Category Archives: Judaism

How do you serve two masters-the interfaith marriage debate

How do you serve two masters?

We are called upon to do this regularly including in the current discussion about the marriage of a Jew to a non-Jew. As Rabbis, we serve Jews and we serve Judaism. These often do not align. How these two competing missions live in tension and how we resolve the issues is something our wisdom tradition teaches us.

We serve Jews. As I have been taught, my service to them requires me to go where they are to help them along their paths, using the wisdom of our tradition to connect and shine light upon the journey. I am also in service to Judaism, charged with Shamor v’Zachor in all of its complexity. These often align with each other, but often they do not. We live in a complicated world where we usually do not choose between good and evil (that’s an easy one of course) but we choose between competing good things. Which one takes primacy? Must they be mutually exclusive, or can they co-exist? Our great tradition including Talmud urges us to grapple with these questions.

We all know minority opinions are kept because they add value, depth, and nuance to the conversation. We have seen Hillel and Shammai duel. Even though Hillel usually prevails, Shammai remains as insight into important issues that cannot be overlooked. It is incorrect to dismiss Shammai as wrong.

We all recall the story of Teaching Torah on one foot. Two radically different approaches are offered, both containing deep wisdom. Ultimately we are left with, “What is hateful to you do not do to another, the rest is all commentary. Now go study,” but not before we understand the gravitas and respect that one must have to approach the process.

The conversation about officiating weddings between Jews and Non-Jews should be viewed through this lens. Is our primary allegiance to preserving and protecting Judaism, or to reaching out to Jews wherever they may be? What precisely does each of these things look like? Where we ultimately define ourselves and cast our allegiance will determine what each of us can do and what is beyond our ability. I have no doubt about the seriousness that each of us approaches this task. And I am not criticizing the considered decision of anyone.   However, there are real ramifications to our decisions. How we are perceived in our respective communities and how will our decisions affect the couple requesting our services as officiant are two profoundly important questions we must ask ourselves as we consider the issue.

There is a substantial segment of Jews who seek to marry someone who is not Jewish. How we approach them may forever affect them and their relationship to Judaism. When someone approaches us, what will we do? If we cannot officiate based on a principled position, do we dismiss them, or find a colleague who can be present in this important and critical time? Will you be Hillel or Shammai?

 

 

How Do We Receive Torah

At Shavuot, how we receive the gift of Torah is one of the great questions posed.  I found a path towards understanding in a passage of the Talmud.

One is really two and two is really four. This is not a set of alternative facts but an insight from the Talmud (BT Shabbat 2a) about the nature of things. Shavuot is the time of the giving of Torah. But in any transaction there are two components, giving and receiving; one is really two. But it doesn’t stop there.

Both giving and receiving are either active or passive. In giving, we can thrust it towards another actively or we can be passive and open our hands for the other to take it. Similarly, in receiving, we can actively take the gift with eagerness and enthusiasm, or we can open our hands to passively receive the gift that is to be bestowed upon us. Two is really four.

So at this time of matan haTorah, the giving of the Torah, how do we receive it? Our tradition focuses that this is a gift from God to us and it is about the giving. The Eternal gave it once but we are always receiving Torah. And although we think of ourselves as all being at Sinai in this incredible moment, each generation comes to Torah to take it as their own. It is entirely up to us to accept it passively or embrace it actively.

How will we come to Torah?

Will you grab the Torah with gusto or just accept it. Is it truly a gift a living thing that brings meaning to us, something extraordinary to be treasured, loved, and lived; or is it some musty manuscript kept safely away in an Ark in a place we rarely visit if ever? The choice is ours, collectively and individually.

Perhaps it is this distinction in the way we receive this gift that helped God understand that the generation that received Torah was not the generation ready to enter the Promised Land. For the way we receive a gift can affect how the giver gives the next gift, which builds on the first. If we receive it enthusiastically and with gratitude, the gift giver might be more excited to bestow the next gift. And if we receive it passively perhaps the giver might consider whether, in fact, the recipient was ready for it or for the next gift.

This brings to mind the phrase mitzvah goreret mitzvah (Pirkei Avot 4:2) a good deed encourages more good deeds. So at this special time and place, are we able to exclaim a special Shehecheyanu, enthusiastically offering gratitude to God for this amazing gift of Torah, and use it to live our lives fully and with meaning, and preparing ourselves for God’s next gift?

 

This week’s Torah speaks to our world today

Tazria by Christina Mattison Ebert

Our world seems to be in a particularly harsh place. On all fronts we seem to be ailing. People seem unable to talk with one another; our government and institutions are unresponsive to our needs; countries withdrawing from one another, many spiraling into brutal regimes. Anger, fear, and frustration divide us rather than hope guiding and uniting us. This is the backdrop to the double portion of Tazria/Metsora (Leviticus 12; 1-13:59, Leviticus 14:1-15:33), which interestingly addresses these very issues.

 

These Parshiot contain peculiar rituals that are actually timely messages. The ailments that afflict us are more than skin deep according to the Torah, indicating perhaps some spiritual or emotional sickness perhaps that causes the infirmed to be separated from the community. Because these ailments can infect bodies, clothes and even buildings we recognize that there is something more here than meets they eye. It runs deeper and we are compelled to question what might the Torah be cautioning us about. Torah’s message rarely stops at the edge of The Land so we can engage what these portions say about us. But first, let us examine the Parsha a bit closer.

Tazria continues the conversation about ritual impurity from the previous chapter, Shemini. The Parsha moves into the conversation surrounding Tzaraat, an affliction affecting people. It is often referred to as leprosy because it manifests itself as scaly white patches, but more interesting is the decision to bring in the Priest.

The Priest, instead of a doctor, views the afflicted person to decide if indeed this is Tzaraat. The priest instead of the doctor raises our collective eyebrows. We are not the first to grapple with the texts here. Two of our classic commentators, Rashi and Abarbanel, wonder about this too. Rashi hones in on the phrase that notes the Priest is called when the white patch seems to go deeper than the skin of the afflicted person’s body. Arbarbanel focuses in on the idea that the priest is called instead of a medical Specialist to provide treatment for the individual.

We know that medical treatment options were available. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans practiced sophisticated medicine. In Exodus and 2Kings Abarbanel notes the use of medical treatments. Our texts speak of something besides some physical problem.

Our tradition has seen afflictions as a punishment for sin against God. Nachmanides says the Divine Spirit keeps bodies, clothes, and homes in good appearance. But when one of them sins, ugliness appears on his flesh, clothes or his house. Later, the text tells us that if the affliction reappears, the clothing is burned and houses were taken down. Sforno, another commentator, suggests that perhaps the seven-day process of isolation of the afflicted is meant to rouse the sick person to repentance. We might build upon the ideas of our teachers to suggest our goal is to remedy and repair, performing Tikkun upon “people,” “clothes,” and “houses” instead of tearing them down.

Afflicted people are those who are motivated solely by their own selfish considerations. The “clothes” represent the identities or communities with which we recognize our place in the society, the roles and responsibilities of our jobs that serve others or only ourselves.   The “houses” are the institutions established to promote the common good, but have become corrupt perhaps undermining their missions, supporting very wrong they were intended to redress.

Judaism teaches us to care for the needy and weak. Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and caring for the widow and orphan is our charge. Our American tradition should measure our success by how well we care for the weakest among us. Freedom, liberty, and justice are our core values. They have made us a light to the nations. Our text gives us the opportunity to review what we do and consider course corrections to keep our sacred mission working. But the work begins with us.

Buber reflects that a person cannot find redemption until he/she recognizes the flaws in their own souls. A people likewise cannot be redeemed until it recognizes its flaw and attempts to efface them. Redemption comes only to the extent to which we can truly see ourselves. Redemption is not an act of grace; rather it comes when we make the world worthy of it. Only through our faith and deeds can we make so.

We are charged with a holy mission to be agents in the process of Tikkun and creation. We each are part of bigger things that begin with our own selves: family, country, and the world. How do we assume our responsibility in the work? It starts by living up to the standards to which we aspire, acting with kindness and respect for each other, and finding common ground to promote the common good; we must ensure our institutions embody our values, and actively support organizations that promote those values, here and in the world. Tazria/Metsora challenges us to act as though we are each a priest and to act embracing that each of us is B’tzelem Elohim, bringing the holy where it may not exist and effecting the changes we aspire to see in our lives.

 

 

Dayenu- as partner in the miracles

Dayenu~

 

Nachshon

It would have been enough for us.

This is our response to each of the many miracles we enumerate at the Seder table. Thank you God for doing each of these great things; if you stopped at any point along the way that should have been enough to satisfy us.

But our response is incomplete.

We celebrate God’s presence in the miracle of the Exodus. However, we cannot forget our role. It is as if God continue to tighten the string, pulling back on the bow further and further until the people are ready to spring forward into action. God is preparing us, inciting us, readying us to take on the challenge that lies ahead. It is as if God is saying, “get ready,” I am handing this off to you as you engage as my partner in the active unfolding of history to create the world that should be.

This message has never been more important.

As we go to our Seder tables next week, we will recite God’s miracles and recount the tale of our liberation from the life of slavery to the hope of freedom. But freedom requires work to overcome the forces that would return us to the days of old, the days of slavery. We must use this modern-day Seder as our rallying point to commit ourselves to pursuing the freedoms that started with a miracle, back in Egypt or here in Philadelphia. The values that we hold dear of life, liberty, and justice are under threat by hostile forces. The miracle of our freedom is done, the time for our action to fight for what our freedom means is at hand.

So at this Seder, when you say Dayenu, mean it; be grateful for the miracles and express your gratitude by becoming a partner in the ongoing work of bringing our values forward so all may be so blessed.

Wishing everyone a zissen Pesach!

 

American Jews in Turbulent Times

 

Lighthouse John Lund

Being a rabbi in Turbulent Times was the theme of the annual convention of reform rabbis. Indeed we live in particularly turbulent times. But it is times like these that can give us perspective and renewed commitment to our ideals.

Life in modern America is arguably the best that Jews have ever experienced. Our liberty and prosperity are superior to any other time in our history. Our forebears fought for our place here and American Jews have now full access to the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of being a citizen. We embrace these blessings and have worked toward expanding them to include others. However, the path forward has not been smooth. There have been times when our achievements and extraordinary blessings have been threatened. But these threats are opportunities that challenge us to do better, examining our resolve and commitment to our values.

Living in turbulent times forces us to ask difficult questions. How do we champion ethics and morals, protecting and preserving them when civil conventions are challenged or dismissed as unimportant? Ethics and morals, however, remain the fabric that keeps us together, binding us, enriching us and keeping us strong. Promoting these is the work that needs to be done now more than ever; this is the seminal and imperative challenge of our time.

The contemporary American landscape has parallels in Judaism; like the Jewish people, America is a nation of laws. The law’s purpose is to create a civil society where people live together respectful of differences and all citizens enjoy equal rights and protections. These laws are also a reminder of the work yet to do. Judaism teaches that changing hearts and minds is an evolutionary process. Compassion in our tradition has developed from the laws we are commanded to follow. We pray that the teachings underlying the laws will eventually be inscribed upon our hearts, but until then, the laws guide us. We recognize these laws and uphold them.

We rely on strong institutions and deeply ingrained principles to safeguard against assaults on these laws, believing that they will withstand the pressures. However, based on the history of our people, we are naturally wary of threats to our way of life. Even for those who believe in this New World, the idea that history might again repeat itself gnaws at us. Our patriotism is deeply intertwined with our Jewish identity. Therefore we become activists to protect and preserve this remarkable American way of life against threats, foreign or domestic, internal or external.

We have learned that however strong our institutions, they require dedication and nurturing by we the people, lest they wither. So now is our time to recommit to the noble purpose that is our country. We affirm the prophetic vision of the Promised Land. Despite all the progress we have made, we know we have so much farther to travel before the dream is fully realized for all. We stand at the threshold, challenging us to move forward toward a vision of what still could be. This dream gives us the courage and the strength we need at this moment in our Jewish and American history to move onward together. So now we redouble our efforts with renewed vigor and purpose to keep forging ahead. Let us be the change we want to see.

 

 

 

 

A Hanukkah of Darkness

 

We enter Hanukkah from a place of deep darkness. I write this as the remains of the city of Aleppo are reduced to rubble. The people are trapped inside, with death raining down on them from above. The similarity to the gas chambers of the Shoah is unmistakable.

We have watched as this modern mass murder unfolds. I reluctantly refrain from the word Genocide, as it would ignite a conversation about the word rather than cold look at the harsh reality of the death and destruction that is occurring, where innocent civilians are being systematically destroyed. But the word resonates for me nonetheless. What are the lessons of the Shoah?

We must ask ourselves what is our role in the world. This question is for us as Americans and for us as Jews. It is too late for the remnant of Syria however. The United States provided some support to the political opposition of the Regime and we have provided limited aid to those who have escaped. But we have failed to protect the innocents, permitting the most brutal weapons of mass murder to exterminate. Hundreds of thousands have been killed; the savage death machine indiscriminate, women, children, and aid workers are victims as well as political opponents. The United States’ opportunities to assert itself as a provider of sanctuary either here or there have been squandered. A modern holocaust has occurred as we watched.

What did we learn from the Shoah? Was it merely a particular tragedy to befall the Jewish people? Wasn’t the Shoah also supposed to be a lesson to the world that “Never Again” was a cry to universal humanity? Sadly in the face of the Syrian crisis, we turned away, as the world turned away from the Jewish people in our time of greatest despair. I am overcome by the realization of all that we did not do, of all that I did not do.

Hanukkah is supposed to celebrate the light of freedom and God’s miracles. But they came in that order. The Jews wondrously won the improbable victory, and then the lights of the Menorah miraculously lasted for eight days. The miracle of the oil could only have happened after the people fought to overcome the injustice of the world where they lived. Sadly I think we did not merit God’s miracle this time. Let us use this coming year to commit ourselves to that most basic Jewish value; that we will no longer stand idly by while our neighbor’s blood is being shed.

Amen.