Friday, April 5, 2019

Where Have We Been?

Have you missed us here on our congregational blog? Rest assured our synagogue is still going strong, nothing has changed in that regard!

We just have been busy constructing our new website, which has it's own built-in blog, which you can now find at our same old URL:

It's still under construction, as they say, but officially public now, and we hope you like it! And we'll continue to build and improve it as time goes on!

As for this blog, we will leave it up as an archive. In fact, our new website has links to various posts here. We may even use it on occasion. Only time will tell. But for now, come join us over at Tell'em sent you!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Yom Kippur 5779

Here Come Moses’ Children



On a hot day in June of 1964 Rabbi Richard Levy relates that, 

I was at a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis when Martin Luther King sent a telegram asking for rabbis to join him in a demonstration in St. Augustine, FL…. So I went with fifteen other rabbis. We were ushered into a [room] where King was speaking and as we came in he said, ‘Here come Moses’ children’.

Here come Moses’s children. How about that? How striking… Which led me to ponder: What does it mean to be Moses’s children today? Thus this sermon… which is Part Two of my exploration of the legacy of the Sixties that I began last night.

Some of you know that one of those Augustine sixteen was my own rabbi, from Temple Israel in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, Rabbi Michael Robinson, of blessed memory. Another was my late professor at Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz. These brave souls spent all night in a sweltering jail. At 3:00 AM, by the light of a single naked light bulb in the corridor outside their overcrowded cell they wrote a letter, Why We Went.

The Augustine Sixteen declared, 

We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. Here in St. Augustine we have seen… the deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right and that it must inevitably triumph.

The Augustine Sixteen were telling us that when we stand idly by we are not innocent; we are part of the problem.

King himself said in his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail that, 

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

King said,

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.

King said,

We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who is more devoted to “order” than to justice… and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a more convenient season. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

The man who spoke at the famous March on Washington just before King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” was a rabbi. His name was Joachim Prinz. A refugee from Nazi Germany, he led a congregation in Newark, and he helped lead the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. Rabbi Prinz said that day,

The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

Yet another great rabbi from the civil rights movement, Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps said it best,

In a free society; some are guilty, all are responsible.

Fast forward fifty years: She was not a rabbi or a minister, but I am still haunted by the words of Heather Heyer. Do you recognize that name? She was the young woman killed in Charlottesville, when she was rammed by a car driven into the crowd by an avowed racist.

Heather Heyer wrote that day in what would be her final Facebook post:

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

Are we outraged? Are we paying attention? Are we standing up or are we standing by?

In the spirit of King and the Rabbis and Heather Heyer: What does it mean to be Moses’ children today?

What does it mean to be Moses’ children in the wake of the racist violence of Charlottesville and Charleston?

The police violence of East St. Louis, Staten Island, Baltimore, Baton Rouge?

The mass shooting violence of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Sutherland Springs, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland?

What does it mean to be Moses’ children in a time of #black lives matter and #me too and #march for our lives?

What does it mean to be Moses’s children in a time of zero tolerance of migrants and the separation of children from parents?

In the spirit of our revolutionary ancestor, allow me to respond that to be Moses’s children means, if nothing else: Opening our Eyes and Voting with Our Feet.

Opening our Eyes:

When he was a young man the Torah says that Moses “went out to his people and witnessed their toil.” (Ex.2) Then he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen, and he acted.

Later on Moses opens his eyes again. “He gazed and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said,
I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight.” (Ex.3) God too opens His eyes, as it were, as the Torah says, “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”  
Deep into the civil rights struggle, during his Poor People’s Campaign near the end of his life, King said,

We must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. Negroes generally live in worse slums today than 20 or 25 years ago. In the North schools are more segregated than they were in 1954…. The unemployment rate among Negroes is [worse]; twice that of whites. And the average income of the Negro is today 50% less than whites.

If we open our eyes today, what do we see 50 years after the Civil Rights movement?

Black kids are three times as likely to be poor as white kids. 

Black unemployment is twice that of white unemployment. 

Homeownership is 40% for African Americans; 70% for whites.

Four in ten black and Latino students attends schools that are 90% minority. In NYC it’s five in ten.

Latinos actually are now the largest minority in the country. Poverty rates have declined for all Americans except Latinos. One out of four Hispanic adults lives below the poverty line; one out of three children. Millions more, who cut our lawns; clean our pools, wash our dishes, and pick our fruit live just above it.

And did you see this last week: In 2016 net worth among white middle-income families in America was 19% below 2007 levels (adjusted for inflation). But among blacks, it was 40% below, and for Hispanics 46% below.

Do you call that an economic recovery?

Praying with our Feet:

God said to Moses to get up and start marching back to Egypt to speak truth to power. Later God told Moses to get up and start marching out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land.

Professor Michael Walzer of Princeton writes in a powerful verse that we often read from our prayerbook,

Standing on the parted shores of history we still believe what we were taught before we ever 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.

When Rabbi Heschel marched with King at Selma he remarked afterwards, “I felt as if my legs were praying.”

Praying with our feet means marching and lobbying. I was so proud when young people across America led the way last spring in the March for our Lives and the national school walk-outs. 

I was so proud when I found out that our own Leonia high schoolers Maddie Raciatti and Isabel Raskin were among the student leaders here in Leonia. 

I was so proud last year when I went to a Leonia Town Council meeting to advocate for the Leonia sanctuary city resolution that our own Sandy Pecht had made a special trip back from college to do the same. 

The year before last I had the privilege of meeting civil rights icon John Lewis, still feisty after all these years. I shook his hand and told him that I was the head of The Jewish Publication Society that had published the work of Rabbi Heschel. He recalled marching with Heschel and how much that meant. He said to us rabbis: 

Keep marching. Raise your voices. Make some noise!

I know that if Dr. King was here, if Rabbi Heschel was here, if Rabbi Prinz was here, if Rabbi Borowitz was here, if Rabbi Robinson was here… they would all say the same thing as Jon Lewis.

They would remind us that the Torah commands (Lev. 18):“You shall not stand idly by.”

They would remind us that the Torah commands (Ex. 23): “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

They would remind us that the Torah commands (Deut. 16): “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

They would remind us, “Open your eyes and vote with your feet.”

They would remind us that so much is at stake in American today.

We are fighting for freedom of the press right now.

We are fighting for oppressed refugees right now.

We are fighting for traumatized children right now.

We are fighting for victimized women right now.

We are fighting for the future of our very democracy right now.

We are fighting for the future of our gasping planet right now.

They would say at this New Year: Remember who you are!

They would say, as we enter the room:

Here come Moses’ children. 

Here come Moses’ children. 

Make way for the children of Moses.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Kol Nidre 5779




On New Year’s Eve, 1968, snow fell on the revelers in Times Square. The New York Times headline ran “World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year.” Americans were hopeful that the Vietnam War would wind down; that the protests would diminish, and that America’s angry ghettos would pacify.

In the Big Apple a threatened subway strike was averted, and the 20 cent fare maintained. Two hit movies, The Sound of Music and Thoroughly Modern Millie both starred Julie Andrews. Hello Dolly and Fiddler on the Roof were tops on Broadway. 1967 had been difficult, but there was cause for optimism. Little did anyone know that the whirlwind of 1968 was about to be unleashed.

When the Viet Cong launched the Tet offensive in late January, Walter Cronkite was caught saying: “What the ---- (expletive deleted) is going on? I thought we were winning this war?”

Then came the month of March. On the 12th , Eugene McCarthy came out of nowhere to finish a close second to Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Days later Bobby Kennedy shocked the political landscape by entering the race. The shock only grew when Sunday evening, March 31st, President Johnson concluded a speech about the war with the words: “I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Earlier that very same day, just a few miles away, Martin Luther King, Jr. had given the Sunday morning sermon to a packed house at the National Cathedral. “One day we will have to stand before the God of history, and we will talk of things we’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me I can hear the God of history saying… But I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not.”

Four days later, Martin Luther King Jr. lay dead in Memphis. Riots erupted in 110 cities throughout the land. 39 people died. 2500 were injured.

Exactly two months later, Robert Kennedy was shot.

By year’s end, 6332 American soldiers had been killed in action.

On this 50th anniversary of the year that was 1968, I ask us to pause. Not simply because you know me to be a student of history who likes to commemorate milestone anniversaries. Not simply because fifty years is a half century, and gives us meaningful perspective.

I ask us to pause at the beginning of this Jewish New Year, as Jewish Americans, because the tumultuous year of 1968 raises questions about tumultuous America today for all her citizens.

Questions that continue to challenge and haunt us ethically and spiritually. Indeed, the legacy of America a half century ago, the legacy of the 60’s in general and 1968 in particular, is so provocative and complex that I realized in composing my thoughts that I would need to do so in two parts. I share Part One this evening and Part Two tomorrow morning.

The year 1968 became a potent symbol for the decade as a whole.
Jonathan Darman wrote an article about it, under the title of, "The Year That Made Us Who We Are". He argues that three critical questions emerge from that period that remain front and center in our national consciousness (or should be):

1. If Vietnam taught us to be a humble superpower, why are we still bogged down in wars?

2. If the civil rights movement truly transformed America, why is racism still so potent and why are our cities still so segregated?

3. If the feminist movement liberated women, why do women still struggle, especially in the workplace?

These questions are vital to a truly meaningful debate about America. Darman contends that, whatever the excesses of the decade may have been, the 60’s were “an era when a generation held sustained arguments over the things that have always mattered most.” How we need to elevate our national discourse to talk about the things that matter most. How we need, in 2018, to be having “a sustained argument” over the questions that have not gone away:

1. How should America project its power to the world?

2. How should America overcome its racial and ethnic divisions?

3. How should America address its economic and gender inequality?

In the space of this first sermon I can do little more than raise these most basic questions and begin a response by defining a direction, an orientation of the national soul, as it were, to what I believe matters most. This direction is suggested to me as an American, by our history, and as a Jew, by our heritage. An interweaving, if you will, of the best impulses of our national experience, with the highest teachings of our religious tradition.

After the Second World War our country sensed that only by lending a hand to rebuild a damaged world could the seeds of peace be sown. The Marshall Plan, the United Nations, the Peace Corps were these seeds. Then, and now, threats to peace were real. The Cold War tragically bequeathed us Vietnam. The War on Terrorism tragically bequeathed us Afghanistan and Iraq. The true cost of these wars is still being reckoned.

After the Second World War our country also sensed that by giving equal educational, political and economic opportunity to all its citizens could the seeds of social harmony be sown. The GI Bill (which gave my father his education), the expansion of the public university system, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, and Title Nine were these seeds. These seeds promised us a glimpse of a Great Society. The torch had been passed to a new generation willing to dream a great dream.

Can we, as one nation, dream those dreams again? Can we nurture the seeds whose tender shoots seem stunted and withered? Can we recover from the shattering events of a generation ago, and an election ago, to pursue the Great Society?

I imagine that if King, who would be turning 90 this year like my father, could be with us, he would be saying:

In my time there was a war going on, and in your time there are wars going on. Stand up for justice!

In my time there was poverty amid plenty, and in your time there is rising sea of economic inequality. Stand up for justice!

In my time there was de jure segregation throughout the land, and in your time there is de facto segregation throughout the land. Stand up for justice!

Can we dream of an America where #black lives matter is self-evident?

Where #me too is a relic?

Where #march for our lives is behind us?

Can we dream of an America not of high walls, but open doors?

Not of zero tolerance but maximum compassion?

Not of perks for the rich but prosperity for the poor?

Not of corporate deregulation but environmental protection?

Can we dream of an America where we can have an extended, civil discourse on the issues that matter most?

Can we dream of an America that we are proud to bequeath to our children?

More, as promised, tomorrow... I’m just getting started! For now, I conclude with a final image from 1968. It should come as no surprise to those of you who know me as a space buff. As the tumultuous and nation-searing year of 1968 drew to a close… in the predawn darkness of December 21, three men boarded a spacecraft atop a giant Saturn V rocket at Cape Canaveral. At 10:41 Eastern Standard Time, Apollo 8 broke free from Earth’s orbit. Humanity had slipped the bonds of Earth for the first time.

Early on the morning of the 24th Apollo 8 entered the moon’s gravitational field. Soon after, Jim Lovell maneuvered the spacecraft into lunar orbit, and a first look at the cratered lunar surface 70 miles below. Lovell remembers, “As we kept going, suddenly on the lunar horizon, coming up, was Earth. The moon is nothing but shades of gray and darkness. But the earth-you could see the deep blue of the seas, the whites of the clouds, the salmon pink and brown of the land masses.”

On Christmas Eve, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and Bill Anders radioed a message to Earth, with a billion people listening in. This was their message:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.
Borman ended with verse 10:
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering of the waters he called seas; and God saw that it was good.

When Apollo 8 returned safely to Earth, thousands of people sent the three astronauts the same message. “Thank you for saving 1968.” Jim Lovell still looks up at the moon and remembers the moment. “When you see Earth from the moon,” he says, “you realize how fragile it is and just how limited the resources are. We’re all astronauts on this spaceship Earth… we have to work together.”

My friends; it is Yom Kippur. A new year is upon us. A new day is dawning. God sees the light. And so do we. And it is good.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779




The year was 1871. Ulysses S. Grant was president. The Civil War had ended just 5 years before. The great Chicago Fire killed 300 and left 100,000 homeless. The first major league baseball game was played on May 4th and the first home run was hit on May 8th. Across the pond, Queen Victoria ruled England. Lord Stanley located a missing explorer in Africa and greeted him with the words, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume."

In Hoboken, a group of German Jews founded a congregation that they called Adas Emuno—the assembly of the faithful. Twelve years later, in 1883, they built a synagogue; a Gothic Revival building that still stands today and which the Hoboken Evening News called "a credit to the city". We have a yad, a Torah pointer, from that dedication that is kept right behind me in our Ark; and we still read from the Torah with the help of this 135-year-old yad

While most of our congregational records have been lost over the decades, the original minutes from our first years survive. They were hand written in German, in an old style few people can read today. But one person who can is our very own Kurt Roberg, whom many of you know. Kurt, a refugee from Nazi Germany, with a remarkable story that he has written a book about—and possibly our most senior member at age 94has been reading and transcribing those minutes.

At the first Annual Meeting of the congregation on Sunday, Oct. 20, 1872, the president praised the generosity of the members in acquiring a Torah and other sacred objects, of raising some $1385 against total expenses of $1088 for a cash-on-hand balance of $297. Two weddings were held that year, and two b’nai mitzvah. Two funerals were also held that year, the latter writes the president "for my little son." The president concludes his address to the congregation at the first annual meeting by saying, "I have now given you an overview of everything that concerns our congregation, and even though there are some things that we still wish to accomplish, we may be proud of the advances we made in one year. Don’t hesitate to sacrifice whether time or money to complete the task we have begun."

By the 1890s the congregation had tripled to a hundred families. The flourishing community included a religious school, a choir, and a benevolent association to aid the poor called the Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society. At the turn of the century a Hanukkah menorah was dedicated to the congregation on December 13, 1900. Our 118 year old menorah is right here and we still light it every year.

On May 27, 1917, a teen named Esther Cohn was confirmed at the Temple. She must have misplaced her Confirmation Certificate because I found it behind some books in our vestry room a few years ago. It was signed by the rabbi, Moses Eckstein. and by the president, Samuel Neuberger. Evidently, each student picked a "motto" for their certificate. Esther chose a verse from the 23rd Psalm, "I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." A hundred years later we still have a Confirmation Class, and each year I ask my students to pick a verse for their Confirmation essay.

Records grow scant as the 20th century progressed. We do know that in 1919 dues were set at $30 a year. They rose to $45 by 1924. But High Holy Day seats were extra, and the ones closest to the bimah cost another $15. We no longer sell seats. On October 4th, 1951, Milton Neuman, who was chair of the Eightieth Anniversary Committee of the congregation, received a congratulatory letter from President Harry Truman. I have a copy of that letter here. It reads, "Dear Mr. Neuman…." Milton Neuman’s nephew, Michael Levy, is an active third generation member of the congregation. His parents and grandparents were members, and two of his grandchildren became b’nai mitzvah here.

Every time we enter this synagogue, which became our home only after a century in Hoboken, we are reminded of our origins. We pass the dedication plaque at our entrance to the left most often without noticing it. Then we enter the sanctuary and see the memorial plaques from our original building. The names of our predecessors and their loved ones are not forgotten.

We are now just three years away from what our past president, Lance Strate, reminds us is our sesquicentennial. We will soon need to think about what kind of birthday party we will throw for our 150th . But I am not a party planner; I’ll leave that to others. However, I do want to weigh in with a suggestion, a big one, for our coming milestone.

Let me introduce this suggestion with a treasured story from our tradition. The Talmud records the life of an unusual and remarkable sage in ancient Israel named Honi the Circle Maker. Nobody knows why he received that name, but he is said to have gone around the land of Israel planting carob trees, a Jewish Johnny Appleseed, if you will. When asked why he took upon himself such an adventure, Honi responded that one day when he was still a young man he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Honi said, "Old man, why are you planting that tree. Don’t you know that it takes a carob tree seventy years to bear fruit?" The man paused, looked up at him, and said, "Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children."

That piece of wisdom changed Honi’s life. And it just might change ours. If we embrace the realization that we are not here solely for ourselves; if we stand in gratitude for what those before us have done for us and decide to pay it forward to the next generation.

When the founders first established this congregation in Hoboken, they were thinking about the next generation of Jewish life beyond New York. They were thinking about their children who would grow up in the new world, and speak English. They were thinking about the next generation when they established a religious school and and a youth group.

When the leaders of Adas Emuno made the difficult decision to move to Leonia, they were thinking about the next generation as well. They were thinking about how Jewish life was now growing beyond the first tier suburbs to the promising frontier of Bergen County. They knew that Congregation Adas Emuno was never big or rich and might not survive the move. But they also knew that Adas Emuno was a dedicated and down-to-earth assembly of the faithful. I call us "the little engine that could." We keep chugging along, even as larger congregations have come and gone.

So what does it mean for us to now think about our next generation? Let’s be honest. Our numbers are diminishing. The demographic tide in our little corner of the world is turning against us. Leonia is a community in transition. The largest group of students in our school district is Asian American. Jewish Americans are now statistically negligible. In this regard we are following in the footsteps of our neighbor Palisades Park and other nearby communities. It has been almost a decade since the only other synagogue in our community, Congregation Sons of Israel, closed its doors. To keep our doors open we will need help.

We are certainly grateful for young families that have recently joined our ranks, primarily from Fort Lee and Weehawken. They have sought out a progressive, inclusive Reform Jewish community. They have sought out a congregation that welcomes interfaith households and blended families. They have sought out a congregation that is haimish and humble. That is who we are. We still have a place; we still serve a need; we still fulfill our mission. 

But with diminished numbers, beyond a vigorous outreach effort, we will need another kind of help as well. Declines in membership means we will be even more dependent on non-dues income to stay afloat. Our congregation has always done a relatively good job of living within our means; compared to other places our expenses are very low. Up until now we have largely avoided ruinous deficits without the benefit of appreciable reserves. Up until now.

Congregation Adas Emuno needs and deserves a Heritage Fund. Living on the frontier of sweeping changes to Jewish life, it is now time to think about how we will secure the next generation of Jewish life given the realities of our future.

With the approval and support of our Board of Trustees, I am calling upon our congregation to formally establish a $150,000 Campaign for our 150th anniversary. By synagogue standards that is a modest goal that befits a small congregation. We hope it is more than attainable. Over the coming year we will speak to you about two ways you can make a pledge to our 150th Anniversary Fund. The first is an outright contribution, over a maximum of three years. For some of our older individuals, required minimum distributions from IRA accounts might be the ideal way to do this. For others it might be a charitable trust, appreciated securities, or an old-fashioned check. The other way of pledging is through a bequest. How fitting to remember our synagogue in our estate planning.

Mark Rosenberg and I are co-chairing this campaign. As Harry Truman said, "the buck stops with us." Or you might say, "the buck starts with us." Mark and Michelle have pledged $10,000 to this campaign. Debby and I are doing the same. We hope that above and beyond your support of this synagogue through dues, above and beyond your support of this synagogue through our annual appeal and other fundraisers, you will consider a generous contribution or bequest to Adas Emuno’s 150th Anniversary Fund. It will not be used for our operating budget at all, but as I mentioned, for the building of our reserves to be tapped only by decision of the full board.

And we will not be launching another heritage campaign like this for at least fifty years, until our bicentennial, in 2071.

Permit me to conclude with an understandable question. It is natural to ask: Why should I contribute to this synagogue campaign if I myself may not be here? Why plant this tree if I may not eat of its fruits? Long ago a sage in ancient Israel heard an answer that changed his life. Long ago a group of German Jewish immigrants thought about the next generation in America, their new promised land.

“Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children.”

So may it be.

Sunday, August 5, 2018


This past Friday both Rabbi Schwartz and Cantor Horowitz were out of town, so for the first time in four years we had lay led services. And in response to requests, I promised I would share my D'var Torah here on our congregational blog:

Parsha Eikev

This week's Torah reading is the third from the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. The name Deuteronomy come from the Greek, meaning Second Law, because it follows the first set of laws in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, repeating and expanding upon them, including a slightly altered version of the Ten Commandments. But the Hebrew name for the fifth book of Moses is Devarim, which means Words. So if we want to use this book's real name, not the ancient equivalent of its Ellis Island name, we would refer to it as the Book of Words.

In ancient times, books did not have titles, but were known by the first few key terms of the text, and Devarim begins with, "These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan." Taken together, the literal translation of the Hebrew names of the five books of the Torah are 

  • In the Beginning (Genesis)
  • Names (Exodus)
  • And He Called (Leviticus)
  • In the Dessert (Numbers) and
  • Words (Deuteronomy).

I want to point out that the names of three out of the five books refer to forms of communication: Names, And He Called, and Words. And I think it only fitting that the final summation of the Torah is the Book of Words. After all, In the Beginning, God begins the labor of Creation with words, with the speech act, Yehi Or, Let there be light. And it is through God's command, in the form of words, that light is first created.

The first thing we learn about God is that God uses words. And what else could it mean when it says that God creates the first human being in God's own likeness? Not that we look like God, because God cannot be seen. But God can be heard, human beings can hear God's voice calling to them, and we are like God in being given the gift of words. It follows that the first thing that Adam does after he is created by God, the first assignment given to him by God, is to name all the animals.

God speaks to Adam and Eve, to Cain and Noah, to Abraham and Moses. The first set of stone tablets containing God's commandments, the stone tablets that Moses shattered when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw his people worshiping the golden calf, were written by God, inscribed by the finger of God according to the Torah. The second set of tablets were not written directly by God. They were only dictated by God to Moses. Moses was then acting in the likeness of God in writing down God's Law.

The first prohibition in the Ten Commandments is against worshiping other gods, and the second is against making graven images, making any likeness of anything that exists on earth, in the waters, or in the heavens. This commandment is linked to the prohibition against the worship of false gods, and idolatry, and throughout the Torah and Tanach we find a polemic against idol worship.

But the prohibition against images goes beyond their worship; it extends to their creation. Why else would this be, except for the fact that images compete with words for our attention. Images compete with words as ways of representing our world. Images help us to visualize, and visualizing is a mental activity that we have in common with animals. Words, on the other hand, give us uniquely human tools for thought.

It is worth recalling the story of Helen Keller, who lost both her sight and her hearing when she was only 19 months old, and was unable to communicate as a young child. She only learned language through the dedication of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who used a method of spelling words through the sense of touch. Keller learned the method, but for a long time didn't understand the meaning of the words, didn't understand that they represented the names of things in her environment. The breakthrough came on April 5th, 1887, when Sullivan took the then seven-year-old to a water pump. As Helen Keller described the event in her autobiography:

As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

Words unleash our human potential, and beyond learning the name for that wonderful cool something she experienced in that moment, she would learn that that same word represents the liquid we drink from a glass, and bathe in, that falls from the sky, that fills ponds, lakes, rivers, and oceans, and that turns to snow and ice when the temperature drops. The concept of water in general, as a category that includes a wide variety of experiences and phenomena, is impossible to convey in an image, a likeness.

The same is true for rules, for laws, for commandments, because they are generalizations. An image can depict a specific incident in which a theft occurs, but it cannot portray the abstract idea that it is wrong to steal the property of others. And consider the fact that so many of our laws and commandments are prohibitions, rules that say, you shall not do something, shall not engage in a particular activity. There is no way to produce a likeness of the concept of not, or no, or negation. There is no likeness of the number zero, no image that resembles the absence of something. These are all abstract concepts, as is the idea of one God who cannot be seen, who is not tied to a particular location, who is everywhere, all-powerful, all-knowing.

The prohibition against image-thinking is an effort to get us to use our words, and thereby to engage our higher mental functions, to expand our intellectual capacities, to open the door to more abstract thought, and thereby to accept a new form of religion based on monotheism, and the pursuit of justice through the rule of law.

So we destroyed our idols and replaced them with Torah scrolls, rejected the image and embraced the word. And we were among the Semitic peoples who developed the first form of alphabetic writing in the ancient world, and used the aleph-bet to construct the first fully formed legal code, to develop a higher form of ethics than had ever been known, to revolutionize the conception of the sacred and the divine, and to compose the first form of historical narrative. We became the first people of the book, but we remained people of the ear, not the eye.

When the ancient Greeks adopted the alphabet and adapted it to their culture, they placed an emphasis on the visual. And that emphasis became one of the primary characteristics of western civilization. Most of our figures of speech that employ visual metaphors come from ancient Greece, so when we talk or write about our thought processes and ways of knowing, we say things like, the way that I look at things, the way that I see it, from my perspective, from my point of view, this peculiar way of talking about our mental processes comes from the ancient Greeks. And so, we talk about a process of reflection, observation, about self-image, about having vision, foresight, hindsight, and insight, or about being blind . From image we get the word imagination, and the etymological root of the word idea come from the Greek verb for to see, the same root as video. We speak of in the first place, the second place, and third place, and I don't know about you, but I've never been able to visit these places, or find them on the map. Even the word topic comes from the Greek word for place, the same root as topography, topology, and topiary.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his discussion of this week's parsha, makes note of this disparity, and writes:

Judaism, by contrast, is a culture of the ear more than the eye. As Rabbi David Cohen, the disciple of Rav Kook known as 'the Nazirite', pointed out in his book, Kol ha-Nevuah, the Babylonian Talmud consistently uses the metaphor of hearing. So when a proof is brought, it says Ta shma, 'Come and hear.' When it speaks of inference it says, Shema mina, 'Hear from this.' When someone disagrees with an argument, it says Lo shemiyah leih, 'he could not hear it.' When it draws a conclusion it says, Mashma, 'from this it can be heard.' Maimonides calls the oral tradition, Mipi hashemua, 'from the mouth of that which was heard.' In Western culture understanding is a form of seeing. In Judaism it is a form of listening.

The Hebrew word shema, so familiar to us as the beginning of the watchword of our faith, is root of all these terms, and as Rabbi Sacks relates,

Shema is one of the key words of the book of Devarim, where it appears no less than 92 times. It is, in fact, one of the key words of Judaism as a whole. It is central to the two passages that form the first two paragraphs of the prayer we call the Shema, one in last week’s parsha, the other in this week’s.

And he goes on to explain,

At the most basic level, Shema represents that aspect of Judaism that was most radical in its day: that God cannot be seen. He can only be heard. Time and again Moses warns against making or worshipping any physical representation of the Divine. As he tells the people: It is a theme that runs through the Bible. Moses insistently reminds the people that at Mount Sinai: “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12).

Our embrace of the ear over the eye is fundamental to our tradition and identity as Jews. When we recite the Shema and our other prayers, we do so as a community, a congregation, together as one. This is true whenever we sing together, or chant, or recite, or even when we listen. But when we read in silence, even if we all are reading the same passage at the same time, we become individuals, separated and isolated from one another.

When we read from the Torah, we read it out loud. It is meant to be heard. And most of our prayers are said out loud, and are composed in the first person plural, not singular. We mostly pray as a collective, as we, as us, not as I and me. On Yom Kippur, we atone for our sins together, not just individually, taking responsibility for our families, communities, nations, for our people and for humanity as a whole. It is no accident that the word audience is a singular noun, while the word readers we all know to be plural.

We do acknowledge the importance of the individual and the role of individuality, the uniqueness of every single person. The idea of law introduced to the world the idea of equality before the law, equality as individuals. But our tradition does not go overboard in emphasizing individualism, not the way that western culture as a whole has, and American culture in particular, to the detriment of our sense of community. 

The fact that Jewish culture remained a culture of the ear is reflected in the sometimes half-serious way that we refer to ourselves as the tribe, as members of the tribe. We did not, in fact, sever all connection to the tribal way of life, as literate and urbane as we have become. In this sense, we remain connected to one another, we remain in touch with one another.

When Helen Keller was asked, if she had a choice, would she rather be blind or deaf, she answered blind, because people are kinder to individuals who have lost their sight. Without vision, we still remain connected to other people, through conversation, through speech and hearing. When we lose our ability to listen, we become isolated not only from an entire dimension of our environment, but more painfully, from one another.

Vision distances us from our world, leads us to treat the objects in our environment as things, and to objectify other people as well. It places us in what Martin Buber referred to as I-It relationships, in contrast to the I-You relationships that are associated with being in dialogue with others, with responding to others as persons just like ourselves, others
who experience the same kind of subjectivity as our own, with empathy.

This distinction also informs our tradition of written law, of what is expected of us in response to God's commandments. Rabbi Sacks explains that the word shema is actually untranslatable. Yes, we translate the prayer as Hear O Israel, but that is only one possible way to render it in English. As he explains,

It means many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise and to respond. It is the closest biblical Hebrew comes to a verb that means “to obey.”

Rabbi Sacks later goes on to explain,

What Moses is telling us throughout Devarim is that God does not seek blind obedience. The fact that there is no word for ‘obedience’ in biblical Hebrew, in a religion of 613 commands, is stunning in itself (modern Hebrew had to borrow a verb, letzayet, from Aramaic). He wants us to listen, not just with our ears but with the deepest resources of our minds.

According to Rabbi Sacks, when Moses says in this week's parsha, "If you indeed heed my commandments which I charge you today, to love Adonai your God and worship him with all your heart and all your soul" (Deut. 11:13), what he is essentially saying is, "If you listen—and I mean really listen."

Listening for that still, small voice that in our tradition comes from God, and listening to each other, has become increasingly more challenging when we are surrounded by so much noise. There is the noise pollution from traffic, and trains, and airplanes and helicopters, and the sounds of construction and machinery. There is the noise that comes from radio and television, from our smart phones and tablets, and all of our devices and gadgets. And there is the noise we generate ourselves, when we talk at each other, shout at each other, and refuse to listen to each other.

In this last great speech that Moses delivers to the children of Israel in the Book of Words, he asks us to listen, and to remember what we have heard. It is not enough to write things down, to record them in a book. Written records are not memory. Memory is not a thing, not an object, it is an action, an act of remembering. And the most powerful way to perform this act, to remember, is to remember not alone but with others, to remember together. The most powerful form of memory is commemoration. We remember together when we speak, when say it out loud, when we tell our stories.

Stories help us to remember. They take a bunch of isolated events and bring them together, connect them to give them form, organize them and put them in some kind of order, and help us make sense by providing a coherent framework for what may otherwise seem like the random chaos of life. And so Moses tells the Israelites the story of what they have  already experienced, what they already know, the events of their lives. He takes their experiences, and turns them into a story. He does so, so that they can continue to remember those events, to retell them, and keep them alive. The story he tells them is the story we continue to tell to ourselves, and our children. It is the story of God's signs and wonders, God's mighty hand and outstretched arm, and above all God's words, bestowed upon a humble people, nomads and slaves, a people often ungrateful, disobedient, and sinful. A people whose only redeeming quality is the capacity, sometimes, to use our words, to speak, to read and write, to tell stories, and to listen.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Visiting Our Peace Garden

On the hottest day of the year, a visitor sought refuge in our peace garden. 

Photo courtesy of Rabbi Schwartz.