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Prayer and Sacrifice

The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship and Identity in Jewish Liturgy by Yoel Kahn. Oxford University Press

This week we begin our reading of the Book of Leviticus, much of which focuses on the ancient system of animal sacrifice. Within the context of the ancient world, this system was the primary modality of vicarious atonement for sins. The priests (Kohanim) would serve as divinely-appointed intermediaries. They would dash the blood of slaughtered animals upon the altar in the inner sanctum (Kodesh Kodashim – the “Holy of Holies”), and through this blood, the people would be cleansed of their sins. A bit gorey sounding, I admit, but in the ancient mindset, very serious business, which had to be carried out with utmost precision. Out in the desert wilderness described in the Torah, this took place in the Mishkan – the “tent” that was erected by the people. Eventually, according to the Biblical chronology at any rate, this of course was replaced by the magnificent Temple that stood in Jerusalem called the Beit HaMikdash – House of Holiness. In the outer courts the Levitical choirs would sing and the instruments would play, suggesting a grand spectacle of pomp and circumstance. The actual sacrificial act in the Kodesh Kodashim, however, would be carried out in complete silence.

Fortunately, once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish community was ready to move on from this system of vicarious atonement. Rabbis replaced the Kohanim as the leaders of the community, and prayer and mitzvot replaced animal sacrifice. But, just as the minutia of the sacrificial rites had to be observed absolutely according to prescription, lest we incur further guilt, so too subsequently did the words of our mouths have to be uttered with great precision. Otherwise, they would go unheard, or even worse, rejected. Prayer, then, is a serious business. And its evolution and development through the ages, particularly as our community and our reality has evolved and developed, has always been a very serious business.

This past Saturday we were blessed with a brilliant and fascinating presentation by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, our guest scholar for the Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus Memorial Lecture. Rabbi Kahn gave us an extraordinary glimpse into the development of three specific prayers of our liturgy, particularly concerned with the changing status of women, non-Jews of one description or another, and those with some sort of disability, in the eyes of those writing and/or funding the prayer books. As the adage goes, “history is written by the winners.” Well, that goes for prayer books as well! In his book, Rabbi Kahn identifies some of the “winners,” and what their various agendas really were. Rabbi Kahn’s book is: The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship and Identity in Jewish Liturgy. He offered to personally autograph copies at the reduced rate of $30 (the list price is $45) to any of our congregants and friends who would like one. If you would like to order a copy from Rabbi Kahn, please send me an email, along with whatever dedication you would like, and he will be delighted to send it to the temple for you.

Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance

Tal_Becker_press_photoThis coming Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance – just preceding the celebration of Purim, which falls next Wednesday night -Thursday, March 23/24. Shabbat Zachor takes its name from three extra verses of the Torah that we read this Shabbat, in addition to the regularly scheduled portion at the beginning of Leviticus. These verses come from Deuteronomy, Chapter 25, verses 17-19:

Zachor – Remember – what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.

Memory is a core value for Jews. We are commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt, the Creation of the World, the Revelation at Sinai. We weren’t there, of course, yet we are commanded to remember as though we were, and transmit this memory to our children and all future generations. We are commanded to remember our parents and teachers. And, we are commanded to remember Shabbat and observe it every single week. In the post-Holocaust world, our people have embraced the responsibility to remember, wherever we may live. Zachor – Remember.

But we also understand two basic realities of memory. First, memory is selective. We remember what we choose to remember because it is important to us. If the commandment to remember seminal events of Jewish heritage is important to us, then we engage in perpetuating the memory of them. We remember what it is important for us to remember. (Of course now we have any number of devices in our lives that help us to remember what we need to, and far more as well.). But memory is also interpretive. We look back at events with the specific perspective that we have developed over time. Our world view comes into play when we look at events of the past and try to figure them out as we look back.

The ongoing stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians is complicated by conflicting interpretations of the events leading up to situation in which we find ourselves now. Was the declaration of the State of Israel a triumph of the spirit and a redemption of the Jewish People out of the ashes of the Shoah? Or, was it a naqba – a disaster of untold proportions, as the Arab world characterizes it? Is the Israeli presence in the West Bank territories an ongoing destructive Jewish occupation of a subjugated people? Or, is it a realization of the promise that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that their descendants would live on this land, Judea and Samaria, for all time?

The reality on the ground in Israel and the territories exists in and of itself. But there are many narratives about what exists that come into conflict with one another, and at the moment, are responsible for the continuation of the stalemate.

Is there a way out? Can we – all of us – accept and honor each other’s narratives and still find a way to get past them so that both groups can arrive at a peaceful and secure compromise, and live on the land side by side, in peace and acceptance of the other?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I fervently hope the answer is yes. And now for my “shameless plug.” This Wednesday, March 16, one of the most significant insiders of the ongoing negotiation process since Oslo is going to be speaking in Brooklyn, as part of our Shalom Hartman series. Tal Becker, international lawyer, key member of the Israeli negotiating team, and Senior Research Fellow at the Hartman Institute, will be speaking at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue at 8:00PM. The series is being funded by UJA-Federation of New York, and cosponsored by ourselves and our sister congregations in Brownstone Brooklyn. I urge you to come and hear Tal, and ask him questions, which you will have the opportunity to do. While there is no admission fee for members of the congregations of Brownstone Brooklyn (including Union Temple, of course), it is important for UJA-Federation to be able to track the registration and the response. Please register HERE and use the registration code UT16.

While memory informs our perspectives, we have the power to shape and reshape our vision of the future. Ultimately it is our values and ethics that need to guide us as we seek to carve out a future of peace for ourselves and our children.

Images of Israel

Goodman_KotelWhen I joined you for this past Shabbat I had just returned from some two weeks in Israel. (Yes, I made sure to bring along the inevitable halva from The Halva King in the Machane Yehuda Shuk in Jerusalem!) This particular trip was a mission sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, for the rabbis of Brownstone Brooklyn. There were twelve of us in all: seven rabbis, two lay directors of the Kings Bay “Y,” two lay directors of the Hannah Senesh Day School, and Orly Nitzan, the director of the Brownstone Brooklyn Shlichut program. We spent four remarkable days together.

My own stay in Israel continued, however, for an extra week, for my annual Winter Study Retreat at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This is the third and final year of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at Hartman, in which I have been privileged to participate. It has been an intensive course of summer and winter onsite study, bi-weekly webinar learning, and weekly hevruta study (paired study with colleagues). My hevruta partner is a rabbi is St. Louis. (What did we do before Skype?!) This summer, as this intensive program concludes, my 26 colleagues and I will become Senior Fellows at the Hartman Institute, which is a singular honor for all of us, and we are all grateful for having been afforded this opportunity.

The primary purpose of the UJA Mission was to help us as religious leaders of Brownstone Brooklyn to engage each other in a deeper and more candid and meaningful dialogue about conflicts in Israel, so that we can more effectively address these issues as a group and as individuals with our congregants and the wider community.

In this endeavor, which will be ongoing, UJA-Federation is sponsoring a collaborative series of three lectures , beginning next week, emanating from the Hartman Institute. I can’t say enough to encourage you to attend the Images of Israel lectures at CBE, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, and Union Temple, all of which begin at 8:00PM.  They are free of charge for members of the various Brownstone congregations, but UJA-Federation and Hartman need to track the attendance. I know you understand that a robust attendance will encourage them to fund future lectures of this caliber. I hope you attend as many as possible. Universal agreement on content is not the intent; engagement is. Use the code UT16 when registering.

A word about the speakers:

Dr. Ruth Calderon (at CBE on Wednesday, February 17) is a former Member of Knesset in the Yesh Atid party, where she was Deputy Speaker. She earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from Hebrew University. A teacher and novelist, she is the founder and director of ALMA, a pluralistic, egalitarian yeshiva in the heart of Tel Aviv, and is also a faculty member at the Hartman Institute.

Dr. Tal Becker (at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on Wednesday, March 16) holds a Ph.D. in International Law from Columbia University. He is a Senior Fellow at the Hartman Institute, and one of the driving forces of the iEngage program, now in its third segment. Tal has been a key member of Israel’s negotiating team since the Oslo Accords.

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer (at Union Temple on Wednesday, April 13) is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and along with Tal Becker, is one of the architects of the iEngage program

A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

We all know the expression “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Here is a bit of a different slant.

This past Sunday Steve and I attended a small gathering at the home of a rabbinic colleague in New Jersey for a send-off, if you will, for one of our colleagues who is loved and respected by all of us, Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, who, along with his wife Sheila, will be moving to Hollywood, FL this August. At that time he will assume the pulpit of Temple Solel. Rabbi Salkin, of course, came to teach us at Union Temple last year during one of our Fourth Friday programs on his midrash on Abraham and his generation from his book, The Gods Are Broken.”

As he thanked us all for being there and for our ongoing friendship over the years, Rabbi Salkin brought us a little teaching from the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, about friendship. He reminded us that the Rambam outlined different kinds of friendship. Rabbi Salkin pointed to two in particular. One is the chaver l’davar – the utilitarian friend, if you will – the friend who befriends you because he/she needs something from you. The other is the chaver lid’agah – the stalwart friend; the true friend – the friend who is there for you in good times and in bad, and sincerely cares about you and your life. When Rabbi Salkin looked around the room at those of us assembled there, he remarked that all of us, both individually and as a k’vutzah, a group, have been for him all through the years as chaverim lid’agah – true and stalwart friends.

In our Torah portion this week, we find the trouble-maker Korach trying to foment rebellion against Moses. He befriends Datan and Aviram, and other members of the Israelite community, for the purpose of enlisting their help in usurping the divinely-appointed authority and leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach was a chaver l’davar – a friend who needed something, and manipulated other people to get it. As we read in last week’s portion, however, Joshua is a shining example of a chaver lid’agah – a stalwart friend to Moses, and helped him in the task that had been placed upon him by trying to buoy the Israelites’ spirits and personal courage. In the end, because of their guile and motivations of self-aggrandizement, Korach and his rebels destroyed themselves, and a number of other people along with them. But Joshua and his comrades ultimately marched into the Promised Land to realize the destiny that God had appointed for our people.

I’m glad to say that those of us in the Rabbinic community are never completely removed from one another, even by miles. Steve and I will have the pleasure of continuing to study with Rabbi Salkin – Jeff – this July at the Hartman Institute, where he also has been a “regular” over many years. And of course, we will see him at meetings and conventions, and whenever he comes back to New York for any reason (since he grew up on Long Island, and has family here). And, as we all know, the Internet brings ALL of us closer, virtually every minute of every day! But at this moment I am grateful that he took those few moments to remind us, his circle of friends and study partners (in Jewish circles, often one and the same), about the aspirations of true friendship within the Jewish tradition.

So what kind of friends do we want to be, and indeed, ought we aspire to be: chaverim l’davar, friends only when we need something from someone, or chaverim lid’agah, friends who will be there for each other, no matter what? It is an important question for all of us.

Making His Way Around the Broken Glass

Semone Grossman

Semone Grossman

On Tuesday, November 9, 2010, Peggy Lebenson, Union Temple’s own Charlie Rose, interviewed Semone Grossman, Holocaust survivor, at our Commemoration of Kristallnacht, the concentrated attack on the Jews of Germany on this night seventy-two years before.

Peggy’s format enabled Mr. Grossman to sit comfortably in our midst, speaking his harrowing story without having to stand and deliver a speech. He traced his early history as a boy in a small town now in Poland that had been at times a part of Germany. He took us with him on his journey from ordinary living through the growing privations and dangers of the early Nazi period. Semone described the gradual loss of freedoms for Jews as Jewish children were deprived of attending public schools, as they were no longer allowed to sit on park benches, eventually not allowed to leave their homes after an early curfew, and deprived of an adequate diet. Ultimately the Jews of his town and neighboring towns were rounded up and sent to slave labor or death camps.

The reasons that Semone Grossman survived to tell his story are many. First and foremost was his mother’s observant eye. As the family stood in line during the round-up, she watched the selections, the very young and the old ordered to the left, the stronger adults ordered to the right. When someone in the line fainted, distracting the selection officer, she pointed to the right, ordering her son, “Run, run.” His mother’s vigilance and his obedience of her command was the first in a series of chance events that enabled him to live. The other children and the elderly who went left were transported to their deaths.

Semone thus became the youngest member of the various labor camps that he inhabited during the years of his captivity. Perhaps his young age protected him from the worst of the back-breaking work, as apparently he was assigned work less arduous than the older prisoners. One of his jobs was tending to the camp commandant, cleaning his quarters and delivering him meals. He would pile on the food for the commandant and sneak some for himself and some of the other inmates. As Semone, now in his eighties, spoke, we could imagine him as the hungry boy he was describing. As he answered questions, his child-like mischievousness, his inherent likability, and his wiliness became clear to us.

That night I was aware, as many of us were, that we are nearing the time when we won’t have the chance to ask questions of a person who has come through this experience and lived to tell about it. No longer can we take this privilege for granted.

Semone’s upbeat tone seemed especially remarkable, and our questions reflected our amazement at such resilience in the face of the enormity of what he lived through. The first questions tried to elicit how his parents explained what was happening, as the restrictions on the Jews became more and more harsh. He had no way to grapple with these questions even though asked three different ways. Peggy later intuited his inability to address this question: his parents were from a culture with little recognition of the psychological lives of children and were absorbed in the tasks of surviving and providing enough food for themselves and their children.

Several questioners asked how he felt about Germans. He responded in a way that seemed unlikely: he seemed willing to forgive and even to forget what had been perpetrated by the German people. He had, after all, been given many lucky breaks. He gave the example of the good guard who gave Semone his address in a village outside of Munich. The guard had offered to help Simone after the war if he could make his way to Germany. In fact Semone did get to Munich, looked up the guard, who then found Semone an apartment. The Germans he met in Munich were also kind to him. He expressed no bitterness, held no resentments, to the amazement of many of us.

Eventually in 1949, through the help of a cousin living in America, he immigrated to the U.S. He figured he’d sleep in a park but instead this young, resourceful, and lucky man found an apartment and then a job, working in a gas station. He was given the task of parking cars and came to realize the money that could be made in owning land where cars could be parked off the street. How he came to own a group of garages throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn is yet another chapter of this man’s lucky, lucky, lucky life.

Peggy asked the last question, “What advice could you give us, could you give to my young daughter, sitting over there?” Again he avoided the question.

“I have a 17 year old and 22 year old daughter. I know they won’t listen to my advice.”

Yet we came away with a sense of being in a room with a man whose life and resilience teaches us more than any sentence he might utter. One sentence stayed with me: “I live every day like it’s the first and last day of my life.”