Hear Our Voice

The Congregation Shma Koleinu Blog.

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A Flag, A Candle and a Pitcher of Water

This is one of my favorite teachings: “I don’t care what denomination you’re a member of, as long as you’re ashamed of it.” Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is a sage of our day who understands and teaches, that no matter our affiliation, be it religious, political, national or academic, the moment that survival becomes the primary rationale, is the moment when the soul of the cause that gave it life is dead, or has at least been reconciled to the garbage heap.

Every cause develops rituals, beliefs, ways of being. In the moment when they are created and soon after, these rituals resonate with the earth shattering but life affirming energy they are meant to represent. But soon after, even within one or two generations, the rituals can quickly ring hollow unless they are called upon to both root us in memory as well as inspire us to envision a different (and better) tomorrow. Every flag, candle, pitcher of water, spice, dish, prayer and song can suffer this meaning-gutting.

If we are to rise, arrive, experience, envision, imagine and dream a different world, we must exit Egypt once again. Exodus isn’t a one-time historical or even one-time personal experience. It’s a multi-layered, repetitive and often tedious process of reexamining everything we believed to be true. Often, we’ll find we still indeed believe what we do believe. But often enough, we will find that what we did believe no longer stands up to the test of deeper or simply, more mature and deeper inquiry. And ay! there’s the rub. For the question at that moment comes down to courage, and whether or not we can muster enough of it to shift and stand in a new truth. One that doesn’t discount what we used to believe, but nonetheless understands that the worth of the old truth is calculated by how well we are able to leave it behind, leaving Egypt once again.


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Let it Go!

Why is it that haters won’t, in the end, stand up for what they believe? Why is it that Jew haters are the first to champion Holocaust Revisionism that attempts to prove that it didn’t happen? You’re a Nazi! You hate Jews! Why on earth would you try to erase that history? Shouldn’t you be proud of it? And why do racist southerners so boldly attempt to reframe the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression claiming that it was their “way of life” that was being attacked? That the Confederate Flag can somehow be washed of the blood, violence and savagery of slavery, over which the South went to war? Shouldn’t you be proud of that heritage? Why do you hide from it?

Because the truth is that your hatred for Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Women and Gays is just a foil for forgetting about the hate you feel for yourself. The hate that someone in your family injected into you. Your hate is a shield from your own shame. It’s a deflective measure that you believe will make you feel loved and secure. But it won’t. There’s only one path to feeling loved and secure. And its through putting down your shields and taking off your armor and making yourself vulnerable to the truth that you know and feel deep within yourself – otherwise it wouldn’t frighten you so much – that there is fundamentally no difference between you and the Jews, the Blacks, the Latinos, the Asians, the Women and the Gays. That’s what you know and what you feel so deep down in your heart, its almost unbearable because its so counter to what you have been taught to believe. But the truth is the truth. The Bible doesn’t and has never taught that White people are better than anyone else. And the reason why it’s a lot tougher to succeed as a white person in our day and age (truth be told, it really isn’t – white men still represent the vast majority of wealth, political and corporate power in this country) is because we have evolved and so has our society. Not against you. Just in leveling the field so that others don’t have to begin 100 yards behind you.

Here’s the thing – I really do have great empathy for you. I know there is only one cause, one emotional response that leads to this kind of hatred and vitriol and that is the deep and powerful suffering you live with. And its awful and I am so sorry it is the illness that has taken over your heart. But my empathy for you only goes so far. We cannot allow it to fester and take over the body politic comprised mostly of good, decent, honest people who understand that all of us are children of the same God. And guess what? Despite your despicable behavior, while like a parent, God may not like you very much right now, God does still love you, just the same. (I know, hard to imagine!) And God will forgive you if you can let go of the hate and allow it to flow out of your heart and into the air. Just let it go. Just let it go. I know its so hard to give up something that is so ingrained but as long as you hold onto it, you’re causing so much hurt, so much pain, so much sadness, and I really don’t believe that that is what you believe will make God smile and make the world a better place.   Admit it. Let go of the hatred and you will feel so much abundant love.

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What this Jew thinks…

To be clear, there are no good Nazis. Period. End of story. Assuming that one can make a solid argument that there is real and sustained and organized violence coming from the left, do we not believe that there is a difference between those who are fighting for freedom, equality, access and fairness for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, and religion and those who are fighting to exclude people from freedom, equality, access and fairness based upon their race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, and religion? You better believe there is.

So here’s a response you may find helpful. Find for yourself two small pieces of paper. On one of them, write, “”I am but dust and ashes,” and on the other, write, “The world was created for my sake alone.” Place one in one pocket, and one in the other. These are the only meaningful poles of human existence and all of us both suffer and find inspiration from them. Each and every one of us, regardless of all of the criteria above, is everything and nothing. There is no moral equivalency that can justify actions taken against others that seek to deny their human volition. When someone declares that I, a Jew, am taking “their” place; that I am breathing their air; that I have replaced them – because I hail from the people who insisted that each of us human beings, including them, is created Btzelem Elohim, in God’s image, I am offended! I am pushed to anger! I am ready to blow! But then I remember of their small-mindedness and I am relieved. They’re not hateful or intolerant or race mongers or anti-anythings – they are just sad and small and pathetic and any words beyond these, even the most negative I can imagine, are more than they deserve.

So close your FB and Twitter and other social media feeds and stop obsessing over the hatred of others; it will only make you more hateful. Walk out of your offices or houses or ballparks or hotel rooms and pay it forward. Find someone you don’t know, maybe someone who feels very much like a stranger to you and offer your hand or your heart or your ear. Go beyond their surface appearance and listen deeply for their tzelem Elohim. Its right there, maybe shining forth from their cheeks, but certainly its right there just skin-deep, within their bones and sinews, pumping through their veins. It’s the divinity that makes our human lives worth living only as long as we guarantee that it is not ours alone.  Its not even a gift; at best it’s a lease – that inhabits every human being who lives and has ever lived. Pain is pain. Love is love. Fear is fear. Hope is hope. There is no “deserving” when it comes to human existence – God gives us life and sustains us and brings us to this very place and space and moment – will we recognize the truth that this is our common human inheritance? Or will we miss that altogether? And allow fear and hate and anger and rage and shame to swallow us whole for the sake of “knowing” we are right? I know where I fall. How about you?

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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.