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Eilu v’Eilu

The central focus of this week’s Torah portion is the rebellion of Korach and his followers. Korach was a Levite, as was Moses—both descendants of the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel). In effect, Korach and Moses were cousins. Nevertheless, within the Torah narrative, God alone had the power and authority to determine the fate of this people. It was God who had appointed Moses as the one who would lead the people out of Egypt, and into a new land and a new life. Moses—not Korach. That should have been the end of the discussion. But Korach did not appreciate having to take this secondary position to his cousin, and fomented rebellion in the desert.

We might be tempted to ask, “What did Korach do that was really so terrible?” Argumentation has always been a characteristic of our people. Nevertheless, we have always made a distinction between mean-spirited, destructive argumentation, and argumentation with the goal of lifting us up toward greater understanding. How do we know the difference? The answer is often difficult and elusive. But that is our responsibility. But Korach was not interested in a respectful exchange of ideas. Korach’s rebellion was mean-spirited and destructive. His intent was to bring Moses down and lift himself up. Period.

To open our Board meeting this past Monday evening, Dr. Marvin Lieberman offered a characteristically brilliant D’var Torah on the art of debating within the Jewish community, which has always characterized our people’s life down through the ages. I offer my appreciation and yesher koach to Marvin. As I noted, it is vital for synagogue leadership, and all leadership, in fact, to be able to tolerate and entertain vigorous discussion, and often, disagreement, as long as the ultimate goal was consensus building within the organization. This has always been a central goal that has driven most of the decisions we have made, and enabled us to function as a congregation, and as a community.

As I have in the past, I would quote, if I may, the locus classicus in Talmudic teaching regarding not only the validity of different opinions, but our obligation to honor them as well. It comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b. It is known popularly by the principle Eilu v’Eilu.

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the one school asserting, “The Halakha (law) is according to our views!” The other school asserting, “The Halakha is according to our views!” Then the Bat Kol (Divine Voice) came forth and said: Eilu v’Eilu divrei Elohim Chayim—These and these are the words of the Living God, and the Halakha is according to Beit Hillel.

Since both are the words of the Living God, what entitled Beit Hillel to have the Halakha fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kind and humble, and they taught both their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai. And even more, they taught the rulings of Beit Shammai before their own.

In our parashah, Korach and his followers were destroyed because they had no interest in entertaining constructive discussion. Korach was a power-grabber, pure and simple, and before he had a chance to destroy the cohesiveness of the community, God intervened and destroyed him instead, along with all his followers. But this story in the Talmud teaches us another way—a better way.

Developing the ability to tolerate, and yes, even honor divergent perspectives is a lifelong process for all of us. I do believe that in many situations, there comes a point at which we absolutely must articulate our position and stand by it. Remember that ultimately the community did accept the rulings of the School of Hillel. Nevertheless, the process of deliberative and open discussion, and acknowledgement of the validity of other opinions, became part and parcel of Jewish tradition. It is wonderful to agree with others, or to be able to work toward a good compromise. But perhaps one of the greatest skills we can acquire is that when agreement is not achievable, then at the very least, we can achieve respectful disagreement. This too, can bring us closer together, in the spirit of Eilu v’Eilu. My wish for our wonderful congregation, particularly during this period of transition, is that our leadership and our congregation at large will work together, not always necessarily in agreement, but always with the goal of respectfully arriving at a workable consensus, and that the discussions may always be l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.

And with that, I will wish you a Shabbat Shalom Um’vorach—a Shabbat of blessing, and a Shabbat of peace.

After Fifty Years

Tomorrow afternoon, after officiating in the morning at the Bar Mitzvah of Jack Roth, an outstanding student at our Religious School, I am going to attend my 50th high school reunion. As you know, I am currently in the process of clearing out my office at the temple—a formidable task after 26 years. This past Wednesday, I experienced an amazing coincidence. Almost as though it were fated, I came upon a sermon that I delivered on Shabbat evening, June 5, 1993, the day before the same reunion, 25 years ago. Now, 25 years later, I would like to share it with you—again. I have changed the numbers, of course, but in certain fundamental ways, my thoughts remain the same. And so, while I have abbreviated it somewhat for the purpose of this E-Blast, here it is.

After Fifty Years

Tomorrow afternoon I am going to attend my high school reunion. But this is not just any reunion, and this is just not any high school. This is the reunion of the graduating class of 1968 of the High School of Music and Art, now known formally as LaGuardia High School for Music and Art and Performing Arts. 50 years since high school graduation—a bit scary to contemplate, but worthy of reflection as well. So I hope you will indulge me for a few moments in a personal reflection, and in it, I hope that you will be able to see some of your own faces as well.

As I said, the year of 1968—and as Charles Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” For so many reasons, Music & Art was one of the happiest experiences of my life. For the first time in my everyday life, I was able to spend every day in the company of people who were just like me—musicians and artists—who saw the world through different eyes. For the first time, I could study together and grow together with other kids who didn’t hang out in the neighborhood, because they also had to go home and practice for hours in addition to their homework—whether in front of a piano, holding a violin, or an oboe, or sitting with a sketch pad and charcoal. Instead of going to basketball games, we went to concerts and museums. For the first time in my experience outside of music school, I was together every day with a group of kids who pondered the mysteries of the universe from a similar vantage point to my own. Indeed, in this way for me, it was the best of times.

But 1968 will also remain for me and so many of my peers, one of the most painful years in contemporary history—indeed, the worst of times. I am only grateful that I could endure that pain in the company of my friends and colleagues at Music & Art.

It was the year of the presidential election. The country had barely begun to awaken from its shock after the assassination of President Kennedy, five years earlier. Now the war in Vietnam was tearing the country apart at the seams. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the New Hampshire Primary catapulted Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota into a stunning position of prominence, making him a powerful new force to be reckoned with. The Gulf of Tonkin Fiasco, and then, we sat wide-eyed, staring at the TV, as President Lyndon Johnson announced, “I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for President of the Union States.” McCarthy supporters, and opponents of the war in general, were jumping for joy, at the same time that some of the same people registered the defeat of LBJ with a note of sadness. Because in fact, it could be argued that in terms of passing progressive national legislation, Johnson was one of the greatest presidents we had ever had. And while many of these programs were initiated by President Kennedy, it was President Johnson who got them through. Nevertheless, while the War in Vietnam was also initiated largely by President Kennedy, it was Johnson who could not find a way to manage and conclude it, and it ultimately brought him down.

But the Johnson’s withdrawal, the whole picture changed. The senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy, was now free to “reassess his position,” as he phrased it, and enter the race for the presidency. Now, no one could claim that his candidacy was merely a continuation of the old, bitter rivalry with LBJ. He could now address the issues. But we knew as well that he also meant to reclaim the “crown” of the Kennedy dynasty.

April 4th arrived, and the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King was in Memphis to support a strike by the sanitation workers there. King was mounting a “Poor People’s Campaign,” which would bring thousands of people who wanted to claim their piece of the pie to a park in Washington, DC, to camp out in tents for months. But now King was bucking up against the most solid wall of all in the stratification of American socioeconomic structure. And those in power were deeply threatened. And then, there on a balmy evening in April, King stood on a motel balcony with his friends and colleagues, as a white man named James Earl Ray aimed the crosshairs of his rifle at Dr. King. In an instant, one of the prophets of our time lay on the floor of a Memphis motel balcony. Cities burned—LA, Chicago, Atlanta, and more. But our mayor, John Lindsay, though often criticized by many for waffling on his positions, got out into the street with his associates, and spent that night, and most of that weekend walking the streets of this city: in Harlem, Bed Stuy, the South Bronx, and more. And I am convinced that it was because of Mayor Lindsay that this city did not burn with the rest of the country.

We at Music & Art gathered at the school on the morning after King’s death, and walked to Central Park for a memorial rally. From 135th Street and Convent Avenue we walked all the way to the Central Park Rink: four abreast—there must have been a thousand of us—arms linked in the style of the Civil Rights Movement, singing “We Shall Overcome,” a racially integrated group, with tears in our eyes and black mourning bands on our arms. In our teenage hopefulness, we truly believed that we could bring about a better day. As a Jew, I still believe that, and for reasons I will soon explain, I believe the others do as well.

June 5th—50 years ago this past Tuesday—Robert and Ethel Kennedy, and several of their then children (Ethel was pregnant with their 11th) – gathered in the Ambassador Hotel in LA, awaiting the results of the California Primary. Kennedy and McCarthy had been running neck-and-neck. But as Kennedy pulled ahead, it became clear that California would make or break him. And indeed, as I had hoped, he won a landslide victory. He would now certainly win the Democratic nomination, and even more certainly, go on to win the presidency. The Democrats now were licking their chops at the prospect of the second Nixon/Kennedy showdown. Because this time, there would be no squeaker. This time, Bobby Kennedy would receive an irrefutable mandate. This time, our country could really begin to realize the dream of a more just and compassionate society; an end to civil unrest; a nation at peace, both internally and internationally.

I would give anything—to this very day—if I somehow had the power to turn him around from that hotel kitchen. When Bobby died, it was as though a piece of me had died—piece of my youth; of my hope in the future. I know that Bobby was not a perfect person. There is no such thing. But I truly believed that Bobby had evolved as a human being in remarkable ways, so as to thoroughly internalize a true empathy for those who were poor; not simply out of the “noblesse oblige” that his family taught him, but out of his own human compassion and understanding. He possessed such personal power and magnetism that he could begin to help us change the inequitable structure of American society. He and his advisers would stop the war. There may be some of you who would view my belief in this man as childish or naïve, and that is your prerogative of course. But nothing will diminish my belief in this man’s potential. Perhaps part of the proof now is in his children, and grandchildren: lawyers, congressional representatives, workers for the environment, and social activists of all stripes—workers for tikkun olam, the reparation of our world.

What followed Bobby’s death, of course, was the debacle at the Chicago Convention, and the election of Richard M. Nixon. The War in Vietnam wore on for years, and in fact, escalated, and ultimately, of course, the country had to endure Watergate….

When I graduated from Music & Art I was 16. I felt as though I should have had the world at my feet. Instead, there was a vice-president named Spiro T. Agnew, who called the demonstrators and protestors in this country “an effete corps of impudent snobs posing as intellectuals.” That phrase is seared into my memory. Spiro Agnew—remember him?!

But the real truth is that even though we were portrayed as traitors, and draft-dodgers, and weirdos with long hair, in fact my peers and I loved this country. We loved it then, and we love it now. The reason we were in the streets and in the university buildings was the same reason the campers in the Poor People’s Campaign were in those tents in Washington—because we believed that this country could be better than it was—that in fact it was meant to be better than it was. That dream, in essence, was no different from the dream of our founders as they signed the Constitution in the 18th century. We believed then, as we believe today, that in order to fully realize its dream, our country would have to be one of equality and compassion, where human dignity and equal justice under the law, and the pursuit of peace, are the values which we are charged with establishing. We loved this country, but we saw it losing itself, and its dream. It was the worst of times.

I dare say that it was virtually impossible to have gone through the experience of those years without coming out of it marked in some way. At the time, the watchword of the generation was: “Never trust anyone over 30.” Then eventually, of course, we all turned 30; and 40, and so on, and now many, if not most of us, are looking toward retirement, and many of our children are over 30, or thereabouts. Many of us are grandparents, rejoicing in that stage of the life cycle. But in fact, our lives have been shaped by the year 1968, and the time period around it.

Many of us have devoted our lives to public service—whether in law, or social work, or the Peace Corps, or any number of professional pursuits whose ultimate goal was tikkun olam—the reparation of our world. My husband Stephen graduated from his own high school in GA in 1968. He became a rabbi, and also an attorney, dedicated to public service, working for the NYC Housing Authority for many years, on fair housing regulations and anti-discrimination suits to make things easier for low-income families in this city.

And I as well committed myself to doing my part, from within the religious community—the community of conscience and optimism—to helping to bring about the kind of world we still believe is possible, and which we believe God intended for us to establish.

My peers and I have had our own personal crises during these 50 years; our triumphs, our defeats, our gains and losses. Perhaps we have been tempered a bit, and have realized that our feelings of invincibility were perhaps rather unrealistic. But we are here—and we will gather tomorrow—with the same basic beliefs with which we left in 1968—our belief in justice, and the human potential to create, and improve—belief in our responsibility to realize the potential for beauty and order in the world—and above all, our belief in human dignity, and the creative impulse with all of us.Tomorrow as we gather, I will meditate on these things, and hopefully we will renew each other’s resolve to continue to aspire to realize them. And, no matter where or when you went to high school, I wish the same for all of you.

And with that, I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom Um’vorach—a Shabbat of blessing, and a Shabbat of peace.

Guard Your Tongue From Evil, And Your Lips From Deceitful Speech

In the past few days, we have been subjected to celebrities behaving badly. I will address the two most recent incidents, but they come at a time when public discourse in general is deteriorating by the day, taking on an increasingly coarse and destructive cast. Nevertheless, I will begin with the davar that I had started earlier this week.

This week our Torah portion records the death of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, and leader and protector of our people. Miriam played a central role in watching over Moses when he was a baby, as he floated down the Nile in a wicker basket to escape the murderous Egyptian soldiers. Along with Moses, she led our people on dry land through the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds, and led the women in song. And, according to the midrash, a miraculous well followed the Children of Israel in the desert, until the moment of Miriam’s death here in our parashah. Then, the well dried up.

But Miriam’s life was also colored by a terrible incident out there in the desert. For some reason that we don’t entirely understand, at one point, Miriam opened up and complained about Tzippora, Moses’ wife, identifying her as “the Cushite woman.” This is taken to be a racist remark, since in all likelihood, Tzippora’s skin was dark, as the daughter of a Midianite priest. For this intemperate and hurtful speech, God punished Miriam with a leprous skin affliction, until her brothers pleaded for her recovery.

So, while Miriam overall is embraced in our tradition as a prophetess and savior of our people, she was certainly not without her blind spots, and gave in to the temptation of lashon hara—evil speech—one of the most disagreeable of human traits.

When I began writing this davar, it was directly in the aftermath of the loathsome tweet from Roseanne Barr, regarding Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s Director of the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, all through his administration. I will not repeat Barr’s repulsive remark, I am sure it is well known to everyone by now. What I will say is that it is completely consistent with the vulgarity and racism that all of us have come to expect from the filth that has blown out of Barr’s mouth virtually throughout her career. But this one upped the ante—because it not only singled out an exemplary public servant, it also embodied the unbridled racism that has characterized the tenor of public discourse in our country from the first moment of the Trump administration. And often, the president himself has been the offender-in-chief. Absent from our public discourse is any sense of respect for other people, and any level of sophistication of thought, speech, and behavior.

Roseanne Barr was appropriately punished, and was summarily dismissed by ABC, and rightly so.

But then, one of the darlings of the liberal community, Samantha Bee, added her own vulgarity to the mix, and in so doing, damaged her own case, and our case as well. I will not repeat the word that she used on the air, albeit on a Cable show. That particular word is one that I never use, even in my most unguarded moments, because I find it particularly revolting and violent against women. But that is a personal preference. My larger concern is that by using it, Bee damaged her own message, which was an extremely important one. If you’re trying to highlight the abomination of this administration’s immigration policy that has children being separated from their parents, don’t trample over your own message with obscenities that are sure to muddy the waters and mute the very message you’re trying to communicate!

Should Samantha Bee lose her job too? Does she get a pass just because she’s on my side of the political spectrum, as opposed to the likes of Roseanne Barr? I pose this question as I record my own personal monthly contribution to the ACLU for the protection of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. And if we’re going to expect a certain level of respect from public figures, then we need to do that with some level of consistency. I leave this for you to continue to ponder.

My concern is for all of us—as human beings, as Jews. Our tradition teaches us that lashon hara—evil speech—allowing destructive comments about others, and repulsive, obscene speech to come out of our own mouths—is an impulse that we need to guard ourselves against in every one of our interactions with people; whether one-to-one, in group settings, or on more public platforms.

The Psalmist admonishes:
Who is the one who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune?
Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from deceitful speech.
Shun evil and do good, seek integrity, and pursue it.
(Psalms 34.14-15)

Superhuman, Or Just Human?

“Faster than a speeding bullet; leaping tall buildings at a single bound; it’s a bird—it’s a plane—no—it’s Superman!”

In the 1930’s, two American Jews, Jerry Siegel (the writer) and Joe Schuster (the illustrator), created the Superman comic strip character. The superhero made his first official appearance in Action Comics 1 in June of 1938, 80 years ago next month. I remember taking a group of our teenagers to the Jewish Museum one Shabbat afternoon, when there was an exhibit there of Jews and comic strip heroes. The exhibit demonstrated that in the dark shadow that was descending upon Europe during the 1930’s, particularly victimizing Jews, Siegel and Schuster, and many of their colleagues who created similar characters, needed some way to sublimate their feelings of powerlessness against the forces of evil in Europe. So they created superheroes, with superhuman strength, who would beat up the bad guys, and prevail in the end. Until I saw this exhibit, I had never thought of Superman and his counterparts in that way, but it makes perfect sense against the historical backdrop.

Superman came from the planet Krypton, and was capable of metabolizing solar energy, which enabled him to move planets, break the time barrier, see with X-Ray vision, and fly throughout our world, and from one world to the other. But he had one weakness—green Kryptonite—which made him vulnerable to evil mental powers and the forces of magic, and diminished his physical strength considerably.

I thought of Superman this week in reading over our Haftarah from the Book of Judges, about the birth of our very own Biblical superhero, Samson. Samson was born in Tzor’ah, which is located in the Judean desert, about a ½ hour outside of Jerusalem. (Just as an aside, Tzor’ah today has a kibbutz, with vineyards and a beautiful winery with a shop and tasting room.) Samson was a Nazirite—a member of a certain group of men who voluntarily took upon themselves vows of abstinence. The ritual of the Nazirites is described in our Torah portion, in the Book of Numbers. Nazirites were forbidden from drinking wine and other intoxicants, incurring the pollution that would come from contact with corpses, and also, cutting their hair.

Samson was a man of superhuman strength. Further on in the Book of Judges we read that he tore apart a roaring lion with his bare hands (Judges 14.6), and killed a thousand men from among the Philistines, who were the enemies of Israel (Judges, 15.15). But the Philistines bribed a beautiful woman named Delilah to seduce Samson into confiding to her the source of his strength: “No razor has ever touched my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God since I was in my mother’s womb. If my hair were cut, my strength would leave me and I should become as weak as an ordinary man (Judges 16.17).” Delilah cut his hair, and indeed, his strength left him. But one last time, God returned his strength just long enough to defeat the Philistines (Judges 16.30).

What these two figures have in common is superhuman strength, but also a point of vulnerability. Another familiar example is the Greek mythological superhero, Achilles. When he was a baby, Achilles’ mother Thetis took him to the River Styx, which was said to contain powers of invulnerability. But when she dipped his body into the water, she held him by the heel, and thus his heel did not receive the benefit of the power of the waters. Achilles grew up to be a notorious man of war. But one day, a poisonous arrow shot at him lodged itself in his heel, and he died as a result.

All three of these mythical figures seem to represent our own human desire to be stronger and more powerful than anyone or anything else around us. Yet, in their individual ways, all three of these superhuman figures remind us that even they have their points of vulnerability, and that complete imperviousness to the perils of life on this earth is impossible to achieve. That is a reality that may be difficult for us to accept at times. On the other hand, it might also be comforting to acknowledge that it is simply a reality of the human condition, and if we learn to accept it and work with it in constructive ways, we all will be much better off.

In terms of our physical strength, there is a certain irony in the fact that our calendar this year has us reading about Samson on the Shabbat of our Memorial Day Weekend. Our military strives to be bigger, and stronger, and more powerful than any other on Earth. Nevertheless, as we have gone to war repeatedly, we have never been able to escape the reality that our wish for unparalleled strength and imperviousness can never fully be realized. We remember this as we visit the graves and honor the memories of all the men and women who have been killed in those wars throughout our history as a nation.

In terms of our emotional strength, all of us have our own “Achilles’ Heels,” as it were, with regard to our own human vulnerabilities and possibilities for hurt in our personal lives. Sometimes our fear of exposing these points of vulnerability holds us back in life. Sometimes other people, attempting to overcompensate for their own Achilles’ Heels, will deliberately seek to attack those whom they know they can hurt, just in the spot that will hurt the most. Our vulnerabilities frighten us. Either they hold us back, or they cause us to engage in negative behavior.

Perhaps one goal for us to set for ourselves would be to temper the extremes, and more fully realize the potential for good in all of us. In truth, none of us can become Superman, Samson, Achilles, or any other mythical superhero. They are products of our fantasies. But we are human, with the potential for great strength, both physical and spiritual, even as we recognize our own points of vulnerability and accept our limitations. Our job is to realize the potential within all of us for good, and then develop it to its fullest potential, so that we can live happier and more fulfilled lives.

Purity and Taint

When I was growing up, my family belonged to an Orthodox shul on East 20th Street in Manhattan, just across from Stuyvesant Town, where we lived. A number of our friends belonged there too. The congregation identified itself as “Modern Orthodox,” and it was called Congregation Zichron Moshe. (Today the shul is owned and operated by Chabad.) I went to elementary school just next door to the shul—PS 40—where many of my friends also attended. The Jews in the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper/Gramercy Park area generally attended one of three local congregations: Zichron Moshe, Town & Village Synagogue (Conservative), and East End Temple (Reform).

The rabbi of Zichron Moshe at the time, and for several decades in fact, Rabbi Newman (z”l), lived in our building in Stuyvesant Town with his wife and three children. We saw them all the time, and we greeted each other warmly. As it happened, Rabbi Newman was a kohen—a priest—according to the caste system of Ancient Israel, as elaborated upon in the Torah. This didn’t make much difference to me, and frankly, I was oblivious to it—until a pivotal, devastating moment in my life. When I was 13 years old, and just completing the 9th grade, my father Philip died of pancreatic cancer. And because Rabbi Newman was a kohen, he was unable to officiate at my father’s funeral.

Our Torah portion begins:

The Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself. (Leviticus 21.1-4)

At the time that I was growing up, the relationships between the rabbi and the kids in the Hebrew School were rather different from today. I didn’t particularly feel as though I had a personal relationship with Rabbi Newman, though on a certain level I did, because I saw him so often in the building, and knew his wife and children. And while my mom and Mrs. Newman engaged in conversation, in my recollection, Rabbi Newman wasn’t a big schmoozer—at least not with us. But I suppose that when you’re a kid, you’re not quite as conscious about the realities of congregational life. When my father died, I was so engulfed in grief that it never occurred to me to wonder why Rabbi Newman wasn’t at the funeral. Yes, he certainly came up to our apartment during the week to pay a shiva call, which was greatly appreciated by my mom, and all of us. But the funeral was conducted by a rabbi I had never seen before, and whom I did not know at all.

About 25 years later, during the years that I was serving a congregation in West Hempstead, I got a phone call from someone I had known quite well in Stuyvesant Town. She was a close friend of my mom’s, and I was good buddies with her younger son, who was in my class at PS 40. She and her family had always belonged to Zichron Moshe. She was calling because her husband had died, and she was asking if I would do the funeral. “You know that I’m a Reform rabbi,” I said. “Yes, but you knew (my husband), and I would feel better having you there.” “What about Rabbi Newman?” I asked. And then, suddenly I remembered. It all came back in a flash. Rabbi Newman was a kohen, and thus could not officiate at the funeral! I did suggest a Modern Orthodox rabbi I happened to know in Lower Manhattan, who was the Jewish Chaplain at the time at Beth Israel Hospital, and his wife worked in the administrative office of Hebrew Union College. And in fact, he had filled in on numerous occasions for the members of Zichron Moshe, since Rabbi Newman couldn’t officiate at the funerals. But neither he, nor virtually anyone other rabbi in Lower Manhattan, would be available for this funeral the next day. At any other time, I would have done it in an instant. But, wouldn’t you know, just that particular day I was already committed to officiating at the funeral of one of my own congregants, and the scheduled times were hopelessly in conflict. And I had no choice—I had to give priority to my congregant. Eventually another Orthodox rabbi was located. But I wished I could have helped her. I would have been honored to do that for these old friends.

Our Torah portion discusses the “pollution” that a kohen would incur from contact with a dead body. The concept of tamei is a difficult one for the modern mind to understand. First, we don’t even have a particularly helpful way of translating the word into English. Tamei is an adjective. In the noun form, tum’ah is rendered as “pollution” or “taint.” Sometimes the translation of tamei, particularly when applied to menstruating women, is “unclean.” This last application has been particularly off-putting and, in my personal opinion, potentially destructive, in its cumulative psychological effect over the centuries. For kohanim, priests, the issue was particularly critical, because they were the ones charged with performing the cultic sacrifices upon the Temple altar in Jerusalem. Any taint; any impurity, would not only render them ineligible, but render the sacrifices invalid as well. And since they functioned as intermediaries between the people and God, it was the people’s well-being that would be jeopardized.

In this light, I came across a beautiful insight by my friend Rabbi Avi Weiss in an article for JewishPress.com from April 25, 2013. Rabbi Weiss is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary for the training of those in the liberal wing of Modern Orthodoxy. He also shepherded Yeshivat Maharat, for the training of Modern Orthodox women for the Rabbinate.

Rabbi Weiss:
 The truth is that there are several terms in the Torah that have no suitable English equivalent. Such terms should not be translated. Leaving them in the original Hebrew makes the reader understand that a more detailed analysis of the word is necessary. Tumah is one of those words that cannot be perfectly translated and requires a deeper analysis.

Rav Ahron Soloveichik suggested that the real meaning of tumah might be derived from the verse in Psalms “The fear of the Lord is tehorah, enduring forever” (Psalms 19:10) Taharah therefore means that which is everlasting and never deteriorates. Tumah, the antithesis of taharah, stands for mortality or finitude, that which withers away.

A dead body is considered a primary source of tumah, for it represents decay in the highest sense not only because the corpse itself is in the process of decaying but also because the living individual who comes into contact with the corpse usually suffers emotionally and endures a form of spiritual fragmentation, a counterpart of the corpse’s physical falling away.

Very early on, the Reform Movement cast aside identification with, and adherence to, the needs and practices of the ancient Temple and its priesthood. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the sacrificial cult ceased to exist, and the priesthood ceased to function. The notion of tum’ah as it applied to the kohanim and Ancient Israel is not operative within our daily lives as modern Jews. Nevertheless, perhaps we would do well to reconsider these concepts in terms of spiritual purity and taint. The notion of preserving and protecting our own human dignity, both from physical and spiritual taint seems completely relevant, and even urgent, in the very difficult and coarse time in which we live. My friend and teacher, Rabbi Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman, commented in an article last May in The Jewish Week:

Even as we do have problems with priests, we dearly yearn for the priestly. We properly dismiss the idea that God works only through them, but in expelling the priesthood, we risk losing the priestly, the sense that we can access the holy altogether: bringing blessing from on high and becoming incomparably more than the mundane selves to which our everyday routine condemns us.

We might recall the exhortation that God delivers to the People of Israel just before the theophany—the Revelation of Torah—as we read in Exodus 19.5-6: Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…. For us as Reform Jews, while this does not negate the special domain of the kohanim in the ancient Temple, it does place upon all of us a responsibility for ethical behavior, particularly as it is outlined in the Torah, and as later Rabbinic and contemporary teaching elaborate upon it.

Regardless of whether we identify as Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, or what-have-you, there can be no question that the ultimate concern when we lose a loved one is according honor to the deceased. The rituals and practices regarding the treatment and burial of bodies grow out of this overriding concern in Judaism: Kevod HaMet—honor to the dead. Ultimately, however, if we try to understand what underlies this concern for Kevod HaMet, it is this: if we are so concerned with paying honor and respect to one who is gone from this life—who can no longer feel, or think, or respond— then how much the more so ought we be concerned with the respect and honor that we accord to other people while they are alive! And that goes for ourselves as well, in having to remember the inherent dignity that we possess.

While the Biblical realities of priestly purity may no longer be relevant, perhaps it is the respect for others, and respect for ourselves, that should be our central concerns, as a people charged with being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

 

The Commandment to Love the Stranger

We have a double Torah portion this week, Acharei Mot–Kedoshim. We in the Reform Movement know Kedoshim particularly well, because in addition to this appearance in the calendrical cycle, it is our Torah reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai EloheichemYou shall be holy, for I your Eternal God am holy. So it begins, and thus it is known as “The Holiness Code.” The Reform Movement chose it for the most sacred day of our year because it contains some of the most fundamental ethical precepts of the Torah, which have been enshrined in all of Jewish tradition.

On this Shabbat, I will restate one of the commandments of the Holiness Code, because it is one of 36 statements and re-statements of the same precept throughout our Torah. When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.(Leviticus 19.33-34)

And since the Torah has stated and restated this principle so many times, please allow me as well to restate the obvious, as  I have stated it to you on numerous occasions in the past. Virtually all of us here in America are either descendants of immigrants, or immigrants ourselves.  My own ancestors came to America from Germany and Russia to escape oppressive regimes in which Jews had no opportunity to breathe the air of freedom and pursue their aspirations. I am grateful that America took them in. Both of them became loyal, productive American citizens, raising families and finding some enjoyment in life.

Throughout our history as Jews, we have known the perils and uncertainties of having to leave the lands of our birth and journeying to distant lands, into the unknown. Our Torah teaches us to remember the Exodus from Egypt so that we will make it our business to help the strangers in our midst, now that we are settled. It is one of the most fundamental precepts of our existence as Jews. And here in the Holiness Code, we are not only commanded not to wrong the stranger, but to love the stranger—for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

On this Shabbat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, during which this commandment to love the stranger is within our Torah reading, we will address the pressing problems of this very difficult time in America, in which the safety and security of the “strangers” in our midst are being threatened as never before. This Shabbat will be our Fourth Friday Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat at 6:30 as usual, and then a Shabbat dinner to follow ($10 please). And then after dinner, at 8:30, we will gather for an important discussion on this crisis. The topic is: What is Really Happening with Immigration? Our social action immigration subcommittee will welcome Ahsanullah (Bobby) Khan, founder of the Coney Island Project, a program working to combat racism and promote empowerment for working-class South Asians. He will talk with us on how we can help. I hope you will join us for this urgent discussion.

The Miracle Within the Miracle

Next Wednesday night and Thursday we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of independence of the State of Israel. For the Jewish people, the establishment of the state was a modern miracle. And, even while dealing with serious internal and international problems, like any modern nation, Israel’s life continues to be miraculous. For my commentary this week, however, I’d like to focus briefly on a miracle within the miracle, which is possibly one of the most extraordinary of all. That is the transformation of the ancient Hebrew language into a living, spoken, ever-evolving organism. For several millennia, Hebrew existed in the Bible, in Rabbinic writings, in liturgy (the language of prayer) and in literature. It was spoken as an ancient language even before these bodies of literature evolved. But along with the development of modern Zionism came the realization that a new, modern nation would need a common language for communication between its citizens.

In this light, I offer a salute to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, z”l, who may rightly be called the Father of Modern Hebrew. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Lithuania. He studied in cheyder, and after his bar mitzvah, he was sent to his uncle in Polotsk to study in a yeshiva. The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, was secretly a participant in the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment Movement. Bloyker introduced young Eliezer to Enlightenment literature, and also to Hebrew grammar, which was forbidden to learn at the time. Ben-Yehuda became a journalist, but also adopted as his mission, the revitalization not only of Israel itself, but also the revitalization of the Hebrew language.

After founding several preliminary committees, in 1889 Ben-Yehuda and several colleagues founded the organization Safa Brura (“clear speech”), and in 1890, the organization formed the Literature Committee charged with the goal of “instilling in all the residents of our ancestral land one clear language, the tongue of our early ancestors, which is of utmost sacristy.”

What grew out of the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his colleagues was the Academy of the Hebrew Language, founded in 1904, and still flourishing today. At the dizzying pace of modern social, political, and technological development in our time, we can only imagine the gargantuan task of the Academy, and appreciate the seriousness with which it studies the development of new words, based upon the solid foundation of Hebrew grammar.

Here is an excellent example, close to home for us, of how new modern Hebrew words evolve. Take the word shinshin, for instance (accent on the 2nd syllable— shinSHIN). This is a word that many of you have probably heard around Union Temple for the past few years, because we have had a shinshin in our midst. A shinshin is a person, and our shinshin this year is named Aviv Kurnas. (It’s a good name for this time of year, because aviv means spring.) Here is how the word evolves.

As we know, in Israel, when young people graduate high school, generally at the age of 18, the expectation is that they will begin serving in the Israeli Army. However, some young Israelis choose to defer their army service for a year, and voluntarily embark on a service project of some sort. There are numerous opportunities in Israel. For instance, the Reform Movement there has a mechina program which is excellent. (Mechina means preparation.) Young men and women live and study in a common residence. They prepare their meals and assume full responsibilities of communal life. They generally devote their mornings to the beit midrash—the house of study. They study together, both with teachers from the Reform Movement, and also in hevruta —partnered study. Then in the afternoons, they fan out to the various projects in which they have committed to work. Some serve in senior centers. Some work with children who are disabled in one way or another: physically, emotionally, socially, etc. Some work on alleviating social distress in the neighborhood. When our own congregants journeyed to Israel in 2015, we visited the kids in the Reform Mechina located in Jaffa—a diverse neighborhood with a mixed population and a number of social and economic challenges, but also with an exciting tenor of progress. But this is only the Reform Mechina. In fact, there are similar programs in many communities all over Israel. The name shinshin emerges from this voluntary year of service.

Some of these young people devote this year to volunteer for an overseas adventure through the Jewish Agency. Their mission is to come to various neighborhoods in the United States and work in American Jewish day schools and religious schools, JCC’s and college Hillels, to help foster a more personal and helpful dialogue between Israelis and American Jews. (This program exists in Canada and elsewhere as well.) Union Temple in now concluding its 4th year in the program that exists in Brownstone Brooklyn. Our shinshinim have become integral members of our Religious School community, and while they have taught us a great deal about Israel. But in return, we in turn have taught them a great deal about us, and about the vibrancy of a pluralistic Jewish life in the United States.

As you may know, the “sh” sound is represented by the Hebrew letter shin (ש) . This letter begins both Hebrew words for the year of service, which is shnat sheirut—שנת שירות. So, since both words begin with shin, the volunteers of this program are known by the acronym that is formed from the first letters: shinshin, and in the plural, shinshinim. A small, but wonderful example, of the ongoing evolution of modern spoken Hebrew.

Israel, and those of us who are connected to her and love her, have embraced as our mission as well, to one degree or another, the learning of the Hebrew language. In my studies all these years, I can say without a doubt that the inter-relationships and conceptual connections of modern Hebrew words and expressions is indeed—a miracle. One of my goals in life is to keep improving my knowledge of Hebrew, and my ability to communicate within it. A formidable task, of course, sometimes overwhelming, but always infinitely rewarding.

Opening the Door for Elijah

As I was growing up, there were two highlights of Passover Seders for me—the reading of the Four Questions and opening the door for Elijah. My family followed the tradition at the time of assigning the reading of the Four Questions to the youngest son—never the daughter. So even though I was younger than my male cousins, I would always listen patiently as they read the Four Questions. And yes, of course, I very much enjoyed their renditions and I was proud of my cousins. I did wish, though, that just once, I could have taken center stage for that central moment in our family Seders. Then again, I got my moment too. Yes, the girls got to open the door for Elijah! And with the door open, my uncle would encourage us all to sing Eliyahu HaNavi at the top of our lungs.

One could safely argue that opening the door for Elijah is the most climactic moment in the Seder ritual. But it has only been through my intense study of the Haggadah over the years that I have come to appreciate the true centrality  of this moment, even though it did not find its way into the Seder text until the Middle Ages, over a millennium after the core of the Haggadah text was put together.

A little bit about Elijah himself… Elijah was a prophet in the kingdom of Israel—the Northern Kingdom—during the 9th century BCE. No, he was not one of the actual Prophets whose writings and pronouncements are included in the second section of the Tanakh called “Prophets,” or “Nevi’im.” He was more of a magic man, as I have often described him. He was a healer, a miracle worker, a tireless opponent of the Canaanite god Baal. According to the Book of II Kings (2.11), he never really died, but ascended into Heaven in a fiery chariot. “As such,” the late Rabbi Neil Gillman observed, “he is the ultimate liminal personality who has mastered the threshold between life and death.”

As the “liminal” character described by Rabbi Gillman, z”l, Elijah goes on to occupy a critical place in later Rabbinic tradition. At a B’rit Milah—a circumcision—a chair is set aside for Elijah. In addition, when legal arguments arise among Jewish scholars, Elijah is said to appear and settle the halakhic dispute. According to tradition, Elijah is said to be the herald of the Messiah. We evoke this messianic quality every Saturday night at the end of the Havdalah ceremony. Shabbat, of course, is thought to be a foretaste of what it will be like for us in the Messianic Era—a time of peace, and joy, and security. At Havdalah, as Shabbat departs, we sing Eliyahu HaNavi, to try to hasten the coming of that idyllic time.

In Medieval Europe, Passover was often a difficult time for Jews. Because of its proximity in time to Easter, blood libels were rampant, and Jews were often subjected to harassment and attacks. Against the backdrop of the Crusades, the ritual of Elijah’s Cup is thus paired at this time with three selected verses from the Tanakh, expressing our own frustration and anger toward those who pursue us. It is unclear as to how the opening of the door ritual developed. There are some who place it in Medieval England, when Jews began opening their doors during their Seders so that their Christian neighbors could see into their homes, and realize that there was no black magic going on inside; but rather, a celebration of freedom from slavery, and an expression of hope for the future. Others speculate that it was so the Jews themselves could look out from their homes into the future, as it were, hoping that they could catch of glimpse of our messianic hopes coming to fruition. Eventually, probably as late as the 15th Century, the fifth cup of wine that had appeared not long before at the Seder became identified as Elijah’s Cup, and was linked to the opening of the door. We open the door for Elijah, not only as a figure who has saved our people from many previous disasters, but also hoping that he will come to herald the Messiah—in liberal terms, the Messianic Age. And thus, we might say that Elijah’s Cup, and the rituals surrounding it, are in fact the central, and most important piece within the entire Seder. Yes of course, we have gathered to remember and retell our redemption from slavery to freedom, from degradation to glory. But ultimately, these are in the past. With Elijah’s Cup, we voice our hope for the future—for the coming of a better day on this Earth—for the fulfillment of our vision of Tikkun Olam, the reparation of our broken world.

In this light, I would like to reference a wonderful perspective expressed by Abigail Pogrebin in her new book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew (2017: Fig Tree Books). Ms. Pogrebin spent many years as a producer at PBS. She now serves as President of Central Synagogue of New York. Her “take” on the ritual of opening the door for Elijah is that it requires a positive and deliberate act on our part. In order for Elijah to come, we have to get up and open the door. In short, the prophet Elijah needs us. He needs us to open the door. The realization of our messianic vision as a people, then, rests squarely upon our shoulders, and in our hands.

This Shabbat before the Festival of Passover is Shabbat HaGadol, The Great Sabbath. The name comes from the Haftarah of the day, taken from the Prophet Malachi—the last of the Prophetic books in the Tanakh. The end of the Haftarah, and indeed, the end of the book (Chapter 3), reads:

22 Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel. 23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God. 24 He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. 23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you “lifnei bo yom Adonai HaGadol v’HaNorah”. —before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God.

As we prepare for our Passover Seders, I wish you all peace and reconciliation, justice and compassion, as we contemplate our responsibility to bring them about. Can we do the work required? Only we can answer that—before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God.

Money For Wheat

After our celebration of Purim last week, we are now full on in our anticipation of, and our preparations for, Passover. I have spoken often about an ancient custom at this time of year, and now I will speak about it again, because it is that important. The custom is known as Ma’ot Hittin (money for wheat). In the Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud), Tractate Bava Batra 1:6, we learn about a 3rd-century custom to provide wheat to the poor so that they could bake matzah. The residents of a community were subject to a special Passover tzedakah tax, in order to provide assistance to the poor. The recipients of the collection would then take the wheat to the mill, grind it to flour, and bake their matzah.

In addition, the Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud), Tractate Pesachim 99b, speaks of a mandatory distribution of wine to the poor, so that they could fulfill the obligation of drinking four cups of wine at the Seder. The mitzvah is for every person to be able to proclaim and celebrate the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt.

Throughout the past 2,000 years, the principle has remained the same: everyone is obligated to share in the joy of Passover. Thus, the fund of Ma’ot Hittin has remained a time-honored tradition in the Jewish community worldwide. While the administration of the fund has varied from place to place and from one generation to the next, the principle has remained essentially the same: anyone who did not need to take from it was required to give to it.

The American Jewish community, for instance, sent packages of matzah all over Europe in the years following World War II. In the 1970’s, American congregations sent matzot to refusniks in the Former Soviet Union. More recently, the American Jewish community has sponsored the construction of new matzah bakeries throughout the FSU.

Now, we have a convenient opportunity to participate in this time-honored Jewish tradition of Ma’ot Hittin. It is by contributing to the Annual Passover Appeal, conducted year in and year out by the New York Board of Rabbis. Through our contributions to this appeal, the chaplains of the NYBR have been able to provide matzah and other Passover food and supplies to thousands of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the New York Metropolitan Area who are in need. I have always been most grateful that our congregation has responded to this appeal most graciously each year. I hope that you will join me again this year in fulfilling this great mitzvah.

To contribute, you may either write a check to “Union Temple” for whatever amount is comfortable, and then write in the memo note “Passover Appeal.” Or, you may contribute online on our website at: PassoverAppeal@Union-Temple.org. The temple will put together the contributions and send a collective check to the NYBR.

On behalf of my colleagues at the New York Board of Rabbis, I offer my heartfelt thanks to all of you for participating in this great mitzvah.

Mitzvah—A Holy Obligation

Toward the end of January, I received a call from my good friend Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis. He was calling on behalf of a synagogue in Bedford Stuyvesant that suffered a construction fire in late November, which rendered the building uninhabitable for the time being. The congregation is B’nai Adath Kol Beth Israel, located on Patchen and Greene Avenues. You may read a bit about the history of the congregation here: http://bnai-adath.org/about-us/ The current spiritual leader of the congregation is Rabbi Baruch Yehuda. Rabbi Yehuda told Rabbi Potasnik that since the fire, his congregation has been traipsing from one place to the other on Shabbat, and really had no place to call home and come together as a congregation since that awful morning. Rabbi Potasnik called me and asked if we could help. That afternoon I discussed the matter with Bea and Ross. We then quickly put the question to the officers, and then to the Board of Trustees, via an E-mail poll. We asked if they would approve our hosting the congregation, made up of Jews of Ethiopian, African American, Caribbean, and other ethnic backgrounds, on Shabbat mornings until just after Passover. We said that it would be fine for the congregation to meet in our sanctuary and hold Kiddush in the lobby. We could extend this offer until after the Passover holiday, when our Bar/Bat Mitzvah schedule would start up again, and we would need the sanctuary. I am grateful and pleased that the Board answered this E-mail virtually within an hour, and by the beginning of February, Rabbi Yehuda and his congregation began their Shabbat observance in the Union Temple sanctuary on a weekly basis. In addition, Rabbi Yehuda and his friend Asher joined us at the Rabbis’ table for the Dreyfus Memorial Lecture on February 10, for dinner, and then for the outstanding lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson.

Our Torah portion begins with the words “V’atah Tetzaveh,” “You shall command…” God charges Aaron to instruct his sons regarding the duties and ritual requirements of the priesthood. “Tetzaveh” is the future tense of the noun “mitzvah.” A mitzvah, of course, is a commandment. We often hear it translated as “good deed,” because most commandments are, in fact, good deeds. (Of course, there are so-called “negative” mitzvot as well—“do not steal,” “do not commit murder,” etc.) So in its real meaning, a “mitzvah” is a commandment—a holy obligation which we as Jews take upon ourselves. Sometimes we can only do what it possible, and not what is impossible. But in this case, it was clearly possible for us to perform this mitzvah of welcoming our fellow Jews into our congregational home in their hour of need.

There will be some future interaction between our two congregations, and we will apprise you of that opportunity. Meanwhile, here is a photo taken at the Dreyfus Lecture. Rabbi Yehuda is standing in back of me. Those in the photo, from left to right, are: Rabbi Stephen Wise Goodman, Rabbi Joshua Minkin, Rabbi David Ellenson, Rabbi Baruch Yehuda, myself, Mindy Sherry, Student Cantor Ben Harris.