Archive for September, 2013

We Are the Sukkah

            Sukkot day 1:  the congregation’s sukkah looks fresh and new.  The palm leaves thrown on top to form the roof are freshly cut, lush, and green.  Decorations representing the efforts and artistic abilities of each religious school class have just been hung with colored strings.  One clever teacher had the children decorate CD’s to hang, creating a shiny, multicolored series of reflective decorations – like stars inside the sukkah.  Clean chairs are placed inside, ready for families to eat a meal or just sit.  Indeed, parents and children are already milling around the outside of the sukkah, waiting to shake the lulav.  Our community sukkah feels alive with the buzz of Jews celebrating a joyful holiday.

Sukkot day 6:  After a few days of rain the chairs are still wet – dripping water.  Some are knocked over.  The palm leaves on the roof of the sukkah have mostly turned brown, and even those with a semblance of green hang limp and dank from the roof.  All of the paper decorations show the wear and tear from 6 days of exposure to the elements.  Only the decorated CD’s continue to look undisturbed.  Their shine looks out of place, however, in the context of the now drab surroundings of the rest of the sukkah.  Few people enter the sukkah now, partly because of the rain, partly because we are at a lull in the course of an 8 day holiday.  The sukkah looks tired, as if it is ready for us to disassemble it, to put it to rest.  I want to tell it, “just hang on for a couple more days.  Don’t fall apart just yet.”

We teach that the sukkah represents the temporary dwelling places the Israelites used as they wandered through the wilderness.  The structure is supposed to be just sturdy enough to last the holiday.  The roof is supposed to be of material that grows in nature, but arranged so that you can see the stars.  As we sit having a meal in the sukkah or even some camping out in a sukkah, we are to feel connected to the Jewish ancestral story – one of wandering, one of complete dependence on the bounty God provides.  The decorations, which thematically revolve around fruit and vegetables from the completed harvest, remind us to be thankful for the food resulting from another successful agricultural season; but with the sense that the season would not happen but for God.  Yes, the sukkah is all of this.

And there is even more.

During Sukkot we are supposed to read Kohellet, the book of Ecclesiastes.  One does not have to read deep into the first chapter to pick up on the theme.  Our time here is short.  Humans come and go.  Nothing of permanence results.  We are stuck in a pattern of repetition as there is “nothing new under the sun.”  While the physical sukkah reminds us of impermanence – the fragility of life, Kohellet forces us to confront the realities of our impermanence.  It is, in a way, a literary sukkah.  When we dwell in the words of Kohellet we feel as vulnerable to the world spiritually and emotionally as we do physically when sitting in an actual sukkah.  Our sukkot are pseudo shelters.  They are the facades of protection we erect that are easily swept away.  Kohellet reminds us that is how to sum up all of life.

My very favorite Sukkot tale comes from the Talmud.  It is the Gemara’s comment on the ruling that a sukkah erected on the deck of a ship is a valid sukkah.  It so happened that Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Gamaliel were travelling on a ship during Sukkot.  Rabbi Akiba builds a sukkah on the deck of the ship which Rabbi Gamaliel declares invalid.  Their discussion on the ship is not recorded, but one can imagine the back and forth between these two great sages.  The next morning a great wind comes and blows away the sukkah.  Rabbi Gamaliel then says to Akiba, “Akiba, where is your Sukkah?”  One can almost hear the sarcasm dripping from Gamaliel’s voice as he asks his colleague the question.

But despite Gamaliel’s snarkiness, I believe Akiba has it right.  Whether or not the sukkah survives on the deck of the ship is not the point.  The unknowing whether it might or might not survive IS the point.  Despite the probability that the structure will get blown away, Akiba builds it anyway.  Even more, as a Jew who takes the holiday seriously, I will bet that Akiba celebrated in his sukkah with utter joy.  His building it on the deck of the ship illustrates what I think is the beautiful lesson of Sukkot.  In the face of the fragility and uncertainty of life, we grasp those moments we can and we celebrate. Through our celebration, as individuals, families and communities, we affirm that life is not empty, useless.  It is a treasure chest for us to fill with moments of meaning.  It might be gone tomorrow, but we celebrate today.

Each of us is a sukkah.  We are impermanent, fragile physical structures.  We will fade a little, wilt a little with time, and then in a whisper we are gone.  But we can be filled with happiness, joy and celebration.  We can feel thankful for sustenance, family, and community.  Even though we might be blown away in the morning, we can grab hold of today, asserting for at least a brief moment, our life has extreme worth.

Chag same’ach

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The Search for Lost Perfection

            Are we an experiment that failed?  Look around.  Could anyone have planned for our world to be the way it is?  Error, human error, is evident at every turn.  We live in a world of broken dreams.  We live in a world of broken promises.  We live in a world of broken ideals.  We are the embodiment of potential lost, potential wasted.  What in our makeup causes us to be numb to another’s pain, to walk by the lost soul pleading for food, to take those who love us for granted?  Look at ourselves.  Flaws evident at every turn.  We would seem to be an experiment that failed.

Yet, it is our particular oddity to keep searching for perfection.  Having, for a brief bit of time, inhabited paradise, we keep thinking that we can return.  We cannot let go of the notion that the next peace negotiation, the next technical innovation, the next medical advancement, will somehow put us on the road back to Eden.  We refuse to fully abandon hope.  We search for lost perfection.  We yearn to be allowed back into paradise.

Midrash teaches this about our creation.  God gathered dust from the four corners of the world, transported it to the sight of the ancient Temple on Mount Moriah, molded the human figure, and breathed into it the first soul.  God then took this thing, newly created from the dust of this world called human, and placed it in Eden, paradise – the place of perfection.  Adam entered paradise with Eve at midday on the sixth day of creation.  By the twilight of the first Shabbat they had sinned.  After Shabbat, a last bit of time God permitted them to inhabit paradise, thereby giving them a taste of what would be left behind; man and woman were expelled back into the world from which they were created.

Did God know this failure would happen?  Our bodies are created from the elements of the mundane.  Our souls are the very breath of God.  Did God expect a body created from this world not to fail in paradise, despite housing a God given soul?  Did God not expect the material would corrupt the spiritual?  Did God really think placing the flawed in paradise would somehow perfect the flaws?  I think of Eden as a kind of spiritual Petri dish.  We were placed in a controlled environment to see if we could survive.  We could not.  It was an experiment that failed.

Midrash does seem to indicate that God knew this possible outcome, but was willing to take this risk anyway.  Rabbi Berachiah taught, when the Holy One decided to create Adam, God saw righteous and wicked both arising from him. God said, “If I create him, wicked men will spring from him; but if I do not create him, how are the righteous to spring from him?”  What did God do?  The Holy one disregarded the potential for wicked, thus making a decision that God’s presence would always be associated with the quality of mercy.  Then, when consulting the ministering angels, God hid the potential for evil from them, knowing they would then object to the creation of humanity.  So God created us anyway, despite the risk, despite anticipating the objections of those perfected beings that inhabit the divine realm with God.

We might reasonably ask, “why?”

Perhaps the experiment is not over.  Perhaps it has not yet failed.  The angelic retinue, has no desires, no wants.  They are content with their perfection.  But we humans?  We are filled with wants and desire.  To a great extend we are enslaved to them.  Yet, we cannot let go of the notion there is something more – something more than the fulfillment of desires – which of course we keep finding are never really fulfilled.  We dream about paradise.  We give it names.  Utopia.  Eden.  The world to come.  Heaven.  All names for a more perfected time, a more perfected state.  We try to create heaven on earth.  We call Shabbat a taste of Eden.  All of this is a search for perfection, a perfect time, a perfect place where we might be the best version of ourselves.  It is a search for lost perfection.

And God has turned responsibility for this search over to us.  It is all in our hands.  There is no divine rescue on the way.  Our sages knew this.  Consider how they conveyed it to us.

Midrash teaches that when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, they dwelt at first on Moriah – the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Moriah is considered the very gateway to Eden.  The history of that spot teaches some things about humanity.  To begin with, we do not even recognize the gateway to paradise.  Or, if we do, rather than share the entrance, we fight over it – thinking only that people like ourselves, be they Jews, Moslem, or Christians – are deserving of possessing the doorway to paradise.  Do we ever stop to think that paradise might just include an acceptance of all of us, despite our diverse ethnicities, religions and views?

But there is something more taught by the sages.  I think it is the bigger lesson.  Adam and Eve leave the protection of paradise after Shabbat.  From that moment, they are dependent on their abilities to navigate this world – to find ways to survive.  But God did not let them leave empty handed.  According to midrash, God made two pieces of flint which Adam struck together and made fire. Observe that God did not give Adam and Eve fire, but the means to make fire.  The producing of the fire is up to us.  They way we use it is up to us.  We are reminded of this while reciting the blessing over fire as part of the Havdalah service, the service taking us out of Shabbat.  Indeed, there is an interesting discussion over the proper wording of the blessing for fire in the Talmud.  Beit Shammai says the wording should be, “shebara m’or ha’eish,” which means “who created the illumination of fire.”  However, Beit Hillel teaches the words should be, “borei m’orei ha’eish,” which means “who creates the illuminations of fire.”  Beit Shammai’s wording commemorates a singular event in the past. Beit Hillel’s wording reminds us that the creation of fire is continuous, multiple, and our responsibility.  We keep making fire.  We are the ones tasked with continuing to bring fire, and its light, into the world.

So there nascent humanity sits, on the doorway to Eden, holding the means to survival in our hands.  Whither do we go?  Often it is a vain search to re-enter the perfection from which we were expelled.  A story from the Talmud well illustrates the results of our attempts to re-enter Eden.  This aggadah tells of 4 rabbis who entered paradise.  They were ben Azai, ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuya, and Rabbi Akiva.  Rabbi Akiva warned them, “when you see the crystal clear marble that forms the wall around heaven, do not shout ‘there is water, there is water how can we ever enter.’”  Akiva was telling them not to be fooled by what they saw.  Upon glancing at the divine presence ben Azai died, ben Zoma became insane, Elisha ben Abuya had his mind corrupted by perversions.  Only Rabbi Akiva emerged in peace, because he knew not to be fooled into looking at the divine presence.

What can we make of this tale?  Akiva knows that there is no place in paradise for humans – not yet.  He goes with his friends to warn them, to try to keep them from the traps of a realm they cannot comprehend, for which none of them is ready.  He is able to emerge b’shalom – in peace or as whole person – from paradise, because he is grounded in this world, knowing it is his place.  It does not matter that Akiva will die being tortured by the Romans while clutching a Torah scroll.  This is as far from a perfect ending as one can imagine.  The Talmud itself poses the question as to why a sage as wise as Akiva deserves this ending.

The only answer I have is that Rabbi Akiva was the rabbinic master at finding meaning in each detail of the Torah and looked to apply Torah to every aspect of life.  He understood that for imperfect humans, a detailed instruction manual would be invaluable.  He believed that manual was Torah.  He was unconcerned about his end.  He focused on the moment at hand, the moment in which he lived and taught.  Even the moment of his death, clutching a Torah while being tortured, with the words of the Sh’ma on his lips, was inspirational if not instructive.  His story challenges us to consider what are our core values.  To what will we cling in the moment of our ultimate crisis?  Will we be as grounded in hope for this world, even in the face of death?   When our personal tipping point moment occurs, how will we act?  Will we, like Akiva, declare the Sh’ma?

I cannot answer that question for myself with any surety.  Can you?  But I can see examples that provide a bit of inspiration, a bit of hope.  I can see cases of people who took the figurative tools for fire God gave them, and created their own fire, a fire that shines with the light of righteousness.  Allow me to share two.

If you have seen the movie, “Orchestra of Exiles” then you are familiar with the name Bronislaw Huberman.  Huberman, born in 1882 in Poland, was a child prodigy on the violin.  As an adult his playing was hailed for its individual expressiveness and tone.  He played on many of the great stages of the world, including Carnegie Hall.  He played for many of the royal houses of Europe.  He was a musical superstar in his time, and as such could have taken refuge easily in any number of safe havens while the Nazi party took over Germany.  His path could have easily been one of the spoiled star, refusing to worry about anyone but himself.  But  Huberman saw the Nazis for what they were early on.  He recognized they were not a passing phase, soon to fade away.  He realized that Hitler and his minions were dead serious about their plan for European Jewry.  So he decided to act in the only manner his life’s path had trained him.

Huberman stated, “One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism – a first class orchestra will be this fist.”  The orchestra he had in mind was the creation of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, which would eventually become today’s Israel Philharmonic.  Risking his own fortune, and using his fame as a bartering chip, Huberman recruited Jewish musicians for this new orchestra.  None of this was easy.  Many Jewish artists did not want to leave what seemed like secure posts in Europe.  Huberman needed to make them see the reality of their plights before they experienced personal danger.  He had to arrange for visas from a British government that controlled Palestine in the face of growing Arab opposition to any Jewish immigration to Palestine.  Yet, in the end he saved over 1,000 Jews – musicians and their families – and created a first rate orchestra in the process.  Knowing Arturo Toscanini’s opposition to the Nazis, Huberman convinced him to conduct the first concerts in Palestine.

The result of Huberman’s efforts is not just the saving of 1,000 Jewish lives from probable death, but the creation of a musical, cultural icon.  No less a figure than maestro Zubin Mehta said this, “The seeds of culture that Huberman planted here, that he brought from Central Europe, we are reaping its rewards today.”

But one does not have to be famous to strike a flame that shines with the light of righteousness.  I would like to share the story of a 7 year old girl named Morgan.  Morgan is the granddaughter of my former office manager, Jayne, from my old factory in Pennsylvania.  From 1979 until 1994, Jayne was the person I depended on to run all aspects of our office.  After closing our factory, I had no contact with her until just this June, when she found me on Facebook, and began reading the blog I was posting about my family journey.  We began to email and message each other.  Finally, a few weeks ago, we had a long conversation to catch up on family news.  Much of our talk centered around her granddaughter.

Morgan was born deaf.   This came as an utter shock to her family, who then went through all of the predictable stages of grief – anger, denial, questioning.  Jayne told me that it felt like they were mourning someone who died.  Morgan’s uncle summed up their emotions by remarking, “even the dog can hear.”  After consulting with doctors and each other, the family decided to have Morgan receive cochlear implants. These have to be done in two stages, one for each ear.  The first set went in when Morgan was 4 months old.  Even with the implants the ability to hear is not automatic, but takes a few months.  By the time Morgan was 8 months old, she was starting to read lips and beginning to hear.  At age 4 she received her second set, which then allowed her to localize sound.  All of this of course necessitated many trips to the hospital, constant monitoring of the implants, not to mention the limitations on Morgan’s lifestyle – no swimming, no overly physical sports.  Despite all of the difficulties, Morgan learned to speak pretty much on schedule.  She still studies people’s faces while listening to them and trying to understand them.  Because she has spent so much of her young life interacting with adults, she has some wisdom beyond her years.  When meeting her 2nd grade teacher for this year she asked her, “I know you used to teach 5th grade.  Now you are a 2nd grade teacher.  Did you want to come here?”  She was asking the teacher if she saw this as a demotion.  None of this, however, is what really makes Morgan so special.

A couple of years ago, after yet another stay in the hospital, Morgan woke up to find that a local business had provided an Easter basket for all the children staying in the hospital that weekend.  Morgan, who had woken up in hospitals many times to absolutely nothing, was thrilled by this Easter basket.  Realizing the joy it brought her waking up to a present in the hospital, Morgan decided that other children deserved to always wake up to presents during their hospital stays.  So she has made it her mission to provide buckets of goodies to every child who has to stay in her hospital.

This seven year old girl raises money by selling brownies after school and on weekends.  She decided to print up tee shirts to sell at a community fair.  A local business got wind of what she was doing and paid for the tee shirts.  As a result, the full profit from the sales goes to fill those gift buckets for the kids.  To date this year, Morgan has raised $1500 from tee shirt sales and brownies that she bakes.  She buys the presents to fill the buckets and makes regular deliveries of gift buckets to the hospital to distribute to children.  The hospital staff knows her and knows exactly what to do with the buckets she delivers.  She has steady customers for her brownies; that know what she does with the money.  All of this initiative comes from Morgan.  Her mom and grandma feel they will support this for as long as Morgan is motivated.  Like any child she has times in which she is less devoted and times more devoted to raising the money, but she keeps on, determined to provide those gift buckets to children in the hospital.

Both stories, of Huberman and Morgan, remind me of a Talmudic tale.  One day Honi the circle maker was travelling along a road.  He saw a man planting a carob tree.  He asked him, “in how many years will this tree bear fruit?”  “70 years,” the man replied.  “Is it clear to you that you will live another 70 years?” Honi asked.  The man replied, “I found a world with carob trees.  Just as my forefathers planted for me, I too plant for my children.”    Is this not what Huberman did and what Morgan is doing?  They are planting for those who come after them.  Both are examples of taking a step towards paradise.

And maybe that is all we are supposed to do.  None of us might ever reach paradise.  But if each of us takes a small step towards Eden, the day might come when humanity gets there.  However, maybe there is a greater, more important point.  Perhaps we are not even meant to go to Eden.  Perhaps that is not our goal.  For we are taught in Pirkei Avot (4:17) “An hour spent in repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all of the life in the world to come.”  Maybe, just maybe our goal is not perfection, but to find that one hour when our deeds exceed the value of eternal life.  Why, you might ask, is that hour more valuable than all the life in the world to come?  Because in that one hour we are not thinking of ourselves, whereas the world to come is only of benefit to ourselves.  We are not an experiment that has failed.  We might not be destined for Eden, but our search just might momentarily elevate us to a level that even exceeds paradise.

Isn’t that what this whole holiday period that culminates on Yom Kippur really about?  Our mundane routines cause us to focus on the less important.  Too much of our activity separates us from each other and therefore from God.  But our coming together on Yom Kippur is not just about confessing sin, it is about bringing us a bit closer to perfection, to sheleimut, to wholeness.  The mystics taught that on Yom Kippur all the souls of the people Israel are united as one soul.  Today we stand together, we pray together, we hope together.  Today we support each other in the search for lost perfection, that through our community turning collectively back towards God perhaps we will spot the doorway leading to Eden once again.  And if we can reside for only a moment in that vestibule, that will be enough.

Oh God, we pray that there we might find you, that we might be at peace praising you and through our deeds, our actions thanking you always.  Amen.

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The Big Tent

            Making predictions can be a tricky business.  Often what seems to be obvious today, turns out to be foolish.  Allow me to share a few predictions from the early 20th century about some key inventions.

The first, written by Bruce Bliven, is about the impact of that new fangled rage in 1922 called radio.  “There will be only one orchestra left on earth, giving nightly worldwide concerts…universities will be combined into one super-institution, conducting courses by radio for students in Zanzibar, Kamchatka and Oskaloosa…instead of newspapers, trained orators will dictate the news of the world day and night, and the bedtime story will be told every evening from Paris to the sleepy children of a weary world…the last vestiges of privacy, solitude and contemplation will have vanished into limbo.”  Sounds a little bit about what some say today about the internet.

The next prediction was written in 1921 by James Quirk of Photoplay Magazine about movies, “We talk of the worth, the service, the entertaining power, the community value…the educational influence, the civilizing and commercial possibilities of the motion picture.  And everyone has, singularly enough, neglected to mention its rarest and subtlest beauty: ‘Silence.’”

Or my favorite prediction in 1936 by Rex Lambert in “The Listener,” “Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.”

Sometimes the predictions NOT made are more noteworthy.  Who, for example, would have predicted that the New York Mets would win the World Series in 1969 after finishing dead last the first 7 years of their existence?  Who would have predicted the US hockey team would beat the Russians in the 1980 Olympics?  Who would have predicted that Barry Goldwater’s social views would be too liberal for today’s Republican party?  Who would have predicted that a B grade movie actor, whose most notable co-star was a chimpanzee, would become one of the country’s most popular presidents?   And who would have predicted that this full blooded Yankee from Philadelphia would be giving his 13th Kol Nidrei sermon to ya’ll tonight in Tallahassee?

Yup, predictions in general are tricky enough.  They are probably outright foolish to attempt about Jews – who are notoriously not predictable.  But that is what I will attempt tonight.  The Jewish world is changing rapidly, my friends.  I am part of two national groups of rabbis that are looking at and discussing the changes.  I would like to share with you what we are observing – and a best guess of where we might be heading.

Let’s begin with a quiz.  I will describe the profile of a Jew.  You are to consider if they are best described by the label Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.

The first person grew up in the URJ camping system.  He was a NFTY song leader, teaches religious school and wears a kippah when at services.  The second person, a woman, always wears a tallit and kippah during services.  When she is at services not on Shabbat or a holiday she puts on tefillin to pray.  The third person keeps kosher, grew up attending a Conservative shul and drives to services on Shabbat.  She does not wear a kippah or tallit during services.  The fourth person was raised orthodox, puts on tefillin every day and keeps kosher.  He has no problem attending any kind of shul, however, finding something to enjoy in whatever synagogue he is praying.  The fifth person keeps almost none of the traditional mitzvoth, rarely attends services, but is an ardent and vocal supporter of Israel, he actively promotes and participates in events about Israel.  What do all of these profiles have in common?  Every one describes a person who participates in some way in the Temple Israel community.

Yes, our congregation has all of these profiles as well as many more.  We have the children or grandchildren of rabbis of all streams.  We have interfaith couples.  We have entire families who have converted to Judaism.  We have same sex couples.  We have single parents.  We have those who believe fervently in God and those who think such belief is just superstition.  We have southern Jews who grew up in a classical Reform environment, not knowing a word of Hebrew and Israelis who are fluent in Hebrew.  We have Jews who rejected Judaism when young; but who have made their way back to us.  We have non-Jews who are on the path of seeking Judaism.  Temple Israel is a big tent, in which a panoply of people reside, all of whom feel some kind of connection to Judaism.  This is our present.

Having this myriad of people connected to our congregation creates questions about definitions and about appropriate boundaries.  Who is counted as a Jew and who is not?   What is appropriate participation for the non-Jews among us in synagogue life, in ritual life?  How are we supposed to define membership?  What are differences between Jews by birth and Jews by choice?  Who is an insider and who an outsider?  What is it that actually makes someone a Jew anyway?  Our natural inclination would be to think this complicated mix of population is due to the modern pluralistic America in which we live.  To a certain extent that is true.  However, I would like to share with you some teachings by the 13th century rabbi, Maimonides, which demonstrate how the diversity of issues we now face has been around for a long time.  I also think that Maimonides’ solutions are instructive as to how to handle some of our boundary issues today.

Generally, we think of Judaism as being a religion about action, about deeds.  Typically, when comparing Judaism to Christianity we teach that Christianity stresses creed; that is faith or belief, while Judaism stresses deed.  Orthodoxy interprets those deeds to be fulfillment of the 613 mitzvoth – the strict following of Jewish law.  Contemporary progressive Judaism acknowledges the importance of halachah, but places forceful emphasis on the ethical components of the law.  Thus we have the Reform movement’s commitment to social justice.  The Conservative movement, which has always viewed itself as true to halachah, ends up embracing all of the ethical decisions of the Reform movement, but uses intellectual devices that allow them to modify Jewish law.  An example of this is the recent acceptance of gay and lesbian rabbis and same sex marriage.  Orthodoxy completely rejects the gymnastics the Conservative movement plays with halachah and sees no essential difference between Reform and Conservative Judaism.  The point of all of this is that whatever the stream of Judaism; we see a primacy of deeds over faith.

Maimonides ends up turning this on its head.  As part of his commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin, Maimonides lays out his 13 basic principles.  Many of you know these through the song Yigdal – which is a summary of his 13 principles put to music.  In introducing his 13 principles, Maimonides defines those who are part of the community of Israel as those who accept these principles – with particular emphasis on the belief in God who is non-corporeal (ein lo d’moot haguf, v’eino guf).  In his masterpiece philosophical work, “The Guide for the Perplexed,” he reiterates this even more by teaching that belief in true ideas about God is more important than any particular law or deed.  To put into plain terms – you are still Jewish if you eat shrimp, as long as you believe God exists and has no physical form.  He expands upon this by teaching that the language of the Torah is metaphorical in terms of its descriptions of God, and teaches very little that is true about God’s essence.  It is no wonder that just a few years after his death, some Jews were burning copies of  “The Guide for the Perplexed” in protest over its contents.

Do not get me wrong.  Maimonides himself was a strict, Torah observing Jew.  He believed in the worth of all of the mitzvoth, even the non-rational ones, as a means of disciplining the Jew to be able to eschew the material world and focus upon developing the intellect, thus a true relationship with God.  However, while many rabbis taught that to violate even one commandment was to place someone outside the boundaries of Judaism (in Hebrew called a meshumad); Maimonides taught that violating a particular law only places the person outside the boundaries with regards to that law, but NOT outside the boundaries of the people of Israel.  Even the person who commits idolatry, while due the punishment proscribed for him, is NOT cut off from the people of Israel.  How then does one fall outside the Jewish boundaries?  By rejecting Judaism in a time of persecution, a person cuts him or her self off from the Jewish people.  Again we cycle back to belief.  If a person publically rejects Jewish belief in a time of difficulty for Jews, they have then failed on two counts.  They have rejected true beliefs about God and they have rejected their people.

There is more.  If a person publically rejects everything, all of Oral Torah, they become outside of the Jewish boundaries, yet this is only for one generation.  The children can always be brought back.  Even if the parents stop being Jewish the children can, in Maimonides view, always be rescued.

Maimonides is considered by many to be the greatest Jewish thinker of the last 2,000 years.  I hope you can see his relevance for us.  We have no universal conformity over proper practice.  Every Jew seems to create their own personal version of Jewish ritual life.  Those versions range from complete non-practice to strict adherence to the letter of Oral and Written Torah.  Take as an example, the dietary laws.  Some keep full kosher.  Some keep it at home but not when eating out.  Some restrain from eating the Biblically prohibited foods but do not worry about the method of slaughter.  Some, stressing the ethical principles of kashrut, observe it by being vegetarian. Yet all of these are still considered Jews as long as they do not reject something central about Judaism.  For Maimonides, that something central is true ideas about the nature of God.

In my 12 plus years in Tallahassee I have completed somewhere between 70 to 80 conversions.  The common denominators for these people are as follows:  they reject the idea that God could have the corporeal presence represented by classical Christian theology.  They feel that our actions are a more significant religious expression than professing faith.  I would guess these are the common denominators for almost everyone feeling some kind of connection to this congregation – Jewish or not.  We can debate the details, the importance of ritual versus ethical mitzvoth, how much Hebrew should be in a service, how important is Israel to maintaining healthy Jewish life.  But I would bet that close to 100% (for there is never unanimity among Jews) of you agree with those who are seeking Judaism.

However, communities need rules.  Communities need guidelines.  Communities need boundaries – or else chaos ensues.  The difficulty is how to set boundaries of participation in various aspects of synagogue and community life.  We have many in our community who are not technically Jewish yet they “lean” Jewish or feel that this is the community that bests fits their religious purpose.  Some are on a path to become Jewish.  Some are just interested in Judaism but not conversion.  Some are in interfaith relationships and while liking Judaism, are not inclined to convert for any number of reasons.  How do we set boundaries for them?

Here again some teachings by Maimonides are useful.

He addressed issues regarding the Karaite community.  The Karaites were an outgrowth of Judaism (they considered themselves Jewish) that accepts the Hebrew Bible as the only authoritative word of God.  They rejected all of the oral law, Talmud, Mishnah, and all of the rabbinic rulings.  They believed in a strict reading of and adherence to the Torah text.  Relations between the Karaites and the rest of the Jewish world were quite bitter, even violent, for a number of centuries.  In some ways the Karaites were seen as worse than Christians.

While we should absolutely NOT accept their beliefs when contrary to rabbinic Judaism, Maimonides taught that the Karaites were worthy of respect.   However, when those beliefs coincided, there should be as much cooperation as possible.  For example, mohels should circumcise their children.  We should help bury their dead and comfort them in their time of mourning.  You cannot count a Karaite as part of a minyan – because their own beliefs reject the concept of a minyan.  Maimonides saw Karaite belief and practice as bad, but looked for some positives on which to build a relationship, and that began with a belief in one non corporeal God.

I find Maimonides teachings to be useful in creating common sense boundaries within our own community.  As an example, someone who has not formally accepted Judaism should not recite the blessing over the Torah.  The Hebrew words are very Jewish centric in a spiritual as well as an ethnic way.  They assert that Jews have a chosen place in God’s world that is lived by acceptance of Torah.  Someone who has not formally accepted Judaism cannot say those words with integrity.  However, in all ways that do not cross that theological boundary, everyone in our community should celebrate together, rejoice together, and when appropriate mourn together.  There are many rituals that do not depend on a certain theology in which anyone can participate.  Examples are the lifting and dressing of the Torah.

So far I have spoken a lot about those who are close to the edge of the Jewish boundary in terms of how to include them.  Now I turn to the opposite end of the spectrum, those who are extremely committed Jews, especially among the generation in its twenties.  These are the Jews who will really shape whatever future the American Jewish community has.  Their engagement in Jewish life is critical, if the institutions that have been the backbone of the Jewish world – synagogues and Federations – are going to have any kind of future.  This generation is responsible for an interesting movement that I believe can teach us all a few lessons.

The period from the late 1990’s until now has seen the creation of a large number of independent minyanim.  These are semi-formal groups who meet for Jewish services.  They have been started by young Jews who are very committed Jewishly, yet disaffected by the synagogue institution.  Here is a rundown of the characteristics of these minyanim compiled by Dr. Larry Hoffman of HUC and his organization, Synagogue 3000, in cooperation with Mechon Hadar.

1)   They believe they are providing experiences and activities not available in conventional congregations.

2)   Their origins are due to either a single entrepreneurial individual (often a rabbi) or a small core of highly educated and motivated individuals.

3)   They are doing away with conventional means of membership, or “citizenship” and finding new ways to make ritual and halachic decisions.

4)   They stress “authentic” spiritual and educational experiences, giving high priority to fluency in traditional liturgy and finding expressions of deeper meaning in the prayer experience.

5)   Participants are less tied to the 20th century ethnic narratives of the foundation of Israel and the Holocaust experience and more tied to the master Jewish narratives of the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai.

6)   As such, the Holocaust and founding of Israel are history, not memory.

7)   These communities are open to musical and interpretive innovation but prefer traditional liturgical forms – which means a lot of Hebrew is used.

8)   Almost none own space.  Communication is completely through internet and social media.

9)   They use more God language and encourage participants to bring their faith in God into their secular worlds, along with stressing living Jewish values in a non-Jewish world.

10)                  They tend to be ritually traditional while socially and politically liberal.  Even the most ritually traditional are completely egalitarian.

11)                  Participants, while often raised in a specific movement, are less likely to identify with a particular movement.  They are not interested in denomination, but in authentic, deep, Jewish experiences.

Of course these minyanim are located primarily in large cities containing a critical mass of young Jews with a high level of Jewish education and commitment.  Yet, it would be wrong to dismiss them as big city anomalies.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, a co-founder of one of the first of these minyanim, Hadar in New York, has written a book, “Empowered Judaism,” focusing on what the minyanim can teach us about building spiritually vibrant Jewish communities.   One of his most important points is that these minyanim do not have to be seen as competition to normative synagogues.  He understands that today, 30 is the new 20.  Adults in their 20’s are far less likely to settle into permanent careers than just a couple of decades ago.  They are far less likely to marry, have children and enter a routine that would lead to synagogue participation.  The participants in today’s minyanim eventually WILL settle into careers, family life and have children – just later than prior generations.  They will move to towns such as Tallahassee.  These engaged, motivated young Jews can provide the backbone for future Jewish life.  As long as we can be a place of authentic Jewish experiences, grounded in an understanding of Jewish law and tradition, that provides Jewish prayer and learning on a level beyond the superficial, we can engage these emergent young Jews.  This is no small task for sure!

The Union for Reform Judaism is made up of about 850 congregations.  It has a powerfully entrenched set of institutions, with many people vested in their continuation.  Our camping system, youth programs, and Israel programs have all been models of success from which others have learned.  Hebrew Union College has tremendous potential as center of Jewish learning and spirituality.  Yet all of this, including our own congregation, will not survive unless we understand the new world of emergent Jews and adapt.

The first adaptation is to discard our own brand of ideological rigidity.  We rightly accuse much of the Orthodox world of this.  But Reform Jews have developed their own kind of “orthodoxy,” when they say “Reform congregations would not do (fill in the blank),” or try to cling to a conception of the movement as it was 30 or 40 years ago.  We should probably start by realizing the very brand “Reform” has lost its power, along with the brands of “Conservative” and “Reconstructionist.”  Here is the interesting paradox.  Movement affiliation for our congregation is still very important.  We need the resources of a national organization of progressive Jews to help train and motivate our youth.  We need to be part of an organization that fosters progressive Jewish thinking as opposed to theological rigidity.  At the same time we need to realize that actual movement affiliation becomes more meaningless for individual Jews every year.   People are seeking community.  People are seeking a meaningful Judaism.  Jews are NOT seeking a movement.

That means the second adaptation is to not settle for a Judaism of the lowest common denominator.  Yes, as progressive Jews in America we will never be bound by halachah in the same manner as the Orthodox.  But, Jewish law has to be part of the equation in making community decisions.  Our adult programs need to be filled with meaningful Jewish content.  We have to be vigorous in our understanding and teaching of Torah as a living, breathing organism, that younger Jews are hungering to learn and find application in their lives.  Our goal has to be a continuous improvement of general Jewish literacy – which means Hebrew, the range of Jewish theology, and an expanding knowledge of Jewish law and traditions in making personal religious choices.  Our religious school must always strive to increase the quality of Jewish understanding in our students.  As a progressive congregation we cannot and will not dictate personal religious practice.  But, we must be sure to provide the means for all Jews to make choices out of knowledge, and not just let them press the “opt out” button because of ignorance.

At the same time, we must NOT make those at the borders of Judaism, whether they are not yet Jewish, or because they are Jews who choose a less traditional path; we must not make them feel there is no home here.  They must be firmly inside our tent.  This is the hardest challenge we face – to be a place where serious Judaism can take place – yet give space to non-traditional Jews and even those in our community who, while they have affinity for Judaism, are not Jewish.

All of this must start with me.  Let me state right now that wherever you are on the Jewish spectrum – at the border but not Jewish all the way to very observant – I cherish your presence in this congregation.  Whatever your personal Jewish choices, your being here makes us a better, stronger community.  If I have ever made anyone feel outside of the tent, then I deeply apologize.

Because we are, we must be the big tent.  We must be that place where all can sit together, have serious discussions yes – have serious disagreements – yes, but all sit together and live together, learn together, celebrate together, mourn together, create a special Jewish community together.  The key word of all of this? Together, in Hebrew, beyachad, literally as one.

Psalm 133 is short, only 3 verses long.  I bet almost all of you know the first line – Hinei ma tov u’mana’im shevet achim gam yachad.  “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.”  But I also like the 3rd and last verse, “There God ordained blessing and everlasting life.”

May all of us find joy in building and occupying our big tent together.   May we enjoy sitting as brothers and sisters – together.  May we find blessing in creating a place of everlasting life for our community – our Jewish community, beyachad, together.  Kein yehi ratzon!

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The Other Side of Victory

            On Kol Nidrei of 5765 (2004), I gave a sermon against the Iraq war.  It was a very political sermon.  Yes, I couched it in terms of Jewish teaching, in particular the teaching about a king having to write a Torah scroll before going to war, implying that the deliberation might change the king’s mind about the necessity for the war.  But it was a political sermon.  I was against a war the Bush administration chose to wage.  It was an election year.  Even though I pointed out that Bush’s opponent in the election, John Kerry, was also wrong in his support for the Iraq war, thus trying to be non-partisan in my critique, a lot of people here were upset by that sermon.

One of you even came into my office to talk about the sermon, and explain why it was NOT the sermon she needed to hear on Kol Nidrei – how that sermon did not fill the spiritual need of that moment.  She was right.  It was a bad sermon.  I admit to you now, almost 9 years later, it was a lousy sermon. Oh, I still agree with the politics of the sermon, but it was not the right sermon for that moment.  Why?  Well, in addition to being a bit too long (it remains the longest sermon I have ever delivered), my whole approach was just plain wrong.  I was opposed to the politics of a particular war.  I had nothing to say about the notion of war itself.

Now I will speak about war.  Not born of any particular war, but born of my experiences this past summer.  As many of you know, I spent the summer travelling this country and Germany, interviewing family members that a little over 2 years ago I did not know even existed.  Those in the United States are all Jewish.  Those in Germany are the products of marriages between Jewish men from my family and a Catholic bride.  That means they are not Jewish.  They suffered, however, from the fact they had a Jewish parent.  The stories of the oppression they witnessed are moving – for sure.  But I found that the stories having the most profound impact on me are their accounts of what it is like to actually live through a war.  America and its allies triumphed in World War II.  But there is another side to victory – a side that I never could begin to understand until now.

For those suffering the consequences of war, its end brings emotional if not physical relief.  When the fighting finally ends, they must feel that better times are about to come; and even if they are not immediate, there is at least a moment of celebration that a period of fear has passed.  So one would think.

It was the end of World War II.  My aunt Charlotte, her mother and her siblings were living in the Sudetenland, having been evacuated to there from their home in Cologne.  This became part of the Russian zone of occupation, so the Red Army moved into the area.  This only triggered a round of atrocities, especially the first day they arrived.  Women were raped.  People were abused.  The conquering victors had arrived.  Margarethe, Charlotte’s mother, had her daughters lay down on the top level of a bunk bed, curl themselves in a small fetal position, and put their thumbs in their mouths to appear as childlike as possible.  The Russian soldiers came into their room, shone their flashlights, saw the children lying there and left.  It was a close call.

There was a song the family knew from the Karnival celebrations in Cologne.  Karnival is a winter festival celebration held every year in Cologne, much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  The lyrics said, “when you are homesick, you should travel on foot back to Cologne.”  The family was homesick, so in early summer of 1945 they began a journey on foot back to Cologne.  This part of the Romberg family travelled with another young woman and her two children.  At age 13, Charlotte was the eldest of the children.  Every day they walked.  At night they slept in a different place; sometimes a barn, sometimes a school, sometimes the ground.  They foraged the fields for food or depended on the kindness of strangers they met along the way.

At last they came upon a farmhouse and the farmer’s wife was outside churning butter.  They asked if they could spend the night in the barn and the woman told them “no.”  As they were leaving they met up with a Red Army officer, as the farmhouse had been commandeered to house a group of army officers.  He spoke German and asked them what they wanted.  They told him they just wanted to sleep in the barn for the night, but the farmer’s wife had told them no.  He then forced the farmer’s wife to give them a bedroom in the farmhouse.  One reserved for a Red Army officer.  For the first time in weeks, they slept in a real bed, were able to wash, and to have real meals.  They stayed there for several days.

Charlotte and her family were able to hitch a ride on a Red Army truck headed for Carlsbad.  The driver let them off a bit before there and when he said goodbye, gave them some tins of food for their journey.  They made their way to the border of the American section near the Eger River, but the border was closed and they could not pass.  So they took shelter in a kind of makeshift refugee camp in the ballroom of a guesthouse near the border.  Every day brought the possibility of starvation unless they could successfully forage for food from the farmers’ fields in the vicinity.

One time, Charlotte’s brother Norbert found a farmer’s cellar filled high with potatoes.  They formed a plan to steal potatoes in which the brothers crept into the cellar with a bag while Charlotte kept watch.  Back in the ball room there was a small oven with a rough surface.  They scratched the potatoes and put them onto the oven to make them more edible.

Finally there was a train organized to take refugees back to their homes in western Germany.  After an overnight in Braunschweig, then another in Hanover, they finally arrived in Cologne in December of 1945. They were home at last in their beloved city – after 6 months of travelling – only to find it almost completely destroyed by allied bombing.  They were placed in a bomb shelter near the Great Cathedral of Cologne.  But in a devastated city there was no work or housing for a widow with 4 children.  They were evacuated to Pivitsheide, where Charlotte stayed for the rest of her childhood.

When a war ends the soldiers look forward to a homecoming.  The victorious side has parades to celebrate the heroics of the young soldiers.  Families are reunited.  Tears of joy are wept.  Old romances are rekindled, new romances are found.  An exciting new life begins for the returnees from the front.  But for Charlotte and her family, there was no homecoming.  There was only a long journey, mostly on foot, the worry of starvation, and the sorrow of seeing the home that that they loved in ruins.

Now a second story.  Doris, age 12 and Ilse, age 10 were not Jewish.  They were technically Catholic.  But because their father, Oskar, was Jewish, their priest, father Vorspel, feared for their safety.  He approached their mother and told her the girls must leave Essen and be hidden.  He had connections to a nunnery in South Germany.  When their mom objected she did not have the money for this, Father Vorspel told her not to worry, he would take care of everything.  So in March of 1943 they went to live with nuns in south Germany.

But after a year and a half, someone travelling from Essen recognized the girls.  Their mother had to fetch them home.  It was not, however, an easy journey.  Fist of all, she was pregnant once again.  Second, a lot of the trip had to be done on foot.  Finally, Doris fell ill with appendicitis and was hospitalized for two weeks.  By the time she was able to travel and they all arrived home, their father Oskar had disappeared.  Although they would not know this for several months, he had been taken to Theresienstadt.

That left a pregnant mother alone in Essen with two young daughters.  Every week mom would inquire after her husband’s whereabouts, but no answers were found.  It was clear, even to German civilians, that the allies were winning the war.  But what this meant was an enduring of ever increasingly brazen bombings of German civilian areas.  In the early morning of March 13, 1945, Essen suffered a heavy bombing by the allies.  The house where Doris, Ilse, and their mom lived was destroyed.  The family made it to the bomb shelter in the basement, but got trapped under the rubble of the building.  There they remained trapped until around 3 in the afternoon.  Of course this meant their house was gone and they had no place to life.  It was fortunate that a theology student gave them space in his apartment.

And finally, a third story.  Maria Jagode was a Catholic orphan raised by nuns in a small convent in a village on the banks of the Rhine River.  As a young woman she became the governess to the two young boys of a Jewish family, Manfred and Ralph.  Their father, Karl, was a quite successful importer of English wool into Germany.  Because his suppliers were English, and the commodity was much sought after in Germany, Karl’s business prospered through the 1930’s long after the Nazis had choked off other Jewish businesses.  But all of that came to an end on Kristalnacht.

Karl was tipped off that the Gestapo was after him, so he left his home in Essen and went into hiding, leaving his wife, two children and Maria Jagode in their living quarters above his business offices.  The only way to the living quarters was a stairway that led from a garden in the back to the second floor.

Kristalnact arrived and the boys, their mother and Maria hid upstairs while listening to the SS destroy the offices below.  They heard the sounds of sledge hammers being taken to desks and type writers.  Then, horrified, they heard the sound of boots tromping up the stairs from the garden to their living quarters.  The Nazis were on the way to destroy the apartment and do who knows what to the inhabitants.  Maria Jagode met them at the door.  She told them she was a Catholic and that the family was to leave Germany shortly, leaving all of the contents of the apartment to her.  She asked them to please leave things alone, so that her property would not be destroyed.  The Nazis turned and left.

The family eventually made it to America.  They tried to keep in contact with the governess who saved them, but it was sporadic.  The boys grew up safely in Chicago.  After serving a tour of duty in the Korean War, Ralph was posted in Germany and found Maria Jagode.  As a small token of thanks, he wanted to go with her to give some help to the nuns who raised her.  She told him that the nuns who raised her used their facilities to hide and transfer Allied pilots who were shot down during the war – a kind of underground railroad.  Ralph went to the town where the convent was to give them some help as well – but it was completely gone.  He went to question the mayor of the village who was reluctant to tell him anything.  Being an American soldier Ralph was required to always be in full uniform, so when he began to press the mayor and put on an official “air,” the mayor caved and told the tale.  The Nazis had found out how the nuns were aiding Allied soldiers, locked all of them in one of the convent buildings and burned it to the ground.

The former Jewish refugee from Germany turned American officer then returned to Essen to find his old home.  It was completely bombed out except for one thing.  The stairway from the garden to the second floor was still standing – a stairway to nowhere – a satiric monument to Maria Jagode and the nuns who raised her.

The receiving of these stories was accompanied by tears, sometimes by the giver, sometimes by me.  After hearing tale after tale of the unintended damage inflicted on the innocents on the other side of our victory, I can no longer accept the notion that there is in any way a thing called “a just war.”  Today we have a term for the experiences of Charlotte, Doris, and the nuns who raised Maria Jagode – collateral damage.  When we march to war drunk on our own self-righteousness,  we are incapable of being “just.”  All war does is inflict pain.  Perhaps there are wars forced upon us.  I am not necessarily an advocate for always “turning the other cheek,” although I believe the world would be a better place with a bit more cheek turning and a lot less knee jerk reacting.  Yes, perhaps there are some wars that are simply not avoidable.  But just?  I have to say no.  You cannot hear the stories from those on the other side of a victory and believe the war is just.

I think Mark Twain said it best when he said this about war: “Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, war.  He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind.  He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out…and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.  And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for the “universal brotherhood of man,” – – with his mouth.”

How about our own tradition?  What does Judaism have to say about war?  We Jews are certainly experienced in having war and violence thrust upon us.  Yet our tradition casts our participation with a deep sense of regret.  In I Chronicles, these are King David’s deathbed words to his son, Solomon, “My son, I wanted to build a house for the name of the Adonai my God.  But the word of Adonai came to me saying, ‘You have shed much blood and fought great battles; you shall not build a house for My name, for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.”  No where does God criticize David’s wars as being unnecessary.  Even so, participation in war cannot help but taint the soul.  Why else would many of the fiercest advocates for peace in Israel have been the generals, military leaders.  Who else better understands the moral price paid by participation in war?

I know what many of you are thinking right now.  Our president is contemplating a strike against Syria because Bashar al-Assad has reportedly used chemical weapons against his own civilians.  I do not question that this would be an atrocity.  I do not question that Assad is a dictator slaughtering his own people in a desperate attempt to cling to power.  But I am tired of hearing about “targeted” strikes.  The situation on the ground in Syria is complex.  I have little confidence in our ability only strike a military target and not harm civilians.  And I cannot blithely dismiss those casualties as “collateral damage.”  “But,” you might object, “Do we not have a moral obligation to oppose the use of weapons of mass destruction?”

Indeed, if we were looking for a Jewish text to guide us we might look to the law of din rodef drawn from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a.  This law tells us if we see one person pursuing another, threatening to kill them, we are obligated to use all force, including killing them, to prevent the murder.  By this measure we have already failed.  According to a report on Monday by McClatchy News Service, US government published as part of its evidence of Assad’s crime the revelation our intelligence had been monitoring preparations for a gas attack 3 days before it happened.  The questions must then be asked, why did the State Department not warn the rebels?  Why did the administration not do what it did late last year and raise a hue and cry over the possible impending attack?  It is important to know all of this as Maimonides points out that killing the pursuer who can be stopped with lesser means is tantamount to murder.

I simply cannot escape the feeling that launching cruise missile strikes would be an empty gesture to cover up or draw attention away from our failure to take proper measures to prevent this attack before it happened.  I cannot escape the feeling this is more about what policy “looks” good as opposed to real moral considerations.  I cannot escape the feeling of being fed another line about what is just.  All I ask is that before we do anything we consider the real consequences of our actions – not from a policy perspective, but a human perspective.  I want to know what is the next step.   How do we avoid the next trap of war?  And, by the way, we still have not even discussed how an American strike on Syria might pull Israel into greater harm’s way.

So today, on Rosh Hashanah I plead for a change of mindset, a change of heart.  It is time to recognize there is an industry that profits from the proliferation of war, and to pledge that we will no longer buy the weak arguments that have pushed us into constant warfare in the last 60 years.  For if we look at the history of the United States from 1950 until today, we have know more years participating in war than not (I have actually counted).  Even more, consider our millennial children.  They have not known one year without war.  I am tired of it, aren’t you?

Today is known as Yom Hadin, the day of judgment.  We believe this is the day God judges our actions from the past year.  We recite words of prayer saying that “repentance, prayer and charity” will affect God’s decree.  I would like to add one more action to that list.  I pray that we finally heed the words of the prophet Isaiah; that we embrace the day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore.”  May that day speedily come.  Amen

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Teach the Children

            Tonight I ask your indulgence.  I want to share with you a stream of consciousness I experienced last March.  Where I will begin, will not seem so connected to where I am going to end up, but trust me for a few moments – I promise this will not just be the random wanderings of my aging mind.

In March Audrey and I attended a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Village Square and the Tallahassee Democrat concerning gun issues as they relate to school safety.  The conversation among the panelists ranged from what local schools do to insure school safety, to statistics on gun ownership, to what does the second amendment really mean, to how do we define exactly what IS an assault weapon.  These were all useful topics, I am sure, but it was the clergy member of the panel – Reverend Brant Copeland – pastor of the First Presbyterian Church – who tried to steer the conversation away from the minutia of gun types, or parsing the meaning of the second amendment.  He wanted the panel to engage in a larger conversation about the values we want our community to reflect.  What is the kind of society we really want?  From Pastor Copeland’s perspective, if we could have THAT conversation, then our policies on guns, the 2nd amendment, and school safety measures would become self evident.  I agreed with him and thought he had nailed the problem – at least I thought he had until Audrey and I discussed the event over dinner afterwards.

Audrey has worked in varyious kinds of schools for a long time; often schools that serve deprived populations.   When we lived in Philadelphia she was a school counselor for inner city Catholic schools, and here she works for FSU doing research that takes her into a wide range of schools, including many outside of Leon County.  From my own work with b’nai mitzvah students as well as teaching the Confirmation class, I get insights into many of the Leon County schools.  In a nutshell, our conversation led us to the conclusion that it our system of public education is the incubator for the next Adam Lanza – the young man who committed the mass murders at Stony Brook Elementary School in Connecticut.  Why?  Because our children are not being socialized properly.  Our education system, instead of fostering well adjusted, morally cognizant, independent thinking and creative human beings, is producing an ever increasing population of automatons.

It begins in kindergarten.  When I attended kindergarten, it was all about playing with others, listening to classic children’s stories, doing art projects – often very messy but with great latitude for creativity.  The picture album I have of kindergarten shows a classroom with tables arranged in a rather random, jumbled fashion, lots of toys and art supplies.  We dressed in costumes at Halloween and put on a Christmas play for our parents.  (As an aside, yes, the fact I played Joseph in a Christmas play in 1959 did not seem to harm my Jewish identity)  The only evaluation my parents received was a hand written letter by my teacher at the end of the school year, giving her observations on my growth as a whole person, academically, morally, and creatively.  This was a public school in West Virginia, by the way – not exactly a bastion of liberal or far out educational philosophies.  Our building was a two story brick affair built in 1892 complete with a bell tower.  The bell was rung by pulling on a rope.  In 3rd grade, if I got to school early enough my teacher would let me ring the bell.  But our school ran on educational principles based on plain old commons sense.  Kindergarten was where you got your first taste of the school experience, with a focus on creating a love of coming to school and learning how to get along with others.

Kindergartens today are often like the ones Audrey observed in Gadsden County last year.  They are sad descendants of my quite happy experience.  The children are ordered into neat rows.  There is little or no play.  The emphasis is on inculcating obedience and cramming a pre-determined set of facts into the children’s heads.  There are 5 year olds having to take spelling tests.  By second grade they look beaten, the love of school, of the experience of learning, is wrung out of them.  This reflects a situation found in schools all over the country.  Schools in deprived areas are more concerned with teaching the children to obey, to toe the line, as opposed to a real education that allows them to think, to create.  Even in schools located in better areas, the emphasis on testing, the pressure by parents to have children reading and doing math at an ever younger age, is forcing educators to carry out educational policies that they admit are against recognized principles of child development.

Teachers now have less and less freedom to formulate how they wish to instruct their children.  All that matters is to score higher on tests that determine the funding fate of the school.  A catch 22 results.  The lower the test scores, the less funding, the harder to supply a meaningful education for the children.  As the budget gets squeezed tighter; art, music, and drama become eliminated from the schools.  That means many children’s fates are doomed before they even start, because for many children it is the arts that provide the spark engaging them in the process of learning.  So we have to wonder, who in the system is really thinking of the best interests of the children?

By now you might be asking, “What does this have to do with school safety?”  My response is that there are no short term answers to preventing violent disasters in schools.  Any policy, any law, any measure including posting guards at the doors, will not be an iron clad guarantee to prevent the next shooting.  A far better use of our resources would be to construct an education system that fosters love of learning, provides basic skills, teaches basic morality, inculcates creativity and creative thinking AND provides an environment where children can play together, be children together and learn to interact with each other in positive, productive ways.  By creating better, more emotionally healthy citizens, we reduce the prospects for the next mass shooting.

Yes, this will take a generation or two, but we need to focus on long term solutions, not short term reactions to the disaster of the moment.  It will be hard, very hard, and it will take resources, but consider the consequences of turning away from our obligations to our children.  Because I truly believe that the only way to create a better Jewish future, a better American future, a better human future, is to spare no expense, no effort to care for the most precious commodity we have – our children.  For me, all other issues are secondary to what we do with our children, to caring for our children in a radically changing world.

Let’s look at the discussion about guns as an example.  To me this whole conversation, about what sort should be legal, about what measures of gun control should be enacted, about who should be armed and when and where should concealed weapons be permitted – well – for me all of this is emblematic of a deeper problem.  They are the symptoms of the disease, not the disease.  The deeper problem is the disservice we do to our children by cheating them out of the education they deserve.  The deeper problem is that troubled children go undetected, not getting the extra attention they need.  The deeper problem is an unhealthy moral attitude.

Do you remember the shootings in Littleton, CO in April of 1999?  On the 110th birthday of Adolf Hitler, two boys, members of an outcast group fascinated with white supremacy, entered Columbine High School and cruelly slaughtered or wounded 40 people.  Police found bombs planted all over the school.  In the aftermath, all the same questions were asked that we heard after the shootings last December at Stony Brook:  How can we increase security at schools?  Why are we not catching the signs of trouble in these students before they explode in violence?  Why are we allowing our children to play violent video and computer games?  Why don’t we have better gun control laws?  And answers came from all of the same sources as this past December.  Politicians, psychologists, the NRA and media pundits all had suggestions – most of them conflicting – as to what to do to stop the violence.  But I believed that it was Pope John Paul II who correctly articulated the core of the problem back in 1999:  “America has to provide its children with a moral vision.”

Moral vision – yes!  And our own Jewish tradition, what we do here in Temple Israel can help provide moral vision.  The Hebrew word for ethics, for morality is musar.  The word means so much more than ethics, however.  The meaning of musar is a combination of “morality,” “instruction,” and “discipline.”  It appears 50 times just in the book of Proverbs.  We learn the essence of the word in the very first chapter, “My son, hear the instruction (musar) of your father.  Do not forsake the Torah of your mother.”  As is the typical structure in Proverbs, each element in the first part of the verse has a corresponding element in the second.  Here, musar is the equivalent of Torah.  The moral instruction manual for Jews is the Torah.  I could give a detailed sermon on all the aspects of Torah morality, but let me default to a summary given by Rabbi Hillel.  The essence of Torah is to treat everybody else as you wish to be treated.  The rest is a filling in of the details.  The Jewish approach to living our morality through our actions is the example we can offer America today.  It is our potential contribution to an American moral vision.

And our country desperately needs this.  Today, in an America that celebrates instant individual gratification more than ever before, we need a moral vision.  Today, in an America whose family structures are changing as never before, we need to a moral vision.  Today in an America that is becoming more ethnically diverse than ever before, we need a moral vision.  Today, in an America that is ever more divided and partisan, we need a moral vision.

But, we also need to understand the new America.  I looked over a number of studies from the 2000 census as well as the 2010 census.  There are interesting trends we need to think about.  The percentage of single parent households is now well over 1 fourth of all families.  The number of interracial families is rising.  The number of same sex couples with children is rising.  People are marrying later and having children later.  There are more adopted children representing a more diverse international population.  Within a few decades, America will be a majority minority country.  That means less white Americans than all the other ethnicities combined.  About 50 % of all marriages end in divorce.  Depending on your perspective, one may or may not lament some of these statistics.  Are they the signs of moral decline, or as just the new reality of a shifting world?  To all of these demographic shifts I add one more reality; which I actually do lament – the increasing isolation of individuals from community as we become more infatuated and engrossed with our various electronic devices.

How do we start to construct a moral vision for America?  First must come an acceptance of the ever increasing diversity that makes up our country.  Whether it is ethnically, racially, religiously, sexually – let’s realize that the great strength and real beauty of this country has been its ability to absorb and create a great salad bowl for diversity.  Along with accepting diversity is the recognition of responsibility to the community.  We might all be different, but we have obligations to each other.  The single greatest excess in this country is the focus on the self.  We are too self absorbed, too disconnected from real human contact.  I love my computer but it is not a substitute for human to human interaction.  No matter how many friends I have on Facebook, they cannot replace the joy of being with real, live people in a vibrant community.  Computers make it too easy to communicate only with those who occupy our personal ideological silos.  So part of the moral vision must be fostering actual human community, and a sense of our obligations to that community.  It is Pirkei Avot that teaches us “al tifros min ha tzibur,” “do not separate yourself from the community.

However, obligations to the community do not come at the expense of individual dignity.  Every person has the right to develop into the best possible version of his or her self.  So our moral vision for America must balance our responsibility to the community with our rights as individuals.  Accompanying individual responsibility is the need to be active contributors to society.  Our moral vision must not encourage sloth, but build a love of learning, work, creativity, and pride in real achievement.  Finally, this moral vision must do away with the notion that being poor is some kind of moral or personal flaw.  That particular perversion of the Protestant work ethic needs to be excised from American thought.

Now enter the schools.  Where else can children be exposed to all the benefits of technology while in a community that does not sacrifice human contact?  Where else can young minds be stimulated with ideas, with exposure to the arts, to music, to the rich cultural diversity of this country?  Where else can children learn to just play well together – so that they end up playing well together as adults?  Where else can children learn the skills they will need to be contributing members of society while achieving a sense of personal dignity?

The question is how to create schools that will achieve this.  Well, they already exist, and at least one is present right here in Tallahassee – the school of Arts and Sciences.  A significant number of children from this congregation are fortunate enough to attend SAS, and as I work with children for either b’nei mitzvah training or listen to them in Confirmation class, I constantly see the results of a loving and creative learning environment.  My lament is this:  why cannot every child have the same opportunity?  Rather than pour money into countless wasteful programs, I believe no expense should be spared to create schools of excellence in every community.

Part of these resources needs to be for what some school officials call “resource officers.”  These are trained professionals, outside of and in addition to guidance counselors, who can spot the troubled, outcast child, and work with him or her.  This professional would be engaged with families, attentive to domestic difficulties, and provide resources to parents.  The guidance counselors present in many schools are far too few and overburdened to provide these services to their school’s population.

If one looks at the countries with the most successful school systems; schools that achieve the best outcomes for their students, there are some commonalities American schools need to adopt.  These two countries are South Korea and Finland.  In some ways they are radically different from each other – yet two key elements are the same.  First, all education begins with the teacher.  These countries pay teachers on a level that attracts the best and brightest to the profession.  Teachers in many parts of America (I include Florida) are underpaid.  The Democrat recently reported that starting teacher salaries are now around 35 K.  After 15 years a teacher will make 40 K.  Am I alone in asking what bright young teacher would be motivated to stay in teaching 15 years only to earn 5 K more?  I am appalled by how little we value teaching as a profession.  As a result, too many of our teachers are mediocrities who cannot even speak proper English.  Audrey heard one last year tell her class, “Let’s sound out the word air-o-plane” actually breaking the word into 3 syllables!  Let’s elevate the teaching profession AND provide means to remove non performing teachers, instead of protecting mediocrity and buying young teachers in bulk on the cheap.  Second, every child learns the same material.  No child in the United States should be held hostage educationally by the whims of ignorant local school boards.  The school board of Kansas should not have the right to deny science and the state of Texas should not have the right to edit history.  Third, full programs of art, music and drama should be part of every school’s curriculum.  Often children having difficulties with standard subjects find their key to learning in the arts.

I know what you are thinking – these are pipe dreams and we do not have the money to make them happen.  To that I have two answers.  First, the money to educate is already in our system.  We have just prioritized badly.  Second, we need not wait for politicians to wake up and make changes.  We can begin to do this ourselves.  How?  We can actively lobby for education reform, locally and at the state.  We can become involved in local schools as mentors, as volunteers – offering our time to help care for our children.  Think you do not have time?  Think you are too busy?  Well, in Philadelphia, center city professionals dedicate part of their day to tutoring inner city children who need academic help.  A few years back I saw a wonderful picture of a 6 year old African American boy sitting on the desk of a prominent center city lawyer – each with a reading primer in hand.  In Yonkers, a number of policemen have taken special training and tutor elementary school children after regular hours.  The purpose is manifold.  Not only do the kids get academic help, they learn that these uniformed figures are people to be trusted.  At the same time the policemen are on the alert for children who seem troubled, and cue the teacher or principle to their needs.

The real question is this: how willing are we to get involved in caring for our children?  Here is why I decided to speak about this tonight, our tradition, Jewish tradition, does not shirk from our obligations to our children, or to their education.  The Talmud teaches, “Reish Lakish said, ‘The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children.’”  Think about that.  Reish Lakish believes God keeps things going because of the hope each new generation of children represents.  But another rabbi, Rav Papa objected and asked this question, “What about mine and yours?”  Reish Lakish then replied, “Breath in which there is sin is not like breath in which there is no sin.”  We adults are already tainted with prejudice, with bad habits, with rigid perspective.  Untainted children represent our chance to repent and get it right – if only we teach them.  Reish Lakish then continues, “School children may not be made to neglect their studies even for the building of the Temple.”  Remember that the studies being referred to include religious and moral studies.  The rabbi is saying that even the grandeur of the Temple, takes a back seat to the hope a new generation of children represents.  Their education trumps everything, even constructing the most prominent religious structure of their day.

Twice a day a Jew prays the words v’shinantam levanecha, “teach them to your children.”  “Them” is the words of Torah.  They are words of history.  They are words of morality.  They are words of hope.  They are words law.  They are words of righteousness.  They are words of desire.  They are words of prayer.  Join with me now as we pray for our children.

Adapted from Berachot 17a

May you live to see your world fulfilled,

May your instruction prepare you for your future,

And may you trust ingenerations past and yet to be.

May your heart ponderand achieve understanding,

And your words be filled with insight.

May songs of praise ever be uponyour tongue

Andyour vision be on astraight path before you.

May your eyes shine with the light of holy words

And your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.

May your lips speak wisdom,

And your fulfillment be in righteousness

As you run wholeheartedly to seek the will of God.

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I know Bashar al Assad is a petty tyrant butchering his own people in a desperate attempt to hold onto power.  I know that the use of chemical weapons is against international conventions.  I know the argument that evil must be opposed so that there will never be a repeat of the capitulation of Chamberlain to Hitler at Munich.  I know the emotional pull people feel when hearing that gas was used in an attack that killed children.  For a compelling piece on that perspective please read Rabbi Donielle Hartman’s blog post at:  http://www.hartman.org.il/Blogs_View.asp?Article_Id=1198&Cat_Id=273&Cat_Type=Blogs

I know all of these things and yet….I cannot reconcile myself to throwing cruise missiles into Syria.

Yes the President is asking Congress for approval.  Yes, I just got an email from AIPAC pleading with me to drum up support for this with our congressmen.  Yes, I am hearing the arguments that not to follow through on the “red line” Obama drew for Syria regarding chemical weapons will have a detrimental effect on our policy concerning Iran.  And maybe that is my problem with the thought of launching an attack.  I am feeling it is a cold, clumsy policy decision being masked as a moral decision.  I have not attained any clarity that our striking Syria will be the truly moral one.  I am doing serious “God” wrestling for sure.

My first inclination is to ask what guidance Jewish tradition offers on this issue.  The United States is not under imminent threat from Syria, so an argument of self-defense is not in play.  Neither, really is Israel.  At least I don’t think Assad would seriously consider launching any kind of attack on Israel.  The most relevant Jewish teaching I can think to apply is the law of din rodef.  Based on the commandment in Leviticus 19 not to “stand on the blood of your neighbor,” the Talmud in Sanhedrin 73a tells us that if we see a person pursuing another with the clear intent to murder them, we should use all force necessary to stop them, including killing them.  A caveat to this is added by Maimonides, who says that killing the pursuer who might have been stopped by lesser means is murder.

So there you have the basis of my problems with casting this as a moral decision.  According to a well researched and detailed article by McClatchy News Service on Sept 2, there are a lot of problems with the narrative the United States is presenting to its allies, to congress, to the world.  The first problem is that British sources as well as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirm less than half the 1,429 deaths that Secretary of State Kerry has put forward.  For all the details see:   http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/09/02/201027/to-some-us-case-for-syrian-gas.html#emlnl=Daily_News_Update

But that is only arguing over the scale of the atrocity.  More disturbing is a close look at the case the United States is presenting.  Part of the argument is that intelligence had gathered evidence showing the Assad regime was preparing for the attack and knew there was a high probability of the attack 3 days before August 21, the day of the gas attack.  Intelligence noted activity at a Syrian site known to be a place where sarin gas is mixed, as well as operatives being outfitted with gas masks.  This raises at least two questions.  Why did the administration not warn the rebels the attack was coming?  Why did the administration not raise a hue and cry in the international community before it occurred.  This is exactly what the Obama administration did at the end of 2012 when they uncovered similar evidence – they shined a light on the possibility.

If we failed to use a less violent means to stop this “pursuer,” then launching a cruise missile attack violates the caveat Maimonides places on the application of the law of din rodef.  For we all know that a cruise missile attack will kill Syrians.  Some of the dead will be connected to the production and use of sarin, but there is a strong likelihood that others will not.  They will be dismissed as “collateral damage.”  For me, this is a real moral dilemma, one that I cannot so easily dismiss, because I have to question to what end are we undertaking this mission?  Making the moral dilemma even more complicated, I must also ask why are we so trigger happy to launch strikes against Syria?  Where were our objections to the genocide in the Sudan?  The scale of murder was much larger there, although sarin was not used.  Is the red line truly the use of chemical means of murder versus more conventional means?  If so, then why were we not eager to launch missiles against Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s when he used gas to kill thousands of Iranians?  Or, did we perceive Saddam Hussein in that period as doing our dirty work for us?  Forgive me, but I am still not seeing the moral imperative to launch a strike, only further complications to our moral standing.

Or is the argument not one of morality, but one of policy?  If so, then it is clearly what I said before – a cold clumsy policy meant to mask the administration’s earlier mistakes.  It is an attempt to appear strong in the face of prior indecisive and incompetent Middle East policies.  We have yet to demonstrate any real understanding of the dynamics of the “on the ground” situations in the Arab world, be it Egypt, Iraq, or Syria.  My moral objection is over how cavalierly we are quick to throw missiles at people – all to give the appearance that we are doing something.  They are low risk to us – US lives are not at stake.  Except that there is a high risk.  Absent any clear path, absent the cooperation of the international community or at least some of our closest allies, we will be faced with a devil’s choice.  Either launch some strikes that do not resolve the problem but save “face,” and then walk away; or be prepared to put boots on the ground.  Is it not better to walk away now and task the Arab world with solving this?  Is it not better to task Russia, Syria’s benefactor state, with solving this?

Finally, I cannot abide yet another set of false justifications for violent action.  I cannot stomach how the John McCain’s of the world seem to never find a conflict they do not relish.  For if we look at U.S. history from 1950 onwards, we have spent many more years involved in war than years at peace. I have actually counted.  And our millennial children have known nothing but war.  No, as far as I can tell the moral position would be to keep trying to work with the international community to find a solution in Syria and not lob missiles so as not to appear weak over an artificially drawn red line.  I am not necessarily a “turn the other cheek” kind of person.  But I believe the world would be a lot better off with a bit more cheek turning and a lot less knee jerk violent responding.  Let’s stop the drumbeat for war.

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