Today I Turn 60

Today I become 60 years old.  Given the tendency to celebrate milestone occasions, I’ve been thinking about this year’s birthday more deeply than in the past.  I find myself pondering what’s important to me and what I’ve enjoyed the most over the past 60 years.  At the top of the list are family, marriage, and fatherhood.  I have certainly enjoyed being a rabbi and a mohel, but the most fulfilling part of my life has been being married to Amy and raising our five sons together.  Each one of them is a beautiful soul, a good and decent person, and deeply committed to Jewish life, to Am Yisrael and to Medinat Yisrael.  Raising our sons has been a true joy.  I cannot think of a single difficult, agonizing moment in the course of being a parent (people who hear me say that think I’m joking but I’m not).  And as our sons get older, we have the pleasure of seeing them develop their lives and start their own families.  We’ll welcome our second grandchild into the family in about a month, and our son Benji, who just graduated from college, will get married in August.  My wife inherited a superstition from her mother that prohibits tempting the evil eye by enumerating one’s blessings.  But I inherited no such thing, so as I turn 60, I say proudly that my family is the greatest blessing in my life.

As you might expect, our tradition offers a commentary on what it means to be 60 years old.  In Pirkei Avot (5:21), there is a passage that describes life as having three periods:  preparation, maturity, and decline.  The Mishna lays out a sequence from age 5 to 100 that includes characteristics of heart, mind, and soul.  What’s predicted for age 60 is rather unsettling- zikna or old age.  Given that I most certainly feel young, I am determined to search for a different understanding of what this text, and the word zikna, means.

One translation I came upon is far more appealing:  60 is the time of sagacity.  Put another way, turning 60 is the beginning of the time to age wisely.  It’s the time in life to use what we’ve learned and experienced to deepen wisdom.  Developing and sharing wisdom enables us to use good judgment, knowledge, and perspective to have a positive impact on our own lives, on our relationships and on events around us.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan z”l, a Mayflower descendant, convert to Judaism, and innovative rabbi who pioneered non-traditional approaches to Jewish life, identified the stage of life beginning at 60 as Et Zikna, a time for wise aging.  She writes:

“This generation has seen a revolution in lifespan. We who turn 60 nowadays have the prospect of living at least another 30 years with relatively good health and vitality. We are pioneers, entering a stage of life never experienced by earlier generations. This is our “third chapter,” our “third act,” our time of “active aging.”  Put another way, it is our “et zikna,” our time to age wisely.  These years are a time of opportunity for discovery.  Et Zikna is a time for increased curiosity, enthusiasm, and spirit. There is a lot to learn and to try, choices to make, risks to take, fun and joy to experience.”

The idea of wise aging is even embedded in this week’s Torah portion.  The Parasha tells of the actual moment of liberation for the Israelite slaves and the Exodus from Egypt.  Chapter 12 describes the ritual of the sacrifice of the Korban Pesach, the paschal lamb, which we symbolize on the seder plate with the shank bone.  After detailing how to offer the sacrifice and how to celebrate the first Passover evening, the text says: “Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, ‘Go pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering.’”  The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 16:1) wonders why the elders were given the special privilege of picking out the lambs that were to become the instrument of liberation for the people.  The answer is intriguing:

“Wherein did the elders merit that Israel should be redeemed at their hands?  Because when the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to Moses at the bush, He said ‘Go and gather the elders of Israel together.’  Immediately after they did, the Torah says ‘And the people believed.’  For had not the elders not accepted Moses’ promise of freedom to the people, then the whole of Israel would also not have believed him.  The elders accepted it first and influenced the rest of Israel, encouraging them to believe.  God, therefore, said, ‘I will confer honor upon the elders so that the redemption of Israel shall be through their hands.’”

Here we see that the elders used their wisdom, their willingness to believe in the possibility of a better future, to give confidence, strength and resolve to their people.  Such people are referred to in the Torah as “Ziknei Yisrael,” the elders, or more properly those who were aging wisely and using their experience, knowledge, and insight to nurture curiosity, enthusiasm, hope, and spirit about the future.

I will spend this 60th birthday with my family (I’ve asked each of my sons for some uninterrupted conversation).  And I will ponder all the experiences that are ahead of me to enjoy, all that there is to learn, all the ways there are to grow intellectually and spiritually, and all the ways I might be able to be a positive influence on my family and my community.  If Pirkei Avot is to be trusted, then today begins my Et Zikna, a time of wise aging, of fun and of joy.

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The Voice of the Prophet at Oheb Shalom

One of the great treasures of our tradition is the messages of the prophets who lived in Israel more than 2,500 years ago and, through the power of speech, exhorted our people to live lives of faith and morality.  These messages have been passed down to us in written form and comprise the middle section of the Jewish Bible.  Every Shabbat and festival day, we read the “Haftarah,” a selection from the Nevi’im (prophetic section of the Bible).  The reason for reading from the prophets is shrouded in mystery, though a leading theory is that centuries ago when the Romans prohibited the public reading of the Torah, the Rabbinic sages substituted a reading from the prophets, which was not considered threatening.  When the ban on reading the Torah was lifted, the additional reading was retained and remains part of our liturgy to this day.  Specific selections from the prophets, thematically connected to the weekly Torah reading, were assigned to each Shabbat and festival by the Talmudic sages.

It’s unfortunate that the power and passion of the weekly prophetic message are usually lost.  The Haftarah is chanted in Hebrew, which is not understood by most people.  The traditional melody is slow and somnambulating.  People might be quietly reading the English translation from the Humash while the Haftarah is being chanted in Hebrew, or more likely, may simply disconnect from the service during that time.  It’s a shame that the powerful message and voice of the prophet is missing.

One remedy for this dilemma is a new approach known as “The Voice of the Prophet,” a project launched by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach at the Jewish Theological Seminary that blends the chanting of some of the Hebrew verses with a dramatic English reading of the text.  Samples can be heard or downloaded by clicking here.

Our Religious Affairs Committee has decided to present the Haftarah using this creative method during Shabbat morning services.  We have chosen portions from the literary prophets, those passages in which a prophet’s message is conveyed rather than the narrative sections of this section of the Bible.  The “Voice of the Prophet” will be heard once a month from January through June, on the following dates:

January 26, Parashat Yitro

February 16, Parashat Tetzaveh

March 30, Parashat Shemini

April 13, Parashat Metsora

May 25, Parashat Behar

June 8, Parashat Bemidbar

I am confident that this new approach to reading the Haftarah will make the message of the prophets more accessible and compelling.  Please be sure to join us especially on the Shabbat mornings when the Voice of the Prophet rings out.  I will be very interested in your thoughts and reactions.

B’shalom,

RABBI COOPER

Don’t Rely on a Miracles

It’s Chanukah week and I must say that I absolutely love this holiday.  I love lighting the Menorah with my family and I love making latkes (I use a very simple recipe and they’re drenched in oil and delicious!).   On the serious side, the story and symbols of Chanukah inspire thoughts about the desperate need for enlightenment in our world.  And the legend of the small cruse of oil that burned for eight days gets me thinking about miracles.

A miracle is an unexpected and welcome event that can’t be explained by natural or scientific laws and is therefore ascribed to the Divine.  Our tradition tells us that there are miracles that occur regularly and even predictably, like the birth of a baby or a sunrise, just as there are miracles surprise us and seem to overturn the rules of nature, like the unexpected healing of a person who is gravely ill.  While the first type of miracle may seem routine, our tradition asks us to express gratitude regularly for such fantastic moments and develop an appreciation for them.  With equal conviction, our tradition also teaches that we should never come to rely on a Divine miracle to save us or help us escape trouble or a crisis.  Doing so is dangerous and foolish.

That lesson can be found in this week’s parasha, Mikeytz, which continues the story of Joseph and his dysfunctional relationship with his brothers.  At this point in the story, Joseph is living in Egypt as the second-in-command to Pharaoh, and his brothers have come down to procure food.  Toying with their emotions and fears, Joseph does not reveal his identity and decides to load them up with food and money for their trip back to Canaan.  The text says: “With the first light of morning the men were sent off with their pack animals.”  (Genesis 44:3).  The first part of the verse sparks the imagination of the Rabbinic Sages.  Why, they wonder, do the brothers leave with the first light of morning?  If God is protecting them and they are pious individuals, forebearers of the People of Israel, why must they wait until the morning to depart?  Obviously, even a pious person should not rely on Divine protection.  The Talmud (Pesachim 2a) makes the point explicitly: “Rav Judah said in Rav’s name: One should always enter his lodgings when it is still light and leave on his journey when it is light.”  Another rabbinic source adds that such is the case even if a person is a ‘shaliach mitzvah’ (someone who has embarked on doing a mitzvah): “Know that even for someone who is traveling on a matter connected with performing a mitzvah, about whom it is normally taught that they are safe from harm, it is still not advisable for them to travel at night.”  The message is clear.  People should take steps to protect themselves and not presume that God will shield them from harm.  Don’t rely on a miracle to keep yourself safe.

I remember a moment during the first Gulf War that I later understood as a welcome demonstration of the principle that even a pious Jew should not rely on miracles or Divine protection.  The late President George Bush, whose life and legacy were celebrated this week, had organized a coalition of nations to evict Iraq from Kuwait.  During the war, Iraq fired Scud missiles at Israel to draw Israel into the war and expand hostilities (the strategy didn’t work, as the U.S. persuaded Israel to stand down in order to keep the mission on track).  It was a terrifying time in Israel as Scuds rained down on the country, with many hitting civilian targets.  There were fears that the missiles might be carrying chemical weapons, so Israelis were issued gas masks to protect themselves.  One Shabbat morning an air raid siren sounded, and people on the streets scrambled for bomb shelters.  A photographer happened to catch a Chasidic Jew, decked out in his streimel and kapote (furry hat and fancy Shabbat coat) on his way to shul, wearing a gas mask and running toward a bomb shelter.  That, it seemed to me, was the epitome of the Talmudic rabbis’ advice.  Even a pious Jew engaged in doing a mitzvah shouldn’t count on a miracle or Divine protection.

The Chanukkah story teaches the same point.  The legend of the cruse of oil is charming, but the real history of Chanukkah reminds us that the Hasmonean fighters didn’t wait for God to step in and relieve their suffering and oppression at the hand of the Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks.  They took matters into their own hands.  That wasn’t true of the Chasidim, the pious rural Jews who believed that they had to accept whatever appeared to be God’s will, even if that meant death as martyrs.  The tension between these two communities nearly sparked a civil war among the Jews.  Centuries later, we remember the heroism of the Maccabees, not the passivity of those who waited for a miracle to save them from destruction.

Miracles, both daily miracles and unpredictable miracles, are one of the great mysteries of life.  When they happen, we should express appreciation and wonder.  But the wisdom of our tradition tells us that we should never count on them to help us out of a jam and protect us from trouble.  For that, we ought to rely on ourselves and one another.

I wish you a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Chanukkah!

 

It is Good To Learn Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Day, which in American culture usually means time reserved for family and friends, football and shopping.  But at its core, Thanksgiving is about gratitude.  While we should express gratitude every day of the year, we set aside this day to focus on the need to give thanks for what we have and for the kindness that others bestow on us and those dear to us.

Gratitude isn’t intuitive.  Babies don’t start life by sharing what they have; they must be taught by their parents to share.  Even when we become adults, we are challenged to overcome the impulse to protect what we have and block others from taking what we think we might need for ourselves.  Whether its due to our instinct for self-preservation or simply our nature to act in our own interests, it’s true that gratitude is something that must be learned.  It’s an acquired skill.

The Torah underscores this idea when the People of Israel are explicitly told to express gratitude for the bounty of the land and the material blessings they receive when they enter the land that God promised to the descendants of Abraham and begin to reap its many tangible blessings.  In fact, they are given a script for what to say when they bring a portion of what they harvest as an offering to God.

How do we cultivate an “attitude of gratitude?”  In his book A Code of Jewish Ethics (volume 1), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers numerous specific instructions on how to become a grateful person.  He writes that gratitude is rooted in remembrance, and that therefore we must make a conscious effort to remember the good things that others have done for us and for our loved ones.  As a personal practice, he recommends that we keep a journal of the good things that have been done for us, being careful not to overlook even the smallest gesture.  We can begin to cultivate an attitude of gratitude by being mindful of the times that we have benefited from someone treating us with kindness and consideration.

To Rabbi Telushkin’s comprehensive list, I would add two ideas.  First, when we do something kind or generous for another person, we should never expect anything in return.  This is a virtue expressed in Pirkei Avot, where we are taught not to fulfill a mitzvah in order to receive a reward.  Whether a reward might be forthcoming from God or from a human companion, we should never do something in order to store up good deeds owed to us.

Second, when cultivating an attitude of gratitude, we should look for role models of generosity.  All around us there are people who give of themselves constantly and selflessly out of a genuine desire to help others.  We have all met such people.  Perhaps we have been moved and inspired by their work, and perhaps we have causally overlooked them.  Sometimes they are given notoriety and sometimes they perform their work in anonymity.  We should seek out these people and hold them out as role models of generosity.  Such people will inspire us to give of ourselves.

On this Thanksgiving, I wish you a restful and memorable day.  May it be an occasion to begin (or continue) the practice of being mindful of the acts of generosity that come our way.  May we each do an inventory of the ways we are (and could be) helpful and generous with others.  And may we cultivate an attitude of gratitude that will be with us for a lifetime.

I offer this Thanksgiving kavanah (meditation) by Rabbi Debra.  Perhaps you might read its words at the dinner table, or contemplate them privately.

Tov l’hodot la-Adonai…it is good to give thanks.

To lift our eyes upward.

To hillsides still draped in deep browns and maroons of late autumn,

A rich, fleeting beauty before winter’s snows.

 

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

To inhale the crisp air Laced with woodsmoke and peat,

To feel welcome warmth as we venture inside,

To sniff the aromas of savory gravies,

of nutmeg and cinnamon, berries and wine.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

To be seated at tables with friends and with family,

To join hands and embrace,

To share smiles and stories,

To count all our blessings,

To recall cherished loved ones who no longer sit here,

Grateful for memories and the gift of their lives.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

For the land that we live in with its promise of freedom and justice for all.

For the visions we share and the strength that You give us

To work as Your partners To fix what is broken,

To bring healing and hope To those in despair.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

For this joyous gathering,

For coming together to praise the Creator,

Extending our hands and raising our voices in chorus as one.

Learning Through Listening

Listening is at the core of meaningful, productive human relationships.  There is virtually no end to the impact on our lives of genuine listening.  We tend to see others through a pre-determined lens, sometimes based on their appearance or sometimes based on small bits of information we may know about someone or the community of which they are a part, and that is not conducive to building and sustaining productive relationships.

We all need to engage in reflective listening, a practice that increases our connection to another person with whom we are in conversation by allowing them to finish speaking before replying, by always making eye contact, by putting aside a smartphone or pen, or by replying to what someone is saying rather than starting a new thread by making a new comment.

As I think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I realize that none of us living here in America can break the logjam in the Middle East and bring peace to Israeli and Palestinians.  This anguished conflict, nearly a century-long, is deep-seated, and a solution is made elusive by history, by ideologically fragmented societies (both Israeli and Palestinian), and by an absence of courageous and visionary leadership on both sides.  Any solution will require enormous risks for both parties.  Still, we can’t look on helplessly and hopelessly.  What can we do?

As a first step, people can engage in reflective listening.  It’s not always pleasant or uplifting to listen to someone else’s narrative.  We’re quick to discount it and overturn it with our own facts because we want to emerge as victors in our struggle to be vindicated and proven right.  But the Palestinians need to listen to our narrative, our story of connection to the Land of Israel, and we need to listen to theirs.  Listening does not obligate either side to accept every element of the other’s story.  But we’ve seen that when people do not listen to one another, even if they don’t agree with what the other has to say, the boundaries between us remain high and unbreachable.

Lest you think that this idea is naïve, there is an organization called Encounter, that brings people together to listen.  As they describe their mission, Encounter is a nonpartisan educational organization cultivating more informed and constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They say, “We enable deeply committed Jewish influencers to encounter firsthand the people, perspectives and challenges at the heart of the conflict. Our programs inspire new perspectives, new conversations and new approaches to the conflict.”

I was on a one-day Encounter in Bethlehem several years ago and felt it was a very thoughtfully constructed and productive experience.  Jews spent time listening to Palestinians share their perspectives on the condition of their lives and the conflict.  I did not agree with everything I heard.  At times I thought that the person speaking was mired in their own version of reality.  I expressed my views in a polite and respectful manner when it was my turn to speak.  The idea of an open and honest dialogue was refreshing and welcome.

My wife Amy was on a 4-day Encounter last year with a group of Jewish leaders, including Melanie Gorelick.  Melanie is the Senior Vice President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), and for a decade was the Director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.  The 4-day Encounter is, of course, a much more extensive and thorough experience, providing for many reflections and impressions.

I invite you to Oheb Shalom this Friday evening when Amy and Melanie will talk about their visit to the West Bank. I want to stress that their talk is not about finding a political solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, nor is it about urging us to take sides. It’s about the crucial importance of learning through listening.

Our service begins at 8:00 PM and the discussion and Q & A led by Amy and Melanie will begin at 8:30 PM. All are welcome, and I hope you will join us.

What’s Next After Pittsburgh?

It’s been nearly a week since a hate-filled anti-Semite entered Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on a peaceful Shabbat morning and murdered 11 innocent souls who had gathered there to pray.  So many of us are still reeling from the shock and horror of the killings, from the unabashed, flagrant and virulent anti-Semitism, from the violation of sacred space.  We’ve reflected on the lives of the victims and shared stories of their goodness and their humanity.  We’ve sought comfort in each other’s presence and stood together to reject hatred.

What’s next?  How do we ensure that this massacre doesn’t fade into the recesses of memory, blurring together with other senseless, tragic and hate-filled mass killings?

There are certain moments in life that appear as a watershed, becoming the singular point when we decide to change our attitude and behavior.  Such moments are either times of triumph or times of tragedy, and they inspire us to enlarge our thinking on how we live our lives and take on new commitments that hold out hope for making a difference in the world.

This is such a moment.  The unfathomable tragedy of the murder of 11 Jews praying in a synagogue on Shabbat morning must motivate us to combat hate, to stem the growing and dangerous tide of gun violence in this country, and to reject the ways that human beings are demeaned and subjugated: anti-Semitism…racism…homophobia…Islamophobia.  Now, and not some other time in the hazy future.  Find an organization that seeks to obliterate those scourges in our society and help them with their work.

The murder of the Pittsburgh 11 must also prompt us to embrace goodness and decency.  When something is wrong in this world, when someone flings hatred at others, when someone takes a life or demeans another human being, our response must be to restore the goodness of the world.  That is the essence of the Jewish value of Tikun Olam- repairing of the world.  When the world’s goodness is tainted and compromised, we perform healing acts that renew that goodness and replenish our hope and confidence in humanity.

What should we do in the aftermath of last week’s killings in Pittsburgh?  Go out and do something good for a person in need, lend your time to a community that is wanting, help to feed the hungry or provide warm clothing for those who don’t know how they will protect themselves from the cold of winter.  Let this ugly, disheartening moment be the one that prompts us to redouble our efforts to bring an extra measure of goodness into the world.

One more thing:  What should Jews do in response to a graphic act of anti-Semitism, an assault on our people?  Two responses are called for.  First, we must continue to combat anti-Semitism with all our strength.  We must call out anti-Semitic acts when and where see them, report them to the authorities, and be unafraid to confront this terrible form of hatred.  Anti-Semitic acts are on the rise in this country, as they are in Europe.  In one sense, there is nothing new about that statistic.  Jews have always been the target of haters, the intended victims of those who wish to find a scapegoat for whatever ails them.  We cannot become complacent or apathetic.  Anti-Semites should face the consequences of their hateful actions.

Beyond that, hatred of Jews must prompt us to re-energize our commitment to Judaism.  How do you respond to an act of anti-Semitism?  By reaffirming the importance, the beauty and the worth of living a Jewish life, and by ensuring that the Jewish future is vibrant and filled with hope.  That won’t happen with proclamations or vigils.  It will happen if more of us find our place along the spectrum of organized Jewish life and play a role in growing and strengthening the Jewish people around the world.

On that note, I urge you to Show Up For Shabbat, in particular this week.  Let synagogues everywhere be filled to capacity with people coming together to pray, to bless, to express joy and to give thanks for our heritage.

Here at Oheb Shalom, our Friday night service begins at 6:30 PM, during which we will share a memorial tribute to the 11 people who were killed last Shabbat morning.  Our Shabbat morning service begins at 9:45 AM, during which we will pray about tragedy and finding the strength to recover from it.  I hope to see you!

What do you pray for? 

What do you pray for?

Maybe you pray for good health for yourself and those you care about. Perhaps you pray for success or material blessings. Perhaps you pray for peace, the end of strife and struggle in our world. Or maybe you don’t pray for anything at all.

If asked what I pray for, I would reject the premise of the question. To my mind, the question shouldn’t be “What do you pray for?” because I don’t see Jewish prayer as a pathway to fulfilling needs and wishes. Of course, there are people, Jewish and not Jewish, who do hope for and even expect specific results from their prayers. I’m just not one of them.

Instead, I think the most relevant question is “Who do you pray with?”

crowdJewish prayer is about connecting. Through prayer, we connect with powerful and compelling ideas, most often expressed in poetry and metaphor, about the meaning of our lives and our purpose in this world. Through prayer, we connect with our people’s past and link ourselves, by means of a shared language and common values, to generations of Jews who have sought to continue the holy task of healing the world.

Jewish prayer invites us to connect with one another as human beings. I can pray by myself but, at least for me, praying alone is never very uplifting. But the experience of praying with a congregation has the potential to be exhilarating. Singing together and praying in each other’s presence create and sustain community, which is the great engine that propels us forward and makes it possible to keep the Jewish way of life vital and compelling.

At Oheb Shalom, we continue to seek deeply meaningful ways of praying together as a community. Introducing Shabbat Shelanu, meaning “Our Shabbat.” Don’t think of this as your typical Shabbat morning service. This is a prayer experience to inspire you with instrumental and vocal music, with Torah study and discussion. English meditations and readings alongside traditional Hebrew passages (and transliterations) will ensure the morning is accessible for all.

matt-turk-2Co-leading with me will be Matt Turk, a talented musician who plays guitar and mandolin. Matt is steeped in Jewish music and was trained by Pete Seeger. He brings to Oheb a soulful combination of teacher, worship leader, and mensch.

Will Shabbat Shelanu be different from the traditional Shabbat morning service that we share each week at Oheb Shalom? Yes, it will. It’s being offered out of a desire to innovate and experiment, to reach deeper within our connection to one another on Shabbat morning.

Shabbat Shelanu will happen four times this year, with the first on October 27th from 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM. (If you miss it, the other dates are December 1, January 12 and February 9.)

Remember, it’s not what you pray for, it’s who you pray with. Shabbat Shelanu invites us to connect to each other, to our community and to our tradition through music and energized singing. I hope you will be with us for this first initiative on October 27.

Hadata: How Does One Become More Religious?

Please join me this Friday night at 8:00 PM for a presentation by Gideon Aronoff, Executive Director of the Masorti Foundation.  Gideon’s topic will be “Religious Tolerance in Israel: Reality or Illusion?”

In his book Directed by God: Jewishness in Contemporary Israeli Film and Televison, Yaron Peleg argues that despite efforts to limit Jewish religiosity in the State of Israel and keep the nation secular, Israelis are nonetheless becoming more religious, fueled in part by the growth of the ultra-Orthodox community and the settler movement.   Peleg writes that the transformation toward a more religious stance is especially reflected in Israeli film and television, which he says is having an impact on the relationship between Zionism and Judaism.  He argues that films such as Kadosh, Waltz with Bashir and Eyes Wides Open, and television series such as Shababnikim and Merchak Negiah explore how secular Israeli culture deals with Jewish religious heritage.  Peleg identifies a Hebrew word- Hadata- that means “the process of making someone more religious” or “religiousification,” in this case of Israeli society.  His theory is that secular Israelis are inclined to embrace a hybrid identity, one split between secular and religious, and that many if not most Israelis are more religious than one might think.

Peleg’s writing is a compelling justification for the support of the Masorti Movement in Israel.  Rather than demand or coerce religious behavior and compliance from people, Masorti Judaism, like Conservative Judaism here in North America, is committed to an inclusive approach to Jewish life.  Indeed, Masorti’s core values are being welcoming and inclusive, honoring the traditional practice of Judaism, and working for religious freedom in Israel.  Masorti Judaism welcomes all types of people into their fold, including those who know they want to practice Judaism in a way that is inclusive and egalitarian as well as those who are searching for where they belong.  Masorti reaches out to those who are often disenfranchised and put off by the often coercive and demanding ways of Orthodoxy.

One might think that Israel is a country where religious freedom is ingrained and practiced, but that is not always the case.  The Chief Rabbinate’s stranglehold on religious authority, coupled with government support and funding, make it a formidable presence that controls Israeli society’s rules for marriage, divorce, conversion, burial and kosher certification.  Israel is not a theocracy that demands or legislates religious behavior from its citizens, as are some countries.  But the idea of religious pluralism and tolerance, of making space for individuals to explore Judaism on their own terms and in their own way, and of tolerating different views of what constitutes appropriate Jewish practice, is frowned upon by the Chief Rabbinate.  That is precisely why the Masorti Movement is vital for Israelis who want to explore their Jewish identity in ways that are not coercive or intimidating, but inclusive and tolerant.

I encourage you to join me this Friday night to welome Gideon Aronoff, Executive Director of the Masorti Foundation, who will speak to the congregation on “Religious Tolerance: Reality or Illusion?”  Gideon will share success stories from the work of the Masorti Movement and will give us all a clear reason for why Masorti Judaism is so deserving of our support.  The service begins at 8:00 PM, and Gideon will speak at approximately 8:30 PM.  I hope to see you there!

Special thanks to Will Brown, Oheb Shalom member, who suggested Peleg’s book and podcast to me.

Elusive Truth

At this year’s Scotch in the Sukkah event sponsored by the Men’s Club, we discussed the idea that truth is elusive.  Judaism places high value on speaking truth and acting with integrity, especially in business, but that does not guarantee that people will always be truthful.  Sometimes it is in our interest to lie, or at least hide the truth, sometimes to avoid incrimination or embarrassment or sometimes to get out of an awkward situation.  Understandably, the discussion focused on the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which were in full swing at the time of our gathering in the Sukkah (our theme was not primarily the scourge of sexual assault against women, which is appalling and horrific, but rather the pursuit of truth).  The consensus seemed to be that, since both parties being interviewed stated that they knew with 100% certainty what had happened some 36 years ago, someone was telling the truth, and someone was lying.  The hearing thus seemed to be more about establishing credibility and less about finding and claiming the truth.  In the absence of eye witness testimony and given that the incident is alleged to have occurred at a time prior to the flourishing of the digital age (thus no emails or video recordings to corroborate events), we sadly may never know the truth of what happened.  To aid the discussion, I suggested that while Judaism compels us to seek truth and honesty in our lives, there is an implicit acknowledgement in our tradition that it isn’t always possible to discover the truth.  Since we cannot read minds, human courts and mechanisms for establishing justice are at best imperfect.  All we can ever do is strive to be as truthful and honest as we have the courage to be.  That means that while human weakness and failing is unfortunate and unwanted, it is also inevitable.

The idea that human beings are not perfect is made abundantly clear in the opening parasha of the Torah, Bereshit, which we read this Shabbat.  Near the end of the parasha, we read this verse:

And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.  (Genesis 6:6)

The Talmudic sages are puzzled by the assertion in the verse that God, whom they believed to be omniscient, could regret having created flawed human beings if their nature was known in advance.  One Midrashic passage envisions a conversation between a sage and a heretic in which the heretic asserts that God could not be all-knowing and simultaneously not know that His creation would be imperfect.  The sage replies that God knew that human beings would be imperfect but accepted their nature.

Rashi (1040-1105, France) opines that God created human beings knowing they would be imperfect but confident that some remarkably great individuals would ultimately descend from some imperfect ones.

More broadly, the sages encourage us to try to accept the imperfect nature of being human.  In a midrash, we read:

When God came to create Adam, the ministering angels divided themselves into groups and parties. Some of them said, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” …Love said, “Let him be created because he will carry out acts of love.” Truth said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created because he will do good deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with controversy.” …While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One he will be filled with controversy.” …While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One created man. He said to the angels, “What can you do? Man already has been made.” (Bereisheit Rabbah 8:5)

 The Talmudic sages aren’t really asking whether human beings should have been created.  They were pragmatists who tried to understand the human condition in the light of their faith.  Their midrashic musings are instead meant to compel us to confront, to acknowledge and to accept the fact that people are imperfect.

That we are imperfect shouldn’t be used as an excuse or justification for dishonest, untruthful behavior, and certainly not for abusing and taking advantage of people.  It’s simply a reminder to us of our nature, a reminder that sometimes we will soar like angels and at other times we will ignore the Divine image within us and plummet.  The trick is always to strive to be honest, even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable, and always to seek the truth, hoping that more often than not we will find it and embrace it.

Dissolving Boundaries

Kol Nidrei 5779

My Friends,

I had a remarkable and uncommon experience this summer in Jerusalem and tonight I want to tell you about it, and what I took away from it.  The focus of this experience was on the boundaries that can exist between people, and how listening, truly listening to each other can help break them down.

Some boundaries, both physical and intangible, are necessary and important.  Countries need to maintain borders and checkpoints to preserve the world as a safe and civilized place in which to live.  Physical boundaries between countries can provide safety and protection for their inhabitants.  Boundaries between countries and states can also provide a sense of identity, allowing people to preserve cultural traditions that are unique and special to them.  Social boundaries are important for preserving human relationships.  We can’t and shouldn’t have the same level of closeness and intimacy with every person we encounter and must filter the information we share about ourselves according to the boundaries that we maintain in our relationships.

Some boundaries rightly separate people from one another.  But other boundaries, like attitudes and pre-conceived ideas about people that persuade us about who they are and what they value in life, create unwelcome distance between people that makes the world a less friendly, less civilized place.  The experience I had this summer in Jerusalem was about dissolving boundaries and, as a result, people coming closer to each other.  Amy, Aaron and I heard this message, loud and clear, on a 5-hour walking tour through the city that took us by foot, by  bus and by light rail from the Damascus Gate and parts of East Jerusalem, to an ultra-Orthodox Chareidi neighborhood, to the market at Machaneh Yehudah.  Along the way we met community leaders whose work is devoted to breaking down barriers in this unique city that defies logic.  This remarkable trek was run by an organization called Mekudeshet as part of their annual summer festival in Jerusalem.  Mekudeshet’s leaders say that Jerusalem both conquers us and liberates us, thus enabling us to unite around a common love for the city and for one another.  Their mission is to dissolve boundaries.  By doing that, by trying to see past what separates us as human beings, we can open hearts and minds to one another.

Our trek took us first to the Paulus-Haus on Nablus Road in East Jerusalem, a pilgrim hospice under the care of the German Association of the Holy Land.  There we met Benjy Balint, a writer and translator who teaches literature at Bard College and Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.  He told our group two intriguing stories about dissolving boundaries.  The first was about a time he brought a Palestinian woman from Al-Quds to the Kotel, the Western Wall in the Old City, to see what it was like there.  The woman looked around and was particularly intrigued by the men wearing tefillin.  She asked, “What are those black boxes the men have on their heads?”  Benjy told her a bit about tefillin.  She listened and then said, “It’s interesting that they wear black cubes on their heads.  They remind me of the Kaaba, the huge black stone structure that sits at the heart of the Grand Mosque, Islam’s most sacred place of worship.”  For Dr. Balint, that association triggered the larger idea of dissolving boundaries, a focus on what we have in common, not what separates us.

The second story he told was of a Yeshiva in the Old City at the time of the 1948 War of Independence.  As the Arab armies were closing in on the city, the Yeshiva and its precious library were imperiled.  The caretaker of the Yeshiva was an Arab man who, understanding the value of books and setting aside any partisan feelings about who the volumes of Talmud and Midrash belonged to, and unbeknownst to the Jews who lived in the Yeshiva, built a temporary, dummy wall to conceal the bookcases just before the building fell to the Arabs.  19 years passed and in 1967 the Israelis recaptured the Old City in the Six Day War.  The Yeshiva’s rabbis returned to their former home and found that the caretaker had since died but that his son was living and had taken over his father’s job as custodian.  They asked him about the condition of the Yeshiva, and especially about the library.  “Oh,” said the son, “come with me.”  He took them into what had been the Yeshiva’s Beit Midrash and proceeded to take down the dummy wall and reveal the entire library, intact and spared from destruction.  The rabbis sat with the family in their home, viewed photographs of the now-deceased caretaker, talked with his family, and paid tribute to his selfless act of heroism, another act of dissolving the boundaries that otherwise separate us from one another.

From the Paulus-Haus we went to Shuafat in East Jerusalem, home to a unique school for Palestinian children founded and run by Amal Ayoub.  At the Promise School, students learn in English, Arabic and Hebrew and study the Israeli, not the Palestinian, curriculum, including periodic joint studies with Israelis that include the Abrahamic narrative.  Amal believes that her students, some of whom enter Hebrew University, can help dissolve boundaries between Israelis and Palestinians by sharing their stories with each other.

On our trek, we learned about Sarah Weil, a LGBTQ activist in Jerusalem.  Sarah spent some time in the ultra-Orthodox world, who rejected her because of her sexual orientation.  Since then she has worked on bridging her LGBTQ identity and her observant Jewish identity.  Sarah founded the Meeting Place, which helps to build community for Jerusalem’s LGBTQ women that is rooted in Jewish values.  A catalyst for her work was the fatal stabbing of Shira Banki by an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the 2015 Jerusalem Gay Pride parade.  As Sarah said, “All of Israeli society was in shock that something so horrific could be committed in the streets of Jerusalem by a seemingly religious Jewish person.”  Again, work being done in Jerusalem to dissolve boundaries and diminish the space between people.

The final stop on our trek was in the Hareidi neighborhood of Mekor Baruch where we met Fainy Sukenik, founder of “Ba’asher Teilchi,” an organization that provides support to ultra-Orthodox Chareidi who have been divorced by their husbands.  This is usually an enormously painful and isolating situation for Chareidi women who come from a community that places its greatest priority on family and raising children.  Fainy found that, once her husband divorced her, rendering her a single mother, she was virtually shunned by her community, including the women who had been her closest friends.  She was made to feel that she was somehow at fault for her circumstances.  When she looked for help, she found nothing but obstacles and dead ends.  So, she founded Ba’asher Teilchi, an organization whose mission is to provide emotional support, job training and financial aid to women in the ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli society.  Today, Ba’asher Teilchi gives support to thousands of women across Israel.   Fainy’s work at dissolving boundaries, in this case between the Chareidi world and other segments of Israeli society, has been so successful that she was recently honored by lighting a torch at Israel’s annual Yom Ha’atsmaut celebration, one of the nation’s highest honors.

What I learned, what I think we can all learn, from my summer journey devoted to dissolving boundaries is that we cannot allow ourselves, or our community, to be undermined by stereotypical, pre-conceived notions about the people around us, what they value and what they represent.  The work of dissolving boundaries doesn’t necessarily require us to always be in sync with the other.  As I suggested earlier, boundaries and differences between people are sometimes natural and even necessary.  But we cannot let those differences keep us from talking to and listening to one another.

Listening is the essential tool to dissolving, or at least diminishing boundaries.  Our tradition places great value on listening.  In the Torah portion to be read this Shabbat morning we read a poem offered by Moses to the Israelites.  He begins by saying, “Hear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!”  In the English translation of the text, the verbs are the same.  But the Hebrew uses two different verbs- “ha’azinu” and “shema.”  We can understand the Hebrew text to present a subtle but important distinction between hearing and listening.  It’s one thing to hear people when they speak, but quite another to genuinely listen to what they have to say.  How often do we hear without listening?  How often do we pay partial attention, hear only what we wanted to hear, or begin to formulate our response even before the other person has finished speaking? Maybe Moses calls forward heaven and earth both to hear and to listen in his final message to his people to remind us of the distinction.

Listening is at the core of meaningful, productive human relationships.  The great philosopher Martin Buber taught that listening is what allows us to develop an I-thou, rather than an I-it relationship.  He described listening as “Something we do with our full selves by sensing and feeling what another is trying to convey.” In so doing we can remove the barrier between us.

There is virtually no end to the impact of genuine listening on our lives, both as individuals and as a society.  We so often see others through a pre-determined lens, sometimes based on their appearance or on the little bits of information we may know about someone or the community of which they are a part.  One of the great sins we regularly commit is that of stereotyping the people we encounter and failing to listen to what they have to say and learning who they are.

Our politics are so terribly fractured and polarized today.  It seems that the very term “bi-partisan” is frowned upon and that those who try to step across the aisle in an attempt to listen to the priorities and needs of someone from the other party risks his or her political career.  Would that it be that a required qualification for elected office is the skill and desire to genuinely listen to the other.

We all need to practice what could be called reflective listening.  That is a term, really an aspiration, with which I became familiar from my wife Amy, who last year took part in a 4-day encounter with Palestinians in the West Bank sponsored by a group called Encounter.  Every participant on the visit was invited to attend a workshop on reflective listening that asked people to focus intensely on, and thoughtfully consider, what was being said by the person with whom they were engaged in conversation.  The group practiced skills such as allowing people to finish speaking before replying, always making eye contact, putting aside a smart phone or pen during conversation, and answering with a direct reply to what the person is saying instead of introducing a new comment.   These are skills we all should practice when we engage in conversation.

There is no doubt that the long, anguished and perpetually stalled pathway toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be aided by people on both sides engaging in reflective listening to the other’s narrative.  They need to listen to our narrative, and we need to listen to their narrative.  Listening does not obligate either party to accepting every element of the other’s story.  It’s not always pleasant or uplifting to listen to someone else’s narrative.  We’re quick to discount it and overturn it with our own facts to emerge as victors in our struggle to be vindicated and proven right.  But we’ve seen that when people do not listen, genuinely listen to one another, even if they don’t agree with what the other has to say, the boundaries between us remain high and unbreachable.  Dissolving boundaries requires us to engage in reflective listening.

Let us make this an urgent priority in our lives in the year that has just begun.  Let us strive to listen to each other, to learn more about each other, to set aside any pre-conceived ideas we harbor about others.  Let us remember that hearing isn’t the same thing as listening.  By listening to others, we can begin to dissolve the boundaries that keep us apart from each other.  By listening, we can grow closer to one another in mutual understanding and respect.  Keyn Yehi Ratson…may God aid us in this noble quest.