Category Archives: Spirituality

A Rabbi at AFSC: Quaker and Jewish connections – Part 1

American Quaker Marjorie McClelland with Jewish refguee child, Vichy France (photo: Ha'aretz)

American Quaker Marjorie McClelland with Jewish refugee child, Vichy France (photo: Ha’aretz)

(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.

Quakers from AFSC handing out blankets in Gaza, 1948 (photo: AFSC)

Quakers from AFSC handing out blankets in Gaza, 1948 (photo: AFSC)

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?

 

Talking JRC and AFSC on WBEZ: My Interview with “The Morning Shift”

MicI had the pleasure this morning of being interviewed by Chicago Public Radio’s Jason Marck for the “The Morning Shift” program on WBEZ.

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.

The Push and the Pull: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

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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 ideological 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 conventional assumptions 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 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.

It is enormously challenging and even frightening for me to acknowledge that my activism might somehow pull me away from 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.

Amen.

Annoucing: A Psalm a Day!

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I’ve just taken on the ambitious goal of writing poetic renderings of the Biblical Psalms – one every day.

Those of you who have read my other blog, Yedid Nefesh, know that I enjoy writing my own version of “Biblical free verse.”  It’s my own way of commenting on these texts  – by shaping them into a poetic format that broadens (and often subverts) their literal meaning.  I’ve done new versions of several Psalms in the past and have often flirted with the idea of taking on all 150. So here I go!

I’m going to do my level best to hold to my one a day quota (except for Shabbat/Saturday). For maximum impact, I recommend reading them together with a more traditional translation (or if you read Hebrew, obviously, the original text.)  They will all be posted on Yedid Nefesh – I hope you enjoy reading them and would love to hear your thoughts and responses!

Click here for Psalm 1.

“Shalom Rav” Gives Birth to “Yedid Nefesh!”

When I began Shalom Rav back in 2006, I didn’t have much of a game plan other than writing posts about anything and everything I felt like sharing for what it was worth. Over the years, for reasons I cannot fully articulate, SR increasingly began to focus almost exclusively on peace and social justice issues, with a special emphasis on Israel/Palestine.

While these issues are profoundly central to me and my own rabbinical work, I’ve become increasingly aware that I’ve been giving short shrift to many of the other issues I used to blog about: namely, Judaism, Jewish life and spiritual practice in general.

So now I’ve inaugurated a new blog: “Yedid Nefesh” (in Hebrew: “soul mate;” and the name of a beautiful liturgical poem for Shabbat). Through YN, I hope to create an outlet for for a variety of subjects that are near and dear to my heart.  At the same time, Shalom Rav will remain primarily a social action/world issues/social justice- themed blog.

What can I say? I guess it’s never to late to find a little equilibrium. Please surf over to Yedid Nefesh – and if you like what you read there, I invite you to subscribe and join the conversation!

Celebrate and Take Action This Tu B’shvat!

It’s utterly frigid here in Chicago. As I lose feeling in my toes, however, the Jewish calendar tells me it’s Tu B’shvat: the Birthday of the Trees, and the first harbinger of Spring.

And so my Tu B’shvat offerings for you:

An email I wrote on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace: this Tu B’shvat, please take action to save trees and uprooted communities in Israel/Palestine;

– From the Velveteen Rabbi: a lovely two-page Tu B’shvat Haggadah that covers all the bases quite gracefully. (Mazel Tov to the Velveteen Rabbi, who recently received her smicha and is now, as she puts it, “running and playing with the real rabbis.” Rabbi Rachel: don’t you know you’ve been a “real” rabbi to many of us for quite some time now…)

– For Tu B’shvat reading material, I encourage you to read this inspiring piece on “Spiritual Environmentalism” by Wangari Maathai, Kenyan tree-planter extraordinaire:

Human beings have a consciousness by which we can appreciate love, beauty, creativity, and innovation or mourn the lack thereof. To the extent that we can go beyond ourselves and ordinary biological instincts, we can experience what it means to be human and therefore different from other animals. We can appreciate the delicacy of dew or a flower in bloom, water as it runs over the pebbles or the majesty of an elephant, the fragility of the butterfly or a field of wheat or leaves blowing in the wind. Such aesthetic responses are valid in their own right, and as reactions to the natural world they can inspire in us a sense of wonder and beauty that in turn encourages a sense of the divine.

That consciousness acknowledges that while a certain tree, forest, or mountain itself may not be holy, the life-sustaining services it provides — the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink — are what make existence possible, and so deserve our respect and veneration. From this point of view, the environment becomes sacred, because to destroy what is essential to life is to destroy life itself.

I feel my toes warming up already…

Leaving Home: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771

From my Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon last Wednesday night:

So here’s my question for this Rosh Hashanah: how will you leave the familiarity of your home in the coming year? In 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 to create a doorway that leads outward?

Click below to read the entire sermon:

Continue reading

Meditations on Tisha B’Av 5770

The Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av starts this evening. Some thoughts:

– According to Jewish tradition the Second Temple was destroyed because of the Jewish people’s sinat chinam – baseless hatred. In other words, it isn’t enough to simply mark our collective tragedies and mourn our collective losses. We must honestly own the ways our own prejudices and intolerance have contributed to these losses.

What does this mean for us today? Tisha B’Av is not only a day to mourn the past – it is a day in which we face the ways in which our sinat chinam gives rise to tragedy in our own day and age.

– While the destruction of the Second Temple represents a profound mythic loss for the Jewish people, we cannot deny that it also gave birth to Jewish tradition as we know it. Because of the churban (“destruction”), Judaism ceased to be a Jerusalem-based sacrificial cult and became a diaspora-based world religion predicated upon study, prayer and acts of compassion.

In other words, the tragedy of the churban contained the seeds of a Jewish rebirth.  What does this teach us? If we only regard Tisha B’Av as an occasion of unmitigated collective grief, then our observance of this day is incomplete. At its essence, the ninth of Av is a day for identifying the ways that our losses invariably point the way to life renewed.

Passover and Good Friday: Together Like Never Before

The most memorable aspect of my Pesach this year? A combination Passover – Good Friday service JRC held together with the wonderful folks at Lake Street Church of Evanston.

The whole thing was hatched somewhat by chance. A month or so ago I was having lunch with my good friend Reverend Bob Thompson of Lake St. Church (appropriately enough at Evanston’s Blind Faith Cafe) and our conversation turned to our respective upcoming rites of spring. Bob mentioned to my surprise that he hadn’t celebrated Good Friday at Lake St. in quite some time – mainly because he simply couldn’t abide by blood atonement theology – the notion that God would somehow require the bloodshed of one man to atone for all of the sins of the rest of the world.

For my part, I mentioned that Good Friday had not generally been so “good” to the Jews throughout history, since this was invariably the time in which the worst pogroms were perpetrated against European Jewish communities. As a result, for much of Jewish history Passover was a secret ritual: observed in fear and in private. Given our complicated mutual history, we both agreed that it would be enormously powerful to celebrate Passover and Good Friday together in a spirit of healing and hope.

So that is exactly what we did this last Friday. While Bob and I weren’t at all sure if this service would fly, it actually suceeded beyond our highest expectations. Hundreds of JRC and Lake St. members filled the sanctuary at Lake St. church. Together we celebrated with a service that mixed Hebrew and English, Jewish songs, Christian hymns and prayers for healing. We ended with a rousing “Down By The Riverside.” Afterwards, countless participants – both Jewish and Christian – told us that the service was an immensely moving and healing experience for them.

During the service, Bob and I had a conversation in which we both mused about what our respective holidays might look like if we recast them in the spirit of healing and hope. Bob began by saying the first thing Christians needed to do when celebrating Good Friday was to apologize to the Jewish community for the legacy of Christian anti-Semitism. He then went on to explore how Christians might recast the meaning of the crucifixion itself. Here’s what he had to say:

Every Good Friday well meaning folk gather to listen to priests and ministers talk about how Jesus was crucified, the “lamb of God,” to take away the sins of the world. In other words, Jesus died a sacrificial death to satisfy the God who demands retribution – the God who requires the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins.

Thankfully these days there’s an emergent form of Christianity – one that does not buy this “blood atonement theory” – and it is a theory. Today, more and more Christians are saying they do not believe that God requires the shedding of blood… The point is, violence is not a solution – it’s always a problem. We have to get to see that violence never purifies – it always defiles. In every form it is defiling.

That’s why if Jesus was standing here today, I believe he’d say, “don’t call me the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He might say rather something more like “I am a window to divinity and a mirror of humanity. What I came to do is to show you what it means to be open to the Divine and to reflect the best of who we are as human beings. And everybody can reflect this and be this window if only we have the spiritual vision to see clearly enough.”

In other words, Jesus, I believe, would not say that he suffered to keep us from suffering – he suffered because to be human is to suffer. Jesus hangs there because life is always hanging in the balance for all of us all of the time.

I was so taken by his willingness to take on the violence inherent in the crucifixion image – and I responded in kind with my remarks:

There’s no getting around it: to observe the Seder, you need to tell a story of oppression and violence. And you cannot get to what is for Christians resurrection and what is for Jews the Exodus from Egypt without going through that moment of violence…

I will also say I share with you, Bob, completely, that I do not view violence in any way as redemptive. I reject that categorically. I think we all have to. But we still have to struggle with the way violence affects us and what it does to us and what it does to our souls. We can’t ignore it. Even if we disavow it, we can’t ignore it.

As a Jew… I fear the violence that is embodied by the Seder and that has been waged against the Jewish people for centuries will turn us into a bitter people. That it will only cause us to have a sense of entitlement which means we use our pain as a weapon against the outside world because nothing we do to anyone else can be nearly as horrible as what’s been done to us. Or it will cause us to build bigger walls between us and the rest of the world and to instill a Jewish identity that basically says nothing more than “all the world really wants us dead, and that’s what it means to be a Jew. And we have to be forever vigilant because we live in a world that hates Jews.”

And while I’m not unmindful of this history and I do think we need to retell this history because those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it…I also think we need to look seriously at what this legacy of violence and oppression does to us and what we do with it.

And for me that means bearing witness to oppression in the world. If there is any sliver of redemption in violence, it means that it can open the door to empathy – and I would suggest that this idea comes from a very deep place in Biblical tradition – in the Torah.

The commandment commanded more times than any other in the Torah is some version of “Do not oppress the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” To me what that says is “you don’t take your pain and use it as a weapon against the outside world. You take your pain and use it as a tool for empathy with the outside world – and to bear witness against oppression no matter where it is fomented, whether it is in our community or it’s in any community.

We cannot hold on to our pain as uniquely ours, and I want to come back to something you said earlier, Bob: “We’re all in this together. It’s not some of us – it’s all of us. And violence against one people is violence against all.”

You can read some of Bob’s thoughts about our service on a piece he’s just written for Examiner.com You can also click below to hear an audio of the entire service. (The service itself begins at the 10:00 point).

God’s People: Toward a New Tribalism


From Psalm 94:

How long shall the wicked exult,
shall they utter insolent speech,
shall all evildoers vaunt themselves?
They crush your people, O Lord,
they afflict Your very own;
they kill the widow and the stranger;
they murder the fatherless,
thinking, “The Lord does not see it,
the God of Jacob does not pay heed.

Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna comments:

The specification of the oppressed shows that those described as God’s “people” are the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable segments of society…God’s “people” are the ordinary, common folk, and the evil oppressors are the corrupt, privileged upper classes in Israel, those whom the prophets denounced repeatedly from the eighth century BCE on.

I love this. The concept of “God’s people” is not defined in strictly tribal terms. No one people or nation can ultimately lay claim to this title. God’s people are the oppressed, the vulnerable, the downtrodden – and all who devote their lives to their liberation.

So are we ready for a new kind of tribalism? Not one determined by a specific religious persuasion or by national boundaries, but a “tribe” that includes all who share cherish justice and seek liberation from tyranny?