WATCH: David Frum and Peter Beinart on the challenges in Trump’s America
Jewish leaders around Los Angeles have begun speaking out — some more forcefully than others — against President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. And many temple congregants are doing more than merely listening.
“People are stepping forward because they see a direct call to their Jewish values in this moment,” said Senior Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple. “The values in the Torah and rabbinic literature are clear, and they are now being threatened. [Activism] feels like a very organic way to live out our Jewish values.”
Trump’s effort to restrict entry to immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran and Iraq, has touched off protests around the country and a legal war that is likely headed to the Supreme Court to determine if the ban is constitutional. One protest in New York this week led to the arrests of about 20 rabbis affiliated with the liberal group T’ruah, according to The New York Times.
No arrests have occurred in Los Angeles, but the ban and other Trump actions have sparked outrage among many Jewish groups.
More than 200 Leo Baeck congregants participated in the Women’s March in Los Angeles the day after the inauguration, and large numbers attended a pro-immigrant demonstration at Los Angeles International Airport the following weekend. Chasen said he’s taking calls daily from people who ask what they can do to get involved.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills said 65 congregations participated in the Women’s March, and last week, the synagogue hosted a class on immigration and refugees from a Talmud and Torah perspective. An American Civil Liberties Union representative talked to the group as well.
Bassin said she encourages her members to speak up and participate, even if she personally doesn’t have the same political views.
“I just gave a sermon on how we’ve channeled our civic engagement into yelling on social media and how that’s not civic engagement,” she said. “I don’t care where people are on the political spectrum as long as they responsibly and thoughtfully lend their voice into the public sphere from a place that’s motivated by Jewish values.
“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith,” she added. “It’s very important that people have a safe space to articulate their values.”
“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith.” – Rabbi Sarah Bassin
Rabbis Lisa Edwards and Heather Miller of Beth Chayim Chadashim are infusing their sermons and prayer commentaries with news and have added a weekly prayer for the country.
Edwards attended two meetings for interfaith clergy at the Islamic Center of Southern California, “aimed at what our communities can do in particular to help support Muslims and undocumented immigrants” and at the Holman Methodist Church, organized by Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice-Los Angeles and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She learned that, “People are afraid and anxious. Anxiety is the more operative word than fear. People feel very aware about possible deportations.”
IKAR’s founder and Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous is also collaborating with other faith communities. The weekend of the inauguration, she organized events involving congregants from her synagogue as well as those from the Islamic Center mosque and All Saints Church in Pasadena.
“We have very robust and growing multi-face community relationships we work on and continue to prioritize right now,” Brous said. “We’re much more effective when we join together with mosques and churches.”
Brous, who spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., said the history of Jews as immigrants should prompt action.
“Our sacred texts demand that we stand up and fight for the most vulnerable people in our midst,” she said. “This is not about political preference. This is about moral imperative.”
Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, distributed a letter by email in which he did not take a position for or against the president’s executive order, but detailed Federation’s work with Jewish immigrants and refugees. The letter said that since 1973, Federation has helped more than 27,000 refugees.
Other Jewish leaders made their feelings known through letters to their congregants.
Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback and his fellow clergy at Stephen Wise Temple indicated that “… because our Torah calls upon our Jewish people to be a moral light unto the nations, we feel it necessary to voice our profound protest to the President’s recent executive order that has the effect of banning people from certain Muslim majority countries, as well as all refugees for a period of 120 days, from entry into this nation.”
They reminded members of the temple’s namesake and his work for compassion and social justice: “We proudly commit ourselves to advocating for a society that embodies the teaching of our Torah: ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”
For the past year and a half, Temple Beth Am has had a refugee task force. In a letter to his congregants, Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said Trump’s executive orders “trouble me, to say the least.” But he acknowledged the complexity of the issues: “No country willy-nilly flings its doors open to anyone who wants in. There are reasonable fears regarding how the wrong immigration policy could enable terrorism, as some recent events in Europe have sadly shown. We have to take it seriously. Deal with it in some meaningful way. But we cannot let it paralyze us.”
Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom found inspiration for his letter by imagining his zayde confused, sitting in a detention cell at LAX. He called Trump’s order “destructive” and said we must be inclusive and “welcoming to those seeking the freedoms we cherish.”
Representatives of four religious groups — the Academy for Jewish Religion, California; Claremont School of Theology; University of the West; and Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school — collaborated on a statement, saying, “As interreligious partners, we live the dream of inclusion, understanding, and compassion. We know there is a better way — better than building walls and banning human beings based on religious beliefs or country of origin.”
Without addressing the ban or taking sides in his letter to congregants, Senior Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple encouraged people to volunteer with the Karsh Family Social Service Center and to help build houses for the poor.
“Although I will not assume the role of political pundit, upholding the extremely high value Jewish law places on Shalom Bayit — maintaining a peaceful home and community — is a role I cherish,” he wrote.
In Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s new prayer book released in February, the Rabbinical Assembly had a two-fold mission: Stay true to traditional Jewish roots, yet appeal to the diversity of how people today live their lives and understand their faith.
For the rabbi-editors tasked over the last five years with updating the siddur, the work included maintaining accuracy while retranslating ancient prayers and liturgy to make them more relatable for contemporary readers, and thinking of ways to include LGBT Jews (the movement approved of same-sex marriage in 2012) and non-Ashkenazi Jews who may have found themselves less represented in previous siddurim.
The word “sovereign” is now used for God instead of “king.” “Awesome” is now “awe-inspiring.” English translations sit side by side with Hebrew, with commentary and text from 500 sources, including 60 contemporary authors, throughout the 666-page prayer book that’s meant to be used for weekdays, Shabbat and festivals. The pages now incorporate traditions of North African, Italian, Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews in addition to Ashkenazi Jewish traditions. New gender-neutral prayers offer guides for celebrating birthdays, adoptions and anniversaries, traveling to Israel and same-sex couples marking lifecycles in the synagogue.
“It’s very much a siddur that addresses the idea that we want everyone to find themselves on the page,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “For example, many siddurim have incorporated the prayer that people say on Shabbat after a harrowing or dangerous experience. This siddur also incorporates a prayer to say when you’ve had a great, wonderful experience.”
The Conservative movement, which is the second-largest denomination in the United States after the Reform movement and represents about 18 percent of American Jews, released its previous siddur, Siddur Sim Shalom, in 1985. Several updates were published along with commentaries through 2008. Schonfeld said the Rabbinical Assembly decided to fully update the siddur after the success of the Mahzor Lev Shalem, a prayer book for the High Holy Days, which it released in 2010 after editors took a similar approach to translation and Jewish prayer.
“I have enormous respect and admiration for the previous siddurim — we are standing on the shoulders of giants — and at the same time this is an enormous step forward,” said Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, associate editor of the Siddur Lev Shalem and rabbi at the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in New York. “Just the presence of explanatory and historical commentary, for example … helps people who either know a lot, are excited to learn more and want the intellectual engagement; or people who are new to liturgy and want to learn what it’s saying and is about.”
Uhrbach also emphasized the siddur’s focus on kavanot (intentionality in prayer), poetry and prose. “There are many inspirational readings which talk about what it means to pray, and teachings that can help us enter prayer a different way. You’ll find historical commentary on one side of the page, and poetry and alternative readings on another side of the page.”
Rabbi Edward Feld, the siddur’s senior editor, said in a statement that the book especially encourages “participation of those who are not able to read Hebrew,” adding that “language and the way we use language changes, so each generation needs its own translation.”
Conservative congregations are not required to purchase or use the new siddur, but the Rabbinical Assembly expects it will become the dominant prayer book over time.
At Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Rabbi Stewart Vogel said he’s ordered nearly 500 copies of the siddur for his congregation, which plans to start using it this month.
Vogel, who is an officer in the Rabbinical Assembly, praised the book for addressing “not just the translation of prayer or what we say or how we pray, but how to find meaning in it,” and said the siddur “captures the flow and experience of prayer more than any siddur before it.”
Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Bel Air, said the strongest points of the book may be its versatility and easy-to-read yet poetic language. “How do you get people to feel the excitement and beauty of Shakespeare in modern times? That’s what this siddur is doing with our classic traditions,” said Artson, who contributed a meditation on the Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”).
At least one rabbi has expressed some reservations.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino called the siddur “artful, deep and inspiring,” yet said in an email that the book may be “so good, it’s distracting. It draws us downward and inward into the text and into our own thoughts. It might keep us from rising up to join a community in collective devotion.”
Additionally, he said, “A bound, printed book freezes our prayer text at a moment in time. The book is finished. We can’t add to it. But prayer, in my mind, should be an ever-growing, ever-evolving expression of our reaching toward the divine. … I would prefer … a format that inspires sensitive souls to create new expressions of prayer.”
Feinstein said that at $29.40 per copy for those associated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the book is too costly to buy for his congregation. Still, he added, “I will encourage my members to purchase a copy of the siddur. I think every family should own one.”
I grew up on 1950s television, and all I wanted in the world was to be the Cleavers. I wanted my dad to come home each evening in his neatly pressed suit, hang his fedora near the door and greet my mom, perpetually cheerful in her high heels and pearls. I wanted to sit down to dinner and talk enthusiastically (and one at a time) about football games, fixing cars and going to the prom. I wanted an older brother who wore a letterman’s jacket and who would teach me the manly arts.
I wanted to live in a family that never argued — where no voice was ever raised, where any existential problem could be solved by dad’s good-humored wisdom and mom’s freshly baked cookies. That was normal. Why couldn’t my family be normal, too?
My family was nothing like the Cleavers. My dad never wore a tie (and doesn’t to this day). And mom never wore heels. We were loud and emotional. We loved intensely and we argued constantly. We had no time for football — the Vietnam War was fought over our table. The prom? We were too busy debating civil rights, the counterculture, the legacy of the Holocaust and Israel’s survival.
We weren’t normal … and that hurt. I was sold an image of normal, a map for the right kind of life. The tyranny of the normal weighed on me, and each deviation brought pangs of shame. So I hid and split myself into two selves: inside/outside — a Jewish inner self and an outer American normal self.
As I grew older, I made a marvelous discovery — the Cleavers were in black and white, emotionally colorless. My family was glorious, Jewish Technicolor! I came to love it. And my friends loved it. All of the Cleavers who lived in the neighborhood began showing up at our home on Friday nights to share challah and the boisterous philosophical-political-moral conversation that was our Friday night table.
Who sells us this map called “normal”? Who sets the standard for the right home, the right family, the right life? Who produces the image of the right self that so tyrannizes?
We have pictures in our wallets of our kids. And on the back of each photo, we etch a map for their life. When the kid doesn’t keep to the map, we scream at the teachers, we shlep the kid to therapy, we demand the doctor prescribe medication. We turn on ourselves, and soon, we turn on the kid. My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once noted that there is a particularly Jewish form of child abuse: It’s called disappointment.
All Jewish kids get A’s, right? They all go on to Stanford, Brown and Berkeley. They all are first violin in the orchestra, the lead in the play, the captain of the team. But is there pride for the kid who is different? Is there love for the one who doesn’t conform to our normal? Can we see the kid as he is, as she is, and appreciate a child’s unique gifts? Do we have a place for the child whose journey is off our map?
One thing a rabbi knows: No matter how put together we all appear on the outside, on the inside, everyone has burdens. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has shame. Everyone has moments when life drives us off our map.
No matter how good we look on the outside, no one’s life is normal, not television normal. And no one’s life is perfect. We hide, we escape, we deny. Or worse, we cast out or destroy the one who has frustrated us. That’s the problem.
But God gives second chances. There is life after divorce. There is treatment for addiction. There are new career opportunities. We can love this kid. But only after we let go of the shame, acknowledge what’s before us, and forgive. This is the most profound form of forgiveness — to release ourselves and those we love from the dominion of expectation, the tyranny of the normal.
Yom Kippur is the holiest night of the year, and these are its holiest words:
Kol nidrei ve’esarey va’charamey, v’konamey v’cheenuyey, v’keenusey ushvu’ot.
All of the oaths and vows and promises we could not fulfill are cancelled. All of the maps that designate what’s normal are torn up. All of the expectations that we held up — for ourselves, for our children, for those we love — are relinquished.
V’nislach l’chol adat bnai yisrael.
We are released. We will not allow the tyranny of expectations to stand between us and those we love. We will not let someone’s idea of the normal torture and twist and steal away our life. Our failures are forgiven. Our shame is lifted. There is nothing that we must hide. We are released to write our own map, to seek our own way. Now, we are finally free.
Vayomer Adonai, salachti kid’varecha.
This holiday, we will stand before family, friends and associates, and ask forgiveness for our transgressions, as they will stand before us. But before we can muster the courage to turn to anyone else in contrition, we must forgive ourselves. Before we can be open and ready to offer reconciliation to another, we must find release ourselves.
That is the sacred gift and task of these highest holidays. Shanah tovah. For a new year of blessing.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.
Over the last several weeks, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation have been gathering signatures from rabbis across the country opposed to the Iran nuclear agreement. So far, more than 1,200 have signed on.
Bookstein has blogged about the deal, filled his Facebook followers’ news feeds with critiques and even hosted Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a fierce opponent of the agreement, at his synagogue to discuss it with his youthful congregation during a recent Shabbat service.
When the High Holy Days arrive, however, the Orthodox rabbi said he will take a break from talking about the topic that has dominated conversations throughout the Jewish community. Instead, he plans to return to his principle of not mixing politics with preaching, discussing instead the broader issue of engaging in spiritual activism.
Bookstein said he will address “the mandate to make the world a better place, help our fellow who is in need and stand up for the Jewish people — as opposed to just focusing on the current Iran situation.”
Rabbis across all denominations and political leanings have been wrestling with the question of whether — and how — to speak about the Iran nuclear deal as they prepare their High Holy Days sermons this year. The debate over the agreement, which was announced in July, has monopolized conversation in the Jewish world. As the Sept. 17 congressional deadline to vote draws close, rabbis who strongly oppose the agreement, and those strongly for it, have not been shy about making their opinions known. They have participated in rallies, lent their names to petitions and advertisements, held lectures and debates in their synagogues and sermonized on the deal from the pulpit.
Judging from interviews with numerous area rabbis, local clergy will be responding to the issue in a multiplicity of ways during the High Holy Days.
At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the leadership sent a mass email to congregants, letting them know that upcoming services will be an Iran-free zone, in an effort to avoid acrimony during this season of repentance and awe. “Looking forward to the High Holy Days, we know that this issue will still be looming large; yet, you will not be hearing about this issue from your clergy team on the bima,” it stated.
Senior Rabbi Laura Geller, who said she supports the deal, said the letter to her congregants was a way to set expectations for people in her community before they come to synagogue.
“The High Holy Days [are] a time for us to focus on our own spiritual work and yet to connect ourselves to the larger Jewish community,” she told the Journal. “It is not the time to take a stand about an issue like this that might be divisive. That’s not what the High Holy Days are for. The conversation needs to take place, but to take place in a multiplicity of voices. In a High Holy Days sermon, there is no multiplicity of voices.”
By contrast, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad West Coast, said he has no choice but to speak about the topic directly from the bimah. An opponent of the agreement, he plans to bring up Iran during the High Holy Days when he leads services at Chabad West Coast headquarters in Westwood.
“It’s not politics, it’s [about] the life of our people,” Cunin said.
At Temple Israel of Hollywood, Senior Rabbi John Rosove, who has expressed support of the deal in these pages and elsewhere, plans to reiterate that support only briefly in a sermon he will deliver on Rosh Hashanah morning titled “Fighting for the Soul of the Jewish People.”
“I’m not arguing the Iran deal; that’s not what my sermon is about. I am arguing the larger issue of the state of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the State of Israel and what we’re doing as a people, what the state of our people is vis-à-vis each other,” he said.
Whether they feel the Iran deal represents an existential threat to Israel or the best agreement available, many rabbis are opting not to speak about it. Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah said doing so would only take away from the purpose of the occasion.
“The main thing I talk about is moral and spiritual well-being, how to live well with others, how to solve struggles, spiritual wholeness,” said Finley, who opposes the deal. “If I start advocating positions, if I start saying positions, I alienate people who need to hear other things I want to say.”
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, one of the synagogues that has sponsored discussions about the Iran deal, said his sermon will express his dismay over the lack of respectful discourse in the community in the wake of the uproar over the agreement.
“What I am going to talk about on the holiday is how Jews argue,” said Feinstein, who has not taken a position on the deal. “What disturbs me the most about it is how divided and vicious this conversation has become, and I think the community has forgotten its core values — why community matters, why solidarity matters, and why you don’t sacrifice Jewish community solidarity and respect no matter how serious the issues we’re debating. That’s what I want to address.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous of the egalitarian spiritual community IKAR supports the deal, but she, like many other rabbis, will focus more on the community’s response to the proposed agreement.
“I would be shocked if we don’t hear a lot of people in the community talking about growing divisiveness in the community and how dangerous that is,” Brous said.
Conservative Sinai Temple will hold breakout conversations on Yom Kippur, at one of which Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, will talk about how we disagree with one another, especially how we can do so without character assassination. Artson, who is leading services during the High Holy Days in Sinai Temple’s Barad Hall, said he is deeply concerned about the problem of discourse.
“As in a marriage, the important thing isn’t if you fight or not, but if you speak to each other during the fight in a way that makes it possible to hold each other after the fight is over,” he said. “I would like Jews to speak to each other in a way that they could embrace after the fight is over.”
Artson also said that it is difficult to imagine a political sermon about Iran having any of the “rabbinic value” that is essential for any High Holy Days sermon.
“I have strong personal opinions, but there is nothing of rabbinic value in those, so what I try to do is mobilize Torah wisdom,” he said. “If there are things people can say that enhance people’s lives or help them develop questions for things they need to develop opinions about, I would focus on those.”
Others concerned about the divide in the community — as evidenced, for example, by the backlash to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ July 21 statement of opposition to the deal, encouraging all in the community to lobby Congress against it — include Congregation Kol Ami’s Rabbi Denise Eger. She plans to lead a prayer of unity on Kol Nidre.
“Mostly, we will be saying we have permission to pray together with those who support and those who oppose and to try to create one community. That is the only reference I will make to [Iran] during the holidays. It will not be in a sermon. It will be in a prayerful meditation at the beginning of worship on Kol Nidre,” said Eger, who, as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest organization of Reform rabbis in North America, signed a letter that declined to take a position on the agreement.
Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said he will give a nod to people’s passion about the deal without offering his own opinions. (The Reform temple’s leadership issued a statement on Aug. 19 that declined to take a position.)
“I think there is a difference between going into the nuts and bolts of the deal and mentioning that moment, and even praying for that moment. Whatever you feel about the deal, whether you are in favor or against or ambivalent, [saying], ‘We join in prayer, with hopes that our elected officials …’ — that kind of conversation — it is referencing the deal and talking about the deal without going into, [for example], the five reasons I am concerned,” Zweiback said. “Because I am going to address it, but not in an ‘I favor’ or ‘I am against, and here is what we should do’ fashion.”
Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said he understands rabbis’ obvious aversion to tackling the difficult topic head-on, but he said he thinks it is possible for a rabbi to deliver a sermon that addresses the issue without demonizing those who may disagree — as long as the rabbi knows the audience.
“I can absolutely see both sides of the argument, and I think rabbis need to know their communities, and they need to understand what their communities can tolerate in terms of discourse and have to really make a thoughtful judgment about that,” he said.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who spoke at a July 26 “Stop Iran” rally at the Federal Building in West Los Angeles, said he will not deliver a High Holy Days sermon about Iran because he has already made his feelings known in writings and during public appearances.
“My position is already well known. I have spoken and written about it and … it’s the High Holy Days. It’s not a time, to me at least, for political mobilization [but a time] for people to learn Torah and understand their souls better,” he said. “As important as the issue is, I think both the synagogue, and also I, have done what we need to do, and these are the High Holy Days.”
Still, Wolpe said he is unable to resist discussing broader topics related to the controversial topic.
“Without giving you too much detail,” he said in a recent phone interview, “I am going to talk about the Jewish root of the way we talk about Israel and the debate about Israel. So it has implications for the discussion about Iran, but it’s going to be Torah, not nuclear throw-weight.”
In other words, he continued, “It’s not going to be about reactors. It’s going to be about Torah.”
[Do you have a photo or memory of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis you'd like to share? Send an email here.]
An excerpt from the eulogy of Janice Kaminer-Reznik, president and co-founder with Rabbi Schulweis of Jewish World Watch:
Of all of the visits and conversations I have had with Rabbi Schulweis, it is our very last conversation less than two weeks ago that was perhaps the most profound. It will stay with me forever. Already in quite a weakened state, Rabbi Schulweis was notably agitated about the events that led to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold that killed Eric Garner in New York. He said that these police practices are intolerable and racially biased. He asked why he was not hearing a louder voice of protest from the American-Jewish community.
Rabbi Schulweis was a man who simply could not tolerate injustice … even as his heart was fading — even as he knew his end was near … he would not give up his pursuit of and for justice. And his expectation of us was clear as well — to continue this sacred work. …
A while later that afternoon, Stan Zicklin; Rabbi Schulweis; his wife, Malkah; and I were visiting, and he posed a question. He asked, “How do you know if you have lived a good life? A worthwhile life?” After 40 years of being his student, I did a very Schulweisian thing: I turned it back on him. I asked him, “How would you evaluate whether you’ve lived a good life?”
Without hesitation, he said, “A rabbi who has brought people together — people who were divergent in their views and practices, people who ordinarily would not have connected, people who were estranged, or even simply irrelevant to one another … I would say, that such a rabbi has lived a good life.”
What a remarkable moment to experience … a man, near death, evaluating the essence of his life’s purpose as a rabbi.
An excerpt from the eulogy Rabbi Uri Herscher, founder of the Skirball Cultural Center, delivered at the memorial service for Harold Schulweis:
Over 50 years of friendship, Harold and I shared countless conversations, and none are forgettable. I particularly think of the Thursday evening dinners in recent years, which Myna and I shared with Malkah and Harold, up to the end. Harold’s voice was no longer as strong, but to cite the Torah he loved so much, his eye was undimmed. The Torah, said Harold, is all about character; and Harold, like the Torah, was character itself. A week prior to his death, Harold mentioned a liturgical passage to me, and when I didn’t recognize it, he took me to his home study, pulled out an old prayer book, and unerringly located the passage. It’s not a famous one, not at all. But he noted it, and remembered it, because it was about character. I share it with you now:
“May it be Thy will, O Lord my God and God of my fathers, to deliver me this day and every day from arrogance and from arrogant men, from every corrupt person, from every evil companion; from the dangers that lurk about me; from a harsh judgment and an implacable opponent, whether or not he be an adherent of our faith.”
What moves me so deeply about these words is not just what they say, but how Harold, to the very end of his life, took them so to heart, remembered them, spoke of them, lived them the full length of his days. In the end, character is what we have, and all we have, and there is nothing more precious we can bequeath. Harold taught me this. But even more, he showed me.
Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple:
Harold Schulweis had a fertile mind and a capacious heart. His sympathies ranged as widely as his intellect. Every rabbi knew, coming to him for advice, that you would walk away with seven programmatic suggestions, 12 new sermon ideas and the sense of having encountered a unique human being. My father was a shrewd judge of people. When I first heard of Harold Schulweis, and asked my father what he thought of his former classmate, he answered: “Harold? He is the most talented man in the American rabbinate.” Indeed he was, and his loss is immeasurable.
Bruce Powell, head of school, New Community Jewish High School:
Living in the “Age of Schulweis” has been transformative for our community, our nation and the entire Jewish people. His teaching, writing and eloquence in speaking have inspired generations of Americans, presidents and Jewish leaders throughout the world.
On a personal note, I regard Rabbi Schulweis as one of my teachers and one of the people who helped to shape the moral vision of New Community Jewish High School. One of the powerful messages he taught was that “the best is often the enemy of the good.” This simple yet highly complex idea has helped to shape my thinking about moral vision and ethical action, and is a guide about how to determine what is truly important in our world.
Gerald Bubis, founder and professor emeritus of the School of Jewish Communal Service, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR):
We have known the Schulweises since 1953, when the rabbi was head of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, and I was assistant director of the Jewish Community Center. We had joined Temple Beth Abraham, where I taught and had my first encounter with Rabbi Harold. I soon taught for the school, and we had also become friends. We got into a debate about the need for Jewish community centers and synagogues. We agreed to each write an article in Jewish Reconstructionist magazine. The subject was Synagogue and Centers. After the articles were available to both of us, I realized I had debated with a great mind and man. In turn, I resolved never to submit any article where I knew Rabbi Harold would be in print in the same magazine. Our two families became good friends. He and his wife, Malkah, and my wife, Ruby, were present at many simchas together.
We joined Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) after moving to Los Angeles in 1973. At our first service at VBS, Rabbi announced the beginning of the Yom Kippur War that changed Jewish history.
I went on to learn so much from him over the decades. May his memory be for a blessing. We have truly lost a giant.
From an essay by Steven Windmueller, Rabbi Albert Gottschalk Emeritus professor at HUC-JIR, on Rabbi Leonard Beerman and Rabbi Schulweis at jewishjournal.com:
Rabbi Beerman and Rabbi Schulweis would translate their Jewish passions into concrete actions. For Beerman, as an example, this would be reflected by his embracing the cause of economic justice for farm and hotel workers; for Schulweis it would be about transforming the Jewish story into a universal one by envisioning new ways to engage Jews in the task of healing the world.
Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
Years ago, when Jewish World Watch (JWW) was still fairly new, I took my then-teenage son and daughter to a JWW event. There were presentations and speeches by several national political figures and community leaders. It was the role of Rabbi Schulweis to open the program, and the others spoke after him. Despite the fact that he only spoke for a few minutes, that his was not the keynote presentation, and that hours had passed between his remarks and the close of the evening — my children spent the entire drive home raving about him. How he had captured in just a few simple sentences what they had always felt it meant to be a Jew but had never heard anyone say before. He spoke to them, he spoke for them, he inspired them and gave them newfound pride in being a part of a community in which he, too, was a part.
I am grateful every day that I had the chance to know him, however briefly, and that I, too, was among the many he told “call me Harold” with his impish smile, and yet I could not — he was, and always will be Rabbi Schulweis, a visionary, a leader and a truly great man.
Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights Publishing):
It was the summer of 1974 when I arrived in Los Angeles. A friend told me about a rabbi in the San Fernando Valley who was transforming his synagogue into one of the most dynamic congregations in the city, if not the country. “There are a thousand people every Friday night,” he said. When a thousand people were showing up for a worship service, I wanted to know what was happening.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis was happening. On that Friday night at Valley Beth Shalom, I witnessed the future of synagogue life in America, shaped by a rabbi who had a clear vision of what a kehillah kedushah, a sacred community, could and should be. The sanctuary was packed to overflowing. The music was sensational. The Kabbalat Shabbat service was shaped with kavanot, short intentional comments that framed the meaning of the prayers. The sermon was spectacular, engaging, relevant, moving. After the service, there was a beautiful Kiddush and Israeli dancing. It was a happening.
More from the community:
Eich naflu ha-giborim – How the mighty has fallen!
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis was one of a kind, a truly great man, a great rabbi, a great scholar, a great thinker, a great model of activism. He was a rabbi's rabbi and through MAZON and Jewish World Watch, organizations he inspired and founded, he has saved many many lives and given meaning to the mitzvah l'fakeach nefesh. Harold will be remembered by all who knew him not only as one of our true g'dolei dor, but as a man who personified the station and mission of Rav!
It was a privilege to know him, to learn from him, and to be inspired by him.
– Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood
I am deeply saddened to learn of Rabbi Schulweis' passing. I cherished his friendship, his warmth, his brilliance, his eloquence. What I learned from him was crucial to my ability to explore rescuers during the Holocaust. When I started what is now the Chambon Foundation to explore and communicate such lessons of hope, Rabbi Schulweis was the first person I invited to join its Board of Directors, where he honored me with his presence for over 30 years.
In 1983, Rabbi Schulweis invited me to address Valley Beth Shalom about what was then a neglected approach to the Holocaust. I have just nostalgically located what I said at that time about Rabbi Schulweis, and it seems appropriate to recall it now: “For decades, Rabbi Schulweis has been trying to get through to us that we must not waste the positive, useful, essential lessons still largely entombed with the six million: that we had friends, too, during the Holocaust, that both Jews and non-Jews need to learn about the goodness—need to learn from the goodness—that also occurred during the Nazi era. Rabbi Schulweis' pioneering speeches on the subject, his creation of the Institute for the Righteous Acts while he was in Berkeley in the '60s, his dogged conviction about all this despite the deafening lack of support that he encountered in the '60s and '70s, his unique role in caring about and alerting us to righteous conduct during the Holocaust—all this has been, dare I say it, prophetic!”
My heart goes out to Malkah and to the family. Prophets live on, of course, and so will Rabbi Schulweis as future generations continue to learn from him.
– Pierre Sauvage, documenatary filmmaker
From the moment I first arrived in Los Angeles fourteen years ago, Rabbi Harold Schulweis has been a blessing and inspiration in my life. What a joy it was to come to know Harold after three decades gleaning wisdom from his writings and serving Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, “his shul,” from 1991-2000 (thankfully with several rabbis in between our respective rabbinic appointments).
During my tenure as Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis and as Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee, I turned to Rabbi Schulweis as a mentor, teacher and confidante. Harold was always available to proffer sound advice and good counsel on a wide range of subjects, including theology and theodicy, spiritual activism, interreligious relations, and “speaking truth to power.” I fondly recall a seminar featuring Rabbi Schulweis and a cohort of newly-minted rabbis. I felt privileged to witness a master teacher gently and lovingly mentoring his eager students, the new faces of the Los Angeles rabbinate.
I also recall making a rookie mistake during my first meeting with Rabbi Schulweis in his study at Valley Beth Shalom. I mentioned the dreaded “R” word, asking my distinguished colleague if he had any plans to retire. Harold’s reply was forceful and unequivocal, arguably the most resounding “No” I had heard in my life.
As I left his study, I understood that Harold had Divine fire in his heart, mind and soul. Rabbi Harold Schulweis lived and loved the rich tapestry of Torah with passion and conviction. We give thanks for the life of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, one of God’s rare and priceless treasures.
– Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, American Jewish Committee (AJC)
Rabbi Harold Schulweis was a rabbi’s rabbi. He was one of my rabbis. I remember the first time I heard Rabbi Schulweis preach. As a rabbinical student I attended Second Day Rosh HaShannah services at VBS in the early 1990’s. I was young and green. I watched his every move. How he wove his sermons, his passion, his humility, his humor. I drank up the experience. Years later, as a young mother/wife and congregational rabbi, I was grappling with a very difficult professional rabbinic decision. Though he hardly knew me, I picked up the phone and asked if he would meet with me. I laid out all the sides of the issues with which I was struggling. I will never forget his reaction. He looked me straight in the eyes and lovingly screamed at me. He urged me to have a backbone. To stand tall for what I believed in. To be kind but to be firm. Since then, I’ve always thought of Rabbi Schulweis as the rabbi to go to when I need to be put in my place; when I need to be reminded of the right thing to do in our ever-changing and often morally ambiguous world. Somehow he knew how to act with courage and with a conscience.
– Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, Temple Israel of Hollywood
On behalf of the State of Israel, we offer our deepest condolences on the passing of Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z”l), one of the most influential and beloved rabbis of our time. His work with the Jewish World Watch and the Jewish Foundation of the Righteous, among many other admirable causes, reflected vision and compassion of the greatest of men. His loss will be deeply felt throughout the Jewish world and beyond.
– Consul General of Israel, David Siegel
Today we lost one of our Gedolei HaDor, one of the great leaders of our generation. Though his speaking, his writing, his warmth, and his visionary innovation, Rabbi Harold Schulweis touched the lives of countless Jews and influenced the direction of North American Judaism.
Rabbi Schulweis showed us that we do not have to choose between a particularist or universalist type of Judaism. He showed, rather, that Jewish practice, a love for Clal Yisrael, and a love of all people goes hand in glove with an imperative to stand up for social justice and to live a life of meaning and purpose. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, Mazon, Jewish World Watch – all are organizations that exist because of Rabbi Schulweis’s passion to heal the world.
Rabbi Schulweis also understood better than anyone the needs of ordinary Jews, and taught many of us new ways to deeply engage the Jewish people. Finally, he was a social trailblazer, recognizing ahead of others that it was time to count women in the minyan, treat girls and boys equally in becoming b’nai mitzvah, embrace gay and lesbian Jews, or reach out to interfaith families.
We have lost a truly great person today, and we will miss him sorely. But the legacy of Rabbi Harold Schulweis will endure for years.”
– United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick and International President Richard Skolnik
Rabbi Schulweis was my first real teacher of Jewish philosophy when he taught a course at UC Berkeley around 1969 or 1970. He is one of the main reasons I ended up doing what I do professionally since he was passionate and articulate teacher. If he had been a Hasidic rebbe, I would have signed on as his Hasid.
A small anecdote. I spent a half year in Israel working on kibbutzim in the 1970. When I returned in September, 1970, I went for a Shabbat service at Temple Beth Abraham where Schulweis presided. It was a hot day, so I went to the synagogue in shorts. Schulweis called me up for an aliya. One of the elders of the synagogue protested that I wasn’t dressed appropriately. Schulweis waved him off and declared: “He’s just back from Israel and that’s how you dress there!”
– David Biale, Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor, Director, Davis Humanities Institute
Rabbi Schulweis met a young math student at Berkeley. The family that rescued him and his brothers were Polish-Catholic. The story culminated in the children's book “Jacob's Rescue” by Michael Halperin & Malka Drucker published by Random House
– Michael Halperin
I am deeply saddened by the loss of Rabbi Schulweis. He was my Rabbi and I’ve been a member of his congregation at Valley Beth Shalom since the mid-1990s. As a leader in the community for over 45 years, he was an innovator that transformed the synagogue beyond a place of worship into a true community that fostered activism, counseling, and charity.
My wife and I had the honor of listening to his sermons on many occasions; he was a moving speaker and constant inspiration. My mother, wife and I also had the privilege of joining him and his wife for dinner from time to time where he shared his insight and wisdom.
Rabbi Schulweis was one of the preeminent Jewish thinkers, scholars and intellectuals of our time and the author of many books including “For Those Who Can't Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith” and “Evil and the Morality of God.”
His leadership taught us the importance of reaching beyond our borders. Jewish World Watch, an organization he founded, brought schools, churches, and synagogues together to combat hunger and genocide across the globe. ‘Do not stand idly by’ was his frequent refrain – referring to the work we all must do together to overcome injustice.
He was also a reformer, who was among the first Conservative rabbis to welcome openly gay and lesbian Jews into his synagogue. His legacy and his writings leave a lasting impact here in Los Angeles and in communities everywhere. My wife Lisa and I send our sincerest condolences to his wife Malkah and his children Seth, Ethan, and Alyssa and the entire Schulweis family.”
— Congressman Brad Sherman
Rabbi Shulweis with my youngest son, Alex Abravanel at his Hebrew School graduation. One of the many memorable moments with Rabbi Shulweis.
– Lisa Abravanel
He gave a sermon about problems of being a conservative Rabbi. As an example, he described converting a woman to Judaism, telling her that she was now favored in G-d's eyes because she chose to be Jewish. She asked him to marry her to her beloved and he had to tell her that a conservative rabbi may not marry a Kohen.
– Judy Salz
I remember Rabbi Schulweis coming to visit my philosophy of religion class as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University. It was soon after his book “For Those Who Can't Believe” was published, and I was in awe of his revolutionary thinking. Years later as a rabbi myself, I have read and re-read his books, articles, and sermons, which have been an endless source of wisdom and inspiration. May he rest in peace.
– Rabbi Adam J. Raskin, Congregation Har Shalom
There was no one like him. I attended Valley Beth Shalom Day School from 3rd grade through 6th. His door was always open. He was there for my parents and I every step of the way. Rabbi Schulweiss also conducted the service at my bat mitzvah. His words and mere presence kept everyone in awe. Several years later, in 1998, I called him to speak to him about my upcoming wedding (he always took calls personally. I always found this amazing given the importance of this man). And he remembered me. By name. He remembered most everyone that he met. He told me that he did not do weddings that much anymore, but that he would do mine!! I was so very happy and touched. He shocked me when he said he would not charge for his service. A man of his caliber. “Just make a donation to the temple”, he said. He also gave me other advice about mezuzahs and keeping kosher. He shared stories about his father with me. He was so open, open-minded, and modern. So humble, gentle, and kind. I was concerned that my wedding was not going to be “glatt” kosher and other rabbis had a problem with that. He said that he didn't believe in this. And that it was ok. I asked him if every door in my home should have a mezuzah and he said only the front door that blesses the home. He made being Jewish easy and fun. “Do-able”! My fiance (now husband) and I met with him in his humble office before the wedding. My husband had had bad experiences with Rabbis and Judaism in General. Rabbi Schulweiss changed his negative ideas around in that one meeting. My husband loved him and his teachings as much as I did! I can't say enough, how special this man was. To the world, to Judaism, to every family and every single individual he touched. After the wedding I gave Rabbi Schulweiss a meaningful Jewish tapestry (at the time I really didn't know what the scene depicted). I went to visit him, some time after the gift and after the wedding. To my surprise, he had proudly hung the tapestry right in his office. I thought to myself, this man must receive so many gifts, he must have so many nice, important possessions. And he hung mine up! In his small, private office. And, in such a beautiful way. With a light shining just right on it, and a beautiful mount. He took the time to explain to me that it portrayed Aaron from the Torah. Well, my third child, who is now 4, is named Aaron. He has impacted my life in so many ways. I must also say, “behind every great man, there is a great woman.” His wife is amazing, understanding, caring, strong, and loving as well. What a beautiful couple. G- d bless his soul and continue to bless his beautiful wife.
With Love and Gratitude.
– Elizabeth Ahdoot-Ebrahimian
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis with other L.A. Conservative Rabbi's at the 2011 Masorti Foundation Dinner.
– Barbara Berci
I knew Rabbi Schulweis from the 1960s when he was a rabbi in oakland. I was in my teens. So sorry to hear he passed. may the gates open wide for him. Would be pleased to share my reflections.
– Judith Bendor
I had the privilege of having Rabbi Harold Schulweis as my philosophy teacher at HUC-JIR LA. It was an amazing few months. The highlight, of course, was when he introduced his notion of “Predicate Theology”. His thinking and his social activism have been an inspiration ever since. We were fortunate to have him for so many years.
– Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Beth Shir Shalom
Seventeen years ago my daughter living in Sydney Australia at the time had a baby boy. The Brit was conducted by a physician and a rabbi. After my daughter said the required prayers in perfect Hebrew the rabbi turned to me and commented that my daughter had had a good Hebrew education and asked what synagogue did we belong to and who was the rabbi. When I told him Valley Beth Shalom and Rabbi Schulweis he was almost jumping up and down with excitement that we knew Rabbi Schulweis. Our beloved Rabbi Schulweis was a great influence even half a world away. May his name be a blessing for the whole world.
– Sharon Thompson Glass
While getting my hair done one day, I picked up a copy of the Heritage, an eight-page now-defunct Jewish newspaper and read that Rabbi Harold Schulweis was giving a lecture at 8 p.m. on Friday night on the subject of Kiruv, conversion to Judaism and I needed to be there. Raised Catholic, I rejected that philosophy in early adulthood, and here and there attended Jewish lectures, including one at the Jewish Federation by Valley Beth Shalom concerning Jewish acceptance of gays and lesbians. Someday, I would have to check out VBS, but had never got around to it.
I sat far back in the shul in case I might become uncomfortable and want to leave. As Rabbi Schulweis started to speak, I was mesmerized by what he had to say and how eloquently he offered the opportunity to be part of the Jewish people. Ten minutes into his talk, I understood that I was meant to be there, that I had found my people, that I had come home to my faith. Rabbi Schulweis was a masterful presenter of Judaism, what we Jews had done well, done badly but were meant to heal the world. He was an influence that stuck in your mind and is as clear today as it was the moment he spoke.
My life has forever been changed for the better, and for the people I have learned to help, because he had a vision of welcoming sincere people into the Jewish faith. I will miss his presence in this life, but Hashem has welcomed him to Gan Eden for the reward he justly deserves.
– Bracha Sarah Meyerowitcz
Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l and I began our San Fernando careers in 1970. I started at Los Angeles Valley College the first accredited Jewish Studies program at a public college in the State of California and he at Valley Beth Shalom set the standard of the ideal American Rabbi and why Shul matters. We shared Bronx birth and moxie, Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter musar (ethical teaching), and Yeshiva University contact (I at MTA High School and he at Teachers Institute). He spoke at LAVC and I spoke at VBS (Auschwitz Convent Controversy). In typical Salanter tradition we disagreed on what we disagreed. A Bronx tale. I was a guest at the Shulweis home on the first night of Passover 1975. Traditional readings, outstanding commentary,geschmaked pesachdik food, and all is well. Then the Open Door for Elijah and Shulweis proclaimed that he doesn't plead to the Almighty to pour out His wrath upon the nations that know Him not for if they do they would not devour Jacob and laid waste his habitation. That night's additional Passover question asked by me, why not? The Rabbi responded that the “curse of nations” is medieval tradition and further not respecting the Other. Like hell it is not as I rushed to the open door and shreied in the Encino Hills the justice paragraph of the Haggadah. Returning to the table of befuddled guests, I said, “Harold, a couple of months ago the United Nations declared “Zionism is Racism.” That is why the shefokh chamatkha is justified. This past summer's “Operation Protective Edge” and ant-Zionist and Jewish hatred related matters cement the importance of this charge. Barukh Dayyan Ha-Emet. May all be comforted in and by the legacy of Rabbi Harold Shulweis z'l.
– Prof. Zev Garber. Emeritus Professor and Chair Jewish Studies and Philosophy, LAVC
How does the voice of a man make the world a better place? How can this man's dreams touch the poorest of souls on the other side of the world? How can a man live his life with Tikkun Olam as his goal and have this quest for world repair spur those around him into social action like ripples on water? The quiet voice that was yours, Rabbi, that I heard from the bimah and on your house phone when I called in need, was the voice that gave sound to your strength, sound to your soul, and offered insight into the situation. You always had the wisest of answers to life's issues. Your quiet voice, your voice of strength, offered answers that brought quiet to my personal fears; your voice illuminated a paths of action for your congregation which melted problems into a road of just and righteous possibility. Your leadership was our synagogue's beacon; we understood by your voice which couched great wisdom what needed to be done; your ideas then were brought into bloom and then flowered to benefit those in need. I will sadly miss your life which nourished my learning.
My deepest and life-long appreciation to Rabbi Schulweis, z'l. Baruch Dyan haEmet.
– Marion (Manya) Phillips, Stamford, Connecticut.
What I learned from my Rabbi, makes me Jewish in the way that I am Jewish.
I learned to struggle with God and darkness in our world
That I needed to define my Judaism as the vehicle for those struggles
That when we bring good to the world through our actions
We bring God into this world
Darkness is the absence of God and Good
And it is our role to listen to our conscience to evoke goodness and struggle with the God within through that process
To embrace the “Isra” (struggle/fight) with “el” God in our daily thoughts and actions on earth
I learned that we are One
With everyone and everything
That we are connected through time and space
Not only to ourselves but to the stranger, and those injustices
Not only done to us and our ancestors but to those far away from where we are
This is poem inspired by what I learned from my Rabbi and how I aspire to live my life as a Jew due his teachings and lived “dugma” (example). May his memory be blessed.
May we learn to see the sacred spark
in every person
May we learn to see that glowing warm light
in ourselves and
through the eye of
May we become agents
in the ongoing creation
May our day to day actions
the spread of a canopy of peace
That protectively hovers
over and within
you, your loved ones,
and those we’ll never meet
– Ron Avi Astor Ph.D., Lenore Stein-Wood and William S. Wood Professor of School Behavioral Health, University of Southern California
I have had the honor of being involved with Jewish World Watch and Rabbi Schulweis for the last 10 years. By allowing me to be part of his extraordinary vision, Rabbi Schulweis altered my view, not only of the world, but my place in it. By starting JWW, he challenged me and many others to leave our comfort zones and recognize that we can in fact DO something in places that seem so far away and remote. And he allowed me to connect with people in remote areas whose humanity touch me in a deep and profound way and whom I now carry in my heart always. I see the world and our interconnectivity differently because of Rabbi Schulweis.
But most of all, I have been so touched by his inclusiveness. I love that JWW embraces anyone who needs us and that while steeped in Jewish tradition, we welcome and embrace all faiths. It is a powerful message that the world needs more of.
— Diana Buckhantz, Board Member, Jewish World Watch
I am one of the fortunate thousands who had the privilege of learning from and being a friend of Rabbi Schulweis.
He listened, he heard, he understood, he inspired, he gave his heart and his mind. He unwrapped my Jewish soul.
His soul lives on.
I came to celebrate the high holidays with a friend, and her family. I am not jewish, black, and born in England. The good Rabbi reached out to me, dressed me in the clothes worn at the ceremony, and welcomed me to the tribe. He was a wonderful man that had love in his heart for all. His sermon was inspirational, and though I met him only twice, was compelled to write to you when I learned of his passing.
I was deeply saddened for your/our loss of a great teacher. A man that truly walked the path of a loving God. He will live forever in my heart, as I am sure he will in that of his congregation.
In Pirkai Avot, Ben Zoma asks: Who is wise? …and answers… One who learns from every man. Rabbi Schulweis derived meaningful lessons from wherever he could. How fortunate we are to have seen much of the world through his eyes, his mind and his heart.
It is rewarding and uplifting to sense the man he was through his words.
Here are some of them:
By reviewing the aftermath of the Korach rebellion, finding that the Lord commanded that the firepans of the rebels were to be made into beaten plates for a covering of the alter, he taught us that “something holy from something unholy – even sinful, could be created.”
“The objects of idolatrous adorations, the Rabbis warned, were not in themselves evil. Stars, moon, trees, sun are not unholy. It is the worship of portions of creation as if they were the whole of creation that eclipses the unity of God’s world and profanes it. When institutions or ideologies arrogate to themselves exclusive truth and dismiss all others as aberrations, the plentitude and grandeur of Judaism are impoverished.
(Moment magazine, September, 1985)
“Whoever glorifies himself by humiliating someone else has no share in the future world.”
(Quoting Maimonides, Moment magazine, December, 1985)
“In the first chapter of Genesis, God does not create something from nothing. His key contribution is dividing – setting up a value system.”
(Sermon – 11/1/86).
Ahavah = 13 (Numerology)
13 x 2 = 26 = Yehovah
“If you want to believe, then love.”
(Rabbi Schulweis quoting Martin Buber, 12/29/90)
“Science measures and weighs what is; faith is concerned with what ought to be.”
(Rabbi Harold Schulweis in VBS the Shalom 18 #7 March, 1991 p3).
“The word for miracle in Hebrew is Nes, a sign. Hence significant.”
(Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Friday, 12/9/1994 with Cardinal Mahoney)
“In her book, Today’s children and Yesterday’s Heritage, Sophia Fahs suggested a game to answer the “where” question. (Where is God?) I decided to adopt her game with my daughter. I asked her to touch my arms. She did. I asked her to touch my chest. She did. I asked her to touch my nose. She did. I then asked her to touch my love…she could not. She smiled. The exercise was an introduction to a deeper understanding of faith.”
(Harold M. Schulweis. For Those Who Can’t Believe. Harper Collins, NY, 1994 p22)
“Godliness, like love, is located not ‘in me’ or ‘in you’ but between us. Love is not ‘on’ the object or ‘in’ the object but between them. Like the experience of Godliness, love points to a relationship with an ‘other’.
In Judaism, the importance of ‘betweeness is expressed in the high value that tradition places on community. Acts of holiness, such as the recitation of the mourners kaddish and the public reading of the Torah, require a minyan, the quorum of 10 representatives of the community.”
(Harold M. Schulweis. For Those Who Can’t Believe. Harper Collins, NY, 1994 p24)
“A window shut open is as useless as a window shut closed. In either case, you’ve lost the use of the window.”
(Philopher Carlyle Marney quoted by Harold M. Schulweis: For Those Who Can’t Believe. Harper Collns, NY 1994 p27 (taken from Stages of Faith by James Fowler in Psychology Today 11/83).
“Where man ceases believing in something, it isn’t that he believes in nothing, but that he then believes in anything.”
(GK Chesterton quoted by Harold M. Schulweis – For Those Who Can’t Believe; Harper Collins, NY 1994 in Religious nature abhors a vacuum. P27)
“There is nothing that we can rightly pray for that does not make demands on us. The object of petition is to energize us to act outside the threshold of the sanctuary.”
(Harold M. Schulweis. For Those Who Can’t Believe. Harper Collins, NY, 1994.p39)
“True wisdom is the ability to act when it is necessary on the basis of incomplete information.”
(Robert Frost quoted by Harold Schulweis – VBS vol 23# Nov., 1995, mentioned in the Yom Kippur sermon).
“Shema is the central prayer of Judaism. It talks of God, not as all powerful or as all wise or as eternal – but as one. We are the witnesses of God’s existence, which is demonstrated by our actions.”
(Rabbi Harold Schulweis Rosh Hashana sermon 10/1/1997 on Echod: We are one with God and with each other.)
“To paraphrase George Santayana, the effort to embrace humanity in general is as foolhardy as the attempt ‘to speak in general without using any language in particular.’ Judaism is the particular language through which Jews address humanity. Although the Bible originates out of the needs, intuitions, and revelations of a particular people, its wisdom and ethics burst into the public domain of humanity.”
“Sharansky cited Cynthia Ozick’s telling of the Jewish folk tale in which a naif asks the rabbi why one blows the shofar through the narrow side of the ram’s horn rather than through the wide side. The rabbi answered, if you blow it into the wide end, no sound will be emitted. But if you blow through the narrow side, it will reach into the outer limits. Like charity, compassion begins at home, but it does not end there.”(Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, From: I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. Edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2004, pages 177-81)
“Whatever the situation under discussion, God is not to be found in the cause; God is found in the response.”
(Harold Schulweis, Jan 31, 2005 evening meeting about Darfur).
“The mark of a civilized human being is the ability to count…and to cry.”
(Harold Schulweis quoting Bertrand Russell…in the context of Darfur)
Responding to today’s news about the passing of comedy legend Sid Caesar, Los Angeles community members praised the veteran comic’s ability to win over an audience.
“He was an awfully funny guy,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) said, “and an awfully incredible convener of funny guys.”
Feinstein was not the only VBS clergyman to have a soft spot for Caesar.
“He was a great artist – not just a comedian. He made comedy into the highest elevated art,” Cantor Herschel Fox told the Journal.
Fox recalled seeing Caesar perform at a 1996 Hanukkah event in Orange County, where Caesar wowed audiences with his still finely-tuned chops.
“He did improvisational things on the spot. I think he did a wider range of characters and directions than anybody in his time,” Fox said.
Caesar made an impression on stage and off. As seen in the documentary “Lunch,” he was a regular at Factor’s Famous Deli, where he and group of showbiz pals ate lunch every Wednesday.
Caesar, who was born to Jewish immigrants in Yonkers, was 91.
A knack for physicality, as opposed to wordiness, distinguished Caesar from the prototypical Jewish comic.
“It's especially sad to lose Caesar because he's less quotable than most of his fellow comedy gods,” Josh Lambert, academic director of Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture, told the Journal. “Words can't do justice to the faces he pulled or the gibberish he spouted.
“But he'll live on forever for those who know where to look: in the traces of Catskills shtick still echoing in contemporary sketch comedy, and in any big comedian who still sells a joke with every muscle in his body,” he said.
Meanwhile, other Caesar fans, including Rabbi David Wolpe, tweeted a shout-out to the funnyman who was known for classic TV shows, “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour.”
“Sad to hear of the passing of the great Sid Caesar. May his memory be a legacy of laughter and blessing,” the Sinai Temple leader said.
Sid was a warm, kind, sweet man who loved his lunch buddies. A true brotherhood,” factors co-owner suzee markowitz said.
“The epicenter of the earthquake was under our kitchen. The house jumped 10 feet in the air, and my wife and I woke to the beautiful view of the San Fernando Valley,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein, 59, of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, recalled with dry humor.
Feinstein’s experience, as it was for many others who lived in his Granada Hills neighborhood, was traumatic. The back wall of his house, along with its windows, was smashed and destroyed, and its water heaters exploded. Feinstein and his family moved out of their home, which was uninhabitable, and eventually moved permanently into a new house in Encino.
Despite the similar trauma of many members of the Valley Beth Shalom community, synagogue leaders dove into action in the days after the earthquake. Leaders contacted every member of the synagogue and put together an emergency committee of lawyers, personal counselors and architects from the congregation who could help community members.
“We made sure everyone in the community who needed help was getting help,” said Feinstein, who was a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom at the time. “The physical shockwaves left people feeling emotionally shaky. At the same time, there was a tremendous sense of bonding together to help one another. It was very special.”
The synagogue’s Hebrew classes resumed a week after the earthquake, and a wedding ceremony interrupted by an aftershock was improvised in the synagogue’s parking lot.
Feinstein also recalls acts of support in his neighborhood. A policeman neighbor and his son guarded the cul-de-sac on their block, since there was no police protection. A man driving around in a big yellow truck sold cases of water for the same price they cost at Costco, despite the higher profits he could have made.
“What we saw was the best of human beings,” Feinstein said. “When I had to explain to my kids where is God, I said, ‘God is in the yellow truck. God is with all the people who help their neighbors and give them support, and our job is to be part of that, too.”
For the High Holy Days this year, the Jewish Journal invited three rabbis — Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom — to respond to a series of questions related to teshuvah, the task of making amends during the High Holy Days.
The questions were: What really is a sin? Can people change? How do we forgive? How do we make amends?
The three — no surprise here — offered three very different responses, each in their own style. Together, perhaps, their answers offer insights into how we might pursue this most difficult task.
Rabbi David Wolpe: A time of transformation
Rabbi Laura Geller: A difficult conversation
Rabbi Ed Feinstein: As the Jew Turns
“There are no villains in this story.” Those were the calming words of Natan Sharansky, renowned human rights champion and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The story was of in-fighting that has erupted among Jews at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. Sharansky, tasked with resolving the issue by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to a group of Los Angeles Rabbis last week, knowing that the monthly Jewish holiday of Rosh Hodesh will arrive this Sunday – and many Jews will gather again for prayer at the Western Wall. The prospect of clashes has unsettled the Jewish world.
Some of those gathering will be part of “Women of the Wall,” a group of women and men meeting every Rosh Hodesh for almost 25 years. The women will be praying as a group in the women's section. Others will be women and men who believe that the way “Women of the Wall” pray violates Jewish law. Last month on Rosh Hodesh these differences led to an ugly confrontation. As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a generation ago, “From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.” From the place where we are right, violence erupts.
We are American rabbis from different denominations; we know there are different ways to be a Jew. We know that the ability to disagree civilly does not grow spontaneously. It takes many years of cultivating relationships and building trust through meeting, listening, sharing, and working together. This is a process that diaspora rabbis and Jews have been engaged in for decades, one which has begun to bear real fruit in recent years.
[RELATED: L.A. rabbis urge calm at the Kotel]
Here in Los Angeles many of us are reaching across our divisions to model a relationship of respect and dignity. Despite our deep differences, we all equally love the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We dare not demonize or dehumanize one another.
The Western Wall is a central symbol to all Jews. But this Wall that has united people can also divide us. Winston Churchill used to say that Americans and the British are two peoples separated by a common language. The two groups vying for control of the Western Wall are two communities separated by a common scripture, the Torah. Matters of conscience are not themselves amenable to compromise or negotiation. Still, we all believe that a principal element of conscience is to listen and learn from one another and to show the respect and dignity that befits an ancient people and a great tradition.
Few know that better than Natan Sharansky, who languished in the gulag for eight years. He was chosen by Israel’s Prime Minister to come up with a solution, one that would defuse a dispute that spilled over to Jewish denominations in the United States, and strained relations between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel at a time that she is threatened existentially by Iran and the possibility looms of a front opening up with Syria. Sharansky reminded us that while each was – and still is – convinced of the justice of his or her position, there was another side to be heard.
Freed in exchange for a Soviet spy in 1986, Sharansky explained that he was whisked off to Jerusalem, now in the company of his wife Avital from whom he had been separated so many years before, right after their marriage. One of his first stops, of course, was the Western Wall. He clung to Avital’s hand to remind himself that this was no fantasy, no dream from which he would wake up in solitary confinement once again. Nearing the Wall, however, he and Avital had to briefly part company, as men and women are separated in prayer in Orthodox tradition. He did not convey this with any resentment. (His wife, in fact, is Orthodox.) He told us of what he understood at that moment. The Western Wall serves as a place to pray for countless Jews. But it also serves as a powerful focus of national Jewish yearning and aspiration, quite apart from religious belief. Somehow, both have to be satisfied, and that is what his plan would try to do, embodying the key Jewish and democratic values of mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance. Sharansky and the Government of Israel should be commended for engaging in this ambitious effort to resolve such a difficult problem.
We believe that this is a message that resonates not only among the Jews of our great city, but among all our neighbors as well. At a time when the Middle East faces increasing upheaval and bitter partisanship has become a norm even within many democratic countries, this is a theme worth amplifying and repeating. And with the help of G-d, perhaps some of our determination will reflect back to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” and make it more peaceful yet. With some gentleness we can ensure that flowers will always be able to grow.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Denise Eger
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Rabbi Morley Feinstein
Rabbi Laura Geller
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
Rabbi Eli Herscher
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Rabbi Kalman Topp
Rabbi David Wolpe
Members of a Task Force on Jewish Unity comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Progressive and Reconstructionist leaders
On Sunday, May 11, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, will be feted for his two decades of service to the synagogue. He talks in this edited version of an interview about changes in synagogue life, his theology and what he prays for.
Jewish Journal: Twenty years. Does it feel like a long time?
Ed Feinstein: Some days. (laughter)
JJ: So, how do you think that synagogue life has changed in those 20 years?
EF: In the beginning of the 20th century we were very active and very conscious of creating a new modern form of Judaism, an American form of Judaism. In the middle of the 20th century there were two traumas: The Holocaust and the creation State of Israel. And the community consciously decided to stop the process of re-creating itself. They adopted continuity as a motto. Which meant we weren’t going to continue the creativity that had marked the community in the early part of the century. And for a generation, the community hunkered down and protected itself. It created all kinds of institutions — it created synagogues and summer camps and seminaries; there was a lot of philanthropy. But there wasn’t a great deal of institutional creativity, and ideological, philosophical creativity. And that worked from the end of the Second World War, until the end of the 1980s. But by the ‘90s, that numbness wore off, and the community once again returned, by force, because the kids asked their parents a very powerful question: Why be Jewish? Up until that point, if anyone ever asked that question, what you answered with was a narrative of the holocaust. You dropped your eyes and lowered your voice and whispered something about the 6 million, and the conversation was over. But all of a sudden kids weren’t responding to that language anymore.
JJ: And that’s when you came here.
EF: And that’s about when I came to Valley Beth Shalom [VBS]. So this last 20 years has seen the return of what I think is an enormously energetic creative process of reinventing American Judaism, reinventing Judaism for modernity. We are renegotiating our relationship with the state of Israel; we are finding a way to tell the story of the Holocaust; we are finding a way to tell the story of our own identity. We’re trying to figure out what is our relationship to the outside world. What does it mean there are so many among us who weren’t born Jewish, and yet are participating in the Jewish community? We are trying to figure out our politics in America; we’re certainly trying to figure out our relationship with God.
JJ: Do you the model for a large synagogue like VBS — I don’t know how many families you have…
EF: A million.
JJ: No seriously, about how many is it?
EF: About 1600.
JJ: That’s huge by many standards.
EF: Yeah thank God they don’t all want a bris on the same morning.
JJ: Do you think that’s a good model for the future?
EF: In order to survive the ups and downs of the economy, institutions have to be big. When the economy tanked VBS made a very clear statement: We will not lose a family because of money. And we were able to keep that promise because the institution is big enough and has a broad enough reach to absorb an economic downturn and still move forward. However, because community is what a synagogue is about, connecting people to people, to God, and to their traditions, it has to be small. So, while the synagogue is an institutional framework that is very big, within it are dozens of micro-communities that are very small. And my job is to bridge those two realities. On Shabbos morning we have 5 or 6 minyanim that are meeting. And people get to pray with the people that they love. We have many many classes all over the city there are classes, there are lunch time classes being offered. We have a number of small groups of people going out to do social justice work. The only time the whole community really meets is on the high holidays. And the wonderful thing about the high holidays is that’s when you get to see all of your friends from all of your micro communities sitting with each other, and you realize how interwoven all of these micro communities are. That’s the model.
JJ: Can you define your theology?
EF: Theology for me begins with the question of “what is the meaning of my existence?” “Why am I here?” What are the passions that get me up in the morning and move me through life? Theology doesn’t begin with the metaphysics with the way the universe is constructed it begins with the realization that my life has meaning, that I matter, that I’m important, that I have significance. And the question is what kind of universe would I have to imagine in order to recognize that my life matters and that I have meaning in my existence. It’s a universe that bears the possibility of repair. If I posit that the universe is so broken and it’s broken pieces could never fit together, then I really ought to go become a Buddhist. Because the Buddhist tradition teaches a withdrawal from the pain of being in the world. But the Jewish tradition teaches a different message. That there’s a possibility of tikkun. And because there’s a possibility of tikun, our efforts to do justice in the world, to bring gentleness to the world, to care for each other, make a difference. That is a faith statement.
JJ: How do you reconcile that against things like the Boston bombings?
EF: The brokenness is still deeply profound. There is a deep brokenness in this world, and that brokenness is also expressed through human beings. And our job is to try and repair the brokenness. I think the story that all of us wept at is the story of all the men and women who went running toward the explosion.
JJ: Did you grow up thinking you were going to be a rabbi?
EF: No, not even close. In fact some mornings (laughter) I don’t wake up thinking that way. My mom and dad owned a bakery in the West San Fernando Valley. Dad’s a baker, Mom’s a bakery lady. Mom created a community in that bakery. Go on a Sunday morning, every Jew in America was in that bakery. And there was a sense of belonging and caring in that community. I always want to be part of community.
JJ: So, in a sense, it’s turned out that you’re doing what you imagined, it’s just a different role.
EF: I never would be like this. Because when Rabbi Schulweis asked me in 1993 to come here, this was a dream. I never thought…I fell in love with him when I was 16 years old. I watched him on that pulpit, I watched the magic that he would do; I listened to his words. All through college and rabbinical school, my dad would send me tapes of Rabbi Schulweis’ talks, because I was so taken with the power of his mind and the power of his oratory and the power of his soul.
JJ: So what’s the most fun part of your job?
Friday morning, telling stories to kids. I still do it, I’ve done it since I was ordained, I get on the floor and I tell the kids all these Jewish stories. And I watch their eyes grow wide. The story I love to tell, it’s a true story, the week I was ordained a rabbi, no the week I started my first job as a rabbi, in Texas, Nina, my wife sent me to the grocery store to buy some milk, and I was walking up the aisle. And there was a shopping cart coming the other way, and it had one of the 3 year olds from the nursery school in the jump seat, and the kid looks at me and he looks at his mother and looks at me and he points and says “Look mom, it’s God!” True story.
JJ: And what did you say?
EF: I said God bless this kid, I hope he joins the board of directors. No I realized, you know, you imagine God to wear the face of the people who teach you about God. You imagine religion to have the same emotional tenor of the people who teach you religion. Too many of us were raised by teachers and rabbis who were cold and forbidding and distant. And if I could be close to kids, hug kids, engage kids, tell them stories that contain the wisdom of the tradition but do it with laughter and joy, that’s a gift to a generation. So Friday morning, you’re always welcome, 9:20 am, you can hear about the boy who turned into a chicken. “Sheldon the Shabbos Dog” is one of our favorites.
JJ: So what’s the least fun?
EF: Oh God. The least fun is when the institution of the synagogue and the sacred community of the synagogue don’t correspond. And they rub up against each other. Dealing with financial issues, dealing with personnel issues, dealing with the business of the synagogue when it doesn’t correspond with the sacred character of the synagogue. The least fun is when — this is too honest, but the least fun is when I don’t have the time or the energy or the presence to actually meet the needs of the people whom I need to meet the needs of. When someone says “I was in the hospital, and you didn’t come,” or someone says “I was in pain and you didn’t respond.” And they’re right. Because there’s one of me and there’s a lot of them and its hard to keep track and its hard to get there.
The torah’s all about this. This is Moses’ complaint to God — he says “What did you do this to me for?” And I know exactly what he feels like. The least fun part of the job is when the doctor says to me, there’s nothing else I can do. Would you like to tell the patient or shall I? And I have to go in and sit with somebody who I deeply care for and say we have to talk about what’s coming next. And you know it’s painful, it’s just so painful. That’s the hardest part of the job.
JJ: Often we look to the rabbi for a solid sense of faith. As a rabbi do you find that it’s hard to be human in those ways?
EF: No, and I’ll tell you why. Because what Rabbi Schulweiss taught me is that that’s not the rabbi’s job. It’s not my job to have faith when all of you have doubt; my job is to put your doubt into words. It’s my job to remind you that you’re not the first person to argue with God in that way. To give you the courage and resolution to get up, and to recognize that your indignation in the face of the world’s evil is in fact the most glorious part of your humanity.
JJ: I think you just hit your theology in a different way.
JJ: Do you worry about anti-Semitism?
EF: Only among Jews. I mean that very seriously, and without facetiousness. No, I do not. Yes I worry about Al-Qaeda, like everybody in America. We saw in Boston what happens when two lone wolfs can set off an explosion and ruin a national moment. Like everybody, I worry about that. But in terms of specifically anti-Semitism…no. What I worry about is the viciousness of Jews against other Jews. The perverse irony of Jewish history is that at moments when the outside world is ready to accept us, we find new ways to be self-destructive. Look at what’s going on in Israel. You know, there used to be the joke about what would happen if peace broke out. And in Israel, that is sort of what’s happening right now. They’re beginning to focus on the internal life of the country and all the unresolved conflicts within the internal life of the country are now being recognized.
At VBS, we have been very successful in creating an environment in which everybody knows that they’re going to hear lots and lots of points of views they disagree with. We brought Jeremy Ben Ami from J Street, we brought Mort Klein from ZOA. And we have brought people from the New Israel Fund. And we’ve brought people from much more Right Wing positions. And I have worked very diligently to say again and again that our job is to listen, to evaluate, to judge, you don’t have to agree, but you have to listen politely.
JJ: Here’s a very personal question: What do you pray for?
Peace. Everywhere. Peace in the world, peace for Israel. A vision for Israel to find its way to peace. A vision for America to find its way to peace. Vision for the Jewish community to fnid its way to wholeness. And personal, I just pray for the capacity to find peace. to find moments of peace and moments of joy, moments of recognition. To me you don’t pray for stuff as much as you stop and recognize what’s in front of you. Prayer to me is not as much petitionary as it is appreciative. So, to get myself to stop worrying, and stop wrestling with the world, and just recognize how blessed I am. You know, I’ve gotten to work with Harold Schulweis for 20 years; what a gift. For 20 years I get to sit next to the greatest Jew of the 20th century, every Shabbos morning, and schmooze. I have five young rabbis I work with, brilliant, wonderful souls. I’ve made friends in this community, the other rabbis in this city are my friends. And I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family. So I ask God to slow me down and help me see the blessings that are mine.
JJ: And what would you ask us to pray for?
EF: Certainly peace. (long pause). I don’t know what I’d ask you to pray for. I’ve asked the community over and over again to live with meaning. To live on purpose. To live with significance. To build lives that matter. To not waste the gift of life. To not waste the moments that are given to us. To not waste the opportunities that have been given to us. To me, this is the purpose of Torah, to teach us how to fill moments with significance, and to take seriously this notion that I carry the image of God and to live that way. I want people to live with significance, and not waste life. So that every day of your life, you know that you matter, that your life matters, that the work you’ve done in the world matters, that your relationships matter. That’s what we pray for.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the podium at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 5, it became clear why more than 13,000 Americans — most though not all of them Jews, and nearly 1,700 of them from Los Angeles — had come to attend the organization’s three-day conference. Although they would hear essentially the same pro-Israel messaging as in past years, one topic in particular was regarded with new exigency.
“Iran, Iran, Iran,” first-time attendee Jonathan Baruch, a founding partner of Rain Management Group, said, in describing the crux of this year’s conference. For AIPAC veterans, the laser-like focus on Iranian nuclear proliferation probably wasn’t a surprise, as the organization has been pressing the issue for more than a decade. But the urgency of the cry to confront Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons has reached fever pitch in recent months, as Israeli officials warn of an impending “point of no return,” saying soon will come a day when destroying the Iranian program could become impossible.
“I’d like to talk to you about a subject no one’s been talking about lately,” Netanyahu joked to a standing-room-only crowd of Israel supporters at the Washington Convention Center. Just hours after a closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama, the prime minister was unequivocal: “The Jewish state will not allow those that seek our destruction the means to achieve that goal,” he said, laying the foundation for what sounded like the inevitability of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “As prime minister, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”
That, too, seemed to be the message that this conference, the largest-ever assemblage of pro-Israel advocates, was aiming at U.S. policy makers. For a lobbying organization whose numbers are its most valuable asset — volume, after all, equals votes — AIPAC owes much to its Pacific Southwest Region, and especially to Los Angeles, which comprised the second largest regional delegation in the country, trailing only New York. Leading the L.A. charge was Sinai Temple in Westwood, whose 285 attendees made up the largest synagogue contingent in the country, though L.A.’s Valley Beth Shalom, Beth Jacob Congregation, Young Israel of Century City, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Am also were all well represented.
“This conference is like Yerushalayim,” said Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who led one of the largest L.A. delegations for the fourth consecutive year. “If you sit here long enough, you’ll meet every Jew in the world.”
The impulse to compare the scene at AIPAC with the capital of Israel may sound like hyperbole, but it is, in fact, another reason why the Iranian threat loomed large: A danger to Israel is a danger to all Jews. The urgency of the Iran issue is what compelled many of the West Coast residents to travel more than 2,000 miles to hear, in person, President Obama address one of the most powerful and privileged voting constituencies in the nation. This is an election year, after all.
“This convention is unusual, because there’s a meeting going on right now between Netanyahu and the president, and the entire convention is aimed at that meeting,” Feinstein said, sitting in an enormous lounge at the AIPAC Village, where conference attendees mill about between sessions, eating, drinking and kibitzing. “The purpose of this conference is to change the atmosphere in which that meeting is taking place. People are here to tell the president to take great care in that meeting, so it gives the conference the sense of an impending historic decision.”
Feinstein said the conference offers an opportunity to exercise personal political will and engage in politics in a way not often experienced by Hollywood-dominated Los Angeles: “There is a sense, particularly for those living in California, that there are events transpiring, and we can’t do anything about it. People call me all the time, saying, ‘I’m reading the paper — what can I do?’ I direct them here.”
Daniel Gryczman, 37, a real estate developer who sits on the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and is a member of Temple Beth Am, is a longtime AIPAC supporter. A member of its national council, congressional club (requiring a $3,600 annual donation) and new leadership network (a $10,000 commitment to pro-Israel politics outside of AIPAC each political cycle), Gryczman considers the conference’s exponential growth staggering. “Twelve years ago, this thing was at the Washington Hilton with 800 people,” Gryczman said. But he understands the attraction. “One person can actually make a difference,” Gryczman said. “Each member of Congress has a vote, and I do, too. And I can influence that vote and impact the U.S.- Israel relationship — which is probably the most powerful thing I’ve done. For me, this is the end-all, be-all.”
Actress, onetime supermodel, and design and marketing firm CEO Kathy Ireland called herself “a very proud pro-Israel American” during a speech at one session. The Los Angeles resident first visited Israel because of her Christian faith, but soon discovered shared values between the Holy Land and her own homeland. “I see in Israel what I see in our country,” she said: “The unrelenting pursuit of justice.” Ireland offered AIPAC’s answer for why non-Jews should care about Israel, delivering an impassioned speech about Israel’s wish for peace and the dangers posed by its “oil-rich neighbors.”
For some, the oft-repeated tropes about a conflict-laden Israel in peril can seem a little dull.
“I think people are just nervous. What we’re so consumed with here,” Baruch said, pulling out his iPhone. “I just got an e-mail from a friend in Israel, and it was very funny — it was, like, ‘Oy vey, the Americans! There they go again. Boring.’ ”
“None of this is earth shattering,” Ron Alberts, executive vice president of Temple Beth Am, said. “When you do follow [the U.S.-Israel relationship] closely, you see the nuances a little better, but the overall message isn’t as exciting, because you know the message.” Still, veterans contend that much of the value of attending Policy Conference is in simply showing up.
“I don’t come because I find it so interesting,” Gryczman said. “I come because it’s about what we’re doing. And if we don’t come, we’re not doing the work we’re supposed to be doing. It’s not about receiving; it’s about giving.”
Mark Rohatiner, a member of Beth Jacob’s delegation, said he finds the repetition both comforting and inspirational. After Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem, delivered a conference address last year, Rohatiner’s 22-year-old daughter left NYU graduate school to make aliyah. “I jokingly told Elliot Brandt [AIPAC’s Pacific Northwest Regional Director], you saved me 50 grand,” Rohatiner said, adding, “Now I have to increase my contribution to AIPAC.”
Some Angelenos used the conference to explore the unpredictable San Fernando Valley congressional race between veteran Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both staunchly pro-Israel, Jewish Democrats who, because of redistricting, find themselves competing for the same seat. Following a breakout session in which Berman spoke on a panel about Iran, Sherman Oaks resident Megan Schnaid said she was convinced of Berman’s edge over his opponent.
“In my district, he’s commonly referred to as the Godfather,” said Schnaid, an executive with the Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging. “What I like is that he has a good policy balance vbetween the local and the foreign. He understands the big picture,” she said, adding that locally Berman’s policy has made an impact. “I live in the Valley, and I drive over the hill every day, and he’s been instrumental in the expansion of the 405 [Freeway].”
Shai Kolodaro, another Sherman Oaks resident, had the opposite reaction to Berman’s panel. “After I heard him just now, I didn’t like his approach. His approach is too Obama-ish. Sherman has a harsher, more realistic approach,” she said.
Berman was among the many Angelenos expressing pride — and a touch of competitiveness — over L.A.’s large conference presence.
“Why don’t we have more people than New York?” he asked.
Maybe next year?
One evening last February, 1,500 people poured into the vast sanctuary of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, filling every inch.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein stood on the bimah and addressed them: “With the ashes of Auschwitz in our throats, it was hard to sing,” he said. “With the death and darkness and destruction of Shoah, it was impossible to pray. And then God sent an angel, to teach us again how to sing.” That angel, the rabbi said, was Debbie Friedman.
Feinstein was speaking at a memorial concert staged at the end of a month of mourning Friedman’s sudden death at 59, an untimely death that shocked her vast cadre of loyal fans. At the event, just about every cantor and Jewish-music performer in town sang and recalled Friedman’s genius at putting prayer to music — some songs soft, others raucous, all of them offering solace and shared memory. At the end of the evening, just as the sadness seemed to have reached its peak, Julie Silver, an esteemed singer and songwriter in her own right, took the mike.
Silver opened with one more wistful Friedman song, then picked up the beat. “I know what you were waiting for,” she howled. And the dancing began.
Voices raised, hands linked, the mood rallied instantly as Silver belted out “Miriam’s Song,” just as Friedman had at innumerable concerts, campsites and simchas. It was a happy reminder that Friedman’s joyous legacy had not left the world with her passing.
It’s been a year since Friedman’s death, and another big memorial concert and study session in her honor is planned here for this weekend, titled “Songs of the Spirit: Debbie Friedman Remembered,” this one timed to Friedman’s first yahrzeit. On Jan. 22, Friedman’s friends Craig Taubman and Silver will join with members of her family as well as rabbis, cantors and the Temple Isaiah choir in a program at Isaiah sponsored by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Kalsman Institute.
With the image of Silver channeling her mentor still so vivid in my mind, I called Silver to ask how her own year has gone since losing Friedman. She sighed when I broached the question, and she told me she’d been memorializing her friend for the entire 12 months.
“It’s what I do when I’m in public — mourning her and singing about her. I sing her songs.” Silver said that through the many tribute concerts and memorial events, she’s come to a greater understanding of what it was that Friedman did for us.
“Debbie didn’t write about including the marginalized; she just did it,” Silver said. And she showed others how to do the same. We, her fans, celebrate the music that she left behind, most memorably her “Mi Shebeirach,” which is sung by every denomination as a prayer of healing. But what Friedman gave us actually goes much deeper. She gave us all the ability to participate — not just listen — and it’s that shared experience of joining voices or being compelled to dance that is so valuable in keeping our liturgy alive.
“Debbie’s goal was always to get people to sing,” Silver said.
Silver is 45, a half-generation younger than Friedman, and says she was told from her earliest years growing up in Boston that she would be “the next Debbie Friedman,” long before they met. When finally introduced, Silver said, they formed a “beautiful friendship with a common language.” Most importantly, Silver said, “I learned how to song-lead just by watching her on stage, by watching her interacting with people.”
Song leading is a very specific art, and Friedman took it very seriously. “Every breath she took was about making that connection,” Silver said. She kept at it until the end. A week ago, an article in The Forward revealed how just two weeks before Friedman became fatally ill, she was in New York and shared with a friend the melody for her new version of “Shalom Aleichem,” which she would never have the chance to formally record. Friedman told that friend she believed the new piece would become “my legacy. This is going to be bigger than ‘Mi Shebeirach,’ ” she reportedly said. You can see her sing it, too: See below for a very informal video of Friedman singing her “Shalom Aleichem” at a 60th birthday party for Los Angeles philanthropist Selwyn Gerber in 2010. And true to form, even as Friedman sings this new melody, she doesn’t just perform — she engages everyone there, calling out the words to encourage others to join her.
If, as Rabbi Feinstein suggested, Friedman was our angel, she also, as Silver recalled, compelled us all to “in Debbie’s words, ‘find the angel inside you and sing it.’ ” And that, above all else, may be why we love her so much. Her songs must be shared, and when our song leaders sing them today, they continue to ask the same of us, too — to experience what she wrote.
“This isn’t pop music,” Silver said. “It’s about faith. And it’s about keeping people alive and healthy.”
A modest proposal: As a reward to the Jewish people for having survived the 20th century, let’s make Purim our High Holiday.
Not that there’s anything really
wrong with our current High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are compelling days of personal introspection, reflection and evaluation. But after withstanding a century of pogroms, mass dislocation and Holocaust, claiming a tiny sliver of a homeland only to attract the rage of a billion Muslims and the resentment of the rest of the world, we’ve earned a holy day of unconditional joy.
If Jews the world over, including the most alienated and unidentified, are going to find their way to synagogue just once a year, let it be a day we hand them a mask and a grogger and share the jubilant story of a courageous Jewish princess and her triumph over evil. Let it be a holiday celebrating the victory of life over death. Let it be a day of unmitigated Jewish joy. We’ve earned it.
And we need it. The long career of Jewish suffering has twisted the Jewish soul.
I taught Hebrew school years ago, and one Sunday morning I overheard a conversation between a father and his child.
“Dad, I hate Hebrew school,” the kid said. “It’s boring, it’s stupid, the teachers are mean, the kids aren’t nice. I hate it and I don’t want to go any more.”
The father pushed his child up against the wall and said to him: “Look, kid, I went to Hebrew school when I was your age, and I hated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren’t nice, but they made me go. And now you’re going to go to Hebrew school just like I did.”
What a tragedy, what a catastrophe to raise generations who know only a twisted Judaism, a Judaism of coercion, boredom and emptiness.
My grandfather would read the Yiddish papers and mutter, “Shver tzu zeiner Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). For my grandfather, being a Jew was an unquestioned destiny, but the world made it so difficult, so painful.
In our time, we’ve twisted this around. It’s no longer a description.
It’s become prescriptive: “Shver Tzu Zeiner Yid.”
We’ve come to expect that anything authentically Jewish must be hard, painful, difficult. No chrain, no gain.
A friend — a truly beautiful soul — converted to Judaism. She came back to see me in deep sadness. Her Christian friends and co-workers congratulated her on her new faith. They bought her gifts to celebrate. Her Jewish friends were openly derisive: Why on earth would you want to be Jewish? What’s wrong with you?
The greatest book on American Judaism is Mordecai Menahem Kaplan’s classic, “Judaism as a Civilization.” The first line of that book reads: “Before the beginning of the 19th century, all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”
To heal the twisted soul of the Jewish people we need unequivocal expression of Jewish joy. So let’s make Purim our High Holiday.
Purim is a deceptively simple holiday. Its merriment masks a complex set of issues: the power politics of Diaspora, the multiple identities engendered by assimilation, the single-mindedness of evil, the conflicted conscience of the righteous. It is a story of secrets, hidden truths and concealed realities. And somehow we sense the Presence of God in the story’s shadows. But it ends in a flash of light, of truth and of celebration. It is thus a remarkable treatise on the nature of Jewish joy.
Jewish joy is not escapist or delusional. Who knows the world’s darkness and brokenness better than we do? But standing before light and darkness, blessing and curse, life and death, we choose life. It may be the most difficult mitzvah in the Torah to fulfill. But we choose life. That is the heart of Jewish joy.
“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Esther 8:16). And so may it be for us.
Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.
Each morning and each evening, the people of the daily minyan gather to recite the obligatory prayers. It isn’t exciting. The melodies aren’t particularly uplifting. Sometimes there is a word of learning, but no sermon; none of the flourishes, trappings and trimmings of professional homiletics.
The poetry of prayer is often drowned in the rapid-fire rhythm of traditional davening. And at the end of the service, most of the minyan rises to recite "Kaddish" — in memory of a loved one recently departed or recalled at this yahrtzeit. It isn’t exciting — but it is profoundly moving and deeply spiritual.
Spirituality today has come to mean emotional experiences of ecstasy and wonder — peak moments revealing the presence of God in stirring song, powerful words and the uplift of a responsive community. These are true and significant experiences. But there are other kinds of spirituality. The spirituality of the minyan isn’t ecstatic or exuberant. The spiritual genius of the minyan is located in a deep experience of the steady, regular unchanging rhythms of life. This is a spirituality of constancy and continuity. It is unexciting and unremarkable — a stable, unvarying, supportive context where the mourner, the bereaved and the broken are lovingly mentored back into life.
Ecstatic spirituality is like romantic love, filling the soul with light and heat, but soon fading away. It corresponds to the human ability to experience rebirth and transformation in moments of radical change. The minyan’s spirituality bespeaks constancy and continuity. Like the trusting, deep and loyal affection of the long married, this spirituality points to the permanent and unchanging in life — all that continues.
The most powerful expression of the minyan’s spirituality, and the center of its rite, is the recitation of Kaddish. The Kaddish is not about death. It contains no mention of death. It provides a context in which death can be met and overcome. Kaddish is a reaffirmation of faith in God, the Creator and Redeemer. For the one shaken by death, the Kaddish provides a way back to faith, hope and life. Its healing power is not in the radical theology of its words or in extraordinary language of its poetry. Its healing power lies in the simple constancy of its repetition, even in the regularity of the cadences of its syllables: "Yitgadal v’yitkadash…yitbarach v’yistabach v’yitpa’ar vyit’nasay…."
In his moving book, "Living a Year of Kaddish" (Schocken Books, 2003), Ari Goldman describes the power of Kaddish as an expression of continuity: "To me, the hardest thing about dying must be the not knowing the end of the story. My mother and father left this world while their grandchildren were small…. Maybe Kaddish in itself is a kind of afterlife. The one thing my parents know with reasonable certainty was that we, their sons, would be saying Kaddish for them. They would be gone someday, but their Kaddish would live on. I like to think of it as more than a prayer. I think of Kaddish as a portal for the dead to connect to life."
This unique spirituality is born in this week’s Torah portion. "The Lord said to Moses: Speak unto the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘None [of you] shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives closest to him…’" (Leviticus 21:1-2). The portion opens with this severe restriction on the service of the priests. It concludes with a detailed description of the priests’ responsibilities at each of the yearly festivals and holiday.
The priests of ancient Israel offered the daily Tamid and Mincha sacrifices each morning and afternoon. They lead the communal rituals sanctifying Sabbaths, New Moons and festivals. But the priest — the agent and embodiment of the community’s connection with God — did not officiate at communal rites of grief and mourning. The priest celebrated all that was permanent in life, all that continued — sanctified the rhythms of time, the passing of seasons, the steady movement of the year. Just as the Kaddish does not mention death, priests did not attend funerals. In this way, the priest represents the pathway from death back to life — he holds open the door from darkness back to light, from despair back to hope.
It is the Torah’s most exciting, most cinematic story. The
Israelites, newly freed from slavery, were camped at the shores of the sea when suddenly the sounds Pharaoh’s approaching
chariots filled the air. Realizing they were trapped, the ex-slaves cried
bitterly to Moses, “Were there too few graves in Egypt, that you brought us to
die here?” (Exodus 14:11) Moses prayed for deliverance, and was commanded:
“Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up the rod and hold out your
arm over the sea and split it.” (Exodus 14:15-16)
Moses raised the rod, the sea split and the Israelites
crossed in safety. Then, they beheld the final act of Exodus drama: The sea
crashed down upon Pharaoh and his armies. As they once drowned Israelite
children in the Nile, now the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. The Israelites
raised their voices in song. They had been slaves. Their parents, grandparents
and great-grandparents had been slaves and, for all they knew, their children
and grandchildren would be slaves. But suddenly, overnight, they received the
gifts of freedom and the promised return to the land of their forefathers.
That’s how the Torah tells the story. But when the rabbis of
the Talmud told it, an element was added. Typical of Midrash, a vignette finds
its place between the lines: The people cry out, Moses prays and God commands.
But when Moses lifts his rod to split the sea, nothing happens. He tries again,
carefully rehearsing God’s words to himself. And again, nothing. Panic builds
within him, he tries and tries again. But the sea does not move. Beads of
perspiration rise on his forehead, the people renew their screams of terror, but
Moses is powerless. Suddenly, out of the crowd, comes one man, identified by
the Midrash as Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the tribe of Judah. To the
astonishment of the people gathered on the shores of the sea, Nachshon jumps
into the water.
“Are you crazy? What are you doing?” shout his family. He
knows exactly what he’s doing. He understands, as no one else, not even Moses,
why the sea would not split. He understands that all of redemption to this
point has been an act of God. God sent Moses, and God sent the plagues; God
shattered Pharaoh’s arrogance, and God brought the Israelites to the shores of
the Sea. But now, God was waiting to see if but one Israelite would take the
task of redemption into his own hands. Would one be willing to risk himself to
finish the process of liberation?
So, Nachshon jumps in and wades out until the water reaches
his waist. His family’s screams fade as the people stand in silence, watching
in wonder. He wades out and the water reaches higher. Finally, the water covers
his nostrils. And at that point, with Nachshon’s life in peril, the sea opens
and Israel crosses in safety.
This story isn’t found in the Torah. It was inserted by the
rabbis. For as much as they loved and revered the Torah’s exodus story, they
knew that something was missing. Missing was the human role in the process of
redemption. God creates the conditions for redemption. But if redemption is to
come, someone must jump into the water. Someone of vision and courage must be
willing to put his or her life on the line and jump into the waters of history
to bring us out of slavery. And that kind of courage is the greatest of God’s
miracles, the most powerful sign of God’s stake in human history.
Standing on the shore, patiently or anxiously, faithfully or
cynically, brings nothing — no salvation, no rescue, no transformation of
society or history.
Understand that the waters are cold and dangerous, the
currents strong and unpredictable. Sometimes the water splits and sometimes it
doesn’t. But only when someone is willing to jump in, will redemption be ours.
And these are the holy ones whose faith redeems us from slavery and whose
courage redeems us from hopelessness. Nachshon, the Bible teaches, was the
ancestor of Boaz, who was the ancestor of King David, who is the ancestor of
the Messiah. Â
Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
The conflict over Valley secession reflects the growing gap between rabbis and the actual reality their flocks experience.
With few exceptions, the rabbinate seems to be totally aghast at the notion of dividing Los Angeles into two cities. Prominent rabbis, including Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California; Steven Carr Reuben, president of the board; John Rosove, and my own rabbi, Beth Hillel’s Jim Kaufman, have already announced their opposition to the proposal.
Part of this, noted Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, is a reflection of a broader tendency for the Jewish clergy to be "far to the left" of their congregants. Many come off as knee-jerk supporters of every so-called "progressive" cause. This is clear, it seems to me, from widespread rabbinical support for every leftist cause de jour, from racial quotas and bilingual education, all the way to opposition to war against a terrorist, passionately anti-Semitic state such as Iraq.
Among such people, Feinstein noted, opposition to secession is just another part of the predictable knee-jerk leftist program. Clearly, there is room for discussion on both sides of the issue, but it seems unlikely most of our esteemed, prominent rabbis ever really considered the arguments of the pro-secession forces.
"It has to do with our training," suggested Reuben, head of the 250-member Board of Rabbis. "We tend to see ethical action and mitzvah work putting us on the liberal side of the spectrum."
When one examines the logic for the response, it becomes clear that, for the most part, these rabbis are big on symbols and short on reason or facts. For example, their two prime reasons for opposing secession are clearly based on little more than gullibility to the slick, well-financed anti-secession campaign.
Perhaps the most notable issue they raise is that somehow secession would be bad for the Valley’s poor. There seems to be an assumption that a Valley city — which would have its share of poor people and be almost half minority — would lack the compassion that our rabbinate likes to exude on a regular basis, particularly when in contact with the media and their fellow clerics.
But let’s look at the facts. Over the past 10 years, under the stewardship of the City of Los Angeles, poverty in the San Fernando Valley has doubled, a far higher rate than the rest of the city, according to census figures. "Does this mean the city is working for the poor?" asked former Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz, who has emerged as secession’s most articulate spokesman.
To see this in perspective, all one has to do is travel to communities in the northeast Valley. These places — like Pacoima, Panorama City and sections of North Hollywood — have suffered from lack of services, street lights, decent police protection. Their representatives in Sacramento and on the City Council, for the most part, serve not the needs of their people, but political caciques who fund their campaigns and ambitions.
Do these areas have to look like this? Not at all. Just visit the small, working-class, predominately Latino community of San Fernando. As a small city, it was able to throw out the influence of the caciques and turn the city into an intriguing model of civic renewal. Is bigger better? It doesn’t seem so.
The current system doesn’t work for much of anyone, but the well-connected. The esteemed rabbis who signed a newspaper ad, apparently do not think that having among the highest taxes on business, among the worst rates of service delivery for everything from libraries, police and fire to street maintenance among major cities in the country is a disgrace.
Similar illogic surrounds the second major assertion by the clerics, that the massive L.A. city is somehow better able to bring in resources from Sacramento and Washington.
"It has to do with clout," Reuben explained. "They have a sense that being part of a larger city — [there is] the perception of being able to bring resources from the federal and state government."
Yet, reality, according to a very detailed study recently released by the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, shows that the big L.A. city actually is among the least successful in gathering resources — including for the poor — from Sacramento or Washington. In fact, according to the Claremont study, Los Angeles received far less per capita from Washington than other major cities in California, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Long Beach, Oakland, San Diego and San Jose. It also did worse than smaller cities such as Culver City, Santa Monica and Glendale.
The situation is even worse on the state level. According to Rose Institute’s analysis, Los Angeles ranks below virtually every city in Los Angeles County in aid from Sacramento. In the state capital, Los Angeles actually has less clout in delivering resources than such small cities as Manhattan Beach, El Segundo, Burbank, Downey and, not surprisingly, plucky little San Fernando.
Now you might say, well, these rabbis are not public policy experts.
Clearly that’s true. But then why must they preach on the basis of ignorance? Jews pride themselves on the relative logic of our faith, but the pronunciamentos of our rabbis sometimes sound about as well-reasoned as the rantings of Christian ayatollahs like Jerry Falwell.
Will this logic gap on secession hurt the rabbis with their congregants? Reasonable rabbis like Feinstein argue that it will not hurt too much. The secession proponents have been poorly led and have not been articulate in making their case, which boils down to how the Valley would be better off as Phoenix.
Only now, with the emergence of the brighter bulbs of the movement, like Katz, Bob Scott, Mel Wilson and Dr. Keith Richman, are they really discussing the real issues. These include the need to decentralize decision making, reduce the size of districts to overcome the entrenched power of the now-dominant trinity of political professionals, organized labor and powerful developers.
Yet the issues raised by the middle-class, multiethnic rebels of the Valley will resonate down the line, long after Nov. 5. More importantly, Feinstein suggested, the Valley secession disconnect foreshadows more serious splits as other issues emerge over the coming year.
Perhaps most important will be those around Iraq and Israel, where most Jews are likely to support the hard-line policies of President Bush over the Neville Chamberlain-like positions of the rabbis’ favorite Democrats, such as former Vice President Al Gore or Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
By 2004, Feinstein suggested, as many as 60 percent of Jews, for example, might support Bush, simply because of his steadfast support for Israel and willingness to stand up to Saddam Hussein’s regime. This support will be higher among the groups who arguably represent the future of Los Angeles Jewry — Persians, Russians, Israelis, North Africans and increasingly conservative post-baby-boom Jewish professionals.
In this evolution, it may well be that our rabbinate, like the mainstream Protestants who are losing out to more in-sync evangelicals, may be so out of touch with their congregants that they will become irrelevant.
The time may come, as Feinstein suggested, that the congregants, tired of the reflexive political correctness approach of the rabbinate, may say, "It’s time for them to shut up" about key political issues.
Down the road, this schism between flock and shepherd could alter the ecclesiastical picture, not just in Los Angeles or across the nation. Throughout history, religious leadership has lost influence, and ultimately been replaced, in part, because its divine preachings no longer reflected human realities. This is one reason why overly legalistic, exclusivist, state-supported Judaism lost out to the more emotionally compelling and inclusive message of early Christianity.
It also may be, in part, why the Protestantism, which spoke to the right of individual conscience and initiative, appealed to an increasingly literate Christendom. It may also explain how Chasidism, with its appeal to joy and spirituality, appealed to Eastern Europe’s oppressed Jews more than traditional Orthodoxy, or why Reform Judaism appealed to modernizing populations in the great cities of Western Europe and North America.
After awhile, even the most passive of flocks learn how to bite a shepherd who has lost his way.
He awoke from the nightmare with a scream, as he had every night for almost 40 years. His heart
raced, his body drenched in sweat, his mind filled with vivid images of fiery destruction. He saw rivulets of blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple ground into ashes, the lifeless bodies of the priests scattered about the Temple Mount.
The dreams began after Jeremiah’s 17th birthday. At first, they were benign, inspiring.
Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet over the nations.
I replied, Ah, Lord God! I don’t know how to speak, I am still a boy.
And the Lord said to me: Do not say, "I am still a boy," but go where I send you, and speak whatever I command you.
See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms: To uproot and to pull down; to destroy and to overthrow; to build and to plant. (Jeremiah 1:5-10)
The nightmares came soon thereafter. As a child, he’d been taught that the land of Israel sensed and responded to the behavior of its inhabitants. "You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people." (Numbers 35:34) Suddenly, he could viscerally feel the revulsion of the land for its immoral populace. He was nauseated.
I brought you to this country of fertile land to enjoy its fruit and its bounty, but you came and defiled My land. You made My possession abhorrent. (Jeremiah 2:7).
Assaulted by the horrid visions each night, he came to loathe the petty evils and everyday cruelties accepted in polite society. The daily diet of deceit, betrayal and corruption — the common fare of all urban society — disgusted him. Everything which passed for normal, every commonplace practice of business, politics, religion, especially religion, appeared to him as a precursor to the coming catastrophe. He had no outlet for his rage but to proclaim the vision from the steps of the Holy Temple.
Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely and sacrifice to Baal and follow other gods who you have not experienced and then come and stand before Me in this house which bears My name and say, "We are safe?" Safe to do all these abhorrent things? (Jeremiah 7:9-12)
The more bizarre his behavior, the more he became an anathema to family, community and state. Shamed and castigated, he was incarcerated, if not as a dangerous criminal, then as a lunatic and a social nuisance. His lonely sadness soon descended into despair.
Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of conflict and strife with all the land! I have not lent, and I have not borrowed; yet, everyone curses me! (Jeremiah 15:10) Why did I ever issue from the womb; to see misery and woe; to spend all my days in shame! (Jeremiah 20:18)
He had failed. Jerusalem was destined for destruction and nothing could save her. The carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off. And I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and gladness, the song of the bridegroom and the bride. For the whole land shall fall to ruin. (Jeremiah 7:34)
Jeremiah awoke from the nightmare with a fearsome scream. But he knew that this day’s end would be different. The onslaught had begun. The Babylonian armies arrived and besieged the city. As he had seen thousands of times in his dreams, the walls crumbled, the city filled with terrified screams, the Holy Temple burned.
But the prophet Jeremiah, for the first time in 40 years, slept soundly. The horrible nightmares were gone; replaced by a new vision — of new beginning, of rebirth, of renewal. Divine love replaced divine revulsion. The prophet of national doom turned into a champion of spiritual resilience. With the same passion he had once hurled words of despair, he now pleaded with his people to hold fast to hope.
I will build you firmly again, oh maiden Israel! Again you shall take up your timbrels and go forth to the rhythm of the dancers.
For the day is coming when the watchmen shall proclaim on the heights of Ephraim: Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God!
Thus says the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping; your eyes from shedding tears. There is hope for your future — declares the Lord." Your children shall return to their country. (Jeremiah 31:4-6, 16-17)
Surfing the TV one night, two powerful images caught my eye: On one station were Afghan women draped from head to toe in the traditional black burka. On another, Britney Spears, very much undraped, projected live across the world in a televised concert.
The opposing extremes of 21st century culture meet here, on the battlefield of the female body. The one, a culture so frightened of the power of female sexuality that it must suppress and conceal all that is feminine, lest its severe culture of masculine virility become polluted and corrupted. The other, perhaps equally threatened, transforms women into playthings and leers wickedly, entranced by the naughty image of the teasing sex kitten.
The television news reporter interviews a mother taking her 9-year-old into the Britney concert. Gazing at her daughter, who is dressed in the revealing Britney manner, the mother remarks, “I know it’s probably not good for her to see this show, but she really loves Britney!”
For all their differences, the two cultures, the two images, meet at this point: Whether object of fear or object of desire, woman remains object. She has no inner life, no soul. She is created, not in the image of God, but in the image of Astarte, the ancient feminine goddess replete with swelling breasts and bejeweled belly.
What does the 9-year-old learn from Britney? That her power and worth derive not from mind and heart and imagination but from shapely curves and smooth skin. Not from her ability to create, to care and to love but from her wiles to entice and seduce. Is life under the burka really more primitive and repressive?
There are places in the world where people fear the taking of photographs. They believe that the camera steals the soul when it snaps the picture. I no longer scoff at this.
The technology of media indeed possesses the power to steal the soul. Since the first cave people drew images on cave walls, humankind has lived with media. But no culture has lived with the kind of media we do. No culture has dealt with the intensity and ubiquity of the media image and its power to shape life, morals, dreams and values.
Television, radio, movies, videos, Internet, video games, CD music, magazines, newspapers, billboards, print and broadcast advertisement, we live in a sea of images — a logo-opolis. Infants today learn to recognize corporate logos –Target, Nike, McDonald’s — at the same time they recognize the faces of parents and loved ones. Happiness is a Happy Meal!
We read this week of Egyptian slavery — of whips and shackles and taskmasters. But there are other, more powerful forms of slavery. There are forms subtle, insidious and almost invisible; a slavery that shackles the mind and chains the soul. Perhaps we are still slaves, and the worst part of our enslavement is that we don’t know it.
Just before Moses is called to his mission, we read these strange verses: “A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2:23)
By this time, the Israelites were slaves for hundreds of years. Did God not notice? Were their cries and groans not heard? But the Torah understands true slavery. Up to now, Israel had not cried out. They did not know they were slaves. They had not recognized slavery when it came. And eventually, they could imagine no alternative.
Slavery defined their identity. They came to expect nothing else. Slavery became normal — the ordinary daily round of life.
Moses opened their eyes. He gave back to each one the image of God that resides within. He restored expectation, hope and a vision of possibilities. This is always the first and most powerful act of liberation.
There once was a man who could provide only potatoes for his family’s subsistence. As the monotony and the poverty wore on, he prayed, and his prayers were answered. There fell into his hands a mysterious map to a magical Island of Diamonds.
Begging a boat, he set sail on a long and difficult voyage. One day, he spotted the island, gleaming on the horizon. Upon landing, he discovered a pristine beach covered with diamonds. His heart leapt as, carrying a dozen potato sacks, he pulled his small boat ashore and began to fill the sacks with diamonds.
He was so busy, he didn’t notice that the people of the island had come to watch.
"What are you doing?"
"I’m gathering diamonds; I’m going to be rich."
"Rich? Those won’t make you rich! The whole island is covered with them. If you want to be rich here, you have to find something much more rare and valuable. The most valuable thing here is potatoes."
"Potatoes? I know potatoes!"
So he dumped all the diamonds from his sack, and ran into the forest. In 15 minutes, he found a dozen potatoes. The crowd looked on in awe. They carried him from the beach, and installed him as king of the island.
After a year, he remembered his family and informed the island people that he would soon be leaving for home.
When finally he arrived in his home port, the whole town turned out to meet him. Fearing him long lost, he was greeted with tears of joy. Finally, his wife mustered the courage to ask:
"Did you find the Island of Diamonds?"
"I became king of the Island of Diamonds!"
"Did you bring back diamonds? Diamonds from the island?"
"Diamonds? Heavens no! I brought back something much more valuable than diamonds! Behold, potatoes!"
Why do we set out in life to find diamonds, only to return with bags full of common potatoes? How were we persuaded that potatoes are more valuable than diamonds? How were we enticed into collecting potatoes when we stood upon a beach covered with diamonds?
The most common Hebrew word for "sin" is het. This word comes from archery. Het literally means missing the mark, missing the target. This is not a failure of intent, nor a failure of fundamental morality. There are other words for that. Het indicates a failure of vision, a problem of distraction. And distraction may be the greatest spiritual problem.
"The great danger facing us all," wrote the American preacher Phillips Brooks, "is not that we shall make an absolute failure of our life. Nor that we shall fall into outright viciousness. Nor that we shall be terribly unhappy. Nor that we shall feel that life has no meaning. The danger is that we shall fail to perceive life’s greatest meaning, fall short of its highest good, miss its deepest and most abiding happiness, be unable to tender the most needed service, be unconscious of life ablaze with the light of the Presence of God, and be content to have it so."
Our nation has embarked on a great campaign to cleanse the world of terrorism and find some measure of justice in response to our tragedy. We certainly have the means. The question is, will we have the resolve? America’s attention span is notoriously short. We live for distraction. Soon, there will be new stories, new scandals, new crises to displace this tragedy from our headlines. Can we sustain the commitment to achieve this great goal? n
Contrary to the popular conception, Yom Kippur is not the holiest day of the Jewish year. Today is. True, Yom Kippur is the most severe. Yom Kippur demands fasting, self-denial, prayer and repentance. Its stringency supersedes even Sabbath. On Yom Kippur, we are all saints — all our intentions pure, all our resolutions robust. Because on Yom Kippur, it’s only abstract, theoretical, hypothetical. Today, we go back to the workplace, to the carpools, to the routine. Today, we go back to normal. And today, we discover if Yom Kippur really changed anything. Today is the holiest day of the Jewish year because today we see if we shall come home with potatoes or if we shall come home with diamonds.
Oh, the Jews up in Jewville,
they loved their Shabbat,
from the oldest of old folks
to the youngest of tots.
With candles and wine
and chocolate chip challah,
they felt oh so good
till way past Havdalah.
They all went to shul
to hear Rabbi Schulweis,
who told them, “It’s important
to treat everyone nice.”
And after the service
they each took their tallis
and ran to tables
for cookies and challahs.
But there was one among them,
though he was born Yiddish,
who didn’t like candles or challah
In fact, Shabbat made him so angry
you’d hardly have guessed that he
was born Jewish.
Since his bar mitzvah,
he grew not an inch.
He was tiny and hairy,
and they called him the Grinch.
He lived on a mountaintop
far above town.
On each Shabbat evening
he’d say with a frown:
“What’s the big deal,
with their candles and brachas,
to me the whole thing is a pain
in the tuchis.
I don’t feel any different from Friday
I don’t need your Shabbat —
give me any old Monday!
I’ll show them, I’ll show them:
I’ll steal their Shabbat!
I’ll take all the wine and
the candles they’ve got!”
So he set about building
a Shabbat-stealing machine.
It was nuclear powered,
it was noisy and mean.
He built the world’s first
Shabbat candle blower-outer
that blew out the candles
with ucky green powder.
Then one Friday night
while they welcomed Shabbat,
the Grinch saw his chance
to hatch his ugly plot.
While they all sat in shul,
so polished and clean,
the Grinch from his mountaintop
brought down his machine.
While the cantor sang prayers
and the rabbi told fables,
the Grinch came down chimneys
to attack Shabbat tables.
As the Jews in the shul
davened louder and louder,
the Grinch he revved up
his Shabbat candle blower-outer.
He snuffed all their candles,
he stole all their challahs,
he dumped out their “Kiddush” wine
all over their tallis.
There was no one to stop him,
they were all still in shul,
as he pour all their chicken soup
right in the pool.
He ate all their kugel.
he ate up their herring.
He ate all their desserts
without even sharing!
That Grinch he stole Shabbat
from all their mishpoches,
from such terrible things
some people get nachas.
He ruined their Shabbat,
he didn’t think twice.
He even stole Shabbat
from Rabbi Schulweis.
The Grinch stole the Shabbat
from Jewville’s fine Jews.
He went up all their streets
and down avenues
until he finally arrived
at the road by the crevice,
the very last street
where they drink Manischewitz.
At the end of the block
lived little Suzie le’Jew,
who couldn’t make it to shul;
she was home with the flu.
Of all Jewville’s Jews
little Suzie was smartest;
she studied the longest,
she studied the hardest.
She knew “Kiddush” and “Motzi”
and “Birkat” by heart
she knew “Sh’ma” and “Amida”
and the in-between parts
that only the cantor and Yossi could say
if only the rabbi would let people pray!
Now this little Suzie
slept snug in her bed,
while candles and challah
danced in her head.
When all of a sudden she heard such
and in through her window came
the Grinch on a ladder.
Now Suzie in darkness
she just couldn’t see.
“Who is this visitor?
who could it be?”
She thought maybe zeyde
had forgotten his key,
or perhaps cousin Herschel
had dropped in for tea.
So she jumped out of bed
gave a kiss and hug.
She whispered, “Good Shabbos”
into his hairy mug.
Now the Grinch didn’t know
what hit him that night,
everyone he would meet
ran away in great fright.
This was the first Shabbat kiss
he had got
since he was a kid back in
Rabbi Jay’s tot Shabbat.
At that very moment
his heart started to beat.
He felt warm and tingly
from his head to his feet.
Out of his eyes
came flowing the tears,
from all of the hugs
that he’d missed all these years.
“I’ve done something awful,”
the Grinch started to cry.
“I’ve done something awful,
and I don’t know why.”
“We believe in teshuva,”
Suzie wisely explained.
“We believe that your ways
can always be changed!”
“But what can I do
to earn love in your eyes?
What can I do
“The Jews of our town are forgiving
The Jews of our town will learn
to love you
But first you must show
your words come from the heart.
Clean up your mess,
that’s a good start!
Put back the candles
and put back the challahs,
put back the “Kiddush” wine,
put back the tallis!
But hurry up, Mr. Grinch,
it’s time to be nervous,
’cause here come the Jews
home from the service!”
The Grinch he moved fast
like a mighty tornado.
The Grinch he moved faster
than even Sigfredo.
He put back their candles.
He put back their challahs.
He put back the “Kiddush” wine.
He cleaned up the tallis.
He set all the tables with
gleaming white dishes.
He filled all their plates with brisket
So the Jews of old Jewville
came home singing songs,
and they never found out
there was anything wrong.
The Grinch did teshuva
and changed all his ways;
he learned to love Shabbat
all of his days.
All of his meanness
and anger and stink —
he got rid of all,
he needed no shrink.
Instead he had Suzie,
his wise little teacher,
who taught him that
inside the heart of each creature
is God’s special light
’cause in God’s image we’re made,
and so there’s no reason
to ever be afraid.
The Grinch loved the Torah
so much that one day
he signed up to be a rabbi
up at the UJ.
And so, my dear friends,
this Shabbat, let’s not miss;
turn around to someone,
give a hug and a kiss.
Suzie has taught us
that even a Grinch,
with enough hugs and kisses,
can turn into a mensch.
God created the animals and brought them, one by one, before man to see what he would name them. Man examined the essence of each creature and assigned its name. So teaches Genesis.
The midrash goes farther: When all the animals had been named, God asked man, “What is your name?” And he said, “Adam.” Then God asked, “And what is my name?” And he answered, “Adonai, the Eternal.”
We spend a lifetime learning the names of everything around us. We acquire the survival skills of our culture — social codes, business skills, street smarts. We master the science of our generation. We earn creden-tials and degrees. We amass great quantities of knowledge and then discover that we’ve never learned the answer to the one real question — What is your name? Who are you? What are you made of?
It is a question each one of us must face. But it is unanswerable. At no point are we ever finished, at no point is our story ever complete. “You cannot measure a living tree,” wrote Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, “only a fallen tree. A living tree is in a state of growth, and we cannot assess its stature. What it is at the moment is transitory, and it gives way to the tree’s continuous unfolding. And so it is with people.” The meaning of today is determined by tomorrow. The meaning of one’s life is held in the hands of others.
I stand before a bar mitzvah to offer him the responsibilities and blessings of Jewish adulthood. But before I begin to speak, I catch a glimpse of his grandparents sitting in the first row. They are survivors — the holy remnant of European Jewry. Their eyes have seen what no eyes ever should see. These people, who stood at the gates of hell, in the presence of Mengele himself, today sit here to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a grandson. Suddenly, the moment takes on a new meaning.
Has this boy in his shiny new Bar Mitzvah suit any clue what torturous choices had to be faced, what perilous risks confronted, what agonies endured so that he could stand here today? Should he? Does he recognize his own role in this? He is, after all, the reason they lived. It was for him that they persevered. His life — the choices he makes — either justifies their courage or throws it into absurdity. Surely it is unfair to lay upon his delicate shoulders such a burden. But it is a reality he must grow to understand. And one day, he may find dignity and courage, purpose and vision in upholding this legacy.
Kohelet, the author of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, found bitter irony in this: “I loathe all that I had toiled for under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will succeed me — and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? And he will control all I toiled for under the sun … that too is futile!”
No, not futile. This is faith. We can never answer God’s question because the answer is always beyond us. We entrust the answer — our identity and eternity — to the hands of others.
Even God knows this. “What is My name?” God asks us. What will you call Me? What will you make of My name in your world, your life? The fate of God lies in our hands. “Where in the universe does God dwell?” asked the Kotzker Rebbe. And then he answered his own question: “Wherever we let God in.”
“I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My name”(Exodus 6:2). So begins this week’s Torah portion. Then God reveals the Name. But though the letters are spelled out, the name cannot be pronounced. In Judaism, God’s name cannot be uttered. Because God is never finished. We’re never finished. Our story, our history isn’t over. We worship a God whose name we cannot articulate. Ours is a God who offers a future eternally open, a future of infinite possibilities and promise. Ours is a future whose name cannot be pronounced.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
Sixteen strangers are left on a wilderness island to fend for themselves. They endure starvation, infestation, exposure to the elements. Each night they gather in council to vote one of their company off the island. Finally, only two are left. The castoffs are brought back as jury to choose the sole survivor. Conniving, manipulation, betrayal, deceit – that’s entertainment! And 48 million Americans stopped to watch. A media sensation, “Survivor” made the covers of Newsweek and Time and the headlines in every newspaper.
The appeal of “Survivor” is more than its voyeurism. It offers a metaphor for human existence that touches something deep in our civilization. Stripped down to its basics, “Survivor” teaches that we live in a hostile environment where subsistence is a daily challenge and brutal competition is life’s way. Success means climbing over others, leaving the weak and needy behind. Compassion is a distraction, kindness is inexpedient, conscience is a trap. Trust no one, care for no one. One’s only loyalty is to oneself. The object of life, its only meaning, is to be the last one standing – the winner, the survivor. If Friedrich Nietzsche wrote for television, “Survivor” would be his show.
We Jews know this game. We played in Egypt millennia ago and have been forced to play many times since. We learned that life on these terms is hell – empty, lonely, meaningless. Ours is a different game. In our game, winning is not about competition and exclusion but about inclusion and acceptance. The task of life is to build a heart, a home, a community, a world big enough to include everyone. You win when everyone belongs and no one is left out.
This game is more challenging than “Survivor” because you don’t vote people out. You learn to live with them. Those who are different and difficult and needy. Those you love and those you can’t stand. The game is to find the image of God in them all.
This Torah portion, Ki Tetze, sets the rules of the game. Find room for everyone: the captive taken in war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), the child of an unloved wife (Deut. 21:15-7), the Edomite and the Egyptian (Deut. 23:8-9), the fugitive slave (Deut. 23:16-17), the destitute laborer (Deut. 24:14-15), the poor, the orphan and the widow (Deut. 24:17-22). All of them powerless, dependent, needy. All of them your responsibility.
The Torah portion lists three exceptions to this rule of inclusion which are even more instructive. According to the Torah, the Moabite has no place in the community even to the 10th generation (Deut. 23:4-5). That holds until we get to the book of Ruth, in which a Moabite woman is not only accepted but celebrated for her chesed and her loyalty and becomes the ancestor of King David, the progenitor of the Messiah. Redemption comes, according to Ruth, only when we find the way to include the other and embrace the stranger.
The “wayward and defiant son” is brought to the elders of the town. Accused by his parents of insolence, gluttony and drunkenness, he is to be stoned to death. This so shocked the rabbis that they interpreted the law out of existence. According to Talmud Sanhedrin, “There never has been a ‘wayward and defiant son’ and there never will be.” But read literally, the law is significant. A “wayward and defiant son” is the flip side of a violent and abusive parent. The Torah does not allow that parent to destroy his child. Instead, the child is placed in community custody. While the parent may fantasize of a stoning, the child is protected, reformed, educated and nurtured.
Finally, we are to remember the evil of Amalek and “blot out [their] memory from under heaven.” (Deut. 25:19) Amalek was our first national enemy, who “surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” (Deut. 25:28) Who is Amalek? They are the personification of the “Survivor” ethic – those who would destroy the weak, the needy, the stranger in order to win. This is our perennial opponent.
The game begins immediately. The challenges are infinite, but the prizes are remarkable. Care to sign on?
Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
When we arrive in heaven, the Talmudic sages wondered, what will God ask of us?
This is not really a question about heaven. It is about how we live and how we locate eternity within life. The philosopher Franz Rosensweig explained that on Yom Kippur we are offered a look at our lives through the eyes of eternity. From that perspective, what do we amount to? What’s real? What’s important? What matters?
God asks four questions:
Kavata itim L’Torah? Do you set aside time for learning Torah?
Torah is not only a book, a scroll in the ark. Torah is a process. Torah is the eternal conversation among generations of Jewish thinkers and dreamers — sharing their perceptions of life’s true purpose, of God’s presence, of life’s beauty. When we study Torah, we join the conversation.
In nature, biologist Lewis Thomas writes, there is no such thing as “an ant.” It is the same with Jews. Jews come with ancestors and descendants — a community spanning generations. What binds us together is our shared wisdom, our Torah. To learn Torah is to enter the eternal Jewish conversation. So God asks, Kavata itim L’Torah? Did you find time for Torah?
Asakta B’priya U’reviah? Do you devote yourself to family?
God is shrewd. God doesn’t ask: Did you learn Torah? God asks: Did you establish a time for study? Did you have control over your time, over your life? And if you didn’t, who did? Where did your time go?
God doesn’t ask: Did you love your family? Did you provide for your children? God asks: Asakta, from the Hebrew esek, business: Was family your preoccupation? Did you invest yourself in family?
In family there is immortality. Our children represent our reach into eternity. They carry our names, our values and dreams. But only if we invest our time in them, to teach them and share with them. Did you make time for family?
Nasata B’emunah? Do you do business with integrity?
This is the most surprising of the questions. We expect questions about Torah and family. We might also expect a question about charity, about ritual, about supporting the community. Where is immortality found? In the world of business. Because in my study, in my den, over my breakfast table, in my deepest thoughts, I’m a moral hero. It’s easy to be a moral hero — a tzadik — in theory. Deep in our hearts, every one of us thinks we’re a good, well-meaning person. The question is what happens in the real world, in the marketplace, in business, in a realm of tough competition, of conflict and its passions? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you a mensch where it counts? What does business do to us? How many human beings must earn their livelihood at the expense of their own humanity? How much of us must die in order to make a living? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you faithful to the best in you, even under the worst of circumstances?
Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you expect redemption? Do you have hope?
Victor Frankel was a Viennese psychiatrist when he was taken to Auschwitz in 1941. As he struggled to survive Nazi slavery, he carefully studied his fellow prisoners. He writes: “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost … We had to learn that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.”
Hope isn’t given or found or revealed. We choose hope. We choose to grasp and hold the possibilities of tomorrow. Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you choose to live with hope?
Immortality is not found in heaven or beyond the grave. It is in our hearts, in the way we live, in the daily tasks of life. This holiday, go to synagogue or find a place that’s quiet, and ask yourself God’s questions. This year, may we find the eternity planted within.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
Enter a cathedral, and what do you feel? Thesoaring vaulted ceiling, the giant columns, the colossal statues ofsaints and martyrs, the luminous stained-glass images of scripturalheroes — the architecture articulates a spirituality of contrast. Weare small, insignificant, ephemeral creatures, no better than insectson the floor. We are impure, corrupt, stained with sin. Who are we toapproach God? God is magnificent, distant and fearsome in judgment.In the cathedral, it is only the figure of Christ that mediatesbetween my miserable condition as human being and God’s majesty.Holiness, argued the scholar Rudolf Otto, lies in the contrastbetween our “utter creatureliness” and God’s frightening “tremendum.”Holiness is the shiver of vulnerability in the face of theinfinite.
In Hebrew, the word for holiness is kedusha. Thisis the key term in this week’s Torah reading: “Kedoshim tihyu — Youwill be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).Trace that word in our experience, and we arrive at a very different– and very Jewish — idea of holiness.
A family, a havurah, a community of friends,gathers at a Shabbat or holiday table to celebrate life together, toshare our stories, our laughter, our tears, the triumphs and failuresof our lives. We raise a cup of wine and recite a prayer ofsanctification. But it isn’t the wine that is sacred. The prayeraffirms the holiness of the circle around the table — the bonds thathold us together as family and friends. That prayer is called”Kiddush.”
Two separate, independent individuals — fromdifferent families, different cultures, even different planets, hefrom Mars, she from Venus — find wholeness in one another. Theypledge to share life together. A ring is placed on a finger, a ringwhole and unbroken so that their lives, their dreams, their pain andtheir joys will be wholly intertwined. The tightly drawn circle ofthe self is unlocked to include another, whose happiness becomes “myhappiness,” and whose suffering becomes “my suffering.” And “we”recite: “Haray at mi-kudeshet lee” — “With this ring, we aremi-kudeshet, bonded in sanctity.” This miraculous process is calledin Jewish tradition, Kiddushin.
When a loved one dies, we refuse to let thecatastrophe of death be the last word. We will not sever our bonds ofloyalty and love. We will not lose our memories of shared wisdom,warmth, strength, vision. We rise in synagogue — in the midst of ourpeople — to recite a prayer that affirms the triumph of life overdeath, of hope over despair. The prayer is called “Kaddish.”
Rudolf Otto, like the builders of the greatcathedrals, found holiness in the God’s awesome distance. We Jewsfind it in God’s warm closeness. We find it in the bonds that uniteus. We find it in shared laughter and shared tears.
I used to listen faithfully to “Religion on theLine,” the radio talk show featuring a rabbi, priest and minister.Each week, whatever the scheduled issue, the panel would inevitablyreceive the same question from a caller: “Must one belong toorganized religion to have a relationship with God?” It is a sincerequestion. But I wonder where it comes from. What a lonelyindividualism that sees community as a trap and belonging asconfinement. What a cold and solitary spirituality that has nolanguage to share the insights of faith. What kind of human lifefears belonging?
This is more than theology; it is personal. I layin a hospital bed this past January, facing the most frighteningmoments of my life. And then I felt the warm hands of friends whocame to offer support. They prepared meals for my family, cared forour children, donated their blood on my behalf, and offered theirprayers for strength, healing and hope. In the warmth of their love,I have felt the Presence of God.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.
The Nazis took my uncle Henry at the beginning ofthe war. He survived more than five years as a slave. Young andstrong, he was a carpenter, and they needed carpenters. At first,they moved him from camp to camp, including a stay at Pleshow, whereSchindler’s people were kept. And, finally, Auschwitz. A slavelaborer, he built parts of the camp. When the Allies advanced, he wastaken on the infamous Death March from Poland into Germany. He wasliberated from Buchenwald by the U.S. Army in 1945.
For as long as I can remember, my uncle neverspoke about these experiences. We knew that he had been in the camps– from the numbers on his arm and from his peculiar personal habits(for example, the way he slept so still, as if he were still hiding).But he would never reveal to any of us where he’d been.
My aunt, who returned to school once the childrenwere grown, took a course in Jewish literature. Among the booksassigned was Elie Wiesel’s “Night” — Wiesel’s account of his time atAuschwitz. My aunt left the book on the living-room coffee table, andmy uncle picked it up one afternoon and began to read. He knew allthe characters and places in the book. He had witnessed all theevents Wiesel described.
Later in the semester, Wiesel came to lecture atthe university, and my aunt and uncle went to hear him. Following thelecture, they approached Wiesel. My uncle asked him about people andplaces he hadn’t recalled in more than 40 years. Wiesel questioned myuncle about his own experiences and memories. They stood together inthe deserted lecture hall for more than two hours. Finally, Wieselasked my uncle, “Have you told your children?” And my unclesheepishly replied that he could not. “You must,” Wiesel saidadmonishingly, “for if you do not, they will never really believe ithappened!”
At a Passover meal, some months later, he sat usdown and, for more than three hours, told us his story: thedeportation, the brutal separation from his family, the camps, themarch, the liberation. When, at last, he finished, we sat in silencefor some time. We finally asked him why he’d waited all these yearsto share this. He looked at us with an embarrassed expression andsaid: “Because I was afraid you wouldn’t understand. How could youunderstand? You grew up here, in freedom and safety. You don’t knowhunger or fear or hate. How could you understand?”
So, then, why tell us now? “Because Wiesel isright. If you don’t hear it from me, you’ll never really believe thatit happened, that it was real.”
Now I understand Exodus. I can imagine ageneration of ex-slaves caught in my uncle’s dilemma: How can Idescribe realities that you can’t possibly imagine? You know nothingof slavery, of degradation, of fear and hatred. But if I don’t tellyou, you’ll never believe it was real. If you don’t hear it from me,you’ll think of it in terms impersonal, theoretical, abstract. Youmust know that these things happened, and that I was there. Asinadequate as this may be, I tell you this story so that my memoriesmay become your own.
On Passover, the whole meal isn’t marror — thebiting bitter herb. We take just a taste — enough to bring tears andshorten the breath. But it’s always mellowed with the sweetness ofcharoset — the joy of liberation. For the story’s end ishope.
Today, my uncle tells his story to high schoolkids up and down the Eastern seaboard, particularly in inner-cityneighborhoods. This is his personal fight against despair. So it wasfor our ancestors. We know that God has purposes in human history.We, who crossed the sea, saw history turned transparent. We perceivedGod’s presence and the triumph of hope.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.
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Pity Esau. One moment of weakness, one moment ofimpulse, and his birthright is gone. He goes out to fulfill hisfather’s dying wish for a savory meal of game, and while he’s outhunting, his mother and brother conspire and rob him of his blessing.Returning to his father with the feast, expecting at last to gain hisdue position as head of the clan, he is met with his father’s emptyexcuses. And so Esau cries: “Have you but one blessing, Father? Blessme too, Father!” And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:38). Tears ofbetrayal, of pain, of rage, of broken dreams.
Two brothers. One blessing. But who told FatherIsaac that he had but one blessing to bestow upon his sons? Who toldhim that blessings must be hierarchical — setting one brother overthe other, declaring one the victor and the other a loser? Why can’the see where this leads? Has he no sense of the bitterness andturmoil that will come of this? Is his spiritual imagination so smallthat he cannot find a unique blessing for each of his sons? Is thisthe blindness that afflicts him?
Two brothers, one blessing. This is the darkunderside of Genesis. Cain murders Abel. Abraham must separate fromhis brother’s son, Lot, because there can be no peace between them.Ishmael is cast out of the family to make room for Isaac. Jacobdeceives his blind father and steals his brother Esau’s blessing.Joseph’s brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery. Beneath theenchanting tales of Genesis, the charming Bible stories we love toread to our children, lies this legacy of hatred, rage, estrangement,murder and pain.
More than the stories of our dysfunctional family,Genesis is an alarm — a plea, a warning — against the humanpropensity to think in binary terms: Us/Them. Our People/ThosePeople. The Good Brother/The Evil Brother. The Children of Light/TheChildren of Darkness. This calculation always yields the sameproduct: The Other. Who is The Other? We call him by many names, buthe is always the same. Cast out for his unrighteousness. Undeservingof blessing. Evil. Dark. Alien. Excluded. Estranged.
Why do we human beings need The Other? Whatemptiness within our soul does it fulfill? What comfort does it giveus to identify, to isolate, to castigate, to scorn The Other?Politicians love him. Demagogues thrive on him, for there is noeasier way to the heart of a people than through our fear, ourdisgust, our rejection of The Other. Just listen to theirrhetoric.
But remember Genesis. Who is The Other? He is ourbrother. Ignore him and watch as his rage consumes everything we holddear. We will never have peace, and we will never be whole until wemeet him and make peace with him. Be careful. His rage is potent. Butif we have the courage to confront him, to meet and embrace him, wewill find him ready to receive us.
“Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by400 men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the twomaids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and herchildren next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on aheadand bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near hisbrother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, falling on his neck,he kissed him, and they wept (Genesis 33:1-4).
Again, Esau weeps. But this time, different tears.For the years consumed and wasted in rage, hatred, bitterness andfear. For the brokenness endured until each brother realized that hecould have his own, unique blessing. And for the generations of theirchildren who will yet live by dividing — believing in theirblindness that there is only one blessing. For those who have yet tolearn the ultimate lesson of Genesis.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.
All rights reserved by author.
Joseph is drawn from the pit.
Photo from “The Jewish People: A PictorialHistory.”
Read a past week’s torah portion!
Who was the first Jew? All of us learned in Sunday School that thefirst Jew was Abraham. It was our father, Abraham, who detected thepresence of the one true God and championed monotheism in a paganworld. It was with Abraham that God established the Covenant,defining our identity, our mission, our destiny. That’s true. But thefirst Jew wasn’t Abraham. The first Jew was his son Isaac.
In Jewish prayer, we address God with the expression, “Elohaynuv’Elohay Avotaynu — our God and God of our ancestors.” We recitethese words easily, oblivious to the dynamic tension buried withinthe phrases: Is my God the same as the God of my ancestors? What ofmy faith is received, and what is created? What is of tradition, andwhat is my own?
The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Chassidism, wasasked why the “Amidah,” the central prayer of the daily services,begins with the triple iteration, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, Godof Jacob.” Why not just say, “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”? Heanswered: The God of Jacob was not the God of Isaac, and the God ofIsaac was not the God of Abraham. Each grasped God in his own way.Each offered the world his own unique testimony of God. There is roomin Judaism — indeed, there is a need — for the new, therevolutionary. The personal spiritual adventure — the individual’ssearch for God — is the very life force of faith. Without it, ourreligion stagnates and dies. This is the radicalism of the Baal ShemTov.
But the same Baal Shem Tov awoke each morning, donned his tallis,wound his tefillin, and recited this prayer just as his ancestors haddone. In doing so, he affirmed a spiritual continuity with Abraham,Isaac, Jacob, and all the generations of Israel, down through hisown.
The personal religious quest brings energy, life, creativity andrenewal. The loyalty to tradition offers wisdom, depth, and the wordsand symbols from which we build the religious community. We need themboth. Denying a place for personal spiritual seeking leaves usstagnant. Cutting off tradition leaves us with a terrible sense ofweightlessness, of loneliness, and with a painful hunger forauthenticity. In my most significant moments, I crave a wisdom olderand deeper than my few years on this planet.
Responding to this hunger, so many of our contemporaries seem topatch together their own eclectic religious expression — mixing alittle Native American mythology, a little Buddhist meditation, alittle Christian morality, a little Sufi passion into the Shabboschallah. In the end, they find the mixture tasteless and unsatisfyingbecause it transcends neither the self nor the now. There is nonourishment in spiritual noshing.
The dynamic of Judaism embraces the personal religious questwhile, at the same time, affirming loyalty to the continuity of ourhistorical tradition. It is a dialectic filled with conflict andtension. But in this tension is the secret of Judaism’s spiritualvitality and its survival. And its father is Isaac.
Isaac, not Abraham, was the first Jew. For Isaac was the first toknow the tension between “my God” and “the God of my father.” He isthe first to know the struggle between the faith of his father andthe truth of his own religious experience. He is the first to knowthat we must do more than simply receive, affirm and repeattradition. We must make tradition our own. We must find a place forits wisdom in our life situation, fill it with our own passion,express its truth in our own idiom, remake its symbols to speak toour own souls, but never lose its message and its meaning. Ourfather, Isaac, was the first to know the challenge of receivingtradition and passing it on to those after him. And he was the firstto stay up at night, worrying about whether his grandchildren wouldbe Jewish. Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, was the first Jew.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
The boy is alive. Shaken — we both are. Butalive. I’ve sent him home to you in Kiryat Arba. I’ll remain here inBeersheba. I need some time alone to think things through.
From the beginning, this has been someadventure. “Leave home!” I was commanded. “Leave behind all thatmakes you who you are — family and place, culture and memory. Theblessing is yours only if you come naked, stripped of all thatprotects you in this world — position, patrimony, prestige.” Iobeyed because I heard a truth more compelling than any I had everknown.
You came with me. Out of love. Out of loyalty.Out of the hope that this might bring you the one thing you craved –a child. An end to your bitter barrenness. I strained to hear thevoice of God. You prayed each night to hear the cry of an infant. Itold you about the promise: Like the stars that fill the sky, ourchildren will cover the earth. You chuckled: Just one would be enoughof a miracle — a sign that we were indeed chosen.
I went out to war and defeated kings. Youfought the despair of the advancing years. And when, in yourdesperation, you gave me the handmaid Hagar, I could hear again onlythe voice of God’s promises. I couldn’t hear your anguish, yourloneliness.
The son that Hagar bore was my son, but notyours. He had all of my drive, my passion, my impulses. He had mystrength. He even had my temper. But nothing that’s you. None of yourwisdom, your patience, your tenderness. None of your laughter. Inthat, he was a dangerous creature. You were right in sending himaway. He would have destroyed us. He may yet.
And then came Isaac. “Come and know the boy,”you said. “Teach him your vision, the ways of God.” But I wasn’tthere. Having defeated kings, I took to battling God: “Shall theJudge of all the earth not do justice?” Again, you chuckled: Shallthe father of great nations never come home to meet hisson?
Then came that unfathomable commandment: “Takeyour son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land ofMoriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” For the first timein my life, I was struck dumb — silenced with fear and with pain.For this I abandoned my homeland and my kin? Where is Your promise?Your justice? But now He was silent.
I thought of waking you to say goodbye. But Iknew that this would kill you. You endured the ravages of our journeyand childbirth at age 90. But this was too much. So I rose early,made the preparations and took the boy.
The three days of journey were the longest daysany father has ever endured. It was the first time I had ever spenttime with the boy. You were right about him. He is the best of usboth. With each step, I grew to love him more. With each step, wedrew closer to our destiny.
How many times did I turn back? Swearing atmyself for once thinking that man can comprehend the ways of God,that man can think himself God’s partner in covenant. I could wrestleout of Him a concession for the few righteous of Sodom, but nothingfor my own son? Still, something drove me on. I needed to know,ultimately, if He would go through with it. Would He break Hispromise and cast us away? Is He like the gods of the land, demandingthe blood of children as His tribute? Or is He a God of life? Ineeded to know.
We went up the mountain. I bound Isaac to thealtar. We cried together, our tears mingling. And as I raised theknife to fulfill the commandment, I heard a voice — stronger andmore clearly than any I had ever heard. It was your voice, Sarah. Andit commanded me to drop the knife, to lift up the boy, to comehome.
You were right all along. No need to seek Godon the mountain top. That is the way of loneliness and death. Homeand heart are where God lives. No need to hear God’s voice from theheavens. The laughter and song of children are enough for anyone whoneeds to hear God’s voice. You were right, Sarah. I’ll be homesoon.
With all my love,
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.
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You know me, Rabbi. You know how important thesynagogue is to me, how much I enjoy services; you see me at yourTorah classes. You know what kind of Jew I am: I am the only one atthe family seder table who can read the Hebrew side of the Haggadah,but they won’t accept me, because I wasn’t born Jewish!”
Every rabbi has heard these painfultestimonies.
“After my conversion, the Christians in myoffice congratulated me on this special moment. They wanted to hearall about the ritual and about my new faith. The Jews, on the otherhand, made sarcastic remarks — someone wondered aloud if they’dgiven me a Bloomingdale’s charge card at the mikvah as the symbol of myJewishness.”
Sociologically, it can be explained. Judaism is aunique composite of religion and ethnicity. One can convert into areligion by adopting its beliefs and practices. One cannot convertinto an ethnicity. Ethnicity is family; it is blood. Try as one may,one cannot become Italian or Irish. Ethnicity is expressed in acomplex and subtle culture of shared memories, language and symbols.Facing an ethnic culture, the outsider can at best become theequivalent of a daughter-in-law or son-in-law — invited to sit atthe family table even though he or she may never get our family jokesor share our intimate memories. You can come to the table, but you’llnever really feel at home. In an American-Jewish community whereethnic identity far outweighs spirituality, the convert faces adifficult dilemma — how to ever feel at home as a Jew.
This is compounded by the Jewish experience of2,000 years of oppression and exile. In response to castigation andhumiliation, Jews erected a powerful internal barrier between Us andThem. The defense against ghetto walls was an internal wall. But nowthat we are secure in a free democracy, the internal walls remain,held up by old fears and prejudice. Even when Jews assimilate, losingall vestiges of faith and culture, the last thing to go are theinternal walls. They don’t attend synagogue, own a Bible, orcelebrate a seder, but they won’t hesitate to tell someone that he orshe is not really Jewish.
Have we forgotten that the Jewish experience beganwith a radical act of decision, with a conversion?
“The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go forth from yourland, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land thatI will show you…and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2).
The convert’s journey follows the same radicalroute of Abraham and Sarai — cutting oneself off from the familiarand the safe, from all that provides identity in this world, fromhome and family, culture and memory — to pursue a promise. We callthem ben orbat Avraham v’Sarah — the child of Abraham and Sarah. The children of Abrahamand Sarah live among us!
An alternative interpretation reads God’s commandLech lecha as”Go into yourself!” Abraham’s journey is not geographic butspiritual. Those who have chosen Judaism are living witnesses to thespiritual journey of Judaism. They are a blessing to us, for theyteach us that the essence of the Jew is not in ethnic affectations –bagels and Yiddish quips — but in the deepest spiritual search formeaning and joy in life, in Covenant with God.
Eight hundred years ago, Maimonides heard the samepainful cry. A convert named Ovadia was barred from praying with thecongregation because some questioned how he could offer prayers tothe “God of our ancestors.” With all his rhetorical power, Rambamresponded: “Anyone who becomes a convert isa pupil of our father, Abraham, and all of them are members of hishousehold. You may say, ‘God of our ancestors,’ for Abraham is yourfather…and there is no difference between us and you. Toward fatherand mother, we are commanded to show honor and reverence; towardprophets, to obey them; but toward converts, we are commanded to havegreat love in our hearts. God in His glory loves theconvert.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.