Tag Archives: Abraham Joshua Heschel

Walking along “Jew Street” with the late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf

19 Jun


Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, 1924-2008

The newest edition of the My Teacher Podcast is now online: “Walking along ‘Jew Street’ with the late Rabbi AJ Wolf.” In the podcast, I interview his son Jonathan Wolf who reminisces about the life and legacy of his father. Rabbi Wolf, of blessed memory, was a leading Reform rabbi, theologian and civil rights activist. He studied with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and mentored his young neighbor Barack Obama when he was venturing into politics. When Rabbi Wolf returned to Chicago in 1980 to begin his tenure as Rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel, my mother Roberta was his secretary. As a youngster, I enjoyed talking baseball with him when I visited my mother at the office. His bar mitzvah gift to me was tickets to a Chicago White Sox game. In recent years, I have felt drawn to his wisdom and prophetic voice.  I hope you enjoy this special Father’s Day edition of the My Teacher Podcast.

In Search of Holy CHUTZpah

8 Oct

A typical dictionary definition of “chutzpah” might not provide its full array of meanings.

What exactly is chutzpah? Well, to answer that, I refer you the most recent season of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” in which he dedicates an entire episode to defining chutzpah. Actually, he dedicates the episode to defining the American pronunciation “CHUTZpah” and the Israeli pronunciation chutzPAH. CHUTZpah and chutzPAH are worlds apart and our problem is that we confuse the two. 

CHUTZpah generally implies audacity, creativity and grit. Chutzpah has deep Jewish roots. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein notes in his book The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life That Matters, “[T]he Talmud recognized that in every generation, there are certain human beings prepared to stand in the face of any power, even God, to champion life, demand justice, and appeal for compassion. These special souls are said to display ‘chutzpah even in the face of heaven—chutzpah afilu kelapei shemaya’”(See Sanhedrin 105a).

But then there’s chutzPAH. The Israeli-accented version is edgy and bitter. It refers to someone who is unencumbered by shame and has no care about anyone’s life or feelings. “Eizeh chutzpah!” “What chutzPAH! What shameless nerve!” is what an Israeli might say when one driver brazenly cuts off another on a highway. Of course, there is the well known American definition of chutzpah courtesy of Leo Rosten in which a man murders his parents and then at his trial for murder stands before the judge and pleads for mercy because he is now an orphan. Gladwell doesn’t mention that classic scene. It’s too confusing. The shameless murderer who is often cited to explain CHUTZpah is actually guilty of chutzPAH.

Throughout Jewish history our people have lionized CHUTZpah, creative audacity. We reject chutzPAH, shameless nerve and disregard for fellow human beings. In ancient Israel, the prophet played a special role in boldly promoting chutzpah in the face of rampant chutzPAH. The prophet did not wield armies like the monarch, nor control a treasury like the Temple priests. The prophet’s job description and power source were complex. Part oracle, part healer, part messenger, the prophet was endowed with a divine intimacy, able to convey God’s will and sometimes even talk back to God on behalf of the people. 

The prophets who lived during the monarchy drew upon the great prophetic models from the Torah.  Abraham sets the standard when he argues with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah for the sake of the righteous.  Later, Moses stands in the breach and saves the Israelites when God threatened to destroy them for the sin of the Golden Calf. Abraham had the chutzpah to stand up for the righteous; Moses went a step further and protected even the sinners from wanton destruction. And let’s not forget that the very name of our nation, Yisrael, means “wrestle with God,” as Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed.  

The prophet was the arbiter of the covenant between God and Israel. While Abraham and Moses challenge God’s commitment to the covenant, usually it’s the people who need reminders of the terms of the covenant. The prophet’s job is to call out corruption and lawlessness in the priesthood and monarchy because injustice is a breach of the covenant. 

In his 1962 book The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that the prophet is an individual willing to say “no” to his society, “condemning its habits and assumptions . . . [and] complacency.” The prophet reminds Israel that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The prophet stands on principle and refuses to be neutral in the face of evil even if it means, as is often the case, living a lonely and deeply unpopular life. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove sums up Heschel saying, “Essentially, the prophet is the voice of dissent.” (From Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, “Something to Say,” 9/7/19) Or, we might say, the voice of chutzpah. Dissent is CHUTZpah, bold action. And against what exactly is the prophet dissenting? ChutzPAH! The Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning is the perfect example of courageous chutzpah calling out the chutzPAH of wanton injustice.

In Isaiah chapter 58, the prophet, channeling the word of God says: 

4. Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.

5.? הֲכָזֶה יִֽהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast, a day when ADONAI is favorable?

In other words, the people’s hypocritical behavior in fasting and beating their chests while at the same time abusing their neighbors is utter chutzPAH. 

The prophet continues: 

6. הֲל֣וֹא זֶה֮ צ֣וֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ֒ No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. 

7 הֲלוֹא פָרס לָֽרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home, when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh. 

It’s not that fasting and ritual behavior are bad. Rather the prophet insists that our ritual behavior be aligned with our ethical actions. When ritual behavior is out of sync with our ethical actions—when we fast and beat our chests on Yom Kippur but we ignore starvation, oppression and injustice in our midst, that is chutzPAH. That is the core message of the Biblical prophets.

The formal time of the prophets may have ended with the close of the Hebrew Bible more than 2000 years ago; however, the prophetic voice continued to be a vital part of the Jewish psyche. Prophetic chutzpah is not located in any one person, class, or generation. It is an essential attribute, part of the life-force of the Jewish people that has cajoled us and sustained us for generations. Rabbi Heschel himself did not just study the prophetic voice; he embodied it. He fought on behalf of civil rights and protested the Vietnam War. He taught the world through his words and deeds how to take a moral stand and refuse to let that era’s abuses become normalized. Heschel wrote: “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.” (“Dissent,” in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, p. 106). 

The struggle of CHUTZpah as dissent and creative audacity to prevail over chutzPAH, shameless disregard for decency and societal norms, is never easy. ChutzPAH is often quite vicious. I felt the force of its toxicity several weeks ago when the American President pressured the Israeli Prime Minister to prevent two US Congresswomen from entering Israel after which the President tweeted that any Jew who supports the Democratic party is disloyal. This rhetoric was blasphemous and divisive, not to mention utterly false. The incident epitomized chutzPAH. 

ChutzPAH barked at CHUTZpah and accused CHUTZpah of disloyalty. But what if we, as heirs to a long tradition of holy CHUTZpah, leaned in to that disloyalty? What if we reminded the world and ourselves that we have a proud history of disloyalty exemplified by the prophets? I worry sometimes that American Jews have lost our historic Jewish chutzpah of courageous audacity while destructive chutzPAH rages around us. 

Furthermore, let us not forget that America has its own proud tradition of dissent and chutzpah that has cried out against tyranny and oppression. It was rebellion that led to the birth of our nation. Dissenters demanded the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, rights for Native Americans, for Latinos, for African Americans, reproductive rights, and gay rights. Martin Luther King said about his era: “History will . . . record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” In other words, when we are silent, we lack holy CHUTZpah, and the tyranny of shameless chutzPAH prevails. 

As Jews and as Americans, it is neither unpatriotic nor disloyal to voice dissent regarding our government or the government of Israel. Whether it concerns our family, our country, or the State of Israel, to voice dissent from a place of loving CHUTZpah is arguably the most Jewish, most loyal, most Zionist, and most important thing an American Jew can do.

In closing, Elie Wiesel taught “To be human is to doubt. The Hebrew word for ‘question,’ shelah, contains the word for ‘God,’ El. God is in the question.” (Ariel Burger, Witness, p. 100).  God is in the question. God is in the dissent. God is in our holy CHUTZpah. 

On this Yom Kippur, I invite us to seek atonement for any times in the last year when we were silent—when we neglected to muster the appropriate bold CHUTZpah to counter the domineering chutzPAH in our midst. On this Yom Kippur, let us lean in to the voice of the prophet. Let us challenge ourselves to hear the prophetic voice of our tradition and to be inspired to find our own prophetic voice. Let us be inspired to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, and may we be blessed with abundant holy CHUTZpah.


(With appreciation for Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove’s sermon “Something to Say,” 9/7/19, from which some key content in this sermon is adapted.)

Farewell to Temple Torat Emet: Remarks delivered April 29, 2017

29 Apr


Rabbi Edward Bernstein served as Spiritual Leader of Temple Torah/Temple Torat Emet from 2011 to 2017.

My tie for this week is a medical-themed tie. I wear it this Shabbat as a reminder of the role of the kohanim (priests) to check people for physical blemishes, such as skin disease that would disqualify them from participating in Temple service. The text tells us:

ג וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֣ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֣גַע בְּעוֹר־הַ֠בָּשָׂ֠ר… וְרָאָ֥הוּ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְטִמֵּ֥א אֹתֽוֹ:

The Kohen shall examine the blemish on the skin of his body… when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.

Meshekh Hokhmah (Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843–1926)) notes that

וְרָאָ֥הוּ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן (v’ra-a-hu hakohen)means when the priest sees him—the person—not it—the disease. In other words, the kohen is to examine the whole person, not only the diseased limb. He is to see what is whole and healthy about the person, not only what is affected.

A Kohen is responsible to look out not only for flaws but to look at a human being and appreciate him or her beyond any flaws. The Kohen is charged to look out for a nega, a blemish. However, in order to fulfill that mission, he must have a vision of healing and wholeness. If he focuses only on the blemish, the person will only be seen in terms of the blemish. With a broader perspective, he is able to unlock qualities of kindness that bring about healing for the individual and the community.

Our society is being torn apart by unthinkable cruelty, violence and hatred. In a society in which airline personnel violently remove a paying passenger from a plane, or a candidate for high office mocks the physical disabilities of a reporter, or vulnerable populations such as Hispanics and Muslims live in fear, our job as a Jewish community must be to bring more kindness into the world. The stakes are high. Religious institutions, such as synagogues, are uniquely positioned to be laboratories for kindness. When we are at our best we not only provide refuge from the world, we develop skills and habits within our community to bring healing and kindness to the world. If we who care about synagogue life fail this basic mission of modeling kindness, the synagogue will become utterly irrelevant to the vast majority of our community. Abraham Joshua Heschel in his later years said it best: “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am older I admire kind people.” Sometimes in synagogue life, we lose sight of our community’s broader mission to model kindness.  It is easy to get stuck and see only an individual’s flaws and not appreciate the totality of each person. In such a reactionary state of mind, we deprive ourselves the opportunity to appreciate the gifts that each individual brings to bear. We need occasional reminders of our role as a Jewish communal institution to model radical kindness, radical hospitality and radical compassion.

As I reflect on the broader purpose of a shul and its rabbi, I of course acknowledge that this is a Shabbat of transition.

Whatever blemishes there may be in me or our shul, I’d like to pretend we are all kohanim and look at the bigger picture or, if you will, the entire body. Today is a time for Hakkarat HaTov, recognition of the good. Just as I hope that I will not be judged for any single shortcoming, I strive to do the same for the congregation.

I am grateful for the six years that we have had together. I am pleased to share that my family and I are remaining in the community. I have been hired as a chaplain with Vitas Hospice. I will also be teaching in various capacities. I have joined the faculty of the Florence Melton Adult School in Boca Raton and invite you to contact me privately if this intensive program of learning might be of interest to you next fall. I also plan to do freelance rabbinic and educational consulting, including lifecycle events for unaffiliated Jews in Palm Beach County. Having caught the writing and publishing bug in the last couple of years, I hope to spend time writing as well.

As I look forward to new endeavors, I also look back on my service at Temple Torat Emet.  I am grateful for the learning many of us have done together. I am grateful for your trust in allowing me to facilitate services. I am grateful for the accomplishments we achieved together from the merger to create Temple Torat Emet to our Adult Education Consortium  of five synagogues to JACATT to goofy YouTube videos that some of us created together. Moreover, I’m grateful for the opportunity to enter the lives of our congregants and for the trust you invested in me to provide guidance at critical moments.

Among hundreds of encounters, I’d like to highlight three specific interactions across generations that come to mind:

  1. Teenager Seeking Answers—Two years ago, a young man from our congregation, a high school senior on spring break, asked to meet with me. This hip, athletic young man could have been doing a million other things on his spring break, but he wanted to meet with his rabbi. He had spiritual questions and was seeking in depth exploration of issues. He had had some exposure to Chabad but was looking for guidance from within the mainstream Conservative tradition in which he was raised. I thought the conversation might last 20 minutes. Instead, we wound up talking for two hours studying texts and creating a reading list for further studies. We’ve kept in touch, and he is an amazing young man in college who represents the future leadership of our people. I’m honored that he entrusted me with those two hours during his spring break, and I’m humbled that I was able to meet him where he was at and offer what I hope was meaningful guidance.
  2. Transition to Hospice—At the other end of the lifecycle spectrum, a woman was battling cancer. She had a beautiful marriage of more than 60 years. After years of treatment, her situation was not improving. She had a razor sharp mind and she and her family were faced with a difficult decision on next steps. For me, personally, the answer was obvious not to continue any more invasive treatment. But I refrained from saying that. I asked: “What are your goals? What tradeoffs are you willing to accept?”

She articulated very clearly that she wanted to die peacefully at home, not at the hospital. She chose not to continue with treatment and enter home hospice. She had a beautiful final week in the comfort of her home surrounded by her children. I was honored to earn the trust of this woman and her husband to enable me to orchestrate these final days of peace and dignity. I am grateful to have been a part of these sacred moments.

3. Conversion—One of the most spiritually uplifting roles I play as a rabbi is the opportunity to facilitate conversion to Judaism. At Temple Torat Emet I facilitated over twenty conversions. Last year, a family in our community came to me shortly after enrolling their daughter in Wiston Family Torah Tots. Since the mother was not Jewish, the child was not either. While our pre-school would have welcomed the child anyway, the couple had committed to raising their daughter exclusively Jewish according to the father’s tradition, and they were eager to convert their daughter as soon as possible. The mother was not yet ready to convert herself but supported her daughter doing so. We had a beautiful day at the conversion at Lakeside Park on the Inter-coastal. Not long after that, the mother enrolled in the Board of Rabbis Introduction to Judaism course for conversion candidates and has expressed her desire to formally embrace Judaism in her own right.

I  could share numerous other examples, but, suffice it to say, it is stories like these that remind me why I do what I do. The stories I described did not just happen. They happened because of the relationships I cultivated as your Rabbi with congregants of all ages.  I am filled with gratitude for these sacred moments.  In the day-to-day hustle and bustle of life, it is easy to get caught up in daily stresses. We get distracted by each nega, each blemish. However, in zooming out and looking at the bigger picture, we see a beautiful wholeness, similar to what the Kohen saw when examining a person. A community rabbi’s role at its essence is to cultivate relationships and facilitate meaningful engagement with Jewish tradition, particularly at key moments. It is humbling to realize the extent to which I have been part of changing people’s lives, one person at a time.

I would like to acknowledge a few specific individuals who were important to me over the past 6 years. During this tenure, I’ve conducted roughly 100 funerals. Of those, two special people are very much on my mind today: Dr. Kenneth Cohen, z”l, who was co-chair of the Rabbinic Search Committee in 2011, along with Richard Katz, may he enjoy length of years and good health. Kenneth called me during Hol HaMoed Pesah in 2011 to invite me to interview. After I began my service, he became a trusted friend and mentor. We worked closely together on a synagogue strategic plan that paved the way for important initiatives, including our merger to become Torat Emet. I miss Kenneth’s visionary leadership and steadfast confidence.

Elliot Fagin, z”l, is also on my mind. His dedication to this institution and his kindness were inspirational. He helped me in numerous and immeasurable ways—reminding me of people’s names, organizing services and just knowing every nuance of synagogue culture.

Here’s a piece of trivia for you: I am the first Rabbi in the history of the former Temple Torah and Temple Emeth under the age of 50. I am the first rabbi in our combined history of more than 70 years to have school-age children at home. For some, this was almost as shocking as a rabbi who rides his bicycle to synagogue! There may have been some growing pains along the way as the congregation and our family adjusted our new reality. However, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be this guinea pig of sorts, and I hope for the sake of our community that I’m not the last such rabbi.

Anything I did for the congregation over the last six years would not have been possible without the steadfast support of Ariella and our children.

In Ariella, I am blessed with a partner who supports me and encourages me always. She has opened our home to guests and did the bulk of the work to enable us to host numerous congregants and potential congregants in our home for Shabbat and holiday meals as well as shomer Shabbat overnight guests. Ariella volunteered her skills and contributed her talents to our community when she created Mitzvah Matters, Mitzvah Day and served on the board of the Temple Torah Foundation.  She is an unsung hero, and I am here to sing her praise for all that she did in her own right to strengthen our community and to support me in my work.

We are blessed with three amazing children. Sam and Noam have been leaders in the resurgence of our youth groups in recent years. They have served as ushers for the High Holidays, installed hurricane shudders, facilitated junior congregation services, volunteered in Torah Tots Day Camp and so much more. Esther has been a joy to watch as she has literally grown up in shul and has developed confidence in coming up to the bimah every week. My children have not had it easy. They live in a glass house. While they are blessed to have many good friends who come to shul regularly, there have been many occasions when they were the only children in services. They have been watched more closely than other children and occasionally judged unfairly in comparison to other kids for what they might do, say or wear.  Yet, through it all, they have been gracious. I couldn’t be more proud of their menschlikhkeit. Moreover, my family patiently endured my frequent absences at home due to professional commitments: Sunday afternoons when I had to cancel family plans to do a funeral; Numerous weeknights that I missed Little League games or special school functions due to committee meetings or shiva minyanim; Friday evening Shabbat dinner that we rushed through so that I could get to services on time. While I’m proud of my work and accomplishments, I recognize the sacrifices made by my family and wish to thank them publicly from the bottom of my heart. I love you all.

The five of us draw strength from our extended family, particularly my parents, Roberta and Chuck Bernstein, my grandmother, Adele Bernstein, and Ariella’s parents, Sheila and Jerry Reback. In fact, Sheila and Jerry have been full members of the congregation since our arrival, and Jerry, a licensed electrician, contributed occasional electrical work to the Synagogue. We are grateful for their steadfast love and support.

There are a few other people I want to thank. I’ve worked with four presidents of the congregation: Cheri Deutch, Alan Aronson, Lori Charnow and Phil Avruch. Over the years, there were times we agreed and times we did not. However, I want them and the congregation to know that I appreciate their efforts as volunteer leaders of the congregation. Every day they volunteer their time to field complaints, manage crises and maintain the good will of our community. Volunteers can never be thanked enough, so I want to thank them, as well as all those who volunteer their time for the well-being of our community.

Our professional staff are also not thanked  enough for their tireless service to our congregation and to the Jewish people. I have been enriched and inspired by their work on a daily basis. To Michelle Kantor, Mike Klein, Orly Jacobs, Sharon Feinberg, Stephanie Rubin, Stacey Ripin, Sharon Black, Alyssa Fix, Kathy Slutsky, Susi Wood and Yvette Baugh, thank you for your partnership and support. To: Bob, Richard, Maria and Olga, thank you for managing our large facility and making incredibly complex work of setting up events seem so easy and seamless. A special thank you to my partner on the bimah Hazzan Howard (Hamid) Dardashti. The last year has been a true blessing to work together. I served earlier in my career with his brother Hazzan Farid Dardashti, a dear friend and mentor, and strengthening my bond with the Dardashti family through Hamid has been a special bonus. I only wish we had more time together as a team on this bimah.

I want to close with where I began. Each one of us today is like that Kohen of long ago who can only heal blemishes by bearing witness to the whole, complete person before us. As I finish my tenure I challenge all of us to fulfill the essence of synagogue life: look for the good in others and bring more kindness into the world. Finally, particularly since I am staying in Palm Beach County, I pray that we will cross paths on happy occasions. I’m reminded that in Hebrew we don’t say farewell. We say l’hitraot—till we meet again. Shabbat Shalom.


1 Nov

Isaac Blessing JacobTomorrow in Shabbat services I will facilitate a discussion on giving blessings, based on the drama surrounding Isaac blessing his sons. Consider the sources in this study sheet. Think of a time when you felt “blessed” by someone else through praise, words of encouragement or the like. In what way(s) were you transformed by the blessing? Let’s begin the discussion now! You can Tweet responses at #blessingAsAgentForChange. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Bernstein