Thursday, December 31, 2015

Shemot, Kiddush and Kaddish

This week we begin the most significant of books, Exodus. While Genesis is filled with stories about our patriarchs and matriarchs, Leviticus with the laws of holiness, Numbers with the tribulations of wandering in the desert and Deuteronomy with a litany of everyday commandments, Exodus contains the most formative of our stories. It is here that we become a people when God takes us out from Egypt. It is this episode that we recount every year at our Passover Seders and every Shabbat when we join together in the kiddush.

And yet the book’s Hebrew name suggests nothing of this significance. In Hebrew it is called: Shemot—Names. On one level this is because a book’s (or portion’s) Hebrew names is given by its first most significant word. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah…” it begins. Not the dramatic beginning one might expect from the most important of our stories. Then again a great drama can unfold from the most ordinary of opening lines. “Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville famously wrote.

Then again what value is hidden within this opening verse? Perhaps it is not the story that the Torah portion begins to relate for us but instead the lesson. We begin our story by remembering our forefathers. This stands in stark contrast to our enemies. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” the portion also relates. Our suffering begins to unfold. It is triggered by forgetfulness. We know many names. He forgets one name.

Thus Exodus begins with remembrance and turns on forgetfulness. And herein lies the lesson. If we remember we cannot never forget who we are or what we are about. Exodus begins with the simplest of remembrances: recounting the names of our ancestors. It is as if to say: name your parents, grandparents and great grandparents. “Blessed are You Adonai our God, God our ancestors: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebekah, God of Rachel and God of Leah…” we begin the Amidah each and every time we gather to pray.

The Book of Exodus turns on the following. We remember. They forget.

The message becomes clearer. Remembering is the secret to our redemption. God commands: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” the Torah repeats over and over and again.

That lesson begins with a list of names.

And it is reaffirmed every time we recite kaddish.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Vayehi, Barnacles and Blessings

Judaism categorically believes that people can change, that they can examine their ways and correct their failings. We do not believe in fate. We contend that our destiny remains in our hands. Otherwise the High Holidays, and the centrality of their message of repentance and turning, would be meaningless. We believe in the possibility of self-renewal. And yet people behave as if we think otherwise.

John W. Gardner once observed in quoting another author: “’The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it's going to live. Once it decides it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.’ End of quote. For a good many of us, it comes to that.”

This week we read about the blessings Jacob offers to each of his children. “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.’ The more we read in the portion the more their destinies appear pre-ordained. Their fates seem bound to prior deeds. His blessings mirror popular sentiment that our character is unchanging.

To his eldest Jacob proclaims: “Reuben, you are my first-born, the might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and excelling in honor. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer…” To his youngest Jacob says: “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he consumes the foe, and in the evening he divides the spoil.“ (Genesis 49)

This is not the Torah we teach. This is not the tradition we uphold. We are not barnacles!

And what was Reuben’s sin? He slept with his father’s concubine. One sin, one mistake and Reuben’s destiny is shattered. His good fortune is reversed. His father’s blessing becomes a curse. Where is the forgiveness? Where is the opportunity for change? Jacob echoes popular belief. He gives voice to the fact that too often we bury our heads in the sand, we blame the machinations of others, we offer excuses about circumstances and complain about the troubles of fate. We act as if our destiny is written in stone. Reuben is destined for no good, Jacob declares.

But we are not our forefather’s sons. And we need not be barnacles. Our destiny is not to be found in the stars. No matter how terrible, and seemingly unforgiveable, the sin we can give shape to a new story. Our lives can be shaped by our own hands. They are not written by parents or grandparents. They are not ordained by prior generations.

Where is this Torah to be discovered? Where is the belief that we can rewrite our future? It is found in Jacob’s sons as well. It is discovered when they turn and stand up for their youngest brother Benjamin. They do not allow him to be thrown in jail as they did years earlier with Joseph. It is uncovered when Judah says in effect: “Take me instead.” This is the model of repentance we teach. We can change. We can make a turn. We can redeem even the most desperate of circumstances. We can reshape our lives and renew our souls.

John Gardner again:
Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.
We need not live as if we are barnacles. Blessings are to be found in our very own hands.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Vayigash and Suffering's Promise

While Martin Luther King sat in a Birmingham jail he penned a letter to his fellow clergy explaining why he thought it necessary to engage in civil disobedience. He criticized their vocal opposition to his efforts saying that religion must serve the cause of justice rather than maintaining the status quo. In King’s lengthy “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he wrote:
But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future.
These soaring words gain even more spiritual power because they emerge from jail, because they come out of suffering. The essence of King’s message is captured in the words: “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” A man wrongly imprisoned can better affirm such sentiments. His suffering adds an exclamation point to the words. A depth of meaning emerges from his experience.

We discover echoes of these feelings in this week’s Torah portion. There Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Recall that the brothers threw Joseph in a pit, sold him into slavery where he was again jailed by his taskmasters. And yet Joseph says to his brothers: “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5)

Although Joseph had every right to be angry, and every reason to be unforgiving, he chose instead to see God’s hand in the jail cell that he occupied. He chose to see hope. He thereby redeems his pain and suffering. This is the quintessential Jewish move. We shout blessings at pain. We give thanks despite suffering. Jewish history attests to Martin Luther King’s words: “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

For centuries we exclaimed that even if the body is imprisoned, even if our people are oppressed, we cannot be defeated if we fill our hearts with songs and our souls with gratitude.

Perhaps only someone who experiences such suffering and pain can change the world. I therefore discover renewed faith in the Malala Yousafzais and the Natan Sharanskys. And only a people who endures oppression can serve as prophets to a troubled and fractured world.

Martin Luther King again writes: “I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”

We continue to sing and pray.

“The goal of America is freedom.”

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hanukkah and Hope

This evening begins the fifth night of Hanukkah.

Many are celebrating with the giving of presents and the eating of latkes (or perhaps sufganiyot). Some are also enjoying the playing of dreidel. The tradition requires only the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah preceded by the appropriate blessings. The lights are placed in the window to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah for all to see.

For centuries this holiday was downplayed.  It was simple in its observance. Yet it was profound in its message. Hanukkah reminds us that hope is always possible. The lighting of the Hanukkah candles is about adding light during the darkest times of the year, and throughout the darkest moments of our history.

In the Talmud two great rabbis argue about how best to light the Hanukkah lights...

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Vayeshev and Making History

Jewish history hinges on the Joseph story that begins this week. Because of the jealousy and hatred between Joseph and his brothers they sell him into slavery in Egypt where he rises to prominence. Eventually his family follows him there. The Jewish people then build comfortable lives in Egypt until a new Pharaoh comes to power. As the Torah recounts, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The people are enslaved. Their cries reach to heaven and so God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom. The rest of the story is all too familiar.

It turns on Joseph. It depends on the moment Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. It also revolves around an unnamed man. Let me explain.

Jacob sent Joseph out to the fields to look for his brothers. He apparently had difficulty finding them. “When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He answered, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?’ The man said, ‘They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.” (Genesis 37:15-17)

If not for this stranger Joseph might never have found his brothers. They might not have sold him into slavery. Then the Jewish people might never have arrived in Egypt and become enslaved there. And we might never have drawn so much inspiration from our Passover Seders and the retelling of our going out from Egypt.

Moses Maimonides suggests that the stranger is an angel. How else could one explain that all of Jewish history, and for that matter world history, turns on his directions? For this medieval thinker it could only be a divine messenger who sets Joseph on the proper course. For Maimonides the stranger could therefore only be an angel.

And yet I would like to think that this man could be anyone.

Perhaps it is the unknown, unnamed strangers upon which history turns. Their names are never known. History books do not even record their deeds. And yet history could never be written without their guiding hand.

Far too many people aspire to fame. They wish to be the ones who write history, whose names are recorded in the history books. They worry about their legacy. They spend precious hours wondering if they will be remembered for good. Yet often it is the unnamed stranger who points the direction. And it is upon their shoulders that history actually turns.

There is more that depends on the unnamed. I might never have noticed these verses, or the mention of this man, if not for the young parents who asked to study this week’s Torah portion in preparation for their son’s bar mitzvah. If not for their eyes and especially their questions, this stranger might have remained hidden from view.

Perhaps it is the hidden, and unnamed, upon which our learning turns and upon which history revolves.

You never know where the directions you offer might lead. You never know where the questions you ask might take others.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vayishlach and Forever Esau

The Jewish people trace their lineage to Abraham through Isaac and in particular Jacob. He is the father of the twelve tribes. In this week’s portion he gains the name Israel by wrestling with a divine being. His brother, Esau, is forever our enemy. According to Jewish tradition our many enemies can be traced to Isaac’s first-born son.

Esau is seen as the ancestor of the Edomites who aligned themselves with the Babylonians and destroyed the First Temple. The tradition as well sees the Romans as descendants of Esau who destroyed the Second Temple and views Jacob’s only brother as the ancestor of our later enemies, even modern European antisemites. The midrash comments: “We went looking for a brother, but instead found Esau, armed and hostile in a very non-brotherly manner.” All our enemies begin with Esau.

There are days, most especially during these past weeks, when my dreams are haunted by this tradition. Must Esau forever be my enemy? Will this enmity continue to be my future? Is this the history that we are condemned to live? I am a descendant of Jacob. My enemies forever bear the imprint of Esau. Our brother exclaims, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41)

The world, however, appears to reverse this narrative, casting Jews and Israelis as the oppressor Esau. Mahatma Gandhi, a hero to many young college students, once wrote that only the Arabs were the rightful inhabitants of Palestine. He viewed the Zionist settlers as colonialists. He advocated that Jewish settlers practice non-violence in order to win over the hearts of the Arabs. Ghandi also thought that the Jews of Germany should follow a similar practice in response to what was in 1938 the emerging Nazi onslaught.

His views were of course dangerously naive. Zionism is about the willingness, and historical necessity, but not I pray inevitably, of defending Jewish lives in the face of enemies bent our destruction. Ghandi refused to divide the world into friend and foe. Our lot, we have learned, is far different. I am Jacob. My brother remains Esau. Then again perhaps the world should not be divided into such polarities. Perhaps we require different categories, and no longer either Jacob or Esau. If I view everyone else as Esau, and my enemy, do I then participate in damning my people to this eternal cycle of violence, hatred and war?

The Jewish philosopher and founder of Hebrew University, Martin Buber, responded to Ghandi by saying that that no land belongs to any people. “The conquered land is, in my opinion, only lent even to the conqueror who has settled on it—and God waits to see what he will make of it.”

Buber, unlike the majority of Zionists, argued for a bi-national state, a state with a shared place for Jews and Palestinians. It is a vision of Zionism long since discredited by the overwhelming majority of Israelis. How could such a state then have a decidedly Jewish character? Still there must always be a place for Arabs within a Jewish and democratic state.

This Sunday, we will mark the day (November 29, 1947) on which the United Nations argued that there should indeed be a place for Palestinian national aspirations, not within the Jewish state, but instead alongside it. Decades of war, terrorism and bloodshed suggest this is impossible. These past weeks cause our hearts to understandably become hardened. As we read about more youth, about Ezra Schwartz and Hadar Buchris for example, the prophetic vision of the wolf and the lamb becomes even more distant and that of Jacob and Esau becomes increasingly more real. We become despondent. The philosopher Martin Buber refused to lose hope.

And so we continue to ask, “Even after the knife attacks, the deaths of young students and the public calls for our destruction, can we still find hope?”

“And Esau ran to greet Jacob. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)

The Torah offers a measure of hope.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Vayetzei, Paris and Fears

Fear is insidious. It wears at our hearts. It gnaws at our loves. This is the goal of terrorists. Those who murder in their metastasized faith’s name seek to destroy our values and our enjoyments by these random acts of horrific violence. They attack the ordinary and everyday.

We mourn the brutal murders of over 129 souls in Paris, and 43 in Beirut, as well as the daily slaughter of innocents throughout the Middle East and Africa. We must not forget that what was perpetrated in Paris occurs on a daily basis in Syria. Over 100 people are killed every day in that country’s civil war, often in a similarly gruesome fashion. In Israel Palestinian terrorists continue to attack with knives. Today in Tel Aviv two Jews were murdered while praying and another three elsewhere in Israel.

We live in frightening times. Terror can be debilitating...

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

In addition I continue to remain steadfast in believing the words and prayers I offered at a recent 911 Memorial Ceremony.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Toldot, Blindness and Faith

One of the central questions about our forefather Isaac’s life is what he sees. Is he truly blind or does he prefer to close his eyes to reality? His life is framed by the Torah’s words: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27)

It is an important question for our own lives as well. Author Margaret Heffernan writes:
Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. (Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril)
The Torah concurs. This week we read that Isaac blesses his younger son Jacob rather than his rightful heir Esau. His wife Rebekah conspires with Jacob, cooking Isaac’s favorite dish and urging Jacob to ask for the first-born’s blessing. Jacob approaches his father and lies. He says, “I am Esau your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” Isaac asks some more questions. He has some wine and eats Rebekah’s brisket. (Ok, maybe it wasn't brisket.) One wonders: does Isaac not recognize the taste of his beloved wife’s cooking?

The story mirrors an earlier tale. The questions sound familiar. In the Akedah, as Isaac and Abraham are walking towards Mount Moriah, Isaac asks, “Father! Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham responds, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering my son.” (Genesis 22) Does Abraham also lie? Does he instead believe, as later transpires, that God will stay his hand at the final moment?

More importantly what does Isaac believe? Does he choose not to see the truth; does he choose blindness over embracing the zealotry of his father? Heffernan reiterates: “So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial.” The ancient rabbis do not embrace such an interpretation. They cannot. They see Isaac instead as a willing participant. Moreover they calculate that Isaac is 37 years old at the time of the Akedah. In their view Isaac and Abraham embrace God’s demand as one. The Torah states: “And the two walked together as one.” Their devotion is unified. One harrowing rabbinic legend even goes so far as to suggest that Isaac pleads, “Father, please bind me to the altar so that I do not spoil the sacrifice.”

And yet we live in a time of religious extremism, when parents appear to embrace the sacrifice of children on their faith’s altar. I do not know how else to see what we repeatedly view on the news. The command to Abraham becomes horrifying when read through the lens of contemporary events. We want to shout, “Isaac, open your eyes! Find a different path!”

How can we walk a different road? How does one continue to find meaning and healing in faith when confronted by such horrors? When does devotion become zealotry? I am left wondering, again and again. I continue asking. I embrace questioning. I choose to welcome uncertainties.

Heffernan continues:
It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia.
When we retreat from seeing, when we find comfort in the like-minded and are assuaged by conforming arguments, the scales begin to tip away from a reasoned faith. When we turn from a religious devotion that is at home with questions to one that is only filled with certainties we begin to walk towards fanaticism. Then piety too easily becomes zealotry and faith is transformed into something harrowing.

Perhaps there remains an answer to be uncovered. It emerges in the opening of eyes. It is awakened by seeing.

There is a solution for a world beset by religious monstrosities. It is discovered in the very same pages that give rise to the questions and even, I hesitantly add, the horrors. The Torah responds:

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw…” (Genesis 22)

This is what God desires all along: to lift up our eyes and see for ourselves. Things are only certain when we choose blindness over seeing.

Truth is only beheld when we become one with uncertainty.

I would like to thank Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for this post's inspiration. Take an extra 15 minutes to watch Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Chayei Sarah, Swimming and Mourning

In memory of Susan Sirkman
In honor of Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

“And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to cry for her…” (Genesis 23:2)

Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman, a colleague and friend, who recently lost his beloved wife Susan to cancer made a telling comment about mourning. He said, “Emotionally there are times when it just hits you like a wave. That’s what mourning is. It’s a wave. But you get back up. You catch your breath. And you recognize that you can still navigate the waters.”

I find myself pondering this image. I remain enamored of the ocean and its waves.

It occurs to me that the waves only knock you down if you stand at the water’s edge. If instead you plunge into the ocean and run into the waves you cannot get knocked down. You have to swim beyond the shoreline. There you will find a spot where the waves do not wash you off your feet but instead gently rock you.

To someone who is tentative about the ocean or about swimming this may seem counterintuitive. The temptation is to run from the beach and its waves. Who wants to get knocked down over and over again? The impulse is to discard all keepsakes and memorabilia. It hurts too much to look at our loved one’s things. The pain and loss can at times make it impossible to get up. It becomes inconceivable that you can ever enjoy the ocean again.

Swimming into the waves requires some effort. Discovering that spot where the waves caress you rather than overwhelm you requires strength.

The ocean is always moving. It is unpredictable. The waves change each and every day, each and every hour. That magical spot, somewhere out at sea is different with each passing day. How can it be found? How can it be held on to? How does one gather the courage to venture forward into the crashing surf? How does one master such swimming if it is never the same? Every loss is unique. Every day is different.

People offer clichés, they suggest that time heals. It does not. They say such words because they do not know what else to say. Here is what I have come to learn. Over time the mourner figures out where to place the remembrances. You discover how to move forward without your loved one and with only the blessing of memories and the gifts of the stories you shared.

Over time you discover that you are a stronger swimmer than you imagined and that the waves are perhaps no longer so intimidating.

You long to find that spot where memories gently rock you.

Each time the waves are different. Finding the strength to swim must be discovered anew, each and every day.

Yehudah Halevi, the medieval poet, who risked his life to travel from Spain to the land of Israel, speaks of the sea and its waves. He writes: “Let not your heart tremble in the heart of the sea… Now the sea and the sky are pure, glittering ornaments upon the night. The sea is the colour of the sky—they are two seas bound together. And between these two, my heart is a third sea, as the new waves of my praise surge on high.” (The Poet Imagines His Journey)

Time does not offer healing. The gaping hole will always remain. The loss cannot be replaced. It cannot be filled with something else.

There does, however, come a day when the waves no longer appear so frightening and the sea appears instead inviting. There comes a day when its caress is welcome and the cries and the tears no longer feel so debilitating. There comes a day when praise and gratitude begin to emerge once again.

There comes a day, perhaps, when one’s heart is filled with thanks for the years shared, however long or even however short, and words of gratitude begin to emerge from our lips.

“Then Abraham arose from beside his dead, and spoke…” (Genesis 23:3)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Yitzhak Rabin z"l

20 years ago today Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  That Saturday evening remains a dark stain in Jewish history.  

The reluctant peace that seemed nearly at hand in those days now seems even more distant.  In fact Rabin's greatest strength was that he did not wrap the Oslo Accords in messianic hopes but in the realistic aspirations of a soldier-statesman and the practical needs of the State of Israel.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize he read a poem by Yehuda Amichai, written years earlier in 1955:
God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grownups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station
covered with blood. 
But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench. 
Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.
In Rabin's world view compassion was apparently a gift from one human being to another.  Amichai also participated in the ceremony.  He read the poem "Wildpeace."
...Let [peace] come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.
Rabin, however, was never given to such dreaming and utopian visions.  This was his greatest strength.  This was why so many Israelis placed their hopes for peace on his shoulders.

At the peace rally at which he was murdered everyone joined in singing the famous peace song, "Shir LaShalom."  This song was composed in 1969 and became the unofficial anthem of Israel's peace movement and in particular Shalom Achshav-Peace Now.

The song was not without controversy.  In fact Generals Ariel Sharon and Rehavam Zeevi (later assassinated by Palestinian terrorists during the Second Intifada) banned the troops under their command from singing it.  This partly explains why a bloodied copy of the song's lyrics was found in Rabin's pocket.  He was unfamiliar with its words.

His reluctance, his apprehension, and even his distrust of Arafat and Palestinian leaders' intentions on the one hand and his conviction about what was in Israel's future interests made him unique among Israel's peacemakers and leaders.  He signed the accords because he believed this was the only way out for Israel, this was the only way for Israel to remain safe and secure, this was the only way for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic.  Here are his sentiments in his own words:
Permit me to say that I am deeply moved. I wish to thank each and every one of you, who have come here today to take a stand against violence and for peace. This government, which I am privileged to head, together with my friend Shimon Peres, decided to give peace a chance – a peace that will solve most of Israel's problems.

I was a military man for 27 years. I fought so long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance. We must take advantage of it for the sake of those standing here, and for those who are not here – and they are many.

I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace and are ready to take risks for peace. In coming here today, you demonstrate, together with many others who did not come, that the people truly desire peace and oppose violence. Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated. This is not the way of the State of Israel. In a democracy there can be differences, but the final decision will be taken in democratic elections, as the 1992 elections which gave us the mandate to do what we are doing, and to continue on this course.

I want to say that I am proud of the fact that representatives of the countries with whom we are living in peace are present with us here, and will continue to be here: Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, which opened the road to peace for us. I want to thank the President of Egypt, the King of Jordan, and the King of Morocco, represented here today, for their partnership with us in our march towards peace.

But, more than anything, in the more than three years of this Government's existence, the Israeli people has proven that it is possible to make peace, that peace opens the door to a better economy and society; that peace is not just a prayer. Peace is first of all in our prayers, but it is also the aspiration of the Jewish people, a genuine aspiration for peace.

There are enemies of peace who are trying to hurt us, in order to torpedo the peace process. I want to say bluntly, that we have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians as well: the PLO, which was an enemy, and has ceased to engage in terrorism. Without partners for peace, there can be no peace. We will demand that they do their part for peace, just as we will do our part for peace, in order to solve the most complicated, prolonged, and emotionally charged aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This is a course which is fraught with difficulties and pain. For Israel, there is no path that is without pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war. I say this to you as one who was a military man, someone who is today Minister of Defense and sees the pain of the families of the IDF soldiers. For them, for our children, in my case for our grandchildren, I want this Government to exhaust every opening, every possibility, to promote and achieve a comprehensive peace. Even with Syria, is will be possible to make peace.

This rally must send a message to the Israeli people, to the Jewish people around the world, to the many people in the Arab world, and indeed to the entire world, that the Israeli people want peace, support peace. For this, I thank you.
These were as well his last words.  His sentiments reverberate in my heart: "Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated."

We are today even farther from peace.

Shalom chaver!

May the One who brings peace in the high heavens bring peace to us and to all Israel--and to every being on this earth.

I continue to pray.

I stubbornly cling to hope.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Vayera and God's Lies

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, contains four stories: the announcement of Isaac’s birth, Sodom and Gomorrah (it did not go well for those cities), Isaac’s birth and Ishmael’s subsequent banishment, and the binding of Isaac. Let’s examine the first story.

God’s messengers arrive to tell Abraham that he is going to have a son. “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah, who is nearly 90 years old and happens to be listening on the other side of the tent, laughs (that is why Isaac means laughter) and says to herself, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” God of course hears Sarah’s laughter and what she said and angrily declares to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'" (Genesis 18)

The ancient Rabbis notice that God does not accurately report what Sarah says and what is the source of her laughter. Sarah suggests that their infertility was due to Abraham’s age. (No Viagra jokes please.) When God repeats her words to Abraham, God instead suggests that she blames herself for their lack of children.

The Rabbis spin lessons and values from God’s apparent mistaken retelling. It can’t possibly be that God did not hear her words correctly. They reason: it must instead be that God wanted to protect Abraham and Sarah’s relationship and so decided that it would be better to lie than inform Abraham of Sarah’s true thoughts and her doubts about his virility.

In Judaism’s hierarchy of values truth takes second place to peace. That may be a surprising lesson, but our tradition counsels that peace is the highest value. It draws a lesson from this very story: it is better to lie than destroy shalom bayit, peace in the home. Truth can be sacrificed for the sake of peace.

The Talmud debates this idea and offers the illustration of whether or not you should tell an ugly bride that she is beautiful on her wedding day. (This of course is only a theoretical debate for there could never be such an occurrence.) Rabbi Shammai, who was known for his zealous commitment to principle whatever the cost, says, “Tell her the truth.” Hillel says instead, “Tell every bride she is beautiful.” Jewish law follows Hillel. He reasons that she is beautiful in her groom’s eyes so it does not really matter what anyone else thinks. On the wedding day every bride is beautiful.

Hillel always seemed to find a way to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible. Shammai on the other hand probably did not get invited to officiate at too many weddings and remained alone with his principles.

Judaism wants us to be at one with others, to stand with the community. This is why peace is valued more than truth. I often think about this when I occasionally watch reality TV shows where guests are encouraged to share their most intimate secrets or hosts harshly criticize their guests. “You’re chopped!” they scream. These truths end up destroying friendships and relationships. It might makes for great entertainment and in many people’s eyes great TV, but it also makes for damaged relationships and broken communities.

Truth does not always set you free. Sometimes it leaves you alone and by yourself.

This is one of Judaism’s most enduring lessons. Beware of the truths you share. Even God sometimes lies to keep the peace.

Shalom is indeed the most precious gift of all. That is why so many of our prayers conclude with the blessing of peace.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Standing with Israel

We join in solidarity and prayer with the State of Israel given these past weeks of terror.

As much as I believe that the settlement enterprise erodes Israel’s democratic character and that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s continued refusal to acknowledge this danger is perilous to Israel’s future, the current wave of terrorism is not about settlements but instead directed against Israel’s very legitimacy. The statements by Palestinian leaders are evidence of this. Their continued denial of the Jewish people’s 3,000 year ties to the land in general, Jerusalem in particular, and the Temple Mount most explicitly, make a mockery of the claim that this intifada is about the occupation. The goal of a separation from the majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank is not only to shore up Israel’s founding democratic principles but to first and foremost create increased safety and security, and then we pray, the space for a measure of hope to emerge on both sides of an agreed upon border and from that in some distant moment, I stubbornly continue to pray, peace.  Nonetheless, my sentiment at present is singular in its commitment: we stand with Israel.

David Horovitz concurs:
They say that this is the latest uprising against the occupation. It isn’t. It’s the latest uprising against Israel. 
Most Israelis don’t want to rule over the Palestinians. Most Israelis want to separate from the Palestinians. If the Palestinians want a state based on the 1967 lines, they have to convince a majority of Israelis that their independence would not threaten our existence. You’d think this would be obvious. Evidently it isn’t. 
This latest phase of terrorism and violence — like the conventional wars, and the suicide bomber onslaught, and the relentless campaign of misrepresentation and demonization and denial of Jewish history in the holy land — sends the opposite message to Israel. Much of the rest of the world — so short-sighted in viewing Israel as the Goliath when it’s a tiny, loathed sliver in a region seething with Islamist extremism — refuses to see it. But in bloody, unmistakable capital letters, the perpetrators of this new round of evil mayhem proclaim to Israelis: We don’t want to live alongside you. We want to kill you and force you out of here.
There are unfortunately too many instances of what Horovitz writes about.  Palestinian leaders incite.  They stand guilty of antisemitism.  There is no other way to label the call to "Kill the Jews!" than the word antisemitism.  It is horrifying to read and watch.  Here is but one chilling example.

There is however a measure of light amidst the darkness. There is as well the example of Lucy Aharish, an Israeli Arab newscaster, who speaks forcefully against such incitement.  She also speaks about God!

My devotion at this moment is one: we stand with our people.  I stand with the Jewish people!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lech Lecha's Promise of Questions

The political theorist Hannah Arendt writes: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions would be to lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.” (The Life of the Mind)

Our Jewish story begins this week. It begins with a call. Jewish civilization begins again today, and every day. God speaks to Abraham. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12) It begins with a journey. It is founded on exploration. Our faith starts with a question.

Why me? (I imagine this was Abraham’s first question.) What am I to make of this life? How might I bring meaning to this journey?

Why us? What are we to make of our world? How might we bring meaning to others?

People think that religion is about answers. People think it is about promises. They cite as evidence the assurances God makes to Abraham. They call to mind the certainties with which the Torah speaks to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. So this portion first appears as well.

Is our religion about the promises made, or the journey Abraham begins on this day? I choose the journey. I am at home with its questions and even its uncertainties. I am agitated by the certitudes others profess.

Our faith is about the journey of questioning we begin again. Go forth!

Answers prove allusive. Promises might always evade us.

Faith is in the journey. It is about making room for our questions.

Today we are witnesses to, but we should instead be participants in, an epic battle for the soul of civilization. On one side are those who profess a faith of answers. They scream their answers at what they perceive to be the answers of others. They never bother to ask questions. They shout, “We are right. And you are wrong.”

They forget today’s call. They forget the question hidden in every command. They neglect the discovery that is implicit in every journey.

Go forth! Lech lecha!

It is not just the Jewish story that begins this week but the Christian and Muslim stories as well. All look back to Abraham. Some might wish to think that God speaks only to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, instead of seeing that God speaks today to the Abraham who is the founder of faith, and the progenitor of a religion in which journeying is sacrosanct. Faith properly understood is a faith of questions. Such is my dream.

And God says, “I will make of you a great nation.”

How will we become great?

Must our greatness come at the expense of others, must it be made great by their diminishment?

Is it instead about the journey? Is it then about striving after some measure of truth, although rarely if ever apprehending it? The quest is not about shoring up our parcel of truth and shouting down the truths of others. It is instead about discovering our divine purpose, our God inspired task. It is about discovering meaning as we go forth.

Our greatness can be realized in renewing the journey.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human answers. Faith is a consuming fire, consuming all pretensions. To have faith is to be in labor.” (Israel: An Echo of Eternity)

We begin the journey anew. Today!

Answers consume us. Questions propel us.

Lech lecha. Go forth.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Noach and Babbling Blessings

The concluding chapter of this week’s portion describes the first real estate development project, the construction of the Tower of Babel.

Here is that episode. Humanity bands together to build a tower that reaches to heaven. They say, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4) God is not pleased with their efforts and says, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (11:6-7)

Thus this first building project does not fare well. The people want to build the tallest building possible. God apparently sees this as an offense or perhaps even a threat. Only God dwells in the heavens. And so the tower remains unfinished. We remain human. We are left babbling. We are cursed to speak different languages.

The rabbis ask: what was the people’s great sin? It was not so much their goal of building the tallest tower but instead their lack of concern for their workers. A midrash relates: if a worker fell from the tower to his death, the people were indifferent, but when just even one brick fell, they lamented the construction delays. It is for this reason, the legend suggests that God punished them, scattering them throughout the world and confounding their speech, producing the myriad of human languages that we still discover.

Biblical scholars suggest that this story was authored to explain the existence of the many human languages. How could the descendants of one family, namely Adam and Eve, give rise to these different languages? The Bible’s answer is that this was something that we brought upon ourselves. God’s initial desire was unity. Our divisions are our doing. Our attempt to reach the heavens, our efforts to become like God, are our downfall. There was once an idyllic state when all spoke the same language, when language did not create additional borders, when all shared one piece of land, and when communication was easy and never confused by language barriers.

And yet there are blessings in our present, less than idyllic situation. I refuse to believe that the richness of languages is a calamity. So much is discovered in the multiplicity of languages. Every language has its own nuances and offers its own secrets to the human condition. Look what we can learn from Hebrew! Just as Eskimos have numerous words for snow, Hebrew offers a myriad of names for God.

Are the languages that confound our understanding of one another a curse? Are they in fact the punishment that the Book of Genesis suggests? Or do they provide opportunities to learn and grow? Are the many human languages doorways to uncover some nuance and gain some insight into human existence?

What might we uncover about our God as we enter another year of paging through the Torah and hearing the music of its Hebrew?

The language beckons.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Too Much Light!?

Another interpretation of the creation of light in the Torah's first chapter by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.  Enjoy this G-dcast video!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bereshit and Creating Good

We begin the Torah anew. We start with the first chapter of Genesis. We read about the creation of the world.

God fashioned the world in six days. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…” We read about God creating the land and the oceans, the birds and the fish, animals and plants. We see God fashioning human beings. We ask: six days? Really?

In school we learned about evolution and the big bang. We discovered how human beings evolved from animals. We found out that the world is in fact billions of years old not as Jewish tradition suggests 5776 years. I find the science very compelling. I trust you do as well. So why do we keep reading the Torah and its account of the creation of the world in six days?

It is because the Torah provides meaning. It grants purpose to creation. It adds direction to our lives.

Take the fourth day as an example. “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.’” This details the creation of the sun, moon and stars. This raises a question in our minds. Why would God need to create these lights if on the first day the Torah states: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…”

It is because the purpose of the sun and moon is not to provide what we think. They are to provide guidance. We mark our seasons by the sun. We count our holidays according to the moon. We navigate by the stars. (Well, at least we used to.) According to Genesis the sun does not provide warmth. It is not connected to plant life or the photosynthesis I still remember from my science classes. The sun marks the day. The moon and stars distinguish the night.

A divine light illuminates the earth. And this was fashioned and proclaimed on the first day.

Believing this does not change my conviction in science. Today’s arguments are wrong. The debate should not be whether creationism or evolution is right. I believe in science. I believe in the Torah. The question is instead how does seeing the world as a reflection of the divine influence my perspective. How does this view add meaning to my life?

To that question the answer is simple yet profound.

If the natural world serves as a reminder of God, then perhaps I can see more good than bad. Perhaps I can see blessings in the everyday. Perhaps these navigation tools can lead me to fill my heart with thanks and my soul with gratitude. I can look up at the moon and see God’s brightness. I can feel the sun’s warmth and sense God’s nearness.

That is the Torah’s purpose. It is not to set out the contours of how the world was created but instead why. It is to instill faith. It is to create the belief that no matter how bad the world might appear, there is light, there is good.

The Torah’s objective is to fashion hearts that proclaim: “…And behold, it was very good.”

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.