Friday, April 26, 2013

Emor, Choir Appreciation and The Power of Music

This week's sermon. Shabbat Shalom!

When I was a kid, I remember these most haunting images that would appear on the news, images I couldn’t understand as a child. They were women of all ages, with pictures pinned to their clothing, dancing alone in a public square. There was something very moving and very sad about the voice, and very powerful in ways I couldn’t possibly comprehend as a child.
This was, of course, the cueca sola, women whose husbands and sons  and fathers had been ‘disappeared’ by the regime of the dictator Augusto Pinochet. They took the national dance, a dance that Pinochet himself had co-opted,  and danced alone. As the musician Sting wrote in his song They Dance Alone:

Why are these women here dancing on their own? Why is there sadness in their eyes?
Why are the soldiers here, there faces fixed like stone; I can’t see what it is they despise.They’re dancing with the missing, they’re dancing with the dead. They’re dancing with the invisible ones, their anguish left unsaid.

That dance, to beautiful music, was as powerful a protest as any. And, arguably, the Cueca Sola did more to topple the regime and bring about free elections than any other form of protest.
The idea of protest music isn’t new, of course. Every revolution and movement has had its songs and anthems, but we as Jews have been especially keen on the idea. From Bob Dylan, Peter Yarrow and Leonard Cohen to the music of Rogers and Hammerstein in such shows as South Pacific, to Kol Nidrei, a protest song if there ever was one, to the Ramones and Scott Ian and Adam Yauch, we as a people have been attuned to the idea that music conveys a message beyond mere entertainment, and more powerfully than any blunt instrument. Music has the power to change and move the individual, to be transformative. We see it when kids go to camp and the songleader starts playing her guitar, or in our sanctuary when we join in Mi Shebeirach. Music can challenge, as unetaneh Tokeph does at the High Holy Days. Or Music can teach and explain—think of the English verses of most Jewish camping songs, translating the Hebrew. Or music can comfort, as the words of psalms so often do.

As Activist Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR recently put it: we should sing a song that reminds us of our vision and what we can do. When we are paralyzed and need to move forward, music becomes the push that unifies, that elevates, that sanctifies, that engages. And it is those who sing, those who make music, who move us forward as well. And everyone can make music. Each of us has a voice that brings the words of prayer—be they words of challenge or comfort—come alive! As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “A few can touch the magic string, and noisy fame is proud to win them: Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them!” Our choir reminds us that our voices are necessary, important messengers of holiness.

So, we say thank you to our choir, and invite you to join their ranks. And we say thank you to their leaders, our cantor, our music director. We thank them for the beauty of their instruments, to be sure, but especially for their leadership of us, their encouragement for all of us to join in song. Because only when we sing together can we transform one another; only when we sing together will we remember our vision of holiness, and remember what we are called to do. Amen.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Kedoshim: The Promises We Keep

Sorry for the Delay. Here's my sermon from this past week. 

Hoping to blog about the Consultation On Conscience before Shabbat!

If you want the ultimate image of disappointment, or if you decide you really need to feel like a failure, imagine a child or your spouse or someone you love looking at you with a hurt expression on their face and say, “but you promised.”  

When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think to myself, “I wonder if I’ll be a husband today?” “I wonder if I’ll be father today?” or even “I wonder if I’ll be a rabbi today?” Why? Because I promised. When I married Marisa, when Elishai came into this world, when I stood on the bimah of the Plum Street Temple, I swore an oath, I made a promise, one that changed my identity radically and permanently. I made a commitment to something larger than myself—marriage, fatherhood, the rabbinate.
Each of us has, in one way, shape or form, reaffirmed a promise made by our ancestors. We read this week, “Kedoshim Tihiyu”, you shall be holy. We assume it’s a mitzvah, a commandment, but really, it’s an affirmation by God of something we as a people had already said at Sinai. We said, “kol diber Adonai na’asei”, all that God has said, we will do. Only by making that commitment, that promise, was God able to proclaim our holiness. By affirming and reaffirming our connection to Judaism, we are making the same promise our ancestors made on that desert morning long ago.
Likewise, gathered in this room, are people—each of us—who has sworn an oath. We think joining a synagogue is like joining a country club, or a gym, but it’s not. It’s making a commitment to a community, to our family ,to our people. It’s swearing an oath, to support others in time of trouble, to celebrate with others in times of joy. To worship and study and gather and break bread with and party with and raise kids and grandkids with others. Because we promised. We made a covenant.

Sounds too simple, right? That’s not how our world works, right? To join a synagogue is a consumerist activity, we choose a synagogue by going ‘synagogue shopping’. We decide that our connection is tenuous: how often we’ve heard people say, “oh, I quit because my friends weren’t there anymore” , “we weren’t using it”, “our kids are grown.” But we are not consumers—we are CONGREGANTS. And congregants congregate. Because we promised.

Each of you, members of this congregation for 18 years or longer—a lifetime—understand what it means to make a commitment—not merely to a place, but to PEOPLE, not to an idea, but to GOD, not only your generation, but the generations that follow. People tell us it’s hard to get people to join synagogues, to retain membership, that it’s too threatening, too expensive, too much. Perhaps. But perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking—what is your promise worth? Because when you join a congregation, when you come into a community that embraces you with open, outstretched arms, you make a commitment for life. For yourself, for your family.
A Promise is sacred. It is through promise that we became holy, and become holy again. It is through your promises that we become sacred community. It is why we’re here, and why we’ll be here eighteen years from now, and eighteen years after that, and eighteen years after that. Because we promise. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Jew In The Box, And Why It's Not A Bad Thing


Here's my sermon from this past Friday on this controversial subject that's making the rounds.

I’m sure by now you’ve heard this week about the new exhibit at the Berlin Jewish museum. There, starting this past month, is a glass box, with a chair, in which a member of the Jewish community goes and sits for some set amount of time. The individual—young or old, male or female—is allowed to interact with the folks at the museum, answer questions about Judaism. The sign asks a question: “are there still Jews in Germany?” This is the “Jew in the Box” installment, as part of the exhibit "The Whole Truth, everything you wanted to know about Jews", and it raises some fundamental questions. 

Now, there have been living exhibitions in museums before, including Jewish exhibitions. I’m thinking specifically of the soferet—the female scribe—who wrote a Torah while ‘on display’ at a Jewish museum in California, to show the scribal art and have people ask questions about the process. But this display and its implications are different, and as the reaction to the exhibit has made clear, more challenging. For one thing, the fact that this is on display in Berlin, in Germany, who under Hitler wanted to establish a Jewish museum for entirely different purposes, and who’s Jewish population is down to nearly nothing—a mere 200,000 among 82 million souls—not merely due to immigration or demographics but murder, makes the whole thing seem ghoulish to many. "Why don't they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box," said one member of the Jewish leadership. "It's a horrible thing to do – completely degrading and not helpful," said another. 

And yet, as many of the volunteers have said, who among us has not felt like a museum piece, like a person on display? Who hasn’t had to answer questions, from the sublime to the ridiculous, acting as an impromptu expert on theology, history, the Holocaust, and a myriad of other topics? Right before Passover, Marisa was in the checkout line at Shoprite, and as she was ringing up her matzah and other Passover stuff, was asked by the cashier, “Is there some kind of holiday coming up?” and “Is this what Jesus ate?” The reality is, there’s a lot people don’t know about Jews and Judaism—the questions we get bely the questions we don’t get, the ones that are left unasked, and so, unanswered. The exhibit creates a ‘safe’ opportunity to ask questions that might not be asked in another setting. According to one article, one volunteer was asked about Shabbat, Judaism and homosexuality, and kippot. And if you caught the Good Morning America piece on Wednesday, another volunteer was asked by a teenager about the appropriateness of holocaust jokes (by the way: the answer was, yes they’re rude and no don’t tell them,  especially in Germany).  Now, you and I might think that should be self-evident, but spend enough time with teens and tweens, and you might instead be proud of the fact that the kid asked at all, and didn’t just let one rip in the cafeteria. 

So, was it a good idea? Should the museum have put on this exhibit? It makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Then again, aren’t museums—isn’t art—supposed to make us uncomfortable? To prick at us and poke at us? What makes us uncomfortable, I think, is not so much the exhibit itself. It’s that sense of threat that Jews, and perhaps all minorities, carry around with them. That we’re one step away from some unspeakable horror, or worse, extinction. That we may someday be museum pieces, putting on Passover Seders like Native Americans put on pow wows or Hawaiians luaus. But what makes us uncomfortable, I think, is that the museum exhibit is pointing out what we ought to be doing. No, not sitting in a glass box, but going out and speaking about our Judaism. There was a time that we thought Judaism was the religion of enlightenment, and many of us still think about our faith and its creed as having vital, important truths to share with the world, and a viewpoint that is more empowering, more compassionate and creative than others. It’s the other side of the coin, why we privately crow about Jewish Nobel laureates. We should be promoting our values outward toward the rest of the world—are we not called to be a light to the nations, a nation of priests and a holy people? But we get another question about Chanukah being Jewish Christmas or why so many Jews vote for Democrats and we shrink instead. 

Our torah portion reflects this as well. Aaron lifts his hands up toward the people to bless them, steps down and goes into the tent of meeting with Moses, whereupon both come out and bless the people. Like Aaron, we step forward to share our blessing, our people’s blessing, with those beyond our four walls, but then we stop, and retreat to safety. What would it mean for us to be like Moses and Aaron together, proudly standing before the people, sharing the blessing? For we read, it was at that point that the divine Presence appeared. So the question takes on cosmic ramifications: do we, in our hesitance to ‘out’ ourselves, or answer questions, or engage in dialogue, in advocacy, with others, are we denying ourselves and the world the presence of God? 

In his book Nothing Sacred, Douglas Rushkoff writes, “maintaining the free, open and intelligent conversation that expresses Judaism at any given moment isn’t easy. Still, more than any particular tenet or practice, this evolving conversation—and the right of every human being to participate in it—is the defining characteristic of this tradition.” So, the next time you feel like you’re the “Jew in the box,” the museum piece, remember—museums are meant to educate, and exhibits are meant to challenge. We carry a privilege and a responsibility, we nation of priests. Let’s live up to it.