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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.

Our Sanctuary in America

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Hundreds of headstones vandalized in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in the Wissinoming section of Philadelphia.

This coming Shabbat is “Shabbat Across America.” Every year the National Jewish Outreach Program assigns the first Shabbat in March as “Shabbat Across America.” The idea is to encourage all the Jews in our country to symbolically join hands and celebrate Shabbat together, at least on this one Shabbat during the year.

This year the notion of joining hands with our Jewish sisters and brothers seems particularly critical, in light of the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in the country – something we thought we had long left behind. In recent weeks, Jewish community centers all across our country, including a number in New York and New Jersey, have received bomb threats, striking fear in the hearts of all those who have had to evacuate these centers at a moment’s notice. In addition, swastikas have been spray-painted on Jewish property and in Jewish neighborhoods, including Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and just this week, a fence in South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, NJ, in the neighborhood where Steve and I lived for several years when Steve was at B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. All this, of course, is in addition to the cowardly and hateful desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, just in the past week. And in Evansville, IN, my colleague Rabbi Gary Mazo discovered a bullet hole on Monday morning in the window of a classroom at his congregation, Temple Adath B’nai Israel.

I place the blame for this at the door of the White House. The rhetoric of intolerance and hate-mongering all year long has been outrageous and out of control, and those miscreants who would be inclined to carry out hateful acts of this nature have interpreted this rhetoric as a permission slip to act upon their evil inclinations. Mr. Trump and his surrogates have been spewing forth inflammatory hate speech all year long, and it took fully six weeks into his presidency for him to denounce it, finally, in his address to Congress on Tuesday night. But it was long overdue.

The rabbinic community of Brownstone Brooklyn is in the process of formulating a response of solidarity in the near future, against these, and all acts of bigotry and threats of violence. I will keep you apprised of our progress.

In our Torah portion for this Shabbat, God instructs Moses to direct the people: “Make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” In principle, America has stood as a sanctuary against the forces of hatred and violence that were unleashed upon Jews throughout the centuries, particularly across Europe, but elsewhere as well. While our country has not been immune from the scourge of anti-Semitism, as Americans we have tried to rise above it and purge it from our midst. Sadly, it would seem as though we still have work to do on this front. I applaud Governor Cuomo’s announcement this week of his authorization of $25 million for increased protection of religious schools and day care centers throughout New York. If indeed we are “one nation under God,” we cannot tolerate the re-emergence of such bigotry now, or ever again.

On this Shabbat Across America, we will join hands as Jewish Americans with pride, and in peace, as we reassert our American ideals and make a true sanctuary of our beloved country.

Town Hall Meeting

Our Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, sets forth a framework of laws whose purpose it was to create a fair and just society, within which everyone could live a good life, in security and peace. It is perhaps with a note of irony that we are reading this portion during this week, when, virtually all over our country, Americans have been gathering in auditoriums, houses of worship, colleges and meeting halls of all kinds, for “town hall” meetings with their Senators and Congressional Representatives, to demand that America live up to the American dream of a fair and just society for all. On Wednesday evening, Union Temple was filled to the gills with people of all racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, to hear from Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and a panel of experts on the environment, immigration law, the ACLU, health care, and Planned Parenthood, for a reaffirmation of our democratic values as Americans, and how to go forward during this oppressive administration, to make sure that we are protected and that our values are promulgated. We were delighted to be able to offer our congregation as a venue for this important gathering.

I was honored to be asked by Representative Clarke to deliver the invocation.  These were my remarks:

“The portion of the Torah that the entire Jewish world is reading during this week includes one of the foundational precepts of our entire tradition: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No fewer than thirty-six times does the Torah repeat this admonition: “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

For Jews, it is out of our historical experience of bondage, of degradation, of being outsiders, that we are commanded to stand up, now as a free people in this world, and do better; to pursue justice, to create a society of fairness, to treat other people with compassion and respect, no matter what they look like, whom they love, or where they come from. And I needn’t remind you, my friends, that if there is one people who should know the feelings of the stranger, the outsider, the disadvantaged, it is we, the Jews – the driven of the earth. And thus it is we who are charged with the responsibility to do better. And we believe that not only we, but every human being, regardless of our religious beliefs or affiliations, regardless of our station in life; that every one of us has the capacity to do better. It is a fundamental optimism with which we approach our responsibilities in this world.

We are here this evening – all of us, of different backgrounds and traditions – we are here out of our belief that our country has the capacity to do better; to create a more just and compassionate society. This is our mission – to create a society of fairness and equality, of kindness and compassion, of justice, and of peace.

Yet above all, we understand that the responsibility of bringing our mission to fruition rests squarely upon our shoulders. And so we stand this evening, shoulder to shoulder, together with Congresswoman Clarke, and all her of colleagues – to realize the full promise of the American dream. May we go forward with courage, and strength, as we walk together in peace.”

The Voice of a Woman – Again!

What a week for us to be celebrating Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song! The name of the Shabbat derives from our reading of The Song of the Sea, in Chapter 15 of Exodus. Moses begins the song by leading the Children of Israel in praise as they cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land. But the song ends with Miriam, who specifically leads the women in song, as she takes up her timbrel and sings. Particularly because of this, the song is also known as The Song of Miriam. Miriam the prophetess of Israel raises her voice in praise and in leadership. The voice of a woman is thus elevated and revered.

Unfortunately, there are many who have attempted to silence the voices of women through the ages. I’ve written on previous occasions about the way in which this has played itself out at the Western Wall for almost three decades now. On January 11, the Israeli Supreme Court challenged the ultra-Orthodox authority of the Wall, bringing women one step closer to establishing full rights to hold prayer services, wear talitot, and read the Torah at the Women’s Section of Western Wall.

This week, however, we witnessed the voice of a woman being silenced in a different, yet all too similar, context. On Monday evening, Senator Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans publicly silenced the voice of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as she rose to bring the voice of another woman to the floor, as the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jeffrey Sessions for the office of US Attorney General ensued. That woman was the late Coretta Scott King, who wrote a letter some 30 years ago, testifying as to manifestations of racial bigotry implicit in the actions and statements of Mr. Sessions. This was during the confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship, for which he was ultimately voted down. This time, Senator McConnell invoked a little-known rule that is virtually never used, to silence the voice of Senator Warren, who was unceremoniously told to sit down and be quiet by Montana Senator Steven Daines, who was presiding over the Senate at that moment.

For the moment, I will leave aside the content of Coretta Scott King’s letter. While it is still relevant, the fact is that the issue is now moot, in light of the Senate’s confirmation of Mr. Sessions as Attorney General of the United States. What I will react to, however, is the appalling behavior of Senators McConnell and Daines, who, for all intents and purposes, told a woman senator on the Senate floor to sit down and shut up. There was little doubt in my mind that the ultimate effect of the ruling was driven by an undercurrent of misogyny. Oh yes, partisan politics came into play as well. But the optics of a woman on the floor of the Senate challenging the majority, and ultimately, challenging the President, being silenced in the middle of her statement and told to sit down, I believe, spoke louder than any statement could. Subsequent to this outrage, no fewer than four of Senator Warren’s male colleagues stood up and read Coretta Scott King’s letter.

The voice of a woman, as it channeled the voice of another woman. . . two women, strong and resolute, standing up to power. . . I believe that both Senators McConnell and Daines understood the power of these women’s voices, and that is precisely why they resorted to this cowardly tactic to silence them. But these women will not be silenced. Neither will women all across America, who understand and embrace the values of fairness and equality; of justice; and respect for human dignity.

Senator McConnell offered this by way of explaining his actions: “(Senator Warren) was warned, she was given an explanation, nevertheless, she persisted.” Yes, Mr. McConnell, she persisted. This morning Sec’y Hillary Clinton tweeted: “She persisted. So must we all.”

Thank you, Senator McConnell, for our new battle cry. No, we will not sit down and shut up. We will stand up, and continue to raise our voices!

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

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.

Grieving with Nice

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One of many expressions of sorrow, dismay, and support on social media, this one by Louison.

Our hearts go out to the people of Nice, and to people of good will everywhere. We pray that God will comfort the families of those who were so mercilessly cut down in this barbaric disregard for the value of human life. We pray for a Refuah Shleimah for that those who have been injured. And we pray for the strength and determination to uphold the values of peace, kindness, and humanitarianism, even in the face of hatred, extremism, and violence.