Those of us who traveled to Israel together in May of 2015 spent part of our last day there up north in Tzefat – the highest city in Israel. Tzefat was the center of Jewish mysticism in the 16th century. Even now we have a taste of the mystical tradition that was born in Tzefat every Friday as we usher in Shabbat. The beautiful hymn Lecha Dodi, which we know in a variety of musical settings, was written by Shlomo Alkabetz, one of the luminaries of this community. You will note that at the last verse of this hymn, we follow the custom of standing up and facing the entrance. This is in remembrance of the mystics of Tzefat, as they went out into the fields every Erev Shabbat, dressed in white, to greet the Shabbat as the sun set. The imagery of our liturgy portrays Shabbat as the bride of Israel. The final verse of the hymn is: Bo’i v’shalom – Enter in peace, O crown of your husband; enter in gladness, enter in joy. Come to the people that keeps its faith. Enter, O bride! Enter, O bride! At this verse, we turn to the entrance as if to greet the “bride” at a wedding – a mystical wedding, if you will. We bow to the left and the right at Enter, O bride, Enter, O bride. Is this emblematic of the rationalism that characterized Classical Reform Judaism? Not on your life! Nevertheless, it is a sweet custom that has found its way back into standard Reform practice. When our congregational travelers stood gazing at the extraordinary vista in the hills of Tzefat, it became clear as to how the 16th century mystics became intoxicated with the beauty and inspiration of the expanse, and developed the ritual that Jews the world over have adopted into our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy.
Today – Friday, May 26 – is Rosh Chodesh Sivan. So first I must wish you a Chodesh Tov. Then I must note that in six days we will celebrate the Festival of Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks – the 6th of Sivan, on Tuesday night and Wednesday of the coming week. In the Torah, we are commanded to observe this festival as the time of the presentation of the first fruits of the barley harvest. This harvest time, of course, is more immediately observable in the fields of the Land of Israel than it is between the brownstones of Brooklyn. Nevertheless, that is the nature-linked significance of this seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuot. But, as is the case with all three Festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – there is both a universal, nature-linked significance, and a historic, particularistic significance as well. In this dual pattern, Shavuot is both the time of the presentation of the first fruits of the harvest, and also the Time of the Giving of the Torah to the People of Israel – Z’man Matan Torateinu.
*A brief reminder. When we have lost an immediate family member (parent, child, sibling, spouse) we remember them on the anniversary (yahrzeit) of their death by lighting a yahrzeit candle at sundown the evening before, which will burn throughout the day. We also come to services for Kaddish. But there are 4 additional times for us to light these candles (at sundown the evening before) and come to services for Yizkor. They are: Yom Kippur, the last day of Pesach, the morning of Shavuot, and the last day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret). Another jewel of Jewish tradition. While we must live our lives to the fullest, we also honor the memories of those we loved who are no longer with us. Judaism helps us to remember, as we light candles 5 times a year.
We are reading this week the “Holiness Code,” in the Book of Leviticus. It is the same portion that we in the Reform Movement read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, because it contains some of the most fundamental values of ethics and decency that are embodied in Biblical teaching. “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind. . . You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19.14,16). The “Holiness Code” implores us to protect the poor, the weak, the elderly, and the stranger. This is a core value of Judaism.
As American Jews, we bring this core value into the public sphere in the demand we make upon our government – that its policies and precepts reflect this basic human decency. But yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, the US House of Representatives flagrantly ignored this most basic concept of decency, as it voted to vacate the Affordable Care Act, and place millions of Americans in jeopardy – the poor, the elderly, the weak, the sick and disabled, at the top of the list.
One of the primary targets of the House was Planned Parenthood. The excuse is abortion. But this is a smoke screen. In fact there already has been a ban on public funds for abortion. But Planned Parenthood provides the gamut of health care services for women, and for men: breast cancer screening, pap smears, colon, prostate, and testicular cancer screenings, birth control, infertility treatment, HPV tests, and the list goes on. For many women and men around the country, Planned Parenthood is the only source of treatment and preventative care that they have. This cut in funding to Planned Parenthood is vicious, and could have deadly consequences.
If I may admit to it, I have to say that have never been able to understand this dynamic in American politics during the election cycles of the past several decades. With regard to health care in particular, it has always seemed as though the very people who stand to lose the most in our country have repeatedly voted against their own best interests. Latest estimates put some 24 million Americans in jeopardy of losing their health coverage. Those with various “pre-existing conditions” will be running up medical bills that will threaten their very stability, and that of their families. It simply defies reason.
As a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I proudly stand with the statement it issued yesterday in its condemnation of the “American Health Care Act.” Please take a moment to read it.
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.
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.
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.
I have told many of you about a close friend of mine in the Rabbinate who is a collector of antiques. Among his collection are a number of gorgeous menorot from different places and time periods. One was an 18th century German menorah. Just before the pogrom of Kristallnacht, someone who had an inkling of what was about to happen brought the beautiful menorah to the Bishop of Ulm, a German city on the Danube. The Bishop hid it in the church crypt. At the end of the war, the menorah came into the possession of Otto Frank, who survived the war, though his wife and daughters (Anna and Margot) did not. Otto Frank went on to become quite active in the Reform Movement of Europe. My friend was interning for a time in Europe and spent an evening in Frank’s home. Frank saw him staring at the menorah and understood that this was someone who appreciated the value of good art. Frank decided to give him the menorah on the condition that he would see to it that Kaddish would be recited for his daughters in the United States. My friend agreed, and the menorah found a new home.
Another piece in my friend’s menorah collection was black, fashioned out of shrapnel that was collected from one of the battlegrounds in the aftermath of the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. (“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares….”)
One Chanukah a number of years ago, I sat in my friend’s apartment in New York, along with a several other friends. The apartment was ablaze with light from the vast menorah collection. This time he focused on another incredible piece in the collection. He shook his head and opined, “If that thing could only talk!”
And so, my friends, I bring this story to you now, and hope you will take the opportunity to make it your own. If Your Menorah Could Talk, What Would It Say? Maybe it has been passed through generations of your family. Maybe it is brand new. Maybe it has a child-centered theme, or came as a gift from a special person in your life. Whatever it may be, the story of your menorah is ultimately a story about you; about you, your family, and your relationship to Jewish life.
This Sunday, during our Chanukah celebration, instead of lighting all our menorot (because it isn’t actually Chanukah yet), our menorot will tell their stories to all to come to celebrate with us. Bring your menorah, and we will provide a card and a pen for you to write your menorah’s story to share with all of us. And we look forward to sharing ours with you.
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.
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
As happens sometimes in the natural course of events, we are dealing with two ends of the emotional spectrum at the same time.
First, we join with the rest of the Jewish community, and the world community as a whole, in expressing our profound sadness at the loss of Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, z”l. Of the founders of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres was the last. The town in Poland in which he was born disappeared, as did many in his family, during the Shoah. He left when he was a teenager, and threw himself into the building of his new home, the national home for the Jewish People. He served in the Israel Defense Force, which he himself helped to build. He held virtually every public office that exists in Israel, including two terms as Prime Minister. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and accolades on the world stage too numerous to mention. While he led his people in war, he also became a pursuer of peace. His ultimate aspiration was for the peoples of the Middle East to live side by side in peace, security, and mutual respect. He was a friend to the Reform Movement, and in fact his daughter Tzviah and her family are members of Kehillat Beit Daniel, the largest Reform congregation in Tel Aviv.
Of all my memories of Shimon Peres, perhaps the one that has affected me most profoundly is of a speech he gave to a large Jewish group out on Eastern Long Island. He concluded his remarks with the following midrash. I believe it encapsulates the extraordinary humanitarianism of the man.
A rabbi once asked his students, “How do we know when the night is over, and the day has begun?” One student said, “When we can distinguish from afar between a goat and a lamb, the night is over, the day has begun.” Another student said, “When you can distinguish between an olive tree and a fig tree, the night is over, the day begun.” The rabbi kept silent, and the students turned to him and asked, “Rabbi, what is your indication?” He looked at them and answered, “When you meet a woman, whether black or white, and you say, `You are my sister;’ when you meet a man, whether rich or poor, and you say, `You are my brother,’ then, the night is over, the day begun.”
Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
But now, as I am certain President Peres would have wanted, we also turn to the Days of Awe, which are virtually upon us. As we move into our New Year on Sunday Evening and Monday, Rosh Hashanah, I know that I speak for the entire staff and leadership of Union Temple in wishing all of you, and your families and friends, good health, much sweetness, and all good things in the New Year of 5777. L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu V’teichateimu – May you be inscribed and sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.
In our Torah portion for this Shabbat we come across a number of seemingly random commandments. One of them is known as Shiluach HaKen – sending away the mother bird. If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may be well and have a long life. (Deuteronomy 22.6-7)
A parallel to this commandment is found by many commentators in Leviticus: When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on, it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Eternal. However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young. (Leviticus 22.27-28)
On the face of it, the rationale seems simple. We should send away the mother so the mother does not experience the pain of seeing her young taken away. The Women’s Torah Commentary (URJ Press) observes: “Such laws appear to stem from a perception that animals have an emotional attachment to their young, and from a humane concern to limit their distress.”
The medieval commentator Nachmanides (known as the “Ramban”) suggests that the purpose of these particular mitzvot, and others of course, is to cultivate within us the qualities of kindness and compassion. But note that it’s not so much out of concern for the animal that these mitzvot exist, but to educate us to be better human beings.
The Talmud (Berakhot 33b) suggests that it is not appropriate to look for a rationale for all the mitzvot, especially some that may seem particularly puzzling to us. The point of the mitzvot, according to the Talmud, is to teach us obedience to God. Period.
As Reform Jews, we are more inclined to understand and agree with the Ramban’s notion of cultivating kindness and humanity in ourselves. If we are concerned with the feelings of birds, after all, how much the more so ought we be concerned with our treatment of other human beings! Moreover, our approach in general is to try to understand the rationale behind various mitzvot, as we constantly evaluate their applicability (or not) to our lives. But the bottom line is that, whether we accept the Torah mitzvot as God’s law, regardless of whether or not we understand the rationale behind it, or we constantly evaluate it to increase our understanding of it and its relevance to us, we nevertheless embrace it as Jews throughout our lives as a source of our moral grounding as Jews.