Monday, October 29, 2012

Go Forth

With Rabbi Schwartz out of town, I served as lay leader this past Friday for our Shabbat services, and I'd like to share my D'var Torah here on our congregational blog.

This week's Torah portion is the third in the yearly cycle of readings. Two weeks ago, the parsha told the story of Creation, which teaches us that all the world is subject to one rule, one set of laws, natural, spiritual, and ethical, that there is an underlying unity and coherence to the universe. And it teaches us us that all of humanity is one large, extended family, all descended from the same ancestors, all children of Adam and Eve. 

The idea that we are all blood relations is reinforced in last week's Torah portion, which tells the story of the flood, and says that we are all descendents of Noah and his wife. Ten generations later, Abraham is born, marries Sarah, and migrates along with his father Terah, and his orphaned nephew Lot, from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia towards the land of Canaan. This is where last week's parsha ends.

This week's Torah portion is called Lech Lecha, which means Go Forth, and it begins with God giving Abraham his marching orders. Ten generations have gone by since anyone has heard God's voice. The Torah makes it clear that divine revelation is not a common occurrence, that after establishing his covenant with Noah, God remained silent for approximately four centuries. 

 In our time, during the 20th century, God's silence became a troubling question for many people of faith. Does it signal God's disapproval, or disinterest in us, or perhaps serves as evidence that God does not exist, or as some said, that God is dead? I remember God's silence being the subject of much discussion when I was growing up during the sixties. Some said that it was not God who was silent, but rather that with all of our modern technology, the world had become too noisy, drowning out the voice of God. Or that we had simply forgotten how to listen for it. Others argued that there are times when God is distant as well as silent, turning away from us, just as there are times that we turn away from God, so that God goes into eclipse, as Martin Buber put it. And then there was the often repeated little poem, an anonymous statement of affirmation found scratched into a wall in a concentration camp during the Holocaust: 

I believe in the sun even if it isn’t shining.
I believe in love even when I am alone.
I believe in God even when He is silent.

What the Torah teaches us is that Abraham was the exception, not the rule. So we shouldn't expect God to summon us, instruct and command us, in a booming voice from the heavens, or through a telephone call, or by way of engraved invitation. We have to do the work ourselves, seek God out through study and introspection, to search within ourselves, to find the quiet time when we can listen to that still, small voice, to hear the echoes of the divine within ourselves, and in the world all around us.

So this week's parsha begins with God breaking his four century-long silence, and saying to Abraham:

Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2) 

At this time, Abraham was not yet known by that name—he was Abram, and his wife's name was Sarai.  And as this Torah portion opens, they had already left the city of Ur, and were dwelling together with his nephew Lot, and his father Terah in the land of Haran. It was sometime after Terah's death that God tells Abraham to go forth, and the Torah portion tell us that

Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. (12:5)

So who were the souls they had acquired? Slaves, servants, handmaids, and the like, as was the practice back in ancient times. And while this may not harmonize with our contemporary democratic, egalitarian sentiments, I think it is important to understand that when God tells Abraham, I will make of you a great nation, the beginnings of that nation, the House of Abraham, is a household, an ancient concept that includes not just the blood relations such as Lot, and the relations by marriage such as Sarah, but also everyone else who is associated with this family, this clan, who is, in the language of the IRS, a dependent on the head of the household. We can see here, in the very beginnings of the story of the Jewish people, a pluralistic notion of what we mean by referring to ourselves as a people.

Abraham and his household settled in Canaan, but after a time they were forced to be on the move again, as the parsha relates: "And there was a famine in the land, and Abram descended to Egypt to sojourn there because the famine was severe in the land" (12:10). So Abraham's journey extends from Mesopotamia in the north to Egypt in the south, before returning to Canaan for good. And in this way, the story of Abraham bridges the areas where the earliest civilizations appeared, first Mesopotamia, and then Egypt. What we have come to know as western civilization or western culture begins with the first settlements in these two regions, along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the north, and the Nile in the south. There, the first cities appeared, and the first writing systems were invented. The story of Abraham then represents the meeting and binding together of the world's two earliest civilizations, resulting in a kind of hybrid energy a synthesis and synergy out of which the west was born.

The Torah portion goes on to relate that Abraham feared that the Egyptians would kill him and take his wife for themselves, so he told them that Sarah was his sister, and she was taken by the Princes of Egypt and given to Pharaoh. At this point, God intervenes, and the Torah relates: "And the Lord plagued Pharaoh [with] great plagues as well as his household, on account of Sarai, Abram's wife" (12:17). In this way, the story of Abraham foreshadows the story of the exodus (to consider it in literary terms), and provides Abraham with his own version of the very experience that defines the Jewish people generations later. 

 But more importantly, this portion of the Torah teaches in the form of a story what is later expressed as laws and commandments, that you shall not covet or commit adultery or murder. As an abstract rule, you can say, thou shalt not…  But in a narrative, you can't express a negative concept, except by showing the rule being violated, and the guilty party punished. Abraham is not guilty, because his fears are well-founded. Killing a man and taking his wife was far from unknown in ancient times. In fact, King David was guilty of this sin, although in that case the murder was indirect, sending Bathsheba's husband to the front lines, where he was killed. And David was punished severely for it. 

 The lesson is reinforced over and over again in the Bible, that it is a sin for those in positions of power to abuse that power, for the strong to take advantage of the weak. And while God is the ultimate source of justice in these stories, they also teach us that we share in this obligation to protect those in need, to fight for social justice.

As the story continues, Abraham returned to Canaan, and his household prospered and grew, but this was not without its problems. So the Torah portion relates:

And also Lot, who went with Abram, had flocks and cattle and tents. And the land did not bear them to dwell together, for their possessions were many, and they could not dwell together. And there was a quarrel between the herdsmen of Abram's cattle and between the herdsmen of Lot's cattle, and the Canaanites and the Perizzites were then dwelling in the land. And Abram said to Lot, "Please let there be no quarrel between me and between you and between my herdsmen and between your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please part from me; if [you go] left, I will go right, and if [you go] right, I will go left." (13:5-9)

Here we find here the idea of making peace by dividing up the land, an idea that has some resonance with contemporary concerns in the Middle East. But this also reflects a different way of life from that of Pharoah's Egypt, or the Mesopotamian city of Ur. It is a tribal, nomadic form of life, as opposed to city life where people crowd together in the same place, and the number of people living together can increase dramatically as more and more are packed together into the same space. In the older, tribal way of life, if the population increases past a certain point, groups split up, and go their separate ways.

What we find here, and throughout the Torah, is a depiction of Abraham and his descendents as rejecting the cities and the way of life that they represent. Abraham leaves Ur, and has trouble in the city where Pharaoh dwells. In next week's parsha, the cities of Sodom and Gommorah are destroyed for their evil, and in Exodus the Israelites are enslaved to build cities for the Pharaoh, while God is encountered in the wilderness, at Mount Sinai. In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites take on the city of Jericho. It is not until David conquers Jerusalem, and Solomon builds the Temple there, that we see the negative view of city life start to change, and even then, the prophets come from outside of Jerusalem, from out of the wilderness, while the city of Babylon is associated with the tragedy of the first destruction of the Temple.

So Abraham, like Abel whom God favored over Cain, was an individual who was close to nature, who had what we would call today an ecological sensibility (the ancient Greek root word from which we get ecology, ekos, means household). And in case that incident in Egypt leads you to believe that he was not a brave man, this Torah portion also tells us about war going on between the many different nations or tribes that inhabit this region, and how when Lot is taken captive, Abram comes to the rescue. The parhsa tells us

And Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, and he armed his trained men, those born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and he pursued [them] until Dan. And he divided himself against them at night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them until Hobah, which is to the left of Damascus. And he restored all the possessions, and also Lot his brother and his possessions he restored, and also the women and the people. And the king of Sodom came out toward him, after his return from smiting Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, to the valley of Shaveh, which is the valley of the king. And Malchizedek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest to the Most High God. And he blessed him, and he said, "Blessed be Abram to the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth. And blessed be the Most High God, Who has delivered your adversaries into your hand," and he gave him a tithe from all. (14:14-20)

This parsha also includes the story of how Sarah couldn't bear children, and gave Abraham her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael, who is considered the ancestor of the Arabs. Sarah then gets jealous, and drives away Hagar and her son, but they are protected and returned by God. Again, we have a lesson in justice, and learning to live together in peace.

Through the many episodes contained within this Torah portion, Abraham has been going through what the mythologist Joseph Campbell called a hero's journey.  It begins with a geographical migration, but at the same time it is very much a spiritual journey. Abraham has answered God's call and gone forth, leaving his home, and then gone through a variety of trials, and is finally ready for his initiation and rebirth. And so the Torah says,

And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and God appeared to Abram, and He said to him, "I am the Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will place My covenant between Me and between you, and I will multiply you very greatly." And Abram fell upon his face, and God spoke with him, saying, "As for Me, behold My covenant is with you, and you shall become the father of a multitude of nations. And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings will emerge from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you. And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God." And God said to Abraham, "And you shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and between you and between your seed after you, that every male among you be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be as the sign of a covenant between Me and between you. And at the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations, one that is born in the house, or one that is purchased with money, from any foreigner, who is not of your seed. Those born in the house and those purchased for money shall be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant. And an uncircumcised male, who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin-that soul will be cut off from its people; he has broken My covenant." And God said to Abraham, "Your wife Sarai-you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. And I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her, and I will bless her, and she will become [a mother of] nations; kings of nations will be from her. " 17. And Abraham fell on his face and rejoiced, and he said to himself, "Will [a child] be born to one who is a hundred years old, and will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth?" And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael will live before You!" And God said, "Indeed, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him. And regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year." (17:1-21)

Circumcision is the mark of identity, a tribal rite of initiation denoting membership in the tribe; of course there has also been ample evidence that it confers a variety of health benefits as well. But here it is established as the sign of God's covenant, it is literally God's mark that is inscribed upon the human body. All other forms of alteration to our bodies, such as piercing and tattoos, have traditionally been taboo in Judaism, the idea being that the human form is made in the image of God and must not be altered, but this is the one exception, an exception for the very reason that it is ordained by God.

The initiation and change in status is reflected in the renaming of Abraham and Sarah, which can be connected to the difference in dialect and language between Mesopotamia and Canaan.  But we can also find a modern parallel in Ellis Island, and the renaming that took place for many immigrants coming to America. After all, Abraham and Sarah were also immigrants, and that kind of move represents a change of identity as well as residence.  Name changes are also traditionally associated with marriage, and with the adoption of children, and the covenant with God constitutes a kind of marriage and adoption. But it is also the case in many cultures that a new name is given following an initiation ceremony, and in this story Abraham together with Sarah have been initiated into a new stage of life, in their covenant with God.

But what of God's promise that Abraham will be the father of a multitude of nations? And earlier, God had said to Abraham:  "Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So will be your seed." (15:5).

Today, estimates place the population of the Jewish people between 13 and 15 million, which may fit in with this description, but represents such a tiny percentage of the population of the world.  Even when you add the descendants of Ishmael, the Arabic peoples, whose numbers are estimated in the vicinity of 450 million, we still are left with a small portion of the over 7 billion people in the world today. 

But when we count Abraham as a father not by blood, but by ideas and inspiration, of all of the monotheistic religions, then the prophecy especially seems to come true. Today we use the adjective Abrahamic to refer as a group to Jews, Christians, and Moslems, all of whom claim Abraham as our spiritual father. The Torah relates that we, as Jews, are the inheritors of his covenant and his household through Isaac and Jacob, and it is a legacy that we are proud to share with over four billion others, over half the population of the planet, all of whom are a part of our extended family in that line of descent symbolized by Noah and his wife, and Adam and Eve.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rabbi Schwartz's Op-Ed on Debate

We're pleased to note that Rabbi Schwartz has written an Op-Ed piece for The Jewish Standard weekly newspaper, which was published on October 18th.  Entitled Why We Need More Debates, you can go ahead an click on the title if you want to read it on the Jewish Standard's website, or read it here:
Tis the season of debate for everyone, from the candidates for president to those running for local office. 
So much of the debate is negative and substandard that we are tempted to dismiss its value—but that would be a big mistake for us, both as Jews and as Americans. 
Ever since Abraham’s famous argument with God, Judaism has been full of debates. In my new book, Judaism's Great Debates, I present 10 such arguments—between Moses and Korach, David and Nathan, Hillel and Shammai, the Vilna Ga’on and the Ba’al Shem Tov, Spinoza and the Amsterdam rabbis…. The list goes on. 
But in truth every one of the debates, while situated in history, is timeless. Every one of them has ongoing relevance. Abraham, for example, was arguing about the haunting question of collective punishment, about proportionality when confronting evil. That question is everywhere. 
I would go so far as to say that debate and disputation not only are encouraged within Judaism, they are at the heart of Jewish history and theology. The great debates are still being argued! Have you ever thought about Judaism not so much as a series of resolved doctrines but as a tapestry of unresolved arguments? 
What a culture values often can be gleaned from the special vocabulary that develops to describe that value. The Talmud in particular is full of debate; it is at the very core of rabbinic reasoning. It is the Talmud that coins a unique Jewish expression, machloket l’shem shamayim—an argument for the sake of heaven. The tractate Avot famously teaches: “Every debate that is for the sake of heaven will make a lasting contribution. Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not make a lasting contribution.”
Our sages understood that a debate for the right reasons enhances Judaism. A debate for the wrong reasons detracts from Judaism. 
Perhaps the most famous debating pair in Jewish history after Abraham and God was Hillel and Shammai. In actuality it was not these two sages but their disciples who did most of the arguing. A wonderful passage in tractate Eruvin tells us: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the former asserting, the law is in agreement with our views, and the latter contending, the law is in agreement with our views. Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim—both are the words of the living God.” 
Deep respect is given to both schools because both sides are speaking the truth as they see it, and both have the welfare of the community in mind. 
Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that although in practice one viewpoint usually will prevail (the law went according to Beit Hillel almost every time), “both views will have permanent value because… [they] shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as … advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth.” 
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav went even further, calling debate a holy form of communication because it echoes the divine process of tzimtzum, contractions that make space for the creation of something new. Just as God enters into an act of self-limitation in order to make possible the created world, so worthy debaters restrain themselves in order to make room for opposing viewpoints. As Rabbi Or Rose comments, “When we disagree with one another, when we take sides, we create the necessary space for the emergence of new and unexpected ideas. Without machloket the horizon of human discovery would be severely limited.” 
Some people will tell you that we need less debate; that for the sake of unity we need to stifle dissent and limit the amount we argue. I say that we need more debate, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of debate. 
Some people will tell you that we need less denominational division in the Jewish community, again for the sake of Jewish unity. In fact, that was some people’s reaction at a major forum on the subject in Philadelphia last spring, when leaders of the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements met in dialogue. 
I say we need more diversity, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But we need the right kind of diversity, the kind that respects pluralism and affirms that while the differences are real and important, what unites us is greater than what divides us. 
A few months ago I spotted a new book at my public library, America's Great Debate, by Fergus Bordewich. He chronicles the epic debate over slavery in the mid-19th century that led to the Great Compromise of 1850, which averted, at least for a crucial decade, dissolution of the Union and civil war. Listen to what Bordewich says about this debate in the preface: 
“Something else intrigued me, too, the more I read the records of the debate itself: never did American politicians speak to the nation more honestly, more persuasively, more provocatively and more passionately, in language that was often so splendid it nearly reached the level of poetry. 
“The pool-tested, spin-doctored, shoddily argued and grammatically challenged ‘messaging’ that today passes for political communication is pathetic and often incoherent by comparison. 
“It can be no surprise that many Americans have lost interest in politicians who have forgotten how much can be accomplished by the persuasive power of well-crafted English. 
“In 1850… men who believed in slavery said so, as did those who hated it, no matter how much odium their words attracted. By listening in on the debate, we can learn… not only about the profound ways in which slavery warped our political system, and about the creative craft of compromise, but also about how to talk politics to each other so that we actually listen.” 
My own study led me to the conclusion that worthy debate, debate truly for the sake of heaven, must contain three essential elements: sincere intention, deep listening, and careful articulation. Like the disciples of Hillel and Shammai, we must have the greater good of the community in mind. We must strive to understand the opposing point of view, and we must be careful and masterful in our choice of words and civil in our tone. 
Does our discussion and debate in the Jewish community today, never mind in our society at large, pass this three-part test? 
The Talmud itself wonders out loud why the opinions of Beit Hillel prevailed so often, answering its own question this way: “Because the followers of Hillel were gentle and modest, and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and always mentioned the words of the other school with great respect and humility before their own.” 
As Joseph Telushkin comments: “It says something about Judaism that both Hillel and Shammai, and many of their followers, remain revered figures within traditional Judaism even when they embody opposite approaches to the law and to life itself. It isn’t simply the answer that is prized, it is the argument itself, the culture of disputation, the wrestling with the truth.” 
And so, in the spirit of Abraham and Moses and the prophets and the sages, I urge us as a community, and my fellow citizens as a nation, to question without inhibition and to debate without intimidation. Let us seek out those opportunities, for they are the lifeblood of our Judaism and our democracy. 
Let’s debate more, not less, and let’s make sure that our argument is for the sake of heaven!

As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepare for their final presidential debate this evening, we can certainly take Rabbi Schwartz's words to heart, and hope for a debate for the sake of heaven from our candidates.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

News From Our Social Action Committee

Social Action News

Social Action Committee Programs

Sunday, October 21, 2012 9:00 AM--Please join us as a representative from Shelter Our Sisters talks to us about the programs that this organization offers to victims of domestic violence (presentations on bullying will also be made for our religious school students). We will be informed of ways we can volunteer to help as well as of the SOS wish list. Although this wish list changes from time to time and includes numerous items, here are a few which we can donate at this time:

  • Twin sheets- new/nearly new
  • Bath and hand towels, washcloths- new
  • Twin sized blankets- new/nearly new
  • Toothbrushes- new
  • Childrens’, womens’ socks- new
  • Diapers- sizes 4,5,6
  • Gift cards
  • Toothbrushes- new

Sunday, November 4, 2012 8:30am-12 noon [Mitzvah Day]--We will be working through Bonim Builders to paint a classroom at Children's Aid and Family Services in Paramus. Meet at the temple at 8:00 AM and carpool or drive on your own. Just get into your “best “ work clothes and come on down! No painting equipment necessary. All will be provided. [ages 12 and up].

Clothing Drives--Winter clothes, including outer wear, for men and women Womens’ coats and jackets will be given to the Women's Rights Information Center, Englewood.  Also, womens’ and mens’ clothing and mens’ outer wear will be donated to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Soup Kitchen at the New York Campus. Please bring items to the temple, from October 21st through November 15th. The donated clothing will go directly to people in need.

Stay tuned as there is more in the works!

The Adas Emuno Social Action Committee

Monday, October 8, 2012

Our Holocaust Scroll

Last year, Congregation Adas Emuno was entrusted with the guardianship of a Torah scroll that survived the devastation of the Holocaust. Preserved for many years as a national treasure by the Czechoslovakian government, this and many other such scrolls were later acquired by the Westminster Synagogue in London, where they maintain a Czech Scrolls Museum, and administer a Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust program, whereby numerous Torah scrolls that were saved from destruction are loaned out to congregations such as ours.  As they explain on the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust website,

The story of the acquisition of the 1,564 Czech scrolls, which arrived at Kent House in February 1964, has passed into history as a small but remarkable episode in the tragedy of European Jewry. 
To those who were entrusted with the scrolls, they were a symbol of hope as well as sorrow, and also an intimate link with the individual historic congregations which were destroyed under the Nazis. Over the decades since the Scrolls arrived the racks have grown emptier as one Scroll after another has been restored to its rightful place in Jewish life. 
Now the only Scrolls that are available for distribution are those that are returned for a variety of reasons. The Trust is now in the phase of ensuring that recipients remain aware of the unique importance of the Scroll in their care, and the special link it represents with the Jews of the destroyed congregations from which it came.

This particular scroll was previously cared for by Congregation Beth Am of Teaneck, New Jersey, one of our sister shuls here in Bergen County.  When Beth Am regrettably closed its doors last year, they generously passed this Holocaust scroll on to our congregation, along with many other gifts (not the least of which has been some wonderful new members), for which we are very grateful.

After receiving the scroll Rabbi Schwartz contacted the Trust to learn about the history of this scroll, and by way of response, they sent us a beautiful certificate that we have since framed and that hangs at the entrance to our temple.  Here is a scan of it:

It is indeed a privilege and an honor to serve as guardians of this Torah scroll, which Rabbi Schwartz now uses for the portion of our B'nai Mitzvah ceremonies where a Torah is passed down from one family member to the next, to symbolize the passing down of our tradition through the generations. And the survival of this scroll, and so many others like it, is very much a cause for celebration this Simchat Torah. Chag Sameach!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Happy Torah!

This evening we celebrate the holiday of Simchat Torah, which can be translated as rejoicing in the Law, or simply Happy Torah!  According to the Union for Reform Judaism's Simchat Torah page, the holiday
celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Torah. Simchat Torah is a joyous festival, in which we affirm our view of the Torah as a tree of life and demonstrate a living example of never-ending, lifelong study. Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried or danced around the synagogue seven times. During the Torah service, the concluding section of Deuteronomy is read, and immediately following, the opening section of Genesis, or B'reishit as it is called in Hebrew, is read.

In honor of Simchat Torah, here is a music video featuring words and music by Abie Rotenberg, telling the story of a Torah scroll from Kiev:

Does it put you in mind of our own Torah scrolls, and our little wooden shul in Leonia? Rotenberg's song begins with the writing of the Torah by a sofer, a Torah scribe, and to get a sense of how that's done, here is a video called Writing Sefer Torah Ashkenzai כתיבת ספר תורה that shows the writing of "one line from the Torah scroll, Balaq, Bamidbar. The speed is x2, to demostrate how much time it takes and to show the process of writing and making the taggin ( the 'crowns' on certain letters)."

The sofer also explains that "The material I'm writing on is parchment (aka vellum or klaf in Hebrew). I use a quill pen made of turkey feather and special homemade ink."  And while we're on the subject, let's take a look at how they celebrate Simchat Torah in Israel with some amatuer video footage recorded in 2009 in Tel Aviv:

Our own celebration tonight will be limited to the sanctuary and temple grounds, but it will most certainly be just as joyous. Come join us for a Happy Torah and Chag Sameach!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Shalom Sukkot

As the week-long Festival of Sukkot comes to a close, here is Noam's Etrog Farm, a short documentary, courtesy of Shalom Sesame, about a boy in Israel who visits an etrog farm and helps his family build their sukkah to prepare for the holiday:

And also from our friends from Shalom Sesame, Kids Talk About Sukkot, featuring real children from Israel describing the symbols and traditions of the holiday using their own words (in English).

And as the last two children relate, at the end of Sukkot comes Simchat Torah, a holiday we will be celebrating tomorrow evening at Congregation Adas Emuno, at 7 PM, which will include the consecration of our new Religious School students. We hope to see you there!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Beth Ziff's Yom Kippur Appeal

Good morning, good yuntif, good to see you.

It has been about a year since we've all been together. You look good. Haven't
aged a bit.

We have reached that point in the service where the squirming, coughing,
sleeping, whispering, and some listening begins—yes, the appeal.

When Virginia Gitter reached out to me to let me know the board had asked that I
deliver the appeal, I was honored and then thought about the fact that this was
the first time I have not been a part of the board in many, many years and so
naturally, just when you think you are out, they pull you back in...

I have been dreing my kop thinking about what to say, how to make this
meaningful, interesting, and actionable.

The Rabbi planted wonderful seeds about our community, our need to survive, and
about living, praying and giving—reigniting the flame within.

So let's explore for a moment. If you will, take a deep breath in and let it out. Again.
In this momentary pause let your head fill with thoughts about this place.

Who did you come here with? Family? Friends? Alone? Why did you come here today?
What does it mean to you?

The people? The warm welcome you receive? The small, intimate space?

We joined Adas Emuno in the mid 90s when our children were in elementary school.
The feeling we had was one of being welcomed and accepted. Everyone hung loose. It
was okay to have squirmy kids in temple. And, we were invited to get involved right

When did you join? What was your first encounter like? Who did you meet?

We met lifelong friends because of Adas Emuno. We were not the go-to-temple-every-week kind of people and yet we were drawn in to this place.

Even though the kids balked about waking up for Religious School, they learned
Hebrew, learned about who we are as Reform Jews, learned about our traditions. They
came home with interesting projects, we won't go into detail about the wooden menorah
that caught on fire...

What is your experience with our Religious School? If you have never seen it, check us
out on a Sunday when over 70 kids are filling our classrooms from Kindergarten through
Confirmation. It is a whirlwind of activity and it is our future.

In the 2000s our children were bar mitzvahed. When did your children become
b'nai mitzvah? Have you ever been to a bar or bat mitzvah here? It is like no other. In 
this community our kids lead services. They fully engage with the clergy and the
congregation. Each one is awesome and special.

September 12, 2001. This community came together to grieve, pray, support one
another. People from all over the neighborhood showed up. We talked, we shared, we
cried, we hugged.

Over the past 17 years, our family has had moments of involvement and we have been
MIA. We have participated and we have not. We have experienced many clergy
members. Full time, part time, students, fully ordained and invested. The one constant
has been our community. The people. The buildings. The traditions. Knowing that the
temple is always there, if we choose to come or not.

How long have you been connected to Adas Emuno? What is the draw that brings you
here and back again?

Something brought you to this place. This place that is always and hopefully will always
be there for you. In good times and bad, for simchas and for mourning. For education
and action, for respite and for healing. For belonging and support.

Many things have changed over the past 140 plus years. Many things have remained
the same. That's the beauty of our congregation. You take what you want and get
what you need.

As you think about the coming year, reignite your connection to Adas Emuno. Living,
praying, giving. How you live and pray is very personal. How you give affects the entire

With your contributions we survive. With your contributions we maintain our home,
school, and sanctuary. With your contributions we inch toward 150 years... our

What is the catalyst that will make you say, this year I am going to give to Adas Emuno?

Give because you feel a connection
Give because you come to services regularly
Give because you do not
Give because you have children in the religious school
Give because your children were bar or bat mitzvahed here
Give because you want to
Give because you feel a little guilty not giving
Give because you only come to temple on the holidays
Give because you connect with the clergy
Give because you can
Give because it's a tax deduction
Give because we asked
Give because you belong to this community
GIve because it is the right thing to do
Give because we need to survive
Give because you never have done so before
Give because you always do so
Give more than last year
Give because you want this place, this wonderful, intimate, spiritual place to be here
whenever you need it.

Thank you for giving. Thank you for supporting the commitment to keep our
Congregation alive and thriving.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gimme Sukkah

This is just a reminder that the weeklong Festival of Sukkot is still going strong. If you missed the celebration this past Sunday evening, or even if you didn't, join us tomorrow night for Shabbat in the sanctuary and another visit to our congregational sukkah.

And in the spirit of the holiday, straight from YouTube, here are The Fountainheads from the Ein Prat Academy in Israel singing a parody of "Marry You" by Bruno Mars, "Livin' in a Booth":

According to the write-up, "no Etrogim were harmed in the filming of this video. (Lemons are a different story)"

And here are their credits:
Vocals: Yoav Hoze, Shani Lachmish, Ahava Katzin, Orri Dror, and Amit Ben Atar. Choreography by Tamar Erel.

Music arrangement, performance, and mixing by Amit Ben Atar. Recorded at Bit Studios by Amit Ben Atar.

Directed and Filmed by Ben R. Producer: Yair Talmon

And here are the lyrics by Ben R.:

It's a beautiful night
We're looking for something fun to do
Hey baby
I think I wanna build a booth

Is it the stars in the sky?
Or is it these dancing Jews?
Well who cares, baby
I think we're livin' in a booth

Well, in my tabernacle
I got everything we need
For the show
With my Etro-oog
So, come on now

Who cares if it rains
Gotta whole lotta chains
Don't you know
This Schach doesn't go
It stays on, yo

Don't say no no no no no
Say lu lav lav lav lav lav
And we'll go go go go go
If you're shakin', like I'm shakin'

Cause it's a beautiful night
We're looking for something fun to do
Hey baby
I think I wanna build a booth

Is it the stars in the sky
Or is it these dancing Jews?
Who cares, baby
I think we're livin' in a booth

Campin out here
There's nothing to fear
We'll go far
Under the stars
It's all right girl.

If we wake up and the
Sukkah breaks up, that's cool
No, I won't blame you
Let's just run yo

Don't say no no no no no
Say lu lav lav lav lav lav
And we'll go go go go
If you're shakin, like I'm shakin'

U'shavtem mayim besasson (draw water with joy)
Mimaynei hayshua (from the wellsprings of salvation)
Waters overflow
From the fountains of salvation


Just dwell in booths
Say it right now baby,
Say it right now baby

Just dwell in booths
Say it right now baby,
Say it right now!

And in case you were looking for something more gangsta (no reference to Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel, or Meyer Lanksy intended), here is Eprhyme doing a remix of "Gimme Shelter" as a Sukkot Song:

So, chag sameach, have a happy Sukkot for the remainder of the week, and join us tomorrow night for our Sukkot Shabbat!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

History and Freedom

You may recall from two previous posts, Hannah Arendt, Jewish Philosopher, and Hannah Arendt and Charlie Chaplin, that I occasionally serve as a guest blogger for the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.  And this past August, when we went over potential dates for my next installment, one of the possibilities was September 17, and that leapt out at me because it was Rosh Hashanah.  And as it turns out, I found a perfect quote for the occasion, so I wrote it up ahead of time, and it was posted on their blog on Rosh Hashanah morning. You can see it in its original context, with the same title as here:  History and Freedom, but I'm also happy to share it with you here on our congregational blog.  And I want to say thank you to Bridget Hollenback, the Hannah Arendt Center's Director of Outreach and Social Media, who provided the images for my post on their blog, which I've taken the liberty of including here as well.  So, without further ado, here is my Hannah Arendt Quote for Rosh Hashanah: 

The history of humanity is not a hotel where someone can rent a room whenever it suits him; nor is it a vehicle which we board or get out of at random.  Our past will be for us a burden beneath which we can only collapse for as long as we refuse to understand the present and fight for a better future.  Only then—but from that moment on—will the burden become a blessing, that is, a weapon in the battle for freedom.

 -Hannah Arendt, "Moses or Washington" (March 27, 1942) 

This eloquent quote from Hannah Arendt moves through a series of metaphors for historical consciousness. The first two, history is a hotel, and history is a vehicle, are rejected as misleading.  Hotels and vehicles are both transitional spaces, areas inhabited on a temporary basis, not permanent dwellings.  History is not a place we visit for a short period of time, or a place we merely use to get from point A to point B. Arendt further implies that history is not a commodity to be bought and sold, used and disposed of according to our mood.  But this is less a statement of fact than an admonition, in response to the fact that it is indeed possible for individuals to reject and deny their past, to ignore and abandon their history.  It is a commonplace to say that we cannot choose our parents, and the history of humanity that Arendt is concerned with is, after all, an extension of our personal and family histories.


 As an admonition, Arendt's remarks may seem to be a simple restatement of George Santayana's famous 1905 quote, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  And clearly, she shares in this sentiment about the importance of collective memory and the need to learn from the errors of previous eras. But she goes beyond this simple formulation by invoking the metaphor of history as a burden. History has gravity, history has weight, and the longer the historical memory, the heavier the baggage that accompanies it. Historical mass accumulates over time, and also through innovations in communications.  In oral cultures, where writing is absent, history as we understand it does not exist; instead there is myth and legend, preserved through oral tradition by way of continued repetition via oral performance.  Given the limitations of human memory, details about the past are forgotten within a generation or two, and the main function of myth and legend is to reflect and explain present circumstances.  This collective amnesia allows for a great deal of cultural flexibility and social homeostasis, a freedom from the burden of history that literate cultures take up.  The written word first makes possible chronological recordkeeping, and later historical narrative framed as an ongoing progression of events; this linear conception of time replaces the cyclical past of oral tradition, and what Mircea Eliade referred to as the myth of eternal return.  And so we hear the complaint of school children in generation after generation, that history is so much harder now than it was for their parents, because now there is so much more of it than ever before. 

 History is a burden, one that becomes too much to bear if all we are doing is living in the past, in rigid adherence to a fixed and unchanging tradition.  But Arendt adds the complementary metaphor of history as a blessing.  The burden can become a blessing if we use the past to understand the present, to serve the present, not to overwhelm or command the present.  The past can inform the present, history helps us to see why things are the way they are, why we do the things we do; being mindful of the past is a means to help fulfill Arendt’s goal ofthinking what we are doing.  But it is not enough simply to live in the present, and for the present.  We also have to look towards the future, to work for progress in the moral, ethical, and social sense, to enlarge the scope of human freedom.  And in light of this goal, Arendt invokes her fifth and final metaphor for history:  history is a weapon.  It is a weapon not to destroy or dominate others, or at least that is not what Arendt intends it to be, but rather a sword of liberty, an instrument to be used in the fight against oppression.


This quote reflects Arendt's overriding concern with human freedom.  The battle for freedom that she refers to is a collective struggle, not an individual quest.  It can only be achieved by political cooperation and unity, not by solitary escape from tyranny.  The commonly used phrase in western cultures, individual freedom, while not without value, all too easily eclipses the necessity of freedom as a shared responsibility, and in excess becomes oxymoronic.  As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently put it, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" and "no one is free while others are oppressed."  Freedom for all, shared freedom, requires a sense of affiliation, kinship, connection, which in turn requires a sense of continuity over time. Just as individual memory is intimately related to individual identity, our collective memory is the key to group identity.  History is the foundation of community. 

Historical consciousness, which is derived from literacy, did not become widespread until after the diffusion of typography.  In addition to making written history widely available, print media such as calendars and periodicals made individuals aware of their place in history as never before, down to the basic knowledge of the year, month, and date that we all take for granted, not to mention awareness of our date of birth and age.  And as the great historian of printing, Elizabeth Eisenstein explains, more than any other factor, it was the printing revolution that gave rise to modernity.  The irony is that as printing made the past more accessible, it also made it seem less valuable, resulting in modernity's ahistorical tendencies.  Focus shifted from venerating tradition to revering progress, from looking back to origins to looking forward for originality.  This is exemplified by the fact that printing gave us two new literary forms, the news, and the novel

And so we get Henry Ford saying, "history is bunk," and dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984 portraying future societies where history is either deleted or subject to constant revision.  Without a sense of the past, sensitivity to the future is undermined, and with the advent of instantaneous electronic communications beginning with telegraphy in the 19th century, more and more emphasis has been placed on the now, the present tense, leading us to lose touch with both the past and the future.  Conceptions of the past have also been affected by the rise of image culture, beginning with photography in the 19th century, so that a coherent sense of linear history came to be replaced by a discontinuous, and therefore incoherent collection of snapshots evoking nostalgia, as Susan Sontag observed in On Photography.  What Arendt makes clear is that contemporary present-minded ahistoricism risks more than Santayana's Sisyphean purgatory, but a true hell of oppression and slavery. 

So far, I have stressed a universal interpretation of this quote, and ignored its particular context.  Arendt's admonition originates in a column she wrote for a Jewish newspaper, Aufbau, published in New York for German-speaking Jews, as part of a critique of the Reform movement in Judaism.  The movement originated in 19th century Germany, as a response to the Enlightenment, and the Emancipation initiated by Napoleon, wherein Jews were released from ghetto confinement and given a measure of equal rights and citizenship.

To accommodate their newly established status, the Reform movement sought to recast Judaism in the image of Protestantism, as just another religious sect.  Apart from a liberalizing and modernizing of worship and religious requirements, this meant abandoning Jewish identity as a people, as a nation in exile, so as to give full political allegiance to the new nation-states of the west, and embrace a new national identity as citizens of Germany, or France, or England, or the United States.  Consequently, the Reform movement rejected Zionism and made loyalty to the nation of one's birth a religious duty.  Jewish identity and tradition were thereby reduced, compartmentalized as only a form of religious belief and practice, their political significance abandoned. 

 Arendt's criticism is consonant with Jewish tradition, as the Torah repeatedly asks the Jewish people to remember, to remember the Exodus, to remember the revelation at Mount Sinai, toremember God's laws and commandments, to remember God's commitment to social justice.  Rather than make an argument for a return to Orthodoxy, however, Arendt's concern is characteristically philosophical.  Immediately before concluding her column with the passage quoted above, Arendt makes a more specific appeal regarding models of political leadership and moral guidance: 

As long as the Passover story does not teach the difference between freedom and slavery, as long as the Moses legend does not call to mind the eternal rebellion of the heart and mind against slavery, the "oldest document of human history" will remain dead and mute to no one more than the very people who once wrote it.  And while all of Christian humanity has appropriated our history for itself, reclaiming our heroes as humanity's heroes, there is paradoxically a growing number of those who believe they must replace Moses and David with Washington or Napoleon.  Ultimately, this attempt to forget our own past and to find youth again at the expense of strangers will fail—simply because Washington's and Napoleon's heroes were named Moses and David. 

Written in the dark times that followed Hitler's rise to power, the outbreak of the Second World War, and the establishment of Eichmann's concentration camps, Arendt's words are all the more poignant and powerful in their call for taking pride in the Jewish tradition of fighting for freedom and justice, and for an awareness that the cause of liberty and human rights have their roots in that most ancient of documents. 

Arendt's criticisms of the excesses of Reform Judaism were widely shared, and the movement itself changed dramatically in response to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.  Reform Judaism reversed its stance on Zionism, and remains a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, albeit with a willingness to engage in criticism of Israeli government policies and decisions.  At the same time, Reform religious observance, while still distinct from that of the Orthodox and Conservative branches, has gradually restored many elements of traditional worship over the years.  And the celebration of Jewish culture and identity has become normalized during the past half century. 

For example, witness Aly Raisman's gold medal-winning gymnastic routine at the recently completed London Olympics, performed to the tune of Hava Nagila; Keith Stern, the rabbi at the Reform synagogue that Aly attends, explained that " it indicates Aly’s Jewish life is so integrated into her entire soul, that I don’t think she was looking to make a statement as a Jew, I think it was so natural to her that it's more like, why wouldn’t she use the Hora? It shows again her confidence and tradition in a really fundamental way."


Raisman's musical selection made an important statement as well, in light of the International Olympics Committee's decision not to have a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in a terrorist attack.  I think that Arendt would be nodding in approval at the way in which the teenage captain of the United States women's gymnastics team, in her own way, followed the example of Moses and David. 

Arendt's passage about history and freedom is a fitting one, I believe, for a Quote of the Weekpost scheduled to appear on the same day as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also said to be the birthday of the world.  The calendar year now turns to 5773, and 5,773 years is roughly the age of history itself, of recorded history, of written records, which originate in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.  And while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the High Holy Days, and are popularly thought to be the most important in Jewish tradition, in truth it is the Passover that is the oldest, and most significant, of our holidays, lending further support to Arendt's argument.  But even more important than Passover is the weekly observance of the Sabbath day, which is mandated by the Fourth Commandment.  And in the new Sabbath liturgy recently adopted by the American Reform movement, there is a prayer adapted from a passage in the book Exodus and Revolution by political philosopher Michael Walzer, that is worth sharing in this context:

Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land;
That the winding way to that promise
Passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching together.
The message of this prayer is that only by working together can we transform the burden of history into a blessing, only by working together can we wield the shared history of humanity in the service of human freedom and social justice.  This is what Arendt wanted us to understand, to commit to memory, and to learn by heart.