High Holy Days sermon: Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback on Civil Discourse – 5777


These Days of Awe are about so many things – renewal, return, repentance. They are also about reflection. The High Holy Days provide an opportunity to think about the year that has passed, the ways we have changed, fallen short, perhaps even exceeded our expectations.

This past May, I had a wonderful and inspiring opportunity to reflect on the passage of time. It was my twenty-fifth college reunion.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Did he say college reunion? Surely he meant, high school or perhaps elementary school? I mean, come on, look at him?!?”

But, alas and indeed, I was graduated from university in 1991, and my reunion was an opportunity to reflect on continuity and change in the school, in my classmates, and in myself.

Although the campus included new buildings, programs, and even entire departments, in other ways, it felt like very little had changed. My classmates have actually held up pretty well so I recognized most of them. The muggy East-coast weather of late May was – unfortunately – all too familiar. Yet in other ways, student life was quite different, and in some respects almost unrecognizable. And what has changed most radically on campus is this: how students connect and communicate with one another and the wider world.

 

I was fortunate to have two special guides into today’s college culture: my brother’s son and my sister’s daughter, both of whom were graduating with the Class of 2016 at that very same institution. Through the eyes of my niece, Grace, and my nephew, Jacob, I learned much about both the promise and pitfalls of the way communication takes place on campuses today.

My generation was the last to graduate university without email. We didn’t have cell phones either or cable TV in our dorm rooms – and we liked it! Of course, Grace and Jacob and all of their classmates have access to laptops and WiFi during lectures, and their smartphones, like ours, are ubiquitous.

My niece and nephew taught me about an even newer mode of communication on campuses today: YikYak, a social media app that I’d never heard of before. YikYak was launched in 2013 as an anonymous social media application that is limited to a small geographical area. Users create a discussion thread that can only be joined by others within a five mile radius, with results that can quickly spiral into any number of directions. Grace told me that some students like using YikYak during lectures in order to comment – anonymously – on the quality of the lesson and even, sadly, on the appearance of the lecturer. (By the way – I hope that none of you are live-commenting on my sermon today. But if you are – please be kind – it’s the Day of Atonement after all.)

Sadly but predictably, YikYak on some campuses has at times become a forum for hate speech, with students posting racist, sexist, and antisemitic comments. On several campuses around the country, university officials have tried to ban the app with limited success.

Of course, its anonymity is precisely what attracts many users to YikYak. One social media expert describes the phenomenon as “identity fatigue” – internet users’ growing “weariness with having their digital communications attached to their real-world personas and thus susceptible to public scrutiny.”

In the words of YikYak founder, Brooks Buffington – that’s his real name by the way – “Once you have a[n online] profile, you’re expected to act a certain way. People only post the best, most beautiful parts of their life on Instagram. On YikYak, you just put something out there, and if it doesn’t resonate with anyone, it’s not a reflection on you.”  

Judging by YikYak’s user numbers and the growing popularity of other anonymous social media applications, students increasingly wish to be able to say whatever they want without consequences. You can insult a teacher or a fellow classmate or share a racist or sexist comment without having the sentiment attached to your real-world persona – that is, your self. No need later to scrub your facebook or instagram profile before a job interview – none of these statements will reflect poorly on you.

But here’s the thing – our words matter. How we use them is a reflection of what we believe, of what we value, and, ultimately, of who we are.

And we find ourselves in a moment when words are being used in ever coarser ways – even when they are not being used anonymously. In this year’s heated political environment, there seems to be no minimum standard of decency – we slide lower and lower from boorish, ill-mannered behavior to a level of incivility that is unprecedented.

We ask ourselves – how should we respond to language that is being used which is demeaning to women, disabled persons, Muslims, and minority groups? How do we respond as a nation to language which goes far beyond “lewd” to that which is misogynistic and even violent?

This kind of speech should concern us deeply.

And it trickles down, doesn’t it? It permeates and shapes our culture, our daily lives, and even the lives of our children.

It’s not enough that college students are experimenting with anonymity and consequence-free speech, just last week I received an email from my daughter’s high school alerting parents about a new smartphone app called “AfterSchool”. It’s a social media application created especially for teens that will allow them to post anonymously about one another. After a comment is posted, the student about whom the post was directed is notified and can then see what was said about him or her. It’s not hard to imagine how terribly destructive a piece of technology like this might be in a middle or high school setting.

If we fail to speak up, to advocate for discourse which reflects our values, to say “not okay” to speech which is hateful and violent, we are helping to create a colder, meaner, coarser world which will, inevitably, make us and our children colder, meaner, coarser people.

Now – make no mistake – I believe deeply in a vibrant and open exchange of ideas. Professors, students, indeed all of us should have the freedom to address challenging topics, even if others feel uncomfortable doing so. And I believe it is our right, at times our obligation, to attack positions held by others that are at odds with our core principles. But that doesn't mean that we are permitted to abandon propriety, manners, and respect for the humanity of the other in the process.

In these Yamim Noraim – these Days of Awe – we think about the state of our world, the state of our nation, and, most personally, the state of our own souls.

And then we think about how we can make things better, how we can improve ourselves, our communities, and our world.

So how can we elevate the conversation? How can we share our perspectives honestly and openly without descending to name calling and personal attacks? How can we exercise our right to free speech in a way this is wise, kind, and informed by our belief that all people are created in God's image?

Three lessons from our tradition:

  1. Words make worlds – that is, words do matter.

  2. A person is a world – that is, every person matters.

  3. It can be done – that is, people can disagree, argue, stand for different things and still be civil, respectful. In fact, they can even be friends who help each other to grow and be better.

Lesson one – words matter. According to our tradition, the universe is created through speech. Genesis 1:3 – the very beginning: “And God SAID, ‘Let there be light’ – and there was light!”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.

Part of our daily morning liturgy describes God as:

בָּרוּךְ שֶׁאָמַר וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם.

God is: “The one who spoke and brought the universe into being!”

And it’s not just God’s words that count – our words do, too. The childhood adage that “Sticks and stones may break bones but names will never hurt me” has no place in the Jewish tradition. According to Jewish law, words can cause tangible damage to one’s reputation, affect one’s livelihood, and inflict emotional distress. The sages teach that embarrassing someone with our words is like spilling blood – it’s like committing murder.

Fully one-quarter of the Al Cheyt prayer – the prayer we said moments ago in which we beat our chests as we confess our many transgressions, relates to sins connected to speech including most specifically:

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּדִבּוּר פֶּה:

“For the sin we have committed against you through the words of our mouths.”

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בִּלְשׁוֹן הָרָע:

“For the sin we have committed against you through gossip and slander.”

In Judaism, words have weight. They are not abstract, immaterial things. In fact, a word is called a “davar” in Hebrew which also means “thing.” They are real. They can wound and they can heal. They can create and they can destroy.

Friends: the way we talk to each other or about each other, what we email and text and post, how we respond (or fail to respond) to speech that is hateful: in all these ways we are communicating values. We are declaring what we stand for and who we are. And Judaism doesn't know from “identity fatigue” – our tradition does not glamorize the anonymous critic or the unattributed quote.

And let me be perfectly clear: in our tradition, wherever you are, whatever the context – in a Sanctuary, on a bus, in a locker room – our words still count. What we say and how we say is, in every setting, a reflection of who we are.

Lesson two – every person is a world; all people have inherent worth.

The rabbis of the Mishna ask why it is that God created the world through one primordial human-being: Adam. God could have created the world fully populated. The rabbis teach us:

“Humanity was first created as one person – Adam – in order to teach you that anyone who destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a single life is as if he saved an entire world.”

A person – every person – is a world: even our ideological foes, even our political opponents, even those whose world-view we find deplorable, have fundamental worth.

This sounds a lot easier than it is. Of course – every person has fundamental worth – in principle.

But in practice? The guy who cut you off on the 405 on your way to Temple? He’s an idiot!

And the lady in the express checkout aisle at Ralph’s with 16 items in her cart when only 15 are allowed? She’s a wretch who should be banned from the store!

And what about those nutjobs who support the candidate that you’re against? Morons! Cretins who should move to Russia – or Mexico – already!

If we take this lesson seriously, if we truly believe the notion that a person is a world, we have to find the way to talk to those with whom we disagree, even with those who have wronged us, with respect and with dignity. We have to accept that our ideological foes are in fact part of our family, descendants of Adam HaRishon, our primordial ancestor.

And, friends, part of my vision for Stephen Wise Temple is that it will be a gathering place for passionate, yet civil, dialogues and group conversations. The wisdom of our tradition can help us grapple with complex issues  relating to morality, public policy, national politics, and our beloved State of Israel.

We can do this more successfully if we believe – truly believe – that each person is a world. Each person has value.

Lesson three – it’s possible. We can argue, debate, disagree in profound ways and still be respectful. Despite our differences of opinion, we can be civil and we can even be friends.

The Talmud tells us of a dispute between the great sages Hillel and Shammai and their descendents. They debated and fought over a contentious matter for three years. Interestingly – the Talmud never tells us what they were fighting about! Perhaps the lesson is that the details ultimately weren’t that important (they usually aren’t).

Finally, a heavenly voice cried out: “These and these are the words of the living God, but the halakha – the legal ruling – is according to the reasoning of Hillel.”

  • “אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן! והלכה כב”ה.”

That is to say, both sides have made good points but Hillel’s argument wins the day.

But then a question is raised: “Since the heavenly voice declared that both arguments are the words of the Living God – both arguments have merit – why privilege Hillel’s argument?”

And listen to the reply – it’s not about the quality of the argument, it’s about Hillel’s character. It’s about how he and his disciples act towards their opponents.

Says the Talmud: “It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. They even went so far as to teach Shammai's opinions first.”

Not only is it possible for ideological foes to engage in discourse without killing each other or resorting to name-calling, they can even remain friends.

In the 1980s, House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were fierce ideological foes. O’Neill was an Irish-Catholic from Boston, active in Democratic politics from the age of 15. Reagan was a Protestant from Illinois who gained fame as an actor in Hollywood. After becoming a Republican at the age of 51, he served 8 years as Governor of California and 8 in the White House. O’Neill once called Reagan “Herbert Hoover with a smile,” and referred to Reagan’s plan to cut benefits for early retirees as a “despicable” and “rotten thing to do.” Reagan in turn accused O’Neill of liberal demagoguery.

But after this particular disagreement, President Reagan phoned the Speaker of the House to clear the air. O’Neill famously replied: “Old buddy, that's politics–after 6 o'clock we can be friends; but before 6, it's politics.”

More recently, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent 23 years together on the U.S. Supreme Court, invariably opposing one another’s views. In 1986, Scalia became the first justice of Italian descent, a practicing Catholic and social conservative who frequently ruled against abortion rights, affirmative action, and gun control. In 1993, Ginsburg became our nation’s 2nd female justice, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who has been of the most consistently liberal justices on the bench.

Yet not only did Scalia and Ginsburg have the utmost respect for each other professionally, they were also the best of friends: along with their spouses, they attended opera, travelled the globe, and spent every New Year’s eve together for over two decades. After Scalia died this past February, Ginsburg spoke publicly about how their disagreements made her better. How her world was richer, and how she grew as a person and a judge because of their friendship. Had she decided to “unfriend” him the moment his arguments challenged or offended her, her world – and ours – would have been smaller, impoverished, “less.”

Or how about the Bushes and the Obamas? Unlikely friends perhaps, but friends nonetheless. Just last week we saw the beautiful image of Michelle Obama embracing George W. Bush at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Why have they become so close? After all, Democratic President Barack Obama’s first victory was in no small measure a repudiation of Republican President George W. Bush’s administration.

Here’s how David Axelrod, one of President Obama's former advisors, understands it:

“President Bush was very gracious to us during the transition, and he has been unfailingly gracious and respectful since.” He recalled President Obama telling him that the Bushes “had taught him lessons in how to be a former President.”

Sounds familiar, right? A deep kavod for one’s political or ideological foe. A graciousness, a respect, an openness to learning from the other.

Here’s something that might give us hope: just as political culture can become coarser and more disrespectful, so too can the pendulum swing the other way. And we can be part of that change – as individuals and as a community. We can model civility and respect in our own behavior even in online and social media settings and we can demand it of others including our elected officials and those who would seek higher office.

We can cherish and celebrate the wonderful diversity of Stephen Wise Temple which includes members and guests from all over the world with different backgrounds who bring different perspectives and points of view but who share a love of Judaism, Torah, Israel, and community.

And – perhaps most important of all – we can be a bit more humble about our opinions, postures, stances and world-views. We just might be wrong some of the time, maybe even much of the time.

Hillel was careful to learn and examine the arguments of his foe so much so that he was able to teach Shammai’s opinions himself. This is a type of radical empathy – a deep commitment to understanding the argument, thinking and maybe even experience of the other. Justice Ginsburg once spoke publicly about a time when Scalia showed her his dissenting opinion in a case before she had finished the majority opinion. She said, “I took this dissent, this very spicy dissent and it absolutely ruined my weekend.” She then made some changes to her own argument as a result.

This is hard to do – in principle and in practice. It requires an open heart, an open mind, humility, empathy, and the belief that the other has inherent kavod – dignity.

Here’s another thing that gives me hope. I wrote my niece the other day and asked her to share some of her thoughts about civil discourse. She wrote me a beautiful letter which included this insight into the type of empathy required to make respectful dialogue possible: You have to accept the fact that – as she put it – “you can't know everything or even most things about another person but you must assume that their lives … are as full and unknowable as your own, therefore they are valid and deserving of dignity, respect, and the benefit of your doubt.”

Friends – as we confess our many sins, as we examine our shortcomings, let’s commit ourselves to a more respectful dialogue. Let’s affirm the power of words themselves and then resolve to use our words more carefully. Let’s remember that every person is a world – every person deserves to be treated with kavod, with humility, and with empathy. The lives, experiences, and beliefs of others are indeed “as full and unknowable” as our own. They are deserving of “dignity, respect, and the benefit of” our doubts.

If we believe this, if we live this principle day by day, we can build a culture in which we communicate, and even disagree, with mutual respect. If we live this principle day by day, our communities, diverse though they may be, will be more unified than ever before. If we live this principle day by day, we will enjoy the fruits of meaningful, civil discourse–whether on Facebook, or Face the Nation, or even face to face.


Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is Senior Rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple.

Kol Nidre sermon: Rabbi Zoë Klein – 5777/2016


OPENING RAP

I am contemplating the one percent, but I want to prevent the presumption that I meant the same one percent over which conventional contenders for president frequently dissent and resent. That’s not my intent, nor is it, for us, time well-spent. I’m lamenting a different one percent, that fragment of contaminant that corrupts the whole movement, that one bad apple that spoils the whole barrel. When you are trusting and receptive and a segment is deceptive, that one lying percent, that vile speck, that defiles the rest. In the present tense, on this day we repent, between heaven-sent instruments and shifts in government, representatives hell-bent on ascendancy, the descent of decency, the number of malcontents versus those who willingly consent to misrepresentation, to the extent that our nation is increasingly content with the fraudulent. Fakeness has become sacred and the actual is sacrificial on the altar of entertainment. The nonfactual, the amusing aggrandizement of character over the virtue of character’s content. While we orient ourselves to enter the New Year, venting our discontent, weary of establishment, weary of the next newsworthy event, hiding in the basement, pacing on the pavement, spent, bent, dented, tormented, we must practice discernment as we wrestle with that which is true and that which we only invent.

SPEAKING TRUTH

Back in ’08 a presidential candidate, who was a successful attorney, a senator, much loved, was revealed to be having an affair, suspected of fathering a child with his mistress. He denied the affair. He denied that the child was his. He denied everything. Until he couldn’t anymore.

At which point he said, “Being ninety-nine percent honest is no longer enough.”

For that candidate, that one percent of dishonesty included an affair, a child he did father, paying an aide to pose as the father, and an attempt to falsify paternity tests.

“Being ninety nine percent honest is no longer enough.”

Well, when is it enough? We live at a time when candidates for the position of Leader of the Free World speak, tweet, debate and are fact-checked in real time, and if their Truth-O-Meter score is 57 percent true or mostly true, much of the public is satisfied.

That’s 43% magical-thinking story-for-hire leprechaun-unicorn liar-liar media-wire headline-hoarding pants-on-fire deception, which to many today, is apparently okay.

Steven Colbert calls it “truthiness.”

 

Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument…claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts. We are a divided nation. Not between democrats and republicans or conservatives and liberals. We are divided between those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts.

And that is dangerous.

It is dangerous to think you “know with your heart” without regard for truth. Some of the people who intend to hurt you the most, are masterful at earning your trust and getting your heart to believe.

How do we ever know the truth? We live in an era when more than speaking truth to power, we have to get power to speak the truth.

THE AGE OF PHONINESS

Years ago my daughter, who has beautiful curly hair, hated her beautiful curly hair. She wanted straight hair. So I took her to get a blow out. She was happy and looked sleek. The next morning she woke up, looked in the mirror, and the curls were back. With a blood curdling shriek she shouted: “It’s all a lie!”

I wondered how to console her, because she was kind of right. It is all a lie.

I recently baked a batch of homemade calzones. I was proud. They looked pretty good. I took a picture. I used Photoshop to add a summer filter before posting it. Now they looked really good. The weight listed on my driver’s license is true. When I was in my twenties. The hair color changes. Resumes are enhanced. Diplomas are doctored. Idols are airbrushed. Reality shows are staged. Profiles are pretend. “Based-on-a-true-story” simply means that the script was inspired by life on earth. We are living in Holden Caulfield’s nightmare. The Age of Phonies.

Everyone carries an iPhoney, our portal into a hive-mind digitalism, where the stroke of a keyboard snowballs into an ephemeral impression, snowballs into a viral myth, snowballs into an un-curated encyclopedia of non-facts nonsense with enough buy-in and truthiness that it is permanently chiseled into the stone slab of our societal superego.

Facts are old-fashioned.

“[Truth] is dead. And we have killed it. What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?”

 Of course, I plagiarized that last thought. That was Nietzsche. I just substituted Truth for God. And when Nietzsche said in 1882 “God is dead” he was talking about how the advances of the Age of Enlightenment would lead to a rejection of universal moral law, the rejection of values, and here we are, on our festival of atonement, playing our sacred games, in the Age of Entitlement, the Age of Entertainment.

CONFIDENCE VS TRUSTWORTHINESS

We’ve mistaken confidence for trustworthiness. When a leader is certain of his or her choices, even if there are no facts to back them up, people follow. Stiff-necked certainty is valued more than intellectual integrity. We have a culture in which leaders hardly apologize for anything. Similar to the ancient belief that sovereigns cannot change their minds lest they lose their status as demi-gods. Like Passover’s Pharaoh whose dogged posture brought plagues on his people and cost him his son, his wealth, and his army. Like Purim’s Ahasuerus who decreed the murder of all Jews on a particular date, and whose pigheadedness prevented him from annulling the decree. Rather, he issued a second decree empowering the Jews to preemptively strike at their neighbors. The deified dictator has blood on his hands, and there’s not enough water to clean them.

Our Torah, that shining vision that emerged out of the Iron Age, was concerned with the trustworthiness of Israel’s leaders. Torah outlines the parameters of kingship. In Deuteronomy 17 it is written:

              

“[The king you set over you] may not acquire many horses for himself…and he shall not take many wives for himself lest his heart go astray…and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself. And when he sits upon his royal throne…this Torah…shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear and respect the Lord his God…so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers and so that he will not turn away from the commandments.”

Torah was trying to safeguard the people from an untrustworthy leader, one whose heart was distracted by women and horses and money, one who cared more for his own wealth and glorification than the wellbeing of the people. A leader must not be so high and mighty, that he, or she, is above all others, nor above the Law. The leader must hold this Torah to heart, maintaining respect for an absolute morality, for the highest Truth, for a living God.

Truth matters. And God is alive.

LYIN’ EYES

Lies don’t go over so well in the Torah. Abraham wasn’t exactly transparent when Isaac said, “Where’s the lamb for the offering, Dad?” Abraham answered vaguely, “God will see to it, my son.”

Jacob dressing up as his brother Esau to trick their blind father leads to animosity and bloodshed throughout the ages. Later in life, Jacob’s own sons lie to him, when they say his son Joseph was torn to death by wild beasts, when in fact they had sold him to the Ishmaelites.

However the rabbis say there are times when the plain truth can be overly injurious. 

In the Torah, Sarah is 90 years old when she learns that she is to have a child. She laughs, and says, “Am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” It’s a funny reaction, actually. She seems less perplexed at the idea that at her age she may in fact carry a child than she is at the question of her husband’s performance. God reports this to Abraham, but changes some of the details. God says, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” That is not what Sarah said. She did not say, “Old as I am.” She said, “Can my husband really give me enjoyment?” Big difference God…How could God get it wrong?

The rabbis say that this is an example of the priority of Shalom Bayit, keeping peace in the home. Every now and then, a small fib in order to preserve the peace of the home is good. In fact, Talmud gives examples of when it is preferable to lie. What does one sing before a bride? Even if she is lame and blind, one is to say how graceful and beautiful she is.2 Talmud says that if you are late to synagogue because of sexual relations with your wife, and people ask you why you were delayed, you should ascribe your tardiness to something else.3  A lot of you are late to synagogue. Some are apparently so engaged you don’t show up at all. Makes me wonder.

I would argue that shalom bayit, peace in the home, is not about fibbing. It’s not necessarily about dishonesty. It’s about delivering honesty on a cushion of tenderness. You might think the bride is unattractive, but her partner doesn’t, and when we learn to perceive through loving eyes, we are elevated.

Paul Simon as a song called Tenderness with the lyric: “You say you care for me, but there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty. You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.” And yes, Otis Redding, I know you have a song too, and I agree that we should try some.

Honesty plus tenderness equals trust.

Maybe we are inherently untruthful. We all learn to lie at a very young age. Cross-culturally every human being tells the very same first lie when some nosey nudnik interrupts our playtime and asks, “Did you make something in your diaper?” and we take a moment to calculate the risks and rewards, our discomfort against our self-determination, and answer, “No.”

The Chassidic rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk was born in 1717. As he grew, he became more and more confident that he would merit eternal life. He said, “When I arrive at the gates of Eden, they will ask me: Did you learn enough Torah? I will say: No. Then they will ask: Did you pray with enough fervor? I will say: No. And then they will ask: Did you fulfill the other commandments as you should have? I will say: No. Finally they will ask: What of your good deeds? I will say: I had none. And then they will say: What an honest man! Come in!4

Even in paradise, an honest person is a rare find. But honesty isn’t a backdoor to forgiveness. Just because one decides to tell the truth after committing innumerable secret sins, doesn’t mean the gates of atonement just burst open. It doesn’t mean you have become a trustworthy person because after years of denial you now say, “I made a mistake,” although it’s a start.

THE EMOTIONAL BANK ACCOUNT

Marriage and Family Therapist Sheri Meyers writes that trust is the belief that “I am safe. You are safe. The world of us is safe.”

To rebuild trust, she writes that one has to be “dependable, consistent, responsive and comforting.” She suggests when the relationship feels like it’s stuck and struggling, remember to stop and ask yourself the following question: “How would love respond?” 

Rebuilding trust requires a lot of understanding, humbleness, and stamina. Alan Morinis writes, “A heart cannot hold both fear and trust at the same time. When we cultivate trust, we inevitably loosen the grip fear holds onto our heart. Cultivating trust, love becomes possible.”

Steve Covey introduced the idea of the Emotional Bank Account. He taught that we create a personal “emotional” bank account with everyone with whom we have a relationship. This account begins on a neutral balance. Over time, we make deposits and withdrawals. But instead of units of monetary value, we deal with emotional units. These emotional units are centered on trust. When we make emotional deposits into someone’s bank account, their trust in us grows. And as a result, our relationship grows. If we can keep a positive reserve in our relationships, by making regular deposits, there will be greater tolerance for our mistakes and we’ll enjoy open communication with that person. On the contrary, when we make withdrawals and our balance becomes low or even overdrawn, mistrust develops. When we break our promises to others, we make major withdrawals from their Emotional Bank Accounts. Also, not arriving on time, not following through, not attending to the little things, or living up to the words we speak. We make mistakes. That’s part of life and learning. When appropriate, sincere apology keeps Emotional Accounts in the positive, allowing you to maintain the balance.

It is hard to trust once your trust has been broken and the Emotional Bank Account is raided and empty.

NASATA V’NATATA

In the Talmud, Rava, who lived around the year 300, said: At the hour you enter heaven for judgment, they will ask you, “Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly with people in your business?”5

The first thing? Really? Not about your piety, your charity, your relationships, your scholarship? But about your trustworthiness in the marketplace?

There are systems in this world, many, where dealing honestly with one another is not a high priority. Where girls are offered jobs overseas and then are lost in the sex trade. Where bribes corrupt organizations and obstruct every avenue toward justice. Where everyone and everything is for sale, and no one is safe.

We are a network, a symbiotic relational push-and-pull give-and-take system. We are all on the same boat, and if I drill a hole under my seat it affects you. We are connected. Everything depends on trust.

Every time the light turns yellow and we step off the curb, we trust that cars are going to slow to a stop. Every time we make a deposit in a bank, we trust that our money is safe. Every time we enter our credit card number, our social security number, we trust it will be used correctly. Every time we get a root canal, we trust the professional holding the drill. Every time we drop our kids off at school we trust that they are in caring hands. Every time the mechanic tells you what is wrong with your car, every time the contractor says “we’ve encountered a problem,” every time you hire a dog sitter, every time you click here, every time you step out of your home, every time you knock on a door and say trick or treat, every time you turn the corner to capture a rare Pokémon, every time you accept a drink at a party, every time you receive a diagnosis you are trusting others to be honest and tender and not take advantage of you. Everything depends on trust, however, collectively we have an increasing sense of betrayal. A fear that it’s all rigged anyway.

There is great mistrust between people and the politicians who are supposed to represent them. Great mistrust between communities and the police who are supposed to protect them.

We are suspicious that we are being “gaslit” manipulated into questioning our sanity. Politicians regularly saying, “I never said that,” even though we’ve heard the tapes. Police saying, “it didn’t happen that way,” even though we’ve watched the videos. The repetitive denials even of that which has been captured on film or tape are designed to chip away our trust in ourselves, and like Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight, we worry that our accurate observations are actually wrong. And we might be insane. We are encouraged to dismiss scientific data. We no longer trust our FBI, our attorney general. We fear everything is rigged.

We are weary of trusting. Every time the light turns yellow, we assume that cars are going to speed up to try to beat the red light. We are suspicious of banks, learning of unauthorized accounts in our names. We are weary from every time we were told by doctors and dentists, “This won’t hurt at all,” and it hurts. We are suspicious when we go in for an oil change and the mechanic says we need a new radiator. We have been betrayed by companies that have labeled their food kosher or organic when they are not. By merchants who sell diamonds that are fake. By being overcharged and scammed.

TRUSTWORTHINESS

We crave leaders who are trustworthy. Leaders who will work to restore and rebuild trust, who are “dependable, consistent, responsive and comforting.” Who are understanding and wise. Who have pure “hearts of service.”

Trustworthiness means I believe the world of “us” is safe. I believe you won’t hurt me. That you won’t abandon me. That if you send my child to war, it is for a noble reason and you will protect them. That there is as much transparency as public safety will allow. That you know where we are going and I won’t be left behind. That you recognize my inherent worth, even when I’m disabled. That you recognize my inherent beauty, even when I’m deformed. That you treat me with dignity no matter my income, race, gender, sexuality, or citizenship. That I merit your care. That you will discern without bias.

We’ve mistaken confidence for trustworthiness, when confidence is just one’s own measure of one’s perceived grandness, while trustworthiness is the universal measure of a good person.

Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly with people in business?” That’s what our tradition says is the first question we are asked in paradise. What if that was the only question that was explored in the debates? Have you dealt honestly? Are you trustworthy? What Torah, what Law, do you hold against your heart that reminds you every day of an absolute morality, a highest truth? That is more precious to you than the accumulation of lovers, horses and money?

IN GOD WE TRUST

On our dollar bill it reads: “In God we trust.” The touchpoint of our entire network of exchange reminds us that we are bound to a trusteeship with God, that our life is our true asset, our breath is our capital, our soul is our fortune.

God leases everything to us. The Torah is the Deed, which we seal with our good deeds, and our good deeds inspire other good deeds, and accumulate interest. For some God-knows-why reason, God sees trustworthiness in us, and God appoints us the trustees. And we are renewing that trusteeship right now in the Book of Life.

In the book of Jeremiah it is written: “Blessed is the person who trusts in God for he shall be like a tree planted by waters…it shall not be anxious in the year of drought, it does not cease to yield fruit.”6

In Judaism trust (bitachon) and faith (emunah) are related. Maimonides says that one first needs faith in order to trust. Faith that there’s something more than this, that somehow I am part of something bigger than me, faith that though the reason is hidden, it exists. Faith that although I don’t have control over everything, there’s a purpose.

On the dollar bill there are also scales, stamped over the number. During the gold rush, assayers would put the nuggets brought to them by prospectors on one pan, and weights on the other.

EQUAL WEIGHTS AND MEASURES

The Torah is very insistent about our use of equal weights and measures.7

It is the basis of a stable and just economy. On Wall Street and on Main Street and on your street.

Lady Justice is blindfolded as she holds the scales. She is not biased when weighing innocence and guilt. Ron Wolfson wrote, “The underlying notion of helping others is the call for justice in the world to right the scales, to bring up those brought low and be compassionate toward others.”

Can you be trusted to use honest weights and measures when judging others? How about when judging yourself? Some people are easy on themselves, taking their own good intentions into consideration, while they are hard on others. Some are easy on others, and much harsher on themselves.

BEING TRUSTING VS BEING TRUSTWORTHY

Too much trust can be dangerous. We would be foolish to trust everyone. But trustworthiness is not dangerous. To be on time, respect boundaries, act with sincerity, deliver honesty with tenderness, create safe environments, keep confidentiality, these are what make you trustworthy, sought after, admired and adored.

Success depends on how much you’ve cultivated other people’s trust in you.

A person should not trust everyone. Hopefully you have a community of people you do trust, friends, handypeople, medical people, teachers, dog-walkers, advisors, clergy. And as you expand the circle of people you trust, I encourage you to look outside your demographic. If you are in a new job, look to a retiree for advice and mentorship, one who you don’t see as a threat, but who has a wealth of wisdom and success to relay. And if you are of an age where you find yourself saying, “Kids these days!” and “We are doomed!” look to a millennial who can tour you through the changes and show you it’s not as scary as it seems.

You should not trust everyone. But everyone should find you trustworthy. The goal isn’t to trust everyone because not everyone is worthy of your trust. The goal is to be trustworthy, that your legacy be good and proud and just.

If everyone finds you trusting, you are vulnerable to being played for a fool.

If everyone finds you trustworthy, you are beloved and a precious jewel.

If everyone finds you trusting, there will be bottles that say “drink me” and cakes that say “eat me” and ads that say “buy me” aplenty with little good to show for it. If everyone finds you trustworthy, there will be people who always want to be with you, who will seek your guidance and wisdom, who will entrust you with their dreams and stories, and you will have an abundance to show for it.

At the hour you enter heaven for judgment, they will ask you, “Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly with people in business?” Rava did not say trust everyone. He didn’t promise that everyone else will have honest weights and measures. He said you need to be trusted. You have to have honest weights and measures.

We look at ourselves in the mirror. Do we say, “It’s all a lie,” weighing ourselves against the false measures presented by our glossy, materialistic world, shallow and fragile as the mirror itself? (She likes her curls now, by the way.) Or do we take the time to bolster our trustworthiness, exercise compassion in that heart, excise judgement from that mind.

Ask yourself, can you be trusted? Some of us can be trusted to be total blockheads every time we speak. Some of us can be trusted to take a wrong turn at every fork. Some of us can be trusted to ruin every opportunity. That’s not the trustworthiness I mean. Rather, can you be trusted to keep those who depend on you safe? Can you be trusted to do no physical harm, and to do as little emotional harm as is possible?

Ask yourself, can you trust yourself to make decisions that are healthy for you? Can you trust yourself to keep yourself safe, to do yourself no harm? To not beat yourself up for every self-perceived short-falling, to resist constantly comparing yourself to others, to be good to yourself and grateful for who you are and where you are? And if you are disappointed in yourself, and the path to lifting yourself up seems too slippery and steep, can you consider “How would love respond?and try a little tenderness?

In this new year, may our leaders merit our trust through their words and their actions. May trustworthiness become a value that once again matters, a lot. May trustworthiness be our measure, more than confidence, charisma and quotability. May we invest the time in building our own trustworthiness, for a trustworthy person is a treasure to all. May the real time fact-checking Truth-O-Meter soon register 100 percent.

On this Day of Judgment, the angels are the assayers, and they weigh that which is precious in us, and they measure the reach of our deeds. Our property is our good name and it determines the acreage of our influence. Every time we default on a promise, we break a trust. But we have the chance to regain it, starting now. Today is all about taking an accounting of our deeds. This is your moment to open a new emotional savings account.

“Blessed is the person who trusts in God,” spoke the prophet Jeremiah. And blessed is the person in whom all can trust. May fear loosen its grip on our hearts, and love become possible again. Amen.


Rabbi Zoë Klein is the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

This is water: On making meaning, making choices and making a difference


Good yontif!

So there are two young fish swimming in the ocean. Just doing their thing, tooling along, when they happen to meet an older fish going the other way. He nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How's the water?”

After exchanging pleasantries, the two young fish swim on for a bit and then one looks over at the other and says, “What the hell is water?”

The point of the story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities right in front of our faces and all around us are sometimes the ones that are hardest to see and discuss.

Why a fish story on this day of fasting?

Well, the point of these Days of Awe is to help us see the most important realities, the things that should matter most to us, the things that should be most important in our lives. And then, our tradition wants us to make a choice. Our tradition wants us to decide – to choose, this day – to live our lives in a way that is consistent with these values, these most important realities, these things that, like water to a fish, literally make our lives possible.

I want to begin with a few personal stories about what, for me, are the deepest realities, the “water” of my existence.

Story number one: Omaha, Nebraska

I’m nine years old. It’s Sunday afternoon. And I’m excited. You see, every Sunday my father makes rounds at the hospital, bringing one of his kids along to help. And this week is my turn. I love being in the car with him – the yellow Chevrolet Camaro with bucket seats, Neal Diamond on the 8-track.

We talk. Sometimes he tells me stories of his childhood.

It’s amazing to watch him with the patients. He is gentle. He listens carefully. He reassures them. I love that he introduces me as his assistant, the “Young Dr. Zweiback.”

And then we drive to my Grandpa Joe’s house. It’s where we eat dinner every Sunday night. Usually steaks grilled over hot coals and hickory chips, even when there’s snow on the ground. Grandpa Joe puts out his delicious gehochte liver. I spread it on a trisket – it’s heaven.

Gathered around his dining room table – never in front of the television – we tell stories, we tell jokes, we argue. We laugh. And sometimes we cry – we’re a rather emotional bunch.

The people who matter most to me in the world – my mother, my father, my sister, Rosie, my brother, Adam, my grandfather, my aunt and uncle, cousins – they are all there. Every week, they are present.

(And, better yet, since it’s 1978, and there are no cell-phones to distract us. We are, in fact, fully present.)

I am swimming in the “water” of family.

Story number two: Shwayder Camp, 10,200 feet above sea level, half-way up the Mt. Evans road, approximately 60 miles from Denver, Colorado

I’m sixteen years old, my current height, 40 pounds lighter. A strong gust of Rocky Mountain air practically knocks me over. I have a mullet but before you judge me, remember, it’s 1986 and, I gotta be honest, I’m rocking that mullet.

I’m a Junior Counselor and I’m having the summer of my life — discovering who I am and what makes me truly happy. I feel completely at home in this place, living on Jewish time. Beginning and ending meals with a blessing. Making prayer – spirituality – a regular part of my daily life. A cabin-full of 8 and 9 year old boys who look up to me, and who, sometimes, even listen to me. It’s a place where our love for one another, for the Jewish community, for Torah, for nature, for God, is alive and real.

“The way I feel in this place,” I think to myself, “is how I want to feel for the rest of my life.”

I am swimming in the “water” of community and spirituality and nature.

Last story: South Hill, Virginia, two weeks ago.

I’m with two of my daughters, participating in America’s Journey for Justice with the NAACP, a thousand-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington D.C. for a fair criminal justice system, unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis has joined with the NAACP on the journey and rabbinic colleagues from all over the country are taking turns carrying a Torah scroll every step of the way.

I walk for a bit near the front with a man named Middle Passage. He’s 68 years old from Colorado, a Navy veteran who fought in Korea and Viet Nam. He’s marched every day of the journey, always at the front – dread-locks, dark shades, cowboy hat – and always proudly carrying an American flag.

At one point, I’m marching slightly out of formation and Middle Passage looks and me and says, sternly yet kindly, “two-by-two, young man, two-by two!”

His sense of duty, compassion, and concern for the well-being of all of the participants on the journey, even as he advocates for the larger goals of the march, is uplifting.

On, September 12th, right before Rosh Hashana, at mile 921, Middle Passage collapsed and died.

His death touches me deeply. I didn’t know him well but our short time walking together, participating as partners in a common cause, connects our lives. The choice he made – his commitment – inspires me.

I am swimming in the “water” of justice and empathy for the pain and the struggle of others.

When we reflect on the core stories of our lives, the stories that give our lives meaning, we sense the water; we come to understand more deeply the most important realities, the ultimate values that should be guiding our lives.

And this is what we’re supposed to be doing, by the way, especially on these Days of Awe. It’s our task to perform what our tradition calls cheshbon ha’nefesh, an accounting of our souls. We are to look deep inside of ourselves, and ask: are we living our lives in a manner that is consistent with what matters most to us?

We all know that family and friends are the most important things in our lives, but how often do we fail to be present, truly present, for those we love the most?

We all know that without community, we would be lost but how often do we fail to make the needs of our community a priority in our daily lives? How often do we show up for community even when it’s not convenient, even when we’re tired, even we don’t feel like it?

We all know that nature uplifts and inspires us, connects us with our Creator and sustains us, literally making our lives possible, but how often do we find ourselves in nature, appreciating the miracle of this world? And how often do we make a real effort to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil that nourishes us?

We all know, and our Jewish tradition is clear on this, that most of the blessings we enjoy come to us not because we are deserving, but because we are lucky. Not because we are clever, but because we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. But how often do we commit ourselves to sharing those blessings with those who will come after us?

We all know there are causes for which we must march, principles for which we must fight, but how often do we make the time to stand up for what we believe, even when it’s inconvenient or downright hard?

These days are meant to help us see the reality more clearly. They are a mirror that we hold up to our very lives. The sound of the shofar, the prayers we recite, they call us to introspection.

And more broadly, beyond this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, this Temple helps us see the water. What Stephen Wise stands for, what it teaches, what it celebrates and what it memorializes, these things awaken us to the most important realities.

It’s what a Temple is supposed to do. According to our tradition, every synagogue must have a window. A Temple is not meant to be a cocoon, a sanctuary from reality. A Temple is supposed to help us see reality more clearly, see the water more clearly and then inspire us to act out those values and change the world.

Once we see the water, we must make a choice – a choice about what we will worship. The novelist, David Foster Wallace, the author of the fish story with which I began, frames it this way:

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping.

Everybody worships.

The only choice we get is what to worship.

And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough.

Never feel you have enough.

It's the truth.

Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you…

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.

Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious.

They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.”

Wallace is right. We get to decide – we , in fact, must decide – what we will place above all else. What will be the ultimate reality of our lives, the “water” in which we will swim?

And how will the choice we make shape our behavior? How will it be reflected in the way we spend our time and our money?

Friends, what will we worship in this New Year of 5776?

Will it be family? Community? Wisdom? Will it be goodness? Service? Kindness? Love? Will it be God?

Our tradition knows it’s a choice. This is why every Yom Kippur we read from Parashat Nitzavim: We stand together this day before God, all of us – men, women, children, strangers in our midst. And in this moment of standing together – it’s what the word Nitzavim means after all, standing – we have to choose what we stand for.

God tells us: “I call heaven and earth to witness this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse! Therefore choose life, וּבָחַרְתָּ  בַּחַיִּים -that both you and your seed may live…”

One commentator, Rabbi Eliezer Davidovits, asks what sounds like an obvious question: So, nu, who would choose death? What kind of choice is this? Life or death? I choose life! Who wouldn’t?

Here’s the insight: it’s not a choice between life and death. It’s a choice about how we will live our lives.

It’s a choice about what we will see, what we will notice, what we will pay attention to, how we will devote our time, our resources. This is the choice we make. We get to choose what we will worship.

We all want to live – every creature does. Our task, our primary challenge, is to have the courage, the strength, the energy and the commitment to choose to live our lives well.

I am grateful, truly grateful, to have this glorious tradition of ours that helps me to choose. And I’m thankful for Yom Kippur and its liturgy, the time we spend here together in contemplation. It helps me to choose.

And, I’m grateful for you, dear friends, because you help me see the water, you help me choose.

The values you cherish, the devotion and dedication you display, inspire me.

Everyday in small ways and in great, big illuminating ways, you inspire me.

When you pick up each other’s children after school and care for them as if they were your own. Or when you drop off meals during an illness or show up for a shiva minyan. When you come early to set-up or stay late to clean-up or volunteer countless hours planting a garden or planning a program.

And, little ones, precious children, you inspire me, too. When you dream big and try to make a difference by building a lemonade stand to fight cancer or by writing a book and raising a million dollars to find a cure for your best friend’s liver disorder.

When you smile at the new family, making a special effort to help them feel welcome, inviting them into your home for Shabbat dinner.

When you hold each other’s hands in a hospital room or hug one another tightly when the unthinkable happens.

I witness it every single day…

Friends, if we can just see the water and make good choices in this New Year, we’ll be blessed with lives of meaning and purpose and we’ll make the world a better place.

And not just for us but for all people, as our Torah reading for Yom Kippur has it, “from woodchopper to water drawer,” for all Israel and for the strangers in our midst, even for refugees from the nations of our enemies.

Our choices will shape our behavior and we’ll live up to the highest calling of our tradition: L’takein olam b’malchut Shadai! To heal the world in partnership with God.

I’m deeply honored and incredibly excited to be on this journey with you as your new Senior Rabbi. This is an amazing place and I’m lucky – so lucky – to be able to help write the next chapter in the history of Stephen Wise Temple, following in the footsteps of my supportive and generous predecessors, Rabbis Zeldin and Herscher, surrounded by incredible colleagues, gifted Clergy, educators, and staff.

I am blessed, truly blessed to be swimming in these waters of meaning and purpose with you.

One final story: Yom Kippur, the Jewish year of 5791, fifteen years from now. Right here, Stephen Wise Temple

We all look pretty much the same except maybe even – it’s not fair to contemplate – maybe even a bit more handsome, just a bit prettier (stronger and healthier, too!).

But it won’t just be us – there will be others here, too. This place is a big tent. Those who built it, opened the flaps for us, and so we shall do for others.

In 5791, we’ll know each other even better, we’ll be closer because of the time we’ve spent with one another, the meals we’ve shared, the journeys we’ve taken, and the mitzvahs we’ve done together.

Some of the kids chanting Torah in 5791, haven’t even been born yet but they’ll grow up right here in our Temple, in our Schools, and we’ll say, perhaps with a few tears in our eyes, “Those are our kids! Look at the menschen they are becoming!”

It will be another story about the water of our lives, about the ultimate realities that matter most to us. It’ll be a story about what we choose to worship and how that choice inspires us to make our lives better, our community stronger, and our world more whole.

And so, then as now, we will choose life – וּבָחַרְתָּ  בַּחַיִּים – so that we, and our children after us, and their children after them, will find meaning and goodness, kindness and purpose.

May this always be the story of our lives.

Conversation with the angel of death [1991]


The letter from Lillian came between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“I am writing to you as both my friend and my rabbi, driven by the deep sadness and sense of disconnectedness that has gripped me since this morning's Rosh Hashanah service.

Until this morning. I know the central liturgy of the holiday well, but before this year I had approached it in an abstract, intellectual manner. This year, I could not do so. Several months ago I had surgery for cancer, and I felt very keenly as I approached these days that in a real sense my fate for the coming year has been written, if not in a book of judgment, then in my own body. I look forward to health, but I may not be granted it. As I read, the questions of the service were familiar: “How many shall pass away and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die?” But the response — “repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severe decree” — for the first time carried a terrifying implication. It seemed to me as I read this that my own liturgy was binding my fate to my behavior, that my illness, seen in this light, has been the result of some terrible unknown transgression, and that the ultimate punishment for failure to discover and correct it could be my death.

I do not believe this — not with my head nor my heart. Nevertheless, as a committed Jew who takes language very seriously and believes in community prayer, I would be forced to repeat this central cornerstone over and over should I attend services for Yom Kippur. It seems today that my choice is a terrible one: to flagellate myself emotionally by joining my congregation or to spare my feelings by isolating myself from my family, my friends, my community. It is a choice I never believed I would have to make.

I know there must be others in our congregation who sit suffering silently, as I did today, who wish to join Jews around the world at this time but find the price too high to pay. I do not write expecting an easy answer; holocaust literature has taught me there may be no answer at all. I write instead because I must, because to muffle my sadness and my anger will destroy something in the commitment I have worked so hard to build. I write from pain, hoping that from the expression of my dilemma will grow some insight, some way to cope.”

There are times when religion is a matter of life and death. When it is not about getting the right seat in the sanctuary at High Holy days, or the convenient scheduling of the Bar Mitzvah or the catered wedding. There are times when religion, God, faith, prayer are truly taken to heart. Conversations around the hospital bed cut through the intellectual subtleties of theology into hard core of being, the amenities of wishing each other “a good writing and sealing” for the New Year. Facing sickness and death, our own or our family's or our friends, the foundations of our being are shaken. We pray differently then and we think differently then. We pray and listen hard. Lillian's letter would not let me go.

SANDRA IN THE HOSPITAL

Around the same time I received the letter, I was informed that another congregant, Sandra, was seriously ill. At our first conversation, Sandra began softly,

“Please, Rabbi, don't lie to me. I have a fatal form of leukemia, and I know that I am dying. The doctors have been frank with me. I have two small children who go to your school. I love them and they love me. I have wonderful parents and a marvelously supportive husband. But I cannot make sense of it all. I don't ask 'why me?', but 'what for?' Life for me has been drained of all meaning. What have I these remaining weeks or months to live for. My children have given me so much meaning. I looked forward to being their mother. But I know now that I will not be able to raise them. My future has been cut off.”

She told me that when she was in the hospital before Rosh Hashanah, a Rabbi had visited her and blown the shofar for her in the grim hospital room. She was grateful. He inquired as to the nature of her illness and then asked whether it was her practice to light Sabbath candles. She said she did and he answered, “Well then, you have nothing to worry about.” He meant it as an assurance. But she thought, “What would he have said if she had answered no, or if he had asked her if she kept kosher?” At any rate, Sandra turned away from him, buried her head in the pillow and sobbed.

I thought of Lillian's letter and Sandra's resentment. But Sandra was too agitated and too ill for theological discussion. She was inconsolable and I wanted to make her better, to cheer her spirits. A book was brought to my attention, a best-seller by Dr. Bernie Siegel, a surgeon. The book is entitled Love, Medicine, and Miracles, and its subtitle read “Lessons Learned About Self-healing From A Surgeon's Experience With Exceptional Patients.”

In my eyes Sandra was an exceptional patient. The book was filled with statistics, evidence, anecdotal accounts of patients successfully coping with death-threatening cancers, and cases of multiple sclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, AIDS. Here were terminally ill patients who beat the odds. Resilient, adaptable, confident, with an unquenchable will to live, they defied the gloomy prognostications of their doctors, stuck their tongues out at their lugubrious predictions and refused to curl up and die.

These were the exceptional patients who refused to go gentle onto the operating table, whom — according to Siegel — doctors don't like because they are inquisitive, demanding, aggressive, “bad” patients. These are the patients who don't venerate the physicians or surgeons as M. D.'s — an acronym, cynics say, for Medical Deities, and who if they are not satisfied, change doctors.

Before reading the book, Sandra told me of the doctors' terrible prognosis. I told her that doctors are not prophets and that according to the Sages, “Prophesy in our times has fallen into the hands of children and fools.” “Sandra,” I said, “remember doctors are not Gods.” Sandra liked that, told it to her doctor who responded, “Well, neither are Rabbis.”

Now I had a book written by a surgeon of oncology to shore up her spirits. The book I gave Sandra started out with a bold statement from Norman Cousins' Anatomy of an Illness, “Patients divided themselves into two groups. Those who were confident they would beat back the disease and be able to resume normal lives and those who resigned themselves to a prolonged and even fatal illness.”

Those who had an optimistic view had a higher percentage of “discharged as cured” than the others in the tuberculosis sanitarium where Cousins was sent. There appears to be a “physiology of optimism.” There are peptide molecules in the body releasing “wonder drugs within”: endorphins, interleukims, interferons.

I've liked Norman Cousins ever since I heard about his advocacy and practice of watching Marx Brothers films as a form of therapy. My own cardiologist, I decided, has no sense of humor. Siegel throughout maintains that “instead of turning fighters into victims, we should be turning victims into fighters.” The book is sprinkled with success stories of exceptional patients whose attitude and will gave them hope and extended their lives. I meant the Siegel book to help her. But it boomeranged on her. The book angered, then saddened her. I re-read the book this time through Sandra's eyes.

THE VICTIM'S GUILT

For Sandra, the success of the exceptional patients was her failure, their victories her defeats, their cures her misery. “What's wrong with me. I have tried, God knows I have tried. I have gritted my teeth. Taken the chemotherapy, the medicines. I have given love and been loved in turn. Why can't I will myself into wellness like those others?”

Psychological literature speaks of “survivors' guilt”, those tortured by their good fortune to survive while others fall. Soldiers who have seen their buddies wounded and killed while they leave the battlefield unscathed; survivors of concentration camps who witnessed the suffering and murder of their fellow inmates while they are spared. Sandra was suffering from “victim's guilt”, the guilt of the failed, the ordinary, unlucky, condemned. She couldn't forgive herself for her unexceptionality.

I read it again and then read Siegel's new book, Peace, Love, and Healing, a clone of the first book, to better understand Sandra's reaction. There Siegel quotes with favor a novelist who writes that “Illness doesn't strike randomly like a thief in the night. Certain kinds of people at certain points in their lives will come down with certain ailments. You can almost predict it.”

He cites Ray Berti, a college professor at Massachusetts battling throat, bone marrow and other types of cancer for fourteen years, who finally sees the light. “The critical thing for me was when I said to myself, 'Ray, somehow or other you're causing it. I am the cause.'” Paradoxically, the book which intended to offer her morale, to rid the patient of passive dependency, delivered a double whammy. First, she felt responsible for her lack of attitude that made her susceptible to the disease, and now she felt responsible for not snapping out of it.

I understand Siegel's argument that patients become too acquiescent, passive, and dependent; that patients frequently abandon their responsibility. The reversal of that dependence was popularized two decades ago among psychological cults. As one of the celebrated psychologists put it, “I am me. Therefore everything that comes out of me is authentically mine because I alone chose it. I own everything about me. My body, my mind, my eyes. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my fears, my triumphs, my failures, my mistakes. I own me and therefore I can engineer me. I am me and I am okay.”

If you are indeed all that, you have no one to blame but yourself, you are the cause. I have a rabbinic friend who a few years ago found himself immobilized, his bodily movements painfully restricted. The paralysis was shown not to be organic. He consulted all kinds of doctors and psychologists and was recommended to a psychologist whose specialty is hypnosis. After going there, he told the doctor, “I'm not being helped.” “You will be helped,” said the psychologist, “when you're ready.” So the failure to recover was a failure of will. Not can't but won't blocks your cure.

Paul Cowan, the author, in his last article for the Village Voice (May 17, 1988) before his own death from leukemia, commented on the need to confront the awesome, mysterious power of his disease. “Otherwise, if the leukemia cells re-enter my bone marrow, I run the risk myself for relapsing and if I continue to weaken, of raging at my psyche instead of fighting back.” The dark side of faith in will is self blame.

THE DOUBLE EDGED SWORD OF WILL

This is part of the new tyranny of the will. We live in a climate of desperate voluntarism. We are raised to believe in the omnipotence of the will. We have been read to in our childhood and pass its theology onto our children. The little engine chugging its way up the mountain with the endless refrain: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” until triumph flashes, “I knew I could.”

We live in a popular culture of will and wish. Peter Pan reaches out to the audience to have it pray with the hands to revive Tinker Bell. And we do it. Faith will revive. Faith will resurrect. Faith will redeem. Faith will cure…if you only believe yourself into recovery. Will is the secular form of faith. Will can move mountains and remove illness. Things just don't happen. We choose them. We make ourselves sick and well.

So Siegel declares, “Psychologists long ago discovered that emotions can be modified merely by adopting the facial expression of a contrary emotion.” Indeed Dr. Paul Ekman of U.C. at San Francisco distinguishes 18 anatomically different types of smiles. It calls to mind Dr. Smiley Blanton, a popular psychologist, who would convince his audiences that with their cooperation, he could convert their sadness to happiness. He would instruct his audience to smile and when they parted their lips and showed their teeth, challenged them to be simultaneously sad. “When you smile,” he concluded, “you control your emotions.” Smiling has made you happy. Photographers have developed this philosophy into a photogenic technique. “Look happy Rabbi,” they instruct me, asking me to stop eating and stand behind the other seated guests. I don't look happy because at the moment I'm not happy, and smiling is not the appropriate expression now. “Say cheese,” the photographer advises. I obey and later, after the film has been developed he boasts that he had captured my happiness. Others, seeing the picture, comment on my joy. In truth, however, the photographer had not immortalized happiness, he had only captured “cheese.”

The triumphalism of the will ignores what wisdom understands: the limitations of will. I can will my smile–I cannot will my happiness. I can will my eating, I cannot will my hunger. I can will going to sleep, I cannot will my dreams. I can will knowledge, I cannot will wisdom. I can will my self-assertion, I cannot will my courage. I can will shaving, combing, dressing up–I cannot will my joy. I can will purchasing flowers, perfume, candies–I cannot will love. I can will fasting, the recitation of the litany of transgression–I cannot will remorse. I can will opening the prayer book and Bible–I cannot will belief. “A wink is not a blink.” One I will, one I do not. I can will many things, but I cannot will my will.

During my own past illness, I recall feeling frightened and sad and later at night turning to a channel which fortuitously, was showing “A Night At The Opera,” a Marx Brothers classic, Norman Cousins' counsel did not work with me. I did not laugh. The Marx brothers were not funny, nothing was funny. I could not will feeling funny. Should I have felt failure because of my inability to laugh? How have I no sense of humor now that I need it?

A JEWISH VIEW OF WILL

Judaism celebrates freedom of will. It has from the time of the Bible on struggled against pre-destination theologies, against fate. But there is a deeper wisdom in Judaism — a Reality Principle — that knows the limitations of will. Judaism present s more balanced portrayal of the human condition.

“By dint of force are you born. By dint of force you die.” And that helps me interpret differently the “who shall live, who shall die?” prayer that troubles Lillian.

“How many shall pass away and how many shall be born; who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by earthquake and who by plague?” I do not know. For these matters are not matters of will–neither my will, your will, or God's will. For me the litany refers to natural events, births, deaths, accidents, sicknesses over which I have no control. They are not God's punishments or rewards. What then are they? If they are not the “acts of God” are they the acts of the Devil?

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 54b) is helpful here. It refers to “the ways in which Nature pursues its course.” The Talmud uses this expression in arguing against a simplistic explanation of patently immoral events. The sages ask, “Suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and then sowed it in the ground. Clearly it would be right for that wheat not to grow. That would be the 'din', the judgment were this a case brought to the rabbinic courts. But 'the world pursues its own natural course and as for the fools who act wrongly (i.e. for those who stole the wheat) they will have to render an account.'” They offer another illustration: Suppose a man has intercourse with his neighbor's wife. It would be morally right that she should not conceive but we must acknowledge that “the world pursues its natural course and as far as the transgressors who act wrongly are concerned, they will have to render an account.”

I understand the sages to be cautioning us not to confuse biology with morality; not to confuse the procreative process with the process of the law; not to confuse physical laws of nature with moral laws. Every event has a cause but not every cause is morally determined. Every event has a reason for occurring but not every event has a purpose in occurring. The cancer I have is not God's curse for my sin. The heart attack is not God's punishing rod to whip me into repentance. Not all events are judgments.

There are consequences to my taking a contaminated needle for the sake of transfusion. My contraction of AIDS is a consequence but a consequence is not a punishment, and a reason explaining why a sickness occurs is not a moral judgment. The infant born addicted may be a consequence of the substance abuse of its parent, but consequence is not purpose or judgment or justification for the addiction. Such distinctions must be drawn if we are not to condemn ourselves to lives of masochistic dread and guilt or to turn God into an indiscriminate punisher.

Nature is not God. And to treat nature as if it were God would convert every fact into a moral judgment. An earthquake into God's smoldering anger against sinners, rainfall into a reward. That outlook breathes a spirit animism that sees ghosts in rocks and waters, in lesions in the skin and leprous rashes. That theology turns sado-masochistic. Unintentionally, it turns God into a mysterious sadistic God and man into a masochist with a taste for suffering.

Those who seek desperately for justification of evil and suffering frequently turn to the “Helen Keller defense” popularized in a poem. “At birth deny a child vision, hearing and the ability to speak and you have a Helen Keller. Raise him in abject poverty and you have an Abraham Lincoln. Stab him with rheumatic pain until opiates are needed and you have a Steinmetz.”

The truth in the argument is that there are people who can make virtue out of necessity, who can transcend suffering and use it to spur them on to greatness. The falsehood in the argument is in pointing to heroism and courage as justification for human suffering, agony and death. That mentality would argue that poverty is good because it gives people an opportunity to be charitable; that sickness is good because it offers medical science challenge, that suffering is good for it tests character. With some theologies, the facts of sickness, suffering and death are converted into divine intention. Purpose is read into calamity by interpreting it as either God's punishment or God's reward. What “is” is turned into what “ought to be.”

Dr. Siegel writes, “I suggest that patients think of illness not as God's will but as our deviation from God's will.” He thinks patients must acknowledge “the absence of spirituality” in their lives. To avoid blaming God and therein the assumption of the patient's responsibility, Siegel inadvertently turns the patient into a scapegoat.

To see in illness a deviation from God's will is a retrograde piety. Who shall end up in hospital or hospice and who shall remain healthy is not a matter of will, divine or human. If it were, life would be filled with false guilt, blame and accusation. Sickness would justify the infantile unending taunt: “It serves you right. You get what you deserve.” Susan Sontag (AIDS And Its Metaphors) recalls painfully the fictions of responsibility that attended her becoming a cancer patient. Cancer was regarded as a disease to which “the physically defeated, the inexpressive, the repressed” are particularly prone.

BLAME

This society is saturated with the need to blame, to find fault. It is as if there cannot be any explanation of events without someone to fault. How remarkable the Talmudic insight “nature pursues its own course.”

Elsewhere Dr. Siegel contends, “I feel that all disease is ultimately related to a lack of love…that all disease is ultimately related to the inability to give and accept unconditional love.”

That bit of generalizing philosophy unintentionally adds insult to injury. Sandra loved deeply, loved her family, her friends; she was involved in the synagogue, with the developmentally disabled. She was gifted with social conscience. Inadvertently, Siegel ends with blame of the failed patient for not having the right kind of self-love or altruism. He is caught up in a secular guilt trip.

LILLIAN'S LETTER

I return to Lillian's letter and to the conversation I had with her. For her the “who shall live and who shall die?” prayer sent a shiver in her, a threat of future punishments for past transgressions. And the more hopeful conclusion that repentance, prayer, and charity would avert the evil decree rubbed salts in her wounds. Had she not lived, repented, prayed, and been charitable before she contracted her illness? And is that illness a “decree,” a verdict, a judgment upon her from up high? How should she understand the prayer? How do I pray the “netaneh tokef?”

For me the Netaneh Tokef questions with which the prayer opens means that there are areas in life over which I have no control. It confesses my creatureliness, my dependence on nature. There are amoral features in nature which should not be explained as if nature were a rabbinic tribunal. Part of the prayer expresses the Jewish reality principle. I accept the laws of nature, the withering of the leaves, the breaking of the boughs, the miscarriages in birth, the congenital and non-congenital disease. I accept the limitations that nature places on me. Moreover, Judaism does not encourage me to pray for a suspension or modification of the laws of nature. Judaism's reality principle calls prayers that seek to reverse the laws of nature, that pray that what events take place did not “tefillat shov”, vain, empty prayers. Jewish faith is not magic.

Much as I would desire it I cannot pray away the damage done to my heart nor pray away the tumor from my colon nor will the growth of arms and legs onto my paraplegia.

But that wisdom of acceptance is not the acceptance of impotence, that reality principle does not paralyze the proper areas and functions of my mind, heart and will. That is the meaning of “turning, prayer, and charity.” Those are the areas over which I do have control. I cannot alter the world of nature outside, but I can effect the world within. As Albo in the Ikarim asserts, my prayer actions do not change God; they change me. (IV Chapter 18)

Maimonides (Hilchoth Avodah Zarah 11-12) offers a crucial distinction between the healing of the body and the healing of the spirit (refuath ha-guf; refuath ha-nefesh). “To read a scriptural verse or place a Torah or a pair of tefilin on a child so that he may sleep is not only the way of diviners and fortune tellers, but it uproots the Torah — for they who practice in this manner make the Torah a healer of the body whereas the Torah is a healer of the spirit.”

Jewish faith-healing does not pretend to cure the cancer with the willful laying on of the hands. God is not found in the leukemia. God is found in the character and meaning latent in the patient. Meaning is not in the deafness or blindness or muteness or lameness–that is nature's course, not God's will.

When Sandra asked what meaning in the life remained to her which was tied up to her raising her children, we explored the possibilities of meaning. Sandra agreed that she wanted to raise them to be strong, to help them learn how to cope with the abrasiveness of life, how to face the challenge of adversity. Are these not the wishes of a mother?

“Your children, Sandra, know how sick you are. And you are teaching them lessons they will cherish the rest of their lives. Sick and suffering, you teach them how to love, how to cling to faith. Living, you teach. Dying, you teach dignity, courage and meaning. And so it is with your husband and your family and your friends. Sandra, you are meaning. There is a midrash that informs that 'the righteous are informed of the day of their death so that they may hand the crown to their children.'”

I would not lie to Sandra or Lillian or to myself. Who shall live or die, how long I shall live is not in our control. And God whom I worship is no enemy of mine, no implacable, inaccessible Judge. God is my ally, my strength and my friend. And as I tap into the curative forces within the soul into which God breathed life, I may make my life a blessing. Tshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah cannot save me from death, but they can give me more life.

Italy expelling Moroccan imam who called for killing of Jews


Italy is expelling a Moroccan imam who called for Jews to be killed.
Raoudi Aldelbar, the imam of a mosque in the town of San Dona di Piave, near Venice, was filmed during a sermon there last month saying, among other things, “Oh Allah, bring upon [Jews] that which will make us happy. Count them one by one, and kill them one by one.”
The video clip of the sermon was posted on the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute and later shared on social media.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said he had ordered the “immediate expulsion” of Aldelbar “for seriously disturbing public order, being a danger to national security and for religious discrimination.”
The decision was made after counterterrorism, police and other security experts had examined the video and investigated.
Alfano said it was “unacceptable to pronounce a speech of clear anti-Semitic tone, containing explicit incitements to violence and religious hatred.” He said his decision to expel the imam would serve “as a warning to anyone who thinks that in Italy one can preach hate.”

High Holy Days: Sermons take a chapter from writer’s book of life


In 1963, Richard Levy was in his mid-20s and in his last year of rabbinical school when he was sent on an internship to a synagogue in Jasper, Ala. About the time of Rosh Hashanah, not far away in the town of Birmingham, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African-American place of worship, and four girls were killed.

Segregation ruled in the South and African-Americans lived in awful conditions, violence targeting blacks was common, and tensions between white and blacks were high. And there was Levy, finding himself on the pulpit during the High Holy Days, with an audience of Southern Jews looking to him for inspiration. 

Did this 20-something have the life experience to give an effective sermon under such turbulent circumstances? 

Levy, now a faculty member at his alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), found that he was able to inspire people, despite his age and the fact that the civil rights movement in the South was happening around him. And it changed him, too.

“My experience in Jasper as a student rabbi with contacts in the Jewish community added hugely to my own life,” Levy told the Journal in an interview.

Every year during the High Holy Days, prominent rabbis in the community offer up sermons that are stirring, emotional and meaningful. These clergy have been doing this for years, if not decades. 

But what of the student rabbis who give High Holy Days sermons? Every year, HUC-JIR, American Jewish University and the Academy of Jewish Religion, California — local rabbinical colleges where students embark on programs to be ordained as rabbis — send their students to congregations as part of internships, or student pulpits, that are intended to give them hands-on experience. This includes delivering sermons during the holiest time of the year.

Jaclyn Fromer Cohen, who is entering her fifth and final year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR this fall, pondered the question of whether the limited life experience of students hinders their ability to give an effective sermon of such importance. Yes and no, she said. 

Last year, the 29-year-old from Brentwood gave the sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at Pacific Palisades congregation Kehillat Israel, and she plans to return to the Reconstructionist synagogue this year to do the same. 

Cohen says she understands the ambivalence that congregants who are older — sometimes several decades older — might have sitting in a synagogue while a student in his or her 20s links life wisdom with Jewish text on the biggest days of the Jewish calendar. 

“You stand in front of the firing squad and hope for the best,” she said. 

The trick, Cohen continued, is to realize one’s age and limitations, rather than overcompensating for them and pretending to have lived more than one has — and to draw from what one has experienced, all the while remaining humble.

“I am very much aware of what I’ve been through, and I am very much aware of what I haven’t been through,” she said. “I am not going to speak in a way that says, ‘I’m a 29-year-old, and I have been through X, Y and Z, and now I will talk to you because [I know everything].’ I don’t think most people do that.

“But I do think what I try to do is I try to say, ‘Listen, I’ve had life experiences, the people I’m talking to have had their own, the person sitting next to the person I’m talking to has had their own. We come with our respective baggage and our respective things and our skeletons in the closet.’ And I try to honor that, and I try never to speak to things I don’t know,” she said.

This thinking has worked for her so far, she said, reporting that congregants offered positive feedback to her sermon that connected a contemporary issue — gun violence — with the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, which Cohen says is the “first mention of love in the Torah.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, has given more than 40 High Holy Days sermons at one of the largest Conservative congregations in the area. He said that those who wonder if student rabbis have sufficient life experience to be giving High Holy Days sermons is a completely valid concern for an outside party to have.

Valid but also ultimately irrelevant, he argued. To give a good High Holy Days sermon — or any sermon, for that matter — one needs two things: an in-depth knowledge of Torah and an open heart, Feinstein said.

“It’s not you speaking, you are channeling Torah. If you are saying something important, from the heart, about the human condition, and you are talking about how Torah is bringing wisdom to this, then people will listen to you,” he said. “You can’t speak on your own. You don’t know. What do you know about these things? But you have something important from the world of Torah to say, and people have come to hear your Torah, and that’s what they hear.”

Sometimes students will make the mistake, however, of overcompensating for their age, said Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who works with rabbinic students on sermons as an HUC-JIR instructor on homiletics, a required course for students that focuses on the development of sermons. The mistake these students make is trying to make up for experience by overloading their sermons with traditional text that, to the unschooled people in the audience, sounds like a foreign language. In such cases, “sermons become academic presentations,” he said.

As for Levy — the rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus — his days of student pulpits are long behind him. 

In some respects, however, Levy says students have an edge over seasoned rabbis.

“Freshness always bring an advantage,” he said. 

And if the student takes that freshness, is humble, aware of his or her lack of life experience and still fails to connect? 

“They’re still students,” he said. “Hopefully people [will be] forgiving or understanding.”

Rabbi reverses interfaith marriage policy


It’s not often that a rabbi’s High Holy Days sermon is interrupted by a standing ovation. But that is what happened — twice — when Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, dedicated his sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah to explaining why he was changing a long-held position and would from now on officiate at interfaith weddings.

“It’s almost like it opened the dam and the waters are just flowing,” Rosove said, describing the reaction both that day and in the week following. “People are crying at synagogue and at the nursery and day schools. I’m getting e-mail after e-mail of gratitude. It’s quite remarkable — a phenomenon I did not expect.”

Rosove recounted in his sermon a long process of decision-making that ultimately led him to go with his intuition.

“I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted, ‘Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire,’ ” Rosove told the 1,000 or so people gathered in the main sanctuary of the Hollywood Boulevard Reform congregation.

The Reform movement allows rabbis to make their own choice as to whether they will officiate at mixed-faith marriages. About 50 percent of marriages involving a Jew are now intermarriages, according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Later surveys have reported that around 25 percent of children in intermarried families are raised as Jews, compared with about 98 percent of children raised in all-Jewish families. 

At Temple Israel, about a third of the 1,000 member units are mixed-faith families, and Rosove estimates about 175 members are not Jewish. The temple has worked to embrace non-Jewish members and mixed families.

In his 25-minute sermon, Rosove explained how he has always struggled with declining to officiate at the weddings of clearly loving couples — even his own family members — when one member isn’t Jewish. That decision has become more difficult recently, when the people he is saying no to are people he’s known their whole lives — he was there for the baby naming, the bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation and family funerals.

“My ‘policy’ of officiating only when both partners were Jewish was based upon voices from Judaic texts and tradition, teachers and mentors who taught me that I was ordained a rabbi to help fulfill three vital purposes: to preserve the integrity of the Jewish covenantal relationship with God, the viability of the Jewish family, and the survival and continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. Those voices have sounded inside my head for decades along with the voice that commanded, ‘Thou shalt not officiate at an intermarriage ceremony!’ ” he said.

Rosove said he now believes he can fulfill those purposes in an increasingly diverse Jewish world by making Judaism a central component from the moment two people become a family.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it’s time for me to change my policy,” he said. 

Rosove placed some conditions on the weddings he will preside over. The couple must be connected to the synagogue and must be jointly committed to creating a Jewish home and to providing children with a Jewish education. The non-Jewish partner may not be active in any other religion, and Rosove will not co-officiate with clergy from another religion.

Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), says many rabbis in their 50s and 60s have recently changed their position on intermarriage. 

The Reform movement itself has moved to a more neutral position in recent years. Officially, the last resolution on the books is from 1973, and it opposes rabbinic officiation at mixed marriages, stating that interfaith marriage is contrary to Jewish tradition. It also recognizes that each rabbi will make his or her own decision. But in the last several years, the movement opted not to introduce any new resolutions on the topic.

“It’s not a yes or no, up or down question. It’s far more nuanced. The approach we are taking at CCAR is that our role is to help the rabbis process the question in a way that works best for him or her,” Fox said.

From 2008 to 2010, a task force worked to produce materials that offer the rabbis information and resources when making this decision and when counseling couples. Fox estimates that Reform rabbis nationally are split evenly on whether they officiate at interfaith weddings.

Rabbi Laura Geller at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills says she didn’t officiate at interfaith weddings for the first 30 years of her rabbinate, but her experience with highly committed, mixed-faith families caused her to change her mind.

“I came to understand that my role as a rabbi is to facilitate the creation of Jewish families, not Jewish marriages. I have discovered since that decision that when a rabbi takes planning a wedding very seriously, spending a lot of time with a couple, it becomes an opportunity to open a door that really can deepen a commitment to create a Jewish home,” she said.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, also a rabbi at Temple Israel, said that she struggles with this issue, and that she believes a couple can’t really know whether they are committing to a Jewish life when they are getting married, but will know later, when they join a synagogue or enroll kids at school. At that point, when they show up at temple, she is ready to fully embrace them, she said. But she is not willing to perform an intermarriage and gamble on a promise.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said he does not officiate at interfaith weddings, and he believes it is possible to say no in a way that people feel respected. 

He wonders whether “asking a non-Jew to stand under a chuppah, break a glass, utter traditional blessings, etc., is as disrespectful to the non-Jew and Judaism as asking a Jew to take communion in a church is to the Jew and Christianity,” Leder wrote in an e-mail. 

Rosove said he has already scheduled several weddings since the sermon. One young man who grew up in the synagogue had called him over the summer, and he had already met with the couple and is satisfied that they will raise a Jewish family. Another couple, married 15 years, asked him to perform a recommitment ceremony. 

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the more welcoming atmosphere would lead more of the non-Jewish members of Temple Israel to convert. 

Longtime Temple Israel member Darcy Vebber converted there in 1999, some 15 years after she was married. She was asked to lead a task force on the role of non-Jewish members in the congregation about 10 years ago, but the topic of weddings wasn’t even on the table, because the group knew Rosove’s policy. She says she was stunned and delighted by the rabbi’s change of heart.

“A friend of mine, for whom this is a pressing issue, feels a sense of relief, I guess in the same way that you would when any family member who you love fully accepts you,” Vebber said.

High Holy Days: In the rabbis’ words


5772Conscience 

by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

Civilization depends on conscience. Conscience is the mark of a free people. You and I were born in slavery, so we know what it means to be a slave. We are not slaves. A slave does not ask questions. A slave bites his tongue, shuts his mouth, kneels before power and grovels before the power of authoritarianism. But the God of Israel is not an intractable, implacable authoritarian. He listens, hears and responds to the cries of conscience.

A Jew questions. There is a quip that when the rabbi was asked a question by a stranger, “Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?” the rabbi replied, “Why not?” The question is a profound answer. What makes you think that an answer, no matter how dogmatically given with thunder and lightning, is not itself subject to question? Dogma is corrigible. Everything is subject to critique and correction.

So, no excuses. You and me! Clergy and congregants and disciples of all faiths — you cannot shrug your shoulders and say, “What can I do? It’s found in the Holy Scriptures. It is so written.” No. No. When the Koran or the New Testament or the Hebrew scriptures say something that debases humanity, that calls for tortured confession or genocide, your Jewish conscience must respond as did the Prophet and the rabbis — “This will not stand.”

So, preachers, whatever your denomination, cannot say “Do this because I am God’s spokesman and messenger.” You cannot stand idly by the imams’ fatwa to behead the infidel, or evangelical arrogance to consign to hell those who do not accept his orthodoxy, his revelation. You cannot hide behind scriptures. We are human beings and we see with human eyes. There is no infallible perception.

On Rosh Hashanah, Judaism speaks to the world. Do you want a world drenched in conformity that deifies authoritarianism and excuses holocausts, or do you believe that church, mosque and synagogue must develop a community of conscience?

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from a Rosh Hashanah Can we be optimistic about the coming new year?

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

As we carry on our annual tradition to wish each other a happy new year before this Rosh Hashanah, we have to stop and wonder whether this time the greeting is unrealistic. Can we, should we, really expect happy times ahead? In times such as these, is it rational to still be optimistic?

The answer, I believe, is that it isn’t simply permissible to be an optimist, it’s a mitzvah and it’s mandatory!

Which of the two is the Creator of the universe — an optimist or a pessimist? If we believe the words of the Bible, all we have to do is look at the opening chapter. Every day God created something different and then He figuratively stepped back to evaluate what He had brought into being. What He saw pleased Him greatly, and from day to day he gave His verdict that “it was good.” Then, when He finally completed His work with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

That’s why William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, was right when he said that, “Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.” A pessimist disagrees with divine judgment. A pessimist believes that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Too bad he doesn’t take seriously the opinion of the One who made it!

Rabbi and author Benjamin Blech is serving as guest rabbi at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills for this year’s High Holy Days. This excerpt is from a Return 

by Rabbi Zoë Klein

National sermon in Malaysia calls Jews the ‘main enemy’


The official government sermon delivered in mosques across Malaysia called Jews the “main enemy.”

The sermon, prepared and distributed by the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department and delivered on March 30, said that “Muslims must understand Jews are the main enemy to Muslims as proven by their egotistical behavior and murders performed by them.”

It also called on community leaders to increase the awareness and understanding of the importance of Jerusalem, referring to it by its Arabic name, al-Quds.

“The honor of al-Quds and the al-Aksa mosque must be defended by all Muslims, as it is holy land that must be blessed,” the sermon said.

The sermon “makes a mockery of Malaysia’s Constitution, which promises that religions other than Islam may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement. “Further, it puts to the lie the repeated calls in international bodies by Malaysia’s prime minister, Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib, for religions to forsake intimidation and violence. It threatens the few Jews in Malaysia and millions beyond its borders.”

The following day, an officially sanctioned state seminar, “Strengthening the Faith, the Dangers of Liberalism and Pluralism and the Threat of Christianity towards Muslims. What is the Role of Teachers?” was convened by the Johor Education Department and the Johor Mufti Department, which required 55 schools to send two religious teachers each to deal with the “threat” of Christians to Malaysian Muslims. 

In light of the two incidents, the Simon Wiesenthal Center announced a travel advisory to Malaysia, calling on its Jewish and Christian supporters “to re-evaluate any travel plans to Malaysia, whether on business or as tourists.”

The center also said it will ask the U.S. State Department to launch its own investigation of state-sponsored religious bigotry in Malaysia.

What I learned from Desmund Tutu


I was nervous about going to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu this past Sunday at All-Saints Church.  I was nervous because, despite his remarkable life story, which of course includes fighting and winning the battle against apartheid in his homeland, South Africa, he has made comments in the past about Israel and the Palestinians that have made him unwelcome in the mainstream Jewish community.  So, in choosing to attend the service, sit in the VIP section up front, alongside other dignitaries, interfaith leaders and Hollywood actors, among others, rather than stand outside with a picket sign, as I imagine some in our community would have rather me do, I was nervous about what I might hear from this renown voice for civil and human rights, especially in light of the fact that just 2 days earlier, the United States had chosen to veto a U.N. resolution calling the Israeli settlements illegal, even though our stated foreign policy agrees with that resolution, not to mention all of the unrest and turmoil in the greater Middle East.  I sat anxiously, surrounded by Muslims and Christians, and because it is an Episcopal Church, a few Jews as well, and waited for Bishop Tutu to preach. 

He is about to turn 80, but he has a presence and fortitude that belies his age.  Not much more than 5’4” tall, a higher pitched and sweet sounding voice emanates from his throat, overlaid with an accent that sometimes makes him hard to understand.  He rose to speak, looking out over the capacity filled church, including hundreds watching on video monitors outside, and gave us the following message: God is holy, therefore we are all holy; we are God carriers, God’s stand-ins, God’s viceroys.  He told us that each human being, no matter what color of skin they have, is created in God’s image, therefore is a piece of God, therefore is holy, therefore deserves respect, dignity, compassion and love.  It was a message of deep spiritual depth, one that he brought around for just a moment, at the very end, to today’s reality.  More on that to come.

Bishop Tutu was echoing the scriptural reading of that morning, one that we Jews are really familiar with: Leviticus 19, known in our tradition as the holiness code.  It is here that we get some of the more famous lines about how to live a life of holiness, as the Torah calls us to ‘kedoshim t’heeyu, you shall be holy, ki kadosh ani adonai eloheichem, for I, Adonai your God am holy.”  Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t insult the deaf, don’t hate your brother/sister in your heart, don’t hold a grudge or take revenge, and of course, love your neighbor as yourself.  He preached that we have become desensitized to the notion of holiness, for which he placed no blame, but stated as fact.  Do we see the face of God in every person that crosses our path?  Do we remember the teaching, in the Jewish tradition he said, that tells us of the midrash that an angel walks in front of our every person, no matter man or woman, young or old, straight or gay, black or white or brown, Jew or not, an angel walks in front of us and announces, “make way for the image of God, make way for the image of God.”  We are all God-carriers, he kept repeating, God’s stand-ins, God’s viceroys.  And, we don’t remember it.  Tutu asked what the world would be like if we all believed, truly believed, the words of our respective scriptures, the words that we hear in synagogue, church, mosque, shrine, or other “places of worship,” that tell us this week in and week out.  Would we kill one another, would we hate one another, would we destroy one another, if we truly believed the words of our tradition?  Would we kill others if we believed it was killing a part of God every time?  What do you think? 

The Torah offers us a pathway to think about this idea of holiness, of course, in the same section that was read that morning, Leviticus 19.  That got me thinking about an idea, one that crystallized during my weekly meditation sitting group here at PJTC.  There is a difference in life between living ethical and living holy, between setting up a society that seeks fairness and equity and a society that goes further and seeks holiness amongst the people.  In parshat Mishpatim, which comes after the experience at Mt. Sinai, we get pages of laws, rules and guidelines for establishing ethical communities, from treating slaves fairly (which was a huge improvement for the time), restitution for damages, civil law, injury law, fair treatment of workers, money lending, caring for the poor, as well as not mistreating the stranger, widow or orphan, a running theme in the Torah.  I noticed something interesting in this whole section: only at the very end, and really in relationship to not eating flesh torn from the beasts of the field, does it say anything about being holy.  These laws are what God expects of us humans in building a community, the ethical import of differentiating ourselves from the animals.  We need laws to function more efficiently and in safety; we need laws to ensure that everyone is treated with respect and dignity.  But, these laws say nothing, really, about being holy.  For that, we need Leviticus 19.

One Saturday morning, an old, shabbily dressed man happened to be walking through an elegant suburb when he spotted a huge, beautiful synagogue. He entered during the service, and took a seat in the rear pew.  The well-dressed congregation was unnerved by his appearance. As he was leaving the service, the rabbi told the old man, “Before you come back again, please pray and have a talk with God. Ask God what God thinks would be the proper clothes for worshipping in this synagogue.”  The next Saturday the old man returned to the synagogue in the same shabby clothes. After the service, the rabbi again asked him whether or not he had talked to God about the appropriate attire for synagogue.  “I did talk to God,” the old man replied. “God told me that He wouldn’t have any idea what was appropriate attire for worshipping in your synagogue. God said that’s because God’s never been in here before.”  This little joke illustrates what Leviticus 19 has to offer in regard to holiness.  Unlike Mishpatim, in this part of the Torah, in the parsha called Kedoshim, literally meaning holiness, we are exhorted to dig deeper into ourselves and work to create a society that is not just fair and just, but truly holy, emblematic of God here on Earth.  “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai Your God am Holy,” is how the parsha begins.  It then goes on to teach about about the Sabbath, the danger of idol-worship, tells us to leave the edges of field for the poor, not to swear falsely by God’s name, not to steal from one another, not to put a stumbling block before the blind or insult the deaf, to deal with rich and poor alike with justice, don’t stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.  And then comes the really big ones: Don’t hate your kinsfolk in your heart, don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge, love your neighbor as yourself.  And, over and over again, the phrase ‘ani Adonai, I am God,’ is repeated, reminding us of the source of holiness.  And unlike the laws in Mishpatim, I see these moral clarion calls of holiness exhorting us to raise ourselves higher and higher, to truly be what Tutu called God carriers, to go beyond ethical and fairness in laws and to seek pathways of living that elevate us beyond human capacity and into the true realms of being created in the image of God.  We are holy when we work to eliminate hate from our hearts, for there is no law against that; we are holy when we don’t insult the deaf, for there is no law against that; we are holy when we turn away from revenge or holding a grudge, for there is no law against that.  We can’t legislate holiness, it is the truest essence of being created in the image of God.  We are God carriers, and this is our mission in life.  It is not enough to create ethical societies, for that is just the beginning.  Laws are needed, for sure, but holiness, kedusha, is what makes us “a little lower than the angels,” (Psalm 8:5) as the psalmist says.  We are angelic when we overcome hatred and love the stranger, love our enemy, not because we are legislated to do so, but because we are God carriers.

After 20+ minutes of his sermon, which kept everyone rapt in attention, Tutu said, again, we are all God carriers, God’s stand-ins, God’s viceroys.  Then he said, “Even Mubarak.”  The Palestinians, the Jews, Americans, Arabs, South Africans, all of us are God carriers.  And that is the hard lesson he was driving at, which he said explicitly at the end.  It is easy to love those similar to you, to love those you already love.  To be holy, to be God carriers, he said, is to love those you don’t like, even those you hate.  To find the spark of holiness, the spark of God, in every person, in every human being.  In that, the archbishop, knowingly or unknowingly, was calling to mind the great Chassidic masters, particularly the Baal Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman of Bretslov, both of whom called us to love our enemies, to pray for those whom we despise, and most powerfully, when we see evil in others, use it as a mirror to see what is wrong with ourselves.  That was all Tutu said about the situation today, leaving us to imply, infer and distill his message, so my nervousness was for naught. 

The power of this message was driven home for me, finally, at the end of our meditation class on Tuesday, when I shared my insights.  One of the women who comes regularly, and is a Shoah survivor, breathed a deep breath, looked at us and said the following: “In my darkest days in the concentration camps, when I was losing hope, I thought to myself, there must be some humanity in Hitler, perhaps when he is listening to music, the music he loved so much, maybe at that moment, for a split second, he is human.  And that gave me hope to try and keep living.”  We all sat in shocked silence, for who could say that other than a survivor and not be vilified, not be seen as sick and twisted.  So, I will leave as Desmond Tutu left it, when he said “we are all God carriers, we are all God’s stand-ins, we are all God’s viceroys.”  And he sat down.  And so will I.  Shabbat shalom.

Jewish interfaith leaders urge Shabbat sermon about Islam


A group of Jewish interfaith educators is asking rabbis to talk about Islam next Shabbat.

A letter signed by six prominent rabbis and scholars points out that Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, falls on Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In light of the controversy over the Islamic center planned for near the New York site, the letter asks rabbis and rabbinical students to “speak out against the bigotry that has erupted,” and promote the ideals of religious freedoms for Muslims as well as Jews.

Rabbis in leading positions at the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative seminaries, as well as the rabbinical school at Hebrew College, signed the appeal.

It reads, in part: “The proposal for the ‘Mosque at Ground Zero’ that turns out not to be a mosque and not at Ground Zero has brought to light this simple fact: We Americans need to know a whole lot more about Muslims and their religion.”

VIDEO: Palin Pastor: ‘Israelites’ run the economy




Yes, he says ‘Israelites’! (MSNBC)

A pastor who blessed Sarah Palin’s run for Alaska governor said Christians should emulate “Israelites” and run the economy.

The 2005 video of South African Pastor Thomas Muthee laying hands on Palin, the Republican vice-presidential pick, surfaced this week on the Internet.

Muthee precedes the blessing with a sermon calling for Christians to assume control in seven areas of society.

“The second area whereby God wants us, wants to penetrate in our society is in the economic area,” he said in the sermon. “The Bible says that the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous. It’s high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity running the economics of our nations. That’s what we are waiting for. That’s part and parcel of transformation. If you look at the — you know — if you look at the Israelites, that’s how they work. And that’s how they are, even today.”

The pastor also calls for Christian control of schools.

“We need God taking over our education system,” he said. “Otherwise we, if we have God in our schools, we will not have kids being taught, you know, how to worship Buddha, how to worship Mohammed, we will not have in the curriculum witchcraft and sorcery.”

Do-it-yourself High Holy Days sermon


You think you have it bad? What about your rabbi, who has to work weeks — no, months — to prepare a High Holy Days Sermon. You think it’s easy writing a speech that people will remember for the rest of the year? Well, then, why don’t you and a friend write your very own with our MadLibs [R] version. First ask your partner to supply the missing words. Then read the completed sermon aloud … and enjoy.

To my _____ _____ and _____ of Congregation _____ Israel, I’d like to wish you a _____ New Year.

On this very _____ day, let us take time to _____ back on our _____ lives.

I want to begin with a _____ story about Rabbi _____ ben _____, may he rest in peace, from the old city of _____. You may remember how this man sacrificed his _____ for the sake of giving _____ every week.

And you may also remember how his children, _____, _____, and Eliezer had to make _____ sacrifices, but the important point to remember is that “for every mitzvah we are blessed with _____.”

Which is why this year, I would like every person to adopt a new mitzvah, like _____. Also, you should stop _____.

But, we cannot simply rely on God alone to make the world a better _____. We must also ___________________________________________.

And we can’t _____ the world on our own. We must come together and _____ together.

We must also remember our _____ in Israel, who always needs our support. That’s why you must take the blue _____ under your seat and donate $_____.

With this _____ membership gift, we can _____ our connection to _____ through Temple programs such as _____, _____, and the building of a new _____.

For a mere $_____, we will send you and _____ to Israel for a _____. If you’re not a member, now is the time to _____! We need your support!

Remember our responsibility to _____, as it says in the book of _____. “Do unto _____ as _____ would have done unto you.”

This extremely clear message will help you reach _____ With that in mind, I wish you all a _____ and _____ New Year.



(adjective)

(plural masculine noun)

(plural feminine noun)

(Hebrew word)

(Insert guttural Hebrew/Yiddish word. Make one up if you don’t know one.)

(adjective how you feel in synagogue)

(verb)

(epithet)

(adjective how you feel in synagogue)

(Hebrew name)

(foreign word)

(place of your last vacation)

(your most valuable possession)

($ amount)

(favorite number)

(Cantor’s name)

(name of insect)

(miracle)

(favorite activity)

(household chore you hate)

(noun)

(Orthodox: insert mitzvah between man and God; Conservative: insert mitzvah between fellow men; Reform: insert political cause; Reconstructionist: insert environmental cause; Atheist: insert favorite sport.)

(verb)

(same verb)

(noun)

(amount you cheated on taxes last year)

(adjective you’d like people to call you)

(verb)

(favorite religion)

(obscure sport)

(social activity)

(luxury item)

(this week’s lottery jackpot)

(favorite actor)

(time you need vacation)

(verb)

(dead comedian)

(name of disease)

(animal)

(same animal)

(name of a casino.)

(adjective)

(adjective)

What will your rabbi be talking about?


“Too late. To be continued. Get over it.”

Rabbi Laurence Goldmark, of the Reform Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, can summarize his main High Holy Days sermon in just those eight words. After 29 years at the shul, he plans to retire next summer, and he wants to take this season to reinforce those three fundamental themes, which he believes define his rabbinate.

Rabbi Laura Geller, of Reform Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, will launch a Greening the Synagogue campaign in her Rosh Hashanah sermon, springboarding off a Judgment Day question posed by the fourth-century Babylonian sage Rava. While Rava inquired about involving ourselves in procreation, Geller plans to reframe the question, asking congregants to reflect upon the world we will leave for our children.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy, of the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, spent nearly four weeks this summer in a rabbinic leadership program at Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute. On Rosh Hashanah, she will talk about Israel at age 60 — comparing the reality versus the dream. While her overall theme is to explore the notion of “one people,” she believes the relationship between Israel and America must be “a two-way street.”

In sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur throughout Southern California this year, rabbis will continue to exhort their congregants to look inward and outward, to reflect upon and repair themselves, their families and communities, the nation and the world.

Almost every rabbi interviewed for this article said they will discuss the timeless High Holy Day theme of teshuvah (repentance), and examine American Jews’ ever-important relationship to Israel. Many will talk about global warming and the environmental consequences, and for some, though not an easy subject, the war in Iraq is on the agenda.

But it is often the case that the most successful sermons, the ones deemed most inspirational and most powerful, are those that emanate directly from the rabbi’s heart. “It has to be spoken from the truest place of a rabbi’s being,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Feinstein described the process of creating a sermon as “a profound work of teshuvah for the rabbi.” He said the process forces rabbis to sit down with himself or herself and really examine where they are this year, what matters to them and what motivates them.

Feinstein’s two sermons will focus on Israel and its 60th anniversary and on the question of power and powerlessness.

Feinstein worries that most Americans have given up on their ability to affect the condition of our national existence — and even our communal existence — and have become very private.

“This is a terrible sign for our democracy and a terrible spiritual disease,” he said. He wants his sermon to motivate people to engage in “significant acts of volunteerism,” which he believes is the remedy.

It isn’t easy to write these sermons, and to help facilitate the process, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California holds an annual High Holy Days seminar, which this year took place on Aug. 14 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. More than 100 rabbis from synagogues extending from San Luis Obispo to San Diego attended, as well as about 35 student rabbis from the three local seminaries.

This year’s seminar featured Valley Beth Shalom’s Feinstein as both morning and afternoon keynote speaker, talking about the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) as a window to change our lives and our world and also discussing the challenges and opportunities of preaching and teaching about Israel at 60. The seminar also offered six different workshops, from Rabbi Richard Levy’s “Troubling Passages in the High Holy Day Machzor” to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila’s “Revolutionary Traditionalism: Reading Theology in S.Y Agnon” (for a review of the book by Bouskila, see p. 21). Each participant selected two sessions.

“[The purpose] is to spark interest in ideas they’ve been turning around, to provide stories for mini-sermons and divrei Torah and to debunk the popular myth out there that rabbis copy sermons lock, stock and barrel,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Diamond also added that the finest sermons combine some kind of serious engagement with Jewish text and Jewish tradition with a specific issue of the day or a personal issue that people are facing.

For veteran Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, returning to Southern California as the new rabbi of Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, the most pressing communal issue is Jewish hospitality and the tradition of welcoming the stranger. Gartenberg will devote his main Rosh Hashanah sermon to the subject, introducing hospitality as the synagogue’s yearlong theme. This is an extension of “Panim Hadashot: New Faces of Judaism,” the program of Shabbat-centered learning and outreach Gartenberg founded while serving as rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Orthodox Young Israel of Century City, will deliver four High Holy Days sermons: on hearing the cry from the shofar and recognizing the pain of other Jews; on parenting as the ultimate gauge of success in life; on the importance of community; and on caring for the poor.

But the sermon he finds most challenging — and the one on which he spends the most time pondering and preparing — is the one he’ll be giving on the afternoon of Shabbat Teshuvah, the Shabbat of Repentance, which this year immediately follows Rosh Hashanah. Hundreds of his congregants as well as others in the Pico-Robertson community will attend the hour-plus presentation, which he has titled “In Search of Spirituality.”

“Spirituality is the key word today, but what does it mean?” Muskin asked. “A lot of people think it just means warm and fuzzy, but it’s a question of really pursuing and trying to find a spiritual direction in one’s life.”

Rabbi Jan Goldstein is inaugurating a nondenominational High Holy Days experience this year, called “Bayit Shelanu,” or “Our House” with singer/composer Debbie Friedman. Their goal is to reach out to Los Angeles’ unaffiliated Jews. The services will be held at UCLA’s Ackerman Grand Ballroom.

7-step set training for spiritual fitness


So you’ve trained all summer in order to show off that tight body at the beach. Well, as the High Holy Days roll around, impressing the opposite sex seems less and less important.

Now it’s time to show off your Judaism at shul so you can impress your rabbi. And if your rabbi is a member of the opposite sex, you can’t lose.

More importantly, now is the time to capitalize on that expensive shul membership and start going to morning minyan once in a while. The New Year is when you can turn your life around.

Let’s get started.

Step One: Test Your Limits

Go to shul a few times before the holiday and see whether you sit can through a three-hour service. If you can do that, you can do anything. If you do, however, feel the need to rest your mind, try to do it during the rabbi’s intriguing sermon. Your mind will absorb the material better. But be sure to stretch when you wake up.

Step Two: Rid Yourself of Carbs

A great way to do this is by tossing a few bread crumbs in the nearest body of water during Tashlich. Tashlich can be a great way to send off your complex sins in one quick swoop. With each passing crumb, let loose your sinful baggage as a huge weight is lifted off your shoulders.

Step Three: Start Lifting

Get into spiritual shape by starting to lift … the Torah. Hagbah will surely impress your rabbi in addition to increasing your participation during the service. The key is to take on more roles and lead more parts. Hagbah is relatively easy and doesn’t require a lot of knowledge of Hebrew. But if you’re still a little unsure, warm up with an ark opening, then shift to hagbah. Once you’ve mastered the art of torah-lifting, wrap it all up with a quick, painless Gelilah. But remember, maintain full control, or you’ll put everyone on a forced diet.

Step Four: Sets and Reps

Start off with three sets of prayer each day at a slow to moderate pace and focus on repetition … of the Amidah. These 18 blessings will truly give you a deeper insight to the religion, while providing you with a deeper connection to God. Getting in the groove of daily prayer is an excellent way to strengthen your bond with The Lord.

Step Five: Training With Grace

Sure machine weights are effective, but the ultimate grace is best achieved with a solid, sincere, bensch. It’s important to get in the habit of thanking God after each meal. And while you’re at it, be thankful for everything else in this world … from when you lie down at night, to when you rise in the morning.

Step Six: Get Toned

Better yet, get atoned. While you’re thinking about the sins you’ve committed this year, think about the ways those wrongs could have been rights. Be regretful for the way you once acted, and do your best to be more of a mensch in the coming year. Set goals for yourself and try taking a jog down the derech eretz.

Step Seven: Gain The Definition You Want

Understand the meaning of what you’re doing. Understand the meaning of prayer, the meaning of religion and the meaning of God. And only when you understand all these meanings will you truly gain definition.

Now just follow these seven simple steps on a daily basis and you’ll really get into that spiritual mindset that’ll impress your rabbi. Its time to turn the Ten Days of Awe into the Ten Days of Awesome.

And if you’re craving a more intense exercise, be sure to check out our other High Holy Day workouts such as, Diet for Your Sins; Practice, Practice, Practice Your Religion; and our special Yom Kippur workout: Don’t Eat and DonAte.

Martin Luther King’s Hollywood dream


Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1965
“>Part II, 14 min., MP3, 1.6MB

Temple Israel of Hollywood has had many milestones in its 80 years as a Jewish cultural landmark in our city. One that bears special significance this month, however, occurred on Friday, Feb. 26, 1965 , when the synagogue’s Rabbi Max Nussbaum welcomed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to share the bimah with him and to offer a sermon.

Nearly forty-two years later, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the synagogue will welcome the reverend’s voice back into the sanctuary in a special service on Jan. 12 with The Word Center Church Gospel Singers, as well as its pastors and musicians.

The brainchild of Michael Skloff, a member of the temple’s board of trustees and a professional composer and songwriter, the Friday night service, which is open to all, will feature songs performed by musicians and choir members from both congregations, separately and together.

While interfaith Jewish/gospel services in honor of the observance are fairly common in Los Angeles, Temple Israel’s stands out for its inclusion of a musical piece arranged by Skloff, featuring recorded excerpts of King speaking at the synagogue in 1965. King’s voice will be accompanied by both choirs’ vocals and music played by members of both congregations.

Skloff said he’d always looked for an opportunity to infuse into a Jewish service the level of ecstatic devotion he’d witnessed in gospel churches.
But he said his intent is larger than that, as well.

“I don’t want to wait for some tragic event, for another Rodney King situation … for all of us to think, ‘Well, we really have to get together and heal this rift,'” he said. “We shouldn’t wait. We should always be working on the relationship between the Jewish community and African American community.”

For this new venture, the relationship began with a gathering involving Skloff, as well as Temple Israel’s Rabbi John Rosove and Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom with The Word Center pastors Alan and T. Marvene Wright and choir director Contrella Patrick-Henry.

“By the end of the meeting, we were all sort of kibitzing with each other,” Rosenbloom said. “We’re hoping that this is just the first annual Martin Luther King weekend collaboration, and we are hoping that we’ll be invited to participate in one of their services, although that hasn’t been worked out yet.”

For now, they’re working on the details of the program, which will begin with a song written by Rosenbloom called, “Shechinah Niggun,” and move into the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

“Their soloist and I will start off the service by melding our two songs — melding two songs from our different traditions.” Rosenbloom said. The evening will also include gospel renditions of prayers, like “Adon Olam,” “Romemu” and “Lecha Dodi;” traditional gospel songs, like “This Little Light of Mine,” as well as readings of King’s words by Rosove and both pastors.

The centerpiece of the night will be the musical arrangement of the King speech recording.

“It’s … a historical connection to our social justice work, starting in the ’60s, when Rabbi Nussbaum had Dr. King speak here, [and] our commitment to civil rights at the time, which has continued throughout the life of the temple,” Rosenbloom said.


The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. service will be held Friday, Jan. 12, at 6 p.m. at ” target = “_blank”>LAObserved.com blog. Thanks, Kevin!

“> then he asked a tough question.

Live in the ‘hood: words of awe


I love a good sermon. There’s nothing like the uplift you get from hearing words that go right to your soul.
 
Words on a page can’t do thatfor me. In a live sermon, you can almost taste the breath of the rabbi. You can feel the occasional struggle for the perfect word. If the speaker has sparkling insights, with just the right pitch and cadence, the words ebb and flow like a river taking you to new discoveries. All along, you feed off the energy of the crowd. Your adrenaline keeps pumping until the rabbi finally wraps up the sermon to a sigh of quasi-relief from an audience that was clinging to every word.You can bet that the Jewish world will be clinging to every word during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. These are the much-anticipated Words of Awe: the Rose Bowl and Super Bowl of Jewish sermons.
 
Personally, I think we make too big a deal of these annual sermons. Judaism is not about annual resolutions; it’s more about daily renewal. But daily renewal doesn’t sell tickets, so like it or not, the Super Sermons are upon us, and rabbis all over town are getting ready to elevate our souls. What can we expect?
 
The truth is, all sermons, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, are there to promote something “good.” But how do they get there?
 
In the Reform sermon, the dominant punctuation is the exclamation point! Many Reform congregants go to synagogue only during the High Holidays, so the rabbis better grab them while they can. Here you can expect a lot of dramatic stuff like the Jewish obligation to assist the genocide victims of Darfur, and other very worthy and worldly causes. It’s empowering, and it sounds a lot juicier than the commandment to put on tefillin every morning.
 
In the Conservative sermon, the punctuation of choice is the comma. Their debates never end, and they love it that way. They get turned on by tension, especially the noble, Jewish kind of tension, like having to balance our love for humanity with our love for our fellow Jew, or reconciling our obligations to Israel with our obligations to America, or struggling with our desire to go to synagogue against our inclination to visit Neiman Marcus.
 
In my new Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you can enjoy the Orthodox sermon, and here the punctuation that rules is the period. You don’t walk out of an Orthodox sermon all perplexed, wondering what to do next. Hard-core Torah is what you do next. Lots of it. But before you reach this state of closure bliss, you will wallow in delicious detail, some of which might appear trivial at first, but if you can suspend your ADD instincts long enough, you will witness how the Torah can transform the tiny into the big and meaningful.
 
At an Orthodox sermon, for example, you might hear an explanation of why you shouldn’t eat nuts at Rosh HaShanah (in Hebrew, the word for “nut” has the same numerical value as the word for “sin”); why the shofar can’t come from a bull’s horns (it would remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf); or, like I once heard from a Chassidic rabbi, how the word atonement can be read as at-ONE-ment, the idea being to be at one with all of our roles in life — parent, worker, sibling, friend, citizen, neighbor, student, teacher, Jew, etc. — and remember on Yom Kippur to atone for each one to create a higher and holier ONE in each of us.

If you want to experience the most intense Orthodox sermon of the year, come back on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur, for the ancient tradition known as “Shabbat Tshuvah” (repentance). Rabbis can spend months preparing for this Talmudic discourse that will punctuate the Days of Awe. (A little scoop: the title of the discourse by Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City will be “Like a Good Neighbor…”).
 
Of course, things are never as neat as they seem. There are rabbis of all denominations who often go beyond the expectations of their “label.” Still, it’s clear that there are major differences among the denominations — both of style and substance — which shouldn’t surprise anyone: since the Maschiach hasn’t arrived yet, not every Jew wants to be part of the same movement or listen to the same sermon.
 
Sometimes, though, I wonder what would happen if everything got switched around. What if, for example, an Orthodox sermon got smuggled into a Reform congregation, or vice versa? What would happen then?
 
Actually, it looks like something is already buzzing in my neighborhood. If you visit B’nai David-Judea Synagogue on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will announce a major initiative to get his members involved with environmental protection. Although this is an area that is usually associated with the Reform branch of Judaism, not the rabbi’s Orthodox branch, Rabbi Kanefsky believes this should be an Orthodox concern, and he’s got the Torah sources to back it up.
 
It makes you wonder what’s next. A Reform synagogue promoting no driving and no TV on Shabbat? A Chassidic shul fighting for universal health care? The possibilities are endless. Go ahead, think big.
 
It’s that time of year.
 
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

The Genesis of a Holiday Sermon, And Other Stories


How Do Rabbis Choose Their Topics For High Holiday Sermons?

What they don’t do is gather together and get a list of topics from on high. But about a month or so before the major holidays — like Passover and Rosh Hashanah — the Board of Rabbis of Southern California sponsors a pre-holiday conference for rabbis to come together to study as well as become inspired and motivated.

This year’s High Holy Days Seminar on Aug. 15, was one of the biggest yet, with 135 rabbis attending from all denominations. For the first time the keynote speakers were a father and son, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe from Philadelphia and his son Rabbi David Wolpe from Sinai Temple, who discussed themes for the holidays — both timeless and current.

One main topic on the minds of rabbis this year is the situation in Israel. Consul General Ehud Danoch and Jewish Federation President John Fishel spoke to the group about the Israel in Crisis fund and ways to help Israel.

“Rabbis will be speaking about Israel in one major sermon on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, to incorporate texts and ideas and stories and themes, to put this in perspective that would be appropriate for the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis. “The Days of Awe are a time for chesbon hanefesh — introspection and self scrutiny, a time to talk about the war and its aftermath.”

Diamond said the seminar’s goal is to “spark” ideas for the rabbis: “As rabbis prepare their sermons and divrei Torah and Torah commentaries for the High holidays, this is an opportunity to share ideas, stories, texts, and to listen and learn from one another.”

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah, said the seminar gives “rabbis the chance to do personal self-reflection — sermons often come out of our own personal struggles. Reading a text is to challenge ourselves on our own relationship with God, our own sense of teshvuah, and when rabbis go through that process, we are more enriched personally, and hopefully we are better rabbis.”

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Making Davening Wishes Come True

Do you wish to get more out of your own High Holiday services? Well, now there’s the “I Wish I Got More Out of Services” services, billed as “A Meaningful High Holiday Experience.”

Sponsored by Beth Jacob, a centrist Orthodox community in the Pico-Roberston neighborhood, the service, now in its second year, is a traditional, “halachic” service with separate seating, less cantorial flair and a more explanatory supplement.

“As the High Holidays were approaching last year I realized something important. I don’t like long, boring services,” said Michael Borkow, a writer and executive producer (“Friends”) and the founder of the “I Wish” program. “And for years, no matter what synagogue I went to, that is generally what I experienced on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Services tend to be long because, pretty much everywhere you go, the cantor and High Holiday choir sing a lot; they tend to be boring because nobody explains what’s going on.”

The service is open to all and sees lots of singles and couples in their 20s and 30s. Although it will include English explanations and translations of the songs, Borkow is quick to point out that “this is not a learner’s service — there will be plenty of observant people who daven every day.”

This year, they are importing Rabbi Benzion Klatzko to lead services.Tickets are $150 for all five services. For more information, call (310) 278-1911.

Jesus’ Man Has a Plan


Are there any Jewish Rick Warrens?

That’s not a fair question.

There are few people of any faith like Warren.

As I sat listening to him speak at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live Shabbat services last week, I thought of the only other person I’d met with Warren’s eloquence, charisma, and passion — but Bill Clinton carries a certain amount of baggage that Warren doesn’t.

Warren spoke at Sinai as part of the Synagogue 3000 program, which aims to revitalize Jewish worship.




Rick Warren’s speech at Sinai Temple. Audio added 8/14/2008


The program’s leader, Rabbi Ron Wolfson, met Warren a decade ago and was influenced by the pastor’s first book, “The Purpose-Driven Church” (Zondervan, 1995). And to demonstrate what such a church looked like in action, Wolfson brought two busloads of synagogue leaders to Warren’s Saddleback Church in South Orange County to experience firsthand the pastor’s success. The church has 87,000 members. Its Sunday service draws 22,000 worshippers to a 145-acre campus in the midst of affluent, unaffiliated exurbia. Clearly, Warren has reached the kind of demographic synagogues had all but given up on.

There are two aspects to Warren’s success, and both were on display Friday night. First, he is an organizational genius. His mentor was management guru Peter Drucker.

“I spoke with him constantly,” Warren said, right up until Drucker died last year at age 95.

It is Drucker’s theory of “management by objectives” that Warren replicates in every endeavor — translating long-term objectives into more immediate goals. Here let’s pause to consider that Jews are learning to reorganize thier faith from a Christian who was mentored by a Jew.

In his church, Warren serves as pastor to five subordinate pastors, who in turn serve 300 full-time staff, who administer to 9,000 lay volunteers, who pastor 82,000 members spread out among 83 Southern California cities.

“It’s the individual cells that make the body,” he told the Sinai crowd. All his church’s endeavors — from working to cure diseases in African villages to reinventing houses of worship — work according to a model that parcels larger goals into smaller ones, empowering believers to take action along the way.

The other secret to his success is his passion for God and Jesus. Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring. But make no mistake, the driving purpose of an evangelical church is to evangelize, and it is Warren’s devotion to spreading the words of the Christian Bible that drive his ministry.

Good for him and his flock — and not so bad for us either. His teachings apply to 95 percent of all people, regardless of religious belief. As he put it to a group of rabbis at a conference last year — using a metaphor that might be described as a Paulian slip: “Eat the fish and throw away the bones.”

Warren told Wolfson his interest is in helping all houses of worship, not in converting Jews. He said there are more than enough Christian souls to deal with for starters.

The success of Warren’s second book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” (Zondervan, 2002), demonstrates his ability to turn a particular gospel into a universal one. As Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told the capacity audience of some 1,500, “The Purpose-Driven Life”turned the self-help model on its head by asserting that the answer to personal fulfillment does not reside with the self.

“Looking within yourself for your purpose doesn’t work,” the book begins. “If it did, we’d know it by now. As with any complex invention, to figure out your purpose, you need to talk to the inventor and read the owner’s manual — in this case, God and the Bible.” “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold 25 million copies in 57 languages.

As Warren pointed out — with an odd ability to be humble and matter of fact about it — it is reportedly the biggest-selling nonfiction book in American history. It brought him fame and fortune. Warren spent much of his sermon describing how he dealt with his new-found money and influence, turning his personal solutions into lessons on confronting the spiritual emptiness and materialism that all comfortable Americans face.

The pastor said he practices an inverse tithe — giving away 90 percent and keeping 10 percent of his income. He takes no salary from the church and returned the 20 years of income he received from it.

I haven’t checked his portfolio to verify this, but the message is an impressive and important one.

“We do not go into this line of work to get rich,” he said. “If you give it to God, he will bring you to life.”

Similarly, Warren has leveraged his fame to bring attention to AIDS in Africa and other global problems. He said he’d just come from a photo shoot at Sony Studios with Brad Pitt and was about to meet overseas with the leaders of 11 countries in 37 days. While he was at Sinai Temple, his wife, Kay, was at the White House.

“The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have none,” he said.

Warren wore a kippah made by the Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda and gifted to him by the country’s president. Before his sermon, he sang enthusiastically with musician Craig Taubman, who performed along with Saddleback Church music director Richard Muchow.

“This is my kind of service!” he said when he took the stage to deliver his remarks.

Afterward, as one Friday Night Live contingent repaired to a ballroom to carry on the hard work of scoping out other singles, another filled Barad Hall to get more time with Warren in a Q-and-A.

Along the way, he described in detail how he organized a national Purpose Driven Church campaign to get some 30,000 houses of worship across the world to define and implement their mission. He also punctuated his anecdotes with simple statements about God’s role in our lives: “God created you to love you,” he said, “and to love him back.”

I have no doubt the people who turned to Warren to help them reinvent synagogues for the 21st century can and will learn a lot from the man’s organizational skills. But the deeper message he conveys, his unstintingly devoted and enthusiastic faith — how in the world can we Jews learn that?

Valley’s Toras HaShem Seeks to Lure City Jews Over the Hill


It’s Thursday night at Toras HaShem, an outreach yeshiva in North
Hollywood and some 40 people are here to hear Rabbi Zvi Block’s weekly Torah
portion sermon. Tonight the class includes college-age women wearing long
skirts; a number of septuagenarians; a middle-aged man, who is becoming
Orthodox, and his wife, who is converting to Judaism; and a young mother whose
little girl spends the class drawing pictures on a notepad.

The men and women are seated in separate rows, and everyone
is following along in an English-translated Chumash. Block, a New Yorker,
delivers his talk on the weekly portion with great enthusiasm: he sits down, he
gets up, he walks around the room, he digs with his thumb to emphasize his
points, he modulates his voice, he peppers his argument with telling anecdotes;
he moves the story so briskly through the text that by the end of the 75
minutes, the entire parsha has been explicated.

Block’s scholarship and liveliness have garnered him quite a
following in the Valley. While the city boasts a number of institutions that
seek to familiarize the unaffiliated with Orthodox Judaism (i.e., Aish HaTorah,
Jewish Learning Exchange and the Jewish Awareness Movement), the Valley has
Toras HaShem, which is its only non- Chabad Orthodox outreach organization (the
Valley Kollel offers some outreach classes, but it is primarily a locus for
those already learned.) Although there are some city people who make the trek
across Coldwater Canyon to attend their classes, Toras HaShem is virtually
unknown in the city, which is something that Block hopes to change.

So these days, Block is trying a different sort of outreach.
He wants to reach out to affiliated Jews in the city so that they know more
about the thriving community in the Valley, and he is doing so by organizing a
citywide concert with Shalsheles, the highest-selling Orthodox singing quartet
in the country by Jewish music standards. Block hopes to sell out some 1,700
seats, which would raise $100,000 to benefit Israeli victims of terror, and it
would also raise awareness among city Jews of the classes and services offered
by his institution, and perhaps lure a few of them away from the plethora of
options in the city, to try out life — or maybe just some classes — in the
Valley.

“I think people in the city don’t realize to what extent the
Valley community has grown,” Block told The Journal. “People consider the
Valley as a third choice [to live in], after Pico-Robertson and Hancock Park,
and they are making a big mistake. People in the city don’t realize that the
Valley has between 800 and 1,000 shomer Shabbos families. In our area alone
there are a dozen shuls.”

Block has lived in the Valley since 1977, when he came to
start a Los Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah, then only a Jerusalem outreach
yeshiva. In 1991, the building burnt down in an arson attack (the reason for
the fire is still unknown), and Aish began concentrating its efforts in the
city. Not one to give up, Block, who was also working as the founding rabbi of
the Orthodox Beth Din of the Valley and as the principal of West Valley Hebrew
Academy, collected $1 million in funds to build a building for his own outreach
Yeshiva, and, in 1995, he opened Toras HaShem on Chandler Boulevard in North
Hollywood, in a new building that could accommodate more than 200 students.

Toras HaShem caters to people who have no prior knowledge of
Judaism, and it intends to foster individualist, religious expression in its
students. “We produced kids who were Chasidic-leaning, and we produced kids who
were Zionistic-leaning,” Block said.

The yeshiva encourages its students to go to Israel, Block
said. “We believe very strongly in a powerfully assertive Israel, and so this
concert fits right in,” he said. “It is really an effort to galvanize the city
of Los Angeles on our behalf, and on behalf of Israel.”

The Shalsheles Concert will take place at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 16 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets
are available at the 613 Mitzvah Store, House of David and Brenco Judaica. For
more information on the concert, call (818) 581-7505. For information on Toras
HaShem, call (818) 980-6934.  

The Making of a Sermon


Rabbi Edward Feinstein wants to make something clear: It’s not about the anecdotes or the jokes or the witty stories. "The art of giving a sermon is not to say something clever. The art of giving a sermon is to say something important. It’s not about entertaining," says Feinstein, rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "I want to say something that will change the way people think and act and what they value, and bring people closer to the source of the meaning of life."

It is a challenge Feinstein and most other rabbis think about all year long, and as summer wanes and September approaches, those thoughts creep more and more to the fore of their minds. What they will say, how they will say it and what effect the sermon will have are challenges no rabbi takes lightly.

Often the idea for a sermon stems from current events, where items in the news — this year Israel, Sept. 11, business ethics — might provide the starting point for a broader discussion of Jewish values, ethics or personal growth.

"Does a particular experience bespeak something deeply rooted in Jewish experience or the human experience?" Feinstein asks himself.

This year, for instance, he will talk about Israel, but he will extend the ideas gleaned from the current crisis to the span of Jewish history and the Jewish future.

"I am interested in Israel as an example of the special condition of the Jewish people, and how the Jewish people deal with adversity and situations which appear to be hopeless," he says. "How do Jews get through tough times without losing their souls, without becoming monsters? How is it that over 2,000 years in exile we never became thoroughly embittered?" he asks.

Beyond current events, the sermon often stems from what a rabbi has been studying personally.

"Sermonizing is a process of teaching, and teaching is the product of learning, and we’re always learning and thinking about what we’d like to teach from the stuff that we’re learning," Feinstein says.

For Rabbi Steven Weil of congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, teaching is a primary component of the sermon.

"The long-term goal is education, the short-term goal is inspiration," Weil says. "On an educational level, I try to develop a concept or a theme to expose people to looking at themselves or the world a little bit differently. On a more visceral level, I want to inspire people not just to look at the world differently, but to conduct affairs differently or relate in a more passionate way," he says.

Weil says that for the High Holidays, he likes to pick up a motif from the prayer service or the Torah reading.

"I want to take a theme that brings out the personality of the day," he says.

For Weil and other rabbis of congregations where the weekly Shabbat and High Holiday crowds are the same, the Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur sermon is part of an ongoing conversation, rather than a once-a-year chance to inspire congregants.

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills says that for him, the hardest sermon to give is the first — erev Rosh Hashana.

"How do you set the mood for people who are not always so comfortable in services, and how do you gently transition them into the heaviness of what the Days of Awe are about?" he asks.

Vogel says he gets energized every year after he attends the Southern California Board of Rabbis Sermon Seminar, held this year on Aug. 13 at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Far from being a sermon swap meet, the seminar allows rabbis to be inspired by ideas others have been unpacking, and to kick into high gear their own process of congealing ideas that they have been bouncing around for months.

"It’s important for us to get together as a rabbinic community," Vogel says. "It’s a time for us to check in. We’re all struggling with the most significant issues that we’re going to share with our congregations, and it gives us an opportunity to study and to share ideas," he says.

Rabbis have different gauges for whether a sermon has been a success.

"You can see it in their faces and in their eyes," Weil says. "In the long term, you can see if the terms become part of their conversations, if the ideas become part of their Jewish repertoire."

Feinstein agrees, but says the gauge is also internal.

"Part of it is, ‘Did I learn something from doing this? Did I grow in the process of putting this together?’" he says.

Ultimately, it is about the moment when the rabbi is standing at the pulpit before his or her congregants.

"The anxiety I feel before talking really isn’t about whether the talk will be clever or charismatic; I want to feel that it’s important," Feinstein says. "This is such a precious opportunity. I stand in front of 10,000 Jews, and I pray that I have the ability to say something important to them to connect them to the meaning that they are looking for."

They Have Your Attention — But Can They Keep It?


Fresh out of seminary, Rabbi Naomi Levy gave High Holiday sermons the way she thought they were supposed to sound — formal, ponderous, laced with phrases such as “my dear friends.” Every once in a while, however, she would look up from her prepared text and slip into her natural cadence; it was at those moments she found her voice, hit her stride. The young rabbi was learning the secret of reaching a congregation: being herself.

“In every discipline, there are moments when you move beyond yourself and hit ‘the zone,'” says Levy, who a few years ago stepped down as spiritual leader at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice to write her book, “To Begin Again.” “Giving sermons is like that. There are peak experiences when some chemistry happens that is beyond what is on the paper, beyond what is in your mind, when something intermingles between the community and the speaker. And it’s magic.”

It is the kind of chemistry that rabbis dream about achieving during the High Holidays, when they deliver their most-listened-to sermons of the year.

Rabbis are deeply aware that for congregants who attend synagogue perhaps only on the High Holidays, one good 20-minute sermon can determine a lot: who shall pray and who shall daydream, who shall be inspired and who shall doze, who shall return to shul next week and who shall wait until next year.

“For the rabbi, the High Holiday sermon is a return to Sinai,” writes Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin in her foreward to “Living Words: Best High Holiday Sermons of 5759” (Sh’ma Press). “The audience is never so open, the atmosphere never so charged and the stakes never so high as on these days of repentance.”

A Sense of Awe

Most rabbis spend all year thinking about their speeches. Every occurrence, anecdote and news event is filtered through the prism of one question: Does this have a High Holiday message hidden in it?

“Rabbis agonize over their High Holiday sermons,” says Rabbi Richard Levy, dean of the rabbinic school at Hebrew Union College. “There’s a real sense of yirah, awe, appropriate to the season. How can I confront the themes of the day, stand with my people before God and gain a positive judgment by the words that I say?”

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills says the process of preparing a sermon provokes a lot of anxiety.

“It’s a difficult vehicle for communicating,” she says. “It’s difficult to say something powerful and passionate in a relatively short period of time. And it’s not an interactive communication, so that also makes it difficult.”

There also lurks the knowledge that “sometimes people are inclined to be critical of a rabbi’s sermon,” Geller says. “When you have a large and quite diverse community, it is a situation where you know that while you might be inspiring and moving and challenging some congregants, there are clearly going to be others that have very different reactions.”

No Rabbi Is

Perfect

For some rabbis — those who are not gifted or well-trained speakers — the holiday speeches are especially challenging.

“Every rabbi has his or her strengths,” Naomi Levy says, “but there is no rabbi who is perfect. Unfortunately, being a poor public speaker is to have your weakness publicly demonstrated.”

Some rabbis who are painfully aware of their own shortcomings make their speeches shorter or hand the sermon over to an assistant rabbi or qualified congregant. Others — even those who are decent speakers but would like to improve — seek help from professional coaches.

But often the congregation is left to take the initiative, to approach the rabbi. The alternative is suffering through a poor delivery, or confusing or irrelevant content.

“Every year, we would talk about how much we loved our rabbi and how brilliant he was and how important it would be if he learned to give a talk,” one active congregant says. “We said to him, ‘We love you; you’re wonderful; we can’t understand a word you’re saying.’ “

A board member at another shul says the issue of the rabbi’s inability to connect with congregants through speeches came up at contract-renewal time, but the rabbi seemed to want to breeze past it.

“Since then,” the board member says, “no one has been comfortable going to him to say we want to continue the discussion on speaking — even though we said we would at that meeting — because who wants to sit face to face and criticize a rabbi pretty roundly about his speaking?”

Getting Help

But rabbis and speech experts alike say that kind of criticism, delivered by the right person in the right manner, is usually appreciated.

That was the case when congregants at Young Israel of Century City came to Rabbi Elazar Muskin after his first Yom Kippur sermon 14 years ago. The members told their new rabbi that they wanted him to speak extemporaneously rather than reading from a written text.

“The person was sharing his honest feelings. That comment was not out of lack of respect. I wanted to learn and grow, and if your ego gets in the way, you’re not going to change and you’re going to pay for it dearly,” says Muskin, who has since ditched the verbatim delivery and has become an engaging speaker.

It happened to Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson too. When Artson was a rabbi in Orange County, a congregant who worked as a communications consultant offered him a one-on-one speech tutorial to strengthen his speaking style. “It was clearly meant as supportive,” recalls Artson, now dean of the University of Judaism Zeigler School of Rabbinical Studies. “I took it as a great gift.” Now Artson teaches sermon giving at the UJ.

Stephanie Waxman, who teaches speech to rabbinic students at HUC, has coached several local rabbis, and she says improvement is certainly possible.

“Nobody is born speaking,” says Waxman, whose father, Stanley Waxman, taught speech at HUC for 30 years before relinquishing the reigns to his daughter more than 10 years ago.

“You could be the quietest, most dry person, and I can still make you good up there, if I can teach you to follow your instincts,” says Alan Rappoport, who founded the Media Edge, a company that trains CEOs, athletes, politicians and celebrities in the art of public presentation.

Waxman says getting to a person’s core is the way to hone a great speaker.

“I always feel that my challenge is to get rabbinic students to stop thinking and to get below the brain — find out what is going on from the neck down and what is going on in their gut and heart, and what they feel passionately about. If we can contact that, we can help them communicate that passion,” she says. “If they’re completely divorced, it usually doesn’t filter down to our hearts as an audience.”

Rappoport says he has never coached a rabbi, but as a shul-going Jew, he has longed to spend just a few crucial hours with dozens of rabbis he has heard speak over the years.

“Half of what guys like me do is clear out the underbrush and work on bringing back who they really are, and strip aside the performance stuff. We let them feel free and safe to be a communicator, and we give them the techniques to do it,” says Rappoport, who works from Bellevue, Wash., and has offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

He suggests that congregants whom the rabbi respects approach the spiritual leader without pretense, asking him first to critique his own presentation skills. Next, the congregants should bring forward concrete criticisms, with examples, collected from three distinct segments of the population. Finally, congregants can suggest the rabbi consult a speech coach.

Finding a coach who can deal with content as well as delivery is essential.

“You want someone who will approach the training very strategically in making a stronger connection between the ideas the rabbis want to get across and the style they are using to deliver it,” Rappoport says.

Congregants must make sure to get an important point across to the rabbi: “We don’t want to change you or turn you into some kind of Hollywood robot rabbi or clone communicator,” congregants should tell the rabbi, Rappoport says. “We just want to buil
d on the way you are com-municating in a large group and help you be the best you can be.”

‘Sesame Street’

Sermons

Most rabbis today are well aware of the perils of speech-giving in a media age, when bits of information are fed to people in tasty sound bites and being asked to process complex thoughts is considered an imposition.

“We are in competition with television, which is fast-paced, multicharacter, dramatic and violent,” says Waxman. “How do you calm down, slow down and listen to one person teach you something?”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom worries that the art of the drasha — of public speaking in general — has been lost as respect for the spoken word has diminished.

“We live in an era of great impatience,” he says. “People miss what at one time the drasha was — an interpretation of biblical insight or rabbinical insight being developed. Now we have ‘Sesame Street’ sermons, where everything has to be entertaining. We’ve always got to have this monster.”

Rabbinic schools seem to be aware of that challenge. Yeshiva University in New York, which ordains Orthodox rabbis, will offer a speech course for the first time, in addition to homiletics, the traditional course on developing a sermon around a biblical text. HUC, the Reform seminary, has long had a speech communication class, and the University of Judaism, for Conservative rabbis, intertwines public speaking into its homiletics course and other courses as well.

Rabbi Ron Shulman, who teaches homiletics at UJ and leads Congregation Ner Tamid in South Bay, says students can use the time at seminary not only to hone their speaking skills but to figure out their strengths and weaknesses.

“We talk about developing your own style, finding your own voice,” he says. “The school will guide students to different aspects of rabbinic work. There are a lot of different and important roles for a rabbi to fill.”

Temple Emanuel’s Geller says that the sermon is often overestimated and that it is just one part of a very large service and part of long process of repentance, which begins well before congregants take their seats.

And, she says, congregants must be prepared to be active listeners.

“I think congregants are better listeners when they come with open hearts and open minds and open souls,” Geller says, “and when everyone remembers that it is not about the rabbi’s sermons, it is about the individual spiritual work that each of us has to do.”

Reviving a Shul, One Goat at a Time


Note to future rabbis: If you want to make a lasting firstimpression with your congregants, nothing beats farm animals on thebimah. Just ask anyone at Temple Adat Shalom in West LosAngeles. It’s been almost four months since Michael Resnick took overthere, and they’re still talking about his goats.

Mort Schrag, the congregation’s president, put it succinctly: “Hereally has a lot of unique approaches.”

Resnick trotted the two goats out in front of the congregationduring his sermon on Yom Kippur. Earlier that week, he was driving tohis parents’home in Northridge, wondering how he could bring thebiblical concept of the scapegoat — recounted in the holiday’s Torahportion — alive for his congregants. He passed a petting zoo thatadvertised animal rentals.

Fast-forward to Yom Kippur. Resnick lays out a waterproof tarp onthe bimah — one of the goats is called Tinkle, a name based purelyon reputation. The rabbi takes a long dagger from his lectern andthen, in accordance with the biblical narrative, draws lots todetermine which goat will be slaughtered for the sins of thecongregation, and which will be set free. Amid nervous laughter andrapt silence, some 700 congregants watch the tall, commanding40-year-old grasp the doomed goat, raise its neck, and draw the bladeacross its throat.

“Don’t worry,” says the rabbi, patting the animal’s head andputting aside the dagger, which is just a letter opener. “We’re notgoing to hurt this little goat.” The point of the exercise, he tellsthe assembly, is that “no one can make atonement for ourtransgressions but ourselves.”

Whether the congregation took the sermon to heart is hard to tell– until next Yom Kippur. But there is no question that the new rabbigot congregants’ attention. And that, as any rabbi in the late 20thcentury will tell you, is at least half the battle.

“Whatever I can do to make the traditions come alive and berelevant,” Resnick says during an interview in his office, “I’lltry.”

The creative approach seems to fit the youthful, energetic rabbi.A native of Sepulveda, he attended Har Zion Synagogue (it has sincemerged with Temple Ramat Zion) but stopped his Jewish education atage 13. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, he embarked on acareer in advertising. But a visit to Israel during the Gulf Warinspired him to change course. He attended the Pardes Institutethere, then returned to the States to study and receive hisordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

He took the pulpit of Adat Shalom in August, replacing therecently retired Rabbi Morton Wallach, who served there for 24 years.Demographic shifts had been tough on the 50-year-old Conservativeshul, whose modern structure sits on a prime block of Westside realestate across from Trader Joe’s market on National Boulevard. AdatShalom has been losing members for the past six years. About 250families and individuals belong to the congregation now, down from apeak of 450. The decline also plunged the shul into a series offinancial crises. “We need to energize the congregation and attractyoung families,” said Schrag.

Resnick, then, seems the perfect fit. In his final year at JTS, heserved as rabbi to the Jewish Home for the Aged in Manhattan. “Therewere 500 people over 90 years old. I did 150 funerals,” he says. Buthe also learned to lead inspiring, song-filled services, based, inpart, on his experience at such lively New York congregations asB’nai Jeshurun, which draws hundreds of young people to Shabbatservices.

The rabbi is working to create some of that same magic on theWestside. “When Judaism is made relevant and alive and exciting,people respond. People are looking for a sense of belonging, arelationship with their tradition,” he said.

Along with a new rabbi, the synagogue also hired a new cantor,Ralph Resnick. The two are not related, but members have startedreferring to their shul as Resnick & Resnick.

On Sukkot, both rabbi and cantor joined with a klezmer band tolead congregants in the procession with the Torah, and provided icecream sundaes for the children. The issue of whether to have music inConservative ceremonies is a touchy one, but Rabbi Resnick sees thevalue in raising it. “I want people to wrestle with what it means tobe a Jew. I can’t force anyone to keep kosher, but I can challengethem.”

Resnick also wants to create social-action programs and developbonds with local non-Jewish congregations. He hopes to create ascholar-in-residence program and build up the temple’s preschool andreligious school, which now have about 80 children.

“I want Judaism to be surprising,” says the rabbi.

It’s Time to Talk


It’s High Holiday speech season. Rabbis prep, call each other withideas, exchange jokes, insights, and witty stories. They ponder thegreat issues of the day and get ready for prime-time talking in therabbinical world. Synagogues may not be full throughout the year, butcome Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is hardly an empty pew. Thisyear, attendance will be a bit higher, as Yom Kippur falls on aweekend.

Over the years, I have made a private rule to resist thetemptation to talk about the ills of society, the great politicalcrisis of the moment, or social problems. I have always believed thatthe High Holidays are a time to focus inward, to the spiritual self.A time to awaken Jews from their yearlong Jewish hibernation with afew words of inspiration that will carry them for the months to come.

The High Holidays also can be a time when rabbis get lucky. Theright words might motivate parents to enroll their child in a Jewishschool, or cause a family to become more involved. A few years ago, Ispoke on one occasion about keeping Shabbos. If the whole Shabbos istoo much to swallow, I suggested starting with just Friday night.Turn off the TV, forget about the phones, and sit with the family andtalk about the Torah portion. One family told me, a few months later,that they we doing the “partial Shabbat” plan every week. Never had Iimagined it was them that I had inspired.

Two years ago, I departed from my norm. After almost being killedin a bus bombing in Israel, I spoke about he pitfalls of the Osloaccords. While I may have moved some of my constituents from the leftto the right, I did little for their souls. In retrospect — andafter severe criticism from my rebbetzin — I felt that thetime for the speech was inappropriate. Instead of trying to uplift, Ihad talked of politics. None of my members were going to vote in theIsraeli election, nor did anyone have a direct line to the presidentor could they influence Yasser Arafat.

The featured attraction for this year in most liberal Jewishcongregations is going to be a passionate speech about pluralism.People who come to shul but once a year will hear about theconversion legislation, the conflicts at the Wall, and the plight ofthe Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.

Emotions will be raised, and money will flow into the coffers.Rabbis will tell the story of the Reform kindergarten near Jerusalemthat was burnt in a blaze. The accusation “that it was thosenefarious ultra-Orthodox who did it” will be repeated across thecountry. The police have announced no suspects or made any arrests.Nowadays, you are guilty when accused, even though there are nowitnesses or proof. Then again, it becomes a case of “he said-shesaid.” “My rabbi said it, so it must be true — it was thosereligious cousins in Jerusalem. I never liked them anyway.” Except inthis case, the rabbi has the pulpit, and the other side will not beheard.

These rabbis will lament from the pulpits that “the great majorityof Israelis are secular and not interested in Orthodox Judaism.” Theywon’t mention the fact that more than 80 percent of Israelis attendHigh Holiday services in Orthodox synagogues — far higher than thepercentage of American Jews who attend services of any type. Nor willthey point out that the percentage of Israelis who are religiouslyobservant is growing in recent years. According to recent surveys, 25percent of the women visit the mikvah monthly, more than 60 percentkeep kosher, and about 30 percent fully observe Shabbat.

Still, there are more important questions that need to be asked ofmy more liberal rabbinical brethren — or sisters for that matter:Aren’t there more pressing matters to talk about on the HighHolidays. How many members of your congregations attend servicesregularly? What is the rate of intermarriage? What percentage of thechildren receives Jewish education?

At a time when Jews are drifting away from their heritage, is thedebate about the conversion bill the most pressing message to thosewho come but once a year? Grab the moment and uplift them with aspiritual message. Inspire your congregants to renew their bond withTorah. Reach into their souls and stir their consciousness.

There is no question that it is much easier to seize theirinterest with talks about religious freedom. There are lots of pressclippings, you don’t have to research the books, and the topics arefresh and exciting. Stories of oppression sell well, and you can makea few dollars for the cause. After Yom Kippur, you will be the talkof town at the break the fast conversations: “Did you hear what myrabbi said about those Orthodox extremists.”

If it is so important, save it for the first Shabbat after theholidays. Those who are more committed will be there. They are theones who will lead the battle anyway. If the rabbi does a better jobon Yom Kippur, he — or, for that matter, she — might have a biggercrowd. But let’s not fool ourselves. No one is going to come toservices, put his kid in Hebrew school and sign up for adulteducation when all he hears on the holidays is the battle againstthose “Orthodox fanatics” in Israel.

As for me, I will hold myself back from talking about the liberalswho seek to impose their unilateral changes of Jewish practice on thebulk of world Jewry. Nor will I talk about the liberals who talkabout us Orthodox in a negative way. Instead, I will try to upliftand inspire. If I get lucky, maybe another family will keep a bit ofShabbos, or someone will put their child in school, or another willrealize that the shul is open more than once a year.

I’ll save the politics for my Shabbos regulars. Anyway, they haveheard me so many times that they need an occasional break from theroutine weekly sermons.