The Kotel Decision: The Parties at the Table

  I 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 … Continue reading

The Haggadah as Metaphor

Haggadah 14th Century

As Passover approaches, our minds turn to the Haggadah, the book of “retelling” our people’s mythical history, our experience of when we were slaves in Egypt. The Haggadah tells of our enslavement 400 years from the time of Joseph, the injustices that happened to us in servitude to Pharaoh, and of the miraculous events that lead to our liberation from bondage.

The traditional Haggadah tells not just the biblical story of m’avdut l’cherut, from slavery to freedom, but uses the bible story as a template for the many times in our history when we were enslaved and worked towards independence.

Have you ever wondered why the story of five rabbis holding a Seder in the town of B’nai B’rak appears in the Haggadah? The legend tells us that the rabbi’s Seder went on all night until their students interrupted the Seder with a call to morning prayers. Tradition has come to teach us that these rabbis were not discussing Egyptian slavery but their own struggle against the Roman oppression.

Have you ever wondered why we sing a song about a goat that our father bought for two Zuzim, and all the unfortunate circumstances which occurred to everything that comes into contact with that goat? Chad Gadya, the one goat is a metaphor for those who are oppressed who will be ultimately redeemed by the Holy One.

Szyk Haggadah

The Haggadah is certainly foremost a Jewish story with a particularistic paradigm. It speaks to the creation of our identity as Jews. But it is also a universalistic story that makes us aware that we are part of humanity. The Haggadah is symbolically the retelling of the story of anyone and everyone who is oppressed, enslaved, and who longs for freedom. Hence the tradition of including readings in the Haggadah or writing whole Haggadot  that speak of specific  injustices – topics such as environment, Holocaust Darfur, African American oppression, LGBTQ rights and so much more – have found their way into our Pesach Seder for contemplation.

In its’ particularism and universalism the Haggadah is a metaphor for our own lives. Bottom line, our identity should be a Jewish identity. We form our own and our children’s identities through a Jewish lens. That does not make us impervious or indifferent to that which is not Jewish. The presence of other religions and secular society is part of our reality. However our approach to that which is not Jewish should be appreciated by us through our Jewish paradigm.

We are Jews visiting the Christmas celebration of others. We are Jews lighting candles on the side lines of our child’s Friday night soccer game. We are Jews eating Pesachdik at our families’ Easter tables. We are Jews who seek to understand and learn from Buddhist meditation. We are Jews who are involved in social causes because our tradition demands that we are God’s partners in Tikkun Olam, world repair.

Like the Haggadah which is a uniquely Jewish story that allows for the embrace and understanding of various other narratives within its context, Judaism should be and must be our basic paradigm of our personal narratives in the midst of our modern lives.

Passover is the time of our retelling the tale of freedom and formation as a Jewish people. Let it be a time also to contemplate how Judaism underlies the telling of your own life.

We Are All Jews By Choice

Sermon Theme for 5775 – Jewish Identity

Rosh HaShanah Morning Sermon

When I first came to the United States as a student twenty five years ago, I arrived as an Australian seeking an American rabbinical education. Throughout my years at seminary, I knew that my rabbinate would be in Australia or New Zealand. First, I was obliged through scholarships to return to my home country or my surrounding region. Second, American culture and Judaism are so different to what I had been raised with that I could never imagine staying in this country. I was an Australian, here for the education – My choice was that I could not and would not belong.

After returning to Australia for four years following my schooling, economic necessity saw the need for me to leave the country of my birth. Reluctantly, I headed to the U.S.A. again, this time feeling I was an Australian in exile, forced to make my new home somewhere else.  While the transition was easier than before, as I knew how the banking system and the healthcare system worked, and what butter and milk looked like on the supermarket shelves, I still felt out of place and that America was not my home.

Slowly over the next five years as I moved from New Jersey to South Florida and worked in two very different congregations, making friendships and connection, acclimatizing to every-day American life, I began to feel like I was a person “in-between”… I could drive on the right side of the road equally as well as I could drive on the left. I could speak both American and Australian slang. I was acclimatized to both the land of my birth and the land where I could find work. I could not make a choice where I belonged.

Following 9/11 the visa situation forced me to return to Australia for a year. That one year of return with family and friends, away from an American culture that had become so familiar, and without financially sustaining work, affirmed for me that I could no longer go back permanently to the land of my birth. I missed the liberty of Jewish life and thought in the US, some favorite stores and radio programs, and I missed being a rabbi. I had transitioned from a temporary student, to an ambivalent resident alien, to someone who finally desired to be fully part of an American life. When I finally returned stateside, I applied for a green card at the first opportunity, and ever since have been working to become a citizen, something I pray will happen before the end of this year. It has taken 25 years but I now realize it is time to become an American, that the U.S of .A. is where I belong.

Every one of us in our lives has stories of not identifying, ambivalent identity and strong identity. And each of us, who sits in this room today, has a Jewish story along this continuum. Some of us feel apart from the Jewish community, some of us feel like we should belong but have not quite found our place in Jewish life, and others of us cannot imagine our lives without the infrastructure of Jewish practice and communal life.

Our rabbis teach that Torah is a blueprint for our Jewish lives.  In the three Torah stories of Rosh HaShanah we can find the blueprint for these different modes of identification. As a blueprint, what do they have to teach us about our own Jewish identities and our own connection to Judaism?

Our first story is not found in the Machzor we hold in our hands. However, it is the traditional Torah portion for Rosh HaShanah morning read in Orthodox, Conservative and some Reform synagogues. It is the story of Abraham’s slave-wife, Hagar and her son Ishmael. To précis:

Sarah has had a fraught relationship with Hagar, the slave-wife she gave to Abraham, and the slave-wife’s son, Ishmael. In this Rosh HaShanah portion, Sarah chances upon Ishmael in inappropriate play with Isaac and convinces Abraham to exile Hagar and Ishmael, much to Abraham’s chagrin. But God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah.

So Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the wilderness with bread and a water-skin. Once the water is depleted Hagar places her child under a bush and walks away so as not to witness his death. She weeps. Her son weeps. And God hears Ishmael’s cry. God calls to Hagar, reassuring her, asking her to return to the boy, and promises her that her son will be the beginning of a great nation. God then opens Hagar’s eyes to a well in the wilderness so that the boy can drink. He grows up and becomes a bowman, living in the wilderness of Paran, and taking a wife from another culture, from the land of Egypt.

In this blueprint of Torah, Hagar and Ishmael, part of the household of Abraham, born into the family circle, are made to feel by Sarah as outsiders, and through their exile literally become outcasts. Hagar and Ishmael are the template for members of our tribe who through some trigger, or lack of experience, know that they are Jewish, but do not feel the need to belong or be with their people. They are alienated from their people and faith. Some event occurred or did not occur that has put them into exile. They may have found different ways, or reached out to a different culture, in search of a place and space to belong. They may still be searching.

Our second Torah portion for Rosh HaShanah should sound more familiar as we read it here at Beth Chaverim each year. Traditionally it is the second day Torah portion but read in many Reform synagogues on first day. It is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.

A short recap: God decides to test Abraham by asking him to take his son Isaac to make a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. Abraham leaves early in the morning with two servants, an ass and Isaac, and heads to the mountain. Leaving the servants and ass behind, Abraham ascends the mountain with his son Isaac, who asks a number of questions as they go up, realizing or not realizing that he will be the sacrifice. When they arrive at the place God designates, Abraham binds Isaac to an altar they have built and goes to kill his son as the offering. An angel of God intervenes just as Abraham is about to do the deed. A ram miraculously appears in a bush and is offered as a sacrifice in place of the boy.

In this story, Isaac experiences the event of “near sacrifice” of his person. Many commentators have noted that in the years of post-trauma, the personality of Isaac never fully develops in our Torah text. He is one dimensional. Isaac’s story is motivated by and in response to the actions of his wife Rebekah and the interactions and tensions between his sons Jacob and Esau. He is a minor character in the plot of his wife’s plotting and his son’s squabbles.

Yet still he attempts to pass on his own parent’s traditions, despite his childhood trauma with faith, giving him a place among the patriarchs of our people. Some of us too, live as the anti-protagonist of our own Jewish lives. We let Jewish life happen around us and respond or not. We are not so sure if this faith with which we are identified is for us. We are ambivalent.  Yet we feel a commitment to somehow pass on Judaism to the next generation.

Isaac is the “us” who have a sense that we are Jewish, but have not quite found our own comfortable place in Judaism. Isaac is the “us” that turns up to services out of a sense of obligation – because our parents went on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Isaac is the “us” that joins in on family celebrations but would not make the effort to initiate or know how to host those celebrations on our own. Isaac is the “us” that sends our kids to religious school even though we do not really practice Judaism in our homes, because we want our children to know that which we do not feel comfortable teaching them ourselves.

The third Torah portion of Rosh HaShanah is the foundational story for the holiday. It is not traditional but is offered in Reform High Holy Day prayer books as a creative alternate second day reading. Since Rosh HaShanah celebrates in Jewish lore the creation of the world, the Reform Jewish tradition offers us the opening story of Genesis with which to engage. Genesis teaches us through metaphor how the creativity process works step by step. Those who are regular on Friday night know the steps from the Peter and Ellen Allard  song that we use as Kiddush:

“First day – Day and Night; Second Day – Heaven and Earth; Third Day – Plants and Trees; Fourth Day – Sun and Moon and Stars; Fifth Day – Fins and Wings; Sixth Day – Beasts and Humankind; Seventh Day – Sabbath Rest.[i]

These days are not to be read as miraculous literal happenings as the fundamentalists would interpret it. Rather, they show an evolution of the world coming into being.

The world like a strong Jewish identity is put together step-by-step. The rabbis taught “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah” one mitzvah inspires another.[ii] We learn one mitzvah and then another, and then another, and then another, accruing a knowledge of Judaism. A Jewish identity is formed and molded by our doing Jewish, and learning what this doing means to create a world of spiritual meaning.

In the blueprint of Torah, this story provides us with a how-to plan to inculcate Jewish knowledge and practice in ourselves.  It can be used by us to teach us how-to raise our children with strong Jewish roots.

We may build knowledge, understanding and a spiritual practice of Jewish life, step by step becoming Creator Jews.  Like the creation of the world, we can create and recreate Jewish identity. Creator Jews experiment with Jewish practice and create new Jewish practices. They constantly grow in Jewish identity forming new worlds, new visions of what Judaism can be for each generation. Genesis 1 is the story of the Jew who engages and learns and is involved in their own identity.

Our stories of Rosh HaShanah, speak to different parts of our community and how each identify with faith: by not identifying, approaching one’s  identity with ambivalence, and creative identity. Our past experiences color where we place ourselves along this continuum.

Our present experience, our reflections at this season, are designed for teshuvah, return, to move us to place ourselves somewhere different. One of the great lessons of my immigration experience, is that our attitudes, our sense of belonging, who we are, can change over time. We can move from being outsiders to insiders. We can move from ambivalence of our faith to an understanding of our faith. We can grow in our Jewish understandings.

Many rabbis in the twenty first century have used the phrase that “we are all Jews by choice” so I am not certain of its origins.

We are all Jews by choice. Like Hagar and Ishmael we can be outsiders. But we do not have to stay in that place. The rabbis tell midrashic stories that comment on the wife that Abraham takes after Sarah’s death. The bible names her as Keturah. But the rabbis of the midrash imagine that this is a new name taken on by the exiled Hagar. Troubled by the story that our patriarch threw out a wife and son, they re-imagine that Hagar and Ishmael re-cross the threshold following Sarah’s death.  Keturah-Hagar bears Abraham six more sons becoming more integral to the fold of Abraham’s family. The gates of Judaism are always open.

We are all Jews by choice. We can choose to be in a place of minimal identification or remain ambivalent. Our Torah story from this morning continues with a narrative that tells us that Isaac raised two sons. Born into the same household, with a faith-ambivalent father, with no firm spiritual road to follow, they chose very different paths. Esau rejected his father’s ways marrying women from Canaan. Jacob upheld the tradition of his ancestors. Jacob’s was not an easy road, involving some wrestling with the past/his faith/an angel to become Israel, the one who wrestles with God. When we come from a place of ambivalence or find ourselves in that place we can choose to remain in the no man’s land of Jewish being like Esau, or choose to actively wrestle with our identities like Jacob, increasing our own sense of identity and strengthening the identity of those who come after us.

We are all Jews by choice. There are those of us who actively choose to build a Jewish identity that is meaningful in our lives. Like a world being created, we forge our identity, one building block at a time, to create a Judaism meaningful and renewed. For such Jews, being Jewish is a path of meaning and spirituality, a guide to living and an opening of the soul. It is a choice.

Our identification stories are reflected in the Torah blueprints of this Rosh HaShanah season. Yet which story speaks to our identification with Judaism is ultimately a choice we make. Judaism, the people of Israel lives, when we consciously will it to be so through our choices. Belonging, doing, being Jewish is a choice we can consciously make – immediately, or over a journey of 25 years, or through our lifetimes.

Which of these stories are yours, and which of these stories will you make your own?

My dream: Am Yisrael Chai. May the people of Israel live through your engagement and conscious choices.

Sermon Anthem: Am Yisrael Chai (Katz)

[i] From the song “Seven Days” by Ellen and Peter Allard

[ii] Pirke Avot 4:2

Finding Jewish Treasure

Sermon Theme for 5775 – Jewish Identity

Rosh HaShanah Evening Sermon

Who here would like to find a treasure?

Once a man named Avram lived with his wife and children in Crakow, and dreamt of finding a treasure. One night asleep, his dream whisked him away to the magical city of Prague to the outskirts of the King’s Palace. There he heard a voice that commanded him to dig under the bridge  which led  to the palace in order to find a treasure. But it was just a dream.

However, the next night he fell asleep, and once more he found himself journeying to Prague navigating the labyrinth roads of the city, and by the bridge leading to the King’s Palace he hears a voice “Dig, Dig! A treasure is to be found!” But it was just a dream.

Asleep a third night, he is revisited with the same dream again, the King’s Palace, the bridge, the voice. It was just a dream – or was it? Or was it? Finally, he decided to walk his way to Prague.

Everything in Prague seemed just as it he had imagined in his dreams, Well, perhaps the bridge was a little smaller than he had imagined. And…. he had not foreseen that there would be sentries standing guard at each end. One guard demanded to know what Avram was doing there, and Avram tells him the story of his dream.

The guard laughed and laughed at Avram. “Really, you came here because of a dream? How ridiculous! I have been having a dream over and over about finding a treasure under the stove of a man named Avram who lives in Crakow! Do you see me leaving my post?”

On hearing this, Avram returned directly home to his house in Crakow. He took a spade and dug under his own stove. And what did he find?… He found a treasure… that has been under his feet all along.[i]

Just as the treasure we seek might require a journey, so the treasure we seek might also be under our own feet.

This year I read the groundbreaking book by Andrew Solomon, “Far From the Tree” in which the author tells the story of children with identities different from their parents and how the parents deal with their child’s exceptional differences.  Andrew Solomon identifies two ways we assimilate our identity.

From our parents and family we are given a vertical identity. We are White, Black, Hispanic. We are American, Norwegian or French. We are impoverished or middle class or upper class. We might inherit genetic traits like dimples or the propensity to put on weight or to be skinny. These are markers that make us like our parents and our ancestors.

Yet sometimes we are not like our parents and ancestors. We have identities that differentiate us from them and them from us. We may be gay or dwarves or have Down Syndrome, we may be autistic, schizophrenic or live with multiple disabilities. We may explore a life of crime, be a prodigy or  transgender. This encourages us and our families to connect in a different way with folk that have these different life experiences. These connections, teaches Solomon, are our horizontal identity.

Reading this book got me thinking: Is being Jewish a vertical identity, something we pass on “L’Dor Vor”FROM generation to generation. Or is it a horizontal identity – something we join “B’Dor V’Dor” ENTERING THROUGH a generation and effecting other generations. Is being Jewish a treasure that is directly under our feet, or is it a treasure that requires us to journey?

Those of us born into Judaism might immediately think that being Jewish is a vertical identity. An identity we pass down “L’Dor V’Dor” from generation to generation. Born of a Jewish mother or father or both, we too regard ourselves as Jews. We inherit ways of being and thinking which come to us generationally.

Our family customs make us Jewish. Children are named for someone who has died if we are Ashkenazi, or someone who is alive if we are Sephardi. If our ancestors are Ashkenaz we begin wearing Tallit at our Bar or Bat Mitzvah and if our families are from  Sepharad we may have been given a small Tallit as a child. Our family tradition is to be married under a Huppah if we are Ashkenazi and wrapped in a Tallit if we are Sephardi. We have a commitment to Tikkun Olam/ repairing this world and a sense of moral justice based in the Jewish prophetic tradition because we are inheritors of Reform Judaism.

We eat Jewish food – bagels and lox, herring and lekach, egg and onion. We have special dishes for festivals – bimuelos or latkes for Chanukah or apple cake for Rosh HaShanah or challah for Shabbat. We cook dairy and meat dishes and know that traditionally these things should be kept separate. We pass on our recipes for chicken soup and matzah balls and blintzes. We lament the absence of good Jewish delis in Northern Virginia and discuss which supermarket has the best pesach-dik selection as Passover looms in front of us. We have our culinary traditions!

We recognize Jewish language as “ours”, whether that be a smattering of Yiddish or Hebrew or Ladino. We do mitzvahs, we take a schloof, we sit Shivah. We find our beshert and make Shabbat. We take pride when “Jewish” vocabulary enter the Scrabble dictionary – this year “schmutz,” “schtum” and “tuchas” were added to the words permissible to play. We smile when a non-Jew like Mick Jagger speaks twelve phrases of Hebrew at his concert in Tel Aviv giving the crowd a festival greeting “Chag Shavuot Sameach” and asking “HaKol Sababa?” was everything cool?

But inheriting Judaism and being immersed in Jewish customs is not the only way of being Jewish. There are those who belong to the Jewish people through their horizontal identification. They are part of the Jewish people “B’Dor V’Dor” inserting themselves into the generations and affecting the generations that surround them. They choose to do so because of their own beliefs, or inspired by the Jewish life of the family they are raising, or because they have found within Judaism the questions they seek answers to.

Our tradition teaches that a convert to Judaism is more precious to God than one born into the faith.[ii] Why? Because if you are born Jewish, it is your vertical identity, you have no choice in the matter. Judaism does not even have provision for you  to convert out. It just puts you on the periphery till you come back. But one who chooses to be Jewish, who joins Judaism as their horizontal identity, knowing the good and the bad that has happened to the Jewish people, they are extra deserving of God’s love.

In Lydia Kukoff’s classic work “Choosing Judaism” she documents the testimony of folk who are proselytes to Judaism. For many of them, the process of conversion is not the end but a beginning of their Jewish journey. Lydia Kukoff writes of her own experience: “I suppose I expected a flash from the heavens to give me an instant personal Jewish past at the moment of my conversion. No such luck. It took practice and time, but it happened. And eventually you, too will have a Jewish past of your own.”[iii]

The Talmud contains a teaching which says that at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, it was bestowed upon the Israelites and the souls of all their descendants, but also the souls of all those who would in the future convert to Judaism.[iv] In so doing, it teaches that those who choose Judaism have not just a horizontal identity but also a subliminal vertical identity.

And many folk who are born Jewish, realize on their own, or as they raise their children, that they still have much to learn about Judaism since their Jewish practice and custom has diminished over assimilating generations. They realize practically that Judaism for them is not just a vertical identity but it is also a horizontal identity they must acquire.

Being Jewish is not as simple as finding a place in a community through vertical or horizontal identification.

A folk tale tells of a Jewish skeptic, a soap maker by trade, taking an afternoon walk with a rabbi. The soap maker asks the rabbi “What good is Judaism? How does Jewish thought and practice make an impact on the world?” The rabbi does not answer but continues to walk contemplatively. They stop and watch some young boys playing soccer on the field. The rabbi turns to the soap maker and asks: “Tell me, what good is soap to those boys dirty from the mud on the soccer field?” “Rabbi”, the soap maker says, “For soap to be effective it must be used.” “Aha”, responds the rabbi, “So it is with Judaism. It must be learned and applied for its impact to be felt.”

Ultimately, whether we are born into Judaism or whether we choose Judaism, we continue Judaism as an inheritance “L’Dor V’Dor”, from generation to generation, and B’Dor V’Dor, needing to incorporate Judaism in our lives and the generations to come. For Judaism to be a valued treasure we must consciously create memories and values for ourselves, as moral and practical exemplars for our children, and for those around us.

There are so many different ways we can learn and grow in our Jewish lives, conscience and practice. We can take a class here at our synagogue. (Our Adult Ed brochures will be available for the taking after the service.) We can participate in family programming through our Religious School. Or use a skill we have in our secular lives and find ways to apply it Jewishly and teach a class ourselves – one of the best ways to learn is to teach.

We can take courses online or use “Rabbi Google” to procure and find information on customs, texts and doing. We can buy Jewish books and media that will give us how-tos and explanations. We can use social media to connect with Jewish organizations, learn from their posts and join in on their offerings. We can make Jewish retreats and learning part of our holiday plans. We can ask our rabbi questions by email or in person.

The name of our movement is Reform Judaism. Often it is mispronounced as “Reformed Judaism” with an “e.d.” We have not ossified our approach and engagement with Judaism. There is no “e.d.” As Reform Jews we are encouraged to continue enlarging our comprehension of Jewish practice and understanding, and find meaningful ways to incorporate it in our modern lives. We are the inheritors of a tradition and the ones who mold its practice.

Our Jewish identity is both a vertical identity, an identity that we inherit from the souls of our ancestors, and a horizontal identity, one that we create by conscious doing. It is a treasure that might require a journey, but it is also a treasure under our own feet.

As we begin this New Year of 5775, let us make the dream of Jewish continuity a reality, let us set out on a journey to find the Jewish treasure that is ours for the taking.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be your will.

Anthem: Here I Am (Horowitz/Baesh)

[i] Tale of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

[ii] Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 6

[iii] Lydia Kukoff, “Choosing Judaism” p.24

[iv] Talmud Shavuot 39a