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The Congregation Shma Koleinu Blog.

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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.




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“Context Clues” – These And These are the Words of the Living God

Hillel and Shammai, two of our towering rabbinic figures, didn’t agree on much. Shammai was a stickler for rules and Hillel was far more flexible. Shammai drew a line in the sand and Hillel would find a way around it while still respecting the spirit of the law. The Rabbis asked if despite their great division, were their children allowed to marry each other. The answer was a resounding yes, for they were still Jews, they were still menschen, they were still united by a love for Israel. “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim” – “These AND these are the words of the living God,” our Sages insisted, no matter how divided their two schools of thought may have been.

Eilu v ‘Eilu – These AND These – we don’t hear enough of this these days. Not just since November 8 or January 20, but also for a long time, our politics, schools of thought, cultures have caused greater and greater divisions between us all. And this is terrible for all of us – the “losers” AND the “winners.” Except in rare instances, long term peace – not the absence of war but peace – a wholesome, affirming, testament to the best of our Divine Images is what we pray for and must redouble our efforts to bring to fruition.

I don’t care how certain and affirmed and sure you are about your thoughts on Israel but a real peace will only come from the deep listening to the other side, the stories in which they understand their place, the contexts of the events that happen from sunrise to sunrise.

Please join your fellow members of the Houston Jewish Community for a “Conversation About Israel.” Join J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami and JINSA President and CEO Dr. Michael Makovsky for a conversation about securing Israel’s future.

Wednesday, February 8, 7:30 pm – @ the Becker Theatre at the Emery Weiner School.

Only when we hear both sides, can we find our way to the middle, which is the only solid ground we have.

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“Context Clues” – Caring for the Stranger

The amazing thing about the Torah is that it doesn’t pull any punches. Our patriarchs and matriarchs are great because of the extraordinary experiences of their lives, not because they always got it right! As a matter of fact, the Torah takes us to great pains to experience the ways in which they really miss the mark at times!

Try this little ditty from The Book of Genesis on for size:
Scene1: Sarah gives Hagar (her handmaiden) to Abraham (her husband) to be “built up through Hagar’s loins” as Sarah cannot become pregnant. Ishmael is born.
Scene 2: Then, a few years later, miraculously, Sarah does become pregnant with Abraham’s child and gives birth to Isaac.
Scene 3: Sarah is no longer happy to see Ishmael, as she does not want him to inherit HER son’s inheritance. So, she tells Abraham to send them away, to never be seen by them again.
Scene 4: Abraham does what he is told, saddles his donkey early in the morning and takes Hagar and Ishmael out to the wilderness, seemingly to die. Their one skin of water dries up and Ishmael’s cries rise to the Heavens. “And God hears the cries of the boy where he is.” God hears the cries of the tired, the poor and the hungry yearning to be free…” and saves them from their expulsion.

The name “Hagar” can also be pronounced, “Ha-ger” meaning “The Stranger.”
The name “Yishmael” means “God will hear.”

“Yishmael ha-ger” – “God will hear the stranger” even when their pleas fall on deaf ears. But, remember folks, we are God’s ears, God’s hands, God’s heart.

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Getting to Seattle

I won’t be able to articulate this illustrative metaphor with the poetry and flair of its author, Leonard Pitts, but it certainly bears repeating, especially today, as we honor Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Last night at an MLK Commemoration, columnist Leonard Pitts spoke on the divide that exists between white people and black people in terms of their often vastly divergent views of the state of racial equality in our country. He explained that this divergence of views could be likened to the following:

If a white man and a black man set out together for a road trip from Miami to Seattle and they stop in Kansas City, the white man would step out of the car, stretch and say, “Man, we have covered some serious ground!” However, the black man would respond with, “Maybe, but we’re heading for Seattle.”

It would seem that like all things, its a matter of perspective. However, in a society in which there is a true need to affirm that black lives matter, perspective is only useful when the goal seems too far off to believe in. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that in a free society, not everyone is guilty, but all are responsible. So my question for me tonight is this: “What is my response to a world that still places too much weight on the color of someone’s skin, the darker it gets, the larger the bias looms?”

I hate filling out demographic data that asks me to check a box for my “race.” Inevitably, as a Jewish man with family hailing from Hungary and Russia, whose roots in America are not much more than a century old, checking “Caucasian” never seems to make sense. And checking “White” seems rather anomalous because last I checked, it’s a color that looks nothing like me. It rarely even resembles the Christian folks in this country who are often wrongly presumed to be the descendants of the Pilgrims. Yet, check it we must, for fear of having an incomplete application! Oh dear! And this is why Kansas City seems like a meaningful distance on that road trip. White people (meaning all those who have the “privilege”) checking that box, are so enmeshed in the privilege of being White, its like fish in water. They don’t even realize the entire world around them is their home turf.

Now, I do not want to give the impression that being Jewish and fair skinned hasn’t bestowed upon me undeserved privilege as well. Just the invitation to walk into a store in Bellaire or River Oaks and catch no notice but for my role there as a customer, is an unwittingly bestowed privilege my fair skin provides. I listened to Mr Pitts last evening as he spoke on the reality that 1/3 of all black men in this country are under the supervision of the justice system in one way or another. 1/3! And anybody who still has the chutzpah to declare or even just harbor the notion that this is because of something unique to black men, has got to wake up. If there is one thing that I have learned during my years as a Rabbi, it is this: the only fundamental differences between people of different races, between people period, is a matter of short term and long-term circumstance. We human beings aren’t that complicated – our skin color has nothing to do with our inherent response to life. And anyone who truly believes it does, hasn’t spent any meaningful time with people who are different than they. “Others,” “different folks,” “foreigners,” – guess what? Every single one of them and we are created b’Tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. That is the whole Torah – all the rest is commentary, go and learn it!

Mr Pitts shared a social media comment he received that went something like this: “Slavery’s been over for 150 years. Shouldn’t black people have gotten over it by now?” And all I could think about was that we Jews have a mostly fictional story of our having been enslaved over 3000 years ago, and we tell and retell that story, the story of our affliction, in every prayer service, at every Shabbat, in most every holiday.   And for 7 straight days every Spring, we remind ourselves:

“In every generation, each person must see him/herself as if he/she came forth out of the land of Egypt.”

Why? Well, one could say, “come on Jews, its been 3000 years and there isn’t any extant evidence that it took place the way the Torah describes anyway. Aren’t y’all over it by now?” But the answer for us is, “No.” Because the story of the Exodus from Egypt is not the story of freedom. Rather, it is THE story that teaches the ease with which our own pre-conceived notions, biases, self-centeredness, and fear can enslave us and then adjure us so readily to take it out on people whom we have determined are different. As Haman told King Ahashverosh in the Book of Esther, “there is a certain people who live in your kingdom. They look and act and dress different and it’s not in your Highness’ interest to tolerate them.” We Jews act to our detriment when we tell and retell our stories as if they are only about us.   Our stories matter if they are the stories of all who struggle for equal treatment under the law and equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and when we double down on our efforts to ensure that these rights do indeed remain unalienable from all people regardless of the boxes they so happen to need to check!

Thank you Mr Leonard Pitts for your wisdom and for your challenge. This Rabbi heard you loud and clear.





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Midday Message: On Happiness and Gratitude

We tend to believe that it’s the happy people who are grateful.  

However, its really the other way around: It’s the grateful people who are happy.

All of us know people who have all the things one might imagine would make them happy but they’re miserable.   And if we’re lucky, we’ve come across folks who, despite challenging and even dire circumstances, express happiness.  The trick, according to Teacher and Philosopher, David Steindl-Rast, is gratitude.  Its as simple as that.  But, as they say, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it.

Happiness just isn’t about stuff.  And the more we think it is, the more “elation” we may feel once we get “the more stuff,” the more we are just feeding an addiction to scarcity.  I know that our economy works on the presumption that rarity is value; that the more dollars there are in the market, the less they’re worth; the more students who score a 35 on the ACT, the less its worth; the more friends we have, the more we are worth.  But worth and happiness do not go hand in hand.  

Which is why we need philosophy/religion/spiritual traditions.  The core of every one of them, the starting point for all fruitful thought exercises, is the infinite worth that each of us carries within.  The great irony of our lives, ever more present with every new technology, is that the very things that are meant to improve our lives, imprison us in a never-ending search for, “but when will it be enough?”  

There is no “enough-ness” that will ever be found outside of ourselves.  There is no completion that happens anywhere but within our hearts and minds.  There is no fulfillment out there that we can’t already feel in our hands.  And the gateway to this enoughness begins and ends with active gratitude.  Not just being “open” to it when it strikes us, but engaging in a life committed to finding it, expressing it and feeling it.  If you make it a goal of identifying 5 things a day and feel gratitude for them, you will be a happier person.  It is that simple.  And yes its tough, but you can do it.  There’s no doubt in my mind.

This has been a “Mid-Day-Message” from Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss.

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