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Friday, 9 April 2021

Shemini Sermon 2021 - Judaism as a Religion

How do we define the word “religion?” The ancient Israelites couldn’t define religion – there was no such thing to them and hence in the Bible there is no word for religion. That doesn’t mean the ancient Israelites weren’t religious – of course they were – but they did not understand religion as a separate concept. For them, Judaism was a way of life, something which is often nowadays called a “cultural system.”  But a cultural system could be entirely secular, so we need to include some sense of the Divine in order to define religion.


According to one modern definition, a religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.


Let’s unpack that. A religion starts with a set of beliefs regarding the cause, nature and purpose of the universe. Most religions have a creation narrative and many have visions of the end of the universe as well, Judaism being no exception to this. Interestingly, though, while the Torah’s creation narrative is perhaps the most famous of all, it has no eschatology – no reference to final days. The rest of the Bible does, in the prophets and the writings, but not Torah.  So, even though Reform Jews often focus more on Torah than on the rest of the Bible or on subsequent Rabbinic commentary, our religion has traditionally had a set of beliefs regarding the nature and purpose of the universe, and that becomes rather difficult for us because Reform Jews don’t believe the original beliefs. An ultra-Orthodox Jew can rest comfortably in the belief that the world was created less than 6000 years ago by a deity who created the whole world in six days, but there are very few Reform Jews who believe the same. We take the findings of science, we see that the Earth is millions of years old and that the universe is billions of years old, and we take the biblical narrative figuratively, not historically. What this means is that as Reform Jews we actually struggle to understand the nature and purpose of the universe because we have no textual guide as a literalist does mean that we have to come to understand the nature and purpose of the universe in differing ways. I say literalist because we can never know the true intention of the Biblical text – whether it is intended to be understood more literally or metaphorically. When God speaks the universe into being, for example, is there any way to understand that other than metaphorically? If the Bible is metaphor, though, then the original beliefs regarding the nature and purpose of the universe are also metaphors, which means that they are wildly open to interpretation. That, indeed, is surely one of the strengths of Judaism – it’s constant and expansive interpretive method. The challenge for a traditional with expansive interpretation, though, is that it’s difficult to demarcate boundaries of what is and what isn’t authentically Jewish. The risk of falling outside acceptable boundaries is exactly seen in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini, in which Nadav and Avihu offer strange fire to God and are immediately killed. Traditional interpretation says that they erred because they were drunk, which is why immediately following their deaths, Torah warns the priests not to drink while on duty. But that’s just an interpretation of the text. What if they merely understood the fire differently and brought something that was merely outside the norm? Despite Torah telling us later (e.g. Deut. 28:14) not to turn to the right or the left, the essence of interpretation is looking in differing directions and exploring their consequences. So, if anything, while we might say that Judaism says that God is the cause of the universe, the nature and purpose of the universe is open to interpretation even in Jewish tradition, even if it’s guided by at least a formative text, which is the Bible.


But what do we mean when we talk about God? Are we talking about a supernatural agent, as the original definition suggested? Looking further at the Biblical text, reference to God as a supernatural agent make sense but, once again, that’s not necessarily how many Jews have always seen God. A supernatural agency is that which exists totally outside nature but which can interact within nature in order to transform elements within nature. Kabbalists went beyond the literal reading of the text, though, to try to uncover the mystical pathways to connect with that which is, essentially, only crudely described in the Bible using words to guide us towards the indescribable. Many Jews today also see God as more of a transnatural agency – a Deity both outside nature and within nature, perhaps expressed through nature but not only of nature. So, once again, many Jews today find themselves with no strict textual guidance on matters of theology.


According to our definition, a religion also has a set of devotional or ritual observances, but that also leads to interesting questions for Reform Jews. Even up to only a few hundred years ago, it was standard devotional practice for only men and not women to wear certain prayer garments or to lead communal prayer. There were exceptions to those norms, of course, like Hannah Rochl, the Maiden of Ludmir, but the exceptions often proved the rule. Today, however, these restrictions no longer apply, in differing ways depending on Reform, Conservative and even some Orthodox communities. There is no uniformity in Jewish ritual practice… indeed, there definitely never has been. Even in Torah, we see variant practice, just like with Nadav and Avihu. There may have been serious consequences for expressing variant practice, of course, but to speak of one set of devotional or ritual observances is challenging. It’s easier in the orthodox community because a person is defined as an Orthodox Jew if they follow the rulings of the code of law known as the Shulchan Aruch. However, Orthodoxy is not the normative or default position of Jewish ritual observance. So, then, what does it mean for Judaism to have a set of devotional or ritual observances? A set is a collection of things that are not necessarily the same. Therefore, we could say that we have a set of rituals around prayer or a set of rituals around festival observance, or a set of rituals around food such as the laws of kashrut which are expounded upon in our Torah portion. While one Jew may take from each of those sets according to one interpretation, another Jew may take differing observances from those sets according to their interpretation. There are limits on those sets, though, and the limit usually involves symbols or rituals from other faith traditions. That, indeed, may be where Nadav and Avihu come undone – in offering fire that is “strange” in the sense of “more akin to the fire of other communities around them.”


The final part of our definition of a religion is that there is a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Interestingly, this is where I think Reform Judaism has a strength in that we are often just as interested in our ethical conduct in this world as we are our ritual observances. Judaism is not a monotheistic religion, despite what many people say. Judaism is Ethical Monotheism, which means that belief in God – however one understands God – must be accompanied not only by appropriate ritual conduct, as I just mentioned, but also by appropriate ethical conduct.


I appreciate that this was only one of countless definitions of religion, but I find this a particularly interesting one to consider during this week’s reading of the Torah portion of Shemini because of the behavior of Nadav and Avihu which challenged what was at that time considered to be “normative” Jewish “religious” practice. Reviewing this definition, especially in light of this Torah portion, reminds us that Judaism is, and has always been, far more flexible in interpretation of what constitutes normative religious thought and behavior than we might think.  Some Jews today might baulk at the idea and insist that there is normative behavior with only specific small variance, but even the presence of widely differing Ashkenazi and Sephardi custom shows that to be untrue. How we eat, what we believe, how we act, how we mourn, how we celebrate…. these are all diverse, wondrous sets of practices from which differing Jews can find comfort at differing times of their lives. With that in mind, then, perhaps we shouldn’t busy ourselves worrying necessarily about defining “What is Judaism?” but rather saying “What is my Judaism?” or, perhaps even better considering the essence of Judaism is in community, “What is our Judaism?”


I believe that our Judaism is a shared and multifaceted response to the varying expressions of Judaism of the past and of the present. More than that, I believe our Judaism speaks in many voices - sometimes answers, sometimes questions. As we read the Torah portion of Shemini this week, then, and as we explore what it means for us to journey through the Omer from slavery in Egypt to full expression of Jewish self at Sinai, let us explore that core question, “What is our Judaism?” for in that exploration, I believe we draw many steps further along that path to religious freedom. May our steps on that journey be guided with strength, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 5 March 2021

When the Rabbi's Away...! The consequences of harsh leadership in Ki Tissa (March 2021)

 Why is it that the Israelites turn so quickly to idolatry after having experienced God’s Presence at Sinai? This is the people who witnessed wonders and miracles in Egypt, as they fled from Egypt, and then at Sinai, where they experienced literally the greatest thing ever – God’s revelation to them – a revelation that clearly contains a prohibition against building graven images. How, then, is it that because Moses returns up the mountain and is away from the people for too long, the people ignore everything that they’ve heard – the Word of God through Moses – and start building an altar? They say that they build it because they do not know what has happened to Moses but that doesn’t seem to make sense. When a religious figure teaches something, their immediate absence doesn’t render what they say to be irrelevant – at least, as a Rabbi I feel like that has been a safe assumption in my work!

The most common explanation for their behavior is that, out of fear, they reverted to what they knew. The people had been in Egypt for hundreds of years and so they were exposed to Egyptian idolatry constantly. This explanation suggests that as soon as they feared that the new Israelite ways of worship were going to fail through Moses’ absence, they reverted back to idolatry. Indeed, in this opinion the mixed multitude who left Egypt with the people were clearly the basis for this return to idolatry. But this seems problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the Israelites had seen the Egyptian theological structures destroyed. The Ten Plagues were not just an attack on Egypt, they were an attack on Egypt’s gods like the Nile and the Sun. The Egyptians who remained did not just live in a land whose infrastructure had been destroyed, but also in a land whose deities had been totally humiliated. There should have been absolutely no appeal, then, to return to the theological practices of the Egyptians because they were shown to the Israelites to be worthless. The second reason this explanation is problematic is that when a religious leader doesn’t appear for a service, the laity who lead the service in their place don’t break into spontaneous idolatry! It’s not as though every time I take a vacation the rest of the congregation wheel out a sacred golden calf to worship! Or, I should say, if they do, they’ve done a very good job of hiding it! Instead, the people who attend services do what they can – the service goes on. Reflecting that back into our text, there seems to be no reason for the Israelites to suddenly create a golden calf in Moses’ absence.

So what leads them to do it? Another common explanation, similar to the first, focuses on fear. The Israelites panic without Moses to guide them. But just as before, panic doesn’t necessarily mean idolatry. The Israelites panicked at the Sea of Reeds, but they didn’t start worshipping idols – instead they turned to Moses who guides them. Here, with Moses absent, they could have just turned to Aaron instead.

But perhaps their reaction at the Sea and their reaction to Aaron here can help us. Earlier in the Book of Exodus, when the Israelites are trapped at the Sea of Reeds, the community’s reaction to Moses is anger. “Why did you bring us here to die?” they ask (Ex. 14:11-12). In other words, they actually have no faith in their leader. Similarly, here, the people don’t politely ask Aaron to build them an idol. The Hebrew tells us vayyikkahel ha’am al aharon – the people assembled against Aaron. This is why midrash has a number of stories explaining why Aaron gives in to their requests – he doesn’t agree with what they’re doing but he realises, according to midrash, that with Moses gone, the people will kill him if he doesn’t do what they say. Whereas Moses throughout Torah stands up to the people when they rebel, Aaron does not.

There is a profound difference between the leadership models of Moses and Aaron. Aaron gives the people what they want, Moses does not. Moses is combative and aloof in order to shepherd the people away from danger and to keep them in relationship with God. When Korach challenges Moses later in Torah, Moses doesn’t cave – he challenges. Aaron, on the other hand, when finally on his own, does not stand his ground. In differing moments when the Israelites risked returning to idolatry, Aaron’s response is to capitulate, while Moses’ response is either to fight or, importantly, to create something new to stop the Israelites from returning to old ways. For example, the people complain about being trapped at the Sea so Moses creates a new path for them, the people complain about lack of water so Moses strikes a rock to bring them water.

Moses’ leadership model is the stronger, but it is also flawed, even without superimposing it into a modern understanding of leadership. If the people are constantly reverting to idolatry and anger at their leader, it speaks not just of them but also of him, although I acknowledge that the relationship between the people and Moses is still relatively new.  Nonetheless, even though by the end of Deuteronomy he has safely delivered the people to the land, he is not allowed to join them there and the people constantly revert to idolatry afterwards so in some sense he succeeds and in another he does not. Most importantly, Moses does not succeed in removing the temptation of idolatry from the people – indeed, it is only through acts of violence that Moses temporarily halts its spread among the people. I do appreciate that I may be setting Moses up to fail here because maybe the entire message of the Biblical narrative is that even a leader as great as Moses couldn’t remove idolatry from the people, so how could anyone else?

Nonetheless, there’s a reason that the people rebel in this week’s Torah portion and beyond, which is the model of leadership that Moses has embarked upon. His father-in-law Jethro has already warned him of the danger of centralization of leadership into one figure and yet that model of centralization continues, which is why Korach is able to inspire rebellion later with the words “the entire congregation are all holy and the Eternal One is in their midst, so why do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s assembly?” (Num. 16:3) Moses is too distant a leader to affect change in the people. He relies too heavily on the divine authority given to him, and he rallies the people with an almost identical hierarchical system. When he talks to them, it is with frustration at their failings, not with praise for their successes. He views them either as rebels (Num. 20:10) or as potential rebels, not with the gentleness that newly liberated slaves need. He demands too much, and as a result, they fail in his eyes, and he lets them know.

The episode of the golden calf is, in fact, terrifying. Three thousand people are put to the sword for their transgression. This is a slaughter the likes of which the people have never before witnessed by their own kind. There is nothing subtle about Moses’ message – obey or die. It almost makes me wonder if it was a set-up, if he expected some of the people to revert to idolatry during his extended absence and he hoped they might expose themselves in his absence so he could deal with them when he returned. In that reading, his response to Joshua saying that it is not the sound of battle he hears in the camp but the sound of blasphemy (Ex. 32:18) is not because he recognizes it, but because he expected it. Even if that’s not the case, Moses fails the people at Sinai. He has led from the top, the people are only just starting to form their sense of identity, and then he – the intermediary between the people and God – disappears. What else were they to do other than try to reach God through the means they knew? And when they do sin, he checks in with Aaron to ask why he allowed such a thing to happen, but he never checks in with the people to find out why they did it. Instead, he immediately assumes that they’re rebellious and punishes them accordingly. He serves as judge, jury and executioner, when he could have instead taken on the role of teacher or loving parent. Moses listens to the people only when he has to decide matters of law, and that is a cold, distant way to relate to people. There is no-one who gently guides the people, so they never really change their behavior.

So, what might we learn from this Torah portion of Ki Tissa? I learn that it doesn’t help the people for today’s religious leaders to be like Moses – aloof, filled with scorn and rebuke, assuming the worst of their community, ignoring their pre-existing behavior patterns and insisting on new ones brought down from on high. This week’s Torah portion reminds me that establishing communal praxis without communal buy-in is doomed to failure, even if it’s God Almighty who is setting that praxis. Moreover, this week’s Torah portion shows us the danger of confusing leadership with control, and how control becomes a self-perpetuating system that leads to rebellion as soon as control disappears. It shows us the problems that are caused by religious leaders being distant. It shows us that Moses, and indeed all religious leaders, work best when they are able to offer viable alternatives to whatever currently ails the community and it shows us that while sometimes we have to stand firm in the face of the mob, religious leaders have to do everything in their power to stop the mob from forming in the first place.

With all that in mind, may God guide our community as we continue to work together to create and implement a communal vision. May leaders and laity continue to support and strengthen each other, may we be forgiving of our mistakes, and may we continue to be creative whenever difficult times arrive. May such be God’s will, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 19 February 2021

God has Given... But is God Taking Away? A sermon on the HB-47 bill

In January of 2017, some people came to speak to me about a bill that they were hoping to bring to the legislature in the future. The bill would follow a similar law in Oregon that would help people suffering from a terminal illness to die on their own terms. It was not an assisted dying bill, it was a bill that said that the terminally ill individual could go to their primary care physician to talk of their desire to die, they would refer the individual to mental health support services if they wished, but ultimately if not then that physician would be able to write a prescription for a medical cocktail that the individual had to pick up from the pharmacy themselves, then could take home, consume, and it would painlessly lead to their death. The key thing of the bill was that the cause of death on the death certificate would not be suicide but the terminal illness that the person was suffering from. I was very sympathetic but to me there was a core problem with the bill – that I thought it was dishonest because the cause of death was, as far as I was concerned at the time, suicide. I wanted to help but emotionally could not do so.

Two years ago, my thinking on this started to shift. I gave a sermon in which I shared a narrative from Talmud (Ketubot 104a) in which Rabbi Judah HaNasi is dying and the other Rabbis and his students decree a fast and pray to keep him alive. His maidservant went up to the roof and prays that the lower realms might win out over the upper realms, in other words, that he be kept alive and not taken to heaven. However, when she sees how often he has to go to the bathroom, and how uncomfortable he is taking off and putting on his tefillin, and how much discomfort he is in, she changes her mind. However, the sages are still praying for him to remain alive, so she takes a jug and throws it to the ground. The sages are shocked by the sound, stop praying for a moment, and as a result Judah HaNasi dies. Did she kill him? No, she clearly didn’t. She just saw that keeping someone alive just so that they might suffer is not a just cause, so she intervenes and he then dies as a result of what was killing him in the first place. It’s not an identical situation to this bill but it is very similar and it does highlight a particular ethic, which is codified in the 16th century text the Shulchan Arukh that says that “it is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature…

But, for the most perverse reason, many people are extending their suffering instead of ending it, and that reason is life insurance policies, which are usually invalidated if someone takes their own life. The fact that people endure continued extreme suffering in order to financially protect their surviving loved ones is clearly immoral. So, putting the cause of death as the terminal illness means that such a thing no longer happens. And, indeed, had it not been for the pre-existing terminal illness, the person involved would not even be taking this concoction, so actually one can say that the terminal illness was the overlying cause, just as the maidservant didn’t cause Rabbi Judah haNasi’s death even if she hastened it.

It is fascinating that once this law was enacted in Oregon, the number of people who died from suicide decreased dramatically because people were more openly talking about their issues with a primary care physician who was then able to refer them to professional support if they needed. Indeed, a third of the people who started the process with their physician never even completed the process but did end up with professional support or, importantly, the essential human ability to make a choice as their decreasing mobility robbed them of basic choices.

My sermon two years ago also included reference to the death of Saul in 1 Samuel 31. Saul is seriously wounded and he turns to his armor bearer and asks to be run through so that the Philistines do not torture him. The armor bearer is afraid to do so, so Saul takes his own life instead (I Sam. 31:2-4). Many commentators say that Saul behaved improperly, as with much else in his life, but one minority opinion from the 14th century Besamim Rosh says that if a person is dying and in intolerable pain, it is permitted for them to take their own life. Minority opinion though it may be, it is still an opinion in our tradition that rather accords with the narrative of the maidservant in Tractate Ketubot.

Four years after I was first consulted, the bill is now being voted on in the Legislature and, after much reflection and difficult soul searching, I have now openly spoken in support of the bill. In my 16-year Rabbinic career, I have had too many people who are slowly and painfully dying ask me if there is anything I could do to end it all. I have always told them the same – that there is nothing I can do. Now, by supporting this bill, I feel that I can. I can give them a real choice, through supporting this bill I can help them get support or a little dignity as their decaying body tries to rob them of it. And to be clear, this is not encouraging terminally ill people to end their lives, it’s just allowing them to do it painlessly and with dignity.

At a funeral service, I always recite the line Adonai natan vAdonai lakach y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach – God has given, God has taken away, may God’s Name be blessed. Could I recite that line if someone with a terminal illness got a prescription that deliberately ended their life early? Yes, I absolutely could… because God “took away” the moment they got a terminal illness.

There are many voices in Judaism….perhaps too many voices… that say that suffering is a gift from God, that it helps us atone, elevates us, and is even a demonstration of God’s love (e.g. Genesis Rabbah 9:8, Zohar, Gen., 180b, etc.). I understand why a people who have suffered for thousands of years would say that because it provides a positive view of something profoundly negative. But that is a theological position that can help people move through suffering. At the same time, though, just like the maidservant, I would never seek to extend someone else’s suffering because I thought it was good for them. As Lion Feuchtwanger wrote in the Paris Gazette in 1940, “it is only the strong who are strengthened by suffering; the weak are made weaker.” When someone has already been weakened by a terminal illness, when they have suffered beyond the point that they can handle it any more, more suffering is not a gift from God or, if it is, it’s not a gift that most people appreciate! Indeed, to say to someone else that their suffering should extend because of a particular theological belief of mine would not only be religious hubris in the extreme, but also disturbingly callous. If a person is suffering toward the end of their life and if they believe that suffering is a gift from God, then it is absolutely their right to ignore this bill and suffer until the very end. That is different to a person saying that they believe that suffering is a gift from God so others should suffer, too. Imposing one’s own religious beliefs to prolong another person’s suffering is unequivocally immoral. You can say, “But our tradition says….” and even if I agreed with you (which I likely wouldn’t because our tradition rarely speaks with only one voice on any issue), you still don’t have the right to extend another person’s suffering as a result of your theological belief, only your own. If you believe Judaism is against it, don’t do it yourself. It’s really that simple. And this is core and I believe deserves repeating again – if your religious view prolongs the agony of another person who does not share the same theology or practice as you, it does not speak well of your religion. As it is, I refuse to listen to anyone who says that suffering is a gift from God and it’s not our place to interfere in it but who takes painkillers if they have a headache. That kind of pious hypocrisy does not interest me. Similarly, I refuse to listen to anyone who says that it’s not for us to intervene in God’s plan for our bodies but who also uses a doctor. That kind of pious hypocrisy does not interest me. I get it – it’s an emotional topic. We instinctively don’t want to make it easier for people to die but the reality is that the people who will be affected by this bill are already actively dying. Their terminal illness cannot be stopped. This doesn’t make people die, this doesn’t convince them to end their own lives because if someone is utterly determined to end their life to avoid suffering, they’re going to do it anyway, it's just that they will likely choose a method that is extremely painful in the short term to avoid suffering long-term. This bill helps reduce human suffering.

The question I ask myself is “Could I, as a Rabbi, sit with someone as they took this medication, just as I already sit with someone who is actively dying?” The answer is yes. If I can be there for someone to help them die with dignity, instead of in pain, if I can make that moment sacred for them, then I will.

But, isn’t it my duty to save everyone’s life? Doesn’t Judaism abhor suicide as a rejection of the gift of life from God? It used to. Orthodox authorities used to even deny mourning rites to people who took their own life because it was said that they had essentially denied God in that act. Reform Judaism has always considered that to be callous and cruel in the extreme. Influenced by this, more and more contemporary Orthodox authorities create a loophole and say that only someone who was not fully in their own mind would ever reject God by ending their own life, so we assume that they were essentially not in their own mind at the time, and we afford them mourning rites accordingly. I would say, if it’s possible for that, so it must be possible for this. Only those who live with intolerable chronic pain, or those who hear the cries for any kind of end by some of those who die from terminal illness can understand that suffering can take a person out of themselves in the cruellest of ways. An exception must be made for terminally ill patients. Even if we don’t count Saul as an exception, we do count Masada as an exception. There, in the year 74 CE, Josephus says that as the Romans finally ended their successful siege, the Jewish rebels there took their own lives instead of suffering at the hands of their besiegers. For nearly 2000 years, that act has stood as heroic resistance. So, if those people defeated by the Romans, knowing that the rest of their lives would be filled with unimaginable suffering, are allowed to be an exception, so too today’s terminally ill patients must be allowed to be an exception if they so choose. In my mind, it must always be better for me to sit with someone, to say Sh’ma, and to have them thank God for the life they’ve led up to that point than to prolong their pain and to doubt or curse God for the extended suffering they now endure and for them to beg me in despair to help end their life. And if I’m wrong, if it is not better, let it be on me, not on them. Terminally ill patients have enough to deal with already without any person saying that they’re doing something wrong. I hold no terminally ill individual liable for anything they do. I believe that everything we do should be to support them and help them maintain their humanity which was, indeed, a gift from God. I believe that if they choose to end their life on their terms instead of on the terms of the terminal illness from which they suffer, that we should support them in that choice and only blame the illness that ultimately led them to that decision. Judaism is an evolving religious civilization, so let it evolve with compassion for the most vulnerable in our society, as it always has. Let it not be the cause of prolonged agony, but the gateway to a life – and death - of dignity in the presence of God. And let us say, Amen.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Can There be Mitzvah Without a Metzaveh? - Mishpatim, February 2021

 The Torah portion of Mishpatim is chock-full of commandments. Moses is still up on Sinai after having heard the aseret hadibrot, the Ten Sayings – more commonly known as the Ten Commandments – and now God continues to let Moses know of more laws to help the community live in the future. Laws of indentured servitude are mentioned, as are laws concerning penalties for various crimes, laws regarding loans, laws regarding courts of law, laws regarding the mistreatment of foreigners, laws regarding festivals and so much more – traditionally, it is said that there are fifty-three commandments in this Torah portion alone!


The word mitzvah means commandment. It comes from the root tzavav, meaning to command. But what does it mean for God to command? Is God really the Metzaveh - the Supernatural anthropomorphized Commander who barks unquestionable orders from on high? That is surely the model presented in Torah, but is it how we view God today? And if not, what does that mean for the concept of mitzvah, of commandment, itself?


Freud believed that the anthropomorphic God – the God who talks and acts like we do is a projection “of man’s own emotional impulses … [so that he] meets his internal mental processes again outside himself…”[1] Rabbinic literature says that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God are just Torah speaking in human language so that it could be comprehended. Whether that supernatural God is an external projection of the self, or a linguistic approximation… either way the concept of God as Commander immediately opens itself up for scrutiny when we don’t text the Biblical text absolutely literally. And if God is not compelling us, why would we keep any mitzvah, any commandment? Do we only feel compelled because of a supernatural Commander, or can there be another thing driving us?  


For some Jews, the compulsion to perform mitzvot comes from, to use Leslie Fiedler’s term, the desire to not be “the terminal Jew, the last of a 4,000 year line.” In other words, they perform mitzvot out of guilt. Ironically, it is exactly that kind of reason which might lead them to be the terminal Jew in their family, for doing things out of guilt is not something any of us wish to pass down to our children. Similarly, ironically, resorting to the old trope of “tradition!” no longer holds much appeal in current younger generations who have been exposed to a wider variety of traditions than ever before, and so find themselves at the luxury of being able to choose which traditions to continue. That appeal to tradition worked when the Jewish community was responsible for enforcing its own laws, but the price of assimilation into the larger secular society, which of course brought with it great learning and opportunities, was that the Rabbi and the community were no longer able to enforce commandments. For the first time, there was no way to punish someone who did not follow a commandment. What, then, is the point of a commandment if there are no consequences for following it or not?


For many Jews today, God is within us or within the world. If that’s the case, then, does mitzvah no longer exist? Can we be commanded if the commander is within us or within the world? Perhaps one answer to this can be found in Talmud, where we learn (Eruvin 13b) that “for three years Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai debated each other. These said that the halakhah follows their view, and these said that the halakhah follows their view. A heavenly voice went forth and declared, “These and these are the words of the living God”. But the halakhah follows Bet Hillel.” Two schools of thought believed that the law followed their interpretation. Although in the end a Divine Voice decrees in favor of one and not the other, we cannot rely on heavenly voices – indeed, another famous text (Bava Metzia 59a-b) known as the Oven of Akhnai specifically puts the authority for halakhic decisions on earth by saying lo bashamayim hi – it is not in heaven! It is up to us to study together and to determine what we are commanded to do. The law is in our hands, not in the hands of a Supreme Commander on High.


Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan translated mitzvot as “folkways designed to ensure the enhancement of the value of Jewish life.” While I admire his interpretive effort, I don’t think that is sufficient – indeed, it potential elevates human feelings of enhancement over any sense of compulsion or duty. It is also extremely subjective because what one person thinks enhances their Jewish life another might not, at which point mitzvah becomes a meaningless term.


Talmud also teaches us (Shabbat 88a) that at Sinai the Israelites “stood at the foot [lit. in the bottom] of the mountain… and that ‘This teaches that the Holy One, blessed is He, covered them with the mountain as an upturned vat. He said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine. But if not, your burial will be there!’’ When the Israelites reply to Moses na’aseh v’nishma – we will do and we will hear, as they say in this week’s Torah portion, that suddenly sounds like desperation – “Okay, we’ll do it, now put down the mountain and we will hear what you want us to do!” The reality is, though, that very few Jews today feel like there’s a mountain held over their head. There is no compulsion from on high. But there is a drive from within.  


If it’s not guilt, not tradition, not compulsion from a supernatural deity above… what is that drive from within? Rabbi Elli Tikvah-Sarah, my teacher, translates mitzvah as compelling commitment. That may be a commitment to becoming a better self, to creating a better world, to maintaining or invigorating an ancient practice. The commander is not personal, but something deep within, perhaps tribal, perhaps personal, perhaps communal. It is elusive. Maybe we feel compelled to perform a mitzvah because it enriches our life – maybe it brings beauty, calmness, a memory of family long gone. Maybe, then, the Metzaveh – the Commander – isn’t a supernatural general in the sky, it’s not in the great supernatural displays. Maybe, instead, it’s the still, small voice within us, the voice that gently whispers to us with a soft, murmuring sound that stirs our soul. That’s not a voice that terrifies us into observance, it’s one that lovingly invites us. After all, Talmud also teaches (Sotah 31a) that the greater person is the one who acts out of love, not fear. And if that’s the case, if love is the metzaveh, the guide that brings us to observing mitzvot, then I believe that our task must be to instil love of Judaism in this generation and in future generations. Together, we can lovingly pore over the texts of our tradition and try to give shape to the compelling commitment in our generation. And it is not any commitment, it is not a social commitment, or a personal one, but a religious one. A shared religious commitment. Every day we stand together again at Sinai, trying to understand how to make real our religious sense of being. By bringing together study, logic, tradition, emotion, love and new readings of our tradition to be held with traditional readings, we can give shape to the voice that calls to us from on top of the mountain. It calls us to ascend, not to meet God who waits on high for us… it calls us to truly find ourselves. May we ascend in community, in love, and compelled to act together as one Jewish community. And let us say, Amen.


[1] Freud (1964), p.150

Friday, 5 February 2021

Yitro 2021 – Being Leaders

In this week’s Torah portion of Yitro, we read the following account:

It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening. When Moses' father-in-law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?" Moses said to his father-in-law, "For the people come to me to seek God. If any of them has a case, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God and God’s teachings." Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Ex. 18: 13-18)

Jethro tells Moses that he will remain the intermediary between the people and God and that he will admonish the people regarding the statutes and teachings and will “make known to them the way they shall go and the deeds they shall do.” But at the same time, Moses has to delegate much of the civic responsibility to members of the community, essentially setting up Moses as the Supreme Court and some of the delegated leaders as the local courts.

It’s a start, but I cannot see that model of leadership being anywhere near sufficient in today’s Reform movement. For starters, it puts all the God-stuff, all the spirituality, specifically in the lap of the Rabbi and all the admin in the lap of the Board and committees. That kind of model mistakenly implies that the work of committees is not sacred work, that it is done with the end goal of keeping the roof on, when, in fact, that is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is the encounter with the Divine, individually and communally, which in Torah happens immediately after Jethro’s management consultancy exercise. But the Torah community is profoundly hierarchical. Not only is that a product of its time but it also expresses the reality of the people’s connection to the tradition and to God at the time – indeed, midrash makes it clear that the people were so assimilated that they were almost not redeemed at all. As such, Moses’ task is to educate the people in law and in spirituality, to prepare them for a life lived in God’s presence and to hold them through that experience. In the meantime, the people take care of the things that they themselves are capable of attending to.

In Torah, the account of revelation that follows is a grand account, a top-down narrative of God above descending to the people below, who are too feeble to receive the revelation so they beg Moses to intercede on their behalf. It is an account of a spiritually inept community relying on their leader for God stuff. That is not me, and that is not us. Midrash changes that revelation account. There, (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:13) Rabbi Yochanan says that at Sinai an angel carries each utterance from God to each of the Israelites in turn. The angel says to each Israelite, “Do you take upon yourself this commandment? So-and-so many rules are attached to it, so-and-so many penalties are attached to it, so-and-so many precautionary measures are attached to it, so many precepts and so many lenient and strict applications are attached to it; such-and-such a reward is attached to it.” The Israelite would answer, “Yes.” The angel would then say, “Do you accept the divinity of the Holy Blessed One?” and the Israelite would answer, “Yes, yes.” Thereupon the angel would kiss the Israelite on the mouth and the commandment would be learnt. The other Rabbis disagree with Rabbi Yochanan and say that it wasn’t an angel but the commandment itself that would fly to each Israelite and ask the same questions before kissing them on the mouth. The point is the same whether it was an angel or a commandment – this is no longer the hierarchical model of revelation but the personal, intimate one. It is not forced upon each person, but requested, invited. Of course, not all midrash is as gentle – one (Shabbat 88a) talks of God holding Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites and giving them a choice – either accept Torah or die there. Nonetheless, this specific midrash that we’re focusing on presents a very different style of community, one that I believe is far more appropriate to our community today.

In approaching each person individually, this midrash shows us that connection to Judaism is individual in the context of the larger Jewish community. We aren’t monolithic in the way we think and the way we behave. As such, everything we do within community has to be in the context of relationship – coming to understand each other, our vision, our motivation, before we can move forward. That takes education, openness, love, dialogue, and patience. 

Where this midrash falls down in the context of a Reform community is in the assumption that every Israelite says yes to every command. Were that to happen today, and an angel flew to every one of us and asked, for example, of the command to stone our rebellious child (Deut. 21:18-21), most of us would not answer “yes.” When the angel asks if we accept the Divinity of God, I think that instead of saying “Yes, yes” as in the midrash, most of our community members would answer with a question, “Well, what do you mean by God, exactly?” Not content with acceptance of top-down hierarchical authority from a supernatural being, many… perhaps most… of our members might start talking about how they relate to God, experience God, question God, wrestle with God, doubt God. The essence of Reform Judaism isn’t cherry-picking as it is often accused of being, but it is about informed choice, about balancing tradition and modernity. It’s not about obedience, about righteous people and sinners. If we are all made in the image of God, as Genesis clearly states (Gen. 1:26), then the answer “no” to an outdated ancient tradition could also be a godly response.

Jewish community today is therefore very different to the community as presented in Torah and somewhat different to how it is presented in midrash. Our community is one where we appreciate our differing spiritual journeys, educational journeys… indeed, personal life journeys. Instead of waiting for revelation on high, here at Temple Beth Shalom we seek it together in the context of community. We don’t force individuals to believe particular things or to behave in particular ways, but instead we come together in our varied and individualized expressions of Judaism from those who meet God on Sinai to those who meet God in the still, small voice (I Kings 19:11-13) to those who do not meet God at all.

And with all this in mind, we turn our attention not just to everyone in our community but specifically this week to our board members and to our new members. To our outgoing board members, we thank you for your dedication to creating a sacred space, a space of tolerance, of learning, of welcoming, of community. To you we share this prayer:

You have sustained and nourished us with the sacred wisdom and traditions of our people, helping us to teach Torah to each other, so may God bless you and keep you.

You have worked alongside us to bring the light of justice and compassion to God’s broken world, so may god’s face shine upon you and always be gracious to you.

You have helped to bear witness to our lives and accompanies us on our journey, you have helped elevate our consciousness and search for God’s presence in our lives. So, for your dedication to our community, may God lift your hearts and grant you wholeness, fulfillment and peace, and let us say, Amen.

To our incoming board members, we share this prayer:

May God help you!

I kid, of course. To our incoming board members, we pray:

Holy One of Blessing, bestow Your blessing on these leaders who have been elected to serve our community. Instill in them insight and understanding, perseverance as well as patience. Inspire them to work together in pursuit of our community’s greatest aspirations, even as they watch over its daily needs. O God, we are thankful for the dedication and giving spirit that bring our new Board members before You, prepared to devote their energies to Your service and to the benefit of us all. Grant success to their endeavors, and help them to lead us in the pursuit of our sacred mission, and let us say, Amen.

And finally, to our new members, we pray:
May we cherish your presence among us, learning and growing from your presence in our community. May we welcome you with open arms and open hearts as we together open doors of learning, of spirituality and of companionship. May we support each other through good times and through challenging times. May we grow together as travelers on a journey through life. May we help each other receive and respond authentically to the individual call to wrestle with our tradition. May we, through our connection with each other bring out the best in each other, and let us say, Amen.




Friday, 25 December 2020

Living in Two Cultures - a Christmas Sermon 2020

My predecessor in Bournemouth, Rabbi David Soetendrop, once told me a story. A relative of a congregant had died and Rabbi David went round one night around this time to lead the shivah prayers. As he walked up to the house, he noticed in the windowsill of the lounge, in full view of anyone who walked past or up to the house, was a small Christmas tree. He knocked on the door and there was a very loud whisper from the house. “It’s the Rabbi,” someone said from inside, “close the curtains before he sees the Christmas tree!” They obviously hadn’t realised that he could see through the glass as he walked up to the house!

Jews have almost always lived in two cultures – the culture of our heritage and the culture of the country in which we happen to be living. There have in the last few thousand years been very few times and places when the culture of our heritage and of our home have been the same, so Jewish life has, almost always, been a balancing act between differing cultures. Sometimes the two cultures complement each other, sometimes they clash. An example of how they can complement each other can be found in the habits of so many American Jews, apparently especially New York Jews, on December 25th. Since those Jews aren’t at work and since restaurants and movie theatres are usually empty at that time (for non-COVID reasons), such Jews invariably go out for a meal, usually Chinese. So, it becomes almost an American Jewish custom to go out for Chinese food and a movie on December 25th. This year, it seems to be take-out and Netflix or Disney +. This isn’t a religious custom at all, even though it's based on the same day as an important Christian holiday. Jews who take part in such a custom aren’t participating in anything Christian, they’re just helping local businesses stay afloat where possible at a time when local Christians wouldn’t be for a day.


A second way that Jews have lived in other cultures is by bringing secular customs into the religious life of the Jewish community. The most famous and obvious example of this is the seder service, which is filled with Hellenic eating customs, such as leaning to the left, starting a meal with herbs and with salt water, and ending the meal with dessert, known in Greek as afikomen. Although we note the Hellenic origins of these customs, they are unquestionably Jewish because they were removed from their original secular context and “made Jewish.” Yes, the Romans may have added salt water at the start of their meal, but we do it to remember the Exodus from Egypt.


The third way that Jews have lived in other cultures is by taking the religious customs of other communities and then rendering them Jewish. This hasn’t happened for a long time but is a part of ancient Jewish ritual. Although Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur receive only brief mentions in Torah, it is interesting how important they became in Rabbinic Judaism later. Particularly important are a series of ten days in which human destiny is set, connection with the creation of the world, the enthronement of God during this time, a sacrifice for atonement to carry away people’s sins. This is important because these were all Babylonian customs and it seems very possible - perhaps one could go so far as to say likely - that the Jewish community picked up these customs during the Babylonian Exile and thus transformed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.


We have so far seen three differing ways that Jews have lived in non-Jewish culture. The first is by simply observing secular customs around the same time as the non-Jewish community celebrated religious customs. The second is by assimilating secular customs into the religious life of the Jewish community, and the third is by assimilating non-Jewish religious customs into the religious life of the Jewish community. All of these were acceptable at the time because they were brought into Jewish life as opposed to existing alongside it. This third way is the most controversial so far, though, because of what might be called religious misappropriation. Bringing in religious rituals from another faith community into your own is a way of denying the meaning behind them and imposing on that ritual differing meaning. So, for example, when some churches hold a seder around Pesach to learn about the Last Supper, they engage in theological violence to the seder (as well as historical violence since it wasn’t even created yet by that time!). We wouldn’t want other communities to take out rituals and bring them into their own religion, so we really shouldn’t be doing the same. We excuse the theological borrowing from the Babylonians since they are no longer around to complain about it, although that’s probably not a very good defence and we’re best to move on from that quickly.


The Enlightenment brought a fourth way of coexisting which has profoundly challenged the Jewish community over the last two hundred years. Once religious authority was replaced by secular authority, and once Jews began mixing socially with non-Jews, a new coexistence formed. Suddenly, Jews were invited to Christmas parties. Jews started marrying Christians and the assumption of a fully Jewish household was no longer valid – indeed, something like one-third of the children in our Religious School come from mixed-faith parents. In such homes, a form of celebration of both Jewish and Christian festivals is common and I would even say appropriate, although it is interesting that in such households the celebration of Christian festivals is usually not accompanied by religious rituals (such as attending Mass) but by religious symbols.


When I was a child, we celebrated Christmas, despite having two Jewish parents. There’s a photo of me at six years old stirring the mix for the Christmas cake, which we used to decorate with a wintry scene every year. We used to hang up stockings, have a tree, the whole works. There was nothing Christian about it in our minds, despite the name, and certainly nothing religious for us – my parents explained that it was something all the other kids at school were doing so they didn’t want us to feel left out. As I grew up, though, I told my family that I no longer wanted to celebrate Christmas because it didn’t seem right to me – we were Jewish and 60% of the kids at my school were Jewish – and I didn’t really want to celebrate a festival that wasn’t my own. I realize now that we weren’t celebrating a festival, but we were taking a faith observance from another religious community, stripping it of all its essential faith aspects, and turning it into a secular celebration of capitalism and of community. Now that I interact with faith leaders from many traditions, I see how painful it is to some of them that people have taken their festival and stripped it of the religious aspects upon which that celebration was founded.


So, where does that leave us in the Jewish community today? For some Jews, their family dynamic is such that celebrating Christmas is an act of love. That celebration might be religious, for example, by attending mass at their partner’s or parent’s church just as they might hope that their non-Jewish family member might come with them to Temple for Rosh Hashanah. That observance might not be religious, though, it may be a less religious acknowledgement of something that resonates strongly with that Christian family member. In many Jewish households, today is a day when the Christian majority celebrate their festival and so Jews who have time off work gather together, either for Chinese and a movie, or for other food and company. For many Jews, Christmas is no longer a Christian festival but is a day of presents and companionship. It’s this form of celebration which is probably most influenced by the consumer culture in which we now live, a culture which seeks to commercialize every aspect of people’s lives, even those which are sacred to some people.


At this time, many prominent Jews ring alarm bells and cry from the rooftops about assimilation and the end of Judaism. But there’s no need for that to be the case. After all, this little boy with the Christmas cake ended up being a Rabbi.

Instead, I believe that we should ask ourselves what it means to authentically live in two civilizations today. I believe that that means not seizing another faith tradition’s customs, desacralizing them and making them our own. I also believe that means showing respect and love to Christians friends, neighbors and family members. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for Jews on Christmas, although I will say is that any Jew who attends Shabbat services on Christmas gains extra mitzvah points!!


So, may today be the example we set to our children and to others in which we demonstrate our living in two cultures, not by abandoning our own culture or by desacralizing and commercializing another. May we all use today to appropriately honor another religious tradition while also honoring our own. May we extend our love to our Christian friends and family as they celebrate their festival, and this Shabbat, as we also celebrate our own. May our observance of Shabbat today be the model of tolerance, love and friendship that helps us continue to live in two cultures. And let us say, Amen.

Friday, 18 December 2020

Mikketz 2020 - Why Am I Doing This?

 This week, we are faced with a story of incredible emotion and power. Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, is visited by his brothers. He recognises them, but they do not recognise him. He immediately sets upon them, accusing them of being spies, and they plead their innocence. He puts his own brothers in jail for a few days and then commands them to get Benjamin, the youngest surviving brother as far as they are concerned, from home. They start to regret what they did to Joseph, because they feel they are being punished for what they did to him. Joseph orders that their bags are filled with the money that they had previously paid for their rations, and the brother are terrified. When they return to Jacob, he tells them that as honest men they should return the money. Moreover, he sends them back with Benjamin, despite the pain that it causes him. The brothers immediately admit that there must have been a financial mistake, and they offer to repay the money that was erroneously returned to them. Seeing his brothers all together again clearly upsets Joseph terribly, but he nonetheless offers them food. When they leave in the morning, Joseph’s cup has been placed in Benjamin’s sack without him knowing. When his guards catch up with the brothers they protest – why would innocent men who returned money that was not theirs then go and steal a goblet? They lower their bags, Benjamin’s bag has the goblet inside, and the brothers are distraught. The brothers throw themselves on the ground before Joseph and beg for mercy for Benjamin.


There is a tremendous amount of pain apparent in the story, most of it created by Joseph’s bizarre plots. So why does he do it? Why cause so much pain to his brothers, to his father, and to himself? Why not just tell his brothers straight away that he is the brother they thought was dead? There are a number of possible answers. The medieval commentator Radak says that he causes pain to his brothers because he wants to punish them for what they did to him. While that would be a very human response, Abravanel and other commentators point out that such a response would not justify the pain caused to his aging father. Other commentators suggest that the pain caused to his father by tearing Benjamin away from him was necessary because he was afraid the brothers might have killed Benjamin too, and he needed to see him alive before revealing himself. Some commentaries suggest that Joseph creates these painful situations in order to have the dream of his brothers bowing to him to be fulfilled, although that seems particularly cruel to me. The most common commentary is that he wanted to give them the opportunity to truly repent of what they did to him, so that he could then trust them and engage in a relationship with them again.


Rabbi Ismar Shorsch, Principal Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, holds that Joseph’s scheme is designed to ensure true repentance in his brothers (http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/archives/5764/mikketz.shtml). He quotes Maimonides who asks, “What is complete repentance? When we are confronted with a situation in which we previously sinned and could do so again, but this time we desist not out of fear or weakness but because we have repented. An example: a man has relations with a woman in violation of the Torah. Sometime later he finds himself alone with her again in the same place with ardor and virility undiminished. However, this time he departs without the slightest impropriety. Such a person has attained the level of complete repentance (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1; My translation).” In other words, Maimonides holds that a person has fully repented when they could repeat the error but do not – in his example, same time, same place, same lovely lady.


According to Shorsch, Joseph completely recreates a situation where the brothers could get rid of their youngest brother and get away with it. Clearly, Benjamin had been caught red-handed. The brothers could have left him as an eternal slave to Joseph and they would have been completely in the right to so do. Why might they have done such a thing? Because now Benjamin was the favoured son, just as Joseph was before him. So to Shorsch, Joseph sets up the system to see if the brothers would do to Benjamin what they did to him – resent the favour their father showed, and take it out on the brother, effectively barring him from ever returning to the family.


But they don’t. And they don’t because, according to Shorsch, to Samson Raphael Hirsch and others, the brothers have completely atoned of their sin against Joseph. But is that really why the brothers don’t leave Benjamin behind? At the risk of criticising the view of a scholar significantly more learned than myself, Shorsch seems to neglect two important elements. The first is that the brothers have sworn to return Benjamin to Jacob and regardless of whether or not his arrest were justifiable, they would suffer consequences for not returning him. Secondly, Shorsch neglects complex human emotions. As Rabbi Jonathan Kraus suggests (http://ma002.urj.net/dtmikketz96.html), Joseph is probably awash with an array of complex emotions. Part of him probably does want to get back at his brothers and cause them pain, simply because it re-establishes power in Joseph’s mind. Part of him probably is very scared that they brothers might have killed Benjamin. And part of him probably does want to see reconciliation, but knows that can only happen when he’s sure his brothers regret throwing him into a pit.


And it is the complex array of emotions that rush through Joseph that speaks to us all, because we’re often faced with situations where emotion gets the better of us, where we find ourselves unsure why we’re doing what we’re doing. Times when we think we’re acting for one reason, but in fact later realise we were deluding ourselves, and had an entirely different motivation. I think the power of this story is its inherent humanity, its ability to strip us bare as complex individuals with many motives and motivations. And I think reading the story, we’re compelled to search ourselves. Instead of merely asking why Joseph subjects his family to so much tzuras, we have to ask ourselves how we might have behaved. How do we behave in our daily lives? In fact, it probably asks us one of the most probing questions of all, “Why am I doing this?” I think this is the question we need to take with us during the week, posed to us by the Joseph narrative. Not to obsess, but to occasionally reflect on whatever it is we’re doing, and ask, “Why am I doing this?” That is the question that grounds us in reality, that asks us what we’re doing and where we’re going, and makes us much more present with the world, and that can only be good. So this week, may it be that we all find time to stop and ask ourselves the question that perhaps Joseph should have been asking of himself, “Why am I doing this?” and let it be that the answers are good ones. Amen.

Friday, 11 December 2020

How to light the Lamps

 A story from Chabad: R. Joseph Isaac Schneerson once recalled a thought-provoking conversation between his father and predecessor, R. Sholom Dov-Ber, and a chassid, a righteous Jew.

The Chassid asked: "Rebbe, what is a Chassid?"

R. Sholom Dov-Ber answered: "A Chassid is a street-lamp-lighter. A street-lamp-lighter has a pole with fire. He knows that the fire is not his own, and he goes around lighting all lamps on his route."

The Chassid asked: "But what if the lamp is in a desolate wilderness?"

The Rebbe answered: "Then, too, one must light it. Let it be noted that there is a wilderness, and let the wilderness feel ashamed before the light."

"But what if the lamp is in the midst of a sea?"

"Then one must take off the clothes, jump into the water and light it there!"

"And that is a Chassid?"

The Rebbe thought for a long moment and then said: "Yes, *that* is a Chassid."

The Chassid continued:"Rebbe, I see no lamps!"

"That is because you are not a street-lamp-lighter."

"How does one become such?"

The Rebbe replied: "One must avoid evil. When beginning with oneself, cleansing oneself, becoming more refined, then one sees the lamp of the other. When, Heaven forbid, one is crude, then one sees but crudeness; but when himself noble, one sees nobility."

When the his son recounted this conversation, his son added: The lamps are there, but they need to be lit. It is written, "The soul of man is a lamp of God" (Proverbs 20:27), and it is also written, "A mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light" (Proverbs 6:23). A Chassid is someone who puts their personal affairs aside and goes around lighting up the souls of Jews with the light of Torah and mitzvot. Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit. Sometimes they are around the corner. Sometimes they are in a wilderness or at sea. But there must be someone who disregards personal comforts and conveniences and goes out to put a light to these lamps. That is the function of a true Chassid.”


The darkness of winter need not be terrifying, it can be an exciting opportunity. Where there is spiritual darkness, we can bring light. Where there is despair, we can bring hope. Where there is fear, we can bring courage. The sacred task of the Jew is to be a lamplighter, an igniter of souls.


But, are we really meant to disregard personal comfort and convenience in order to go round igniting the souls of others? To many of us who live comfortable lives, that doesn’t sound very appealing. More than that, if the sacred task of the righteous Jew is to go round igniting the souls of others, does that mean that if we don’t do that, or can’t do that, then we’re not very good Jews?


I suspect that many people today feel like their light isn’t worth shining to the rest of the world. Perhaps they feel fragile, like a delicate little candle ready to be extinguished at any moment by the lightest breeze, so we keep a flame burning within, but are afraid to show it for fear of being accused of zealotry or for fear of it being extinguished. But while the message of this story is very powerful, I think it misses an essential element, which is that of community. We’re not a lone candle, we’re a Chanukiah of candles. It’s not just the case that a little light dispels a lot of darkness, although that it obviously true. In fact, a lot of light, shining together, radiating warmth, dispels even more darkness. So, where is may have once been true that the chassid needed to forgo everything and rush off alone into the wilderness to ignite souls, we do things differently. Instead of lone lamplighters, we aim to become a community of lamplighters. We turn within before we turn without. We add candles to the Chanukiah just as we try to add people to a warm, loving community. We ignite each other’s souls, we help those around us burn as bright as they can, before scurrying through the dark. As a community, we shine with a warmth and a radiance that could never be matched by one of us alone, and then together we go out into the world and light the souls of others.


May God help ignite our own souls as individuals and as a community so that we may burn ever brighter each and every day, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 27 November 2020

A Collection of Thanksgiving Prayers

A Thanksgiving Psalm, adapted from the original by Alan Cook

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov; ki l’olam chasdo

O give thanks to the One Who is good Whose love is everlasting May those who call upon the Eternal God give thanks for many blessings bestowed and received. May those who call upon the Earth Mother, the power of nature, find beauty and inspiration in the wonders of the world around us and the resiliency of the human spirit. Give thanks for Tewa, Apache and Navajo who settled and sanctified this land, who nurtured its abundance, whose indelible imprint is still visible on this land, whose stories and prayers and songs still reverberate in the wind.… Give thanks for the elders who connect us to our past. Give thanks for the children who guide us toward our future. Give thanks for Black and Latinx individuals, for those of Asian background and those of mixed racial identities. Give thanks for White folks. Give thanks for the opportunity and the necessity to live together, to work together, to build together. Give thanks for queer and straight, for trans and bi. Give thanks for the fact that love is love and knows no bounds. Give thanks for opportunities for every individual to know and show their true selves. Give thanks for the understandings borne out of scientific research in concert with the understandings derived from our faithful convictions - may they guide us toward unfolding the mysteries and majesty of our world, securing our own health and welfare and the well-being of our planet. Give thanks for the conviction that even if ideologies divide us, our common humanity can unite us. Give thanks for the imperative handed down to us by our religious traditions: To love our neighbors just as we love ourselves. Give thanks for the tools we have been given to build bridges, to share in dialogue, to laugh and weep and argue and struggle and plot and plan and solve life’s challenges together. Baruch Ata Adonai, she-natan lanu hizdamnut l’taken et ha-olam. Blessed is the One who has given us the opportunity, responsibility, and challenge, to work with one another to bring wholeness to our world.



A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.


Adapted from MODIM ANACHNU LACH – We are Grateful to You, by Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker

We are grateful, Adonai, even in this time that challenges us. We give thanks for the food before us and all the people who brought it forth from the land, from seed to harvest to the grocery store, and the people who prepared it into our meal.

Before we eat, we take a deep breath as we focus on all our blessings.

We are grateful for life. We are aware how fragile it can be. We mourn those who have died in our community and world from the pandemic. We pray for healing for those who are now ill.

We are grateful for the medical professionals and front-line workers who serve our community. We will do our part to change our behaviors, to love our neighbors and ourselves as we are mindful to wash hands, physically distance, and wear masks.

We grieve those who are not with us today. How we wished to celebrate in person! We pray that the end of this struggle is in sight and once again there will be a time for embracing.

During this period of Thanksgiving, we are grateful for the scientists working on vaccines to help bring that day soon and speedily. Until then, may we be patient and resilient with hearts open to gratitude. With that spirit, may we give tzedakah generously to those in need and reach out to those alone. Adonai, help us be fully aware of our gifts to make this world more whole, more just, and more loving.



Adapted from Appreciation Amidst Pandemic: A Thanksgiving Prayer During COVID-19, by Rabbi David Dine Wirtschafter


Modim anchunu lach, Grateful are we to all those whose have helped us to persevere through this crisis.

For doctors and nurses continuing to treat their patients,

Modim anachnu lach.

For mental and behavioral health professionals continuing to offer comfort and encouragement,

Modim anachnu lach..

For teachers and professors continuing to offer instruction,

Modim anachnu lach.

For first responders continuing to rush to our aid,

Modim anachnu lach.

For essential workers continuing to put food on our tables,

Modim anachnu lach.

For nursing home employees and care givers continuing to tend to the elderly and infirm,

Modim anachnu lach.

For the unemployed and underemployed continuing to help their families and communities,

Modim anachnu lach.

For family and friends continuing to inquire about us,

Modim anachnu lach.

For continuing to see and hear one another remotely until we can gather in person,

Modim anachnu lach.

Baruch ata, Adonai, hatov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot.

Blessed are You, Adonai, Your name inspires goodness and Your caring deserves our thanks.