Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The American Elections

As a rabbi I think first and foremost about issues of Jewish concern. The lenses of my glasses are colored by the Torah and the Jewish people. I of course always have the State of Israel in my heart. As we get closer to the elections I continue to weigh my vote. How will the candidates conduct their foreign policies? Will they strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel? What will they place first and foremost in their domestic policy agendas? Will they help to steer our struggling economy towards growth? Do they share my passion and concern for the environment? The following articles are worthwhile reading on these subjects. They are culled from JTA: The Global News Service of the Jewish People. I have always found the JTA to be balanced and fair in its reporting. Here are the four articles:
1. How do the candidates differ on questions of Jewish concern? Where do they stand on such issues as abortion rights and the separation of church and state?
2. Who are the candidates' chief foreign policy advisors? Do they share my love and commitment to the State of Israel--even though Israel will not be my primary concern on this election day? Do they understand the threat Iran represents to the world?
3. An editorial arguing why you should vote for John McCain.
4. An editorial arguing why you should vote for Barack Obama.
I hope these articles help you make your decision on November 4th.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Politics and the Pulpit

There is a debate within the rabbinic community whether or not a rabbi should endorse a candidate. My friend, Rabbi Sam Gordon of Chicago, has publicly endorsed Barack Obama and helped found the organization Rabbis for Obama. Others have endorsed John McCain. Take a look at the recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz about rabbis making political endorsements and that on the Hartman Institute Blog about Rabbi Gordon. I disagree with my friend! The role of the rabbi is to teach and to interpret our tradition. At times—especially in current times—his role is to interpret Judaism as it applies to the issues of the day, presenting to his congregation a coherent Jewish vision. For a rabbi to ignore our nation's problems and speak only of Shabbat and holidays is to suggest that our beloved tradition has nothing to say to the pressings problems of our generation. Judaism must speak to modernity! What does Judaism say about the environment? What can our tradition offer us in trying economic times? Each rabbi must interpret the tradition for his congregants and help them synthesize Judaism with modernity. To endorse is to move beyond interpretation and attempt to make decisions for our congregants. In a country that believes in individual rights this is inappropriate. I share my interpretations with my congregation. My vote remains private.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Favorite Moon

On Tuesday evening a full moon illuminated the evening sky. It my favorite moon of the year. It is the full moon of Tishrei. It is the moon that I see through my sukkah's skhakh (roof)--every year. It is there--year in and year out, without fail. The full moon of Elul, on the other hand, gets me nervous. It signifies that I have only two weeks until Rosh Hashanah, two weeks to prepare, two weeks to finish sermons. The full moon, one month later, means that the High Holidays are behind us. I have given my sermons. I have recounted my sins. I have repented. This moon is my favorite because it means that we can rejoice. We can celebrate. We can sit in our sukkot and and be thankful for all that we have. We can eat and sleep in our sukkot and peer into our homes and be reminded how fortunate is our lot. In the Jewish year even the moons can lift our emotions.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

High Holiday Musings

One of my favorite parts of our High Holiday services is looking out and seeing how many families are sitting together. In our congregation parents and children, as well as grandparents, sit together. Although we provide babysitting for our really young children it is refreshing to see entire families sitting together. It is a wonderful site to behold, seeing generations of Jews together for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, seeing young children sitting on their parent's laps. In most synagogues there are adult services and children services. Here at JCB there is only one service--for everyone. That is the way it should be. I am proud of the young people in our congregation who not only participate in the reading of the Haftarah but also sit and participate from their seats. I believe their singing and praying is more important than my own. I was especially pleased to discover how many of our young people listened to my sermons and were comfortable discussing and debating their points. In Confirmation Class we continued the discussion started on Yom Kippur about abortion rights. These young people are our future. May we always sing and pray together!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon Highlights

"Judaism and the Elections"
For years I have avoided discussing politics from the bima, but this year is different. I can no longer remain silent. We must listen to the words of our tradition. We must allow Judaism to speak to the issues of our day. If Judaism is only about Torah portions and candle lighting times then it will become irrelevant. It must speak to our country's greatest problems. In addition to the economy there are four issues that most concern me.
1) The State of Israel. I worry about Israel's security. I worry about the dangers of Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbullah and the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless I will not be thinking about Israel on Novemer 4th. Here is why. It is not good for Israel and it is not good for American Jews to portray Israel as a needy, younger sister. Israel is not the perennial victim. It is a strong, vibrant country. It is a country I deeply love. The idea of Zionism is that the Jewish people will write its own history in a country of its own. That is what it means to have a Jewish State. When I vote I must think first of the problems here not there.
2) Medical Issues. It is deeply troubling that one in six Americans does not have adequate health care. It is also deeply troubling that others wish to push on their others their religious definition of the beginning of life. My religion tells me something different. Judaism teaches that the fetus is holy but not of the same moral value as the mother's. When there is a conflict between the two Judaism chooses the mother's life. Regarding stem cells I do not understand how some cannot make the moral distinction between a few cells and that of a living person. While again these cells are holy they are not of the same value. Judaism values pikuah nefesh--the saving of a life and we should do everything in our power to save life.
3) The Wars. We had every moral right to attack and invade Afghanistan. It was from there that the 9-11 attacks were planned. But how is it that we allowed bin Laden to escape to Pakistan? Regarding the war in Iraq that I once supported I offer this confession. I was wrong because it distracted us from our primary moral objective: the destruction of Al Qaeda. I was wrong because there we allowed torture and the subversion of the rule of law to take root. Adding Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to the Arab lexicon has undermined our moral authority.
4) The Environment. The issue about which I most concerned is the environment. Judaism teaches that we are custodians of this God given world. I believe the science is irrefutable. We are destroying our world. We need to wean ourselves off of Arab oil because it is destroying the environment and it is feeding our enemies hatred. I fail to understand how we can fight wars against enemies supported by these Arab oil dollars. We should build alternative energy plants and design better, more fuel efficient cars. (For more information about Judaisn and the environment, visit: COEJL.) We must do this for the sake of our children and grandchildren. This is our only world!
The full text of this sermon can be found by following the link on the Blog's sidebar.

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon Highlights

"Judaism and the Economy"
The economy's downward spiral has us worried. We are worried about our savings. We are worried about our retirement accounts. I am worried about my bank accounts too. But I am not an economist. I am a rabbi. As a rabbi the question is not where should I invest but how can I best respond to this crisis? There are two Jewish responses to this economic crisis.
1) We must continue to give tzedakah. Judaism insists that we never ignore the poor and hungry. It is far easier to be a tzaddik during years of plenty. These years of trial will be our test. History will judge us by how we respond to these years. Will we only think of our dwindling savings or will we think of those less fortunate than ourselves? We will have less, but others will have even less. I have always been a supporter of Mazon. Mazon distributes grants to organizations that help to alleviate hunger. We must think of others. We must not turn aside. We must give tzedakah.
2) We must also not ignore the needs of our own souls. We must nourish our spiritual selves. Shabbat is Judaism's gift to the world. We are given the seventh day to recharge our batteries and to refresh our souls. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught: "During the week we speak of wealth and work, of worries and wants. Our weekday talk proclaims imperfection: we often focus on what we lack or have yet to accomplish, on how we would like things to be other than as they are. But when we speak of life’s blessings and joys—the talk of Shabbat—we speak of contentment, of fulfillment." We are given six days to worry about our world and one day to count our blessings. Shabbat helps to remind us of what is most important in our lives: our families, our friends. We must take this day to help restore the proper balance in our lives. We must celebrate Shabbat to reclaim the contentment of our souls.
By giving tzedakah and celebrating Shabbat we will not only survive these years of difficulty and trial, but will persevere.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon Highlights

"A Synagogue's Open Doors"
The vision of our synagogue is built on three foundations:
1) A place to enjoy our Jewish learning--both children and adults. A synagogue must be a place where people can connect to their Jewish tradition and its values. It is a place where one can grapple with God and wrestle with questions of faith. For me it is a place where I both connect to the tradition my grandfather loved and continue to struggle with theological questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is it that the grandfather who most cared about my chanting from the Torah on my bar mitzvah could not live to see that day?
2) A community makes us better individuals. Judaism does not believe that we are at our best when by ourselves. It might bring us contentment to hike in nature and be at one with God's creation, but it does not make us better. Only others can make us better. Belonging to community helps us to look outside of ourselves and our own concerns and look to what matters to others. We need others to rejoice at simchas. We need others to comfort us when we mourn.
3) A congregation serves as a bridge between the milestones of our lives. For me this lesson was learned at a young age. The same rabbi who buried my grandfather officiated at my bar mitzvah. The rabbi and the congregation to which my family belonged connected these seemingly detached events. People seem to think that you can hire a rabbi for this event or that. When you belong to a congregation the events of your lives are connected to each other. The congregation is that bridge.

Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon Highlights

"The Gift of Free Will"
A central Jewish teaching is the idea that God gave each of us free will. We are free to do bad. We are free to do good. We are free to be a rasha (evil person). We are free to be a tzaddik (righteous person). The tradition serves as guide, helping us to choose good. But ultimately the choice rests on each of our shoulders. You can't blame God. You can't blame the devil. You can't blame your mother. People tend to take credit for their achievements but blame others for their failures. Judaism is adamant in its realism. The gift of the High Holidays is that we have these days to turn. Each of us can change. Often we cannot change by a simple act of will. We need the support of community. We need the encouragement of family and friends. Nonetheless our choices are our responsbility. The world rests on the choices each of us make.