Years ago, I faced a summer’s end with a series of five deaths in the tiny congregation I served as a young rabbi. High Holiday preparations that year were especially difficult. I remember the funeral director observing that deaths seemed to cluster around holiday times.
Liminal moments are fraught. Indeed, my own father and my brother each died within two weeks of Rosh Hashanah, both at a young age. Life and death are on my mind at this time of year.
This year brings a heightened consciousness of life and death. The barbaric beheadings of two American journalists terrorizes us. Massacres of thousands of innocents by fanatical Islamists are incomprehensible. How could this death cult come from a religious tradition?
David Brooks, (NY Times, 9/4/14) reflected, “By going beneath even the minimal standards of modern civilization, the militants in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…show contempt for us and our morality.” They terrorize us by their “unbounded violence,” denying our common humanity. Brooks observes: “ISIS will get inside our heads in the darkest way” because a beheading is “a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.”
At the New Year, we pray that the quality of our lives will align with our hopes and dreams through repentance. One High Holiday prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, written during dark times of violent persecution, imagines a heavenly court judging us on the New Year. It voices a deep fear that we may fall victim to a terrible fate or die with unfinished business. But it proclaims that “repentance, prayer and tzedakah” (righteous acts) can “avert the evil decree.”
We know that life is fragile; any day could unexpectedly be our last. We pray that we can complete our soul’s mission before we die. We yearn to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for good. We yearn for life. We have the power to shape the quality of our living, to fulfill our soul’s purpose.
Why does murder specifically by beheading make us so sick? David Brooks wrote, the “infusion of the spiritual and the material is mysterious.” For Jews, the human body is a “transcendent temple worthy of respect.” These murderous zealots violate our basic belief that life is good. “The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation.”
The Torah instructs, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the LORD your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God.” (Deuteronomy 30:19 – 20)
How will we cope this trauma and our fears this holiday? We will choose life, through repentance, prayer and tzedakah/righteous acts. Indeed, we will celebrate goodness and the potential for godliness. Our antidote to the cult of death is a life of faith in goodness.
Growing up, my favorite day was the annual Israel day parade in Philadelphia. It was a celebration of belonging and identity. We sang Israeli songs with pride, waving our Israeli flags. The crowd converged on Independence Mall, celebrating at the cradle of American democracy. In the late 60’s/early 70’s, Jewish pride was “in,” and it felt completely American.
I never felt unsafe publicly demonstrating Jewish and Zionist pride. Until I experienced an incident as a young rabbi in the small mid-western town where I served, I had never personally encountered anti-Semitism. I was fortunate to grow up in a region and a time where we could be fully American and Jewish.
Jews in America enjoy unprecedented acceptance and empowerment. Yes, pockets of anti-Semitism still occasionally pop up. In 2002, my New Jersey congregation was directly targeted, a frightening experience for all of us. But still, it felt to me that the outbreaks of irrational hatred could be overcome with the friendship and support of our Christian neighbors who would stand with us against hatred, as they did in both of my personal experiences.
I have invested my life in advancing positive Jewish ideas and experiences, shying away from any narrative that rests on the notion of remaining Jewish to defeat 2000 years of hatred. Joyous Jewish pride has remained my driving force.
This summer, my optimism, or call it denial, has been dented. There are very frightening and distressing stories of resurgent and violent anti-Semitism coming out of Europe. This is a serious crisis.
Still, I felt personally separate from that reality. Then last week, I realized that even in here in northern New Jersey, we are not immune. Sadly, the convergence of anti-Israel sentiment and Judeophobia has tipped the scale.
At a recent local “support Israel” rally there was huge police presence, including two county “command center” police trailers and horseback police patrol. This spoke volumes; we could not be safe without their protection. Thankfully, there were no problems. Was it because the event was only strategically announced and not advertised, out of concern for security? Anti-Semitism wearing the mask of Anti-Israel has come to threaten us.
I found myself returning to a recent Moment Magazine symposium, “Anti-Semitism: Where Does it Come from and Why Does it Persist?” (March/April 2014.) It’s helpful, but the desire to understand is insufficient. We must pour our energies into building bridges of relationship and understanding with many groups. First, invest in Jewish internal dialogue, so that concerns about Israel do not infect Jewish unity and strength. Second, our ties with Christian and moderate Muslim neighbors and friends are essential for turning back the tides of hate.
This is no time for hysteria (have you too received emails and seen posts of this nature?) But the veil of denial must also be avoided. The moment to address this crisis is here.
A week after coming home from a month in Israel, my soul remains immersed there. The tension in Israel, charged with fear and worry, can become like a cloak around your shoulders, enveloping you.
After arranging to come home a day earlier than planned, I was lucky to catch one of the last flights out before the temporary shut-down. Some colleagues were significantly delayed—one more stress added to the anxious experience of living in the midst rocket fire. But still, it was nothing compared with the suffering of Israelis living under constant fire in the South, or those whose loved ones were sent to fight in and near Gaza.
When I called the airline to change my ticket, I had a passing and ridiculous superstitious thought—what if I made a decision that put me in harm’s way? In a crisis, especially in the psychological warfare of rocket fire, irrational thoughts happen. I got a grip, emerging with still more sympathy for all the folks living under fire.
But something else remained with me. The airline agent, hearing that I was in Israel, said, “I’d high-tail it out of there right away.” After thanking her for her sympathy, I became protectively defensive of Israel, insisting it was no problem to stay there. My changed plans shouldn’t reflect on Israel, Israelis, or on my personal commitment to being there in support.
With kindness, she replied, “OK, well, keep the faith. No charge for the changed itinerary—after all, you’re in a war zone.” My reaction caught in my throat while I pondered “keeping the faith.” What does that mean in this situation?
We all know the aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it’s not so simple. In Israel I heard that an ultra-Orthodox rabbi had told his followers that the IDF didn’t need to defend Israel—if everyone prayed, God would do the work. I was sickened. Didn’t he read the many rabbinic statements about human responsibility in partnership with God in completing the work of creation? Or the ethics taught by our Biblical prophets, often recited in synagogue as haftarah? Our tradition teaches us to repair the world on God’s behalf; empowering us to fight hatred, evil, cruelty, injustice and violence. We have all the tools we need to bring caring, compassion and healing to our world.
I was glad to have been blessed by that airline agent, even though I am guessing my approach to “keeping the faith” isn’t what she meant. It doesn’t matter. When the world feels out of control, there is a very real way to regain agency. Coping with crisis by “keeping the faith” isn’t irrational, superstitious or magical thinking. It’s a way of being, rooted in meaning, transformative and completely empowering.
I experience the world through Jewish history. I came by it honestly, having been a lifelong avid student of Jewish history. The story drew me in, like learning about my family’s past.
I feel Jewish history like the blood in my veins. So this week I had a chance to retrace a certain Jewish journey, of sorts. While visiting my daughter in Spain, I felt the history of our people there, with visions of the Golden Age when Jews were a thriving community. I heard the names of Jewish communities all over the Iberian peninsula reverberating in my memory, then felt grief and sadness for the fate of those communities under the Inquisition. The fear and hatred wrought by the Inquisitors, the heinous torture they inflicted on suspected Conversos, secret Jews are a great stain on history. The journey of the Jewish people, so marked by our wanderings, was forever changed.
Thankfully, the relationship of the Spanish people to our people has changed, and now the Spanish government is discussing the offering of citizenship to Jews of Spanish origin—even 500+ years since the Inquisition.
I left Spain, boarding a flight to Istanbul, where I had visited several years ago with the warm hospitality of Turkish hosts. In Turkey I felt Jewish history in my bones, in what was once a significant destination for Jews fleeing the Inquisition. The Ottoman rulers welcomed Jews and offered safe haven and new homes. Our people owe a great debt to Turkey for the friendship offered at such an important time.
History marches on, and now there are few Jews in Turkey. We Jews continued to wander, eventually finding unprecedented opportunity to settle in our ancient homeland in the late 19th century. Fleeing European persecution yet again, our people established a refuge for all Jews by creating the State of Israel.
So when I boarded my next flight, this time to Tel Aviv, I smiled at the sweep of history. Here we are, a Jewish people with our long-awaited rebirth. Now we can travel and live in Spain, visit and enjoy Turkey, and also walk the paths of our ancestors in Israel. I am warmed by remembering just how remarkable that is.
Israel is the destination from our wanderings. Yes, I will return home to New Jersey next month, but I carry this place with me everywhere. And I wonder, and I worry, will my children, and their peers, growing up in a time when historical memory pales in comparison to the opportunities presented by the global community—will they carry it in their hearts? Our biggest challenge today is to nurture both cultural openness and Jewish pride. The key lies not only in recalling the sufferings of our past, but in experiencing the remarkable. Israel is a complicated and imperfect place, but it is indeed extraordinary. Israel is uniquely a product of Jewish experience and skillful survival. We did this together, and that includes today’s youth too.
Yesterday, during preparations for the graduation ceremony for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I caught a glimpse of the glow on the face a soon-to-be-ordained rabbi. It was magical. In my mind’s eye I could feel the tears streaming down my cheeks 27 years ago when I received the title “rabbi” after 5 intense years of learning at RRC. Mazal tov to this year’s new “rabbis and teachers in Israel”!
But yesterday’s rabbinic becoming/ordination also hit me with some worry. The role and significance of rabbis in progressive Judaism is shifting, and the changes are happening more rapidly than many of us can easily absorb.
In today’s unfolding reality, the fastest growing non-Orthodox American Jewish group is unaffiliated Jews. While denominational attachment is diminishing, the mainstream movements and their member congregations are struggling. Rabbis are wrestling with this reality, working to craft new approaches to their leadership to meet shifting needs.
Rabbis devote their lives to Torah and the Jewish people out of love. Just as Moses struggled with the formation of his leadership for a frightened, searching, sometimes confused and frustrated people in the wilderness, so too do rabbis walk through this wilderness.
A friend who has given considerable time, money and leadership to synagogues and his national movement—and a long-time supporter and booster for rabbis, was just telling me about a congregation he enjoys visiting that does not have a rabbi. It has a “spiritual leader.” They are not alone—non-traditional leaders, with various titles and training, are becoming more accepted.
Independent rabbis who help individuals, couples and families are increasingly in demand. Jews still want to do Jewish—but as the Pew report highlighted, many are looking for different types of relationships with spiritual leaders. Filling this void, many “officiants” advertising in the marketplace have not had the depth of learning and professional training that rabbis have attained. Everything’s changing.
We are about to celebrate the holy day of Shavuot, placing us back into the wilderness with our ancestors, when, as one united people, the people of Israel experienced revelation. Their response, “na’aseh v’nishma—we will do and we will listen,” shored up their relationship not only with God, but with Moses, their leader.
Moses found the inspiration and support to lead in the changing reality of the wilderness. So can we, if we take a reflective stance as Moses did on Mt. Sinai. This is about the future of American Judaism—a vitally important communal conversation. This Shavuot, let’s hold that inspiration close, climbing the mountain and returning with faces aglow with God’s holiness, alive with new possibilities.
The brides were sequestered in a tiny room at the banquet hall less than an hour before their wedding, fixing their hair and makeup. They greeted me anxiously. “Just a minute,” one told me, “We’re not ready yet.” A moment later they opened the door to welcome me inside. Standing there in gorgeous cream-colored gowns, similar but not identical in design, they both looked stunning. The decades of their adult lives, successful careers and raising a wonderful son to adulthood melted away in their beauty at that moment. One of them expressed a wordless sigh, emotion written all over her face, her body momentarily tensing. With worry, I asked, “What is it?” As the tears welled up she said, “I’ve been to a lot of weddings, and dreamed of being a bride, but I never thought it would really happen. It’s so amazing!” We were ready to weep with joy.
When the happy couple walked down the aisle to the huppah, or wedding canopy, under which they would sanctify and legalize their long-term relationship, the guests jumped to their feet bursting with applause. Amid cheers, tears and immense joy and love, the brides and their son came to the huppah. The ceremony transported everyone to another dimension; when the breaking of the glass broke the spell, the guests once again rose up to cheer. It was a release of joy after years of being on the outside of society’s formula of acceptable marriages by laws that did not recognize the families created by same-sex couples.
I will carry these images to my seder next week along with many joyous celebrations with couples in the past year since same-sex marriage became legal here. I will think of this as I assemble my Seder plate, for the first time with an orange.
“An orange?” you may ask. Perhaps, like many in the progressive Jewish community, you heard the 1990’s myth that feminist leaders began to put oranges on seder plates to symbolize the need for women’s equality in Judaism. One version told that the orange symbolized the need to accept women rabbis. While both are nice stories, the actual events that led to the placement of an orange on a seder plate arose from a conversation about the exclusion of lesbians (and gays) from Jewish life and ritual. (See this great resource for the narratives.)
Years ago, after I heard the mythic meaning ascribed to the symbolic orange, I lost enthusiasm for the new ritual. Yet, every Passover I was sure to talk about it, along with the call for justice that defined it.
This year I am rethinking the orange; this year I am celebrating justice. And I am mindful to remember that LGBTQ justice is incomplete, in this country, and in the world. I invite you to join me.
Did you hear the recent story on NPR about the professor who is living in a dumpster for a year? No, not a dirty, grungy kind of place, but a sanitized garbage dumpster. Environmental science professor Jeff Wilson, Ph.D., the dean of Huston Tillotson’s University College, rallied support from students as he prepared the space, which is located on the college’s campus.
The story, documented here by KVUE.com, has reverberated for me all week. Maybe it’s because my own home is now an empty nest. I wonder if the abundance of the often-empty spaces, once filled with the tumult of a busy family, is now an over-abundance.
Dr. Wilson will live in a 36 square foot space, one percent the size of the average home. In this tiny living space, it is estimated that a mere one percent of the average home’s water and energy will be consumed. Likewise, the dumpster-home will produce a tiny one percent of the average waste as well.
In the first phase of the project, Dr. Wilson is just “camping out.” I thought of my kids’ love of wilderness camping, and the experience we shared living only on the supplies that we carried on our backs. It’s incredibly liberating and empowering.
In the second phase of the dumpster project, it will be connected to the grid, to become a slightly more regular home – with appliances. The professor and his students will measure its consumption of water and electricity. What a powerful lesson this will generate – as Dr. Wilson instructs his students in new ways to consider what we really need in a home.
Home ownership is often called “the American Dream.” But somewhere along the way, the American credo “bigger is better,” shifted our values. Many Americans have aspired to and acquired large homes – proclaiming, “We have ‘made it’.” These cultural values have led many people to stretch beyond their means in purchasing homes, with potentially tragic consequences.
Dr. Wilson’s lessons in consumption and sustainability are a prompt for recalibrating. How much do we really need? How can our choices help us to sustain our natural resources for a healthy planet?
In the third and final phase of the project, the dumpster will be fitted with solar panels to produce its energy. But since those panels (in the sunshine of Austin, Texas) will collect far more energy than the home can use, it will replace energy back into the grid.
Dr. Wilson will live in the dumpster most of the time, but some of his enthusiastic students will take turns living in it while he is away. I wonder, after the novelty of the project recedes, will the experience shape their values and choices?
I hope so. The generation who is inheriting the world that consumes beyond its means can reshape our culture with wiser values.
I am not ready to downsize just yet, but I am inspired by the professor’s courageous example, and even more, his students’ expanded potential.
This week’s stunning headline read “Affluenza Defense Lands Wealthy Teen in Rehab After He Kills 4 People in Drunk Driving Accident.”
The term “affluenza,” popularized in a 2001 a book, Affluenza, the All-Consuming Epidemic (de Graff, Wann, and Naylor) is described as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”
The headline for the “Affluenza defense” told a horrific story. It was the defense strategy for 16 year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people and severely injured two more while driving his father’s pickup truck with more than three times the legal limit for alcohol in his blood, along with valium. Driving 70 miles an hour in a 40 MPH zone, the teen was behind the wheel after stealing beer from a store, then taking 7 passengers with him on a drunken ride. Despite the stolen beer, the speeding, the underage drinking, etc.—a long list of offenses—the teen was sentenced to just 10 years of probation and mandatory rehabilitation. The rehab ordered by the judge will cost $450,000 a year, in what seems more a punishment of his parents than a consequence for their killer child.
News outlets reported that a “psychologist hired as an expert by the defense testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege.” An anguished man who lost his wife and daughter in the crash observed that Couch’s family’s money was able to pay for the expensive legal defense, and cover the rehab costs—and had this not been the case, the outcome surely would have been different.
They should be ashamed of themselves, all of them—everyone who defended this remorseless teenager—for defending his actions. This defense was a way of saying that he bears no blame. In fact, his facial expressions and body language all bore out an arrogant “you can’t touch me” detachment.
Should the parents be punished for raising a child with such a sense of entitlement, lacking boundaries and lessons about consequences – essentially without morals? Maybe. If only the psychologist had tried to determine the causes for this kid’s malevolent self-absorption, perhaps the parents would bear some guilt. We know that parents can’t control the outcomes of their parenting, and some who try to do their best end up disappointed. Yet, this case does cry out for examination of the parents’ role in producing this outcome.
Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to raise a cultural conversation about parenting with boundaries and consequences—teaching our kids to have a moral compass?
Even more so, the consequences for the teen should have made a different point. If this is a child who was not taught to live with boundaries and consequences, then the court did the worst possible thing by repeating that very same pattern. Ideally, he should be taught that there are painful—and sometimes disastrous—consequences of bad judgment. Perhaps he won’t learn morality at this point, but we have a responsibility to try. And if nothing more, society should make sure he can’t hurt anyone else again.
How about a lifetime ban on his obtaining a driver’s license or purchasing or leasing any motor vehicle?
We owe it to the victims and to all of our children, to do better than this.
Where is home? Is it where you live, even if it is temporary? Is it where you grew up? Is it the place where your parents or grandparents and their families originated?
Home might also be a special place where the heart resides even if it isn’t our place of residence. The Jewish people have held Israel in their hearts for over three millennia.
Home could also be the place where we have grown up or come of age. At a recent event I met someone with whom I had an immediate connection—we shared the history of the same childhood home synagogue in Philadelphia. Neither of us have been there in decades, but the connection to this home bonded us.
And of course, home is where we live, if we are fortunate enough to have stable housing—something we cannot take for granted.
I’ve been ruminating on this for the last couple of weeks as various manifestations of “home” have been in my face.
I spent a week with my husband and two of our kids in the Bay area of California. We stayed in an Airbnb rental in Berkeley and experienced being paying guests in a stranger’s home—it was much more comfortable than a hotel. I wondered how it would feel to have people staying in my home who were paying consumers. We spent a day talking about whether and how we would consider being hosts, renting all or part of our house for SuperBowl weekend (since we live in NJ, not far from the stadium, where hotel rooms are scarce.)
We walked around downtown Berkeley for six days, confronted with a very present and aggressively begging homeless population. The streets are their home. We talked about how homeless people can feel invisible as the streets fill with people who avert their eyes as they pass them by.
Even with unusually frigid weather in New Jersey, it was so nice to come home. But soon the political scandal engulfing my state caught my attention. Maybe it was the sleazy drama of it all, but something drew me into listening to a long press conference and reading endless columns of reactions and analysis. My home, New Jersey, was being maligned. I felt protective of my home state—I wanted to tell the world about the great hiking and biking, lush farmland and gardens in my home state. Please don’t think of New Jersey as traffic and the turnpike and slimy politicians. It’s my home.
This week the Modern Language Association debated one-sided resolutions criticizing Israel, way out of proportion to rebukes to the other nations of the world, and I felt protective of my other “home.” I am fortunate to have spent enough time in Israel to relate to the land personally; it’s not an abstract feeling of attachment.
We who are fortunate to have comfortable places to call home, with perhaps the means to share with guests, or the opportunity for multiple special places of “home,” are truly living with the blessing of holiness. Jewish tradition has many names for God, including the oft-used “hamakom“—meaning, “the place.”
The homeless people who claim their spot on the street, staying day-after-day in “their” place, are striving for the same shelter under “Divine wings.” They deserve to not be invisible; they too are created in the Divine image.
In this week’s Torah reading (Yitro),the Israelites, newly freed from slavery, had to figure out how to make a home in the wilderness. It was not easy. But thanks to Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, they organized themselves into a representational polity that took the needs of all the people into account.
When we care for each other, as if we are guests in each others homes, we find “hamakom.” Home is where we are respected, seen, nurtured and fully alive as ourselves. It takes eyes that see and hearts that care for “home” to realized. That is the blessing we can make real in our world.
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I was seized by a sick feeling of sadness, worry, and a familiar anger that has unfortunately been all too frequent – anger that our country remains gripped by a culture of violence and politics that glorifies guns.
Amidst deep worry for the people of Sandy Hook, another fear took hold. A dear cousin of mine who is a lower-grade elementary school teacher lives in that community. We had just visited over the Thanksgiving weekend. I didn’t recall the name of the school where my cousin teaches, so I went into a panic. I couldn’t reach my cousin by phone and tried to find the faculty list on the Sandy Hook school’s website, but it was down in the midst of the crisis. My sister called me in panic – we felt so helpless without any information.
Hours later my cousin called. Its turns out he teaches in a nearby town. His cell phone held dozens of voicemails and text messages from worried friends and family — he had been teaching, not using his phone. We breathed in a deep and grateful sense of relief.
Then I felt guilty for our feelings of relief. In deep sadness, I watched the scenes on TV, grieving for the 20 children and six adults; such unspeakable losses. These families would not ever experience the sense of relief that my family enjoyed. I viscerally recall the terror generated by this horrible violence. It could have been any of us, or our children. For some, it was their children; we feel such deep sympathy for them.
Where is the rage? What has happened to our country and our world? Why do mentally ill people not get the treatment they need? Why do people feel they need these instruments of death?
So much needs to fixed: mental health awareness and treatment; violence in our culture: movies, video games and TV; a 24/7 media culture that sensationalizes, to the point of (unintentionally) glorifying perpetrators – especially to “would-be” committers of the next shooting; and a political culture that is bought and sold by the gun lobby.
We are out of control. A late 19th-century prophetic European social critic, Max Nordau, wrote of his fears for society’s fall into “public drug peddling, random shootings, graphically violent popular entertainment, and a massive reduction of the human attention span” (Degeneration, 1895). We have been warned; we know the problems. It is time to fix them.
The people of Newtown have asked for privacy and quiet at this sad first anniversary. Still, The New York Times, reporting on the anniversary, offered insight into the ongoing process of grief and healing in Newtown:
“Ms. Lewis, Jesse’s mother, begins every day by pulling on three or four or five of her Jesse bracelets before heading out. The bracelets read, ‘Nurturing, Healing, Love’ — three words her son had written on their kitchen chalkboard shortly before 12/14. The phrase became the title of her book about her son and the aftermath of the shooting, published in October. ‘Anyone who needs a pick-me-up or seems nice, I always offer a bracelet,’ she said.”
The Torah teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The commandment is not to feel love; it is a commandment to action. We have the courage – this is America! We must use it – to infuse our world with nurturing, healing and love.
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