Friday, October 29, 2010

We Should All Start with the Basics ...

Coming across an article called, "Study Shows Jews Donate More to the Poor," made me stop and think about how we prioritize our giving.  (See  The study indicates that Jews donate proportionately more to assist others with their basic needs (food, shelter, etc.) than other religious groups ... and it made me wonder why.  The article quoted the CEO of UJA-NY as saying: 

“From day one in our schools, synagogues and organizations, we assert that our deepest values reflect how we care about one another. In the midst of the Yom Kippur fast, the prophet Isaiah says the fast is about clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. This linkage of what it means to be a Jew and what it means to care about each other is foundational,” he said.

I think he is right.  It sounds like folks are really listening.   : )

Saturday, October 9, 2010

I Got Quoted in "Jewish Women International Magazine" ... : )

Yes, I was quoted in a sidebar to an article on the new prevalence of women blowing the shofar at High Holy Days sevices ... here is the link:

Scroll down to find it ... and then tell me if you laugh ... and if you've seen this happen. : )

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Whaddya' Know? Let's Start at the Beginning ... It's a Very Good Place to Start ...

Sermon delivered Friday, October 1, 2010:

Shabbat Shalom.

I love surveys.
I love taking them.
I love analyzing them.
I love figuring out how the questions could have been better written.
I love tearing them apart to see how they could have been more thorough ... more representative ... more objective ... more inclusive. I even took a class in college on educational testing and surveys from a psychological perspective to learn about it … yep, I love surveys.  : )

But sometimes a group tells you so much about how they’ve done their questioning that it’s hard to complain … it’s hard to find a reason to be too critical … it’s hard to really do anything but accept their findings … and this happens each time I look at a survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a project of the Pew Research Center.

This past Tuesday, at the "God in America National Symposium on Religious Literacy," the Pew Forum released the results of a nationwide survey on … religious literacy … and we Jews did pretty darn well.  : )

We did the second best of any group studied in the survey ... behind the atheists and agnostics (who were lumped together because of their small numbers).

According to the survey, we stand out on our knowledge of other world religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism (although we’re not so good on some basic tenets of Christianity).

And we do really well on religion in public life, slightly better than the atheists and agnostics. Oh, and we did really well on the general knowledge questions.

But, on the general religious knowledge questions, we can do better.

So, I’m going to ask you a couple of the questions … but I’m not going to give you the answers right now … just keep them inside your head because at our fabulous Sisterhood Shabbat Dinner following services, 15 of the 32 religious questions asked in the survey will be on your dinner table … so you can answer and discuss them over dinner with your table-mates.  Yes, you can have some fun tonight seeing how you would have fared on this test during dinner.  : )

But here is a preview …

Only 47% of Jewish respondents answered a multiple-choice question correctly about which of four given Bible figures is most closely associated with remaining obedient to God despite suffering … again, don’t answer out loud … I know, the suspense of finding out if you are right might kill you, but don’t answer … [Job].

And, even though we did score the best on this one, and WAY better than almost all of the other groups, only 42% of Jewish respondents got it right when asked whether, according to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, whether a public school teacher is permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature … [yes, permitted].

But here’s the one we are looking at tonight. Only 57% of Jewish respondents knew who Maimonides was … now for the non-Jews answering, I’ll give them a pass on this one … but almost half of the Jewish respondents not knowing who Maimonides was?   Oyyyy.

Wednesday night we celebrated Simchat Torah, where we finished reading the last portion of the book of Deuteronomy and began again at the beginning of Genesis. Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, who (other than me) probably has the funniest name for a rabbi (although scholars say that his name was probably a nickname), taught that you should turn it and turn it … for everything is in it.  He taught that we should look into it, grow old and grey over it, and never move away from it, since each time we begin reading the Torah again we learn something new.

And so, this Shabbat, we start from the beginning again. We start with Parashat B’reisheet, the first portion in the book of Genesis … right from the very beginning.

And in honor of the 43% of Jews who did not get the question correct about Maimonides, tonight, we learn a little about B’reisheet from Maimonides.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known by the acronym, the Rambam, as well as the name of Maimonides, died about 800 years ago and yet his teachings make him timeless.

One of my favorite teachings by Maimonides about Parashat B’reisheet comes from his Guide to the Perplexed [1:2].

As you know, in the first Torah portion, God creates the world and everything in it, including human beings … and, at first, we live in a fabulous place called Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden … until … that "incident" with the snake and a little piece of fruit some translate as an apple.  Adam and Eve choose to eat from the one special tree in the middle of the garden, even though God says not to … tsk, tsk, tsk.

Commenting on Adam and Eve’s newly found nakedness when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Maimonides taught that it is not said, “and the eyes of them both were opened and they saw,” because what they saw previously was exactly what was seen afterwards. There had been no blindness before, but instead they found things wrong which previously they had not.

Their eyes were open to what had been there previously, but they experienced the world through new lenses … now you have to decide for yourself whether it is better for people to feel as if we should all be covered up instead of naked … but what happens to them is that their vision is focused on different things and they see their world differently.

Learning can do this for us as well.

Hopefully, we are not blind as we go through the world, but we can learn more and sharpen our focus. We can learn to see the world through different lenses and experience the world through other people’s eyes as well … but it all comes from opening ourselves up to new experiences.

I might say that Adam and Eve weren’t living in the “real world” when they were in the Garden of Eden … everything was given to them, there was no value in work, there was no value in exploring, there was no need to try to improve their lot in life … it was all given to them on a metaphorical silver platter.

And, while certainly it would be nice to not have to struggle for our basic cares, most of us can agree that it is the journey to understanding and internal spiritual growth that helps us find our ways to bettering ourselves and our lives.

And so to find beauty in our journey to see the world WE live in through as focused a lens as we can, we try new things, we experience new ways of doing things, and we learn.

So, here we are again at the beginning … at Parashat B’reisheet … I’ll never forget the first time I realized I had come to an entire year of Torah study and had read the entire Torah … it was definitely a Shehechiyanu moment.

Tomorrow morning, we start with Genesis again … and we turn it and turn it to see how it can bring new meaning to our lives. Torah study tomorrow morning at 9:15am. 

But maybe it’s not just Torah study … maybe you want to learn more about your own Jewish heritage and fine-tune the Jewish lens through which you experience your life … and for those folks, we begin our basic Judaism class again this Tuesday, called Living a Jewish Life (it’s a great refresher, too).

Yes, just after Simchat Torah, it is a time of new beginnings … as evidenced by the Pew Center Study, we Jews do pretty well knowing things about our religion and others, but we can do better. Come learn with us.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Lost Jewel ... Found in a Box ...

I opened a box tonight which had contents that hadn't been seen since I moved to Texas ... more than two years ago. 

Yes, I know there are organizational experts who would tell you that I should have just given the box away without opening it, because I clearly didn't "need" whatever had been packed away for more than two years, but I just can't do this.   And so tonight, after more than two years, I opened a random box (yes, there are more I haven't yet opened) and found a lost jewel. 

Wrapped in a non-descript plastic bag, I found an old book I collected on my journey ... one I had forgotten I had. 

This beautiful book made me cry because it had been packed away, despite its value.  The value, though, is probably lost on most people because it looks so sad.  The binding is loose, it has a couple of loose pages, and it needs to be rebound.  But what is on the inside is priceless to me.

The loose binding reads, "The Order of Prayers," but (as a rabbi) I have tons of prayer books.  What makes this book so special to me follows the initial page, which reads, "The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire."  The next page gives the title and the author/editor and reads as follows:

The Order of Prayers
Translated, compared, and revised
Rachel Mayer
Vienna 1921

In the upheaval of finding my life as a rabbi, packing, moving, and beginning a new job, I had forgotten that I had found this wonderful book and was looking forward to the adventure of learning about a clearly remarkable woman, this Rachel Mayer.

The internet can be a wonderful tool, but can sometimes let you down.  I had done my initial search on the web to try to learn about this early Jewish woman scholar, but literally found almost nothing ... other than a reference to a Passover Haggadah she wrote/edited the same year (1921), I found nothing. 

And so I have a new hobby because I found a lost jewel in my (too many) boxes.   : )

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5771: "We Run and Run and Run and Run ..."

     Good yuntif.
     My goodness ... things have been pretty busy around here lately… but I’m guessing things are pretty busy in most of your houses every day, too?
      Anyone else feel like you spend all your time running?
     Running from here to there and then back again … why, we don’t even stop running when we are on vacation … we make tons of plans of things to see, things to do, and things to visit … so much so that, when we return, we sometimes need a vacation from our vacation.
     Once, I flew to India for six days and spent every single day in a different city … I literally made a list of 6 things I wanted to see on that trip and got on a new plane every day, going from place to place to place to place to place to place ... and then “the vacation” was over. In hindsight, I got to see six amazing places, but does that really sound like a vacation?

     How about lists … anybody here got a "to do" list that is so long you feel like you’ll never, ever be “finished” with it?
     Or, more likely, how many of us are afraid to even write everything down on our to do list for fear that it would be so overwhelming we’d never actually do it?

     In these busy times, we just seem to run ... and run ... and run.

[The Violinist of L’Enfant Plaza ... Footnote 1]

      Imagine, if you will, a young man standing on the plaza level of the L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, DC. Wearing blue jeans, a longsleeved tshirt, and a Washington National baseball cap, he pulls out a violin from its case and throws a couple dollars and the change from his pocket as seed money to inspire the passersby to do the same thing. For the next 43 minutes, the young man plays six classical pieces of music.
     What do you do when you walk by, hearing him play?
     It’s rush hour, 7:51 am on a Friday morning and, for the next 43 minutes, the young man plays six pieces of classical music.
     What do you think happens?
     During this 43 minutes, 1,097 people passed by on their way to work … during that time:
     “Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation … annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? ... [But,] what if he's really good?”
     I mean, really, who has time to stop and listen when you are rushing on your way to work?
     But, on that particular Friday in January:
     "Those private questions we answer so quickly as we are running from place to place would be answered in an unusually public way.
     No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made … [a $3.5 million Stradavarius].
     His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"
     You should know that he did not play popular music “whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. [You see,] that was not the test. [Instead,] these pieces were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls” and, surprisingly, the acoustics were quite good.
     The man playing the violin was literally one of the top three violinists in the world and his name was Joshua Bell. Bell has played for heads of state, the best symphonies in the world, and sells out to standing room only crowds everywhere he plays … he has even received a prize as the best classical musician in America. He makes $1,000 a MINUTE to play … on a $3.5 million dollar Stradavarius.
     When the Washington Post set up this experiment a few years ago that January morning, they were worried that they might cause a public scene, that Mr. Bell might get hurt from the commotion and the crowd ... and that they might need to call in the police for crowd control.
     So, what do you think happened?
     Well, it took three full minutes of playing before anything at all happened … 63 people had already walked by before anything at all really happened … what was the breakthrough?
     A middle-aged man sorta’ cocked his head and seemed to notice that there was a guy over that was playing some music, and then he kept walking.
     A half minute later, someone finally dropped something in his violin case – a woman threw in a dollar bill … and she kept right on walking.
     It was not until 6 minutes into his performance that someone actually stood against a wall and finally, really listened.
     He played for 43 minutes. Out of 1,097 people who passed by in those 43 minutes, only 7 people stopped what they were doing for one minute to listen … they were buying lottery tickets, walking to work, getting their shoes shined. 27 people gave money, most of them on the run … he made $32.17. Some of the 1,070 people who walked by were only 3 feet away, yet few even turned to look.
     What does this story say about us?
     Some might say that we as a people don’t pay much attention to what is going on around us.
     Some might say we have too much closing us off from the rest of society, since many of those 1,070 who passed by were on the phone or listening to iPods.
     Some might say we just need to give ourselves more time in the morning to slow down.
     I might suggest that we look even wider in answering the question. Perhaps we need to get outside ourselves a little more.
     And look.
     Our sages teach that the bush on the side of the road was always burning, Moses just happened to be the first one to pay attention to it.

     Today, it is Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of our year, the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe and, on Yom Kippur morning, we will read from the Torah a passage that includes these phrases, “choose life,” therefore, “that you and your descendants may live,” by “loving your God, listening to God’s voice, and holding fast to the One who is your life and the length of your days.”  [FN 2]  Certainly, the passage is talking about choosing to live “the good life” and follow the mitzvot, but I believe that this presupposes that we choose to actually live.

     [Long pause]

     Recently, our community has lost so many people.
     Our individual families have lost too many loved ones, and our community has lost someone who gave to so many … we have lost too many people we have loved.
     But we can choose life, and really live.

[How Should We Choose to Live Our Lives?]

     You know, you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their presets on their car’s radio station … check out the stations they have programmed in and you can tell if they like hard rock, easy listening, jazz, classical, or the news … or maybe a combination of all of them.
     Even more so nowadays, I guess I should say check out the “Top 25 Most Played” on their iPod or iPhone, and you can learn a lot about someone … what kind of beat gets ’em moving, what kind of stories they connect with … yep, you can tell a lot about a person by the music they listen to.
     I’m pretty sure that I shared this secret with some of you, but the rest of you have to promise not to tell anyone … but … “I love country music.”
     Back when I lived in Vegas and LA, I had to whisper it, but here in Austin? Here, I can say it with my head held a little higher … and my voice a little stronger, because people here in Texas just understand better that good country music can tell a great story ... and great stories, especially when set to great music, are really what touch our hearts.
     Now people make jokes all the time about country music … about how you “cain’t” write a song unless it’s about your momma’ dying … or your dog dying … or a relative getting out of prison … or your brand, new pickup truck.
     Now, don’t get me wrong. All of those topics are perfectly fine themes for a country song … and I absolutely love the ones about pickup trucks because, maybe you can take the girl out of Georgia, but you can’t take the Georgia out of the girl.
     But what really gets me about country music is the “realness” – is that even a word? The lyrics just always seem to be about living life to its fullest.
     One day a few years back, I realized I had to pull my car over because I was crying. It was the first time I heard a Tim McGraw song with such an extraordinary story that it made me stop and think. [FN 3]
     Tim McGraw was singing about how a man felt, after it sunk in, that he only had a short time to live. The narrator of the song asks the man what he did after he learned his fate, and the man responds in the chorus of the song like this … he says:

     I went sky diving,
     I went Rocky Mountain climbing,
     I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Blue Manchu ...

     OK, now I am not going to tell you go bullriding … I’ve seen what that can do to people … why do I tell you about a song like this on Rosh HaShanah?
     The name of the song was “Live Like You Were Dying.”

     [Deep breath.]

     Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals visiting people who were sick and in need of healing.
     Once back when I was a student, I held a rather elderly woman’s hand who had asked for a Rabbi … and, well, she got me. Even though she wasn’t always lucid during my visit, her daughter told me that all she wanted to do was say the “Sh’ma.” Laying in her hospital bed, so fragile and so weak, when I told her I would sing the Sh’ma with her, she sat upright in the bed and sang in her loudest voice with gusto and pride.
     As I was walking back to my car, I thought about that stage in my life where I might need medical care in the future … and, when I got into the car, the song “Live Like You Were Dying” came on the radio.
     I don’t believe there is anything such as coincidence … I think that maybe God sometimes works anonymously.

     What’s the message? It is plain and simple:


     [Deep breath.]

     Yes, there are places we can go … and things we can do.  
     For example, on my birthday one year, I did one of the things I love most … I got in the car with two of my friends and we went for a drive … I think we were gone for a grand total of eight hours.
     We drove northeast from Las Vegas and went to the tiniest little towns called Beatty and Rhyolite … yep, of all the places I could have chosen for my birthday, and I wanted to go to Beatty and Rhyolite, Nevada. And while we were there, we did one of my favorite things in the whole world … we went to see the town cemeteries.
     You know, you can tell a lot about a person’s life by what is written on their tombstone, especially in the backwoods of Nevada.
     And you can learn a lot about a family by seeing who is buried next to whom, and by figuring out how they were related.
     And each time I visit a cemetery, it reminds me of my own mortality.
     You see, every day we are here, we are writing our own eulogy. By our actions and how we treat others, we decide what will be said about us when we are gone.

     [Deep breath.]

     The song lyrics continue:

     He said I was finally the husband that most the time I wasn’t,
     And I became a friend a friend would like to have,
     And all the sudden going fishin’ wasn’t such an imposition,
     And I went three times that year I lost my dad.

     I finally read the good book,
     And I took a good long hard look,
     At what I’d do if I could do it all again.

     The message is simple:
     Figure out what is important to you.
     Figure out who is important to you.
     And figure out a way to combine the two.

[How Do We Judge Each Year and Make it Meaningful?]

      Which leads me to another favorite song at this time of year … it is a song from the Broadway musical Rent, called “Seasons of Love” … but I’ve always thought it should be named the most powerful phrase within the song … I’ve always thought it should be called, “525,600 minutes.”
     You see, that’s how many minutes there are in a year … and so I ask:

     How did you spend your last 525,600 minutes?

     [Long pause]

     How do you plan to spend your next 525,600 minutes?

     [Long pause]

     Fourteen times in our sacred scriptures we hear the word, Hineini, here I am … once even in today’s Torah portion.
     So, what does it mean to be truly here? What does it mean to be truly present in one’s life?

     Well, it might look like different things to different people.
     Could it mean turning off the electronics in our lives, the TV, the iPod, the iPad, the Blackberry, yes, just for a few minutes and connecting with the real people in our lives?
     Could it mean reaching out to hold someone’s hand and really holding it when someone needs not for you to listen, but instead maybe just for them to be heard?
     Could it mean thinking about what our goals truly are? What do we want to be remembered for? What do we want people to say about us in our eulogy?
     It could mean a new commitment to more hugs, and less things in our lives.
     It could mean … [ long pause ] … what does it look like to you now?

     Here I am.

     What do you want this to look like for you?
     Rosh Hashanah … This is Hayom Harat Olam – this is the day creation began … and this is the day when we can begin to recreate ourselves.

     And so I leave you today with three new year’s wishes for all of us …
     I pray that we can stop running … and running … and running … and instead find
as many meaningful moments as we can in the next 525,600 minutes … so that we can mean it each and every time we want to say, and can truly choose to say, Hineini.
     I pray that each of us takes the opportunity to truly “live like we were dying” … for many, many years to come.
     And, lastly, when the beautiful music is playing, I pray that we stop and notice … and give ourselves a chance to really listen.
     Who knows, we might be hearing the “Flop of L’Enfant Plaza” … who became the winner of the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the best classical musician in America.
     Gut yuntif.
1. The first section of the sermon is based on Gene Weingarten’s article in the Washington Post on April 7, 2007: “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can One of the Nation’s Great Musicians Cut Through the Fog of a DC Rush Hour? Let’s Find Out.” All quotations in this section of the sermon are from this story.

2. Deuteronomy 30:16-19.

3. “Live Like You Were Dying is a country-western song made famous by Tim McGraw. Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman cowrote this Grammy Award-winning “Best Country Song” (47th Annual Grammy Awards).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tonight's Sermon on Parashat Shoftim ... on the American Judicial System ...

Shabbat shalom.

No matter where I have worked, I have always sought to work with people of the highest ethical standards, but mostly for a selfish reason … I wanted to be able to sleep at night.

As a lawyer, this was somewhat troublesome … as you may know, in many states around the country, judges have to run for election to the bench. They have to put up signs and billboards and all of these things cost money … and the people most likely to give them money are the people they know … and the biggest group of people they probably know is?  Lawyers.

As a baby lawyer fresh out of working for a judge in the court system, I remember asking my boss (and mentor) how he decided to whom he should give … and he said, "I give to them all. The list of donors is made public, which is a good thing, but I might not pick the right person, so I have to give to them all."

A few years later, I remember being called into a Senior Partner’s office and being asked to listen to a voicemail message that bothered him … the voice on the message said:

"Hi, ____ , this is Judge _____.  I was looking over the list of donors to my re-election campaign and realized that your firm hasn’t taken the opportunity to make a donation to my campaign yet. I just wanted to remind you that you still have time to make one if you’d like … and see you in court soon."

OK, so yes, this WAS a court in Las Vegas, but WOW.  My boss and I both sat there stunned. This man had been a member of the bench for many years and, while I always thought he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree based on some of the decisions he made, I never expected this kind of “in your face” politicking.

Believe it or not, these same issues are not new … they have been around thousands of years, and are included in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, which is most often translated as "magistrates" or "judges."

This week, Moses tells the people that they are required to appoint "magistrates and officers for their tribes," and that "they shall govern the people with due justice."  But there must have been a problem with the way justice had been administered in the past, because God goes even further and specifies the following things: that judges are not to judge unfairly ... that they shall show no partiality ... and that they shall not take bribes because, as the Torah says, “for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” This is followed by one of the most famous lines in the whole Torah, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.”

Within the past few days, we have witnessed an extraordinary piece of history, for several reasons.  This is the first time that three women have ever sat on the US Supreme Court ... so now women make up 1/3 of the Supreme Court, even though we make up slightly more than 50% of the population? Well, I suppose it is better than before.   : )

Even more interesting is that, with the addition of Elana Kagan, there are now three Jews sitting on the Supreme Court.  Hmmm … Jews are 2% of the population and represent 1/3 of the Court … honestly, I’m not sure what to make of that except that a lot of Jewish parents have raised a lot of Jewish kids who turned out to be a lot of Jewish lawyers … and maybe that our heritage and tradition of studying the laws in the Torah and other Jewish texts makes our American system of jurisprudence pretty darn attractive.   : )

To me, though, this week’s appointment of Elana Kagan to the Supreme Court and the recent appointment of Sonjia Sotomeyer represent one of the biggest challenges that face our country today.

Good people of great scholarship who have addressed the hard issues in America have the hardest time getting appointed to the highest Court in the land.  Every administration, democrat or republican, has to find a really smart person they think will decide their critical issues the way they want … who hasn’t actually expressed an opinion publicly on pretty much any topic important to Americans today.  They can’t have been too friendly with any one political party, they can’t have actually stood for anything … or they might be disqualified.

An old episode of the West Wing addressed this very concern when the person furthest to the right on its Supreme Court was killed off … but the liberal administration knew they couldn’t get the person they wanted (someone perceived to be far to the left) approved.  The solution (and, of course, this only happens on television) was to ask the justice furthest to the left to step down so both political parties could get someone they perceived to be in their best interest.

Simple solution, right?  Everybody gets what they want.

Sure, but the coolest part of the entire episode, at least for a former lawyer watching, was hearing one of the characters talking about the need for divergent opinions on the court - that it is bad for a country to have to settle for the middle-of-the-road, least offensive, most “vanilla” candidate who can get approved and that, if we do so, we lose the beautiful voice of the minority, or dissenting, opinion … the minority opinion that can later become the jewel that is found and inspires great change in this country.

Remember the great case of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which our United States Supreme Court said that “separate but equal” was constitutional?

The lone dissenting and now-famous voice in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision was from Justice John Marshall Harlan, an interesting character because he and his family owned slaves in Kentucky, and during the Civil War he staunchly defended the right to slavery. At the same time, however, he also joined the Union Army to fight to preserve the Union. After the Civil War ended, he changed his attitude on slavery and became a staunch critic of it and defender of civil rights for African-Americans.

Today, Justice Harlan could never have been a US Supreme Court justice.

Politics and justice shouldn’t mix. As the Torah teaches, Shoftim, judges, should neither feel pulled nor obligated to one side or the other … either because they have to ask the lawyers appearing before them for money to run for election or because they have to be quietly beholden to political parties in order to get appointed. We should reconsider how judges become judges … there has to be a way to take the politics out of justice because some of the greatest changes that have ever happened in the US has come through our judicial system … there has to be a better way.

My prayer for our country is that our newly-appointed Justice Kagan, and actually all judges, both who have to run for office as well as those who are appointed to positions (some for their lifetime), do exactly what the Torah teaches: that they not be swayed by the lure of bribes, that they shall always judge fairly, and yes, justice, only justice shall they pursue.

Shabbat shalom.

Monday, August 9, 2010

An Update Regarding "Women of the Wall" ... Can We Take Your Picture Please?

Three weeks ago, I gave a sermon (posted here) regarding challenges happening in Israel with respect to progressive/liberal/reform Judaism.  Simply put, it seems that Jewish religious freedom doesn't really exist in Israel. 

A little more than three weeks ago, Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a founding member of "Women of the Wall," was arrested for carrying a Torah near the Western Wall ... the charge was that she did something that was "religiously offensive" to others. 

Below is the information from a sheet I prepared with more background about Anat's arrest and the subsequent project to photograph 10,000 women/girls holding Torahs between now and Simchat Torah ... we started this past Friday night and have pictures of about 50 women so far ... and we are going to keep taking them!   Here is the information ... take a look and let me know what you think.   : )

Official Website of “Nashot HaKotel / Women of the Wall” …

Video Showing Anat Hoffman’s Arrest …!

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz’s Blog … With an Eyewitness Account of Anat Hoffman’s Arrest …

Blessing for Women to Read While Holding a Torah for this Purpose …

 .פתח ליבי בתורתך.  ברכו שעשני אישה

P’tach libi b’toratecha. Barchu she’asani isha.

Open my heart to your Torah. Blessed is the One who made me a woman.

Letter including the Petition from Women of the Wall to:

- Binyamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister

- Rubi Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset

- Tzipi Livni, Head of Kadima and leader of the opposition

- Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency

- Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

can be found at: ... here is the text:


I am writing today to tell you that Women of the Wall are not alone. Our daughters and our rabbis, our mothers and our grandmothers, our cantors and our teachers hold the Torah, read from the Torah, and study the Torah every day. Hundreds of thousands of women and young girls embrace our Torah Scrolls while their prayers reverberate in our synagogues. We pray without disturbance, without fear. Our prayer is seen as normal and accepted. Only in Jerusalem do women pray with fear and only in Jerusalem are women treated as criminals for practicing Judaism.

On Rosh Hodesh Av 5770 we experienced unthinkable abuse by the very political and legal system that we, as Jews of the world, established to offer sanctuary and to initiate the renewal of modern Jewish life. How is it that as Jewish women, we are free in Berlin, in Rome, and in Chicago, while in Jerusalem it is illegal and profane for us to read from the Torah?

During the days and weeks between the 9th of Av and Simchat Torah we will be sending you pictures from our families, synagogues, and communities. You will see women read, study and embrace Torah Scrolls. On their faces will be joy; not the expression of horror captured by journalists as police took a woman holding a Torah into custody.

We ask you to open your eyes and see what is ordinary every place else in the world: women embracing Torah, reading from the Torah, rejoicing with the Torah and learning from the Torah. We ask that you see and be blind no more to the injustice of religious oppression.

- Your Signature Here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Studying with Colleagues ... and the Value of Being Away ...

Every once in a while, I hear someone grumble about a rabbi's time away from the office.  I know it is less convenient for congregants, but time and study away can be renewing ... and that is better for congregants in the long run, right?

The New York Times recently posted an interesting article about clergy burnout:  I've only been a rabbi for two years, but I already worry about this ... I already worry about life-work balance ... I already worry about disappointing others because I can't be everywhere I think (or they think) I should be. 

But I feel a change coming ... even if it is just a small step.

Tomorrow, I am not going to feel guilty about driving to Houston to study with the Women's Rabbinic Network colleagues from the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis.  It will be good for my congregants for me to study with a Talmud scholar, something I have the rare opportunity to do these days.  It is worth the three-hour trip each way in my poor car with no air conditioning, right? 

It will be good for me to get away tomorrow, even if it is to study for only four hours ... and I'll be back tomorrow night from Houston, better than ever.   : )

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sometimes, We Are Our Own Worst Enemies ...

I've been bothered a lot by what has been happening in Israel this past week ... here is the sermon I delivered at Congregation Beth Israel tonight ... let me know what you think.  : )

Shabbat shalom.

Get ready, everybody ... as a rabbi, I am about to say something controversial:  "I have a love/hate relationship with Israel."

Yes, there are things I absolutely love about Israel … and there are things I absolutely hate about Israel … and two examples of things I hate reared their ugly heads this week in Israel’s news.

But first, things I love … I love that passengers clap when a plane lands in Israel.

I love the hustle and bustle of getting ready for Shabbat in Jerusalem, knowing that the shops are going to close early on Friday afternoon and you better do your shopping early Friday morning if you want your pick.

I love the chocolate milk in Israel, where you buy individual servings in little plastic bags and just tear open a corner with your teeth and suck the milk out of the bag.

Most of all, though, I love living on Jewish time … I love that the whole city of Jerusalem closes down and you can walk right through the middle of the streets on Yom Kippur without ever worrying about being hit by a car.

But then there are the things I hate about Israel, some of them having to do with the fact that I lived there during the second worst year of the Second Intifada, but not all.

I hate that I couldn’t ride an inner-city bus and travel all over Israel because of safety issues.

I hate that there WERE places I could go because I was an American and “didn’t look too Jewish.”

And I hate that, especially when it comes to Israel, we Jews seem to be our own worst enemies.

For a liberal Jew, I mentioned that two dangerous things happened this week in Israel. First, a bill was read in the Knesset that, on its face, seems intended to make conversion easier in Israel. However, if you look below the surface, its effects could actually be quite grave.

The bill’s proponents claim that it will allow greater accessibility to conversion courts for those born in the Former Soviet Union. However, the bill will be implemented by granting power regarding conversion in Israel exclusively to the ultra-orthodox Chief Rabbi of Israel, who I can assure you, is anything but open to supporting the legitimacy of liberal Judaism. Consequently, the disregard of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations to resolve issues before the bill was to be introduced is being considered an open attack on the legitimacy of liberal Judaism.

But it is not just Reform Jews who should be worried … .

In the editorial section of the New York Times yesterday, Editor-in-Chief of Tablet Magazine, an online magazine devoted to cutting edge topics regarding Judaism, wrote the following: 

It is hard to exaggerate the possible ramifications, first and foremost for Jewish Israelis. Rivkah Lubitch, an Orthodox woman who is a lawyer in Israel’s rabbinic court system, painted a harrowing picture of the future in a recent column on the Israeli Web site Ynet.

“Even if you didn’t go to register for marriage, and even if you didn’t go to a rabbinic court for any reason, and even if you didn’t pass by a rabbinic court when you walked down the street — the rabbinic court can summon you, conduct a hearing about your Jewishness and revoke it,” she wrote. “In effect, the entire nation of Israel is presumed to be Not-Jewish — until proven otherwise.”
. . .
And lest one imagine that this is just another battle between the more progressive Reform and Conservative denominations and the more observant Orthodox, it must be noted that the criteria used by the rabbinate are driven by internal Haredi politics, not observance. According to the Jewish Week, at one point the number of American rabbis who were officially authorized by the Israeli rabbinate to perform conversions was down to a few dozen. Even if you are Orthodox — and especially if you are Modern Orthodox — your rabbi probably doesn’t make the cut. (Don’t believe it? Go ask him.)

Given that the conversion bill is the latest in a series of similarly motivated efforts, it seems almost useless to note that the stringent approach to Jewish law that the Israeli rabbinate promotes bears little connection to the historical experience and religious practice of the majority of Jewish people over the past two millenniums. It will do little good, too, to point out that it is well outside the consensus established by Hillel — arguably the greatest rabbi in all of rabbinic Judaism and whom, as Joseph Telushkin argues in a forthcoming book, was willing to convert a pagan on the spot, simply because he’d asked.

Unfortunately, though, this week, there was a second event in Israel that should be worrisome for progressive Jews.

At a service recognizing the new month of Av, a group of women came together as they usually do to pray at the Western Wall. Known formally as “Nashot HaKotel,” or Women of the Wall, the group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, was arrested as she carried a Torah near the Western Wall.

By now, you probably know that the issue of whether women can read from the Torah at the Western Wall (just like men do) has gone all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. The result was a ruling that women must pray at a separate location at Robinson’s Arch, away from the Western Wall so as not to offend the ultra-orthodox praying there.

But on Rosh Chodesh Av, Anat was not reading from the Torah, nor was she even close to the Western Wall, and in fact was not violating the Israeli Supreme Court’s order when she was arrested for carrying a Torah and praying with this group of women.

Candidly, I watched the video of the incident and I cried. I saw three classmates and a rabbi I worked closely with in Los Angeles standing so close to Anat as the police officers shouted at them to pray the Rosh Chodesh service quietly.

What I kept thinking was, “you women, pray quietly.” Can you imagine if that happened here in the US? Gentlemen, how long do you think you would be allowed to sit before the women in your life helped you stand up and fight for their rights?

One of my classmates, Leah Berkowitz, a rabbi in North Carolina, witnessed Anat Hoffman's arrest and wrote the following in her blog about the incident:

I’ve previously only prayed with WOW on Purim, when their actions are considered less objectionable (after all, on Purim, Israelis let their children smoke and their men wear dresses). This was my first opportunity to see firsthand how the women’s prayer group–which adheres strictly to halacha (Jewish law)–prays, reads Torah, and celebrates Rosh Chodesh in the face of harassment and, sometimes, violence.

One challenge I sometimes have to traditional prayer is that much of it is done silently or in a low unintelligible mumble. Given the opinion of the haredim that “a woman’s voice is lewdness,” I was concerned that this would be a quiet, rushed prayer service rather than a joyous celebration of life and G-d’s goodness, like it should be.

But even with the constant reminders of a police officer to keep our singing volume to a minimum–I naively thought that he was there to protect us from being harassed by the haredim–much of the service was sung proudly and sweetly, by women wearing tallit and kippot.
. . .
The sweet sound of women singing was almost overshadowed by the cacaphony from the other side of the metal mechitza. Some of it, I later realized, was actually the mournful tunes used for prayer at the beginning of the month of Av, in which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, though I imagine the sheer volume of it was not unrelated to our presence.

One voice rose louder than the others, though, belonging to a white-bearded man standing on a chair on the men’s side. His head and upper body was wrapped in a tallit, tefillin protruded from his forehead, both physical reminders to love G-d in every moment and every action. Between his responses to the male leader’s prayers, he screamed at us in Hebrew. I only caught snippets of what he said.

At one point, another man shouted at us in English (I was not sure whether he was translating for the bearded man or shouting his own obscenities). There were some shouts from haredi women, mostly related to our wearing tallitot, but not many. The police officer circled the crowd and reminded the women that tallitot had to be worn around our necks like scarves.

There were comparisons drawn between our joyful singing, the destruction of the Temple, and the crimes of the Nazis. There was a claim made that our prayers were particularly offensive since Av was a solemn time (even though they were praying the same prayers on the other side). And, most ironically, the one phrase I caught from the bearded man was sinat hinam, which is what the rabbis blame for the destruction of the Second Temple. Translation? “Senseless hatred.” Says the man screaming at a group of women peacefully praying.
. . .
Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, took out the Torah and led a procession to the approved site for our Torah reading. Although it has been months since she has attempted to take out the scroll while still in the Women’s Section, she ordered us to march slowly, singing loudly, to our designated space at Robinson’s Arch.

We never got there.

Once we were through the security gates and OUTSIDE of the Kotel Plaza, Anat was arrested and the Torah scroll taken away. Nofrat Frankel, who was arrested in November for the same crime (“performing a religious act that offends the feelings of others”) was knocked down in the struggle.

We followed Anat to the police station. Several members of the group wrapped tefillin as we prepared to finish the Torah service, without a Torah. Others stood by in the modest dress and head coverings of the Orthodox, reminding us that this is not an issue of Orthodox versus Reform, but a multi-denominational struggle for a woman’s right to pray and read Torah in public.

The mission statement of Women of the Wall includes the following: "The Western Wall belongs not to one individual, group, or denomination, but to all Jews … but in practice right now, this is not the case."
Religious freedom in Israel is suffering. The only democracy in the Middle East is about to cede religious power to the ultra-orthodox. They already have exclusive control regarding marriage and divorces for Jewish Israelis and now this bill in the Knesset is about to give them power to decide “who is a Jew” … which frightens truly me.

About ten years ago, I was sitting in a room with about 20 other young Jewish adults at a program sponsored by a modern orthodox synagogue. During the discussion, the rabbi told me that I wasn’t Jewish because I was adopted … even though my birth mother was Jewish, my adopted mother was Jewish, and my adopted father was Jewish, even though I was placed through a Jewish adoption agency, even though I attended Friday night and Saturday morning services every single week, he didn't consider me Jewish because I did not undergo a conversion ceremony (by an orthodox rabbi) as a baby.

Think about it, though, could I be any more Jewish?

Well, more than likely, if this bill passes, one of your rabbis wouldn’t be considered Jewish according to the state of Israel.

Tisha b’Av falls this coming Monday night this year … it commemorates, among other things, the destruction of the Temple. The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred amongst Jews. Now, amidst such religious intolerance and fanaticism, I wonder if we are doing any better?

The rest of the world doesn’t care if we are ultra-orthodox, modern orthodox, conservative, reform, or secular … we are all just Jews, but, as I said before, sometimes we Jews are our own worst enemy.

The Torah teaches: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” Right now, progressive Judaism in Israel is bleeding. Please do not stand idly by.

To get involved in either of these issues, I have printed off a list of websites so you can do your own investigation and decide whether to get involved. Sheets with this information have been placed in Smith Auditorium for you to pick up during the Oneg Shabbat following services.

Shabbat shalom.

Resource List / Links for Further Investigation:
The Religious Action Center’s Page with an E-mail to Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Regarding the Conversion Bill …

Israel Religious Action Center’s Petition Regarding the Conversion Bill …

Official Website of “Nashot HaKotel / Women of the Wall” …

Video Showing Anat Hoffman’s Arrest …!

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz’s Blog … With an Eyewitness Account of Anat Hoffman’s Arrest …

Letter from Rabbi Eric Yoffie and Peter Weidhorn, Union for Reform Judaism
Dear Friend,

Emergency is not too strong a word. This week, despite commitments to the contrary, the Israeli Knesset is considering legislation that would fundamentally change the Law of Conversion and further concentrate power with the Chief Rabbinate. The bill would give the Chief Rabbinate exclusive oversight of all conversion matters, putting non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad at risk, and greatly limiting the options available to Israelis and olim (immigrants to Israel) wishing to convert or in need of 'official' recognition. Sadly, this happened within hours of the arrest of Anat Hoffman (Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and Founder of Women of the Wall) for praying at the Western Wall with a Torah scroll, yet another reminder that non-Orthodox Jews don't enjoy the same religious freedom in Israel that we do in North America.

It is critical that Prime Minister Netanyahu hear a loud and clear message from Diaspora Jewry that further alienation of non-Orthodox Jews goes against our deeply held beliefs in Klal Yisrael and creates a dangerous rift between Israel and world Jewry at a time when the relationship between North America and Israel is so vital. We urge you to contact the Prime Minister as soon as possible and share your concern over the future of religious freedom in Israel, the character of the Jewish State, and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

The Union for Reform Judaism, along with our Reform counterparts in Israel and affiliates around the world, will be closely monitoring the legislation over the next few days. We are prepared to take any action at our disposal necessary to prevent passage of this bill. We've dispatched senior members of the Union's staff to join with Rabbi Daniel Allen, ARZA Executive Director, in Israel to personally meet with members of the Knesset and convey to them the significance of this matter. At the same time, our Israeli and international Reform communities are mobilizing as well to convey their concern.

Your email and support are essential to our success. For more information on this issue you can visit We hope you will join us in this cause.


Rabbi Eric Yoffie                     Peter Weidhorn
President                                  Chairman of the Board