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A Prayer for Jerusalem, and for our People

Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem

Our Torah portion focuses on Korach, a member of the tribe of Levi. In fact the portion itself bears his name. Korach foments rebellion among the people, because he resents Moses’s leadership, which of course, was assigned by God. Korach is the paradigmatic troublemaker, because he deliberately tries to break the unity of the Children of Israel. His reward, along with the 250 who joined him in his rebellion, is to be swallowed up within the earth, and die in ignominy.

As the Jewish People has evolved throughout history, we have come to understand that unity does not mean uniformity. History has taught us that our people can maintain our ties with one another, even across continents, while at the same time, tolerating and even embracing our differences with one another. This holds true with regard to theological perspectives, ethnic expressions, political positions, and diversity of all kinds. The modern description for this embrace of difference is pluralism: one people, different approaches.

This coming Monday, Steve and I are heading to Israel for our regular study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Last year was a highlight for us, as I became a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Institute. After the intensity of the three-year program, I will rejoin the wider Rabbinic gathering for a shorter, but still quite intense program. For two weeks every summer, some 170 rabbis of all denominations gather in the Beit Midrash – the study hall – of the Hartman Institute, literally elbow-to-elbow, to study from morning to night with the finest scholars in Israel, and with each other as well. The Hartman Institute is devoted to promoting pluralism within unity as the ideal for the Jewish State, and indeed, for the Jewish People around the world.

We at Union Temple have studied with some of the Hartman scholars through the iEngage series. We also have met and heard from a few of them in person at the Brownstone Brooklyn synagogues, including our own. Those of us who traveled together to Israel in 2015 visited the Hartman Institute and spent a remarkable hour with Tal Becker, one of the luminaries of the Hartman faculty. Learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Before any trip we make to Israel, I remember the beautiful poetry of Psalm 122 as it resounds in my mind and in my heart. It is a prayer for those going up to Jerusalem, and for the city of Jerusalem itself. So, as we prepare for our journey this summer, I offer the words of Psalm 122 – “A Song of Ascents.”

א שִׁיר הַֽמַּֽעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהֹוָה נֵלֵֽךְ: ב עֹמְדוֹת הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלָֽם: ג יְרֽוּשָׁלַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּהּ יַחְדָּֽו: ד שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים שִׁבְטֵי־יָהּ עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְהֹדוֹת לְשֵׁם יְהֹוָֽה: ה כִּי שָׁמָּה ׀ יָשְׁבוּ כִסְאוֹת לְמִשְׁפָּט כִּסְאוֹת לְבֵית דָּוִֽד: ו שַֽׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרֽוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹֽהֲבָֽיִךְ: ז יְהִֽי־שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ שַׁלְוָה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ: ח לְמַֽעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּֽךְ: ט לְמַעַן בֵּֽית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָֽךְ:

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of the LORD.” Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built up, a city knit together, to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of the LORD, as was enjoined upon Israel – to praise the name of the LORD. There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.” For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good.

Eternal Values and Green Ink

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Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise

Today is March 17th, known to most of us as St. Patrick’s Day. It is also our congregant Howard Simka’s birthday – Happy Birthday Howard! For many of us in the orbit of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion [HUC-JIR], however, March 17th is significant to us  the birthday of one of our esteemed past presidents, Rabbi Dr. Stephen S. Wise, z”l. Rabbi Wise founded the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1921. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise (no relation to Stephen). In 1950, the two institutions merged to become the premier institution for the training of Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, and Jewish communal service workers.

The birthday of Isaac Mayer Wise, appropriately considered to be the “father” of American Reform Judaism, was March 29, 1819, in Bavaria. Because March 17th and March 29th are only ten days apart, HUC-JIR designates a day each year that falls in close proximity to both birthdays as “Founders’ Day.” This year, Founders’ Day was celebrated yesterday, on March 16th. In keeping with his unparalleled wit, Stephen Wise always wrote all his documents in green ink as a nod to St. Patrick, perhaps the more famous of the two (though I suppose that depends on whom you’re talking to). And, as an homage to his teacher Stephen Wise, Rabbi Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, z”l, the dean of modern Jewish theology, also wrote in green ink. I remember the papers I wrote for Dr. Borowitz that were returned with Dr. Borowitz’s characteristically clear and carefully thought out commentary, all laced in green!

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Isaac Mayer Wise

Since we marked Dr. Borowitz’s first yahrzeit a few weeks ago, this Founders’ Day was dedicated to his memory, and a retrospective of the innovative hermeneutic he formulated in 1948 as “Covenant Theology,” just as the world was coming to grips with what had befallen our people in the War, and the astonishing opportunity that awaited us on the eve of statehood. The two speakers at yesterday’s ceremony were Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, Chancellor Emeritus of HUC-JIR, and Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, National Director of Admissions and Recruitment at HUC-JIR. Both are outstanding scholars of Jewish theology, Dr. Sabath having earned her Ph.D. on “Freedom-in-Covenant: The Gifts and Challenges of Eugene B. Borowitz’s Theological Quest.”

Rabbi Ellenson included in his remarks an excerpt from Dr. Borowitz’s 1990 publication, Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenant Responsibility (Wayne State University Press, 1990). In this contentious political climate, particularly amid the battle on Capitol Hill over the Affordable Care Act and/or its replacement, these words seem particularly apt, as Rabbi Ellenson noted. Dr. Borowitz articulated his primary “criterion for measuring the adequacy of a political arrangement.” He wrote:

“Being a Jew who, against the odds, has rather regularly been in synagogues for most of his post-bar-mitzvah life, I have had it drummed into me by repetitive Torah and prophetic readings that a social order is judged by the text cases of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . Or the poor. The Bible believes that we are positively obligated to one another. Hence when people have special needs it is our duty to help them. . . We must not pervert justice for the poor or prevent it from functioning for the stranger, the orphan or the widow. The weak and powerless must not become disenfranchised. But the Bible goes far beyond structural entailments. It prescribes our substantive obligations to others less well-situated or competent. We must plead the case of the widow and the orphan. We must give food and money to the poor. (The nearby poor are our first but not our only responsibility.) We must leave the corner of our fields and what fell in the harvesting for the poor and the stranger who dwells in our gates. We must separate a tithe for the poor. These are not options, warmly recommended to the good-hearted. They are commandments; religious laws of the state in that odd theo-political situation (to borrow and re-direct Buber’s term) which the Bible describes.”

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Rabbi Eugene B Borowitz

I was particularly moved by Dr. Ellenson’s choice of this passage in particular, out of the extraordinary body of writings that Dr. Borowitz bequeathed to us. The reason, in part, was a short, yet stunning statement earlier this week by Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, son of Former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., and grandson of our own Former New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, z”l. Mr. Kennedy responded to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s characterization of the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act as “doing an act of mercy.” At this, Congressman Kennedy ripped into the Speaker, saying:

“I was struck last night by a comment that I heard made by Speaker Ryan, where he called this repeal bill ‘an act of mercy.’ With all due respect to our speaker, he and I must have read different Scripture.

“The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick.

“It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us. Defined in purely secular terms, compassionate treatment for those in distress. It is kindness. It is grace. There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill.

“This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”

Joe Kennedy is Irish Catholic. No doubt, today he will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We are Jews, and we honor the memories of two of our great teachers who wrote in green ink. But the Torah and the Prophets that we study and cherish are the same. So are the values. So too, are the responsibilities that all of us bear – for each other, and for our country.

The Fifth Commandment

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Iron arrowhead that was found in Israel.

Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that Eternal your God is assigning to you. (Exodus 20.12)

A conceptual observation and a personal reflection, if I may, both of which you have probably heard from me before. But I would ask your indulgence, as both seem to be quite apt at this moment in history.

The Hebrew the word for “parent” and the word for “teacher” derive from the same root, y-r-h (י-ר-ה), which means “to point.” It derives from a reference to an arrowhead – an object that clearly comes to a point, and generally is aimed in a specific direction. And indeed, is this not one of the most fundamental roles of any parent, and any teacher? To point the way; to guide our children in the right direction, whether our students or our own kids. Ultimately their decisions must be their own, and they need the leeway to possibly make mistakes as they navigate their own paths. Of course, allowing leeway sometimes can be agonizing, and as a parent, I can testify to that. But at least we try our best to set them on the right path, so that they will figure out how to live a good life when they’re on their own.

Today I am marking the 20th yahrzeit of my mom, Jeanette Henry, z”l. From the time she was a little girl, Jeanette wanted to be a schoolteacher. She would line up her dolls in her room, and “teach school.” When she became an adult, and a teacher for real, she did not line up her students. In fact, they often flocked around her in what some may have interpreted as an occasionally chaotic atmosphere in her classroom, at PS 64, on 9th Street/Ave. B in Manhattan. But I assure you that it was expertly controlled chaos. My mom had studied the art of teaching. Throughout her life, even as she was lauded as being at the top of her profession, she continued to take courses and workshops, to continue to grow and expand her skills. Yes, teaching is an art. Not everyone can do it, nor should they.

Some of you with whom I am connected on Facebook have likely read a comment I posted in response to the Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. While it may be a bit presumptuous to speak on behalf of someone who is not here to speak for herself, I strongly suspect that my mom would have been utterly scandalized by this decision. From very early on in the American Jewish experience, our community has been in the forefront of embracing, supporting, and fostering public education. It’s no accident that three of the past four presidents of the American Federation of Teachers have been Jews: Albert Shanker, z”l, Sandra Feldman, z”l, and Randi Weingarten. All three were advocates for children’s education both here and around the world, and as well, advocates in all areas of social justice. Even from the Talmudic period, Jewish leaders have been proponents of public education. We learn from the Talmud that technically the responsibility for educating one’s child rested with the father. But suppose a child had no father, or had a father that was simply not equipped to teach his children? Thus, even the earliest Jewish communities of the Common Era supported systems of public education, for the benefit of all children. Modern Jews inherited this deeply held tradition, and have been committed to high quality public education. Of course, the dynamics of contemporary society have changed significantly, and many Jews, liberal Jews included, have chosen to send their children to Hebrew day schools, or, in the case of Orthodox Jews, yeshivot. A number of Orthodox Jews see the voucher system as a way for them to help pay for their children’s yeshiva attendance. But the contention of the community for the most part is that private education, whether religiously based or not, should not be the responsibility of the community. Rather, our community should be laser focused on improving the quality of public education for all the children in our country. And this commitment remains an important Jewish American value.

As American Jews, it will be even more critical in the next few years for us to stand up for quality public education. We will have to do this in the spirit of all we have learned about our responsibilities as parents and teachers, which, as we have seen, are really one and the same.

One additional word derives from the root y-r-h (י-ר-ה), “to point.” That is “Torah.” Ultimately our Torah teaches us the values of justice, fairness, and educating our children. If we do this, hopefully they will understand the implications of the fifth commandment, so that they “will long endure upon the earth.”

The Intolerance That Is Intolerable

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Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati Hit with Swastika

This past Tuesday morning, a swastika was spray-painted on a sign at the entrance of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College. Here is the notice that was sent to the HUC-JIR community by President Aaron Panken. A photo of the sign, as it appeared on the Facebook page of a colleague of mine who serves a congregation in Cincinnati, appears below Rabbi Panken’s message.

Dear friends,

This morning, the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) was vandalized. The sign at the entrance to our Cincinnati Campus was defaced with a swastika. The paint was easily removed and the sign quickly repaired. The incident is under investigation by local police.

For more than 140 years, HUC-JIR has been devoted to the values of pluralism, open dialogue, and the pursuit of knowledge. We pride ourselves on being a vital and engaged part of the Cincinnati community. Our academic institution of Jewish higher education lives, teaches, and brings the values of diversity and tolerance to the community, the nation, and the larger world. Our faculty, students, staff, and alumni, proudly representing all faiths and backgrounds, work together to build a just and humane world.

We will not let this act of hate alter our important work. We are indebted to the people of Cincinnati who have stood by us for generations and who have offered their support again today. Tomorrow, a new day will dawn and the values we hold dear will continue to light the way.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D.
President

It is not known at this point who perpetrated this act of hateful vandalism. I’m not accusing our incoming president of instigating or condoning this particular act. Nevertheless, the reality is that hateful sentiments were stirred up during the many months of the U.S. Presidential campaign, and those inclined to express personal bigotry were emboldened by a good deal of the rhetoric and mayhem that occurred. It’s as though the social norms of decency that tried to drown out the echoes of racism and intolerance were stripped away with total impunity.

We New Yorkers are accustomed to living in a highly pluralistic atmosphere, with HUC-JIR as one of numerous Jewish institutions in our midst. For those of us, however, who may not be familiar with the Cincinnati community, I can say that HUC-JIR occupies a position of great prominence in the history and contemporary life of the community, and has occupied a significant place in the acculturation of the Jewish community in that city from the beginning. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise, the “father” of American Reform Judaism. The Jewish Institute of Religion was founded in New York in 1922 by Rabbi Dr. Stephen Samuel Wise – no relation to Isaac Mayer Wise. HUC merged with JIR in 1950. HUC-JIR is the professional training ground for the rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal service workers of the Reform Movement. In addition to the campuses in Cincinnati and New York, there are campuses in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. This brazen act on Tuesday is particularly shocking and insulting, not only to HUC-JIR, but also to the entire Cincinnati community, which has accorded great friendship and respect to the institution, and to the Jewish community, from the very beginning.

Those of us who are alumni and supporters of HUC-JIR are outraged and saddened by this act. Union Temple has had an ongoing relationship with the College-Institute through the rabbis, cantors and educators who have served, and are serving the congregation, and also through the support of our Sisterhood, by way of the Women of Reform Judaism, and Brotherhood, through the Men of Reform Judaism. In addition, our former Rabbi Emeritus, Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, z”l, served on the HUC-JIR faculty in New York for a number of years. We echo President Panken’s assertion of “the values of diversity and tolerance,” which we will continue to promote, now, and in the years to come. It is clear that America is entering a new reality. But the values we espouse as American Jews are very old, and are as strong now as they were in the beginning. The responsibility for their perpetuation now rests squarely on our shoulders.

A Conflict of Positive Values

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Simchat Torah Flag

The conflict. . . . For the past four years, we at Union Temple have been presented with what I have called a “conflict of positive values.” There is profound meaning and good will informing each of these values, though together they present us with something of a conflict. By way of explanation, I will take the liberty of borrowing from my own words, which I originally wrote for a Bulletin article in October of 2012.

As the Brooklyn Jewish community has come together for Selichot services for the past five years, so too have we joined together in celebration of Simchat Torah, under the Arch at Grand Army Plaza. These have been wonderful events that we have shared with hundreds of our fellow Jews in the community. This year the celebration is Monday, October 24. So what’s the problem? The problem, or shall I say, the “conflict of positive values,” exists in the fact that for the Reform Movement, the celebration of Simchat Torah is SUNDAY night, October 23, not Monday night.

Here’s the story. . . . In the days of the Sanhedrin – the High Court in Jerusalem – Festivals and New Moons were officially declared by the Sanhedrin itself. The Court would base its declaration upon the testimony of two witnesses each month that they had observed the new moon. The declaration would be communicated by a series of torch signals beginning on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, proceeding to Mount Sartaba in Jericho, and on through the Jewish world. The chain would continue until the entire Diaspora; particularly the Jews of Babylonia, received notification. Eventually the system broke down because of mischief caused by the Samaritans, who began to wave torches on hilltops at the wrong times. The Sanhedrin sought to remedy the situation by instituting an additional day of observance for the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In the ancient mindset, if the Festivals weren’t observed on the correct day, supplications to God wouldn’t work.

In the middle of the 4th Century of the Common Era, the Jewish calendar was fixed on the basis of astronomical calculations, and thus everyone was able to determine the exact days of New Moons and Festivals without being dependent upon the Sanhedrin. But many in the Diaspora communities maintained the practice of celebrating these extra days in deference to the previous custom, and in its own self-perception as being in galut – exile, outside of Eretz Yisrael. The custom remained this way until the 19th Century, when the early Reformers cast aside this practice, not only because of the reality of the calendar, but also in rejection of the notion that Diaspora communities are in “galut.”

Contemporary practice. . . . In our time, the Jewish world observes along the following lines. All Jews in Israel – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and what-have-you – observe these Festival days for one day. These include: The first day of Sukkot, the eighth day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret), the first day of Passover, the seventh day of Passover, and Shavuot. Reform Jews outside of Israel also observe one day. Conservative and Orthodox, and other non-Reform Jews outside of Israel still observe that extra day of the Festivals. For the Sukkot Festival, it works out in the following way. Israeli Jews and Reform Jews both in and out of Israel celebrate the first day of Sukkot (15 Tishrei) as a holy day. Sukkot is celebrated for seven days. We also celebrate the eighth day after as a holy day. This eighth day is called Shemini Atzeret, on 22 Tishrei. Eventually an additional holiday which is not technically part of Sukkot was been added to this day. This is Simchat Torah, Rejoicing in the Torah. It is characterized by circuits (hakafot) with the Torahs, and much dancing and rejoicing. The end of the Torah is read, and immediately the beginning as well, to begin the yearly cycle of studying the Torah. For Israelis and all Reform Jews, these two are conflated into one day of celebration: Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah. For non-Reform Jews outside of Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated on an additional ninth day (23 Tishrei).

Specific values in conflict. . . . For us at Union Temple, as a Reform congregation, our custom, as with the vast majority of other Reform congregations, has always been to celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on the 22nd of Tishrei (this year, Sunday night/Monday, October 23/24). However, many of our friends in the community will celebrate Shemini Atzeret on Sunday night/Monday, and then Simchat Torah on Monday night/Tuesday, October 24/25. That has always been the case. But these past few years, there have been public gatherings of Jews in our neighborhood at Grand Army Plaza to celebrate Simchat Torah, this year on Monday night, October 24. For us, the two values we considered were (1) remaining steadfast in our convictions as Reform Jews, and (2) K’lal Yisrael – participating in the larger Jewish community and pursuing solidarity with our Jewish friends and neighbors.

Our decision. . . . After deliberating this “conflict of positive values” with our Board of Trustees, we at Union Temple will go ahead and celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on Sunday night, October 23, with 7:00PM reception and 7:30PM service, including the Hakafot with the Torahs – circuits and dancing. Monday morning we will hold our Festival Morning service as usual, including the recitation of Yizkor. And then, on Monday evening at about 8:00, we will join our friends for additional dancing out at the Grand Army Plaza. We hope that you will attend BOTH these celebrations, as there can never be enough rejoicing in the Torah!

Please note that in keeping with our policy of inclusion, there will be chairs around Grand Army Plaza for those who prefer to sit down during the hoopla.

To Review:

Sunday, October 23
7:00PM: Reception in our Sukkah
7:30PM: Festival Evening Service with Hakafot

Monday, October 24
10:30AM: Festival Morning Service, Yizkor
7:00-11:00PM: Hakafot with the Community at Grand Army Plaza. (Union Temple’s Hakafah will be approximately at 8:15PM.)

By the way, weather permitting, please feel free to come by between now and Tuesday to visit our beautiful new sukkah, put up by our Brotherhood, with members of our Sisterhood participating. It is just adjoining our building. In keeping with the commandment, bring a bite to eat in there too. And, our Friday evening after our Shabbat service, join us for the Oneg in there as well.
Union Temple Food Drive: Each Yom Kippur we at Union Temple conduct a Food Drive. We ask you to bring unopened cann

Jerusalem Pride

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Giant poster of Shira Banki, z”l, at the very spot where she was murdered last year. The quote is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach good than to condemn evil.” A mini shrine of flowers and yahrzeit candles

In our Torah portion for this week, Bylam, a popular magic man known throughout the Ancient Near East, was summoned by the Moabite King Balak to throw a curse upon the Israelites, who were camped on the Steppes of Moab. Though the Israelites meant him no harm and were just passing through on their way to Eretz Yisrael, Balak feared them and wanted them gone. Bylam ascends to the heights of Moab with Balak, and casts his gaze upon the Children of Israel. But when he opens his mouth to curse them, out comes a blessing instead: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.

With great pride indeed, earlier today Steve and I marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Though some 10,000 marchers were expected, twice the number of last year’s parade, the number of marchers actually numbered in the tens of thousands. Security was extremely tight, of course, particularly in light of the tragic and brutal murder at last year’s parade of 16-year-old Shira Banki, z”l. This year Shira’s parents came to the parade to honor the memory of their beautiful daughter, and to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and with all those who participated in the parade this year. One of the photos I have provided is of a huge poster at the very spot where Shira was killed last year, Washington Street and Keren Hayesod. The quote next to Shira’s picture is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach goodness than condemn evil.”

Marchers carry a Pride flag as we make our way into the center of town.

Marchers carry a Pride flag as we make our way into the center of town.

Last week Steve and I joined several of our colleagues from Hartman for a day of education to familiarize ourselves a bit better with the services provided for the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem. Everyone knows that Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Not so in Jerusalem. Because of the heavy religious presence here, not only in the Jewish community, but in all religious communities, the LGBTQ community has a much harder time of it regarding freedom of movement and expression, obtaining benefits and medical care, and the like, than the community in Tel Aviv. In fact at today’s parade, though some Members of Knesset were there, Isaac (Bougie) Herzog and Rachel Azaria among them, Mayor Nir Barkat was not, in order not to inflame the Orthodox community, as he explained it. While in a number of ways Mayor Barkat has been good for this city, I believe that this was a bad call. In an effort not to irritate a community that will never really be satisfied, he snubbed tens of thousands of the citizens of his city, and further rubbed salt into already festering wounds.

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Rabbinic, Cantorial, and Education students in the Year-In-Israel program of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

One of the places we visited last Monday was the main center of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, “Habayit Hapatuach,” “Open House for Pride and Tolerance.” Open House was the principal organizer of today’s event, but many other organizations cosponsored, the Reform Movement and the Israel Religious Action Center among them. Open House provides psychological support, education, free medical care, HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and numerous other services. Particularly noteworthy is its outreach to LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox and Palestinian communities – young people who are particularly at risk, as we can imagine.

Open House is not a well-known entity. Nevertheless it is very much a locus of reality in the day-to-day life of Jerusalem, and LGBTQ life in particular. We are grateful to the Hartman Institute for arranging our visit there last week.

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The shirt was compliments of the Reform Movement. The purple wristband was a security clearance at the entrance to the park where the marchers assembled. Needless to say, security was extremely tight.

Unfortunately there are people in this world; in Jerusalem, in the United States, in Arab countries, virtually everywhere, who look upon the LGBTQ community and see it as a threat; a scourge that must be wiped off the earth; people whom God has cursed. But if they were to really look closely, and speak with people, and get to know this community, up close and personal, as it is said, they would see that in fact it is a community that God has blessed.

As Jews one of the first and most important precepts of our Torah is Genesis 2.27-28: And God created the man in God’s image; male and female God created them. And God blessed them. When Bylam looked down upon the Children of Israel, camped there upon the Steppes of Moab, he saw and understood that these were children of the Living God, and that he could not curse those whom God had blessed. We open every single one of our morning services with this phrase, to remind us to bless other people, and not curse them. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”

 

Graduation Day

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The fifth cohort of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at graduation at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. (Rabbi Goodman is third from the left in 2nd row)

The highlight of this past week for me was the graduation of the fifth cohort of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative (fondly abbreviated as “RLI V”) from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. We are now officially Senior Rabbinic Fellows of the Institute. For the past three and a half years, I have joined 26 other rabbinic colleagues for a journey in learning, understanding, and deepening friendships, both among ourselves, and with the extraordinary Hartman faculty. We are women and men; Reform, Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative; different lengths and types of rabbinic experience; from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Teaneck, Great Neck, Princeton, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Austin, Miami, Toronto, Sydney, and Jerusalem. We have studied sources from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Maimonides, Zohar, and contemporary Hebrew literature. We have listened to each other’s thoughts about the Jewish community, and to each other’s personal stories as well. We have tried be helpful when there were personal crises among us, and rejoiced when there were simchas. And, we helped each other through the Gaza War, with the comforting leadership of Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute. Praying together was rather challenging, as you might imagine, but we did find in music a modality of shared spiritual experience that touched us all very deeply. (I would note parenthetically that in general at Hartman, when there are people saying Kaddish, we consider it a mitzvah to help them form a minyan for Mincha, regardless of our individual prayer preferences.)

Our Torah portion records the death of Miriam the prophetess in the Wilderness of Zin. We remember that it was Miriam who led the women in song as the Israelites crossed through the Sea on dry land. We remember that it was Miriam who watched out for baby Moses as he floated in the basket down the Nile before being rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh. Tradition tells us that a miraculous well followed the people as they trudged through the scorchingly dry desert, and kept them from dying of thirst. But at the moment that Miriam died, the well disappeared and the Israelites suffered greatly.

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Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman’s Senior Rabbinic Fellow Certificate which contains these texts: “The disciples of the wise sit in manifold assemblies and occupy themselves with the Torah…Make your ear like a funnel… Make yourself a heart of many rooms. (Hagigah 3b; Tosefta 7.7)

On a metaphoric level, RLI has served as a well for those of us who lived it together. We have watered each other’s souls, along with the renewal and enlightenment provided by the extraordinary Hartman scholars. And we sang together often. At the moment when we realized we had reached the end of this particular journey, we experienced a great sadness. Would we suffer from stifling thirst? No, we concluded, of course not. We will always have the impulse to grow through study. But we know as well that we will also have each other, and the learning of Hartman, to find ongoing refreshment and growth.

We at Union Temple have experienced Hartman learning on a number of occasions now. I look forward to more of it this year, and in the future as we study together.

So I wish my colleagues MAZAL TOV, and YESHER KOACH, and I wish all of you, SHABBAT SHALOM.

Proclaim Liberty . . . That Means North Carolina too!

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land; to all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25.10) So states our Torah portion this week, Behar. We know this verse as Jews. For us as Americans, though, this verse is seared into our minds, as it is carved into the Liberty Bell, which we can view in its glass encasement in Philadelphia. In the Torah, the verse occurs within the context of the Jubilee year, in which slaves are freed and lands revert back to their original owners. In America, the meaning is much broader: freedom from religious tyranny, freedom from externally imposed taxation, freedom of intellectual inquiry and development. The Declaration of Independence spoke of all human beings as being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

While this aspiration, born of the Enlightenment, was revolutionary in history, it would seem that all the logical extensions of the principle were not “self-evident.” At the time this verse from Leviticus was carved into the Liberty Bell, slavery still existed in America. Women’s rights were barely recognized and sorely limited. Various religious groups still suffered discrimination and exclusion at the hands of the majority populations of the localities in which they lived. LGBTQ rights? Forget it.

In the long history of humanity, we recognize that our country is still relatively young, and is still experiencing growing pains, frustrating as they are. We have had to evolve in our understanding and recognition of concepts and human realities that never had been recognized before. The argument over the rights of the transgender community is the latest, but certainly not the last frontier of the ongoing struggle to fully realize the aspiration of the liberty that is expressed on the Liberty Bell. At the moment, the spotlight is on the outrageous and unacceptable attempts of the State Legislature to discriminate against transgender individuals. The law that this body passed puts into place a statewide policy that bans individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex – the sex they were born with. It also prevents cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ people, and in this case, particularly “T.” NC Governor McCrory has vowed to uphold this law. This is a heinous act on the part of the NC state house, and must be fought by freedom-loving people all over the country. Similar laws are being crafted in other states as well. There was even one introduced into the Assembly of our very own state of New York, but was defeated. Thankfully our own Governor Cuomo signed a non-discrimination bill into law. But we note with sadness the recent attack upon a transgender individual right in our own backyard of Park Slope. So we have a lot of work to do.

While our Founding Fathers considered “unalienable rights” to be “self-evident,” it is clear that the fine points of what is included in these rights is anything but self-evident. Those of us who are concerned with the fullest realization of this aspiration, however, continue to the struggle with what it must mean for all of us. I am proud of our Reform Movement for its discussion and passage of the Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People at the Biennial Convention in Atlanta this past November.

Perhaps the most salient verse for us that is contained within our Torah is back at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, with the creation of human beings B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. “And God created the human in God’s image; male and female, God created them; and God blessed them.” (Genesis 1.27-28) Ultimately this is the source of our “unalienable rights,” and we are all obligated to respect and promote them.

The Voice of a Woman

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The Dance of Myriam by Marc Chagall. 1966. Musée national Marc Chagall, Nice, France.

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: “Sing to the Eternal, who has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15.20-21)

These are the last verses of the Song of Miriam, as the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land. The song is also called the Song of the Sea, and it begins with Moses as he leads all the Israelites in this song of praise to God. This Friday morning at our Service for the Conclusion of Passover, our cantor, Emma Goldin Lutz, will chant this song for us. I am grateful for every opportunity I have each year to either chant this song myself, or hear someone with as beautiful a voice as Emma’s chant it. I hope you will give yourselves that opportunity as well this Friday at 10:30AM. The text of Mi Chamocha, Who is like You, O God, that we know from all our evening and morning services, comes from this song.

There is a poignant irony, and for many, a bitter one as well, in this Song of Miriam. The irony is known to us by the phrase Kol Ishah Ervah. It is Talmudic shorthand for the concept that if a man hears the voice of a woman (kol ishah) raised in song, it is tantamount to his committing sexual impropriety, ervah literally meaning nakedness. Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron and Moses, would have blanched at such a law – a law written over a millennium after she led the women in song. This is the law that has driven, at least in part, the opposition to Women of the Wall, who have sought for 25 years now to hold morning services together at the Kotel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Read a fresh look at this Talmudic prohibition by Professor Aharon Amit, a scholar of the history of the Talmud at Bar Ilan University.

This past Sunday, on the second day of Passover, thousands of people flocked to the Kotel for the traditional Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. On the Festivals of Pesach and Sukkot, those men who are descended from priestly families come to the Kotel, stand in the men’s section, and raise their hands and voices to pronounce the blessing upon the people. When they raise their hands, their fingers are separated into 3 groups to form the letter shin, for Shaddai, one of the divine appellations. They also cover their heads with a tallit. For his portrayal of the character Spock on “Star Trek,” the late great actor Leonard Nimoy reached back into his experience as a child in synagogue, and brought this hand formation to accompany his own “Vulcan Salute.”

But this particular Sunday was a bit different in Jerusalem. In a move by Women of the Wall, those women who traced their ancestry back to priestly families, planned to raise their hands and cover their heads, as they too raised their voices to pronounce the Birkat Kohanim from the women’s section of the Kotel in a Birkat Kohanot. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Kotel, prohibited the women to raise their hands and voices, and the Kotel police cordoned off the women into a holding area, so they would not be seen or heard by other worshipers. Funding for the effort mounted by WOW for the Birkat Kohanot was provided by Leonard Nimoy’s estate. Read a news report of this incident.

If Miriam the prophetess had suddenly appeared at the Western Wall, I wonder what Rabbi Rabinowitz would have done. I suppose we’ll never know. What we do know is that those of us who are committed to equality for women in Jewish life, no matter where we live, will never relent in this ongoing movement.

Come to services this Friday and raise your voices with us.

Convening Without Coercion

Vayakhel Moshe – and Moses convened all the community of the Children of Israel. So begins our sidra, as the Israelites now set about the task of building and adorning the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.

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Member of Knesset Michael Oren. Photo: USCPublicDiplomacy CC Flickr

Last Wednesday morning there was an historic moment in the Israeli Knesset. For the first time, more than 300 Reform rabbis convened at the Knesset to attend a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Israel-Diaspora Relations. We were in Israel last week for the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional body of the Reform Rabbinate of North America. We were also joined by our Israeli colleagues in MaRaM (Mo’etzet Harabbanim Hamitkadmim – the Council of Progressive Rabbis), in addition to Reform colleagues from the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Australia, and South Africa. Never before had so many rabbis attended such a meeting, let alone Reform rabbis!

After some introductory remarks by the leaders of the CCAR and MaRaM, various Members of Knesset came into the Committee chamber specifically to address us, a body of Reform rabbis, and to affirm their support, including Tzippi Livni, Yair Lapid, Michael Oren, and Isaac (Bouzi) Herzog, among others, about fifteen in all. They expressed their firm belief that the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate over Israeli politics and laws concerning personal status – marriage, divorce, conversion, burial – had to be brought to an end. Particularly noteworthy was the statement by MK Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States. Member of Knesset Oren grew up in New Jersey, and remains close friends with one of our esteemed colleagues there.

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Member of Knesset Tzippi Livni. Photo: Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman.

Now, of course, Owen lives in Jerusalem, where he and his family belong to Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the largest Reform congregation in that city. Not long ago his son was married at Kol Haneshama. The wedding was attended by Former President Shimon Peres, whose own daughter and her family belong to a Reform congregation in the Tel Aviv area. In fact the kehilah was packed with notables on the Israeli political scene who came to rejoice with the Oren family at that wedding. The officiating rabbi was Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman, the spiritual leader of Kol Haneshama. Rabbi Kelman’s officiation, of course, is not legally recognized in Israel. Oren, who addressed us in Hebrew (since this was, of course, the Israeli Knesset), looked up at us and verbalized the question that all of us ask every day: “How can such a wedding possibly not be recognized?!” Yet, because of the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate, indeed, such a wedding is not recognized. And, not one of the 300 rabbis sitting in front of MK Oren that morning is able to perform a legally recognized wedding in the Jewish State. If there exists a greater absurdity than this, I can’t find it. But the fact is that a growing number of Israelis – the majority of Israelis in fact – are just plain fed up with this state of affairs. Many spurn the Rabbanut altogether and leave the country to get married, preferring to go to Cyprus, or somewhere in Europe, or, of course, to the United States. Some give in, go through the motions at the Rabbanut, and then hold their own ceremony somewhere in Israel, with the Rabbi and/or Cantor with whom they have a relationship – whether Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist. And many fight – they fight constantly – to change this absurd situation once and for all.

If you were to stop an ordinary Israeli on the street and ask about the political foundation of the State of Israel, most likely he or she would give the knee jerk response: “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.” There was a great deal of study, and attention, and soul-searching this past week, about what that actually meant in current reality, and what it must mean in aspiration. A great many Israelis – both colleagues and ordinary Israelis alike – actually were happy and relieved to have us there this week, because they recognize the organic relationship between themselves as Israelis, and us, as Jewish leaders from outside of Israel. They need us to help them fight for the kind of Israel that can truly call itself “Jewish and democratic.”

And Moses convened all the community of the Children of Israel. What kind of MIshkan are we building within our community? The oppressive monopoly of the Rabbanut is coming to an end. It may not be tomorrow, or the next day, but the evidence of progress is mounting steadily and dramatically – witness the gathering at the Kotel on Thursday of rabbis and laity – men and women – to pray and sing together at the egalitarian platform that will be built as a result of the deal worked out between IRAC and Israeli Attorney General Rosenblit. Pressure is mounting steadily on the Rabbanut and upon the political leaders. While the nature of Israeli democracy differs from American democracy to the point of necessitating such fighting, it nevertheless has learned from America that it is possible and desirable to live in a religiously pluralistic environment, without dictatorial control in the religious sphere, or coercive control in the public square. I am confident that this issue can and will be solved. But we must be part of the solution – because we are one People: we are Jews.