The Star ~

In the last weeks we have seen the face of the rise of overt antisemitism in this country. We have seen innocents murdered at prayer in their house of worship. We have seen homes spray painted with swastikas. We saw a man buy a ticket to Fiddler on the Roof so he could yell Heil Hitler! and Heil Trump! in the middle of the performance.

I am not so naive as to believe that antisemitism is really growing, it has been there all along. Just like racism and xenophobia of all kinds. I don’t think people’s feelings have really changed. What I think is that over the last decades, at least for a while, it became socially unacceptable to express those feelings in public, to act them out in overt and destructive ways. And so at the least overt expressions of hate, to some extent, went underground.

What I think is that the current leadership, or lack thereof, of our country has created or at least affirmed the “rightness”  of a culture of the expression of hate. It has become okay, or normal, to express racism, antisemitism, hate of Muslims, etc. in public and out loud.

My mother is not Jewish, and for some in my community that means I am not. My father is Jewish and in my Reform community that means I am Jewish if I say I am. I was asked once how I determined that my identity was Jewish. I thought about my answer carefully and my answer is this. If I had lived in Germany in the early part of the 19th century, I would not have been asked if my mother was Jewish or not or what my identity was. I would have had a star sewn to my coat, I would have been herded into a ghetto and ultimately a cattle car and sent to my almost certain death. It has always seemed to me that if I would have died for being it, I should be willing to die to defend being it.

For a long time I stopped wearing my Star of David, or anything around my neck, for reasons related to vanity. But seeing these expression of anti-semitism becoming socially “acceptable” or at least part of some new normal made me re-think that. Now I need to wear it, every day and visible outside my clothing. Because I can.

Can You Still Believe In Magic?

I wrote on Vayeira, this past week’s Torah portion last year and what struck me was that it is full of magic and miracles. Although there was much punishment and destruction, there was still magic and miracles.

It is hard to write, today, about magic and miracles. Saturday, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jews were gunned down as they prayed their Sabbath prayers. They were not gunned down by Muslim extremists or other “imported” terrorists. They were gunned down by a homegrown anti-Semitic extremist who believed that Jews were somehow “alien” and a threat to his way of life. In Pittsburgh. He was known on extreme web sites as a virulent anti-Semite. He posted, essentially, what he planned to do, that he had had enough of us. And eleven innocent people are dead.

So it’s hard, today, to write about magic and miracles.  I taught religious school this morning and we talked about how you believe, how you have faith, in a world where bad things happen. We worked hard at this, at finding the path. These are 12 and 13 year olds, trying to find their path in so many ways. And then they have to think about and deal with things like this.

Why would they want to be Jews when Jews are targets? Why would they want to believe in a world where they can be shot down in school, in shul? I don’t think it is my place as a teacher to tell them what or how to believe. I can share what I believe, I can try to help them see a possible path, but everyone, teen or not, needs to find a way to faith on their own.

In the end I can’t promise them safety in their Jewish identity, we can only talk about the courage and self worth involved in being and standing up for who you are. We can only talk about living life not in fear. And that’s where faith comes in. We finally agreed that probably G-d does not create or cause bad things; life happens. Faith is what helps us through those things. The stories of the G-d of Genesis, testing and testing, are meant to instruct us but we need not take them literally. We work to find the lessons, everyone has to find their own path to belief. It would be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and disappear the evil, the scary things, but alas we cannot. What I do know is that despite the evil in the world it is truly still full of magic and miracles – you just have to believe, and know where to look.

Re’eh ~ Giving Is Its Own Punishment?

This Torah portion is the longest in Deuteronomy.  And it is full of all manner of things.  Re’eh means “see” and as with so many Torah portions it is the first word that is the title.

See, I set before you good and evil.  The good is the doing of good deeds and obeying the “rules”.  We Jews believe that giving rewards the giver more than the recipient. But here is where I get confused, there are awful punishments in this portion, particularly the pinning of a person to a wall or door with an awl through the ear.  We are admonished here to remember that we once were slaves but the treatment of servants here is not wonderful.

This portion contains the rules of kashrut, kosher eating.  It also contains the rules for Passover and Sukkot. So needless to say it is a jam packed parsha.  But for me, it is the core concept of giving and remembrance are the most important.

According to Maimonides the second to the highest level of “charity” is anonymous giving to anonymous recipients; the highest being helping someone to make their way through employment, loans and other forms of assistance.  So remembering we once were slaves, extending a hand of help to pull others out of poverty, oppression and enslavement should be one of the highest forms of help.   But many American Jews are on the immigration bandwagon, demanding the deportation of honest working people, the breakup of families.  Do we have a need for immigration reform? Sure we do.  But aren’t we the ultimate immigrants, from leaving Egypt to the formation of Israel we have wandered the earth unwanted, turned away?

So shouldn’t our remembrance, as in our repeating the story of our exodus at Passover, extend to giving? Shouldn’t memory require action?  Keeping the memory of wrong alive is only meaningful if we ensure that wrong, that evil, does not flourish. Should we not treat others as we would have wished to be treated? Isn’t that what we learned in kindergarten?

We are further obligated to action by everything in our tradition. Everything, we are taught, especially in Reform Judaism, s about social action, about tikkun olam, repairing the world. I am grateful that my tradition and belief allows me to interpret Torah as it applies to my life and times and as I personally read it.  And so I take from this portion the good and release the confusing and punishing. Doing good should, always, be its own reward.


Devarim – sticks and stones

This  week we begin the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy or Devarim which means words in Hebrew.  We are standing at the Jordan, waiting to cross over and enter the promised land.  Moses will never make that crossing, and he chooses to prepare the people by recounting the stories of the trials and hardships that brought them to this moment.  We are called the people of the book, we should be called the people of the story; the people of words.  We recount our history at every chance, for good reasons.  We say of the Holocaust’s racism, bigotry and murder “never again”.  How to avoid it if it fades from memory?  How will our children remember our history if we don’t retell it?

It is all about communication, though, isn’t it? And we strive for the right words to contain our feelings, to express our desires, to describe our history.  And this week a Jewish girl named Aly Raisman did her brilliant Olympic floor routine to Hava Negila on the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.  Her own re-telling, her own “never forget”.

In our daily lives we use words carelessly, we toss them around with little thought.  But when we have strong feelings, we struggle to find the right words, words that are adequate.  And nowhere do words seem so careless as in our current presidential politics.  Things are being said that would have previously been unthinkable, and should be still.  The words reek of that racism and bigotry and give rise, as historically, to violence.

Moses chooses his moment to recount, to use words to prepare the people, for building, for memory, for empowering them, for providing rules/structure.  Shouldn’t we take this moment to disavow the childhood admonition about sticks and stones? To remember that words can hurt us, can be destructive? We should take Moses’ example and use our words, and our recounting, to  empower each other.  In our national politic we should use our words to disavow ignorance and hate, deception and lies.  In our personal lives we should use our words to strengthen and honor each other.   We need all our strength as we stand ever on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to enter the promised land hand in hand, a people of words.

Bo ~ Identity & Identification ~ Shabbat January 11, 2014

So, we are in the middle of the exodus.  And we are at the last of the plagues.  Moses has made his demands of pharaoh, to no avail; the other plagues have come and gone, to no avail.  G-d sends the locusts so that nothing will grow, to no avail.  G-d sends the locusts so that nothing will grow, to no avail!  Then G-d sends the utter darkness, and still pharaoh is not convinced.  You wonder here who is the more stubborn, but I will address that momentarily.  Finally, G-d is going to kill the first born sons of Egypt.  This threat ultimately moves pharaoh and he virtually drives the Israelites out of Egypt so fast that we are all commanded, or should I say condemned, to eat nothing but matzo for seven days to commemorate the occasion for all eternity.

As to stubborn, I read a wonderful midrash about a fat man and a donkey.  There was a very fat man riding on a donkey.  As they go along the donkey is thinking “I will be so glad when this fat man is off my back” and the fat man is thinking “I can’t wait to be off the back of this donkey.”  When the fat man finally alights, it is impossible to tell who is happier, the fat man or the donkey! As with pharaoh and the Israelites, after the plagues and the killing of the first born, we can’t know who was happier when the Israelites finally left Egypt, them or pharaoh.

Last week I called it the Passover portion because the ritual is commanded there.  This week is literally the Passover portion because it is here that Passover gets it’s name.  In this portion the slaughter of a lamb is commanded of the Israelites and the blood is to be sprinkled on the doorways and lintels of their houses so that when G-d comes for the first born of Egypt he will literally “pass over” their homes, not killing their sons.

In the commentary on this portion, there is much talk about the darkness and the journey and how those might be metaphors for us.  There is a lot to think about in those metaphors.  What spoke to me most, however, was the idea of the marking of the homes of the Jews.  This is a moment of both identity and of identification.  As was the “marking” of Jews by the application of spray paint to their homes and stars to their clothes and finally numbers to their very skin during the holocaust.  Are identity and identification the same?  Or are they different?

The question is, is it necessary for us to identify ourselves as Jews in order t feel the completion of our identity as Jews.  The answer, as always, is probably different for different people.  And in order to complete our identity as Jews, do we need identification with others in our community?

Taking the idea of the metaphors in the portion, if we think of the exodus itself as a metaphor, if we all have our own internal Egypt, then how do we come through the wilderness of our feelings into the light, into spiritual and emotional freedom, if not through and with other people, if not through identification with others.  The Jews were not commanded to, nor did they, march through the wilderness one by one; they did not survive alone – leaving aside for a moment the question of divine intervention.  They survived the plague of the killing of the first born sons only through their identification with the group.  They survived the wilderness, in large part, because they were together one imagines.

The philosopher Michael Walzer wrote (and is loosely quoted in our Mishkan Tefillah Prayer book) that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; that we imagine or believe that there is a better place, a promised land; and that the only way through the wilderness is by joining together.

So what of Jews who are not religious but who identify themselves as Jews?  How many of those do you know?  Have you been to New York, or Boca, lately?  There are many more “cultural” Jews than religious.  I think of my dear friend Sylvie who was Israeli and who was by her own admission what they call entirely secular, but she still identified herself as Jewish.  To be Jewish, many of us would proudly say, is a culture, a cultural identity, in a way that most religions are not, crossing boundaries of nationality.  Jews tend to be Jewish and whatever else they are.  I would identify myself, for instance (accurately or not) as English on my mother’s side and Russian/Polish Jew on my father’s.  It would not occur to me to identify my mother’s family’s religious affiliation.

The rituals of our faith, in many instances, have become the rituals of our identification, of our culture.  These rituals stay with us despite our intransigence regarding formalized religion or affiliation.  My grandmother did not belong to a Temple during my lifetime, nor did she particularly profess to prayer that I can remember. But she always lit Yahrzeit candles in her home, where else would I – the daughter of a shiksa – have learned to burn them safely on the stove.  She attended family seders, she buried my grandfather in a Jewish cemetery and she hummed Ein Keloheinu when she was unobserved.

So what matters more, culture or religion? Identification or identity?  Perhaps it depends on the context, is it personal or is it communal?  Is it inward or outward?  My identity is personal, my faith is part of that identity.  Identity is at our centers and is who we most basically are.  Identification is by its nature communal, when I want to make a statement to the world about who or what I am.  When I wish solidarity with a principle, idea or nation.  Or when I simply wish to be a part of a greater whole.

Religion and religious ritual seem to me to be, to some extent, where identity and identification intersect.  I am here because I practice my faith, my spirituality here in the sanctuary, among other places.  But I am also here because it is important to support the community, the whole, and the identity of the community through my identification with it.  In the end, they intertwine I think.  The ritual symbols of our faith sustain us personally but, just as we burn our chanukiah in the window because it is a symbol of our freedom to do so, so too the mezuzot on our doors proclaims our identity and identification, our freedom, our exodus from Egypt, wherever that might be, through the wilderness to safety, to home.