Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dear Rabbi Amar

Dear Rabbi Amar

I don’t know you. We have never met. We don’t travel in the same circles and we don’t have any friends that I know of in common. You are a chief Rabbi in Israel; I am a Conservative Rabbi in South Florida. We are literally and figuratively worlds apart. 

I am not afraid of you and your state power, but apparently, you are very afraid of me.  We have some very serious differences in the way we approach Judaism. You are a fundamentalist and I am not. I see Judaism as a rainbow of ideas and possibilities and you do not.  In any conversation I have had with other Jews or non-Jews, I have never disparaged you or your position. You cannot say the same about me and my position. I have never disparaged any Jew in my search to bring them closer to God and Torah. You have disparaged those Jews who have found meaning and commitment in my synagogue. 

I understand that there will always be Jews who want and need the kind of Judaism you teach. There will always be Jews who need the structure and tight community; a community that will make decisions for them because they are unable to decide for themselves. These Jews will need your Halacha to show them the path every minute of every day in their lives. They will study Torah and be happy to only see it as interpreted by you. I don’t have a problem with that at all. 

But you seem to have a problem with Jews who believe that there are many ways to approach Judaism. There are many different opinions of what the Torah says, how to interpret Jewish law and how to celebrate Jewish holidays. There are Jews who are not afraid to see how different authorities have ruled differently in history and who then feel they can and should decide which authority they should follow, even if that authority is not you. These Jews are not afraid to ask the Rabbi, “Why?” and if they don’t like his answer, they will go on searching. 

You accuse me of “poisoning the well” when they come to satisfy their spiritual thirst. But I don’t believe that Jews who thirst would drink poison. They just don’t find your stagnant water refreshing to their souls. They seek the living waters of Judaism; the rapids of the Jewish river where Rambam and Ramban disagree; where Ashkenazi and Sephardi differ; where Hasid and non-Hassid approach their Judaism differently. They don’t seem to have the same problem that you have of seeing both “Hillel and Shammai as the words of the living God”.

Rabbi Amar, you don’t have to fear me or my fellow Rabbis. You don’t need your high Israeli office or fancy ministry to protect you and the Jewish people from the likes of me. If you are so sure of what you teach and the reasons behind it and if you believe that every Jew should be exposed to your version of Judaism, then come out here with me and let us teach side by side. Let the Jewish people, “who may not be prophets but they are sons of prophets”, decide if your teachings move them more than my teachings.  But don’t hide behind your chief rabbinate office and make pronouncements about the Jewish People who have rejected your teachings and who have rejected you.

God does not need police to enforce God’s law. God does not need border patrols to keep undesirables out. God does not need you to defend God’s honor. I prefer the approach of Rabbi Benny Lau who said, “Delegitimization and war doesn’t work. The best way to reach out to people not connected to Judaism is to do what is good and what is right and to be professional, to serve the community, to provide the best possible service and then the public will choose those who are good in their eyes.”

Neither you nor I can make any Jew love God. We can only teach what we know and model a good life and the rest is in God’s hands. If you can’t do that, then you are not a chief rabbi, you are just another politician protecting your power and your turf.

And if that were true, that would be a true Hillul HaShem and it would not be my poison in the well.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sacred Words

As part of my spirituality training, I have been exploring issues relating to personal prayer.  Many of the articles I have read put down those people who use fixed prayer. A prayer book, many say, is a waste of time. Real prayer comes from the heart and must speak about what we are carrying in our soul. Fixed prayer is a performance and if we truly want to pray, we have to get out of our seats and put ourselves into the action.  I understand the importance of personal prayer. I understand what it means to open your heart before God and spill out the pain, the hurt and the frustration as well as expressing the joy, the happiness and the gratefulness that reside there.

I was reading Rabbi Naomi Levy, the introduction to her book “Talking to God”. She writes, “When I was a teenager, my girlfriends and I were often trying to diet. Our motto was: A moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips. It meant that an act that took just an instant could remain with you forever. I like to apply this phrase to the process of prayer. A prayer takes just a matter of seconds to utter, but its influence on our lives, on our behavior, on our hearts, on our perception can be permanent.  A moment on our lips is a lifetime on our souls. A simple prayer can change us; can lead us on the path to healing ourselves and our world.”

There is no doubt in my heart that her words are true. Words uttered in sincerity and words that come from the heart are some of the most powerful words in the world.  These are the kinds of words that can inspire a heart, a community, a nation to move to make life better. These words can set our souls free to soar closer to God. Words that come from the heart break out of the walls that we build around our hearts and around our lives so that we don’t have to care or be concerned about the injustice and the hurt. They can bring about an Arab Spring, motivate a Mother Theresa. When we can break out from behind the walls that protect and confine us, we are able to do the most amazing things. Personal prayer, the expression of our soul before God, can do all of this.
And yet, I know that this is not enough.

What are the words that keep us going when life is tough? What are the words that give us courage, hope and strength when our bodies are about to fail? What are the prayers that that are sung when we are climbing that impossible hill that separates us from our dreams? What words do we repeat over and over when we need to renew our hope and our resolve? It seems there is a role for a fixed liturgy after all. 

A fixed liturgy represents the best words of some of our greatest minds. They are the map that shows us where others have marked the trail so we do not feel that we are alone and lost. Others have been here and have left us the words that helped them when they were in this dark and lonely stretch of highway. Are there not Jews who have faced the fears of the night by quoting Moshe Rabbenu saying, “Shema Yisroel…?” Every day Jews celebrate the joys of life by quoting the Sages of the Talmud saying, “Shehechiyanu  V’Kiamanu …” It is very rare indeed to find a mourner who does not find comfort reciting, “Yitgadal v’Yitkadash…” In a modern congregation, it is hard to find those who would be uncomfortable praying for the sick by singing “Mi Shabyrach” with the new liturgical melody by Debbie Friedman.

The fixed liturgy is where we turn when we have no more words in our heart; when we face life and we don’t know what we should say, or what we could dare to say to God in that moment.
Some prayers are personal and need to be recited by the heart that carries them inside. Some prayers allow us to take the words of other people and make them our own. Personal prayers are about our longing; the fixed liturgy is about our responsibilities. Personal prayer starts in the heart and explodes outward into the rest of our life. The fixed liturgy starts on the outside and penetrates deep within our souls.

The ancient Rabbis were very wise. They gave us the fixed liturgy of the Shema and the personal space that comes with the Amida in every collection of prayer. When we have the words in our hearts, we have the space to express them in prayer. When our hearts seem empty, we have the liturgy to “prime the pump” to remind us of what prayer can be and what it should be.  Sure, we could recite a fixed liturgy by rote. But just like an old love song can mean more to us when we hear it because of our history with that song, how it was played when we met our beloved, and when we married, and at our 50 anniversary; so too, a fixed liturgy can be an old friend, always there to express the everyday feelings that make up our lives. 

I like this way of looking at words: Old and new friends helping us find our way to God.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The One Who Shouts First Loses

The One Who Shouts First Loses

There is an old story of a Japanese village where the people never argue. An outsider is fascinated with this modern wonder and asks the villagers why they never find anything to argue about. “Oh, we argue,” was the reply, “but we have a rule that the person who raises his or her voice first, loses.”

Could somebody please codify that rule in the United States soon!

In the past couple of months I have seen a good Rabbi slandered on YouTube for having the UN ambassador speak at a community event in his congregation. Another local synagogue had to cancel a political education event because the other party wanted to immediately respond to the issues that were raised. Emails are flying fast and furious about whether politicians can speak in synagogues without the synagogues losing their status as non-profit organizations.  All of this to silence Jewish leadership about taking a stand on issues that are important to our communities.

What bothers me is that what passes for political conversation today is all about yelling. One cannot take any position, right or left, without first passing some kind of “purity test” to make sure that they will speak the “truth” according to the extremist position. Forget about the end of the middle class family, we are seeing the end of the moderate thinker. Critical thinking is no longer needed. Nuanced positions are to be “swift boat-ed”. “Fair and balanced” has become a cynical motto and no longer a moral aspiration. Like the most fanatical religious observer, you are all in or you are sinner.  “He rides an elevator on Shabbat; he can’t be trusted” “She reads banned books; so she is a heretic”.
In the Jewish community, if one says the words, “Two State Solution” you are anti-Zionist and if you say “Settlements are a problem” you are an anti-Semite. If you say, “There are some Israeli policies that I am not sure about” then you are the definition of a traitorous Jew.

In Parshat Bahaalotecha, just last Shabbat, we see the story of Moses who begs God to assign some elders to help Moses lead the people. Seventy Elders are chosen and they are given a vision of God and begin to speak prophetic words in the camp. When Joshua is concerned that this will devalue the leadership of Moses, the great prophet replies, “Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29).

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School at The American Jewish University in Los Angeles has written; “Through the authorization of seventy sages, God establishes diversity as a Jewish virtue. By providing the leadership, the prototype of the Second Temple, and the rabbinic Sanhedrin with dissenting opinions, God assures that every possible view will be articulated and considered. Diversity, then, is not a threat. Instead, the Torah presents diverse viewpoints as a source of richness, stability and vitality for Judaism; indeed the Rambam suggests that this pluralism of viewpoint is at the very center of Jewish law, from the time of Moses to our own day” (The Bedside Torah, p. 236).

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. What is not allowed is drowning out all the dissenting opinions. Diversity is a God given mandate. Pluralistic thoughts are the way to make better decisions. Those who claim that there is only one way, one solution, one course of action are not only wrong, they are lying to us.  There is always another way, maybe it is better, maybe not, but we will never know if those who espouse it are shouted down, drowned out and refused a platform to speak.
And if we don’t speak up, we will get the discussion we deserve, which is no discussion at all. Rather than accept the fact that distorted ideas and defamatory remarks are what will go “viral” in our hypersensitive age, we need to stand up for diversity, pluralism and common sense. Such a stand will not be easy or pleasant. But it is the right stand in the end. 

Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem “If”: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop to build them up with worn out tools. … If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and, which is more, you will be a man my son.” 

I read it as “you will be a MENTCH”. 

What kind of a world is it that vilifies a kind, caring and considerate human being? Not a Jewish world; we believe in diversity. Not an American world, because we believe that everyone has the right to speak freely.  I vote for pluralism and diversity. Where will your vote go?