Crossposted with “Acting in Faith”
In my previous post, I explored the ways that Quakers and Jews have been historically connected and proposed a deeper spiritual connection between our respective faith traditions. As a rabbi who now works for AFSC, I can say without hesitation that my spiritual life has greatly benefitted from my encounter with Quaker thought and practice. The more I dwell in these two religious communities, the more I am able to discern important parallels between them.
I’ve found particularly fertile ground in my study of Quaker Testimonies, which have clear commonalities with Jewish spiritual values. Here, then, are some excerpts from the AFSC booklet, “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” juxtaposed with parallel values from Jewish tradition. I present them with the hopes that such a consideration might point us toward a deeper place of Quaker-Jewish encounter, collaboration and solidarity.
Peace: Peacemaking at Home and Abroad
Friends oppose and refuse to engage in war and violence. In pursuit of lasting, sustainable peace, they seek to eliminate causes of violent conflict, such as poverty, exploitation and intolerance.
For us, peace is not just ending war or violence, but nurturing the capacity of individuals, communities, and societies to sustain harmonious relationships based on mutual respect and caring for the welfare of all. We seek to reconcile enemies and serve the needs of all sides torn by violent strife.
Shalom: The Pursuit of Peace
Jewish tradition is replete with commandments that exhort the pursuit of peace as a central religious precept. As the great Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel wrote, “Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”
While Judaism contains a vast repository of positions on the subject of war and peace, it is certainly possible to discern a distinct tradition of Jewish pacifism. In fact, Judaism itself was born out of an act of non-violent cultural resistance, when in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai refused to join the ill-fated Jewish revolt against Rome and instead negotiated to establish a center of Jewish learning in Yavneh. Ben Zakkai’s courageous rejection of Jewish violence enabled Judaism to survive and grow as a global religious faith. Moreover, throughout Jewish history, Jewish pacifism has been promoted by important figures such as Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret, Rabbi Judah Magnes, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, and Rabbi Everett Gendler, among many others.
Equality: Seeking Social Justice
Friends hold that all people are equal in the eyes of God and have equal access to the “inner Light.” This profound sense of equality leads Friends to treat each person with respect, looking for “that of God” in everyone.
AFSC supports the development of societies and structures that recognize the dignity of every person. We seek to work with all people in pursuit of justice – the economically impoverished and the materially comfortable, the disenfranchised and the powerful – inviting the Spirit to move among all these groups, making great change possible.
Tzelem Elohim - Humanity Created in the Divine Image
One of the central universalist values in Jewish tradition is the Biblical teaching that allof humanity is created in God’s image. In a celebrated classical Jewish commentary on the book of Leviticus, Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ben Azzai debate the central principle of Torah. Rabbi Akiba cites the verse from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In response, Ben Azzai chooses the verse from Genesis 5: “When God created humankind, God created humankind in God’s image.”
Akiba’s approach is the more particularistic philosophy; according to him, Judaism is rooted in the idea that we should love those around us – our family, friends and community. Ben Azzai’s, citation, the other hand, holds that we should respect and honor all people whether we are in direct relationship with them or not. From this we learn that all people – regardless of religion, ethnicity, nationality, age, mental faculties, physical capabilities, etc. – are of intrinsic and inestimable value.
Integrity: Consistency in Word and Deed
In the AFSC community, we are committed to making our words, actions, and beliefs consistent. We “speak truth to power” – and to each other – even when it is difficult and our message may be unpopular. We deal honestly and fairly with colleagues and partners. We take responsibility for our actions and their results. We fulfill our commitments, and we give credit to others for their contributions.
Derech Eretz: The Way of the World
Derech Eretz is often understood to mean “common decency,” its essential meaning is even more fundamental. A classic Jewish saying teaches: “Derech Eretz precedes Torah” – suggesting that even before we engage deeply spiritual behaviors such as prayer or study, we must first ensure that we are living lives of fairness and integrity.
The Jewish value of integrity is also deeply rooted to the prophetic ideal: i.e., “speaking truth to power,” even when (or especially when) that truth may well not be particularly popular. In the words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously commented after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma:
For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.
Community: Living in Fellowship
At AFSC, we nurture relationships and partner with communities, believing that, in gathering together, people increase their strength, vision, wisdom and creativity. We accompany and support communities in their efforts to seek justice and improve their own lives and circumstances. Where people are divided, we strive to build bridges, encourage trust, and create spaces for dialogue and cooperation.
Kehillah - God in Community
In the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “Hermits and monasteries are noticeably absent from Jewish history; we are hopelessly communal people.”
According to the Talmud, “When two or three people study Torah, God is present.” Not only does this teaching reinforce the central importance of study; it illuminates the sacred nature of relationship itself. Quite simply, God is most immediately present in fellowship. The personal and political implications of this idea are powerful indeed.
Simplicity: Spirit-Led Restraint
In contemporary terms, Friends try to live lives in which activities and possessions so not get in the way of open and unencumbered communication with others and with one’s own spirituality. Clearing away the clutter makes it easier to hear the “still small voice within.”
In (AFSC)’s work, simplicity requires focusing our efforts on what is most important rather than diffusing our energies too broadly. In our personal lives, simplicity may mean limiting our consumerism – and resisting over-commitment, so that we have time to care for ourselves and to be present with one another.
Histapkut – Simplicity
These words remind me in particular of the values of Musar – a Jewish ethical movement that arose in Eastern Europe in the 19th century and has undergone something of a contemporary popular revival in recent years.
The importance of living a life of simplicity (in Hebrew: “Histapkut”) lies at the center of the Musar way of life. On this subject, the contemporary Musar teacher Rabbi Ira Stone has written powerfully:
Defined as temperance, Histapkut is often seen as embracing simplicity, being content with less. Not focusing on trying to fulfill never-ending needs and desires frees us to be fully present to the moment and available to the others in our lives…
(Histapkut) asks us to respond to the basic questions about our relationship to the acquisition of the material in our lives. “What is enough?” “Do I have enough?” “Can I choose to be content with less?” “What am I consciously choosing to acquire?”
Stewardship: Care for the Earth and Its Inhabitants
Friends strive to use God’s gifts wisely, with gifts conceived in the broadest of terms. These gifts include our talents and our possessions, as well as our natural environment. Friends believe that such gifts are not ours alone.
(At AFSC), we are attentive to conserving energy, recycling, and reducing waste. Concern for the ecosystem also leads us to strive to reduce our personal consumption and develop a simple yet adequate lifestyle.
Shomer Adamah/Ahavat Habriyot – Guarding the Earth/Love for All that Lives
The importance of human stewardship over creation has deep roots in Jewish tradition. The very first chapter in the Torah makes it clear that the earth belongs to God and that humanity are its stewards. Judaism later expanded this idea to develop a host of commandments focused on the care of the earth and its creatures.
Judaism teaches us over and over again that acts of care for our natural world are among the most essential in our tradition. According to an oft-quoted classical Jewish commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes:
When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.
In this era of climate change and an ever-increasing reliance on fossil fuels, this sacred rejoinder has clear and obvious ramifications.
Though the examples above merely scratch the surface of a larger Quaker-Jewish inquiry, I offer them here in the hopes that they might offer us a useful place to start. Indeed, as I think more deeply about these Quaker-Jewish points of spiritual connection, I can’t help but hope that such an investigation might eventually take us to a place beyond simple interfaith dialogue.
Might this spiritual exploration have real movement-building implications for Jews and Quakers? I’m genuinely excited by the prospect.
(Crossposted with Acting in Faith)
When I tell people that I’ve just started working for the American Friends Service Committee, some will inevitably scratch their heads and ask, “What is a rabbi doing working for a Quaker organization?”
Those who know me well, know enough not to ask. During my twenty-plus years as a congregational rabbi/activist, I’ve often worked alongside AFSC staff and progressive Quakers, particularly on the issue of Mideast peace and justice. I’ve cultivated a wonderful ongoing relationship with the Friends Meeting in my hometown of Evanston and have spoken there on more than one occasion. During the course of my travels throughout the peace and justice activist community in Chicago and beyond, I can say without hesitation that some of my best friends have been Friends.
For those who do ask, I explain that while AFSC is a Quaker organization, it is wonderfully multi-faith in its composition. I’m certainly not the first Jew to work for AFSC (nor am I even the first rabbi – my friend and colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb served as Co-Director of AFSC’s Middle East Program in San Francisco from 2007 to 2009). Since the announcement of my hiring, in fact, I’ve heard from increasing numbers of Jewish friends and colleagues who have told me of their involvement in AFSC in various capacities over the years.
Of course this connection is more than merely anecdotal; there are in fact important historical affinities between Quakers and Jews. During the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, our respective communities have been proportionally well represented in progressive movements of social change, particularly in the American civil rights and anti-war movements. Our faith communities are also historically linked by the heroic efforts of Quakers and the AFSC to help save thousands of European Jews during the Holocaust and to provide relief for scores of Jewish refugees in the war’s aftermath.
In more recent years, it would be fair to say that the Quaker-Jewish connection has become somewhat fractured over the Israel-Palestine issue. While this subject deserves consideration in another blog post, I will only say for now that I have long been dismayed at the hypocrisy of those in my community who applaud the Quakers’ work on behalf of Jewish refugees, yet bitterly criticize them for applying the very same values and efforts on behalf of Palestinian refugees. I would add as well that there are increasing numbers of Jews like myself who reject the nationalism/militarism of Zionism in favor of a Jewish vision that promotes peace with justice and full rights for all who live in the land. I do believe that this trend is providing an important new place of connection between Jews and Quakers – particularly among a younger generation of activists and organizers.
Beyond these historical connections, I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring a different form of Quaker-Jewish encounter: namely, the deeper spiritual commonalities between our respective faith traditions themselves. I do believe that this Jewish-Quaker connection transcends simple political affinity. In this regard, I’ve been particularly struck by Jews who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Jewish tradition while at the same time unabashedly embrace Quaker practice and spirituality.
For instance, Claire Gorfinkel, who worked for the AFSC for many years and attends both a Quaker Meeting and a Jewish synagogue, explored this territory memorably in her 2000 Pendle Hill pamphlet, “I Have Always Wanted to be Jewish – And Now Thanks to the Religious Society of Friends I Am.”
For Gorfinkel, the most critical point of commonality between these two faiths lies in their rejection of Divine intermediation as well as their powerful ethical traditions:
For both Quakerism and Judaism, God is directly accessible to the seeker, without need for priests or other intermediaries. God appears in the faces of our community and in the wonders of our natural world.
For both traditions, faith and the words we use are far less important than how we treat one another and our environment. Our human worth is measured in acts of loving kindness, “doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with your God.” (p. 31)
More recently, Jonathan Zasloff, a Jewish law professor at UCLA wrote a powerful piece for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal entitled, “Some of My Best Jews are Friends.” In his article, a commentary on Prophetic portion for the Sabbath of Hanukkah, Zasloff revealed that he regularly attends a Quaker meeting – and that the practice of silence “has deeply enhanced (his) Jewish practice.”
Contending that “silence and individual spiritual expression” are “absent from modern Judaism,” he suggested “there is no reason why Jews cannot adopt Quaker practice:”
Some form of silent worship has a long tradition in Judaism, one that our people has regrettably allowed to lapse. The Talmudic sages would “be still one hour prior to each of the three prayer services, then pray for one hour and afterwards be still again for one hour more.” (Moses Maimonides) interpreted this as silent motionlessness in order “to settle their minds and quiet their thoughts.”
As a Jew who also finds a comfortable spiritual home in the Quaker community, I’m encouraged and excited by these kinds of connections. In our increasingly multi-faith 21st century, I firmly believe it is time to seek out those places where we might lift up and celebrate our spiritual commonalities rather than simply fall back upon a religious tribalism for its own sake.
As I think more about potential areas of further Jewish – Quaker encounter, I am particularly intrigued by the parallels between Quaker Testimonies and Jewish religious values. Indeed, when I first read AFSC’s booklet “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” I was immediately struck by a myriad of connections – causing me to think more deeply about the similar ways these ideals have been understood and acted upon in unique ways by our respective faith traditions.
As I read through them, I’m struck by a number of questions. As a Jew who has found a comfortable home in the Quaker community, I wonder:
To what extent do these testimonies/values reflect the unique experiences of our respective faith communities?
What is ultimately more important: the uniqueness of our paths or our shared vision of universal peace and justice?
And how might we find the wherewithal, despite our differences, to travel this road together?
Here’s their description of our conversation:
After 17 years as the rabbi and spiritual leader at JRC-The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston–Rabbi Brant Rosen conducted his last service on December 19th. His views, work, and words on the Israel/Palestine issue caused deep rifts among the members at JRC, and Rosen ultimately believed it was best for himself and the community that he resign. Rosen joins us to talk about the decision, the controversies, and his new job with the American Friends Service Committee.
Click here to give a listen.
I am devastated to learn of the passing of my dear friend and mentor, Rabbi Leonard Beerman z”l, who died early this morning at the age of 93. His death comes as a profound shock to those of us who knew and loved him. Despite his advanced age, Leonard maintained his extraordinary vigor and energy until very recent days.
Readers of this blog may recall my post on our joint speaking presentation in Los Angeles last February. It was such a tremendous honor for me hold this open conversation with him, in which we mutually explored the subject of “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit.”
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
As Rabbi Beerman has been one of my true rabbinical heroes for so many years, it was truly a thrill for me to share a podium with him as we shared our thoughts on the challenges facing congregational rabbis who engage in progressive social justice activism.
As a Los Angeles native myself, I’ve long known of Rabbi Beerman’s inspired work during the years he served as the Senior Rabbi of LA’s Leo Baeck Temple. He was the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck in 1949 and stayed there for the next 37 years until his retirement in 1986. During that time, he challenged his congregants – and the Jewish community at large – to awaken to some of the most critical socio-political issues of the late 20th century.
Rabbi Beerman was a maverick in his day – and in many ways still is. He is a self-described pacifist who came by his stance honestly, after serving in the Marines in World War II and in the Haganah in 1947 while attending the newly founded Hebrew University. He was a student of Rabbi Judah Magnes, the great Reform leader who advocated for a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs – and he remains a passionate advocate for a just peace in Israel/Palestine to this day.
Rabbi Beerman came to Leo Baeck fresh from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during the height of the Cold War and quickly became an outspoken and visionary peace activist. In one of my very favorite stories, he described his anguish at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which took place on a Friday afternoon in 1953. During Shabbat services that evening, he decided to add their names to the end of the yahrtzeit list (the list of names read before the recitation of the Kaddish) much to the dismay of some of his congregants.
Rabbi Beerman was also one of the first rabbis in the country to publicly condemn the US war in Vietnam and later instituted draft counseling in his congregation. He invited such figures as Daniel Ellsberg (who spoke on Yom Kippur afternoon while he was awaiting trial) and Cesar Chavez to speak at his synagogue. Rabbi Beerman was also a visionary leader for civil rights and worker justice and during the nuclear arms race was one of the leading Jewish voices in the disarmament movement.
I’ve particularly admired Rabbi Beerman’s fearlessness when it came to the subject of Israel/Palestine – clearly the issue that has earned him the angriest criticism from the Jewish establishment. He was a consistent and faithful advocate for justice for the Palestinian people long before such a thing was even countenanced in the Jewish community. Literally going where few other rabbis would dare to tread, he met with Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Fatah founder Abu Jihad. That he was able to do all of this while serving a large, established Los Angeles synagogue speaks volumes about his integrity – and the abiding trust he was able to maintain with the members of his congregation.
Now in his 90s, Rabbi Beerman is still deeply engaged in the issues of our day. During our conversation together, we spoke about the current state of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the languishing peace process and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I mentioned to those present that in 2008, during the height of Operation Cast Lead, when Rabbi Brian Walt and I were calling rabbinical colleagues to sign on to a Jewish Fast for Gaza, Rabbi Beerman was one of the first to sign on without hesitation. He did the same when we were forming the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and his presence there is truly an inspiration to our members.
Little did I know, as I wrote these words, that I would be posting them again in less than a year’s time, as a tribute to his memory. And little did I know last February, as I openly shared my open admiration for Leonard as a congregational rabbinical role model, that in only a few months I would be find myself unable to continue combining radical political activism with a congregational rabbinate. I am all the more in awe of what Leonard was able to achieve, serving as the rabbi for Leo Baeck Temple for 37 years as he bravely spoke out on important and controversial issues of his day. We will not soon see the likes of him again.
I encourage you to read this wonderful LA Times profile of Rabbi Beerman that was published just last month. You can see our presentation in its entirety below.
May his memory be a blessing forever.
Here, below, is the Shabbat e-mail I sent to my congregation today in response to the recent violence in Jerusalem. Click here to read a letter I co-wrote with Rabbi Alissa Wise for Jewish Voice for Peace, addressing the political context of these tragic events.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, Rebecca experiences great pain as her twins struggle in her womb. After inquiring of God, she is told that her two sons represent two warring peoples, one of whom will be mightier than the other. As she experiences her prenatal pain, Rebecca says, “If so, why do I exist?”
There are many ways to understand Rebecca’s comment; one interpretation views her exclamation as the endlessly desperate response of humanity to the seemingly unfixed and eternal nature of war and bloodshed between people and nations.
Such grief stricken exclamations have surely been issuing from the city of Jerusalem this past week – a city that has seen its share of bloodshed over the centuries. There is no denying that there is a political context to this recent violence – and like many, I have my own opinions about this context and what must be done to avoid violence in the future. Regardless of where we fall on this issue, I do believe that if we are honor the dead – of Jew and Palestinian alike – we must redouble our efforts toward pursuing a just peace in this land.
The question remains, however, how do we, as Jews, grieve amidst such such a context? How do we find a measure of comfort when violence occurs in a time that more often than not feels so endlessly, painfully hopeless? I’d like to offer you two Jewish responses that personally offered me a measure of comfort this past week.
The first is this message to the Jewish community that was recently released from the widows and families of the four Jewish victims who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue this past Tuesday:
A request from the grieving widows and families:
From the depth of our broken hearts and with tears over the murder of the holy victims, the heads of our families, we turn to our brothers and sisters, every Jew, wherever you are, and request that we all join together as one, to bring heavenly mercy upon us. Therefore, let us accept upon ourselves to increase our love and brotherhood with each other, between each of us, between different groups, and between different communities.
We request that each person endeavors this Friday afternoon before Shabbat Parshat Toldot to sanctify this Shabbat (Erev Rosh Chodesh Kislev) as a day of causeless love, a day on which we all refrain from talking about our differences and grievances against others, and refrain from any slander or evil gossip.
Through this may there be a great merit for the souls of the fathers of our families who were slaughtered for the sanctity of God.
May God look down from above, and see our grief, and wipe away our tears, and proclaim ‘enough with the suffering!’, and may we merit to see the arrival of the Messiah, may it happen speedily in our days, Amen.
Chaya Levin, and family
Brayna Goldberg, and family
Yakova Kupinsky, and family
Basha Twersky, and family
I also encourage you to read this post from Lew Weissman, a traditional orthodox Jewish blogger whose writings I’ve followed for many years and whose teachings I have found to be profoundly wise and compassionate.
Here is an excerpt:
When I see the picture of a man in tallit and tefillin (like me every morning) shot dead in a pool of blood in synagogue (where I too customarily go every day) I am overcome with a wave of nausea followed by a surge of anger. I don’t have words for the fury and the fear at the thought of a person charging into our place of worship and hacking a fellow Jew, who, like me, appears before God in tallit and tefillin, to death. If he weren’t just like me would I feel the same? I don’t know. I look at the black pants, the white shirt, the build of the man, the black striped tallis that I wear and this is deeply personal. This brutal monster has killed one of US and I am furious.
In that, I am just the same as the person who taunts me.
Where I differ is that while I get that I am going to feel more intensely when I have an affinity for another human being as a fellow Jew, I also strive to see all human beings as “in the image of God” (so to speak, trust me on this my Muslim friends, this really is NOT a blasphemous notion- its metaphorical). Each human being is a reflection of the Divine majesty and precious to their Creator. Where is that well of outrage when every single day human beings are being hacked, torn, shot for every possible excuse? Where are my tears for the innocent of every color, race, language, and faith?
…Where I differ is that as much as I sometimes want to, I don’t believe that I have permission to give up. I feel compelled by the example of Abraham, who pleaded to God for the murderous idolaters of Sodom. My struggle, like his, is to strive to uplift humanity in any way that I can, not to wish for its destruction, not even the destruction of the worst of us. Abraham believed that even a few righteous people could turn around an entire world gone crazy. So I reach out to the righteous, encourage the good where I can because it’s the only plan I have got.
May the memory of all the dead be for a blessing.
One of the most celebrated rabbinical debates in Jewish tradition comes from the Midrash, as a commentary on the book of Leviticus. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ben Azzai, two 2nd century rabbinical sages are going at it, each challenging each other to pick the one verse that sums up the essence of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba opens by quoting Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For his part, Rabbi Ben Azzai chooses the verse from Genesis 5:1: “When God created humankind, God created humankind in God’s image.”
There are many interpretations of this Midrash: one of the more common ones views Akiba’s approach as the more particularistic philosophy: Judaism is rooted in the idea that we should love those around us – our family, friends and community – as we would love ourselves. Ben Azzai’s, one the other hand is more universal: Torah teaches that we should respect and honor all people whether we are in direct relationship with them or not.
Even beyond the content of this debate, however, I find its very premise to be extremely interesting. These two rabbis are doing more than just playing a pedagogical game here: they are challenging each other to offer their own personal take on their spiritual tradition. They are urging each other to take a stand – to go out on a limb and say out loud once and for all what they believe Judaism ultimately stands for.
I believe their challenge is our challenge as well. Jewish tradition is a rich and vast sacred repository – and one that can mean many things to many people. In a sense, I think we all remake Judaism in our own image, depending on our own particular predilections. Another sage, in a famous verse from Pirke Avot says this about Torah: “Turn it over, turn it over, because everything is in it.” In truth, you can find pretty much anything in Jewish tradition to support your worldview. Like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ben Azzai, each of us must make hard, conscious choices about those aspects of Judaism we will choose to celebrate and carry forward. For those of us who identify as Jews and with Jewish tradition, the question before us is not so much “what is Judaism?” but rather “what is the Judaism we will affirm?”
For this, my final sermon as your rabbi, I’d like to try and answer this question personally; to leave you with a few final thoughts about the kind of Judaism that I choose to affirm. By my count, this will be my 68th sermon as rabbi of JRC – and whether they’ve inspired, enraged or bored you over the years, I will say the High Holidays have given me the amazing, often humbling opportunity to express myself publicly to my community. Of course, like all of us, my Jewish sensibilities have always been a work in progress. I know I wouldn’t have given the sermon I’m giving now before I entered rabbinical school, nor would I have given it precisely this way when I came to Evanston to be your rabbi seventeen years ago.
But this is, I believe, as it should be. After all, as Reconstructionists, we hold that Jewish civilization is an ever-evolving organism from generation to generation. So too, it seems to me, that each of us is developing a sense of Judaism informed by our own growth, our own ongoing experience and changing sense of the world around us.
At the same time, however, it’s fascinating to me to chart the common denominators that remain firm over time, the parts of our vision that remain sacred and unshakable – the essence that Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai were so keen on uncovering together.
So with this in mind, I’d like to start by reading to you an excerpt from a sermon I gave during my first High Holidays at JRC, back in 1998. I’ll confess that I’m not in the habit of re-reading my sermons – and having just done it, I think I now know why. There were more than a few times in which I rolled my eyes at my own wisdom. Thankfully, however, there were also some parts that truly felt as if I had written them yesterday.
Here’s the excerpt:
I would also claim that the power for renewal and rebirth is woven into the fabric of our lives. There are times for all of us where pain is all we know – times when it its impossible to envision the darkness ever truly lifting.
Those who have lost loved ones know this experience well. The first year of bereavement is considered to be a time of intense and sometimes crippling emotional pain. There is a gamut of uncontrollable feelings, from shock to rage; guilt to sadness and despair. It is also a time of isolation, when the mourner feels as if he or she dwells in a different emotional kingdom than the rest of the world.
Still, when we grieve in a healthy way, we eventually discover an eternal, almost miraculous truth: the heart heals. Like a deep physical wound, there is pain and there is trauma, but there is also healing if we manage to recuperate properly. In the case of grieving, this means finding a way or a place to express our emotions honestly. It means finding outlets through ritual. It means attaching ourselves to a community or support system. Most of all, it means allowing ourselves to be mourners, and giving ourselves the time and the permission to heal.
In any kind of healing however – whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual – we need to let go of the expectation that we’ll will end up the exactly the way we were. Pain is transformative in ways that we often don’t fully understand. Though there is healing, the physical and emotional scars will still remain. We have found our way back, but our lives have been transformed. We are not the same people any more.
Still, this transformation is not a wholly negative one. I am often told by people that they never really felt they had a spiritual life until they experienced some kind of pain or loss. To be sure, pain and loss are not certainly not pleasant experiences, and they are not they kind of things we would wish on ourselves. Nevertheless, through our trials we often manage to get in touch with parts of ourselves, parts of our souls that we never knew existed. Pain can offer us a spiritual opening. As we read in the Psalms, “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”
Judaism, at its core, is a tradition that affirms meaning in the face of disorder. It affirms our ability to overcome the chaos that often enters our lives. We may not always have faith in our tradition, but our tradition does have faith in us. As surely and inevitably as the cycle of the seasons, we have the power to start anew, to emerge whole from our hurt and our losses and our pain.
As I re-read these words, I believe I can honestly say they reflect a critical aspect of Judaism that I’ve been carrying forward for most of my adult life. I believe Judaism at its core is a tradition that affirms order in the face of chaos; a tradition that affirms, despite all indications to the contrary, we can heal what is broken. I’d like to think that if I was playing the debate game with Akiba and Ben Azzai, I may well have chosen that gorgeous line from the Psalms as my verse: “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”
I do believe that this verse has been weaving its way through Jewish tradition and Jewish history, in a sense, for time immemorial. We might date it back to the paradigmatic moment in which Judaism itself was forged, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a mythic moment of brokenness that resonates in so many ways in our collective psyche as Jews and as human beings.
We might well look at the moment known as the Churban as one of those paradigmatic “push/pull” moments I spoke of on Rosh Hashanah. The destruction of the Temple represents a timeless moment of pain and blood and turmoil that sent us out of the land and birthed us into the world as we know it.
It certainly represented the beginnings of Judaism as we now know it. After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism became, in a sense, a kind of spiritual road map for charting the reality of exile. But Jewish tradition didn’t only respond to the physical reality of exile – it viewed exile (or “galut”) as a spiritual and existential reality. This, I believe, represents the intrinsic beauty and genius of the Jewish conception of peoplehood: we took our own unique experience and universalized it into a spiritual statement about the human condition. Because one way or another, we are all wanderers. One way or another, we all know the experience of being strangers in a strange land.
And so, from this moment of tragedy and pain, we grew up. We transformed an ancient cultic civilization into a worldwide spiritual peoplehood. We spiritualized the concepts of Temple and homeland and became a globally based, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation that viewed the entire world as its “home” and sought to perfect it. Our experience of exile became, as it were, a spiritual prism through which we viewed the world and our place in it. It might well be claimed that centuries of Jewish religious creativity resulted from this profound existential mindset.
In one of my very favorite midrashim, Rabbi Akiba teaches, “Wherever the people of Israel were exiled, the Divine Presence was exiled with them.” I find this notion – the concept of “God in exile” to be such a powerful and radical theological image. Again, “Karov adonai l’mishberei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.” Judaism as we know it arose to assert that no matter what happens, God is with us wherever we go. Despite the experience of exile, the Jewish people would always be “home.” God was no longer geographically specific to one building or place. God was the place – HaMakom. Spiritual meaning and fulfillment could now be found throughout the world, wherever the Jewish people might travel and create community.
I also believe that the destruction of the Temple birthed another central Jewish ideal, the idea best summed up by the famous line from Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” In a way, when the Jewish people finally fell victim to the mighty Roman empire, this ironically marked a victory for a central rabbinic precept: there is a Power even greater than the mightiest empire. That in the long run, those who put their faith in the physical might of powerful empires are, if you will, betting on the wrong horse.
This, in fact, is one classical rabbinic interpretation of the story of Jacob’s dream. According to a well-known midrash, the various ascending and descending angels on Jacob’s ladder represent the rising and falling fortunes of the various empires to which the Jewish people would be exiled. First the angel representing Babylonia ascends 70 rungs, (for seventy years of exile) then descends. Next the angel representing the Persian Empire ascends and falls, as does the angel representing the Greek empire. Only the fourth angel, representing the Roman Empire keeps climbing higher and higher into the clouds. Since Rome was represented in the Rabbinic imagination by Jacob’s twin brother Esau, Jacob fears that his children would never be free of Esau’s domination. But God assures Israel that in the end, even the mighty Roman Empire will fall as well. And so it has been – throughout the centuries, many powerful empires have come and gone but the Jewish people still survive. Why? Because we put our faith in a Power yet greater. Greater than Pharoah, greater than Rome, greater than the myriad of empires we’ve seen enter and exit over the centuries.
The rabbis also knew all too well that prior to the destruction of the Temple, the last Jewish dance with empire was a fairly ignoble story in the annals of Jewish history. I’m talking about the Hasmonean kingdom that was established in the wake of the Maccabees victory. The Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family who had fought against the Hellenized Jews of its day, eventually became fairly Hellenized itself. And when they weren’t persecuting the rabbinic Pharisees (our spiritual ancestors) they were busy killing one another and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations.
In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence lasted less than one hundred years. It’s not a coincidence that the rabbis chose Zechariah – and the verse “not by might and not by power” to be read as the Haftarah portion for the Shabbat of Hanukah.
And what is at the core of this Power we speak of? I’ll return to my earlier verse: “Karov Adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the brokenhearted.” I believe this this theological statement, so resonant on a personal and pastoral level, is equally powerful on a political and prophetic level as well. In other words: in every generation, God stands with the oppressed and calls out their oppressor. God is the Power that gives the gives strength to the marginalized and the vulnerable; the Power that causes even the mightiest of persecutors to eventually fall.
I think there is a profound message here for all religious communities. When it comes to the political use of religion, I believe the fusing of religion and empire has historically represented religion at its very worst. Jews historically know this all too well. But when religion is wedded to movements that speak truth to power and make demands upon it – whether it be the civil rights movement in this country, the struggles against the juntas of Latin America, or the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany – this is when we’ve witnessed religion at its very best.
My own thinking in this regard has been influenced significantly in recent years by reading the works of liberation theologians – Christian religious thinkers who promote this theology on behalf of liberation movements throughout the world. Liberation theology has its roots in Latin American Catholic figures of the 1950s and 60s, but it has since expanded to include African-American, feminist and Palestinian Christian theologies as well.
Lately I’ve begun to do some thinking and writing about what a Jewish theology of liberation might somehow look like – and as I’ve considered it, it seems to me that so many of these themes are deeply embedded in Judaism already: the Biblical imperatives to protect the stranger and the poor, the prophetic denunciation of the hypocrisy of the privileged, the rabbinic rejection of the corrupt power of empire, not to mention our historical experience of marginalization – an experience that has influenced our collective Jewish identity in so many profound ways.
This, I would submit, is one of the most central challenges of Judaism in the 21st century – particularly American Judaism. In an era in which we enjoy the benefits of power and privilege in unprecedented ways, will we affirm a Judaism that unabashedly proclaims God is close to the broken hearted and the down-trodden, or will we venerate the God of physical might and power over others?
I know I’ve asked versions of this question in a myriad of ways during the High Holidays – they have certainly been central to my work as a rabbi, both inside and outside the congregation. But in the end, if I was to identify one central sacred value in my work, it has been this: Judaism teaches that there is nothing so broken in our lives or our world that cannot be made whole once again.
Whether you agree with what I’ve said, in whole in part, or not at all, I’m grateful as always for the opportunity to share these words with you. Please accept them with the encouragement, as I said at the outset, to think more consciously about what Judaism you affirm, what Jewish values you consider to be the most sacred and unshakable – and how you will bear witness to them in the world. What is your Torah – and how will you advocate for it in the year and years to come?
I’d to conclude on a note of thanks – for the honor of letting me into your lives and for being allowed to guide this very special community. I’ve spoken many words to you from this podium over the years, but words cannot do justice to the myriad of emotions I’m feeling on this final High Holidays with you all.
I’ll end now with a short poem, my recent reworking of Psalm 66 – which probably says what I’ve been trying to say here today better (and much more briefly):
shout aloud for the one that is mightier
than any human power, soaring farther
than any eye can see, than any mind
can possibly fathom.
close your eyes just for a moment and see
if you are able this plenitude that
never ceases, this grace-filled universe
that gives and gives again but
is never depleted.
give glory to the one that cannot be contained
by any ideology, dogma or creed, greater than
religion, greater than god, do you think
you possibly can?
now empty your mind of judgment and
send up praises for this pain,
for this soul that can be trampled but
never broken, this spirit that endures
through white-hot fire and raging torrents
only to be reborn anew.
Thank you all.
Like most Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah goes by many names. We refer to the Jewish New Year as Yom HaDin, “The Day of Judgment;” we call it Yom Teruah “The Day of the Sounding of the Shofar;” or Yom Hazikaron “The Day of Remembrance.” I’d like to suggest another possible name to this list: Yom Yetziat Beiteinu – “The Day of our Leaving Home.”
Just think about it. In its way, Rosh Hashanah is a kind of spiritual farewell. On Rosh Hashanah, we take our leave. We say goodbye to the familiarity of a year that’s past, a year still resonant with memories, and prepare ourselves to head out into the unknown – a year yet to unfold. Indeed, the predominant emotions of this season are consonant with spiritual leave taking. It is a season of hope, of anticipation, of trepidation, of remembrance, of introspection.
You probably know where I’m going with this. This Rosh Hashanah, our JRC family is experiencing these emotions in a very real and immediate way. Tonight I am acutely aware that this is my final Rosh Hashanah with JRC – and that Hallie and I will soon be leaving the community that has been our spiritual home for the past 17 years. I’m also mindful that a new chapter will soon be beginning for JRC.
I’ll have more to say about the latter tomorrow – for tonight, I’d like to try and express a little bit about what this moment means for me – to share some of the spiritual lessons I’ve learned through this process of leave-taking. I offer these remarks with the hope that they might be of some help to us during this transitional season – one that is doubly transitional for our JRC family.
It actually occurs to me that Jewish tradition has a great deal to say about the spiritual practice of “leaving home.” If you stop to think of it, just about every classic story in the Torah involves individuals leaving home. And as a result, they are transformed in important and fundamental ways.
The first example, of course, occurs when Adam and Eve depart from the Garden of Eden. As I read this story, I’m struck that Adam and Eve experience their exit from Eden as the result of both a push and a pull. Yes, they are sent out of the Garden by God as a consequence of their actions, but the story makes it clear that they were compelled to eat from the Tree of Knowledge because they saw the fruit as beautiful and desirable, and they knew that once they ate of it, their eyes would be opened to the world.
So although it is traditional to view their departure in terms of punishment, I prefer to view their exit from the Garden as a moment of transformation. Their leave-taking is borne, yes, out of turmoil and struggle, but these are inevitable and perhaps necessary aspects of their transformation.
In a sense, we might read the Adam and Eve story as a spiritual allegory about leaving childhood behind. In Eden, they lived in the comfort of a naive and childlike existence, a Garden in which they wanted for nothing. Yes, when they ate of the fruit, they experienced pain in leaving the only home they had ever known – but at the same time they also became more fully human. They left Eden, a place where each day was essentially like the one before, for a more dynamic world: a place of potential; where transformation, growth and change are always around the corner.
Another paradigmatic “leaving-home story” occurs when God comes to Abraham and Sarah and tells them to leave their native land and head out to a place that God will show them. And in this instance as well, they experience both a push as well as a pull. According to a collection of well-known midrashim, when Abraham leaves his native home of Ur Kasdin, he is fleeing from an angry father and a murderous king who, shall we say, don’t exactly appreciate his way of viewing the world.
At the same time, we read in the Torah how Abraham and Sarah receive an invitation from God, how they were compelled to leave the comforts of their home for a land they do not yet know. And in truth, their final destination isn’t really all that important. It’s the act of leave-taking itself, the painful moment they leave behind the known for nothing more than a promise – this is the moment that defines their spiritual transformation.
The most dramatic and epic leave-taking moment in the Torah of course, occurs when the Israelites leave Egypt. Yet again, they experience both a push and a pull, both the oppression of their enslavement as well as the promise of their liberation. Just like Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah before them, the Israelites leave-taking involves great struggle and turmoil. It is, as we know, story with many casualties. Indeed, we recall them in great detail around the seder table every year: the terror of the 12 Plagues, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the waters of the Red Sea. Once again, we learn, leaving home is not an easy or painless experience.
And yet again, the Israelites leave behind the known for the unknown. They escape into the wilderness, where most of the action of the Torah takes place. Yes, the wilderness is wild and uncharted, but, notably, it is also the place where God is encountered. Interestingly, the word for “wilderness,” “midbar” and the Hebrew verb “to speak,” “l’daber” share a common root. The Torah may be suggesting here an important connection between the wilderness and speech – more precisely divine speech.
In other words, when we leave the comfort and familiarity of home and head into the elemental terrain of the wilderness, the voice of God is that much more accessible to us. In this regard, I think the wilderness represents an existential place far from the surface noise of artifice and self. The journey into the wilderness is not only geographic, but experiential: it leads both to the outermost reaches of terrain and the innermost reaches of the human soul. This is the place, in short, where the Divine Presence dwells.
In a very real way, I believe our tradition is teaching us that we must continually leave home if we are to truly live. While we may well yearn for the comforts of home and hearth, home can too often become a place where comfort turns to complacency – a place we use to escape reality rather than truly experience it.
So in a sense, our lives are filled with moments of “home-leavings.” Sooner or later, we all reach a point in which we find we really have no choice. Yes, it’s usually not a particularly pleasurable experience; it generally involves some measure of push and pull, of struggle and turmoil. But when we find the strength and the courage to take a step beyond our front door, when we embrace the unknown terrain outside, when we truly encounter the world – these are the moments in which we come face to face with our most authentic selves.
Whether we prefer to call this “spiritual experience,” “inner growth,” or “personal transformation,” we leave home whenever we listen to a voice from deep within that tells us to depart from our comfort zones, to leave the familiar and the known behind, to head out with no guarantees. To struggle into our future with nothing but a promise beckoning to us from far away. And often, it seems to me, we’re so busy with the struggle we don’t even recognize that we’ve been involved in the process of leaving home for quite some time.
I’m sure you have all had these moments. I’d like to share one of my own with you now.
As many of you know, several years ago my relationship to Israel changed in a very profound and public way. As look back, I realize now that it was not a one-time event, but rather the culmination of a process that I had been experiencing consciously and unconsciously for many years. But when it finally occurred, it was a moment of leave-taking for me. To put it more specifically, I was taking a step out of a comfortable home that had been my Jewish identity for so many years of my life. And while this step came with no small measure of personal struggle and anguish, I knew – and I still know – that it was a step that I had to take.
The politics of all this are really not all that important to my point right now. Whether or not you happen agree with my politics, I think we can all recall those times we experienced a significant transition, usually involving some element of turmoil and struggle, a push and a pull, a process by which we eventually took a step out of the comforts of the known into the wilderness of the unknown.
At the time, it did indeed feel like I was entering a wilderness. And as liberating as it was to be able to speak my truth out loud, I was also terrified. I wasn’t sure I remain a rabbi and say these things. In some very deep place I wondered if I could even be a Jew and say such things. However, I soon found that the waters parted, if you will. I discovered that I could indeed find my way through this radically new terrain – due in no small part to this remarkable congregation.
I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had done and said these things in any other synagogue, I would have been given my walking papers immediately. JRC, however, is not any other synagogue. Our congregation has a long history of heading courageously into areas not typically embraced by the Jewish communal mainstream and together, finding its way through. And in this case, that meant that our leadership continually supported their rabbi’s right to follow his conscience on this most volatile of issues, even when it elicited strong criticism from inside and outside our congregation.
I will be forever grateful that JRC has been willing to accompany me through this difficult and often treacherous wilderness for the past several years. I’ve never underestimated the stress it put on us all, but as we’ve made our way, I’ve consistently heartened by the knowledge that I could continue to do this work as a congregational rabbi – and in particular, as JRC’s rabbi.
Indeed, for the duration of my entire rabbinical career, I’ve fervently believed that the mission of a congregational rabbi is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” In other words, I’ve always viewed both the “pastoral” and the “prophetic” as two essential poles of a rabbi’s job description. That’s not to say that these two poles do not cause tension at times, but I’ve always believed that a good rabbi was one who could combine them to create a creative tension and not a destructive one.
When I started down this new road, I think it was clear to most at JRC that I was not the rabbi they had hired ten years earlier. But it was profoundly heartening for me to know that JRC was able to adjust to the reality of their “new rabbi.” I was immensely proud that the response of our congregation was not to panic or to order me to “cease and desist or else” – but rather to create a method for true congregational conversation; our “Sicha Process” – a framework of civil discourse that would allow our congregation to create a safe space where all points of view could be heard and respected.
I regret deeply that in more recent years, our Sicha Process broke down. There is more to say about what happened, particularly the painful upheaval that has occurred at our congregation over the past year over my ongoing activism. Our board has already provided some opportunities for members to share their thoughts with one another over what has occurred and I know there will be more such opportunities in the future.
For now, I will only say this: I know my activism caused great pain to some of our members. The resulting turmoil was immensely painful and at times, ugly. The resulting upheaval has caused me great anguish as well. And as I’ve written to our members, my decision to leave JRC was in large part a decision I made for my own personal well-being.
However, if I’m going to be fully honest, I must also be ready to admit that my decision to leave JRC is being motivated by both a push and a pull. I must also be ready to admit that for some years now I’ve been going down a path that has slowly been pulling me away from the congregational rabbinate and toward a rabbinate more directly defined by social justice activism.
Now that I’ve made this decision, I can more clearly see how powerful this pull has been for me – and how the tensions it has caused at JRC were inevitable in so many ways. I’ve also come to understand how our recent congregational turmoil, painful though it has been, may well represent the birth pangs of a necessary new chapter for me and for our congregational family.
I’ve been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years – most of them here at JRC – and this has unquestionably been a deeply fulfilling period of my life. In recent years, it has been enormously challenging and even frightening for me to acknowledge that my activism might somehow pull me away from work that I love and the congregation that I have cherished for so many years.
But I’m ready to admit now that my journey has been leading me in a new direction. I’m ready to leave home. With hope, and admittedly with no small measure of trepidation, I am looking to this moment as an opportunity for new beginnings and possibilities I might never have imagined for myself. I genuinely wish the same for our JRC family – and know in my heart that this will invariably be the case.
As I said earlier, I will have more to say tomorrow about my hopes and dreams for our congregation as it begins this new chapter, but for now, I’d like to take my cue from the sacred season we’ve just begun. For tonight, I want to address you as individuals and present you with this challenge: How will you leave the familiarity of your home in the coming year? What pushes and pulls are you experiencing in this particular moment in your life? In what ways will you challenge your sense of comfort and complacency and find the strength to venture into unknown territory? To a place that holds out a promise, but no guarantees?
For some of you, this coming year might be a time of a significant life transition. How might you mark this experience so that it offers you real potential for transformation and growth? For others, this year might be not all that different from the last. How will you challenge that comfortable sameness? What might you do to, in a sense, build the doorway that leads you outward?
Now I am well aware – perhaps now more than ever – that going forth is no easy matter. I’d never dare say to someone who has to leave all she’s ever known, “Don’t worry, you’re actually gaining an opportunity for a deeper spiritual life.” I’m also aware that it’s all well and good for me to rhapsodize about the spiritual importance of leaving home when the homelessness is such a very real issue for us around the world and in our own country. Believe me, I know it’s all too easy for those of us who actually have actual homes to wax romantic about the experience of leaving home.
It’s not a simple matter at all to leave that which we know for that which we don’t. Living as we do in a middle class culture that venerates comfort and security, it might seem like a radical suggestion that we should leave it all behind. But what is our alternative? Think about it. At the end of the day, we all have to leave home. Sooner or later, we all will have to leave what it is that we’ve come to know, cross over that threshold and greet the unknown.
After all, the most two basic aspects of life itself – namely, birth and death – are both essentially forms of leave taking. In both cases – when we’re born and when we die – we leave the familiar comfort of the present for the uncomfortable unknown of the future. In both cases, we resist leaving the comfort of our current “home” with everything in our being. But in both cases, staying home is simply not an option.
Our liturgy and rituals over the next ten days will offer us an incredibly precious spiritual gift: the opportunity to wrestle with the deepest, most element truths of our lives and our world. In the coming year we will face a myriad of transitions, large and small. For me and for JRC, this will be a year of significant transition and change, some of it known, most of it unknown. How can we enter a new year with such radical uncertainty?
For now, at least, we will come together. We will offer up prayers that express our most honest confessions and deepest longings. We will pray for a year of blessing. We will look to the future with optimism and hope. Ready and willing to embrace whatever blessings may come.
Baruch atah b’voecha, Baruch atah b’tzeitecha – in our coming home, in our leaving home, may we always travel in God’s presence, and in that presence may we find abundant health, wholeness, peace and Shalom.