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Isaiah & Jonah

Yom Kippur Morning Service

While preparing for this High Holy Day period, I was shocked, truly shocked, to hear that the two most important Haftarot of the Jewish year were passed over here. I speak of Isaiah (58:1-14) and the Book of Jonah.

These two Haftarot which are read this day are key correctives to the whole concept of the Jewish High Holy Days. Initially Yom Kippur, at least in First and Second Temple periods, gravitated around vicarious atonement sacrifices offered by the priesthood to atone for their individual sins and the nation of Israel’s sins. Even the holiday of Sukkot’s sacrifices are allegedly to atone for the 70 nations that our ancestors believed were the symbolic number of the world’s nations.

But this idea, that killing some animals or scapegoating one to die in the wilderness because we messed up has struck many as repugnant. The rabbis of the medieval period created a parallel ceremony Kol Nidre (all vows), which was to remove guilt if one, in error, vowed to contribute something to God (that vow should not happen) and then one could not do what one had vowed. Hence guilt. Kol Nidre morphed into a get- out- of- jail- free card for all promises and, despite rabbinical opposition, many people still believe that is its purpose, hence why it is so popular to this day.

But this deep, human, cross-cultural need for vicarious atonement is so hard to kill (pun intended). Whether it was ancient Israelites, pre-modern Aztec, Mayan, or Incan human sacrifices, or continued Santeria animal sacrifices, and some Orthodox Jews shlaging kaporis, the need to get rid of our feelings of guilt or sin by transferring onto others is so human, easy, and psychologically troubling ,even if useful.

It is even postulated that the importance of the Akeda, the sacrifice of Isaac story read on Rosh Hashanah, was not added to the Rosh Hashanah service till the Middle Ages as a critique of Christianity’s crucifixion narrative. God does not want vicarious human atonement. God stopped Abraham from offering his only son.

And so we are here today to mention this morning Isaiah 58: 1-14, and this afternoon Jonah, which directly point away from atonement to corrective living instead. “Yes, they seek me daily, as though eager to learn my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right, and has not forsaken the teachings of its God. ‘When we fast’ why do you pay no heed? Why, when we afflict ourselves, do you take not notice?”

God and Isaiah answer “Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never hide yourself from your own kin?”

This is not about simple animal or human sacrifice, it is about social reconstruction. No animal sacrifice, not even fasting and beating of chests, not even wailing and protestations of innocence or admission of guilt is good enough no matter how emotionally fulfilling. Isaiah says it so radically that I am not surprised we didn’t read it before. It would not matter – we would pass over it whether in Hebrew or English. It is why the High Holy Days are failures year after year. Another prophet, Ezekiel, put it this way, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.”

But how could that possibly be done? Not by vicarious atonement, not by empty headed meaningless ritual performed by performers. It can only be done by self-examination, by getting one’s hands dirty with the products of the world we live in. We all ignore the actions we and others benefit from. What would happen if the pain of others were our pain, if” we never hide ourselves from our own?” No wonder we want vicarious, sanitizing atonement. This real atonement would  really hurts, but it is the only atonement that would work. It would cleanse us to our very bone –“ a new heart and a new soul” – Amen.

And the reason it has not worked? Because we can not actually turn to people we have hurt and say I am sorry, please forgive me. Instead, we curl our faces in smirks, turn around and tell people put downs, care about this and that minutiae. Yes, if only the color or sound was just so, the acid eating away at our souls would wash away like some new spot remover.

There are no quick fixes on how to be a better human being but doing the work.

No high-tech app, no life coaching, no Rosetta Stone for this foreign language of apology, forgiveness, and deep spirituality. But as we read in our Torah portion,” it is not on some mountain that we should send someone up there”, maybe a designated professional to do it, maybe he could sing a ditty that makes us all feel good. No, the text says “it is in our mouths and hearts to do it” Deut. 30:14

 

When Things Fall Apart

Rosh Hashanah Evening

 

This is an excerpt of a CCAR (Reform Rabbis Members) Statement.

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One chutzpadik medieval commentator teaches we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of the President who fuels hatred and division in our beloved country. Th is not a political statement. We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “you cannot dehumanize, degrade, and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man, and child is beloved of God and precious in the holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The shofar blasts: truah [9 short blasts] The Sound of Urgency:

The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism in wrong whether it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism or not. The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say “my lineage is greater than yours.” But in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all – Jews in America are white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we learn and forget only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.

My colleague Rabbi Judy Shanks is the chief author of that statement, and Rabbi Elka Abrahamson started this project. I have the greatest respect for both of them and the thrust of the work, but I take exception to some parts of it. It sidesteps the real elephant in the room. We American Jews take great comfort in our post-1960’s acceptance into white bread America. Amnesia and a lack of historical knowledge helps us believe a racist mythology of America that continues to be re-written at an Orwellian rate.

Prior to the 1970’s, we were not seen as “pure white,” just as our Irish cousins were not seen as “really white” from their arrival in the 1830’s, just as the Italians were treated the same way into the 1940’s. There has always been a system of dividing the haves from the have-nots, and race has been the way to do it in this country. The haves were forced by circumstances to let in groups they despise because there are other groups they despise more.

This issue is not some ideological, theoretical discussion for me. It is deeply personal. My father was a soldier in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. My grandfather was a socialist revolutionary with a Russian death sentence on his head, who raised his daughter, my mother, as Polish first and foremost. But neither were any more then “Juden” or “Zydzi” (Jews in German & Polish) to anyone they ever met.

My mother was liberated from certain death by those  she told me were “black angels,” U.S. Black servicemen who intercepted the death train she was on in the spring of 1945. She had never seen a black man, and never knew about racism till my parents came to this country and were told over and over how, in America, “those people” … you know the story. This was by Jews in the Northeast, so my childhood was spent with black children who were my neighbors and playmates, and I was looked down on by my fellow Jewish kids for not understanding obvious things about “those people.”

When I ran for high school student body president, I won over 80% of my school’s black vote against a black candidate because, as one of my voters told me, “I’d rather vote for a Jew boy than an Oreo!” My opponent was overwhelmingly socially white, but just pigmentally dark. Hence Oreo.

We American Jews have made a deal with the proverbial devil. If since the 1970’s the ruling class is scared more by blacks, Latinos, and Asians and will let us into their Ivy League colleges, professions, boardrooms, and social clubs, then we are glad now to be whitewashed. Yes, historians can tell us about the history of American racism and its multi-tiered hierarchy of whiteness. We will not listen or care. Nothing makes us happier than Donald Trump having a Jewish son-in-law except maybe that Chelsea had a Jewish wedding.

We have truly arrived. We can think we are as white as white can be with a stylish sprig of dill on the potato salad. This must have been what our prophets told us when they said we would be “a light unto the nations” – a spotlight on a beautiful jewelry arrangement.

No thank you. Some of us realize that Charlottesville shows us what is really there. We would be short-sighted, even foolish to think that divide and conquer will protect us from not ethno-centric chauvinism (that is the preferred nomenclature) – let us call it what it truly is – racism. Yes, we can throw away our religion and the values that come from it, but our enemies are not as forgiving as we think they are. They will and are turning on us now. Some might have thought racism would go after only the red meat: Latinos, Asians, Muslims. No, actually they are very ecumenical – us too.

So this is the time that tries men’s and women’s souls. Do we join with the others, our natural allies, and fight the Power, or do we take the trinkets and tickets of consumerism and sell our souls till they hunt us down.

I love Flushing and I love New York. Every day, I see people I relate to better than any I have in my entire life. I see people of every hue of the human spectrum. I see people in kufas, saris, hijabs, sarongs, tzizit, and yarmulkes. People who choose not to hide what is most important to them. Maybe they can not, even if they wanted to. They want to be comfortable in their own skin. This is the New York I see, the New York and America I think is worth fighting for. Let us go forward with that proud vision.

 

Values

Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 2017

Here at this turning of the New Year, we can actually change. How is that really possible? Can an old dog learn new tricks? Can a leopard change its spots? First, none of you are those, and Judaism expects better from us. So sorry.

Choir, hit it! [Return Again]

Wasn’t that beautiful? One of my Rebbes, Shlomo Carlebach, who saved my Jewish soul, wrote that.

Now, where do we get the concepts that there is any behavior that comes from anywhere other than what we are doing every day in every way? In other words: I don’t need you to tell me how to act.

Well, let me come at this from another angle: In Buddhism, it says there is the Eight Fold Path that lead to enlightenment. Buddhism tries to structure toward that goal: what does not lend itself to that is clearly not beneficial.

And so too in Judaism. We have way more rules (do’s (mitzvot) and do nots (averots),) but let me accent tonight one broad concept and another systematic form. If you only get one takeaway from me tonight, here it is: derech eretz. Literally, it means derech (road, path, conduct) eretz (land). When it is commonly used, it means good conduct or manners. Just like love (ahavah), or yira (fear or awe), it can mean thousands of permutations. The same can apply to derech eretz. So let me give you some thorny examples: How does cursing someone show derech eretz? How does gossiping about someone show derech eretz? How does humiliating someone show derech eretz? It does not. It shows that you do not accept social norms, the laws of common human decency do not apply to you. There is no real place for you in any real society.  Go to reformjudaism.org, study the 48 Middot  for excellent examples of these.

Years ago the Reform movement plugged in an old tradition in Judaism called Mussar. Mussar could be called morals and its concepts certainly appear in many mitzvot and narrative passages, but much later it developed in sayings like this from Pirkei Avot 6:6 in the Talmud. It states, “The Torah is greater than the priesthood, and then royalty seeing that royalty is acquired through thirty virtues, the priesthood twenty-four, while the Torah is acquired through forty eight virtues.”

These virtues or values are called Middot. There were many volumes on these published throughout Jewish literary and religious history, but during the 19th century and onward, this type of literature became a movement known as Mussar.

It is rare that a society such as ours, the Jewish community, which is functionally conservative, try to take such a profoundly self-analyzing and correcting a process such as Mussar. At the time, the 19th century, the Lithuanian Yeshivot were so self-absorbed in Talmud for Talmud’s sake that it put Neo-Confucianism in China to shame. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter was not anti-Talmud in the least, but he saw that the point of Talmud (righteous action) was seen as almost beside the point – learning the Talmud became the end in itself. Moral action or virtues were not being taught, so how were they to be learned? Rabbi Salanter had an uphill struggle. What he was suggesting was that valuable time was to be taken away from Talmud study for this useless, beside the point stuff – moral virtue education. But even with so much resistance, Mussar had an effect.

And so, too, in our day and in our movement. In the last few years the Union for Reform Judaism has embraces Mussar education in our congregations. I was a bit reluctant when I first heard about it. What were the chances that self-satisfied, liberal, assimilated Jews would find teaching virtues not to kids, but to adults, valuable?

But I was pleasantly surprised. I taught Mussar for two years in adult education sessions, not one week but for two years. My congregants could not get enough of it. And I am not the only one; colleagues around the country have found the same thing.

Why? Let me venture a guess. Despite the Death-of-God moment the Western world is beset with a hollowing out of a moral center. I won’t list the billions of examples that come to mind. Koyaanisqatsi, as the Hopi say, “life out of balance.” How do we have any sense of shared values, or knowledge of appropriate behavior? Not something we teach kids – how about share with each other?

We can not finger-point our way to a better world. As so many in the mindfulness movement point out, it is about consciously choosing right virtue and maintaining mindfulness. In our tradition, it is about Middot.

We must, despite all the unconscious behavior we are habitually accustomed to, we can reset. That is what this New Year can be about.

 

Vision

Kol Nidre 5778

The most awesome day of the Jewish year is here, with everything it has symbolized throughout the ages. Our fate traditionally is sealed individually and collectively, but we have the chance, the opportunity, to do teshuva to repent (or to reset to factory settings as I think of it) through teshuva, tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteous action).

Tonight, I want to cut to the chase and talk about my take on the topic of teshuva (reset) and tzedakah (righteous action). It is called vision.

This may be the first time some of you have seen me. So let me introduce myself through my vision of Judaism, and what I see as the potential for the Free Synagogue of Flushing. Judaism can be many things for many people, and that is OK, but as I said, as a rabbi it is incumbent on me to have a vision which goes beyond the momentary and personal, to the historical and universal.

To me, Judaism is more than parochial, tribal, or territorial. When Rabbi Hillel was asked in that ancient chestnut of a story “explain the Torah to me while I stand on one foot,” he didn’t start talking about religious minutiae or even God, he said “what is hateful unto you do not do to others, that is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary, now go and learn it if you want to.”

That is it. Not shatnes, not the Rebbe, not the Moshiah.

If you can not do that, what makes you a Jew? Let us be crystal clear, first things first. As Hippocrates said (and he was a doctor, so he must have been a Jew, right?) “first do no harm.” As we will read in this afternoon Torah portion, “go not up and down as a tale bearer among thy people”. Lev. 19:16, and “where no wood is, the fire will go out, and where there is no whisperer, contention ceases,” Prov. 26:20. There are many things that are mitzvot, but contention and gossip are quite the opposite. They are compared to murder.

Number 1, ahavah (love). Reb Shlomo called  his synagogue the House of Love and Prayer. I commit myself to that: love (ahavah) and prayer (tefillah or davening).

  1. Tefillah (prayer, davening). Whatever our theology, let us be clear I am not praying to you, and I hope you are not praying to me. This is not a performance, and it is not an exercise. There is a passage “dah lifne mee atah omed” (Talmud Berahot 28b)  “know before whom you stand,” which is usually added to “Adonai ehad” (God is one). Our prayers should be directed to our understanding of divinity – and Judaism’s central teaching, which sets it apart from many, but not all religions, is that whatever that inexplicable divinity is – it is one. Not a plurality, but one. So we should be praying to that. Why? Because we need that belief, that we need to reach out for meaning and koach (strength) to energize our lives. That davening is central to my vision of Judaism.
  2. Our mission should be the universality of creation. Just as God is one, so is all creation. All of it. I know there are individual people with individual names. I know there are infinite affinity groups: Chinese, Jewish, women, LGBTQ, First Nations, the list goes on. They are all one in my book. You are all made in the image of that one infinite God. But your actions are your responsibility. I believe in free will. Don’t tell me that the reason you did this or that is because of your historical memory or what was done to you 30 years ago. Be here now. Own your actions.
  3. This can be the most remarkable house of worship if we can be true to this vision. I have a plan to do six significant programs open to this community in the next year that will show anyone who is awake that we are back with a kaleidoscopic vision of spirituality, art, music, and performance. So let me reiterate: come and join us here at the Free Synagogue of Flushing in our 100th year, as in the words of Rav Kook “we renew the old and sanctify the new.” Let us rededicate FSF to ahavah (love), tefillah (prayer), universality, and creativity. Don’t be a stranger; be a part of a community which transforms itself and you.