Hearing the Call, Seeing the Flame

Shemot 5780:  Installation of Rabbi Alexis Berk, Temple Solel, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California

What does it mean to be called to spiritual leadership?

You might suppose that we rabbis and cantors would have this question all figured out.  

You’d be wrong.  

Twenty years ago this June, when Alexis and I presented ourselves for rabbinical ordination in Cincinnati, Ohio—she, just two minutes before me, “Berk” before “Blake”… and “Buchdahl” would have been next, had she come to the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College, like she was supposed to, instead of running off to New York to become a cantor AND a rabbi, the show-off—twenty years ago, Alexis and Angela and I probably thought we had it all figured out, too, what it means to be called to spiritual leadership.  

After all:

We love Judaism; we love learning and teaching Torah, leading and participating in prayer, Jewish music and culture, holidays and rituals.  We love Shabbat.  We love public speaking even when you do not love that we love public speaking.  We love the Jewish people—quirks and all.  We love the non-Jewish people who find their way into our synagogues and homes.  We love a good Talmudic debate.  We love questions more than we crave answers.  Alexis especially – Rabbi Berk loves questions.  You should ask her about that, sometime.

But, you know, time goes by, and all the reasons that impel a person to choose this path, to choose, willingly, to lead a congregation, to put up with the long hours and more than a few kvetches (one of those aforementioned quirks of the Jewish people), begin to grow hazy.  You get consumed in the day-to-day.  You realize that it’s not all holy moments, the weddings and B’nei Mitzvah, the solemn rites of passage, the sacred encounters at hospital bedsides, or by the grave, to give comfort in moments of need.  It’s also board meetings and budgets, the mom who can’t abide her kid’s Bar Mitzvah date; it’s Rosh Ha-Shanah falling on your birthday and Shavuot on your anniversary and a Bat Mitzvah on your kid’s dance recital, and, well….  

Well, the flame that used to burn bright and clear as a noonday sun, begins to flicker, maybe even fade.  And that’s when you really need to pay attention and figure out what it means to be called to spiritual leadership—again and again—so that, twenty years into your rabbinate or cantorate, thirty years, forty, maybe even more, you can still hear the call.

And so it is that Rabbi Alexis Berk has been called to Temple Solel, called to serve as your spiritual leader.  Yes, there was a process—a thorough process.  To your rabbinic search committee, let me say:  Excellent, excellent choice.  

And yes, there’s the allure of the location; arriving here in the middle of January makes me question the sanity of living in New York altogether.  And yes, there’s the fact that Temple Solel is a special congregation; I know you’ve already figured this out, but Rabbi Berk is the kind of spiritual leader who could have gone anywhere—including Anywhere, San Diego—but she’s here because you are here.  And yes, there’s a contract, with a salary, and benefits—but, let’s face it, you don’t become a rabbi or cantor for the money (not even Angela, who’s both a rabbi and a cantor.  Well, maybe Angela).  No, there still has to be a calling—you still have to see the flame.

And that does take us to this week’s Torah portion—of course.

It’s Parashat Shemot—the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus—that we read this week, the story of Moses’s own calling to spiritual leadership.  And who better to answer our question, who better to consult on the meaning of the call than the one we call Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, Our Rabbi?  

 וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה׃

 וַ֠יֵּרָא מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָֹ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל׃

 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה׃

 וַיַּ֥רְא יְהוָ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

 וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃

Moses was out shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian.  He drove the sheep out into the wilderness, until he came up on the Mountain of God, at Horeb [also called Sinai].  A messenger of Adonai appeared unto him in flames of fire from within the bush; he looked, and, what do you know? The bush was burning with fire but the bush was not consumed.  Moses said to himself, “I should turn aside to see this wondrous sight—why is the bush not burning up?  When Adonai observed that he had turned aside to look, God called out unto him from within the bush, saying, “Moses, Moses!”  And Moses answered Hineni, here I am.  And God said, “Come no closer; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

Pretty much everything you need to know about what it means to be called to spiritual leadership appears within this passage.  Let me highlight three, each of which is embodied by the person we now call Rabbeinu, our Rabbi, Alexis Berk, who has been called to lead this holy congregation. 

First—the passage is overpopulated with one Hebrew verb, the word Ro’eh.  When spelled with an Aleph in the middle of the word, Ro’eh means to see.  First, Moses sees the messenger of God speaking out of the middle of the bush.  Then, Moses sees that the bush is burning but not consumed.  Then Moses determines to turn aside and see more closely the phenomenon he describes as a “wondrous sight,” using the same root word.  Then God sees that Moses has turned aside to see.  All in all, that’s six iterations of the word “to see” in the space of four verses, not to mention the pun at the top of the passage, when Moses is out shepherding, in Hebrew, the homonym Ro’eh, but spelled with an Ayin instead of an Aleph.  

Shepherding a flock does require a good deal of seeing, after all.  One must look carefully after all one’s members—and be willing to journey out into the wilderness after the ones that go astray.  The rabbi has to look deeply and gently at each person in order to understand his and her uniqueness, his and her innermost humanity.  

The Rabbi is, indeed, expected to be a seer, of sorts.  Not a prophet, to be sure, but a person possessed of vision and clarity of insight.  We invite such leaders into our congregations not to preserve the status quo but to move us forward.  We trust such leaders to see, or, better, to envision, our destinations even when we cannot see what lies on the horizon.  

And the Rabbi is expected to be a good overseer too, one who can guide and inspire not only her congregation but also her clergy colleagues and staff, to help bring that vision to reality.  

In all these ways and more, you have called upon a great seer to lead Temple Solel.  Rabbi Berk possesses vision—both clear-sightedness and farsightedness, an ability to discern and articulate destiny and purpose.  She knows how to move her community forward, as her last decade of exemplary leadership of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans will attest.  She is observant.  I don’t mean Jewishly observant, although in all the ways that count, she’s that too, in her deeply, authentically, beautifully Reform Jewishly observant way.  I mean, even more, that she observes keenly.  She sees the needs and feelings of others.  She is observant of her surroundings, observant of herself—that is to say, profoundly self-aware.  

The Rabbis observe in the Midrash—those volumes of commentary and story-making on the Torah—that it was Moses’s own observance—his own capacity to stop and look and take note, and really see what was going on with that bush—that prompted God to call him to leadership in the first place.  How long does it take to stare at a burning bush before one notices that it’s not burning up? the Rabbis asked.  How many of us would run in the other direction, go back to chasing that wayward sheep, call the fire department—anything but stay right there, in that place, in that moment, until the ordinary sight revealed itself to be extraordinary?  Let us then celebrate the vision and insight and deep seeing that you have brought to the leadership of your congregation.  

And, while we’re at it, let us resolve to be patient and observant, too, as we invite Alexis to take the time she needs to get to know Solel—to see us, really, truly, and deeply, even as we take the time to see her in all her dimensionality before we think we have her all figured out.  Because, and I speak from experience, she’s a person of many, many layers.  

Which takes us to the second feature of the call to spiritual leadership that we might observe in a close reading of our passage.

“Take off your sandals,” God instructs, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  After seeing, the next step is to take off one’s shoes.  And that is, well, let’s just name it, a bit weird.  And, possibly, depending on where those shoes have been, even a bit stinky.  

Is God inviting Moses to a yoga class, or a Japanese restaurant, or a walk on the beach?  Alexis likes all of those things, and the abundance of all three in San Diego is surely appealing to her, but there has to be more to this whole “take off your sandals” thing.  

Watch closely how Rabbi Berk conducts herself and you will begin to understand its meaning.  For the call to spiritual leadership requires that the rabbi does not elevate herself above her people.  The shoes have to come off in order to see eye-to-eye.  Yes, yes, before you pipe up—I know that Rabbi Berk does not actually need to make herself shorter in order to see you.  It’s a metaphor—a sign of humility.  Alexis knows before whom she stands.  She will never elevate herself above you.  She will never pretend to know more than you when she doesn’t.  And when she does know more than you, as when she’s teaching (and she is such a gifted teacher), she will never make you feel stupid or inadequate.   She will always make it clear how much your questions, your presence as a learner, your own insights into the text or the tradition matter, how much they add to her own understanding.  

And, as much as she knows that she has come to serve you, and not the other way around, her shoes are also always off when it comes to her service of God, above all, above all else.  Rabbi Berk gets that, wherever we walk, it is always holy ground—that there is no experience, no place, no encounter, devoid of the possibility of holiness, of spiritual elevation.  

Which takes us to the third and final element about the call to spiritual leadership—the part that comes after this passage, when Moses goes back down the mountain.  

Perhaps you have heard about one Mrs. Lenore Berkowitz, who at the age of 80 resolved to go see the guru.  Her friends all thought she was crazy!  Go all the way across the world, to Tibet, to see the guru, who sat all day on a high mountain in the lotus position, eyes serenely closed in contemplative silence?  What could the guru offer that she couldn’t find in shul?  Nevertheless she booked her flight and packed her bag and left.  As the sherpa guided her frail steps up the mountain, they warned her that every pilgrim would have only three words to speak to the guru before he would dispense his wisdom.  Up the steep trail she trekked until finally she stood before the guru.  “Remember, just three words,” said the sherpa.  Mrs. Berkowitz nodded.  Leaning close to the guru she said:  

“Sheldon, come home!”   

We should all be suspicious any so-called guru who never comes down off the mountain.  The call to spiritual leadership always sends us back to the people.  The people who are at the foot of the mountain.  You have called this rabbi and her beautiful family, Bob, Ari, and Seth—back home—to the place she has always belonged.  

And not just because Alexis has been in a lifelong love affair with Southern California.  

More than any rabbi I have ever met, Alexis believes that her calling has brought her into a binding covenant with the people.  We met in our first year of rabbinical school, twenty-five years ago, when she sat next to me in Ulpan, which is Hebrew school for grownups.  In know what you’re thinking—Berk before Blake—but this was before she was Berk, back when she was Alexis Gerber, like the baby food, only less mushy.  Over twenty five years, your Rabbi has demonstrated time and again to me and Kelly her wisdom, compassion, good nature, humor, and the kind of friendship that endures through thick and thin.   

She moved me to change my own position on officiation at interfaith weddings, explaining, simply and profoundly, that a rabbi belongs with his or her people in all the moments of their lives, in all their choices, and can help any couple, any family, affirm its covenant with the Jewish tradition, especially when others might abandon them.  

When it comes to pursuing a more just and equitable society, Rabbi Berk will walk among her people.  When teaching, she will learn alongside you.  When leading prayer, she prays with you.  When preaching, she speaks not from the lofty perch but from the lived experience of our shared human journey—from the awareness that we are all stumbling through this wilderness together, this wilderness called life.  If she says something from the bimah that stirs your curiosity, or discomfort, or tears, or rage, or a laugh—and she will—please, do yourself a favor, and make an appointment to see her.  I promise you, it’ll be one of the best conversations you’ll ever have.  

And there will be tea.

The word for flame in the Jewish tradition is lahav.  The word also turns up inside the Hebrew word Hitlahavut, meaning “enthusiasm” (or enzusiazm as our Ulpan teacher Chanah Shafir would have said).  

We wish you and your new rabbi hitlahavut in your shared calling.  May the flame of inspiration, compassion, justice, joy, and learning burn brightly within her and within the collective heart of this congregation.  To echo a favorite prayer from our Siddur:

“Help us to see wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.  And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  ‘How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!’”   

Shabbat Shalom!

 

End-of-Year Favorite Music List (2019)

It’s here! Favorite Music of 2019, ranked 50-1 by album. What a spectacular year for music this was. I know it’s not technically the end of the decade (that’ll happen December 31, 2020), but this year feels like we’re going out on a high note indeed.
50. Thom Yorke, Anima
49. Josh Ritter, Fever Breaks
48. The Highwomen (self-titled)
47. Dori Freeman, Every Single Star
46. Charlie Marie (self-titled)
45. Bedouine, Bird Songs of a Killjoy
44. Karen O & Danger Mouse, Lux Prima
43. A Winged Victory For the Sullen, The Undivided Five
42. Lankum, The Livelong Day
41. Caroline Polachek, Pang
40-31
40. Erin Enderlin, Faulkner County
39. Pernice Brothers, Spread the Feeling
38. Dykeritz, Madrigals
37. Jenny Lewis, On the Line
36. Clairo, Immunity
35. Allison Moorer, Blood
34. Federale, No Justice
33. Fink, Bloom
32. The New Pornographers, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
31. Calexico + Iron & Wine, Years to Burn
30-21
30. Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet
29. Aldous Harding, Designer
28. Joe Henry, The Gospel of Water
27. Marika Hackman, Any Human Friend
26. Jessica Pratt, Quiet Signs
25. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride
24. Elbow, Giants of All Sizes
23. John Paul White, The Hurting Kind
22. Mike and the Moonpies, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold
21. Kalie Shorr, Open Book
20-11
20. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Later
19. (Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar
18. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Ghosteen
17. Caroline Spence, Mint Condition
16. Wilco, Ode to Joy
15. Purple Mountains (self-titled)
14. Emily Scott Robinson, Traveling Mercies
13. Jay Som, Anak Ko
12. Brittany Howard, Jaime
11. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
Top Ten
10. Oso Oso, Basking in the Glow
I haven’t enjoyed a power-pop album this much since Fountain of Wayne’s perfect opus, Welcome Interstate Managers back in 2005. It’s in that echelon: a band hitting its stride, armed with supreme confidence and a vault of sticky hooks. (For similar fare, check out No. 39 on this year’s list.)
9. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars
I have not taken much pleasure in a Springsteen album since the 80’s – until now. Western Stars offers a tightly connected suite of sweeping, cinematic arrangements mated to some of his sharpest and most poignant storytelling, where we meet a cast of drifters, dreamers, and ordinary Joes moving forward against the bruises and setbacks life has handed them. A fantastic late-career offering that suggests that the creative well runs deep and strong as ever. It’s also one of two album covers in this year’s top to feature a nice photo of a horse. (The other is Love and Revelation, No. 7 below.)
8. Bill Callahan, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
It’s like Astral Weeks, only not so astral — just “weeks.”  Ordinary Weeks.  Brilliantly constructed across four sides (as in vinyl; it all fits on a single CD), Callahan offers musings and oblique meditations on writer’s block (this is his first album in six years, during which time he got married and had a child, which apparently conspired against his creativity); how it “feels good to be writing again”; the often overlooked, mundane grace of domestic life; the meaning of true love; and, on the last “side,” the inevitable shadow of mortality and finality. Not a word is wasted, not a guitar flourish or percussive chatter out of place. There are so many quotable lines, it’s hard to pick just one. Consider: “Angela, whoa Angela, like motel curtains, we never really met.” Shepherd is another Callahan high-water mark in a career full of them. It is, easily, his happiest album — he sounds serene, not somber; pensive, not resigned—everything, even a final, birdseye view of a graveyard, is shot through with hope. And couldn’t we all use a little of that now?
7. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation
Over the Rhine is the band that anyone who knows me knows I’ve been evangelizing about for the last 23 years – ever since I first heard them play in a tiny coffeeshop/hangout in Downtown Cincinnati, Kaldi’s. (Alas, Kaldi’s is no more.) Since then, the husband and wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have gotten only better and wiser, in their song-craft, their lyrics, and especially their music-making together. Kelly and I spent Memorial Day weekend this year on their property, Nowhere Farm, about an hour outside Cincinnati, for the Nowhere Else mini-festival that they’ve been curating under a big tent on their lawn for the past 3 or 4 years. Love and Revelation, their latest set, is a lean and lovely collection of 11 songs, the best writing they’ve done this decade, and possibly since their masterpiece double album “Ohio” (2003) (off of which they played a few tracks in concert this spring. Here’s a link to tickets to the Festival in 2020, if you want to join Kelly and me on the farm – we’d love to see you!
6. Big Thief, U.F.O.F. & Two Hands
I know, it’s really not fair to put both of these albums down on a single line, but I needed to include both. Although U.F.O.F. dropped in May and Two Hands in October, it seems as if the two function together as a proper double album, the first more hushed, intimate, and delicately constructed; the latter more rough, more aggressive, less meticulous—but, equally devastating in their lyrical focus and musical intensity. Compare the searing “Not” from Two Hands to the pastoral “Cattails” from U.F.O.F. and despite the obvious differences in instrumentation, tone, and content (the first is about how, in the words of a Genius (the website) reviewer, “to negate a thing is also to posit that very thing, making vivid, alluring, even present, the elements or events that are to be cancelled or set aside” (S/he’s a smart reviewer.); the second is a tender promise to a loved one who is dying), what you get from the two side-by-side is their commonality, how they share Big Thief’s overarching commitment to remind us at all times that (and here I’m quoting PItchfork’s wonderful review of Two Hands) “intimacy isn’t just about the comfort we bring to each other but also the proximity to our sickness and pain, blood and guts.” In most other years, this could easily have been a Number One on my list; it’s just that 2019 was too darn good.
5. Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka
I’ve heard this album described variously as R&B, Soul, and something I’ve never heard of before, called Psych-Soul, which seems to fit best. It certainly shares DNA with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, minus the raw political edge and explicitly accusatory tone. You’ll still pick up a searching quality to Kiwanuka’s writing, which touches on brutality inflicted communities of color (“Hero”), the anxiety of unmoored isolation (“Solid Ground”), and the quest for love, truth, and faith in a world that would deny them all. And there’s that yearning, burnished, smoky voice.
4. Lana Del Rey, Norman F****** Rockwell!
….In which all of Lana Del Rey’s thematic fetishes coalesce around a pungent vision of America (Los Angeles stands for America in the Del Rey lexicon) and the corrupted American Dream: the potent allure of beaches and summertime, high-gloss cars and celebs, man-children and fake dolls, drugs and alcohol, romance and capitalism, with a sickly sweet smell of decay just beneath its surface. It’s all wrapped in a strong set of piano ballads and vintage Laurel Canyon arrangements. It has every bit the feel of one of those classic Seventies AM radio records. Producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff nails the texture. It even has something no one every thought we’d need: a Sublime cover song. All this, and one of the greatest opening lines of a pop album — ever. Which makes me wonder: what are the best opening album lines of all time? I’d put a vote in for: Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (“Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying…”). Or Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (“Once upon a time you dressed so fine/Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”) Or Simon & Garfunkel, Sounds of Silence (“Hello darkness, my old friend…”). Or Steely Dan, Aja (“In the corner of my eye / I saw you in Rudy’s / You were very high…”). Or literally any album opener by Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello. We’ll play this game some time.
3. FKA Twigs, Magdalene
Prepare to be gobsmacked by Twigs’ second proper full-length. As the title suggests, the British singer/dancer’s album explores the intersection of the sacred and the profane, the madonna- and whore- archetypes. Somewhere I read a listener’s appraisal of Magdalene as the 2010’s answer to Bjork’s landmark Homogenic (1997), and the comparison works. You’ll also hear shades of Kate Bush, James Blake, ARCA, Nicolas Jaar…. The videos are absolutely mind-blowing.  (Check out the video for “Cellophane” to understand how twigs deploys madonna/whore images.)
2. Better Oblivion Community Center (self-titled)
Here’s an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Indie-folk godfather Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos), who has about a zillion albums to his credit, and relative newcomer Phoebe Bridgers, who has one, teamed up to write this album together – and it’s a little gem. Every song is a self-contained a diary, coalescing as a deeply affecting whole around a shared gaze on mortality, a mordant sense of humor, and a commitment to tunefulness rarely heard among indie artists these days. I hope they keep this project going—I like it better than just about anything Oberst has done as a solo artist. It’s clear that Bridgers has become a muse most suitable to his prodigious gifts, and a hell of a songwriter in her own right. Save for one album (see No. 1, below), no set of songs got more in my head in 2019 than this.
1. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising
Stone. Cold. Classic. Since its release in early April, Natalie Merling’s new album (she records as Weyes (rhymes with “Wise”) Blood) didn’t leave regular rotation. Think of Enya crossed with the Carpenters, but with the songwriting scope of a Jackson Browne. In fact, Titanic Rising reminds me of no other album such as Browne’s gorgeous, plaintive Late for the Sky (1974), for the dramatic expansiveness of the writing, the lush orchestration, the interconnected motifs among the songs (water, water everywhere), and the emotional sweep of the album as a whole. In all, a modern masterpiece.

Yes, But is it Good for the Jews?

SHABBAT VAYISHLACH 5780 / DECEMBER 13, 2019

Let me begin by saying that this is not the D’var Torah I had planned to deliver tonight.  But, given the eventfulness of this week in “News that matters to Jews,” I have re-directed my attention to a subject about which a number of questions and concerns have come my way over the last 48 hours, namely the Executive Order that was signed on Wednesday, aimed at curbing antisemitic discrimination on college campuses.  

Let me add here a further disclaimer, that while it is not my regular practice to comment on Presidential matters, the present instance is one among many in which the President’s actions directly intersect with the concerns of the Jewish community, and so merit comment in a Jewish setting, informed by Jewish values.

It is, of course, a truism that Jews will, for any conceivable circumstance, reflexively return to the age-old question, “Yes, but is it good for the Jews?”  

In fact, a hilarious and idiosyncratic book by London literary agent Jonathan Geller, called, Yes, But Is It Good For The Jews? (Bloomsbury, 2006) attempts to do just this, by evaluating everything from The Godfather (good, because it diverted attention away from Jewish mobsters), to Agatha Christie (not good, because of her frequent portrayal of Jews as hook-nosed money-grubbers(!)), to cooking show host and food writer Nigella Lawson (not good, because of her love of pork, which she puts in basically every dish), to Monica Lewinsky (good, and if you want to know why, read the book).  

How much the more so should we ask “Yes, but is it good for the Jews?” about this week’s news, which takes direct aim at an issue of grave concern for Jews—antisemitism—and which has kicked up any number of thorny subsidiary questions of import for Jewish people, to wit:

  • Is Anti-Israel protest on campus just one more expression of antisemitic hate?  Or is it protected free speech?  Or could it be both?  And what are the potential repercussions of attempting to suppress it, both for pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and for American Jews who have, on balance, benefited greatly from America’s historic protection of free speech?
  • How do we reconcile the intent of the Executive Order—to extend the protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include Jews—against the fact that the original law (and this is a direct quote) “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance?”  As President John F. Kennedy said in 1963:  “Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial discrimination.”  The present controversy concerns how classification of Jews alongside, or in the same category as “race, color, and national origin” could in fact do a disservice to Jews by proposing a distinct “national” or “racial” identity, not a specifically religious identity, which will (it is argued) further expose American Jews to charges of “disloyalty,” portraying Jews as treacherous, loyal to some “nation” other than America, and, even worse, could reinforce insidious characterizations of Jews as a race, a theory popularized by the Nazis and which they used to rationalize that the only solution to the so-called “Jewish Problem” was mass extermination (given that one can distance oneself from one’s religion, but cannot ever change one’s race).   

These are, as I have said, thorny issues with no simple answers.  Which of course moved me to seek guidance in Torah.  I’ve provided a handout highlighting two passages from this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, that I think comment meaningfully on the present dilemma.  I invite you to scan it briefly:

SHABBAT VAYISHLACH 5780 / DECEMBER 13, 2019

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE

WE ARE A RELIGION

Genesis Chapter 32

25 Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

כה וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר:

26 When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him.

כו וַיַּ֗רְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָכֹל֙ ל֔וֹ וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֨קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵאָֽבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ:

27 And he (the messenger) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he (Jacob) said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”

כז וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שַׁלְּחֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲשַׁלֵּֽחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּֽרַכְתָּֽנִי:

28 He said to him, “What is your name?” and he answered, “Jacob.”

כח וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו מַה־שְּׁמֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹֽב:

29 And he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

כט וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַֽעֲקֹב֙ יֵֽאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל:

30 Then Jacob asked: “Now tell me your name,” and he replied, “Why would you ask for this, for my name?”  And he blessed him there.

ל וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם:

WE ARE A NATION

Genesis Chapter 35

10 God said to him, “Your name is Jacob. Your name shall no longer be called Jacob; rather, Israel shall be your name.”  So God named him Israel.

י וַיֹּֽאמֶר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים שִׁמְךָ֣ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב לֹֽא־יִקָּרֵא֩ שִׁמְךָ֨ ע֜וֹד יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב כִּ֤י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

11 And God said to him, “I am the Almighty God.  Be fruitful and multiply: a nation and a congregation of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall issue forth from your loins.”

יא וַיֹּ֩אמֶר֩ ל֨וֹ אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֲנִ֨י אֵ֤ל שַׁדַּי֙ פְּרֵ֣ה וּרְבֵ֔ה גּ֛וֹי וּקְהַ֥ל גּוֹיִ֖ם יִֽהְיֶ֣ה מִמֶּ֑ךָּ וּמְלָכִ֖ים מֵֽחֲלָצֶ֥יךָ יֵצֵֽאוּ:

12 “And the land that I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you; and to your seed after you will I give the land.”

יב וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֛תִּי לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם וּלְיִצְחָ֖ק לְךָ֣ אֶתְּנֶ֑נָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ֥ אַֽחֲרֶ֖יךָ אֶתֵּ֥ן אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ:

translation:  J. Blake

In the first passage, the famous sequence of Jacob wrestling with the night visitor, called simply “a man” by the text but clearly presented as a divine messenger or angel, Jacob engages in a solitary struggle against an unseen adversary who ends up both injuring and blessing him.  

I would not be the first rabbi to point out that the wrestling match is as much a spiritual contest as a physical one.  The outcome tells us as much, in that Jacob’s new name, Yisrael or Israel, literally means “one who strives with God.”  

The Zohar, chief work of Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah, declares that Jacob’s battle with the angel is symbolic of every person’s struggle with his or her darker side, those baser impulses that constantly wage war against our noblest, highest selves (Zohar 1:170b).  

To be Yisrael, to be a Jew, is to strive with God and humankind so as to access the divinity within:  to elevate our lives through the kind of holy thought, words, and deeds of which we are capable when we rise to our noble best.  It is a spiritual or religious identity, a matter of belief and observance and above all moral striving.  This is what it means to be Yisrael.   

In contrast, the second text affirms that the identity of Yisrael is less spiritual or religious and more national:  an identity rooted in the notion of peoplehood, of common history, heritage, ancestry, family ties, and above all, destiny.  In this version of the account of how Jacob obtains his new name, Yisrael, the focus is clearly on the collective, the peoplehood-identity.  

No sooner does Jacob take on the new name Israel does God charge him:  “Be fruitful and multiply:  a nation and a congregation of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall issue forth from your loins.  And the land that I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you; and to your seed after you will I give the land.”  

In this account, to be Yisrael, to be a Jew, is to see oneself as part of a whole:  part of a people, indeed, a nation, with a common heritage and, yes, a land to call our own.  

So there you have it:  two different ways to understand what it means to be Yisrael, to be a Jew, both found in this week’s parasha, and both directly relevant to this week’s complicated conversation about the President’s Executive Order.  

Asking Jews to choose between a “religious” identity and a “peoplehood” or even “national” identity presents us with a false dichotomy.  Judaism is, and always has been, a mix of spiritual-identity and peoplehood-identity.  We are both kinds of Yisrael:  the lone spiritual wrestler and the nation with a unique destiny.  And although I’m probably preaching to the wrong crowd tonight, given the fact that you’re all here in synagogue on Shabbat, it’s no secret that a majority of American Jews identify far more closely with the peoplehood component of their Judaism than with the religious practice.  Judaism is, in its totality that encompasses both dimensions, best described as a “religious civilization.”  

As for the least comfortable part of this week’s conversation around Title VI of the Civil Rights Act—its protections against racial discrimination—we need to understand both the context in which the word “race” was used in the 1960s, and also the usual application of the law even more than its specific wording, which, I admit, does not fit comfortably within a 21st-century understanding of race as a social construct rather than an inherent feature of human beings.

The more scientists—in both the so-called “hard sciences,” like biology, and the “soft sciences,” like sociology—study the phenomenon of race, the more they have concluded that race has no basis in actual biology but rather is a term that people and societies have used to classify themselves and especially others, often for the purpose of perpetuating entrenched power structures that favor people of lighter skin over people of darker skin.  

Characterizing Jews as a race, as the Nazis did, gave them a pseudo-scientific rationale to dehumanize, maim, and murder us.  

Having said that, we must understand what the word “race” meant more than fifty years ago, for instance, when Kennedy used it, and why the Civil Rights Act was at the time, and has remained, a helpful and, moreover, essential piece of American legislation in combating  discrimination in a vast array of domains, including educational settings as Title VI provides.   

So, we are back to the original question:  Is this Executive Order “good for the Jews?”  

I, for one, say yes, although it’s a qualified yes.  

The ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and AJC (American Jewish Committee) have both gone on record to affirm that, inasmuch as this Order may further disincentivize colleges and other educational programs from turning a blind eye to the way in which much anti-Israel speech and activity on American college campuses has, in recent years, lurched into a rehashing of familiar antisemitic tropes and has provided cover for speech and protest-activity that has directly suppressed and intimidated Jewish students, faculty, and guest lecturers, it comes a welcome development.  

I further agree with those who say that the Executive Order does not, in intent or in effect, re-classify American Jews as a distinct race or nation.  To quote Mark Joseph Stein in Slate earlier this week (NB, Slate is a left-leaning online magazine):

The text of the order… does not claim that Jews are a nation or a different race. The order’s interpretation of Title VI—insofar as the law applies to Jews—is entirely in line with the Obama administration’s approach. It only deviates from past practice by suggesting that harsh criticism of Israel—specifically, the notion that it [Israel or Zionism] is “a racist endeavor”—may be used as evidence to prove anti-Semitic intent (December 11, 2019).

I would, therefore, caution us against buying into the more hysterical responses to the Order, which, interestingly, have arisen on two different fronts:  (1) On the one hand, we are hearing strong opposition from the left, arguing that the Order will suppress free expression on college campuses and use “Jews and Judaism as a shield to go after Palestinians and anti-authoritarian professors and student activists,” as one activist has put it, and, (2) On the other hand, that the Order will foment White Supremacist anti-Semitism by giving Neo-Nazis and their sympathizers support for their ideology that characterizes Jews as a nation disloyal to America, or, even worse, as a non-White race that is destroying the fabric of our country both directly, by our presence here, and indirectly, by supporting pro-immigration policies that will allegedly bring more people of color to the US—an anxiety at the heart of the “Jews Will Not Replace Us” rallying cry heard at the Charlottesville demonstrations two and a half years ago.  

The fact is, we need not worry about virulent White Supremacists turning to an esoteric legal maneuver for further support of their deranged worldview.  Can you really visualize a scenario in which Neo-Nazis are appealing to the Civil Rights Act in order to demonize Jews?  As if they needed the Civil Rights Act to back up their claims?  That’s just ludicrous! 

The bigger issues, as I see it, the ones that caused me to say that my support for Wednesday’s Executive Order is “qualified,” are twofold.  First, there’s a question of efficacy.  Generally, efforts to stifle protest do not in fact stifle protest, so I would not expect for this Order to put an end to anti-Israel agitation against Jewish students on campus, and neither should we.  

Second, there’s the question of intent.  Given the administration’s longstanding equivocation on the subject of antisemitism—eager to call out hostility to Jews only when the harassment is coming from the left (i.e., pro-Palestinian / anti-Israel activists and groups) but comparatively mealy-mouthed when it comes to addressing anti-Semitism from the right (as in White Supremacists like the Charlottesville demonstrators)—it becomes hard to see Wednesday’s Order as principally motivated by true concern for the welfare of America’s Jews.  

As I have said from this bimah many times, many ways:  an American commitment to confront and combat antisemitism must see the problem as bigger than any one political party or platform.  There is, after all, no reason to divide the Jewish community against itself on this issue—a commitment to fighting antisemitism from every angle should be an easy rallying cry to unite America’s Jews. 

If the politics of division do prevail in this instance, as already seems to be the case, the benefits of the Order could easily be counter-weighted by the corrosive effect it will have on an already deeply divided American Jewry.  

In the meantime—so that you do not leave this talk in a state of total depression—I would invite us, by way of a coda to these remarks, to look “across the pond” and breathe a sigh of relief that, just yesterday, Great Britain handed its most prominent and unrepentant antisemite a resounding defeat, and that—whatever we may think of Boris Johnson and Brexit—we need not worry about a British government headed by Jeremy Corbyn anytime soon.  

And that, as they say, is very good for the Jews. 

In the meantime, I guess we will all have to do our best to be like Jacob—one who wrestles through the long, dark night, and, with God’s help, emerges—bruised, perhaps, but with blessing — Yisrael. 

Shabbat Shalom!

The Real Sin of Sodom: Scarsdale-Hartsdale Interfaith Thanksgiving Service 2019

DELIVERED AT HITCHCOCK PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2019

Once upon a time, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had it good.  Really good.  

Hear me out on this.  

What we know about Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis is only the beginning of the story.  To recap: “[T]he people of Sodom were wicked, exceedingly sinful before the Almighty.”  God confides in Abraham the intention to go down and confirm the worrisome reports about Sodom and Gomorrah, “because their sin is very grievous” (Genesis 13:13).  

Abraham famously bargains with God, urging God to live up to the reputation as “Judge of all the earth” and act justly by saving the cities if just ten righteous souls can be found (Gen. 18:25).  

Abraham’s audacity toward God for the sake of justice, what we Jewish people call “chutzpah,” is laudable, but in the end, even ten righteous citizens prove elusive and the city finds itself on the wrong end of fire and brimstone, an environmental catastrophe that would cause the names Sodom and Gomorrah forever to be associated with destruction and waste, utterly uninhabitable forever.  And, if you look even today to the barren landscape surrounding the Dead Sea, where these Biblical communities presumably once thrived, you will find salt flats and sulphur pits to match the Biblical description of the wreckage, even down to a famous geological formation that looks in profile a lot like a woman and is known in Israeli folklore as “Lot’s wife,” the ill-fated resident of Sodom who disobeyed God’s will, looked back while fleeing the city, and turned into a pillar of salt.

But it wasn’t always ravage and ruin and high sodium content for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, or so the tradition goes.  In the Rabbinic imagination, these twin cities once had an unusually strong economy.  Stories abound in the midrash, the collections of Rabbinic legend, about the abundance of Sodom and Gomorrah.  (Mind you, all of these folktales come from the imagination of the Rabbis, the great teachers of the tradition, so don’t go looking in your Bibles—you won’t find them there.) 

One story reports that the agriculture of Sodom was uncommonly lush and rich—foliage so dense that made it impossible to see Sodom from the air, carrots that grew as tall as people, a single sheep or goat that could feed for a family for years.  Another reports that when the Sodomites plucked vegetables from the earth, gold dust would scatter from the roots.

There is, of course, no crime in prosperity.  So why did God slate all those people for destruction?  What horrible thing could they have done, that made God want to blow up two whole cities? 

Ezekiel gives us a clue.  He said they “were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before [God]” (Ez. 16:49-50). 

And so—the Midrash elaborates—despite their extravagant wealth,

The people of Sodom and Gomorrah refused to export outside their own little province.  They barred immigrants from their cities, fearing that they would hurt their wages, take their jobs, eat their food, steal their riches.  They put steep tariffs on imported goods and zealously hoarded their bounty (Summarizing and paraphrasing from various sources compiled in Bialik & Ravnitzky, eds., trans. William G. Braude, The Book of Legends (Sefer Ha-Aggadah): Legends from the Talmud and Midrash.  New York, Schocken Books, 1992.  pp. 36-37, §30).

And lest you think the Rabbis were concerned only with matters of “policy,” they also denounced the Sodomites as wantonly cruel:

Not only would they refuse to provide food for guests and strangers but they also would cut off the branches of fruit trees specifically in order to deprive the birds;

One story relates how a resident who gave bread to the poor was rounded up by the Sodomites and burnt alive;

Another says that when guests slept over in Sodom, they’d offer a bed and then, if it was too long, they would shorten their guests by lopping off their feet; if too short, they would forcibly stretch the victims (Ibid).

But the most astonishing teaching about Sodom suggests that its citizens were actually not too very different from you or me.  

“A person who says, ‘What’s mine belongs to me, and what’s yours belongs to you,’—this is an average type of person, according to the ancient tradition.  But some Rabbis disagreed, and said, “This is the Sodom type” (Mishna Avot (Pirkei Avot), 5:13.)

What’s mine belongs to me; what’s yours belongs to you.  This is, after all, the essence of capitalism:  What I earn, I keep.  What you earn, you keep.  We go about our own business.  We don’t get involved in each other’s affairs.  How could anyone possibly confuse the wickedness of Sodom with this ordinary, benign, outlook?

And that, I think, is the whole point:  that it’s all too easy for an “ordinary, benign outlook” to become a vehicle for the perpetuation of injustice, even cruelty.

And specifically this outlook—that declares that if I have what I have, and you have what you have, then what good does it do me to look after you?  what does it matter to me whether or not you have enough?”—this outlook can, under the right circumstances, lurch into a looking-the-other-way, a not looking out for people in need, for people who don’t have enough, people who may never have enough.  

There’s a song in a show on Broadway right now about this very idea.  The show is called Hadestown and the song (which, by the way, was composed in 2006) is called, “Why we Build the Wall.”  

“Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?” it goes,

“The wall keeps out the enemy, and we build the wall to keep us free, That’s why we build the wall, to keep us free.  Because we have and they have not… because they want what we have got – that’s why we build the wall” (Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown, “Why We Build the Wall,” 2006).

Our society ought to pursue prosperity.  America should be the kind of place where people “want what we have got.”  But the true measure of a society is not how it rewards the fortunate or even the successful.  “The true measure of any society,” Gandhi taught, “can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”  This explains the doom of Sodom; it also explains the division in America.  We presently have two visions of how we judge our society:  one vision starts by asking how the “haves” are doing:  how strong is the economy, as measured by employment rates and consumer spending and the stock market?  The other vision considers how the “have nots” are faring:  what’s our record on poverty, health care for the neediest, opportunity for minorities, criminal justice, food insecurity, homelessness?

The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.  The Bible understood this, because Deuteronomy reports what must have presented as an all-too-commonplace real-life scenario and then insists that we all have an obligation to deal with it:  

15:7 If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need….  10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.”  

There’s even a verse that says, “Don’t even think about refusing to loan to a person in need just because the year for canceling debts is around the corner,” referring to the Biblical custom of remitting debts every seven years.  “Don’t even think about” depriving your needy neighbor the loan he needs to make ends meet.  

15:11 There will always be poor people in the land,” it continues. “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” 

In a society of endemic poverty—where the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, further concentrating and entrenching the wealth and power and opportunity afforded the rich while further impoverishing the poor—in such a society, the rule of, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” is, in fact, a perpetuation of the crime of Sodom—which, of course, was Greed, plain and simple.

Earlier this month, Michael Tomasky of the New York Times wrote a column called, “Bill Gates, I Implore You to Connect Some Dots,” (referring to Bill Gates’ recent dust-up with Elizabeth Warren) in which Tomasky noted that 

Multibillion-dollar fortunes are often called excessive and decadent. But here’s something they’re rarely called but ought to be: anti-democratic. These fortunes will destroy our democracy.  Why “anti-democratic”?  Why would it matter to our democracy whether Jeff Bezos is worth $113 billion (his current figure) or $13 billion?

Because any democracy needs a robust and thriving middle class, and we have spent the last 30 or so years transferring trillions of dollars from the middle class to the people at the very top. Just one set of numbers, from the University of California, Berkeley, economist Gabriel Zucman: The 400 richest Americans — the top .00025 percent of the population — now own more of the country’s riches than the 150 million adults in the bottom 60 percent of wealth distribution. The 400’s share has tripled since the 1980s.

This is carnage, plain and simple. No democratic society can let that keep happening and expect to stay a democracy. It will produce a middle and working classes with no sense of security, and when people have no sense that the system is providing them with basic security, they’ll make some odd and desperate choices (From The New York Times (online edition), November 11, 2019).

That’s why, “What’s Mine is Mine, What’s Yours is Yours” is an outlook associated with the people of Sodom.  There is, however, one more type of person, for whom the Rabbis reserved special praise.  This person says:  “What’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is yours.”  The Rabbis did not think this kind of behavior “average” at all.  They call it chasid—which happens to be the same word as Hasid, like the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn—but which literally means, filled with lovingkindness (Avot 5:13).

We need a society that reaches for lovingkindness.  A society that reaches for lovingkindness views inequality as a failure to recognize the basic humanity and dignity of one’s fellow man and woman.  A society that reaches for lovingkindness sees a quality education, fair job opportunity, and the basic health care of each citizen as fundamental rights, not privileges for those who can afford them.  A society that reaches for lovingkindness treats its immigrants—yes, even those who come to this country illegally—with basic human decency and dignity. 

A society that reaches for lovingkindness does not intentionally separate families, deprive detainees of toothbrushes, toilets, and soap, smear immigrants as criminals or potential criminals, and slander refugees as terrorists-in-wait.

A society that reaches for lovingkindness may in fact know, as Deuteronomy knows, that “There will be poor, always,” but such a society nevertheless insists that we “Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart.” 

They say that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and there’s solid research to back up that old adage.  A noteworthy study discovered in 2011 that, across countries, … inequality “is associated with lower growth rates and shorter growth spells.  Redistribution [of wealth], for the most part, is not.”

Friends:  We have so much bounty.  How good is our harvest.  How much we have that merits thanks.  God has blessed us in so many ways.  Now it is our holy work to figure out how best to let others share in those blessings.

We express our thanks best by giving of ourselves generously to others.  Especially as the end of the year approaches and we think about our charitable giving, consider visiting charitynavigator.org and researching those organizations that help us share our blessings with populations in need. 

We express our thanks best when we volunteer our time to the betterment of the human family.  So please consider volunteering at a local soup kitchen, homeless shelter, church, synagogue, mosque, community center, to give to others the most precious gifts you have—your time and your human presence.    

We express our thanks best by supporting those policies that best distribute opportunity to all, not only to a few, so please consider calling or writing your elected officials and advocate for the right and the just.  

This Thanksgiving season, let us express our thanks by building a society in which all have cause to give thanks.  

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Bereshit 5780 – Jewish Wisdom for the 100-Year Life: Chai Society Shabbat

OCTOBER 25, 2019 – 7:45 PM

Parashat Bereshit, the opening passage in our annual cycle of Torah reading, introduces us to a number of characters whose apparent longevity strains credulity.  

In Genesis, chapter 5, we meet Enosh, who lives to 905 years.  Mahalalel, 895 years. Jared, 962 years. Methuselah, oldest man of the Hebrew Bible, 969 years.  We learn that Adam, long after having raised Cain and Abel, whose tragic story is the stuff of every parent’s worst nightmare, went back to childrearing at the age of 130 years, named this third child Seth, lived another 800 years, and died at the age of 930.  Seth makes it to 912 years. And the chapter ends by introducing us to Noah, who didn’t even start having kids until he was 500 years old!

Rabbi Leo Abrami, who died last year at 86–an entirely respectable lifespan for a man of our times–summarized the literature on this subject:

“The ages attributed to the early human ancestors in Genesis,” he notes, 

are quite unlike those we are accustomed to in our modern world….  These extremely long life spans were explained in many ways. Josephus [the great first-century Roman-Jewish historian] writes that it may have been a function of their diet, or that God allowed them to live so long because they were close to the initial creation of man and were “beloved by God.”  Nachmanides [the RaMBaN, or Moses ben Nachman, who lived in 13th Century Spain] explains that since early man was more perfect biologically, people lived much longer…. Modern archeological discoveries provide a new way of approaching these long life spans…. [An ancient Sumerian] [c]uneiform document [that is almost 3,800 years old] enumerates the names of eight kings who reigned before the flood according to Sumerian saga, and their ages happen to be multiples of 3600… (Abrami, Leo Michel.  “The Ages of the Personalities in Genesis,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4.  October-December 2011). 

And, Professor Brian Abrahamson, an Australian Bible scholar, recently performed a factorial analysis of the ages of Biblical figures and concluded that several of them appear to be multiples of 19.  Methuselah’s 969 years correspond to 51 times 19. Noah lived 950 years, or 50 times 19. Seth lived 912 years, or 48 times 19. And Adam himself lived 930 years which is or 49 times 19… minus 1 (possibly, the professor conjectures, because Adam committed a major sin). This is, indeed, an amazing sequence of multiples of 19, which led Abrahamson to conclude that these numbers must have had a symbolic meaning in antiquity. 

I, for one, have a hard time visualizing my life past next Wednesday, let alone 900 some odd years from now.  Imagining life at 80 or 90 is difficult enough, although I have resigned myself to the possibility that, even then, people will still tell me that I look too young to be a rabbi.

And yet, recent studies indicate that each of us would be wise to contemplate both the opportunities and challenges afforded by increasing human longevity.  Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, co-authors of The 100-Year Life:  Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, note that whereas, 

For much of human history, life was well described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short,” … continued scientific, economic and social progress over the centuries has raised living standards and life expectancy.  While these benefits have not been spread equally across countries, or even within countries, in general, life is now less nasty, less brutish and certainly less short…. Over the last 200 years, best practice life expectancy has increased at a near constant rate of more than two years every decade.  If this trend continues, a child born in the UK [the authors’ home country] today has more than a 50% chance of living to 105. On average, most of these extra years of life will be healthy ones. It is as if the arc of life has been extended (Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, “Our life in three stages – school, work, retirement – will not survive much longer,” The Guardian (online edition), September 4, 2016).

The implications of this, the authors contend, are far-ranging and dramatic.  Most of us are accustomed to the idea of a three-stage life: an early phase of education, followed by a longer phase of work, and then retirement.  But this life-structure, which emerged as the norm across the industrialized world in the 20th century, is unlikely to survive the 21st.  

A redefinition of aging is already well underway:  how many times has someone recently reminded you that “60 is the new 40?”  Soon we may be hearing that 100 is the new 80!  

We’re already observing trends here in Scarsdale that bear out many of the authors’ hypotheses.  People are marrying and having children later. They are initiating mid-career breaks, taking time out to explore, build their own businesses, pursue new education at older stages of life.  They are negotiating greater flexibility in their jobs, sometimes going abroad, often with kids in tow, for months or even years at a time. We even have families in the congregation with grown, married children of their own, who much later in life, like Adam and Eve, have decided to have a second round of kids!   

Tonight, at our Chai Society Shabbat, when we honor members of WRT who have affiliated for eighteen years and more (not necessarily all of our oldest members, but certainly those of longest vintage), I’d like to outline three Jewish implications for a 100-year life:  first, in our approach to education, second, in our approach to work, and third, in our approach to spiritual vitality.  

Contemplating the effect of a 100-year life on one’s approach to education benefits from a wealth of Jewish wisdom.  Simply put, Judaism has never premised education as a project relegated to one phase of life, much less only the first phase of life, but rather frames learning as a lifelong pursuit.  

Those who have mastered the art of living have long internalized the wisdom of this approach.  Tao Porchon-Lynch, a 100-year-old master yoga teacher and Westchester resident recently commented:  “I haven’t finished learning. My students are my teachers.”

I know how she feels.  This past week in our Melton program–which itself attests to WRT’s commitment to lifelong Jewish learning–we studied a famous passage from a Talmud commentary called Avot de-Rabbi Natan, which probes the origins of Akiva, the great 2nd Century Rabbi.  

“How did Rabbi Akiva start out?” the Rabbis asked.  They said: “He was forty years old and had never studied anything.  Once, while standing in front of a well, Akiva asked, ‘Who engraved this stone?’  They answered, ‘[It was] the water, which drips upon it every day. Akiva, are you not familiar [with the verse from the Book of Job, 14:19]: “As the waters wear away the stones?”’  Right then and there, Rabbi Akiva made the following deduction: ‘If something soft [as water] can chisel its way through something hard [as stone], then surely the words of Torah, which are hard as iron, can penetrate my heart, which is but flesh and blood!’”  At that moment, Akiva signed up for Hebrew school, as it were, learning his Alef-Bet at the age of 40 and going on to become the most learned Sage of his generation (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Ver. A, Ch. 6).  

 Starting in mid-life, learning gradually:  Akiva models not only the what but the how of Jewish learning.  And, also, the why:  so that, little by little, the words of Torah might penetrate the heart and transform our lives from the inside out.  

Of course this flies in the face of how many Jewish communities actually function.  Jewish education imitates the pattern of secular education: something parents give their kids to occupy them for while, and then stop.  If commitment to Jewish learning in a family happens to be strong, the child may continue past Bar or Bat Mitzvah to Confirmation and on through High School graduation.  But even students on college campuses with robust Jewish populations and active Hillel chapters have little motivation, much less opportunity, to pursue serious Jewish learning.  And then the cycle tends to repeat itself, with adults re-engaging with the question of Jewish education only after they have children of their own.

A 100-year life forces a comprehensive reckoning with our relationship with education, with similar implications for Jewish education.  “How can you maintain and build productive assets,” ask Scott and Lytton, “when most education takes place in your 20s? How can what you have learned remain relevant over the next 60 years against a backdrop of technological upheaval and industrial transformation?”  

Analogous questions might be asked of our Jewish education:  How can we ever hope to develop a meaningful spiritual life with a 7th-grade understanding of God, Prayer, or Belief?  How can we expect what we learned in religious school as children to remain relevant for the rest of our lives? Only an Akiva-like approach to Jewish learning might address these concerns.

The authors of The 100-Year Life also predict the upheaval that longevity will prompt in our work.  “Consider this: people who live to 100 will have around 100,000 extra productive hours than those who live to 70.  Unless we can find the motivation and the means to save more,” they conclude, “an inevitable consequence is that we will have to work longer.” 

The AARP already reports that men and women working not only past traditional retirement age but well into their 70s, 80s and sometimes beyond, now comprise “the hottest demographic in the labor market,” and the fastest-growing segment of the workforce.  

People currently in their 20s can expect to work into their late 70s or even early 80s, and people in their mid-40s (like this rabbi) should plan to work into their mid-70s.  As Scott and Lytton argue: “We need to create a world where this is feasible and beneficial, a way that makes a longer life a blessing and not a curse.”

Judaism, predictably, has a lot to say about this too.  Obviously our Biblical and Talmudic sources could not have anticipated the norms of 21st century life, such as the emergence of a multi-stage career, a work trajectory that includes multiple, meaningful professional engagements spread out over much time, with ample investment in time outside the office as well, for creative pursuits, family, travel, and the education to develop new proficiencies and pursue new professional opportunities.  

This is not to say that Judaism is silent on the subject of a productive and meaningful work life.  Far from it! Perhaps the most meaningful Jewish notion pertaining to our relationship with labor that emerges from the traditional literature is, of course, the Shabbat, and its less well-known but equally important relative, the Sabbatical.  

Many have argued that the Sabbath is the single greatest contribution of the Jewish tradition to human civilization.  The notion is deceptively simple to understand and deceptively tricky to implement in the modern world: Six days on, one day off.  That’s it. That’s Judaism’s brilliant innovation. Six days on, one day off. The thing is, right now, in America, particularly in this not-so-sleepy suburb populated with a surplus of high-powered executives, the notion of Shabbat, of six days on, one day off, is downright counter-cultural, in the very best way.  

Let’s just name it:  many of us are overworked.  Between our responsibilities to our jobs, and our unpaid jobs as members of families and volunteer leaders in our communities, we seem to be obeying a traffic light that displays only green.  We need Shabbat. We need a break. Regularly. Weekly. We need to stop. Think. Pray. Celebrate. Learn. Eat a meal together. Rest. Take a walk in the fall foliage. Light a havdalah candle.  Breathe.

And if Shabbat is countercultural, the idea of a Sabbatical is downright transgressive, which must be why it hasn’t much caught on outside the realms of academia and the clergy, which is a shame.  Congregations who seek a long-term investment in their clergy would be wise to view sabbatical as an investment in the long-term vitality of their spiritual leaders and the sustained vibrancy of the congregation.  Sabbatical not only invites professionals to rejuvenate; it also prompts them to pursue creative opportunities, deepen their learning, and develop new skills that can benefit every member of an organization. Imagine the advances in science, medicine, industry, business, and the legal and financial professions if companies and professionals invested in regular Sabbaticals for their top executives.  

The multi-phase career occasioned by a 100-year life begs for a renewed attention to Shabbat and Sabbatical, ancient Jewish ideas with profound wisdom for a modern world.     

Finally, let us consider the question of our spiritual vitality as we live longer and healthier lives.  An extended lifespan comprised of all work and no play, all work and no learning, all work and no extracurricular pursuits, may solve the financial challenge of longevity; but it will inevitability deplete other important life-assets:  chiefly, our emotional health, our friendships and relationships, and, above all, our spiritual wellbeing.  

In response to this dilemma I cannot prescribe a simple Jewish remedy like lifelong learning or Shabbat and Sabbatical, although I believe that attentiveness to these will contribute dramatically to enhanced spiritual vitality over the long haul.  

What I can tell you is that while Judaism may not add years to our life, it can most certainly add life to our years.  

Several years ago, a family moved up their recently widowed mom to Westchester and introduced her to WRT.  Within weeks she was a regular at Shabbat services. In a few months time, Torah Study had, effectively, adopted her, and you could find her here every Saturday morning.  New friendships blossomed out of her bereavement. Soon she was leading book groups and participating in every WRJ program, and so much more. Out of the shadow of her bereavement emerged the sunlight of a renewed spirit.  She proudly called WRT her second home for the last almost 15 years of her life, until her own death a little over a year ago. And her story is not atypical. Whenever I see a person with many years in the rearview mirror find spiritual rejuvenation through his or her Jewish connection, I think of how wrong F. Scott Fitzgerald was, when he declared “There are no second acts in American lives.”  Judaism proposes that it’s never too late for a second act, and a third, and perhaps even more, should God bless us with years and health enough to keep writing the story of our days.

As I look out into the congregation tonight, I acknowledge with admiration how many of you took to heart our invitation to #showupforshabbat, in remembrance of the victims of the shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, one year ago this weekend.  I admire your commitment to honor the slain, and to stand together against antisemitism and hate and intolerance. But to #showupforshabbat on a significant yahrzeit such as tonight is not a great sacrifice.  To #showupforshabbat week after week, and for profound Jewish learning at every age and stage of life; to show up for the baby namings and aufrufs and funerals and shivas of members of our community; to show up for the volunteer dinners and holiday parties for guests with visual impairments or developmental disabilities; to show up for the needy, poor, and hungry with helping hands and generosity of spirit; to show up for Israel and the Jewish people worldwide–these are, indeed, commitments worth honoring.  

And for those of you who have been showing up for 18 years, and 36 years, and 54 years, and more–we all find inspiration in your example and gratitude for the strength and vitality that you have given WRT for so many years.  

May our congregation, a very youthful 66 years strong, be blessed to know the longevity of our ancestors, and write many fruitful chapters to come in the Book of Life of Westchester Reform Temple.  Amen.

 

 

 

“It’s a Poor Sort of Memory that Only Works Backward.”  – Lewis Carroll

Yizkor, Yom Kippur Afternoon, 5780

9 October 2019

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

“Some moments feel so important, we believe there is a perfect recording of them, etched in our minds.”  

So begins actor Emma Stone’s voiceover of a new Netflix mini-series called “The Mind, Explained,” which tackles memory as the subject of its first episode.  

“And yet,” explains neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, “Your memories… are probably not as accurate as you think.  We know about 50% of the details of [a] memory change within a year, even though most people are convinced they’re 100% right.”

Human memory is not like a computer’s memory, where data gets stored and can be retrieved with absolute fidelity.  A sermon I wrote 20 years ago (when I first became a rabbi!) can be called up with a few keystrokes and there it is, word-for-word.  But human memory is simultaneously much less accurate and much more complex. You would think that the purpose of memory is to preserve the past.  But even our most significant memories, we learn—the ones that inform our life-story, our foundational identity—tend to warp and mutate over time. Memories are not perfect recordings.  In fact, as far as recordings go, our memories are fairly unreliable.  

Why?

Why does memory work this way—why do our brains twist the past while fooling us into thinking that we’re remembering it exactly as it happened?

This seems a fitting inquiry as any for a service called Yizkor which comes from the Hebrew לזכור, “to remember.”  After all, we come here because of our memories. Yizkor matters because we recognize that memory gives us a certain power over death.  So long as we remember, so long as we can replay in our minds a parent’s embrace, a lover’s caress, a child’s first halting steps, a sister’s favorite recipe, a friend’s laugh, then we possess some of their life-force, their essence, what we call in Hebrew the neshama, the breath or spirit of the human beings who once walked with us on life’s journey.  

And yet, what could it mean that our memories—no matter how vivid or three-dimensional they may feel, no matter how earnestly we might swear by their accuracy—have most likely shifted, deteriorated, and reassembled themselves over time?

A man named Henry Molaison, who went by his initials H.M., suffered from debilitating epileptic seizures following a childhood bicycle accident.  In 1953, at the age of 31, he underwent a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy to resect parts of his brain in an attempt to cure his epilepsy.  Although the surgery succeeded in controlling his seizures, it also produced a severe side effect.  He became unable to form new memories. It was so severe, in fact, that it prevented him from navigating his own house or recognizing the faces of his own doctors.  

His brain, which continued to be examined up until and well after his death in 2008, provided one of neuroscience’s seminal case studies in how human memory works.  (In fact, you can even look up a scientific atlas of his brain, which was uploaded to the internet five years ago.)

H.M. demonstrated how different areas of the brain perform different memory-related tasks, with separate parts of the brain responsible for short-term memory, long-term memory, spatial memory, and motor skill learning. 

My friend Lisa Faden and I met at Amherst College in 1991, when I was a freshman and she was a sophomore.  I wish I could tell you how we met but, here, as with so many other details of our friendship, memory fails me.  I do remember us bonding over a love of wordplay, and in particular a mutual appreciation for bad puns. It was I who pointed out to her that the phrase “in a nutshell” could, with the simple insertion of an apostrophe, now be read as “in a nut’s hell,” and the fact that she actually found this amusing, in a nutshell (or is it a nut’s hell?) tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my taste in friends.

Memory does not fail me here:  After college, when Lisa was teaching up in Newton and I was living in Providence, she came down for a visit and I invited her to dinner on Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy.  After a hearty meal of pasta and gravy and gelato, we took a stroll around the neighborhood. It was a beautiful June evening and lots of pedestrians crowded the streets. Then, Lisa blurted out, “So, hey, I hear there’s a big mafia presence in Providence, is that true?”  I do not remember what happened next because I was too busy fumbling for the car keys and trying to get us into the car and speed off before she could say another word.

Lisa was the byproduct of a Japanese Buddhist Mother and an American Jewish father, and, after she married Rob, and they moved to Ontario where she got her Ph.D., and they had their children, a girl first and then a boy, Judaism again became an important part of her family’s life—indeed, her spiritual anchor.  

I remember that Lisa reached out to me as she became more involved in their lovely little Reform temple in London, Ontario, and soon decided to prepare for what she called her, “big, fat, 40-year old Bat Mitzvah.”

And I remember the August day three years ago, when Lisa emailed to tell me she had been diagnosed out of the blue with metastatic breast cancer, which prompted her to begin a blog reflecting on life with cancer.  But, mostly, it’s a blog about life (with cancer).

Two years in, after surgery, chemo, radiation, and another surgery to remove the lesions from her brain where the cancer had metastasized, Lisa’s daughter celebrated her own bat mitzvah.  Lisa reflected in her blog:

“…I remember [not long after my diagnosis] going to a bat mitzvah and standing in the back, fortuitously next to a box of tissues. As the congregation went through the steps of a normal service, I remember crying the entire time. The girl at the front that day… was a cerebral petite blonde that I could easily see as a stand-in for [my daughter]. Knowing that I would be bat mitzvahed soon and my daughter would be someday, it was like we were all linked by an invisible chain. I was simultaneously watching my 5-year-old daughter, myself, and an amazing young woman. 

Two weekends ago [our daughter] had her bat mitzvah….  The whole ceremony was a reminder about how the past, present, and future connect because you can’t have a future without a present spent connecting to the past.  Plus, you have young adults in the present reading from the past… so that they can carry their learning into the future. And when she read, she read from a Torah that was itself rescued from wartime Czechoslovakia” just like the one we read at WRT this afternoon.

“…Go to a service, in any tradition,” Lisa concludes, “and it is easy to think that there must be something more interesting and worthwhile to do than this.  But is there, really?” (Published online on Lisa’s blog, Breathing in Breathing Out:  Dum Spiro Spero, https://breathinginbreathingout.blog/2019/05/24/can-you-see-yourself/, May 24, 2019.)

Lisa died on Wednesday, June 19th, at the age of 47.  Her children are 13 and 10. I last saw Lisa and Rob about 18 months before she died, over lunch at a cute little café called The Squirrel Cage, in Windsor, Ontario, a short distance from the Detroit area where we usually visit Kelly’s family over winter break.  Kelly had the good fortune to give Lisa, Rob and the kids a backstage tour of Carousel on Broadway last summer when they came to visit New York while I was traveling in Israel.  

Lisa now “belongs to eternity,” to borrow a metaphor I sometimes use at funeral services.  

But, to be honest, I prefer to say, “Now Lisa is committed to memory.”

And here is where the story of the patient H.M. takes on special significance.  

Because, as it turns out, when H.M. had a big chunk of his brain removed, he lost something more than his ability to form new memories.  After his surgery, not only could H.M. not remember the past, he also struggled to answer questions about the future. He had no conception of “tomorrow.”  

The same part of his brain that stored memories of the past also seemed vital to imagining a future – the two are linked, the same way that Lisa’s own Bat Mitzvah, and her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, and the old rescued Czech Torah scroll, and the ability to imagine a next generation’s Bat Mitzvah were linked.  

The Hebrew root for the verb remember, Zayin – Kaf – Resh, or Zecher, literally means, well, we’re not exactly sure.  It may mean “to point,” like an arrow; or to pierce, or perforate; or bore down, as with a drill bit.  The point, the amazing thing, is that a deep, Jewish understanding of memory synchronizes almost exactly with a scientific understanding of memory:  that what memory really does is not so much preserve the past, word for word, image for image or note for note, but, rather, link the past, present, and future—a combination of remembering and imagining.  Memory both drills down and points ahead.

Without memory—where we’ve been, with whom we’ve traveled life’s journey, what we’ve discovered along the way—we cannot imagine where we’re going.  Without memory, we cannot realize who we must now become.

The Talmud tells us that God’s memory is perfect.  When we sounded the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah last week, we said, “There is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory.”  

But human memory, the kind of memory God gave us, is different.  It is not perfect.  It bends and breaks down over time.  Pieces drop away and new pieces get incorporated.  Memory and imagination intertwine.  

But in a way, human memory, the kind of memory we bring to this service of Yizkor, may be even better—because it helps us to move forward, we, the living, who have loved so many, so much, and who have had to let go.  

No good comes from memorializing our loved ones in endless pain.  Memory does not exist to keep us stuck in the past.  

We gather up our memories, beautifully imperfect, and let them move us gently forward, to the next uncharted destination.

 

The Life-Changing Difference between Honor and Dignity 

YOM KIPPUR MORNING 5780 – October 9, 2019

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

Here’s a question.  What is the most important verse in the Torah?

One of the most famous Rabbis of his time—and of all time—Akiva, who lived in the first and second centuries of the Common Era, reduced the Torah to one essential principle that could guide a person throughout his or her life:  

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Akiva taught, citing the central verse from Leviticus that we will read this afternoon (19:18).  

“Love your neighbor as yourself” creates a kind of pragmatic social compact, an “I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-mine” approach to life.  

The verse assumes that most people operate out of self-interest and can therefore use self-interest to relate to others.  If I know what I want for myself, I can apply the same to others and everyone wins.  

Akiva often sparred, academically, with a man named Ben Azzai who wasn’t even a rabbi but whose opinions are nevertheless venerated.  Ben Azzai had a different idea about the most important verse in the Torah. He looked to Genesis, where the Torah teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God and belong equally in the family of humankind (Paraphrasing Gen. 5:1.  See Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b.). 

For Ben Azzai, that we are made in God’s image is the key principle of our existence.  We tend to the needs of others, not, as Akiva suggested, in the hope that others will reciprocate and tend to our needs, but because it is the Godly thing to do.  Self-interest plays no role here. We treat each other in accordance with each person’s inherent Dignity, that God-given spark that makes us human, and which, consequently, implies that no human has any more or less “worth” than any other.

While Akiva’s point about loving one’s neighbor as oneself is easily understood and applied, the Talmud ultimately favors Ben Azzai’s view.  

Recognizing the spark of divinity in every human being comprehensively changes our outlook on life.  How we treat other people becomes an exercise not in assessing what we would want for ourselves, but in imagining the world through God’s eyes, as it were, imagining ourselves as equally God’s children.  That act of inspired imagination fundamentally changes our relationship to every other person.

Akiva tells us what to do—love your neighbor as yourself—but doesn’t explain why.  Ben Azzai cannot tell us how to live our lives, but he does tell us that the essential feature of human existence is our inherent Divinity, a quality that we know as Dignity.

Most civilizations have not oriented themselves around this quality of Dignity.  For most of human history, including the present day, we can observe societies attuned to a quality called Honor instead.  Although we often use the words “Honor” and “Dignity” interchangeably, their innermost meanings could not be more different.  Whereas Honor refers to an attribute that one attains, builds, polishes, Dignity is inherent, inviolable, God-given. 

 Now, here’s another question.  Have you ever wondered why Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr decided to duel inof all placesWeehawken, New Jersey?

I have.

The answer goes like this.  In 1804, dueling was in the process of being outlawed in the northern United States.  Both New York and New Jersey had prohibited the practice.  Even Ben Franklin—who was twelve times challenged to a duel himself, and never accepted once—joined the chorus of prominent anti-dueling activists in Revolutionary America.

Hamilton and Burr, like Akiva and Ben Azzai, also often sparred with each other in writing.  But Hamilton and Burr didn’t keep their beefs academic. Refusing to be dissuaded, even by the law (or by Ben Franklin!), they took their duel to Weehawken because New Jersey was not as aggressive in prosecuting dueling participants.  The same site, along the Hudson river, beneath the towering cliffs of the Palisades, hosted eighteen known duels between 1700 and 1845.

In other words, in New Jersey, it was well known, you could easily get away with murder.  

In fact, Aaron Burr did.  After surviving the duel, Burr was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, but the charges were later dismissed or resulted in acquittal.  

It took the better part of another hundred years to abolish the practice in America.  It seems that the Civil War induced sufficient fatigue from bloodshed to bring about an end to dueling, once and for all.   

But dueling is just one symptom of a larger phenomenon called “Honor Culture.”  Honor cultures emerge when a centralized state authority is either absent, or deemed illegitimate, or weak, and when people feel materially vulnerable.  Under these conditions, people take offense easily, feel threatened quickly, and engage in higher rates of pre-emptive aggression and vigilante justice to settle their disputes.  They go to great lengths to demonstrate physical bravery and avoid appearing weak.  (I commend to you McCaffree, Kevin. “Honor, Dignity, Victim: A Tale of Three Moral Cultures” (2018), published online at https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/honor-dignity-victim-cultures/, as well as Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking; Black, Donald. 2011. Moral Time. New York: Oxford University Press.)

In the worst-case scenarios, this pre-emptive aggression develops into bloody feuds enveloping whole families, gangs, or tribes.  

Whereas in Europe, the privilege of fighting duels was restricted to aristocratic gentlemen, in America, it tended to be politicians, newspaper editors, attorneysmen whose professions required them to make public remarks or whose public reputations were deemed of the utmost importancewho most often received and accepted challenges to fight.  

In those days, elected officials couldn’t settle their scores over social media, so guns would have to do.  Andrew Jackson challenged his enemies, real and perceived, to duels, more than 100 of them. (One opponent, Charles Dickinson, whom Jackson challenged after Dickinson accused him of reneging on a $2,000 horse bet, even died, a fact that did not prevent Jackson from winning the presidency several years later!)

Gradually, along with dueling, many other hallmarks of Honor Culture in America have waned.  But they have not faded away entirely. Consider:  

The prevalence of dueling in American history gives us some insight into this country’s obsession with guns and the phenomenon of the now ubiquitous mass shooting, in which a grievance is “resolved,” so to speak, in the most horrific way imaginable.  In the South, where Honor Culture has its deepest roots in the US, high school students are more likely to bring a weapon to school, and there have been more than twice as many school shootings per capita (Osterman, L. L. & Brown, R. P., “Culture of Honor and Violence Against the Self,” 37(12) Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1611-1623 (2011), available online at https://www.academia.edu/1069747/Culture_of_Honor_and_Violence_Against_the_Self).

Or consider this:  It used to be the case that a man who refused a challenge to duel was humiliated publicly with a uniquely Southern form of punishment called “posting.”  A man who refused to fight would find his name smeared as a coward on a written statement hung in public places and published in newspapers. Nowadays, character assassination has moved online where it can inflict exponentially more damage.

Honor Culture posits that a person’s worth derives from his station in society, his family name, his public reputation, his wealth, his accomplishments.  Such a culture begins with the presumption that “honor” is something one earns, builds, hones, and protects. Consequently, people who occupied lower rungs on the social ladder—people of color, women, the poor, ordinary laborers, the infirm or differently abled—never got caught up in having to defend their honor, because, according to the assumptions of Honor Culture, they didn’t have any to begin with. 

Have we really come that far?  How much moral progress have we really made?  How much effort, how much emotional and material investment, do we continue to place in achievement, clout, social stature?  

The college bribery scandal that blew up this spring suggests that we have not come far from the idea that wealth and privilege, celebrity and influence, status and attainment, academic and athletic credentials, social rank and reputation, matter more to many than, say, equality, fairness, and human dignity.

In such a culture, should any of us be surprised at the shockingly high rates of students going off to college with anxiety disorders, and the similarly high rates of adults of all ages reporting feeling that their lives lack purpose, that their careers fall short of their hopes for personal and professional joy and contentment, that their minds feel overfull and their hearts feel empty?  In such a culture, should any of us be surprised at how easily we substitute net worth for self-worth?

One of my favorite stories begins with a ship sailing through the Atlantic on a cold and foggy day.  Suddenly a voice is heard from somewhere out on the water. It is a cry for help. The captain runs to the side of his ship, only to realize that the fog is so thick he is unable to see exactly where the cry is coming from.  But he can hear a frightened voice yelling, “Save me; I am in a boat that has sprung a leak. Save me!”

The captain quickly grabs a bullhorn and shouts in the general direction of the boat.  “We are trying to get to you. What is your position? What is your position?”

The voice answers back, “Senior Vice President of a bank!  Senior Vice President of a bank!”   

Our inherent, human dignity is the anchor that keeps us moored to our true self-worth, and connects us to our fellow humanity, and, ultimately, as Ben Azzai taught, to God.  Anything else will ultimately fail us.  

The late author David Foster Wallace tapped into this truth when he said:

“If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough.  Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you….  Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  And so on” (This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009). 

Dignity is not the same as “honor” or “respect.”  We can command respect in accordance with our positions of authority in the workplace, or our role as parents, grandparents, elders, and so on.  

Society confers honor on us for having attended this or that university, or having won public recognition for our accomplishments, or for our athletic prowess, or artistic talent, for our grades, or our income, or our philanthropy, or our social influence.  

 But, usually, when we say, “I want respect,” what we really mean is, “Treat me with dignity.”  “Treat me as your equal in the eyes of God, because I am.”  

It is concern for human dignity that motivates the Torah to build in societal protections for the vulnerable, the marginalized:  the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor, the elderly, the infirm (cf., among many other verses, Exodus 22:21-24, Lev. 19:34 & 25-35, Deut. 10:18, 14:28-29, 15:7-11, 24:17-18, 26:12, 27:19, and 31:12).  

It is concern for human dignity that moves the Torah to demand that the corners of the field are left unharvested and fallen sheaves of grain uncollected, so that the needy could come and take under the cover of nightfall, without having to demean themselves by asking for a handout (Deut. 24:19).  

It is concern for human dignity that prompts the Torah to provide rules of ethical treatment of the other in warfare, even of women captured in battle (Deut. 21:10-14).

It is concern for human dignity that causes the Torah to prohibit insulting the deaf, or placing a stumbling block before the blind (Lev. 19:14)… and remember, we’re talking about more than physical disabilities here.  Everyone has blind spots; everyone has tones to which we are deaf. 

It is concern for human dignity that has the Torah insist that the young and able-bodied rise and show deference before the aged (Lev. 19:32)     

It is concern for human dignity that informs the Torah’s rule against accepting a laborer’s clothing in pawn for services rendered, asking rhetorically, in the Torah’s memorable phrasing:  “What else is he supposed to sleep in?” (Exodus 22:7; cf. also Deut. 24:17, which legislates against taking a widow’s garment in pawn.)  

It is concern for human dignity that led the Rabbis to teach that to embarrass another person in public is tantamount to having shed blood (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b-59a).

My friend and teacher Rabbi Shai Held summarizes:  “[T]he Bible cannot inform us precisely what legal protections are needed to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable in our times, but it can tell us—if we listen to it, it *does* tell us—that who we are as a society depends to a great extent on how we answer that question….  The Bible offers no more forceful message than this one: people on the margins matter, and their wellbeing is the responsibility of each of us, and of all of us” (From Held’s forthcoming book, as yet untitled/unpublished. Posted by the author on Facebook, July 19, 2019).

The Bible envisions a Dignity Culture, a culture that puts the inherent, God-given dignity of the other as its foremost concern.  

I believe that the safeguarding of human dignity is at the heart of America’s great promise, too.  The Declaration of Independence, which declared “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” hints at this, even if the transformation from Honor Culture to Dignity Culture in this country has come about slowly and painfully, and has a long way yet to go. 

After all, our founding documents do not recognize the inherent dignity of enslaved Africans, or women, or, for that matter, non-landowners.  

“The moral arc of the universe is long,” said Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.”  This is more than just wishful thinking; I believe that the centuries-old American story is, on the whole, a story of moral progress.  And yet, now, again, Dignity is under siege, as our country swings perilously away from this guiding principle toward old ideas about Honor and meritocracy. 

On this Day of Atonement, I implore us to make the restoration of human Dignity our foremost Jewish obligation in the coming year.  

We must reassert the divinity that inheres within every human being, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, age, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, or country of origin.  

Let this restoration of human dignity be our Teshuvah, our turning back to the essence of our humanity and the essential call of our faith.

Today, in this sanctuary, sit dozens of congregants who have quietly undertaken this effort with extraordinary diligence and joy.  

On Yom Kippur, three years ago, we publicly affirmed that WRT had approached the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—HIAS—with the intention to help settle a family of refugees.  Ten days later, during Sukkot, 125 WRT volunteers showed up for our first organizing meeting. By Chanukah, the State Department approved Westchester County for up to fifty refugees, or about eight families, and by the first week of January 2017, WRT had secured HIAS’s blessing as a host congregation.  

It took another two and a half years for WRT to be matched with a refugee family.  At first we thought that we might receive a family fleeing the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.  As the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the US dropped precipitously, Iraq and Afghanistan seemed likely candidates.  But, in the end, it was the little-known Central African Republic that would send us our first two family members, adult sisters named Achta and Mariam.  

The Central African Republic, or CAR, is one of the world’s most atrocious conflict zones.  Mariam and Achta, who arrived this spring, have seen their lives ripped apart by war and genocide, and sought shelter in a refugee camp in neighboring Chad for five years before their approval came through.  They left behind an aging mother, three other sisters, three brothers, and a four-year-old nephew. The other men—their father, husbands, brothers—have presumably either been killed or “disappeared” in war. Our brave sisters squeezed through an ever more restrictive vetting process that begins with the UN and entails authorization by no fewer than five executive-branch agencies, from Homeland Security to the State Department.  They came here as two of only about 22,500 refugees admitted in the last year—less than ten percent of the number admitted in the early 80’s under Reagan, at a time when the humanitarian crisis of refugees now exceeds, in number and severity, any previous era since World War II.  (According to Pew Research Center, approximately 22,500 refugees were admitted in Fiscal Year 2018, when the cap was set at 30,000.  The current administration intends to cap refugee admissions for FY 2020 at 18,000. Historical averages have been about 95,000 refugees admitted to the US each year.) 

They came here with, quite literally, the clothes on their backs and an overstuffed suitcase. And a sewing machine. Achta, the elder, also schlepped a giant satchel of textbooks:  her most precious possession, as a teacher of Arabic language and literature. (I know: I hauled her fraying bag up to their apartment in White Plains on a 95-degree moving day in June).  

Since then, every moment of their lives has been compassionately attended by our tireless volunteers.  Your fellow congregants have restored and protected the basic human dignity that war, and torture, and racial and religious discrimination, and an unfairly restrictive vetting process, would have deprived them.  

Your fellow congregants have brought them to daily English Language classes, fitted them with donated clothes, furnished an apartment rented to them below cost, helped navigate appointments with any number of governmental agencies, translated countless documents from their native French to English, provided much-needed medical care, and have even explained to them how a Con-Ed bill works. 

They have elucidated innumerable cultural differences between Africa and America.  On her first week here, Achta asked Kelly where she could buy a massive stone pylon for grinding seeds and grains into flour.  Let’s just say the education has gone both ways, as is often the case when one does a mitzvah:  the giver finds herself enriched in the giving.  

A few weeks ago, Mariam and Achta, who spoke virtually no English when they arrived just five months ago, secured their first jobs and are now working at Target in White Plains.  One aspires to teach again; the other, to advance in the field of Human Resources. They are highly motivated to succeed, to contribute to the country that welcomed them, to make a better life in America, not only for themselves and their family, but for their community and country. 

You have helped them reclaim their stolen dignity.  Can there be any work more Jewish, more holy, than this?  

At this time, I’d like for us to acknowledge all of our volunteers who have donated time and resources toward this effort.  (Volunteers Rise)

Our Resettlement effort still needs your help.  We ask for your assistance in whatever form you can offer it, as we have taken on the obligation to help our sisters achieve financial independence within a year.  A card has been provided outside the sanctuary for all who want to learn more and support this effort.  

Let me leave you with an image of what restoring human dignity feels like.  Two weeks after arriving in the US, our volunteers brought Mariam and Achta to an Iftara sundown break-the-fast meal held each night during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  To their delight, the sisters met there a couple who spoke Fulbe, their African mother tongue.  Later that night, Mariam sent a text message to our volunteers, on her donated iPhone, enthusing about making new friends here in America.  She wrote (in French, her adopted language; we’ve translated):

“We love you so much, because, thanks to you, we have once again found God’s smile.”

Your dignity, your inherent self-worth, is a precious gift from God.  You did nothing to earn it. But it is yours, to love forever.

On Yom Kippur, remember this:  No matter how far we may stray, our dignity is waiting for us to reclaim it.  

Let us cherish it.  Nurture it. Acknowledge it in our fellow human travelers.  Do our part to help those whose dignity has been neglected to reclaim theirs.

To do all this is to see God’s smile.

 

G’mar Chatimah Tovah

May you be sealed for life and blessing