Friday, March 29, 2013

Isaac Mayer Wise and Me

My sermon for tonight, my BIRTHDAY! :)

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Isaac Mayer Wise and Me
 Today, this Shabbat, we commemorate the birthday of someone very special. A red-headed and red-bearded rabbi, a scholar, a prince of the Movement who is inarguably one of the most important Reform rabbis—nay, one of the most important rabbis, period, of North America. Amazingly, I’m not speaking about myself (though today is my birthday), but rather Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Reform movement we take for granted, who was born this date in 1819. Wise was a great publisher of scholarly texts, a Jewish paper, the American Israelite, still published today, and founded the Hebrew Union College, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. While one could argue that there might have been Reform without Wise, it would not have been the Movement we know and love today.

If Wise could see today, what would he think of his Reform Judaism, or of the Jewish world in general? There are some things that would surely delight him. An advocate of Youth Engagement, who did away with the Bar Mitzvah and replaced it with Confirmation, and started Hebrew Union College originally as a high school and college program, he would be thrilled to see the myriad camps and youth groups, the energy put into reviving Jewish education and making it meaningful for a new generation. He would love Social Media: without a doubt, Wise would be tweeting away his thoughts to his public, blogging rather than publishing a newspaper. He would appreciate this prayerbook—his own siddur, Minhag America, is actually not so different, with Hebrew and English options, running commentary, and the option of making the service more or less traditional. And as someone who was politically active, and believed firmly that Judaism would be the religion of all enlightened folk, he would be proud of the fact that so many of our values are a part of the warp and woof of our society, proud of the work of the Religious Action Center, American Jewish World Service and the host of other Jewish organizations advocating for human dignity and freedom in America and abroad. And, likewise, we should take some measure of pride at our place in history. While, without a doubt we wring our hands over population surveys and demographic studies, as the Economist pointed out this past summer, never in Jewish history has there been so much vitality or creativity in our people—in social justice, in music, the arts, scholarship, worship, education, Israel and international engagement, the contemporary Jew has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to involvement, with a myriad of choices and opportunities to enrich and enliven his or her Judaism, should he or she choose.

 Yet, there are some things that would give him pause, and not the ones you might imagine. While he would be proud of the growth of his institutions—the scholarship of the College, the number of synagogues and individuals who call themselves Reform, the diversity and creativity of the Movement’s membership—he would still be disappointed. For Wise wasn’t interested in creating a Reform Movement, a separate stream of Judaism. Wise wanted to reform Judaism, to create an American Judaism that responded to the exigencies of modern reality, that was welcoming and embracing, moderate and pragmatic, democratic in nature that spoke to all Jews in the New World. There is a reason his congregational organization was called the “Union of AMERICAN HEBREW Congregations”; when we changed our name, we gave up hope on Wise’s vision, that there could ever be a unified American Judaism. And yet, we find again and again that Reform is on the right side of history—with egalitarianism, interfaith engagement, social action, Human and Civil Rights, LGBT issues, we find the other Jewish movements playing catch-up to us. And even as we “become more traditional” (or, as my teacher Shelly Zimmerman put it, “become more playful with tradition”, it is in the way Wise would have wanted, in a fully American fashion. Whether it is the wearing of ritual garb, the increase in Hebrew in our liturgy, use of music, or more recently the exploration of Jewish sacred eating, including kashrut, the Reform movement explores the issues through thoughtfulness, an invitation for self-exploration, a deepening of personal meaning, pragmatism, and finally, adopts the practice in a fully modern expression. While there has never been one American Judaism, we can take pride in knowing that ours is, perhaps, the most American expression of our faith—one that cedes ultimate authority, besides the Almighty, to the individual alone.

In 1876 in his book The Cosmic God, Wise wrote: “I opened the Bible [and] read: ‘Unless thy law had been my delight, I should long since have been lost in my affliction’. It struck me forcibly. ‘There is the proper remedy for all afflictions.’ When those ancient Hebrews spoke of the law of God, they meant the whole of it revealed in God's words and works…Research, science, philosophy, deep and perplexing, problems most intricate and propositions most complicated…” In a world where we’re too often given the false choice of faith versus reason, where the idea of moderate or liberal religion seems oxymoronic, Wise reminds us that faith and reason, spirituality and liberalism, go hand in hand. In a world where we strive for democratic ideals expressed deeply and spiritually, and where we expect our Jewish values to be realized in modern and universal terms, Wise is there, urging us on. The world Isaac Mayer Wise knew is a world quite foreign to us, and vice versa, but today, on his birthday, during this week of Passover, we are reminded that his legacy is one that enriches us today, one that saw our tradition not narrowly, but as the means of enlightenment and redemption for the world.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Short D'var Torah from Shabbat HaGadol

I don’t usually preach the night of Marriage Reconsecration, but tonight is also Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover, and I feel that at least a word of Torah should be shared. So permit me a vort.

When I was a rabbinic student a friend of mine served a pulpit in Paducah Kentucky. A non-Jew called him up and asked if he could come participate in the congregation’s celebration of Passover. After some chatting, my friend agreed. So on the first night, he showed up for the congregation’s Seder. Afterwards, he looked disappointed, and when my friend asked him about it, he said, “I don’t understand, this isn’t what’s in the Bible! I wasn’t expecting a dinner and storytelling! Where are the sacrifices?” Not actually knowing anything about modern Judaism, he expected the full Levitical routine of sheep offered up and roasted whole.

We laugh, and we sigh, and we slap our foreheads. We marvel at people’s ignorance and rejoice in our own redemption from ‘primitive’ or ‘primitive’ ritual. And yet, perhaps my friend’s biblical guest had a point. As Rachel Adler points out in the Women’s Torah Commentary, when we use the word ‘ritual’, we’re very quick to tack on the word ‘meaningless’ or ‘primitive’. We spend a lot of time and energy dismissing or apologizing for our traditions, or feeling somehow inadequate in their performance, and Passover is a terrific example. We clean our houses and bring up boxes full of half-remembered things, agonize over whether or not Pecans are Kosher or Kitniyot, or how this year we’ll keep Sephardi Kosher-for-Passover and have rice on the table. And then we’ll be sit down with friends and family and participating in the rituals of the seder, rituals that many people find ‘meaningless’, but nearly every Jew engages in, including and especially those Members of the Tribe who feel most distant from affiliation: the unengaged and uninspired.

Why do we do it? Because those ‘meaningless’ and ‘primitive’ rituals are also opportunities for holiness and elevation. They help us, as Elizabeth Ehrlich writes, “infuse the minutiae of everyday life with something more.” No, we don’t offer sacrifices anymore, but the Talmud reminds us that our tables at home are “Mikdash Me’at”, tiny sanctuaries. Which makes us the priests of those sanctuaries. Which means the effort we put in to preparing for the meal, from washing to cooking to setting the table, to the explicit rites we perform in the seder, to even the conversation around the table, is meant to lift us up. They become opportunities for spiritual integrity. So we write our own haggadahs, invite Jew and non-Jew alike to participate, share recipes and stories, even stories of boredom, not only as acts of friendship but acts of fellowship; not only because they are fun, but because they are sacred.

This week in Tzav, we’re commanded that the fire on the altar was to burn perpetually, not to go out. The fire of the altar went out nearly two millennia ago. But the fire within us to search for meaning and find it in our daily tasks—that fire burns on. May our own fire of devotion and holiness always burn. Amen. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hard Choices: Leviticus and the Death Penalty

My sermon of last week, also the text for "The Rabbi Speaks" this Sunday.

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Parashat Vayikra
 I’m not much of a video game guy, but I recently heard about a game that might interest you, especially if you’re a fan of games like Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. It’s Leviticus, the video game. I’m not even making this up. It’s basically the same as Fruit Ninja, if you’ve watched your kids play, or are willing to admit that you played yourself. The purpose of Fruit Ninja is to wave your finger across the screen to cut up as many pieces of fruit as you can without accidentally hitting an explosive. In this game, you’re slicing and dicing, but they’re animals, trying to avoid those with blemishes or are unkosher, and only striking those that are perfect.

All I have to say is: what a mess. And that’s pretty much how we look at Leviticus—one big mess of blood and guts, animals being sacrificed, blood being dashed on altars, smoke rising to the heavens. We get a chapter or two into this book and we can hear Verna Schenker’s voice in our heads from the Yom Kippur Haftarah: “Is THIS the fast day I call for?!”
And yet, we get so focused on the blood, that we miss perhaps the most important part of the portion, the very beginning, the name of the book itself: “Vayikra Adonai”—God called. God, says Rashi, is calling to Moses the way a parent calls a child, or the way someone calls for help. God calls Moses, the midrash says, as the angels call to one another when Isaiah beholds them before the Throne, calling out “Holy!” to one another, and this call is for the sake of Israel. For what does God call us to do? To make “Korbanot”—a word that is usually translated as ‘sacrifices’ but actually means ‘acts of closeness’, for it comes from the word “Karov”, to draw near.
That call, like Leviticus, challenges us tremendously, for we are called by God not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. For example, what happens when we’re asked to take a stand? Recently I’ve been advocating for repeal of the death penalty in the state of Delaware—to my fellow Jewish clergy, to our board, to you, fellow members of this congregation, and with our legislators. Like many of you, my feelings on the death penalty are nuanced: on the one hand, state-sanctioned death is too often applied to people unjustly—to those who cannot mount an effective defense, who are poor, who are people of color. Our Reform movement has been against the death penalty for over 50 years, and Jewish tradition is, at best, ambivalent on the subject, creating all kinds of obstacles to convicting one of a capital crime, and going so far to declare that a court that sentenced one person every seven years to death was considered bloodthirsty. On the other, there are a handful of crimes—crimes against humanity, terrorism, treason—that even I believe the only answer can be death. Nevertheless, I feel called to advocate for death penalty repeal. And yet, I know that putting that position—or any controversial position—out there can be like the blood and guts of Leviticus: it can distract folks from hearing the call to holiness themselves. So before I dove in, I had to ask the question, one posed frequently these days: should a rabbi, or a congregation more generally, take controversial positions?

For me the answer, despite the pitfalls, is yes. Despite the fact that it might alienate people, despite the fact that I will take more than a little heat, the answer had to be yes. On this position, in this moment, the answer had to be yes, even though it was hard.

But what, then, about those who disagree? Who feel their values are not reflected in the position of rabbi or congregation? If I hold a different position than them, or a different policy, does that mean I don’t value them? I think too often, that’s the attitude. We, members of the community, call to one another to be obeyed. We want our position to win; we want to get our way. But really, what we want is to be heard. We want to be valued, to know that, even if we don’t ‘win’, our position, our self, matters. We want to know that, even if the person across from us disagrees vehemently, we’re still heard. I’m sure we all tuned in or at least noticed the election of a new Pope—Francis I, the first Jesuit, and one of the values of the Jesuit tradition is cura personalis, care for the individual person. Disagreement does not mean lack of care. On the contrary, I can recognize your position and its value, that you have come to a position with thoughtfulness and care, even as I uphold my own. That is, after all, what it means to be a Reform Jew; to recognize that we all hear God’s call differently, and challenge one another to not only hear, but heed it meaningfully.
God calls to us and challenges us not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. When taking a stand will cause us consternation, when we have to sharpen our sense of wrong and right, when the answers are nuanced and not self-evident, and when our choices may alienate others. But when we heed the call with full intent, and true respect and care for the other, we draw karov, closer to God, but also closer to one another. May we always hear God’s call, each other’s call, and answer it with love. Amen. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Blogging the Exodus: Death Penalty Repeal

Today, in Dover,over 100 people rallied at Legislative Hall for the introduction of Senate Bill 19, a bill to repeal the death penalty in Delaware. I was invited to give the closing benediction. I've been happy to support this effort, given the Reform Movement's position on repeal since 1959, but it was humbling to be in a room with so many who had been fighting longer and harder for repeal than me (never mind the half-dozen or so congregants who couldn't be there who I know have been fighting for this cause for  more than 20 years). So before I prayed us out, I admitted my humility in their presence, and thanked them for their work.

Below you will find the text of my benediction (though I will admit the end was somewhat extemporaneous).

A Midrash—a parable—of the Exodus:
After Israel fled on dry land, and the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea, Israel sang songs of joy and victory. The songs went higher and higher until even the angels joined in, whereupon God Most High interrupted. My children are drowning, and you sing songs of praise?

Therefore we pray: God of Emet v’Tzedek, of Truth and Righteousness, allow us to love all your children, and to cease singing songs of praise over their deaths. Allow us to step away from the Mitzraim, The Narrow Places of vengeance and anger, and toward the wide places of Impartial and fair Justice. Be with the victims of violence; heal their hurt, sustain their faith. Allow them to know peace, for well we know that peace is violated by justice delayed and justice denied. Strengthen our civic leaders as they seek to serve their First State with honor and humility, to seek The Good and The Right, who seek the tools to hold those culpable of crimes accountable, while removing the human and economic toll of state-sanctioned death. Allow all our citizens to live in Liberty and Independence: liberty from violence, independence from unfairness.  Guide us that we may fulfill the words of your prophet Zechariah, to see that justice is done for ALL. May this be our prayer; May this be our mission, as we pray in all Your Names, AMEN.