Thursday, October 1, 2015

Simhat Torah Joy

We have come to the conclusion of the Tishrei marathon. We observed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and now finally, Simhat Torah. We travel from personal introspection and repentance to fasting and the recounting of our many failings to the wandering and fragility of temporary booths (nothing like a week of wind and rain to remind us of that!) to now the joy of Simhat Torah.

We celebrate the conclusion of the Torah reading cycle and its simultaneous beginning. On the day of Simhat Torah we begin the cycle all over again. We believe that everything we ever wanted to know is in this scroll. It is only perhaps a matter of reading it at a different angle if the wisdom is not immediately apparent.

We confirm our faith on this day: all wisdom and teachings are contained in this book. Thus we are privileged and blessed to begin this journey of exploration once again. This day is therefore cause for great celebration. Simhat Torah is the quintessential Jewish holiday. It is about dancing and singing. And these, more than the fasting and recounting of sins on Yom Kippur, are the more authentic Jewish postures. We are supposed to celebrate. We are commanded to rejoice.

In fact the Talmud Yerushalmi states that we will be held to account for all the joys we neglected to celebrate. When we approach the heavenly court we will be asked in effect, “Did we rejoice enough?” That in a nutshell is the Jewish message. Do you say “L’Chaim!” every time you were offered the opportunity?

The Babylonian Talmud offers a story to emphasize this message. Rabbi Beroka used to visit the marketplace where the Prophet Elijah often appeared to him. Once Beroka asked Elijah: “Is there anyone here who has a share in the world to come?” He replied, “No!” While they were talking two men passed by, and Elijah remarked, “These two men have a share in the world to come.” Rabbi Beroka ran after the men and asked, “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are jesters. When we see people depressed, we cheer them up.”

The easygoing jester has more a share in paradise than the hard-working butcher. The jester adds joy to the world. Even though his humor can at times be silly, and seemingly inconsequential, his jests add smiles and laughter to the world.

The Hasidic masters see important truths in these teachings. They remind us again and again that joy is essential to the spiritual quest. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “The Baal Shem [the founder of Hasidism] proclaimed joy to be the very heart of religious living, the essence of faith, greater than all other religious virtues.”

This is what Simhat Torah reaffirms.

Revel in life.

Laugh. And smile.

Most especially celebrate the gift of Torah.

And never pass up an opportunity to join in the dancing.


Friday, September 25, 2015

Sukkot Tastes and Smells

The holiday of Sukkot is marked by joy. In fact during ancient times it was the most important holiday—more significant than even Yom Kippur. During Sukkot the first and second Temples were dedicated. There are two primary observances. We build a sukkah and eat our meals there. Some even sleep in their sukkah.

We do so for several reasons. These booths remind us of the fragility of life. They must be temporary structures. They also teach us about our connectedness to nature and to God’s creation. After the loftiness and almost otherworldliness of Yom Kippur (such is the delirious state created by a day of fasting and praying), we are returned to this world and our dependence on God’s creation.

We also wave the lulav and etrog. To be honest, this is a rather bizarre ritual. We hold together a palm branch, two willow and three myrtle twigs along with one strange looking lemon like fruit, the etrog and wave them in six directions, signifying that God is all around us. To be honest it looks like a Jewish rain dance. Given that Sukkot begins the rainy season in the land of Israel there may be some connection to this observation.

The Torah commands: “On the first day you shall take the fruit of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40) The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean the four species that we hold today.

They expanded upon the meaning and symbolism of the four. They observed that the palm has taste but no smell. They myrtle (boughs of leafy trees) has smell but no taste. The etrog (fruit of hadar trees) has both smell and taste. And the willow has no taste and no smell. They taught that smell represents the doing of good deeds and that taste symbolizes the study of Torah.

I have often wondered why the ancient rabbis assigned taste to Torah study and smell to good deeds. One could perhaps argue that it should be reversed. So why did they seize upon this symbolism? Torah study requires the passion of eating. (The food tasted so good at break fast!) You have to sink your teeth into it. My teacher Rabbi David Hartman z”l used to say that you have to taste the text. You have to devour its meaning. And why smell? Because a beautiful deed, like the smell of the brisket many of us just enjoyed, can travel from room to room. A beautiful smell can find you wherever you might sit. A good deed can touch you by surprise.

The rabbis teach that there are Jews who, like the etrog, are engaged in both Torah study and good deeds. There are others who only study. And still others who are only devoted to doing good. And there are even some who do neither. Yet a community requires all types of people. This is why the four species are held firmly together.

A community holds many different types of people together. A community welcomes all.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Refugee Blues

What follows is my Yom Kippur morning sermon exploring the refugee crisis.

A few weeks ago I saw my Jewish dreams wash ashore. It was the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach that shattered those visions. It should have been the hundreds of thousands of other deaths. It should have been the press of some 60 million refugees struggling to escape persecution and war, hunger and famine. Instead it was one child. I watched as this little boy was carried ever so gently from a beach that serves in most years as a destination for tourists and vacationers.

Unetanah tokef kedushat hayom. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water.

The family had set out on a thirteen-mile journey across the Aegean Sea to make their way to the Greek island of Kos. Their boat capsized. The boy’s five-year-old brother and mother also drowned. His father, Abdullah, survived. Here is what Aylan’s father said...

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Becoming Reform

What follows is my Yom Kippur evening sermon about what it means to be a Reform Jew.

Let’s talk about Reform Judaism. In July 1883 the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati ordained its first class of American Reform rabbis. Four men were ordained—women would not be ordained until almost 100 years later. The founder of the college, Isaac Mayer Wise, was very proud. He had successfully created a seminary to serve all of American Jewry—both the traditionalists and radical reformers were present. He had succeeded in implementing his vision of only one modern American Jewish movement. Look at the names he coined, Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. None of these names declared Reform. (It is by the way “Reform Judaism” not “Reformed Judaism.” We have done nothing wrong to require a reformed path.) All the names proclaimed a unified American Judaism.

After the ordination ceremony the group of newly minted rabbis, their teachers and families adjourned for a grand dinner at the most exclusive hotel in all of Cincinnati. As soon as the food was served a commotion broke out. The first course was…Littleneck clams on the half shell. This was followed by crabs and then shrimp and then frogs legs. Two rabbis stormed out of the dinner—never to return again. And I assume the other two dipped their frogs legs in drawn butter after saying a blessing. The traditionalists on the other hand had had enough. Soon they created the Conservative movement. The trefe banquet, as that first ordination meal has been called, delineated the early fault lines between Reform and Conservative.

It is now 2015. We are now a Reform congregation. I am a Reform rabbi. I am a committed Reform Jew. To be sure my Reform Judaism is different than that of the late 19th century. I keep kosher. I find deep meaning in the Jewish consciousness it produces as I prepare my meals. I am forced to ask Jewish questions as I prepare my food. Do I use meat dishes? Can I use milchig utensils? And yet my commitment was nurtured in a home in which I was often served shrimp toast and in which my grandfather z”l and I enjoyed lobster. You might think this amusing but my parents never served shrimp or lobster on Shabbat. On those days the meals were the traditional fare. I was however always fed commitment. I was given devotion. It was a home in which intention was paramount and the desire to take Judaism seriously was the goal. That is my hope for us as well. Keeping kosher is a means to an end. It is a tool. I do not keep track of how many keep kosher. I measure instead intention and commitment. I strive for meaning. I also do not place much stock in the term Jewish continuity. That was yesterday’s concern. Today we should instead be worrying about two things: meaning and healing. We should ask two questions: does this observance add meaning to my life and my family’s life? Does this practice bring healing to my world?

Reform Judaism is different today than it was yesterday. I grew up in a synagogue where the rabbi was once not allowed to wear a tallis and kippah. Today there is the growing recognition that these ancient practices can be deeply meaningful. My grandfather might not understand my Jewish path, but I would imagine he would appreciate it. Is one Jewish journey more authentic than another’s? My Papa grew up in a world wanting of food. He achieved success. He could then eat anything he desired. It gave him unbounded pleasure to buy his grandsons whatever they wanted to eat, and however much they wanted to eat. Somewhere along life’s path I began to find meaning in saying “No” to the foods I loved. I found meaning in keeping kosher, like the pious great grandmother for whom I am named. This is my path. It is how I have discovered meaning.

This I now realize is too much talk about food on a fast day. It is important to note that the early Reform movement was first and foremost about reforming the rituals. It was about throwing off the yoke of the tradition’s restrictions. It was about introducing decorum to the service. We should start on time and end on time—an idea I still think is worthy. Today we recognize that Reform Jews can take on any of these traditional rituals but only if they add meaning to their lives. Our ritual actions must be done with intention. They must come from a place of informed and educated choice. We study and learn. We make individual decisions. The essence of Reform Judaism is educated and informed choice. It is a process not a result. Reform demands that we take our tradition seriously. We make room for Judaism in our busy lives.

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a Reform rabbi, once remarked: “Judaism is Orthodox, but all Jews are Reform.” This is what he meant. And this is what I believe. Judaism teaches certain ideas and maintains certain standards. All Jews are free to decide what they do and what they don’t do. That is today’s reality. I wish to build a Judaism that is not measured by how many walk on Shabbat or how many verses of Torah are chanted, but if we bring Torah into our hearts and if we bring Torah into the world. Judaism is our toolbox. It provides us with a path. We have learned that we must change and innovate. We seek to reform the tradition in order to keep pace with changing times. We add music to our praying. It uplifts our prayers. This should not be so radical to say, but why can’t services be enjoyable. Taking things seriously and having fun should not be contradictory impulses.

Although early Reform Jews found organ music uplifting, we are comfortable adding piano and guitar, drums and bass. We see the music of contemporary society as an invitation to add meaning to the tradition’s prayers. We see change and evolution as necessary and meaningful. We believe as Reform Jews that there is much to be learned from the modern world. We have learned, for example, that although the tradition does not extol democracy, we have come to know that democracy is a great and endearing value. We have been taught by our American experience that religious pluralism enriches our lives. The Torah does not offer such wisdom. It is learned by today’s experiences.

Reform Judaism reminds us as well of the centrality of social justice. The prophets’ voices have too often been stilled. Sure we chanted the Haftarah’s words. But do we listen to their voices? Do we heed the words of Isaiah who shouted and screamed in tomorrow’s Haftarah:
Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 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 to hide yourself from your own kind? (Isaiah 58)
Sometimes chanting these words in Hebrew silences their import. Justice is our calling. There are far too many injustices crying out for attention. Open your hearts and your hands to the hungry and poor but a few miles from this beautiful sanctuary. Give to Mazon, a national Jewish organization that distributes grants to soup kitchens and food pantries. I am proud that our movement has served on the forefront of the call for social justice. It was Reform rabbis who by and large marched for civil rights. There were others to be sure but it was Reform leaders who led the charge. A number were in fact jailed. In the summer of 1964 sixteen rabbis traveled to Florida to protest racial segregation. They wrote these words from their jail cell: “We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time.”

This is the prophets’ voice writ large. Fifty years later we see that we have taken some steps forward and some back. In our own time, Black churches are attacked and set ablaze. Fifty years later simmering racial tensions explode in my hometown of St Louis. Do we ignore the pleas of Isaiah? How do we live up to the words of what is now our Reform heritage? For Judaism to have meaning, for the Torah to have import, it must not only bring meaning to our inner lives, but healing to the world at large. If it stops here in this sanctuary, with the singing of Kol Nidre, with the moving rhythms of our prayers, then it is in fact meaningless. It is not all about the inner life. It is not all about my life. That is why we spend the better part of this day recounting our sins. Al cheyt she-chatanu… For the sin we have committed… We have failed to live up to our calling. We have stood silent in the face of injustice. We can always do more for our neighbors.

Our movement has always been at the forefront of these issues, advocating for change, fighting against discrimination and hatred. This past Spring I had the blessing of attending the annual convention of Reform rabbis. It was there that we elected my friend and colleague, Rabbi Denise Eger, to the position of president of the conference. She is, as some have read in the papers, the first lesbian rabbi to serve in this position. It was for this reason that the press coverage was so vast. I happen to think she is a smart and talented rabbi and that should be the only criteria for the attention she received. Although I was deeply moved to be there and witness her election to president, I was even more taken by those who spoke about their struggle as gay and lesbian rabbis. They shared their pain. They recounted the many years they were forced to live closeted. Some of my very own rabbinical school classmates dared not share their sexual orientation for fear of being expelled by an institution that officially did not welcome LGBT students. I feel privileged to have witnessed this change, to see Reform synagogues shift from a posture of fear to one of acceptance—all in the short span of 25 years. I felt blessed to meet a gay Israeli diplomat who grew up in this different age, an age when he could be both gay and married and find welcome and comfort in a Reform synagogue.

I am immensely proud in the achievements of my movement. For decades we have also advocated for the full participation of interfaith couples. I continue to believe that our synagogues should be an open door. Our arms should be opened wide inviting and welcoming those who feel estranged. We are enriched by the participation of others. Intermarriage is a fact and a reality. Do not believe the pundits. Our tribe is not lessened. Erecting walls will not do. Seeing blessings in this new reality is our only option. Never before have rabbis been confronted with the following. A woman comes to me and says, “Rabbi I have read books about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. I have read Soren Kierkegaard and Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Dalai Lama and Martin Buber. I was even a Wiccan for a while. I have decided I want to convert to Judaism. It seems to offer me the best path. I love that it allows me to question.” Do I push her away three times as Jewish law urges? No! I say, “Welcome. Study with me.” Never before has there been such openness to religious exploration. I consider this a blessing.

We learn from the modern experience. We now understand that one’s sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, as the Torah assumes, but instead a matter of birth. As Reform Jews we are informed by Jewish law but not confined by it. We learn from modernity but are not beholden to it. We live within these two worlds.

I wonder if perhaps my silence about LGBT rights has forced others into silence. On this Yom Kippur I confess, if I have failed to convey to any of my students that I would be anything but accepting of them, then chatati—I have sinned. If I have forced them to hide who they truly are, then chatati. If they have yearned to share with their friends, family and teachers, but have thought we would be unaccepting and disapproving, then chatanu—we have sinned. We must open the doors of our synagogues wide.

And then this summer we realized the fruits of our movement’s labors, with the Supreme Court’s June decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

I understood this to be an issue of justice many years ago. In the 1990s when I was a newly minted rabbi, one of my friends approached me to officiate at his partner’s funeral. His partner of many years was dying of complications from AIDS. The young man’s estranged parents flew in to see their son. Soon they made medical decisions that were contrary to what my friend knew his partner wished. The doctors were obligated to listen to the parents. In the eyes of the law, to which the doctors were obliged to adhere, my friend had no authority. As close as I am to my parents, it is Susie who knows my heart and knows what I would want. It is my spouse with whom I would trust with such life and death decisions. The injustice shouted to be addressed.

The young man soon died and I fulfilled the promise made weeks before, and officiated at the funeral. I cried with my friend. My heart broke for the parents now mourning a son they refused to accept and were unwilling to understand. I was overwhelmed by the sight of these mourners: young men in their 20s and 30s. They were far too experienced with the rituals of death and mourning than men of their age should ever be. They knew exactly what to do. Whether Jewish or Christian, atheist or irreligious, they were accustomed to these rituals. They had been to far too many cemeteries. They knew how to comfort each other. They understood how to support each other. It was a remarkable sight, a blessing in the midst of such sorrow. But the injustice of it all continued to scream out. They should not have learned these lessons. In those moments I realized that they should not only be permitted, but encouraged, to sanctify their love. It is a matter of justice. It is a matter of our shared humanity. Their marriage makes no statement about my marriage. Justice Kennedy and the Supreme Court’s majority have it right.

As a Reform rabbi, I can say, the Torah has it wrong. Saying it like that might make some people really uncomfortable but that is the chutzpah of the Reform movement. I am not limited to the literal words of the Torah. For me Torah is far more expansive than the five books of Moses. We must be open to learning not only from our tradition but also from modernity. It is this unique combination of the two that is the hallmark of Reform and that allows us to bring meaning to our lives and healing to our world.

I stand before you on this holiest of days and declare that although we may not always agree we have chosen a path that is not one of convenience as some would suggest, but instead one of intention and meaning, commitment and healing. This is the legacy of Reform that is now our inheritance. How will we make it our own? How will we bring these teachings into our hearts?

All of Jewish practice is to bring more healing to the world. Judaism provides the tools by which we bring meaning to our lives and healing to our world. It must not all be about the inner life. We might begin with the foods we eat. But we must end with the words we speak. They must be filled with healing and comfort. We must conclude with righting the wrongs we see around us. That is the vision provided by our tradition. That is the mission clarified by Reform Judaism. May this become our legacy as well. May this path provide the guidance our new Reform synagogue requires.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Church Pews

What follows is the letter I sent to my congregation about our decision to celebrate two of our High Holiday services at St. Dominic Catholic Church.  Our synagogue building cannot accommodate the larger numbers who attend these services.  I am proud of my congregation for embracing this decision.  My words proved true. We found our services deeply meaningful.  I look forward to our observance of Yom Kippur.

Sometimes practical challenges illustrate important philosophical principles.  Our decision to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Morning services at St. Dominic is such a case.

Judaism teaches that the place is secondary to the moment.  We sanctify time rather than space.  It is far more important when we gather rather than where. What transforms ordinary days in the calendar into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that we join together as a community.  What matters is that we sing our prayers together.  What matters is that we learn Torah.  These are the acts that sanctify the day.  This is the Jewish principle that ensured our survival after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.   Regardless of where we find ourselves we can celebrate our sacred days.

When formulating this principle the ancient rabbis never of course imagined our current situation, that we might celebrate our holiest of days in a church.  How could the victims of oppression imagine such a circumstance?  We, however, live in a unique age and in a unique country.

When we realized that our synagogue’s sanctuary, as well as CW Post’s hall, would be unable to accommodate our greater numbers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mornings I approached my colleague and friend Reverend Kevin Smith.  He immediately offered the use of his church’s auditorium-style sanctuary.  In addition he offered to allow us to cover the large cross and move some of the church’s sacred objects to help us create a Jewish atmosphere.  He is an extraordinarily kind and generous man. 

We will not be able to cover every Christian symbol, especially those in the church’s beautiful stained glass windows.  We will instead transform this place by our songs and our prayers.  While it is not a synagogue it is a house built for prayer.  I have led services in many different locations and can tell you that it is far better to join together in prayer in a place that is intended for that purpose.  My heart is filled with gratitude by the generosity of my Christian neighbors.

I recognize that some might be uncomfortable singing Jewish prayers and celebrating Jewish holidays in a church.  I understand your feelings.  We will of course be in our own synagogue for Rosh Hashanah Evening, Second Day Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur Evening and Yom Kippur Afternoon services. 

I choose to see this unusual circumstance as an unexpected blessing.  I will, like every High Holidays, be smiling and singing, praying and even dancing.  The prayers and songs will continue to uplift us on these days, regardless of where we sit.  It is these days that we hold to be most sacred.  I have every confidence you will say to yourself, in the synagogue as well as the church, “I have never heard a more beautiful Avinu Malkeinu in all my life.”     

Perhaps you might also say, “What an extraordinary country I live in!” Here, in the United States, it is natural that a church and its leaders would reach out to a synagogue and say, “Come and observe your holiest of days in our sanctuary.”

I choose to see blessings.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yom Kippur Sands

Annie Dillard writes:
The more nearly spherical is a grain of sand, the older it is. “The average river requires a million years to move a grain of sand one hundred miles,” [the American physicist] James Trefil tells us. As a sand grain tumbles along the riverbed—as it saltates, then lies still, then saltates for those millions of years—it smooths some of its rough edges. Then, sooner or later, it blows into a desert. In the desert, no water buoys its weight. When it leaps, it lands hard. In the desert, it knaps itself round. Most of the round sand grains in the world, wherever you find them, have spent some part of their histories blowing around a desert. Wind bangs sand grains into one another on dunes and beaches, and into rocks. Rocks and other sands blast the surfaces, so windblown sands don’t sparkle like young river sands. “We live surrounded by ideas and objects infinitely more ancient than we imagine; and yet at the same time everything is in motion,” [the French paleontologist] Teilhard said. (For the Time Being)
The beach, with its waves, never ceases to stir my heart.  I did not know the sand beneath my feet, and crushed between my toes, had traveled so far.  I did not recall that it once began with such sharp, hard edges.

Yom Kippur reminds us that we have at best a mere 120 years to smooth out our edges.  We are but imperfect specks of sand. 

The Unetanah Tokef prayer concurs:
Our origin is dust,
and dust is our end.
Each of us is a shattered urn,
grass that must whither
a flower that will fade,
a shadow moving on,
a cloud passing by,
a particle of dust floating on the wind,
a dream soon forgotten. 
And yet we are buoyed by each other.  Taken together and standing as one community we can become like a magnificent beach.  We are held together by the we of Ashamnu.  We say, “For the sin we have sinned…”  We are strengthened by “we.”  We are weakened by “I.”  

Yom Kippur reminds us of our imperfections.  It shouts about our potential insignificance.  And yet Yom Kippur also affords us the opportunity to smooth out our mistakes and errors.  We are carried by the recitation of “we.”  We are sustained by community.  We are carried by the breath of others.  In their “we” I am strengthened.    

Only when carried by time can the grain of sand become smooth.  Only by standing with others can this grain become significant.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

History's Deals

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, exploring the Iran deal.  

In December of 1938 Nicholas Winton, then a 29-year-old London stockbroker, was planning a skiing vacation to Switzerland.  Before leaving he received a phone call from his good friend Martin who urged him to cancel the vacation and come to Prague instead.  “I need your help,” Martin said. “Don’t bother bringing your skis.”  In Prague Winton confronted thousands of Jewish refugees living in appalling conditions.

I am sure many are familiar with this story.  Still I want to retell it because this past July Nicholas (Nicky) Winton died after living to 106 years.  I recall his story as well because much of our discussion this past summer hinged around the very question Winton faced.  How do we confront evil?  The stories we tell influence how we evaluate contemporary events and in particular the now concluded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that lifts the sanctions against Iran in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear program.  Some have called President Obama’s negotiated deal appeasement.  Others have praised it.  Some believe the deal forestalls war.  Others believe that we are once again reliving those concluding days of 1938.

Winton believed that the Munich Agreement between Germany and the Western European powers would not offer “peace in our time,” but was instead a prelude to war.  The Germans would not stop with the annexation of western Czechoslovakia.  Kristallnacht in November of 1938 confirmed Winton’s feelings.  In Prague he saw first hand the Jewish refugees.  He saw that no one was looking out for them.  He decided to try to get permits for the children.  He wrote: “I began to realize what suffering there is when armies start to march.”  Winton set up an office in Prague and returned to London where he appealed to European nations to accept the children. Only Sweden and Britain said yes.  The United States by the way said no.  He worked tirelessly to raise funds and secure foster homes for the children. 

Three months later Winton had his first success: a planeload of children left Prague for Britain.  Winton organized seven more transports, the remainder by train.  Each transport was greeted by waiting British foster parents in London’s Liverpool Street station.  On September 1, 1939 the largest transport of children was set to leave.  On that day Hitler invaded Poland.  Germany then closed all the borders they controlled.  250 children destined for London perished instead in the fires of the Shoah.  Winton has said many times that he remained haunted by the faces of these children waiting eagerly at Prague’s Wilson Station for that aborted transport.  In the end Winton saved 669 children.  Their parents, as well as the majority of their families, were among the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.

I have been thinking about this story for many reasons.  It is remarkable that Winton, a Christian, was so moved by Jewish suffering that he almost single handedly saved so many lives.  It is a heroic story of what one person can do when confronted with unspeakable evil.  All agree.  Winton is a hero. 

This morning I wish to meditate on history and heroism.  How does our view of it color our judgment of contemporary events?  We are commanded: zachor—remember!  We tell the stories of our suffering.  Every year we read the megillah and tell our children about the wicked Haman.  We recall tales of heroism.  Every year we sing of the bravery of the Maccabees.  We teach our children about the Holocaust.  Why?  We must always remember.  We must forever learn how to discern evil when it once again blossoms.  That is why the US Holocaust Museum charts emerging genocides.  Antisemitism and demonic hate flourishes once again.  It can be found among ISIS.  It can be heard coming from the mouths of Iran’s leaders. 

So let me offer some words about the deal now concluded with the Iranian regime.  Despite the potential for controversy I hope this sermon serves as a starting point for our discussions and debates, that my words might make us think a little bit harder about our firmly held positions and our pre-conceived ideas.  So let me state this clearly at the outset.  The deal now concluded with Iran is a bad deal.  I am not going to get into the details.  I am not a security expert.  For that you can read any number of articles.  In a nutshell here is my judgment. I do not trust Iran’s intentions.  I worry about what will happen when Iran and its proxies get their hands on even a fraction of the $150 billion of sanction relief.  By the way I continue to worry about the billions that Saudi Arabia funnels to terrorist groups. 

President Obama appears naïve about the intentions of those bent on our destruction.  I have often said this and I will continue to say so.  History teaches us that we must take antisemites at their word.  When they rise up and agitate for our destruction we must not excuse their words.  They mean what they say.  President Obama on the other hand seems to believe that history is a great weight that must be overthrown, that can be overcome.  Leon Wieseltier writes: “The president said many times that he is willing to step out of the rut of history… It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present.” (The Atlantic, July 27, 2015)

By contrast I am a Jew.  I relish in the past.  I retell our stories year after year.  History defines me.  It animates me.  Past sufferings instruct me.  They continue to guide my responses to today’s challenges. 

I believe there could have been a better deal.  Now, however, that the deal is concluded, this is an argument for historians.  I am left to respond to present circumstances.

There are number of things we can offer about the present.  For all my worries about the deal and Iran’s intentions I worry as well about how we argue about the deal’s flaws and merits.  There are serious and committed Jews who do not share my views.  There are educated leaders, and security experts, who have offered different judgments.  Our tendency to listen only to those who reinforce our own opinions is one of the great failures of our present culture.  It is made exponentially worse by the desire to accumulate Facebook likes and the unwillingness to sit and debate with those who sit across the table from us.  We are also a people animated by debate.  We are made better by sitting at the same table with those with whom we disagree.  We are made worse by sitting by ourselves across from our computer screens.  We are strengthened by loving disagreement. Argument is not a sign of weakness.  In fact the opposite is true.  Unity of opinion, and the hewing to talking points, does not strengthen us but instead weakens us.  Neither side in this great debate can be called traitors.    

Of course I worry about Israel’s security.  Of course I worry about threats to the United States.  But I also worry about the growing divide among Jews.  We are fractured.  Love of Israel once united us.  It was once understood that love could come with critique.  Now love appears to mean unquestioning loyalty to Israel’s current political leadership.  There is far more disagreement within Israel’s Knesset than appears permitted among American Jews.  My friends it is not 1938 and President Obama is not Neville Chamberlain.  It is not 1938 for one simple reason.  There is a modern State of Israel, a sovereign Jewish state, with a powerful and formidable army.  The world is different today than it was then.  Today the Jewish people can defend themselves.

The modern State of Israel represents the attempt to transcend the narrative of Jewish victimhood.  This does not mitigate my worries about the deal.  Israel in particular faces many threats but it is not forever nearing a precipice.  I have come to know a different Israel. I have fallen in love with the thriving and tumultuous, and often boisterous, Jewish and democratic state, clamoring for our involvement and engagement. I have faith in our survival.  The Jewish people will defend themselves.  Am Yisrael chai! 

I worry about the growing divide between the United States and Israel.  I blame both Obama and Netanyahu for this failure.  We are united by shared values.  We must redouble our efforts to mend this divide.  We have many enemies and fewer friends.  We should draw near to our friends.  And I remain deeply concerned about the growing rift between American Jews and Israel.  With each conflict we appear more and more distant.  If you think that Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank does not distance many of our young people from Israel then you are mistaken.  Take note of the over 3000 young Jews who attended JStreet’s recent conference.  Their voices must be embraced as part of how one can love Israel.  Our children’s love of Israel might look different than our own.  I hope my children share my passions.  I pray my children share my loves.  I don’t expect, or even want, my children to think like me.  Tomorrow must be different than yesterday.  I expect my children, I expect our children, to participate in that transformation.

I seek to be informed by history but not so scarred and bruised by it that I remain forever wedded to it.  I seek to learn from history but not live within its confines.  What then is the heroic response to present evils?

I turned to some of my teachers for answers.  In this regard some of you are my teachers.  I turned to Annie, a Holocaust survivor, a woman who stands taller than just about any person I know, a woman who survived a year in Auschwitz.  As I spoke to her on the phone you could almost hear her waving her finger at me when she said, “Rabbi, I have seen evil with my own eyes.  You cannot make a deal with people who say ‘Death to the Jews.  Death to Israel.  Death to America.’  They really mean to kill us.”    

Then I called a newfound teacher and also a member of our holy congregation. Arthur is a combat veteran who served in the US Army during World War II and fought in Germany.  He said, “Rabbi, I have seen horror.  I don’t want anyone to see that again.  I don’t want any young kid to have to fight in a war again.  Anything that delays war is a good thing.  This deal makes war less likely. I am in favor of it.”

Is one Jew’s experience of history more authentic than another’s?  Is one person’s pain and suffering more telling than another’s?  History is far more confusing than our narratives suggest.  History, as my professor once taught, is messy.  We tell the stories that justify our opinions.  It is not nearly as black and white as our tales imply.    

There are those who accuse President Obama of appeasement and the Jews who support his decision as collaborators.  History does not speak with an unwavering, certain voice. There are lessons to be learned from history.  Certainties elude us. 

And so I offer another story.  It comes from the same time period that informs our current debate.  This story is less familiar than the tale of Winton.  It is the story of Reszo Israel Kastner.  Kastner was a Zionist leader in Hungary and in particular a member of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee.  Hungary was then, as it has become now, an escape route for refugees fleeing from the East.  Then it was Jews who were running from the Nazi onslaught in Poland.  Today it is Syrians fleeing from ISIS.  In March 1944 the Nazis invaded Hungary. Jews were then deported to Auschwitz’s gas chambers at a rate of 12,000 per day.  Kastner took it upon himself to save those he could. 

What did he do?  He went directly to Adolf Eichmann and negotiated for the safe passage of 1,685 Jews to travel to Switzerland.  He paid in money, gold and diamonds.  After a number of meetings he negotiated the price of $1000 per life.  Imagine this.  Kastner, a Jew and a Zionist, sat across from Eichmann to negotiate for these Jewish lives. He even traveled to Germany to conduct some of these meetings.  In an effort to raise the extraordinary sum he auctioned off seats to wealthy Jews for $25,000 per person.  Among those on Kastner’s train as it later became known, were his own family members and the rabidly anti-Zionist Satmar rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum.  Kastner also developed a working relationship with other SS officers, in particular Kurt Becher.  Some claim that Kastner leveraged these relationships to help save over 10,000 more Jews.  And what did Kastner offer in addition to gold?  He promised that if there were a trial he would testify in behalf of these SS officers.  Being a man of his word, Kastner traveled to the Nuremberg war crimes trial following the war and offered testimony in behalf of Kurt Becher and two other SS officers.  He was first and foremost a man of his word.

What defines a hero?  Do we elevate Winton to the status of hero because he was not a Jew?  Because he was an ordinary man who we would have expected to feel distant from Jewish suffering and pain but whose vacation was derailed by a heartfelt moral imperative?  Do we denigrate Kastner because he was a Jew who failed to even warn his fellow Jews of the murderous deaths that he absolutely knew awaited them?  There are those who believe as well that it was Kastner who turned Hannah Senesh and her fellow paratroopers into the Germans.  The timing of their ill-fated rescue attempt could have derailed Kastner’s plan to rescue the 1,685 Jews he had negotiated so hard for so long to save.  Do we wish to forget his acts because he exchanged money for lives?  And yet the history is clear.  He saved 1,685 Jewish lives.  Then again history also offers muddy conclusions.  Still his story does not end there.

Following the war Kastner made his way to Palestine.  He became active in Mapai, David ben Gurion’s party.  He never gained a Knesset seat but by 1952 became spokesman for the Ministry of Trade and Industry.  And that is when the story gets really interesting.  Malchiel Gruenweld remembered Kastner from the war and believed he had betrayed the Jewish people in wartime Budapest.  He published a pamphlet accusing Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis, enabling the mass murder of Hungarian Jewry, partnering with Nazi officer Kurt Becher in the theft of Jewish assets, and saving Becher from punishment after the war.  And so what did Kastner do in response to these accusations?  He, and the nascent State of Israel, sued Gruenweld for libel.  The lower court found in favor of Gruenwald and accused Kastner of selling his soul to the devil. 

The State decided to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.  And this decision led to the collapse of the ruling coalition and the call for new elections.  Have we ever retold this story?  We don’t learn this history.  We tell tales of the Wintons.  They are ennobling.  They are clarifying.  They are neat and tidy.  Here is good.  There was evil.  We push away the stories of the Kastners.  They are complicated.  They tend not to fit with our squared narratives of good and evil.  During the Shoah people were forced to make terrible, and unimaginable, choices.  Saving lives did not always emerge from altruistic motives.  Schindler, we learned, was a flawed man.  In 1958 Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Kastner.  Kastner however never lived to see his name cleared.  He was assassinated a year earlier by a right wing Jewish hit squad.

And then three years ago his granddaughter, Meirav Michaeli, rose before the Knesset as a member of the Zionist-Labor party, and said in her first speech before her fellow Knesset members the following: “On Wednesday morning, July 3rd 1944, a Zionist Jew stood in a suit in Adolf Eichmann’s Budapest office.  Your nerves seem tattered said Eichmann to the man.  Maybe I will send you on a vacation to Auschwitz.  The Zionist Jew who stood before him remained unfazed.  That man was Dr. Israel Kastner.  The reason why he was in the room was to negotiate with Eichmann and other Nazi officers in order to save tens of thousands of Jews from extermination.  Reszo Kastner hu haya hasabba sheli.  Reszo Kastner was my grandfather,” she exclaimed.

For the granddaughter the grandfather is a hero.

Back to Winton.  It was not until years later, in 1988 that the world learned of his heroism.  His wife discovered a trove of documents in a suitcase in his attic.  These documents detailed the names of all the children that Winton was able to save.  He only wished he could save more.  Documentaries were produced.  He was knighted by the British government.  He became Sir Winton.  A statue of Winton carrying a child in his arms was erected in Prague’s train station. 

Back to Kastner.  He is buried in an ordinary cemetery.  A documentary about him was produced as well. It is entitled, “Killing Kastner.”  And to this day you could search near and far but you will never find a street in any Israeli city named for Israel Kastner.  In Jerusalem, you can find a street named for Yohanan ben Zakkai, the rabbi who betrayed those zealots made famous by the stories we tell on Masada but you will not find Rehov Kastner.  Every attempt to name a street for him still meets with fierce resistance.  We name the streets we want to walk.  We write the stories we want to hear.

And so here is my judgment about the history we retell.  It does not offer the certainties that politicians, and rabbis, too often suggest.  It grants lessons.  But its road is not straight.  History’s deals are imperfect.

Back to Winton and Kastner.  We can deduce this math.  The hero saved 669 souls.  The traitor, as some would still call him, saved 1,650 and probably far, far more.

For all my misgivings about the Iran deal and my judgments about its failures and my fears about where it might lead, I have to admit that historical certainties belong to the prophets alone.  I have to admit that when future generations look back the math might tip against my view and in favor of those now accused of collaboration and treason.  The truth might be the following.  The messy history that real people live could end up saving more lives than the stories I prefer to tell.

That, I now realize, leads me to my prayer.  May my fears prove unfounded and the hopes of others prove true.  And may 5776 offer the world an increased measure of peace.

I am thankful to my teacher, Dr. Rachel Korazim, with whom I learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and who first taught me about Israel Kastner's life.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

911 Memorial Prayer

The following is the invocation I offered at Oyster Bay's 9-11 memorial ceremony organized by Senator Carl Marcellino.

In this age of terror the ordinary and everyday can become terrifying. Going to work. Traveling on a plane. Walking through Times Square can instill fear rather than offer the revelry for which it should only be known. This of course is the very goal of the terrorists who are bent on murder and destruction.

Those we mourn on this day were murdered not on battlefields in far away places but here in our city when sitting at their desks or walking to their offices or running to save their fellow Americans. They set out on that day with ordinary intentions and everyday concerns. And so fourteen years later the ordinary and everyday remain fraught with terror.

We have therefore but two responses. They are both located in the heart. They are both to be discovered in faith.

First, we remember. Our tears are a reminder of our loves. Our cries are a testimony to the values we continue to hold in our hearts. When we remember and mourn we give life to the memories of those we lost.

And second, we must forever summon the courage to continue with the everyday. Terrorism is defeated in our hearts. Fear can be banished by faith. Terror can be exiled by a strengthened heart and renewed spirit.

I pray. May the memories of those we mourn continue to live on in our hearts. And may we find the courage to march forward with hearts filled with faith and with love.

I rely on the words of Rebbe Nachman.
Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar maod, v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal.  The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence is never to be afraid.

And we say, Amen.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Darkened Skies, Blue Skies

Below is my article that appeared today on Darkened Skies, Blue Skies: A September 11th Reflection.

It was a beautiful August morning, the temperature a comfortable 70 degrees. I was riding on my favorite flat, a road that extends for miles along the shoreline. My legs felt strong, and despite the gusting head wind, I was setting a fast pace. The dune grass blew in the breeze, the waves lapped at the expanse of sand, and when I looked up at the blue sky, I found it absent of clouds.

It was a perfect day. I could focus on my riding. I could contemplate the beauty of the moment.

And then it happened.

The perfect sky – nearly as deep and blue as a September day – reminded me not of the grandeur of God’s creation, but of a morning nearly 14 years earlier. Without warning, the perfect moment was gone, stolen. I was taken back to an earlier day’s blue sky, one that ended in darkness and clouds of smoke and ash. Memories of that terror-stricken day filled my thoughts.

Fourteen years ago, on what began as a glorious fall morning, I was driving to my office. I looked to the sky, appreciating the extraordinary day. There were no clouds, only the clear blue sky. I silently offered praise to God for this beautiful creation – and then I turned on the radio, only to hear reports of the first plane striking the North Tower. Soon I was headed home, driving east on the Long Island Expressway, the west-bound lanes eerily empty save the occasional emergency vehicle careening toward the city.

I lost no family members or friends that day, and thankfully not even one member of the synagogue I served, and yet I remain wounded. Fourteen years later, time has moved forward. Eight-year-olds have become 22-year-olds, college graduates on the brink of careers and the rest of their lives.

Time has moved backward, too. Years later, moments are too often stolen. Terror still finds its way into my soul. The sky stands as a silent reminder of that day. A perfect blue sky and a favorite morning bike ride turn into the drive back to our house after collecting my children from school, and my feeble attempts to explain to them – an 8-year-old and 5-year-old – what happened to our city. As I drove my children home that day, I knew the world they were born into had been forever changed. Fourteen years later, I still do not know exactly how.

Yizkor. We remember.

I cannot escape the memories. Years later, tears interrupt mundane activities, tinging them with longing. I eye my mother’s favorite Passover candy in the supermarket. I recall my father’s long-ago advice about driving. I am haunted by melancholy as the skies remind me of yesterday, silently asking: Are they still near?

Judaism counsels that even at a wedding – the most joyous of occasions – we break a glass in remembrance of the ancient tragedy of the Temple’s destruction. In the midst of great happiness, we pause, if only briefly, to remember the event that forever transformed us from a people whose lives revolved around one Temple to a people dispersed and oriented toward many temples, from a people devoted to sacrifices to one devoted to prayer, Torah study, and acts of lovingkindness. Although the memory of that searing day is distant, its import is clear.

By contrast, although the memory of September 11th is clear, its meaning remains unimaginable. We have not yet figured out what this day might mean, for us or for future generations. We do not yet know if we should – or even if we can – break a glass in remembrance.

Nonetheless, we have come to understand this: The best of moments are still unexpectedly stolen and transformed into moments of sadness and pain. Blue skies can be darkened by memories, and ordinary moments can return us to tears of yesterday.

And yet on my return home, I am still pedaling. The wind, however, is now at my back, and the joy of riding into the future has found its way back into my heart.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Rosh Hashanah and Traveling Through Mud

A Hasidic story.

Reb Meir of Premishlan and Reb Yisreal of Ruzhin were the best of friends, yet no two people could be more different. Reb Meir lived in great poverty. In fact he would often give his few remaining pennies to the poor. Reb Yisrael, a generous and respected man, on the other hand, lived like a king.

These two friends once met as each was preparing to leave on a journey. Reb Meir was sitting on a simple cart drawn by one scrawny horse. Reb Yisrael was atop a beautiful coach pulled by four powerful stallions.

Reb Yisrael walked over to the horse hitched to Reb Meir’s wagon. With mocking concern, he inspected the horse with great care. Then he turned to his friend and with barely concealed mock and disdain said to him, “I always travel with four strong horses. In this way, if my coach becomes stuck in the mud my strong stallions will be able to free it quickly. I can see, however, that your horse barely seems able to carry you and your wagon on a dry and hard-packed road. There is bound to be mud on your travels. Why do you take such risks?”

Reb Meir stepped down from his wagon and walked over to his friend, who was still standing next to Reb Meir’s horse. Placing his arms around his beloved old horse’s neck, Reb Meir said softly, “The risk, I think is yours. Because I travel with this one horse that in no way can free this wagon from the mud, I am especially careful to avoid the mud in the first place. You, my friend, are certain you can get free if you get stuck in the mud and thus do not look where you are going.” (Adapted from Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales)

On Rosh Hashanah it does not really matter what car we drive or even what clothes we wear. It is instead about looking at the path we are traveling and determining where we are going. It is about finding again the right path. The High Holidays are all about rediscovering this road.

Everything depends on choosing our path. The travels are within our hands.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provide us with the opportunity to renew our choices and redirect our journey.

And if we find that we are stuck in the mud, then may these days, and the prayers we sing, and the community with which we join, help us to find our way out.