Having opted to leave the Interstate and take the shortest route, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself traveling over mountains and across the Tennessee River on a winding State Highway. But I had no idea what mountains traversed the Georgia-Alabama border. I silently chided myself for my inadequate study of local geography and vowed to consult a map when I returned home.
I’d spent some weeks preparing for my first visit to Huntsville. I practiced the Torah reading, perused the materials sent by the synagogue’s lay leader and photocopied texts for our Saturday afternoon study session. I thought about what wisdom to share with the community of Etz Chayim and how to encourage their questions, to allow their interests to guide our conversations.
In Huntsville, I met engineers, professors and, of course, rocket scientists. I also met artists, farmers, teachers, writers and retirees who volunteer in the community. The Jews of Etz Chayim are an eclectic group; the one thing they share is a concern for the future of their synagogue.
The demographic reality in Huntsville, like that of many smaller cities across the southeast, is that its Jewish population is aging as the younger generation migrates to larger cities following graduation from college. Huntsville’s young adult to middle aged population, employed predominantly by high-tech industry and manufacturing sectors, may be especially transient because of the fast-paced, changing nature of their work.
Etz Chayim hosts a visiting rabbi on a monthly basis. “When the rabbi’s in town,” they tell me, “there is a good turnout for Friday night and Saturday morning services. On other weekends, only a few people attend on Saturdays.” This was difficult to imagine, because the group that gathered to study Torah was comprised of highly educated and engaged Jews, who posed challenging questions about the text and made connections between Exodus, African rituals, Kabbalah and Moby Dick.
We spent much of Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast confronting challenging questions related to the sustainability of this community. I told them that I have no answers, yet I possess an abiding optimism that they will find creative solutions. This congregation is both devoted to preserving the synagogue’s heritage and committed to exploring new ways of flourishing in the 21st century.
I’m grateful to these wise people, who not only offered me Southern Jewish hospitality in Huntsville, but also an opportunity to fulfill the mission of Rabbis Without Borders, “to make Jewish wisdom an accessible resource to help people enrich their lives.” My life was enriched through studying with and serving them.
I extended my studies through Monday: Checking an atlas when I arrived home, I learned Huntsville is on the other side of the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains.
As a rabbi of an online congregation, I am often asked about whether people have “real” Jewish experiences online. Some argue that you can’t have a meaningful Jewish experience unless you’re in a room with other Jews.
I disagree. I have seen time and time again how having an online community like OurJewishCommunity.org gives people an opportunity to connect to Judaism, to other Jews, and to rabbis.
I was thinking about this as I watched the Super Bowl last night. There may have been 80,000 people in the stadium watching the game, but another 118 million watched on TV – and I’m pretty sure their experience was equally “real.”
Is watching at home the same as watching in a packed arena? Of course not! I know there is nothing quite like the feeling of being in an arena full of fans. You can see the action up close (if you have good seats), you cheer loudly among others, and you feel part of the action. But watching from home also has advantages. You can watch alone or with friends, you can listen to the commentators, and you can see the commercials (either an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your perspective!).
Watching the Super Bowl on TV and participating in Shabbat and other holiday services online have many similarities. Here are five:
1. Most people were not watching the game alone. The myth is that if you watch High Holiday services online, it must be isolating. But I know many people who have the equivalent of Super Bowl parties for Jewish holidays! Often, someone will invite over a dozen friends for a Rosh Hashanah meal and then they’ll gather around a flat screen TV with our live services streaming. They’ve printed our unique liturgy and are participating as an intimate community, as part of an even larger community.
2. Not everyone can afford to go the Super Bowl, not everyone has a stadium nearby, and some people who have shown up to games in the past haven’t felt welcomed. It’s the same with Judaism. Some people have physical limitations, geographic barriers, financial obstacles, or other reasons they cannot attend synagogue. For them, an online community is a perfect connection to Jewish community.
3. Some people had to be at work or take care of other responsibilities during the game – and I’m betting many of them DVRed the game to watch later. So too with services. Not everyone can take time on a Friday night to go to synagogue – but everyone can find a break in their week to create what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called a “sanctuary in time.” That’s why OurJewishCommunity.org makes its services available on-demand. I know one of our community members is an ER physician and works on Shabbat – so she makes her “Shabbat” on Tuesday and is able to participate in our services then.
4. Some people prefer the anonymity of the screen. If you don’t yet know the difference between a touchdown, a field goal, and a two-point conversion and you can’t tell the offense from the defense, you may not feel comfortable showing up with other fans to talk about the game. By watching on your own, you can learn. Many have commented to me that they feel more comfortable asking a rabbi questions online than in person. For some people, watching online is a way to dip one’s toe in before walking through synagogue doors.
5. You can have community across miles. Seahawks fans felt a kinship with one another last night, as did Patriots fans. Participants in OurJewishCommunity.org who have never met feel a connection to one another because of their shared values and philosophical approach to Judaism. During services, we rabbis even encourage online chatting – which means conversations happen between people in different states and on different continents – adding to the diversity of our Jewish conversations.
Technology also means families can have shared holiday or sports experiences, even when separated by geography. During many March Madness basketball games, I’ve sat on the phone with my dad as we each watched the final moments of a close game. After many exciting Wimbledon tennis matches, I would often call my grandmother to debrief the game. While we didn’t live in the same cities, the shared on-screen experience allowed us to enjoy a game together and connect with one another around it. The same thing happens at OurJewishCommunity.org.
One of my favorite emails from a participant in OurJewishCommunity.org came in after our first High Holidays (in 2008!):
I came to work and my partner took the kids to services. I thought I’d be fine, but I was so isolated and getting really upset. I did a google search for a live streaming service, and there you were… So, for details – first, my mother also did not go to services yesterday for her own reasons. She was also sad and called me just before the shofar blew. I quickly sent her the link and we sat on the phone, DC to Florida, and listened to your shofar together. It was an amazing moment for us. I know neither of us would have words of appreciation grand enough to capture what we felt.
When I read that email, I knew our online community was offering something that a bricks-and-mortar experience simply couldn’t offer. Would this mother and daughter have preferred to be in synagogue, sitting with one another that day? Probably. But, the circumstances didn’t allow for that. So, thanks to technology, they enjoyed a holiday together.
Is the Super Bowl the equivalent of a Jewish service? Absolutely not! But they both have in-person and online components – and variety is good.
For those Jews who prefer bricks-and-mortar synagogue experiences, I am glad they have found a place that feels comfortable. And for those who prefer an online Jewish experience, I’m glad those options exist as well. What could be wrong with having more access points to Jewish connection? I’d say that’s a winning proposition!
The other day I came across a very funny video by Similac, the baby formula company. This extended advertisement was more of a public service announcement urging parents to stop criticizing the parenting techniques of other parents. (Watch the video here).
It doesn’t take long to realize that the strong message from Similac is that parents need to stop judging other parents about whether they choose to breastfeed their babies or provide baby formula. It’s certainly in the best interest of Similac to put an end to the onslaught of criticism waged against mothers who opt to feed with formula rather than from their breasts.
The formula vs. breastfeeding debate, which I’m not going to get into, wasn’t the reason my interest was piqued by this video. What intrigued me so much about this video was that it made me question where the line is between legitimate criticism of others’ parenting decisions and the etiquette of simply biting ones tongue.
Judaism certainly offers up its fair share of parenting advice. The Talmud, a sort of ancient parenting manual, advises when a parent should begin to teach his child Torah, how to swim, and even how to find a mate. On the matter of disciplining a child, Proverbs advises, “He who spares his rod hates his son but he who loves him is diligent to chastise him.” It’s one thing for Jewish law to offer prescriptions for responsible parenting, but when another parent is critical of how we parent our own children it can be an uncomfortable situation.
Many parents are quick to judge other parents, but haven’t walked a mile in their shoes. We’ve all seen parents roll their eyes when another parent lets their young child see a questionable movie, get a cell phone at an early age, wear expensive name brand clothing, or go out in the cold without a jacket. As the Similac video made clear, our global concern should be over the wellbeing of all children rather than trying to force our own opinions of how best to parent on others.
So, if it’s inappropriate for parents to criticize other parents over the source of food for infants and whether to let their children play outside without a warm jacket, is it ever acceptable to be critical of our peers’ choices as parents?
Well, that brings us to two ongoing news items. The first is the current spread of Measles in the United States. The outbreak, which is traced to an unvaccinated child at Disneyland in California, is highlighting the vaccination debate in our nation. In the case of vaccinating children, it is acceptable to voice our disagreement with the choice of other parents. Sending your child outside without a coat, staying up late at night, or letting him play a violent video game only affects your child. When parents choose to avoid having their children vaccinated in the 21st century, it poses a serious health risk to others. In the name of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, we have the responsibility to voice our disapproval of parents letting their children go unvaccinated.
The same is true when a parent is seen hitting their child. While some parents choose to spank or as a form of discipline and others feel it is improper, we should all agree that outright hitting a child is abusive. Unfortunately there’s no perfect litmus test for this and deciding whether to intervene when we see a parent hitting their child in public can be an uneasy situation. However, we should intercede on behalf of the child. In many cases, the parent just needs to calm down and handle the situation differently. While it might feel awkward to step in and voice an objection to the way the parent handled the situation, it is the ethical and justified course of action.
There is certainly gray area when it comes to criticizing other parents, but my sense is that our gut reaction will usually be right. There are certain things that occur between a parent and child that are none of our business, but there are other things that have a harmful effect – either on that child specifically or on society at large. I maintain that when it comes to parents not vaccinating their children or engaging in corporal punishment, we are duty bound to intercede and voice our disagreement. For just about everything else, just grin and bear it.
These are exciting times for Jewish social justice. This past week, an interfaith group of ministers, led in part by the Jewish group Bend The Arc, staged a dramatic die-in at a Capitol Hill cafeteria as part of the #BlackLivesMatter effort. American Jewish World Service has become a leading global advocate for combating gender-based violence, promoting LGBT rights, and empowering girls to end child marriage. Tru’ah coordinated an active rabbinic presence in Ferguson and is a leader in combating modern slavery and human trafficking. Hazon has galvanized the Jewish community around issues of local farming, health, and environmental sustainability. Uri L’Tzedek, has brought social justice education and advocacy to the Orthodox community. I could go on and on.
But beneath this profligacy of Jewish social justice activism lies what is, to me, an unsettling reality: “tikkun olam,” literally “repair of the world” or, more contextually, “social justice,” is losing resonance at the congregational level. Fewer and fewer synagogues are willing to embrace advocacy as part of their spiritual mission. To put it more dramatically, if the 1963 March On Washington was held today, how many synagogues would participate? Would yours?
This notion of waning congregational interest in tikkun olam work might seem shocking to some. After all, “tikkun olam” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that even President Obama has used it in outreach to the Jewish community; most shuls have social justice or tikkun olam committees; and we continue to teach students in our religious schools about pursuing justice.
But in my efforts first as rabbi of a synagogue and, later, facilitating the outreach efforts of numerous synagogues across a suburban Federation region, I have witnessed an alarming decline in synagogue tikkun olam participation. There is a growing chasm between what I will term “social action” and “social justice.” By social action I mean direct service such as canned food drives, clothing drives, or volunteering at elderly homes or homeless shelters. Social justice, in contrast, refers to advocacy directed towards changing systemic injustices in our society, whether legally or culturally. The Civil Rights movement, and more recently the effort to sanction same-sex marriage, are examples of social justice.
Our synagogues, often through tikkun olam committees, do a tremendous job providing donations and services and should be applauded for doing so. The amount of goods contributed from community gardens, or the number of collective hours spent tutoring disadvantaged inner city school children, represent shining examples of the altruism and beneficence of our shuls. But these same synagogues, especially in suburban or exurban areas of the country, are becoming increasingly skittish about getting involved in social justice advocacy.
A case in point: I recently received a phone call from the leader of a social justice committee at a nearby shul. She wanted her synagogue to support a campaign calling for municipalities to use their collective purchasing power to get gun manufacturers to start producing safer, smarter guns. She (and I) thought this would be a no-brainer. After all, saving a life (pikuah nefesh) is one of the highest values in Jewish law, trumping even Shabbat. Conversely, in the Talmud, the rabbis reject the use of weaponry on Shabbat, even for mere ornamentation (BT Shabbat 63). Her committee’s response?No way—this was far too political an issue for them.
So why are shuls largely pulling back from social justice advocacy? After all, the Civil Rights movement, and more recently the Save Darfur campaign, show that synagogues and their rabbis have been active in social justice efforts in the recent past, taking prominent, visible roles. So why not now?
I think there are at least three reasons for the decline. First, the emergence of effective and specific Jewish social justice organizations, such as those discussed above, has enabled the Jewish community to outsource our concern for the welfare of those beyond our neighborhoods. Worried about women in Africa? Send an online donation to AJWS. Want to take a stand against human trafficking? Click on a Tru’ah online petition. We don’t need our synagogues to get involved in these efforts because we now have alternate points of engagement.
Second, we should acknowledge that Jews in many places have grown wealthier in recent generations. This means that membership–and especially boards–of synagogues have grown slightly more conservative. For example, I had a congregant complain that I sermon I wrote was too liberal when I was merely addressing the mitzvah of pe’ah! How much latitude can a rabbi have to engage her community in social justice if major donors are opposed to doing so?
Third, in this hyper-politicized culture in which we live, some rabbis avoid addressing social justice topics from the pulpit because their congregants want a sanctuary—quite literally—from politics. Shul-goers want a respite from the cacophony of cable news and talk radio. So rabbis steer clear of political issues and instead focus on more spiritual messages.
I firmly believe, however, that more synagogues should adopt a commitment to addressing social justice as a complement to their social action work. From a practical standpoint, many synagogues are hemorrhaging membership, especially disaffected teenagers and young adults. Yet the millennial generation highly values social justice commitment. Looking at an innovative synagogue like IKAR, which has integrated social justice into its mission, shows how effective tikkun olam advocacy can be for stimulating new membership in our houses of worship.
Additionally, to be intellectually honest, those who care about social action should also care about social justice. If we care about gathering food for food pantries, shouldn’t we likewise advocate to adopt policies expanding access to food stamps and other forms of food aid? If we gather clothes or volunteer at homeless shelters, shouldn’t we also seek to address systemic causes of poverty, such as by raising the minimum wage so that those who work full time don’t live below the poverty line, as they currently do? Social action is wonderful and I applaud all those who give of their time and resources to help others. But drawing an arbitrary line between direct service and policy is simply minimizing our impact on issues that clearly matter to us.
Finally, our prophetic heritage should compel us to pursue social justice from our congregational platforms. There is a reason we read the Haftarah in addition to the Torah every Shabbat. Judaism mandates conscientiousness both about our internal ritual lives and the values we express publicly. This spirit of societal rebuke and a refusal to accept the status quo is inherent to our tradition. It began with Abraham standing up to God; continued with Moses standing up to Pharaoh, and later extended to a host of prophets standing up to wayward Israelite kings. This spirit became enshrined in Jewish law, such as the following passage from the Talmud: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.” (BT Gittin 61a) In short, if we want to be a light unto nations, let’s start acting like it!
Our synagogues, and especially the rabbis who lead them, continue to do tremendous work striving to enrich the spiritual lives of those in our communities. They also do a fantastic job sharing their communal resources through social action efforts. But I yearn for the day that our synagogues will see themselves, too, as vehicles for societal transformation. Perhaps then we will truly make inroads in the arduous, daunting, yet inescapable task of repairing our broken world.
On January 11, 2015, I received rabbinic smicha (ordination) from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Six years of academic study, spiritual formation, pulpit experience and chaplaincy service culminated in a moment of transformation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Assuming the traditional posture, I leaned back into my teachers’ hands as they intoned ritual words that changed me forever into a rabbi. In that magic moment, I became the most recent link in a chain connecting teacher to student, generation to generation, century to century, and epoch to epoch – harnessing history while reaching toward a future we yet can scarcely imagine.
Now that I’m officially a rabbi, both legally and spiritually empowered in my religious acts, now is an ideal moment to ask perhaps impertinent if not subversive questions: Why? Why be a rabbi? Why do Jews need rabbis? Better yet: do Jews need rabbis? If Jews do need rabbis, what kind of rabbis do Jews need?
Under halacha (Jewish law), most routine Jewish matters don’t “require” rabbis. A shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) can be a layperson and still fulfill all practical, emotional and spiritual prerequisites of an effective prayer service. Young adults become bnai mitzvah automatically at the appointed age, or by rituals of Torah and prayer – neither of which requires a rabbi. A m’sader kidushin (wedding officiant) need not be a rabbi (but in most jurisdictions, civil law reserves to clergy or specified public officers all power to solemnize marriages). In these and other seemingly ubiquitous rabbinic contexts, Jewish law does not require a rabbi.
And yet, each year ALEPH and other seminaries together ordain several hundred rabbis, belying alarmist predictions after the 2013 Pew Study that synagogue life is retrenching. Maybe a more apt conclusion is that Jewish life is evolving – shifting beyond synagogues and youth programs to include community centers, schools, retreat centers, health care settings and social action contexts. As a result, rabbis are finding their way to serving in all of these environments. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies recently observed about this trend, modernity still “values Jewish learning, and recognizes that the difference between a moribund and a dynamic institution can be having a rabbi at the helm.”
Sure. But what makes a rabbi moribund or dynamic?
A rabbi is Chief Spiritual Officer, but isn’t necessarily the most visible leader. Rather, an effective rabbi attunes hearts, minds and souls in whatever context the rabbi serves, then uses tools of Jewish culture and spirituality to nourish, inspire and deploy them for collective good. Sometimes a specific setting relies on a rabbi’s title, what Jack Bloom famously calls a “symbolic exemplar” of sacred authority. To Bloom, the rabbi as “symbolic exemplar” evokes transformation because the rabbi’s words effect change by their mere utterance. (“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”) The ideal rabbinic role, however, is neither symbolic nor titular: rather, the rabbi is a dynamic capacitor modulating the flow of individual and collective spirituality.
Understanding the rabbi as energetic capacitor shifts our question about what Jews need in rabbis. A new kind of answer emerges: Jews most need rabbis to the extent that rabbis fulfill their energetic functions. Critically, a rabbi’s title, learning and visible leadership do not alone discharge these energetic functions. After all, instinctively we know if a rabbi is dynamic or moribund, charged up or low on juice, well wired internally or short-circuiting. We know if a rabbi touches us, changes us or bores us. We know when a rabbi is inwardly real.
It follows that we must ask an even more potent and refined question: what makes for a dynamic, charged up and well-wired rabbi? In my 10 days as an ordained rabbi, I won’t pretend to corner the market on answers to this question. But as I embark on my own rabbinic journey, I offer five aspirations for my own rabbinate, reflecting the ways I believe that rabbis can best serve the deepest needs of 21st century life:
- Rabbis must model our own authentic inner lives. A rabbi who isn’t going anywhere can’t take anyone along. A rabbi stuck inside can’t move anyone. Rabbis must be seekers in our own right, boldly undertaking our own authentic spiritual journeys. In turn, rabbis must cultivate contexts in which it is safe for us to express, in appropriate settings, natural human emotions commensurate with our inner lives. Only as we ourselves recognize and spiritualize our own occasional fear, hurt, grief, doubt, anger and other foibles can we liberate others with permission to do the same.
- Rabbis must be in regular peer supervision, spiritual direction or counseling. As rabbis can wield substantial influence and bear considerable emotional and psycho-spiritual stress, rabbis must have contexts in which to refine ourselves accordingly. Clergy can become inured to or blinded by our roles – unwittingly hiding behind title, influence, power, privilege, control and social deference. The result can be blind spots, inward self-defense and spiritual bypass. Every life faces these dynamics – rabbis aren’t exempt – but rabbis especially must model ways ways to address these dynamics for two reasons. First, what we ourselves cannot do, we cannot help or encourage others to do. Second, precisely because of our roles, we are perhaps even more likely to need assistance seeing ourselves clearly. As Talmud notes (B.T. Berachot 5b), “A prisoner cannot release oneself from prison.” For that reason, for everyone but especially for rabbis, there is no need – and no wisdom in the attempt – to go it alone. Consistent peer review, spiritual direction or counseling can give clergy the reflective space and tools to keep ourselves as fitting vessels for others’ emotional and spiritual unfolding. As a corollary, it follows that rabbis mustn’t be stigmatized for seeking these confidential, supportive and therapeutic professional relationships. In many instances, these aren’t grounds for concern but rather, signs of wisdom and strength that rabbinic employers and Jewish communities should encourage.
- Rabbis must consistently feed the flames of our own learning. A stale rabbi is a stuck rabbi. Rabbis must continuously learn something new and challenge our own skills and assumptions. Ideally rabbis should combine individual study with structured chevruta learning. It’s a shame that, to date, no seminary or movement has adopted the ongoing learning standards of the Alliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education. They should.
- Rabbis must cultivate spiritual leadership beyond ourselves. Says Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is honorable? One who honors others.” The rabbinic role is not to monopolize spiritual or pastoral authority, but to cultivate it wisely in others. The rabbinic role is a mentoring role – to lift others up, encourage them, teach them, and then engage in personal tzimtzum (self-contraction) by gracefully making space for others to evolve into leadership appropriate to their own aspirations, gifts and skills.
- Rabbis must remember what business we’re in. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (of blessed memory) used to say, “It’s okay for a synagogue to be a business – but be sure you know what business you’re in.” The modern rabbinate has become a profession, but like other ethical endeavors, first and foremost the rabbinate is and always must remain a calling. After all, history’s rabbis viewed their rabbinic functions as acts of service, finding earthly remuneration in secular pursuits. Hillel first was a woodchopper, Yochanan ben Zakkai was a businessman, Rav Huna was a cattle farmer, Ravs Chisda and Pappa were brewers, Maimonides was a physician, and Rashi was a vintner. Perhaps times have changed: remuneration, getting and keeping a rabbinic job, and climbing whatever ladder of influence and achievement may call to a rabbi, all can have their proper places. Remaining unchanged, however, is the ethical calling of the rabbinate – the core of the rabbinic heart and soul – that beckons the heart and soul. This is the rabbinic “business” that always must come first, at any expense.
Among my teachers’ most enduring words in ordaining me were these: “Herewith we ordain you … to clarify and pronounce truths in way that make a tikkun (repair) for the Shekhinah (indwelling presence of God). We hereby appoint you as delegates and emissaries, just as those who appointed us delegated us and sent us to be rabbis.” In essence, my teachers proclaimed that tikkun is the existential reason for a rabbinate. In the words of Isaiah 58:12, a rabbi must be a “repairer of the breach, restorer of paths to dwell in,” and conduit for spiritual flow in whatever context we serve.
That’s a path worthy of a rabbinic calling and life of service. That’s the rabbinate that Jews most need today.
“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come.” So said President Obama in his State of the Union speech last night as he began to speak less of specific legislation and more of the values that he believed should shape how we, as a country, approach the choices we make and the kind of society we want to live in.
Earlier in the day I had participated in a multi-faith community prayer service at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester MA. The semester begins with a coming together that expresses a spiritual foundation upon which everything else is built at the college. Near the start of the ceremony they invited all present to stand to represent their faith tradition. Those who identified as Humanists, Atheists, and those who identified as “Agnostics, Seekers, and Questioners” were among the many groups called to stand. In other words, the whole college community was included. And without preaching, a presentation of the beauty and message of a variety of faith-based paths set the tone for the start of the semester.
However, even more than the ritual itself, I was struck and impressed by a conversation I had with a student after the service; a young woman who identified as Jewish, who came from a mixed-faith family background. I was particularly struck when she shared with me that studying in a college where faith community and spiritually-infused values are the foundation for everything that they do is so inspiring because there is a greater sense of purpose and meaning that feels so evident in the college community. Even though the college is overwhelmingly Catholic in its student make-up, the message has not been to be Catholic. Rather, she has been inspired to think more deeply about how her own sense of faith is defined and how it inspires a sense of purpose in her own life. And she is learning about the importance of being part of a larger community, working together, to live out that sense of purpose.
Hearing the President speak last night, and listening to this young woman earlier in the same day, I was reminded of what we know to be true but so often, caught up in the details of daily life, we forget. Whether as a country, a town, or a congregation, we easily lose our way and are more inclined to make poor, short-sighted choices, when we narrowly focus on immediate gains and don’t do more to convey the “why” of our institutions. We all want and need to be part of something greater than ourselves that is purpose driven.
President Obama asks, “who do we want to be?” In the remainder of his speech, he made it abundantly clear that this was not a solo question. He talked about economic justice, gender equality, LGBTQ equality, environmental concerns, international relations, the right to vote, and more. What we are creating together is incomplete when we leave some of us out.
For all of us who are part of communities, and for those of us leading congregations, this is the question that needs to lie at the heart of our mission statements and the focus of our being together. “Who do we want to be?” We may have different answers to that question but if asked with a broad and inclusive sense of “we,” the conversations that we have and the sense of purpose that we create will be ones that unify rather than divide us. Whatever else we may be doing in and with our congregations and communities, always returning to this question will anchor us and, as the President articulated last night, “… will make us stronger.”
Every January I reflect on the lessons of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel famously said of King that “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” Together this pastoral duo was a strong moral compass for the nation, that inspired its citizens. Each man could articulate a vision of a better tomorrow, and more than that, they both believed that each of us could take steps to bring dreams to fruition. “By each deed we carry out,” Rabbi Heschel said, “we either retard or accelerate the coming of redemption. Our role in history is tremendous.”
January also brings with it the President’s State of the Union Address (this year it’s tonight, January 20th). It makes for depressing political theater, predictable applause lines and partisan standing up or sitting down. Representative Joe Wilson made some small waves a few years ago when he yelled, “You lie.” Alas, such is the state of politics lately. What do I want to hear in the State of Union this year?
Dr. King said that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” This year President Obama has been traveling campaign-style prior to delivering his State of the Union Address, an historical first for a president. We already know, based on what he tells us he’ll be speaking of, that we can hear more about his tax plan for the 1%, tax breaks for the middle class, and increased cybersecurity. Both of these points are politically expedient – its what most of us want to hear, but are these the points that will us to become ‘a more perfect union’? Heschel said that the task of a statesman, “is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interest.” In contrast to other predictable topics, President Obama has also announced a visionary and ambitious plan to make community college free. To my mind, a bold plan such as free community college does in fact begins to approach “statesman” status.
What do you want the President to turn our attention to? It is worth thinking about. Here is some of my wish-list. If I could, I would implore the president to please use his address to bring our country into honest discussion about:
1) Race relations. Dr. King led a great battle for civil rights, but enough time has passed to measure his success, and sadly, in large measure, blacks and whites in our great country still misunderstand and mistrust each other.
2) Food. Every citizen deserves safe, inexpensive, healthy food. All too often inexpensive, accessible food is also unhealthy food. Factory farming, unethical treatment of animals, and illogical farm subsidies for certain crops also needs changing.
3) Economy. There is tremendous income inequality in the world. By one report, in 2016 the top 1% will control 50% of the world’s wealth. This wild imbalance is a threat to the democratic process, and is a recipe for the exploitation of resources and workers in the name of profits.
4) Human Rights. Our world is still dealing with modern, actual slavery. Human sex trafficking is a significant issue, and so are the sub-human conditions in the mining of rare earth elements for our cell-phone and other gadgets. What do we stand for as a leading nation on this planet if we care more about the low price of smartphones rather than the people, often children, who are forced to mine the minerals necessary for their production? We are all complicit in this atrocity. Will call attention to what should be an unacceptable situation?
5) Gun Control. The Constitution gives us the right to defend ourselves, but that does not preclude us from creating some common sense guidelines to protect our citizenry. Every day there is a new senseless tragic story. Yesterday’s heartbreak came when a nine-month-old baby was shot to death by his five-year-old broth in Missouri.
6) Environment. 2014 was the driest year in recorded history, and marine biologists are asking people to track tidal king waves in preparation for a ‘new normal’. Our oceans are facing catastrophic die-off. President Obama has recently staked out methane as a new emission to regulate, but there is so much more we need to do to protect our environment. Are we willing to invest time and money into a safer healthier planet for our children? Is fracking safe?
In 1967 Dr. King said, “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Beyond Vietnam.
In a 1963 telegram to to President Kennedy, Rabbi Heschel wrote, I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency…The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
The hour once again calls for ‘high moral grandeur’. Let this new year surprise us with an end of governmental stagnation and political point-scoring on both sides. The president has the opportunity to set the agenda of the big conversations we need to have. Frankly, with the House and Senate both in the hands of the same party, Congress has a real opportunity to lead as well.
And we too have a role in demanding and creating a better tomorrow. Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Dr. King put it this way, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” It begins by articulating your dream for this great country.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We
hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!”
These words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Aug. 28, 1963.
Last month I walked the streets of New York City with thousands of others to protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I cannot believe that over fifty years since Dr. King uttered these words, African American men and women still need to fear being stopped by the police, still suffer unfair treatment at the hands of police and other authority figures, and are still judged by the color of their skin.
Racism is deeply entrenched in our society. As a white person, I could easily ignore this fact. However, I am also a woman and a Jew. These two identities compel me to take note of injustice and to speak up.
As a woman, I know how it feels to be judged by my body and not my mind. I know how it feels to hear words spoken to me, words whose surface meaning hold no malice, but are said with a sneer or inflection that clearly communicates a sinister intent. I know how men can communicate their thoughts about you by a look or a gesture. I know how small these incidents make me feel. I can infer from these experiences how African American men and women could feel in similar situations when race is the issue instead of or in addition to gender.
As Jew, while I now hold a place of privilege in American society, I know that this has not always been the case. I read in the Bible about how we were slaves in Egypt. I study the crusades, the pogroms, and the Holocaust. I hear last week’s news of Jews being killed as they shop in a kosher grocery store in Paris. I may be in a privileged position as a white, American, Jew living in New York. But I feel in my bones the precariousness of that privilege.
So, I cannot stay silent. Like Dr. King, I too have a dream. I too dream that all people, regardless ofskin color, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or place of birth should be accorded the same rights as human beings. We are all human. We all feel pain. We all bleed. We all die. Why, oh why, must people make life even harder by hating each other instead of helping each other? This is something I will never understand. As a rabbi, I feel compelled to speak out. I believe that God created each of us in God’s image. We are all equal, and we must treat each other with the care and concern we all deserve.
In remembrance of Dr. King, on this MLK Day, I pledge to keep dreaming. I pledge to keep fighting for all people to be treated with dignity, respect, and accorded equal rights. This dream must become a reality.
“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The recent Sony hacking scandal raised an uproar about the movie The Interview with Seth Rogen and James Franco. But it also caused an uproar about James Bond.
Emails leaked as part of that hack reveal that the co-chair of Sony Pictures believes that Idris Elba should be the next actor to play British agent James Bond, a role currently occupied by Daniel Craig.
The character of James Bond, the suave spy originally created in a series of novels by Ian Fleming, has been a fixture of the movies since Sean Connery originated the role in Dr. No in 1962. Elba, who is known for his work on The Wire, is black. Every previous actor who played the role is white.
This raised some hackles, especially as voiced by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. In reacting to this, Limbaugh insisted that Elba could not play Bond because Bond, as written, is white. Limbaugh’s comments received their own reaction.
This is not the only issue of race and casting to make news recently. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, a retelling of the biblical narrative of Moses, received criticism for its casting choices, since white actors portray the main roles of Moses and Pharaoh (and others).
Interestingly it seems that the same people who would criticize Limbaugh and affirm Elba as James Bond would be the same to object to Moses being played by Christian Bale—that it would be OK for a black man to portray a traditionally white character, but not OK for a white actor to play a character who historically would not have been white. But perhaps there is not much difference.
People who lived in the ancient Near East may not have looked like Christian Bale. Yet, the book of Exodus, which we began in our weekly Torah reading last week, is not a history book about the ancient Near East. When we read the biblical text we do not read it looking for details about the past, but rather for our present. We read the stories for the lessons that underlie them; the characters portrayed in the stories are not meant to be actual people, but archetypes that transcend time and place.
And although James Bond is a contemporary character, and although Ian Fleming did write the Bond character with a particular racial profile in mind, that character has also become an archetype.
Therefore, when it comes to the movies, there is no one way to portray these archetypal characters: Moses and Bond could be portrayed by either white or black actors.
We have recently once again confronted issues of race in this country, following several instances of black men being killed by white police officers. And these conversations about Moses and Bond, about race and the movies, are part of this larger issue. Our views about race and the movies are not about the characters themselves, but about ourselves. So let’s continue to have these conversations.
On a single day last week, we were stunned by news of the Charlie Helbo attack in Paris and a bomb going off at an NAACP office in Colorado. At the same time, this day was no different than any other: our media regularly saturates us with stories of death and violence. In her prophetic book All About Love, bell hooks describes this phenomena as a symptom of America’s death-obsessed culture. She says, “It may very well be that…the constant spectacles of dying we watch on television screens daily, is one way our culture tries to still that fear [of death], to conquer it, to make us comfortable.” Our culture’s efforts to comfort us and conquer our dread depict deaths that are sudden, faceless, and violent. This ultimately deepens our anxiety about death.
The day before, in my role as rabbi of the VNA-Hospice of Philadelphia, I gave a blessing to the social workers, nurses, administrators, and chaplains with whom I work. Words of blessing came easily as I beheld a roomful of people engaged in holy work. The hospice staff regularly facilitates family conversations about what is important to loved ones at the end of their lives, and does its best to care for the dying according to their desires. My coworkers and I often need to initiate these conversations because, as hooks writes, “The more we watch spectacles of meaningless death, of random violence and cruelty, the more afraid we become [of death] in our daily lives.”
We feed our anxiety when we only hear about death “out there” and deny it is also part of our story, and can even be a meaningful and peaceful part of our story. A 2013 survey says that 90 percent of Americans believe it is important to discuss the way we want to live at the end of our lives while we are able, but less than 30 percent of us actually have had this conversation: Parents don’t want their adult children to worry about them; children don’t want to think their parents will ever die. Locked into a mutual conspiracy of denial, families wish they had spoken only when it is too late. A recent Institute of Medicine report notes that most people nearing the end of life are not “physically, mentally, or cognitively able to make their own decisions about care.” According to many doctors, how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is too afraid to have.
Fortunately, recent initiatives like The Conversation Project are shifting all of this. In collaboration with “Death Over Dinner”, adults of all ages have begun, over the last few years, to discuss their wishes for end of life care at a structured dinner party using guiding questions like, “How long do you want to receive medical care?”, “How involved do you want your loved ones to be?” and “What role do you want them to play?” Having these conversations over dinner, or tea – as long as we have them – improves our chances of receiving the type of care that we want, and helps decrease family discord should our families be called upon to make these difficult decisions for us. Perhaps, when we make the choice to confront our cultural anxiety and acknowledge the inevitability of our own death, we can give ourselves to love and to life more fully.