Thursday, November 29, 2012

Who Speaks for Judaism?

Cross-posted from the Rabbis Without Borders blog at

As an ex-pat British Jew, living and working in the USA, I’ve been following the press coverage on the search for a new Chief Rabbi in the UK with interest. The Times of Israel just recently published an update on what is becoming quite a lengthy and arduous search, raising a number of poignant issues in its coverage. Its been nearly two years since Rabbi Jonathan Sacks announced that he would be stepping down from the position come September 2013. British commentators have noted that the Anglican Church managed to appoint a new Archbishop of Canterbury in a mere 8 months.

For those less familiar with the British religious landscape, that comparison was not just plucked out of the air. Rabbi Herman Adler became the first, self-designated ‘Chief Rabbi’ from 1891-1911, and promoted this role as the Jewish equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury. With a much more centrist Orthodox rabbinate, the fledgling progressive communities were content with this singular spokesperson for the UK Jewish community for quite some time.

However, the official title is actually ‘Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth,’ and the preciseness of this label has become more pertinent over time. The United Synagogue, as it is often referred to, is the umbrella organization for modern Orthodox communities only. As the rabbinic authorities in the UK – the Dayanim – (judges that sit on the Beth Din – the Jewish Court) have played an influential role in moving the mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue further and further to the right (in part, no doubt, responding to pressures felt from their counterparts in Israel), and as the Progressive movements have grown in number and strength over the decades, it has become virtually impossible to conceive of one person who can represent and speak on behalf of the British Jewish community. Here, the parallel with the Archbishop of Canterbury breaks down. The archbishop only speaks for the Anglican Church. The fact that this is still somewhat of an influential voice in British culture is not because he speaks for any of the other Christian denominations to be found in the UK, but because of the UK’s own political history, by which the Anglican Church is the official State religion of the country.

And, in fact, there has been an official spokesperson for the Sephardi Jewish community, the Reform and the Liberal Movements of the UK for quite some time. Over the past 20 years or so, the British government has become much more attuned to this plurality of voices and representatives, ensuring that they are all invited to the appropriate State events.

Even before the current dilemma on who to appoint as the next Chief Rabbi came into being, I’ve found my American counterparts to be quite amused by the whole system in the UK. Here, the land of rugged individualism and autonomy, the thought that one would even attempt to find one spokesperson for the Jewish community is seen as laughable. Aside from the enormous diversity of Jewish expression to be found here that is movement-based, there is also a great deal of independence within each and every community.

In today’s cultural milieu, more than ever, when a congregation finds that its’ members values and practices are at odds with the official positions of the movement to which they affiliate, we are seeing more of them choose to go independent. While something is lost from being part of a larger collective, most intently felt when the movement brings people together from across the country or speaks up in the public sphere in a way that makes us proud, there is a growing feeling that communities are willing to let go of those larger affiliations if they perceive the restrictions laid upon them to be too great. Likewise, while rabbis still have great capacity to teach and guide a community, if they are perceived as being too out-of-step with the community, they are likely to find themselves looking for new work.

In truth, these are not new phenomena. This was very much the way of things for many Jewish communities across the world, prior to the communication and travel technologies that enabled geographically spread and diverse congregations to find each other and gather under the banner of a common label. But let us not be fooled – the desire to do so was in the fulfillment of larger communal needs as Jews sought full emancipation and inclusion in the larger societies of which they were a part. They provided a means to gather with other like-minded communities as we found ourselves responding to modernity and figuring out how to keep our religious traditions and practices relevant and meaningful within this new world.

Those needs still exist. And I am certainly making no early pronouncement that our movements no longer fulfill those needs. But what is clear, in the age of social networking and crowd-sourcing, is that they no longer remain the only way for separate communities to explore those questions together. Organizations like Darim Online, and CLAL (National Center for Learning and Leadership) – the creators of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program – demonstrate that speaking across and beyond denominational and movement-based lines can enable all of us to move forward in the ways we create and run spiritually purposeful Jewish communities today.

And we, the Jewish people, continue to do what, in fact, we have always done – we speak for Judaism whenever we engage, act, celebrate, and live our lives through a Jewish lens.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Thankful Heart Changes Everything

Last night I delivered the sermon at our Westborough Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.  It was a charming evening that brought many from the town together.  This was the 40th year that the town has held this service.

A prayer of gratitude… attributed to Homer.  No, not that Homer – Homer Simpson.  It goes like this: 
Dear Lord: The gods have been good to me. For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here's the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won't ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign. OK, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done.” (Homer Simpson, as written by  Dan Castellaneta).

Of course, despite being quite funny, the requisite response to Homer’s words, is ‘Doh!’  The only thing in this world that stays the same is change. So if we can only express gratitude when we are coasting on the peak experiences of life, we are likely to feel quite ungrateful for substantial periods of time.

But can we really muster up an attitude of gratitude when life isn’t plain sailing?  How can we get there, and why does it make a difference?

Now, I’ve only been in town since July but in the 5 short months that I’ve been at B’nai Shalom, my congregants have already learned that I’m not so much of a morning person.  I tend to burn the candle at the other end of the day. But it takes me a couple of hours each morning to get up to full speed.  When the alarm goes off at the quite respectable time of 7am, I’m more inclined to turn it off with a groan.  But the Jewish tradition invites us to utter a sentence in prayer each and every morning, the moment we are aware of gaining consciousness again.  That prayer begins, Modah Ani Lefanecha… thankful am I before You.  Thankful am I before you! Not, ‘urgghh, do I have to get up already?’  Thankful am I before you.  And even though I may not literally recite the blessing, my awareness of its message helps refocus me on the days that I am reluctant to get going.

The prayer functions as a mantra for daily mindfulness.  We find that many faith traditions have similar ways of placing an attitude of gratitude into our hearts and minds.  And what they all particularly have in common is their attachment to the ordinary, every day events of our lives. 

It is not at the peak moments of life that our spiritual traditions ask us to bring gratitude to mind.  While we may well take those moments for granted when we should not, it is not those moments that faith and spiritual practice provide support and help with.  Rather it is the moments that are so mundane that we take them for granted almost every single day.  And so Jews have a blessing for waking up.  Christians and Jews utter brief words of gratitude before eating a meal. 

Buddhist and Vepassana meditation begins by bringing attention to the simple act of breathing in and out, bringing to mind an echo at the end of Psalm 150, ‘Let each and every breath be a praise to God.’  During the five daily prayers in Islamic practice, a Muslim may utter words from the Qu’ran: Worship Allah, and be of those who give thanks. (Quran 39:66)

But while it is quite clear that every spiritual tradition prods and pokes us into mindful awareness of all the simple and quite ordinary things in life we could be grateful for - and that’s before we come to the Jewish Bathroom prayer – yes, we really do have a daily prayer of gratitude that is traditionally recited to give thanks that all the plumbing down there is working just fine - what changes when we adopt these spiritual practices and let them guide our daily consciousness?

A grateful heart does, quite literally, change everything.  Even in the midst of the most challenging periods in our lives, if we can bring awareness to the briefest moment of blessing, it can provide a spark of hope and light in dark times. I’m struck when I visit families after the death of a loved one that, even in the midst of the sorrow of loss, the ability to tell stories and share sweet memories can bring back smiles; sometimes even laughter.  While the pain of loss can be enormous, somehow it can coexist with these moments.  And the truth is, the pain only exists because of our capacity to love.  It is the blessing of the multitude of moments we shared that makes the loss so acute.  But we would not choose to give up one of those precious memories to avoid the pain of loss.

In recent weeks, as many of us have directed resources to help those most affected by Hurricane Sandy, in the midst of the loss and the extreme discomfort, we have all heard heart-warming stories about the moment a volunteer reaches the 25th floor of an apartment building in the Rockaways by foot to be greeted by an ever-so-grateful elderly resident as they hand over blankets and food. The places of worship that have opened their doors to provide shelter and hot meals to so many who are grateful that they have not been forgotten.  Each moment, a spark of light offering hope in the midst of darkness.

I’ll end with a story from the Hassidic Jewish world of the 1700s:

Some students of the Maggid of Mezheritz came to him. "Rebbe, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud that we must thank God as much for the bad days, as for the good. How can that be? What would our gratitude mean, if we gave it equally for the good and the bad?" The Maggid replied, "Go to Anapol. Reb Zusya will have an answer for you."

The Hasidim undertook the journey. Arriving in Anapol, they inquired for Reb Zusya. At last, they came to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack, sagging with age.

When they entered, they saw Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only small window. "Welcome, strangers!" he said. "Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!"

"No. We have come only to ask you a question. The Maggid of Mezheritz told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?"

Reb Zusya laughed. "Me? I have no idea why the Maggid sent you to me." He shook his head in puzzlement. "You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles."

Imagine the power of such a positive orientation to living each and every day, whatever it brought with it. Ask yourself, how would Reb Zusya’s life, or even his state of mind, benefit from bringing his attention to things that he might have wanted and he lacked? What is the impact of his answer on his visitors? They may be amazed, but they are also inspired. If such a man, living such a simple and encumbered life, is able to taste the sweetness of each day, oriented to life with an attitude of gratitude, recognizing the daily miracles that continue to exist even in the midst of hardship… would not such a man inspire them toward a positive orientation to all that they are blessed with in life?

May we be so inspired and may our hearts, filled with gratitude, guide our hands and our communities to act so as to raise each other up, ever providing more for one another so that, turning to one another and seeing there the face of God, we can truly say to each other, ‘Modah Ani Lefanecha – thankful am I before You’.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to Make a Shiva Visit

Earlier this week I led a workshop at Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, to offer guidance on how to make a shiva visit to a mourner.  The workshop covered many practical and pragmatic aspects of shiva, particularly helping more congregants feel comfortable making a shiva visit to someone in their community that they don't know personally.  Much of what I offered was geared to the contemporary culture of a Reform Jewish community, with pragmatic advice on how to decide how many nights of shiva to have, how a shiva service may be run, etc.

The workshop was recorded and can be accessed via the link below.  If you are listening in from somewhere beyond Congregation B'nai Shalom I hope you also find the material helpful.  Please do feel free to add additional guidance or responses via the comments, either here on the blog or in the comments box on the sound cloud page where the workshop is hosted.

The article referenced during the workshop from can be accessed here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Politics and the Pulpit

This article was cross-posted at the Rabbis Without Borders Blog at

Politics and the Pulpit
This past Sunday was claimed by many churches around the country ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’.  It’s the day that the pastors of these churches have chosen to speak not just of the issues that are important to us all, where religious traditions and values may offer some guidance or wisdom, but to speak directly about the candidate that they are supporting.
Wait! What about separation of church and state?  You may well ask. What about the IRS and preserving their 501 c3 status, which does not permit the endorsement or political candidates by such organizations?
Well, it appears that this group of church leaders are intentionally thumbing their nose at the IRS.  They are making the claim that they have a 1st amendment right to speak freely from the pulpit on any matter.  It also appears to be the case, according to a report onPBS’ ‘Religion and Ethics Weekly’ a couple of weeks back, that the department that might pay attention to such breaches and the regional directors who might respond do not currently exist, so it is most likely that pastors who choose to speak out from the pulpit this Sunday will face no consequences for doing so.
Now, its interesting to note the somewhat non-inclusive nature of this ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’.  There are no synagogues or mosques identifying with this movement.  Although it has certainly sparked some conversation among Rabbis, and I suspect that I’m not the only Rabbi who spoke on this issue last Shabbat.
And it does appear that there are considerable numbers of religious leaders who are comfortable parsing the difference between their 1st amendment rights as individuals versus their organization’s limitations based on their tax-exempt status.  So, for example, while it would be wrong for a synagogue board to vote and endorse, on behalf of the congregation, a political candidate, should or could a Rabbi who works for that congregation publicly do so as an individual in their own right?
Over 600 Rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’.  There is no equivalent website with names listed for Romney, although a Rabbi has sought to create such a group and can be contacted online too.
I will tell you now, my name is not on that list.  And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as Rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it.  I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit.  And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right.
Let me be clear.  I have not reached these conclusions because of the predominant side being taken by American Rabbis.  Rather, I want to highlight what I believe are two distinct and important roles that religion, and specifically my role as a leader and teacher of faith values and wisdom, can and should play when it comes to the world of politics.
First, one of the distinct and, I believe, valuable roles that Reform Judaism has played in the USA for over a century, is to add its voice to the public square by speaking out on issues from a moral and ethical perspective.  And, as a movement that believes in the unfolding of Revelation, it is right that we have gone beyond the plain and literal text of the Torah.  So, for example, while our Torah, in its time, tried to present an ethical framework for the engagement of slaves, we most certainly do not support slavery.Our Religious Action Centerprovides resource pages to demonstrate which texts from our tradition they draw upon to reach positions on modern issues such as social equity, abortion, healthcare, access to education, and more.  Based on these values, it lobbies in Washington, and encourages individuals affiliated with Reform synagogues to help in its efforts, when legislation on these issues comes up for vote.  Here, I sometimes find myself wanting to add nuance to the more black and white positions taken by the RAC.  So, for example, while I may agree that our tradition clearly teaches the ethical imperative of a community to ensure that all have access to health care, that doesn’t mean that I have the expertise or knowledge to know if a specific piece of new legislation on this issue is good legislation, is well written, and best achieves that goal.  There is still room for debate on what is the best way forward.  Nevertheless, I understand and agree that the RAC, in fulfilling its mission, looks at the question more broadly – does this piece of legislation take us closer or further from the values that our tradition would highlight as important for an ethical society?  If it brings us closer than the alternative, even if it isn’t perfect, the RAC’s position is to support it.
Now, it is the case that, partly because of the polarized nature of our two party system today, it often looks like the RAC is consistently supporting one party, even though its focus is the issues and the teachings and not the political platforms.  However, as soon as we engage in the political process we inevitably have to work strategically, adding support to allies who share perspectives on the issues we care about.  While some may believe that this is where lines are crossed, and I agree the territory can become more murky, I still prefer that we be engaged in this way as a religious movement.  Because if the alternative is to say that we cannot engage or say anything on matters that are discussed and voted upon in the political arena, then we make our religious tradition essentially irrelevant to the world we live in outside of our ritual behaviors.  And the origins of Reform Judaism arose from a refusal to accept this, and a recognition that, historically, Judaism has always been a holistic system that engaged us in thinking spiritually and ethically about every aspect of life and society.  That is its power and where its continued relevance and meaning lies.
All this said, however, there is another role that I believe Religious leaders should be playing that leads me to disapprove of the line being crossed when specific candidates are endorsed.  Each individual candidate and the parties they represent, hold diverse views on a very wide array of subjects.  It is simply not true – it cannot be – that one side is ‘right’ and the other side is ‘wrong’.  This is the case whether we are speaking in terms of ethics and morals, or whether we are speaking about issues of social equity and justice.  Our political arena has become polarized enough already.  We do absolutely no service to this country, to the well-being of our society, or to the legitimacy and value of the religious traditions we serve and represent when we add to that polarization by picking sides.
Our job is to counter the tendency toward the ‘I’m right and you are wrong, therefore we are good and you are evil, therefore we speak in God’s name and you don’t’ spiral of craziness.  Within our own Jewish tradition we should, rather, being drawing upon the example of our teachers from generations past.
Take a look at a page of Talmud.  In it you will find that multiple opinions are expressed.  Sometimes we are eventually told that the majority opinion lay in one perspective or another, but often the final answer is not clear.  Rather, the text highlights the importance of being able to look at something from many different perspectives, understanding the value in these perspectives, and only then discerning how you will reach a decision.    The school of thought that followed the teachings of Hillel, we are told, so often ‘won’ over the school of thought following Shammai, even though both were the words of the living God.  How could that be?  Because, while both were thoughtful analyses of the questions of their time, Hillel would always begin by citing the opinion of Shammai before going on to explain their perspective – a sign of respect.  These were arguments, not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of heaven.
If I want to share any religiously-orientated message during these weeks leading up to the elections it is this.  We need to speak out against the polarizing and vindictive narrative of political debate when we see and hear it.  And we must take responsibility for doing our part to raise up the level of discourse – for the sake of heaven, and for the sake of our country.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

#BlogElul 25: Why Forgiveness is the key

Last Saturday night, for our pre-Selichot service study and discussion, I presented the animated shorts of Hanan Harchol, found at  Not only are these charming, they are wonderfully thought-provoking, and generated a great deal of conversation.  We watched 'Forgiveness' first.

I will speak for myself when I say that, despite my understanding that forgiveness is creating an internal change that allows another person's acts to no longer keep a grip on my thoughts and emotions - to, as we hear in the animation, no longer let someone 'live rent free in my head' - it is an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice.  At times, often unexpectedly, I find myself replaying painful scenes from my life when someone's words hurt me, or I felt wronged, or someone acted in a way that was dismissive or condescending toward me.  I have no desire for these scenes to occupy space in my memory banks.  But they seem to have an uncanny ability to maintain their grip.

Mindfulness practices can help combat the power of these thoughts.  While I may not be able to neutralize them completely, a greater self-awareness can at least enable me to notice when my mind is in that place, and I can then consciously let it go and try to clear the picture in my head.  Sometimes that is as good as it gets.  I don't believe that forgiveness is a one-time thing.  It is a process that we need to repeat over and over when a particular moment of our past swims back into view, churning up old emotions with it.  And then, perhaps, over time, the more we find ourselves able to notice and dismiss the memory and observe rather than be drawn in by the emotions, the more we are able to neutralize the intensity of the memory when it arises the next time.

Why is it so important to forgive?  I've been thinking a lot during my preparations and sermon-writing for the High Holydays, that our entire orientation to life - our outlook, our motivation to engage in purposeful acts in the world that make a difference to the community we live in, and the ways that we engage with others on a day-to-day basis, are all driven by the things that we marinate our minds in.  There are many ways that we can marinate the mind in something that is burning with negativity.  Painful memories from the past are some of the ways.  And I know that, for me, when those memories arise, I feel myself get tense and my teeth grit, and my brow furrows, and I'm more likely to be sharp with someone or impatient, and I'm more likely to want to shut myself off from interactions and just hibernate in my own, private space.

But when I do those things, how can I make a positive difference in the world?  How can I contribute in a meaningful way to the life of my family, friends, or community? How can I be open enough to give and receive love, to act compassionately, to create space for a different kind of interaction next time around?

Forgiveness is the key.  When we read Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, that is the message.  Jonah wants to see strict justice applied to Nineva.  When we dredge up past scenes of hurt, isn't that what we want?  We want to know that person got their comeuppance.  We want to know that someone gave them as good as they gave.  We want to see them fail at something.  But what does that achieve? If we recognize that when we feel miserable we are less likely to do good in the world, why would we hope for someone else's misery?  Yes, there are times when acts are committed that require societal justice to be done.  But, on an individual level, forgiveness and legal justice are compatible and can co-exist, because one is an internal state of mind, while the other is a social system for maintaining some controls over the worst excesses of human behavior.

Forgiveness is the key.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, September 6, 2012

#BlogElul: Who is watching your back? A Healing story

Today's Elul blog entry reflects on a healing theme and is written by guest blogger Karen F Rothman, M.D., a member of Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough.

A few years ago, I saw a young woman, Susan (a pseudonym), in my office for a follow up exam. I had diagnosed an early melanoma on her skin about five years before, when she was 27. At the time, she was just about to be married. Soon after her marriage, I also diagnosed her husband with a very rare and aggressive cancer that had spread to his skin. After a short but intense battle, he succumbed to the disease. Susan came regularly for follow up exams and was physically healthy, but was understandably finding it hard to resume any semblance of a normal life.

As I examined Susan I was startled to see the Hebrew word “R’faeinu” tattooed in bold black letters onto her lower back. Susan is not Jewish, her former husband was not Jewish, and the tattoo was a new
acquisition. I thought carefully how to frame a question about the tattoo. I asked her if she knew what it meant and how she came to get that particular tattoo. She told me that she had gone to a tattoo artist. Susan told the tattoo artist that she had gone through some tough times and needed to make a dramatic change in her life in order to move forward. Susan felt that getting a tattoo would be a tangible
reminder to herself that she couldn’t remain stuck in the past. I asked her if she wanted me to tell her what the Hebrew word meant; I told her that it was only used once in the Torah. It was the word uttered by Moses when he plead with God that Miriam be healed (from leprosy). I explained that Miriam was not only Moses’ sister, but the one who found water for the wandering Hebrews, and that without her, the newly freed slaves would probably perish. Miriam was healed and the Jewish people survived. I told Susan that I couldn’t have come up with a more appropriate sentiment than artist had tattooed on her.

Susan decided to move back to her home state to be closer to her parents and the rest of her family, and I have lost contact with her. Every week that we recite a healing prayer with the word “r’faeinu”
and every year when we read Kedoshim I think of Susan. I wonder at the combination of luck, intuition, and presence of God that led the tattoo artist to come up with that particular word on that particular person, and whether the artist had any idea of how perfect the choice was. I hope that Susan is further on her road to wellness, and wish her a r’fuah shleimah, a full healing of the body and soul.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

#BlogElul 18: Igniting the Spark of Love

Last year, Jewish musician and Spiritual Leader of Temple Shir Shalom, Oviedo, FL, Beth Schafer wrote a book called 'Seven Sparks.'  Taking the 10 commandments as her inspiration, she re-cast them as seven sparks that can truly guide us toward what she has labeled, 'Positive Jewish Living.' The origins of both the book and the larger 'Positive Jewish Living' project was a belief that Beth held that Judaism was chock full of wisdom that we can truly live by, but our Jewish tradition can sometimes make it challenging to find your way into the complex, rabbinic texts, commentaries and interpretations of Torah in which this wisdom is found.
The first of the 10 commandments is more of a statement: 'I am the Eternal Your God, who led you out of Egypt.'  From this, Beth extracts the first of her Seven Sparks: 'I am free to love and be loved.'  She asks why God needs to make such a statement of introduction.  Why does God need to introduce God-self?  Perhaps because our people, newly freed from Egypt, have been distanced and need to be reintroduced.  God frees us from slavery in order to reestablish a loving relationship (our covenant).  Restoring love helps to bring healing to our broken world (tikkun olam).  Our time of wandering in the wilderness was a time in which we were re-taught and re-membered how to love.  We also learn how to receive love.  'It's hard to feel that you are loved, if you've spent all of your energy as a slave to something unhealthy.  It's hard to feel worthy when you are ensnared by self-doubt or self-criticism.  When someone shares love with you, you need to know in your heart that you deserve it." (Schafer, 2011).
At the end of each chapter, Beth includes a section called 'Ignite!'  How do we ignite the spark of love in our day-to-day lives?  These are her suggestions.  How appropriate they are as a source of contemplation and inspiration as we prepare ourselves spiritually for a New Year:
For yourself:
  • I love myself.
  • I have immense potential to grow.
  • I appreciate my quirks as well as my gifts.
  • I am proud of both big and small accomplishments.
For your family:
  • I express love generously and often.
  • I approach disagreements from a loving perspective.
  • I give without expecting anything in return.
At work:
  • I extend courtesy and respect to both superiors and subordinates as part of my work.
  • I extend amazing service to clients or customers as one of my many goals.
  • I act naturally and honestly to promote a great environment.
At your Congregation:
  • We welcome all who visit the congregation from the parking lot, to the phone, in meetings, services, and all written correspondence.
  • We respond with immediate compassion and caring to those in need.
  • We recognize special events such as birthdays, anniversaries, recovery from illness and special lifecycle moments as a community.

Friday, August 31, 2012

#BlogElul 13: Breaking through my excuses

When I've had a difficult interaction with someone, what are the kinds of excuses I come up with to avoid dealing with the unfinished business?

  • They need time to cool off before we can have a fruitful conversation.
  • I need time to cool off before we can have a fruitful conversation.
  • This always happens when we try and have this conversation - I should just avoid further conversation.
  • I don't know exactly how this will end, and if I can't predict how the conversation will go, maybe I shouldn't go there.
  • I've overthought where this conversation will go, and I don't want to go there.  So my imaginary outcome to this next exchange is stopping me from having the conversation.

Perhaps you have further excuses you can add to this list.  These are some of mine.  In areas of my life where I'm not always proud of my words or actions, I look to those that I can learn from, inspired by their example.  When it comes to getting beyond the excuses I have for following up on difficult conversations, my spouse is one of my greatest inspirations.

She doesn't like to leave things hanging.  Knowing that someone is upset with her, she seeks to heal the rift sooner rather than later.  She seeks to have a respectful conversation to understand differences of opinion, or how words or acts that were intended one way were received another.  And she is dedicated to honesty in the midst of the exchange.

We all have angels in our lives.  Angels are melachim - messengers - in Hebrew.  We all have people who deliver important messages that we need to hear at crucial moments in our lives.  Sometimes its someone we've never met before and may never meet again.  But one interaction can teach or inspire us.  Sometimes its someone who is a constant and important part of our lives.  And they teach us how to deal with the difficult challenges in our lives, and how to overcome some of our most-repeated limitations.

So what are your excuses?  And who inspires you or teaches you, encouraging you to move beyond them by their example?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

#BlogElul 11: Why won't you change?!

We all have certain people and certain kinds of things that 'push our buttons'.  I certainly do.  I was just reminded last night about a particular pattern of behavior that I've observed over and over again from certain individuals that is hurtful to others.  I found myself infuriated.  In the heat of the moment, my buttons are pushed, and I feel the anger rising.

On the one hand, this is natural, human behavior.  When you see people that you love being hurt, you want to protect them from that hurt.  On the other hand, when individuals who are part of your world - family, co-workers, neighbors, etc. continue to exhibit annoying or thoughtless behavior even after you've taken thoughtful steps to try and bring the effects of their behavior to their attention, yet they show no sign of change... what next?

The 'easier' option may be to minimize one's interactions.  But that may not always be possible.  Another path may be to continue to inform the other of the way you are experiencing their actions or words.  In unequal power relations (e.g. an employee and a boss), that may not always feel like a viable course of action either.  Of course, if the behavior is truly abusive, it may well be necessary to remove yourself from the situation by leaving - something that takes courage but which, ultimately, can be enormously freeing and healing.

What else can you do?  We have no ability to make someone else change.  We can only truly take charge of making change within ourselves.  And so, perhaps we can change our response?  Perhaps, when we notice the anger rising we can take a step back and laugh, saying, 'look at them doing that ridiculous thing that they always do!'  Perhaps instead of anger, we can learn to nurture compassion in our response, 'I feel so sorry that they so lack the awareness to understand how their behavior makes them look in the eyes of others.  That must be so isolating for them.'

The ability to turn the experience in this way helps to get us a little closer to the next step ... forgiveness.  It is hard to forgive if we truly believe that someone is intentionally hurting us again and again.  And, if that is indeed what is going on, perhaps its not the time to explore forgiveness until we've been able to create more distance.  But if someone seems to exhibit the same behaviors over and over, and seems incapable of change, perhaps we can find our way to forgive what they do out of ignorance and limitation.

Change is hard.  Self-awareness is a necessary component of making change in our own lives.  Finding ways to let go of our frustrations when others have not changed, we can take the opportunity to look within and find the places in our own lives where change is hard for us.  If our awareness of how the lack of change in another makes us feel can inspire us to take up the challenge of making the changes necessary in our own lives, perhaps they've given us a gift after all?
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

#BlogElul week 2: Sharing Inspirational postings

This past Shabbat, reflecting upon the arrival of Elul with my congregation, I mentioned that I would use my own blog to share some of the other contributions to #BlogElul that have been inspiring me.  First, a brief excerpt from my sermon, where I offered some thoughts on what this month of preparation is all about.  After all, the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur feel intense enough to many of us... what purpose does thinking about this entire month as 'preparation' time serve?

Rabbi Alan Lew, z'l, wrote a book, ‘This is Real and You are CompletelyUnprepared’.  He’s talking about our souls.  We may think we are prepared – prepared for work, for the week ahead, for the weekend.  We may prepare ourselves for life by studying hard, learning a trade, earning a living, participating in family life or community life.  But soul preparation is a different thing.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we have something to fall back upon in a moments of crisis.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when the words that come out of our mouths in the heat of the moment are the same as the ones we would say if we had time to reflect first.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we are able to articulate what we believe and why.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we can make ‘big talk’ and not just ‘small talk’ in our interactions with other people.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we’ve made choices about how we structure our day such that we have space for something that nourishes the spirit – taking a walk, a swim, meditating, yoga, quiet reading time…
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we can find the spark of holiness in the midst of the messiness of everyday life.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we feel a sense of inner peace and wholeness.  If this day were to be our last (the big question that, with courage, is the question to explore on Yom Kippur), could we find that place of inner peace?
I don’t think that there is anyone in this room, myself included, who can answer ‘yes’ to most of those questions.  Spiritual preparedness takes practice.

I sang an excerpt from Psalm 27, traditionally recited during this month.  The Institute for Jewish Spirituality shared a beautiful, interpretative rendition to this psalm written by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg.  You can find, at along with several other wonderful sources to guide spiritual practice and introspection this month here.

There have been many wonderful contributions to the #BlogElul project this past week.  If you are not a twitter user and haven't been keeping track of multiple blogs, it can be hard to track them all down.  Here are just a few of my favorites as a sample to introduce you to the writings of some of the other contributors.

The Musings of Rabbi Eric Linder (one of my fellow graduates from HUC-NY, 2006!)

Kol Isha: Reform women rabbis speak out! - a wonderful, new blog, featuring a different woman rabbi each day - many have been posting on #BlogElul themes.

A Good Question - the blog of Rabbi Yair Robinson

#BlogElul via the movies - a novel window to look at some Elul themes, from Rabbi Mark Kaiserman

I hope you find some of these intriguing and inspiring.
Below is a review of the themes of each day of the month (we're up to day 10!).  If you don't have a blog of your own, but would like to have a go at writing a reflection on one of the day's themes, email it to me and I'll post yours here on this blog in the coming days.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Saturday, August 25, 2012

#BlogElul 7: Shofar - the cry of compassion

One of the midrashim that seeks to explain the origins of the different calls on the Shofar that we sound out each Rosh Hashanah has had the most impact on my understanding of teshuvah and the call to action signified by the Shofar blasts.  It tells us that the shofar calls were modeled on the sound of Sisera's mother, wailing while she waited at the window for his return from battle.

Who was Sisera and who was his mother?

In the story of Devorah, the Judge, Sisera is the enemy.  He is the General that Devorah and her army general, Barak, are out to defeat.  There is a poignant line toward the end of the story, when we are told that Sisera's mother waits at her window for his return.  It is poignant because we, the reader, know that he has been defeated and has fled.  But his end is gruesome.  A woman, Yael, encourages him to rest in her tent.  She feeds him and gives him drink and, when he is asleep, she cuts off his head.

'Hurrah! The enemy is defeated!' might be our response.  But then we find a rabbinic midrash that suggests that the sounds of the Shofar, that most emblematic of sounds for the High Holydays, remind us of the cries of Sisera's mother.

In the midst of our season of return, when we are seeking forgiveness, when we are asked to find it in our hearts to forgive others, we struggle with our desire for justice in our world and the world's need for compassion.  That, after all, is the moral of the story of Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur.  If we are all Jonahs then cities will be destroyed and who could stand in judgment?  But if we are in the image of God, we respond with compassion, particularly when we see remorse in the words or actions of another.

The sound of the Shofar reminds us that even those that we regard as our enemies... even those who we regard as evil and have committed the worst atrocities - they have a mother.  And that mother cries out in sorrow when harm comes to them.

Framing our world in this way, I have found myself able to be less angry at wrong-doing in the world, and, instead, feel the emotions of deep sadness.  It doesn't make me any less desiring to act in ways that might help make this world a little better.  But instead of running in with sword unleashed, angrily battling the world of injustice, the sound of the Shofar asks me to see the world with greater empathy.  It calls me to unleash a little more love and compassion in the ways that I seek to make a difference.

And I can thank Sisera's mother for reminding me of these valuable lessons.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, August 23, 2012

#BlogElul 5 & 6: How great is Your trust in me

I'm taking two of the #BlogElul themes and putting them in one for this blog - Trust and Faith.  In Hebrew, there is one word that can capture aspects of both of these english words - Emunah.  There is another word in Hebrew, bitachon, that can also convey 'trust', and sometimes bitachon and emunah get used interchangeably.  But in rabbinic literature, emunah is often the word that conveys both meanings.

When we awake in the morning, the traditional blessing that is recited upon noticing that we have regained consciousness is Modeh (Modah for women) Ani lefanecha, Melech Chai v'kayam, she'he'chezarta bi nishmati b'chemla rabah emunatecha: Thankful am I before You, Living and Eternal Sovereign.  You have returned my soul to me in mercy.  How great is your trust/faith in me!

The idea of waking with this blessing goes back to Talmudic times and is derived from verses in Lamentations (3:22-23) that rabbis interpreted to mean that Creation is renewed every day.  Our souls are safeguarded in God's hands, metaphorically speaking, while we sleep and, when we awake, it is God who has restored our souls.

When I pray these words, I often focus more on the first phrase - Thankful am I before You... There is so much to contemplate in these few words.  A story is told of a Hassidic master, the Apter Rebbe, who had not started his morning prayers, yet it was now noon.  He explained that he had awoken and begun to recite modeh ani,  but began to wonder, 'Who am I?', and 'Who is the You before Whom I am I?'  Still pondering these questions, he had been unable to go forward. (in 'A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice, by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, p. 5).

Focusing on the first part of the prayer can invoke a sense of awe if, like the Apter Rebbe, one truly begins to think about the essence of the 'I' and what we understand to be the 'Thou'.

But the last part of the prayer is where we find the word, emunah, and the emphasis is quite different.  How great is Your faith.  Does God need faith? Surely not.  But on days when we might not feel like opening our eyes, on days when we might not be looking forward to the tasks that lie ahead, on days when we feel loss, pain, loneliness... uttering the words of Modeh Ani can remind us that each day is created anew.  We have been given the gift of today.  What shall we do with it?  When we are lacking faith in our own strength, our own abilities, or our own will to get ourselves up and out of bed, we remind ourselves that God has faith in us.  Its God's little daily pep talk with us.

Here faith and trust are interconnected in one Hebrew word - emunah.  God has faith in us.  Our soul has been entrusted to us for one more day so that we may do something remarkable with it.  And God believes in our capacity to do just that.  God trusts that we will use this day wisely.  Rabah emunatecha, we say - Great is your faith/trust.  Why so great?  Because perhaps we didn't use the gift we were given so wisely yesterday.  Perhaps we didn't do all that we could have with our time.  But great is God's faith that we may still live up to our full potential.  Preparing for Rosh Hashanah, we are invited to consider how we are using each gift - each day.  We are called upon to have the faith to believe that more is possible.  We are called upon to trust and believe that we can raise ourselves higher.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

#BlogElul 4: Catching myself counting

Today's #BlogElul theme is counting.  Round about now, there are parents everywhere counting down to the start of the school year.  For some, they are counting down to their kids being back in a regular schedule - they can stop worrying about how to keep them occupied in the wide expanse of Summer.  For some, they are counting down to the end of the delicious, extended time they are able to have with their children in a qualitatively different way to the rest of the year.  For most, its probably a combination of the two, depending on the day and the hour, and how adorable (or not) our kids are being.

Poet and writer, Merle Feld, has a powerful poem in her book, 'A Spiritual Life' that describes a mother looking through the window at her child, worrying about her wellbeing.  She reflects on the years she spent watching and worrying, never just looking out the window to take in the pleasure of watching her child at play.

I've recently been through (admittedly, am still going through) a transition of my own.  I left my position as the Associate Rabbi of one congregation to begin as the Senior Rabbi of another.  The last month in my last post was both a counting down of the precious days I had left there, in a community that I loved, and a counting down to beginning a new and exciting phase of life in  a community that I was looking forward to getting to know.  On days when I felt myself consciously counting, I realized that this act was a way of managing my emotions and the mix of excitement and anxieties that come with making significant changes in one's life.  But, in the moments that I stopped counting and, instead, was just 'being', I experienced a much more complex and richer array of emotions.  I allowed myself to feel all that was happening for me, my spouse, and the communities that I was a part (or soon to be a part) of.  These emotions could sometimes feel overwhelming, but it was at these times that I was most present to what was happening, moment by moment.

I've noticed in other contexts too, that counting often appears to be a substitute for just being present.  Like the mother in Merle Feld's poem, worrying about things that may not be real, counting the passing of days and years, but missing out on the sheer pleasure of play by simply being present to her child in the moment.

We can count our days, or we can learn to make each day count.  And they are very different things.  What choice will you make today?

Monday, August 20, 2012

#BlogElul 3: The intentions of the 'other'

If you've been following along since last week's blog posting, you'll know that I'm blogging throughout the Jewish month of Elul on daily themes created by my colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer.  If you use Twitter, you'll be able to see many posts by many bloggers on the daily theme by following #BlogElul.
Today's theme is Intentions.

Yesterday's post was about inventories.  As I reflected on taking stock of our own character trait inventories, I used judgment as an example. I'm aware that this is a character trait that I've worked on over a period of years.  While I am always going to be 'a work in progress', I know that I've been able to adjust how this particular trait plays out in my own life.  Today's theme - Intentions - has a lot to do with how I've been able to make some progress in this area.

In any given day, we experience effects caused by the words and actions of many other people. If we are able to be truly mindful about what is happening, we might be able to clearly identify the act.  We might also be able to clearly identify how we are feeling.  But, for most of us, we rarely possess such clarity.  Rather, somebody does or says something, it invokes a feeling in us, and we then construct a whole story about it.  And this is what gets us into trouble.

Let me provide an example.  Someone ignores you when you are waiting for attention in a store.  Or cuts in front of you in a line or on the highway.  Our judgmental voice - the one that rings out with a righteous sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, steps in. Our ego is bruised.  'Why do they think they are more important than me that they need to go first and ignore my needs?' 'What a selfish person to think that they don't need to wait patiently like the rest of us.'  'Doesn't that driver realize the enormous harm they could cause if I hadn't noticed them and put my foot on the brake - how reckless and irresponsible!'

But the truth is, while we may have been unfortunate enough to interact with an individual who thinks and behaves in these ways, there are many other possible stories we could tell.  'That shop attendant needs me to gently turn their attention my way; they are lost in thought because they are worried about their ailing mother in the hospital.'  'That driver just received a call that their kid got hit by the ball in lacrosse and was taken to the emergency room - they are getting there as quickly as they can.'

Notice how these completely different stories transform your emotional response to the very same set of circumstances.  In mindfulness practice, being aware of what is real and what is the story we tell ourselves about our experience of that reality is one of the gifts we can receive from meditation.  In Buddhist meditation, 'Suffering' is understood as a psycho-spiritual condition we often inflict upon ourselves by remaining attached to stories that may or may not be accurate, and serve no useful purpose as we try to live our best lives.

So learning that I cannot assume the intentions of the other can release me from a lot of the hurt that I might be feeling.  If I have a difficult interaction with someone, finding a way to enquire about their intentions can be the opening to a conversation.  Perhaps I will just listen and gain a new insight into the essence of another.  Or perhaps I will feel a need to explain to them that, while they may have intended one thing, I experienced it in another way.  It may be important that they gain some awareness of my responses to certain things.  We come to better know each other and, perhaps, to act with more consciousness and sensitivity to each other's needs.  And, as I come to realize that the intentions of the 'other' may not be what I first assumed to be so, I may gain greater awareness of the ways in which my own intentions can be misunderstood or misinterpreted by others.  Learning this about ourselves and about others can help us to lessen the voice of judgment and strengthen the voice of compassion within us.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sunday, August 19, 2012

#BlogElul 2: Soul Trait Inventories
In the last few years, the Jewish spiritual practice of Musar has made something of a resurgence among  Jews from many different walks of life.  Perhaps Alan Morinis can be most identified with making what was once primarily under the purview of observant, Jewish males into something accessible that speaks to a much wider audience.  But others, such as Ira Stone, also have written extensively on Musar and, similarly to Morinis, offer online courses and communities of practice for those who wish to engage more deeply.

The link above provides a more detailed explanation of the history and practice of Musar.  But one key element is the identification of separate (although often inter-dependent) character traits that one can examine over time, through study with others, and with self-observation and journaling as one takes a designated period of time (usually at least a month) to become aware of how this particular characteristic reveals itself in your own life.  You might be looking at the trait of judgment.  Or trust.  Or, perhaps, compassion.

In Musar, there is a recognition that there is not one right way to exercise each of these traits.  The practice is one of paying attention to how it manifests in your own life now in comparison to how you might believe it should manifest if you were able to raise your spiritual life to a higher level.  As part of the practice, one of the most important elements of one's self-awareness is to recognize the 'Bechirah' - the choosing points when examining how a particular trait exhibits itself in your life.

So, for example, there may be many kinds of interactions where I feel good about my ability to be non-judgmental.  But that is not where I need to do my deepest spiritual work.  It is the kinds of interactions where I hear the judgmental voice in me rising sharply... if I can notice what specifically flips that switch in me, I can then begin to really examine and understand where my judgment comes from.  The goal is not to arrive at a completely relativist world where I never judge anyone or anything.  But perhaps I realize that I can sometimes be harsh.  Or sometimes I rule out people or options too quickly when they deserved deeper consideration.  And so, over time, I can choose to work on rebalancing this particular soul trait in my own life.  And how that looks for me, may be different to how it looks to you.  You may be someone who seldom judges.  And this may manifest in ways that sometimes has people taking advantage of you and manipulating you.  Your soul trait work on this trait may see you rebalancing in a different direction, and becoming a little more judgmental in certain contexts.

When we talk of Elul as a month to take stock, to turn, to reflect.... its not just about counting up 'sins' and telling ourselves that we'll try and do better next year.  There are many spiritual practices and tools that we can draw upon from the well of Jewish wisdom.  They can guide us in a deeper way so that, when we return to Rosh Hashanah a year from now, we may notice that we've not just circled a year, but that we've spiraled a year, and we've ended up a little higher along the path than the year before.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

#BlogElul 1: Navigating the landscapes of life

'He took a turn for the worse'
'She turned her life around'
'They turned our lives upside down'
'I needed some quiet time to turn inward' ...

There are many ways that we use the language of turning, of changing direction, to refer to what is happening in our lives.  The language implies that there is a path on which we are headed, or a direction in which we are pointing.

Sometimes events happen that cause us to be rerouted in an unplanned for, unexpected direction.  We have to take stock of our new surroundings and figure out how we will live in the new reality.

Sometimes we've made choices that impact our lives and the lives of others, taking us on paths that do not serve us well, or are likely to lead us to ever-darker destinations if we do not take action and intentionally change course.

What does it mean, then, to speak of 'turning' or 'returning' as we enter the month of Elul, the four weeks leading to Rosh Hashanah? A kind of conscious upgrade of the maps in our internal GPS (God Positioning System), we are invited to find time and pause long enough in the midst of our hectic lives to look around and take stock of our current landscape; to pinpoint where we are and on what road we appear to be heading.

While self-awareness, mindful practice, and ethical decision-making are a part of each and every day, its hard in the midst of that everyday to see the big picture and make an honest assessment of the choices we are making that, together, point to the direction we are headed.  And so, once a year, we unfold the large-scale map and, in this larger context, can start to look at where we really are.

To turn might be to realize that we left the highway to explore an intriguing side-road, but now we realize that its just a dead end.

To turn might be to notice that we've only ever stayed on the main highways our entire life, and now its time to explore some of the back roads so that we can truly come to know ourselves.

To turn might be to look back at some previous destination, when we were at our happiest and our lives  seemed most in balance; our relationships were at their best.  We realize that we want to make a U-turn and try to return to that place.

To turn might be to simply choose a different point of perspective from which to examine our current landscape.  Perhaps we didn't choose to be here, and we've been struggling with our new location.  Perhaps we've only looked at it from the depth of the valley.  If we can begin to accept that we've been left stranded here without a vehicle for a while, we might realize that if we could walk our way up to the top of the hill, we'll get a different view, and our ability to live in our new surroundings may improve.

Now is the time for turning.  Take a look.  What do you see?  Where are you? Where are you heading? Now is the time for choosing.  Choose your path.  Be conscious of your direction.  Choose your perspective.  And return to the best life that you can be living today.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How do communities of faith respond to gun violence?

Images from Oak Creek, Wisconsin
This sermon was delivered at Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, MA on Friday August 10th.

What happens when the 24 hour news cycle brings our attention to two mass murders involving guns in the space of two weeks?

And what role does a synagogue community have in responding to these horrific events?

Depending on what Cable channels you are in the habit of tuning into, you may find yourself witness to a response that goes on the offensive – either for or against gun control. ‘Why is it legal for ordinary citizens to own guns that can fire off multiple rounds in a matter of seconds?’ sums up one side of the argument. ‘If someone else in the room had been carrying a gun, the crazy guy could have been taken out before he killed more people,’ sums up the other side of the argument. And there we find ourselves; choose one side or the other, and then shout down whichever perspective isn’t yours.

As to the second question, communities of faith can respond in many ways:

- We can first reaffirm our commitment to deeply care about the welfare of others. We can pray for all those who are hurting and mourning. If something happens close to home, we can show up because that’s how we express love for our neighbor. If we hear of other concrete requests that enable to reach out to communities suffering from these traumas, we can respond. To that end, during the oneg you will find a card on a table in the Oneg room tonight. I invite you to write a message on the card, or on the sheets of paper next to the card that will be included inside, which we will mail to the Oak Creek Sikh community in Wisconsin to express our condolences, prayers, and support.

- We can join together as a community for a moment of reflection and prayer – jointly expressing our emotions when we hear of these terrible acts. This we will do in a few minutes, with a prayer written by Rabbi Naomi Levy in response to the terror shooting at the Sikh Temple.

- Events like this always give us pause for thought as a minority faith community. We remember too well a time when synagogues were the targets for these hate crimes. We remain alert because we know that these times are not completely behind us. Additionally, Jewish organizations with expertise around issues of security and awareness have been offering their assistance to Muslim and Sikh communities.

- We can rededicate ourselves to building bridges with our brothers and sisters of faith. We will look for and create opportunities in this coming year and beyond to bring together our community with Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others because, when we overcome ignorance, indifference, and unfamiliarity, we build understanding, respect, and strengthen all of our faith communities in the process. Our 7th and 8th graders will be invited later in the year to participate in the STOP program – an incredible opportunity that has been running for a few years now to visit many different places of worship and meet other young people of faith. If you have a child in those grades I hope you will encourage them to take this opportunity when it comes. Our Brotherhood received a small community grant to create a collaborative interfaith program, and I look forward to working with them to make it a reality. And our Social Action team are dedicated to finding interfaith opportunities to work together in the local community. If you are already involved in an activity that might fit the bill, please tell me or our Social Action chair, Jeff Govendo, about it so that we can help spread the word and find others in the congregation who may wish to join you in your efforts. For my part, I look forward to attending and meeting the clergy in the local Interfaith clergy association when they re-gather in the Fall.

- And what about the public debate? Is it possible to talk with each other in the context of a faith-based approach to the principles and values at stake in a way that doesn’t simply echo the narratives heard on MSNBC or Fox news? I’d like to think there is. One of things that I believe strongly is that, while we can always find Jewish ethical values to inform our conversation, it’s much harder to translate some of those values into specific policy in contemporary America. It is possible, but we have to recognize and admit that it is seldom black and white.

So, for example, one of the absolute highest values in Judaism is the value of ‘to save a life is to save a world.’ Any action we can take that may lead to the preservation of life trumps almost any other action. And so, for example, an observant Jew can break the laws of Shabbat to rush someone to the hospital. Organ transplants are now halachically permitted by most authorities because they save lives. But, there are exceptions. If you are held at gunpoint and told that you can save 6 people by picking up a gun and killing 1 person randomly from the group, you may not do so. You may not murder. This may defy your sense of what you might think was the better choice, but you are not permitted to make one life less valuable than any other. So even the value of ‘to save a life is to save the world’ isn’t entirely black and white.

How might this value be applied to the conversation about gun control? One could argue that if more people carried guns, they would be able to potentially save many lives by killing someone who opens fire on a crowded room. That is the argument that proponents of gun rights make. I see it a little differently. I am concerned that a whole load of people carrying guns, with varying levels of skill and training, may inadvertently cause a lot more physical harm, including deaths, in such a scenario. It would also seem to me that if we applied ‘to save a life is to save a world’ to the current debate at hand, we should be investigating some restrictions on guns that were designed to fire off a large number of rounds between reloads. It would seem to me that keeping these kinds of guns out of the hands of ordinary civilians would be in keeping with this highest of Jewish values. We can have the debate about how that conforms with American constitutional rights, but that is not the same thing as looking at the Jewish ethical perspective.

This has been how the Reform movement has historically understood this value to apply to the contemporary scene, and its one of the main reasons that the Religious Action Center has advocated strongly for stricter controls over the most dangerous kinds of guns.

There may be some in the room who draw different conclusions. It is not my job as your Rabbi to tell you what US laws are right or wrong, good or bad. But it is my job to raise up and present Jewish values that have informed our faith tradition as I understand them. And this is how I understand the rabbinic statement, ‘to save a life is to save the world.’

But let me conclude by returning to the reaching out we can and must do to those who have lost and suffered. I end with this prayer:

This prayer was written to recite for the victims and survivors of the Aug. 5 shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Rabbi Naomi Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva, wrote the prayer on behalf of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which distributed it to congregations around the world.

Let Us Stand Up Together (נעמדה יחד)
–From our Haftarah this Shabbat, the second Haftarah of comfort (Isaiah 50:8), by Rabbi Naomi Levy

We stand together in grief
For the innocent victims
Of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin
Who perished in their house of prayer.
May their memories be a blessing,
May their lights shine brightly on us.

We stand together in mourning
For broken hearts,
The senseless loss, the shock, the emptiness.

We stand together in outrage,
Weary of this war-torn hate-filled world.
And together we pray:

Send comfort, God, to grieving families,
Hear their cries.
Fill them with the courage
To carry on in the face of this tragic loss.
Send healing to the wounded,
Lift them up, ease their pain,
Restore them to strength, to hope, to life.
Gather the sacred souls of the slaughtered
Into Your eternal shelter,
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.

Work through us, God,
Show us how to help.
Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning,
Open our arms so we can extend our hands,
Transform our helplessness into action,
Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Let us stand up together
Our young and our old,
All races and faiths,
All people and nations.
Rise up above hatred
And cruelty and indifference.
Let us live up to our goodness
Let us learn from this tragedy
Let us walk together
Filled with hope
On a path of peace, Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Returning on August 19th - Elul begins

A week from today we arrive at Rosh Chodesh Elul - the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Elul. This is the month that leads up to Rosh Hashanah.  The Jewish New Year has a very different flavor to the secular New Year with its party hats, champagne and poppers.  The Jewish New Year in an invitation to reflect, turn and return, realigning ourselves with a spiritual center that is our God-given holy spark.  When we are paying attention, this is the spark that lights the path and helps us find our way through life, being the highest of what we have the potential to be.

For Rosh Hashanah to be a meaningful holiday, we need to prepare.  Elul provides a month of reflective preparation time.  In our modern age, there are many tools and guides available to us that enable us to set aside a little time each day for this reflective work of soul preparation.  One of my colleagues, Rabbi Phylis Sommer, has again suggested a theme a day for #BlogElul and #Elulgram, and I'll be participating by blogging here on her listed themes.  The '#' tells you that the various bloggers who join her can be easily found on Twitter if you search for #BlogElul - we'll all be posting links to our blogs that way.  If you follow me on Facebook, you'll also see the Elul postings there.  And, of course, you can sign up on the right side of this blog to receive an email in your inbox whenever I've posted a new blog piece.  An #Elulgram is a photo posted on Twitter, offering a visual interpretation of the day's theme.

While you may let some of us provide a guide through the month of Elul by reading some of these postings, anyone can contribute.  If you have a blog, try writing some of your own reflections.  Or, use the comments box on my blog to add your own thoughts on the day's theme, on the days that I post.  I don't usually manage to post every day of Elul, but about once a week I'll post my personal selection of the 'best of' #BlogElul with links to some of the pieces by others that I have found most thought-provoking in my own preparations for the High Holydays.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Circumspect Conversations about Circumcision

cross-posted at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on

This week we heard news from Germany that a regional court ruled that circumcision amounts to bodily harm, even if parents agree to it. There is, as of yet, no law to make the performance of the ritual illegal, but the ruling has nevertheless caused concern. The Conference of European Rabbis are gathering in an emergency meeting to consider a response.

There is news out of Europe on a fairly regular basis that challenges the legitimacy and ethic of one of two ritual practices that impacts both the Jewish and Muslim communities – circumcision, and the practice of shechitah (ritual slaughter) as part of the process of making animals kosher to eat. When this news reaches US shores, we sometimes jump to the conclusion that there is more than a hint of antisemitism (or, increasingly, Islamophobia) behind these challenges. And there is certainly something to that. But it is also the case that these are conversations that take place within the Jewish community too. As a congregational Rabbi, often engaging with and counseling new parents on the question of circumcision, I know that there is much more involved in this conversation, and desire to have it respectfully and fully. In truth, I have a position and I will share it, and it is in favor of traditional Jewish circumcision. But, as a Reform Rabbi, while I seek to educate about this traditional practice and encourage it, I hold to the principle of ‘informed choice’ which is a hallmark of the Reform movement. Ultimately, I will engage parents and their child, performing rituals of welcome into Jewish community and covenant, both in the traditional context of brit milah (the Jewish ritual of circumcision), or as a baby naming ceremony held after a baby is circumcised in a hospital or, in rare cases, where parents are strongly opposed to circumcision at all.

Just this past weekend, at the end of the first week in my new congregation, I co-officiated with a Mohel (trained and qualified to carry out the circumcision) at a traditional brit milah. The context was one with a Jewish and non-Jewish parent, committed to involvement in Jewish community life. For the non-Jewish relatives, this was a new experience, and certainly one that caused anxiety. The mohel, with over 26 years experience, did an expert job of explaining what was happening, how babies respond to medical procedures, and contextualizing the ritual in its historic and halachic (Jewish legal) framework. For sure, everyone was relieved when the act was done, as is only natural; the baby’s only griping was prior to any procedure, in protest to having his legs held still by his grandfather, but the explanations and additional blessings also provided a great deal of comfort.

As the Mohel explained, there are good, medical reasons for waiting until the eighth day for a circumcision; something that our ancestors thousands of years ago may have learned by observation – for the little amount of bleeding that takes place, by the eighth day the natural process of blood clotting has fully developed in an infant. For those who choose to have a circumcision in a hospital, it often takes place before mother and child go home, much sooner. And it is done behind closed doors, with a doctor and nurse. Having had a congregant in my last congregation who was a specialist in this area invite me one day to watch him perform such a circumcision (for a non-Jewish infant) in the hospital, I know that great expertise is brought in both cases. But a mohel who has performed numerous circumcisions in the presence of an infant’s most intimate family certainly brings nothing less than great care and gentleness to every moment of the ritual.

For those who choose not to circumcise their son at all, wanting the child to decide for themselves when they are old enough to make an informed decision, I cannot authentically provide an argument that will conclusively deny their concerns of inflicting pain or carrying out a medically ‘unnecessary’ procedure on their child. I disagree with them – I have not witnessed an infant expressing more than very brief discomfort at a circumcision (discomfort that can be due to having their legs held still, and not necessarily from the procedure itself – most Reform-trained mohels use some kind of numbing agent prior to the procedure) – and I believe there is medical evidence to indicate greater health in this area later in life if circumcised. I also know that is a much more complex procedure later in life, with a much, much longer healing period following. But, ultimately, this is a question of belief for some parents. Jewish faith, and a heritage that commands this act of us, is also, ultimately, a belief.

I hope that the German, secular, courts, do not take further action to intervene and interfere on this matter. But I remain open to having honest and compassionate conversations about circumcision.