Tag Archives: Judaism

Giving Thanks: Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz on her new role as JTS Chancellor

19 Nov

Here’s my newest edition of My Teacher Podcast in which I interview Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, the eighth Chancellor of JTS and the first woman in this role. In this Thanksgiving 2020 interview, she reflects on her career, scholarship, personal challenges and steering JTS through the COVID-19 era.

#TieBlog #Vayishlah #JacobWrestles

27 Nov


Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlach and is renamed Yisrael.

Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlach and is renamed Yisrael.

Parashat Vayishlah presents the climax in Jacob’s journey from a trickster youth who gets his way through deception to a mature adult who faces life’s challenges with integrity. He is about to confront his estranged brother Esau for the first time in 20 years. He fears for his life as he believes Esau is still angry over being cheated out of his birthright. The night before meeting Esau, Jacob encounters a mysterious being on the banks of the Jabbok and they wrestle all night. Towards dawn, Jacob prevails but the sparring partner strikes him in his hip and causes permanent injury. Jacob emerges triumphant but wounded. He is renamed Yisrael- the one who wrestles with God and man and prevails. Later (33:18), Jacob is described as “Shalem,” whole or at peace. Even though Jacob is hurt in a wrestling bout, he is a much more whole person for finding within him the integrity to repair his relationship with his brother.

#TieBlog #Vayetze #Jacob’s Ladder

20 Nov

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder

In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. They next morning, Jacob awakes and says, “God was in this place, and I did not even know it.” Herein lies a subtle but clear message that while other faith traditions view heavenly bliss as the ultimate religious achievement, for Judaism, the ultimate religious expression is bringing a bit of heaven onto earth.

#TieBlog #Vayera #TheScream

29 Oct

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

When I found a tie with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” it was clear to me that it would be perfect for Parashat Vayera. The question is what specific connection or “tie-in” it has. The next question is what kind of a scream is represented? Is it a scream of terror or a scream of joy? If the latter, perhaps it’s the aged Sarah expressing her shock that she is going to give birth to a son. On the terror side there are multiple options. It could be Abraham hearing about God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Amorah and his righteous indignation that the just might perish with the wicked. It could be the wife of Lot gazing upon Sodom and Amorah as they burn from fire and brimstone. She turns into a pillar of salt from the shock. Or perhaps it’s Sarah upon learning of the near sacrifice of her son Isaac (Sarah dies at the beginning of the next portion). It could be all of these things, making this one loud, action-packed Torah portion.

#TieBlog #Noah

15 Oct

Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark

As we turn to Parashat Noah, we are faced with the perplexing challenge posed by the first verse, “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation.” Why does the text say “in his generation”? The rabbis of old had a debate. Some say that if Noah could stand out in his age when surrounded by depravity, all the more so in other ages when he would have other decent people around him. Other rabbis aren’t so sure. He was certainly better than the people around him, but he would have paled in comparison to an Abraham or Moses who intervened before God on behalf of people condemned to die. Noah never says anything. He builds his ark and goes on his way. His action (or inaction) stands in contrast to Abraham challenges God directly when Sodom and Gomorrah are doomed to destruction. “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25), Abraham pleas, hoping the depraved cities would be spared for the sake of even ten righteous people. Abraham intervened with God on behalf of the righteous. Moses takes it a step further and intervenes to save the guilty, the people of Israel who commit the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). The trajectory of the Torah suggests that Noah was righteous for his time, but would have paled in comparison to the giants of later generations.

#TieBlog #Shemini

17 Apr

Nadav and Avihu play with "strange fire" in Parashat Shemini."

Nadav and Avihu play with “strange fire” in Parashat Shemini.”

We learn when we’re young never play with matches. In Parashat Shemini, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, bring eish zarah, strange fire to the altar. They are tragically stricken down as punishment. The Torah provides scant rationale, Rabbis throughout the ages have struggled to find an adequate explanation for this incident. Whatever explanation one chooses, there is no ambiguity of Aaron’s shock: Vayidom Aharon, Aaron was silent. Yet Aaron goes on living, establishing Jewish religious observance for generations to come. In our world, we are bombarded by inexplicable tragedies that often leave us speechless. Our best defiance is to go on living and affirm life.

#TieBlog #Tzav

27 Mar

The eternal flame

The eternal flame

Parashat Tzav continues discussion of the order of sacrifices and contains the instruction that the kohanim (priests) maintain a perpetual flame on the altar.

This is also Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” preceding Passover. We focus on preparing our homes to be rid of all hametz (leavened products)by the start of the holiday. On Thursday night we do bedikat hametz, an inspection of the home to make sure it is hametz-free. On Friday morning we burn the leftover hametz from the search. This week’s tie also evokes the upcoming burning of hametz. Please exercise appropriate caution, and enjoy your Passover preparations.

The finer details of community building

13 Mar

For math aficionados, this weekend is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. March 14, known as Pi Day. To remind those of us who haven’t been in high school geometry for a while, Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. This is approximately 3.14, but this is only an approximation. We actually don’t know the exact ratio, though mathematicians have expanded the decimal to hundreds more digits. As we were beginning the Shacharit service today on 3/14/15 at 9:26 and 53 seconds, we experienced Pi Day to the fullest extent possible for the next 100 years. I didn’t want that moment to go unnoticed.

Our Torah today reading focuses much attention on precision in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. This week we conclude the public reading of the second book of the Torah, the book of Shemot (Exodus) and read the two parashiyot known as Vayakhel and Pekudei. These readings follow last week’s reading of the Golden Calf episode, while today’s reading deals nearly exclusively with the construction of the tabernacle and furnishings that our people carried with them in the desert period. It is clear that after the powerful experience of the Divine Presence at Sinai, followed later by construction of the Golden Calf, the people need some tangible, physical reminder of God’s presence. The Torah describes in extensive detail the measurements of the Mishkan, because a house of God must be made just right. Years later, the Tabernacle would be replaced by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and following its destruction, the synagogue became our spiritual home. In every community, we attempt to make our place of worship a fitting beautiful place that we feel suits God’s presence. At the same time, we are reminded in this same portion that with all of the exactitude of construction, the key purpose of the Mishkan or the modern synagogue is as a place of sacred convocation. God is not present unless people are present creating community with one another.

The Torah reading opens Vayak’hel Moshe et KOL adat b’nai Yisrael. Moses gathered KOL, the entire community of Israel. In classical rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, every word is full of meaning. So many commentators naturally ask why the text adds the modifier kol, for all. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that this is to restore the sense of unity and shared purpose that had existed at Mount Sinai. Other commentators explain that the simple word kol was to be a constant reminder that our definition of community must include all our members. To be loyal to our calling, the community must include the younger and older; weak and the strong; men and women and children. Every individual, whatever his/her station in life, has a special place in the life of the community. Every person matters (Thanks to Rabbi Melvin Sirner for this spark).

Every day we are bombarded by difficult news stories that might be boiled down to individuals or segments of society forgetting the basic premise that every person matters. I don’t think any of us has to think too hard to think of examples disrespect, discrimination and hatred that exist in our country and around the world. Once in a while, it’s nice to hear good news about people standing up and doing the right thing for others, particularly for weaker, more vulnerable members of society.

This week, there was one such story in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Lincoln Middle School was hosting a basketball game. One of the school’s cheerleaders, Desiree Andrews, a student with Downs Syndrome, was being heckled by fans in the bleachers. This is horrible and disheartening. And then something remarkable happened. Three eighth graders on the team, Miles Rodriguez, Scooter Terrien and Chase Vazquez, stopped the game, went up into the stands, and told the hecklers to knock it off. In response, there has been an outpouring of support for these students, for their parents, for the school and for Desiree. The school renamed the gymnasium “D’s House,” and the Kenosha City Council is honoring the three players for standing up for Desiree.

The story has spread widely on the Internet and social media. One quotation in a news article stood out for me. One of the three boys, Scooter Terrien, said: “It’s not fair when other people get treated wrong because we’re all the same. We’re all created the same. God made us the same way.”
This should not seem remarkable to us—it should be what we consider normal. And yet, for three 14-year-old boys to stop a basketball game to stand up to a heartless, cowardly bully, it gives hope to all of who wish to see our communal homes cultivate and nurture our most precious values. Clearly Lincoln Middle School gets an ‘A’ for creating an atmosphere in which these three basketball players developed values of caring and concern. Their families and broader community that helped raise these boys also deserve credit for raising boys who understand that every person matters.

These three boys at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha are an inspiration to us here who care about creating a vibrant and caring synagogue community where every person matters.

On this Pi Day, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the measurements of the Tabernacle and its contents. However, our Torah portion comes to remind us in the very first verse the ultimate purpose of a community, particularly a sacred community. Just as Moses recognized the value of each and every individual, we must do the same. May God grant us the strength to remember that every person matters, that our words and our actions will reflect this core value and that younger generations will look to us as models to emulate.


#TieBlog #Mishpatim

13 Feb

The scales of justice


I’m getting good use out of my justice ties this week (I actually have three) as we read Parashat Mishpatim. This section is known as the Covenant Code. While the Ten Commandments read in the previous week’s portion lay out general principles for society, this portion provides a foundation of civil law for society.

Why I wrote “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi”

6 Feb

JTS hosted a panel discussion on "Keeping Faith in Rabbis," Feb. 2, 2015. L to R, Rabbi Ed Bernstein, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Barbara Wiston, Jay Wiston, Carolyn Kantor, Rabbi Danielle Upbin

JTS hosted a panel discussion on “Keeping Faith in Rabbis,” Feb. 2, 2015 at Temple Torat Emet in Boynton Beach. L to R, Rabbi Ed Bernstein, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Barbara Wiston, Jay Wiston, Carolyn Kantor, Rabbi Danielle Upbin

The following is adapted from remarks I delivered February 2, 2015, during a JTS panel discussion on the book Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher. A podcast of panel discussion is available here.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, ties in well with what I attempt to accomplish in my essay, “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate” in the book Keeping Faith in Rabbis. Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, finds Moses overwhelmed in his job. He is mired in the minutiae of day-to-day problems, he’s at risk of burn-out and he’s neglecting his own family. We already know that Moses has worked hard to overcome his own poor self-assessment of himself in taking on the mantle of leadership. God let Aaron serve as Moses’s spokesman, but eventually Moses gains confidence and asserts himself and speaks in his own right. Yitro knows Moses. He knows that he’s trying to do the right thing. He may also know that Moses’s harshest critic is himself, a common trait among introverts. From afar, Yitro can see the bigger picture and steps in to offer Moses some guidance to streamline his work load with the help of others. Moses is able to use the tools offered by Yitro so that he is able to grow as a leader.

Self-Awareness and personal growth are at the heart of my essay: “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate.” You may be interested to know that not everyone at Temple Torat Emet agrees with that assertion. (How could we be Jewish if that weren’t the case?) In fact, a few weeks ago, a lady who regularly comes to my Talmud class and was among the first to buy the book came up to me after services a few days later and said, “Rabbi, I disagree with you,” she said. I was bracing myself for the critique. She said: “You are NOT an introvert! I see you mingling with people in synagogue all the time.”

I was tempted to regurgitate the main points of my essay; then I caught myself and thought why throw a wet blanket on a well-intentioned compliment. I just said thank you. Let me take this opportunity to share why I wrote this essay and what I hope is the biggest take aways for our community. In short, here are the basics: 1) I am an introvert 2) I accept that 3) There are no “cookie cutter rabbis”–every rabbi brings different strengths to the table, and in our era we need all hands on deck and 4) Whatever our personality traits, each one of us is best served when we seize opportunities to grow.

Now for some backstory:

Exactly 20 years ago, an article appeared in the CCAR Journal titled “Dog Rabbis and Cat Rabbis.” The author, Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbock, asserted that dog rabbis–or extroverts–are better suited for the pulpit rabbinate than introverts (“cat rabbis”). Cohn-Sherbock described himself as a “cat rabbi” who struggled in several pulpit positions early in his career then shifted to academia where he has flourished for several decades. In assessing his pulpit woes, he writes: “I tried and tried and tried–yet over and over again I failed to satisfy the demands of my congregation. I fell into every trap. I just couldn’t be the friendly, enthusiastic, sympathetic, and attentive pastor that my congregation wanted.”
He describes his journey to congregations on multiple continents. “I shriveled up inside when I had to act as master of ceremonies. I dreaded bar mitzvahs. I loathed weddings. I detested kissing each lady ‘good Shabbos.'”

Now, I empathize with Cohn-Sherbok’s agony in the pulpit, yet he makes assumptions and generalizations that are neither realistic nor helpful in providing guidance to current and aspiring rabbis in the 21st Century.

In the two decades since Cohn-Sherbok’s article appeared, psychological and social science literature has exploded with groundbreaking research on personality traits. Susan Cain’s best seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking synthesizes the scientific literature and argues for a fresh look at the significant role that introverts played in history and can continue to play with greater awareness and sensitivity throughout society. I argue that the Jewish community will benefit from looking anew at the strengths of introverted rabbis.

I learned from Cain’s work that the basic difference between introverts and extroverts is how each processes and reacts to stimuli. Introverts are wired to reflect and inspect, extroverts are wired to react and respond. These traits are hard-wired from birth. Our American society has evolved towards favoring high octane, high volume, highly stimulating people and environments. Just think of the pyrotechnics of last night’s Superbowl Halftime Show. Yet, many people, perhaps as many as half of us, get exhausted when we’re exposed to high levels of stimuli over a period of time. It’s not good or bad, it’s just that evolution has endowed us with different mechanisms for survival in our world.

Anyone who enters the rabbinate does so, I assume, because of a deep sense of personal mission towards serving God and the Jewish people. Certainly, I did. Extroverts and Introverts alike both bring natural gifts to bear in their rabbinates. As an introverted rabbi, I used to envy extroverts for their natural ability to schmooze and light up a room. I was misguided by the dog rabbi-cat rabbi dichotomy, and I was frustrated with myself. I got stuck in a position of envy of something that I was not. Over time, I came to a position of acceptance of who I am and the essential gifts I bring to the table that I believe serve me well in the rabbinate. Once I got unstuck from the mindset of “Woe unto me that I’m not x,” I embraced a mindset of growth (The term “mindset” I derive from Susan Dweck’s masterful work by that name). With that mindset, I am more open to Susan Cain’s metaphor of a rubber band, whereby I can stretch myself beyond my comfort zone in order to fulfill my mission. Some rabbis are personally nourished by exposure to large amounts of people in a social setting. For me, when I schmooze with people at Kiddush, as was noticed by my Talmud student, I do so with the mindset that forging relationships with my congregants is part of my mission of serving as a rabbi. Therefore, I make sure I have the right tools in my toolkit to fulfill my mission.

To come back to Parashat Yitro, when Moses felt stuck, he reframed and retooled. Moses teaches us that self-reflection and growth are essential qualities for leadership, and they are great tools for life in general. Every rabbi, Seminary and synagogue should embrace the growth mindset for the sake of serving God and the Jewish people. When we accomplish this, we have lots of reason to keep faith in rabbis.