Tag Archives: Relational Judaism

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14 Apr
Sacrificial lambs

Sacrificial lambs

As Jews sit down together for Passover Seder and recall the Paschal sacrifice performed by our ancestors in Egypt, let’s take note that any one of us may be considered by others to be the “Black Sheep” of the family. With that in mind, let’s take the opportunity to welcome one another and renew our relationships. Let’s listen with open minds and hearts and seek to understand before being understood. Let’s free ourselves from everything that enslaves us, including grudges, hurts and perceived slights. Let’s make this season of our freedom a true time of renewal and hope for ourselves, our families and our world. A joyous Passover to all.

28 Mar
Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of "Relational Judaism," will be at Temple Torah April 4-6.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of “Relational Judaism,” will be at Temple Torah April 4-6.

Parashat Tazria
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
March 28, 2014

Last Sunday, I took my five-year-old daughter on a date. We went to see the Disney blockbuster, “Frozen.” The story is adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.” Disney’s retelling is full of action, warm sentiment—and terrific music. In fact, its theme song, “Let It Go” has been playing in my car every day this week, particularly when I’m driving Esther. Without spoiling the movie for those who might not yet have seen it, I think it’s fair to say that the prevalent ice and snow in the story are metaphors for coldness of heart. On the other hand, acts of kindness that show warmth of the heart can melt the largest icebergs and turn the most brutal winter into spring. When we show warmth towards another person, that warmth is contagious. A single warm-hearted act can spread throughout a community and even the world. As a synagogue community, this is a message that is especially relevant to us. Sharing kindness and warmth with others is what we’re all about as a community. Overcoming chill and bringing warmth and healing to a community is a central theme of this week’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Tazria, there is much discussion of the special role of the ancient priesthood in diagnosing and purifying people afflicted with skin disease. In Hebrew, the disease was known as Tzaraat, apparently a complex variety of skin ailments. Since these diseases were assumed to be contagious, separation from the community was an important part of community protection. Toward the end of Chapter 13, the Torah states of the afflicted, badad, yeshev michutz laMahane moshavo. He shall dwell apart, his dwelling should be outside of the camp” (13:46).

In analyzing why a victim of skin disease must dwell apart from the rest of the camp, it’s important to note that in the plain sense of the Bible, there is no moral significance to tzaraat. Modern Biblical scholarship has demonstrated that to the Biblical reader, a skin disease was a reminder of death, and the Torah emphasizes concentration on life in the presence of the Tabernacle. When someone overcomes their ailment, he or she may return to the Temple precincts.

Rabbinic commentaries offer different interpretations. In rabbinic interpretation, there is a moral dimension to the skin diseases of this portion. One who suffers from tzaraat is a metzora, word that the rabbis of antiquity note is similar in sound to motzi shem ra—one who creates a bad name for someone else, who slanders or promotes ostracism of another human being. The Sages say, in essence, that people who cause others to be demeaned as “other” should themselves be shunned much the way the metzora is shunned in Leviticus for physical ailments.

If we dig deeper into the Torah reading as well as the commentaries, we find that the portion is about much more than shunning those who don’t meet a certain communal norm. The Torah’s focus is on people with tzaraat healing so that they may return to the camp. Commentators, including Rabbi Harold Kushner, note that tzaraat is a condition to be cured and that the focus of the kohanim is to rehabilitate people so that they can reenter the sanctuary, not to shun or permanently exclude people. Similarly, the rabbis are more concerned with changing behavior than in ostracizing people who make mistakes. We are all imperfect, yet we all have the opportunity to bring healing to broken relationships and forge strong new relationships with others.

This Shabbat, with Rabbi Zelermyer and many friends from Temple Emeth joining us at Temple Torah, we have the opportunity to celebrate the opportunity before us to come together in partnership as one community. B’shaah tovah, at a good and appropriate time, please God, this will be official within the next few months. Even before we officially join forces, we still must lay the groundwork for building strong relationships based on trust, mutual respect and recognition that we are all on the same team. We all want a strong, vibrant Jewish community that we will pass down to coming generations. The sacred task before us is rooted in the relationships that we forge with one another.

Next week, thanks to the vision and support of the Temple Torah Foundation, Temple Torah will have the honor of hosting Dr. Ron Wolfson, a renowned author, lecturer and scholar of the American Jewish community. He writes in his book Relational Judaism that the key to the Jewish future is: “It’s all about relationships.” A vibrant, intergenerational congregation like Temple Torah has a wide array of worship services and educational and social programs for our community. This is all well and good. We need opportunities for people in our community to gather, to celebrate and learn in Jewish time and Jewish space. That’s what we do as a synagogue. At the same time, we need something more. People may come to Temple Torah for programs, but they will stay for relationships. As Dr. Wolfson writes:

“It’s not about programs.
“It’s not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps.
“It’s not even about institutions.
“It’s about relationships.”

Dr. Wolfson will share with us in depth next week his vision of what a synagogue rooted in meaningful relationships looks like and how we might take steps to get there. I believe it is vital for as many members as possible to attend the various events and services at which he will be speaking. Reservations are still being taken for Friday night dinner next week with Dr. Wolfson. He will also be speaking next week at our morning service, after Kiddush lunch, and at an evening leadership workshop for our members. Next Sunday morning he will teach about bring Relational Judaism into our homes to help us create meaningful Passover seders. Please consult the bulletin and Temple Torah website for all the times. More importantly, just come.

May God grant us the strength to seek out new opportunities to create warm, meaningful relationships that will be the foundation of our Jewish community for years to come.

(Watch Rabbi Bernstein and Dr. Ron Wolfson in conversation on YouTube.)

It’s all about relationships

14 May

image imageThings aren’t always as they seem. As reported recently in the New York Times, what you and I might recognize as a Vincent Van Gogh painting is not how the artist saw it or painted it. Using an electron microscope and X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, scientists analyzed his masterpiece “The Bedroom.”  They discovered that, among other differences, the walls that generations have thought to be blue were actually violet when Van Gogh first painted them. It seems the paint pigments of the era were not stable, and with the passage of time the color has changed substantially from its original. For art historians, this news has resulted in a dramatic revision not only of this one painting, but of our understanding of Van Gogh’s artistry, influences and subsequent influence on his craft. (NYTimes, 4/30/2013).

A friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, noted this story and asked a piercing question: Which painting is the actual painting? The painting we see or the painting as it was actually intended? Which has more authority, the original, or the artwork as it has been received and understood over time? The article in the Times reports that beginning this fall, next to the original Van Gogh Museum in Holland will hang a digital reconstruction of what the painting looked like when Van Gogh first painted it. Rabbi Cosgrove asks, if it were possible for experts to restore the painting to how it looked as the paint dried, should we do so? Or is it possible that more important than what the artist wanted is the reception of the piece of art by us – the viewing audience of subsequent generations.

Rabbi Cosgrove then explores the implications of the Van Gogh findings as it relates to Torah. Which is more important–the Torah as God meant when God gave it, or the Torah as it has come to be understood by successive generations?

Rabbi Cosgrove eloquently discusses how we understand the evolution of Jewish law and the authority of an ever changing yet eternal Torah. I’d like to explore the Van Gogh issue from a slightly different angle. The question of what is the authentic painting is a question of relationships. How are we to relate to the painting? What demands do the painting and artist make upon us, and what demands can we make in return? In pondering this question on Shavuot, we note that this is z’man matan Torateinu, the season of the giving of the Torah. The giving of the Torah, including the articulation of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) marks the deep relationship between God and the Jewish people. The relationship has the status of brit or covenant. Earlier in the Torah, God makes covenants with individuals, such as Abraham and Noah. Now God makes a covenant with the Jewish people. What does it mean to be in a covenantal relationship?

I recently read an important new book by Dr. Ron Wolfson, “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community.” Wolfson notes the great challenges that Jewish institutions across the board face today in projecting relevance and maintaining support. Through scholarly research and anecdotal reporting of best practices in the field, he makes the case that the future of Jewish institutions lies not in the programs they produce but in the relationships that they cultivate and nurture. Every interaction in Jewish institutions should be rooted in the sense of brit, sacred covenant. Just as our ancestors made a covenant with God, we as a Jewish community need to cultivate covenantal relationships within our community.

Wolfson notes an irony in the verb used to describe the creating of a covenant. He writes: “The words used in the Torah to describe the establishment of a covenant are likhrot brit—literally, “to cut a covenant.” “Cut” is an interesting term. We “cut a check,” a promise to pay. We “cut a deal,” an agreed upon transaction. But, we also “cut someone out of a will” and “cut off” a bad relationship. Cutting can mean both separating and binding, depending on the context. In either meaning, the individuality of the two parties in relationship is recognized” (35).

There is a nexus between covenants between individuals and covenants of communities.  Wolfson writes: “The idea of covenant is, as Rabbi David Wolpe, author and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has noted, “the spine of Judaism.” We are constantly reminded of our covenantal relationship with God and each other. Shabbat is a sign of the covenant. The Passover Seder reminds us that God keeps promises: V’hi she’amdah l’avoteinu v’lanu, “God who safeguards God’s promises to our ancestors and to us.” The pageantry of the Torah reading service reenacts the revelation of the covenant at Sinai. The goal of the covenant is celebrated at the climax of the ceremony—the returning of the Torah to the holy ark: Etz hayim hi l’machazikim bah, “It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it,’ v’tomkheha m’ushar—“and those who support it are enriched.” In other words, those who embrace the covenantal relationship discover how to live a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. Moreover, covenants form the foundation of “community”—a group of people bound together in relationship based upon reciprocal responsibilities” (37).

Wolfson builds his case further by identifying nine key relationships that each Jew ideally should have and that Jewish institutions, such as synagogues, are most successful when they help in cultivating these relationships. These relationships are with oneself, family, friends, Jewish Living, Community, Jewish Peoplehood, Israel, the World and God. Four of them, Self, Family, Friends and Jewish Living, can be described as personal relationships. Community, Peoplehood, Israel and World are communal relationships. The bridge between personal and communal is God.

Relationships between people and paintings, such as the Van Gogh’s, are complex and dynamic; all the more so relationships between people. This holiday, like all others, is a time for us to reflect on the complexity of our relationships and to renew our personal and communal covenants. It’s an opportunity for us to take our virtual X-ray spectrometer to examine our synagogue. It’s a time for us to re-envision our shul as a place that not only provides services, but, as its essence, helps us create vibrant relationships with one another.

On Shavuot we imagine ourselves standing at Sinai entering into a covenant with God, however we choose to imagine that. Just as scientists examine paintings with advanced technical instruments, we examine ourselves and our relationships with the instrument of our heart. And we do so with our ancestors and departed loved ones who have bestowed Jewish tradition upon us. We have inherited Jewish tradition form them, and it is upon us to interpret it, just like an old painting.

As we observe Yizkor, we express gratitude to God for the gift of our loved ones. Even though they are no longer with us, we are different people because of them. Just as Shavuot incorporates different elements, we recall our loved ones who touched us in so many different ways. During this harvest season, we recall how we have reaped the benefits that our departed loved ones have left us, even as we regret they are no longer here. During this season of the giving of the Torah, we recall all of the wonderful teachings and insights into life that our loved ones gave us. They enriched our lives with texture and color more than any painting ever could have. May their memories be for a blessing.