Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Alan Gross Released from Cuban Prison


In celebration of Chanukah, we tend to focus on the miracle of the oil lasting eight days in commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. However the great miracle was not so much about the oil as it was a result of the successful Hasmonean revolt in their fight for religious freedom against the Selucid-Greeks.

With that in mind, we are pleased to celebrate the modern miracle of the release of Alan Gross from his imprisonment in Cuba. As recent travelers to Cuba, members of Har Sinai Congregation went with the goal of providing resources and supplies to the Jewish communities struggling in Communist Cuba. As I blogged following our trip, it was an eye opening experience. Cuba was nothing like we were expecting. However we were cognizant that Cuba is a repressive regime that tries to roll out the carpet for travelers to present Cuba in the finest light.

As we are in the greater Baltimore-Washington D.C. area, friends of Alan Gross reached out to us requesting that we not travel to Cuba. We understood their plea, however we felt the resources we could provide the Jews in Cuba outweighed Alan’s plight. We found ourselves becoming immersed in his experiences and learned that it was a more complex narrative than one portrayed in the media.

Whether Alan knew exactly what he was up to, or was a pawn by the State Department will be debated by scholars, pundits, and historians. What we do know is that his release is a welcome miracle and blessing for his family and his community.

It could also signal a change in the United States’ approach to Cuba, which may ultimately result in the toppling of the repressive Communist regime. This in turn could result in religious and personal freedoms not just for the Jews of Cuba, but for all Cubans. And this would be a great miracle and blessing indeed, for which we can all rejoice.

In the meantime, we wish Alan a speedy return to his loving family and friends. We wish him a Refu’ah Shleymah, a complete recovery of mind, body and spirit. And we look forward to him being able to celebrate Chanukah as a free Jew, a blessing for which we can all be grateful for.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Chanukah Reimagined


The most famous symbol of Chanukah is the Chanukiah. That is the 8 branched menorah, which we light one additional light for each night of the festival. The reason for this can be found in the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Shabbat where it reminds us that after the Hasmoneans drove the Selucid Greeks and their leader Antiochus IV out of the Temple in Jerusalem, they only found one container of oil that had been sealed by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest. This The used the oil to rededicate (Chanukah) the Temple, and great miracle was that this oil lasted not for one day, but for eight days.

This is the reason we tell our children that we light candles for eight nights. The problem with this narrative is that the great miracle was not the oil. The great miracle was a group of desperate and heavily oppressed Jews managed to overcome a far superior force in a central battle for religious freedom. With the way things were going, if the Hasmoneans, as led by Judah Maccabee had not defeated the Selucid Greeks, there would probably be no Judaism today.

We even reference this during our worship services during Chanukah with a section called Al HaNisim, “We thank you for the miracles.” In it we are reminded that Mattathias ben Yohanan, the High Priest, and his children rose up against the evil Government of Greece. And that God, “delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…”

In many ways, it is the same narrative we use when referencing Israel’s battle for Independence.
But why don’t we emphasize this story rather than the story of the oil? Part of the reason was because the Hasmoneans fell out of favor once they conquered the Greeks and began to abuse their authority. In a way, the rabbis wrote them out of history, or at least de-emphasized their role in the narrative.
Another reason is because, for the longest time, talk of Jews as powerful military figures overcoming oppressive forces would not play well in intolerant countries. However, as we now live freely and openly as Jews alongside with a Jewish State, now is a great time to begin to reclaim this heritage.

So as you light your candles and eat your latkes and sufganiyot, sing not just the songs of the menorah, but also the songs celebrating our ability to fight for our right to be able to do such things as light the menorah and eat latkes and sufganiyot. Chag Chanukah Sameach!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Yom Kippur Morning 5775 - It's Time to Put on our Israel Jerseys

           When I lived in Israel during my days in the seminary; aside from Ulpan, classes in Zionist history, Mishnah, liturgy, tiyyulim – trips throughout the countryside, I took time to participate in a burgeoning new fixation called Fantasy Football.
This took place in our computer lab, as Wi-Fi though in existence by then, was not widely available. Together my classmates and I gathered around that computer lab. We drafted our teams, and I actually won that first year, which was pretty amazing given the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. What I did know is that I was hooked.
Flash forward about a decade and I was invited to play in a rabbis-only league. One of the great things about his league is we all have about the same amount of time to devote to our teams, which is practically none. Now before you think this is strange, I would like to note that according to a Forbes Article, there are an estimated 32 million people in the US and Canada who play fantasy football, making up nearly 10% of the US population.[1]
            For some Fantasy Football is more than a hobby, it is an obsession. Thankfully, for me, it is about as low a priority as a hobby as you can get. For those of you not familiar, the basic tenants of Fantasy Football are that you participate in a league often made up of 10 to 14 owners. These owners hold a ‘draft’ where they draft players from every NFL team. They then ‘field’ this team based on a set number of positions like one quarterback, two running backs and the like. You then play your team against another owner every week. Points are based on things like receptions, yardage and of course touchdowns. The most well-known players tend to go first, with kickers going last. I will admit that I am a bit of a homer and I have consistently drafted Justin Tucker for just about every team I manage. There are playoffs, and if there was a fee for the league, usually the top two or two three teams end up winning money.
            One of the curious oddities about Fantasy Football is that, as an owner, you can find yourself rooting for teams you would never think you would root for simply because they have one or more of your players or are playing against your opponent. For example, it would not be unusual for a Baltimorean to have Ben Roethlisberger as his or her starting quarterback on their fantasy team despite their feelings about the Steelers.
            All of this can lead to strange emotions with feelings of divided loyalties. I, for example, like many of you, want the Ravens to win every week. However, this past week, I wanted the Ravens to win, but I also wanted the Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to have a stellar day, as he is one of my receivers on one of my fantasy teams. Thankfully Benjamin had a good game and the Ravens crushed the Panthers, so all was right with the world.
            But this notion of divided loyalties got me thinking to about issues relating to it in the broader world as well. In our history as Jews, our national loyalties have often been called into question. This was one of the consistent themes, especially in Europe in the 1920s and 30s. And the accusation has even cropped up in this country from time to time. Thankfully there has never been Federal action determined by such accusations as was made against the Japanese-Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But it is something we do keep an eye on.
            No, I was thinking in terms of divided loyalties with regards to our feelings about Israel. One of the most recent accusations that cropped up this summer is an old one that has taken new form. Israel is supposed to be the shining light in the sea of the Middle East. And whenever Israel reverts to acting like any other nation would, given the circumstances, it is emotionally troubling for some of us.
            For many, Israel is judged by a higher standard because it is a Jewish country. Somehow, we, the chosen people, are supposed to act, not as the rest of the world acts, but instead, we are supposed to do better.
            I think this is part of the reason for the argument against Israel’s so-called disproportionate response against Hamas. No matter how much Israel may have tried to minimize civilian casualties, She would always be still in the wrong. Never mind the fact that Israel spent millions with help from the US to build Iron Dome to protect her citizens and property from rocket attacks.
            The argument of disproportionate response is supposed to make us feel a sense of divided loyalty even if it is not true. For example, it was a common theme in the media who consistently reported that most of the victims in Gaza were innocent civilians. It was common knowledge that 72-82% of the victims were innocent because no one bothered to dig deeper and look at the numbers.
The reality is, Hamas employed a policy of deception. They did this by doing things like removing uniforms from soldiers making it seem like they were innocent victims. There are even videos of soldiers ‘playing dead,’ to make it seem like there were more victims than there actually were. According to recent analysis, it is much more likely that as many as 47% of those killed were combatants and/or terrorists, making a 1:1 ratio. Which though disturbing, is a much higher ratio given the nature of urban warfare.[2] And yet we feel divided.
            We also feel divided because we are not really familiar with what Hamas is. We know they are a terrorist organization that until recently was in control of Gaza, but we may not even be aware as to why they started attacking Israel. The answer lies, not with Gaza or Israel, but actually with Egypt.
            Hamas was founded in 1987 and was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.[3] The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 and is a pan-national organization that is also Sunni. So you can imagine the excitement by Hamas when the Muslim Brotherhood won significant victories in the Egyptian elections in 2012 following the fall of Hosni Mubarek. The Brotherhood placed Mohammed Morsi as the first democratically elected president of Egypt, and opened the floodgates of support to Hamas through the tunnels at the Sinai Gaza border. According to some estimates, Hamas and Gaza received more than half of their income through the interactions taking place at these tunnels totaling at least $1 billion, over half of their annual budget.
            The problem for Hamas was on July 3, 2013, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown by the Egyptian military. This coup placed a new government in power, one that was viciously against the Brotherhood, and also against Hamas. Hamas now found itself in political and economic no man’s land. So how did they react?
They could strike at Egypt, but how would that be perceived by the Arab world? So instead, they started by kidnapping three Jewish boys and then launching rockets into southern Israel. And yet, deep down, there are experts who believe Hamas did not want to start a war in this way. Instead by attacking Israel in a war they probably did not mean to start, they ultimately hurt themselves significantly with Israel’s destruction of numerous tunnels and the targeted killing of some of their most important leaders. Hamas in many ways was defeated. And most feel there will be a significant time of peace in the land. Whether that is one year or five or twenty, remains to be seen. But we ask ourselves, because we feel divided and conflicted, was it worth the cost?
            We are conflicted because of the loss of any innocent life. According to my colleague and new friend Rabbi Ben Goldstein, he “recently heard a story from Rabbi Alan Lucas. He said that one of his college students came to him this summer and asked him if he believed that the loss of a Palestinian child’s life was any less tragic than the loss of a young Israeli soldier’s life. He tried to figure out where she was coming from, and finally answered, “No and Yes. No – there is no difference between the loss of a Palestinian child and the loss of an Israeli child, they are equally tragic. And Yes – because, you see, this one is my son, and although equal in tragedy, I feel the pain so much more.” “But he in not your son!” His student yelled. He smiled at her and said simply, “That my dear, is where we disagree.” [4]
As Rabbi Goldstein goes on to explain, “The loss of innocent life is tragic, and the acknowledgment of that fact does not lessen the validity of the war that occurred. We know that Israel has every right to defend her citizens. We know that tunnels built from Gaza were created with the sole purpose of death and destruction. We know that the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers demanded a response from the Israeli government.”[5]
Could Israel have handled things differently? Perhaps before the war, but I am not sure what it could have done differently once it was attacked. This became even more pronounced when we witnessed the world’s responses to the Gaza War, which unlike it’s response to the Syrian Civil war where 100 times as many people have been killed so far, the world chose to attack Jewish communities, especially those in Europe. This new wave of so-called Anti-Zionism feels suspiciously like Anti-Semitism, probably because it is.
            Thankfully, for our brethren living in places like France, there is an option available for them that was not available for Jews in Europe 70 years ago, and that is to make aliyah, to immigrate to Israel.
            Fortunately, for most of us here, that is not something we need to seriously consider unless we feel passionate about living in Israel. But isn’t it nice to know that Israel is an option.
            That being said, the war this past summer has hurt Israel. It hurts Israel’s image abroad, and it hurt tourism. Though a number of my colleagues went on solidarity trips during and immediate following the cessation of hostilities, many other tour trips were cancelled.
            I mention this because I am sometimes asked: what can I do to help? One thing you can do is travel to Israel. We have a congregational trip planned for this upcoming December. We are scheduled to leave on December 7th and return on December 17th. It will be a whirlwind trip to visit some of the highlights of Israel like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And we may even make a trip down to Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city if there is enough interest. To be honest, we don’t have the numbers just yet, but we would love to make a go of it. That time of year is the perfect time to travel to Israel as it is neither too hot nor too cold. And we will even be there at the beginning of Chanukah, which means it is a great time to get in any last minute Chanukah shopping. We would love to have you join us. Feel free to speak with me or David Carp, and we will be happy to provide you with more information. All we need are twenty people, a double minyan if you will. And I can personally guarantee that Israel will be happy to see us.
            Another way we can help Israel is through the purchase of Israel bonds. I am now going to ask you to take am moment to look at the forms that are on our seat, and if you are so willing, to fill them out. Yes, I am giving you permission to ignore my words for the next few moments as you look over the forms.
As the Israel Bonds website explains, “From its launching in 1951 and continuing through the present day, Israel Bonds has played a unique role in Israel’s rapid progression from struggling agrarian nation to global economic powerhouse….
Proceeds realized through the sale of Israel bonds have helped cultivate the desert, build transportation networks, create new industries, resettle immigrants, and increase export capability. Today, investing in Israel bonds supports a nation of extraordinary innovation that continues to push the boundaries of modern technology.
Israel Bonds has been widely praised for its extraordinary legacy of achievement. In the words of President Shimon Peres, "The investment of Israel bonds in Israel's economy has reaped huge dividends."[6]
And unlike our ReJewVenate Campaign and our Share the Load Campaign, which are vital for Har Sinai Congregation, and I highly encourage you to participate in, Israel Bonds are an investment. You can give them as gifts, add them to your portfolio, and for those of you who make pledges to the Associated, you can make your annual gift through the purchase of an Israel Bond.
Our Har Sinai ARZA Committee coordinated this effort and will be collecting the cards at the exits when you leave the Sanctuary. So please consider participating in this program so vital for Israel’s continued economic future. And make sure to drop off your cards as you head out.
            The third thing we can all do is become more active as what I would call, ‘defenders of Israel.’ What I mean by this is that in some ways, this Gaza War was the first Facebook war with memes being shared across Social Media. I probably made more posts concerning Israel this summer than I have ever before. I did this to try to combat the rash of misinformation that abounded in Social Media circles.
            The traditional media likes to report the sensational. They like to base their stories on the angle of a David versus Goliath scenario, with Israel as Goliath. Though if you have read Malcom Gladwell’s most recent book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, one can come to appreciate the central problems with this metaphor. But that is a sermon for another day. What we do know is that Israel has so few friends out there; She needs help from as many circles as She can get.
            Another option is to join me at this year’s upcoming AIPAC Policy Conference in 2015. I had the chance to attend my first conference last march with Cantor and Graciela Gerber, David and Marilyn Carp and Stewart and Nadine Sachs. Though I had to leave early due to the snowstorm, it was great to be able to spend time with 13,000 lovers of Israel. There were Jews and Christians with a wide divergence of opinions, but they all were there to show their solidarity with Israel. They were also there to continue to work with our government and especially Congress, to encourage them to continue to build upon the mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
            This year I am planning on attending the entire conference, and I would love to have you join me as part of the larger Baltimore Jewish coalition. You will have the chance to hear from scholars, experts, politicians, Israeli leaders and so many more. And then you will be given the ability to go to Congress to advocate for Israel with our politicians including our very own Senator Ben Cardin who is also coming to speak at our Brotherhood Paid Up Dinner on Thursday November 16th at 6pm. So mark your calendars for the Dinner in November and the AIPAC Policy Conference coming March 1st – 3rd in Washington D.C., it is well worth it.
            Israel still faces many challenges. A nuclear Iran is one of the most pressing not just because of the imminent threat that would represent to Israel, but because it would also lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. And one thing I think we can agree on is that the world does not need more nuclear nations especially in such a volatile region.
            And this is not even to comment about ISIS or the Islamic State or ISIL, which is an important conversation, but one to have for another day. What I can say is that Israel continues to live in a very dangerous neighborhood. It would be nice if she could just move to someplace quieter, but that is not the reality.
            Israel is not a perfect State. She is a state governed by people, and people are, by definition, imperfect. And this imperfection can again lead to feelings of divided loyalty. I can say it is not divided loyalties if we are not 100% supportive of all of Israel’s policies. Heck, none of us agree on the policies of our government, so why should we always be in agreement with Israel? What I can say is that there is certainly a time and a place to challenge and criticize, just as there is also a time to show and demonstrate unwavering support of the only continually stable and vibrant democracy in the entirety of the Middle East.
            I started off by talking about Fantasy Football where one can sometimes feel mixed emotions because they find themselves rooting for players on opposing teams. However, for true fans, they’re loyalty as a fan is always unwavering. They are loyal to their team. To expand the metaphor once further, my team, like the Ravens, is Israel. I proudly wear their jersey loudly. And I know they can use my support. I encourage you to join me in supporting Israel by traveling their with us, buying Israel bonds, supporting causes relating to the liberal Jewish movements in Israel, and being an advocate. For as Rabbi Hillel said, “Im ein ani li mi li,” “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
            May this coming year be one where we work together as a community to show our support to the Land, to our Land of Israel. Whether we choose to travel there as a community, purchase bonds to show our solidarity, or simply to stand up for Israel even as we challenge many of her decisions, all of these are key and vital ways we can be part of demonstrating our love and support. For if we are not for Israel, who will be?



[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/leighsteinberg/2012/08/28/fantasy-football-madness/
[2] http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/183821#.VC162L5TIx8
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamas
[4] http://tbemc.org/rabbi-goldsteins-rosh-hashanah-sermon-day-1/
[5] Ibid.
[6] http://www.israelbonds.com/learn/history.aspx

Erev Yom Kippur 5775 - A Year of Living Kol Nidre

This Erev Yom Kippur we stood as the haunting music of Kol Nidre was recited.  Kol Nidre, though arguably the most well-known melody of the High Holy Days, is perhaps the least well understood.  To start, it is not a prayer.  Instead it is part of a legal formula.  It is recited in front of the Beit Din, the rabbinic court, which is symbolized by the Torah scrolls we remove from the ark. 
Kol Nidre most likely came to us from the Gaonic Period, which stretched from 589-1038 in the Common Era.  Kol Nidre has a fascinating liturgical history.  At various times, it has been both accepted and rejected as part of the Erev Yom Kippur Service.  The text itself has been somewhat fluid as it has changed over time as well.
One of the most significant changes was made by Rashi’s son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel, who lived in the early 12th century.  The RaM, as he is affectionately known, changed the original phrase “from the last Day of Atonement until this one” to “from this Day of Atonement until the next.”  By making this change the RaM made Kol Nidre, in legal terms, a priori having reference to vows one might not be able to fulfill or might forget to observe during the ensuing year.
What this means for us is that, having now heard Kol Nidre, we get the opportunity to start off this coming year with a clean slate.  But there is a caveat.  Kol Nidre only applies to the vows we individually make to God.  Any vows we make to anyone else, those we are still on the hook for.
This notion of annulling ‘all our vows’ has led to much confusion and even at times accusations against the Jewish people.  There have even been rabbis over the generations who have tried to remove Kol Nidre from the worship experience.  Perhaps it is the melody even more than the language itself as to why Kol Nidre persists and haunts us so much.  And yet, when one really thinks about the words of Kol Nidre, one might be tempted to spend a year without making vows.  A year of living Kol Nidre, if you will.
I can see it now.  An author writes a blog post, which becomes a book, which in turn is made into a movie.  The movie stars Mila Kunis in a romantic comedy along with Seth Rogan and all the misadventures and miscommunications that result from Mila’s character deciding not to make any vows, promises, oaths, pledges, guarantees, or declarations for an entire year.  Lots of statements would begin with, “I will do my best” instead of “I promise to…”  Of course they could not get married during that year.  And forget the Associated’s annual campaign or NPR’s almost daily campaigns, as both require pledges.  I can see it now, instead of being like Jim Carrey’s movie “Liar, Liar,” our imaginary film would be called, “Equivocate, Equivocate.” 
All of this silliness points out an essential truth: we do have to make promises, oaths, and the like in order to be able to function in our relationships with each other and with God.  It is simply part of the human condition.  This is not to say though, that the idea of spending a year dedicated to doing something or avoiding doing something cannot have practical and spiritual applications in our own lives.
I mention this because the year of living (blank) is a very popular narrative choice out there in blogs, books and movies.    For example, there is the book: Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at it for a Year.  As the publisher explains, “When Kjerstin Gruys became engaged to the love of her life, she was thrilled—until it came time to shop for a wedding dress. Having overcome an eating disorder years before, Gruys found herself struggling to maintain a positive self-image as her pending nuptials imposed a new set of impossible beauty standards. She decided to embark on a bold plan for boosting her self-esteem while refocusing her attention on the beautiful world around her…. (In the book) Gruys vows to give up mirrors and other reflective surfaces, relying instead on her friends and her fiancĂ© to help her gauge both her appearance and her outlook on life. The result? A renewed focus on what truly matters, regardless of smeared makeup, crooked eyebrows, or messy hair.”[1] 
But this is not the only one.  A few years ago there was the blogger Julia Powell who spent a year cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, in a period of 365 days. Her blog then became a book: Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, which of course was then made into a movie: Julie and Julia starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Julia Childs. 
Following a more religious perspective, there is A.J. Jacobs: A Year of Living Biblically where the author attempted to follow the Bible as literally as possible.  All I have to say about it, is the man is blessed with an incredibly understanding wife.
And for those of you Georgia fans (the state not the football team) out there, there is the book My Jesus Year by Benyamin Cohen. Cohen, who is the son of an Orthodox Rabbi, over the course of 52 weeks, attended any number of various Christian worship experiences in order to find his way back home.  One of my favorite chapters was the one entitled, “Wrestling with God.”  It was all about Cohen’s experience with a congregation called, “Ultimate Christian Wrestling.” 
As Cohen explains, the UCW creator Rob Adonis told him that he “started to piece together a show that would serve the purpose of entertaining, educating, and most important, ministering to the world…
Yes to the world.  Just about everything connected with UCW is referred to on a grand scale.  Titles like ‘World Heavyweight Champion’ are bestowed upon its athletes, and the matches are ambitiously called ‘crusades.’  Giving such bold names to these seemingly mundane matches is just one of the many reasons Adonis is so successful.  If there were just wrestling, it wouldn’t be so vital.  But those in attendance at … (the) event really feel they are watching soldiers of God on a mission.  A battle between good and evil, a veritable Passion play for the hillbilly set.”[2]
What all of these bloggers and authors and movies have in common is not that they tried something for a year, for 365 days for 52 weeks, but that they really committed themselves to their explorations: be it of cuisine, love, self-esteem, themselves, or in Cohen and Jacob’s case: God.
The other thing these authors also all have in common is that their journeys led them to conclusions they were not expecting.  As Benyamin Cohen wrote, “He drank from the trial-sized cups of Christianity.  He is, by no stretch of the imagination, an expert in each denomination – but he can tell you what each tastes like.  And this caffeine-induced rush of religion awakened him to the many paths we all follow toward faith.
Cohen learned that God can be found in the unlikeliest of places.  He learned not to judge others.  He learned that people of faith have more similarities than differences.  He learned that the first step is always the hardest.  The many lessons he’s learned … have already started to help him become a more serious Jew, someone who looks to religion not as a burden, but as a source of hope.  And when his faith occasionally wanes, as it does for all of us, he can draw on these experiences to bolster himself.”
As Cohen goes on to say, “At the end of the day, he just wanted to be the Jew he always knew he could be, one who’s jazzed about his Judaism.  But he had to choose it.  He had to make it his own.  He had to find his way back to the synagogue of his youth.  He had to find his way back home.”[3]
            As we know, there are many religious pathways to God.  Whenever I discuss world religions with my confirmands, I begin with a simple question: name a religion.  Inevitably they end up naming a whole multitude.  Some are monotheistic, some are polytheistic.  Some are new and some are very very old.  But each is an attempt by its founders, leaders, and followers, to build a connection to God.  As a very small minority, yes even here in Baltimore, we Jews are acutely aware of how many different religious traditions are out there. But what you might not be aware of is that even within our own religious tradition, there are many pathways to God.
But as Jews, we are very reluctant to even try to walk down one of these paths.  Or as a Jewish Times article stated: Why Don’t Jews like to Pray?  As the article goes on to state, “Perhaps it is because we struggle with a belief in God; a 2006 Harris Poll Survey of Religion found that 12 percent of Jewish respondents claim they don’t believe in God.  Another 24 percent weren’t sure (the highest statistic of all identified religious groups … (and) maybe we think our prayers don’t do any good.”[4]
Or perhaps we are reluctant to walk one of the myriad of pathways because of the lure of modernity.  Science and personal autonomy seem to have more answers for us than our religion.  Our religion is outdated and irrelevant for what is going on in our lives.
However, as a religious leader, we are all too quick to blame our followers for this, when it is quite possible that it represents more a failure of our movement as a whole.  As Professor Eugene Borowitz explains, “Liberal religion, which preached accommodation to the culture as its new messianism, must share in this indictment of our culture.  It once seemed so obvious that autonomous moderns would make a place for religion in their lives if we modernized our old rites and made self-commending what God’s will once imposed upon us.  As long as liberalism emancipated us from the tyranny of old orthodoxies, its innovativeness elicited enthusiasm.  But as a once repressive culture advanced to permissivism, freedom became more our problem than our redemption.  ‘Why not?’ became a terrifying opening self-destruction and social rot.  The apostles of change and adaptation found themselves with nothing independent to say about the limits that would keep us from joining society’s onward rush into amorality.  Rationalism and science, the two great mentors that we thought would be the basis of ennoblement, lost their mythic authority.  We discovered that they reinforced relativism more than they specified enduring values.  And by substituting personal growth or self-fulfillment for God’s revelation, liberal religion now looked to be only another social agency eating away at our faith in high standards for human responsibility.”[5]
By trying to integrate religion so completely with modernism, the end result was that we have instead of validating modernism, we’ve somehow managed to undermine our religion.  And by undermining our religion, we have also undermined our sense of community, our common sense of purpose.  This common goal is towards the betterment of ourselves as individuals, the betterment of our social circles, the betterment of our communities, and ultimately the tikun, the repair of the world entire.  We cannot do it alone, it is a collaborative effort.  This is in part why we, as Jews, pray together, as individuals.
But talk of modernity aside, when it comes to faith, I think the key mistake we make in all of this is the notion that we human beings act rationally.  It is only others who are irrational.  And therefore, if we are rational, our religion must be rational as well.
And yet study after study demonstrate that we are not the rational creatures we would believe ourselves to be.  Studies now show that 77% of our daily decision-making is driven by emotion.[6]  What that means is that a little over 7 out of every 10 decisions we make are not rational.  Instead, we act in ways that defy logic and common sense all the time.  As is often the case, we justify our decisions only after we’ve made them.  There are an increasing number of fields dedicated to this decision making process both in psychology and in economics. 
One example of this is in the advertising world.  “Ask anyone whether they pay attention to advertising, and they will say no. They will tell you that they ignore the claims that brands make in advertising. That is true up until they make a decision to buy the brand, then, provided the brand lives up to their expectations, suddenly the claim becomes a belief. So let’s not forget the power of advertising claims to justify a purchase decision after the event, even if they are discounted beforehand.”[7]
And if that is true of our decision making process, just imagine how much more of our daily existence is not as entirely rational as we would like to believe.
Yet, if we expect our religious traditions to be rational, when we ourselves are not, we are doing a disservice to our tradition.  Therefore any truly meaningful conversation about pathways to God starts with a simple statement:  Faith is not a rational act.
Therefore, the first step, one might argue is to accept that faith and belief come from a place that is both above and beyond.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel articulates in his accumulated work Between God and Man, “There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other; in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known opening a vision of what is eternal in time.  Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God.  Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him.  There may come a moment like a thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings.”[8]
If there are many pathways to God in our tradition, and faith is not necessarily a rational act, where does that leave us?  As we started our conversation, it leaves us with the opportunity to either continue or begin our own spiritual quest, be it over the course of today, or the month of Tishrei, or over an entire year, or perhaps even longer to explore and search.
Admittedly the term spirituality is thrown around a lot.  One phrase I hear quite often is, “Rabbi, I am not a religious person, I’m a spiritual person.”  I have struggled for years with what exactly this means.  As I have come to understand, it means that they, who say this, are not sure if they believe in God, and if they do, it is certainly not the vision of a man with a long white beard watching everything that we do, and knowing everything that we do, while selectively choosing to intervene in history, and sometimes in sports.
And it means that the traditions, rites, acts, of religious communities have become to them, irrelevant and insignificant.  But it also means, quite often, that they have not found anything in their lives to replace it with on a comparable level.
For them and for us we need to acknowledge there is something greater than us.  How we want to define that, I will leave up to each of you.  For the human experience, the Jewish experience has almost always been framed in the narrative of the individual within the community.  There is a collective endeavor we are all a part of.  What drives this endeavor is the the idea of: we are all part of something greater.
If we can acknowledge that, then we can certainly feel comfortable with the concept that we don’t know everything.   And in today’s world, do we not know everything, but we are all reaching levels of incompetency at faster and faster rates.  And this is not to be derogatory or insulting.
I used to know a tremendous amount about computers.  Back in college I had a 386 machine that I could take apart, and even program to some degree.  Nowadays, aside from upgrading the RAM in my laptop, I couldn’t even dream of explaining most of what our modern technologies can do today, let alone how they do it.
If this is true of technology, so it must also be true of the world as well.  Yes science uncovers new facts all the time, but new truths are and will remain elusive.
Which leads us to our third point, to have a genuine spiritual connection means both becoming fully engaged and letting go.  By becoming fully engaged means to find an entryway of meaning.  For some this is Torah Study.  For others this is worship.  For others it can mean Jewish mysticism or a thousand other ways to uncover the sparks of the Divine in our world.
Seeking takes a lot more energy and work than rejecting.  In many ways this is what Kol Nidre is all about.  It is about re-engaging in the journey towards discovery.  Discovery of self, discovery of others, and discovery of meaning. 
And we have to be willing to let go.  Kjerstin Gruys had to be willing to let go of looking at herself in a mirror in order to find her own inner beauty.  Julie Powell had to let go of her fear of cooking in order to find her inner chef.  Benyamin Cohen had to let go of his Judaism, not something I am advocating by the way, in order to find his way back home.
We need to be able to let go of our preconceived notions of religion, tradition, and the like.  The quest for the spiritual.  The quest for meaning.  The quest for God.  None of these are new.  One can say that our ancient ancestors began to carve the road on which we continue to tread to this very day.  And we don’t even need to write a blog, a book, or a movie to do so.  We can even take more than a year if we would like. In this way, we may not be Living a year of Kol Nidre, but we can certainly incorporate its lessons into our own spiritual lives.  And if we do so, we may find ourselves uncovering aspects of our tradition that can bring meaning, purpose, and joy in ways we may never have imagined.  We just have to be willing to let ourselves get caught up in the journey. 
L’shana Tova



[1] http://www.amazon.com/Mirror-Off-Wall-Learned-Looking/dp/0399160175/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378761352&sr=1-1&keywords=mirror+mirror+off+the+wall
[2] Cohen, Benyamin, My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, Harper One, 2008, pg. 119.
[3] Ibid., 246-247
[4] Jewish Times, August 23, 2013 pg. 47.
[5][5] Borowtiz, Eugene, Renewing the Covenant, A Theology for the Postmodern Jew, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1991, pgs. 21-22.
[6] http://www.biworldwide.com/blog/how-people-really-make-decisions-the-irrationality-of-behavioral-economics/
[7] http://www.millwardbrown.com/global/blog/post/2013-04-22/Let-me-justify-that-decision.aspx
[8] Ed., Rothschild, Fritz, Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel, New York, Free Press Paperbacks, 1997, 70.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

RH Morning 5775 - Ask What You Can Do For Your Congregation

This past December, Har Sinai Congregation sent a small delegation to the Union for Reform Judaism’s 72nd North American Biennial Conference. Biennial, for those of you not familiar is a gathering of approximately 5,000 Reform Jews from throughout North America though we also get some participants from as far away as South America, Israel, Europe, and even South Africa.
I had the honor of attending this past year’s Biennial with our Congregational President Joanne Goldsmith and our Women of Reform Judaism Sisterhood Representative Micki Sibel.
            The idea behind the Biennial is to gather together and to celebrate all things in Reform Judaism. To this end, there were a significant number of workshops for lay leaders and clergy alike covering everything from worship to budgeting, communications, and membership. I particularly enjoyed the presentation on Visual Tefillah, which I hope to one day employ in our congregation.
The highlight of every Biennial is the Shabbat Morning Service where those of us in attendance had the chance to worship with 5,000 of our closest friends. The service includes an incredible, all volunteer choir singing melodies that both inspire and uplift. It is truly a wonder to behold.
            Personally for me, one of my favorite highlights were the Shabbat Song Session with some of our movements most creative, talented and innovative song leaders. By the second song, just about everyone was up and dancing. It was a real treat to for me to see Loui Dobin, one of my guitar heroes as well as the Director of Greene Family Camp up on the stage strumming furiously along with the likes of Rabbi Joe Black, Rick Recht, Josh Nelson, Julie Silver and so many others. The Biennial was so moving that Neshama Carelbach, the daughter of Shlomo Carelbach, the modern Hasidic musician, publically embraced life as a Reform Jew!
            It was a powerful, moving, inspiring, and exciting conference, which is exactly what it is designed to be. Biennial is meant to reinvigorate especially the leaders and volunteers of congregations just like ours with a renewed sense of purpose and vision. This was further illustrated by our new URJ President Rick Jacobs who spoke on Erev Shabbat, without the use of notes or a teleprompter for 2 hours, and you thought my sermons were long! One of the themes he spoke passionately about was the Abrahamic idea of radical hospitality. It is a vision for the movement where we should be striving to embrace all who enter into our community. Many of us have felt this embrace from Lil and Nates Strauss, and they are certainly the embodiment of the radical hospitality we can all strive to fully represent.
For those of you who are interested, the next URJ Biennial will be in Orlando in the late fall of 2015, or more specifically from November 4th to November 8th. Feel free to mark your calendars we would love to have you join us.
Later that same Friday night, after Rick Jacob’s sermon, I gathered together with a multitude of CCAR Rabbis for a free wine and dessert reception. For nothing compels us rabbis to gather together more than the words: free, dessert and wine.
To set the stage, we had just seen a hilarious and audacious presentation encouraging us to sign up for our annual Rabbinic Conference to be taking place that spring in Chicago, when a text came through to my friend Liz. The look on her face said it all. She couldn’t even speak. All she could do was pass the phone around. Sammy Sommer, whom I know many of you have heard me speak about before, had just died as a result of complications from Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
            To say we were all devastated does not even begin to capture the depth of our grief. From that moment on, the Biennial took on a whole new meaning. Now, truth be told, it was no longer about the Biennial. It was about how we could get to Chicago for the funeral. I, for one, flew back to Baltimore on Sunday as planned, and then I left again first thing Monday morning for an all-day whirlwind trip to Chicago. I am so glad I went, and I am so grateful to my wife, to the ladies of Sisterhood and to all of you for understanding my need to be there with my dear friends and colleagues Mike and Phyllis Sommer, Sammy’s parents.
            A thousand of us gathered in Phyllis’ shul to come and perform that sacred mitzvah of comforting the bereaved as well as the sacred mitzvah of accompanying the dead for burial. The service, the eulogies, the music were perfect in the way that we celebrated Sammy’s life. But on such a day, we were really mourning the life he and so many other young victims of cancer will never get to lead.
            About fifteen minutes before the service began, the sanctuary was enveloped in silence. I don’t know if it was a collective moment of anticipation or perhaps a collective moment of dread, but the silence was overwhelming. The silence was eerie. The silence was palpable.
            Finally Sammy’s family entered. There were tears and there were hugs. And so the funeral began. I will never forget the words of Rabbi Steven Lowenstein’s eulogy, “Sam Sommer was born exactly nine months after his father Michael completed his rabbinic thesis.” You could just feel the tension let out of the room as we all laughed and cried together.
            Through Rabbi Lowenstein’s words we were reminded that though we called him Superman Sam, what Sam really loved was turtles, causing trouble, and googly eyes. He was especially close with his sister Yael, and he became, like so many young cancer victims, old and wise before his time.
However what really struck me about that day, is yes, many of the people in attendance were from Phyllis’ congregation, and others were friends and family and colleagues. However a great many more were people who had never personally met Michael, Phyllis, or their kids David, Yael, Solly or of course Sammy. They were instead a new community of friends established through the digital realm.
            See, over that past year and a half, Phyllis and Michael created a family through social media that stretched across the globe with their daily blogging of Sam’s journey. Sammy’s fight against AML was everyone’s fight against childhood cancer. Just as it continues to be our fight.
            This past March, I joined with over 70 of my closest colleagues to shave our heads to raise money to fight childhood cancer through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. It was originally supposed to be just 36 Rabbis, and the goal was to raise a modest $180,000. By the time we shaved, we had raised over $720,000. For me, it was an accidental shave, as I had no intention of shaving, I simply wanted to raise awareness. But when the time came, I just could not let my friends go bald alone. They were, they are my community. They were, and they are my extended family.
            And that is when the meaning of the concept of community really struck home for me. Community is all about us standing side by side with each other through our triumphs and our tragedies. It is about lifting up one another when we grieve and dancing together when we rejoice. This is why the rabbis tell us in Eilu Devarim, as part of our morning worship service, to provide for the wedding couple, and accompany the dead for burial. Our community helps to define who we are as Jews and who we are as people.
            And we are a community because of you. Each and every one of you helps define who and what we are and what we can be.
             To this end, our Jewish community, our little shtetl in the wilderness of Northwest Baltimore really is what YOU make of it. And more than that, it is a different kind of community. For example, the synagogue is a sanctuary from all of your other activities. This is a place where you don't have to do, it is a place where you can just be. In today’s helter-skelter world, isn’t nice to know that we have a home that accepts us for who we are, and is glad that we are here?!
            But that is only the beginning. One of the beauties of congregational life, is when we are doing things right, we can help provide that most elusive sense, a sense of context. To illustrate this, I was recently listening to a story on NPR about computer aided crossword puzzles. Apparently there are folks out there who have now created computer programs to solve these puzzles. They have programmed in years of previous puzzles as well as multiple dictionaries and, in one case, all of Wikipedia into their computers. This means these programs have access to most of our collective knowledge.
            Because of this these programs are really, really good at solving crosswords. Well in most cases. However when the answer requires a sense of cultural consciousness or is a play on words the computer has not seen before, it is at a total loss. That is because the computer, though really knowledgeable, is completely blind to the wisdom needed to solve a crossword. It is following algorithms, albeit, really good algorithms, but it still lacks the context to solve them correctly.
            We live in a world where there is a tremendous amount of easily accessible knowledge. Just click in a few words on a Google search and you can find just about any piece of trivia except perhaps the location of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine or your missing car keys.
            But when it comes to life’s larger dilemmas, life’s larger questions, being a part of a congregation, being part of a community, can be immensely helpful in understanding not just the how, but also the why. Why are we here? What is the meaning of existence? How do we deal with life’s ethical dilemmas? What role can religion play in today’s modern world? Why is there so much turmoil in the Middle East? Being part of a sacred community helps to shape and guide us as we wrestle with such questions like today’s questions, why did such a person like Sammy die so very very young?
            I was thinking about this very question with regards to today’s very troubling Torah reading, the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. For the longest time I have read the Akeida as both a test of Abraham’s faith as well as a polemic against child sacrifice.
            And yet, it was this year, through all that I had seen and been through that I began to find myself drawn to another reading of the text. One which looks at this notion of God “testing” Abraham. This is the same Abraham who argued with God over the justice of Sodom and Gemorrah! And yet, when God asked Abraham to offer up his only son, his beloved son, Isaac, Abraham was silent.
            Perhaps then, Abraham failed the test. As Rabbi Paul Kipnes wrote, “Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on (this). He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.”[1] Perhaps then what this text is saying is God does not want the offering of our children; instead God grieves at the loss of our children. Or as Eric Clapton sang, “there are tears in heaven.”
            In Jewish tradition we cherish our children. That is our context. I cannot explain the death of Sammy Sommer. All I know is that I am grateful to be able to be part of a community and a tradition that provided the framework to celebrate his life and mourn his passing. I am grateful to be part of a larger community that also provides the collective embrace to support his loving family through their continued journey, now without Sammy.
            One of the driving purposes of Judaism is to help provide the framework for grappling with these questions and so many like them. Judaism is not a theoretical expression of devotion to God; instead it is both a practical and pragmatic approach to living life in a sacred and fully engaged way. And what better way to discuss that than as part of a congregational family.
            Our congregation is also a place for family. It is a place where you can sit with your children and with your grandchildren. It is a place where you can sing, and clap and dance. And if you are looking to expand your family, at least metaphorically speaking, you can create a community of friends to rejoice and commiserate with.
            One of our members David Carp likes to tell the story of how when his first grandchild was born, he received notes and mentions of congratulations from friends. But what really struck him, was the outpouring of good will from his Har Sinai Congregational community. The cards, phone calls, and donations in his granddaughter’s honor were just simply overwhelming. He was and is still so moved by the radical hospitality and support of our community.
            That is what we strive to do and to be as a community. But again, our community is what you make of it. We cannot do, we cannot be, if you do not tell us what you need and what you are looking for. Nor can we do for you nor be there for you if you are not here. It is not that you have to come every week, though we would love that; but if you are not here, it can be hard for us to know who you are.
            Har Sinai Congregation is your community. What you make of it is up to you. I cannot tell you how to make the most of it, only that you should. However, what I can tell you is that Har Sinai Congregation is not going anywhere. We have been through some rough patches financially. That seems to be part of our sacred history as well. I know this to be true, because I had the pleasure of looking at our minutes written around 170 years ago in their original German, and guess what, even back then they were arguing over budget deficits.
            What I can also tell you is we have a plan. Our leadership has engaged in two major campaigns this year. The first is our ReJewVenate Campaign. You may have seen the diagram coming in. Without going into all of the specifics, what I can tell you is that we set an ambitious goal in May of 2013 to raise $2 million to help us secure our financial future. To date, with the help of 69 families, we now have pledges of over $815,000. You can find their names on your Rosh Hashana handout, both those who have pledged and also those who have given. Our goal by this Rosh Hashana was $750,000, so as you can see, we are above our goal and well on our way. Already we have 100% participation from the Executive Committee, 100% participation from the staff, and nearly 100% participation from the leadership of the congregation. We would love to get 100% participation from you as well. If you have questions, would like to set up a meeting, and/or would like to give, just let David Carp know. He would love to talk to you more about this vitally important campaign.
Also, as all congregations run an ongoing budget deficit, we have created a new program called Share the Load. This program enables you, our members, to sponsor various programs and worship experiences at the congregation. We are already blessed to have donors who support the music of our High Holy Day Services. We have donors for things like the flowers. However there are so many more opportunities. You can support a Shabbat Rocks! Service or an adult education class. And you can find the brochures on your seats, and we will gratefully acknowledge your support at the events and/or services that you choose to sponsor. Just, if you heart is so moved, fill it out and sponsor some of the amazing things going on here in our congregation. There are opportunities no matter your giving level.
            As we say in our tradition, Kol Yisrael Averim zeh la’zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. What better way to demonstrate this central value in our tradition than by being part of a loving and supportive community that encourages our individual explorations of life’s central questions, while at the same time, enables us to be surrounded by our loving friends and our loving communal family through the good times and the bad.
            On this Rosh Hashana 5775, we encourage you to commit or recommit to your Har Sinai Congregational family. We have a lot of amazing things going on, and we have a lot of important work still to do together. Join us in our journey, and bring your friends. For it would not be the same without you.
            L’shana Tova




[1] http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com/2014/09/abraham-failed-gods-test-but-god-loved.html