Tag Archives: Judaism

Conversations for Life and Legacy

I am excited to announce the launch of Conversations for Life and Legacy™.

Conversations for Life and Legacy™ is a whole new approach to sharing our wisdom, making meaning in our lives, and connecting beyond ourselves drawing upon the insights of Jewish tradition and text.

Conversations for Life and Legacy™ goes far beyond an Ethical Will to share our sacred stories in unique new ways. Among the particular innovations are using a rabbi trained in chaplaincy to guide the interview and capturing it all on video.

Please look at our new website: www.ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy.com to explore this new approach; see what it can mean to you and how it can be brought to your community.

Today we also launch a Facebook page: ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy and we will be on Twitter as well @rabbidavidlevincll.

It’s time to have the Conversations of your Life!

Conversations for Life and Legacy™

www.ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy.com

 

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?

 

 

What Race are You?

What Race do you identify with?

Marathon

((Rimshot))

Actually, that isn’t the opening joke in my lounge act, but part of an important recent conversation.

I was asked this question in the Red Cross Blood Drive pre-screening. The inquirer, an African-American, was completing the questionnaire and asked me to identify myself by race. There was a time when I would have responded Caucasian/White. But I uncomfortably paused and then quipped Marathon. We laughed and then we skipped the question. But, I actually do not know how to answer that question anymore.

I am not ashamed of what is now called my “white privilege.” As a Jew in America, the ability to call myself Caucasian/White is on some level a sign that we made it and have gained popular acceptance. But perhaps this acceptance remains elusive. This simple gathering of data for statistical tracking purposes has become a marker of something more complicated and fraught.

The dream of some, where we entered the melting pot of America and assimilated into a homogenous culture was a vision of many immigrants. This vision propelled many to immigrate to the land where Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty beckoned. America was something new, different and better accepting all of us, and creating unbridled opportunity and equality.   That, however, was the myth for most. The reality was quite different for people outside the mainstream culture who were marginalized, persecuted and oppressed. Our national aspiration to realize our myth has been a slow and often painful evolution.

I am a Jew. I am a proud American. But I do not fit into the “white box.” Or maybe I am not comfortable residing there. I have become more sensitive to the racial issues in our country. Perhaps it is because the privileged position I have enjoyed has come under fire, not from the political left, but from the ugly anti-Semitic elements that have become emboldened and found their public voice in this new chapter of the American experience. My schools, my community centers, and my people have been the subject of a new round of persecution. Our cemeteries are desecrated; our houses of worship and community are vandalized. It is a wake-up call that the civil rights we fight for in this country are truly our own.

I am compelled to stand up for the things I believe in, the values that truly make America great, and a devotion to equality under the law and of opportunity for all. We have made great strides, but we have so much further to go. It is a marathon. Run with me.

 

Timelessness our Eternal Journey

 

The Twelve Tribes by Yoram Raanan

The recent New York Times article We aren’t built to live in the moment by Martin Seligman and John Tierney proposes that it is humankind’s ability to contemplate the future that makes us unique as a species. This insightful article comes as we begin the book of BaMidbar. BaMidbar is our story in the Wilderness, a place of infinite beauty and discovery, a place where time seems to stand still. How timely is it that we read this article and this Parsha come together this week and we witness Torah’s expansiveness.

 

We are often thought of as the “People of the Book,” which often is interpreted to mean that we are also a people of memory. These memories have been codified and handed down for generations to help us with issues of meaning and morality. An extraordinary part of our journey is recounted in the book of Numbers, BaMidbar. The opening parashah starts with a census. Through the census, we are taking stock of who we are. The counting itself is based on the past, coming together into one place in preparation for moving forward under God’s guidance.

This melding of our past, present and future parallels our conception of God. The Tetragrammaton, YHVH, the four letter name we use for God is understood as a timeless representation of the Eternal One, embodying the past, the present, and the future.

All is intertwined. And that is part of the extraordinary wisdom of Judaism. Past, present, and future are inextricably bound together. We cannot understand who we are or begin to ask the deeper question, why we are until we comprehend that our past, our present, and our future all inform us. We cannot fully exist without these three pillars. It is they together that create our meaning, our context. The hope of Olam Haba, the World to Come, is a vision that we see in the present based on the place from which we have come. Past, present and future unified. BaMidbar is part of the unfolding story of our people, timeless like our God.

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.

 

 

People of Faith United against Terror, Where are you Mr. President?

The third wave of terror threats against JCCs has swept across our country to begin this week. This on the heels is the actual act of terror: setting a Mosque on fire. These are not idle pranks. These are coordinated attacks designed to create havoc and fear in the Jewish and Muslim Communities. This is Terrorism.

As scary as these terror attacks are, so is the lack of response by the President. Why hasn’t he spoken out against domestic terrorism and on behalf of the FBI and the Justice Department supporting a full-scale investigation?   Why hasn’t the White House publicly condemned these criminal acts of hate? Silence is the tacit acceptance that hatred of Jews and Muslims is sanctioned. A nation dedicated to freedom of religion must act to protect the exercise of that freedom when it is threatened.   The First Amendment is more than fancy words written on fancy paper in fancy script. It is the eloquent aspiration of a nation striving to a beacon to the world; it is the bedrock principle upon which that nation is built. If it is anything less, then it is not worth the paper it is written upon.

President Trump, I call upon you to publicly condemn these acts and actively voice support law enforcement’s efforts to find the perpetrators of these odious acts and bring them to justice.

We people of faith stand together, united in our American voice that ensures each of us can speak in our own particular way.   This solidarity is beautifully represented by Temple B’nai Israel giving its keys to the Victoria Islamic Center’s founders so that the Mosque’s people of faith have a home until they can rebuild and a public funding page dedicated to raising money to ensure that happens.

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.