Author Archives: Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla

Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla

About Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla

Rabbi Elliot Kukla is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.

HIV/AIDS and the Jewish Community

December 1 is observed as World AIDS Day. Around this date it is fitting to take stock of the social and spiritual impact of HIV and AIDS on Judaism and Jewish communal life.

A Brief History

Early reports of AIDS in the USA date back to the 1970s, however early AIDS deaths were largely ignored. The illness began to catch the attention of the mainstream media in the summer of 1981 when the New York Times reported an outbreak of a new “cancer” amongst otherwise healthy young gay men in California and New York. In those early months AIDS was not well understood and became known in the media as the “gay cancer,” leading to stigmatization and a rise in homophobia.
hiv/aids and the jewish community
In the ensuing years, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) was identified as the virus that leads to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) and it began to be recognized in people beyond the gay community. In New York City ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in 1987 as the most vocal group aiming to end the AIDS crisis through direct action. The group introduced the slogans “Silence = Death” and “Action = Life,” highlighting the need to speak out and break the taboos surrounding AIDS in order to save lives.

Beginning in the late 1990s, advances in antiretroviral drug therapies slowed the rate of AIDS deaths in North America. However, AIDS deaths continue to be a regular part of life. In 2008, 4.3 million people worldwide were infected with HIV, including 530,000 children under age 15.

Jewish Tradition

AIDS is still frequently discussed in whispers at the edges of our communities, but Jewish tradition speaks in a different voice about the need to name illness out loud. Chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Leviticus are entirely devoted to recounting the details of contagious diseases. While these diseases are certainly stigmatized in the Bible, Jewish tradition teaches us to chant these passages aloud in synagogue. Jewish law prohibits skipping passages that may seem grotesque or disturbing to some.

Global & Local Listening

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This past July I spent three days at a monastery in Big Sur, California, with Benedictine monks who live as hermits. It is a silent atmosphere, so I spent most of my day in an isolated trailer without phone, traffic, email, or conversation. The first day I was there was one of the longest and noisiest of my life. My own mind more than filled up the silence. I fretted endlessly over mistakes I had made in my most precious relationships and in my career. By the second day without speaking, the chatter inside my brain had started to quiet down. I began to get to the more essential concerns that lay below these fears. How can I best give and receive love? What do I truly want to change in the world?

american jewish world serviceOn the third day, I was finally able to notice the silence. Small sounds became fiercely beautiful. The buzzing of a fly took on monumental proportions. My tiny interactions with other people also started to take on new meaning. I noticed how warm the young acolyte’s smile was, the unusually graceful walk of an elderly woman who was a guest in one of the other trailers. The silence allowed me to be present to other people in new and surprising ways. Ironically, it gave me the space to truly listen.

Give Ear, O Heavens

When I first started doing pastoral counseling in rabbinical school I was always afraid that I would say the wrong thing. But I soon learned that what most people need during challenging moments in their lives is not more words, but the space to be heard.

This week we come to the penultimate portion of the Torah, Parashat Haazinu. It is a beautiful work of biblical poetry that opens with Moses asking to be listened to on a global level. We read: “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the Earth hear the words I utter! May my speech come down as the rain; my words distill as the dew (Deut. 32:1-2).”

What would global listening sound like? How might we live differently in the coming year if we truly stopped in this season and listened to the stories of pain and survival around the globe that surround us each day? What if we took the time and space to listen to the voices behind the news stories when we hear reports of famine or genocide? What if we stopped on the street corner to hear how poverty and a global imbalance of wealth impact the homeless man who just asked us for spare change?

The Commandment to Choose Life

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There are a few lines from a poem by Mary Oliver on a tattered post-it note on my fridge door. “Tell me,” it asks whenever I reach for orange juice or milk with bleary eyes in the morning, “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Parashat Nitzavim contains the famous commandment to choose life. We read (Deut. 30:19): “I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse–therefore choose life!”

This phrase is a classic example of a “merism,” a figure of speech that is used frequently in the Bible, where two parts or elements are used to denote the whole. For example, in Genesis 1:1, when God creates the heavens and the earth, the two parts indicate that God created the entire universe.

When the Torah states that God puts life and death before us, our tradition is not telling us to decide whether to live or die, but that every choice we make from birth to death matters. These choices range from how we treat our loved ones to how we spend money; from whom we bring into our world view, to how we choose our food. In each of these choices, we should choose life.

A Network of Mutuality

But what then does it mean to “choose life?” What is it about each of these seemingly small decisions that warrants the weightiness of life and death?

As I see it, the answer lies in the impact each choice has on all other beings on the planet. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Our choices affect not only ourselves, but life on a global level–when we choose to drive less, spend less, and consume less, we are choosing life. And we choose life each time we lift our voices to advocate for civil rights or environmental protection.

Disasters on a global scale highlight the impact for the planet of human choices that don’t affirm life. Although disasters may seem “natural,” human choices play a large role. First of all, global climate change caused by human manufacturing is exacerbating our planet’s vulnerability to unpredictable weather patterns. Furthermore, poverty and low labor standards are leading more people than ever before to live in flood plains or in areas prone to landslides, especially in the Global South.

Wholeness of a Broken Heart

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I recently had the honor of serving as a chaplain to a woman named Maggie in the last weeks of her life. In those long, painful days in the hospital, Maggie was constantly surrounded by her three childhood best friends. One day I asked what it was that has kept them so connected. “Well,” sighed one of her friends, “we are so close now because she broke our hearts many years ago.”

The friends had been inseparable since grade school. In their last year of high school, Maggie had become pregnant and shortly thereafter suffered a painful miscarriage. Paralyzed by shame and sadness, Maggie was unable to share her grief with her friends. Instead, she withdrew completely. The friends were deeply hurt, but they refused to let her go. They kept calling, kept wanting a relationship. Slowly Maggie began to share her pain with them and they rebuilt their shattered friendship.

Healing Brokenness

“There is nothing as whole as a broken heart,” said the Kotsker Rebbe. It was in healing the brokenness of their relationship that made the friends so close. And it was clinging to the heart-break within Maggie that allowed them to build a relationship so strong that it could last a lifetime. This healing of past hurts is the process of teshuvah, continually moving closer to one another and to the world by living by our values.

This Shabbat is one of the special weeks of nechemta, comfort, that follow Tisha B’Av, the primary day of communal Jewish mourning. Tisha B’Av marks some of the most profound moments of loss in Jewish history, such as the destruction of the Temples in ancient Jerusalem and the subsequent violent displacement of our people.

It would be tempting to forget the pain and grief that Tisha B’Av marks and obscure the moments of shattering within our Jewish past, just as Maggie, as a young woman, was drawn to hide her brokenness. Yet, it is in the creation of holy spaces, where we can share and name our grief, that the possibility of healing begins. These weeks of nechemta following Tisha B’Av lead directly to the High Holidays when we draw nearer to one another through teshuvah. The healing of the High Holidays is most possible when we first allow our hearts to break in grief on Tisha B’Av.

The Wandering People

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Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the one place in the world where you have felt the safest and the most secure. For most of us this visualization brings up images of home–being nestled in bed in a childhood home, cooking dinner for loved ones in an adult home we created, standing still in a place in nature, or being embraced within a community that can evoke feelings of being truly at home within our body or in our soul. Home represents true safety. Home is the beginning and ending of each day’s and each lifetime’s journey.

A Long Journey to Stability

Much of the Torah is focused around the search for home. This week’s Torah portion, Mattot, begins to bring to a close the book of Numbers, which is wholly concerned with the people’s journey out of slavery in Egypt and the pursuit of a home in the Promised Land.

In this week’s parashah the people reach the land just over the Jordan River from the Promised Land. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, who are cattle ranchers, see that this location is fertile and are ready to stop traveling and create a home on this side of the Jordan. However, when the Reubenites and Gadites suggest staying put, Moses is appalled.

The issue seems to be that this choice is only concerned with their personal welfare. Moses asks them if they intend to abandon their community’s struggle when they are so close to reaching a homeland for all the tribes. After hearing Moses’ rebuke, the Reubenites and Gadites agree to take part in the rest of the journey to establish a home for the entire community before returning to the trans-Jordan with their cattle. The message of the Torah is clear. Everyone in the community must have a safe place to be before any of us consider ourselves at home.

Contemporary Hebrews

In the contemporary world there are myriad people in need of a safe home. Last year, there were more than 62 million displaced people world-wide. Some 26 million were displaced by war and violence and another 25 million by natural disasters, while nearly 12 million people are stateless for other reasons. These numbers are staggering. There are millions of people who, like the ancient Hebrews, are vulnerable and homeless.

Internal & External Change

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“I don’t understand why I keep making the same mistakes,” a patient of mine recently told me. He had called for a chaplain in the middle of the night because he felt overwhelmed by remorse. “I have been hospitalized five times now. I’ve lost my girlfriend, my friends, my law practice, all because of drinking… I really want to change, but somehow I just keep doing the same old things over and over again.”

Change is hard.AJWS logo 

We are in the middle of reading the Book of Numbers, which is about the Israelites’ struggle to leave slavery and abandon old behaviors. The Book of Numbers could be affectionately called the Book of Kvetch, as it is filled with complaining–the people remember slavery in Egypt fondly and regret their decision to move toward liberation.

Most of this complaining is really a way of expressing the same heart-wrenching sentiment as my patient expressed–making fundamental life changes, even if they are life-saving ones like leaving slavery or quitting drinking, is extremely difficult. Even when we intellectually know we need to discard harmful addictions, behaviors, or relationships, leaving behind old ways of being in the world is at best an ambiguous experience.

From Slavery to Freedom

In this week’s portion the people complain bitterly. “If only we had meat to eat,” they wail. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all, nothing but this Manna to look forward to (Numbers 11:5-6)!”

It is hard to understand why the people remember slavery and oppression so warmly. Jewish sages question whether the Egyptian taskmasters really gave the Israelites fish for free and posit that the freedom that they are recalling in Egypt was actually a freedom from morality and obligation (Midrash Sifrei 11:6).

As slaves, the people did not have to make decisions–they did not even have to choose what to eat–and they were free from any responsibility. In the desert the people begin to mature and make choices for themselves, but still yearn for the deceptive “freedom” of slavery. In other words, the people had left slavery but not psychological bondage–they were still thinking like slaves as opposed to thinking like free people.

Sacred Time & Space

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Sarah, a member of my congregation, once explained to me why she was proudly a “bad Jew.” She had hated her traditional religious upbringing. As soon as she left home she proudly embraced a fully secular lifestyle. Although she eventually found her way back to Judaism through belonging to a liberal synagogue, Sarah told me that she was a member purely for cultural reasons, because of her connection to Jewish social justice values, and she still eschewed any form of religious observance. 

american jewish world service“Let me tell you how ‘bad a Jew’ I truly am. Every Shabbos morning,” she told me, “I sleep late. Then I make bacon for breakfast and eat it slowly, savoring the smell and the flavor, while reading the paper and catching up on how to be involved in world events. I look forward to that moment all week long.”

“I hate to break this to you,” I told her, “but it sounds to me like you are keeping Shabbos!”

Setting Aside Sacred Time

“On six days work may be done,” we read in this week’s portion, “but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion (Leviticus 23:3).” When Sarah sets aside time that feels sacred to her, both for her own pleasure and to connect empathetically to people in the world around her, she unwittingly keeps the most essential commandment of Shabbat.

Parshat Emor contains 63 of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot, many of which direct us on how to sanctify time. Chapter 24 of Leviticus deals with the laws of Shabbat and holiday observance. In this chapter we learn about the timing of the Jewish calendar–when to eat matzah, when to blow the shofar, and when to observe other annual rites.

Yet, buried within this lavishly detailed chapter we find a seemingly anomalous verse: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I, the Eternal One, am your God (Leviticus 23:22).”

Considering Our Food Choices

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I currently serve as a chaplain in a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital. A patient of mine named “John” was recently discharged from the unit. As he was leaving, he told me that the time he had spent there was the first time in his life that he had felt truly free. I was dumbfounded when he said this, as John had been hospitalized on an involuntary, court-ordered, 14-day hold and had arrived kicking and screaming.

american jewish world serviceHe explained to me, however, that he had come to see that despite the locks on the doors and windows, his time on the unit was the first time in his life he had ever been in a truly safe place. “The locked doors do not just keep patients in,” John told me. “They also keep violence out.”

Not All Limits Are Limiting

The sense of freedom that John experienced during his stay was not just about physical containment, but was also due to some of the limits placed on his time. The unit runs a full schedule of individual and group therapy. John had never experienced being listened to so intensely. The opportunity to be listened to compassionately by staff and peers made John feel free to express himself and begin to see his own worth and dignity. The rigid schedule actually liberated him and allowed room for healing.

John taught me that not all limits are limiting. Boundaries can also allow for safe space, sanctuary where healing can happen and human dignity can flourish. This is a message that is deeply embedded in Torah. In the Book of Leviticus, we are taught to build sacred boundaries in space through the Mishkan (tabernacle). We are instructed to establish boundaries in time through the observance of Shabbat. And, in this week’s parashah, we learn biblical dietary laws that set boundaries around what we eat.

Food & Values

In Parashat Shemini, we are taught to avoid eating many animals, including crawling insects, shrimp, hares, swine, bustards, storks, herons of every variety, hoopoes, and bats. We are told that sea creatures must have fins and scales, land animals must chew their cud and have true hoofs. No explanation for these apparently random biblical dietary laws is given.

Idolatry Everywhere

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When I was in rabbinical school, I officiated at a Bat Mitzvah for Beatrice, a young girl who was reading from this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa. As we studied the famous story of the golden calf, she asked me an excellent question: “What is wrong with idol worship, anyway?” After all, she pointed out, the synagogue was filled with beautiful holy objects, like an intricate stained-glass window, a filigreed eternal light, and the ornately dressed Torah scroll itself.

I carefully explained to Beatrice that the problem with idols is that instead of serving as symbols of holiness, they replace holiness. Jewish sacred symbols, I claimed, are just tools to remember the central teachings of the Torah. They remind us that we should be kind to each other and pursue justice. An idol is something that is worshiped as an end in and of itself. 

american jewish world serviceBeatrice listened carefully to my explanation for quite some time before responding: “I have one more question. If the Torah scroll is just a symbol that is supposed to remind us to be nice to each other, then why did you snap at me when we were practicing and I almost dropped it?”

There’s nothing like solid to’he’kha (timely rebuke) from a 13-year-old to give a new rabbi perspective. Idol worship is hard to avoid.

Moses’ Mistake

In this week’s parashah, while Moses is receiving the tablets of the Torah from God, the people get restless. “Come make us a god…” they say to Aaron. He melts down their jewelry and forms a glittering golden calf. The people see it and exclaim (Exodus 32:1-5), “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt!”

This incident is the primary example of idolatry in Jewish tradition. The people replace the worship of an ineffable, omnipotent God with a human-made, hastily constructed, showy chotch’ke.

When Moses comes down the mountain and sees the people reveling in idolatry, he becomes enraged and smashes the tablets. Ironically, in that moment, Moses makes the same mistake as the people. Instead of seeing the tablets as symbols of holiness that can help heal the community, he sees them through the eyes of idolatry.

Nothing Is Unchangeable

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For most of the past 3,000 years, civilization was shaped by smallpox. The disease decimated entire populations, destroyed cultures, swept across continents, and altered the course of human history. Smallpox killed five reigning European monarchs in the 18th century alone. For people born in previous centuries, the disease was a fact of nature, a part of life on this planet that appeared as impossible to prevent as natural disasters.

american jewish world serviceAnd yet, over the last decades, the facts of nature changed. Widespread vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries worked. The disease was eradicated. In 1979 the World Health Organization certified the end of smallpox. 

The Pivotal Moment

In this week’s parashah, B’shalah, the Israelites also faced a fact of nature that appeared immutable and devastatingly dangerous. As they fled slavery with their taskmasters in hot pursuit, they came up against the Sea of Reeds–a churning, impassable ocean. But suddenly, their horizon literally expanded: “Moses held his arm out over the sea and the Eternal One drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground (Exodus 14:21).”

This was arguably the pivotal moment in Jewish history. We tell and retell the story of the parting of the sea in every weekday, Shabbat, and holy day prayer service, morning and evening. It is recounted in prayer more frequently than the details of the creation of humanity or the giving of the Torah. 

Why do we need to hear this story so often? 

Because it is in this moment that we realized that nothing is immutable. We saw that seas can split open and diseases can be eradicated. The facts of the world ceased to be facts.

And we responded to this new awareness with action as we charged forward into the sea: “The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left (Exodus 14:21-22).” 

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