Friday, February 17, 2017

Parashat Yitro: It is enough

This past Wednesday I was having coffee with a friend and colleague, and we were talking about how insanely busy we are, especially right now with all that is going on in the world. And he said to me something that resonated; he said that he felt that what he was doing wasn’t enough. No matter how many calls he made or marches he went to or anything else he did, it didn’t feel like it was enough.

Well, “It me” as the kids say.

And it all of us too. Because I think one of the hallmarks of this moment in history is that it doesn’t matter what we do, it doesn’t quite feel like enough. That our individual efforts are too small. That no matter how much we may put our shoulder into whatever we’re doing, it isn’t making a difference.

And that’s as true in our personal lives as in our tzedakah lives. Perhaps it’s even more true there. Did I spend enough time with my family? Did I make a difference to the people around me? Am I making a difference in my life? I think many of us wrestle with these questions even as we find ourselves busier and busier with our obligations.

 In Exodus 18, Jethro watches his son-in-law Moses adjudicating before Israel all day long.
One man fixing the world's problems. All day long.
Baffled, he asks Moses what he's doing and he gets a bunch of superhero talk: only I can do it. They people need me. You know the drill.

And what does Jethro say?
ויאמר חתן משה אליו לא־טוב הדבר אשר אתה עשה׃
"And Moses’ father-in-law said to him, The thing that you do is not good.
נבל תבל גם־אתה גם־העם הזה אשר עמך כי־כבד ממך הדבר לא־תוכל עשהו לבדך׃
"You will certainly wear away, both you, and this people who are with you; for this thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it yourself alone."
So what?
That’s us. We’re Moses. We’re taking the world on our shoulders, feeling like no one else can do it, feeling like we alone are responsible, feeling like we have to keep ourselves going all day long.

And you know what? It's not good.
It's exhausting. For all of us.
And the Torah knew there would be moments like this, moments when we feel like Moses. So the text sends us Jethro to say:

You’re doing enough. And you don’t have to do it alone.
To say: remember your family, your friends, and your community.
To say: remember to pray, to sing, to breathe. To let others share the load; to trust others.
To say: go to shul. Call a friend you haven't talked to in a while. Break bread with some folks you like.
Jethro reminds us that Torah is not lived or fulfilled by one person, but by all of us.
All of us. Together. And that is good. May it be so for all of us. Amen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

(Reform) Judaism: Politics or Values?

Last week I read this article from the JTA on how my movement--the Reform Movement--was responding to the many challenges of our time, including the challenges that have emerged for progressives from the most recent election. The article discusses the arrest of 19 rabbis as part of the Truah (formerly Rabbis For Human Rights-North America) conference, many of whom are Reform, and the joint statement and actions by the four major synagogual movements regarding refugees. One part struck me specifically, the challenge of addressing Jews who affiliate with the movement but may not share its articulated values. In particular, the article quotes Max Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who says

“The politics that the Reform movement engages in is disenfranchising a significant part of their own congregation,” Brooks said. “It is creating a false choice no one should have to make between their political views and their spiritual views.”
I've heard  similar statements from congregants, colleagues and friends who feel that the movement has become too political, or that it cannot define itself except by political terms. Many of us, of course, have heard the old joke about Reform Judaism is that it's the Democratic National Committee with Rosh Hashanah thrown in. But some of the feedback I've gotten has been a lot more raw, a lot more insistent that any movement's politics and spiritual views ought to be separate and distinct somehow. 

As I see it, there are two different arguments getting entangled here:

1. As a conservative, will I be welcome in a Reform Congregation?

This is a pretty serious question, and one that has gotten increasingly challenging in our time. It is harder and harder to speak to our differences in a way that is safe and nurturing. There are a number of reasons for that; the rise of abuse online (gaslighting, doxxing, general bullying, etc.), the exhausting, abusive nature of the presidential campaign and even the last several years. Smarter people than me have explored this pretty thoroughly, but it has translated into a near complete inability to hear the other side. As houses of worship, places of prayer and yes, sanctuary, this has to stop. If we take the text kol yisrael aravim ze ba ze, that all Israel is responsible for one another, that means taking each others' sacredness seriously.

2. Are Reform Judaism's values really spiritual or just politics? Or even worse, shallow spirituality?

I've heard this critique leveled at liberal religion for some time. And there are elements of truth to this (for example, a tendency to rely on the same prooftexts over and over again. Or worse, looking for prooftexts instead of allowing the text to teach on its own merit). I think it is interesting, however, that no one ever levels this critique on, say, the Catholic Church, or the Mormons. Somehow, their opposition to abortion is a deeply held spiritual belief based on an understanding of scripture; my support for a woman's right to make choices over her own body are not, but mere politics. The reality is this: Reform Judaism, and especially American Reform Judaism, has been social progressive since its earliest days.  Whether you want to point to the rabbis who preached for the abolition of slavery (based on an understanding of the Bible), the prayers in the Union Prayer Book that celebrated the coal miner, the repeated hope for a messianic age that appears in every Platform put out by the movement, our believes are rooted in our understanding of Judaism. Because of the very nature of progressive values, these ideas are going to be controversial, they're going to make people uncomfortable (David Einhorn preached vociferously against slavery, and was run out on a rail from Baltimore as a result; Reform congregations in the south were firebombed on more than one occasion during the Civil Rights era). And, the movement may use political means (rallies, lobbying) to help realize those values. That doesn't make the movement political per se; we are still rooted in Torah. Our values till emerge from our understanding of text and tradition and history and what God calls upon us to do.

So where does that leave us? Well, I think it means a couple of things. One, that we need to make sure we are welcoming to every individual to the best of our ability. That we see the divine in each person and celebrate that spark of holiness. Two, it means that we need to be up front about our values as a movement and congregation. When a congregant asks me if I'm going to teach 'my opinions' to our religious school kids, I make it clear: I'm going to teach how Torah calls upon us to care for the stranger, to love our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to relieve suffering, to protect the vulnerable, and all the ways the text challenges us. Finally, we need to hold both of these in balance. We can do both; we can be uncompromising of our values as rabbis and congregations and also welcoming of different ideas and different people. That is part of our brit, our covenant, and we must live it. That doesn't mean it will be easy, or comfortable; quite the contrary, we may find ourselves challenged by our ancient texts or our fellow congregants. That's okay, as long as we remember that we still sing the shema with one voice, together.

Thomas Mann wrote that "in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms." Maybe so. As a rabbi and Reform Jew, I believe the challenge is to reshape the narrative and present the meanings of our shared destiny in religious terms, as it says in our prayerbook: l'taken olam b'malchut shaddai, to repair our world for God's sovereignty. May this be so.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Anniversary of Roe v Wade

Today is the 44th Anniversary of Roe V. Wade, BD I came across an image of a tombstone today. A plain marker, it read:

"Kate McCormick, Seduced and pregnant by her father's friend. Unwed, she died of abortion, her only choice. Abandoned by her family with but a single rose from her mother. Buried only through the kindness of an unknown benefactor. Died February 1875 age 21. Have mercy on us."

I shared these words as part of an interfaith anniversary service today, and I asked the question: were Kate alive today, could we say the world has changed? Has the stigma changed, or the shame?

Have mercy on us.

Friday, December 23, 2016

An American Chanukah

Last Thursday I’m sitting in my Rotary meeting, and the president is going through announcements as usual. It sounds just as entertaining as all that. At some point he mentions a charity project for Christmas and the person next to me (not Jewish) leans over and says “doesn’t that bother you?” What she meant was the question of representation; why did Christmas have to be the default. Why couldn’t he be more sensitive.

I shrugged; honestly, I kind of assume that Christmas is where people’s heads are at, even today in a world where you can buy a menorah at Target in Wilmington Delaware (or even Shreveport Louisiana) and Ryan Seacrest mentions Chanukah first in his broadcast. What I find funny, and I’ve shared this with friends, is that when you stop to think about it, Chanukah is as quintessential an American holiday as you’re going to get. Think about it: what do we celebrate? Freedom, especially religious freedom. Freedom won by insurgents fighting off foreign influences. And how do we celebrate that freedom? Through fried food, gambling and lighting things on fire. I mean really, what could be more American than that?

Of course, the most important aspect of Chanukah, at least for me, is the idea of publicizing the miracle. We’re not just supposed to light lights in the privacy of our homes; we’re supposed to put those lights out, in such a way that people can see them, in order to let people know that, in days gone by, our people won its liberty and restored what was lost. This is despite our history of having to hide our identities or feeling uncomfortable broadcasting our Jewishness for fear of bigotry or reprisal; we put the lights out and remind the world of the importance of freedom and justice and goodness.

If that is true for putting the lights in our windows, so must it be true in our own lives as well. As Jews we must be, in our own lives, lights to the world, reminding those around us this season and every season of our values; supporting the vulnerable when possible, lovingly rebuking inappropriate and hateful behavior when necessary, and speaking truth to power always. As with any good American, any good Jewish holiday, lighting lights and singing songs only works if we are reminded of our task--to be a light ourselves, to speak out for what is right, and do what is right.

Tomorrow night we light the lights, we celebrate freedom. Let’s do it publically, joyfully. And let’s let the lights remind us of our tasks as Jews and Americans, to be a light of freedom and justice to those around us. To remind those around us that these were not just miracles that happened in that time in this season, but that we may fulfill that miracle ourselves, in our own ways. Amen.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Parashat Vayetze: Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah!

So this past week I met Marisa at the new diner on Marsh Rd. There was a couple of women there with their kids, and the kids were being pretty terrible. Adorable. Sweet, but terrible. At one point one of the mom’s was letting her kid sit on the table itself. The waitress was clearly having a time of it. Now, what would you do? We could have sat in judgement, we could say something. When I got up to pay for our meal, I tipped our waiter, and then tipped the waitress of the kids table as well.  Was it the right thing to do? The best thing? No idea. But at least it was doing something to acknowledge that waitress.

When I was a teenager and I used to go to youth group events, my favorite song at song session was Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, by Andy Vogel. Like most kids reared on Debbie Friedman and Kol Beseder I learned my Pirkei Avot in the form of a song I could dance to with other nerdy Jewish kids like me. I never really thought about the lyrics—nobody did—we were too busy stamping our feet and injecting various “oh ohs” and the like. The words, of course, come from Pirkei Avot 4:2—One Mitzvah leads to another, while one sin leads to another, and when one acts justly it is very good.
It doesn’t get sung nearly as often these days—it’s thirty years old at this point—but I feel like we need to start singing it again. Or at least be reminded of the text: one mitzvah leads to another. Our kindness, our actions—no matter how small—matter. The way we treat each other matters. And we can choose to live in little bubbles insensitive to the needs of others, drawing up the drawbridge and hiding behind our own ramparts. Or we can choose in our everyday actions to acknowledge the needs of those around us.

We see that clearly in our Torah portion. Jacob has left Canaan, has dreamed his dream, and has come to Haran, whereupon he sees Rachel and sees the stone covering the well. It should say “there was a large stone on the mouth of the well” but that’s not the actual order of the text. It actually says “the stone was large on the mouth of the well.” The s’fat emet understands this as a metaphor: the stumbling block—our evil urge—may be everywhere, but it is heaviest and largest on the mouth of the well. What is the well? Our words, our mouths, our hearts, our intentions, our own actions, pick whichever one you want. The point is, once Jacob understands the situation, he by himself removes the stone from the well. He takes the action. Now, we know this is in part to impress Rachel, or at least inspired by Rachel, but so what? He does what is right in that moment. His actions improve the lot of the shepherds around him. His actions mattered.

Jacob’s actions matter and so do ours. When we chose to act with kindness, even if the action is small, it changes the life of that person. To do otherwise is to leave the stone upon the well, to allow ourselves to act selfishly, to allow people’s pain to persist. May we each find the strength to move that stone and live those words: then surely our lives will be just and it will be good. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Parashat Noach: Do the Right Thing

So I’ve spent the week probably the way most of you have; furiously updating 538 or the online poll of your choice, combing through the newspaper and otherwise low-key freaking out about the election. Hoo, boy. So as a bit of dark humor found while poking around I found a fun thing to put up on facebook, a little game called “how much is Trump your fault?” It’s one of those silly quizzes but asks questions relevant to Trump’s chances of winning the election. As I didn’t vote in the Republican Primary and am not Vladamir Putin, I am apparently completely innocent! Ha-ha. Ha. What good fun! Now, if only that made me feel better.

It doesn’t help that we read parashat Noach right before the election, a torah portion that contains not one, but two calamities, both familiar to us. The first is the flood of course, and the second the Tower of Babel. The flood is as apocalyptic a vision we can imagine; behind the cute images of a giraffe or elephant poking out of a boat, there is the reality of the entirety of the world being wiped out due to corruption and violence, with only Noah and his family surviving. Why Noah, because he is ish tzadik tamim b’dorotav: he is a righteous and blameless man for his generation. That’s what it says. But what does that mean? We tend to conflate the two, but they really are quite different, aren’t they? Often what appears to be righteousness is really blamelessness: we throw up our hands and say, “I didn’t have anything to do with that. I don’t know anything about it. It’s beyond my pay grade. Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It’s easy to claim righteousness when we can claim no to have no responsibility; we’re just bystanders, after all. And that might make us blameless, but it doesn’t make us righteous. Righteousness means, I think, that we can say, honestly, I’ve done everything I can to fix what’s wrong. I may not have direct ownership, but I still have a role to play by making it better. That is, after all, what our democracy is founded upon; the idea that all of us have a piece of the puzzle, and our obligation to one another and ourselves to put those pieces together. Call it the Common Weal. Call it Civic Responsibility. Call it Mitzvah, it doesn’t matter; as Abraham Joshua Heschel said: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.

So let me ask you: what are you doing to make the world around you better? How are you not only avoiding blame, but taking responsibility? I don’t just mean the election, by the way--because God knows, after the election, no matter who wins, the sense of profound brokenness, the sense that we are speaking totally different civic languages, that our speech is confounded just as it is in the story of the Tower of Babel, will still be with us. How are we helping our city, our children, our community? How are we helping refugees, the homeless, the hungry, the environment? This Tuesday I’m going to vote. I’m also going to get together with a bunch of confirmation class kids and help clean up Brandywine Park. I’m not telling you this to humblebrag, but to remind us that the work is not just to not do bad, it is also to do good. Or, as Rep. John Lewis just said this past week, “Ours is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year--it is the struggle of a lifetime. Be persistent & consistent.” Let us strive to be righteous, not just blameless.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Erev Yom Kippur: I Am Not God

Erev Yom Kippur 5777

Yehuda Amichai: The Children:

Every day the children run on the playground

They run on their little legs, which rotate the planet like a circus

They want to be acrobats and magicians

Every night the children thank us for having brought them into the world

With beautiful politeness, they take their gifts and with their small arms they

Cling to the future stubbornly, as they cling to their parents, and their toys.

Then they lie on their backs 
In order to paint beautiful skies
Like the ceilings of the synagogue...

I sit next to the children until they fall asleep

And I say seven times
As the closing prayer of Yom Kippur
“I am not God.”

Seven times
“I am not God.”

There is an account in the Talmud (Bavli Eirusin 13b):
For two-and-a-half years the house of Shammai and the house of Hillel argued. Shammai said:
Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. And Hillel said: 
Better for man to have been created that not to have been created. 
This is an extraordinary debate: would it be better for humanity to exist, or not to exist?
It is especially extraordinary for the times we are living in, as we anxiously raise the question, fundamentally: whose life matters? Does my life matter? Does anything matter?
In the end, they counted and decided: 
Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. Now that he has been created, he should examine his actions.
We spend so much of our lives trying to be God, trying to be in control: over our own lives, the lives and choices of others, the lives of our children, perhaps especially our children. And we curse and criticize those who struggle with their inability to be God over their own lives.

We try to pretend that we are in control.

But we are not God. And no matter how tempting it may be, we cannot be. We oughtn’t be.

We do this because we see the space between our is and our ought to be and we struggle with that space. We try to cover it up, to pretend it isn’t there, to make that space seem very small, because we are afraid that, should we expose it, should we let people see, if we exposed it, we would plummet into the chasm between what is and what should be.

We can’t be God. But that doesn’t mean we don’t matter. It doesn’t mean our choices don’t matter. Rather, we can choose to live our lives and examine our actions carefully. We can take that space, that wide space of our failings, and leave it open. We can keep ourselves open-hearted. We can say to each other, to our children: I am not God, I am not perfect. Nor am I merely accepting my failures either. I’m struggling, just as you are. And I accept your struggle, and hope you accept mine.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz, in his book Prayer, wrote: “appealing to God’s mercy and lovingkindness, we ourselves must believe in mercy and lovingkindness, otherwise, there is no ground left of us on which to stand…” And it’s true. We must believe in mercy and lovingkindness; for ourselves AND FOR OTHERS. Otherwise, what right do we have?

My friends, on this day of Atonement, let me say: you matter. Each and every one of you matters, deeply and profoundly.

Our choices matter, and our choices must be examined, sifted through carefully.

Our forgiveness matters.

Our ability to be open-hearted matters.

On this day of Atonement, I ask you to say, seven times, before the gates close:

I am not God
I am not in control: of my circumstances, of everyone around me
But I have choices, I have freedom.
And I matter
And my choices matter.  
And the people around me matter.
I am not God,

But I matter.