Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pirkei d'Rabbi Jonathan

On Sunday, May 5 the Woodstock Jewish Congregation held a celebration in honor of my 25 years with the congregation.  I wanted to offer a teaching, but I had too much to say! So I decided to boil down my teachings into aphorism, a la Pirkei Avot.  Here they are:


PIRKEI D’RABBI JONATHAN  
SAYINGS OF RABBI JONATHAN


Why be Jewish?  Why NOT be Jewish? 

It is good to be Jewish. And you are a good enough Jew.

We are a traumatized people – do your best not to take it out on one another.

We are all screw-ups. Everybody is struggling with something, even if we can’t see it at first. Be brave in facing your own struggles, and have compassion for others as they face theirs.

The purpose of a spiritual community is to grow in love and awareness.

Doing mitzvahs is the Jewish way to grow in love and awareness, while making the world a better place.

Our synagogue is a place to heal our Jewish selves.

My bumper sticker idea: “The Woodstock Jewish Congregation: we have the questions, not the answer – come seek with us.”

The purpose of prayer is to open up your heart.

As a Reconstructionist, I like to say that I pray “to whom it may concern” – but I still pray, because it opens up my heart.

Crying and laughing and sighing in shul are all good – it means your heart just opened.

Remember that the unpronounceable Hebrew name for God, YHVH, is not a noun - it is a verb. We Jews worship a verb, Being, that cannot be captured in any static image, and that requires us to always be flexible and discerning. I like to render YHVH into English as “Life Unfolding”.

Jewish humor and irony, love of learning and literacy, arguing with God, passion for ethics, food as prayer, contentious, smothering, relentless love – these are a few of my favorite things!

I especially like Jewish humor. As the Yiddish translation of Hamlet says: “To be or not to be – that’s a question?!”

Boy, do I love Israel! I know it’s a mess, but I just do!

As my beloved teacher Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, who founded the Reconstructionist Movement, taught: In Judaism, belonging is more important than believing.

I’m not here to convince you to believe anything – I just really want you to feel life flowing through you and to give thanks.

As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the creator of the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism, and Ira Eisenstein’s father-in-law, taught: Judaism is the evolving life and culture of the Jewish People – it is ours to shape – and it won’t be the same without you.

As Rabbi Kurt Vonnegut taught: “What the world needs is a little less love, and a little more common decency.”  Be thoughtful and civil and kind, even to people whom you don’t love.

Ethics - how we treat one another - is the primary concern of Judaism. That is where holiness dwells and that is where we find God. If we are not concerned with constantly improving the way we treat one another, then we are not really practicing Judaism.

For Jews, the real Torah is not a book – the real Torah is our ongoing 3,000-year conversation with that book. In every generation we must decide which parts of Torah to emphasize and to live by. Here are my current favorite Torah verses:

RABBI JONATHAN’S CURRENT TOP TEN
TORAH VERSES!

10. And God created the human beings in the Divine image; male and female God created them.  -Genesis 1:27

9. And if there is a needy person among you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand. Rather, you must open your hand and lend them sufficient for their need.  –Deuteronomy 15:7-8

8. Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.  –Exodus 23:9

7. And God said to Cain: Sin crouches at your door, and urges you, but you can master it!  -Genesis 4:7

6. Jacob awoke from his sleep and said: God is surely in this place, and I was not aware of it!...How awesome is this place!  -Genesis 30:16-17

5. And Moses said to God, When I come to the Children of Israel and say to them, the God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me What is this God’s name, what shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I am Becoming What I Am Becoming…This is My name for eternity.  –Exodus 3:13-14

4.And God looked at everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good!  -Genesis 1:31

3. Justice, justice you shall pursue.  –Deuteronomy 16:20

2. Love your fellow human being as yourself.  –Leviticus 19:18

1. Choose life!  -Deuteronomy 30:19


Passover Reflections 2013


Dear Friends,
           
            At the Seder, after telling the story of Passover and singing “Dayenu”, we are instructed to lift our cup of liberation and recite what to me is the most important line in the Haggadah: “B’chol dor vador – In every generation we must view ourselves as personally traveling from oppression to liberation.”
            Whether it is the story of one’s personal path out of darkness or constriction, or the story of the Jewish People’s renaissance out of the Nazi death camps, or any other struggle of human beings to be free from tyranny, in every generation the story of the Exodus is always unfolding.
            This is why Passover is still – and forever – relevant. As the first signs of spring remind us that winter will pass and that life will sprout and blossom and burgeon once again, we reclaim our faith that human life, too, can always be redeemed. Tyranny will collapse – though rarely as quickly or painlessly as we would wish – and hope will be reborn.
            The continued presence of the Jewish People in the world bears witness to this truth.

This past Tuesday, on the first day of Passover, the New York Times ran an obituary for Rabbi Herschel Schacter. I found it so moving and timely that I read it during services this past Shabbat, and I am reprinting it here in entirety for those of you who missed it:

Rabbi Herschel Schacter Is Dead at 95; Cried to the Jews of Buchenwald: ‘You Are Free’
The smoke was still rising as Rabbi Herschel Schacter rode through the gates of Buchenwald.
It was April 11, 1945, and Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army had liberated the concentration camp scarcely an hour before. Rabbi Schacter, who was attached to the Third Army’s VIII Corps, was the first Jewish chaplain to enter in its wake.
That morning, after learning that Patton’s forward tanks had arrived at the camp, Rabbi Schacter, who died in the Riverdale section of the Bronx on Thursday at 95 after a career as one of the most prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States, commandeered a jeep and driver. He left headquarters and sped toward Buchenwald.
By late afternoon, when the rabbi drove through the gates, Allied tanks had breached the camp. He remembered, he later said, the sting of smoke in his eyes, the smell of burning flesh and the hundreds of bodies strewn everywhere.
He would remain at Buchenwald for months, tending to survivors, leading religious services in a former Nazi recreation hall and eventually helping to resettle thousands of Jews.
For his work, Rabbi Schacter was singled out by name on Friday by Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, in a meeting with President Obama at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
In Buchenwald that April day, Rabbi Schacter said afterward, it seemed as though there was no one left alive. In the camp, he encountered a young American lieutenant who knew his way around.
“Are there any Jews alive here?” the rabbi asked him.
He was led to the Kleine Lager, or Little Camp, a smaller camp within the larger one. There, in filthy barracks, men lay on raw wooden planks stacked from floor to ceiling. They stared down at the rabbi, in his unfamiliar military uniform, with unmistakable fright.
“Shalom Aleichem, Yidden,” Rabbi Schacter cried in Yiddish, “ihr zint frei!” — “Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!” He ran from barracks to barracks, repeating those words. He was joined by those Jews who could walk, until a stream of people swelled behind him.
As he passed a mound of corpses, Rabbi Schacter spied a flicker of movement. Drawing closer, he saw a small boy, Prisoner 17030, hiding in terror behind the mound.
“I was afraid of him,” the child would recall long afterward in an interview with The New York Times. “I knew all the uniforms of SS and Gestapo and Wehrmacht, and all of a sudden, a new kind of uniform. I thought, ‘A new kind of enemy.’ ”
With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. “What’s your name, my child?” he asked in Yiddish.
“Lulek,” the child replied.
“How old are you?” the rabbi asked.
“What difference does it make?” Lulek, who was 7, said. “I’m older than you, anyway.”
“Why do you think you’re older?” Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.
“Because you cry and laugh like a child,” Lulek replied. “I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?”
Rabbi Schacter discovered nearly a thousand orphaned children in Buchenwald. He and a colleague, Rabbi Robert Marcus, helped arrange for their transport to France — a convoy that included Lulek and the teenage Elie Wiesel — as well as to Switzerland, a group personally conveyed by Rabbi Schacter, and to Palestine.
For decades afterward, Rabbi Schacter said, he remained haunted by his time in Buchenwald, and by the question survivors put to him as he raced through the camp that first day.
“They were asking me, over and over, ‘Does the world know what happened to us?’ ” Rabbi Schacter told The Associated Press in 1981. “And I was thinking, ‘If my own father had not caught the boat on time, I would have been there, too.’ ”
Herschel Schacter was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn on Oct. 10, 1917, the youngest of 10 children of parents who had come from Poland. His father, Pincus, was a seventh-generation shochet, or ritual slaughterer; his mother, the former Miriam Schimmelman, was a real estate manager.
Mr. Schacter earned a bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University in New York in 1938; in 1941, he received ordination at Yeshiva from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a founder of the Modern Orthodox movement.
He spent about a year as a pulpit rabbi in Stamford, Conn., before enlisting in the Army as a chaplain in 1942.
After Buchenwald was liberated, he spent every day there distributing matzo (liberation had come just a week after Passover); leading services for Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai, and which fell that year in May; and conducting Friday night services.
At one of those services, Lulek and his older brother, Naftali, were able to say Kaddish for their parents, Polish Jews who had been killed by the Nazis.
Discharged from the Army with the rank of captain, Rabbi Schacter became the spiritual leader of the Mosholu Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue on Hull Avenue in the north Bronx. He presided there from 1947 until it closed in 1999.
He was a leader of many national Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, of which he was a past chairman. He was most recently the director of rabbinic services at Yeshiva.
Rabbi Schacter, who in 1956 went to the Soviet Union with an American rabbinic delegation, was an outspoken advocate for the rights of Soviet Jews and an adviser on the subject to President Richard M. Nixon.
A resident of the Riverdale section of the Bronx, Rabbi Schacter is survived by his wife, the former Pnina Gewirtz, whom he married in 1948; a son, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, who confirmed his father’s death; a daughter, Miriam Schacter; four grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
And what of Lulek, the orphan Rabbi Schacter rescued from Buchenwald that day? Lulek, who eventually settled in Palestine, grew up to be Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
Rabbi Lau, who recounted his childhood exchange with Rabbi Schacter in a memoir, published in English in 2011 as “Out of the Depths,” was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 1993 to 2003 and is now the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.
On Friday, when Rabbi Lau told Mr. Obama of his rescue by Rabbi Schacter — he thanked the American people for delivering Buchenwald survivors “not from slavery to freedom, but from death to life” — he had not yet learned of Rabbi Schacter’s death the day before.
“For me, he was alive,” Rabbi Lau said in an interview with The Times on Monday. “I speak about him with tears in my eyes.” (By Margalit Fox)

            In every generation, we must view ourselves as journeying from slavery to freedom. I actually stood next to Rabbi Lau just a few years ago. He was officiating at my nephew Eitan and his wife Shir’s wedding in Israel, and I had the honor of chanting one the Sheva Brachot – the wedding blessings – under the huppah.

            The special Haftorah for the Shabbat during Passover is from Ezekiel, Chapter 37. Ezekiel experienced his vision while in exile with the rest of the Jewish community in Babylonia in the late 6th century B.C.E.  Jerusalem lay in ruins and the Holy Temple had been destroyed. In synagogue, after reading Rabbi Schacter’s obituary, I read Ezekiel’s words aloud:

            The hand of the ETERNAL was upon me, leading me out by God’s spirit and setting me down in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones. God led me all around them. There were a great many of them spread on the surface of the valley, and they were very dry. God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
            I answered, “ETERNAL God, you alone know.”
            Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: You dry bones, hear the word of the ETERNAL. Thus says the ETERNAL God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you, and cover you with flesh, and spread skin over you. I will put breath into you, and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the ETERNAL.”
            I prophesied as I had been commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a loud noise, a sound, and the bones came together, bone to matching bone. I looked and saw sinews and flesh and skin spread over them from above, but there was no breath in them.
Then God said to me, “Mortal, prophesy to the breath. O prophesy! And say to the breath: Thus says the ETERNAL God: Come, breath, from the four directions, and breathe into these slain bodies, that they may live again.”
I prophesied as God had commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life. They stood on their feet, an exceedingly great host.
Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say: Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off from life! Therefore prophesy to them and say: Thus says the ETERNAL God: I am going to open your graves, My people; I will lift you out of your graves and bring you home to the land of Israel. And when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of them, My people, you shall know that I am the ETERNAL. I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will place you in your own land. Then, says the ETERNAL ONE, you shall know that I, the ETERNAL, have spoken and acted.”

2,600 years ago, Ezekiel envisioned the dry bones of the Jewish People coming back to life and coming home to the land of Israel. 68 years ago, an American rabbi entered a death camp and at first saw only dead bodies. That little boy Lulek hid behind a pile of corpses. But others, a saving remnant, were also still alive. I picture the prisoners at Buchenwald staggering into the daylight behind Rabbi Schacter, as I picture the Hebrew slaves after the night of terror of the Angel of Death, the slaves now free, stunned, exhausted, speechless, following Moses away from Pharaoh’s ruined city and towards a new life. In every generation…

2,600 years ago, in Ezekiel’s vision, the people say, “Our hope is lost – Avdah tikvateinu.” 135 years ago a Hebrew poet in Galicia named Naphtali Herz Imber took that line from Ezekiel and turned it on its head. Imber wrote Od lo Avdah Tikvateinu – our hope is not yet lost - hatikvah bat shnot alpayim – our hope of 2,000 years -  lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu – to be a free people in our own land.
Imber’s poem became the national anthem of Israel, Hatikvah, The Hope. In every generation…

To borrow from Paul Simon, “These are the days of miracle and wonder.” (Which is also what the Children of Israel sang after they crossed the Red Sea.) In every generation…

            At my family’s seder last week, I asked the teenagers and college students how the world looked to them right now. They answered that it looks pretty dire. At which point my brother and sister-in-law spoke up and said that when they were in college the world also looked dire. It was the early 1980s and it appeared that we were a mere five minutes to the midnight of nuclear war. They took to the streets to protest. Then I asked my stepfather how the world looked when he was a young adult. He was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, and how much more dire could things be? Yet here we were celebrating a joyous Passover together.
            And we then said to our next generation: “Take heart. Do not give up hope.” In every generation…

            The message of Passover is the message of hope. Please, keep passing it on.
Keep telling the story of how slaves can become free!

            With love,
Rabbi Jonathan

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Ten Utterances from Life Unfolding


After Moses and the Children of Israel escape from bondage, they are faced with a momentous challenge that forever shapes the worldview of Judaism.  They must now create a society in which no Pharaoh might ever rise, a society in which every single human being is understood to be a child of God and therefore of inestimable value and inherent dignity.  In this new society, it must become impossible to reduce another human being to a commodity, to a nameless object of another's will or whim.  A tall order indeed, and a noble one as well.  It is our inheritance.

And so the escapees arrive at the Holy Mountain, the same place where Moses had initially encountered the power of Life Unfolding manifest in a burning bush.  Life Unfolding speaks to the entire assembly, revealing their holy purpose now that they are free.  This revelation is usually called the Ten Commandments, but in the Hebrew they are known as Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Utterances.  That is to say, what is being revealed to the Children of Israel is not a laundry list of rules, but rather the road map to creating a society in which life might unfold in such a way that every individual might live with dignity and basic fairness.  The Ten Utterances are, as it were, a blueprint for a righteous human society.

I decided to render the Hebrew into my own English version.  It is not an exact translation by any means, but captures my own reception, at this moment in my life, of the divine utterances of Mount Sinai.  Perhaps the most important choice to point out is my decision to refer to the Nameless Power that speaks as Life Unfolding: a cosmic process, not a static entity.  This frames the utterances as "truths" being discerned by the listeners, rather than as dictates that are fixed in time.  So many readers have responded positively to my formulation that I am posting it here.


The Ten Utterances from Life Unfolding

I am Life Unfolding who brought you out of constriction and enslavement so that you might serve me and be in relationship to me.  No one said this was going to be easy. 

Place no gods of your own making in between you and Life Unfolding.  Do not make an image or a fixed concept of Life Unfolding and attempt to serve only that fixed concept.  Life Unfolding is infinite and ever-expanding and cannot be reduced to a static idea.

You are as good as your word.  Beware: if you invoke Life Unfolding as a witness to the truth of your words, you will be held to account for them.  Do not overestimate your own power to speak and fulfill.

Make one day out seven holy, a Sabbath, in which you relinquish illusions of control over Creation.  Remember on this day that you are creature, not creator, and humbly and joyfully take your place in the chorus of Creation.  On this day, you may not lord over any person or creature under your temporary authority.  Rather, stand side by side with them in gratitude for Life Unfolding. 

Honor your parents, for however imperfectly they fulfilled their task they have been the vessels and agents of My purpose, which was to bring you into the world as a new expression of Life Unfolding.

Do not murder, for every human life is a reflection of infinite possibility, and when you destroy a life you destroy a part of Me, Life Unfolding.

Do not commit adultery, for a marriage is a sacred covenant, and you gave your word.  If you are to realize your potential as an agent and partner of Life Unfolding, you must strive to be as good as your word.  No one said this was going to be easy.

Do not steal.  Treat everyone - and everything - with fundamental respect.

Do not bear false witness against others.  When you speak of them, remember that they are children of Life Unfolding and nothing less.  Witness them in this light, so that your words may be compassionate and true.  Choose your words with great care; they have the power to create and to destroy.

Do not covet.  Rather, practice radical gratitude at all times for the gift of Life Unfolding of which you are the beneficiary.  This is the key to true liberation.  No one said this was going to be easy.