Thursday, October 27, 2016

When the Student is the Teacher

In the Jewish tradition we read the concluding words of the Book of Deuteronomy, and then without skipping a beat open to the first chapter of Genesis. We read about Moses’ death and then in our next breath, the creation of the world. This is how we order our year. This is how we read our lives.

Several years ago a close family friend died. Throughout his many years, Jerry served as a mentor. Recently his grandson, with whom I, as well as my son Ari, have now grown close, shared a surprising discovery. When he, and his family, searched through his grandfather’s library they came across a stack of letters, a pile of correspondence between Jerry and me. He scanned the letters to his computer and emailed them to me.

There, these pages remained. Yesterday I began to read, and reread, the letters. Their meaning was unfurled...

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Five Lessons in Democracy

At last night's debate, and throughout the prior week, Donald Trump suggested that he would not accept the results of the upcoming election--that is I presume assuming that Hillary Clinton wins and he loses.  I have often believed, and taught, that the greatest lessons in our American democracy can be discovered in the concession speeches of those who lose.  They speak about the values we hold dear.  The victor speaks about grand promises, many of which go unfulfilled.  The losing candidate leans on the values that hold us together.

And so in order to restore my faith in American democracy I reread those concession speeches--at least as far back as the 1996 election.  Here are the highlights, with some of my own commentary and of course rankings.

5. Bob Dole said in 1996:
Let me say that I talked to President Clinton. We had a good visit. I congratulated him.  I have said repeatedly in this campaign that the president was my opponent not my enemy. And I wish him well and I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America, because that's what the race was about in the first place, a better America as we go into the next century.
4. Mitt Romney said in 2012:
And we look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before the politics.
I believe in America. I believe in the people of America.
And I ran for office because I'm concerned about America. This election is over, but our principles endure. I believe that the principles upon which this nation was founded are the only sure guide to a resurgent economy and to a new greatness.
A theme emerges.  Partisanship must give way to citizenship.  A basic tenet of our democracy is that the results of the election are accepted by the defeated.  That is how the country moves forward--even after bitter debates and divisive campaigns.

3. John Kerry said in 2004: 
But in an American election, there are no losers. Because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning, we all wake up as Americans. And that - that is the greatest privilege and the most remarkable good fortune that can come to us on earth.
With that gift also comes obligation. We are required now to work together for the good of our country. In the days ahead, we must find common cause. We must join in common effort without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancor. America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion.
I hope President Bush will advance those values in the coming years.
I pledge to do my part to try to bridge the partisan divide. I know this is a difficult time for my supporters. But I ask them - all of you - to join me in doing that.
2. Al Gore said in 2000:
Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, ''Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.'' Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.
Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.
One can probably argue, as Michael Moore undoubtedly has, that there were irregularities in how Florida conducted its recount of the ballots, but Al Gore chose the good of the country and faith in our nation's institutions over winning.

And the top concession speech of the past five elections goes to:
1. John McCain, who said in 2008:
I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.
Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.
It is natural tonight to feel some disappointment, but tomorrow we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again. We fought — we fought as hard as we could.
And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.
Tonight — tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.
I still recall how John McCain hushed and castigated those who booed the mention of Barack Obama's name.  He understood what it means to serve America.

I continue to find great inspiration in these words.  Al Gore reminded us to have faith in this country's institutions in particular the Supreme Court.  John McCain taught us that no matter one's party affiliation or ideology the winner of the November election is our president.

Can our faith be restored?  I keep reading.  I remind myself of recent history.

I am reminded that more is learned about a person's character, and the values they most cherish, in what might have seemed to be their lowest moments, when they faced failure.

And so for good measure, reread Hillary Clinton's concession to Barack Obama after the hard fought 2008 Democratic primary.  She believed the nomination was hers.  She appeared to think that it was due to her.  Listen to how she deals with failure.

Hillary Clinton said the following when she lost the Democratic nomination:
I entered this race because I have an old-fashioned conviction that public service is about helping people solve their problems and live their dreams. I've had every opportunity and blessing in my own life, and I want the same for all Americans.
And until that day comes, you'll always find me on the front lines of democracy, fighting for the future.
The way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand is to take our energy, our passion, our strength, and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama, the next president of the United States.
Today, as I suspend my campaign, I congratulate him on the victory he has won and the extraordinary race he has run. I endorse him and throw my full support behind him.
Of course one can argue that she had no other choice.  She is a politician and she wished to remain in politics.  And yet we find again and again, most especially in the midst of defeat, reminders of what is ennobling about our democracy and its institutions.  It sure can be a messy process getting to November 8th, but we must forever hold on to these values.

It really is supposed to be about the country.  Whoever wins the election is who the electorate feels is best suited to lead our nation for the next four years.  That is why we vote.  And that is why we argue passionately about the candidates up until that day.  That is also why come January 20th we must rise up--together, at least that is what we are called to do--and offer praise to the 45th president of the United States.

I still believe in America.  I continue to believe.

Simhat Torah's Party

We are nearing the conclusion of the Tishrei marathon. We observed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and very soon, 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 to the joy and dancing of Simhat Torah.

We celebrate the conclusion of the Torah reading cycle and its simultaneous beginning. On this day 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.

This is because all wisdom is contained in this book. That is our Jewish faith. 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 anything else are more the Jewish postures than the fasting and litany of sins on Yom Kippur. We are supposed to celebrate. We are commanded to rejoice. Too bad that we find the fasting and praying of Yom Kippur more compelling than the joy and celebration of Simhat Torah.

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?” Did we party enough? That in a nutshell is the Jewish message. Revel in life. Celebrate life. Most especially celebrate the gift of Torah. And never pass up an opportunity to join a party.

May this year offer us many opportunities to celebrate. May this year offer us many opportunities to drink in the wisdom of Torah.

Friday, October 14, 2016

UNESCO's Every Grain of Sand

Elie Wiesel said: “[T]hen, too, there are the Palestinians to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore. Violence and terrorism are not the answer. Something must be done about their suffering, and soon. “

Once again Palestinian methods diminish the justice of their cause.

Terrorism continues. And then yesterday, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) whose motto is “Building peace in the minds of men and women,” affirmed a biased anti-Israel, and antisemitic, statement about Jerusalem. In particular this statement, which was fashioned by Palestinian and Arab leaders, recognizes the Muslim connection to Jerusalem but is silent about the Jewish attachment to the holy city. It denies our historical connection to the Temple Mount....

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Sacrifice, Courage and Healing

What follows is my Yom Kippur Morning sermon.

On this Yom Kippur morning I wish to tell but one story. I hope that it offers insights into the meaning of being both an American and a Jew. I hope as well that it offers a measure of healing during these tumultuous and fractured times. It is the story of William Shemin.

Here is his story. William Shemin was born in Bayonne, New Jersey on, October 14, 1896 to a Jewish family who had recently emigrated from Russia. During his teenage years, Shemin played semi-pro baseball for the Bayonne Sea Lions. He graduated from the New York State Ranger School in 1914, and went on to work as a forester in in the Adirondacks. After the United States entered World War I, Shemin enlisted in the Army and served in the 47th Infantry Division. On August 7, 1918, his unit battled the Germans in France. For those who may have forgotten their World War I history, that war was marked by soldiers charging out of their trenches at the enemy’s trenches. Often only 100 to 200 yards separated the American trenches from the Germans. On August 7th, Shemin left the cover of his platoon's trench alone and crossed no mans land to rescue wounded comrades. He reportedly ran over 100 yards in each direction, all the while coming under heavy machine gun fire. He rescued three fellow soldiers.

And then, after his officers were killed or wounded, Shemin took command of the platoon until he was wounded three days later. If not for his leadership the platoon might have suffered even more casualties. His commanding officer wrote the following about his actions: "With the most utter disregard for his own safety, Shemin sprang from his position in his platoon trench, dashed out across the open in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine gun and rifle fire." He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. After the war Shemin went on to get a degree from the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University (Go Orange!) where he played on the varsity football and lacrosse teams. After graduation, he started a greenhouse and landscaping business in the Bronx where he raised three children: Elsie, Ina and Manny. William Shemin died in 1973.

Elsie and her sister Ina remember many things from their youth. They recall that their home was at times run like an army platoon. Their beds were always to be made with hospital corners; the American flag was always to be respected. He never saw this country’s faults, only its virtues. His unit’s ivy leaf insignia became the logo for the landscaping company he built. Their dad was a proud Jew and a devoted American patriot. When World War II broke out he pleaded with the Army to ignore his war wounds and allow him to enlist. They also recall that their dad’s best friend, and his war buddy, was a man named Jim Pritchard. For many years Jim was a regular visitor. He and Shemin used to retreat to the back of the greenhouse and comfort each other about the horrors they experienced in battle. Despite the fact that Jim was a Christian and Shemin a Jew they were the closest of friends. In fact Jim was the first man that Shemin saved on that August day when he ran from the cover of his trench. And it was from Jim that Elsie and Ina learned that there dad was truly a hero. Jim used to say, “If not for your dad I would have been killed. The only reason your dad was never awarded the Medal of Honor was because he is Jewish.” Their dad never spoke about his actions. The real hero never sees himself as a hero; he never describes his actions as heroic deeds. He does not worry about accolades. He thinks little about a legacy. It is for others to tell the story. William Shemin would say to his kids when they wondered why he was not upset about being denied the nation’s highest honor, “I was 19 years old. Don’t worry about it Elsie. The Service Cross is enough.” He never once expressed the thought that an injustice was done to him. He had an unshakeable faith in America. He believed in service. He was forever devoted to the military. He embodied sacrifice. Over time, and after successive moves, the Pritchard and Shemin families lost touch with each other. Back then, if you can still remember the days before email and cellphones, when people moved their phone numbers changed as well.

Elsie would not forget the story. She would not let it go. If you were to meet Elsie you would soon come to realize that courage is perhaps not learned but instead genetic. So here is her story of heroism. President Obama, in one of his efforts to make amends for past racism, instructed the Armed Forces to reexamine cases where soldiers were denied the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, because of discrimination. But the legislation only reached back to World War II. A number of soldiers were finally given the recognition they deserved, although many posthumously. You should know that only 3500 soldiers have ever been given this award since it was created during the Civil War. The requirements are stringent. One must go above and beyond the call of duty and place oneself at great risk of being killed or injured. There must also be eyewitness testimony supporting the claim.

The Shemin family is a courageous bunch. Elsie and the Shemin family had to fight for the legislation to look back to World War I. The first attempt at passing this legislation failed. Senator Chuck Schumer got involved. The legislation was passed. William Shemin’s war record was reexamined. There were maps. There were eyewitness reports. There were letters of praise from his commanding officers. But somewhere in the chain of command there was antisemitism. And because of this the Medal of Honor was never awarded to Sergeant William Shemin.

Then on June 2nd of last year President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to William Shemin’s two surviving children: Ina and Elsie. They were surrounded by some 60 descendants of William Shemin. The President said, “It’s never too late to say thank you.” It’s never too late to say thank you.

One might think that this is a fitting conclusion to this story, but it does not end there. The next day Jim Pritchard Jr., the son of the man who William Shemin saved, was reading The New York Times and stumbled upon the story about World War I and a man who was finally given his proper recognition nearly 100 years later. He recognized the name. He was raised on the story of William Shemin. Remember this name always, he was told. If not for him, you would not be here. Jim filled in the details that the hero would not tell. His father recounted: “My arm was shot through the bone by the machine gun fire and I was bleeding profusely. I could not move. I was trapped in no man’s land. I thought I was going to die. When all of sudden my best friend Bill appears at my side. He picks me up and carries me back to our side. And then he runs out and pulls back two more guys. They throw me in the ambulance and on the way to the hospital the three other guys in the ambulance die. The hospital is wall-to-wall beds. There is only one nurse and one doctor. I cannot see because of the blood pouring into my eyes. The nurse checks my id and thinks that I am the son of the doctor who is missing in action because we happen to have the same last name. She screams, ‘It is your son. It’s your son.’ I am not his son but he works on me first and I survive.” The father’s story is retold by the son. He was told, “Remember the name William Shemin.”

Jim tells his granddaughter who is in college and getting her degree in journalism to track down the Shemin family who he thinks are probably still in Washington DC. She calls the White House press office. They are at first skeptical and then hesitant, but after confirming the details, give her Elsie’s hotel information. Elsie is thrilled to reconnect with what her family deems long lost relatives. The Shemin and Pritchard families are reunited.

I promise this is all true. And how do I know all these details? Bill Shemin’s daughter, Elsie, is a contemporary of my parents who sits with them in our synagogue in St. Louis. Her son and I spent time together in the principal’s office in Hebrew School. Elsie now walks with the aid of a walker but I can report she is still always charging ahead. She once volunteered with the IDF. She helped rescue Ethiopian Jews, using her nursing skills to help these needy immigrants. Another time she secured food and supplies for those besieged in Sarajevo. Of course she flew there to make sure that the donations arrived safely. These days she runs an animal rescue service. I told you, courage is hereditary.

A few weeks ago I was invited to attend the unveiling ceremony for the special Medal of Honor headstone at the Baron Hirsch cemetery in Staten Island. The stone is quarried from Vermont and the lettering is etched in gold. The honor guard stayed after the ceremony to take pictures. They too have never seen anything like this. Even though there were three rabbis there (that would be including Susie and me) and a number of army officers Elsie ran the ceremony. In addition to chanting psalms, reciting the kaddish, hearing taps played by a trumpet player, and being surrounded by veterans and soldiers, the most moving part of the ceremony was when Jim Pritchard spoke. He stood there in that Jewish cemetery and offered gratitude for his life and the lives of his children and grandchildren. There were many tears, but far more smiles and laughs. Later we shared lunch with Jim, his wife and three children. We spoke about mundane worries: investing in pensions, raising teenagers and applying to college. All the while I thought to myself if not for a moment of daring, a split second decision of heroism, this meal would never have occurred. These worries, these laughs, these cries would never have been shared. I would not have gladly endured driving to Staten Island, and back, on a weekday morning no less, if not for William Shemin’s bravery.

At the cemetery Elsie spoke about another hero. She spoke of Private Henry Johnson. Johnson also fought in World War I and was also denied the Congressional Medal of Honor. Johnson fought with the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-Black National Guard unit. Even though trained for combat they by and large were assigned support roles until later in the war. Then their unit was transferred to the French and placed under French command. The unit of Black soldiers and French officers fought in some of the most ferocious battles of the war. And what was Johnson’s daring? During night sentry duty on May 15, 1918, Private Johnson helped his regiment repel a surprise attack by a dozen German raiders. With only a knife, and even though himself wounded, he single-handedly held off the attackers, and preventing the capture of a wounded fellow soldier. He was immediately awarded France’s highest military honor. But the United States Army did not even award him the Purple Heart, the medal given to soldiers wounded in combat. Because of his 21 combat wounds and because the army refused to provide him with the benefits given to wounded veterans he was unable to work and hold a job after the war. He died ten years later, penniless and by some reports an alcoholic. He married briefly and then divorced. He left no children.

On the same day that William Shemin was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor President Obama also awarded the medal to Private Henry Johnson. He was awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. To accept the award was a representative of the New York National Guard. But there were no family members. On one side an official representative of a soldier’s former unit; on the other some 60 family members of William Shemin.

Elsie made this pledge. There, standing at the Baron Hirsch cemetery, she pledged: “Private Johnson’s story will become part of our family’s story. His narrative is now bound to my father’s. We have adopted his memory.” And come this spring the Baron Hirsch cemetery will plant a tree in memory of Private Johnson. He is buried in Arlington.

In a year when we have seen how deep seated the racial divisions are within our society, how they can bubble up from beneath the surface and explode out into the open, perhaps we need to look to this cemetery for healing and this one extraordinary Jewish family for guidance. I don’t care if you are a Democratic or a Republican, if you think it’s their fault or our fault, but we should be able to agree that we must come to terms with the racial divides that threaten to rip us apart. There is a problem in our country. And we better get around to repairing it. But on this Yom Kippur I am not going to offer an analysis or even venture solutions.

All I offer is a story.

If you are looking for greatness, if you are looking for healing look no further than Staten Island and the Baron Hirsch cemetery.

Perhaps there we can rediscover the courage we require, and the strength we most certainly need, to repair these wounds and mend these fissures. Perhaps there we can find the courage and chutzpah that is supposed to be our inheritance.

Let us recall that accolades may never follow such heroics. If we are to be heroes it will be for others to tell. It might take another hundred years to earn any recognition, but that should not matter. The work needs to get done right now. And we are in need of some courage.

If you are looking for courage, turn toward Staten Island. If you are searching for healing, then look no further than a single grave, and a newly planted tree, in the Baron Hirsch cemetery.

Some Angry Prayers

What follows is my Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

With the Cards knocked out of the post season I was not sure what to pray for this fall. Should I pray for the Mets to defeat the Giants? A Mets win would have certainly made a lot of people I care about really, really happy. Then I realized that if the Mets were to have defeated San Francisco (why not dear God!), the fourth game of the series against the Cubs—that is of course assuming that all of the prayers for the Mets to sweep in three games went unanswered—would have occurred this evening on Kol Nidre, and at Citi Field no less. So many of those whom I love would have been really, really happy but would have also been faced with an excruciating Sandy Koufax like dilemma. Kol Nidre Services or the Mets game? The religion of baseball or the tradition of our ancestors? What should a rabbi prayer for? As you know, I don’t have to answer that question until, we hope and pray, next year. Go Cards! Still the question remains, what do we really pray for? Let’s talk about prayer. What are we supposed to pray for? And how are we supposed to pray?

Most of the time we think about prayer in the terms I just described—asking for something that would mean alot. We think of prayer as a request. We want something, we need something, so we pray for something. To be sure this is one form of prayer. We most especially ask God for health. “Please God cure me. Please God grant healing to those I love.” We are acutely familiar with this prayer. In fact it remains one of the most powerful parts of our Shabbat Services, when we call out the names of those who are sick and in need of healing, and then together we pray for their healing. We lean on the words of the Jewish composer, Debbie Friedman, who wrote our Mi Shebeirach prayer not too long ago, in 1987. The occasion was a healing service for a friend who had endured far too many tragedies. From there it quickly became part of every liberal synagogue’s prayer tradition. “Bless those in need of healing with refuah shleimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, and let us say, Amen.” Written in the shadow of the AIDS crisis the concluding lines of this prayer were left intentionally vague. They knew that many of those they prayed for could not be granted perfect healing so they wrote, let them at least know solace—a renewal of the spirit. This is a good prayer. This is an understandable prayer. We are unified in our requests. Who among us does not want everyone to be granted health? Who in our community does not want those we love and care about to be granted long life?

That is one of the reasons why we pray together, as a community. We are strengthened and lifted up by those who sit beside us. In addition praying with others serves as a hedge against asking God for the wrong things. Our tradition counsels us against praying for something that might be to the benefit of one person but to the detriment of another. “Please help get me that job.” is not an ok Jewish prayer because someone else won’t get the job if you get the job. So sorry, praying for the Mets (or the Cards) might in fact be out. People in San Francisco might be saddened; those in St. Louis might become disheartened. Still we get these kind of prayers. We understand the “Please I am begging You!” Such prayers make sense. “Oh God, give me strength and healing” are necessary prayers. But they can’t be our only prayers. And so this evening I wish to expand our definition of prayer. I wish to meditate not so much on the content of prayer but instead on its emotion. I want us to recover the feelings of prayer. I wish to suggest something that might even seem outrageous, that maybe we are need of some angry prayer; perhaps we require prayers of protest.

This thought occurred to me this summer when in Jerusalem. Susie and I once again joined our friends at the Western Wall. Women of the Wall had organized a prayer service to protest the lack of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. Several hundred like minded women, and I don’t mean only Reform, but instead Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and even secular, gathered in the women’s section for a Rosh Hodesh service. Given that the ultra-Orthodox authorities forbid women from reading Torah at the Wall, a small Torah scroll was smuggled in. Actually two were smuggled in but the police discovered one and took it away. The Reform prayer books that we carried were also nearly confiscated. A young girl became a bat mitzvah. The Torah was lifted in the air. The women sang psalms. The men and I gathered around the perimeter, attempting to join our prayers with theirs. We were met with shouts and screams. Ultra-Orthodox women screamed and whistled in an attempt to drown out the prayers. An ultra-Orthodox man called us Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people. Another told us to go back to Tel Aviv. I am still not sure how that is a punishment in anyone’s book, but such is his worldview. I wanted to say, “Sure thing, I will take the Mediterranean.” And still another cursed at us and tore up the prayer book we used.

It has taken me many years to make peace with what masquerades as holiness at the Western Wall, with the venom of Jew against Jew. This summer, on that July morning, it occurred to me that prayer might not only be words of thanks and the heartfelt requests but could also be angry protest. There is a lot to get angry about in our teetering and imperfect world. If I am supposed to have an honest relationship with my God then it might not only be “Thank You for the bread I am about to eat” and “Please restore those I love to health.” But “How did You allow us to make such a mess of things!” I am not only guided by the Torah but also by the words of the prophets who railed against their contemporaries, who championed the weak, who refused to remain timid in the face of injustices. I am also the inheritor of the words of the psalmist who shouted (or so I imagine was his tone), “How long O God will You hide Your face from me? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day?” (Psalm 13)

During the 1960’s civil rights struggle, Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Conservative rabbi, was criticized by his colleagues for marching with Martin Luther King Jr. Why? Because he marched on Shabbat. He said in response, “I was praying with my feet.” I too was praying with my feet. And I am by the way going to keep praying with my feet to make sure that all Jews, women and men, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and everyone in between, can pray as they are comfortable, and in a way they find meaningful, at the place that belongs to all of us. I will pray with my feet to fight the religious intolerance that makes no room for other forms of worship and other forms of belief. And you know what? That might take some anger; that might take some indignation. That is what I am going to fill some of my prayers with. Perhaps some anger might start to get some of the job done.

And that should not make it a bad prayer. Prayer can sometimes be angry. Forgive my chutzpah, but God can take it. Sometimes you need to scream. Sometimes you need to get angry. Sometimes the pain you feel, or the loss you have endured, or the injustice you have witnessed, tears at you and you need to say with the psalmist, “How long?”

People have sometimes said to me, “I am angry at God.” Not that I asked but it is often offered as a reason why I have not seen them too often in synagogue. And this is what I say in response. “That makes perfect sense.” I don’t offer up platitudes that struggle and pain make you better. We should never say things like God only gives you what you can handle. Clichés never offer healing. Every answer to real pain falls short. And so sometimes you need to throw some anger. And maybe that can be a good prayer too. Who among us feels only gratitude at every minute of every day, or even every time we walk into this sanctuary? But we walk in. We pray with our feet.

Sure if you are all anger it is going to gnaw at your soul. But a little anger now and again might be good for the spirit. You need some fire in those prayers—not just thanks and requests. The great 18th century Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav said: “Be strong-willed and stubborn if you want to get closer to God.” I do, by the way, recognize the irony in quoting a Hasidic rabbi when it is in fact his modern day followers who were cursing at me. Nonetheless, his philosophy is instructive. You need some agita, some angst, some anger, some chutzpah to draw close to the Almighty. You need some of what the rabbis called chutzpah klapei shamayim—audacity in the face of heaven. Why not? Is the world perfect? Does everyone live to 120 years? Is everyone blessed with a life of ease? Who among us thinks that a debilitating illness, or life threatening disease, is deserved? Is everyone fortunate enough to have our loved ones by our side for all the years we planned or all the years we rightly deserved? On this Yom Kippur evening I confess, sometimes the pain I have witnessed, the suffering I have seen with my own eyes, makes for some angry prayers. And you know what? Perhaps that is not such a bad thing.

We pray on these days: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.” We are frightened and distanced by these words. Perhaps this is why so many Jews see prayer as irrelevant. We spend so much of our time fixated on the inherited words of our prayerbook. First we rise for the Barechu, then the Shema and so on. Sit down. Stand up. Turn to page 253. We march through the prayers. We become slaves to the order. Perhaps the reason why prayer, or at least organized prayer, is no longer central to the vast majority of American Jews is because the script does not represent their true feelings. Prayer does not reflect our emotions. We have become like theatregoers watching some old play that we heard was really, really popular centuries ago. But prayer is not Shakespeare. It requires each of us to join in. Too often we forget that prayer must first be about feeling. It must be about our relationship with God—and like all other relationships it too is uneven. Sometimes we feel love. Sometimes we feel gratitude. Sometimes we feel sadness. And yes sometimes we feel anger.

Now I recognize that such talk from the bima might strike some as blasphemous or might even make others uncomfortable. The rabbi is supposed to express in each and every moment emunah shleimah—perfect and complete faith. But today is the day of confessions. One time I shared such feelings with a close friend. He was surprised to hear me say this because he figured I believed every word of every prayer because I am most often the one reading them out loud. To be honest I wonder if all the praying matters, if all the words we recite week in and week out, make a difference. Sure they are soothing. Joining together in song and prayer is healing. It is a balm for the soul. There are some weeks in which I am rescued by our prayers. “It is good to give thanks to God.” the psalmist also wrote and we often sing. There are weeks when our tradition, our script, does offer us a respite. We are uplifted by our tradition’s music.

But I am actually asking this question, do our prayers make a difference to God. “Dear God, how are You still letting us make such a mess of things?” Give us one of those miracles from of old. Blot out the hurricanes. Turn the hearts of enemies toward each other in peace. Come on, we are ready for “Let nation not lift up sword against nation.” How much war can our world still endure? How many more terrorist attacks before You say, “Enough!” Bring healing to our world! I have been doing this praying for a while, actually we have been doing this for a really long time now, and I am not sure You, God, are listening. So God I am throwing some anger Your way. And you know what? That is going to be a good prayer.

I am not giving up on prayer. Never! I am just adding some different emotion to it. Elie Wiesel tells a story about what happened in one of the camps. There, devout Jews put God on trial for neglecting the Jewish people. They chose prosecuting and defense attorneys. They selected a jury. Arguments were made in defense of God, but the prosecution’s case was strong. His arguments were the most persuasive. There in the camp the jury could rule no other way. God stood guilty of abandoning the Jewish people. Their anger carried the day. The time for evening prayers arrived. They joined together in reciting their prayers. They sang Barechu and then Shema. Perhaps we too need such emotion. Perhaps this could help to rescue prayer for our contemporaries. Perhaps this could help to rescue our world. Perhaps if we put some anger, and stubbornness, and chutzpah into our prayers we might make it more important. Prayer is first about God. And then it is about feelings.

I want prayer to be about connection with God. I don’t want so much to regulate its content. Instead I want to instill some real feeling into our prayers. I suspect that the reason why prayer is no longer central is that we can no longer find our true feelings in our tradition’s prayers. So let’s add some protest. Let’s pray with our feet and with some real emotion. Let’s even allow for some anger. God can take it. How can I be so sure? Because we need it. Our world demands protest. Our lives sometimes feel like we are trapped among weeds rather than beautiful flowers.

Mary Oliver, my new favorite contemporary poet, wrote a beautiful poem, entitled “Praying.” She writes:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

It’s the weeds as much as the beautiful flowers. It’s not the words as much as the feeling. With our focus on content, with our fixation on the pages of our prayerbook, we are in danger of losing sight of the most important teaching about prayer. It is about connection, it is about relationship, it is about drawing nearer to God. And sometimes you might need some anger. Sometimes when the world appears slipping toward chaos, you may need to shout, “How long O God will You hide Your face!” How long will You hide Your face! Anger should not mean you are giving up on prayer or giving up on God. Anger is not only ok but may in fact be necessary.

That morning in Jerusalem began with anger. But it concluded in gratitude. Following our protest service Susie and I walked to the egalitarian prayer area where we met congregants so that a student could become a bar mitzvah at the Wall and have an aliya there. In the place where 2000 years ago the Romans destroyed the Temple a young American Jew stood, alongside the ancient rubble, but in the sovereign Jewish state. He sang: “…Baruch Atah Adonai notein ha-Torah—Blessed are You Adonai who gives the Torah.” Blessed are You who gives the Torah.

What begins in anger can be transformed into gratitude.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Yom Kippur's Particular Readings and Universal Prayers

The opening Torah reading and concluding Haftarah reading of these High Holidays offer a universal message to these particular Jewish days. Let me explain.

In our congregation we read Genesis 21 on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. This story speaks of the birth of Isaac. It is read for several reasons. The opening line tells of how God remembers Sarah. Rosh Hashanah is known as the day of remembrance. We pray that God will remember us for life and for good. For many years Sarah longed for a child. God hears her prayers, and she conceives, at the age of 90, and gives birth to Isaac. It is through Isaac that the Jewish people trace their lineage. Thus we affirm that God will remember us and hear our prayers.

The chapter concludes, however, with the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Now that Sarah has her own child she no longer wishes for her maidservant Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael to remain with them. She instructs Abraham to send them out to the desert. Abraham is distressed, but God reassures him saying that Ishmael will become a great nation as well. Abraham sends them out with meager rations. Soon they find themselves near death. Hagar leaves Ishmael alone for she is unable to watch him die. She begins to wail. The Torah relates: “And God heard the cry of the boy.”

The message is clear. It is not just my prayers but everyone’s prayers that God hears. It is not only Jewish prayers that God listens to, but everyone’s.

And then when we conclude these High Holidays, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, with the reading from the Book of Jonah, the story of a prophet who is called to chastise the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was part of the Assyrian empire. Its people were not Jews. In a surprising turn the king and the people repent and change their ways. God does what God is supposed to do, and what we pray for on Yom Kippur. When people change, God forgives them and renounces their punishment. The story concludes with God’s statement to Jonah: “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well.”

I am given to wonder. Why is it on these holiest of days, when Jews most assert their particular identity, did the rabbis assign biblical readings that affirm a universal concern?

Perhaps the answer is that is the opening and concluding word on our holiest of days should be that God cares about everyone and everything—even the beasts.

All we have to do, all anyone has to do, is change.

It starts with a prayer. It begins with any prayer. And it concludes with the turning of repentance. Such are the bookends of readings our tradition assigns to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Perhaps that is a message about which we need to remind ourselves—again and again. Our greatest prayer, our most important teaching, is that we are all in this together.

May we be sealed for life, and may the world, and all its inhabitants, find a measure of peace,

Monday, October 3, 2016

Lessons from Unlikely Places

My inspiration for this High Holiday sermon derives from the fact that my congregation is celebrating Rosh Hashanah services in a church. Rather than bemoan this occasion I choose instead to ask, “What does this teach us?”

Let’s talk about the Catholic Church. I don’t know what would have made me think about that. All kidding aside, what can we learn from where we are sitting on this day? Let’s ask, what are we supposed to learn from others and from those unlike ourselves? For answers to those questions I wish to journey back some 50 years.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Nostra Aetate, is the Catholic Church’s document, issued during the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII that opened the Catholic Church to other religions. It was officially called the Declaration on the Relation of the Catholic Church to Non-Christian Religions. It was promulgated on October 26, 1965. In many ways that document changed our world. In fact it led us to this very moment and to this very day. It made it natural and expected that a rabbi would call a priest a friend. By the way Reverend Smith sends his regards and offers a heartfelt shanah tovah. He could not join us this year. He is away at a conference.

Here is the story of how we arrived at today. It is not a well-known tale. Most think it was all about the Pope and his courageous leadership. It actually begins years earlier with the story of a Jewish scholar named Jules Isaac. Jules Isaac lived in France during World War II. His entire family was murdered by the Nazis. He was saved by Christian friends. He spent the war years in hiding researching the origins of antisemitism. Here is what he claimed: if not for Christianity’s 2,000 years of teaching hatred of Jews and Judaism, what he termed the teaching of contempt, the Nazi onslaught would never have discovered the fertile ground to murder millions of our people. He published several books, the first of which was called Jesus and Israel, and another entitled The Teaching of Contempt: The Christian Roots of Antisemitism. His works became required reading for anyone studying the history of antisemtism. These books might have remained on the library shelves of universities, to be studied by young religious studies majors, if not for Pope John XXIII.

When bishop in Istanbul during World War II John XXIII used the powers of his office to rescue Jews. In fact he is credited with saving thousands of Jews. Soon after becoming Pope, John XXIII instructed Catholic Churches to remove one of the most antisemitic passages from the Good Friday liturgy in which Jews were called perfidious and unbelieving. Throughout the ages antisemitic mobs attacked Jews on Good Friday, the day when Christians marked the crucifixion of Jesus. They accused Jews of killing Jesus. John XXIII sought to remove these incendiary passages from Catholic prayers.

Jules Isaac took note of these changes. After John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, Isaac clamored for a meeting with the Pope. Eventually it was arranged and the two men met. It was only after this meeting that the council started dealing with the question of its relationship with Jews and Judaism. In fact it was because of this meeting. The Pope’s personal secretary wrote the following about the meeting between Isaac and John XXIII:
I remember quite well that the Pope was quite shaken by that encounter and talked to me about it at length. It is true that up to that day, John XXIII had not even thought that the Council should concern itself with the Jewish question and antisemitism. But, from that day on, he was deeply preoccupied with that thought. The Church had to refute the accusation that it had backed away and defended only baptized Jews (as Isaac seemed to have insinuated); and proclaim once and for all that Christians do not have a right to interpret as a condemnation [of Jews and Judaism] the words of the Gospel of Matthew: “His blood be upon us and our children.”
That’s when it all changed. A Jewish man, a scholar, who lost everything in the Shoah, met with the most powerful Christian leader, and said in effect: “It is because of what you have been teaching.” And the most remarkable thing of all is that the Pope heard the criticism and took it to heart and then said, “What am I going to do about it?” Five years later the Church issued its groundbreaking statement. This document claimed that discrimination in general and antisemitism in particular are incompatible with Christian teachings. He mandated that Catholic leaders engage in interfaith dialogue.

50 years later, here we are—a day in which Jews find themselves praying in a Catholic Church and Cardinal Dolan writes an op-ed extolling the virtues of the High Holidays. We are bound together by far more than divides us. We accept it as normal, and part and parcel of the American landscape that there is nothing unusual or out of the ordinary for a rabbi to call a priest and say, “Hey Kevin do you think my congregation can pray in your church again on Rosh Hashanah?” “Sure Steve no problem. What’s the date?” “The first of Tishrei.” “Very funny.” “October 3rd.” “Ok, Steve, Rosh Hashanah is now on the church’s calendar.” Call me a dreamer. Criticize me for holding fast to American ideals. There is a direct line between that meeting 55 years ago and today.

Dialogue, the meeting of others unlike ourselves, the friendships with those who hold opinions and beliefs different than our own, is in fact what makes America great. We are meant to open our doors to others. We are meant to invite their ideas into our hearts. You might think that the greatest lesson of our story is found in the person of Jules Isaac. Here is an example of some real Jewish chutzpah. Isaac loses his family. He loses everything he loves. He focuses on his studies. He becomes obsessed with the question of why. How could this happen in “civilized” Germany? Or you might think that the heroes are those friends who, at the risk to their own lives, sheltered him nonetheless, and thereby enabled him to teach the world how hatred can be transformed into murder. But I actually think the real hero is the pope. He could have kept the door closed. He could have never invited Isaac in. He could have remained in his palace and walled out the world. Instead he opened the door. And not only did he open the door to the other, to someone who believes and thinks differently, but also to someone who criticized him, who questioned everything he held dear. The Pope is the pope after all. He could have dismissed him with the wave of the hand, with “Well, that was interesting. He is one angry man. On to the next item on today’s agenda.”

Father Tom Stransky, a Catholic historian, writes: “I tend to demythologize events, but I am convinced that the Isaac visit was the critical first step.” I know Reverend Smith is not the pope and I am no Jules Isaac, but still we learn, never to underestimate the power of a meeting. Never underestimate what can be learned when sitting across the table from someone. Never underestimate what can be gained by opening the door to others. Greatness is not synonymous with like-mindedness. Greatness is not compatible with sameness. Greatness is all about an openness to difference, a turning towards others. I reject as a betrayal of all that is good and noble and right about this country the antipathy leveled against those who believe different than ourselves, those whose religion or culture is unlike our own. I reject as antithetical to the Jewish spirit the dismissal of immigrants—the lifeblood of this nation’s creative spirit. I reject the disdain thrown most especially towards our Muslim brothers and sisters. Our Jewish tradition demands that we love the stranger. V’ahavta lo camocha. (Leviticus 19:34) Why? Because we know what it feels like, because as the Torah proclaims, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. This is why at my family’s recent Passover seder we opened our door to Christian and Moslem friends. This is the lesson I learned from a pope. I want to remain forever open to learning from others.

This is why I will forever remain committed to the Jewish-Muslim dialogue I recently began. I have opened my door and my heart to learn from others. I have learned from my newfound friends. I have listened intently to their criticism of Saudi Arabia and its fanatical Wahhabi teachings. I have allowed them to point me in the direction of countless Muslim leaders’ criticisms of terrorism, most especially those acts perpetrated in their faith’s name. Fanaticism grows and metastasizes within the Muslim world in particular, and within faith in general. I cannot just sit on the sidelines and allow my friends to stand alone, to struggle against it while I just throw critique in their direction. We must partner with those who are working to root this out. We must stand with them, against those who contort religion and faith for evil ends. That was the message of Jules Isaac’s life. And that most especially was the message of the pope opening his door to Isaac.

I have become sensitive to my friends’ fears as well as my own. They have pointed out how quickly the media labels murders committed by Moslems as terrorism and avoids the term when Christians commit mass shootings. Of course we sometimes disagree. They think the label terrorist should be used less frequently. I think it should be broadened. I have argued that any act committed in the name of some twisted ideology should be labeled as terror, whether committed by Moslem, Christian or Jew. Dylan Roof is just as much a terrorist as Omar Mateen. May both of their names be blotted out. May their victims’ names be remembered for good.

We should as well listen more attentively to efforts at rooting out terror. Let me quote from a statement issued by hundreds of Muslim scholars following the Orlando massacre. “We unequivocally say that such an act of hate-fueled violence has no place in any faith, including Islam. As people of faith, we believe that all human beings have the right to safety and security and that each and every human life is sacred.” This statement should not be ignored. It must not be relegated to a footnote. You can of course read the many hate-filled, antisemitic statements issued by Moslems in the Arab world and you might mistakenly think this is how most Moslems believe. Or you can recall that the majority of Moslems don’t even live in the Middle East.

And so I proclaim, better to focus on the positive statements, most especially those coming from Moslems living here in America. They want the same thing that my grandparents wanted: to be accepted and welcomed in their adopted country, to be allowed to see the American dream fulfilled for themselves, their children and grandchildren. I welcome them with open arms. Knowing many of you well, I imagine that by now there are some who are saying, “What about the college campus! Rabbi, what about the antisemitism at our universities! He is so naïve! He is such a dreamer!” Yup you’re right. I choose idealism. I choose dreams. I am going to live by our ideals, by our values. I will not quit. I will not veer. I promise to remain open to others. My faith is found in the possibilities and promise of meeting. I believe it to be the cure. My commitment to dialogue remains unshakeable.

My teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman argues in his recent book Putting God Second that the God intoxication of Judaism, Christianity and Islam might actually be the problem our traditions share. Putting God first, as monotheism does, subverts ethics. God can inspire us to do good, but in our obsession with God we can sometimes, and perhaps too often, crowd out the good. Being a rabbi he of course puts Judaism under the microscope. There are plenty of texts in our holy Torah that denigrate non-Jews, that cast aside our ethical concern for those different than ourselves. There is truth in his argument. And so I wish to partner with those who are obsessed with the good. This year I wish to throw the door open to those who elevate the ethical, who wish to learn from others, who see not in the face of the stranger a poison but instead a promise. There are so many with whom to sit down and to meet and to learn from.

Yes, there are limits to dialogue. There are people with whom there is no discussion. There are people who wish to do us harm. Some are Moslems. Others are Christians. Some are even my fellow Jews. Others are even Americans. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, colors and religions. They share one thing in common. They leave no room for the other in their ideology. Their way is the only way. All others are called idolaters; all others are labeled heathens. Everyone else’s words and teachings are called blasphemy. Beware of attaching any one religion to their ideology. Beware of attaching any one race to their thinking. That is what I am going to recall while sitting here and enjoying the generosity of our Catholic neighbors. There are limits. There are places to which we should not go, destinations to which we should not journey. But I am going to continue to believe, to teach and to model that they are few and far between in this great country.

This year we lost a giant among our people. We buried Elie Wiesel, the man whose voice emerged from the Holocaust and what he called the Kingdom of Night, the man who became our people’s spokesperson and our conscience. He reminded us again and again that neutrality only serves the oppressor, that silence emboldens the tormentor. I recall one instance from his life that still leaves an imprint and offers lessons for today. It was the spring of 1985, a year prior to Wiesel earning the Nobel Peace Prize. President Ronald Reagan had decided to award Wiesel with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award our government can grant to a civilian. A week prior to this event the White House announced that the President would lay a wreath at the Bitburg cemetery on his upcoming visit to Germany. Chancellor Helmut Kohl had requested this visit.

Soon it was revealed that not only were German soldiers buried at Bitburg but also 47 members of the SS. The Jewish community was in an uproar. Rabbis railed against the president. Religious leaders and many politicians joined together and argued against Reagan’s visit. Reagan refused to go back on his word to Kohl. Wiesel considered not accepting the award. In the end he decided to go to the White House. White House staffers were nervous what the Holocaust survivor might say. Would he offer public criticism of the president? A visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was added to the itinerary. In the end Wiesel accepted the award from the president. And then he said: “If it's possible at all, I implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” It was a remarkable moment. Like the prophet Nathan shouting at King David, Atah ha-ish—you are that man, Wiesel spoke truth to power. (II Samuel 12:7)

And yet the most remarkable thing about the event I discovered years later. Prior to the ceremony Reagan and Wiesel met privately for almost 30 minutes. In fact their meeting delayed the start of the ceremony. Wiesel later revealed that he told the president he would publicly criticize him. History and truth required him to do no less, he argued. Reagan apparently said that he understood. And again President Reagan could have altered the ceremony. He perhaps could have even prevented Wiesel from speaking. He was the president after all. He did not. Instead he showered the Holocaust survivor with accolades and praise and stood there when Wiesel said, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.” The president opened the door to rebuke.

The Talmud reports that the debates between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai were at times vociferous. They were ugly and contentious. And yet our tradition reminds us that both are the words of the living God, that we are a people defined by machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. These arguments, these criticisms are how truth is revealed. Still you have to know what to do, so Jewish law follows Hillel’s rulings and almost never Shammai’s. And in the most revealing of Talmudic passages, the rabbis ask why does halachah, the law, follow Hillel and not Shammai. The answer, as some of us discovered last night, is because Hillel and his disciples taught not only their own opinions but the opinions of Shammai as well. Moreover they taught Shammai’s opinions first. (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b) Imagine that. They did not just share their own ideas and their opinions; they first taught the ideas and opinions of their bitter rival.

Elie Wiesel concluded his rebuke of the president with these words:
Mr. President, I know and I understand, we all do, that you seek reconciliation. So do I. So do we. And I, too, wish to attain true reconciliation with the German people. I do not believe in collective guilt, nor in collective responsibility; only the killers were guilty. Their sons and daughters are not. And I believe, Mr. President, that we can and we must work together with them and with all people. And we must work to bring peace and understanding to a tormented world that, as you know, is still awaiting redemption.
Sadly our world remains tormented and still awaiting redemption. And I still continue to dream of healing. Let Wiesel’s words serve as a reminder that reconciliation and openness are possible. It begins with the opening of a door. It begins with allowing for rebuke. All this I could very learn from my tradition, but on this occasion, in this church, on this Rosh Hashanah, I choose instead to learn such lessons from a pope and a president. I choose to take lessons from the place where I sit. The president could have slammed the door on Wiesel. The pope could have refused entry to Jules Isaac. Hillel could have said Jewish law follows me, who cares about Shammai and his opinions.

Maybe the lesson we require this year is in fact to be found right here in this very place.

History can turn on the opening of a door. And that is the hope on which I am going to build the coming year.