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I recently saw the 2016 Tony winner for best musical, “Hamilton.” It might be the most brilliant musical play I have ever seen – and I have seen a lot of theater. I rank it with the top shows I have attended in the past 50 years, shows like Les Miserable, West Side Story, A Chorus Line – shows that brought something unique and different to the theater world. Each of these shows innovations influenced the world of musical theater. “Hamilton,” from my perspective, is in this category of an innovative show. So much for the review, if you can get a ticket, see it.

But “Hamilton” is much more than a great piece of entertainment. Its structure, from the way the story is told to the casting of the characters, to the mingling of various musical styles – creates great teaching moments on multiple levels. The story, if you are one of the few folks who have not at least read something about the show, is about the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers.

Hamilton was an orphan, an immigrant, and an abrasive, brilliant man. He served as General George Washington’s chief aide for much of the Revolutionary War. He was a key proponent of the new constitution, publishing most of the 85 articles of the Federalist Papers. He then served as the first secretary of the treasury under President Washington, creating a financial system that placed the newly formed United States on solid path. His death was tragic, as he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr over his political opposition to Burr.

In his unique telling of the narrative of Hamilton’s life, Lin Manuel Miranda treats the history of the founding of our country with great reverence and respect. Unlike most representations of this history, however, Miranda’s story telling method brings to light aspects of the history, and our current nation’s makeup that are often overlooked or buried. Too often our history is portrayed in a way that only recognizes a certain group of white, influential figures. “Hamilton” adds a deeper perspective to our history.

How? Well there are two obvious ways. First, his music is a conglomeration of musical styles: hip hop, rock, jazz and classical Broadway – which includes ballads and blues. He uses hip hop to highlight revolutionary activities – not just in the war but to emphasize how the republic was formed and operated. The flow of musical styles from number to number is sometimes stark yet seamless.   This style acts as a metaphor for the diversity that makes up our country, which can be eye opening yet essential to the way our country is structured and operates. One of the most classical Broadway style numbers is sung by King George, thus representing the “Old World” as opposed to America’s new ways of doing things. During some of his musical numbers Miranda tips his hat to prior musicals with lyrical connections to other musicals, such as “1776” and “Pirates of Penzance.” These references, just like the varying musical styles are (I believe) meant to show how our country is the sum total of such diverse sources, and that all of these sources are a necessary component of who we really are.

The second teaching tool is the casting. Three key characters in this story are slave owning Virginians, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – 3 of our first 4 presidents. All of them are played by African Americans. Indeed, the casting of this show breaks all the remnants of the old school approach to only cast people of the ethnicity of the original historical figure. The casting mixture of different races and ethnicities hammers home the lesson that our country was founded for everyone, not just an elite group of wealthy white men.

Even more, the show makes sure we understand that it was more than the well known founding fathers who contributed to the strength of our country from its very beginning. For example, during a scene that depicts a cabinet debate over Hamilton’s proposed financial plan, Jefferson states (in a rap style) that Virginia is wealthy, successful and plants seeds, so why should Virginians take on the debt of other states like New York. Hamilton replies (also in rap style) that we know who was actually planting the seeds for Virginians (slaves) and that they were profitable because of slavery. The message is clear. Not only is slavery wrong (highlighted numerous times in the show), but black slaves were the unseen, unacknowledged resource that provided the platform for the Virginians’ (and other southern states) claimed success.

A history of our country that fails to acknowledge the presence and importance of ignored groups (e.g. black slaves, women, who although did not vote contributed to the well being of the new country, immigrants) perpetuates a narrative that allows for the dismissal of so much of the makeup of our country. The United States is NOT just a culture derived from Anglo and white Europeans. It is a conglomeration, from its very beginning, of those English/Europeans, Hispanic, Black, Sephardic Jews as well as probably the most dismissed group – native Americans.

Finally, in trying to describe the makeup of “Hamilton,” the mishmash of musical styles, the mixed ethnicity of the casting, the lack of spoken narrative – the impression is one of a completely disorganized show that cannot possibly make any sense. Yet, when you see the show, this polyglot of people and styles is the perfect metaphor for America at its finest. Somehow all of this comes together to form a work of beauty. That is our country – a polyglot of people cultures and styles that despite differences and disagreements, can be a place of amazing beauty. That is what we need to celebrate on July 4.

“Heil Hitler!” began the voice mail. “I’m going to put you in my concentration camps.” The message rambled on in a high-pitched voice with a fake German accent and ended with these words, “You Jews need to stop stealing our money!” The message was left on my office voice mail the night of April 9, right after our congregation’s Jewish Food and Cultural Festival. I heard it the next morning, when I was at Temple getting some things ready for the first night of Passover. We immediately called the police. The officer was so upset by what he heard, I could see him tearing up. “I am Catholic” he said, “and I am so disturbed by hearing this.”

“Are you aware of this?” the email began. The friend of a Temple member saw a posting on FaceBook by a white supremacist that his group was planning a demonstration at Temple Israel. We had not seen it, but went on line to check the posting and the group. Sure enough, the group was calling for a protest at our building because Israel was not letting in enough Palestinians. They called it a protest for diversity. Yet, in looking at the group’s website, they described themselves as European whites. Their basic demands were exactly what you would expect from a white supremacist group.

We have a pre-school of over 100 families with children enrolled. Eighty percent of the pre-school families are not Jewish. Some of them were beginning to panic, as the protest was scheduled to begin during school hours. Again we called and consulted the police. Again, our police department’s response was excellent, giving us lots of guidance, assuring us they knew and were following the man who made the post. They put in place a plan for police coverage. I was not at all worried about this protest having an impact on us, and in fact, as the police predicted, the group did not show up. But the energy spent on preparations and the angst that the threat caused the pre-school and their families was quite disturbing.

At a local middle school, a young woman I am tutoring for her bat mitzvah is regularly called a “good little Jew.” If she makes a mistake some students call it a “Jew move.” She also has heard a joke that goes like this, “What do you call flying Jewish children?” Answer – smoke. Her mom is now working with the Temple, a local Holocaust education organization and the school district (who is being very supportive) to bring in an educational program from the ADL to address these attitudes in the schools that have been affected by anti-Semitism.

At the high school that students graduating this middle school attend, a group of students have been flying Confederate flags on the back of their pickup trucks. After one student stood on the back of his truck waving a flag, some one got so upset that a threat was made against him online. The school heightened security and communicated with all the parents that any student who wished to stay home the next day would have an excused absence. The students flying the Confederate flags were asked not to bring them, as it was causing a disturbance. They agreed but the next day these students plus a few more brought pickup trucks either flying a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag or a banner stating “Make America Great Again.” Some had the symbol of the Republican party others referred to Trump.

Are all of these incidents connected? Absolutely! Since the primary season preceding the 2016 presidential elections, the atmosphere in our country has shifted. Overt expressions of hate, display of offensive symbols, and the belief there is an impurity in our country that must be eradicated have all become acceptable in ways I have never witnessed in my lifetime. The prejudiced dregs of America feel free to express their hatred more openly than ever. Why?

The political left says it is because of Donald Trump. From the opening event of his campaign, which was based on the despising of Mexican immigrants, he made outright expressions of hatred acceptable. We were given excuses by his surrogates – that he is not a politician so does not speak in a politically correct way, that he is just a truth teller, or that the media is misrepresenting what he is saying. All of this was nonsense. The media just reported what he said and people of any conscience objected to the obvious prejudice being openly expressed. Republicans of integrity, and there were many, walked away from their nominee. But Trump appealed to a segment of the country that rarely voted and squeaked out a victory in an election of the perfect storm to upset our political system.

But that is not the complete story.

The left wing shares the blame for this situation. How? Well, I think Bill Mahrer explains that quite well in this You Tube video from his January 27, 2017 show. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1r9_tgRgRk

Yes, Mahrer’s language is far more coarse than the language I would use, but his key points are critical. Here is a short summary of his thoughts. Liberals are overly dedicated to political correctness – to the point of placing people whose intent is completely innocent in embarrassing situations. For example, Steve Martin tweeted that when he first met Carrie Fisher he found her beautiful, and then realized how smart she was. He then came under criticism for these comments and issued an apology. Liberals accuse folks of cultural appropriation, of white people taking music, art, and literature of ethnic groups and making them their own. Mahrer points out that America is a melting pot. When did this become a sin?

Add to this the effect of excessive political correctness on college campuses, the institution of trigger warnings, the banning of speakers with whom they disagree, the silly anger expressed about certain Halloween costumes. Most Americans are working people of common sense. They are justifiably annoyed by the insistence of liberals that the content of all our language has to be beyond polite, that it has to be pure and without any hint of even a non-intended insult. The left’s focus on excessive political correctness is irritating to many decent people. What makes this exacerbating is that on issues such as health care, income inequality, and gun control, more people agree with the policies of the left than the right. We need to be fighting for life changing issues and not distracted by our perception of hurt feelings.

As a result, Trump was able to appeal to people through his bluntness. He openly criticized political correctness in a way that enabled him to sell his insulting bluntness as truth telling. All of this gave a green light to people who are now expressing outright prejudice and disguising their bigotry as anti-political correctness. We are seeing the result – open anti-Semitism, open racism, open anti-Muslim words and actions.

So what do we do? We must resist. We must be sure our relationships with other institutions and people who do stand for morality are firm and that we work together to fight prejudice. We must be willing to spend resources on education programs in schools to counter this movement. We must create safe spaces for students who are the victims of bigotry to report and talk about their experiences. We cannot be afraid to engage those who demonstrate bigotry. But we must do all of this in a manner that illustrates the higher morality of our position, of our resistance to these trends. Our words must be expressions promoting peace, justice, and love; for as Michelle Obama put it, “when they go low, we go high.” To that I say, amen!

 

searchThis photo is of the desecrated Jewish cemetery in St. Louis

Over the past 2 weeks, the issue of anti-Semitism has been elevated to the top of the pile of criticisms being leveled at President Trump and his new administration. Data from the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center has shown increases in anti-Semitic incidents, first over the course of the presidential campaign last year, and again in the opening weeks of 2017. Many critics of Trump accuse him of being anti-Semitic. Defenders of the president respond by saying how can this be if his daughter has converted to Judaism and if all of his grandchildren are Jewish?

The tensions over this began to boil over at a press conference on February 17, when the Chasidic reporter, Jake Turx, asked Trump a question. He began by assuring the President he did not think he was anti-Semitic, because of his family relationships, but asked what the administration was going to do about the surge of anti-Semitic incidents. Trump clearly did not grasp the nuance in the question, taking it as a personal accusation of anti-Semitism. He responded that he was neither anti-Semitic nor racist. When the reporter tried to interrupt to clarify, he told him to be quiet and sit down. This exchange fired up criticism of Trump, especially in the aftermath of the administration’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not mention Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

Finally, after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, and after much criticism by multiple sources – both Jewish and non Jewish – President Trump issued a strong statement condemning anti-Semitism. This still did not satisfy his critics, who held that Trump must be proactive in his stance against anti-Semitism, indeed all prejudice, instead of reactive. So the question remains, is Trump really an anti-Semite?

I would say he is not. This will upset all my friends who are (justifiably I think) critical of Trump. No, he is not anti-Semitic. Trump is anti Buber, as in Martin Buber.

For those who are not familiar with the 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, allow me to offer a short lesson on his theology. Buber maintained that humans engage in two kinds of relationships. The first is our relationship with the items we use to get things done in every day life, i.e. our car, our clothes, our computer, our food. These relationships he calls “I/it” relationships. We are in relation with “things.” The second kind of relationship is with other humans. These relationships depend on personal connections, or what Buber calls “I/thou” relationships. The best “I/thou” relationships are those in which we feel deep and immediate synergy with another person. We have all had that experience. You meet someone for the first time and there is instant connection, instant appreciation, that both people feel. For Buber, the poisoning of human relationships occur when a person engages another as an “it” instead of a “thou.” In other words, when we treat someone like an object instead of a person who shares with us the presence of God within our souls, they become an “it.”

That is precisely what President Trump does. He does not see others as humans within whom God dwells, but as objects to be manipulated. This attitude was obvious from the very beginning of his presidential campaign, when he targeted Mexicans. In fact, he was not expressing his prejudice against Mexicans, rather he was using them to motivate support in a slice of the electorate that is prejudiced against Mexicans, indeed against any person who is not like them. I would bet that on a personal basis, Trump could care less about Mexicans, about Muslims, about African Americans or about Jews. He sees all people as objects, as “things” to be used. This is proven not just by politics, but by his attitude towards women, which his supporters refuse to acknowledge. All he cares about is how he can use and manipulate people’s prejudices against any of these groups to rally support for himself. In Buber’s language, his only relationships are “I/it.” This manipulation, by the way, includes his supporters, who have been played by a master manipulator and showman.

Our country’s great step backwards, I believe, is in the cold, uncaring way Trump, and his administration, looks at the American constituency. He sees us as two camps, either for or against him. If you do not agree with what he says, you are the enemy. He does not see the need to create any “I/thou” relationships with his opposition. This is completely different, by they way, from both the Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration. Both presidents, while certainly manipulative as most politicians, also had many moments where they demonstrated the desire for connection with the “other,” or at least a reaching out to understand the “other.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read, “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” Rashi speculates that this only applies to an “enemy” who is Jewish. But in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 32b) is another perspective. It poses the possibility that your helping an enemy, any enemy, may help create an atmosphere of peace, to turn away his and your yetzeir hara, the evil inclination, which leads to aggression. It is our job, as commanded in this week’s Torah portion (and in the previous verse as well) to reach out and help those who we see as our enemy. It is the only way to change hearts.

President Trump is not anti-Semitic. He is worse. He is completely uncaring as to how his words and actions effect anyone not catering to his whim. He treats people like things, not like expressions of God’s presence.

 

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The new reality is here. Never has the country been so divided, so bitter, and so tense over what will happen next. Those who opposed Trump, who felt he was the most awful candidate ever, are in despair. Those who supported Trump feel that new opportunities for the country are about to happen. Both sides are completely dismissive of their opponents’ feelings. Liberals, sensing a vast difference between Trump and any previous president, feel the future of the country is in serious danger. Conservatives do not understand why liberals cannot simply “get over it,” and accept the new president. Never in my lifetime have opposing political sides looked at each other with such hatred, with such suspicion. What do we do next?

Trump supporters and spokespeople are feeling triumphant. They believe their victory, not just the presidency but holding both houses of congress, gives them a mandate to ignore the concerns of Democrats, liberals, and their constituencies. They see protests against Trump as inappropriate, as just more political nonsense inspired by a biased media. When they hear concerns about prejudice against minorities, against the LGBTQ community, against immigrants; they see these as invented issues, not as genuine fears. They see concerns over Trump’s ties to Putin and Russia as the result of fake news, or of reports by agencies whose integrity they question. In their moment of triumph they could care less about what the other half of the country thinks. Because of all of this, Trump supporters and conservatives are detached from reality.

But so are liberals and Clinton supporters.

Democrats and liberals are quick to dismiss Trump voters as racist, as fools who were just suckered by a con artist. They will use the word “deplorable” when describing the other side. They do not understand how Trump supporters can ignore the facts of his lies, of his denial of provable facts, his easy dismissal of the press, or his constant tweets that degrade anyone doing something he does not like. They see support for Trump as proof of either someone’s evilness or stupidity. Their solution is to organize protests, to take the same approach Republicans did when Obama took office and automatically condemn anything Trump says or does. But the biggest mistake the left makes is to think their “logical” arguments will somehow convince those across the aisle to change their thinking. It will not.

Trump supporters are intoxicated by victory and are convinced they will now steer the country in a better direction. Trump opposers are determined to protest and resist every move the new administration and the Republican led congress makes. In the end, this disparity will only hurt our country even more.

I must be blunt. I am absolutely NOT a Trump supporter, but I am convinced there needs to be another way forward other than protests and resistance that mirrors what Republicans did from the beginning of the Obama administration. Do not get me wrong. If there are attempts to limit basic freedoms, such as freedom of the press, we must protest. If there are oppressive actions taken against various groups of citizens, we must protest and resist. My wife and I have already decided that if the new administration requires Muslim citizens to register, we will register to support our Muslim friends. But protests and resistance should occur if/when oppressive actions occur and be aimed specifically at the public figures or agencies enacting them and NOT at Trump voters in general. It is simply wrong to think that protests and general words of condemnation are the proactive actions that will change the direction of our country.

No, the only way to effectively change our country is to break the ideological bubbles in which most of us exist. For liberals, that means reaching out to those with whom you disagree, not to argue or condemn, but to learn to understand why they feel like they do. It is a mistake to begin by classifying all Trump voters as “deplorable.” Yes, there is a significant chunk of Trump supporters who bought into his bigoted positions or those he inspired in other groups, but the election did not turn on that group. No, the election turned on a specific group of blue collar voters, particularly in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin; many of whom supported Obama but felt abandoned by the Clinton campaign. Their concerns were over the loss of jobs needed to keep them in the middle class and the economy of their communities.

We need to be duplicating the work of Van Jones, the liberal CNN commentator who has been interviewing and reaching out to people with whom he disagrees. As an example, here is an interview he did with a family in Gettysburg, PA before the election to understand why they were supporting Trump.

http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/12/opinions/van-jones-messy-truth/index.html

The key element is the respect the Trump voters felt from Van Jones, and their admission they learned something from the exchange. An even more informative interview is this one done with a family in Ohio, who voted twice for Obama.

http://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2016/12/06/exp-van-jones-special-cnntv.cnn

These interviews illustrate the tipping point in our country’s electorate. The way to really change the direction of our country is to form relationships with those folks who see things different from us, to listen and understand everyone’s concerns. These meetings should not be done with the agenda of pushing an ideological perspective, or to get agreement on policy, but to listen, learn and hopefully create enough of a relationship so that they will in turn listen and learn about your fears and concerns.

Why should we do this? None of this will affect the occupant of the White House or immediately affect members of congress. Rather, we need to focus on the local level, to create communities in which real change can occur. We need to create local atmospheres in which people of differing ideologies work together for the benefit of the greater good. As we create this locally, it can spread beyond, eventually affecting the state and national levels. It is possible. I have seen this in our local county commission. I have witnessed genuine dialogue between people of differing ideologies who do learn from each other. I recognize this is a long hard path. I recognize that often we lack the patience for this work. Yet I am convinced it is the only way to get permanent change. Need proof? Well, just know that none of the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s could have passed without President Johnson’s relationship with key Republican leaders. The key element that must be reestablished is “relationship.”

You might also ask why conservatives will even bother with this? Certainly some will not. Some will be so immersed in the triumphalism of the moment that they will ignore the need to think beyond the present. They would then be foolish. For if Trump supporters are serious about change that will benefit everyone in the country, they must stop dismissing the concerns of other Americans. They must stop denying that the increase in hate crimes in the last few months is real. They must learn that politicians and politics are all transient. I know, however, there is a significant segment of Americans, that stretches across ideological boundaries who are united by one thing – we want a better country. Most Americans are good hearted, caring people struggling to make life work. Their perspectives are just different. We must start to seek each other out and find ways of coming together. This is hard, but it is what we must do.

I am determined to do this.  Join me.  Let the change in our country begin.

140729-netanyahu-0433_239c513079ae4d286dc50a7df841ee31It has now been almost 3 weeks since the United Nations passed resolution 2334 because the United States did not exercise its veto. The resolution, the United States decision not to veto it, and the reaction in the aftermath, are all filled with problems. The whole sequence has done nothing to advance the possibility of peace. Rather, it has inflamed the attitudes of players on all sides, and made confrontation with sordid truths even more difficult than before.

Problems with the resolution:

First, by focusing on the settlements in yet one more UN resolution, this reinforces the false notion that the settlements are the cause of the conflict. I am not a supporter of most of the West Bank settlements, but they are not the cause of the conflict. Rather, they are a hindrance to progress in getting meaningful talks started. The causes of this conflict originate in many events and attitudes dating back to the late 19th century, and are filled with complications, nuances, and realities that most parties refuse to acknowledge anymore. Second, a resolution that lumps development in Jerusalem, particularly the Old City, in the same category as the illegal outpost settlements, obscures the simple truth that Jews (Israel) have a legitimate claim to Jerusalem. It ignores the truth that under Jordanian control (1948 to 1967) Jews were denied access to the Old City and the Jewish quarter of the Jerusalem was destroyed. It is only under Israeli administration that all religions have been granted access to their holy sites.

The final problem with the resolution is strategic. The timing is horrific. On the eve of a new administration that will take a very different approach, the controversy of abstaining from the vote instead of vetoing, it destroys the ability of the left to voice credible opposition to the settlements in the future. Why? Because it has shifted the focus from real issues to the conflict between Obama and Netanyahu. Because it has created inflamed rhetoric on the right accusing Obama of anti-Semitism despite the fact that his administration has provided record setting military aid to and cooperation with Israel. There are legitimate discussions to be had about various strategic moves the Obama administration has made in the Middle East; i.e. some real mistakes have been made; but I have never doubted that his and Secretary Clinton’s or Secretary Kerry’s intentions have been for the benefit of Israel and not to their detriment. This is further demonstrated by Obama’s opposition to the BDS movement that attempts to delegitimize Israel’s very existence.

Truths about the resolution

First, it is necessary to read the resolution. You can do so through this link: http://www.un.org/webcast/pdfs/SRES2334-2016.pdf Unlike numerous other UN resolutions condemning Israeli actions, it also condemns terrorist acts by the Palestinians. It makes clear that both are obstacles to peace. It asserts that the status quo is not sustainable. That is correct. If the 2 state solution will not happen, then the alternative is a one state solution. Does Israel really want that? Demographically this poses a problem for Israel to maintain a Jewish state. The current Jewish population from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River is about 6.2 million. The current Arab population is around 4.2 to 4.5 million – and that does not include Gaza. A higher birth rate among the Arabs would make a Jewish state unsustainable in a couple of generations. Further, unless Israel would grant full citizenship rights to the Palestinians, it will be forced to abandon democratic values and use their military in oppressive ways to control a huge proportion of the population, likely limiting them to very restricted areas and resources. I hate to use the word apartheid, but a non democratic state denying basic rights and citizenship to Palestinians would start to look like that. Let’s also look at the other side of this equation. Some on the left among Palestinians and Jews are pushing for a one state solution. But the hatred of Jews by Palestinian Arabs is way too intense to make this a workable scenario.

But the overriding truth about the resolution is that the settlements are a problem. Yes, those that are in areas likely to be part of Israel in a 2 state arrangement (we have a map of what that might look like from prior negotiations) are not either the cause of the conflict or prevent a solution. Rather, settlements being established in the middle of private Palestinian land, in areas that are clearly designated by the Oslo accords to remain Palestinian, are a smack in the face to a population facing major problems. The inability of Palestinians to simply commute to work, to get medical care, because of the location of certain settlements is an obstacle to even starting meaningful negotiations. There are many settlements that began as illegally established outposts (according to Israeli law) and there is currently a bill in the Knesset, introduced by the most right wing elements, that is trying post facto, to legalize these settlements. Someone please explain to me how any of this contributes to the peace process.

The aftermath of the resolution

This has reduced the chance that those who care about Israel across the political spectrum can even dialogue with each other because of the inflammation of rhetoric.  The most obvious example is the hateful rhetoric by the right against Obama, his administration, and anyone who dares to oppose any position of the Israeli government. This reinforces the false notion that opposition to an Israeli policy or opposition to an Israeli leader – in this case Netanyahu – is anti-Semitic. It is not. The blind support for anything Israel does refuses to acknowledge some severe problems. One is the increasing movement in Israel towards a right wing theocracy. This is evident not just by the power of the most religious/conservative groups in the Knesset regarding settlement policies, but in recent legislation being considered outlawing any worship practice other than orthodox at the Western Wall.

A second result is it adds to the fictional picture of Netanyahu as a victim of an anti-Israel American administration. Americans, especially on the right, love Netanyahu. Why? Well, he grew up in Cheltenham, PA, was educated in America; speaks English like an American, so he feels like one of us. This means we overlook his flaws, which are deep. First, he is once again under investigation for corruption, being questioned recently by Israeli police. His Likud supporters in the Knesset have introduced a bill putting the Prime Minister’s office above criminal investigation. This is the third time Netanyahu has come under investigation for illegal activities. Further, unlike Ariel Sharon, a right wing military man who as prime minister understood the need to moderate for the good of the whole country, Netanyahu pays lip service to causes such as peace and religious plurality, but in his actions caters to the most extreme elements in Israel. His actions indicate his prime interest is keeping his power, not the betterment of Israel.

Finally, the bitter atmosphere created by the failure to veto the resolution makes it impossible to hear truths about the consequences of Israeli policy. In a speech made to explain why the US did not veto resolution 2334, John Kerry outlines the administration’s perspective and its fears of the long term consequences for Israel. He also speaks of the potential for a regional peace Israel has with its Arab neighbors if there would be even some progress on Palestinian issues. You can read the full text of the speech here: https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/12/266119.htm

It is a speech that for the most part should have been given 4 years ago, as a vision and plan for working with Israel to move towards a 2 state solution, and not as an explanation for a stupid decision. In the hateful, polarized atmosphere exacerbated by the passing of UN resolution 2334, no one is paying any attention to some of the cold, hard truths Kerry outlines. He is being cast as anti Israel and even anti-Semitic. Read the speech. He is not anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

Conclusion

What is the Israel we wish to see? I grew up in a household dedicated to the Zionist vision of a Jewish state that practices democratic values. I have always been proud of Israel’s strength and audacity. At its best moments Israel is a model for the world to admire. Yes, elements in Europe wish to delegitimize Israel. Yes, Arab anti-Semitism is rampant and scary. But the Israel of my dreams holds onto its highest values in the face of pressure. Israel is no longer a weak nation. Its military is second to none. Its economy is based on brilliant technological and business innovations. So Israelis and Jews have to look at ourselves honestly and ask this question, how can we best fulfill the vision of Isaiah and be a “light unto the nations.”

 

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For those of us appalled by a campaign that gave a green light to bigotry of all types, that vilified instead of inspired, how do we accept that Trump is now our president? I suggest we focus on three qualities: awareness, openness and vigilance.

Awareness – First we must be aware that this election tilted on extremely narrow margins. It came down to 3 states, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Here are Trump’s margins of victory in each: Pennsylvania – 68,000, Michigan – 12,000, Wisconsin – 29,000. A switch of 57,000 votes, properly apportioned between the 3 states, would have changed the outcome to match the popular vote. That is less than .0005 percent of the total votes cast nationally! Each state had counties, white counties that had previously voted for Obama that flipped to Trump. This hints that we need to be aware of something else. Not all Trump voters were bigots supporting him because of the qualities people like me abhorred the most. Some, probably just enough to create these margins, felt so betrayed by our political system that they held their noses and voted to blow up the political system in the hope of real change.

Who are these voters? They are people we liberal elites tend to dismiss. They are blue collar voters who lost their jobs in the recession and are now either unemployed or underemployed. Their factory jobs were once a path to the middle class, and that path has been taken from them. The choice they believed they faced was one candidate who acknowledged their distress but whose message was to blame their fate on outsiders who must be controlled and bad trade agreements, or a candidate who was the poster child for the political system they felt betrayed them. We need to be aware that these people’s feelings are real and not necessarily bigoted. We must also be aware that no one is telling them the truth about their new reality. Those jobs, despite what Mr. Trump says, are not coming back. Some of these workers will have to be retrained. Some are not capable of being retrained. No matter which, they still need to be helped, not ignored.

Openness – We must not do what Republican leadership did when President Obama took office in 2009. We cannot simply obstruct and reject. We must respect the office of the presidency and be open to the possibility that Trump can succeed in doing some good for the country. There is a difference between campaigning and governing, and we need to be open to the chance that President Trump will act better than candidate Trump. So there needs to be a period of waiting to see what kind of president he will be.

Further, we must be open to working with our friends and neighbors who supported Mr. Trump. If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize many of them just could not bring themselves to vote for a lifelong politician who represented (to them) the same old, same old. We can speak honestly with them about our fears, but we must also know they just want our country to improve and be more prosperous. Being open to each other is perhaps the most positive, most community building step we can take. Let our love and caring for each other overcome our political differences.

Vigilance – This is the most important. We need to be watchful for and ready to protest any or all of the following:

  • Attacks on the basic pillars of the American republic such as freedom of speech and the free press.
  • Trump conflating loyalty to him with loyalty to the United States. This is what Nixon did and we must stand against that.
  • Bigotry of any kind, be it outright prejudice against Muslims and immigrants, or deafness to the pain of our African American brothers and sisters.
  • Failure to condemn the bigotry of groups of his followers, such as David Duke, the alt right and white supremacists.
  • Any attempt to roll back basic human rights, such as the right to vote, or the LGBTQ community’s right to their choice of marriage.

Our vigilance must be accompanied by our willingness to protest in all possible manners, including taking to the streets.

The narrative of our Torah now moves into the story of Abraham. In this week’s Torah portion we get three versions of Abraham (at this point called Avram) literally within a few verses of each other. The first is when he takes his family to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan. He is afraid of Pharaoh, the ruler, who is attracted to Sarah, Abraham’s wife. His fear causes him to ask Sarah to lie to Pharaoh, to tell him she is Abraham’s sister and not his wife. This is the Abraham who acts badly because of his fear. The second Abraham is the one who, right after they return to Canaan, has his nephew Lot confront him about his resentment over Abraham’s control. Abraham here demonstrates the inner strength to hear Lot out and then give him a choice of alternatives. This is the Abraham of confidence in his ability to be flexible and yet thrive by adapting. The third is the Abraham who fights against invaders who kidnap many local residents as well as their possessions He leads a group to get them back and return the people and their resources with no expectation of reward.

May we not be the Abraham of fear that leads us to try to live with lies. May we be the Abraham of inner strength and the willingness to fight for others with no expectation of reward.

 

I don’t know about you, but I am truly tired of this year’s election. I cannot wait for it to be over. It is the most bitter, frustrating political season I have witnessed in my lifetime. We need t…

Source: Take Me Out to the Ball Game – Please!

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I don’t know about you, but I am truly tired of this year’s election. I cannot wait for it to be over. It is the most bitter, frustrating political season I have witnessed in my lifetime. We need to be rescued from the craziness of Trump, the constant accusations against Clinton, and the endless droning of political surrogates. We need a diversion from recordings of sexual abuse and piles of Wikileaks. I thank God that we are about to be granted this needed relief through major league baseball’s World Series. It is coming at exactly the right time. It is providing an irresistible story line. Yes, it is also football season, but it is baseball that will provide the drama, the wonderful contest – the diversion we need to enable us to recover our sanity. What could be more intriguing than a World Series matchup between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians – the two teams denied a world championship for the longest time in baseball.

Not to insult football fans (I do love football – go Eagles!), but baseball is truly our national game. Only baseball reflects, at various moments in American history, our country’s situation, our emotions of the moment, and best of all, provides inspiring stories at the times in which we most need them. Maybe it is because some of our most tense moments are during presidential elections, and the World Series is the October Classic – so it is well timed. Maybe it is because the essence of baseball is so intertwined with who we are as Americans – or who we wish to be.

The roaring 20’s was a time when our country’s mood was a kind of decade long party – and that is the decade in which the chief party guy in baseball, Babe Ruth, turned the game upside down by upping the presence and dominance of the home run. Baseball did not stop during World War II. Rather, mirroring “Rosie the riveter” we got the first woman’s baseball league – and folks enjoyed it! Baseball showed us the path to racial integration when Branch Rickey started Jackie Robinson at first base for the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. The migration of baseball teams to the west in the 1950’s mirrored the shifting US population (Giants to San Francisco, Dodgers to LA, Braves to Milwaukee, Senators becoming the Minnesota Twins).

As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960’s, baseball underwent another set of dramatic changes reflecting race relations in America. This is brilliantly explained by David Halberstam in his book “October 1964.” He describes how that World Series, between the Yankees and the Cardinals, reflected a clash between the old and new baseball realities. The Yankees were an almost all white team (Elston Howard was the lone black starter, Al downing was a starting pitcher), focused on power hitting. Their stars, all white, were the stars of the past (Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford). The St. Louis Cardinals were integrated not only with black stars (Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Bill White) but had Hispanic players as well. The team’s success came from speed, pitching and defense – the prototype for later major league teams. The series went a full 7 games with the Cardinals winning, thus representing a changing of the guard. The Yankees were not competitive after that year until the latter half of the 1970’s.

Baseball in the 1970’s and 1980’s mirrored changes in the business and professional worlds – how specialists became more and more the trend over generalists. Baseball reflected this by instituting the designated hitter, through the rise of dominant closers and later by 8th inning set up pitchers. Through all of the last 4 decades baseball provides some of the great storylines Americans well beyond baseball fanatics talk about. I remember in 1967 when talking to someone about the chances of the Mets going to the World Series (a seeming impossibility at the time) I told him the Mets would win the series when man went to the moon. That is exactly what happened. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July of 1969, and the Amazing Mets beat all odds and took the series from the Orioles that October. Who does not remember Bill Buckner’s critical error that extended the Boston Red Sox curse in the 1986 World Series? Who does not remember the thrill of the 2001 series in the month after the tragedy of 9/11. Baseball has always been there to entertain us, to inspire us, and to remind us that despite all other differences – we are Americans first!

That is what I expect this year’s series to do. The Cubs have not won a World Series in 108 years. Heck they have not even been to one since 1945. The Indians last won a series in 1948. This is a great story line of two teams that have NOT been in the winner’s circle reaching the pinnacle of America’s game. It is a reminder of the great American lesson that hard work and smart management can raise up even the lowest of the lowest. Whoever wins will inspire us – but I admit I am rooting for the Cubbies!

So for the next week, forget the electoral nonsense and enjoy one of the things that makes America great – baseball. Take us all out to the ballgame – please!

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Yes, I know it is Sukkot. But this election season has made me think of a theme from Pesachdayeinu – enough already! The song we sing with vigor at our seder expresses our thanks for the countless bounties God granted our people as we left Egypt for freedom. This expresses an important message for Jews. Any one of them would have been enough. Now, however, I offer another message for Jews – we cannot support Trump. Any one of these incidents would have been enough. All are substantiated by Trump’s own words and actions.

If he had only classified most Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers – dayeinu.

If he had only stated that John McCain was not really a war hero (McCain refused release as a POW as others were scheduled before him) – dayeinu.

If he had only tripled down on building a wall between us and Mexico – which is ridiculous, let alone physically and financially pretty much impossible – dayeinu.

If he had only claimed, from 2011 on that President Obama was not born in America despite NO evidence otherwise – dayeinu.

If only he had not only failed to apologize for this bigoted stand when he finally acknowledged Obama was born in the U.S., but stated it was a good thing he forced him to produce his birth certificate (should all presidential candidates be required to do this, or only ones of color?) – dayeinu.

If he had only claimed that Hillary Clinton started the birtherism movement – dayeinu.

If he had only stated he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. – dayeinu.

If he had only stated there is no vetting process for refugees (there is and it takes 18 to 24 months) – dayeinu.

If he had only stated there should be an ideological test for immigrants (former Soviet Union anyone?) – dayeinu.

If he had only created a shameful ongoing squabble with a gold star family – dayeinu.

If he had only refused to release his tax returns – dayeinu.

If he had only lied about his initial support for the Iraq war – dayeinu.

If he had only lied about getting to know Putin on 60 minutes (their segments were filmed in different locations) – dayeinu.

If he had only refused to acknowledge and condemn Russian hacking of our democratic institutions, and instead wished they would do more – dayeinu.

If he had only stated Putin, a dictator of a country rampant with corruption, was a better leader than our own president – dayeinu.

If he had only hyper focused via tweet on silly issues like Alicia Machado and the satiric portrayal of himself on Saturday Night Live, demonstrating an inability to differentiate between nonsense and important issues – dayeinu.

If he had only declared he knows more about ISIS than our generals (only one of several disses of our military) – dayeinu.

If he had only demonstrated he was receiving propaganda directly from Russia (see the email apparently changed by Wiki leaks that attributed to Sidney Blumenthal words written by a Newsweek reporter, which Trump read before it was released and fact checked) – dayeinu.

If he had only reduced the presidential primary debates to an argument over male body parts – dayeinu.

If he had only said Hillary Clinton laughed at a 12 year old victim of sexual assault from a man Clinton was appointed as a young attorney to defend (if you listen to the whole interview it is obvious she is NOT laughing at the girl) – dayeinu

If he had only delayed distancing himself from David Duke – dayeinu.

If he only used his rallies to inspire violence against those who disagree with him – dayeinu.

If he had only threatened to put his opponent for president in jail, thus reducing our country to a banana republic – dayeinu.

If he had only used bankruptcies to cheat investors and vendors while preserving his own capital and then claim that his business acumen is what the country needs to guide our economy (the best businessmen create a profitable atmosphere for everyone from investors to suppliers to workers, just reference folks like Mark Cuban) – dayeinu.

If he had only bragged about sexually assaulting women and then dismissed that merely as “locker room talk” – dayeinu.

If he had only accused the electoral process of being rigged BEFORE the votes are counted and despite the hard evidence of almost no voter fraud over the last 16 years (Neither Nixon in 1960 nor Gore in 2000 fought the final electoral decision even though their supporters believed they had a case) – dayeinu.

If he had only used anti-Semitic tropes in accusing Hillary Clinton of engaging in an international conspiracy with bankers and the media to destroy our country – dayeinu.

If he had only claimed our country is no longer great. Our country, while certainly imperfect, is amazingly great – dayeinu.

 

Dayeinu! Enough is enough of a person who is either psychotic or an even greater con artist than PT Barnum. A man so ego driven, who cares so little about anything other than his personal wealth and power, that he is willing to degrade the democratic institutions that make our country the envy of the world. Again I say, dayeinu!

True Religion

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I have a question, “What is true religion?” If your first thought was an expensive pair of designer jeans, then you are not yet in the proper “Yom Kippur” mood. If you thought something like “Judaism is” or “Islam is not” then you did not understand the question. I did not ask what is THE true religion, but what is true religion? How do we best understand religion? How can we judge the validity of religion – not on a denominational basis, but as a concept?

Let’s start with a dictionary definition: “Belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers to be obeyed and worshipped as the creator and ruler of the universe, and the expression of this belief in conduct and ritual.” This definition certainly contains elements of truth. Religion acknowledges a power beyond ourselves, but do we want to call it superhuman? What then is the difference between believing in God or Spiderman? Religion definitely contains ritual and the feeling that somehow this divine power expects us to do certain things. But how do we know the true desires of this power when its messages are subject to human misinterpretation? No, this definition is lacking in some thing, some element elevating God beyond a Marvel comic book character.

How about a philosophical definition? “A system of beliefs, ethics and rituals which seek to reconcile the difference between the way the world is and the way we would like it to be, and which results in improved living and a sense of worth and purpose for the individuals and group who adopt that religion.” This also has elements that feel true. My problem with this definition is more emotional. It feels rather detached, kind of like the way Mr. Spock would describe religion. Religion does try to explain the difficulties we have in the world. It tries to supply a set of ethics by which we can hopefully improve the world. It tries. But its explanations of the world’s difficulties usually fall short; often feeling shallow. So in the end, it just becomes a way to make people feel better or worthwhile, whether or not the beliefs have any validity.

Let’s try a psychological definition: “The product of humanity’s search for meaning in life.” No question religion helps people to find meaning in life, but do we invent religion because of our search for meaning? Is religion our creation to fill a psychological need or does it arise out of the mysteries sown into the fabric of creation? The term “religion” is a human invention, but the matters it tries to understand are not. Further, this definition seems self-centered. Can there be meaning in life without a morality that guides human behavior? Doesn’t religion play a role in creating that morality?

Finally, let’s look at a spiritual definition: “An evolving world view and a way of life which seeks to bring human beings as individuals and as a group into a closer, more meaningful relationship with God.” What I do not like in this definition is ignoring religion as a means of human connection, with obligations to each other. But, there is an element that rings true in this definition. Religion, like all human endeavors, evolves. Maybe God is unchanging, but our understanding of God constantly shifts. Our understanding of how to fill the world with the divine changes. If we do not recognize that evolution, or if we try to fight it by establishing rigidity in our religion, it becomes authoritarian, justifying abhorrent actions against others.

Here is where I really begin tonight’s sermon. Is religion true to its nature when it becomes totalitarianism by another name? How tolerant can true religion be of dissenting perspectives? Is the truth in religion based on accepting a particular set of beliefs and actions? Most of all; does religious authoritarianism fill a vital human need? Or is it a relic whose use humanity has outgrown?

One can make a case for either perspective. Our country tends to embrace authoritarian figures. Politically, we interpret authoritarian declarations as “decisiveness.” Religiously, a significant segment of our country takes its directions from the statements of their religious leaders. It is common for some religious denominations to state proper belief about God, about consequences for unbelief, and to outline proper morality. Many denominations also tell their adherents that they are not true believers, unless they vote for a certain politician, or support a particular political stance. All 3 of the great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – contain elements of authoritarianism.

The “authority” to dictate beliefs is drawn from the sacred text of that particular religion. Religious leaders who do this maintain there is only one way to read or interpret the sacred text. We often call this approach fundamentalism. We make a big mistake, however, if we judge all religious approaches that have elements of authoritarianism and fundamentalism as bad. A number of evangelical organizations we would label as fundamentalist; do amazing work in fighting poverty worldwide. They see this obligation from a fundamental reading of the Christian Bible. And, there is no more authoritarian religious figure than the Pope. Yet how many of us admire the leadership of Pope Francis? I do. The Catholic Church in general uses its religious authority to advocate for many moral stands that I admire. So is our judgment of authoritarianism based on a figure we like as opposed to one we despise? Is Francis less authoritarian than Benedict? For that matter, what are the essential differences regarding authoritarianism between a Pope and an Ayatollah?

We also have problems defining fundamentalism. Typically we see fundamentalism as a literal reading of a group’s sacred text, with no attempt at deeper interpretation or tolerance for seeing a text as metaphor. The problem is that all religious groups pick and choose what texts are “literal” and which ones contain another meaning. A well known example is the passage from Isaiah 7:14, in which God describes a sign that will be given to King Ahaz of Judah, “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; behold a young woman (in Hebrew almah) shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” Christians typically translate the Hebrew word almah as “virgin.” They see this as a foreshadowing of the birth of Jesus. However, literally, almah means “a young woman of marriageable age” who could be a virgin, but the term is not specifically virgin. The Hebrew word for virgin is b’tulah. A Jew would argue that the literal, fundamental reading of the text is God giving Ahaz a sign – this woman giving birth. The point is we often cannot agree on the literal meaning of a sacred text. So the term fundamentalism must mean something else.

Karen Armstrong, in her book “The Battle for God,” gives some history of the term. It is first used by American Protestants in the early 20th century, who wanted to distinguish themselves from more liberal Christian groups. They believed liberal Christians were distorting Christianity. They emphasized a “literal” reading of the biblical text supporting what they identified as core religious doctrines. By this historical use, Armstrong explains, one cannot call movements in Judaism or Islam “fundamentalist,” as they are not as focused on doctrine as Christianity. However, the term has evolved to describe religious groups who maintain a “militant piety” in reaction to the influence of modernity on religion. Fundamentalists see the conflict not in political terms, but as a cosmic war between good and evil. Armstrong sees this fundamentalism as primarily a 20th century movement, but with roots extending back about 200 years.

Another key aspect of fundamentalism for Armstrong, is a change in the understanding of two types of knowledge, mythos and logos. To quote Armstrong, “Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture and to the deepest levels of the human mind.” (1) In the pre-modern world, myth was considered a type of knowledge just as important as fact. Myth was not focused on what actually happened, but the meaning of what happened. Logos is focused on the actual events sans any attempt at interpretation. For example, we do not know what really happened when Moses and Israel were at the Sea of Reeds. We do know that the theme of ancient Israelites crossing split waters is a recurring theme – as it occurs in Joshua, when they cross the Jordan to begin the conquest of Canaan – and again in the Book of Kings. Clearly passing through split waters is an indication of something more than just crossing water – yet we do not have any documented proof, independent of the Bible, any of these crossings actually occurred.

Modern fundamentalism sees these stories as historic facts, even though they cannot be independently confirmed. It does not focus on finding a deeper meaning in this recurring meme. It does not see this as metaphor. The reason is that a fundamentalist accepts the belief of God being the author of the Bible as a fact.

As instructive as Armstrong’s work is on understanding fundamentalism, there is an additional element that completes our understanding. Jonathan Rauch, in his book, “Kindly Inquisitors” offers a very telling definition of fundamentalism. His book addresses problems of excessive political correctness, which result in the hindrance of free thought. An example happened this past summer. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker was invited to speak at Elon University; creating an outcry among a group of students, because of a book she published in 2008. 300 students signed a petition demanding she not be allowed to speak. This affront to freedom of speech and thought is exactly what Rauch addresses. He defines fundamentalism as those who believe there is only one clear truth in the world. The other side is not just wrong, but deserves at least censure if not punishment. The result is that fundamentalists are so obsessed with fixed beliefs they try to suppress diversity of opinion. This mode of thinking is not confined to any part of the political spectrum. Conservatives and liberals are all guilty of fundamentalism.

Now we have a better summary of religious fundamentalism. It confuses the roles of myth and fact; declaring, because of the belief the Bible is the direct product of God, its words are completely authoritative. There can be no questioning their interpretation of Scripture, or how it instructs us to conduct all aspects of our lives – including how we vote. Anyone who does not agree is the “enemy.” This perspective informs the fundamentalist’s use of the authority implied in their religion – thus the rise of authoritarianism wedded to specific religious interpretations. Fundamentalists fear a world in which their view does not prevail, and they try to convince others to share that fear.

Which brings us to the third element to consider when discussing the attributes of true (or untrue) religion – fear. It is easy to understand the dominance of fear. In the Hebrew Bible the word generally translated as “fear,” yireh, appears 293 times in one form or another. We are told to “fear” God. The result is that almost all religion has some element of fearing punishment by God. So it is easy to see how certain religious authorities would use fear – by a transference of fear of God to fear of the humans claiming to represent God’s true message – or using fear of God to legitimize the views they are promoting.

However, typical to the Hebrew language, there is more than one way to interpret the word yireh. It can also mean “awe” or “reverence.” Try reading Biblical passages in which the verb is used and translated as “fear.” Then substitute the word “awe” or “revere.” You can feel the difference. The word is used to describe both fear of another human, such as when Jacob fears retribution from Esau in Genesis 32, as well as relation to God. Psalm 5:8 reads, “But as for me, in the abundance of Your loving kindness will I come into Your house; I will bow down toward Your holy temple in yireh of You. Here, the word “awe” is a better fit to the tone of the verse than fear.

We cannot deny that there are millions of people who believe true religion combines authoritarianism with the assumption of having a monopoly on truth. That truth is inspired by a very particularistic reading of their sacred text and plays upon the emotion of fear to gain adherence to its views. The most obvious example is the interpretation of Islam that powers ISIS. In America, those Christians who embrace this model of true religion do not express it in violence, but in adamant rejection of fact in place of myth.

This is causing a real moral dilemma for many Christians, who are supporting a presidential candidate whose lifestyle has absolutely no roots, no connection to the basic religious and moral tenets they claim to believe. Rather, there is a deep emotional connection to his authoritarian manner, based in his use of fear as a motivating factor. Yes, his opponent uses fear as well, but my point is that certain groups of American Christians are motivated to support this candidate because they are acclimated to his brand of fear through religious belief – fear of eternal consequences, such as damnation, fear of the “other” as the enemy of truth. Their emotional reaction to his mythos – if you will, overcomes his logos – the facts of his history.

Jews who embrace this model of true religion are typified by orthodox groups, who have such a low level of tolerance, their men spit on little girls because they judge them to be dressed immodestly, even though the sleeves on their blouses extend to their wrists. It is exemplified by groups who do NOT recognize the State of Israel; all while taking advantage of the social protections and economic help Israel provides its citizens.

My purpose tonight, however, is NOT to condemn any particular group. Instead, I will share my beliefs on what constitutes true religion. These attributes can be seen in Christianity and Islam. But as a Jew and a rabbi, I see them exemplified in Judaism. No, Judaism is not THE true religion. However, in its core are the elements of true religion.

While Judaism absolutely contains aspects of authority, fundamentalism and fear, rabbinic tradition mediates and moderates them. Let’s begin with authoritarianism. God is the ultimate authority. Beyond that statement, however, is a lot of room for discussion. Judaism does not define God other than having no physical aspects and being a unity. Even those statements create discussion. Can a god with no physicality have attributes (anger, love, justice, mercy)? What does the oneness of God mean? Is God indivisible? Is there only one God? Or is all of existence God? You will find Jews believing all of these perspectives. Further, even God’s authority can be challenged. Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorah. In the famous Talmudic tale of Achnai’s oven, God is told to stay out of a debate on law taking place between the rabbis. Our tradition permits us, actually teaches us, to question God’s justice: to push back when we feel God is wrong.

Clearly, if we can challenge God’s authority then there is no human authority above challenge. Judaism has no central ecclesiastic authority. Every rabbi makes religious judgments for his or her own community – AND rabbinic protocol demands that visiting rabbis, although disagreeing with the rule of the local rabbi, are required to respect it. The orthodox chief rabbinate in Israel breaks with this tradition by claiming authority over all Jewish religious matters, even outside of Israel. For example, conversions by most Orthodox rabbis in America are not recognized by the Israeli chief rabbinate. That is NOT how Judaism has functioned for the past 2,000 years. Great scholars may be consulted for their opinions, but decisions reside locally.

Further, literate lay leaders often play a key role in decisions. Moses Mendelsohn, one of the founders of Reform Judaism in Germany, was not a rabbi, but a successful businessman, philosopher, and theologian. Judaism is democratic in the sense that literacy, especially in Torah, is considered a great value: for we are expected to challenge accepted beliefs and to question everything. Jewish law, halachah, is never meant to be carved in stone. It is supposed to be an organic, evolving way of life. While there are certainly boundaries beyond which is no longer considered Judaism, within those boundaries is great flexibility. To claim the law has always, is always and will always be a certain thing is the rigidity of certain Jewish groups response to modernity. It is NOT our tradition.

It is easy to understand how flexibility is built into Judaism if you look at our tradition of discussing sacred texts. Every sentence of Torah is analyzed by commentators throughout the ages. If you read a page of commentary that includes a range of contributors (Mikra’ot Gedolot), you will see great disagreement, actually an argument, between scholars of different eras and places, taking place on the page. Jewish tradition does NOT accept the surface reading of a text as the one true meaning. Rather, our scholars delve deeper and deeper to ascertain the inner meaning of the text. This process has allowed Jewish law to evolve over time, becoming applicable to the needs of Jews in each time and place.

We do NOT take the violence commanded or described in certain Torah passages as the final word. Here is a classic example. The phrase “eye for an eye” is never taken to mean physical retribution, but just compensation. Here is another. While Torah mandates a death penalty for many crimes, the rabbinic sages do all they can to lessen its application, not trusting a human court to make the final decision on life and death. The Talmud contains many passages in which the sages provide ways to commute a death sentence or state their opposition to it. My point? Just because we consider text sacred, does not mean it is immune to discussion and reinterpretation. In Judaism you gain authority through the quality of your righteous actions combined with your scholarship, your ability to analyze the text in a way that holds to Jewish tradition, yet maintains its relevance to the Jewish community.

Finally, in Judaism we need to remain aware of the full meaning of yireh. Be in awe of the divine, be in awe of the way God is implanted within each of us, be in awe of the way our world is so intricately connected, of how WE are intricately connected. Yes, there is a role for fear: not fear of the other but fear FOR the other. Ultimately, we are judged by our interactions with each other.   We are to live our lives building connections to each other, caring for each other. That is basic Judaism folks! It is why teshuvah, the act of repentance, of turning our path from one of hurt and destruction to healing is considered so very important. Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said, “Great is teshuvah, for it brings healing to the world.” Rabbi Levi responded, “Great is teshuvah, for it reaches up to the Throne of Glory.” To which Rabbi Yonatan responded, “Great is teshuvah, for it brings redemption (the coming of the messiah) nearer.” As it is taught in an early teaching, “Great is teshuvah, for on account of one individual who did teshuvah, the entire world is forgiven.”

There is a story in the Talmud that illustrates how much Judaism focuses on the ability and need for people to change. In Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood certain boors, ignorant of Torah and disregarding the law, caused considerable distress. Rabbi Meir was praying that God would let them die. His wife, Beruria said to him “What is your reasoning for praying for their death?” “Because,” he replied, “It says in Psalms 104:35, “Let sinners cease from the earth.” “No,” replied Beruria, “It is not sinners written in the verse, but ‘sin’ meaning the urge to sin. Further, if you go to the end of the verse it says, ‘and let the wicked be no more.’ The death of these sinners will not eliminate wicked from the earth. Pray for them. Pray for their repentance. In the absence for the urge to sin, the wicked will be no more.” (2)

Judaism believes in the ability of each individual to turn from a path of evil to a path for good. It teaches us to try and turn people’s hearts away from evil, not to kill those who do evil. We begin with ourselves. Our individual repentance is so important, it has the power to change the world. Hate can turn to love. Prejudice can turn to understanding. Injustice can turn to justice. We believe we can create a relationship where there was none – whether human to human, or human to God. We do this not for a promise of glory in some future existence. We do this because we believe our actions count now. We do this as a community – reciting Ashamnu as a symbol of how our actions, our sins, and our teshuvah are intimately linked to each other.

I believe that true religion begins with acknowledging the mystery of creation. It helps us in our search for meaning by providing a ritual structure for us to strengthen our bonds to all of existence. It provides a means to establish a morality that can be constantly challenged as we seek to better our interpersonal relations. True religion assures us we can change, as can all humans; that we can choose better lives, better paths. True religion gives us ground for hope, not fear. I began with a question, so now I close with a question, “Are you ready to believe?”

1) Karen Armstrong, “The Battle for God” Introduction p XV

2) Berachot 10a