Thursday, May 16, 2019

Be More Religious, Do More Good

Nearly 200 years ago, Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of the Musar movement, a philosophy that sought to move ethics back to the center of Jewish life, told his students that he had an important job for them. They were to go out and inspect the local matzah factory to certify that its products were indeed kosher for Passover. They talked amongst themselves before their rabbi arrived. They had spent weeks studying Passover’s restrictions and pouring over the words of the Talmudic tractate detailing the holiday’s laws.

They had argued whether or not legumes should be permitted on the holiday and how to sell the hametz. One of them asked the group, “How many minutes must transpire from when the flour and water are mixed until the matzah is taken out of the oven?” “Eighteen minutes,” another shouted. (In a nutshell the technical difference between bread and matzah is about the timing. Eighteen minutes or under its matzah. Nineteen its bread—not good bread, but bread nonetheless.)

The great sage then entered the class. “We are ready for this holy task,” they said in unison. “Rabbi,” one of his students asked. “Is there something we should specifically look for there?” “Yes. Most definitely,” said Rabbi Salanter. “When you get to the factory, you will see an old woman baking matzah. The woman is poor and has a large family to support. Make sure that the factory’s owners are paying her a living wage.”

The students stared at each other in astonishment. One asked, “What about making sure the preparation and cooking take no more than eighteen minutes?” “That is really not the most important thing, my students,” Salanter said. “The most important thing is to make sure that the person who is baking this matzah is properly taken care of. If she is not then the matzah factory is not worthy of being called kosher.”

People often define religiosity in terms of ritual scrupulousness. That makes sense given this week’s portion that details all of the major Jewish holidays: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot and even the Omer period in which we now find ourselves. That makes sense given the importance people often ascribe to participation in Shabbat services.

On Friday evening I often hear, “Rabbi, where is everyone? Why are people not here at services? No one is practicing Judaism anymore. If we don’t make sure more people are more observant then our people are not going to be around much longer.” I usually respond: “What does being Jewish mean to you?” And they answer, “Observing Shabbat. Coming to services. Celebrating the holidays.”

I admit. I love our praying and singing. It offers me uplift. Shabbat prayer provides me the opportunity to connect with God and with people—in real time and in the real world, as opposed to the virtual world of Facebook and Instagram. It offers me a respite from the weekday worries. And when it works really well prayer helps to point me towards my ethical obligations.

Judaism does not view rituals as ends unto themselves. It does not view the Shabbat candles or the mezuzah as protective amulets that will ward away bad tidings. If people kiss the mezuzah, for example, when entering their home but then scream and yell at their family then they are missing the mezuzah’s greatest lesson. The theory is simple. If you kiss the mezuzah you are more apt to treat others with love and kindness. If you light the candles you are more likely to work to bring a measure of shalom to the world.

Rituals point to ethics.

Still it appears that an increasing number of American Jewish have become less enamored with our tradition’s rituals. They find yoga, or perhaps cycling, as more centering than Shabbat prayers.

So the question for today is can we do Jewish with lives less infused with Jewish ritual? At the very least we should expand our understanding of what it means to be religious. We should stop writing ourselves out of being religious because we do not light candles eighteen minutes before sunset or only eat matzah during Passover. We should instead ask ourselves the more challenging questions.

Do we pay our employees a living wage? Do we love the stranger? Do we give enough to tzedakah? Do we avoid speaking lashon hara—gossip? Do we treat our parents with respect?

That list is perhaps lengthier than the list of ritual commandments. It is certainly more challenging to observe than coming to services each and every Friday evening. But answer, “Yes, I do.” to even a few of these commands on even a somewhat regular basis and we can begin to call ourselves religious.

Perhaps we should become just as devout in calling our parents before Shabbat as lighting the candles. Perhaps we should be just as scrupulous with the words we speak about our neighbors as we do with the adornments of the Passover seder plate.

One day I dream of saying, “I serve the most religious congregation anyone can ever imagine. They all might not be here this Shabbat evening but they are busy making the world a better place with a word of kindness here and an extra dollar there.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Israel's Ordinariness is Extraordinary

Today the State of Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. Just saying that statement is a remarkable thing to utter. Israel’s 71st. Savor those words.

For all of the challenges and missteps, the achievements and triumphs, the disappointments and missed opportunities, the unrivaled successes and countless celebrations none come close to the feeling, the remarkable gift and the sense of gratitude that Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. The dream of generations of Jews is now a reality. For 2,000 years we dreamed that we would one day return to the land of Israel. This still figures prominently in our prayers. The Seders we only recently celebrated conclude with the words L’shanah habah b’yerushalayim—next year in Jerusalem.

Today, I could say, “I am leaving tomorrow morning to fly to Israel.” I am not doing that of course, but if I were, the response would not be, “Wow. What a miracle.” But instead, “Which airline? Are you flying El Al? Are you flying out of JFK?” Another would chime in, “Don’t fly El Al. It’s the worst. People are constantly climbing over you as you are trying to sleep. You should fly Turkish Air instead.”

Others would ask, “Where are you staying?” More would then offer advice. “You should stay at the King David. It’s historic. You should spend more days in Tel Aviv. Go to Mitzpe Ramon and check out the Negev desert. Make a reservation at Zahav.” Actually Zahav is located in Philadelphia and was recently named the best restaurant in America. How remarkable is that. The best restaurant in America features Israeli cuisine.

We should take in the sheer ordinariness of these conversations.

Thousands of years ago we were almost destroyed. We then mourned the destruction of Jerusalem. And now, in our own age, we talk about visiting Israel as if it’s just another trip to another great country. We argue about flights and hotels, restaurants and sites. For all the discussions and debates we could have about Israel’s policies and the never ending conflict with the Palestinians, most recently after Hamas fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza, on this day we should breathe in not the miracle of the State of Israel but instead its ordinariness.

We wish for it to always be extraordinary, to fulfill our every dream, to live up to the prayers we sing about it, but on this day we should hold on to the ordinary. And that very ordinariness should be what takes our breath away. It is not the miracle but the ordinariness which is the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. It affirms the Declaration of Independence’s words: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

Israel’s matter of fact-ness may be its greatest achievement. Our children do not know of a time when there was not a sovereign State of Israel. I in fact do not know of such a time. Some might be saying to themselves, “Beware of taking Israel for granted. Israel is surrounded by enemies.” Yes. Indeed it is. But I do not wish to dwell on the threats arrayed against Israel or even what many commentators call the growing divide between American Jews and Israel—something about which I remain acutely worried. These are not my focus on this day, and on this occasion.

All I wish is for us to breath in what a unique time we live in. We live in a time when we can hop on a plane and go to Israel. Or not. We live in an age when the State of Israel can be taken for granted. And this may very well be its greatest success.

We can argue about many, many things. We are Jews of course. We can debate about what Israel does and does not do. And we should certainly continue these debates—with passion and with love. And we can also argue about the mundane and inconsequential. We can talk about flight times and restaurant reviews.

And we can regale each other about visits to Tel Aviv’s beach and taking in Jerusalem’s desert evenings. On this day that’s all I need. On this day that is all I wish to hold on to.

Israel is 71!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Books of Loss

Yesterday marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day. It is the day set aside to remember our people’s loss at the hands of the Nazis’ murderous hatred. As we remember this devastating loss, we cannot help but affirm that antisemitism is still real and most tragically, still murderous.

Last year antisemitic attacks doubled in the United States. Six months ago, we witnessed the deadly attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue and this past Shabbat another at a San Diego area synagogue. It is sadly evident that we must remain on guard against antisemitism. The Board is diligently working on security upgrades for our own synagogue. And there will be security at upcoming services.

While we must remain forever vigilant and while we must improve security at Jewish institutions the most important response to terror remains the same. We must never bow to fear. And we must continue to proclaim, we are proud to lead Jewish lives.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the leader of the Poway Chabad community, said:
I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.
Amen!

Again and again, we remember. I recall a few of the individual lives affected by the Holocaust. I urge you to read the stories of this year’s torchlighters. At this year’s Yom HaShoah ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad VaShem, these six survivors were chosen to light the six memorial lights.

Their tales represent extraordinary stories of survival and loss. To these stories I wish to add another. It is the story about how my favorite children’s book, Curious George, came to be.

When the Nazi party was gaining popularity in Germany, Hans Augusto Rey, a Jewish salesman, knew he had to leave so he fled to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. There, he met and married his old flame, Margret, who had also come there to escape the Nazis. Together, the couple soon moved to Paris in 1935.

When World War II broke out, the Reys realized they could not stay in Paris. They needed to make other plans. They again fled, narrowly escaping Paris a few hours before the Nazis invaded. They rode from Paris on a pair of bicycles that Hans had made. On their backs they strapped some food, a few of their possessions, and the manuscript of a children’s book the couple had been working on—a book about a mischievous monkey named George.

The Reys made it across the Swiss border and eventually found their way to New York, where they first published Curious George. That book, and its sequels, have been translated into dozens of languages—including the Reys’ native Yiddish. Children are still reading about George, his adventures, and the understanding, but always helpful Man with the Yellow Hat.

On this occasion, as I reflect on Yom HaShoah, I wonder how my childhood might have been different if this book did not accompany me, if the Reys had suffered the same fate as the six million. I would never have heard my mother reading over and over again, “George promised to be good. But it is easy for little monkeys to forget.” I wonder how my life would have been different if my mother did not affirm my curiosity through the Man with the Yellow Hat.

A book affirmed my nature and applauded the lesson that discoveries, and learning, begin with curiosity and that most importantly making mistakes, and even making a mess, accompanies curiosity, discovery and learning.

Today, I wonder how many other books could have accompanied me. I imagine there could have been six million more books.

The Holocaust haunts our people. It remains a library of loss.

The hatred continues.

But my curiosity, and embrace of life, remain undeterred.