Archive for December, 2013

The angst was palpable.  A question on the CCAR Facebook page asked if we rabbis were disturbed by the posting of pictures showing members of our congregations with Christmas trees or Santa Clause.  I was guilty of the knee jerk reaction “yes, it bothers me.”  Over the next few days there were dozens of responses exploring various aspects of the reality of Jews celebrating Christmas, a look at the hows and whys.  Theories abounded about what we could/should do, and about what it all means.  The only clear conclusion is how much we do not know about the motives of Jews appearing in Christmas related photos and whether it is a marker of their true Jewish commitment.

In truth, I am not sure why I had that immediate negative knee jerk reaction.  It might be related to Christmas as the yearly focal point of Christian hubris in America.  I, like many Jews, am tired of the annual complaints by some Christians about the “War on Christmas.”  I am tired of the assumption by most Americans that everyone celebrates Christmas.  I am tired of the tokenism shown in public schools by the inclusion of one lame Chanukah song along with all of the beautiful Christmas music.  Which leads to another reason I might resent Christmas.  As a music lover, I have to admit that Christmas music is generally lovely, while most of the music created for Chanukah is, to put it bluntly, awful.  Perhaps most of all, I am tired of explaining that Chanukah is a minor holiday that represents no core theological value of Judaism.  Teaching about Chanukah teaches very little about the beauty of Jewish thought, texts, spiritual practice or the power of the Biblically mandated chagim.  The proximity to Christmas elevates the importance of Chanukah and I do resent that.

But, if I am honest with myself, I have had a perfectly pleasurable personal relationship with Christmas my entire life.  As a little boy spending much of my childhood in Fairmont, W. VA, I learned every Christmas carol and enjoyed singing them.  I was cast as Joseph in my Kindergarten Christmas play because I was the only student who could sing a Hebrew song to Mary on the way to Bethlehem.  My parents were close friends with a Baptist minister.  We would go trim their tree every year.  I sat on Santa’s lap in the local department store.  I went caroling with my Christian friends.  As an adult I dressed up as Santa Clause for my wife’s pre-school.  Indeed, I remember having a rather clever answer when one 4 year old asked why they could not hear my reindeer on the roof of the school.  I said it was because they were all wearing socks.  During the years my children were in grade school I went to our neighbor’s Christmas party and caroled with them.  Everyone got a kick out of the fact I knew the words to all the songs better than any of the Christians.

My parents, however, provided a very committed Jewish home.  My dad was a survivor and there was little doubt about our involvement in synagogue or any doubt at all about our Jewish identity.  Christmas did not enter our home.  Celebrating Christmas was what we did to share a fun time with non Jewish friends at their homes.  It had zero religious meaning for us.

A few years ago, my daughter Carrie, who is married to a non-Jew, demonstrated an updated version of this.  She hosted a Christmas gathering for her husband’s family.  His family is not religious.  Christmas for them is all about getting together as a family.  The reason my daughter hosted was hat her husband’s parents live in Cape Cod and his brother’s family live in West Virginia.  Living in Philadelphia at the time, Carrie realized her house was the mid point.  She made a point of telling me, “Don’t worry Dad, we are not having a Christmas tree or anything.  I kind of think this is doing a mitzvah so no one is burdened by too much driving.”  I had to agree with her.  Her husband is completely supportive of raising a Jewish family.  He has taken an Intro to Judaism class with Carrie, been to Israel with her and only celebrates the Jewish holidays.  His brother’s wife had just had a new baby and their hosting Christmas was out of consideration for the rest of his family.

All of this brings me to two observations.  First, for much of our country, Christmas is part of the emerging American civil religion.  Similar to Thanksgiving, Christmas is more about family and promoting general good will.  For years I have argued with congregants over the various Christmas symbols.   I do not agree that they are just pagan icons adapted into Christianity.  Symbols such as the tree, lights, wreaths, luminaries, Santa, and even the giving of gifts all have deep Christian symbolism.  For years I have urged people to reject these Christmas trappings as they DO reflect a religious perspective.  No one cares.  To the consternation of Christian clergy, all of these symbols are losing or have lost their Christian meanings.  They are just part of the general civil celebration of a happy winter solstice holiday.  Indeed, if there is any religion being celebrated by all Christmas participants, it is the religion of capitalism.  All of this is not what I am used to, but it is the reality.

The second lesson is probably more important.  As Jewish ethnicity melts away in America, Jews become more comfortable with all things Christmas.  The increase of interfaith families means that children being raised Jewish participate in family Christmas celebrations.  The boundaries keeping Jews and Christians separate are fast disappearing.  But, here is the important part, none of this prevents someone from being a committed Jew – if that is what they wish to do.  I have many congregants who, for a variety of reasons participate in Christmas celebrations.  I also see how most of these are deeply committed to our Jewish community, supporting it on many levels.  I have seen their children become far more Jewishly literate than the parents – while the parents (many of them not even Jewish) take pride in their children’s Jewish accomplishments and commitments.  These families are able to compartmentalize very differently than I do.

The problem is not that Christmas is ruining the Jewish commitment of Jews.  The problem is that Jewish institutions are not providing enough meaningful Jewish content to help Jews keep Christmas in its proper perspective.  Just because the world is shifting in the way boundaries are drawn does not mean Jews are turning away from Judaism.  It just means they see the relationship of their Judaism to American culture differently than me.  Those of us in positions to teach and lead have to articulate and demonstrate the beauty and power of Judaism.  Then we have to let go of our angst and trust that our people, if properly inspired, will find their way.

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Those who know me know I am an inveterate sports fan.  Specifically I am a great football fan, being very loyal to the Philadelphia Eagles as well as my alma mater, the Pitt Panthers.  It was with chagrin but real admiration that I watched Jameis Winston take Pitt apart in the first game of this season.  It was clear that he is a player of great talent, truly a first rate quarterback.  As is often said in sports, Winston is the “real deal.”

But, this fall has been a football season in which I am rethinking my devotion to football.  On the pro level, there have been revelations about the long term effects of football on pro players.  With sadness I learned how former Pitt player and Dallas Cowboy Tony Dorsett is suffering permanent brain damage marked by memory loss, from the years of taking a constant pounding in the NFL.  The league is not adequately addressing either this or the frequency of players suffering concussions.  I am left wondering if football is really just as bad as boxing – nothing but gratuitous violence.

As to high school football, I have been reading some articles showing that high school education would benefit if varsity sports, especially football, were removed from school culture.  We are one of the few countries that connect competitive sports to our public education system.  All of the benefits of competitive sports could be had through participation in club sports.  The presence of varsity sports in high schools is appearing to be detrimental to creating a positive learning environment in high schools.  School districts that have eliminated varsity sports, particularly football (admittedly a small sample) have seen an increase in their students academic scores.

The grossest expressions of football culture, however, occur on the college level.  There are multiple problems: the inferior education given black players compared to white players, the veracity of the athletes truly being students, grade fixing…the list seems endless.  But perhaps the worst part of football in colleges is idol worship of the players, i.e. the elevation of players to hero status and subsequently forgiving the awful behavior of players needed to keep the team winning.  I saw this with Dorsett at Pitt in the 1970’s.  We are seeing it again with Jameis Winston at FSU right now.  This has become most apparent now that Winston has won the Heisman Trophy – college football’s highest award – last Saturday.  Look at the Facebook postings regarding Winston.  Countless posted how proud they were of Winston.  All of this was accompanied by the requisite “Go Noles!” along with the wish he leads the team to a national championship.  He is garnering accolades as a leader.  His success on the field, coupled with the award and all of the accolades declaring how proud people are of him, make Winston an example to young men all over the country.  He is now showered with fame and praise.

I have to ask if this is appropriate.  Why?  Well consider Winston’s escape from prosecution for a sexual abuse charge.  The whole affair is sordid no matter what the outcome.  The worst case scenario is this:  Winston escaped prosecution because State Attorney Willie Megg’s office could not or would not piece together enough of a case to charge him.  Once Meggs announced there would be no case brought against Winston. His exoneration caused a palpable sigh of relief in the football world.  That freed Heisman voters to cast their ballots for him (although there were 113 voters who did not even list him, which means they had moral difficulties with even considering him).  This leads us to the best case scenario surrounding Winston’s sexual episode.  He and the young woman had consensual sex, both of them as part of serial sexual behavior with multiple partners. Winston’s roommates watched them have sex through the open door to his bedroom because that is “what football players do.”  This is whom we wish to laud?

Do not get me wrong.  I am not a prude nor do I blame Winston.  He is merely the product of a culture that empowers those participating in football to play by different rules because of their contribution to the team’s success.  Absent such an obvious crime that conviction is inescapable, there are few moral consequences for football players.  All college players have to do is see the list of NFL players who get passes for behavior which would result in real punishment for the rest of us.  Few people really cared if the woman in the incident was truly abused.  Some even saw this as a plot to sabotage Winston’s Heisman hopes and FSU’s quest for a national title.  In addition, there were those who immediately vilified the young woman.

Most of all, I just cannot be proud of someone whose most noteworthy trait is the ability to throw and run with a football – no matter what kind of a fan I am.  I cannot be proud of someone who operates under this moral cloud.  Football would just be a trivial game if not for the dollars it generates.  The elevation of its players to hero status is a form of idolatry of the worse kind when it happens in the absence of admirable moral behavior.

All of this brings me to another point – who do I really admire?  Who is worthy of our pride?  Who should we look to for providing leadership?

Well, the same day Winston won the Heisman Trophy, a little 8 year old boy died after a long fight with leukemia – Sam Sommer – known to many as “Superman Sam.”  His parents are two rabbis, Phyllis and Michael Sommer.  I do not know them, but all you have to do is read Phyllis’s blog about their journey with Sam to share their grief, to have empathy with them as parents and to admire Sam’s courage as he faced death as well as their courage as they wrestled with their loss and shared this pain with the world.  You can read Phyllis’s entry the day of Sam’s death here:  http://supermansamuel.blogspot.com/2013/12/what-im-missing.html

Needless to say I am proud of my colleagues Phyllis and Michael Sommer even though I have never met them.  Needless to say I am proud of Sam for demonstrating the beautiful lessons a child can teach us in the face of the harshest of tragedies.  And I am also quite proud of 36 of my rabbinic colleagues, many of whom I do know, for taking part in a special event at the upcoming rabbinic convention in March.  They will shave their heads as part of a fundraiser for battling childhood cancer.  See the details at this link:  http://www.stbaldricks.org/events/mypage/10921/2014

Who is it that makes me proud?  Yes, it is a little boy who taught us with his courage as he lost his struggle with death.  Yes, it is his parents whose words will help other parents cope with their grief.  Yes, it is 36 rabbis who demonstrate real leadership by rallying around the Sommer family to tangibly contribute to a cure for children’s cancer.  I hope you will join me in supporting their cause.

As to Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy, and football in general, none of it has ever seemed more trivial than now.

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As the book of Genesis winds down, Jacob dies.  Joseph and all of his brothers take Jacob back to Canaan to bury him in the family’s burial plots Abraham had purchased 2 generations earlier at Machpelah.  The burial of Jacob rekindles a fear in Joseph’s brothers.  Now that their father is gone, will Joseph finally take vengeance for their selling him into slavery so many years earlier?  That fear compels them to approach Joseph, telling him their father urged them to be sure to ask Joseph’s forgiveness for their offenses after Jacob had died.

Why were they so fearful of revenge after living in Egypt for many years under Joseph’s protection?  Malbim raises two interesting possibilities.  First, while Jacob was alive the presence of their father encouraged mutual brotherly affection and served as a physical reminder of their connection to each other.  Jacob’s death removed that tie.  Second, Malbim states that the most poignant kind of revenge on someone is to mercifully provide their needs.  Then, every crust of bread, every little thing provided serves to remind the perpetrator of the wrong they did.  The constant multiplying and carrying around of that guilt creates the internal tension of waiting for the former victim to exact his revenge.  So it was with Joseph’s brothers.

Ba’al Haturim, however, gives a simpler reason for the brother’s sudden fear of revenge.  On the way back from the burial of Jacob, the procession finds itself at the pit into which Joseph’s brother’s cast him before selling him into slavery in Egypt.  There the brothers hear Joseph recite this blessing, “Blessed is the One who performed a miracle for me in this place.”  The brothers, seemingly incapable of understanding that Joseph could eschew revenge, take his blessing to mean that the matter still weighed on his mind.  So they are shocked when he responds to their plea for forgiveness with the words, “hatachat Elohim ani?” “Am I in place of God?”

Joseph explains to them that God intended their actions for a better, larger purpose.  He was placed in a position to save not only his family, but many people.  Malbim explains that Joseph’s response is not just a simple accepting of fatalism, but an understanding that he dare not exact a revenge under the guise that he is doing God’s will – i.e. that the result will turn out for good not evil as his brothers’ actions did.  Joseph does not presume to understand what God will do in the future.  He is content to know that his current situation is the way God intended and all turned out well.  He has enough strength of faith to not try to be the controlling agent, to accept what has already passed.  Joseph is truly interested in healing, not in revenge.  Rashi adds a more practical reason for Joseph’s refusal to take revenge on his brothers.  They were living proof to the Egyptian people that he was indeed born a free man and not born a slave.  This was important in maintaining his stature as vizier of Egypt.

Malbim and Rashi’s explanations are not mutually exclusive.  Instead, they give us a holistic picture of a leader who blends high minded attitude along with practical considerations for his positions and actions.

Events of this past week show us examples of two men who stand as polar opposites.  One exemplifies Joseph’s combination of the ethical blended with the practical, while the other exemplifies wallowing in pettiness and meanness.  I am referring to the late Nelson Mandela and Bibi Netanyahu.  They are now tied together by Netanyahu’s canceling his attendance at Mandela’s funeral using the expenses of the trip for his excuse.

Mandela’s history has been well reviewed by many sources over the past week.  The overarching story of his life is of a man unjustly imprisoned for 27 years, who refuses to take vengeance upon his release.  Just as Joseph recites a blessing upon visiting the pit of his prison, Mandela invites his former jailers to attend his inauguration as President of South Africa in 1994.  He turns the curese of his imprisonment into blessing.  Mandela’s approach to politics epitomizes the combination of high minded ideals with pragmatism.  He knew that the prosperity of his country took precedence over the emotionalism coming from the end of apartheid.  He did many things to show white South Africa he intended to work for everyone’s best interest.  One example of this is depicted in the movie “Invictus” which tells the story of his garnering support for South Africa’s rugby team – a team that symbolized former white oppression of blacks.

It was the Israeli newspaper Ha’Aretz that broke the story of Netanyahu’s cancellation of his attending the funeral.  It was very interesting to note comments on the article posted on the CCAR Facebook page as this was discussed.  Most telling were those who argued that Netanyahu was justified in not attending the funeral as Mandela had ties with Arafat, was critical of Israeli policy regarding the West Bank and the building of settlements there.  Indeed, a 2001 letter penned to American columnist Thomas Friedman bearing Mandela’s name issues criticism of Israel in the harshest of terms, calling the separation of Israelis and Palestinians “apartheid.”  The language is confrontational, saying that if Friedman is not truly supportive of justice for the Palestinians, including the right of return, that he would “oppose” him.  This letter makes anyone who supports Israel cringe.  This letter is often used to characterize Mandela’s relationship with Israel, especially considering Israel was one of the last countries to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with apartheid South Africa.

However, there is one problem with this letter.  It is a total fake.  It was written by a Palestinian who claimed to be able to speak for Mandela.

What was Mandela’s relationship with Israel and moreover with Jews?  Remember that Jews were economically very successful and very supportive of the white regime in South Africa.  I know this from personal anecdote.  All of my mother’s family is from Germany.  Her father, my grandfather, had 4 brothers.  He was the only one to come to America in the 1930’s.  The rest went to South Africa, becoming quite successful.  When I was 11 years old, some of them were visiting our family in America.  This was at a time when the US had experienced a number of summers filled with race riots in major cities.  I remember very clearly these relatives sitting in our living room telling my parents that Americans did not know how to handle their “coloreds.”  Even at 11 I knew something was wrong about that statement, mostly because our rabbi had been relating to us his experiences marching with Dr. King in various freedom marches.  My point of all this is that would have been understandable if Mandela harbored resentment against Jews and Israel.

Yet he did not.  Indeed, he formed very good relations with the Jewish community in South Africa, appreciating their history of suffering in Europe as well as their economic contributions to the country.  He supported Israel’s right to exist even stating that the Arab countries could not expect Israel to make concessions without recognition and guarantees of security.  He met with former Soviet Jewish refuseniks, swapping prison stories with them.  While he certainly had criticisms of Israeli policies, he understood and sympathized with the history of the Jewish people.  This is attested to by Abraham Foxman of the ADL among other Jewish leaders.

And Netanyahu?  He has a history of obstruction, of torpedoing peace deals even boasting of his ability to kill the original Oslo accords the beginning of his first term as Prime Minister (for complete description of Netanyahu as obstructionist see Michael Hirsh’s article of November 27 in “The National Journal”).  Netanyahu is a leader with little vision and who demonstrates little ability to do anything other than fight to preserve Israel’s status quo.  Unlike Yitzchak Rabin or Ariel Sharon, former military leaders and hawks who evolved to a place of being willing to take risks for peace, Netanyahu has proven to be at best a petty care taker, who uses his background of being raised in America and fluency in English to maintain popularity here.  Even though Israel ended up sending Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and a group of Knesset members as a delegation, this episode only serves to contrast Netanyahu’s small mindedness with Mandela’s expansive thinking.

Whether in America, Israel or anyplace in this world, we need leaders who demonstrate Mandela’s combination of high minded ideals with practicality – which results in the ability to compromise and build consensus.  We do not need the pettiness and rigidity that marks so many politicians attempts to do nothing but cling to their positions.  I think we need for all of us to adopt Joseph’s attitude when he responds, “Am I in place of God?’  Perhaps then we can begin to replace hubris with humility.

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It is a moment of truth, literally and figuratively.  After years of separation, Joseph is confronted by the presence of his brothers; who are in Egypt begging for food to relieve their starving family back in Canaan.  Joseph, having ascended to the pinnacle of power in Egypt, is unrecognizable to his brothers.  He, of course, recognizes them instantly.  And he has played them like a cat plays with a helpless mouse.  He has doled out food to them.  He has inquired about their family.  He sets a trap in which he has taken Benjamin, the youngest brother into custody for the false crime of stealing a cup.  He is threatening to permanently hold him prisoner, which would cause a heartbreak for their father, Jacob.  Only Joseph knows the truth of the situation.  He is using that truth to play with his brothers, to see their reactions.  It has been left to Judah to plead for Benjamin.

That is where this week’s Torah portion begins.  It is a moment pregnant with possibilities.  “Vayigash eilav Yehudah, vayomer, ‘Bi adoni yedabeir na avdecha davar b’oznei.’” “And Judah drew near to him (Joseph) saying, ‘my lord, please, let your sevant speak a word in your ear.’”  Judah is indeed brave to draw near to Joseph.  Joseph holds power.  He holds their fate in his hands.  And as I said, he is the only one who holds the truth.  What indeed is Judah thinking?  Midrash Rabbah gives three perspectives, all based on meanings of the Hebrew word vayigash.  Rabbi Judah says he was drawing near to do battle.  Rabbi Nechemya says he was drawing near for reconciliation.  Some anonymous sages say he was drawing near for prayer.  Certainly the moment contains the potential for each of these, although a battle would be useless as well as hopeless.  As for reconciliation and prayer, they cannot happen in the absence of something else – a relationship.

That is what I think Judah is attempting as he draws near to Joseph – to establish a basis for relationship.  He does so with no facts in hand other than his youngest brother is in danger and the possible result would devastate their father.  He holds no power – only the faith that by taking this risk he will break down a barrier between Joseph and himself.  I base this on some insights by the Sefas Emes, who examines the Hebrew words bi adoni.  Instead of translating these as “my lord,” he translates them as “God is within me.”  Indeed, if one looks at Judah’s name, yod, hey, vav, daled, hey, you can see that the name for God, yod, hey, vav, hey is contained within the letters of Judah’s name.  The presence of God lives within Judah, and Judah is opening his heart to reveal that divine presence.  This is accompanied and affirmed by his willingness to substitute himself as a prisoner for Benjamin.  His acknowledgement that he is already a servant to God gives him the strength to submit to physical servitude to Joseph.  He is taking a tremendous leap of faith.

On some levels this sounds so un-Jewish.  We tend to pride ourselves on the quest for truth, for facts.  We Jews are the rationalists in the religious world.  We stress deeds over faith.  We believe in action before worrying about feeling.  I would argue that Judah’s action is a paradigm for what Jews often forget – a dose of faith can provide the strength for bold action.  At his most vulnerable moment, Judah becomes incredibly strong.  By revealing the God within, he forces Joseph’s hand.  Indeed, Torah tells us that Joseph “could no longer hold back.”  He breaks down sobbing and orders all Egyptians to leave the room and then reveals himself to his brothers.  Judah’s leap of faith sparks Joseph’s revelation of truth.  The movement to create relationship facilitates something quite beautiful.

Now we are mourning the passing of perhaps the last of the great political leaders of the 20th century – Nelson Mandela.  Mandela and Judah have much in common.  Both are very flawed human beings, both having made numerous personal mistakes through their lives.  Both grow from their difficulties, each becoming a person who is able to reach unexpected heights.  Mandela, like Judah, faced overwhelming power.  Sentenced to life imprisonment on charges to overthrow a South African government that supported apartheid in 1964, Mandela never gave up his political principles to purchase freedom from prison.  Rather than shrink, becoming less of a person by his mistakes and his years in prison, he exceeds personal limitations.

His faith grows.  Like Judah he draws near to his opposition, forming a relationship with someone many would have thought impossible.  For after his release from prison in 1991, Mandela entered into a prolonged period of negotiation with South African president Willem De Klerk.  General elections open to all South Africans, regardless of color finally occurred in 1994, resulting in Mandela being elected President.  De Klerk served as his first deputy.

Like Judah, Mandela revealed the power of the Divine that lay within him.  He worked during his term as President to effect reconciliation between blacks and whites in South Africa.  This man who was held in prison for 26 years for daring to oppose apartheid did not allow himself to show malice.  Consider these words from his book, “Long Walk to Freedom.”  “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  The man who entered prison in 1964 could not have written these words.  But the man who emerged in 1991 had come to a different, deeper understanding of the world and lived what he wrote.

Finally, what made Nelson Mandela a great leader was not just his struggle for basic freedoms, but his willingness to take a great leap of faith; to believe that the divine spark, a bit of God, was alive in others, even in his enemies.  He believed that by embracing the presence of God in himself, it would release that presence in others.

The name Joseph (Yoseif)  means “something additional.”  Perhaps that something additional is the God potential in each of us.  Sometimes we need to be able to approach the one who seems like the enemy in order to find that God potential.  Judah’s faith enabled him to find a spark of the divine in Joseph.  He had the courage to act on that faith.  His combination of faith and courage allowed the divine presence to be revealed in Joseph.  Divine light cannot be revealed by staying hidden in the dark.  One has to be willing to step into the light to effect change.  This is exactly how Nelson Mandela believed life was as attested to in his inaugural speech of 1994:

“Perhaps it is not our darkness, but our light that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There’s nothing enlightened about your shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone!  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Zichrono livracha.    May we take inspiration from the life and memory of this great man.  Amen

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