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The Congregation Shma Koleinu Blog.

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It’s time to read the Torah again

The haters are right. Those whom they despise will overcome.  And someday, the ones despised will live in the homes of those who hated them.  

History is on the side of those whose religion, skin color, nationality, ethnic background, etc. have “caused” majorities throughout the world to blame them for every ill life has to offer.  

And if you don’t believe this is true, it’s time to read the Torah again.  The stories of the Israelites, from slavery to redemption, and then once again through a myriad of degradations, alienations, conscriptions, executions and all other “shuns” one can imagine, fill the parchment of Exodus through Deuteronomy as the sina qua non of the results of the poison hearts of human beings.  From Pharaoh to Amalek to Korach to Balak, the analogs of the Israelites are about nothing if they are not in equal parts a forewarning for what comes when entire societies are hell bent on alienating the other.  Of course, there are plenty of examples of despots and despotic regimes that have “gotten away with it,” but in the end, they have never won the love and affection of their people, they have never “proven” that they were just in their cause.  That their “success” isn’t ever ultimately worth much of anything at all, as long as it comes from breaking the will of their chosen “bogie men.”  

Now, more than ever we Jews and all people, must remember the messages of our Prophets: To live a life of meaning requires as much sacrifice and self-effacement as it requires the pursuit of excellence and assertion.  If you look at a person different than you and presume of them a lower level of intelligence, empathy, compassion, dignity or station in life, its time to read the Torah again.  For the story of Exodus matters only when we presume it to be true for the story of all “others” for all time.

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Why I Do Perform Jewish Weddings for Most Anyone Who Seeks Me Out…Period

Having just read your “Letter for Couples of Jewish and non-Jewish Background,” I have some thoughts I would like to share with you. “Authenticity” + $5.00 will barely buy you a cup of coffee if it leads to closing the door on a couple that is seeking a Jewish wedding. This is not a “future of the Jewish people” issue. It’s an issue of presence in the present. I wonder how many “Jewish-Jewish” couples you have let go, because of their lack of authentic connection to the meta-philosophical issues that undergird the liturgy of the Jewish wedding. Maybe it would be different if for far too long interfaith couples hadn’t been turned away from our synagogues. I don’t know. But today, when all of us Rabbis can name at least as many amazing non-Jewish parents of Jewish children as Jewish parents of Jewish children who have been the lifeblood and inspiration for their Jewish children and Jewish spouse’s strengthened and emboldened Jewish identity, to use the excuse of “authentic connection to the liturgy and tradition as the rationale for saying “no,” is as absurd as it is offensive. As long as high-minded ideals keep a Rabbi from standing on the ground with engaged couples, who are, at least at the outset, rarely seeking spiritual union with the most ethereal understandings of our tradition, this sounds indeed like one who is speaking from an ivory tower. And your Rapunzel like offer for them to climb up if they so wish, is an empty promise. I apologize for my brashness in responding this way but as a Rabbi who performs interfaith weddings that utilize and do not compromise on the framework, as well as the intricate details of our people’s ceremony of Kiddushin, who has watched and experienced how so many of these couples become Jewish families with Jewish children and Jewish connections, your letter falls deaf upon my ears. Lastly, perhaps your girlfriend’s tepid response to your heartbreak that you felt as “Europa, Europa” concluded, was an indication that her emotional depth was somewhat lacking. To be a mensch means to be able to feel the pain of someone else’s people as well as your own. Most non-Jews would have been crying at that moment as well.

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Paying Attention and Letting Go – on Parashat Chukat

If you’ve read even a few of my blog posts, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I am a little obsessed with the ancient Israelites’ penchant for kvetching. With the story of the Exodus from Mitzrayim (Eygpt) and their 40-year wandering through the midbar (wilderness) so prominent in 4 of the 5 Books of Moses, their moaning, groaning and constant trope of “woe-as-us” ever streaming from their lips, is either a serious character flaw or meant to be something to which we really need to pay attention.

This week in “Parashat Chukat,” the Israelites are once again bemoaning their plight – hungry, thirsty, tired, distressed, and even longing for the “good ole days” back in Egypt. As the saying goes, “The Pharaoh you know is better than the one you don’t!” While this isn’t at all true, it appears that for the Israelites (and let’s face it, us too), its a very difficult default to resist. This week, as a punishment for their “High Crimes and Kvetching,” God sicks snakes on them, with their only recourse being that they must look towards Moses’s staff with a snake sculpture at its top, in order to then be healed. Why must they look to the staff instead of, as has happened in the past, cry out to God in order to then be healed?

I would argue that this is a part of God’s “learning curve.”   We human beings need symbols, representations and physical reminders of the potential for healing, renewal and hope. If God’s redemptive power remains ethereal, unable to be even temporarily concretized, God remains far too transcendent for us to connect. I know that the 2nd commandment appears to be an injunction against this concept. However, what does the 2nd commandment truly say? Al taaseh lecha fesel – “Do not make yourself a graven image.” The fluidity of life that swings from concrete to symbolic, from elusive to present, from life to death, from slavery to freedom – this is the reality, or…these are the reality. Life is always changing and we will notice if we pay better attention to that fact. We just have to remember that everything we look at or feel or touch or experience is part of a moment that with time, will pass. Ever to be replaced by the next thought, symbol or vision. The trick is in paying attention without believing and acting upon every thought, symbol or vision we have. In this way, we learn to discern what is real and what is imaginary, what needs action and what can be left alone to resolve itself. If we do, we may be surprised by how less tired life can make us feel.

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Fences May Make Good Neighbors, They Also Keep People Out

In response to this Torah commentary, I wrote the following:

With regard to intermarriage, the American Jewish community’s approach over the last 50 years has been a disaster and more than anything, the Rabbis and he synagogues are to blame. As a Reform Rabbi who has been performing marriages between Jews and non-Jews for the last 18 years, I know that Egon Mayer was right when he said, “Arguing against intermarriage is like arguing against the weather.” Where might we be today if Conservative and Reform synagogues and Rabbis hadn’t been saying, “No!”, wringing their hands and making our children and the non-Jewish loves of their lives not feel at home in our holy places? I know that for me, while the relationship with an engaged couple may only begin when they seek me out, I do everything in my power to ensure that this is the very beginning of a long-term relationship with me and my synagogue. “Some of my best congregants are intermarried!” Their children attend Day Schools, attend Jewish summer camps, visit and live in Israel – precisely because we welcomed them in.

I do understand and completely believe in the power and value of boundary drawing. However, there comes a point when “herding cats” requires a different kind of approach. We can draw and redraw our boundaries all we want – the reality is that our problem isn’t intermarriage. Our problem is that the experiment has failed – we have been drawing boundaries over and over and over again with the understanding that this is what you must do to be “in.” 50 years later, much of the previously affiliated Jewish community has taken us at our word, and have therefore chosen to be “out.”

“As a community abandons use of the word “should” in its vocabulary, it will lose much of its power to religiously inspire. Such a Judaism will no longer be a source for moral agitation and personal growth, but will instead serve only to confirm ideas and values already held.”

Rabbi Hoffman is correct that any philosophy of life isn’t worth much without its “shoulds.” Its just that the “shoulds” of which he speaks no longer resonate, at least not today. So we can stand on our heads all we want and claim and reclaim these shoulds, but all our children hear is, “Despite the fact that you feel in your soul that you have found your soul-mate, we’re telling you you’re a bad Jew who doesn’t care about the future of the Jewish people.” Right, wrong or indifferent, this is not the slogan of a people with a winning franchise.

If we wish to inspire with “shoulds” that will resonate with the millennial generation and all the rest, let us speak of obligations for truth, transparency, honesty, humility and forgiveness. Judaism has always had a foundational and important way to shine a light onto the world and what it needs. Let us not retreat into the fear inherent in survival as its own reward but instead recognize that the midbar wasn’t a place we were ever meant to entirely abandon – rather, it is an open and boundary-less place we carry in our hearts in order to inspire us when complacency takes hold.

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Getting Unstuck

“Life’s too short.”  We hear this phrase often.  It or its equivalent can be found on coffee cups, bumper stickers and t-shirts.  But anyone who has ever spent any time being hurt or angry or livid has probably noticed that in these moments, life is anything but too short.  The pain, whether dull or intense, makes the wheels of life feel like they are moving through deep, thick mud.  And the more we try to push them through, the deeper into the muck we sink.  

In these moments, words like “justified” or “right” too quickly become our guiding principles and with every doubling down of insisting the validity of our side, we tighten the shackles that keep us enslaved to the pain that appears to have only one salve – the full and complete apology and submission to us and our knowledge (not belief) of exactly what transpired.  

The thing is that, if we’re honest with our selves, the only thing that anger actually begets is more anger.  And the only thing that hurt begets is more hurt.  And in these moments, life moves ever more slowly and we aren’t moving forward.  The only motion available to us in these moments is “none” or “backwards.”  Life moves so slowly in these situations because we are rehashing and reliving the past, unwilling to let go of what we feel right now.  

There is really only one mechanism, one strategy to get the wheels moving again and that is, Forgiveness.  Forgiveness isn’t an act that lifts the responsibility from the shoulders of the one who hurt us or caused us pain.  Forgiveness is the activation of our own volition that releases us from staying stuck in the muck.  

Getting out from under the burden of our own anger is the first step to living a happier, more contented life that justifiably makes us regret how short but sweet our lives are.   The longer we hold on to our anger and wear it as a coat of armor from head to toe, the more we will be blind, disconnected, and hardened to the life around us.  So take off that armor and allow the vulnerability that results, to shine a light on what is true and real and important for you today and into tomorrow.

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Opportunity Knocks: an argument for embracing intermarriage in Judaism

A couple of nights ago, I sat with 7 couples raising Jewish children.  Of these seven couples, only one of them consisted of two Jewish partners.  In the other six couples raising Jewish children, one individual in each partnership with the “Jewish pedigree” had been disaffected, disconnected, or simply distanced from their Judaism.  Do you know what brought them back and into this living room?  The fact that they fell in love with and married a person of such significant depth that they themselves were inspired to dig into their Jewish treasure trove, mostly unknown to them for most of their lives.  Remember, these were seven couples, whom I invited.  I, their Rabbi, who said, when they asked me to marry them or name their babies or simply embrace them, “Yes!”

I know the statistics.  I understand the demographics projected forward regarding the “productivity predictions” for future progeny coming from liberal Jewish couples vs Orthodox Jewish couples.   The numbers speak for themselves.  But I wonder what affiliation and affection and commitment to our traditional institutions would look like today if our communities hadn’t tried to stop intermarriage (as Egon Mayer, founder of the Jewish Outreach Institute, said, “Its like arguing against the weather!”), but instead served and embraced them all along the way.   Is it possible that these numbers would look quite different?  And is it possible that to a large extent, these numbers and these conclusions are akin to blaming the victim?  “We close our doors to our children who have dared fall in love with someone who isn’t Jewish and then we blame them and hold them accountable for not returning to our doors?”  Really? 

The question is not, “How many Jews and Jewish families will there be?”  That’s an economics question.  The question, instead, is “Does Judaism matter to us today?  Does it contribute to our well-being?  Does it make us more honest about our own journeys?  Our own selves?”  I believe the answer to these latter questions is “Yes!”  And the beautiful news is that there are lots of couples and lots of young families whose lives we can touch with an invitation into both an embracing as well as authentic Judaism that can matter to their lives.  Whether they are “in-married” or “inter-married” or “Inter-faith,” “Jew-Bu,” “Hind-Jew,” or whatever hyphened identity you choose, if they are in our religious schools, pews, offices or living rooms, we have the opportunity, nay, the responsibility to embrace them and meet them where they are.  Its our good fortune that despite all the dysfunction we have sown, some of them still see Judaism as a real competitor in the marketplace of ideas.  Let’s not squander this opportunity.

If you’d like to learn more about mine and CSK’s efforts to reach out to families raising Jewish children, please email me today!

Rabbi Scott

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Why Do Jews Have Bleeding Hearts?

Without claiming a moral supremacy, it is so important to remember why Jews always tend to commit themselves to lost causes, abandoned ideals and dreams of a better world. In short, its called Tikun Olam, the demand, the one single injunction all Jews cannot deny we are called to – Repair the world.  This world.

For Jews, there is no other world. This is it. And while the Rabbis of the Talmud and our liturgy allude to a life beyond this one that we know now, it is at best an academy of eternal learning and at worst, a seeming netherworld without characterization. Some Jews speak of an actual someday Messiah, others speak of a Messianic age, and still others believe, as one author put it, “There is no Messiah and you are it.” But nowhere in Judaism or Jewish tradition do we hope for or pray for or pine away for the next chapter. This is the only chapter, the only book that matters. This one that we are living right now. And if it works out that our souls find themselves in some conscious state of a paradise to come, as we say in Texas, “Hell yeah!”

We Jews pretend that the theme of all Jewish holidays is, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” But its actually not anything like that at all. Rather, the theme of all Jewish holidays is, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s feed the ones who suffer now that we are in a place to help.” Its just that simple. What does Moses tell Israel is their first ritual act upon exiting Egypt? With our Paschal offering in hand, we are to approach the Kohen and declare, “Arami oved Avi,” “My father was a wandering Aramaen.” And with that one sentence, the spiritual cardiologist understands why there is no healing of this Jewish bleeding heart.

Our Sages work so hard to resist the temptation of the “Yay Jews Syndrome.” Celebrate at the death of the Egyptians? Not without spilling some of our wine, for the loss of any human being robs us of joy. Take solace in the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea? Not on your life. This wasn’t a miracle! It was a temporary alteration of the space time continuum that God put into place at the very beginning of creation – a bold and strong East wind blowing, awaiting the moment when Israel would need to cross into freedom.   (Never to happen again.) Not for Jewish survival alone though. But for the reminder that all people, in every place, at all times, are free and cannot be allowed to be enslaved.   Not any kind of slavery. None. Nein. Nicht! Borscht! Efes! Zilch! No way Jose!

But surely, freedom at least means that the land I purchase and till and sow and plant and harvest – as a free person, all of it is mine. Correct? No, sorry, not what the Torah says. Corners – they aren’t just for you to harvest and share what you’d like with the poor. No, the corners, no matter how hard you have worked and sacrificed, the corners don’t belong to you. And of your central harvest, you still have to give your portion for Tzedaka. Sorry, just what the Torah says.

And by the way…

Sticks and stones? – Nope, you’re responsible for your words as if they were sticks and stones.

Finders Keepers? – Sorry but thanks for playing! You find something that doesn’t belong to you, a wallet or an ox, you move mountains until it is returned to its rightful owner.

At Your Own Risk? – Survey says, Ehhh! – If it’s the desert and its just too hot for you and guests to sleep in your home and you must sleep outside on the roof, you better build a parapet because you’re liable if someone falls off your roof in their sleep.

And if you think that at least the Torah puts us in charge of the land, air and sea with which we can do whatever we choose – wrong. Cuz there’s God leading Adam through the Garden of Eden, showing off (as it were) the marvelous and beautiful natural world God has created. Turning to Adam, though, God warns and prophesies, “But till it and tend it well. For there is no world that will come to replace it.”

I believe one can see the causes listed here as equally liberal and conservative. These values are not the purview of one side of the political spectrum or the other. The truths born out of our biblical tradition insist that there is no peace when there is suffering, that there is no wealth when there are those who are hungry, that there is no safety when there are those who are in danger.

For us Jews at least, let these Biblical maxims be our measuring stick. I’m tired of the arguments that pretend that truth and righteousness belong to one side or the other. Its called “politics” for a reason – its point is to stand at one pole and distinguish yourself from someone else. It’s a way to divvy up offices but its no way to secure basic human rights for all people.  The push and pull of sides is valuable when our goal is to find our way to the middle.  For in the middle, there is a maintainable balance for everyone involved.  Do we get everything we want in the middle?   No.  But do we we get everything we need?  Surely.  And are we necessarily happy about it?  No, but that’s why we call it a practice.  And, in any case, happiness isn’t about what we don’t got.