Friday, December 4, 2015

I'm Tired

I’m tired.

I’m tired of figuring out what to say in a sermon, in a Friday message to the congregation, or in a prayer after yet another incident of mass murder in our country. I’m tired of praying for the families, friends, and neighbors of those who were killed or injured. And I’m tired of parsing whether the latest mass murder was “terrorism” or “anti-abortion zealotry” or “workplace violence.” And I’m tired of interviews with friends and neighbors of the murderers who say that they were quiet, regular people, perhaps a little odd but “no one could have expected this.” We have to expect this as long as guns and ammunitions are so easily available.

I’m also tired of having to defend my words when I say what I just said about the easy availability of guns. I have friends, members of this congregation and of my previous congregation, and colleagues who I very much respect, who are gun owners and members of the NRA. And I’ve said before that I fully support the right of law abiding citizens with the proper training and who use proper safeguards to possess guns for personal protection, hunting, target practice, what have you.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution has been understood by the Supreme Court to protect the individual citizen’s right to own guns. I happen to believe that this is an incorrect reading of the Second Amendment but unless the Supreme Court reverses its understanding that is the law of the land. But the fact that a person possesses a certain constitutional right does not mean that said right cannot be regulated to protect society as a whole. The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, but it doesn’t mean that followers of Santeria can sacrifice animals anywhere they want or that Christian Scientists have the right to withhold medical treatment from their minor children. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech but it doesn’t mean that I can libel others with impunity or shout “fire” in a crowded theater. My exercise of my rights can be regulated by society in such a way that it does not endanger the wellbeing of others.

In the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy we read of a very strange ceremony:

1 If, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess, a body is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck the person down,2 then your elders and your judges shall come out to measure the distances to the towns that are near the body. 3 The elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; 4 the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord, and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled. 6 All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, 7 and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. 8 Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9 So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the Lord.

The Mishnah comments on this ceremony:

MISHNAH SOTAH 9:6 The elders of that town wash their hands in water at the place where the neck of the heifer was broken, and say [Deuteronomy 21], “Our hands did not shed this blood, our eyes did not see.” Could it possibly even enter our minds that that the elders of a Court were shedders of blood? Rather, [understand this to mean] “He did not come into our hands, that we should have let him go without food, and we did not see him, that we should leave him without an escort!”

In other words, leaders have more than just a responsibility to personally refrain from bloodshed. They have a responsibility to create a society where blood is not shed. If they fail to do so, they share in the guilt for those who are killed by violence. When Congress can’t even pass a law that requires additional checks before someone on the FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist can purchase a gun, something is horribly wrong.

I’m tired of this, and I hope you are tired of it too.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Danger is real, but fear is a choice

This has been a rough week for our world. A week ago today Islamist terrorists staged several simultaneous attacks in Paris and killed 129 people. Yesterday in Eretz Yisrael, Palestinian terrorists killed five people in two different attacks; one of those killed was an 18 year old American student, Ezra Schwartz of Sharon, Massachusetts. Ezra z’l was a graduate of a Jewish day school and an active member of USY who was spending a Gap Year in Israel between high school and college. This morning, again as I write, US and other forces are responding to an Islamist hostage-taking at a Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said “the entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to fear at all.” A more recent version of the same idea was stated by Cypher Raige, the character played by Will Smith in the movie “After Earth.” Cypher tells his son “fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create . . . danger is very real. But fear is a choice.”

We live in a dangerous world and many of those dangers are out of our control. But how we react to danger is always in our control. In the wake of the Paris murders and the revelation that one of the terrorists may possibly have slipped into Europe using a fake Syrian passport, our American politicians are falling all over themselves rushing to protect us from the threat of Syrian refugees coming to our country. This despite the fact that the U.S. process for gaining refugee status takes a minimum of 18 to 24 months and includes the most stringent security checks imaginable; despite the fact that in the history of the refugee resettlement program not a single refugee has ever participated in an act of terror in the United States. (The Tsarnaev brothers who committed the Boston bombing were not refugees. They came here as children with their parents on tourist visas and later received political asylum derivatively through their parents -- a completely different process which takes place in the USA, not overseas.)

Fear is a choice. The most important thing is not to fear at all. Ezra Schwartz did not fear. He chose to spend a year in Israel despite the very real danger. While in Israel, he chose to go to Gush Etzion to visit a memorial to the three young men kidnapped and murdered last year, and to deliver food to “lone soldiers” (Israeli soldiers without parents or other family in the country) on an army base. While the car in which he was riding was stuck in traffic, he and the other inhabitants were murdered by an Uzi-wielding Palestinian terrorist.

Yes, if Ezra Schwartz had given in to fear he would probably still be alive. But that is not our way. The whole purpose of terrorism is to make us change our way of life, to be afraid to do normal everyday things like go shopping, go out for coffee, help our neighbor, or live by the generous ethical standards of both Judaism and Americanism. It is to paralyze us and fill us with fear. I for one refuse to live that way.

In Pirkei Avot chapter 4, Rabbi Matya ben Charash says “be a tail of lions and not a head of jackals.” Which will we choose?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Starbucks and Christmas

You’ve probably heard something over the last few days about the controversy that may or may not be swirling around Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups. Every year around this time, Starbucks introduces a new holiday themed cup, which is red and usually has snowflakes, reindeer, tinsel, snowmen, or Christmas tree ornaments. They are never explicitly religious. This year, they are simply red, and a “social media evangelist” posted an outraged Youtube video. The first time I watched the video I was not sure that it wasn’t a hoax, since the “social media evangelist” is named Joshua Feuerstein -- an unexpected name for a Christian evangelist. And predictably enough, Donald Trump weighed in on the controversy and promised that if he is elected President, we would all be saying “Merry Christmas.” One assumes that among those saying “Merry Christmas” would be Trump’s Orthodox Jewish daughter and her three children.

Although Starbucks has “holiday” themed and not “Christmas” themed cups, they do have a “Christmas blend” coffee which happens to be my favorite blend, and I usually buy a couple of bags of it.

You may perhaps know that the first Starbucks on the East Coast was located on Wisconsin Ave NW between Macomb and Newark Streets, and I would often stop in there on my way to my job as Hillel Director at American University. One of the baristas there was a young man named Tarek, an Egyptian-American Muslim who was a student at AU and had taken a course I taught as an adjunct in the History Department. On the day I came in to buy a pound of “Christmas blend” he paused for a moment and then let me know that they also offered the same coffee in a blue bag that said “holiday blend” and he offered to put the coffee in the holiday rather than Christmas bag. I told him that I was fine with the Christmas blend bag and we both had a little chuckle. It seems to me that if your faith depends either way on the presence or absence of the word “Christmas” on your coffee cup or bag, then Starbucks coffee is a lot stronger than your faith.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Talmud of Gaithersburg looks at the Akedah

The Talmud of Gaithersburg

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah I posed a question to my congregation and invited them to send me their response by e-mail. I’m now expanding the discussion by sharing my question, their responses, and my responses to the responses. You are invited to add to the discussion by commenting at the end of this post.

Rabbi Charles said:  For over thirty years I have read the story of the Binding of Isaac on Rosh Hashanah and I still don’t think I understand it. I know that the Torah wants to teach us something by means of this story but I don’t know what it is. What is the plain meaning (pshat) of the text? What does the Torah want to teach us?

Dee responded: I believe that the question regarding Abraham’s following G-d’s direction to take Isaac to the mountain, bind him on the altar….. without hesitation or challenge  tells us
that even though a parent’s love for his/her child is the strongest bond possible, Abraham demonstrated total trust in G-d and further demonstrated his own belief that G-d knew/knows
the depth of this devotion and chose this as the most intense test of Abraham’s faith and devotion to G-d.

Because Abraham did follow G-d’s order, G-d deeply felt Abraham’s loyalty and spared Isaac. Not only did he spare the life of Isaac and the horror Abraham would know had he killed his own son,but he blessed Abraham with his promise that Abraham would, in fact, become the father of the people of Israel and there would be generations of his descendants for time immemorial.

While I am strengthening my own faith more and more each day, I don’t believe that I would ever rise to the stature of Abraham’s trust or of G-d’s blessing of that magnitude. However, I know that
over the past several years, my faith has surely and sorely been tested. Having said that, I hope it is really true that G-d hopes and waits for the sinner and the wayward to return to him and I have.

Rabbi Charles replied: My quibble is that God had already promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the skies. In fact there is a Midrash which discusses Abraham’s use of the phrase נֵלְכָה עַד-כֹּה; “we will go yonder” where the word כֹּה is the same word as is used in Chapter 15, “so shall thy seed be”  כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ. In other words Abraham, though acceding to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, is reminding Him of the promise that through Isaac Abraham would have many descendants.

Bruce responded: Maybe a lesson we could take from G-d’s refusal to accept Isaac as a sacrifice is that G-d is not a law of nature that can be brought under our control. We’re entering a time of year that demands we engage in intensive personal introspection and change but, in the tradition, would culminate in an open miracle following elaborate rituals by the Kohen Gadol. Reading Vayera today might simply be a quick way of reminding us of our need to focus on our own personal work during these days of repentance and not to look ahead to the promise of Yom Kippur. If G-d rejected even a perfect offering then we could never count on G-d’s acceptance of the Kohen Gadol’s goat. Although rituals change, the tension between our individual responsibilities and our collective future remains the same.

Rabbi Charles replied: I like this a lot. There is always a temptation for us to see rituals as magic and the prophets in particular insisted that rituals “work” only in conjunction with proper ethical behavior. Having said that, I am not sure that this is the plain meaning of the text, but rather a cogent explanation as to why the Sages chose this as the reading for Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes the choice to read a text on a specific day is itself a commentary on the text.

Stuart responded: It’s all about belief in the existence of G-d. Rather than a fear of him – a trust and respect of him.  When G-d speaks unto Abraham that he should gather his favored child and prepare for him to be sacrificed, the message builds in clarity to a degree which cannot be dispelled. G-d was building a test in which he had chosen Abraham to partake in what would become the singularly greatest moment in Jewish history, whereby Abraham’s descendants and the multiple of tribes derived thereupon would honor a true leader who witnessed the instruction of Hashem. In the face of his instruction trusted and believed in him to the degree he was more than just willing to draw the blood of his seed upon a rock in the wilderness.  The test was monumental, as we learn G-d recognizes Abraham’s utmost trust and respect, and directs him to forgo the sacrifice of his son, and instead sacrifice the ram seen in the thicket.   The lesson learned is combination of the key pillars of faith – trust, leadership and the willingness to make no exception of one’s self in the eyes of G-d, and in the eyes of our community. These pillars and recollection of the story enabled Moses, King David, Judah Maccabee, Theodor Herzl, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and countless others to lead based on trust of a leader, rather than by fear -- and as a result our religion and our culture continue to thrive, not just survive.  From the lesson of Genesis 22, those of us who understand are better equipped to lead by example – rather than by dictation.

Rabbi Charles replied: It’s easy to believe in God when God speaks directly to you. It’s much harder since God no longer does that. But your reading of the story has God not so much “testing” Abraham (since we presume God is omniscient) but using him as an exemplar of leading by deed rather than simply by word -- which is another theme that emerges in the classic commentaries.

Billy responded: I have always found the Akedah both perplexing and aggravating. It is always presented that Abraham was such a model of submission to God’s will. Grrrr… to me that is just wrong all around. God should not have asked, and Abraham should not have (almost) done it.

I was thinking about it in shul and I think Abraham failed God’s test. I think it was Issac who passed. If, as it says in some things I have read, Issac was an adult when this all happened, then as a strong young man, he did not have to submit to being bound on that altar by his aged father. But he did. So I think the fact that the world is blessed by Abraham’s descendants is because Abraham’s descendant Isaac honored his father by allowing him to bind him.

At least honoring your father is a lesson I could live with.

Rabbi Charles replied: Wow!

There is certainly a modern trend of more liberal readers to maintain that Abraham failed the test. Emotionally I am tempted to agree with this since we see Abraham demanding justice of God in other situations. But if Abraham indeed failed the test, then why does he get rewarded? Your answer is the only one I have seen that manages to maintain that Abraham failed and yet account for the promise of blessing without being self-contradictory, since as you point out the emphasis is indeed on Abraham’s descendants and not on Abraham himself.

David responded: I believe the real "lesson" is not about the so called "test" for Abraham as I believe Abraham had already established a pretty good relationship with G.... by this point.  After all, by the time of this "test," G.... and Abraham had been communicating rather often and directly, I don't think G..... had any question about Abraham's commitment to Him and needed a test to cement their relationship (or vise versa).  After all, Abraham and Sarah gave birth to a son at a rather old age, certainly the first and main step to demonstrate to Abraham to believe in G...'s word.  In addition, I am not aware of any question that G..... did not trust or feel that Abraham was the proper vessel for his word.  It isn't like the back and forth dialogue (and negotiation) that we read about with Moses and G......  In fact, you could argue that the 10 plagues were in fact a "test" for Moses.   Therefore, respectfully, you can't convince me G.... had to, or was in the process of testing Abraham.

So what does the lesson demonstrate?  I believe that the answer lies in the line, "On the mount (Moriah) of the Lord there is vision."  The lesson is meant to be for Isaac (not Abraham) to demonstrate that if you believe and fulfill the covenant with our G..... (as does Abraham) then all will be ok, you will have "vision" and guidance by the Lord the rest of your life.  Isaac certainly does this as instructed by his father and is in fact granted the life promised by the Lord.

I think most people may not ask about what Isaac must have been going through during this "test" - the scripture indicates that at one point Isaac notices that all preparation is made for a sacrifice........EXCEPT THE RAM???  Wonder how Isaac must have been feeling as his father "wraps him with wood and asks him to lie on the alter........?"  I would bet he might have figured out what was in store for him, but he trusts his father (and hence G....) and doesn't seem to want to run away, struggle or argue about what is happening.  I would bet that during this "test" it was about a father's lesson to his son to "trust in our G......" and you will have vision (meaning everything will be ok).

Lastly, I am the father of a boy that is probably of Isaac's age at the time of this story and I also understand that just telling my son to do something is lot less powerful than teaching him a lesson (and demonstrating) that might cost him his life.  I would argue that this is a lesson that Isaac would never forget (and of course, in fact doesn't).

Rabbi Charles replied : You and Billye are on similar tracks here. To strengthen your point it helps to know that the word we generally translate as “test” or “prove” is נִסָּ֖ה  which some commentators connect to the word “nes” which means a sign. So in this reading God did not “test” Abraham but rather held him up as a sign for future generations.

Allen responded : While the text indicates that because Abraham was willing to follow the command of G-d even though that meant sacrificing his favorite child, he and his family were rewarded, I think that the ram caught in the thicket is a significant part of the story.
Abraham did not anticipate that he would be told to sacrifice the ram, and, of course, he did not know the ram would be nearby. This illustrates that even if a person thinks that he or she understands what is to be done, and what will occur, often they are not accurate. Our real perception is limited, and we often fail to understand (much less anticipate) Divine purpose or design.
From the human perspective, it is crucial to determine what is "right," and to attempt to accomplish that "right." We understand that we may be limited, and that the outcome may be different than anticipated, but we must do what we believe is appropriate. We hope that like Abraham, we can learn and gain insight from our own rams in the thicket.

Rabbi Charles replied: Abraham’s eyes were opened by God to see the ram which had been there all along. In the very prior story, the one we read the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Hagar’s eyes are opened by God to see the well which had been there all along. Sometimes the answer is right in front of our eyes but we need divine help to see it.

Adam responded : I read about Jonathan Sacks' opinion on this topic and his interpretation deals with the viewpoint of ownership over children as this directly contrasts with Pagan beliefs (willingness to sacrifice their own sons to earn personal benefit from the gods).  The Torah teaches that child sacrifice is the worst of all possible sins.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition a child is God's child and the biological parents do not have ownership over children, rather they are entrusted with a gift from God.  From this perspective there would be no personal benefit associated with child sacrifice, since the child's soul is God’s in the first place or looked at another way a child is his/her own person and not a commodity.  So when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, he is asking him to demonstrate that he has fear of God and is willing to return his own son (which was clearly a blessing given to him from God since Sarah was unable to have children) to God.  The same perspective would apply to ownership over land, since land ownership does not come easy to the Jewish people in the early bible and Abraham was instructed to give up his own land and his descendants did not arrive at the "promised land" until many generations later.  Land, like children, is a gift from God and therefore we cannot really own land, but rather are just temporary tenants of the Earth and responsible to keep it in good condition for it's real owner, God.

Rabbi Charles replied: I of course agree with the point Rabbi Sacks makes about us not owning our children, or the land, and contrasting this with pagan perspectives. Yet, I remain mystified at how exactly this story proves what Rabbi Sacks wants it to prove. I think this is a case of eisegesis (reading something into the story to fit our preconceived notions) rather than exegesis (explaining what is actually there). Not that there is anything wrong with it, we all do it all the time, but I just don’t see what Rabbi Sacks sees.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Yizkor Sermon: In the Land of the Remembered

If you visit Mexico or even some Mexican restaurants in the United States, you will see a lot of decorative skulls and skeletons, often engaged in normal everyday activities. For example, on my desk I keep a little sculpture of a skeleton man wearing a yellow cap, walking a skeleton dog. These sculptures are humorous but they are deeply rooted in a Mexican cultural belief. About a year ago there was a very successful animated film, The Book of Life, which explored this belief. Many Mexicans believe that the line between this world and the next is somewhat porous, and that the souls of the deceased continue to exist as long as they are remembered. In the film The Book of Life, there are two realms in the afterlife: The Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. One of our tasks as human beings, according to this belief, is to keep the souls of our ancestors in the Land of the Remembered, where they continue to commune with us and even enjoy the pleasures that they enjoyed while living, and to make sure they don’t wind up in the Land of the Forgotten. And thus it is that Mexicans observe Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when they spend the night in the cemeteries and play the music that their deceased loved ones enjoyed and bring them offerings of food and drink. And the skeleton folk art is part of this tradition as well.

These beliefs and traditions originated well before Columbus and the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico; the film makes this quite clear in that the spirit who rules the Land of the Forgotten is Xibalba, a Mayan word which means “place of fear” and was the Mayan name for the underworld, ruled over by twelve lords each of which is associated with a different form of human suffering. Although the Maya originally observed their day of the dead in late summer, it is now observed November 1 and 2 which corresponds to the Catholic All Saint’s Day.
At first glance these practices may seem thoroughly pagan and certainly not similar to anything we have in Judaism. And yet . . .

Four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Pesach and the second day of Shavuot, we recite the Yizkor service. The heart of this service is the Yizkor prayer itself, which begins “Yizkor Elohim et nishmat . . .” “May God remember the soul of” whoever it is we are remembering. But if we think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why are we asking God to remember? Does God forget? Does God need our reminder? Yizkor exists not to remind God to remember, it exists to remind us to remember. While in theory we can and should remember our loved ones all the time, we don’t always do so. Yizkor serves the same function in Judaism as Dia de los Muertos serves in Mexico; to give us an occasion where the calendar reminds us to remember, so that our dead won’t be forgotten.

But what does memory mean? What does it do?

David Brooks in his recent book The Road to Character distinguishes between what he calls “Resume Virtues” and “Eulogy Virtues.” He’s certainly not the first person or even the first active Conservative Jew to make this type of distinction; Rabbi Harold Kushner said many years ago that “no one ever said to me on his deathbed, gee, Rabbi, I really wish I had spent more time at the office.” But Brooks captures the distinction nicely. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

Why are the eulogy virtues what we speak about after a person’s death? It’s because the purpose of engaging in active memory is to provide us lessons about what it means to live life well and thus give us examples to emulate. I will never have the athletic skills of a Roberto Clemente or the acting skills -- or the looks-- of a Paul Newman, but I can emulate their dedication to using whatever skills I do happen to possess for the benefit of those who are hungry and homeless. A eulogy is not meant simply to make us feel good about the deceased, to bring back memories and raise a tear or a chuckle, or both. It does that, of course; but a eulogy also should tell us something about the deceased that we could emulate and in so doing, perpetuate the person’s legacy and in some way that we can’t really explain or understand, keep them alive.

The halachic/rabbinic tradition places a tremendous emphasis on the obligation of a student to quote his or her teacher accurately and by name. In Pirkei Avot Chapter 6, Mishnah 6, we read that “one who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world.” But there is another citation which is similar albeit not as well-known. In Yevamot 96b we read : Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “Whenever someone in this world repeats a teaching in the name of a Torah scholar who has ‘passed’, the lips of that Torah scholar move in the grave.”

At the beginning of July I lost my rebbe. Some of you may remember him -- the black-suited gentleman with the long white beard who gave the benediction at my formal installation as your rabbi almost three years ago. It may be unusual for a Conservative rabbi to claim a Jesuit priest as his rebbe but so much of what I strive to be as a rabbi I learned from Father James Walsh, SJ.

Although a Catholic priest, Father Walsh’s area of expertise was the Hebrew Bible. Most of his teaching and research focused on the concepts of power and politics in the Tanach. One of the things that Jim taught his Georgetown students for four decades was the importance of looking at the Hebrew text of the Bible and not just translations. He reminded us that the Bible didn’t use terms like “righteous” and “wicked,” “mercy” and “justice,” but rather tzadik and rasha, hesed and mishpat. When you hear me remind you during a Shabbat discussion of the Torah portion that the ten commandments say neither “thou shalt not murder” nor “thou shalt not kill” but rather “lo tirtzach,” you are now a student of Father Walsh once removed, and Jim’s lips move in the grave.

For many years Jim was a member of the committee of the U.S. Catholic Church which was in charge of the Bible translations authorized to be used liturgically, and on occasion he would discuss with me an issue the committee was deliberating and ask me how Rashi or some of the other commentators read a particular verse. Through him I learned to understand the two main schools of thought about translation. One school insists that any particular Hebrew word should always be translated by the same English word, so that readers who were familiar with a particular Hebrew concept would understand that a verse was talking about “hesed” or “mishpat.” The other school of thought thinks that slavishly insisting on a one-to-one correspondence can sometimes mislead and often leads to translations that are stilted and awkward, since after all Hebrew and English are two very different languages. Both of these points of view have their plusses and minuses, and by understanding their differences we also come to understand that every translation is in fact a commentary.When I take the time to point out where I think our siddur or chumash has mistranslated a particular verse,  I’m not simply being pedantic. I’m hoping that through a greater understanding of our texts and concepts, we can grow intellectually and spiritually. I’m sharing with you something that I learned from my rebbe, and Jim’s lips move in the grave.

At that installation where Jim gave the benediction, I quoted him in the remarks I gave. Some years back Jim won an excellence in teaching award from Georgetown, and used that occasion to speak about the nature of education. He said “education is a matter of “conversation.” It has to do with listening to and taking part in a conversation that has been going on for four or five thousand years. It tries to bring you into that conversation, with Shakespeare and Aquinas and Freud and Plato and Isaiah and a great many other people. It forms habits of mind that make you capable of being part of that conversation: reverence, a historical sense, a certain critical (and self-critical) awareness, an ability to enter generously, sympathetically, and imaginatively into the lives and feelings of people of other times and cultures. It forms in you the ability to listen; to go out of yourself; to be friends. And what do you need to take part in this conversation? Why, those same qualities: the ability to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. The goal and the way to the goal are the same. In this conversation, there are people who have been at it for some time, who want to bring you into it—to share with you what they love, and to enjoy it with you as friends.”

I went on to say that while we Jews often argue about whether Judaism is a religion, an ethnicity, a nation, or something else, that Judaism really is also a conversation. “And what is the Talmud if not precisely a conversation about "what the Bible means" and how to live our lives according to its teachings? One of the most amazing experiences a new student of Talmud can have is to follow a sugya, a discussion about a law or the interpretation of a text, where two sages are debating back and forth and attempting to refute each other, only to pick up a history book or a guide to Talmud study and realize that these two rabbis lived several hundred years apart and one lived in Palestine while the other lived in Babylonia. Obviously, these two sages were not in direct conversation with one another, but their teachings were known. Each had his disciples, and the rabbis of the Talmud were very careful to attribute teachings properly. And so, the editors of the Talmud some 1500 years ago were able to, as it were, reconstruct the conversion that would have taken place between the two -- a conversation across the generations.”

Jim’s obituary in the campus newspaper noted that he was among the first Jesuits to earn a Harvard Ph.D. But his scholarly output was fairly small -- he published one book and a handful of articles. I am not sure why he didn’t publish more, but I suspect it was because he prioritized relationships over pure scholarship. He served as an often-uncredited editor and mentor to many younger scholars, he sang with the Georgetown Chimes and served as the announcer for the women’s basketball team. For most of his career he served as a “Jesuit In Residence” in one of the dorms and he hosted countless students for meals and other get togethers. He travelled the country performing weddings and baby namings; he came to Cincinnati for my ordination as a rabbi and to Atlanta for Keleigh’s and my wedding. Jim taught me a lot about pedagogy and about the Bible but mostly he taught me how to listen, how to nurture, and how to be a friend.

David Brooks again: “We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.”

Resume values show themselves in the newspapers and on television. Eulogy values reveal themselves in the small minutiae of life, in the encounter of parent and child, husband and wife or wife and husband, or, Baruch Ha-Shem, husband and husband or wife and wife. You will rarely see eulogy values highlighted in the newspaper, but they are the stuff which makes life tolerable.

Loss is the toll we pay to cross the bridge of life. As I look out over our kehila, I see so many who have suffered loss. Some of these losses were recent, some long ago. Some of these losses were tragic, others less so -- the loss of a parent to old age after a life well-lived. But all of these losses bring pain; life is not a competition and no one dare compare their pain to that of someone else.

A few days before Rosh Hashanah a gathering was held at the Pearlstone Center outside Baltimore to mark the shloshim, the 30th day after the death, of Neely Snyder, the daughter of our congregants Sheila and Jody Harburger. Neely was a Jewish educator who worked and taught at Pearlstone and as we all know she was killed in a traffic accident on her way to work there at the beginning of August.

The shloshim is the end of formal mourning for any loss except for that of a parent, and it marks the time when one stops reciting Kaddish daily. In Israel and in more traditional communities in the Diaspora, a memorial gathering is often held to mark the shloshim, usually including some Torah study as well as tributes to the deceased, and of course prayer services which facilitate the last recitations of Kaddish.

At the shloshim, we were studying a familiar text which among other things explains that all human beings are of infinite value and all of us are unique. In the discussion, Jody compared the teaching of Torah to the planting of seeds. He noted that among those attending the shloshim was the son of one of his own professors, and that the seeds that professor had planted were nourished by Jody and then transmitted to Neely. Neely then transmitted those seeds to so many others, and on and on it goes.

William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar has Mark Antony say that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Our tradition, however, teaches us that this is not true, or at least, it need not be true. The good that men -- and women - do, can and does live after them if we emulate it and dedicate ourselves to transmitting it. May those we loved and lost always be kept in the Land of the Remembered.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon: Remember That You Were Strangers

Kol Nidre Sermon 5776

You may have noticed that on my desk in my study there is a framed picture of me deeply engrossed in conversation with President Bill Clinton. That picture was taken in President Clinton’s second month in office, after he had given a major foreign policy speech at American University, where I was the Hillel director at the time. I had returned from Haiti shortly before Clinton’s speech, and AU’s then-president Joe Duffy had arranged for me to be part of the platform party so that I might get the opportunity to speak with the President for a minute or so.

During his 1992 campaign, candidate Clinton was critical of the first President Bush’s policy of having the U.S. Coast Guard intercept Haitian refugees on the high seas and return them to Haiti. But once he was elected, he announced that he would keep that policy in place. The Washington office of Haiti’s deposed president Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide asked for a delegation of rabbis to visit Haiti and explore the human rights situation there, and I was invited to be part of that group, which went to Haiti shortly after Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993.

There were ten of us in that group and most of us didn’t know each other before we met at JFK airport. Our first night in Haiti we met at our hotel with some of the Catholic clergy who were our hosts, and they asked us to go around the room, introduce ourselves and tell why we had come. All ten of us cited precisely the same reason: the story of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 with 908 Jewish refugees. The ship docked first in Cuba, where the Jews were denied entry; they then came to New York, were denied entry once again, then sailed to Canada, which also refused to allow them in. The St. Louis went back to Germany and most of its passengers died in the concentration camps. Seeing refugees fleeing persecution and being sent back by the United States to possible death was not something we as Jews could sit by and watch. So we came to Haiti to see what could be done. We spent several days meeting with clergy, educators, labor leaders, journalists, as well as a representative of the U.S. Embassy. We wrote a report which I was able to present to the President and shortly thereafter, the policy was changed -- I do not know what role, if any, our report played in that decision.

“Never Again” is the rallying cry of our generation. We remember the suffering and murder of our people and we vow “Never Again.” But what exactly does “Never Again” mean? Is our mandate as Jews simply to make sure that what happened to us once will never happen to us again? Or is it to make sure that what happened to us, never happens to anyone ever again?

Jews are a people of memory, indeed memory is commanded in the Torah. We are commanded to remember Shabbat; we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt, attacking the weak and the stragglers; and 36 times in the Torah, we are commanded not to mistreat the stranger, because we are to remember that we were strangers in Egypt. The Torah is quite clear. The purpose of memory is not simply to enable us to better look out for ourselves. It is to give us guidance in how we are to treat others as well. Otherwise, the commandment not to mistreat a stranger is meaningless.

The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913. Although it is often believed that the ADL was founded in response to the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent from New York who was falsely accused of raping and murdering one of the female workers in the factory he managed, the Leo Frank case took place in 1915, two years after the ADL’s founding. Among the cases of “defamation” that the League was a response to was an article published in 1908 by Theodore Bingham, the Police Commissioner of New York City, in which he asserted that over fifty percent of all crimes in New York were committed by Jews. 1908, of course, was at the height of Jewish immigration to this country from Eastern Europe. Bingham and others of his ilk asserted that Jews brought criminality, low moral character, poor sanitation, were taking jobs away from native-born Americans, etc. People objected to the fact that many of the Jewish immigrants were not literate in English and many never learned it. In this, they were right; my father tells me that his grandparents lived in this country for decades and never learned English, which is why he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, since his grandparents lived with them.

While no one would deny that anti-semitism still exists in American society, the kind of virulent hatred that our grandparents and even our parents grew up with is long gone. I mentioned in my sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah that Jews are the most highly regarded religious group in the United States, and tonight I want to share with you some of that data. According to a 2014 Pew Forum report , on a scale of 1 to 100, with 50 being a neutral opinion, Jews rated a 63, followed by Catholics with a 62 and evangelicals with a 61. The three groups that Americans view unfavorably are Mormons (48), atheists (41) and Muslims (40). Jews are regarded favorably by every other group surveyed, with evangelical having the highest opinion of Jews of any non-Jewish group. Evangelicals rate Jews at 69 but we do not return the favor, giving Evangelicals a 34.

Anti-semitism is far from the biggest problem we face; indeed, it is the lack of anti-semitism which has made it much easier for Jews to assimilate into general society and give up their unique identity. But as Mordechai said to Esther, “think not that you shall escape just because you are in the palace .. if you are silent, you and your family shall perish while deliverance shall come from some other place.”

Less than a week ago at a rally in New Hampshire, a supporter posed the following question to presidential candidate Donald Trump:
Q: We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one.
A: Right.
Q: You know he’s not even an American.
A: We need this question. This is the first question!
Q: But anyway, we have training camps brewing where they want to kill us. That’s my question, when can we get rid of ’em?
A: We're going to be looking at a lot of different things. A lot of people are saying that, and you know, a lot of people are saying bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.
Trump has been roundly criticized for not “defending” President Obama from the accusation that he is a Muslim. But that criticism misses the point entirely. The questioner wasn’t asking Donald Trump if President Obama is a Muslim. He seemed, rather, to be asking Donald Trump when America will get rid of its Muslims. Trump's response --  “we’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
In fairness, that is the kind of answer that, as one columnist put it, a car salesman would give to a potential customer who said something outrageous. And as a rabbi I have on occasion had people say outrageous things to me, or in my presence, and rather than confronting them and getting into an unpleasant argument, I’ve simply smiled and nodded and said “uh-huh, uh-huh.” But here was someone advocating at best mass deportations of citizens and legal immigrants who are Muslims, and at worst genocide.
Conor Friedersdorf writing in The Atlantic gave what would have been the correct answer which should have been given by someone who aspires to lead our country: “Sir, President Obama is not actually a Muslim. He is an American. There are no known terrorist training camps in the United States, and if one was discovered, the Obama Administration would aggressively shut it down. And there is never a time when the United States will get rid of American citizens with inalienable rights to life and liberty, nor would I want to get rid of Muslim Americans even if it was totally legal. They are my friends, neighbors, and business associates. Some put on uniforms and fight for this country. The overwhelming majority are law-abiding patriots.”
I hasten to add that I don’t think Donald Trump actually supports “getting rid of” American Muslims. But he has tapped into a reservoir of nativism and racism in our society and I have no doubt that some of his supporters would endorse those measures. And I know that some of my Muslim friends and acquaintances whom I have met over the years through my interfaith work, are convinced that the time is coming when they are going to be rounded up and put in camps as we did to Japanese-Americans during World War II.
It’s not only Donald Trump. Over the past Dr. Ben Carson, a person I admire, made the statement that Islam and the US Constitution were incompatible and that no Muslim American should ever be allowed to be elected President. Proving, I suppose, that being a person of color and having fought hard to overcome bigotry does not immunize one from oneself being a bigot. And of course, John F. Kennedy went through something similar when he became the first and so far only Catholic to be elected president, and had to address fears from some Protestants that if a Catholic became President he would take his orders from the Pope.
President George W. Bush faced a tremendous challenge after the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, in fighting against Islamist terrorism while respecting American Muslims and their liberties. Here is what he said in a speech in 2002: "America rejects bigotry. We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith. America values and welcomes peaceful people of all faiths -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and many others. Every faith is practiced and protected here, because we are one country. Every immigrant can be fully and equally American because we're one country. Race and color should not divide us, because America is one country." Later that same year he spoke at the Islamic Center in Washington DC and said: "Here in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields. Muslim members of our Armed Forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction, upholding our nation's ideals of liberty and justice in a world at peace."
President Bush got it right. There are Muslims who are dedicated to our nation’s ideals of liberty and justice and there are Muslims who are not. The same can be true of adherents of any other religion or of no religion at all.
Jews and Muslims in America actually have a lot in common. We are non-Christian religions in a mostly-Christian society. Jews and Muslims follow similar dietary practices and there are a number of colleges and universities which have a dining hall that is certified as both kosher and halal. Neither Judaism nor Islam recognizes a civil divorce as sufficient to end a religious marriage and both religions have their own courts to adjudicate disputes within the community as well as personal status -- so if you support a law making so-called Sharia courts illegal, understand that this makes a criminal of every rabbi who has ever participated in a conversion or overseen delivery of a religious divorce since any such law to be remotely constitutional would also have to criminalize Jewish Batei Din as well as Catholic canon law tribunals.
Muslims do face a challenge in learning how to live in a multicultural, multireligious secular democracy. Jews are used to living as a minority while Muslims on the whole are not. But there are many American Muslims, some immigrants and some native-born, who are aware of the challenge and are working on all kinds of ways to counter any tendency towards extremism and help integrate Muslims into American society. Many European societies have serious problems of home-grown Muslim extremism because they have neither encouraged nor permitted Muslims to integrate. When a society tells the Muslims who live in it that they can never really be full participants, it takes away any incentive for them to do so. We must not repeat that mistake here. The bargain that America has always offered, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is that you learn to live by the same norms as everyone else does and we will treat you like we treat everyone else. It’s got to be a two-way street; we can’t reasonably expect Muslims to be loyal Americans and then tell them that they will never be true Americans, their religion is contrary to the Constitution and no one of their faith should ever be permitted to attain the highest office in our land.
That’s why the case last week of Ahmed Mohammed, the 14 year old science nerd who brought a homemade clock to his suburban Dallas school and was arrested, handcuffed, and held for several hours without being permitted to see a lawyer or his parents is so disturbing.
Let’s be clear -- if the school administration thought there was even the remotest possibility that the young man had a bomb, they absolutely had a duty to investigate. But the administration quickly realized it wasn’t a bomb. If you suspect there is a bomb in the school, you evacuate the school and call the bomb squad. They did neither. You don’t bring the suspected bomb into the school office and take pictures of it, and you don’t transport a suspected bomb in a regular squad car to the police station. What Ahmed was originally charged with was bringing a “hoax bomb” to school, a device which could reasonably fool people into believing it was a bomb and cause panic. Once it was clear that the device was not in fact a bomb, there was no danger, and even if it was necessary to question the young man there was no need to handcuff him, perp walk him out of the school, and violate his legal rights under both Federal and Texas law to see a lawyer and his parents. You will never convince him that this didn’t happen at least in part because he is a Muslim. You cannot tell him that the very fact he is a Muslim makes him perpetually a suspect and then expect him to love this country the way that you or I do.
This is not about Jews in the narrowest sense but rather about what kind of country we aspire to be. Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka had an Orthodox Jewish conversion; she, her husband and their two children are active members of an Orthodox shul in Manhattan and are traditionally observant. Many of Donald Trump’s staff both in his campaign and in business are Jewish. I know less about Ben Carson’s attitude towards Jews but he is strongly pro-Israel and belongs to a denomination, the Seventh Day Adventists, whose members feel a strong affinity with Judaism.
Nevertheless there are two reasons that Jews need to stand up to any manifestation of hate speech and stereotyping. The first reason is that our tradition demands it; we are taught to love the stranger and to respect the tzelem elohim, the divine image, in every person. The second reason is that once unleashed, you never know where the demons of racism are going to go next. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote: “When you gain politically by demonizing ethnic groups, or by pandering to those who do, you go from arguably likable eccentric to villain. You go from having kids who think “my dad’s a bit embarrassing, but he means well” to kids who’ll feel ashamed of what you stirred up for years after you leave politics. Those are the best case scenarios. The worst-case scenario is remote, but horrific: that’s where you’re the careless fool who ends the legacy of mostly responsible behavior on this issue, loses control of the forces you’re enabling, and watches in horror as your actions harm a lot of innocents.”
That’s the reason that the Anti-Defamation League on Monday condemned the words of both Trump and Carson, writing that  “we urge all presidential candidates to avoid innuendo and stereotyping of all sorts, including against people based on their faith, particularly American Muslims and, instead, to confront all forms of prejudice and bigotry. Remarks suggesting that all Muslims follow extremist interpretations of Islam have no basis in fact and fuel bigotry.  Whether directed against Jews, Muslims or others, such baseless comments breed hate and have no place in a presidential campaign or in public discourse.” And that is why the ADL earlier condemned Trump’s demonization of Mexicans and other immigrant groups.
Martin Niemoller was a German Lutheran pastor. He was a political conservative and initially supported Hitler, but by 1934 he had turned against the Nazis and was one of the founders of the Confessing Church, an anti-Nazi Christian group. For his activities he was imprisoned and spent 1937 to 1945 in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, narrowly escaping execution. After his release he wrote a poem which many of you know:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Never again. Never.