitality”.

In writing about radical hospitality, Wolfson teaches that, “the spirituality of welcoming elevates both the guest and the host. (It) eases the unspoken anxiety a guest feels (while ) for the host, the act of hospitality is a gesture of spiritual generosity, uplifting the soul. It is an offering of oneself, an invitation for connection between human and human and, in that meeting, between human and God.”

This applies to us as both individuals and as a temple family. Wolfson writes, “the first step in transforming a congregation into a sacred community is to create an ambiance that overflows with the spirituality of welcoming, with radical hospitality.”

In answer to the question, “Why is hospitality so important for synagogues?” Wolfson responds: “We live in a time and culture that seems to work against the very thing we hope to create: a synagogue of relationships. Relationships begin with a since greeting – a handshake, a smile, a good word.” Furthermore, he writes, “we are in danger of losing the art of hospitality. We don’t welcome strangers anymore – we entertain at restaurants or clubs. We don’t greet people on the street, we avoid them. We don’t even answer our phones without first checking caller ID to see if it is someone we know or want to talk with.

What is happening to us?” Wolfson asks, “When we lose the art of hospitality,” he writes, “we lose a part of our souls. For kindness to others is not simply an imperative to improve the lives of those who seek welcome. The act of hospitality improves the lives of those who offer it. Welcoming, serving, and feeding others embody the value of generosity of spirit, of sharing what we have, of caring for others when they are in need.”

Some of you have heard me bemoan the size of my dining room. I use it as an excuse not to host people for Shabbat dinner. But really, the truth is, I feel overwhelmed at the thought of hosting a meal before services. It involves finding time to reach out to someone and invite them, clean my home, go grocery shopping, cook, set the table… it feels like a chore. But in light of Wolfson’s teachings, and the teachings of Jewish tradition, I am reminded that feeding other people’s bodies will feed my soul, and provide me with an opportunity to get to know them better and to share a little of myself with them in return, while ensuring that neither they nor I spend Shabbat alone, or neglect to make Shabbat dinner special because we have no one to share it with or to model for us how to do so.

The story of Abraham and the messengers reminds me that I can’t keep making excuses. I have to run toward the mitzvah – I have to do it now.

So, “Family X”, would you like to come over for Shabbat dinner sometime? (“Family X” accepts!)

There. Now, if I can do it, you can too. And I hope that you will, because all too often, people mention to me that they don’t know another person or family in the community, whose name has come up, but they never – to my knowledge – do anything about it.

There is nothing preventing us from knowing one another other than us not having attempted to do so.

Sometime tonight, or this week, please reach out to someone in our temple community, preferably someone you don’t know very well, and invite them over for a Shabbat meal or invite them to join you at a Shabbat service and go out for dinner, coffee, or drinks with you afterward.

If you know everyone who is here tonight, then go to the website, download the membership list, find a name you’re not familiar with, call them, and ask them if you can get to know them by having them over for dinner sometime, or if you could meet them here for Shabbat one week so that you can sit together and get to know one another.

We can list a million excuses why we can’t do this, but the less we know about each other, the less connection we feel to this community, which leads to a decreased desire to serve the community with our time and energy, and a decreased desire to support it financially. Eventually we no longer desire to be a part of it at all.

I pray that will not happen, and I believe that it all starts with hachnasat orchim. And chachnat orchim begins with YOU.

This week, may we invite radical hospitality into our lives and invite others into our homes; may we push ourselves to do something momentous for another, and in doing so, discover that we have done something momentous for ourselves – as individuals and as a community.

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

Birch Trees, Harvest Moons and A Little Boy With A Big Temper

Two things you should know about me: I have always been moved to talk to God when sitting or walking beneath willow trees, and also when I see a Harvest Moon hanging low and orange in the sky. I have also been moved to commune with God by certain birch trees whose white bark makes them stand out noticeably from the trees that surround them.

So that’s three things.

None of which is to say that I pray to trees or to the moon. Rather, there is something about particular trees and Harvest moons that catches my attention and moves me to want to connect with the Divine.

This week, somewhat against my better judgement, I went to see the new Exodus movie. It’s been getting a lot of press, mostly bad, focused on the inaccuracies, the dialogue, and the British accents.

But one of most discussed topics relating the movie is Ridley Scott’s choice to depict God as a young boy.

This is a big departure from other Hollywood renditions of the story of the Exodus. Kim Masters, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, reminds us that, “Choosing a voice of God is (a) tricky proposition. When DreamWorks Animation made The Prince of Egypt in 1998, some at the studio considered (using) a voice that would morph from man to woman to child, but they abandoned the idea as likely to generate backlash. The job went (instead) to Val Kilmer, who also played Moses.”

DreamWorks was taking a page out of DeMille’s book, as Charlton Heston, who played Moses in The Ten Commandments, also voiced God in the movie’s Burning Bush sequence.

In other movies, God has been played by a dignified Morgan Freeman, a motorcycle-riding George Burns, and a screaming Alanis Morissette. But, as one article in the NY Times points out, “none of those films were as ambitious or rooted in overall biblical narrative” as Ridley Scott’s current film.

The Times remarks that, “Mr. Scott uses an 11-year-old British actor…to give voice and visage to his Almighty, rather than concealing the deity behind a pillar of fire, too terrible for the eye of man, as Cecil B. DeMille chose to do”.

Scott told The Hollywood Reporter that, “sacred texts give no specific depiction of God, so for centuries artists and filmmakers have had to choose their own visual depiction,” and he was also quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I want to avoid the clichés…a voice from the clouds was never an option.”

In an interview with Jonathan Merritt, a reporter for religionnews.com, Scott was asked: Why did you use a child for the figure of God? To which he replied: “Not figure of God. “Malak” means messenger. So “Malak,” to begin with, is the messenger of God. If you’re going to represent God in many shapes and forms…the biggest form of all is probably nature.That’s his power, that’s his base, that’s his beauty, that’s his threat. And occasionally when you want to communicate with someone, it’s very easy with His power to chose a messenger. Or some more popular word might be “angel.” But I didn’t like the idea of an angel associated with wings. I wanted everything to be reality based….Of course…[Moses] also could be talking to his conscience. So Malak could also be his conscience.”

Ridley Scott also told The Hollywood Reporter that “Malak exudes innocence and purity, and those two qualities are extremely powerful.”

During the interview with ReligionNews, Christian Bale, the actor who plays Moses, jumps to Scott’s defense and asks, “How would you have represented God, if you were in Ridley’s position? ‘Cause it is very easy to pick apart someone’s choice for a depiction of God, you know, but if you’re actually in Ridley’s shoes, it’s an immensely difficult thing. How on earth do you do that?”

Of all the things Christian Bale has been quoted as saying in relation to this movie, this statement is by far the most profound. His questions are important ones to consider. How do we decide how to envision God? And why are we so quick to pick-apart someone else’s depiction?

My initial response to the little boy depiction of God, or rather, God’s messenger, was that it was bizarre. But the more I think about it, the more it starts to make sense.

One the one hand, as another online reviewer points out, “no depiction of God could be more wrong. God in the Old Testament is like an invisible, all fire, all power, all violent… stormbringing (kind of God). He is anything but humble and childlike. The Old Testament God of brutality and might is exactly the kind of entity that the humbled, degraded, shackled Hebrews need on their side. Who else could help them defeat the greatest empire on Earth at the time?”

And yet, as another reviewer pointed out, in the Torah, particularly in the Exodus narrative, “God IS (acting like) a petulant child…whacking people left and right for not worshiping him, or for “disobeying” him.”

Even our rabbinic sages acknowledged this behaviour, teaching that God often manifests in the ways in which we most need. For a fledgling nation, quick to rebel against authority, God needs to present Godself as easily angered and vengeful – not the kind of God you’d want to cross.

For the Israelite generation, God used fear to motivate their adherence and devotion. Over the course of human history, our tradition teaches, the tactics have changed, just as a parent changes their parenting tactics as their child ages from toddler to child to teenager to adult.

So there is some merit to Scott’s choice to depict God’s messenger as a child. Even more so, if we consider the point made by Gary Rendsberg, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers, who was interviewed for the New York Times review. In it, Rendsberg said, “that he could immediately think of only one (biblical) reference that might support the notion of God as a young innocent. (A) very brief reference in the first Book of Kings, Chapter 19, in which God speaks to Elijah in what is described as a “still small voice.”

A third possibility, is that Moses is seeking God in a way that makes sense given the context of his life. Just prior to the episode with the Burning Bush, we learn that Moses has become a father. Is it so surprising then, that what would seem most miraculous and divine to Moses is children, specifically a young boy reminiscent of his own son?

Each of us relates to the Divine differently. I imagine most parents can relate to seeing God’s presence in their children. Some of us see God in art, or hear God in music or laughter. Others sense God when they are in nature. Some, like Reb Nachman,  feel God’s presence when out among the trees. Others, like Muhammad and Abraham, are moved to connect to the divine when they see, or are on top of, a mountain. For Moses, there was also a connection between God and mountains, and indeed, Moses also saw God in fire, and arguably, also experienced God through water, as did his sister Miriam.

The context of our lives, and our skill-sets and talents often affect where we seek out and see divinity. Doctors may find God through the miracles of medicine and scientists might find God in the order and structure of the world. An artist might see God in a painting or a sunset, and a musician might hear God in a symphony or a soft song. Someone who is sick might see divinity in someone who is a picture of health, and someone who is lonely might see divinity in the loving gaze of two people, who themselves might be experiencing love as something divine.

I’d like to take Ridley Scott to task for the inconsistencies in his depiction of the Exodus, and yes, perhaps for the British accents, but not for his depiction of God.

I see God in harvest moons and willow trees and in the faces of my best-friend’s children. I feel God when I hear certain pieces of music and in my dreams and in the mountains, and in moments of intense connections with other people. Who am I to say that Ridley Scott should not depict God or God’s messenger as a child? Isn’t the important thing that he sees God at all and wanted to engaged other people in a conversation about what it might be like to see and experience God?

In my humble opinion, the vehicle we take to connect with God, is not nearly as important as the destination, or as the journey.

This week, may each of us see or feel God manifest in our lives; may we each connect with God in ways that are comforting, challenging and meaningful for us as unique individuals; and may we each affirm God’s presence in our lives by naming God when God is seen, or heard, or otherwise experienced.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

A (Jewish) Ghost Story

When I was little, my aunt and cousins lived in an old farmhouse. It was at least a hundred years old and it had all the wonderful character of old houses – including a ghost.

I knew about the ghost because I had heard my aunt telling other people about him. He lived in the basement, and although no one had ever seen or heard him, my aunt had felt him. Apparently he was fond of massaging her shoulders whenever she went down the basement stairs. At the time, I vowed never to go into the basement again, even though my aunt didn’t express any fear – it seemed her ghost was of the Caspar variety.

As a child, my aunt’s ghost story fell-in with all the other ghost stories one encounters in childhood. I didn’t necessarily believe it but I didn’t necessarily disbelieve it either. And over time, I forgot about it, as the question of whether or not ghosts exist became less and less of a concern.

Until of course, the night in my Upper West Side apartment, when I woke up to creaking floorboards, the feeling of someone sitting on my bed, whispering in my ear and the simultaneous realizations that I was awake AND that no physical person was there with me.

It seems I had a ghost too!

Although the experience was startling and disquieting, especially given the late hour, I didn’t feel afraid. The presence, or energy I had encountered didn’t feel threatening and hadn’t done anything harmful or overtly scary. It seemed to be trying to communicate a name, and as soon as it had sensed my momentary fear – more a result of my thinking that there was a person in my apartment than of my realizing that there wasn’t – it was gone, as if to affirm that it’s intention wasn’t to scare me.

So yes, you have a rabbi who believes in ghosts.

But not of the Halloween variety; not some tragic versions of lost souls who have ill-intent, but rather, what I believe, is that soul-energy sometimes remains behind after a physical body has died, and that soul-energy sometimes returns to try to connect or communicate with their loved ones who are still living, usually to warn or reassure them about something, most often with the desire to let us know that they are okay and that they are still a part of our lives.

I recently read a claim that religiously speaking, believing in ghosts is no less of a stretch than, “believing in a God you cannot see or hear or touch but still feel in deep relationship with”, but if it still seems radical to hear a rabbi express these views, please rest assured that I am far from the first rabbi to believe in ghosts or the first Jewish leader to encounter them.

In The Zohar, Judaism’s most famous text on mysticism, we are taught that when a soul departs, it experiences three things simultaneously: it enters into the Mystery of the Infinite One, it remains to comfort those who mourn, and it enters into Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, and experiences the delights that it enjoyed when it was a physical, earth-bound being.

Jewish author and teacher Jay Michaelson explains that, “for the ancients, the idea that life could exist without a soul was unimaginable. However, the Talmudic and kabbalistic rabbis did not make a strict distinction between body and soul, either…”Most Jewish thinkers,” he writes, “had a notion of life-energy that was quasi-materialistic,” meaning that the spiritual world and the material world were interwoven, and that actions in one could directly affect the other — for better or for worse.

Although the Torah is nearly silent about the existence of supernatural beings other than the Divine Messengers or angels that often make appearances in the aid of God’s communicating with humanity, in the Talmudic world, spirits are everywhere! According to our sages, they haunt dark places, homes, even the crumbs left on the dinner table, but rarely does the Talmudic literature go into detail about exactly how the ghosts, demons and other magical creatures it mentions come into being.

Although many of the theories and explanations of the rabbis and kabbalists now feel outdated in the glaring light of scientific understanding, they were responding to an age-old question that human sciences have yet to answer sufficiently. If we are all possessed of energy, then what happens to that energy when we die?

For the kabbalists and the sages, the understanding was that ideally, the energy we retain as living, physical beings returns to its source – to God – after we die. But sometimes, as they understood it, the process goes wrong. In such cases, a variety of ills could befall the soul, one of which is the phenomenon of the dybbuk, when one soul “sticks” onto or possess another instead of returning to God.

The rabbis also believed it was possible for the soul of a departed righteous person to “impregnate” the soul of a living person, a process described by Lurianic Kabbalah as ibbur–although, unlike in the case of a dybbuk, ibbur was seen in a positive light because the rabbis believed that the righteous soul was attempting to return to the physical realm so that it could complete a task or perform a mitzvah. Sort of like, self-motivated reincarnation.

The rabbis differentiated instances of a dybbuk or ibbur from other instances where a person might be visited by a departed soul who brings messages or prophesies, or who might take up residence in a home or synagogue. The rabbis were unable to deny that the souls of departed loved ones could return with messages, or be even called upon for advice, because the Bible itself relates a story of King Saul seeking out the ghost of his departed prophet Samuel.

The text relates that although Saul had been trying to banish those who communicated with the dead, he found himself attempting to do just that when faced with the threat of the Philistine army. First Saul tried to seek an answer from God through prayer, but when that failed, and when God did not send any new prophets to Saul, he sought out the Woman of Endor, who was known to be able to communicate with spirits, and through her, he was able to connect and speak with the spirit of Samuel.

samuelesatanas

The Torah, however, is careful to describe this story in ways that would discourage others from following in Saul’s footsteps. Samuel is not pleased about being disturbed and Saul is described as being weak from fasting – leaving room for us to dismiss this encounter as a hunger-induced-delusion, should we so choose.

But I don’t think that the Torah meant to discourage us from believing in ghosts. Rather, I think the Torah was trying to discourage us from seeking out ghosts for answers when we fail to find them in God or in ourselves.

The Torah is clear in its prohibition against those who divine answers from sources other than God. Idolatry is one of ancient-Judaism’s biggest fears and the potential for us to worship ghosts over God is a threat to Jewish dogma. It is the same threat that lead these rabbis, who believed in ghosts, to create prohibitions about communicating with them, except in certain cases.

The rabbis were concerned that seeking out connections and advice from departed souls might lead us away from our relationship with God or might lead to the perception that the source of our help could come from anywhere other than God.

While I share this rabbinic concern, I am also aware of how important it is to feel the presence of our loved ones in our lives, even after they have died.

Rabbi Tzafi Lev of California, recently wrote about a woman who asked him if it was okay during her prayers to pray to her deceased mother. She said, ”the first thing I think of when I start to pray is my mother. My friend told me that I was being a bad Jew because there was something, my mother, between me and God.”

If I were responding to this woman, I would have said that thinking of her mother while she is praying is not necessarily the same thing as praying to her mother. But Rabbi Lev’s answer is good too. He told the woman that her relationship with her mother is, “foundational to her understanding of the transcendent.” That rather than confusing her mother with God, she was connecting to her mother as, “the closest access point (she has) to loving energy beyond our own realm.” In other words, by thinking of her mother, the woman was able to connect to that which is beyond her, and beyond the physical realm, and thereby is able to connect with God.

Rabbi Lev also describes a congregant whose son spoke to his beloved but deceased Bubby through a conch shell that she had given him, and a woman whose phone rang every day precisely at the same time, who was certain that it was her deceased father calling.

Rather than call these individuals’ beliefs and practices into question, Rabbi Lev expressed gladness – that the woman is still comforted by her mother, that a young boy with his conch shell still has an active connection to his grandmother, and that at 3:15 every afternoon, when her phone rings, his former congregant still feels her father’s presence in her life.

Whether or not we believe in ghosts, or in our ability to communicate with them, I think it is safe to say that Judaism affirms the need to recall and remember those who we have loved and lost. Even if we cannot be comforted by them directly, we are comforted by the knowledge that they loved us. Even if we cannot hear their words of advice, we can be guided by thinking about what they might have advised us if they were here. Even if they cannot tell us what to do, we can conduct ourselves the way that they once did, and feel that we are not only doing what they might have wanted us to do, but also that we are keeping their memory alive through living out their hopes and values.

On this Shabbat, when we find ourselves surrounded by Halloween imagery of ghosts, let us not be afraid to explore our beliefs, to reach out beyond ourselves, and to affirm that engaging with the metaphysical realm is, and always has been, an authentically Jewish endeavor. And most importantly, may the memories of our loved ones always be a blessing to us.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

A Life of Passion; A Life of Truth (A Kol Nidrei Sermon)

I have a confession to make.

Sometimes I act like the rabbi I think I should be instead of the rabbi I really am.
We often put on professional masks or professional airs, perhaps. We dress and act differently in our places of work than we do in our homes. We withhold parts of ourselves when engaged with our business partners or our clients.

In many professions this makes sense. We don’t want our doctors and lawyers to show up in yoga pants; We need our professionals to act…well…professional, so that we can have confidence in their abilities. We’re not usually interested in their private lives. We just want to know that they can do the job we are paying them for.

But for rabbis it’s a little different. Rabbis are in the business of truth. Rabbis have to be professional of course, but rabbis also have to be real. We are in the business of religious truths and the truth of life’s experiences, but we need to be truthful about ourselves as well.

And sometimes I get so wrapped up in being professional that I sweep some of my personal truths under the rug. While I definitely shouldn’t show up here in yoga pants, I also shouldn’t be someone who pretends that she wouldn’t much rather be in them most of the time.

Yom Kippur is a day when we bare our souls. We traditionally strip ourselves of vanities – makeup, jewelry, expensive clothing. We wear white to remind ourselves that at the end of our lives it is only the white-shroud we will take with us to our graves. None of the surface things really matter. None of the material wealth. None of the professional masks and airs.

I am not a rabbi on Yom Kippur. I am a person, standing before her God, baring her soul, and hoping to escape judgement. Not your judgement, but God’s.

And really, Yom Kippur shouldn’t be the only day where I prioritize truth over professionalism. I need to be more honest with all of you more of the time. I need to lead from a place of passion – my passions, not the ones I think I am expected to have.

So I wanted to share with you, on this Day of Judgement, on this Day of Truths, what I am most passionate about and why. But when I sat down to write this sermon, I discovered that sharing my passions with you is easier said than done. In generating a list of passions I might speak about, I ended up with a list of interests that left me wondering if it was list of what I really wanted to share, or a list of what I thought I should be sharing – which is case in point.

To talk about shopping and TV, both of which I love, but neither of which are true passions, would be relatable, but could also seem shallow. Talking about God, Torah and Israel would be meaningful but predictable.

So what’s a rabbi to do?

When I started my blog last year, I did so as part of this same struggle. The blog is called Pitbulls, Pearls & Pontification: (un)expected musings from one rabbinic gal. The “un” in “unexpected” is in brackets – a hint of the paradox – how to blog in a way that is both expected and unexpected; that is rabbinically meaningful and appropriate but also authentically me?

The first post on my blog was a poem. In the poem, I describe myself as someone who wears pearls as an outward expression of my rabbinic self and also as a way to hide some of the parts of me that I’m not confident about or that don’t feel “rabbinic” enough to share.

Too often, we suppress our true selves instead of revealing them. The motives to do so are endless: money, professionalism, peer-pressure, even a desire to please our families or be who they think we are.

My brother and I are in the stage of life right now where we sometimes have difficulty seeing each other as adults. I imagine this is something lots of siblings go through. We grow up together and witness every moment of each other’s childhood development and teen angst, but then we go off to our separate colleges and careers and we miss out on much of our siblings’ most critical growth and development. I sometimes suspect that my brother still looks at me and sees the 19 year old that I was when we last lived under the same roof. To be fair, I probably do the same. And of course, when we treat each other as teenagers, we end up acting like teenagers, reinforcing what the other imposes on us and brings out in us.

Rabbis fall prey to this dynamic with those outside their families as well. We sometimes feel an expectation to know everything so we make up great answers, and call them midrash, because we are afraid to admit that we might not know.

Speaking of Midrash! There’s a midrashic tale about a guy named Zusya, who spends his whole life trying to be a great tzadik, a great righteous person. He worries that when he arrives at the Gates of Heaven they will ask him, “Zusya! Why were you not more like Moses?” But when he gets there, that’s not what they ask him. Instead, they proclaim, “Why were you not more like Zusya?!?”

Midrash actually is one of my passions: The idea that Torah leaves space for us to insert our own ideas and interpretations; The idea that even Torah doesn’t have all the answers; that some ideas are yet to be revealed; that some thoughts are yet to be “thunk”. The idea that ancient texts and new interpretations can live side by side and bring meaning to one another. Amazing.

But Midrash didn’t make it onto my original list of passions to share with you. I was worried it might sound too ‘rabbinic’. I was worried I might end up with a list of passions that were inseparable from Judaism. Except that that’s who I am. There isn’t much that I love that I don’t view through a Jewish lens. And the fact that I can view everything that I love through a Jewish lens is part of what makes Judaism one of my passions in and of itself.

I do love to shop and I do love to watch TV but my real passions come out when I start to talk about being an ethical consumer – about infusing my day-to-day life with my Jewish values. Shopping and TV are actually the things that I hate to love. They can bring out both the best and worst in us. They make us care more than we should about what others think of us, and about what society tells us we need to wear and own. But they also challenge us to be our best selves; to balance pleasure and indulgence with  fiscal responsibility;to make choices about what and where we buy that are in line with the values we espouse.

Being an ethical consumer means trying to balance commerce and conscience; entertainment and ethics. It means choosing products that aren’t harmful to the environment, and programs that aren’t overly voyeuristic, and that don’t promote or exploit the worst of humanity and human relationships.

It’s hard for me to separate my passion for ethical consumerism and for other kinds of social justice from my passion for Judaism and Jewish teachings. You could definitely say that I have an overdeveloped sense of justice though.
I find unfairness to be really intolerable, I think inequality of any kind is outdated, I get angry when people don’t follow the rules, and when I experience rudeness, it makes me cry.

This makes me terribly ill-suited to drive in Massachusetts, but it does make me pretty well-suited for the rabbinate.

And I don’t know whether I am inherently concerned about others, and about the planet, and about justice and equality, or if I internalized those values because I grew up in a Jewish home and community that promoted them. I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, and I don’t know that it matters. Either way, my passion for social justice has become deeply rooted in my Jewishness, in the values of Torah, and in the fierce rhetoric of the movement of Reform Judaism.

In an age of diminishing denominational affiliation within the Jewish world, it is becoming more and more rare to hear people express a passion for the Jewish denomination to which they belong. In fact, many Reform Jews, I suspect, don’t really know why they are Reform Jews, or what distinguishes Reform Judaism from other movements. Sadly, for many members of Reform Judaism, it was simply the easiest choice, or, even sadder, the one that required the least of them.

But being a Reform Jew was once something to be incredibly proud of, and I’d argue that it still is, when practiced with knowledge, commitment and intent. I, certainly, am very proud to be a Reform Jew because the Reform Movement has kept Judaism alive, vibrant, and relevant throughout the ages of modernism and post-modernity by enabling the Jewish people to introduce innovation while still preserving our traditions, to embrace diversity while still asserting commonality, and to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt. Reform Judaism balances faith and scholarship, encourages choice-through-knowledge, and prioritizes social justice and meaningful living above just about everything else.

The Reform Movement has played a critical role in American history and continues to be a key-player in any fight for human or civil rights in this country. In the Jewish world, we were the first to promote gender equality in Judaism; the first to allow women to read from the Torah, wear a Tallis, and become rabbis; the first to welcome and ordain members of the LGBTQ community; and to create welcoming environments and meaningful roles for members of our communities who are not Jewish but who are a part of Jewish families.

If it weren’t for Reform Judaism, I wouldn’t be able to be a rabbi; I wouldn’t have been able to question God when I needed to; and I wouldn’t be able to explore both religious and scientific explanations for why things are the way they are.

This is another place where my interests and my Judaism overlap – in the intersection of Judaism and science; spirituality and metaphysics. I delight in the spaces where tradition and academia come together; I love learning about what they have to say to one another and to see how they have informed one another throughout the ages. Judaism has been radically influenced by philosophy, reason, science, archeology, literary scholarship, musicology, technology, and just about any other human studies you can think of. I love to trace that evolution and to teach about it. And I love to wonder about how Judaism will be changed by what we discover and create in the future.

I am a big believer in the power of energy and I believe that our energy lives on after our physical bodies die (we call this energy our soul). I also believe that our soul-energy can be felt and experienced by those still living in the physical world.
I believe that we stay connected to the people we care about even after we die, and I believe that we are reunited with the soul-energy of people we love when our soul-energy is all that is left of us.

I believe there is a lot we don’t yet understand about energy, from a scientific standpoint, but religions, including Judaism, have had a lot to say about energy for millennia, and I am excited to see whether science will catch up to religion or whether religion will have to adapt to or incorporate whatever science ultimately reveals. I am excited when I think about learning and teaching these things as they unfold; about being a rabbi in an age where timeless questions might conceivably find new or clearer answers, and where timeless answers might find new or clearer support.

My beliefs about energy and soul, and my questions about the metaphysical world, are rooted not just in thought but also in experience. Both the questions and the beliefs are deeply comforting to me. And they make me even more passionate about being a member of a faith tradition that allows for such questioning and beliefs.

And whether I became passionate about energy because my Jewish interests led me to explore ideas of the afterlife, or whether I fell deeper in love with Judaism because it enabled me to explore energy and the afterlife within the context and textual history of the religion I was already committed to, matters far less than what I plan to do with that passion now that I have it.

And what I plan to do, is to share it. More often than I’ve been doing. More openly than I’ve been doing. More fearlessly than I’ve been doing.

I’m excited about that. I hope you’re excited about it too.

I also want to get better at sharing my passions for music, God, and prayer. I could speak about each of these individually, but for me they are very much inseparable. I couldn’t say exactly which of them first led me to the others but I love God best through prayer and I pray best through music.

Prayer connects us to community, and connects our energy to the energy of others and the energy that connects us all. It connects us to those that came before us. Prayer can be the gateway to exploring Jewish Thought, the Hebrew language, and our sacred texts.

I believe there is power in prayer. I believe that by allowing us to express our hopes and fears, and to ask the hard questions of God and of ourselves, prayer enables us to find the answers we are seeking, and empowers us to take up the actions we are awaiting. And I also believe that the energy we put into prayer makes a difference in ways we don’t yet understand,

Different people pray best in different ways. Some pray best with others, and some on their own; some pray best in the woods, by the sea, under the stars, or in the desert. I can pray just about anywhere, but I love prayer best when I’m singing and when I’m moving – when every muscle and breath is engaged; when the harmonies that surround me and the swaying of my own body carry me away so that I am momentarily outside of myself and connected to something much bigger.

Prayer can transport us, transform us and inspire us. So can music, which is probably why I often see them as one and the same, and why I am so passionate about both.

But these are just some of my passions. I am also fiercely passionate about family,  friends, animals, Canada,  Israel… I hope to share more about all of these passions with you in the coming years – not because I love talking about myself, but because I am hoping to stir your passions as well.

There is a famous, and somewhat awkward story from Talmud, in which Rav Kahana hides under his teacher’s bed and listens as Rav Shemaya, his teacher, talks to his wife and is intimate with her. When the teacher discovers Rav Kahana’s presence, he is understandably angry, and demands that Rav Kahana leave. Rav Kahana refuses, and declares that “this too is Torah”.

There are parts of my life that would not be appropriate to share with you; doing so would be unprofessional. But Rav Kahana’s point is that we learn from how our teachers live their lives, just as we learn from the texts with which they present us. Just as in the Yiddish song where when the Rebbe dances, the Chassidim dance, and when the Rebbe drinks, the Chassidim drink, and when the Rebbe laughs, the Chassidim laugh – I hope that by sharing my passions with you I have inspired you to reconnect with the things you are passionate about, and encouraged you to bring your passions out into the open, if you’re not already doing so, for others to see and be inspired by. And I hope you will share them with me as well.

This is the Day of Judgement, the Day of Truth. We cannot be truthful with God if we are not truthful with ourselves; if we do not know what things drive us and motivate us; if we do not act on our passions and share them with others in ways that elevate our relationships and help us to really know, authentically, one another.

As we pass through the Gates of Judgement this day, may we do so with a renewed commitment to live a life of passion; a life of meaning; and a life of truth.

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

The Difference Between Knowing And Doing

There is a difference between knowing and doing.

We all know what is right, more or less. And by now we all, hopefully, have a general sense of what the Torah tells us to do. We know about Jewish values and mitzvot. We know we are supposed to feed the hungry, and care for those who have no one else to care for them. We know we are supposed to give tzedakah, take care of the environment, be kind to others, and watch out for our fellow man.

But there’s a difference between knowing and doing. And I’ll be the first to say that I don’t always do what I know I should.

As a child, I sometimes begrudged the surrender of my quarters to the family tzedakah box and the one at Religious School. When I learned that Jewish tradition teaches us that it is better to willingly give less than it is to give more but to do so grudgingly, I worked to overcome my selfish hold on my quarters. But it was hard.

And it was even harder in college and rabbinical school, when money was tight and I struggled to make ends meet. During those years,giving really was a sacrifice – one that even caused me to feel angry because if I gave to another, my own plate, quite literally, would be less full.

I tried to calculate the percentage that Jewish tradition sets – no less than 10% and no more than 20% of our income is required for tzedakah – and I tried to take to heart the teachings that even a person who is receiving tzedakah must set aside a portion of what little they have to give to others, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t still feel resentful about it sometimes, or that I gave as often as I should have, or that I didn’t wonder what difference it would make – my meager 10% in a world full of need.

The truth is that I don’t think I really felt good about giving tzedakah until the money I was turning over was money I had earned on my own – not through a token allowance, or through scholarships or generous parents – but through hard work and sacrifice. Only then could I truly feel a sense of gratitude for what I had and a responsibility to take care of those who had less.

Time is another thing that I have struggled with giving. None of us has enough time anymore. And I could sermonize about the society that makes us work ourselves to death; about the culture of over-committed parents and kids; about how much time we spend at our desks compared to how much time we spend with the people that we love, but I’m not here to reprimand you for what I suspect you already feel badly enough about. I’m here to say that I share your struggles; that I feel badly about it too; that I am also over-committed and over-extended; that I also don’t spend enough time with the people I love.

When I became a rabbi, with luxuries I didn’t have as a student, I again felt a sense of gratitude for my improved situation and I made a commitment to volunteer once a week in a local organization, something I never had time to do while in school, and had always felt guilty about. I volunteer on my day off even though it would be easy enough to volunteer during work hours and justify it by saying that rabbis are expected to volunteer in the community, but I felt that would lessen the selflessness of my deeds and rob me of the sense of sacrifice that I believe goes hand in hand with the sense of fulfillment we get when we truly and completely give of ourselves.

And there are definitely weeks where I need that time for other things: for laundry and errands, for catching up on much needed rest, for cleaning my apartment, for socializing with friends…But when I’m not giving of my time, I feel like I’m not being the best rabbi I can be or the best Jew I can be or, maybe most importantly, the best person I can be.

And still, I often feel I am not doing enough. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when we compare ourselves to others. I am sure that many of you, like me, have friends and colleagues who seem to find endless amounts of time to engage in tikkun olam – acts of repairing the world. They go to Washington DC and rally for important causes; they run marathons; they canvas on behalf of political candidates; they go to Africa with NGO’s and build bathrooms and dig wells. . .

Comparing ourselves to others in this way – feeling guilty about what we can’t do – eats away at our moral conscience; the weight of wanting to do everything we can to make the world a better place while at the same time, knowing that we only have so much time, so much money, so much energy to give.

How do we know if we are doing enough?
How do we know when we have done enough?

Jewish tradition teaches us, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hivatel mimena – “You are not responsible for completing the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.” No one is fully responsible and no one is exempt.

This year, when I participated in the Shave for the Brave there were many different reactions to my commitment to shave my head, but I was surprised by how often people said to me, “I could never do that!”

Each time I would think, “Hmmm….well…maybe there’s something else you can do.”

After all, there are lots of different ways to do good.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr did not shave her head this past spring, but she did spend countless hours of her time to organize and encourage the rest of us. She was the brainchild of the 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave Campaign and she worked much harder than any of us to make a grieving mother’s dream a reality (or at least, the dream we had control over).

After The Shave, Rebecca blogged about people who “mitzvah-shamed” her for not shaving her own head. Mitzvah-shaming, she explained, “is the act of making someone feel inadequate, guilty, or inferior…for not observing the same mitzvah as the rest of the group.” When we Mitzvah-shame, we fail to recognize that even the smallest act makes a difference, and that different kinds of actions may have different degrees of meaning for different people.

There are so many different ways to be involved in helping others. There are different ways to save people; different ways to give to people; different ways to get involved and support other’s efforts to do good in the world.

We Jews often translate the word “Tzedakah” as charity, meaning donated money, but tzedakah is really any act of righteousness, not just donating funds.There is no end to the ways in which Jewish tradition encourages us to help one another and to take care of the world around us. We are commanded to give of our financial resources to be sure, but we are also commanded to give of our hearts.

But when I think back to the guilt I felt as a struggling student who’s 10% was so very meager; when I think back to the invective to give even if you are dependent on receiving from others, I can’t help but wonder if our own tradition doesn’t Mitzvah-Shame us just a little bit.

Then again, if Torah didn’t obligate us to give no matter the direness of our own circumstances, would we give even when we could afford to? Give, not because the value is instilled in us by generations of Jewish teachings and traditions passed down and held dear, but because we are inherently generous? I like to believe in the inherent good of people but history and sociology and sometimes even my own experiences tell me that complete faith in the good of humanity is naive. Torah strives, time and again, to curb our baser instincts; to redirect our human faults. When we are struggling to survive, our instinct is not to give generously, but to cling to what we have. That’s why it’s so moving when one person gives their last bite of bread to another; that’s when we find ourselves asking, would I do that in their place? Would I be able to be that selfless?

On the other hand, Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot despair of humanity, for we ourselves are human beings.”

Jewish tradition says it too, B’makom shein anashim hishtadel lihiyot ish, “In a place where no one is acting human, strive to be humane.”

Many of us might not think we are strong enough to give away our last bite of bread, and we feel ashamed of that, and our shame holds us back from contemplating what else we might be able to.

We don’t all have to be marathon runners and head shavers. The little sacrifices matter too. I have faith in humanity because I have heard so many wonderful stories of people helping one another, and because I have been ashamed of my own inaction, and I have turned that shame into action, and I believe that others can do the same.

I am so inspired by the people in this community who give of themselves in so many different ways. I recently asked the members of our TBD Facebook group to share stories with me of how they are making a difference in the world. There’s not enough time to share each story this morning, nor would it be fair to all of those whose stories I don’t know about, but I hope you will share your stories and achievements with one another over the days and months ahead, because when we hear about what other people are doing, we are often more motivated to do something ourselves. I almost talked myself out of doing the Shave for the Brave. I could never do that, I said to myself. But then my friend Marci signed up and I knew that if she could do it, I could do it too.

On Rosh Hashanah, we contemplate how we can be better people in the year to come. How we can be less begrudging with the dollars we donate or with the time we are asked to give to our communities. One of my classmates and colleagues, Rabbi Joel Simons, recently wrote the following words: “Through the High Holy Days we ask that God write us in the book of life. And as we conclude Yom Kippur we transition from asking God to write us in the book of life to asking God to seal us in the book of life…(But) what is a life worth writing? What is a life worth sealing?  We cannot simply ask God to write and seal us in the book of life; we must commit to God a life worth living…and a life worth sealing.”

What actions will we take immediately after exiting the sanctuary on these most sacred of days? Hopefully, we will not be shoving others out of the way to get to the Break-Fast table! “Will we guide ourselves and others to a life worth living?” Rabbi Simons asks, “or will we go through the motions of another year and find ourselves in the same place one year later? No better, no worse, just the status quo?”

This year, we’re giving you an easy and immediate opportunity to exit services on Yom Kippur and start the year off right with a simple act. On Yom Kippur, we will be holding a bone marrow drive with Gift of life, one of the nation’s public bone marrow registries helping children and adults find donors for bone marrow transplants.

Gift of Life has been able to match over 10,000 individuals and facilitated nearly 2500 transplants. And you could be one of those registered donors; one of those who saves a life.

Believe it or not, registering is quick and painless. On Yom Kippur, between morning and afternoon services, we will have a Gift of Life station here at TBD. There, you’ll find volunteers, led by Eileen Harvey, who will ask you to fill out some paperwork, and take a swab of your cheek with a large q-tip. No needles. No blood. Ten-minutes of your time for the opportunity to save a life.

The Talmud teaches: if you save a single life, it is as if you saved the entire world. Each life is a world of its own, and we have an obligation to protect and secure that life. I registered with Gift of Life earlier this year. I hope you will join me in helping to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving lives.

Only those between the ages of 18-60 are eligible to register but there are other ways to participate – you can help volunteer, or simply spread the word. Your neighbors and friends who are age-eligible to register are welcome to come between services, so please invite them to participate. They do not need to be members of TBD or have High Holiday tickets. Jewish tradition suspends its regular rules for the purpose of saving a life, and so will we.

And of course, if you choose not to participate – if for some reason you feel that you just can’t – then not to worry, no one here will Mitzvah-Shame you. We only ask that you find something else that you CAN do. On Yom Kippur we are giving you the opportunity to start off right but the next 353 days of the Jewish year are up to you.

I know it’s not as easy as I make it sound,and that not all opportunities to give of yourselves are as easy and as a quick and painless cheek-swab, but I think that Jewish tradition isn’t trying to Mitzvah-shame us, even if that’s sometimes how it feels. I think Jewish tradition is trying to say to us that we have to overcome the challenges of giving – the financial challenges, the time-commitment challenges – and give anyway.

I know we are all stretched too far and too thin. But I also know that kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, each member of the Jewish people, and each member of the human race, is responsible for one another. And I know that if we don’t take care of our world no one else will.

I know that I am asking you to make your life a little harder so that someone else’s life can be a little easier; to give of yourself to someone else, even if it’s not easy or inexpensive or convenient.

There is a difference between knowing and doing.

Know that it is hard. And then do it anyway.

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

The Case For Liberal Zionism: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

This summer was a challenging one for the Jewish people.

Israel, once again under attack. Another war; another round of us vs. them. Another deep sigh as we try to figure out what it all means; what we think and feel and believe; what we can realistically hope for.

Another frustrating round of media coverage and finger pointing, of hatred and labels: Anti-Israel, Anti-Palestinian, Antisemite. . . And so much death. No words can adequately express the tragedy of it all.

It feels endless and hopeless. It is sad and painful. It evokes questions we have difficulty answering.

Last month, I invited members of this community to join me in a dialogue about this summer’s war in Gaza; to bring their questions and thoughts to share.

One of the outcomes of that conversation, was a reminder of how important it is to be informed about Israel – to know what the issues are and how you feel about them – not only during times of crisis, but more importantly in some ways, during times of relative peace. So that when the conflict flares up again, we’re not caught off-guard – scrambling to catch up, overwhelmed by the media and social-media onslaught; trying to figure out what channel to watch, what print and online newspapers to read, who to believe, and to whom we should direct our financial support.

It’s so important to know where you stand in relation to Israel.

I am proud that during this critical summer we sent members of our own temple community to Israel along with family and friends from our local Church communities, to explore their own relationship to the country where both Jews and Christians feel deeply connected. During a time when others were criticizing Israel, we were affirming our support, and during a year where the UCC is contemplating boycotting Israel, this shared support is more important than ever.

And it’s not always easy to support Israel, even if you’ve been there. The challenges are varied and complex. They tug at our heartstrings; they touch deep, primal and tribal parts of us that maybe we didn’t even know we had; they put our values in tension with our loyalties.

And yet, it is important to have a clear statement of relationship; a place from which to begin; a point to which we can always return.

If there’s one thing I know for certain when it comes to where I stand in relation to Israel, it is this: I love Israel.

Let me say it another way: I am a lover of Zion – or, how’s this? – I am a Zionist.

ZIONISM.

When I say it, do you cringe? Are you wary? Curious? Could you confidently explain what it means?

The term Zionism was coined in 1890, a relatively new idea for a people dating back over two millennium. In general, it can be explained as a movement for people who hoped that Jews would one day be able to return to the land of Israel, not just as residents, but as an autonomous, self-governing people.

In 1948 that dream was realized and since then, Zionism has also come to mean the movement for those who care about the development of the State of Israel and its ability to protect and defend itself.

If you Google Zionism and scroll past the definitions and credible information, you will also find a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation and hatred. Zionism has come to be used as a dirty word by those who seek to make Jews look bad by equating it with colonialism and racism.

But Zionism is neither of those things.

Colonialism has been understood to mean, “living by exploiting others,” but the Zionist pioneers were idealists; city-dwelling Jews who strove to become farmers and laborers and live by the work of their own hands.

And as for Zionism being racist – an idea first promoted In 1975, when the UN adopted a resolution equating Zionism with racism – the accusation falls flat.

Racism is the belief that all members of a race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race. It includes prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against those of different races based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

Zionism, on the other hand, holds that Jews, like any other nation, are entitled to a homeland of their own. In other words, Zionist’s don’t claim entitlement to a homeland because they think Jews are superior to others, Zionist’s claim entitlement to a homeland because they believe that Jews are the SAME as others!

While Zionism recognizes that Jewishness is defined by shared origin, religion, culture and history, Zionism does not promote prejudice, discrimination or antagonism of those who are not Jewish, nor does it limit the definition of Jewishness to exclude particular visible ethnic or racial characteristics.

Fortunately, the UN’s equation of Zionism with racism has been reconsidered, and the General Assembly voted to repeal it in 1991.

But even after we’ve dispensed with the negative rhetoric, Zionism is no less easy to understand.

Although Zionism has been advocated by Jews of all kinds, from the political left, right and center, and from both religious and secular communities, disagreements in philosophy have led to rifts in the Zionist movement so that a number of separate forms of Zionism now exist including American, Christian, Messianic, Political, Practical, Religious, Revisionist, Socialist, Spiritual, Synthetic, Territorialist, and Liberal forms of Zionism (to name a few!).

Clearly, we don’t have time to define and discuss each of these this evening! But I do want to talk about Liberal Zionism with you, because I am a Liberal Zionist, and I want to share with you what that means to me and why I feel it is crucial to support liberal Zionist efforts.

If I can leave you with one summary of what it means to be a Zionist, it would be this one, put forth by Rabbi Josh Weinberg, who is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He recently wrote that being a Zionist, “means to work to improve Israeli society and hold Israel up to high standards, in addition to wanting Israel to reflect our values.”

To me, being a liberal Zionist means that I want to see my values – the values of democracy, equality, freedom and justice, values that I also identify as ones coming from Torah – reflected throughout Israeli law and society. It means that I see Israel as extended family, and, just like with my immediate family, I love them even when I don’t agree with everything that they do; and sometimes I show that by lovingly sharing my concerns about their actions or choices, by making suggestions for how they can improve themselves and/or their relationships, and by offering to support them as they endeavor to make those changes.

Sometimes the support that they need is financial, but there are other ways to support family as well, and Israel, just like family, needs us to do more than just throw money at the problem.

We often feel powerless when faced with Israel’s myriad conflicts. Israel’s relationship with it’s neighbors is overwhelming enough, never mind all the societal concerns – the ethnic racism; the religious and gender inequalities. But how can we do that when we don’t live there when we can’t vote for the politicians and policies that might affect change?

Believe it or not, we can.

We can influence policy in Israel, and not just through our finances, although that, in and of itself, actually gives American Jews more pull than you might think, when it comes to political advocacy.

Many of you may not realize it, but there is a system in which YOU can vote, that directly influences political and social change in Israel.

That system is the World Zionist Organization. Often called the “Parliament of the Jewish people,” the WZO was convened in 1897 by Theodore Herzl, “the father of modern political Zionism.” At it’s inception the goal of the WZO was to unite the Jewish people and to bring about the establishment of the Jewish state. Today, it continues to try to unite the Jewish people and to support the now-established State of Israel.

The WZO is a global organization. International political parties, representing different groups of Jews around the world, compete in elections every five years to determine their number of delegates within the WZO. In addition, Jewish organizations like Hadassah and B’nai Brith have fixed representation, and Israel’s political parties are represented based on the number of seats they have in the Israeli government.

Reform Jews are represented in the WZO by the international party called Arzenu, which means “Our Land”. Arzenu’s mission is, “to imbue all Reform Jews with a common vision of Jewish peoplehood” and, “to see…Israel as the Jewish, democratic state inspired by Reform (and) Progressive values.” For liberal Zionists like me, voting for Arzeinu is the best way to ensure that those who share our values have a seat at the table where pressing matters about Israel are discussed, and have the ability to influence the decisions made there, which directly impact Israeli policy.

Why is this important? Here’s an example:

On behalf of the Reform Movement in Israel, Arzenu uses its position in the WZO to impact budget allocations in Israel with an eye to equality for all Jewish streams. This has led to the Reform movement in Israel receiving more federal & charitable funds than ever before, although they are certainly a long way from getting funded on par with the Orthodox communities.

Arzenu’s influence in the WZO is also important because it has established a Joint Faction with some of the important Israeli political parties. This Joint Faction allows them to influence the Israeli government and society with Reform Jewish values as a guide.

At the Zionist General Council meetings held in 2013, the Joint Faction was able to pass three resolutions, one of which called on the Israeli government to implement the establishment of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

These resolutions were an important step in the creation, finally, of a state-sanctioned and funded section of the Western Wall where men and women can pray together, and where women can legally wear talitot and read from the Torah.

This summer, I stood in that place with a talis on my shoulders, with both men and women from our TBD community, and I wept with joy. It was the first time I truly felt at home in that most sacred place, the first time I felt that Israel, my homeland, validated and supported my religious choices instead of those who would prefer to sublimate them.

If Arzenu loses the ability to influence Israeli policy-makers then that amazing place might not exist next time you or I go to Israel, and all the progress made in the past year or so to gain religious and gender equality in Israel could easily be reversed.

This summer, the need for active and articulate liberal Zionists was clearer than ever. In response to the Gaza War, Rabbi Weinberg, who speaks on behalf of liberal Zionism in America, wrote the following words: “As a liberal Zionist, I take pride in the fact that we openly express sympathy for the loss of Palestinian life in Gaza, question the necessity of ground incursions and targeted strikes, and actively support Israel’s ongoing – but lesser known – humanitarian aid to the Palestinians…I take pride in the notion that we do not turn our back on Israel, even though we may be at times critical. We do not view our connection to or support for the Jewish State as conditional.” Rabbi Weinberg called on the Israeli government to look towards diplomatic steps toward lasting peace, to look to the international community, including the Arab states, as partners in the pursuit of peace, and in the rebuilding of Gaza.

Reading his words, and his call to action, I was proud to be a liberal Zionist, and grateful to have my values so clearly articulated for the public and the politicians to hear, in both Israel and North America.

If Rabbi Weinberg’s sentiments strike a chord in you as well; if you agree with all or even most of his points; if you found yourself nodding along or feeling relieved that someone was voicing your perspective, then you may be a Liberal Zionist.

Arzenu’s website states, “If you care about the Reform Movement in Israel, if you support egalitarian prayer, if you believe in freedom of religion, the right of Reform rabbis to conduct marriage, divorce, burial and conversion, if you believe that women should have equal status…” (then you are a Liberal Zionist).

And if you are, you may want to consider voting in the next WZO election, so that your voice can continue to be heard.

Often, we end discussions about Israel with the question, “What can we do?”; How can we ensure that Israel is a place that reflects not just our history and heritage but our values as well?

This is one answer.

If you’d like to know more about participating in the WZO elections then please refer to the postcards that were on your seats when you entered the room this evening. You can also find them in our lobby after services.

Our Sages taught, kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, each member of the Jewish people is responsible for the other.  After a summer like the one we just had; after far too many years of racial and religious inequality in the country we call home, we can no longer afford to be silent.

I am a Zionist.
I am a lover of Israel.

If you love Israel too, and you want to have a say in how the Jewish Homeland conducts itself, this is how you do it.

May we no longer sit idly by.

May we live to see a day when Israel is a true reflection of our values and of the values of Torah.

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