Word from Our Rabbi

Unity and Diversity in Judaism and America, May 2021

For people of faith, perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that the One God brought into existence a creation that abounds with amazing diversity. Indeed, the more complex systems or species become, the more diverse they become. My Rabbi, Morton Kaplan, would often use the creation story in Genesis 1 & 2 as a springboard to extol the beauty and necessity of diversity not only in nature, but among humankind as well. The Jewish faithtradition may just be the most diverse of all the world’s religions. Just think of all the changes our religion has gone through in the 4000 years when from what began as a covenant with one nomadic family expanded into the diverse, world-wide system of laws, traditions, and beliefs, that Judaism embodies today. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that Judaism’s holy texts are “anthologies of arguments: arguments between God and humans, humans and God, humans and one another.” Rabbi Sacks maintains, and I completely agree, that diversity can be a source of strength, not a weakness. Where you find disagreement and argument you will also find passion ( https://rabbisacks.org/jewish-unity-published-in-jewish-action/ ).

Perhaps one of the most famous “clashes” in our people’s history is the rivalry between the Schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. Hillel has been called, “Judaism’s model human being.” This is because his life encapsulated so many of the values of Judaism in the time period in which he lived. Hillel was a scholar of the Mishnaic Period. He is known for having overcome a background of poverty and ascending to a life of devotion to serving humankind and studying Torah. Hillel is credited with originating the Jewish version of the Golden Rule. According to tradition, a non-Jew approached Hillel and asked him to define the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot. Hillel responded, “What is hateful unto you do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary—now go and study” (Shabbat 31a). As a result of Hillel’s diligent studies he developed a forceful intellect. Many scholars credit him with the introduction of the concept of tikkun olam, the performing acts of Torah for the ethical bettering of the world. Hillel developed this idea in the context of his concern that the rote implementation of Torah law was actually degrading his peers’ motivation and efforts to help the poor and the oppressed. Hillel is credited with a large number of the words of wisdom which are found in the tractate Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Elders). Hillel is remembered in history as being the perennial opponent of Shammai (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1991, pp. 120-122).

The Talmud records numerous disputes between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, then later of disputes between Hillel’s disciples and those of Shammai. It is generally agreed that Hillel’s motivations in the implementation of Torah were less strict and according to the “letter of the law,” and more motivated by compassion for all human beings. Shammai, on the other hand, was known for the strictness of his Torah interpretation, and his disregard for the effect it would have on human beings. Rabbinical rulings of the time period almost always went in favor of the school of Hillel. But there is a very interesting story recorded in the Talmud: “A heavenly voice declared: the words of both schools [Hillel and Shammai] are the words of the living God, but the law follows the rulings of the school of Hillel because the Hillelites were gentle and modest, and study both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before their own” (Eruvin 13b). It is interesting to note that rulings went in the favor of the school of Hillel on grounds of morality and compassion even when ritual matters of the Torah were being decided. This shift toward ethics over ritual not only reinforces the message of the prophets but may have also been the savior of Judaism after the Roman destruction.

In our own day here in America, we find our politicians and pundits lamenting the fact that our country seems more divided and polarized than it has been in recent history. I would ask whether we might turn this current diversity and disagreement into a strength today, just as Judaism has managed to do for its 4000 year history. Our nation was founded on the ideals of negotiation and compromise. I believe it is just our ability to compromise that has made our nation as free and prosperous as it has been. I truly believe that when ideas clash and are worked through, the most even path forward can be struck.

We do, however, need to acquire or reacquire the ability to disagree without demonizing or “otherizing” our opponents. In his article, “Jewish Diversity & Unity,” Rabbi Sacks proposes three what I would call “rules for fair argument or disagreement.” First, do not see an opposing point of view as being an attack on you personally. In other words, try to keep disagreements or differences within the realm of opposing ideas or principles, not as moral judgments. I know, sometimes that is hard to do. Second, try to defend your own ideas without attacking others on a personal level. Most human beings are sensitive to criticism and tend to take things personally. Can we each state our own case in such a way as to avoid that human tendency? Remember, the Mishnah says, “The one who passes judgment on his/her fellow is judged first” (Bava Kama 93a:3). Third, it is crucial to consider that Adonai loves, cares for, and sustains all of Hasheem’s creatures despite our many differences, disagreements, weaknesses, and failings. It has never been acceptable in Judaism to expect Adonai’s love and forgiveness for ourselves without extending that same love and forgiveness to our fellow humans (Rabbi Sacks, ibid.).

You know I talk often about how the Prophet Isaiah, in line with most of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, gives us some breathtakingly positive glimpses of humankind’s future. A particularly powerful and oft-quoted prediction is Isa. 2:4: “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” As I think of the incredible strides humankind has made in the areas of science, technology, medicine, and human rights in just the past 100 years, I am optimistic enough to hope that the vision of the Hebrew Prophets is, in fact, possible. I tell my students frequently that the American constitutional experiment, in particular, has yielded amazingly beneficial results. Never before in history have so many individuals been afforded such equal rights under the law or such broad access to food, shelter, medical care, and wealth. I believe that our country’s movement in such a positive direction is principally because it was founded and has continued to operate on the deeply embedded Judeo-Christian values of honesty, hard work, and acts of generosity and kindness.

I close with one of my favorite quotes from the Gates of Repentance High Holiday prayer book:

    When will redemption come?
      When we master the violence that fills our world.
      When we look upon others as we would have them look upon us.
      When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves
      (p. 103).
Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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Are You Counting the Omer???, April 2021

Who would have thought that for a second year of Covid-19 would force us to have a virtual second night Passover Seder? Last year I missed being together for this traditional event. This year I really missed it. The Community Seder has always been one of the high points of our year. The TBS Sisterhood does an amazing job each year of coordinating and preparing the food and of arranging and decorating the tables. The food service, under the leadership of Glenn and April Eckard, just gets better from year to year. The camaraderie and unity among the guests of many faith traditions is always palpable. And, the recounting of the miraculous story of our deliverance from Egypt never gets old. Most of you know, I am sure, that the celebration of Passover also begins the lead-up to our next major holiday— the Sefirat Ha’Omer, the Counting of the Omer. The omer was a unit of measurement used in Temple times for the bringing of grain offerings. The Counting of the Omer is the traditional practice of marking the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.

I have often commented on the lack of attention the holiday of Shavuot receives in the modern progressive synagogue. Biblically speaking, in the list of holidays presented completely for the first time in the Torah in Leviticus 23, Shavuot receives its fair share of attention. Seven verses are devoted to the method for counting the time leading up to Shavuot and to the explanation of how the holiday is to be observed. That compares with only two verses in Leviticus 23 devoted to Rosh Hashanah. In fact, that holiday is not even called Rosh Hashanah in the Torah, but rather “Shabbaton Zikaron Teruah—a Sabbath memorial of the trumpet blast.” Rosh Hashanah became the holiday’s name in the post-biblical period. And yet in modern times synagogue seats have been filled to overflowing on Rosh Hashanah, but on Shavuot, one finds meager attendance when there is a service at all.

Perhaps it is that Shavuot does not have any prominent symbols that we can cling to—no shofar, no sukkah, no Hanukah gifts or menorah, no matzah. In fact, the holiday does not even have a real name. The term, Shavuot, in Hebrew, only refers to the weeks that we are instructed to count leading up to the observance of the holiday (Lev. 23:15-16; Deut. 16:9-10). It seems ironic that on this oft ignored holiday the rabbis of the Talmud tell us that Israel’s most precious gift was bestowed. According to our sages, it was at the time of Shavuot that the holy Torah was given on Mount Sinai (Talmud Shabbat 86b-87b, see also Ex. 19:1 ff.).

The Torah instructs us in Leviticus 23 that Shavuot is to be a full-fledged yom tov, on the order of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, first day of Sukkoth, and the first day of Pesach. The Torah states, “On this same day you shall make a proclamation as well; you are to have a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work. It is to be a perpetual statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations.” In honor of the giving of the Torah on this day, it has become the custom of many observant Jews to spend the entire night of Shavuot engaged in the study of Torah. Referred to in Hebrew as, “Tikkun Leil Shavuot—an act of completion/perfection on the night of Shavuot.” The allnight study traditionally ends at daybreak when the participants turn their attention to the saying of Shachrit, morning prayers (Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “ABC’s of Shavuot,” http://www.aish.com). The saying of morning prayers on Shavuot has become an event of amazing proportions in modern Jerusalem, where several hundreds of thousands of Torah students conclude their evening studies by walking to the Kotel, the Western Wall, to engage in morning prayers. This event has occurred since the Six Day War in 1967. While the Temple Mount was liberated in early June of that year, Jews were not allowed into the area where the temple once stood for security reasons. On the holiday of Shavuot in 1967, the Western Wall was first opened to visitors, and upwards of 200,000 Israelis spontaneously crowded into that area (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 593).

Another widespread and ancient custom on Shavuot is the eating of dairy foods only. While as many as four possible reasons are given in support of this custom, none is truly definitive. It may connect to the biblical book Song of Songs which is allegorically applied to the Torah, stating, “Your lips...drip honey; honey and milk are under your tongue….” (4:11). Alternately, a commandment in the Torah, Exodus 23:19, juxtaposes language connected with Shavuot, “the choice first-fruits of your soil,” with the famous, “you shall not boil a kid in the milk of its mother,” the basis for our prohibition of mixing meat and milk. There is, of course, also the Torah reference to the Holy Land as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 33:3). This reference has been cited as a possible reason. Perhaps the most interesting possibility of all is the idea that upon receiving the Torah, the children of Israel grasped the importance of the laws of kashrut. So they ate only dairy until the laws of sh’chita (kosher slaughter) could be more fully expounded (Simmons, “ABC’s of Shavuot”).

In the Mishnaic Period (100 B.C.E.-200 C.E.), there was much debate regarding the appropriate Torah reading for the holiday of Shavuot. Some of our sages preferred Deuteronomy 16 which recounts the instructions to the people of Israel to count for themselves seven weeks and then to celebrate the “Chag Shavuot—Feast of Weeks” to the LORD their God. That reading was usually paired with a Haftorah portion from the book of Habakkuk. Another group of sages favored the reading of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai contained in Exodus chapters 19 and 20. This reading was followed by the mysterious “Chariot” Haftorah portion of Ezekiel 1. In places outside of the land of Israel, where the holiday of Shavuot is observed for a two day period, both customs are followed in deference. The book of Ruth is also traditionally read on Shavuot, presumably in honor of Ruth an ancestor of King David who is connected with Shavuot in that, according to tradition, he was both born and died on that same holiday. (Rabbi Hillel Hayyim Lavery-Yisraeli, “Shavuot:The Day of the Giving of the Torah?” www.ConservativeYeshiva.org).

As I have pointed out many times, the miraculous redemption of the children of Israel from Egypt and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai were part of an overarching Divine plan for humankind. That plan was to spread the way of God through molding a particular family group into a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), who through observance of the Creator’s laws would eventually become “a light to the nations, so that [G-d’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6) Our rabbis often referred to the covenant at Sinai between the Almighty and the nation of Israel as a contract or even a marriage. In the words of Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, “The Torah was the symbol of our bond, the gift God granted to the betrothed to consummate their relationship. The Talmud (Berachot 57a), discussing the verse ‘[the Torah] is the heritage (morasha) of the congregation of Jacob’ (Deut. 33:4), comments, ‘Do not read “morasha” (heritage) but “me’orasa” (betrothed).’ We are wedded to God. And as a result, we are wedded to the Torah, God’s wisdom” (“Shavuot: Crazy, Stupid Love,” http://www.aish.com).

There is no question that the more we study the laws and precepts of the holy Torah, the more we understand the mind of the Creator G-d in whose image we were made. It follows that the more we apply the Torah’s commandments, statutes, and acts of loving-kindness to our own daily walk, the closer we will be connected not only to God, but also to our fellow man and woman. The Almighty has a plan for the restoration of the cosmos—tikkun olam. The gift of the Torah, given at the time of Shavuot some 3500 years ago, is a key element of that plan.

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"With What Shall I Come Before Adonai?", March 2021

As we transition from February into March this year, 2021, Adar to Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, we move from the book of Shemot (Exodus) to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) in the Torah reading cycle. Now, as you know, the writer of Leviticus devotes many chapters and verses to a detailed explanation of the offering and slaughter of animal sacrifices. This section of the Torah can be difficult subject matter for the modern progressive Jewish reader. What is interesting to me is that as far back as the first century of the Common Era, our wise sages began to associate Haftorah readings with these sacrificial passages from the Hebrew Prophets that were quite critical of, if not antithetical to, the sacrificial practice.

Traditionally, the Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible (Nevi’im in Hebrew) extended from the book of Joshua through the book of Malachi. These books have traditionally been seen as unfolding the history of Israel from the time it began its occupation of the land promised to Abraham and Sarah, until the time when the tribe of Judah was returning from exile in Babylon. The prophetic section is divided into two portions by scholars, the “Former Prophets—Nevi’im Rishonim,” and the “Latter Prophets—Nevi’im Aharonim.” In general, the Former Prophets could be classed as historical books and cover the time period from the conquest of the land, until the Assyrian captivity of Israel and the Babylonian captivity of Judah. The books of the Latter Prophets are more literary in nature. These Prophets would have been active from a time during the incursions of Assyria and Babylon to the time of the return from the Babylonian captivity. The Latter Prophets are often subdivided into two categories, based largely on the size of the prophetic books. The term Major Prophets has come into general scholarly use when referring to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and The Twelve—Shenim Asar in Hebrew, called the “Minor Prophets” in some sources, consisting of Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/prophets-neviim/).

A majority of these Prophets seem to have so little regard for the ritual or ceremonial commands of the Torah, particularly for animal sacrifice, that biblical scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries speculated that these prophetic works may have been written before the finalized version of the Torah. While that view has been largely abandoned it is instructive to see that the Prophets had such a negative view of the sacrificial practices of the time. See for examples:

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6).

“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Isa 1:11).

“Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice peace offerings, I will have no regard for them” (Amos 5:22).

“With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? [Implied NO!] God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:6-8).

Perhaps the most vociferous opponent of the sacrificial system was Jeremiah who states very plainly: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you will be my people; and you will walk in the way which I command you, that it may be well with you’” (Jeremiah 7:21-23). [Bold mine, of course!]

This anti-sacrificial sentiment is found also in Psalms:

“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require” (Ps 40:6).

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings” (Ps 51:16).

If I had to summarize the overall teaching of the Hebrew Prophets in a few sentences, it is that devotion to Adonai and the turning from other gods is the primary duty of the Israelite nation and that any engagement in idolatry would result in punishment and exile. The so-called Latter Prophets also pick up the theme of devotion to Adonai and opposition to idolatry, but with a much greater emphasis on expressing faith in Adonai through the performance of acts of charity, lovingkindness, and social justice. To the Latter Prophets, Israel maintained a special place among the nation as “God’s witnesses” and thus as “a light to the nations.” It was the vision of the Prophets that once a majority of the Israelite nation, and by extension the entire world, began engaging in acts of charity and social justice, a time of peace and prosperity would dawn upon the world, ushering in, as it were, a golden or “messianic” age. The cause and the effect are most concisely summarized by the Prophet Micah, who says, “God has told you, O human, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (v. 6-8). And, when a critical mass of humanity achieves this, according to Micah:

    And it shall come about in the last days that the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains. And it will be raised above the hills, and the peoples will stream to it. And many nations will come and say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the LORD and to the house of the God of Jacob, that God may teach us about God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion will go forth the Torah, even the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And God will judge between the many peoples and render decisions for mighty, distant nations. Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war. And each of them will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, with none to make them afraid….
                                                                                                                                                                                          Micah 4:1-4

Ken ye’hi ratzon!!—May this happen soon and in our day!

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A Book Review: The Jew in the Lotus By Rodger Kamenetz, February 2021

“...in our society, to be obsessed with a vision about how to make a better automobile makes you a genius, but to be obsessed with the vision about the nature of reality makes you a nut.” (The Jew in the Lotus, 1994, p. 236).

There has always been a noted connection between Tibetan Buddhism and Judaism. As far as we know, the first Westerner to embrace Buddhism in America was a Jew, Charles Strauss. He announced his affiliation with Buddhism in a lecture at the World Conference on Religions in 1883. During the 1960s and 70s a very large number of individuals from a Jewish background turned to Buddhism for spirituality and enlightenment. Today in American universities, up to 30% of the Buddhist scholars on the faculty of the various institutions have a Jewish background. Consider this against the backdrop of the fact that Jews make up less than one half of 1% of the world population (pp. 8-27).

Some scholars believe that Judaism and Buddhism had contact in the ancient past. Unquestionably, ancient Israel knew about India. There are many remarkable similarities between the legends about Buddhist teachers and legends about King Solomon. One can even find words from Sanskrit and Tamil in the Hebrew Bible. And, while monasticism has never caught on in Judaism, it is well-known that in the third century BCE, the Buddhist Indian emperor, Ashoka, made a concerted missionary effort to the West. He sent emissaries to both Syria and Egypt, possibly sewing the early seeds of monasticism, which is a central teaching, and Buddhism. Other scholars trace this early contact between Buddhism and Judaism to Alexandria in the first century where there would have been a constant stream of merchants traveling east to west, and west to east. And, while Judaism did not adopt the concept of monasticism, it has been pointed out that Tibetan Buddhists and Jews are the only two religious traditions that incorporate “formal debate” as a part of their religious training (pp. 68-70, 273).

In October 1990 Rodger Kamenetz traveled to Dharamsala, along with a contingent of Jewish representatives. In a remote hill town in the north of India, they met the XIV Dalai Lama of Tibet. The interest of the Dalai Lama in the meeting was, among other things, to question the Jews as to how their religion had not only survived in exile for almost 2000 years, but how it had thrived. This topic must have been particularly close to his heart in that the Chinese drove his Tibetan Buddhist people from Tibet to North India in 1959. Mr. Kamenetz’ personal interest in the mission was to determine what it was about Tibetan Buddhism that had attracted so many souls away from the Jewish tradition.

The Jewish delegation to Dharamsala was comprised of noted individuals from many strands of Judaism. There were both men and women from an Orthodox perspective, men and women from a Jewish Renewal perspective, as well as scholars, Reform Jews, and Jewish individuals who had converted to Buddhism. Through the interactions of each of these people with the Dalai Lama and other monks of Tibetan Buddhism, Kamenetz learned as much about his own Jewish faith as he did about Tibetan Buddhism. In his own words, “the dialogue with the Tibetans has heightened my awareness of the precious value and fragility of all our world’s ancient spiritual traditions” (p.287).

Particularly exciting to Kamenetz was the input from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who was able to enunciate connections between Judaism and Buddhism by drawing on his Hasidic mystical background and training. This was an aspect of Judaism to which Kamenetz had not been exposed (pp. 72-90). Yet, it was actually an Orthodox rabbi among the group that brought Kamenetz the insight that pluralism might just be God’s will. That rabbi asked, “Can you learn to propagate your religion without using stereotypes and negative images of the other? If we can’t, all religions will go down the tubes—and good riddance—because we’re a source of hatred and demolition of other people” (p. 110). This idea, of course, resonated strongly with the Buddhist hosts, as tolerance is a very strong Buddhist tradition.

Through his interactions, Kamenetz became convinced “…that Judaism may have this great stuff in its attic. But Buddhism has it here and now” (p. 115). He did, however, caution that there is an inherent danger in comparing any “idealized version” of a new religion with the “gritty and lived version” of one’s birth religion (p. 144). He lamented that so many Jews had left traditional Judaism and turned toward Buddhism. This made him wonder whether, in fact, Judaism remains a viable spiritual path today. Kamenetz noted that most of the Jewish individuals who turn to Buddhism had been from secular Jewish backgrounds. There is no question that in the rational American reform movement of the 20th century, more emotional and mystical aspects of the Hasidic tradition have been suppressed. He believes there are historical reasons for that. Most of the Jews who came to America had already abandoned Jewish practice in the old country. Upon arriving on American soil, they attempted to blend in either by becoming nominally Christian or nonreligious. Many nonreligious Jews have come to the conclusion that the very concept of God is harmful and has had disturbing effects on the personalities of those who believe (p. 153). Kamenetz ultimately concluded that the goal of both Judaism and Mahayana Buddhism is transformation. “Our [Judaism’s] transformation is dominantly of the world, but to transform the world means to transform ourselves too. Whereas their [Buddhism’s] transformation is primarily of themselves, and by so doing they transform the world” (p. 182). Considering this overlap, he ultimately wondered whether those Jews who had converted to Buddhism had been lost to Judaism at all. He affirmed, “If they convert to being good human beings through whatever process, you haven’t lost them in any real sense that counts” (p.229).

Kamenetz, who began his treatise by identifying himself as a secular and scientific Jew, came to the realization “…that at some very deep level, which I had never allowed myself to express, I had felt lonely for God myself for many years” (p.252). Thus he ultimately concluded that not only the religion of Judaism would survive, but that it must survive. He began to see Judaism, with its emphasis on the here and now, on family values, and on bringing the holy down to the earth, as a perfect vehicle for spirituality. He says, “I realize that the religion of my birth is not just an ethnicity or an identity, but a way of life, a spiritual path, as profound as any other. That path has three parts: prayer, study, and acts of lovingkindness” (p.280). Through his interaction with Buddhism, Kamenetz did perceive that Judaism must adapt to modern life by being more inclusive, by granting full equality for women, by granting full dignity to gays and lesbians, and in its pursuit of a more livable environment. He believes that all these things can be attained while, at the same time, being more respectful of tradition, not less. He emphasizes that Jewish renewal must be pluralistic, that is, open to dialogue with all Jews and with all other religions (pp. 284-290).

Kamenetz closes by suggesting that a good place for modern Jews to start might be in reconsidering the two things that modern secular Jews discarded first, observing Shabbat and keeping kosher. He saw in the Shabbat “…the whole idea that one day was going to be out of time, and one day was going to be the statement of what it was like after the Messiah came, and one day was the real wedding celebration … the use of time to go beyond time” (p. 269). He posits further that “vegetarian kosher” might be seen “as a matter of health, environmentalism, and spiritual practice” (p. 286). He definitely believes that Jewish prayer must be deepened through the use of personal and corporate meditation. He claims to call for “a kind of neoHasidism” which he defines as “…an infusion of Jewish spiritual fervor in prayer and blessings and observances….” (p. 287). Because I cannot find better words myself, I will close this book report in Rodger Kamenetz’s own powerful words, “As Jews we do not have to choose between family life and the monastery—we have a blueprint for combining both, if only we will follow it. … People are very much into bringing more fun into Judaism, but fun is not joy. Joy is ecstatic knowledge with all parts of one’s being, an integrated way of knowing. It’s truly a quest. It is time now to continue that quest—an essential to Jewish survival” p. 289).

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A New Year, A New Book of the Torah!, January 2021

As we head into a new civil/Roman year, 2021, we also turn to a new book in the Torah reading cycle. Leaving Genesis (Bereishit) on Sabbath, January 9th, we will begin to read from the book of Exodus (Shemot). Thus, we consider once again the exciting story of Moses and the liberation of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. We begin in Torah portion Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1, with the appearance of Adonai to Moses in the “burning bush” on Mount Horeb (Ex. 3:6). It is here that Moses receives his first commission to go to Pharaoh and to the children of Israel. The Almighty reiterates the commission to Moses and Aaron a second time, to go to Pharaoh requesting freedom for the Israelite slaves, in Torah portion Va’eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35. This is followed by a brief genealogical discussion, tracing the descendants of just three of the sons of Jacob(Israel): Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. It is obviously interjected to establish the pedigree of Moses and Aaron and to identify Aaron’s descendants who were to become priests, or Cohenim (Ex. 6:14-25).

After Moses and Aaron’s first commission in Torah portion Shemot, they do approach Pharaoh as commanded, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to me in the wilderness’” (Ex. 5:1). Not only do we learn that Pharaoh is unresponsive to their request, stating, “Who is the LORD that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” Pharaoh intensifies the burdens of the Israelite slaves by instructing their taskmasters to no longer provide the straw needed to make bricks while keeping the quota of bricks the same. This forced the Israelites to add the task of gathering straw to their labors. When these requirements proved difficult to fulfill, Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being lazy and subjects their leaders to beatings. This situation causes Moses to question the Almighty’s plan, “Oh LORD, why hast Thou brought harm to this people? Why didst Thou ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Thy name, he has done harm to this people, and thou hast not delivered thy people at all” (Ex. 5:1-23). Thus closes Torah portion Shemot.

Va’eira opens with a quizzical self-identification by the Almighty. “God spoke further to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yod-heh-vav-heh; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai (usually translated Almighty God), but by my name, Yod-heh-vav-heh (usually rendered as Adonai), I did not make myself known to them’” (Ex. 6:2-3). I use the term quizzical because there are several instances earlier in the Torah where the text specifically states that Yod-heh-vavheh\Adonai did appear to the patriarchs and matriarchs. One vivid example is in Genesis 18 where we learn that Adonai appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. This particular appearance was to inform Abraham of the coming destruction that God had planned for Sodom and Gomorrah. If the Divine Name had in fact not been revealed at that time, it is puzzling that the Almighty would say of Abraham, “For I have chosen him in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of Yod-heh-vav-heh by doing righteousness and justice in order that Yod-heh-vav-heh may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Gen. 18:19). Now, there are two possibilities here. A conservative scholar might say that the text of Exodus 6:3 is literal, and that the Tetragrammaton, Yod-heh-vav-heh, was not known to the patriarchs and matriarchs, but was written back into the earlier accounts by the Torah author, presumed to be Moses, after the revelation of the Name. A second possibility is that the verse was not intended to be taken literally, but to subtly differentiate between different aspects of God’s interaction with the creation, and, perhaps, to criticize Moses for his questioning and lack of faith.

The tradition in Judaism is that the greatness of the creator is, in fact, very far beyond our ability to comprehend—absolute, infinite, and limitless. Thus, in many respects it is inappropriate to limit God through the use of the name. In this line of thinking, the names of God become descriptions of various aspects of God’s character and of God’s interactions with the cosmos. Rashi contends that the use of the name El Shaddai in this passage was to demonstrate the matriarchs’ and patriarchs’ complete trust in the Almighty. Promises were made to them about the multitude of their descendants and about their possession of the Holy Land, most of which they did not live to see fulfilled. Yet, they trusted God without questioning. On the other hand, here was Moses directly questioning the Divine plan (See Rabbi Yehoshua Berman, “Va’eira The Tightest Bond,” www.aish.com).

In many respects then, the plagues with which Adonai punished Pharaoh and the Egyptians can be taken as signs not just for Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, but also for the Israelite people and their leaders, and by extension, the entire world. The plagues bear a progression that is seemingly part of a larger didactic purpose. Surely, the Almighty, given God’s limitless power over creation, could have flattened Egypt with a single blow and allowed the children of Israel to go free. Yet, the Almighty chose to work in stages, with careful attention to the response of Pharaoh and the Egyptians to each phase of the plan. Taken as a whole, the plagues can be seen as countering four definite misconceptions which were held by the Egyptians. It might also be argued that since Moses was raised as an Egyptian and since the Israelite people had lived among the Egyptians for so many centuries they too might have been subject to these same misconceptions. 1. They denied the Creator, believing that the world was infinite and had no beginning or end. 2. They denied the Creator’s interest in or care for God’s creation. 3. They denied the Creator’s ability to intervene in the laws which were part of the creation. 4. They denied prophecy, the Creator’s ability to communicate with human beings through ongoing revelation. The plagues were orchestrated by the Almighty incrementally to counter these misconceptions and to show that: 1. God did create the universe and all that we perceive. 2. God does, in fact, care about human beings and their actions. 3. God does have the ability to intervene in the laws of nature. 4. God does communicate with humankind—Moses being the first in a line of prophets that was intended to continue throughout time (See Deut. 18:18-22). It has been pointed out that the ten plagues correspond with the ten “utterances of creation.” In the creation account of Genesis chapters 1 and 2, God says, “Let there be…” exactly ten times. This would reinforce the idea that the plagues were Adonai’s proof of control over the very natural realm that God had willed into existence (See Rabbi Avi Geller, “Pharaoh’s Stubbornness Earns the Egyptians a Serious Beating,” www.aish.com).

Further proof of the targeted nature and the didactic purpose of the plagues is that they seem to stem almost naturally from the first plague, the turning of the Nile River into blood. This is clearly a direct affront to the ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, who had claimed ownership over the Nile River and was even considered by himself and the Egyptian people to be a god or the son of a god. The Haftorah portion associated with Torah portion Va’eira, Ezekiel 28:25-29:21, makes this clear. Pharaoh is referred to as “the great monster that lies in the midst of the rivers.” In Ezekiel, Pharaoh exerts his own deity by saying, “the Nile is mine, and I myself have made it.” In this context it becomes clearer why the Almighty would have chosen to exact punishments on the Egyptians appropriate to their level of evil and idolatry. Now, in general, Judaism would reject the idea that our faith is based on the need for miracles. Rather, as Martin Buber has pointed out, our traditions are rooted in an ongoing historical interaction between God the Creator, and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. That historical interaction is verifiable fact. Time and time again events have intervened to deliver our people from the hands of oppressors. It is in our faith to attribute those serendipitous events to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah (See Rabbi Yehuda Appel, “Miracles and Magic,” www.aish.com).

So we see in the book of Exodus the Almighty’s reassertion of power over the creation, as God opposes the greatest superpower on earth at that time, Egypt, and begins to form a family clan of slaves into a new nation. Perhaps one of the more controversial elements of that plan is God’s statement in Exodus 7:3, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt,” and the implications that such a statement has for the concept of free will. Many sages have wrestled with that topic, and the ideas are as interesting as they are diverse. But, I will save that discussion for another message. Happy civil new year, everyone!!!!

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The “Festival of Lights” is Upon Us!!, December 2020

As we prepare for our blessed season of Hanukah, I am still basking in the glow of what for me ended up being a meditative and moving Thanksgiving. With all the changes forced upon us by the novel coronavirus pandemic, I was feeling moody and self-absorbed about not being able to share a Thanksgiving meal with extended family and friends. That was all changed by a 23 second video clip of the late Jeopardy host, Alex Trebek, encouraging his viewers to be thankful, keep the faith, and be forward looking in spite of our current troubles, promising that we will be a “better society” for having gone through this. The thought of Mr. Trebek recording this hopeful message knowing that he was in the last stages of pancreatic cancer humbled me and moved me beyond words. I have watched the clip dozens of times, tearing up each time. If you have not seen it, check it out at https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=PPGHAN_Ij58, or just Google “Alex Trebek Thanksgiving Message.”

With the increased spread of Covid-19, I am sure that our Hanukah will be very different this year as well. Yet this may be the closest parallel to the deliverance of our people in a time of adversity, as happened at Hanukah, that we have experienced in our lifetimes. You know that the history of the Jewish people for 4000 years is a litany of overcoming trouble, tyranny, and oppression, by the Hand of Adonai, and emerging stronger, more faithful, and more prosperous. I am optimistic that we will emerge from this battle with Covid-19 and be that “better society” of which Alex Trebek spoke.

You know I like to remind all my friends that Hanukah is NOT the Jewish Christmas. The one major similarity the holidays do share, their commercialization, would not be considered a good thing by many people. Christmas, of course, marks the birthday of the central figure of the Christian faith and object of their worship. One might say that without Christmas there would be no Christianity. Judaism has no such central figure. Hanukah, by comparison, is a relatively minor religious celebration commemorating the cleansing or rededication of a holy place. It was, for centuries celebrated very simply by just the lighting of candles, sharing of meals, and saying of prayers. In fact, most people are not aware that Hanukah is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It does not rank among the major observances like the Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, each of which is commanded several times in the Torah itself. Hanukah’s first mention in Jewish sources is in the books of First and Second Maccabees. These two books were not included in the Hebrew canon of scripture but are assigned to a collection of writings known as the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha.

At a time in the second century before the Common Era, when the Syrian Greeks were occupying the Land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem and the practice of Judaism had been forbidden by the maniacal ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, a small band of Jewish rebels rose up under the leadership of Mattathias, of priestly descent. Though vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped, these Jewish guerrillas, led by Mattathias’ son, Judah, nicknamed “Maccabeus—The Hammer,” succeeded in defeating the Syrian armies in battle after battle, ultimately taking back the city of Jerusalem, including the Holy Temple and the area surrounding it. Once the Temple was back in Jewish hands, attention was turned to the problem that the Temple had fallen into disrepair and had been defiled. Repairs were quickly made, and a new and undefiled altar was constructed. Then, according to tradition, three years to the day after Antiochus had defiled it, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, a festival was inaugurated for the cleansing and rededication of the holy place.

According to the Book of Maccabees (Chapter 4), the festival for the dedication of the Temple lasted eight days. That is not surprising to scholars, because when Solomon built the first Temple, he chose to dedicate it during the feast of Sukkoth, an eight-day festival. Since the Jews under Antiochus’ harsh rule would not have been able to celebrate the festival of Sukkoth in the fall, it is only natural that they would have wanted to do so, even belated, as a part of the Temple’s rededication. It is not until Talmudic times (100-300 C.E.) that we find reference to the “miracle of the oil.” The Talmud (Shabbat 21b-23a) tells us that as a part of the rededication, vessels of undefiled oil were sought for the lighting of the menorah. According to the Torah (Exodus 27:20-21), the Temple menorah is to burn day and night perpetually. Unfortunately, only one vessel of oil was found uncontaminated, about enough to burn for one day. Miraculously, that one day’s supply of oil burned for the eight days of the dedication—the time it took for a fresh supply of kosher olive oil to be prepared. Josephus, who also writes in the Roman period, referred to Hanukah for the first time as the “Festival of Lights” (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, Chapter 7).

Being a post-biblical holiday, for centuries Hanukah was celebrated by Jews very simply with the lighting of a Hanukiah, a nine candled menorah used specifically for Hanukah evenings. Historians believe the exchange of gifts did not begin until relatively recently when Jews in areas where Christmas was celebrated with gift giving decided that in order to keep their own children from becoming jealous they too would begin to give gifts. Even so, Hanukah gifts were quite modest, usually a small sum of money or Hanukah “gelt.” It was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and mostly in America, that began to change. Dianne Ashton, professor of Religious Studies at Rowan University, in her book, Hanukah in America (NYU Press, 2013), has shown how in America the evolution of Hanukah and Christmas have gone hand in hand in many ways. The growth and development of both holidays has been fueled by rapid industrialization and the resulting blossoming of a consumer-based economy. The marketing around both Christmas and Hanukah, designed to promote the consumption of goods, has led to the popularization of both holidays that is far beyond any celebrations that occurred in previous centuries. Now, nobody enjoys the benefits our free enterprise economic system more than I, however, I think most people would agree with me that the extreme commercialization of these holidays has detracted somewhat from their intended deeper spiritual meaning.

One of the wisest Rabbis of our own time, Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Isles, wrote, “Hanukah is about the freedom to be true to what we believe without denying the freedom of those who believe otherwise. It’s about lighting our candle, while not being threatened by or threatening anyone else’s candle” (http://www.rabbisacks.org/). The name Hanukah is based on the Hebrew word, chanak (chet-nun-kaf), which means “to dedicate.” While remembering that our ancestors, in centuries past, struggled to maintain their religious freedom and to rededicate the place considered most holy to them, should we not also rededicate ourselves to the things that matter most—faith, justice, and love? There is no doubt that the observance, prayers, acts of contrition, and seeking of forgiveness that we observe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are of greater import biblically and historically. But we do have, during these cold winter months, an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the promises so recently made at Yom Kippur—to uphold the high moral and ethical standards of our Jewish tradition. It is, in fact, the pursuit of social justice and peace, which according to the Hebrew Prophets and echoed in our Aleinu prayer, will hasten the acknowledgement and sovereignty of the Creator encompassing the entire earth. This year, as you observe your Festival of Lights, will you not pledge yourself to those values the Prophet Isaiah says will make the Jewish people a “light to the nations”? Isaiah records Adonai’s message to us: “I will make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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Tough Ethical Questions From Torah Portion Toldot, November 2020

At our next Shabbat morning service via Zoom, on November 21st, we will once again be exploring the sixth reading of the Torah reading cycle, Torah portion Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9. This portion begins with Isaac taking Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel and sister of Laban, to be his wife when he is forty years of age (25:19-20). In the biblical account it would seem that immediately following their marriage, Rebecca becomes pregnant with twins (25:21-26), but we learn in verse 26 that in actuality twenty years have elapsed, since Scripture records that Isaac was sixty years old at the birth of the twins, Esau and Jacob. We learn that Esau grew to become a skillful hunter, “a man of the field,” and that Jacob became an “ish tam-perfect man(?), dwelling in tents.” While in those tents, Jacob must have developed some amazing cooking skills, because he was able to wrest the birthright away from Esau in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup (25:27-34). At that point, the Bible tells us “there was a famine in the land,” meaning, of course, the land promised to Abraham, the land that would eventually become Israel. Isaac was instructed by Adonai not to go down to Egypt, the neighboring superpower of that time, so he stayed in Gerar, near the land of the Philistines. While there, Isaac deceived the Philistines into thinking that Rebecca was his sister because he was afraid they would kill him and take her if they knew she were his wife (26:1-16). In spite of his dishonesty, Isaac eventually makes peace with Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, because Abimelech could tell that Isaac was being blessed by Adonai (26:17-33). By this point in the story, the twins have reached the age of forty, and Esau takes two wives, Judith and Basemath, from among a local tribe, the Hittites. Apparently, these Hittite ladies “made life miserable for Isaac and Rebecca” (26:34-35). Nevertheless, Isaac plans a special blessing for his firstborn, Esau. Upon hearing of Isaac’s intentions, Rebecca and Jacob conspire together to formulate a plan for Jacob, through deception, to get the blessing for himself (27:1-29). Isaac and Esau were both enraged when they learned of Jacob’s deception and taking of the blessing. Esau was so angry, in fact, that he planned to kill Jacob after their father’s passing. Once again Rebecca steps in upon hearing of the plan. She arranges for Jacob to be sent to Haran, the land of her relatives, purportedly to find a wife, but more obviously to get him away from Esau (27:30-28:9).

I have always appreciated that the Hebrew Scriptures do not “whitewash” the lives and actions of our patriarchs and matriarchs. When wrongs or dishonesties are committed, the Hebrew Bible lays them out for all to see. Now, one might argue that Jacob’s taking of the birthright from Esau, the true firstborn, was just shrewd business practice. Jacob had labored all day producing a stew, while Esau had spent the day in the field, obviously pursuing game. Esau was famished after all that hunting, so he asked Jacob for some of the soup he had been making. Jacob demanded Esau’s birthright in exchange for the soup. Esau obviously thought he was about to perish from hunger and that the birthright would be of no use to him, so he willingly made the exchange. Now, the birthright in ancient near Eastern cultures was no small acquisition. It entitled the holder not only to the family leadership and decision-making, passed down from the father, but also to a double portion of any property inheritance (See Deut. 21:15-17).

It is somewhat harder to justify, I believe, the outright deception that was involved in Jacob’s taking of the blessing. Isaac had grown old and “his eyes were too dim to see.” He commissioned his son, Esau, to go on a hunting expedition and bring him back some of his favorite game, so that after he had eaten, he might pronounce a blessing on Esau. Upon overhearing the plan, Rebecca instructs Jacob to go quickly among the herd and take two young goats. Rebecca took the meat of the goats and prepared a “savory dish.” She put the skins from the goats over Jacob’s neck and hands so that he might appear hairy like his brother. She also had Jacob put on Esau’s clothing; thus, Jacob would both smell and feel like his brother Esau, to the aging Isaac. As Jacob approached his father with the delicious meal, he answered all questions cunningly, to continue the deception. So Isaac, thinking Jacob to be Esau, pronounced his blessing upon him: “Now may God give you the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and an abundance of grain and new wine; may peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be master of your brothers and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you” (Gen. 27:28-29). Then, just as soon as Jacob had left Isaac’s presence, Esau returned from his hunt. He prepared his game and brought it to his father. It was only then that both realized the deception that Jacob had perpetrated. The biblical account tells us that Isaac “trembled with a very great trembling,” obviously enraged. Esau was so angry he plotted to kill his brother after the passing of their father.

Some commentators make an effort to relieve Rebecca at least partly of blame for this deceptive plan by pointing to a prophecy she received just prior to the birth of the twins. While the twins were in her womb, they “struggled together,” apparently causing her some discomfort. When she inquired of God about this situation, the Torah tells us “Adonai said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples shall be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger’” (Gen. 25:23). According to some sources, when she realized that the blessing of her husband, Isaac, was about to go to the firstborn Esau in contravention of the prophecy, Rebecca obviously felt compelled to step in (See, e.g., “The Tragedy of Good Intentions,” Rabbi Lord Sacks, http://www.aish.com).

Other commentators do not try to mitigate the level of deception involved in the story, but use the situation to emphasize another point. That is that such difficult circumstances often arise when parents play favorites. You will notice that early in our Torah portion, we are informed that “Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca loved Jacob” (25:28). Such a blatant statement of parental bias and disagreement must convey some meaning in the context of our story. With such division and favoritism existing how could the family not have struggles among siblings? (e.g.,Parenting101, Noah Chertkoff, https://reformjudaism.org/torah/portion/toldot.)

Another possible observation we might glean from this story is the importance of spousal communication. When Rebecca learned of Isaac’s plan to bless Esau, knowing full well this went against a message from the Almighty that Jacob would be the son to come to a position of preeminence in the family, why did she not just approach Isaac and discuss the matter with him? A simple exchange of information and coming to parental consensus may have avoided the need for the deception that followed. Isaac may well have planned a blessing for both sons, just intending to deliver Esau’s first, but we will never know (See “Toldot 5771,” Rav Michael Susman, http://harova.org/).

Finally, many commentators point out that while acquiring the blessing which came by deception for Jacob and Rebecca, it was not without great cost and consequence. Jacob incurred the ire of his father and brother. He needed to flee from both and ended up living, basically in exile, in the region of Syria for over twenty years. Rebecca, for her part, had to endure that long separation from her favorite son. Upon Jacob’s return from Syria, his beloved wife, Rachel, died in childbirth with their second child. Ultimately, near the end of his life, when the Pharaoh of Egypt met Jacob and inquired about his age, Jacob told Pharaoh, “The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning” (Gen. 47:8-9).

Because the Torah is so honest and straightforward about the lives and actions of our patriarchs and matriarchs and the consequences that followed, we who are living almost four thousand years after their time can still discuss, debate, and derive meaning from these ancient texts. The Constitution of the United States is often referred to as a “living document” because it is debated and interpreted based on changing times and events after just over two hundred years of history. Can you imagine that after four thousand years a document could have anywhere near the relevance of the Torah? That document which has, of course, become the cornerstone of the world’s three major Western religions, Judaism; Christianity; and Islam.

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I Will Set My Bow in the Clouds!, October 2020

What an amazing time we have shared together for our High Holiday services virtually. Services were much more participatory and uplifting than I ever thought possible over Zoom. Special thanks to everyone who participated and who logged in. We have truly been blessed with something special here at Temple Beth Shalom, and for that I am deeply grateful! When we gather for the reading of the Torah on Shabbat morning, October 24th, we will be reading from Torah portion Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32. This Torah portion covers a broad range of very interesting topics, beginning with an introduction to Noah and his family. About two chapters are devoted to explaining God’s decision to destroy the world, including most of mankind and most of the animal kingdom (6:9-8:22). That is followed by an account of life starting over again, the Almighty promising not to destroy all life by flood again, and the establishing of a set of laws which our rabbis have called the Noahide Commandments, or laws of Noah (9:1-17). Most of chapter 10 is taken up with the repopulation of the earth, including specifics on the families and their descendants. Then in chapter 11 we get the fascinating story of the Tower of Babel and the decision by God to scatter mankind over the earth and to give the various family groups each a different language (vv. 1-9). Chapter 11 concludes with the records of the descendants of Noah’s son, Shem, culminating in the first introduction in the Hebrew Bible of our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah (vv. 10-32).

Regarding this Torah portion, it is my sincere belief, that like hundreds of generations of Jews before us, we too, in the modern age, can find light and inspiration from these ancient passages of Scripture. That may, however, require deep study, questioning, and discussion. One question that might arise from the accounts in Genesis 1-11 is: “How did the creation that, when observed by God in Genesis 1:31 was said to be “very good,” get so off track, that by Genesis 6 we read the chilling passage, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of humans was great on the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that humans had been created on the earth, and God was grieved to the heart” (vv. 5-6)?” Surely this demonstrates that being created in the image of God, as man and woman are, brings with it an extremely high level of free will or choice. That freedom of choice obviously has amazing potential in both directions—evil or good. Clearly the evil was prevailing in the days of Noah leading up to the flood. But in our own day, I would like to believe that we have learned the lesson of history, and that we are channeling our choices toward the good. I think I see evidence of that around me. For example, when we had the horrific racially motivated murders at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, rather than sparking more racial hatred and friction, I believe the crime moved many, many individuals to reach across racial lines and show a willingness to enter into dialogue, and even expressions of brotherly love. When a disaster befalls our country like the current coronavirus pandemic, are not the hearts of many stirred to help and to give what is needed to bring healing and restoration to the affected areas and individuals?

Another question that naturally arises from the flood story as it begins in Genesis 6 is: “Why would the Almighty choose to destroy not only the evil men and women, but also a very large portion of the plant and animal life on the planet?” This question is difficult to answer. Could it possibly be to show that those creatures which were created in God’s image, namely man and woman, bear a deep responsibility for everything that happens on this planet and for all species both plant and animal? Surely we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries how our decisions, our use of resources, and our lack of proper waste disposal have had a profound impact on the entire earth ecosystem. Once again, I believe that we are learning from the past and from our mistakes. We are taking definite steps to rein in many of the wasteful and polluting practices of the last 200 years. Of course, more needs to be done!

Also on a global scale, it is from Torah portion Noah that the rabbis of the Talmudic period derived seven laws applicable to all mankind. A discussion of these Noahide Laws or Commandments, as they are called, can be found in the Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin a-b. Those seven laws are the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality, stealing, eating the flesh of a living animal, and the positive commandment to establish courts of justice. One of the amazing things about these seven laws is the universalist view of God’s relationship with humans that they convey. Going back to the earliest days of the Jewish faith, our sages never saw the need to convert all humankind to Judaism, thus the absence of proselytizing from our religion. The laws of Noah were seen as elevating all people to the will of the Creator, and making them equal partners in the perfection of the creation that was entrusted to man and woman from the very beginning (Gen 2:15). All men and women share the Divine image, and it is incumbent upon them all to make choices which are “godlike.” In so doing, the earth, including the plant and animal kingdoms, can be moved in a positive direction, fulfilling the ultimate plan, expressed in the Hebrew Prophets, of what God intended this garden planet to be.

The Haftorah portion associated with Torah portion Noah, Isaiah 54:1-55:5, reinforces this view of individual and corporate responsibility for our actions, and also reinforces the idea that while negative things may happen as a consequence of poor decision-making, there is always the opportunity for turning from our ways (repentance) and the insurance of a brighter future. The prophecies found in this passage from Isaiah, come on the heels of a severe destruction which was delivered to the people of Israel through the hands of the Assyrians in the seventh century B.C.E. And then of the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E. We learn elsewhere in the Prophets that those destructions were the consequence of the northern ten tribes, Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah, not being faithful to the laws and precepts of God. But, the message of the Haftorah portion is one of hope. It is connected by the Prophet Isaiah with the situation in the time of Noah. We read, “For this is like the days of Noah to me; when I swore that the waters of Noah should not flood the earth again, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you nor will I rebuke you…. My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken, says the LORD” (54:9-10). Amazing promises are they not? The entire Haftorah reading is full of hope. Look, for example at verse 8, “In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you.”

Heartening that though we may make mistakes, and though we may fall short of the ideals set forth for us in God’s law, bringing consequences that are sometimes severe, there is always the opportunity of turning from our wrong choices and changing the course of events for ourselves and for our world. I notice that this Isaiah Haftorah reading closes with a mysterious statement, referring obviously to a future time, “Behold, you will call a nation you do not know, and a nation which knows you not will run to you, because of the LORD your God, even the Holy One of Israel.” I have some definite views on who that nation that will turn to the Jewish people is, but I will save that for another message. For now, as we ponder the passages of Torah portion Noah and its Haftorah from Isaiah, may we receive insights that inspire and elevate us to partner with the Creator in bringing not harm, but good to all of the amazing creation with which we have been entrusted! Ken yehi ratzon!!—May this be God’s will!!

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The Month of Elul—Let’s Prepare for the High Holidays, September 2020

What a year 5780 has been! We have experienced perhaps the greatest crises in a generation as we have struggled through the threat of the worldwide, novel coronavirus compounded by the ripping apart of our society as we wrestle with the age-old problem of racism. I know that with the coming High Holidays many of you will be hoping and praying along with me for a better year ahead for our families, our nation, and our world. As I write this, we are already in a very special time of preparing our hearts for the coming holy days. Friday, August 21st , was Rosh Chodesh Elul, the New Moon of the month of Elul, an important time in Jewish history and tradition! Elul (which is the sixth month of the Festival Calendar, and the twelfth month of the Civil Calendar leading up to Rosh Hashanah) has, since Talmudic times, become a season of particular introspection, repentance, and restitution.

According to the Sages of Israel, it was on Rosh Chodesh Elul (the first day of the month of Elul) that Moses ascended Mount Sinai following the people’s sin of the golden calf to make intercession before Adonai. You will recall that Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days. That would have covered the thirty days of the month of Elul and extended ten days into the month of Tishri, bringing Moses’ sojourn on the mountain to an end on the very day of Yom Kippur. It was on that particular visit to Mount Sinai that Moses received the second set of stone tablets containing the Law of God, since the first set had been destroyed at the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 33-34).

It was also on this visit to Sinai that Moses had the opportunity to glimpse just a tiny portion of God’s glory. This amazing self-revelation by the Creator has become known as the “Thirteen Attributes” of God and is chanted in Hebrew at many of our most moving prayer and worship services, particularly during the High Holidays: “Adonai, Adonai, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7).

Many Jewish sources have pointed out that the name of Elul, spelled aleph-lamed-vav-lamed in Hebrew, could serve as an acronym for the verse, "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li—I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). The Sages have long interpreted this verse as an allegory for the relationship between God, the beloved, and the people of Israel. Just as Moses drew close to the Almighty on Mount Sinai at this season of the year following the Israelites’ miraculous redemption from Egypt, so should we draw close to our “beloved” Creator in the period preceding our holiest of days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (See Tracey R. Rich, “The Month of Elul and Selichot,” http://www.jewfaq.org/elul.htm).

The Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, used to liken the month of Elul to a time when “a great king is in the field” as opposed to a time when the king is confined to the palace. When in the field, the king is among the people, and easily accessible to anyone desiring a royal audience (Elul Observances in a Nutshell, http://www.chabad.org/holidays/).

Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire Torah is the verse following the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’chal levavcha uv’chal naphshecha uv’chal me’odecha.” It translates, “And you shall love the LORD (Adonai’s Name) your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” My congregation at Temple Beth Shalom probably gets tired of hearing me ask the rhetorical question , “Now, loving someone or something with all your heart, soul, and might…, what exactly would that look like?” Would you have a hard time getting that one out of your thoughts? Would that one’s name be the first thing that entered your mind upon arousing from sleep in the morning? Would your thoughts be on that one as you drifted off to sleep each night? Would you be overwhelmed with joy when in that one’s presence, and perhaps saddened to the point of sickness upon being separated from that one? I know that despite my best intentions and re-commitments each year, I fall far short of honoring and remaining conscious of the Source of All Life to the level directed by the Torah. And, I am sure that many of you must feel the same. The month of Elul is a wonderful opportunity to re-examine our relationship with the Creator, and to map out strategies for greater devotion, more diligent study of Torah, more prayer and thanksgiving, and perhaps greater support for our house of study and worship.

Elul is also an opportune time to examine our relationships with our fellow men and women. You will recall that in one of the most powerful of our High Holiday prayers, we pray, actually quoting from the Mishna, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another” (Gates of Repentance, URJ High Holiday Prayer Book; Mishna Yoma 8:9). In Jewish tradition, we have an entire month, Elul, to consider our behavior toward others and make amends and possibly even restitution where needed. This month is also an ideal time to consider becoming more proactive in our relationships with others by increasing our acts of social justice, tzedakah (charitable giving), and gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion), for the sake of tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Over the last two millennia, the Sages of Judaism have developed the richest of traditions to serve as guideposts for the implementation of our faith principles. Beginning on the second day of the month of Elul and continuing until two days before Rosh Hashanah, it is the Ashkenazi custom to blow the shofar daily, after morning prayers, as a call to reflection, introspection, and repentance. The shofar is not sounded, of course, on Shabbat; nor is it blown the day before Rosh Hashana, in order to separate rabbinic custom from Biblical command. Also, during the month of Elul, Psalm 27 is added to the morning and the evening prayer services. In that Psalm, David exclaims, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the refuge of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? … One thing I have asked from the LORD, that shall I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.” These words are a clear reminder that the Protector of Israel is continuously in our midst, and we are continuously in God’s Presence. Finally, at sunset on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, S’lichot prayers, special petitions for the mercy and forgiveness of the Almighty are added before the Shachrit/ morning prayer service (Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “ABC’s of Elul,” http://www.aish.com/).

As we prepare for the coming of the Hebrew year 5781, I encourage all members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom to study our precious Jewish heritage and implement more and more of its enduring principles. I like to honor the teaching of my beloved mentor, Rabbi Theodore Gordon, who used to say, “As a liberal rabbi, I am certainly not going to tell people what they need to do to be Jewish, BUT DO SOMETHING!” There are, according to the sages, 613 commandments/ mitzvoth in the Torah. Explore it! Find which ones resonate and are meaningful to you and in your life. And, I remind you regarding all the commandments, as we pray in the Shabbat morning service, “…sh’adam okhel peiroteinu b’olam hazeh v’hakeren kayemet lo l’olam haba — the one (who keeps them) eats their fruit in this world, and reward accrues to that one in the world to come.” As we say in Hebrew, “Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!”

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Wrote the Bible?, August 2020

During the course of my rabbinical studies, I have had the opportunity to read many excellent books. Perhaps the best book of any that I have read is Professor Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? There are in the course of one’s life a small number of books that affect one so deeply they can be called life changing. For me this is one such book. In Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman summarizes over 300 years of biblical research in such a readable way that I have told friends I literally could not put this book down. Now for Dennis Jones to say that is one thing, but to my amazement after finishing the book I read some of the attributions, and Frank Moore Cross, the well-known professor of Hebrew and oriental languages at Harvard University, summarized my feelings in a nutshell: “Who Wrote the Bible? is a fascinating and brilliant book. It is more than a record of past discoveries. It is full of new insights and fresh discoveries. I read it at one sitting. I have spent much of my lifetime reading books about the Bible and must confess that I do not remember another that I could not lay aside unfinished.” And while Professor Friedman’s book is readable even for the laymen, it is extensively footnoted in the back, for those who want to dig deeper.

Now, I have always been an individual who takes a scientific approach to faith and religion. In fact, one of my favorite lines of prayers/meditations in the modern liturgy is in a Shabbat morning prayer in the Mishkan T’filah, which reads, “I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind” (p. 203). In keeping with that scientific approach, it is only natural that I would want to probe the history of the compilation of Scripture. According to our Jewish tradition and according to Christian tradition as well, Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But, if you stop to think, this claim is not really made by the books themselves. In fact, I think most people would agree that Moses did not write about his own death and burial as it is recorded in Deuteronomy. Nor did he pen the verse which states, “Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut. 34:5-10). And I am going to go out on a limb here and say that Numbers 12:3, which states, “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all of the men which were upon the face of the earth,” was not written by Moses. Would the meekest man in all the earth tell following generations that he was the meekest man in all the earth? And, if he did tell them so, would that not disqualify him from being the meekest man and all the earth? Once it becomes clear that Moses could not possibly have written every verse in the five books attributed to him, the question becomes who wrote which parts and when?

Who Wrote the Bible? deals with the history of research that is available on the writing and compilation of the five books of the Torah. Since the 19th century, the well-known Documentary Hypothesis has been the standard for understanding the origin of the first five books. To summarize, the Documentary Hypothesis assigns the Torah to four authors. One author refers to God with the four letter name, yod-heh-vav-heh, often translated Yahweh or Jehovah, thus this author’s designation as ”J.” A second author refers to the Deity as Elohim, and thus this author’s designation as “E.” The book of Deuteronomy, and for that matter, the following books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings exhibit a subject matter, vocabulary, and grammar that are consistent throughout, but not consistent with the previous books of the Torah. This writer has come to be designated as the Deuteronomist, or ”D” for short. Those large sections of the Torah which deal with sacrifice and the minute functions of the priesthood were written by a Priestly writer, known to us as “P.” Sometimes to J, E, D, and P, another author is added who edited and wove the sources together to make them seamless and fluid. This individual is referred to as the Redactor.

What are the “new insights and fresh discoveries” that Professor Friedman reveals in Who Wrote the Bible? I will reveal some but not all of them in this brief summary. Friedman builds on the research already available on the characteristics of J, E, D, P, and the Redactor, but he uses clues within the texts to be far more specific about the identity of each author, the place the author lived, and the time period in which the author wrote. J, for example, the writer who referred to God as Yahweh or Jehovah, would definitely have been from the southern tribe of Judah, probably a member of an Aaronite family, and almost certainly wrote in the southern kingdom from the time of the split under Rehoboam but before 722 BCE when the northern tribes of Israel were carried into captivity by Assyria. Astonishingly, he even puts forth evidence that the author of J may have been a woman. E, the writer referring to God as Elohim, would have been from a group of priests, possibly descended from Moses, who lived in northern Israel, headquartered at Shiloh. These priests were rejected by Solomon in favor of the Aaronite line of priests during the first Temple period. The writer of E would have lived in and written in the territory of the northern kingdom. E most probably recorded his account after the kingdom split, when Jeroboam, from the tribe of Ephraim, became the northern king, but before the northern kingdom was destroyed in 722. Next in our timeline would have been the Priestly writer, P, another Aaronite priest, definitely male, and definitely writing from the southern kingdom of Judah. The historical imprint found in the writings of P allows Friedman to place him firmly in the reign of Hezekiah (716-697 BCE).

Previous researchers had surmised that the writer of the Priestly sections of the Torah was also the redactor who combined J, E,D, and P into a unified whole. Professor Friedman disagrees with that theory. He presents evidence from the texts that quite convincingly place the redactor in a separate time and place from the Priestly writer. One of the things that makes Who Wrote the Bible? difficult to put down is the specificity of time and place ascribed to each author. It even goes so far as to identify by name the author sometimes called the Deuteronomist and the Redactor, the final compiler of the entire five books. Now I am not going to share those names with you here because I do not want to ruin the suspense of a book that I truly hope you will purchase and read. I will say that I found the identification of the Deuteronomist and the Redactor very compelling.

In closing, I want to say what a profound effect my reading of Who Wrote the Bible? has had on me. I have now read the book twice from cover to cover. The second time I read it, I gleaned facts and insights that I had missed on the first reading. I am guessing if I read it again, the same will occur. It is hard to overstate the effect this book has had on my study of Scripture. When I began my studies of the historical origins of the five books that have become our Torah, I assumed that studying those origins would cause me to lose respect for the sanctity of the holy writings. To my amazement, I found that just the opposite has occurred. Knowing the historical periods in which each writer composed, and the perspectives from which the writers presented the material, has brought to every passage of the Torah a greater amount of meaning. Everyone has passages in the Torah that cause them difficulty; for example, the passage where Moses is angry that the commanders of the Israelite army had spared women and children in a battle with the Midianites. The Bible has Moses commanding the officers to kill every woman who has been with a man and every male child among the captives (Num. 31:14-18). Placing such passages in their historical context is key to being able to understand how such a brutal concept may have originated.

The Bible has for over two millennia had a profound effect on the development of Western civilization. I am awed when I consider the amount of hours of scholarship that have been put into the understanding of that collection of literature. In just the last few centuries our understanding has increased exponentially. This new light of discovery has made me able to be a better Jew and a better student of Scripture. It is true, as Professor Richard Friedman closes his book, Who Wrote the Bible?: “The question, after all, is not only who wrote the Bible, but who reads it.”

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We Can Overcome Racism!!!, June-July 2020

“I have been far too silent for far too long. It is time to step up; it is time to speak up; it is time to act!”

One of the things I love about Judaism is that it has logical and workable answers to every human problem. You know that I often refer to our progressive Judaism as “the thinking person’s religion.” Perhaps this wealth of wisdom is because for almost 4000 years our people have overcome, I believe by the Hand of Adonai, almost every imaginable persecution, oppression, war, famine, and affliction. We as American Jews, are once again dealing with difficult times. The threat of the worldwide, novel coronavirus compounded by the ripping apart of our society as we wrestle with the age-old problem of racism which has become once again seared in our consciousness by the horrible mistreatment and killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmud Arbery, just to name a few of the too many. Because we are Jews, we know we must use these combined crises as a motivation to rise up, act, and overcome. We have done it many times in our history, and we can and will do it again! Judaism has the answer, and I speak of it often—tikkun olam. Permit me, if you will, to remind you of the Biblical and historic basis of this much needed mission. It is my prayer that these words might stir your passion for the fulfillment of one of Judaism’s core hopes—a time when all humankind will be united under Adonai’s unchallenged rule. My heart rejoices on Shabbat morning, when we pray: “Bless our country as a safeguard of peace, its advocate among the nations…. Strengthen the bonds of friendship and fellowship among all the inhabitants of our world” (Mishkan T’Filah, p. 259). We can make this happen!

Chapter 2 of Genesis makes two interesting assertions regarding the creation of humankind. In verse 5 the Torah tells us, “Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for The LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth; and there was no human to cultivate the ground.” After the creation of human beings, the Torah states, “Then the LORD God took the humans and put them into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (v. 15). From these statements, the view began to develop early within Judaism that men and women were created to be partners with God in completing the creation which God willed into existence. That understanding was ultimately expressed in the principle of tikkun olam, variously translated as “repairing the world” or “healing the world.” It is noteworthy that during the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods of religious history, when the emphasis of most major religions was transitioning from an earthly to a heavenly orientation, the rabbis and sages of Judaism kept emphasis firmly on the here and now—on our responsibility to the earth and to society.

The phrase “mipnei tikkun ha-olamJewish Literacy, p.121). Its use in the Talmud is applied to a number of social obligations, including rules for divorce, collections for widows, and redemption of captives. Our Rabbis were concerned that performing such mitzvot just because they were a Torah requirement might cause them to be misapplied or fall into disuse. Thus, the impetus of performing them for the betterment of the community was invoked.

The concept of tikkun olam was expanded greatly by Rabbi Isaac Luria, a renowned 16th century Kabbalist. In brief, it involved light from the Creator being lost in the creation and intermixed with the material world. Performance of the mitzvot was seen as one means to restore balance to the creation. The expansion that Rabbi Luria made on the concept of tikkun olam was that he applied the principle as a motivation both for acts of social welfare and for acts of a more traditionally religious nature, such as prayer, meditation, and the saying of blessings (Noparstak, J., “Tikkun Olam,” http://learningtogive.org/).

In the 1950’s, Shlomo Bardin (founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute in California) brought the concept of tikkun olam into our modern consciousness, when he connected our obligation as partners in the creation with a line in the Aleinu prayer. Bardin asserted that, “l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai—then the world will be perfected under the rule of the Almighty” encapsulated the obligation of all Jews to work toward the perfection of the world. Over the course of the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and '70's this understanding became ever more popular, becoming the motivation for unprecedented social action, tzedakah (charitable giving), and gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion) in the Jewish community (Rabbi Daniel Danson, http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/).

The Prophet Isaiah, in line with most of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, gives us some breathtakingly positive glimpses of humankind’s future. A particularly powerful and oft-quoted prediction is Isa. 2:4: “… and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” As I think of the incredible strides humankind has made in the areas of science, technology, medicine, and human rights in just the past 100 years, I am optimistic enough to hope that the vision of the Hebrew Prophets is, in fact, possible. I tell my students frequently that the American constitutional experiment has yielded amazingly beneficial results. Never before in history have so many individuals been afforded such equal rights under the law, or such broad access to food, shelter, medical care, and wealth. I believe that our country’s movement in such a positive direction is principally because it was founded and has continued to operate on the deeply embedded Judeo-Christian values of honesty, hard work, and acts of generosity and kindness. These are at the heart of the concept of tikkun olam. But, our work is not done! We are not there yet!!

An individual’s behavior has repercussions in the community and in the world in proportions beyond our immediate perception—much like ripples in a pond. The tiniest of pebbles, when thrown into a pond, produces waves that proceed outward in concentric circles, ultimately encompassing the entire pond. So it is with good deeds. One person performs an act of kindness. Another is helped or touched, and passes along the kindness. Then another, and so on until a cycle of good can encompass an entire community, a country, and even the whole world. This cyclical expansion of positive effects will also flow from one generation to the next, then to the next, and so on. This is the process of tikkun olam.

In the words of our Aleinu prayer, we pray: “O may all, created in Your image become one in spirit and one in friendship, forever united in Your service” (Mishkan T’Filah, p.589). We are in difficult times! Will you join me in overcoming these by committing to increasing our acts of kindness, compassion, and social justice? May our motivation not just be that the Torah implores us to do so, but because of the beneficial effect it has on ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world—tikkun olam. My conscience is seared by this latest string of unacceptable incidents of the extrajudicial killing of people of color. While I have always been silently supportive of social justice, I now believe that I have been far too silent for far too long. It is time to step up; it is time to speak up; it is time to act! I have faith enough to believe that when a critical mass of people commits to pursue good, the day will come when the utopian vision of the Hebrew Prophets can be realized. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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“Holiness”—What Exactly Does That Mean???, May 2020

As we enter the sixth week of Governor Roy Cooper’s “stay at home” order here in North Carolina, I want to remind all members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom what the Talmud teaches us in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5: “…if anyone has caused a single life to perish…, it is deemed by Scripture as if that one had caused the whole world to perish, and anyone who saves a single life…, that one is deemed by Scripture as if to have saved the whole world.” Preserving life is central to all the mitzvot/commandments of Torah. This time of taking measures to slow the progression of the Coronavirus has caused many of us anxiety, anguish, and even fear. I want to join the growing chorus of psychologists, religious, and secular leaders who are calling upon us to stop using the term “social distancing” and to substitute instead, “physical distancing— while staying socially connected.” The physical distancing is truly a mitzvah, even if we save only one life, it is as if we had saved the whole world. But, I believe that by taking these measures we can significantly slow down the progression of COVID-19 and save many hundreds, if not thousands of lives. The important thing is to stay socially connected during this critical preventative endeavor. You know that I talk often about how blessed we are as a people to live in the 21st century United States of America. We enjoy a level of prosperity, plenty, technological advancement, and civil liberties unparalleled in human history. Let us use these resources, particularly the technology, to reach out to one another.

I am thankful to have a lovely house to shelter in, surrounded by plenty of food. But my heart does go out to all those who are not so fortunate. What are our responsibilities toward them? Well, that is exactly the subject of this week’s Torah portion, and, you guessed it, one of my favorites—Kedoshim!! The concept of holiness is addressed often in the Torah, but perhaps nowhere more forcefully and succinctly than in this Torah portion. Kedoshim is the 30th weekly portion in the Torah reading cycle, and the 7th reading in the book of Leviticus (19:1-20:27). At 64 verses, it is one of the shortest portions in the Torah reading cycle. Kedoshim is read twice a year, both as part of the weekly cycle and as the special reading on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Some of you may recall that Kedoshim is also the title of the fifth order in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud.

The Torah portion begins, “And Adonai spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” Now, I have said in jest many times that the Almighty did not choose us, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, because we make good bagels, although we do. The Torah is very clear that their descendants were called for a very specific purpose, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The Creator apparently saw in Abraham and Sarah the qualities of loyalty to God, to God’s laws, and to God’s plan for humankind. And the Almighty must have known that these qualities would carry on in Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. I like to call this the “Family Plan” for spreading the Torah message to all humankind. As the descendants of Abraham and Sarah role model these lofty statutes and ethics, the Prophets tell us that eventually all humankind, indeed every nation, will adopt the Creator’s laws and plan. This will lead to a time when war, sickness, and famine will be completely done away with according to the Hebrew Prophets.

Kedoshim is the masculine plural form of Kadosh—holy. But, what exactly does holiness mean as the term is used in the Hebrew Bible? When one thinks of holiness one usually envisions a monk, cloistered in a medieval monastery, reading holy writings, meditating on heavenly things, and abstaining from most of the joys of everyday life, such as eating, drinking, etc. This view derives from a Greco-Roman concept of holiness, often referred to as a dualistic worldview. In it the heavenly realm, the spiritual, is deemed to be good, but earthly things, the physical, is considered to be inherently corrupt or tainted. That is not the Hebraic view. At the time of creation, Adonai saw six times that those things which were created were good. Upon the completion of God’s ultimate creation, man and woman, the Hebrew Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:32). So it is, in Jewish tradition, that holiness is not entailed in abstaining from enjoying those elements of creation that God has graciously given to us, but rather in their judicious and moderate use. As summed up in Talmud, Yevamot 20a, we are instructed, “Sanctify yourself also regarding that which is permissible to you.”

Holiness in Judaism is not so much a state of mind, and definitely not a system of belief. Rather, it is the demonstration of very specific behaviors toward God and toward our fellow human beings. Those behaviors cannot be done in seclusion. That is why many sages have pointed out that the opening words of this Torah portion, “speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel…,” have the implication that holiness is not something done while cloistered away, but is something that is engaged in with and for the community. The specifics of the behaviors that define holiness are not left to subjective choice. Fortunately, they are very clearly spelled out in the Torah and in the later writings of the Jewish sages. Chief among the enumeration of those laws would, of course, be the Ten Commandments, given in the Torah in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In the Midrash Rabbah, Rabbi Levi shows us that all of the Ten Commandments are, in fact, restated in Torah portion Kedoshim:

  1. “I am the Lord your God,” is stated here also (Lev. 19:3).
  2. “You shall have no other gods before me,” appears as “Nor make to yourselves molten gods” (19:4).
  3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” is written here as, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name” (19:12).
  4. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” is restated as, “And keep my Sabbaths” (19:3).
  5. “Honor your father and mother,” is rendered here as “Every man shall fear his mother and his father” (19:3).
  6. “You shall not murder,” is conveyed in the passage, “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (19:3).
  7. “You shall not commit adultery,” appears here as, “Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (19:10).
  8. “You shall not steal,” is written here as, “You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie to one another.” (19:11).
  9. “You shall not bear false witness,” is entailed in “You shall not go about as a talebearer” (19:16).
  10. “You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s,” is more than reflected in, “Love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18).

  11. (Translated in “Parshat Kedoshim in Depth,” www.chabad.org)

It has always impressed me that in this “holiness code,” as it is often called, relatively few of the verses are devoted to our relationship with the Creator and to holy things such as Sabbaths and offerings. The vast majority of verses are devoted to our relations with fellow human beings. The level of compassion given to that topic in this portion is palpable. Think for a minute about such seemingly simple, but powerful, actions as not reaping to the corners of your field so that there will be gleanings left behind for those who are in need (v. 10). And, not allowing the wages of someone hired to remain with you even overnight (v. 14). Also, not allowing injustice in judgment even to the extent of being partial to the poor nor deferring to the great (v. 15). And, not going about as a talebearer, or in other words slanderer, among your people (v. 16). And then, of course, there is the ultimate commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18). This principle has become a cornerstone of most of the world’s major religions. And, lest one think that one’s neighbor only refers to fellow countrymen or women, the Torah is crystal clear: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you; you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (19:34).

The level of devotion to one’s neighbor and compassion for those in need found in this Torah portion connects strongly with the constant theme of the Hebrew Prophets, social justice. Micah sums it up best, “What does Adonai require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). The fact that “love your neighbor as yourself” has become a core belief of so many world religions is proof to me that the Almighty’s “Family Plan” is working. When the adherents of those religions truly apply those lofty principles, putting them into action through their behaviors (behaviors laid out so specifically in this Torah portion), humankind will surely enter the time spoken of by the Prophets. When nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4). It is my prayer that we might live to see this fulfilled in our day. Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

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I and Thou, April 2020

These are difficult times. Our nation and the world face the greatest threat to our well-being that I have witnessed in my lifetime. While some days I am almost overcome with fear and angst, I have sought refuge in faith and prayer. The knowledge that the Jewish people have faced innumerable trials, persecutions, and oppressions over our four thousand year history, but each time have been delivered by the Hand of Adonai, gives me strength. Passover celebrates a miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt. On this Passover, as we pray for a present deliverance from the ravages of Covid-19, I want to share with you another writing of one of our great Jewish philosophers and theologians, Martin Buber. You know that I call progressive Judaism “the thinking person’s religion.” The more I read and study our rich Jewish philosophies and traditions the more enamored with them and inspired by them I become. Perhaps my favorite of all Jewish theologians is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But, did you know he actually credited much of his thinking to Martin Buber. Buber wrote in German and is not an easy read—his ideas are complex, but are, at the same time, genius and are considered foundational in the philosophy of modern Judaism.

In Jews, God and History, Max and Ethel Dimont, place Martin Buber in the rise of Jewish Humanism which occurred in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Buber’s emphasis on the individual stood in stark contrast to the emphasis on community organization that was going on in Western Europe and the Americas as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Martin Buber is seen as the father of existentialist Jewish philosophy. He “has come to be looked upon as a prophet and acknowledged by Jews and Christians as one of the most influential modern day philosophical theologians.” (Dimont, 1994, p. 366)

It is difficult to summarize Buber’s philosophy in his book, I and Thou, in better words than Max and Ethel Dimont have chosen. They state that according to Buber:

    Man has a soul, …his unconscious national soul. This unconscious soul in the individual Jew is a mirror image of the collective soul of the Jewish people, a soul which compresses four thousand years of Jewish history with in it. …Each Jew can reexperience this collective encounter with God on an individual basis. …Such a belief neither contradicts reason nor opposes science, and it answers the need of man for faith. (Dimont, p. 367)

Martin Buber was born to a wealthy Viennese family in 1878. After his parents died at an early age, he was raised by an observant grandfather. That is how he came into early contact with Hasidism. Buber was impressed with Hasidism’s emphasis on the individual and its focus on performing acts of lovingkindness in and for the community as an expression of one’s belief in the invisible God. Buber remained involved in pro-Jewish writing and education in Germany, ultimately joining the Zionist movement. Unlike Theodore Hertzl, who advocated a secular Jewish state in the holy land, Buber stressed the importance of Jewish religion and culture. He saw Jewish humanism as it was portrayed in the Hebrew prophets—that Israel would be a light to the nations, the model of an ideal state. Buber was forced to flee Germany in 1938 with the rise of the Nazis. He settled in Jerusalem where he became a professor at Hebrew University. Buber remained in Jerusalem until his death in 1965. (Dimont, pp.366-368)

Buber’s most famous treatise, I and Thou, is divided into three parts. The First Part explains the difference between I-You and I-It relationships. Buber believed, “Basic words do not state something that might exist outside them; by being spoken they establish a mode of existence.” (I and Thou, First Touchstone Edition, 1996, p.53) The individual’s reality and very existence are seen in the relationship of the I and the You. Or, according to Buber, “Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation.” (p. 55) In contrast to the relational basis of the I-You interaction, stands the experience of the I-It. These dual forms of experiencing existence occur for Buber across three spheres: the sphere of life with nature, the sphere of life with humans, and the sphere of life with spiritual beings. (p.57)

The I-You relationship is completely interactive. I does not exist without the You. The I is constantly acting upon the You and the You upon the I. The I requires a You to become an I. Or, as Buber puts it, “All life is encounter.” (p. 62) I-It experiences, on the other hand, can be categorized, ordered, and organized. Not so with I-You relationships, as they are present and constantly becoming. To Buber, “…in so far as a human being makes do with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no presence.” (p. 64) Since relation is reciprocity, Buber sees love as a “cosmic force.” “Love is responsibility of an I for a You…” (pp. 66-67)

In a very complex way, Buber describes human existence as the interplay of I-You and I-It. According to Buber, “Every You in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least enter into thinghood again and again.… The It is the chrysalis, the You the butterfly. Only it is not always as if the states took turns so neatly; often it is an intricately entangled series of events that is tortuously dual.” (p. 69) Buber explains this complex interaction historically by appealing to the concrete world of primitive human beings. The primitive human’s interaction with nature and formation of the I concept would be parallel to that of a young child forming ideas of self through interaction with the self’s surroundings. Buber posits that it is also through these interactions that humans gain their understanding of spirit. Or, as Buber puts it, “…in conscious life cosmic being recurs as human becoming. Spirit appears in time as a product, even a byproduct, of nature, and yet it is spirit that envelops nature timelessly.” (p. 75) No doubt, Buber is correct when he maintains that all human beings whether young or primitive have an innate longing for relationship. So to Buber, “The development of the child’s soul is connected indissolubility with his craving for the You.” (p. 79) Buber concludes the First Part of I and Thou with the understanding that, “Only as things cease to be our You and become our It do they become subject to coordination.” (p. 81)

It is in the Second Part of I and Thou that Buber develops his now famous thesis that the individual soul is a reflection of the corporate experiences of the soul’s community over a period of history. He laments that over this period of history both the human soul and the human race have moved progressively toward an increase of the It world. This move toward experience and toward the It results in a diminution of spirit because, for Buber, “Spirit in its human manifestation is man’s response to his You…. Spirit is not in the I but between the I in the You.” (p. 89) In this historical context, Buber lays out the necessity for a strong religious community. Buber maintains, “A living reciprocal relationship includes feelings but is not derived from them. A community is built upon a living, reciprocal relationship, but the builder is the living, active center.” (p. 94) Buber does not see the human being’s desire for power or profit to be evils in themselves, as long as they are tied to the benefit of human relationships around them. The It world cannot be dispensed with, but should be submitted to the benefit of the You world—community. Buber argues against compartmentalizing human existence into such divisions as work, community, and spiritual life, because he sees all existence as relation. “The person becomes conscious of himself as participating in being.” (p.113)

In his Third Part, Buber explains the extension of the I-You to the intersection with the eternal You. Humans have addressed their eternal You by many names throughout the centuries, and yet, for Buber, that You is one. “For whoever pronounces the word God and really means You, addresses, no matter what his delusion, the true You of his life that cannot be restricted by any other and to whom he stands in a relationship that includes all others.” (p.124) It is in this section that Buber explains the Jewish view of a relationship with the eternal You not as separating oneself from the world, but rather is bringing the eternal You into the world through pro-social acts of justice, charity and lovingkindness. “For entering into the pure relationship does not involve ignoring everything but seeing everything in the You, not renouncing the world but placing it up on its proper ground.” (p. 127) Buber argues that all human beings have this innate You sense that cannot be satiated until the soul finds a relationship with the eternal You presence. And, while Buber claims that humans need God, he also maintains that God needs them. How else would one explain the very creation and existence of humankind?

Creation—we participate in it, we encounter the creator, we offer ourselves to [the creator], helpers and companions. Two great servants move through the ages: prayer and sacrifice. (p. 130) According to Buber, it is through prayer and giving that we become partners with the eternal You—the Creator—co-creators, as it were, for the good of the cosmos: “…the whole human being, without reserve, and the all-embracing God; the unified I and the boundless You.” (p. 137)

I found Buber’s expressions of his own relationship with the eternal You, of his relationship with his God to be powerful:

    I know nothing of a “world” and of “worldly life” that separate us from God. What is designated that way is life with an alienated It-world, the life of experience and use. Whoever goes forth in truth to the world, goes forth to God. …God embraces but is not the universe; just so, God embraces but is not my self. (p. 143)

Buber closes his Third Part with the explanation that in humanity’s effort to bring permanence to relationships and to institutionalize beliefs, humans exert sincere effort in the formation of religions. This by its very nature has dangers, as it pushes the relationship with the eternal You toward an I-it status. This “form” as Buber terms it, is not necessarily a bad thing. Buber points out, “Form is a mixture of the You and It, too. …In true prayer, cult and faith are unified and purified into living relation. …God is close to [God’s] forms when man does not remove them from [God].” (p. 167) Ultimately for Buber, the truth of any religion is the actualization of God in the world through acts of kindness, justice and love. Buber compares humans’ relationships with their eternal You as spokes which connect to create the wheel of community. For Buber, “the God-side of the event whose world-side is called return is called redemption.” (Emphasis Mine, p. 168) And, so ends Buber’s amazing treatise.

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L’Shanah Tovah—Again!!, March 2020

Purim has just recently passed, and I see that my article on that holiday is still available on the web at http://www.hickoryjewishcenter.com/messages.html. Please check it out!! Now I want to turn our attention to another holiday that is just a bit later this March—the Jewish New Year. Did I get your attention??? Our next Torah reading service, Saturday, March 21st, marks Shabbat Hachodesh. Shabbat Hachodesh is the Sabbath that corresponds with or immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year, 2020, Nissan 1 is on Thursday, March 26th.

The twenty verses in the Shabbat Hachodesh special maftir reading detail the taking of a Paschal lamb into the home in preparation to observe the Passover, followed by instructions for the seven days for the eating of matzah, unleavened bread. The passage opens, “Now Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you’” (Ex. 12:1-2). This is quite an amazing statement to a modern Jew who has grown up with the understanding that Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishri, is the Jewish New Year. The Talmud records an interesting debate between Rabbi Eliezer who believed the world was created in Tishri and Rabbi Joshua who believed the world was created in Nissan. “It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer says: in Tishri the world was created; in Tishri the patriarchs were born; in Tishri the patriarchs died…. Rabbi Joshua says: Whence do we know that the world was created in Nissan? Because it says, ‘And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit.’ Which is the month in which the earth is full of grass and trees [begin to] produce fruit? You must say that this is Nissan” (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a). The ruling (based on the Mishnah, Rosh Hashana 1:1) is that, “There are four New Years; the first of Nissan is the New Year for kings and for festivals; the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing animals; the first of Tishri is the New Year for years, …for agriculture, and for vegetables; the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to what the School of Shammai, and the School of Hillel say on the fifteenth.”

It should not seem unusual to a modern reader that a year might contain many beginnings. The beginning of our calendar year is January 1, but a fiscal year typically begins on July 1. The school year traditionally begins in early September. It has also been pointed out that the progression of times and seasons is cyclical. You will recall that a circle famously has no beginning or end. So, truly, any point on the circle might be designated as the beginning (See, e.g., “Our Other Head,” by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, http://www.chabad.org/). What is interesting is that this very first commandment given to the Israelites as a nation involves time at all. According to Rashi, these verses are “the true beginning of the Torah” (“Shabbat Hachodesh,” Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, https://www.ou.org). You see, prior to Exodus 12, the Almighty had already given humankind ten laws, according to the sages. The first, of course, was the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” found in Genesis 1:28. That is followed by the seven Noahide laws, derived by the rabbis from Genesis 9. These eight taken together would apply to all humankind. Later in Genesis we read that God gave our father Abraham the commandment of circumcision specifically for himself and his descendants (Gen. 17:10-14). The tenth ordinance in the Torah is the prohibition given to Jacob and his descendants of eating the sciatic nerve of any animal (Gen. 32:33).

What makes the laws of Exodus chapter 12 different is that they are given to the entire nation of Israel and that they relate to time. Moses and Aaron, upon the receipt of these instructions, are commanded, “Speak to all the congregation of Israel” (v. 3). It is significant that these first national commands involved the keeping of time. Slaves do not need to mark time. They go to bed, get up, eat, and work as they are commanded by their master. Free peoples, on the other hand, are in control of their own destiny and thus have the need to order and budget their time. Even more importantly, the new nation of Israel was being called to a very specific purpose, according to the Torah, to be witnesses to the Creator God and to role model the Creator’s laws to the other nations of the earth. The Torah records the Almighty’s passionate words to Moses while on the holy mountain, Sinai, “Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). A crucial part of being witnesses for Adonai was the observance of “holy time,” most notably the weekly Sabbath, the seventh day, as instructed in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:8-11). The Sabbath calls humankind’s attention to God’s creative work, but also to God’s redemptive work as the One who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt to be a holy nation (See Deut. 5:15). In addition to the weekly Sabbath are the annual festivals, which the Almighty refers to in Torah as “Adonai’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations— My appointed times are these.” God is referring, of course, to Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. These holy times are detailed quite clearly and concisely in Leviticus chapter 23.

But, the whole concept of marking time in general, and holy time in specific, begins for the Israelite nation in the 12th chapter of Exodus. One can understand why Rashi viewed this as the true beginning of the Torah. It is instructive that the rabbis of the Mishnah viewed the first of Nissan as the “New Year for kings and for festivals,” for surely a large part of the responsibility of being a “kingdom of priests” is the observance and communication to others of the importance of Adonai’s holy times. It is a sad fact that for many centuries the vision of the Jewish people to be a kingdom was purely a matter of the heart. Living in exile they did not have an earthly kingdom of their own. But their longing for one never faded, as is summed up poignantly by this poem of the German-Jewish poet, Ludwig August Frankel, from a century and a half ago. It is entitled, “Juda’s Farben (Judah’s Colors)”:

    The Jew turns his gaze to the east

    And the worries of his soul;

    He thinks of his kingdom’s fate

    And the morning of freedom.

    Like a ruler who has been banished,

    Who, in the pains of exile

    Still feels himself in his heart

    To be the king of his lost country.

I have remarked many times, what a miracle it is that we have lived to see the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in our ancient, sacred land. Something that was only a dream for our people for almost 2000 years is now a reality. But, with this great miracle/gift comes great responsibility. May we as a people never waver from the high ethical standards of the holy Torah that was entrusted into our care. So, as we begin the biblical cycle of another Hebrew year, will you join me in recommitting to those lofty statutes and to this high calling. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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Abraham—A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, February 2020

I vividly remember the day that I heard about the brutal murders at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015. I was shaken to my core. Shortly after that horrific act, it was reported on the news that the murderer, whose name I will not honor by mentioning it, had done this evil deed in an effort to spark a “race war.” I reacted with every fiber of my being. As I sat on my couch watching the newscast that night, I clenched my fist and vowed that I would strive with every bit of strength that I had to work to promote unity among people of different races, among people of different religions, among people of different nationalities. I committed myself to strive to tear down those artificial barriers which have separated humankind for centuries, and to put in their place bonds of friendship and, yes, even love.

In the months leading up to June 2015, Barbara Laufer and I had been in discussions with several local spiritual leaders about organizing a local interfaith group in the Catawba Valley along the lines of the well-known Mecklenburg Ministries interfaith organization in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over the next two years we were able to successfully put together such an organization, establishing rules for membership, constitution and bylaws, and acquiring 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. I have had the privilege of serving on the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council (CVIC) Board of Directors since the organization’s inception. Since June 2017, and it has been my great honor to serve as its president.

One of the many community activities that the Catawba Valley interfaith Council has sponsored was a February 2018 book reading and interfaith discussion by four local spiritual leaders: a Rabbi, an Imam, a Pastor, and a professor of religion. The book we chose to read and discuss was Bruce Feiler’s Abraham-A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. That book is Feiler’s attempt to foster Interfaith dialogue and cooperation through the establishment of a common anchor, the patriarch Abraham.

Now I am a chronic optimist. I believe in the words of the Hebrew prophets when they say, “Then they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore. In that day every person will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, with none to make them afraid” (Isa. 2:4; Micah 4:3-4). As we pray in the modern Jewish liturgy, “I am a Jew because Israel places humanity and its unity above the nations and above Israel itself” (Mishkan T’filah, CCAR 2007, p. 203), I do believe that time will come, as we pray in the Aleinu, “O may all, created in your image, become one in spirit and one in friendship….” (Mishkan, p. 289). In his book entitled Abraham, Feiler explores the possibility that it may just be this one biblical figure, so central to each of the three major Western faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that has the historical credibility and depth to bring these faiths together.

Feiler starts off his book with a brief overview of the life of Abraham, summarized from Biblical sources. He delves in each of the major religions’ view of Abraham. Now Feiler is not a theologian, so his assessment of each religion’s development of Abraham is brutally honest. I know that I, as a progressive Jewish rabbi, enjoyed reading Feiler’s assessment of Judaism’s view of Abraham, blemishes and all. One of the topics Feiler treated most bluntly is a topic that I have remarked on many times myself. That is, how the rabbis of the late second Temple period, once they realized that Rome was about to destroy the nation and the Temple, began to re-interpret Scripture in such a way as to convey the individual importance of keeping Torah. In their effort to reinforce the antiquity of the moral code they were promoting, the rabbis of this period gave novel interpretations to ancient passages that sometimes undermined the validity of the plain meaning of the text. In addition to that, those same rabbis’ own commentaries were regarded more and more highly to the point their weight may have begun to equal or even exceed the weight of the Torah as written. This concept has become widely known as the “Oral Torah.” Now, as a progressive Jew, that idea is not offensive to me. I understand that the ancient writings must be constantly reinterpreted in the light of changing societal needs and new historical and scientific discoveries. I believe that the Torah, similar to the United States Constitution, is true enough and sound enough to endure that modernization without weakening its validity or authority.

I must share, however, that one of my very good friends, who is an evangelical Christian pastor, shared with me that he took great offense at the way Feiler handled Scripture and tradition in his book, Abraham. Feiler argues that once the Jewish rabbis opened the door to scriptural reinterpretation and the elevation of commentary to a level of scriptural authority, the Christian writers and commentators used this same approach to advocate their own interpretations of the Scripture and to establish their own traditions. They, of course, were followed soon by Muslim interpreters. It is true, I suppose, as Feiler notes in his discussion, that most religions would not want to admit that their views have evolved over time or in reaction to external forces (Abraham, p. 131).

Following the brief overview of each religion’s view of Abraham, which, as noted, explained each faith’s methods of historical and scriptural understanding, Feiler begins a brief study of the history of interfaith activities. The Parliament of the World’s Religions is widely regarded as the beginning of the interfaith movement. It was the idea of Charles Bonney, who proposed inviting representatives from each of the world’s major religions to a convocation to be held at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This was followed quickly by several major world interfaith organizations in the early 20th century: the World Missionary Conference (1910), the World Congress of Faiths (1933), and the World Council of Churches (1948). Feiler points out that by the “start of the 21st century, the idea that one religion was going to extinguish the others was deader than it had been in two thousand years…. A new type of religious interaction was needed, involving not just swords, plowshares, and the idea of triumph, but conversation, interaction, and the idea of pluralism” (Abraham, p. 195).

Feiler contends, quoting Walter Brueggeman, the well-known theologian from Georgia’s Columbia Theological Seminary, that it is “perfectly legitimate” for Christians, Jews, and Muslims to draw their own meaning from history and tradition. “It is not legitimate for Christians or anyone else to presume that theirs is the only direction” (Abraham, p. 201). Needless to say, not everyone welcomes this assessment. Feiler notes that according to Brueggeman and other scholars, “the percentage of believers who would agree to the principle of spiritual parity among the faiths probably totals around two-thirds of Jews, half of Christians, and a third of Muslims (p. 202). Another problem with interfaith dialogue, according to Feiler, is that it often results in “bland paeans to loving one’s neighbor” or striving toward some mystical “spiritual oneness.” Feiler quotes Harvard’s Jon Levenson who says, “90 percent of interfaith dialogue is bunk” (p. 203).

What Feiler advocates, on the basis of the scholars he consulted, is that a new type of conversation is needed—one that does not minimize differences but accentuates them. Feiler believes the leaders of interfaith initiatives need more than just “mandates and dictums.” He proposes a “common source.” That source for Feiler is, of course, Abraham. Feiler reveals that he found in Abraham his own personal anchor. He states, “I needed to believe that loving God, that being prepared to sacrifice for that belief, and that believing in peace had not somehow become incompatible…. I needed Abraham (Italics mine, p. 215).

It is not, as Feiler maintains, that Abraham is a perfect vessel for interfaith reconciliation, “but he is the best vessel we’ve got.” Abraham is, after all, the root of the common heritage of the three major western religions. In many respects, Abraham’s descendants have become as numerous as the stars. And yet, I agree with Feiler when he says that Abraham’s greatest contributions may still be in the future. “Abraham is the seed of hope” (p. 226). If you believe, as I do, that interfaith dialogue, understanding, and cooperation is a necessary step toward the eradication of fear and hate and toward the establishment of peace, friendship, and even love in our communities, then this book is a must-read. Won’t you get your copy today, and let me know what you think?

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God’s Name in Jewish Sacred Literature and Tradition, January 2020

It is hard to believe that we have entered not only a new year, 2020, but also a new decade. And what an exciting time to be alive! Having just dealt with a serious medical issue and going through surgery, I am astounded by the progress made by modern medicine in just the last few decades. This progress has been paralleled in many other disciplines as well, helping us to live longer and more productive lives while at the same time staying connected with friends and family worldwide. We, in America, are particularly fortunate to be heirs of one of the most stable and prosperous governments in human history. Our constitutional republic has provided an unprecedented level of peace, prosperity, and individual rights to its citizens. And, we have worked diligently to expand those rights to all classes of humankind, not only in our own country, but to citizens of foreign lands as well. I pray with pride every Sabbath and holiday, “Bless our country as a safeguard of peace, its advocate among the nations” (Mishkan T’filah, p. 179).

2019 and the decade it closed was also quite good for congregation Temple Beth Shalom. We are blessed to be in solid financial standing, and our membership has continued to grow slowly but steadily. I cannot say enough good things about our dedicated and hard-working Board of Directors and the many volunteers who make our Temple such a warm and inviting spiritual home. That warmth is reflected, I believe, in the positive responses of the many visitors whose company we have enjoyed this past year. I know that I for one relish the opportunity to interact with members of all faiths, as we seek to deepen our understanding of one another.

As our congregation has grown and I have taken on more and more Hebrew students, the question frequently arises as to the translation and meaning of the name of God in the Bible and prayer book. Since the next time we get together at Temple Beth Shalom for Torah reading, Shabbat January 18, we will read in portion, Shemot, about Adonai’s revelation to Moses of the Divine name for the first time, I thought I would take this opportunity to share my understanding of God’s name in Jewish sacred literature and tradition once more.

I have always believed that a glimpse into the great mystery that is God can be provided by a study of the Divine name. The name of humankind’s Creator, the Sustainer of All Things, has been clearly revealed to us in the Hebrew Bible. And yet, the average reader of scripture remains relatively unaware that the Almighty has a name at all, let alone what it is. That is because this name is not translated as a name in most well-known scriptural translations. You can only imagine my shock and amazement, when, as a young college student in the 1970’s, I began an indepth study of the Hebrew Bible and discovered that the name of God is used almost 6000 times in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings (Tanakh). And, yet, I had never seen it. That is because most modern translations, in following the King James Version, have translated the four letter name of God, yod-heh-vav-heh, as LORD in all capital letters. I completely understand and respect the translation editors’ intent to honor ancient laws and traditions guarding against taking “the name of yod-heh-vav-heh in vain,” as the third commandment implores (Exodus 20:7). Yet, a side effect of that editorial decision is that millions have been denied a more intimate knowledge of the Creator’s name. “LORD” is a title and not a name. And, while I am a husband, a father, and a teacher, none of those titles conveys a personal knowledge of who I am like my name, Dennis Steven Jones, does.

The name of the Creator is revealed for the first time in Hebrew Scripture to Moses in his encounter with the burning bush on a mountain called Horeb (Ex. 3:1-15). You will recall that while he was pasturing a flock he came upon a bush that appeared to be burning, though not consumed. From the midst of the bush, a voice called out to Moses with the identification, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6). Moses was, of course, commissioned to approach the Pharaoh of Egypt to request the release of the Israelite populous who had been serving as slaves there. Moses protested, “I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now, they may say to me, ‘What is God’s name?’ What shall I say to them?” (v. 13) At that point, the Almighty made the stunning revelation, “eh’yeh asher eh’hey…. Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘eh’yeh has sent me to you’” (v. 14—keep in mind there are no capitals in Hebrew). Now, the Hebrew phrase, “eh’yeh asher eh’ye,” is difficult to translate, and has been rendered in most translations as, “I AM THAT I AM,” although that is probably not the most accurate translation (Gerald L Schroeder, God According to God, p. 85). I will definitely explore that possibility more fully in a future article. For our present purposes, it is most interesting to note that in the very next verse in the Torah, God tells Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘yod-heh-vav-heh, the God of your fathers…, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial unto all generations” (v. 15). One might ask why the revealed name changed within the space of two verses from “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh” or simply “eh’yeh” to “yod-heh-vav-heh”? That question may be answered by an understanding of how the name, yod-heh-vav-heh is pronounced.

As a result of efforts by our sages to safeguard the extreme sanctity of the name of God, it appears that the exact pronunciation of that name may have become lost to us. The vast majority of scholarship on this subject favors the pronunciation, “Yahweh.” I do not find that view compelling in that the Hebrew word, Yahweh, conveys no apparent meaning. That would be extremely unlikely, as the vast majority of names used in the Hebrew Bible do convey some type of meaning in their translation. Take for example my Hebrew name, Dani’el, “God is my judge.” There is a minority scholarship opinion which favors the pronunciation, “Yehovah,” for the Divine Name, a pronunciation which does convey meaning. At least one scholar (James D. Tabor, Restoring Abrahamic Faith, p. 20) has posited in this pronunciation of the name the contraction of three Hebrew verbs that have been preserved in the ancient Hebrew hymn “Adon Olam.” In the seventh line of that hymn we chant regarding the Most High, “v’hu hayah, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yihyeh b’tifarah—roughly, the One who was, the One who is, and the One who will be” (Gates of Prayer, p. 729). Hayah translates as “was,” hoveh-“is,” and yihyeh-“will be.” If one were to place these verbs in this order, YIYEH, HOVEH, HAYAH, and then to contract the emboldened letters, one would have YEHOVAH, a contraction meaning quite literally “the One who will be, is, and was.” What strikes me most is not only how this correlation imparts such rich meaning to the pronunciation of the Divine name, but also how it seems to reconcile an apparent discrepancy between verses 14 and 15 in chapter 3 of Exodus. Both verses would contain only slightly alternate renderings of Hebrew verbs for “to be.”

Now, the Divine name is not some kind of talisman or incantation that one has to “get right” in order to earn merit. But, an understanding of the name does seem to figure quite prominently in the message of the Hebrew Prophets, particularly in their predictions of a future time of peace and prosperity for all humankind. One of the more well-known references is in Joel (ch. 3, v. 5Hebrew), where the prophet states, “And it will come about that whoever calls on the name yod-heh-vav-heh shall be delivered.” Another is the one we chant in every synagogue service as a part of our Aleinu prayer. It is a quote from Zechariah 14:9, “b’yom hahu yihyeh yod-heh-vavheh echad u’shemo echad—in that day, Adonai/Yehovah will be one and God’s name one.” These are just two of the many references to the Divine name and its importance, particularly in a time period referred to by the Prophets as “the latter days.” But, that is a topic for a future message. For now, my sincere prayer for each of you is the utmost of health, happiness, prosperity, peace, and spiritual growth in the New Year, 2020! Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will!

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