Saturday, October 8, 2016

Rabbi Schwartz's Rosh Hashanah Prayer 5777


Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz

Eloheinu, velohei avotenu

Our God, God of all generations:

Help us to thoughtfully reflect on the year just past, and to courageously embrace this year, 5777, just born.

The pain of human suffering by war and terrorism and poverty and disease, created by our own human hand, continues to plague us in staggering numbers.

Just these last weeks, the images of desperate refugees teeming to Europe, and drowning in the sea while trying, haunt us. Imbue the leaders of Europe with basic human compassion as they deal with the worst humanitarian crises on their soil since the Second World War. As Jews, we know too well what it means when the gates are closed.

Help us here in America to discern the path of response to this refugee crisis as well, and to the unrelenting, barbaric evil of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who destroy irreplaceable lives and irreplaceable cultural treasures at whim.

Help us stand firm in the face of the implacable hatred of those sworn to the destruction of our beloved Israel, which includes the unrepentant republic of Iran. Give wisdom to our elected leaders as they wrestle with the aftermath of the nuclear deal, and the hard road ahead.

Here at home, in a racially charged yearafter Ferguson, after Staten Island, after Baltimore, after Charlestonit is all too apparent that we must redouble our efforts to root out racism, bias, prejudice, and apathy. Black lives matter; brown lives matter; all lives matter. There is too much violence from the police; there is too much violence toward the police. There is too much violence.

In a momentous year when the Supreme Court of this land affirmed the right to same-sex marriage, and transgender stories are front page news, let us celebrate the ever-widening circle of diversity and inclusion in our pluralistic society.

In the coming year when candidates of all sorts will vie for their party’s presidential nomination, we pray, please, for enlightened discussion and real debate.

In the meantime, guide our gridlocked Congress to basic cooperation for the public good, for the sake of our planet and for the sake of our children.

Foster a spirit of empathy and sacrifice that the vast richness of this land be shared more equitably, and that, in the words of Torah, the most vulnerablethe widow, the orphan, the poor, and the strangerbe not forgotten, “for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Our God, Source of all life and blessing, at this New Year of hope and possibility may we find common purpose to do Your will, to rise to our greatest potential, to reflect our Creation in Your image… and to walk with You, forward, to peace and purpose.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777




On this first day of the New Year, I’d like to tell you who to vote for.

Only kidding! I wouldn’t do that. I would be in hot water with quite a few congregants, never mind the IRS.

But I would like to look back at one candidate who is no longer in the race, but who caused quite a stir. No, not Ted Cruz. Yes, you guessed it⎯Bernie Sanders.

My interest in talking about Bernie Sanders on the High Holidays is not about his political platform but his Jewish identity. What he revealed about it during the campaign was minimal, but fascinating. It is a provocative case study that speaks to all of us, which is why I think it is worthy of comment… on this High Holiday and before history moves on to a new president.

On the night of his resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary Bernie Sanders became the first Jew to ever win a presidential nominating contest in American history. Sanders, who is known to avoid all personal references, got uncharacteristically personal in his victory speech. “I am the son of a Polish immigrant,” he told his frenzied crowd. That lit up the Jewish social media. “Polish?” posted quite a few writers.

The very fact of the brouhaha is revealing. On one level, Sanders was factually correct. His father was Polish. My paternal grandfather left Poland the same year as Eli Sanders. But did my grandfather consider himself a Polish immigrant? Maybe… but by his own account he was first and foremost a Jewish immigrant. Like Sanders, my grandfather’s family who remained in Poland all perished in the Holocaust. My grandfather reminded me of that.

But note that at this pivotal moment in Bernie’s life, and throughout the campaign, Bernie chose not to speak publicly about his being Jewish.

As journalist Gal Beckerman jokingly observed:

At one level, of course, it would be a redundancy of sorts for Mr. Sanders to assert that he is a Jew. What else could Bernie be? Every time I hear his voice, I am returned to Passover Seders where I’ve often been cornered by one of my uncles pointing a finger at my chest and yelling about something very important I must listen to right now.

Beckerman goes on to note in a more serious vein that,

the breakthrough aspect of his [Jewish] candidacy has been met with silence… [and] this silence has do with Mr. Sanders and the kind of American Jew that he representsone who privileges the universal over the particular, society over tribe.

That’s a very nice way of putting it. But allow me to rephrase, in a slightly more provocative way. I do so in order to establish a thesis for this sermon. Bernie Sanders remained silent about his Jewish identity not because he denies it, not because he is ashamed of it, but because he is ambivalent about it.

Bernie Sanders is the ambivalent American Jew.

And in that regard Bernie Sanders is not alone.

Contrast Sander’s silence with that of another man who made the news in the spring, Merrick Garland. When Garland was nominated by President Obama to the Supreme Court I happened to catch his brief remarks at the White House. You may have missed it, but it was live from the Rose Garden. Garland began by thanking the President and then his wife, and then Garland said: 

My family deserves much of the credit for the path that led me here.  My grandparents left the Pale of Settlement at the border of western Russian and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing anti-Semitism, and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.

Most Americans did not know that Garland was Jewish
I didn’t. Garland knew this. And he took the climactic moment of his life, on national TV with the President of the United States by his side, to acknowledge itto affirm it. He didn’t have to. It would have been easier not to. But Merrick Garland chose to express that his Jewish identity is an inseparable part of who he is. He was saying that his Jewish family shaped his life. Not exclusively, but essentially.

To be fair, Bernie Sanders did speak about his Jewish identity once during the campaign. CNN host Anderson Cooper asked Sanders about his Jewishness during a Town Hall meeting. Sanders replied that,

 My spirituality is that we are all in this together and when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That’s my strong spiritual feeling.

Cooper nodded but then asked Sanders whether he was intentionally keeping his Judaism under wraps. “No,” answered Sanders: “I am very proud to be Jewish.” Sanders added how his father’s family had been wiped out in the Holocaust, and how as a child he remembered seeing neighbors with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. He concluded that being Jewish “is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”

So am I being too hard on Bernie? Well, let’s delve into this. Bernie did say something positive about his Jewish identity… but only when pressed about it. Quite honestly, he looked uncomfortable to me when he said it. He did not say it convincingly, with his usual passion, but almost apologetically. And what he said in his few words was also telling. Sanders spoke about his Jewishness in strictly ethnic terms, in connection to the Holocaust.

The esteemed conservative columnist Charles Krauthhammer wrote an entire article on Sander’s response:

What a strange replyyet it doesn’t seem so to us because it has become increasingly common for American Jews to locate their identity in the Holocaust.

Krauthhammer continues, 

The Holocaust forms an ineradicable element of my own Jewish consciousness. But I worry about the balance. As Jewish practice, learning and knowledge diminish over time, my concern is that Holocaust memory is emerging as the dominant feature of Jewishness in America.... We must of course remain dedicated to keeping alive the memory and the truth of the Holocaust, particularly when they are under assault from so many quarters....
Nonetheless, there must be balance. It would be a tragedy for American Jews to make the Holocaust the principle legacy bequeathed to their children. After all, the Jewish people are living through a miraculous age: the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty, the revival of Hebrew... [and] the flowering of a new Hebraic culture radiating throughout the Jewish world. 
Memory is sacred, but victimhood cannot be the foundation stone of Jewish identity.

Krauthhammer argues, and I certainly agree, that Sanders missed an opportunity to connect his passion for social justice with his Jewish identity. “I was sure his answer would be some variation of tikkun [olam (repairing the world)]”, he wrote. “On the stump, he plays the Old Testament prophet railing against the powerful and denouncing their treatment of the widow and the orphan.” Maybe Sanders was alluding to this when he talked about his social justice spirituality, but he never made the connection explicit.

Being Jewish is ethnic. Peoplehood is a key part of who we are. Being Jewish is ethical. After all, the Bible itself says that we are called to be a light to the nations, a moral exemplar. For me, prophetic Judaism and its mandate, Justice, justice shall you pursue is our highest calling.

I have no quarrel with Sanders's link to the Holocaust. I have nothing but respect for Sanders commitment to social justice. I even largely accept his criticism of Israel, although I wish he had balanced his critique during the campaign with some words of warmth toward the Jewish state. For a Jewish politician, who himself had spent time on a kibbutz, one would of thought this would be, as they say, a no-brainer.

But I think Bernie’s ambivalence got in the way of his public support for Israel in the same way that it got in the way of his public acknowledgement of the Jewish roots of his social activism. And I think Bernie’s ambivalence has gotten in the way of any meaningful connection to the American Jewish community.

Does it matter that Sanders was not in synagogue last Rosh Hashanah? After all, when Sandy Koufax sat out the World Series, contrary to rumor he did not go to synagogue. But he sat out the game he was due to start as the Dodger’s ace, and that was huge. Bernie did not sit out a day on the campaign trail. He gave a speech, at Liberty University, no less, a Christian school. That hurts.

The major study of Jewish identity by the Pew Research Center that made waves two years ago showed that most American Jews are proud of their identity. That’s good news.

When asked what it means to be Jewish, the single largest response, by far (more than 2/3) was leading an ethical life. That’s good news too, and the world will be a better place for it.

But only 19 percent said that observing Jewish law was important. That’s not good news. Not even half belong to a synagogue. That’s not good news. An alarming number of interfaith families are not raising their children as Jews. That’s not good news. A third of millennials say they are Jewish, but have no religion. That’s not good news.

Obviously I’m speaking as a rabbi, but wherever you put yourself on the Jewish spectrum, ask yourself honestly:

Is ethnic identity enough? Is ethical identity enough? What about faith? What about ritual? Can you really be Jewish without religion? Will you stay Jewish without religion? What about the Judaism in Jewishness?

It distressed me to learn, from someone who has been very close to Bernie Sanders his entire adult life, that neither Bernie’s son nor his grandchildren were raised as Jews. I am enormously proud of Bernie Sanders and his contribution to America. I really mean that. But I am truly sad that the Jewish line that has run though the Sanders family is coming to an end with Bernie. Is that what his forebears in the Pale of Settlement had in mind? Is that what his Polish immigrant father had in mind? Is that what Bernie himself had in mind?

The ambivalent American Jew will become the disappearing American Jew in the next generation. Bernie Sanders as a Jewish American is a tale of triumph. Bernie Sanders as an American Jew is a tale of tragedy.

Which tale are we writing for ourselves and our children?

I believe that the ambivalent center will not hold. Either we are all in. Or we are all out. Either we embrace our birthright, or scorn it. Either we bequeath our heritage or squander it.

We need not be zealots or fanatics. We need not be Orthodox. We can be proud Reform Jews, who affirm our ethnic identity, our ethical identity and our religious identity. We can view God theistically, atheistically, or vote agnostic. But there is a basic level of Jewish observance that comes with the territory. There is a basic expression of Jewish life that says, I am a member of the tribe.

On this Rosh Hashanah, it is time to vote. Not for Hillary or Donald, Democrat or Republican. It is time to cast our ballot for Am Yisrael. And it’s time to say, Hineni. Here I am! Count me in!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening 5777




Rosh Hashanah is a time when we celebrate the past even as we embrace the future. We mark the arrival of the High Holy Days by honoring the old while welcoming the new. We chant ancient words, but often add new melody and translation.

This Rosh Hashanah I would like to partake of the old/new by starting a new tradition. Now, on the eve of the Holiday, rather than giving a sermon on contemporary matters, I would like to offer a Davar Torah, a commentary, on one of the key prayers in our holiday liturgy.

After all, we recite these prayers year and year, sometimes by rote. They form the backbone of our service. They move us in an emotive, nostalgic way… but what do they mean? What are we saying? Why are they important?

I am going to start with perhaps the best known prayer of the High Holy Daysthe Avinu Malkeinu. (That is why I am delivering these words now
before we recite the prayer, rather than the usual spot afterwards). And as you will see in a few moments, I will have some help.

That is because my commentary will include some creative interpretations of the Avinu Malkeinu from the new Reform machzor, called Mishkan Hanefesh, which was published just last year. It is a beautifully produced two volume set, and expensive, and it is unlikely we will purchase it anytime soon. But I want to introduce some of its best new material into our service, and this is one way to do it.

We know that the oldest surviving prayer book, Seder Rav Amram, which dates to the 9th century in Babylonia contains the Avinu Malkeinu. So Jews have been reciting this prayer for at least a thousand years. But the original phrase, Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King, is known from a Talmudic tale of Rabbi Akiba, who died around 132 during the Second Revolt against Rome. So Jews have addressed God in this way for almost 2000 years.

This prayer obviously has staying power, and star power. It remains the centerpiece of the High Holy Day liturgy before the open ark. It has been set to so many stirring melodies. But as Professor Lawrence Hoffman, a leading authority of Jewish liturgy, and one of my rabbinical school professors, notes, “The music... so overwhelms the lyrics that most people remain relatively unconcerned with what it means.” While that is not a tragedy, it behooves us to consider the content of what we are saying, or rather, praying. And as we will see, how to properly translate and understand Aveinu Malkeinu is a challenge.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

Another scholar, Richard Saranson, writes that, 

It is an irony of history that the very language now so controversial in Avinu Malkeinu (namely the masculine-gendered, hierarchical images of God as "Father" and "King") is what make this prayerful appeal so distinctive and effective for its original users.

Avinu Malkeinu, Rabbi Saranson, goes on to say, 

is a penitential litany.  That means that it uses the...  refrain, "Our Father, Our King," repeatedly to invoke the gracious favor of a God who is conceived of as both distant and approachable, both stern and merciful; whose powerful nature can be portrayed as both Ruler and Parent toward the people Israel, who view themselves during the High Holy Day season as both dependent and unworthy of favor–"Deal with us graciously for Your own sake, since we can plead little merit before You." Encapsulated here are the ambivalent feelings of we mortals toward the power in the world outside us over which we have uncertain or little control.

The story in the Talmud tells of Rabbi Akiva stepping before the ark during a great drought and exclaiming, Our Father, our King! We have no king but You! Our Father, our King! For Your sake, have compassion for us! And then the rain fell. (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 25b)

Over time the number of petitions for God’s compassionate care grew and grew. For example:

Our Father, our King! Deal with us [graciously] for Your name’s sake!

Our Father, our King! Send a complete healing to the sick among Your people!

Our Father, our King! Remove from us plague, sword, famine, and destruction!

Our Father, our King! Remember that we are but dust and ashes!

Our Father, our King! Speedily bring us salvation!

In the traditional Ashkenazic rite there are forty-four such petitions!  Most Reform prayer books have reduced that number significantly. For those of us who remember the old Union Prayer Book there were only seven. Reform reduced the number of petitions for reasons of length and because the strong penitential rhetoric of some of these petitions did not sit well with a modern sense of human empowerment.  Gates of Repentance, which we use, brings back more of the Avinu Malkeinu petitions, and concludes with the one that pleads our lack of merit. Why? That last line is commonly sung to a well-known eastern European melody, which we use too, and thereby has come to typify the entire litany for many American Jews.

While earlier generations of Reform Jews had difficulty with praying that we have no merit, our generation has also had trouble with the Avinu Malkeinu’s masculine and hierarchical images of God. You might say that it is no longer politically correct to use such language. Already in 1996 the new gender-sensitive edition of Gates of Repentance included at the back of the book a feminized version of the prayer. But for many, substituting parent for father, and ruler or monarch, for king, takes away from the power of the prayer. It has led to quite a debate, and in the end the new Reform machzor leaves the key phrase untranslated. How’s that for ducking the issue?

A final point before the interpretative readings. As Rabbi Barry Block write in sermon about this prayer a few years ago: "Calling God Avinu and Malkeinu, in the same breath, is an oxymoron." A parent is not a monarch, and "does not rule with strict justice." A ruler, on the other hand,

cannot remit penalties out of loving favor....
The one, true God is two opposite thingsAvinu, a loving parent, and Malkeinu, a strict rulerat one and the same time. God is a living, divine oxymoron. God seeks to love. God needs to judge.
The ancient rabbis teach that both strict justice and divine love are required to establish and sustain creation….
So what do we need God to be, at this High Holy Day season, Avinu or Malkeinu?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Feeling Rosh Hashanah!

We just got that Rosh Hashanah feeling here at
Congregation Adas Emuno!

Shana Tova!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Shana Tova!

On behalf of Congregation Adas Emuno
We wish you and yours a very Happy New Year! 
L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem!

May 5777 be a year of good luck for all!

And a year of health and happiness above all!


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Questions for the New Year


From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

Questions for the New Year

For students, teachers, and parents, September signals the start of a new school year. And for Jews all around the world, it is a reminder that our New Year is right around the corner (although this year a bit further down the bend than usual).

It's a busy time of year, the end of summer, the beginning of autumn, but then again, maybe it seems like we're busy all year around? That every day of the week is filled with activities? That we fill every moment of every day with some obligation or entertainment or distraction?

Do you feel saturated? Do you think you may be over-stimulated? And importantly, are you satisfied?

Do you allow yourself much time to let your mind wander? To daydream? To get lost in your thoughts? To just be alone with yourself? To meditate? And yes, to pray?

Do you find time to spend with others, with family, friends, community, without an agenda, without pressure to get something done or get somewhere on time, open-ended time just to relate to one another, engage in real conversation, heart to heart, or join together with others in ways that take you out of your routines and expectations?

What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is it that you really would like to accomplish? In the short term and the long term? Are you doing what you need to do to reach those goals? Or have you maybe attained them already, and just keep going anyway? What are your priorities? What should they be? What is it that really matters, in the end?

What is the legacy that you want to leave behind? How do you want to be remembered, by family, friends, and your community?

What does being Jewish mean to you? What did it mean to the generations that came before you? What will it mean to your children, and the generations to come? What would you want them to know and learn about our tradition? What kind of example are you setting for them?

What does Congregation Adas Emuno mean to you? What role does it play in your life? What role should it play in your life? What can you do to make more room in your life for all that our congregation has to offer, for spiritual communion, education, and social action?

How can we join together to make things better, for our congregation, our community, our world?

The answers to these questions will undoubtedly vary from one person to another. And they will also change over time. But what is most important is to ask the questions in the first place. Asking questions, what could be more Jewish than that?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

“Don’t Know Much About History”

from the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

From the desk of …                    
 Rabbi Barry Schwartz


Those are the opening words, of course, of the classic Sam Cooke song “Wonderful World”.

Cooke was writing a love song, and it’s a great one at that. In a love song, history is not so important. In a love song, one can crow about not knowing much else. Ignorance of the past is almost a badge of honor.

But in real life, history matters. Ignorance is not bliss. As George Santayana said famously, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

The Torah is preoccupied with remembering history. Judaism certainly subscribes to the notion that to know where you are going you need to know where you have been. And not only are we commanded to know our history, but we are likewise directed to teach it to our children.

This year we will be devoting our Shabbat morning Torah study to history. Not ancient history, but the modern Jewish experience that has shaped who we are. Our year­long subject is entitled The History of Reform Judaism. We’ll begin with an introduction that looks at the profound impact of Spinoza,
Baruch Spinoza
Mendelssohn, and the French Revolution
Moses Mendelssohn
on the Jewish community. From there we will look at the fascinating rise of Reform Judaism in 19th century Germany. The second half of the year will chart the growth of Reform Judaism here in the United States.

What do we believe, and why? What events have shaped our community? What does it really mean to say we are American Reform Jews? I invite you to learn with me and with your fellow congregants and wrestle with these questions each Shabbat morning (10:00­-11:30 AM) beginning on Sept.10.

A number of special sessions (including a four session history of the Holocaust by a guest scholar) will take place, so a full schedule will be posted on our website.

Don’t know much about history? Here’s your chance to do something about it!

With warm wishes for a wonderful and knowledgeable New Year,

    Rabbi Barry Schwartz