Tag Archives: Conservative Judaism

Discovering the miraculous in our actions

19 Dec
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z"l, contributed to the recently published "Keeping Faith in Rabbis." He died December 18, 2014, at the age of 89.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z”l, contributed to the recently published “Keeping Faith in Rabbis.” He died December 18, 2014, at the age of 89.

What is the job of a rabbi? We can all think of many things based on our experiences. A rabbi often functions as service leader, preacher, teacher, spiritual counsellor, manager, writer, mediator, strategic planner, fundraiser and many more.

The modern rabbinate continues to evolve. In 21st Century America, we have to ask how contemporary challenges that our Jewish community faces will shape the rabbinate and how the rabbinate must respond to challenges to shape the Jewish community. A new book, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher, is a collection of essays that explore the evolving American rabbinate. I am proud to say that I am a contributor to this volume with the publication of my essay “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate.” In coming weeks, I hope to discuss my essay further. For now, I want to turn to another essay in the book, “The Loneliness of the Rabbi,” by Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Rabbi Schulweis died on Thursday at the age of 89. He had an illustrious career as the Rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, a vibrant Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. I did not know him personally but was inspired by his writing and teaching. He was a powerful and engaging speaker, a brilliant yet accessible theologian and a passionate advocate for social justice. He was a Gadol Hador, one of the giants of the Jewish world in our generation. In his essay in Keeping Faith in Rabbis, he addresses rabbis directly as to their sacred duty.

He writes:
“Rabbis, you are the children of prophets. In you is the solace that comes from loyalty to the conscience that has led you to this sacred vocation. In you is the moral passion that kept the prophet alive, who when he confessed that he felt the derision against him, and was tempted not to mention God’s name was overwhelmed by the word that was “in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones.”

There are many things that a rabbi does, but based on Rabbi Schulweis’s teaching, I would like to suggest a common purpose among our various forms of service: the rabbi’s job is to guide others to seek out and discover God’s presence in one another and in our world. When we help others achieve this and add meaning to their lives, we are successful.

The task of finding God’s presence in one another and in our world lies at the heart of Shabbat Hanukkah. On Shabbat Hanukkah we wrestle with two questions: 1)What exactly is the miracle of Hanukkah that we celebrate? 2) Why does Shabbat Hanukkah always coincide with Parashat Mikketz (and is there a connection between the two?—OK, that’s a third question.)

Let’s address these questions. Our ancestors saw miracles in the story of Hanukkah, but differed on precisely what the miracle was. There are two separate Hanukkah miracles described by different voices of our tradition. In our liturgy, we say the prayer Al HaNissim, which praises God for the miracle that delivered a military victory of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, the pure over the impure, and the righteous over the wicked. In the Talmud, however, we find the legend of the single cruse of oil that miraculously burned for eight days instead of just one. Our tradition gives voice to both of these founding myths, and both are valid and important.

So, what does Hanukkah have to do with the central episode of the Joseph story that we read this Shabbat, Parashat Mikketz? They always fall together, but why? On the surface, this is a pure coincidence. Our Torah reading cycle was not coordinated with the cycle of festivals and special days on the Jewish calendar. For this reason, we have the separate Maftir Torah reading and special Haftarah reading that are singled out today for Hanukkah. Nevertheless, our annual mingling of the story of Joseph in Egypt with our commemoration of the Maccabean revolt against their Greek oppressors, begs for closer examination.
The Joseph story is itself the most naturalistic narrative in the Torah. On the surface, God is not an active player. Every event can be read in purely naturalist terms in its descriptions of human behavior. We have sibling rivalry, parental meddling, deception, lust, political ambition, guilt, and revenge. We recognize these experiences from our own lives, and we identify with the characters as a result.

At the same time, there are just too many coincidences in the story for it to be entirely arbitrary: Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave, which leads to his serving in the house of Potiphar, which leads to his imprisonment, which eventually leads to his interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, which leads to his appointment as Pharaoh’s #2, which leads to Joseph’s brothers coming to bow down before Joseph, begging for food. God is never described by the narrative as the direct cause of this chain of events, but Joseph attributes everything to the hand of God and forgives his brothers as a result.

In the Joseph story, God’s presence is well-hidden. God never speaks but is portrayed as working all along, though in ways not apparent to most of the actors. Joseph himself ascribes God’s role in orchestrating the chain of events in his life that ultimately leads to his reunion with his family and his forgiveness of his brothers (Gen. 45:5).

Rabbi Neil Gillman notes a parallel between the Joseph story and the Hanukkah story. If we look at historical accounts of the second century BCE, we find not only the persecution of the Greeks toward Jews, but the internal struggles between the Maccabees and the Hellenists, Jews who sought to live completely immersed in Greek culture. It is a story rife with political intrigue, assassinations, and civil war. The Maccabees emerged as the winners during this period of great strife. On the one hand, their story can be told in naturalist ways: the story of an oppressed people rebelling against an imperialistic kingdom, fighting to regain their freedom and their right to worship as they wished, and winning because of their military might and political sense. It was only subsequent generations, starting with the Maccabees themselves, who interpreted the series of events as miraculous, the work of God’s hand in human history.

We see an interesting phenomenon in the Joseph story and in Judaism’s response to the Maccabean revolt. In both cases, God is seen as having played a role in the unfolding of events, even as God’s presence is not readily apparent at the time the events are happening. By extension, the coincidence of Parashat Mikketz and Shabbat Hanukkah is perhaps not a coincidence at all. It may be our tradition’s way of saying that God is present throughout our lives. Our openness to seeking out and being aware of God’s presence is a step towards adding meaning to our lives.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis helped countless numbers of Jews encounter God’s presence through guiding them to discover God’s presence in other people. In the process, he helped bring fresh meaning to modern American Judaism. On this Shabbat Hanukkah, I pray that we will follow the example of Rabbi Schulweis. Let us tap into our human ingenuity and compassion to bring about good in the world so that future generations will look back at us and say that through our efforts God performed miracles.
Amen.

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#TieBlog #Nitzavim-Vayelekh

18 Sep
"It is not in heaven"  (Deuteronomy 30:12)

“It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12)

While human beings have acquired the ability to launch rockets and people into space and explore the heavens, Deuteronomy in Parashat Nitzavim tells us that Torah–the totality of our received tradition from God–is “lo bashamayim hi,” “it is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). This phrase has been understood that the Torah is not an esoteric document. It is meant for human beings in this world to explore, interpret and reinterpret. This verse plays a central role in one of the most famous passages in the Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b, in which Rabbi Eliezer is in a dispute with Rabbi Joshua and the majority of sages. Rabbi Eliezer performs miracles and even has a divine voice from the heavens call out that the law is in accordance with him. Rabbi Joshua, however, says “Lo bashamayim hi,” “[The Torah] is not in heaven.” God laughs in response and says, “My children have defeated me.” The Torah is meant to be studied and reinterpreted in each generation.

Take the #TTShofarChallenge

18 Sep

The Ice Bucket Challenge is so “last year!” Get into the 5775 groove and take the #TTShofar Challenge!

Who speaks for the American Jewish Community?

9 May
Tally of votes in J Street's failed bid to join Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Tally of votes in J Street’s failed bid to join Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Who speaks for the American Jewish community? For years the assumption has been that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was the main voice of the American Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents is an umbrella encompassing some 51 Jewish organizations representing all of the religious streams, defense organizations and other significant American Jewish institutions. Their mission is to produce consensus statements on behalf of American Jews on matters important to us, such as Israel’s security, so that political leaders in our country and opinion leaders have a sense of the pulse of the American Jewish community. During the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained that he was inundated by so many Jewish organizations lobbying him on Israel, and he didn’t know who spoke for the Jewish community. Therefore, the Conference of Presidents was formed to streamline contact between the Jewish community and Washington. This model works when there is general consensus. Until there isn’t.

Recently, a deep rift in the Jewish community has been exposed over the Conference of Presidents’ vote to reject a membership application by J Street, the so-called “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lobby organization. While the vote was secret, news media reported that of the 42 organizations that participated in the vote, 17 supported J Street’s membership, 22 opposed and three abstained. J Street needed a two-thirds majority of the Presidents Conference, or 34 of the 51 member groups.

I must confess to some personal ambivalence over this vote. Underscoring my own ambivalence, two organizations within the Conservative Movement in which I’m involved cast opposing votes on the matter. I sit on the board of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement, which voted against admitting J Street. The Rabbinical Assembly, on the other hand, voted in favor.

Before I spell out the reasons for my ambivalence, I note that our Torah portion this week, Parashat Behar, is focused as a whole on the Eretz Yisrael, that tract of land that embodies so much emotional, spiritual and religious importance for us as Jews. If Israel did not hold such importance, nobody would be getting worked up over a membership vote in the Presidents’ Conference. The portion describes the practices of Shmittah, the Sabbatical year in which the Land is to lie fallow, and Yovel, the Jubilee, in which all land returns to its original owner, all debts are erased and all slaves are freed. Observance of these laws is meant to remind us that the Land ultimately does not belong to us, but to God. In describing the Jubilee, the text instructs: V’khi timkeru mimkar la’amitecha o kanoh miyad amitecha, al tonu ish et achiv. When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another (Leviticus 25: 14).

The Midrash interprets the application of this verse as extending beyond a mere business transaction. Rather, the admonishment al tonu ish et achiv, “you shall not wrong one another,” includes wronging a person with harmful words (Lev. R. 33:1, quoted by Rabbi Harold Kushner, Etz Hayim, p. 740). This includes reminding a repentant sinner of his or her former misdeeds and asking a merchant the price of something when you have no intention of buying. In other words, the Torah is concerned not only with economic justice, as vital as it is, but also in promoting civil discourse.

The centrality of promoting healthy speech in our tradition is the source of my ambivalence over the J Street/Conference of Presidents controversy. On one hand, I have deep concerns about J Street. As Alan Dershowitz wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz recently:

“[J Street] seeks to attract centrist members by advocating the two-state solution, an aggressive stance towards peace negotiations and criticisms of Israel’s settlement policies. These are positions I fully support, and if they were J Street’s only positions, I would have joined that organization many years ago. But in an effort to expand leftward, particularly hard leftward, it has taken positions that undercut Israel’s security and that virtually no Israeli center-leftists support.”

Dershowitz notes further:
“When J Street invites BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) supporters and those [who] oppose Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people to speak at its events, it claims that it does not necessarily support these positions, but it believes in encouraging its members to hear views that are different from its official positions. That is total nonsense. J Street only wants people to hear views to the anti-Israel hard left of its position. It categorically refuses to allow its members to hear views that are more centrist and more pro-Israel, such as my own.”

As Dershowitz and others have said, J Street speaks out of both sides of its mouth. It says it’s a Zionist organization, but gives public platforms to those who seek to destroy the concept of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Given this track record, I understand the sentiment of the majority of Jewish organizations that see J Street as a threat to the consensus-building mission of the Conference of Presidents.

Despite Dershowitz’s compelling case, I am concerned that J Street may actually have won by losing. The negative vote enables J Street to play the victim and boost their agenda to delegitimize the organized Jewish community. Even for those of us who don’t agree with their platform, they have made significant inroads in the Jewish community, especially on college campuses. Like it or not, they are a “Major American Jewish Organization” that is far more influential than many other long-standing members of the Conference of Presidents. J Street is exploiting the vote for fundraising and publicity. It has declared that the vote is proof that the organized Jewish community is tone deaf and doesn’t care about younger Jews who don’t relate to Israel like their parents and grandparents did.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, President of the Rabbinical Assembly, voted in favor of admission and wrote the following in an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week:

“Despite my own personal misgivings about J Street, I advocated for its admission to the Conference precisely because I don’t share its views. There are other members of the Conference whose views are not consonant with my own on matters that are of the greatest concern to me….But in the years that I have participated in its meetings and programs, the Conference has afforded me – and those with whom I differ – a crucial opportunity to move beyond the instinctive demonization of “the other” to a healthier, more reality-based appreciation of the areas of commonality that we share.”

Rabbi Skolnik continues: “That is exactly what should have happened with J Street. Membership in the Conference would have afforded its leadership a crucial opportunity to see the world though the Conference’s eyes, and for the Conference to see the world of Israel advocacy through J Street’s eyes. It would also have sent a much-needed message to the many college students who have found their voice on Israel through J Street that the leadership of the American Jewish community hears them, and values what they have to say, even if it sometimes disagrees. But the Conference of Presidents did not do that, and that was, in my view, most unfortunate.”

We learn in the Torah al tonu ish et achiv, “you shall not wrong one another.” Our tradition understands this as extending to how we talk to and about one another. In this light, I believe it is in the best interest of the Jewish community that those within the organized Jewish community and those who seek to enter find a way to talk to and listen to one another. For J Street this might mean adopting a constructive agenda that does not seek to embarrass American Jewish organizations that have done vital work for decades. For the organized Jewish community, efforts towards greater inclusion might just neutralize the most strident voices they seek to exclude and enhance an umbrella organization committed to Jewish unity. As Israel celebrates 66 years, may we be blessed with renewed vigor to promote civil discourse for the betterment of the Jewish people.

Pew’s call to action

18 Oct

Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach received two awards at the USCJ conference in Baltimore: commendations for Wiston Family Torah Tots social action programming and Temple Torah's new Shabbat With A Twist Siddur (l to r: Wilma Turk, Cantor Zachary Mondrow and Rabbi Edward Bernstein).

Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach received two awards at the USCJ conference in Baltimore: commendations for Wiston Family Torah Tots social action programming and Temple Torah’s new Shabbat With A Twist Siddur (l to r: Wilma Turk, Cantor Zachary Mondrow and Rabbi Edward Bernstein).

Pew’s Call to Action: Vayera
October 19, 2013
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of joining Cantor Mondrow and Wilma Turk at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference in Baltimore. The Conference marked the 100th anniversary of the establishment of this synagogue arm of the Conservative Movement. While there’s much to be proud of in our Movement’s history over the last 100 years, the focus at the conference was on the future. In the background of practically every session was the recently released study of the American Jewish community by the Pew Research Center. No doubt, many of the findings by Pew are cause for alarm and concern and will no doubt influence decisions of Jewish organizations across the country for years to come. One piece of data that has received much attention is that among millennials, American Jews who have only known a world with the Internet, some 22% consider themselves as having no religion. This datum parallels of finding from Pew’s recent larger survey of all religions in America that found that the fastest growing religion in America is none. Of particular concern at the USCJ conference was Pew’s finding that that only 18% of American Jews consider themselves Conservative. This is down from 39% in 1990. We do ourselves no favors by ignoring these numbers and pretending they don’t exist. At the same time, the message of the survey should not be a prophecy of gloom and doom. It should rather be seen as a call to action. Indeed, I was impressed at the conference by the tremendous positive energy. While there was concern about the present, there was a great sense of hope and opportunity for the future.

I’d like to highlight two pieces of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, that seem relevant in light of the Pew report. The first comes from the very beginning of the portion; the second from the end. The portion opens in chapter 18 with God appearing to Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent. In today’s Jewish community, we have many of our fellow Jews who are outside the tent of the synagogue and the organized Jewish community. Some find the rituals and prayers to be complicated and unfamiliar. Some find the synagogue buildings large and imposing. Some find they do not know anyone and therefore to cross the threshold is a major obstacle. The conference of this past week reminded us that many of our fellow Jews are eager for a sense of community and deeper meaning in their lives. Those of us within the tent need to make greater efforts to bring our fellow Jews into our synagogue and our community. This is an ongoing challenge in a time when there are many competing demands on people’s time, energy, and resources. I do believe that a sense of sacred community and the unique blend of tradition and modernity which we call Conservative Judaism has a compelling message. We need to work creatively and passionately to bring more of our neighbors and friends into the tent of Jewish life, and specifically Temple Torah. We are in the midst of a strategic planning process that I hope, once completed, will strengthen our role a warm, welcoming, open tent for Jews in our area across generations.

Parashat Vayera closes with the story of the Binding of Isaac, or “Akeidah.” As Abraham and Isaac, along with the two unnamed lads who accompany them, near the end of their journey, the text reads: “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar” (Gen. 22:4).

Midrash Tanchuma (Vayera 23) offers the following comment:
As they approached the place and saw it from afar Abraham asked Isaac, “Do you see what I see?” And Isaac answered, “I see a beautiful, majestic mountain, and the cloud of glory hovers over it.”

He then asked his two young servants, “Do you see anything?”

They answered, “We see nothing but a wasteland.” Abraham said to them, “Remain behind here with the donkeys.”

The two lads are supporting cast members who typically get lost in the psycho-drama of the narrative. Yet, the rabbis in their careful reading of the text take note that they were left behind as Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain. The rabbis ask why that is, and their answer is that they were not filled with a sense of awe. They did not sense the presence of the divine in creation. Abraham saw the makom, the Place (which, in rabbinic Hebrew becomes another name for God); the lads saw a wasteland. Therefore, Abraham excluded them from further participation in this momentous occasion.

Of course, we can ask numerous questions about the lads and presume our own course of action if we were in their shoes. We might gather from the text that of course Abraham excluded them. Why would he want them snooping around, given what unfolds? If we were there, would we surreptitiously follow our masters up the mountain? Would we call the police when we saw Abraham raise his knife? Would we run and tell Sarah (Oh, yes, she does die suddenly in the next chapter, doesn’t she?)? This particular midrash overlooks all of these questions and directs our attention to the broader atmosphere.

Abraham and Isaac are not without their faults. Abraham follows God’s instructions in an unquestioning way that is incongruent with the Abraham who argues with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac, for his part, is passive. He may well be an adult already but is willing to go along with his father’s plan. His willful passivity (assuming that to be the case) demonstrates his own lapse in concern of the sanctity of life in the name of serving his God. In reading the text one is left with little doubt that the main characters were deeply scarred by this episode. God never speaks to Abraham again. Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Sarah dies.

All of this is true, and still the rabbis writing the midrash above were bothered by those two anonymous youths at the bottom of the mountain whom we never hear from again. Abraham and Isaac, for all their faults, are looking for the spark of the divine in their lives. They are imperfect in their comprehension of it, and they are hurt in the process; however, they still care. The rabbis interpret the two lads as indifferent to the divine presence, and indifference is taboo in the Torah and in the annals of Jewish interpretation.

One astounding statistic in the Pew Report that has not received enough attention is that when people were asked if they had a positive or negative sense of Jewish identity, 94% responded positive. That is really incredible. 94% of American Jews are proud to be Jewish. It’s just that the majority of them don’t presently feel engaged by Jewish institutions, for whatever reason. We should not be like Abraham’s assistants who lost hope. We should rather be like Abraham and Isaac who, according to the midrash, sense an opportunity to encounter the divine. We should seek out opportunities for deeper engagement with fellow Jews who may be seeking meaningful involvement. Let’s not write anyone off. In every challenge lies opportunity. As the rabbis interpret, at a momentous time in the Bible, two youths were pessimistic and indifferent and were excluded from further participation. A message we can take from Parashat Vayera is that it’s in our power to open our tent, bring people inside and encounter the divine through our shared community. May we be so blessed.