Messages from the Rabbi
- Reflections on the Pope Francis
- “Revolutionizing” Bar/Bat Mitzvah Preparation
- Too Much Cynicism
- Dealing with Danger
- “Go Down Moses”
- Jew vs. Jew
- Welcoming the Stranger
- What Did the Voters Tell Us?
Reflections on Pope Francis
In 2001, I had the privilege of studying at Gregorian University at the Vatican in Rome. Most of my work was with an order of nuns – the Sisters of Sion – who maintained the largest library of Jewish-Christian relations, mostly in Italian, Hebrew and English. (The Order was originally from French Canada and it made my work that much easier.)
Being in Rome and at the Vatican was a special privilege. I was constantly reminded of the difference a generation makes. The promulgation of Vatican II in 1965 was a radical departure from earlier church teachings. The section on the Jews was downright revolutionary. Since then, the relationship continues to grow. While the growth has been uneven at times, nonetheless we would have missed enormous positive changes. Eventually the Vatican, after many decades recognized the State of Israel, exchanging ambassadors – the Vatican is its own State – and in 1987, the Pope entered Tempio Majove – The Great Synagogue in Rome for the first time…ever! He acknowledged Rome’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, as ‘my elder brother.’ It was an extraordinary historical moment.
In the Middle Ages, a new Pope would meet the rabbi of Rome in the bridge over the Tiber. The rabbi would express words of tribute, turn around, bend over and the Pope would kick him in the rear end. It was symbolic of accepting the authority of the Holy See.
How different it is. The new Pope, Francis (real name Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is from Argentina. He is known to be a humble man of the people and ever since his election, he has shown over and over, a respect for all humanity. He has called for ‘renewal’ of Vatican II, for the Church to be of the world. And Pope Francis’ relationship with the Jews is an especially powerful and personal one. I recently was invited to meet with Rabbi Skorka, a colleague of the Pope from Buenos Aires. The rabbi and Father Bergoglio spent many days together and co-authored several books on interfaith dialogue and the importance dialogue plays in human understanding. The rabbi told how, after the vote by the College of Cardinals, electing him Pope, he telephoned the rabbi, “Help, I’m a prisoner in the Vatican. They won’t let me out. They elected me Pope!”
A warm engaging loving man – we all wish him well with his new responsibilities. The priests with whom I have spoken are universally enthusiastic about the new breath of fresh air he may bring and hopefully be a blessing, not only to his beloved church, but to all of humankind. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed, “There are moments when we all stand together and see our faces in the mirror: the anguish of humanity and its helplessness; the perplexity of the individual and the need of the divine guidance; being called to praise…”
We join with our Catholic brothers and sisters in praying for the success and well being of Pope Francis.
“Revolutionizing” Bar/Bat Mitzvah Preparation
Despite the fact that some members of CMI think the New York Times is the modern equivalent of sacred scripture (gospel), I rarely respond to articles found there. But the day before Rosh Hashanah, an article appeared about the Union of Reform Judaism suggesting that the Reform movement was in the process of revolutionizing Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation and its ceremony. Charging that Reform synagogues had become “Religious School Industrial Complexes” whose sole motivation was to enlarge membership and increase our “income stream,” the “new” focus, it was reported, would be on Tikkun Olam. Officials of the URJ wondered aloud why we would teach 13 year olds to study Hebrew and read from the Torah when they did not understand a word of either. Rather – despite anticipated objections from Cantors (!) we should spend our energies doing acts of social justice.
Several members of CMI asked me over the Holy Days if we were contemplating this “change.” My answer is a resounding “NO!” The charge that we have prepared students for Bar/Bat Mitzvah requiring at best 3 to 4 years of Hebrew School to enlarge our income is spurious, especially coming from an organization asking higher dues from us! Of course we hope that the ceremony will be an emotionally moving event. We hope that families will emerge feeling that they have marked an important Jewish stepping stone in their child’s life. Of course, 13 years of age is too young to end the progress of growing Jewishly, and some families do see it as an exit rather than entrance into adult Jewish life. But many also continue (50% of members have belonged to CMI longer than 25 years) and for those who don’t, we believe that once having had a meaningful Jewish experience, they will find their way back at some future time.
As for the focus on Hebrew and Torah reading, in my opinion it is those very symbolic acts that ground whatever else they do in Jewish tradition especially Tikkun Olam. To move away from the focus on Hebrew and Torah reading would be like cutting off a tree from its roots and expecting the branches to flourish on their own. We would become no different than ethical monotheists, and the early 20th century Jewish experience of many who tried this eventually lost their way completely.
Finally, the focus on ethical deeds – This is and has been in most congregations a major focus of the event marking what it is that makes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah – the doing of Mitzvot. There is nothing new here and the URJ should know better. “New” for the sake of different is poor policy. In our case it would be turning to the past not the future. That we could do a better job teaching Hebrew is a given. Let’s figure out ways to improve there and build upon the efforts and energies that continue to promote our community and the proud tradition we hope to grow.
Too Much Cynicism
Secretary of State John Kerry recently called on members of the American Jewish community to push for and support his efforts to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the peace table. The silence of almost every major Jewish organization was deafening. Now, we are told, progress has been made and yet most of what we hear is “Here we go again.” There is just too much cynicism. Too many in our community think the status quo is just fine. Let the Arab-Muslim world worry about Egypt, Syria, Iran and Turkey. Maybe they won’t pay any attention to the Jewish State. But the absence of war is not peace. In fact, let me suggest that this maybe the best time to pursue peace.
In August, both the Jewish community and the Muslim community entered a sacred time in their yearly observances. For Muslims, the month of RAMADAN is the time when the prophet Mohammed began to hear the revelation of Quran. It is a time of fasting and turning one’s attention from the physical to the spiritual. It is a time to cleanse the soul of impurities. It is a time to listen to the Divine word and strive to help those in need and reach for justice.
For Jews, we began the Hebrew month of AV, when we observe the desecration and destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians followed by the Romans six centuries later. Yet our tradition reminds us that it was sinat chinam, senseless hatred that caused the Temples to fall and only ahavat chinam, love that will help repair and restore the Divine place on earth. It is therefore a time to listen to our brethren and reach for justice. And now is the time leading up to the New Year, when we focus on the good that is in us, and discard the negative.
Both Jews and Muslims thus share, in their unique ways, the hope for a time of restoration and peace. While the Middle East and much of the world is in turmoil, our common Abrahamic roots, as well as this season, beckons us to turn our spiritual attention toward a future that can be hopeful and different. We both look to a time when the hope for each of us will come true, RAMADAN MUBARECK, a blessed Ramadan, and a Shalom Bayit, a peaceful home that we build for ourselves and for all humankind.
Once again it appears – as of this writing – that Israelis and Palestinians will meet to begin what is hoped will lead to a period of reconciliation and peace. Most Jews (and Arabs) are skeptical. But there is no room for cynicism in our hearts – rather let this be a time for a serious search for the peace that we all long for and the lessons of our past, rather than leading us down the path of war and hate, rather instruct us in the ways of reconciliation and peace.
Dealing with Danger
The bombings in Boston have set off a frenzy of fear. Two obscure brothers managed to elude Federal agents, watch hate propaganda on the internet, purchase enough fireworks to extract the powder, turn them into bombs and kill 3 people and injure over 200. And they were able to do this in the middle of the marathon with scores of thousands of people around.
It appears that danger is now exacerbated. When you least expect it , in the midst of a glorious day, a day of glory, we were suddenly attacked. And it was not “by land or sea,” or even by air. These days the enemy will be by a loner or two dissatisfied or disaffected with access to a computer and a “mad-on.”
And that is what has us most frightened. It seems impossible to defend against. Iron dome missiles are ineffective. A larger army will not be able to prevent such acts. Three hundred million people cannot be monitored. And we cannot be turned into a police state with neighbors against neighbors.
And yet, there are things we can do. First, there will be closer scrutinizing of hate filled web sites. Secondly, we can do more outreach into those communities, often political and religious, proven to be sources for the disaffected. The leaders of such communities often collaborate with authorities in singling out people prone to disaffection. Thirdly, as citizens, we can be alert to suspicious activity. “If you see something, say something,” has been very effective in places like Israel that has dealt with terrorist threats. Finally, we can encourage public dialogue, in schools and college campuses that allows for group frustrations to be expressed, examined and discussed. Sometimes we try to silence debate, fearing that it can incite. But the danger lies in automized individuals or small groups closed off from public discourse.
These are but a few ways we can counter the threats we face. But the fear is more urgent. I am being told, “I’ll never go on the subway again!” “We must avoid public places!” “Nothing feels safe anymore!” And I recall the words of David Ben Gurion who faced, on behalf of the Jewish people, enormous challenges. He wrote:
“Courage is a special kind of knowledge: The knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.”
It was upon his courage that the Jewish State came to be. Fear begets its own failure. It is an important lesson of the future.
Best wishes for a safe and joyful summer.
“Go Down Moses”
“Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land…” A seder staple I remember from the time of my childhood and sung to this very day. Obviously a Jewish liturgical piece! Actually it turns out to be a “Black American Spiritual.”
This is the history as I understand it. The story of the song begins in the early days of the Civil War. In 1861, three slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory were sent to the Confederate Army to help with construction. They escaped at night and rowed across the harbor from Norfolk, VA to Union-held Fort Monroe. They presented themselves to Union Gen. Benjamin Butler, risking being returned to their enslavers and facing horrible punishment, as dictated by the law in effect before the war. Butler refused to return them, classifying them as a “contraband of war.” Laws were soon passed prohibiting returning them to enslavers. The Contrabands at Fort Monroe built housing from burned ruins. Their community came to be known as Grand Contraband Camp. Defying a Virginia law against educating slaves, the African-American Mary Peake taught both adults and children to read and write. Inspired by this opportunity for freedom (albeit partial and haphazard) many escaped and made their way to Fort Monroe. By the end of the war, less than four year later, there were Contraband camps and thousands of Contrabands.
A song that some of the Contrabands sang when they arrived at Fort Monroe was recorded and published by a chaplain, the Rev. L.C. Lockwood, as “The Song of the Contrabands: O Let My People Go.” President Lincoln visited Contraband camps frequently and on one documented occasion joined a prayer meeting and sang along, often overcome with emotion, to “Go Down Moses” and other songs.
In a later celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation at a Contraband camp in Washington, D.C., a woman improvised the immediately popular verse “Go down/Abraham/Way down in Dixie’s land/Tell Jeff Davis to/Let my people go.”
So now you know the real story! Once again proof that the Torah is a living document generation after generation. And each year we celebrate it and keep alive an amazing tradition.
Jew vs. Jew
There are many lessons that we might learn which arise out of the Jewish historical experience. One such lesson is, as our tradition teaches, Gam Zeh Ya’avor, “this too shall pass.” Over and over again, on the shadow of tragedy, Jews have managed to overcome their circumstances. “Never give up and never give in” – we are pursuers of hope. At the same time, when circumstances are good, “this too shall pass.” It is the height of folly to take the good for granted, to accept the good, but always with humility.
Another lesson is the importance, the necessity, of creativity, and a “go with the flow” attitude. Something rigid is soon and easily broken. When the Temples were destroyed and sacrifices came to an end, the community mourned and then wrote poems praising God as they gathered in houses of study. Their efforts were to keep the tradition alive through memorializing the tragedy and moving on. They created new institutions – the synagogue, for example, became the clew to survival.
And a third lesson is how sinat chinam, internal hatreds, led to the tragedy. The rabbis of old (Note: NOT old rabbis) taught that the destruction of the Temple was less attributable to the Babylonians and later the Romans, then to the dissension that arose between the Jews themselves. We are often defeated by our own inability to listen and work with others with whom we may not agree. It is as if it is all a zero score game – you either win or lose. Klal Yisrael, the “community” of Israel, implies its “unity.” This is not to insist on uniformity – but at its heart is the realization that we are dependent on one another. The House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued over fundamental Jewish issues, but in our traditional accounting both sides are acknowledged. Based on the declaration of Eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim, “These and those are the words of the living God.”
Today our community is fractured. With bitter irony, it is over Israel where the conflict arises. Those who believe that Israel must do all in its power to defend itself first and foremost and that the land of Israel is held in sacred and absolute trust. Others believe that Israel must do all in its power to achieve peace for only then will it be secure and able to fulfill its eternal promise. This group suggests that for the sake of peace, no piece of God’s earth should be so important that others need to die for it.
On our congregational visit this year, the group from CMI saw the impact of 65 years of what could be accomplished. Cities rising out of sand dunes; hospitals, built over rocks, now places of healing; science centers that were once swamps and flowering farms once habitable only by jackals. Jews came together from the old world and the new, from the East and the West and in just 65 years created this phoenix nation. It was, for me, a reminder of what we can do together. Let it also be a warning, of what could be destroyed if we fail to continue the common dream. We must continue to reason and work together.
Welcoming the Stranger
While it is said that Abraham was chosen as the first of the Patriarchs of Israel because he broke his father’s idols, none of this is found in the Torah. What we do learn about his virtues was that he welcomed the strangers that would pass by his tent. The rabbis will later note the importance of such an act. Literally scores of Biblical deeds emphasize how the Israelites were to treat the stranger, “…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
It is clear that descendants of Abraham are to show hospitality to others. The very word, “hospitality” is derived from the Latin word for both stranger and shelter. Originally such places as hospitals and hospices were places where travelers could find rest, comfort, and safety.
For Jews, the stranger was to be offered the same rights as the “native.” It was this very idea that gave birth to the New Haven project known as Abraham’s Tent when four years ago, it became clear that the number of homeless, the “strangers” in our community, was growing while resources to provide for them was shrinking. Then members of the religious community and staff from the Columbus House met to seek some solutions – at least in the immediate sense. I shared with the group the story of Abraham and the lessons our rabbis derived from it. It was decided that focusing on the resources we did have, namely our buildings and the cadre of volunteer help in our congregations, we would undertake to house some of the overflow shelter. Abraham’s Tent was born.
It is estimated that 900 volunteers from 19 congregations from across the religious spectrum are involved. It is interfaith and interaction at its best.
Just as we did on that very first winter, this year we undertook to host the first week, December 3 – 10, 2012. The program will conclude at the end of March.
This is but one contribution the CMI community is involved in. It is what we call, “practical theology.” While belief plays a role in Judaism, it is in the “doing” that we believe our success is recorded. To Harvey Cheskis and Peter Alpert and their Life Is Delicious group who prepared the dinners, to Karen Baar and Rick Molot from our Social Action Committee who organized the overnight volunteers and to Gary Mitchell and his crew of merry folks who provided a hot breakfast – we salute you. You represent the best of our tradition and our congregation.
May this New Year find you all enjoying the blessings as Abraham was rewarded – family and fortune and most of all, a heritage worthy to pass on to the generations that will come after us.
What Did the Voters Tell Us?
The last election was quite an affair! It was the longest and most exhausting campaign I can remember. Everyone seemed tired in the end, the candidates as well as the electorate. It’s hard to imagine that there will be no more “birther” comments or stories of dogs tied to car roofs. There will be no more speculation about who the “47%” reference meant or who were in the top 2%. It is a settled matter and–thank God–it ended quickly on election night. Like those infamous “hanging chads” that made history, we will have new political references. The pundits will have their sport, laying blame for the Republican loss and explaining how it could have happened when they were expected to win.
But one observation I have not heard and may be at the top of this list which explains President Obama’s victory. The electorate, the country, is rapidly changing. It is younger, socially liberal and diverse. Several months ago a Pew research study indicated that the Latino community was the fastest growing group in the U.S. Add that to the Black community, the Asian community and the Jewish community and you have a majority of Americans who do not fit the stereotypic image of a white, middle class, suburban country.
The Democrats got it. The Republicans fought it. Freedom of and for religion won out. The equality of all moved closer to reality. Accepting and respecting differences is a foregone conclusion.
How does this bode for the Jews? My guess is that it is very good. While the latest reported statistic in CT is an increase in Anti-Semitic incidents, over all in the country we have had a marked diminution in such statistics. And both in CT and in the country, many of these reported incidents are University related and having to do with Israel.
This is, to my mind, the downside of the changing US demographics. As our nation expands its notion of democracy and openness to minorities, it is and will continue to be more difficult to defend a “Jewish” state. Inevitably, minorities here and those who support them (the liberal Protestant churches, for example) will identify more and more with the minorities in other countries and certainly in Israel. And as part of the liberal coalition, Jews will find it increasingly difficult to defend a country that has a “special status” for one group among others.
How we deal with this as a Jewish community will be a serious challenge. Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis of Zionism” presents a serious argument against the conventional wisdom of today’s Jewish community leadership. He believes that we are losing our young despite best efforts such as “Birthright” because we promote liberal ideals while defending a particularistic Jewish state. When he was scheduled to speak at the Atlanta JCC, a number of prominent Israel supporters objected and the program was cancelled. While I don’t subscribe to all of his arguments, his voice must be allowed at the communal table. And we here at CMI must also be open and willing to face the growing challenge. Stay tuned to more open discussions and forums about this important topic.
In the mean time, celebrate a country in which we Jews can kvell and feel the blessings of liberty and equality like no other time or place.