Q&A with Rabbi Ed Feinstein
On Sunday, May 11, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, will be feted for his two decades of service to the synagogue. He talks in this edited version of an interview about changes in synagogue life, his theology and what he prays for.
Jewish Journal: Twenty years. Does it feel like a long time?
Ed Feinstein: Some days. (laughter)
JJ: So, how do you think that synagogue life has changed in those 20 years?
EF: In the beginning of the 20th century we were very active and very conscious of creating a new modern form of Judaism, an American form of Judaism. In the middle of the 20th century there were two traumas: The Holocaust and the creation State of Israel. And the community consciously decided to stop the process of re-creating itself. They adopted continuity as a motto. Which meant we weren’t going to continue the creativity that had marked the community in the early part of the century. And for a generation, the community hunkered down and protected itself. It created all kinds of institutions — it created synagogues and summer camps and seminaries; there was a lot of philanthropy. But there wasn’t a great deal of institutional creativity, and ideological, philosophical creativity. And that worked from the end of the Second World War, until the end of the 1980s. But by the ‘90s, that numbness wore off, and the community once again returned, by force, because the kids asked their parents a very powerful question: Why be Jewish? Up until that point, if anyone ever asked that question, what you answered with was a narrative of the holocaust. You dropped your eyes and lowered your voice and whispered something about the 6 million, and the conversation was over. But all of a sudden kids weren’t responding to that language anymore.
JJ: And that’s when you came here.
EF: And that’s about when I came to Valley Beth Shalom [VBS]. So this last 20 years has seen the return of what I think is an enormously energetic creative process of reinventing American Judaism, reinventing Judaism for modernity. We are renegotiating our relationship with the state of Israel; we are finding a way to tell the story of the Holocaust; we are finding a way to tell the story of our own identity. We’re trying to figure out what is our relationship to the outside world. What does it mean there are so many among us who weren’t born Jewish, and yet are participating in the Jewish community? We are trying to figure out our politics in America; we’re certainly trying to figure out our relationship with God.
JJ: Do you the model for a large synagogue like VBS — I don’t know how many families you have…
EF: A million.
JJ: No seriously, about how many is it?
EF: About 1600.
JJ: That’s huge by many standards.
EF: Yeah thank God they don’t all want a bris on the same morning.
JJ: Do you think that’s a good model for the future?
EF: In order to survive the ups and downs of the economy, institutions have to be big. When the economy tanked VBS made a very clear statement: We will not lose a family because of money. And we were able to keep that promise because the institution is big enough and has a broad enough reach to absorb an economic downturn and still move forward. However, because community is what a synagogue is about, connecting people to people, to God, and to their traditions, it has to be small. So, while the synagogue is an institutional framework that is very big, within it are dozens of micro-communities that are very small. And my job is to bridge those two realities. On Shabbos morning we have 5 or 6 minyanim that are meeting. And people get to pray with the people that they love. We have many many classes all over the city there are classes, there are lunch time classes being offered. We have a number of small groups of people going out to do social justice work. The only time the whole community really meets is on the high holidays. And the wonderful thing about the high holidays is that’s when you get to see all of your friends from all of your micro communities sitting with each other, and you realize how interwoven all of these micro communities are. That’s the model.
JJ: Can you define your theology?
EF: Theology for me begins with the question of “what is the meaning of my existence?” “Why am I here?” What are the passions that get me up in the morning and move me through life? Theology doesn’t begin with the metaphysics with the way the universe is constructed it begins with the realization that my life has meaning, that I matter, that I’m important, that I have significance. And the question is what kind of universe would I have to imagine in order to recognize that my life matters and that I have meaning in my existence. It’s a universe that bears the possibility of repair. If I posit that the universe is so broken and it’s broken pieces could never fit together, then I really ought to go become a Buddhist. Because the Buddhist tradition teaches a withdrawal from the pain of being in the world. But the Jewish tradition teaches a different message. That there’s a possibility of tikkun. And because there’s a possibility of tikun, our efforts to do justice in the world, to bring gentleness to the world, to care for each other, make a difference. That is a faith statement.
JJ: How do you reconcile that against things like the Boston bombings?
EF: The brokenness is still deeply profound. There is a deep brokenness in this world, and that brokenness is also expressed through human beings. And our job is to try and repair the brokenness. I think the story that all of us wept at is the story of all the men and women who went running toward the explosion.
JJ: Did you grow up thinking you were going to be a rabbi?
EF: No, not even close. In fact some mornings (laughter) I don’t wake up thinking that way. My mom and dad owned a bakery in the West San Fernando Valley. Dad’s a baker, Mom’s a bakery lady. Mom created a community in that bakery. Go on a Sunday morning, every Jew in America was in that bakery. And there was a sense of belonging and caring in that community. I always want to be part of community.
JJ: So, in a sense, it’s turned out that you’re doing what you imagined, it’s just a different role.
EF: I never would be like this. Because when Rabbi Schulweis asked me in 1993 to come here, this was a dream. I never thought…I fell in love with him when I was 16 years old. I watched him on that pulpit, I watched the magic that he would do; I listened to his words. All through college and rabbinical school, my dad would send me tapes of Rabbi Schulweis’ talks, because I was so taken with the power of his mind and the power of his oratory and the power of his soul.
JJ: So what’s the most fun part of your job?
Friday morning, telling stories to kids. I still do it, I’ve done it since I was ordained, I get on the floor and I tell the kids all these Jewish stories. And I watch their eyes grow wide. The story I love to tell, it’s a true story, the week I was ordained a rabbi, no the week I started my first job as a rabbi, in Texas, Nina, my wife sent me to the grocery store to buy some milk, and I was walking up the aisle. And there was a shopping cart coming the other way, and it had one of the 3 year olds from the nursery school in the jump seat, and the kid looks at me and he looks at his mother and looks at me and he points and says “Look mom, it’s God!” True story.
JJ: And what did you say?
EF: I said God bless this kid, I hope he joins the board of directors. No I realized, you know, you imagine God to wear the face of the people who teach you about God. You imagine religion to have the same emotional tenor of the people who teach you religion. Too many of us were raised by teachers and rabbis who were cold and forbidding and distant. And if I could be close to kids, hug kids, engage kids, tell them stories that contain the wisdom of the tradition but do it with laughter and joy, that’s a gift to a generation. So Friday morning, you’re always welcome, 9:20 am, you can hear about the boy who turned into a chicken. “Sheldon the Shabbos Dog” is one of our favorites.
JJ: So what’s the least fun?
EF: Oh God. The least fun is when the institution of the synagogue and the sacred community of the synagogue don’t correspond. And they rub up against each other. Dealing with financial issues, dealing with personnel issues, dealing with the business of the synagogue when it doesn’t correspond with the sacred character of the synagogue. The least fun is when — this is too honest, but the least fun is when I don’t have the time or the energy or the presence to actually meet the needs of the people whom I need to meet the needs of. When someone says “I was in the hospital, and you didn’t come,” or someone says “I was in pain and you didn’t respond.” And they’re right. Because there’s one of me and there’s a lot of them and its hard to keep track and its hard to get there.
The torah’s all about this. This is Moses’ complaint to God — he says “What did you do this to me for?” And I know exactly what he feels like. The least fun part of the job is when the doctor says to me, there’s nothing else I can do. Would you like to tell the patient or shall I? And I have to go in and sit with somebody who I deeply care for and say we have to talk about what’s coming next. And you know it’s painful, it’s just so painful. That’s the hardest part of the job.
JJ: Often we look to the rabbi for a solid sense of faith. As a rabbi do you find that it’s hard to be human in those ways?
EF: No, and I’ll tell you why. Because what Rabbi Schulweiss taught me is that that’s not the rabbi’s job. It’s not my job to have faith when all of you have doubt; my job is to put your doubt into words. It’s my job to remind you that you’re not the first person to argue with God in that way. To give you the courage and resolution to get up, and to recognize that your indignation in the face of the world’s evil is in fact the most glorious part of your humanity.
JJ: I think you just hit your theology in a different way.
JJ: Do you worry about anti-Semitism?
EF: Only among Jews. I mean that very seriously, and without facetiousness. No, I do not. Yes I worry about Al-Qaeda, like everybody in America. We saw in Boston what happens when two lone wolfs can set off an explosion and ruin a national moment. Like everybody, I worry about that. But in terms of specifically anti-Semitism…no. What I worry about is the viciousness of Jews against other Jews. The perverse irony of Jewish history is that at moments when the outside world is ready to accept us, we find new ways to be self-destructive. Look at what’s going on in Israel. You know, there used to be the joke about what would happen if peace broke out. And in Israel, that is sort of what’s happening right now. They’re beginning to focus on the internal life of the country and all the unresolved conflicts within the internal life of the country are now being recognized.
At VBS, we have been very successful in creating an environment in which everybody knows that they’re going to hear lots and lots of points of views they disagree with. We brought Jeremy Ben Ami from J Street, we brought Mort Klein from ZOA. And we have brought people from the New Israel Fund. And we’ve brought people from much more Right Wing positions. And I have worked very diligently to say again and again that our job is to listen, to evaluate, to judge, you don’t have to agree, but you have to listen politely.
JJ: Here’s a very personal question: What do you pray for?
Peace. Everywhere. Peace in the world, peace for Israel. A vision for Israel to find its way to peace. A vision for America to find its way to peace. Vision for the Jewish community to fnid its way to wholeness. And personal, I just pray for the capacity to find peace. to find moments of peace and moments of joy, moments of recognition. To me you don’t pray for stuff as much as you stop and recognize what’s in front of you. Prayer to me is not as much petitionary as it is appreciative. So, to get myself to stop worrying, and stop wrestling with the world, and just recognize how blessed I am. You know, I’ve gotten to work with Harold Schulweis for 20 years; what a gift. For 20 years I get to sit next to the greatest Jew of the 20th century, every Shabbos morning, and schmooze. I have five young rabbis I work with, brilliant, wonderful souls. I’ve made friends in this community, the other rabbis in this city are my friends. And I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family. So I ask God to slow me down and help me see the blessings that are mine.
JJ: And what would you ask us to pray for?
EF: Certainly peace. (long pause). I don’t know what I’d ask you to pray for. I’ve asked the community over and over again to live with meaning. To live on purpose. To live with significance. To build lives that matter. To not waste the gift of life. To not waste the moments that are given to us. To not waste the opportunities that have been given to us. To me, this is the purpose of Torah, to teach us how to fill moments with significance, and to take seriously this notion that I carry the image of God and to live that way. I want people to live with significance, and not waste life. So that every day of your life, you know that you matter, that your life matters, that the work you’ve done in the world matters, that your relationships matter. That’s what we pray for.