Out of the Rabbi's Mind

Open the Door: Doors on Our Jewish Identity

 

Is it a professional hazard, or personal interest, or a bit of both? I am not sure. However, I watch a lot of Jewish YouTube videos. People send them to me in emails and messages, they are found in the scrolling on my Facebook page, and sometimes I seek them out for a program, lesson or sermon. Several years back, around this very time of year, I was sent a Rosh Hashanah YouTube video made by Jewish Impact Films.

Scene one: shows a young man seeking to open his garage door with an automatic door-opener, attached to the sun- visor of his car. He tries and tries, but the garage door refuses to budge. He then takes the door-opener off the sun- visor, pushes the button in the car, out of the car, shakes it while pressing the button, in vain attempts for the garage door to open. Humorously, he tries licking it, banging it on top of his head, and makes noises of frustration. Finally, with a countenance of despondence he seems to be giving up hope.

Scene two: The young man notices a second car pulling into the driveway. In this car, a traditionally dressed Hasid in black garb takes out his Shofar, blows a multi-note Shevarim, and the garage door miraculously opens!

Scene Three: The Hasid drives by the frustrated man, gives him a nod and a thumbs-up. The young man looks perplexed, but gives an acknowledging grateful nod back.

The YouTube flashes then to a caption… “These High Holy Days stick with what works.”

Next scene: the young man is blowing a Tekiah on a large Shofar to open the trunk of his car and smiling with joy at his success!

A banner ends the short movie with the saying “Shofar, So Good.”[1]

Our Shofar Service is one of the highlights of the our Machzor. It is divided into several captions preceding scenes.

Malchuyot, Sovreignty.

Zichronot, Remembrances.

Shofarot, Shofar Blasts.

Each caption is an existential door opening a scene of High Holy Day reflection and prayers, culminating with a Shofar blast, a door-opening reminder to link our reflections and intentions into the scenes of our own life.

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Scene One. Malchuyot. This is the door that opens our relationship to God. The Shofar blast calls us to pay attention to God’s divinity or divine power. This is part of the construct of authority in the ancient world.

A parable from our tradition tells of a King who enters a province and asks: “May I be your King?” The people respond: “What have you done for us that we should have you rule over us?” What did the King do?  He built a city wall, he provided the infrastructure for a water supply, and he fought wars in their defense. Then when the King asked for a second time: “May I be your King?” the people responded “Yes!”

Likewise, the parable concludes: God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, divided the sea for them, sent down manna for them, brought up a well of water for them, provided them with quail to eat, and fought a war with Amalek on their behalf. Thus, when God asked: “May I be your King?” the people responded “Yes!”[2]

Our Malchuyot  prayers ask us to accept a hierarchical relationship with an infallible, divine sovereign who controls all. Yet in most modern countries today, kings and queens are symbolic, or have limited powers. In England, Queen Elizabeth does not dictate laws, Queen Margerethe of Denmark has her role limited by the country’s constitution, as does King Abdullah of Jordan. Moderns balk at a supreme authoritarian construct. It brings discomfort, and is discordant with our conceptions of relationships both human and Divine. Thus, the Shofar calls of Malchuyot are, for many of us, jarring on this day.

Yet there is also opportunity in dissonance. The calls of the Shofar can be reconfigured as the door-opener to struggle with our relationship with the Holy One, and what it means for our lives. As I often teach, we are called Israel, God-wrestlers, for a reason. Let the Shofar calls of Scene One, impel us to question and wrestle with God, like our ancestor Jacob, who famously wrestled with a being Divine.

The first Tekiah of Malchuyot begs us ask the question of ourselves: What is our relationship with God?

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Scene Two is Zichronot, the scene of our service that arouses our historical memory. Our prayers have us reflect on Jewish history. The relationships of God with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are evoked. We consider how Moses, and David, and the prophets connected and spoke to the Holy One, and how they evolved their understanding of Judaism and God, through history.

Our Zichronot reflections should have us ask how we are connected to the Jewish story l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation?

At this very moment, my brother and sister-in-law are taking my nephew Jake on a pre-Bar Mitzvah trip to Poland, England and Israe,l to research his Jewish family roots. With a written explanation of the origins of my father’s family, dating back to the time of the Inquisition in Spain, he will relate to his ancestors by viewing a large Kiddush cup once donated to the London Great Synagogue in the early 1800’s, and take part in the search for a Torah that was gifted by my family there.

He will view the denization papers given to my family by King George III, and visit the graves of our ancestors centuries old, and ancestors not-so-old. Including a great-great uncle who was a pilot in the English air-force and downed in World War Two.

Jake will learn details of the lives of his Polish family through letters now featured in the Jewish Museum in Poland, found in the attic of his Australian grandfather, the Polish correspondents who perished too-soon in the Holocaust.

He will visit the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, where pictures of my mother’s Egyptian family are on display – a Seder in Egypt before their 1956 exile.

The prayers of Zichronot, are the door opener asking us to consider making our own connection to Jewish history, theological or actual, whether it be an old or recent, whether it be mythical or documented. The Shofar calls us to consider our rapport to the chain of tradition from its beginning, to our day, and how we can work to continue that chain of tradition in the generations beyond us.

The second set of Shofar calls, Zichronot ,ask us: What stories and history do you wish to perpetuate into the future of Judaism, to ensure that Jewish life is rooted in the past, but remains relevant for today?

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Our final scene, Scene Three, is Shofarot, the call to us to return to Jewish revelation and Jewish practice, part of the process in bringing about redemption.  As Reform Jews, we are asked to consider the Covenant and the Mitzvot, the gamut of Jewish tradition, and work to shape Jewish lives of meaning and relevancy for ourselves, our families, our communities, so that we can look back with a sense of fulfillment.

This requires attention. This requires intention.

“A knock on the door and a man selling Shofars…”[3] begins a story by my friend Mitch Chefitz.

The salesman says to Gabriella, the girl who answers the door: “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”

“How much?” asks Gabriella who had just received seven dollars and seven cents for her seventh birthday.

“Seven dollars and seven cents.”

“That’s good then because that’s all I have,” she replies. “Give me a Shofar to make me strong.” And she hands over the money, for what else is she to do with such a strange amount?

The next day Gabriella tries to blow the Shofar and not a peep. But day after day she tries again and again, different angles, different breaths, and eventually eek! A sound is made. Slowly steadily she expands her strength to blow and eventually a squeak becomes a Tekiah! A Teruah! A Shevarim! A Tekiah Gedolah!

As Gabriella grows, her lungs become stronger and stronger from her Shofar blowing. It enables her to become an athlete that can run the field like the wind itself. At seventeen she has a party where she blows out the candles with one breath.

Then, a knock at the door. The man selling Shofars is on the other side. “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”

“I remember you,” says Gabriella, “you have not changed.

“But you have changed,” said the man. “You have grown up nicely.”

“So how much to buy a Shofar?” asks Gabriella.

“More than you can spend,” said the man, “but you could trade.”

“Well, I have had this one to make me strong for a long time, so I’ll swap it for one to make me pleasing.”

Gabriella does not try the new Shofar right away, after all she had her blowing technique down! But when she gets around to picking it up, she hears that she had underestimated how difficult a new Shofar could be.

She practices and practices, day after day after day. She finally learns to sound a sweet Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim and Tekiah Gedolah. She even learns how to fashion her lips to play different notes to create sweet melody. People are fascinated by her skill and come from far and wide to hear the mistress of the Shofar!

She keeps this Shofar safe and clean. Thinking one day soon, she might swap it for another, and learn yet a new skill.

Ten years pass. But the Shofar salesman does not come.

Twenty years pass. But the salesman does not come.

Thirty years pass. A knock at the door.  The man selling Shofars on the other side.

“I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”

“I expected you to be back years ago,” Gabriella said, “I am ready to trade, I have been keeping this Shofar in good shape for you. This time I want the Shofar to make me wise.”

“Sure,” said the Shofar salesman. “But this Shofar comes with a task! You will need to paint its inside.”

Not so hard, thinks Gabriella. I will just fill the Shofar with paint. And she agrees.

When she finally looks at her new Shofar, she notices it is almost closed at the mouthpiece. She pours in blue paint, but it just slides right out, the horn on the inside still clear of color. The paint store suggests she try different colors, different types of paints, different techniques. Nothing works.

She went to consult a scientist who suggests multiple experiments.

She went to a biologist who examined the horns DNA.

She sought out a mathematician at a college who taught her calculus.

But nothing could teach her how to paint the Shofar with color. She went to all types of teachers looking to learn the answer. Along the way she learned cosmology, relativity, string theory, chemistry, literature and so much more.

Decade after decade passed, and at age ninety-seven, after gathering much wisdom, and trying in vain to color her Shofar, a realization came to her in a flash.

She held the small tip of the Shofar to her mouth. Even a large breath would be too much. Gentle. Gentle. She sighed a sigh through the small opening. Slowly, steadily, her heart and soul, streamed into the horn to color it with her spirit. The Shofar proclaimed more than a sound. It called out understanding and redemption. Love and acceptance. Grace and beauty.

At that very moment, the salesman of Shofars appeared. “You reached me,” he said. “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”

“I am happy to see you, said Gabriella, “I am ready to trade up…”

And she held out her Shofar for the next one.

In Scene Three, Shofarot, we are called to shape our Jewish lives through strengthening Jewish skills, by making Jewish life pleasing, by learning Jewish teachings, to create a long-lived Jewish life.  The Shofar calls out to us to recommit ourselves to Jewish doing and knowledge. The Shofar calls of Shofarot, are the door-opener for you to question, what should you be doing to create that Jewish life around you?

With each blast of the Shofar service, we are reminded of the existential choices that form the key elements of our Jewish existence.

In the YouTube short film, the Shofar is blown by a Hasid and opened the garage door. “These High Holy Days stick with what works,” proclaimed the caption. The Shofar is the door-opener that calls to us to ask the questions, to figure out what will work in our modern Jewish lives:

Malchuyot – how do we shape our relationship with the Holy One?

Zichronot – how do we connect ourselves, and generations to come, to Jewish history?

Shofarot –  how do we connect our lives meaningfully to Jewish doing and knowledge?

The Shofar miraculously opens the doors of these important questions for us. We choose whether the Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim, Tekiah Gedolah, will resound inside of us, speaks to us at this season, if they will be “Shofar, so good,” Shofar calls for good.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_r27mrH1MU

[2] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Bahodesh, Chapter 5.

[3] “Gabriel’s Horn” from the Curse of Blessings by Mitchell Chefitz. It was suggested by the author to use Shofar rather than horn. I have changed the child to a girl for my sense of providing some gender balance to this sermon.

Open the Door: Doors into Loving the Land of Israel

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When you visit Jerusalem, the white limestone buildings of old and new, rise out of the hills of the Judean desert. Buildings that are rooted in centuries of history. That have weathered wind and storm. Buildings that glisten with golden hue in the hot desert sun. Buildings which create a uniform vista of cohesion, that belies the religious and political tensions that have permeated eons.

Amongst the judiciously assembled stone-block upon stone-block, each structure, whether it be a house, a shop, or an office, is bestowed personality by perhaps a few architectural features. To my mind, none are more attractive than the doorways of these edifices.

Jerusalem doors are quite remarkable. Often photographed for their variety and beauty, you can find them on posters, on cards, in travel brochures, because of their individuality and craftsmanship. They are set in door frames – square or domed or arched. Sometimes the entrances are single doored. Sometimes two doors meet side-by-side.

Some doors are plain wood. Others are painted in Mediterranean hues of blues and greens and turquoises. Some are a mixture of middle eastern color.

There are doors adorned with intricate carvings of flora and fauna, others carved with swirls and scrolls, some with the infinitude patterns of Islamic art, others with a biblical scene or story. One passes doorways with simple black or copper metal work. One sees doors with intricate iron patterns and nature scenes, which could only have been welded by an expert craftsman.

There are doorways plastered with posters containing announcements in black Hebrew, Cyrillic, English or Arabic script on white paper– a meeting, a death, a proclamation. There are the metal roller-doors of the Shuk, the market, covered with graffiti and art that close at night to reveal their imprints. And there are wooden doors purposely painted with a picture or pattern.

Such are the beautiful entranceways into the buildings of the capital city of Israel, Ir HaKodesh, the holy city, Jerusalem. Beautiful doors that beckon us entry into their insides, just as Israel has always beckoned the Jewish community towards her midst.

Israel is an inextricable part of the Jewish conversation.

In the Talmud,[1] Rabbi Zera we are told, was desperate to enter the Holy Land, and he searched with no avail to find a ferry to cross a river to make his way there. Finally, he grasped a rope bridge, and crossed the water, in order to reach the land at the center of his soul. Rabbi Abba loved Israel so much that he would kiss the cliffs of Akko. Rabbi Hanina would take time away from his studies to repair Israel’s roads. Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi, when they would learn together, made it their custom to move from the sun into the shade, so they could avoid complaining about Israel’s weather. And, Rabbi Hiyya ben Gamda, rolled himself in the dirt of the land, because he took so much pleasure in her stones and dust.[2]

There are multiple unique doors through which we connect to Israel. Some doors open easily for us. Some doors open slowly for us. Some doors need a good, steady push. And sometimes, a door is so stuck, that we feel it may never open for us, or it would take a miracle to unlock it. These Israel doors line the streets of Jewish experience through millennia, till today.

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For some, the door of love of Israel comes from Religious School or Hebrew School experiences. There we learnt about the land tracing her waterways – the Mediterranean, the Kinneret, the Dead Sea, the Jordan–  marking out her cities – Jerusalem, Haifa, Nazereth and Eilat, on maps we colored. We sang the songs of her pioneers and her musicians, emphasizing the beauty of the land and the specialness of her history. Strains of the melodies of Zum Gali Gali Gali and Yeruslayim Shel Zahav, can be melodically recalled in our musical cortex. Our hands remember building the model Kibbutz out of popsicle sticks, and tasting Jaffa Oranges, and those “foreign” falafel balls. We learned a few modern Ivrit words as a lure to make the Hebrew of our prayers more relevant: Echad, Shtayim, Shalosh…

For others that door of learning about a Jewish homeland, in the black and white, either/or, concrete-operational world of childhood, evoked feelings of disloyalty to the America we loved. Could we be patriots if we felt an emotional bond to a land that was not the United States? The relationship to Israel tore into our young conscience.

45fe1a9f77d1eabeb1dd7d03195da2f2For some of us, a door was opened to love of Israel in youth group activities or camp.  We re-enacted Biblical history alongside our friends.  We played out the arrival of the pioneers, as they fled to Israel’s shores to find freedom. We visited a supermarket using Hebrew words for food items. In youth groups and camps contemporaries learned Israel dances. We built bonfires out of wood collected from the surrounding landscape like they do in the land of Israel on Lag B’Omer. On Tisha B’Av we mourned the historical destruction of Jerusalem.

For other members of the Jewish community, whose teenage years were a time of angst, the enthusiasm of peers relating to a country so far away made them feel all-the-more distanced, not part-of the group. For idealistic teens who held values high, and were being bombarded by stories of an Israel that was not ideal on their TV sets, questions about the land arose, and were struggled with. Could they be in relationship with Israel, a land that did not seem to live up to the ideal of being “a light to the nations”?[3]

20161117_092503-01For some, a door which opened a love of Israel was a trip to the modern State – Birthright, NFTY in Israel, a planned congregational tour, or a visit to relatives. As their plane landed, a demonstrative outburst as El Al passengers clapped, setting the scene for emotional connection. Suddenly they were immersed in the guttural sounds of Hebrew which they vaguely recognized – Shalom! Baruch HaBa!

In the land of Israel, they were surrounded by people who have our body shape and hair and faces, who use Yiddish phrases in amongst the Hebrew, and have a wry Jewish humor. Connection was created with their tour guide, and bus driver, and the young Israeli guards who accompany them.

For others though, such a trip caused hesitation. Jews carrying guns, lots of guns. Soldiers stopping mothers and children at borders. Governments that do not treat the inhabitants in the land with full equality. Witnessing of religious Jews intolerant of secularism or other streams of Judaism. The door opened on difficult scenarios that alienated rather than attracted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor some in our Jewish community, the entrance way to Israel is through the door of history. Israel is replete with where we came from, who we are, values and our conundrums. As we found ourselves at the road dating to the time of our patriarch Abraham, leading up to Abraham’s Gate at Tel Dan, we realize our feet may be standing on the same stones as our father when he was there to rescue his nephew Lot.  In Hezekiah’s tunnel under the city of David, the Siloam inscription provides archaeological proof that David was the King of Israel. At Masada, the Jewish spirit to live a Jewish life with integrity is emphasized in martyrdom. At the tombs of Rabbi Akiva and Maimonides in Tiberias, we know that our rabbinical tradition loved Israel so much, that our rabbis could not bear to be buried anywhere else. In the Ari Synagogue in Tsfat, we understand that the mystics believed they were closer to the Shechina, by relocating to the Holy Land. In the Kibbutzim, we hear the struggle of the pioneers who made Israel bloom again. And in the center of Tel Aviv, we visit Independence Hall, and put ourselves into that historical moment of the UN vote, and the signing of the declaration of the new Jewish state.

For others, that door of history is marred with doubts, because we are unsure about the veracity of biblical claims, we find distaste of the multiple accounts of conquering and reconquering, beginning with Joshua, continuing in the stories of the corruption of the Hasmoneans, and in our learning that the re-establishment of a modern state is in a land, once inhabited by Palestinians and other groups. Do we have rights? Have we been right? Have we done right?

door-old-city-of-jerusalemFor some, a door of myth and prayer is the entrance that opens their hearts to Israel. Our spiritual literature talks of an ideal Jerusalem, Zion. In the Psalms David cried: “by the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion… If I forget you Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning…”[4] In our daily central prayer we pray for the return to the land of our ancestors, not just a physical return, but a return to a spiritual ideal: “Blessed are You God, who builds Jerusalem.” And Judah HaLevi in his beautiful poem, Songs to Zion, sings out this yearning for return to the Jewish homeland, even if its physical reality is not that hospitable: “My heart is in the east, and I at the furthest west”, bemoaning our exile.

For other members of the Jewish family, these prayers and these mythical yearnings seem like an extension of a story that does not speak to us. Some of us born into Judaism, and some of us who become part of the Jewish community later in life, struggle with such a connection to the homeland. We are willing to forgo this line of thinking because it is not part of the spirituality we innately feel in our own lives. What has Israel got to do with our connection to the Holy? Isn’t holiness everywhere? Surely Judaism, should be more universal, than a particularistic loyalty to a land in this modern day and age?

Some find a door to Israel because it is the native environment for Jewish religious expression. There, in the land, the agricultural resonances of our Holy Days finally make sense, as the first rains fall at Sukkot, or the almond trees blossom at Passover. How wonderful it is to be in a place where everyone celebrates Chanukah with menorahs burning in window boxes by the door. And on no place on earth can you find more of a variety of Jewish religious expression than in the land of Israel, with the multicultural mix of diasporas that fed it, and the richness of the cross pollination of that Jewish expression.

For others, the intolerance of religious pluralism alienates. Where Orthodox does not acknowledge Reform, or Conservative, or Reconstructionism. When women are tormented for wanting to pray at the Wall wearing Tallit and reading Torah. When instruments cannot be played on Shabbat. When restaurants must be closed on sacred days to maintain their Kashrut license. A door is created that is closing or slamming on their connection.

sta50585Some in the Jewish community find their door to Israel through Jewish pride. The amazing technologies that have been developed by our people, such as machines that can extract water from the air, cures for cancer, or upright wheelchairs that allow greater mobility. They appreciate the strategies of the Israeli government and army, that is committed to protecting a Jewish people and keeping Zion safe for all Jews. They beam with a broad smile when an Israeli, Gal Gadot, acts on the screen as Wonder Woman, a symbolic representation of female strength and, (for the Jew) Jewish power in the world.

Yet others see in Israel a door of shame, because the land does not live up to the ideals of humanitarian needs that we would want from a Jewish state.  The Knesset is not always motivated with our ethics. The soldiers of the IDF sometimes act questionably. Our social conscience begs us ask difficult questions about the placement of settlements. Arab towns located within Israel borders do not receive enough money for basic infrastructure such as roads and water and basic health. And we question the oppression of others even though we acknowledge that the safety of each Israeli and tourist is important too.

Some Israel doors open easily for us. Some Israel doors open slowly for us. Some Israel doors need a good, steady push. And sometimes, a door is so stuck, that we feel it may never open for us or it would take a miracle to unlock it.

Through some doors, one of us notices one detail and others of us concentrates on another detail.

As we walk through the alleyways of our Jewish life, what is certain, is that the doors of Israel are ever present. We cannot avoid them in the streets of Jewish life and existence for they are evident at every turn.  They are part of Jewish tradition. They are part of Jewish reality.

As a Jewish community, we need to engage and open the beautiful doors, the scarred doors, the welcoming doors, the scary doors. We cannot choose to ignore the doors for they are a stunning architectural feature of who and what we are.

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At the end of this High Holy Day season, at the final service of Yom Kippur, Neilah, we are told that the door closes on our repentance, yet the door is never truly locked. The multiple, varied doors on our connections and disconnections to Israel should never be locked.

What if we used the opportunity of this season to share the view from our door with others and extend that opportunity throughout the year? What if we were to engage in respectful conversation of the details which we see, and seek to understand the opinion of those who see the details in a different light? What if we were to listen to the multiple conversations outside the door, under the doorframe, and inside the doorways?

The discussion on Israel needs the fullness of each of our stories, each of our views, each of our joys, and each of our concerns. We must be impelled to examine the lines, the carvings, the decorations, the ironwork, the handles, where the doors lead, where the doors shut. And figure out, which doors can we walk through with comfort? Which doors can we walk through with discomfort? What doors must we push open so that the conversation includes all individuals as part of this Jewish conversation? What doors do we need to enter and speak our truths to impel change?

In listening to the fullness of our dialogue, we might just begin to open new doors. New doors for connection to each other and new doors for connection to the state of Israel. Doors which might bring the ideal Israel, closer to actuality, in the world in which we live.

That would be a door worth opening.

[1] Ketubot 112a

[2] Psalm 102:15

[3] Isaiah 49:6

[4] Psalm 137

The Kotel Decision: The Parties at the Table

 

psc_e1980i010I remember going to visit Judy Chicago’s art installation “The Dinner Party” long ago at the Brooklyn Museum. This iconic feminist art piece sits in a mood-lit room, in the middle a triangular table upon which are 39 place settings, using mixed media, to highlight thirty-nine women: goddesses, historical figures, and women of importance in Western Civilization. The tables stand on a large porcelain-tile floor containing the name of 999 other important women. Judy Chicago’s intention in her well-known work was placing women back at the table of history, celebrating their contribution. Her-story is highlighted so that it might become one again with his-story.

Our Torah portion also speaks about including all parties at a table. In Mishpatim, just after Moses has finished relating all the various laws to the Children of Israel,and the people have agreed “to do all the things that God has spoken” (Ex. 24:3); Moses arises early the next morning and builds an altar, a type of table, resting on 12 pillars, representing every tribe of Israel. (Ex. 24:4) The message in the construction of the altar is clear. The Torah rules and relationship with God that has been elaborated in this week and last week’s Torah portions is for each and every one.

I remember going to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem two years ago, to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall. I was with a group of women rabbis and one male rabbi from the Americas. We arose early that Rosh Chodesh morning to go to the small section reserved for women in the northern plaza of the Western Wall, to mark space for the crowds that were expected at that significant anniversary. We knew that their might be some violent and vocal resistance to our bigger-than-usual gathering at the beginning of the new month. The message by the ultra-orthodox for 25 years, since that first Rosh Chodesh gathering by women, attending a conference in 1988 was clear. They objected to women praying together as a group. For them, they denied its halachic validity and it was an anathema brought in by female Jews from the Diaspora. This orthodox gathering of prayer was not kosher – they declared that there was no room at the table for women’s public worship.

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In my hallway at home, sits another piece of art, a photo that for me is a foundation text. Nested in a wooden frame and burgundy matting, the picture depicts an earlier time, before the first Western Wall plaza was built. A time my Egyptian grandfather remembered clearly in the stories of my childhood.

Side by side, at the wall, men and women are praying together. Each gender having an equal place at a site which for generations has been deemed as sacred by our people. Side by side are men and women at the outer western retaining wall, that bolstered the hill upon which the Temple once stood. The Kotel, the Wailing Wall was a place where all were welcome to pray according to their own custom regardless of gender, practice or belief.

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Over the years, as the plaza has been twice renovated, the women’s section has become smaller. Those who control the wall have become more extreme in their views. They view this symbol of Jewish unity as an Orthodox synagogue, but not just any orthodox synagogue, but “their” type of Orthodox synagogue, understanding their practice to be the true expression of Judaism. A national symbol, if not the national symbol, of the Jewish people hijacked by one strand of Judaism.

Meanwhile, especially in the Diaspora, Judaism has changed. The largest numbers of Jews are worshipping in more liberal movements – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and more. The Western Wall that belonged to all Jewish people, felt like a place of alien practice for many.

As a compromise overseen by Natan Sharansky, on the southern section of the Western Wall over an archaeological dig, a temporary wooden platform was raised for mixed prayer. Some of you may know someone who was Bar or Bat Mitzvah there.  It was makeshift. Not big enough. It looked like the wooden porch you added on as an afterthought to the back of your house. You had to pay to get in because it was in an archeological park. And the underlying message to Jews who value gender equality and diversity is that we were second rate in the land of Israel and among the Jewish people.

This week, marks a historic moment for all Jews. After two-and-a-half years of quiet and difficult negotiation with the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, the Women of the Wall, the Israeli Government, the Archaeological Trust – it has been agreed to enlarge the Western Wall Plaza by the Israeli Government, on a vote of 15 in favor and 5 against.

The Israeli Government will finance an enlarged plaza, with one main entrance, which will contain three space-options for worship. The Orthodox men and women sections will remain on the northern end of the Western Wall; and in the southern end of the Western Wall there will be a beautiful and egalitarian sacred space overseen by movements and organizations that value pluralism and equality.

You will enter and have a choice on which part of the Western Wall you will go to pray. The new part of the plaza will be a national site. A place where men and women can worship together. Where female Israeli soldiers may speak and be honored. Where a woman can sing HaTikvah at National Events or stand on the same stage as a man. Where people of many faiths will be welcome on their own terms. No Pope will be asked to remove the cross they wear. Where male and female Olim can be naturalized together. Where no dress police will demand that women cover every inch of their skin to touch the holy stones that will be reachable from the Herodian roadway.

This decision is indeed a Shehechiyanu moment, a first time moment to celebrate!

In many ways this is a miraculous decision. Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center and a founder of Women of the Wall, who will surely go down in her-story and history as one of the great leaders and game changers of our people, speaks of this miracle. She did not think that Avicahai Mandelblit, the black kippah wearing, lawyer, red headed Orthodox cabinet minister, who would not shake her hand, who had been assigned to negotiate this deal, would have the integrity to see through the compromise. She did not believe in a coalition government, that Prime Minister Netanyahu would risk political capital to let this happen.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, was also skeptical that the government would make a deal. He knew that any changes for the egalitarian and liberal movements of Judaism in Israel have always come through the Supreme Court after much back and forth.

But the miracle happened. Partly because of the wide coalition of women across the movements of Judaism, from Orthodox to Reform who for 27 years have consistently added their voices and persons to this cause.

Partly because of the good will of the Israeli Government who came to see this as an issue of Jewish peoplehood and unity.

Partly because of the support of Natan Sharansky, a consistent voice for Jewish peoplehood and inclusion, who was part of  and supportive of the negotiations.

Partly because of the consistent lobbying and agitation of the Reform Movement, especially Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Conservative Movement, and the Federations of North America.

And mostly because the right people of good will were around the right table at the right time.

What now? Well celebration of course! We will recite Shehechiyanu.

But also an awareness that this decision comes with some resistance – from the Elad NGO, Islamic Groups, a small number of Israeli Archaeologists and of course, Rabbi Rabinovich who controls the northern end of the Western Wall Plaza. We must continue to answer objections with reason and love  and by making sure that people understand that the new area will be one of tolerance and respect in its building as well as its administration. That those behind the new southern section of the Western Wall implementation are committed to “getting to yes” in making this happen.

As for the Orthodox Women who feel that we have abandoned their cause to change Orthodox in agreeing to an Egalitarian Plaza, we are saddened that this historical decision was not their ultimate dream. The new section of the wall will offer them a segregated part to prayer in Orthodox custom whenever they desire. They will have the liberal movements support for equal access within orthodox Judaism, but their fight must be fought within and we pray, won for them and Judaism at another time.

In the Diaspora, we have a role to play in continuing the pressure to see that the plans are not thwarted and that the new part of the Western Wall plaza comes to fruition. We must make sure that every visit to the Western Wall by like-minded liberal individuals and by Federation and Synagogue tours includes celebration, visits and ceremonies to the site of the new egalitarian section. so people can envision what can be.

We must continue to support people on the ground – the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements financially and spiritually and make sure the money we send to Israel is used in causes that speak to our Jewish values of inclusion.

We must support Women of the Wall, who will continue to nudge the issue with their monthly Rosh Chodesh meetings in the Women’s Section, in order to encourage the new part of the plaza to be built quickly. We must send them money, watch their streamed services, and pray with them in the Holy Land.

In Mishpatim, Moses build an altar that includes all the Israelites with its 12 symbolic pillars. In our time, we seek to create an Israel and a Western Wall that is also inclusive of all. I am reminded of the words of Judy Chicago’s beautiful poem which originally accompanies her installation of “The Dinner Table”:

And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

This week a step in that direction to that Messianic vision within Jewish peoplehood, when all will live in harmony with each other and the earth, and then everywhere will be called Eden again. A Western Wall for all of us.

Shehechiyanu, V’ki’y’manu, V’hig’y’anu La’zman HaZeh.

 

 

Chanukah: Our Religious Freedom to Touch the Jewish Soul

Chanukah approaches with December.

latkes-stack-690-150x150We are readying our lives by buying candles and dreidels, dewaxing and polishing our Chanukiot, planning eight nights of gifts, grating our Latkes, looking up recipes for Ponchkes (Yiddish)/Sufganiot (Hebrew)/ Donuts, and planning festive celebrations and meals with friends. For us and our children Chanukah in this day and age is a big deal.

This minor holiday has become quite a Jewish winter gathering in the United States in response to the other December holiday that surrounds us. It looms large in the consciousness of the American media (and hence the non-Jewish and Jewish public) as society desires to demonstrate ecumenical inclusivity around the enormity of Christmas.

The story of this winter equinox holiday lies in the apocryphal book of Maccabees and in Judith. These books did not make it into the Biblical Canon. The story of the Maccabees was too close in time to the fixing of the Bible’s contents. While the victory of the Hasmonean’s over the Syrian Greeks and the restoration of the Temple was something to celebrate, recent memory at the turn of the millennia of the disastrous reigns of the Hasmonean dynasty, was a more than good reason to downplay the holiday.

In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud who were surely familiar with the apocryphal works ask the question: “MEI CHANUKAH? What is Chanukah? Chanukah was already a festival that the people were celebrating with the lighting of lights. But the rabbis were searching for a reason outside of military victory and a short-lived badly-ruled Jewish state to celebrate.

sdfdvazyrzwd2sy7d54xruxngxaThey offer various reasons. The House of Hillel argues for increasing light and holiness in the world over eight nights. The House of Shammai, knowing that the Hasmonean’s fought through Sukkot, argue for diminishing candle lights over eight days corresponding to the eight days of sacrifices through the festival of booths. It is from this same Talmudic passage that we first find the story of the pot of oil that lasted for the unexpected eight days and a reference to the miracle.

Most Chanukah customs are developed in Rabbinic Judaism as a back-and-forth negotiation between the people and the rabbis. What happened on the streets and in the homes of Jews eventually is given greater ritual meaning. The eating of oily food to recall the miracle of the oil. The playing of dreidel which has its origins in a medieval betting game is given significance by inferring that the letters on the top refer to the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a Great Miracle Happened There). The eating of dairy food to honor Judith on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month) of Tevet that occurs in the middle of Chanukah.

Chanukah is a festival that celebrates not just the religious freedom won by the Maccabees, but perhaps also, our religious freedom to create Jewish celebrations that have meaning and significance for each generation of Jews. What new customs will our generation develop that will touch the Jewish soul?

THE 4TH JULY DREAM

“An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened” says the Talmud[i].

We Jews have long been dream interpreters. From my famous namesake Joseph who dreamed of his rise from the depths of a pit to a high command in Egypt, and who was able to interpret the dreams of his guards and baker and butler inmates, as well as the dreams of the Pharoah of Egypt – to the prophets whose sleeping and waking dreams spoke the words of God – to the rabbis of the Talmud, like Ben Hedya, who was known to give positive interpretations of dreams to those who paid him and negative interpretations to those who did not pay!

We have such a rich tradition of dream interpretation. The Talmud teaches:

If an ox kicks you in your dream, a long journey awaits you. If you see a male chicken in your dream you will have a son. If you see a fig in your dream, you will remember all you who have learned. If you see an egg that breaks in your dream, your dream will be fulfilled. If you are in chains in your dream, you will be protected. If you see a well in your dream, you will behold peace and become a great Torah Scholar.[ii]

“An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened” says the Talmud. We are a people who believes a dream needs interpretation.

Our Torah portion this week, Balak, tells of the prophet Balaam who is sent by King Balak to curse the people – although the words Balaam speaks can only come through God. The three times the prophet opens his mouth to utter the commissioned curses, he is only able to give the Israelites blessing, as this is God’s will.

In another Talmudic passage there is a beautiful prayer offered in regards to dreams which is linked our parsha. It is recommended as a prayer to say when in a traditional synagogue, the priests do duchanan, when they offer their priestly blessing over the congregations, Tallitot over their heads, their arms out wide and hands shaped in the priestly Vulcan “Live long and prosper” formation. It is a time when it is believed that the conduits between here on earth and the heavens above are made most open through that holy moment and hence the words of our hearts and souls are most effective.

Such a beautiful prayer. It reads –

“Master of the World! My dreams and I belong to You. If the dreams are good — bolster them like the dreams of Joseph. And if they need to be remedied — fix them like the bitter waters that Moses sweetened. Just as You transformed wicked Balaam’s curses into blessings, so too, make all of my dreams be for the best.”[iii]

We are celebrating this weekend the 4th July, American Independence Day, when our country celebrates its dream – the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson and his cohorts wrote –

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[iv]

It is a dream echoed in the words by the Reverend Martin Luther King in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech which had become also part of the American experience.

When I became an American citizen just last High Holy Days, I fulfilled a waking dream of making myself not just a permanent and participating citizen in this country, but part of a society that dreams of honoring all: no matter their origins, gender, color of skin, sexuality. I became part of this American dream that believes in tolerance and as Australian’s would say: “Giving everyone a fair go!” What a beautiful dream that has made this country great.

But not always are our dreams fulfilled. So too with our American dream. The events of the last few weeks so fresh especially here in South Carolina has bought to the fore of national discussion where our American dreams have fallen short.

Rav Kook, an early Zionist, orthodox rabbi and spiritual teacher teaches us about bad dreams, dreams that have gone awry. He suggests that like the prophecy of Balaam which started out bad and turned to good, there are two ways we can transform evil dreams into good outcomes.

The first way is turning the evil around towards good. He examples that when Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he ultimately he rose to greatness, and was able to prepare a region to sustain itself through famine. Out of the nightmare we can refocus and realign to see the good that has come from misfortune.

So we see how the pundits comment on the way that people on both sides of the political spectrum have joined forces to ensure that the Confederate Flag is taken down from the State House close by. Or how the American community has come together to support and mourn with the people of faith at the Emanuel African Methodist Church with expressions of national grief. We refocus to make the best of the nightmare.

Rav Kook teaches that an even more impressive way of dealing with nightmarish situations is when the causes before realized are transformed into positive ones, so that our dreams become sweet because of our actions. This is the proactive approach of turning the bad to the good.

He writes as his sample that God could have let Balaam curse the people of Israel, only later turning the curses into blessings. But instead, God controls Balaam’s mouth so that only blessings are uttered.

Rather than waiting for the ills and injustices of society to fester and foster an incident… this more impressive approach asks us to take our American dreams and values and ask the question – is our society living up to our aspirations? And if not, how can we make this happen? We must examine who we are as Americans, we must focus our sensitivities towards other people’s pain, we must address inequalities before the bad dream takes on true nightmare qualities. We must affirm not just with dreamy words but in waking reality, equality for all and the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all working towards a favorable American world.

The men who wrote the Declaration of Independence, had a vision, a dream for a society better than the one they had known under British rule. When I became an American, I was inspired by this dream of a country with great opportunity.

“An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened” says the Talmud. We are a people who believes a dream needs interpretation. Let us dream for the good. For the auspicious. For the beneficial. So that all may live and American sweet dream.

[i] Berakhot 55a

[ii] Vanessa Ochs: The Jewish Dream Book pp. 29-31

[iii] Berakhot 55b

[iv] The Declaration of Independence

On the Journey for Justice

How is this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, like a sheep?

Hm. Perhaps I am racing ahead a bit…

Let me tell you a true story.

Last Monday I literally ran out of the office.

I had spent the whole day calendaring with our Interim Educator  and I was late, very late, for a very important date! I felt a little overdressed with somewhere to go. I took one look at the sun belting down as I got into my car… and thought to myself: “I should have packed sunscreen and brought a bottle of water – oh, well!” as I then drove the fifteen minutes downtown to the grounds of the South Carolina State House.

The reason: I had just received word that weekend that America’s Journey for Justice had been re-routed from Charlotte to Columbia and this area was to be an anchor city for four days of the march. Rabbi Marcus and Rabbi Doberne-Shorr were marching as well as many other Carolinian colleagues and rabbis from around the country. The very least I could do was spend an hour in Tikkun Olam/repairing the world work, along with these my colleagues in my temporary “home-town”.

But perhaps I am racing ahead on the journey of telling you this story.

Let me back up some.

At the beginning of this summer, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism’s social action and lobbying arm announced that Reform Jews, Rabbis and Youth would have the opportunity to march with the National Association for the Advancement of Color People on America’s Journey for Justice. This historic journey, an 860 mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC, is designed to mobilize activists and place focus on the national advocacy agenda for the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education. At the State House, they were just readying to surpass 500 miles of their trek. In every state that the journeyers visit… a different social issue is focused on.[i]

In the Torah portions of last week, this week, and next week, almost every few verses a different social issue is focused on. Last week, Shoftim, this week Ki Tetze and next week, Ki Tavo, like this Journey for Justice, focus on the laws to make a society fair, equable, safe and well run. Beginning with the emphatic words of Shoftim “Justice, justice you shall pursue”[ii], the laws notated in our three Torah portions deal with in Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s, phraseology:  “the social weal.”

In amongst the many laws of these three Torah sections we find commandments on issues as far and wide as fair economics, murder, the rules of war, the rebellious son, how to deal with the criminal, maintaining good societal boundaries, physical hygiene, charging interest, fulfilling vows and much, nuch more for the well running of a fair society.

We also find one really strange law that the rabbis have puzzled over for centuries. This is the law of sha’atnez. “You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen.”[iii]

Commentators have asked many hard questions about this law. Why are we not allowed to wear wool and linen together? The rabbis called this rule a Chok, a specific type of rule that is there for no apparent reason. As the 11th century commentator Rabbi Shlomo bar Yitzchak, RASHI, wrote: “What is this command? What logic is there to it?” Why can’t we wear linen and wool together? There is no reason, or no reason that we are capable of grasping.

Now, just because we don’t know “why”  in Jewish tradition, does not mean that commentators have not tried to ascertain some logic.

Which brings me back to my sheep.

The Kabbalists, the mystics of Judaism suggest that at the end of days, when the world is of an elevated consciousness, there will also be a radical change to the state of animals, who will evolve into an intellectual state similar to that of current humans. With that in mind, the commentator Rav Avraham Isaac Kook wrote at the end of the nineteenth century:

“Man, in his boundless egocentricity, approaches the poor cow and sheep. From one he seizes its milk, and from the other, its fleece…. There would be no impropriety in taking the wool were the sheep burdened by its load; but we remove the wool when its natural owner needs it. Intellectually, we recognize that this is a form of theft — oppression of the weak at the hands of the strong.”[iv]

In the time to come, when animals consciousness is raised, Rav Kook suggests that we will need to be able to distinguish between the difference of wool and linen. Linen taken from the flax plant will not impoverish the plant. But fleecing the sheep, will take from the animal something it needs.

Whether we buy into the notion that the consciousness of animals will be elevated at the end of days, or the analogy that Rav Kook makes to try to understand why wool and linen cannot be worn together,  does not matter. The essential lesson that Rav Kook is teaching is similar to the message that those marching on America’s Journey for Justice are trying to convey.  In our society, it is a form of theft, when we oppress the weak at the hands of the strong.

We fleece fellow Americans when they must work long hours but are unable to make a living wage.

We fleece fellow Americans when they do not have access to bulk stores like Sam’s Club or Costco, where only the rich can shop, because transportation will not take those of lesser economic circumstance out of the neighborhood, where only expensive mom and pop stores provide the essentials of life.

We fleece fellow Americans when their children do not have access to the same educational  opportunities that the kids in richer neighborhoods are given.

We fleece ourselves as s society when these children do not have the education tools, such as paper, text books, computers, that will stretch their thinking to be the best it can be.

We fleece fellow Americans when they are given longer sentences because of the color of their skin and nationality for similar offences to white people.

We fleece fellow Americans when they do not have the same access to voting rights.

When I ran out of the office last Monday, the words of last week’s Torah portion and this week’s Torah portion were ringing in my ears. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The Social Weal needs to be fair and equitable. What am I, a Jewish leader, doing to make it happen? What are we as Jewish individuals doing to make it happen? What are we as a Jewish community doing to make it happen?

As people of privilege, it is easy for us to sit comfortably in our home and our synagogue and just talk the talk of justice. The Journey for Justice, was walking the walk, in the hope that footsteps would be heard and echoed throughout the land. Their steps and voices will grow louder as they get closer to the Washington Mall. Their steps and voices will grow louder as we amplify their story in the press and pulpit, in our homes and on our ways.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of that historic march 50 years ago as “praying with his feet.” Last Monday I witnessed Blacks, Jews and others, journeying, praying with their feet. Let us pray with our feet, our hands, our minds, our heart, our determination, that we too can be involved in some small or large way in our lives, in making for a more equitable and fair society.  Living up to the words of Torah, perpetuating the Jewish legacy of justice for us and for the society we live in.

And let us say… Amen.

[i] http://www.naacp.org/ajfj

[ii] Deut 16:20

[iii] Deut 22:11

[iv] Otzarot HaRe’iyah vol. II, p. 97

Where is the Hand of God?

Hands

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? …When Freddie Gray dies in police custody from a spinal cord injury.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as the death toll in Nepal exceeds 4000, and the injury told beyond 7,500.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as protestors become violent on the streets of Baltimore, less than an hour away.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as a teenage girl being attacked by amorous men is thrown from a bus to her death.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … as the young die of diseases not cured.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when things go awry in our lives or those of our friends.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when natural disaster wreaks havocs on lives.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when our environment succumbs to vulnerabilities.

Where’s the hand of God?

The easiest way to answer when bad things happen is in the negative…  for we recognize  intuitively where the metaphorical hand of God is not.

God is not in the violence, God is not in the hate, God is not in the earth’s tremors or the earth’s winds, God is not in the lust, God is not in the ego that does not venture beyond id, God is not in power struggles, God is not in the politics that play with people’s lives, God is not in bad things that happen to us, others or the world.

Where is then the hand of God to be found? Such a deep question with so many complex answers.

One answer –

The hand of God is in our tears, in our compassion, in our caring. When we are moved by the troubles of others, when we empathize with the pathos of their suffering, when we pray for them in our hearts, we manifest the love of God into the universe. When we love our neighbors as ourselves we bring the hand of God into this world. When we weep, so does God.

One answer –

The hand of God is in our movement towards action – when we make a donation to help our brothers and sisters, when we work for equality for all peoples whatever their skin color, when we sponsor research, when we comfort the mourner and feed the hungry, when we raise awareness, and address society’s ills. We become God’s partners, God’s hands in repairing the world.

One answer –

The hand of God cradles us with love so that we can endure what is beyond endurance. When we let the spirit of God support us and know that there is life beyond pain, endurance beyond suffering, and that through will and support there is nothing we cannot forebear. We feel the hand of God on our shoulders, the touch of God in our hearts.

One answer –

The hand of God is in  in the path of goodness. God is found in universal values of peace, justice, love, compassion, equality, humanity. When we manifest the positive into our environment God’s presence is strengthened for us and for others. God’s hand’s hover over all of us like a parent blesses a child.

One answer –

The hand of God is felt in community that comes together and is there for each other. It is in the prayers they lift up with one voice. It is in the discussions of the holy that happen in their midst. It is in the study and the struggles that they share. God’s hand links each of their hands as they journey in life.

One answer –

The hand of God is in radical amazement when we know that miracles abound. As beautiful as a sunrise and as glorious as an ocean vista. They can be found in the little small details of existence– the fact that our hearts beat and our eyes open in the morning, the little bud on a tree in spring or the fact that water sits at the base of our cups. The sky is blue. The trees are green. The hand of God is in all of creation – if we choose to widen our eyes clearly enough we can feel.

When we ask: Where is the hand of God as we confront all that goes awry, it is too easy to forget in the randomness of existence, that so much of our world works, that is right and good and wonderful, where God is to be found.

Our ancestors believed that God had a strong hand and a mighty arm. Limited by their understanding of the world and the inadequacy of words, they spoke of God in human terms. We too have words unable to express the wonders of the Spirit that Unites us all, but just because the one that is Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, the One that is Becoming is beyond our grasp, does not mean that we are cannot recognize or see or feel or intuit  the touch of God in the universe and in our souls.

When we ask – Where is the hand of God? The answer is by necessity beyond our reach but at the same time able to be known. God’s metaphorical hand is as real as an ever present touch in our hearts and souls and minds.