Revering the Ancient Text, But...

May 17th: Emor
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

While there are portion of Leviticus intended for the general population, much of it seems to be a handbook for the Kohanim, the priests whose modern day descendants no longer function in the ancient ritual roles. There are some Jews who still pray every day for the restorations of the Temple and the sacrificial cult, but most modern Jews view this whole priestly/sacrificial system as a thing of the past. Sometimes, we can draw metaphorical or allegorical lessons from the rules, but sometimes, the ancient sensibilities are most troubling to consider.

 A particularly problematic passage comes in Leviticus 21.16-23:
“The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes…He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them.”

 What are we to do with such a passage? Etz Hayim, the Torah with Commentary we use in our sanctuary, usually endeavors to put a positive spin on whatever ancient ideas our ancestors recorded in the Torah. However, it pretty much throws up its hands on this one:
“The reader may be troubled by these rules disqualifying physically handicapped kohanim from officiating in public. Perhaps their disfigurements would distract the worshippers from concentrating on the ritual and, like the offering of the blemished animal, would compromise the sanctuary’s image as a place of perfection reflecting God’s perfection (cf. Lev. 22:21-25, where similar language is used for the animals brought to the altar.) In later texts, in the Psalms and the prophets, the Bible emphasizes that the broken in body and spirit, because they have been cured of the sin of arrogance, are specially welcome before God. ‘True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.’ (Psalm 51.19)

 Today we might well consider the religious institution that is willing to admit its own imperfections and is willing to engage physically handicapped spiritual leaders as being better able to welcome worshippers who are painfully aware of their own physical or emotional imperfections. Many congregations have made special efforts to provide access for the handicapped.”

As a Conservative commentary, it just cannot seem to bring itself to reject this attitude as prejudiced baggage from our ancient past. And, yes, there is this notion of bringing only the best before the Lord: perfect lambs and calves and even doves, the best flour, the best oil, the best wine. To offer anything less would be to lessen one’s respect for God, and, if one believes in God and God’s power, such a strategy is not to be encouraged. However, do we extend this sense of perfection to people?

I would address this in two ways. First, we are fortunate not to have to deal with this perfection mentality of the ancient Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial cult was no longer functioning, Rabbinic Judaism was relieved of some of the Biblical sensibilities and was able to craft a prayer system that was more focused on sincerity and piety than strict adherence to public performance details. One can see an interesting dynamic in the development of Rabbinic Judaism as it follows a dual path: praising and rarifying the ancient priestly system, while crafting a very different kind of heart and head oriented Jewish religion.

Second, we must realize that our ancient ancestors shared many of the prejudices and misunderstandings that have plagued humanity for millennia. While they experienced moments of spiritual grandeur and profound wisdom, they were people of their times and places, and only some of the things they recorded and taught are of the highest level. Others are mired in the lack of understanding out of which humanity is still trying to grow. Let us not forget, we who are habituated to the idea of giving equal respect and granting equal access to persons with disabilities, that it has taken a long, long, long time for society to look at less than perfect bodies and see the image of God inside. The Americans with Disabilities Act was only passed in 1990, and there are still many areas of contention or adjustment. It seems to me that we can accept the real wisdom of our ancestors while disagreeing with their prejudices or misunderstandings. We can revere our ancient texts without accepting everything.  


Speaking of the development of Judaism—from Biblical to Rabbinic and to modern, there is a very curious passage in Leviticus 22. In the continuing discussion of priestly purification, we have the introduction of a word commonly used in Kashrut conversations: trayfah or trafe. In modern Jewish discussions, trafe means anything that is not kosher, but, in the Torah, it specifically means something that was not slaughtered in a kosher manner. In verse 8, we read: “He shall not eat anything that died (n’velah) on its own or was torn by beasts (t’rayfah), thereby becoming impure.” The context is clearly a discussion of priestly purity for priests—for priests and not for regular Israelites. It is theorized that this as well as all the other Biblical kashrut laws were intended only for the priests as a part of their special status—and not applicable to regular people. Indeed, as one plots the development of Rabbinic Judaism from its origins in the Bible, there seems to be a pattern of adapting priestly practices for non-priests. The Rabbis did not want to supplant the priesthood—which was still in existence and operating for some 150 years of Rabbinic Judaism ((200 BCE-70 CE), but they sought to give regular Jews a sense of holiness and closeness to God. Hence, regular Jews have sacral clothing, special “priestly” rules for food, and even daily prayers that coincide (coincided) with the sacrifices offered in the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.

In so many ways, Rabbinic Judaism improved on the religion of the Bible, keeping much of what was profound and innovating new and better ways of accessing God.



Being Nice to Our People

May 10th: Kedoshim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of my favorite politically-incorrect jokes tells of the Lone Ranger and Tonto fighting a band of marauding Indians. They fight and fight and are finally boxed in a canyon with just a few bullets left. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and asks, “What do you think we ought to do?” Tonto turns to the Lone Ranger and replies, “What mean we, Kimosabe?”

There are all kinds of bonds of friendship and kinship, and, within these bonds, there is supposed to be affection, camaraderie, and loyalty. However, sometimes the borders of affiliation shift unexpectedly, and loyalty and the sense of connection are less than certain.

For Jews, this has been a historical nightmare. In far too many places, everything was fine until it wasn’t. Consider Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a loyal and highly-placed officer in the French military. He was a well-regarded Frenchman until charges of treason were concocted against him, and then he and every other French Jew were considered foreigners and traitors. It was similar in Atlanta around 100 years ago, when Leo Frank, “a New York Jew” (who was actually from Texas) was accused of murdering a young girl in the factory he managed. Up until then, he was a prominent citizen—as were hundreds of the German Jewish citizens of Atlanta. But, suddenly, the public mood shifted rapidly: “He isn’t one of us!”  The anti-Jewish mood in Atlanta got so bad that many families sent their women and children away for extended “vacations.”  (For an excellent and emotionally tortuous expression of this dynamic, give a listen to Alfred Uhry’s Parade, an opera based on the trial and lynching of Leo Frank.)

 Within the Jewish community, a similar dynamic is often at play. We can become very compartmentalized, favoring our kind of Jews and treating those kinds of Jews with less than respect. It is most notable among the Hassidim and Haredim in places like Brooklyn and Mea Shearim, but even we Reform and Conservative Jews can slip into the intra-Jewish xenophobia:
“They’re not like us.”

The relevance to our Torah portion comes with the question of how far and to whom do we extend the hand of fairness and charity. Kedoshim is the Torah portion with the Golden Rule and all sorts of other good and kind and fair mitzvot:
“When you harvest your crops or vineyards…leave some for the poor and the stranger.”
“You shall not steal or deal deceitfully with one another.”
“You shall not defraud your fellow.”
“Judge your kinsmen fairly.”
“Do not deal basely with your countrymen.”
“Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.”
“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.”
“Reprove your kinsman so that you do not incur guilt because of him.”
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen.”
“Love your fellow as yourself.”
(All from Leviticus 19.9-19)

These words, “kinsman, kinsfolk, neighbor, and fellow,” are translations of the Hebrew words, Amecha (your people), Amitecha (a member of your people), Achicha (your brother), and Re’echa (your neighbor). All indicate a closeness and sense of community or loyalty. How far, however, do we spread the borders of acceptance?

Traditionally, much of our liturgy was self-concerned: we prayed for the welfare of the Jewish people, we who were often attacked by the outsiders. There have always been universalistic passages in our prayers, but often our concern was for Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. In modern times, our consideration has expanded, and many modern liturgists have added terms that included others in more of our prayers. Two examples come from the Sabbath Amidah.

 In Siddur Hadash, the red prayer book we often use on Saturday mornings, the editor, Rabbi Sydney Greenberg, z’l, adds a word to Sim Shalom. The traditional version reads,
Sim shalom, tovah, uv’racha, chen, vachesed, verachamim alaynu v’al kol Yisrael amecha. Grant peace, goodness, and blessing, graciousness, and kindness, and mercy to us and to all Israel, Your people.” Greenberg adds the word ba’olam / in the world to the first phrase, adding to our prayer the whole world: “Grant peace, goodness and blessing to the world; graciousness, kindness, and mercy to us and to all Your people Israel.”

In Siddur B’rit Shalom, our congregational (purple) prayer book, we follow some modern liturgists in adding a universalistic element to Shalom Rav. Traditionally, the prayer asks: “Shalom rav al Yisrael amcha tasim l’olam. Grant abundant and everlasting peace upon Israel Your people.” However, based on the philosophical position voiced, among others, by the Prophet Amos in this week’s Haftarah, we have added “V’al kol ha’amim. And to all peoples.”

Some other modern liturgists have alternative universalistic phrasings. Some use “V’al kol yir’ay Sh’mecha. And upon all who revere Your name,” while others prefer “V’al kol yosh’vay tevel. And all who dwell on earth.” An amusing issue comes up when the popular tunes for the prayers were written before the additional universalistic phrases, and we have to change the tune or sing the older particularistic version.

Let me conclude with the words of the Prophet Amos, who reminds us that, as special as we are, so is everyone else! “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but I also brought the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir.” (Amos 9.7)

God loves us all, and, though we may feel a special kinship with some humans, we are reminded to be menschen to everyone.


Imitating the Gentiles?

May 3rd: Achare Mot
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

A passage in this week’s Torah portion sets the stage for some very interesting arguments in Jewish history. In Leviticus 18.2, we read: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God.”

Since a list of prohibited sexual relationships (various forms of incest) follows this general rule, the passage may have been meant as an introduction: do not behave sexually the way the Egyptians do. However, our Tradition has expanded this principle and used it in evaluating a number of other “non-Jewish” customs or practices. The philosophical approach is that the ways of our corrupt and immoral neighbors are dangerous to our holiness, while our ways of doing things are moral and holy. We may doubt whether this is actually the case—or whether it was ever the case with all of our neighbors, but our Tradition’s focus on our holiness has always been suspicious of the polytheism, idolatry, and moral quality of our non-Jewish neighbors. What do we think? Are all “non-Jewish” behaviors and practices immoral and unholy? Or, are some okay? What is it that makes a “non-Jewish” practice or custom anathema to Jewish values or religion? Is it possible for Jews to adopt some “non-Jewish” practices and customs and not deviate from God’s laws?

A possible early example is the verse that prohibits “boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.” Found more than once in the Torah (Exodus 23.19, Exodus 34.26, and Deuteronomy 14.21), this is the verse upon which Kashrut’s separation of meat and dairy is based. Though later commentators speak to the perverse cruelty of using the life-giving fluid as a means of cooking a young animal, we really do not know why the command was given in the first place. Some 20th Century archeological finds, however, may give us a clue. One Canaanite ritual describes literally boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. So, could the Biblical passage be a prohibition of Canaanite religion, ala “You shall not copy the practices of the….Land of Canaan?”

Similar reasoning could be the basis of the prohibition of male homosexuality (Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13). No reason is given for the ban, but Canaanite religion featured a number of sexual rituals. Is the problem, in Biblical thinking, with homosexuality itself or with the fact that it was part of Canaanite polytheistic and idolatrous religion?

There are lots and lots of examples in the Talmud, but I shall just mention my favorite: a discussion banning Roman-style sandals with cleats. For some reason, for some of the ancient Sages, this Roman fashion crossed the line of Jewish acceptability.

In our own day, one of the places we see the controversy is at funerals where “non-Jewish” customs—like flower arrangements—are often attempted. To my knowledge, there is no Christological meaning associated with flowers, but many Jews feel a firm religious conviction that there is something seriously “non-Jewish” or “anti-Judaism” about them. Some believe that the original use of flowers was to cover the odor of a decomposing body—something only necessary in religions where burial is delayed for several days. But, are the flowers themselves religious symbols? And, if the modern meaning is to soften the sadness and express care for the mourners, why is this a religious problem for Jews?

We face the same concerns with other “non-Jewish” funeral practices: cremation, donating remains to medical schools, embalming and public viewing. Though not what we now consider “traditional,” are they “anti-Jewish” and to be rejected? I look at them as non-religious practices—and compare them to other non-religious things that Christians do. If Christians wear coats in the winter, does that mean that we should not?

We could ask, in similar fashion, about spiritual practices from other faith traditions? Is yoga a Hindu (idolatrous) religious practice, or is it a form of exercise in which a Jew can participate safely? What about Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation? Is it part of Hindu or Buddhist spirituality and therefore “against” Jewish values or practice? Or, is it a meditative technique that is religiously neutral—and safe for Jews? We may draw the line at reciting The Lord’s Prayer or offering a sacrifice to Ganesh, but, if a practice from other religion is non-religious, what makes it appropriate or inappropriate for a Jew to use or practice it?

Many of the modern reforms in Judaism were taken from Christian worship practices: clerical robes, pipe organs, and even prayer leaders facing the congregation. Are they therefore non-Jewish or against Judaism’s spiritual culture? What about other, more benign strategies of modernization? Back in the mid-1800s, Orthodox Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer was a controversial figure because he tried to bring Orthodox Jews into the modern world. He established a school that taught both boys and girls, used proper German (not Yiddish), and included non-Jewish subjects—his goal being to have his religiously Orthodox students ready to participate in the modern world. He also advocated modern clothing—which meant short suit coats for men, as opposed to the long, below-the-knees coats Jewish men had worn for centuries. He had many supporters, but ultimately, he was censured by the Orthodox authorities and, under pressure from them, the Hungarian government closed his school. In 1860, the Orthodox zealot Yosef Schlesinger excommunicated Hildesheimer, declaring him “not truly a sincere Jew.” The ban was not universally accepted, but these episodes from just 150 years ago show how far we can take the prohibition of imitating the ways of the Gentiles.


We who believe that it is possible to be authentically Jewish and fully modern have an interesting tightrope to walk. Both are good goals, but sometimes we have to negotiate the meanings and implications of “modern” and “non-Jewish” practices. There is no sure-fire way to decide, but Jewish education, continuing thoughtfulness, and creative adaptability are good tools for us to use.



Passover Lessons: Responsibility, Humility, and Patience

April 26th: Conclusion of Passover
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the many Torah portions for Passover features the actual departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt, where they turn into the desert and cross the Red Sea on dry land. It is a story that is full of drama and wisdom, and we Jews are bidden to pay attention to the story—over and over and over again—to find whatever gems of insight God has imbedded in it.

Though miracles are a big part of the Exodus story—what, with the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Red Sea, the Tradition has some ambivalence about God’s miraculous intervention. On the one hand, we believe in miracles, and we hope for miraculous relief from tragedy and injustice. On the other hand, we should be reticent putting all of our energies into hoping and waiting for miracles. We have the responsibility of solving our own problems. As a result, whenever the Torah speaks of miracles, some rabbis in the Midrash modify the narrative to reflect the participation of humans. One of my favorite Midrashim (found in Sotah in the Babylonian Talmud, Bemidbar Rabba, and our prayer book on page 38) tells the story of Nachshon son of Aminadab and how his faith helped split the sea. The entre’ of the Midrash is a koshi in the wording: How people could walk into the sea (meaning the water of the sea) on dry ground? Either it’s water, or it’s dry land. One ancient Rabbi resolved this conflict with a scenario in which Nachshon leads the people into the water before the waters split. Thus is the phrase “into the sea on dry land” a sequence: into the sea/water; then the miracle and dry land. The miracle only works when faithful humans do their part.

Another Midrash speaks of the Israelites earning their redemption by remaining Jewish during the 400 years of slavery. Rabbi Eliezer haKappar, whose opinion is recorded in the Mekhilta, taught that Israel merited redemption from Egypt by keeping alive their Jewish Identity and morality: ““Did not Israel possess/observe four mitzvot while they were in Egypt? They were sexually pure. They did not gossip. That they did not change their names—kept using Hebrew names. They did not change their language—kept speaking Hebrew.” Though there are other implications of this Midrash, it is also part of the ethic that we have a part to play in our own redemption.

What about the negative side of the miracles? Is there any human agency is drawing God’s wrath? Consider an interesting passage in Exodus 14, where the Egyptians find themselves in the middle of the Red Sea. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their horsemen.’ Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach.” In the Hebrew for the last phrase, “Umitz’rayim nasim lik’ra’to,” another interpretation is possible. Mitzrayim means Egypt; nasim means traveled or fled, but lik’ra’to can be read to mean to greet it—as in, Egypt fled to greet the oncoming waters: hastened into the disaster. This was not a disaster that just happened to them; they went after it—engaging in behavior that would court a catastrophe.

How often do we put great energy into paths that lead to disaster? It is as though we get so focused on a course of action that we fail to see the consequences. Sometimes it is a surrender to impulsiveness. Other times, we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by passion or anger or an overly narrowed sense of ownership or power. In any event, we ignore wisdom and judgment and caution, rushing headlong into the jaws of defeat.

How do we guard against our foolish and self-destructive possibilities? I believe that our two best defenses are humility and patience. Humility, realizing that the world does not revolve around us, is a good first step. We have our rights, and we are responsible for taking care of ourselves, but other people need to take care of themselves, too. As important as we are, we need to remember that we are but dust and ashes,” not always the most important. Sometimes, others and their needs should take precedence.  The other way to help ourselves is to practice patience. How often are we tempted to respond quickly, immediately—and how often are immediate, rushed responses less than the situation requires? Some emergencies need quick responses, but often the immediacy is artificial, and the foolish consequences of rushed reactions are paraded across the public consciousness to the embarrassment of the “rushers” and to the detriment of the issues or persons involved.  

An example of patience and prudence—a counter-example to a rush to judgment—is being acted out in our own community right now. Most of us are aware of the tragedy that happened a few weeks ago, when Osaze Osagie was killed in an encounter with police officers. Everyone involved agrees that it was a tragedy, but the questions of who did what and whether protocols were followed or wise are complex and require thoughtful investigation and review. The local authorities are approaching the tragedy carefully and with due regard for all of the people and factors involved. The public wants answers, but rushing to judgment will not allow the procedural care that justice and good public policy require. In particular, I was struck by the tone of a Center Daily Times report the other day. The article was about the careful, professional, and deliberate process of investigation and policy review by the Borough Council and the District Attorney. The reporter began, however, with impatience: “Nearly a month after the shooting,” suggesting that the authorities are taking too long. As sad as the situation is, rushing will not bring Mr. Osagie back, nor will it lessen the pain of his family and friends; nor will it assure that justice is done; nor will it allow the complex review and perhaps revision of procedures that may prove to be necessary. I applaud the patience of our leadership, though they are having to resist the demands for immediate answers.

Humility and patience are often hard to muster, but they can offer us alternatives to rushing headlong into disaster.

The lessons of the Passover are deep and varied—and worth pondering throughout the week. As we eat our matzah, let us think about the wisdom that can come from our people’s experience, continuing the 3000 year discussion that is an essential part of our Tradition.

Thanks be to God for Good Neighbors

April 19th: Passover
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the most interesting things about Judaism is the multiplicity of voices in our Tradition—some which are known well, and others which are more obscure, some which speak to our current sensibilities, and others which come from a very different world. One traditionally ubiquitous voice which has currently gone obscure is the Haggadah passage that begins with the words “Pour out Thy wrath!” It is a concatenation of verses from the Psalms and Lamentations that asks God to execute Divine Judgement on our oppressors. It comes in the Haggadah right as we open the door for Elijah—and before we sing the song inviting him into our homes. As though daring the oppressors to hear us, the leader intones: “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You, upon the governments which do not call upon Your name! For they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home!  (Psalms 79:6-7) Pour out Your wrath on them; may Your blazing anger overtake them! (Psalms 69:25) Pursue them from under the heavens of the Lord!” (Lamentations 3:66)”

If you have never seen this angry and vengeful part of the Haggadah, it is probably for one of two reasons. (1) Your Haggadah took out this traditional passage because it does not reflect the spirit of peace and fellowship which most modern Haggadahs encourage. (2) It was there but in Hebrew and not translated (by the leader, or at all).

Coming from times and places where Judaism was precariously perched between Rabbinic pacifism and the pain of persecution, this passage was an outlet for our ancestors’ pain and sense of outrage. “Shall not the Judge of the Universe do justly?” they asked along with Abraham. (Genesis 18.25) “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring?” they asked along with David. (Psalm 22.1) In the face of perpetual discrimination and frequent violence, our ancestors yearned for respite and prayed for the God of Redemption to redeem them. And, what better time to ask for redemption? Passover is the festival of freedom, and our people hoped every year to be freed from the centuries of anti-Semitism that pervaded European Jewish life.

Given that we now live in a land of equality and religious liberty, this traditional passage does not resonate with our blessings or our challenges, and so it has been put on the shelf. In so many ways, we have been given this second redemption, and we should all give thanks. We may sing, “Dayenu”—those ancient miracles would have been enough, but we really needed some modern miracles, and, thank God, they have blessed our lives immeasurably.

As evidence, let me share with you the message of Rev. Sarah Malone, speaking for the Palm Sunday Peace March that visited us this past Sunday and dedicated a tree to good interfaith relations:

 ”We come to appreciate, celebrate, love and honor you as persons. And we come to celebrate, to appreciate, to honor, and to love as well the eternal truths that Jews have sought to live by, and have kept safe for all humanity, for literally thousands of years. Each of you individually here, now, represents to us this divine gift and beautiful heritage, this treasure, of Judaism.

Furthermore, we recognize with delight that the truth of Judaism, the beautiful treasure of Jewish theology and spirituality, will never be invalidated, will never be superseded, by any other religion or philosophy, and will continue until the human effort of religion itself is no longer needed, in the very presence of the Divine.

And so, it is at this time that we followers of Jesus, confess to you as Jews, that we have long carried pain, shame, and sorrow for the many ways our beloved practice of Christianity has throughout untold years in untold numbers of places, and even especially on this sacred day of Palm Sunday, been used as an excuse or a pretext for persecution and hurt to Jewish people, individually or collectively.

And though we as individuals have not taken part in such persecution, and though significant work of repentance and reconciliation has taken place with certain Christian churches and leaders, yet continuing acts of persecution, defamation, desecration and violence still occurring in this nation and in the world against Jews as Jews, cause us pain, shame, and sorrow, and show as well that much work remains.

“Oh, that my head were a spring of waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the slain of my people!” says the ancient prophet Jeremiah (9:1).

If there were any way that tears and love could wash away the hurt of centuries; if there were any way that a fountain of tears, and another fountain of love, could melt away and dissolve the walls of fear, pain, shame and alienation built over centuries, that have kept, and still keep Christians and Jews from fully caring, nurturing, or cooperating with each other, we would shed those tears and we would pour out that love for you, our Jewish neighbors.

So it is that we come to plant a living tree for you here at Congregation Brit Shalom—we come to plant the hope that it is a Tree of Life—and that it will symbolize a living and growing commitment, and a Covenant of Peace—to work together in loving kindness, however the Divine wills and gives us strength to do, to pluck out the roots of anti-Semitic falsehood, prejudice, violence, and hatred wherever we see them—and to do our best, as given ability, to protect you, our Jewish neighbors, from these both now and in the future.

May God bless this covenant and Congregation Brit Shalom now and from this day forward. Amen.”


Thanks be to God for good neighbors! Thanks be to God for tikkun olam! Next year in Jerusalem! Next year, may all humans be free from oppression and hate!



Lepers or Not? Dangerous or Not? The Bonds of Friendship

April 12th: Shabbat Hagadol and Metzora
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Why is leprosy a subject fit for the Torah? Why are the priests the ones to inspect and determine whether a rash is leprosy, or whether some mold is leprosy of the house? The ancients believed that, since everything is part of God’s Creation, every aspect of life is in the religious realm. And, since the priests were trained in diagnostic techniques—“distinguishing between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure, to teach the Israelites…” (Leviticus 10.10-11), the priests were the ones best able to tell whether an outbreak was dangerous or not.

Danger is the salient factor, and the priest’s job is to ascertain the possible contagion and deal with it. If the outbreak on the skin is leprosy and therefore contagious and dangerous, then separation is required. If it is not leprosy and therefore neither contagious nor dangerous, then separation is not required.

The same could be said for people. Whether we are talking about Central Americans seeking to come into the United States, or Palestinians living in Judah and Samaria, or any other case of otherness, the salient question is whether the other poses a danger. If it/they do not, then extending the hand of friendship is the proper thing to do. If they do pose a danger, however, then we have the right and the responsibility to defend ourselves. Much depends on the result of our determination: is the other dangerous or just a slightly different version of us?

When we talk about immigration to the United States or the proper policy for Israel to pursue in regard to the Palestinians, we are blessed with the fact that we are part of the majority deciding the most judicious course of action. Let us not forget, however, that we Jews have often been the other and very much at the mercy of those in power. Sometimes, things have been good, but, sometimes, things have been very, very bad. We know that we have never been a danger to Christians or Muslims, but many times, they thought the opposite. The fact that we dared to have a different religion challenged some Christians and Muslims so much that they could not abide it.

How blessed we are, then, to live in a time and place where interfaith relations have improved so much. Today, we can stand together with our neighbors of different faiths and backgrounds, sharing friendships and working on mutual interests. The last 150 years of interfaith work has been wonderfully successful, and we all feel the benefits.

But, the progress is not universal, and terrible things still happen. While we are affected by every outrage against Jews, the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh last October seemed to hit us harder. How wonderful it was that our friends and neighbors voiced support for us in our time of tragedy, filling our synagogue with some 600 people who wanted us to know that we are treasured citizens of this community. Our Muslim neighbors experienced a similar trauma a few weeks ago—with the tragic news from New Zealand, and they were similarly comforted when hundreds of non-Muslims joined them in prayer and reflection, reminding them that they too are treasured friends and neighbors.

We do our best to spread the spirit of respect and friendship, and we extend the hand of care and comfort when sadness and fear come into our friends’ lives.

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, a group of local Christians decided to make a formal gesture of affirmation for the Jewish community, and the fruition of their plan is happening this week. Each year, in observance of Palm Sunday, a group of local Christians participates in a Peace March, going from congregation to congregation and reflecting on the Gospel of Peace: that part of the Christian tradition that encourages love, respect, and kindness. Most participants are from what are called Peace Churches: Mennonites, United Brethren, and Society of Friends (Quakers). It is their way of ushering in the Easter season.

This year, the organizers want to extend the hand of support and friendship to us—realizing that many in the Christian tradition over the centuries have been less than peaceful or friendly. They want to include a stop at the synagogue in their Peace March, and they want to make a statement about their remorse at Christian anti-Semitism in the past and their commitment to good interfaith relations in the future.

So, this next Sunday, April 14th, they are coming to visit us. The Peace March starts at 3:00, and there are several stops before us. The estimate is that they’ll arrive around 5:00, but I suggest we gather around 4:30 just to make sure we are waiting for them. There will be some meditations about the need for healing from anti-Semitism, some statements of friendship and support, AND they are giving us a tree—a tree to symbolize the growth of goodwill and respect.

Please join us for this brief ceremony, as we accept our neighbors’ gestures and good will. It will mean a lot to them. It will mean a lot for tikkun olam, the Repair of the World.


Impurity and Separation?

April 5th: Tazria and Hachodesh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The issue of the equality between men and women—in Judaism and in the eyes of God—comes at us immediately in this week’s Torah portion: “When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days; she shall be impure as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed.” That is if the baby is a boy.

 “If she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.”  (Leviticus 12.1-5)

In an age where we see equal opportunity as both a right and a challenge, our minds wonder why having a baby should be any impediment at all—much less an impediment based on the gender of the baby. Should not all women, regardless of their menstrual or pre- or post-childbirth status be completely equal to men? Why are there a distinction and a separation from the religious community?

Perhaps some answers emerge as the text continues: “On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or turtledove for a purification offering. He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be pure from her flow of blood.”  (Verses 12.6-7)

While we may see such a separation as a negative, there is some evidence that the ancient women themselves were happy about it. The evidence comes from the experiences of Beta Yisrael, the Ethiopian Jews who lived a very primitive Jewish lifestyle in Ethiopia and then had to enter the modern world when they moved to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. In a life that was difficult and featured lots of manual labor, a week off every month was seen as a welcome vacation rather than a shunning or time of exclusion. And, how much the more so would a rest be appreciated after the rigors of childbirth! (Actually, in Israel, the common practice is for mothers and new babies to spend several days at a maternity nursing home.)

Of course, this analysis does not address the differences in the period of purification determined by the gender of a woman’s child. To understand this, I find it helpful to turn to the thinking of Dr. Herbert Chanan Brichto, the late professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College. Dr. Brichto saw the worship component of the purification process as crucial to understanding the ancient sensibilities. If it were simply a matter of hygiene, then no sacrificial offering would be necessary. If it were simply a matter of a family thanking God for a new child, then there would be no need for the woman herself to bring the offering; her husband could have done if. If it were simply a matter of rest or even sexual availability, then there would be no need for a sacrifice—as is the case with the monthly menstrual period.

Dr. Brichto’s answer comes in Verse 4 where we read that during her period of blood purification, “She shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary…”  What is it about the sanctuary and consecrated things (utensils and clothing of the sanctuary) that seem to be the issue—the salient factor? Dr. Brichto notes that all the purification rites—for this and other bodily emissions—involve a period of separation away from sacred objects. He also notes how some of the priestly rules require the priests themselves to enter into a state of impurity and then separate themselves from sacred objects. These separations are always for a limited time, and they often involve a chata’t, a sin offering. Why would things commanded by God require a sin offering before returning to contact with sacred things? Dr. Brichto senses a concern that too much contact with sacred objects—with the life-force (or God force)—can be dangerous. Contact is thus dosed—which makes the separation from consecrated things a temporary separation from overexposure to the life-force.

This potentially dangerous contact occurs when the natural barriers of the body are opened: in menstrual periods, in childbirth, in emissions of semen, in sores that discharge pus, and in contact with any dead body (animal or human). When such exposure occurs, the prescription is to hold off on any further exposure for a specified time—until the dose has dissipated. Then, when the waiting time is completed, the person is allowed to reenter the sacred precinct and contact sacred things again.

The chata’t / sin offering is not required because the impurity is a sin. The sin offering is to protect against any sins committed during the state of ritual over-exposure and vulnerability.

Why is the time twice as long for a baby girl as for a baby boy? Because the baby girl has the same reproductive energy as the mother, and this double exposure to the mother requires an extra time away from sacred things.

Note: these separations are only for worship in the sanctuary; they have nothing to do with prayer or rights or respect—or food or shelter or anything else we associate with equal rights.


There is no doubt that women were subordinated in ancient culture, and there is no doubt that the road to full equality has been long and full of difficulties. It would wrong to think that Dr. Brichto’s explanation in any way excuses or justifies sexist discrimination. However, not every form of gender separation was discriminatory or excluding. Some might have been based on awe at the procreative power of women, a power that that was and still is prized and respected.



Kashrut: My, How You Have Grown!

March 29th: Shemini
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This Torah portion has the beginnings of what we now call Kashrut, our Jewish dietary laws and customs. The first step is in Leviticus 11: “These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat.” After some specifics about mammals that either have split hoofs or chew the cud—but not both, the instructions continue with approved water-dwelling creatures: “anything that has fins and scales.” Birds and poultry do not seem to have any specific characteristics; rather there is a list of prohibited birds—with the understanding that birds not on the list are acceptable. There’s also a potentially disgusting angle. “Winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination,” but there are some insects that are permitted. “These you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground…” I have never seen locusts for sale at kosher food stores, but, then again, I have never really looked for them.

This is the start, but our Tradition has grown this notion of acceptable food into a much more significant system. Today, the system of Kashrut has five basic components:
(1)   Which animals are acceptable to eat (among mammals, fish, birds, and insects)
(2)   How these animals are to be slaughtered and butchered
(3)   The separation between dairy and meat foods
(4)   The special Passover rules forbidding chametz (leavened grain products)
(5)   Rabbinical supervision and authorization—due to the ever increasing length and anonymity of the food supply chain

Of these five, only two and a quarter of them are in the Torah. The Torah does tell us to “return the blood—that is, the soul—to God” by letting the lifeblood drain onto the ground, but it does not include the elaborate slaughtering and butchering techniques (including the inspection, salting, and washing of the meat) that are now part of kashrut. The Torah tells us not “to boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” but it says nothing about separating dairy and meat foods in the general sense. And, the Torah says nothing about Rabbinical supervision—which happens to be the most complex and controversial aspect of Kashrut today.

Why did Judaism grow and enhance the system of Kashrut? What were the purposes of each innovation and addition to the process? Why does it resonate with so many Jews—and not resonate with many more? These are the questions I would like to approach this week.

The formative documents of Rabbinic Judaism—the Mishnah and the Gemara—do not explain the rationale for these dietary rules; they assume them and then discuss a host of details. Thinkers have been speculating as to God’s rationale—or the rational of the Sages who “interpreted” God’s instructions for a long time. Back around 2000 years ago, Philo Judaeus (25 BCE-50 CE), an Alexandrian Jew and Platonic philosopher, suggested that Moses was a great scientist and philosopher and prescribed the various mitzvot based on rational thinking. Philo’s approach is interesting, but it is inevitably speculation. The fact is that we do not know why God commanded what is in the Torah or why the Rabbis enhanced the message into what we now know as Rabbinic (or Traditional) Judaism.

The explanations that make the most sense to me come from two recent voices, the late Dr. Ellis Rivkin of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and Rabbi Marcia Prager of Philadelphia.

Dr. Rivkin discusses the development of Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism in his book, A Hidden Revolution: The Pharisees Search for the Kingdom Within. He notes the raging threat Hellenism posed to the then-traditional Jewish lifestyle in the third century BCE and sees the development of Rabbinic Judaism as a conscious attempt to craft a Jewish spiritual lifestyle as a counter-cultural option for Jews. This was accomplished by gradually adopting and adapting priestly practices and prohibitions for regular (non-priestly) Jews. Rather than occasionally attending sacrificial services at the Temple, regular Jews living outside of Jerusalem could pray more regularly and in their villages in a house of prayer called a synagogue. The priestly vestments were adapted and prescribed for regular Jews so that, through their clothing, they too could feel the ambience of holiness. Even the dietary limitations of the priestly sacrificial meals were adopted by many regular Jews as they sought to increase and enhance the Presence of God in their lives. The religion described and discussed in the Mishnah (225 CE) reflects a 400 year old “Oral Torah” process in which Rabbis and students sought to wrap themselves in adapted or newly developed religious techniques to help them feel closer to God.

 Rabbi Prager also discusses this process of sanctification. In her book, The Path of Blessing, she sees the practices of Rabbinic Judaism as techniques of mindfulness—of mental and spiritual focus—so that we can live life with more intention, moral integrity, and spiritual purpose. Is Hamotzi before eating bread for God or for us? It is for us in terms of reminding ourselves of the Divine and creative context in which we eat and live. And, it is for God in terms of mentally and spiritually connecting the Creator and the created. She even goes further. When we use the techniques of our Tradition, we turn ourselves into portals of Divine energy and thus bring God’s Presence—God’s consciousness and influence—into a world that yearns for it.

 Every layer of development and enhancement is part of this process. In order to sense God in a world that distracts our spiritual vision, our Sages have built upon the Biblical forms and crafted spiritual techniques to focus our attention on the Presence of God and to open ourselves to be channels for the flow of Divine energy into the world.

 From making the mundane slaughter of animals into an act of sanctification, from not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk to separating all meat and dairy foods, and from elevating the local production of Kosher food to an institutionalized holy food industry, each step of the growth of Kashrut has been an attempt to fill our lives with meaning. Whether or not Jews follow Kashrut—and to what degree—is based on how this Divine connection through food resonates or does not resonate with their spiritual sensibilities.



Israel, American Jews, and The Benjamins

March 22nd: Tzav
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Sometimes, we can follow our intuition and do very well. Other time, however, things are not as we would expect, and we have to check ourselves and our automatic assumptions and responses. A case in point comes in Leviticus 8 when we read about the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons. “A second ram was brought forward, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of Aaron’s right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.” Moses did the same for the right ears, right thumbs, and right big toes of Aaron’s sons. Then, Moses took “the rest of the blood and dashed it on every side of the altar.” (Leviticus 8.22-24). What was the purpose of this blood?

The commentary in Etz Hayim explains that “dabbing sacrificial blood on certain extremities of the body is essentially a rite of purification.” Purification?! One would intuitively think that blood is something from which one needs to be purified, but here the ritual makes it a purifying agent. A similar dynamic comes into play in next week’s special reading Parah (Numbers 19.1-22), where the ashes of a red heifer, normally something from which one needs to be purified, are used in ritual cleansing. Things are not always what they seem.

I think of this intuitive/counterintuitive tension as I survey a recent news story and controversy: the remarks of Representative Ilhan Omar about Jews and American foreign policy. The anti-Semitic nature of her remarks has gotten a lot of attention, but I think that two other points need to be discussed.

First, it is a myth that Jews are the reason for the United States’ support of Israel. The fact that Israel is a Jewish State and that most American Jews support Israel may give rise to this kind of thinking, and AIPAC’s (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) fundraising self-promotion may give the impression that Jews are powerful in America. However, the real reasons for American support for Israel have very little to do with American Jews. As historian Ellis Rivkin explained, Israel is a beachhead of both democracy and developmental capitalism in a part of the world where, in America’s view, both are really needed. This was true when Rivkin taught this in the 1970s, and it is even more true today. Look at the crises in democracies throughout the region, and look at the intact and operating democracy in Israel. Even though squabbling is a way of life in democracy, look at the way that law and democratic representation reign in the Jewish State—even in the face of formidable challenges. Look also at the way that developmental capitalism thrives in Israel—with innovation and international integration driving both the Israeli economy and benefiting economies all over the world. There is also the military reality that Israel is, in Rivkin’s words, “the world’s largest aircraft carrier, stationed in one of the most strategically important places in the world.” When things get dangerous in the Middle East, Israel is there to support American interests and goals—and Israel is willing to man this “aircraft carrier” with minimal support from its allies.

We must also not forget the fifty million Christian evangelicals in the United States who believe that “blessing Israel” brings blessings and “cursing Israel” brings curses. As Rivkin would put it, if there were not a Jew in the United States, the U.S. would still support Israel.


Second, Representative Omar’s blaming “the Benjamins” for American policy is a paranoid tautology. The assumption of such an accusation is that nefarious interests are perverting the system by bribing the government (with $100 bills or Benjamins) to do the wrong things—to pursue policies inimical to what “the people want and need.” What it ignores is the assumption that the speaker knows what the people want and need—knowledge based on the speaker’s political thinking. In other words, this is a rhetorical device for claiming the moral and democratic high ground, something done by politicians in every party and on every issue. Think about how many times you hear the phrase the American people in most political conversations and how the American people are always in agreement with the speaker. Anything that goes along with the speaker is supported by the American people, and anything that is counter to the speaker’s opinion is against the will of the American people.

Are the Benjamins an important factor in American policy? Of course, they are. Anyone working for the prosperity and health of our society has got to pay attention to economic factors. Indeed, the vast majority of policy suggestions base their wisdom on positive economic effects. From Trickle-Down Prosperity to the Poor People’s Campaign for Economic Justice, proponents are always concerned with the practical economic effects. It’s just a matter of arguing which policy will bring about a particular effect.

My favorite example comes from the early 1990s, when many blamed U.S. involvement in the first Iraq war (Operation Desert Storm) on oil. “We’re just fighting for oil,” was a common complaint, suggesting that oil supply is not a vital American interest—that it is only a concern for rich people who, for the sake of their own wealth, are sending young Americans to die. It was a convincing argument, and it followed intuitive thinking. However, a little deeper thinking turned me around. If supplies of oil would drop and the price of oil would increase by 10% or 25%, would this only be a problem just for the fat cats and other immorally rich people? Or, would there also be problems for the common folk? Would prices on everything rise? Would poor people be able to drive to work or to the grocery store? Would auto sales and manufacturing decrease? Would food prices—for both rich and poor—increase? While there may be a critique about our national patterns of energy consumption, the fact is that oil is the lifeblood of our economy, and anything that threatens our oil supply is a legitimate threat to our people’s economic lives. Of course, it’s the Benjamins! It’s always the Benjamins because we all depend on money for our food, our shelter, our clothing, our security, our culture--our everything!  Whether Capitalist or Socialist, we need to be concerned about economic realities and about how people get the things they need to live. There are certainly different opinions about how to run the economy and address a host of human concerns, but suggesting that any philosophy or moral system can exist without economic factors is foolish and shallow—and ultimately demagogic.

Are the Benjamins a source of impurity, or are they simply a fact of life? Are economic interests inevitably a form of bribery, or must they be pursued within a framework of morality? The advice of the Torah is to integrate practicality and morality and thus bring godliness to the world.

The Purpose of Holiness

March 1st: Vayakhel and Pekuday
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to explain religious ritual in the following way. In our sacred history, certain moments stand out as sublime: we encountered the Holy One in a profound way and were affected spiritually, emotionally, and historically. We hear about these moments and are inspired, but would it not be better to relive them. This is where ritual comes in. A well-constructed and performed ritual is peak experience domesticated. We cannot travel back in time to the Red Sea and walk across it on dry land, but we can utilize ritual processes to put ourselves back in that spiritual moment and re-experience the closeness to God and the awe that our ancestors felt.

 In the next two weeks’ Torah portions, we read about the construction and assembling of the Mishkan and about when God enters it as a Divine habitation: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle (Mishkan). Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.”  (Exodus 40.33-37) Can we recreate this moment? How can this peak experience be domesticated?

 For many, a really good worship service can bring the sense of God’s Presence. Just as we welcome the Sabbath Bride in Lecha Dodi, the combined spiritual power of the worshippers can invoke the Shechinah, God’s Indwelling Presence, and we can feel God in our midst.

 Others feel more connected in Torah study. As Rabbi Chananya ben Teradion used to say (Pirke Avot 3.3 ): “When two people sit, and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests upon them.” Studying about God and godly ways can bring us closer to the Divine.

 Others find it helpful to invoke dramatic visions, such as that of Isaiah’s famous dream/vision:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of God’s robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on God. Each seraph had six wings: two to cover the face, two to cover the legs, and two for flying. And one called to the other: ‘Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! God’s Presence fills all the earth!’ The doorposts would shake at the sound, and the House kept filling with smoke.

 I cried, ‘Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of impure lips, and I live among a people of impure lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King, the Lord of Hosts.’ Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. Touching it to my lips, the seraph declared, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away.’

 Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And I said, ‘Here I am; send me.’ And God said, ‘Go, say to that people: “Hear, indeed, but do not understand; See, indeed, but do not grasp.’ Dull that people’s mind, Stop its ears, and seal its eyes—lest seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasp with its mind, and repent and save itself.”’   (Isaiah 6.1-10)

 Part of this vision may be familiar because it is the basis of the Kedushah, an integral and inspiring part of the morning service. We imagine ourselves as the angels, turning to each other and declaring, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The fullness of the earth is God’s glory!” Imagine standing in God’s Presence, basking in the glow of ultimate holiness! It is an inspiring possibility and can elevate our souls and bring us closer to the Eternal One.

 Of course, God’s message to Isaiah—and what Isaiah is to communicate to Israel—is about more than mere ritual and sanctification. From the throne room of ultimate holiness, God’s concern is Israel’s morality. Just as Isaiah is morally inadequate, so is Israel morally tainted—“Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of impure lips, and I live among a people of impure lips.” God thus speaks to the need for repentance and moral improvement, and this is phrased in a kind of negative irony: “Don’t tell them, because, if you do, they might realize their evil and repent.”

 And so, from this encounter at the height of ritual purity and inspiration comes a message of ethical imperative, teaching us that the point of ritual is twofold: to bring us closer to God and to transform us into God’s instruments.

 Here is the way these two messages are brought together in a classic prayer text:
“O Lord, how can we know You? Where can we find You? You are as close to us as breathing and yet are farther than the farthermost star. You are as mysterious as the vast solitudes of the night and yet are as familiar as the light of the sun. To the seer of old You did say: You cannot see My Face, but I will make all My Goodness pass before You. Even so does Your Goodness pass before us in the realm of nature and in the varied experiences of our lives.

 When justice burns like a flaming fire within us, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we proclaim our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, do we not bow down before the vision of Your Goodness? You live in our hearts, as You pervade the world, and we through righteousness behold Your Presence.”

 (Slightly adapted from The Union Prayer Book, CCAR 1940, page 39; inspired by a poem of Judah HaLevi and Exodus 34)



Hate the Sin; Love the Sinner

February 22nd:  Ki Tisa
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In a world plagued by scandals, it is perhaps appropriate that this week’s Torah portion presents the greatest scandal in Jewish history, the Golden Calf incident. Fresh from the Exodus with all of its miracles and the incredible revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites quickly forget about God and Moses and feel the need to craft another god to lead them on their way. “The people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the Land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32.1) Aaron complies, solicits jewelry to melt down, and crafts the Golden Calf which the Israelites begin to worship.

 Suffice it to say that Moses and God are not happy. God considers destroying the whole nation, while Moses throws the Tablets of the Covenant down, shattering them into oblivion. Moses also destroys the Golden Calf, grinds it into dust, and makes the Israelites drink waters made bitter with the powder. Some people are killed by angry Levites, and others die from a plague, but the majority of the Israelites survive. Among these survivors, surprisingly, is Aaron.

 While some Israelites may be more guilty and others less so, Aaron is right in the middle of the sin. “All the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf.” (Exodus 32.3-4) How, then, does he get exonerated?! As one can imagine, the Sages spend quite a bit of time trying to figure how this works, and a number of their answers have interesting implications for our times.

 One explanation for why Aaron is forgiven by God—or perhaps not even blamed—is his intention. The people think that they will worship the idol: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”  But notice Aaron’s words: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!”  The Rabbis see this as Aaron attempting to divert the people’s worship back to the One God, and it is counted to Aaron’s merit.

 Another explanation involves Aaron’s motivation. As the Midrash observes, Aaron realizes that, after this terrible sin, the people will need expiation, and he is the only one authorized to officiate at the atonement rituals. If he resists the peoples’ demands and is killed, then there will be no priest, and the people will never have the chance to repent and be cleansed. He goes along with the crowd so he will be around to help them repent. Building the calf is wrong, but God takes into account his purer motivation and holds him blameless—or less at fault.

 In both cases, God seems to separate between the wrongness of the deed and the mindset of the sinner—which brings us to the case of  Governor Dr. Ralph Northam and his racially insensitive youthful indiscretions.

 The history of humanization has been long and rocky and plagued with misunderstanding. What seems obvious to the general public now was not even considered in past times. Or, perhaps we should put it this way. While some people are aware of injustice or disrespect at one point in history, it generally takes a while before such sentiments become widely accepted. Think of the very slow development of the equality of women. The principle was discussed a long time ago—for example by Jane Austen in the early 1800s, but the concrete steps toward egalitarianism were not actualized until many, many decades later.  Or consider the slowly developing equality of people of color, or of LGBTQA individuals, or, for that matter of various religious minorities. Humanity has come from some very dark places in our gradual realization that true human-ness exists in many forms and variations. This is what is called progress.

 One of my favorite examples is the Reform Jewish embrace of feminism. While the full equality of women has been part of Reform Jewish ideology since the 1800s, the particular issue of gender non-specific language was simply not on the radar for our movement’s leadership in the early 1970s. As a result, our prayer book, Gates of Prayer, was composed and edited with what were soon glaring problems: God is referred to as King and He, and the Amidah includes only the Patriarchs—ignoring the Matriarchs except in implication. Despite the fact that ours is a movement that jumps on every social justice bandwagon quickly and with institutional vigor, our 1975 prayer book is full of gender insensitivities! We invested great emotional, organizational, and financial energy but did so just before the issue of gender non-specific language came to the fore. As a result, our movement’s prayer book was, from an egalitarian perspective, obsolete very early in its career.

 The march of progress is agonizingly slow for those feeling the brunt of oppression, but, unfortunately, social and attitudinal inertia is hard to overcome, and awareness is generally slow to dawn. This is not an excuse; it is simply an observation on the nature of culture and progress.

 Indeed, the road to progress is often paved with weird and ironic incidents. Do you remember the 1993 episode at the Friars Club when Ted Danson and then girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg thought it would be funny for Danson to appear in blackface? That it was not received as funny surprised them both. Do you remember when Mickey Rooney appeared as a Japanese neighbor in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s? I cannot say that Japanese people appreciated the performance, but the producers of a very cutting edge and deep film somehow thought that this comic relief was appropriate. A more obscure film reference comes from the 2005 movie Prime, starring Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. Produced by a very liberal and politically correct Hollywood and set in the very liberal and politically correct Upper West Side of Manhattan, its young white men use the n-word ­as an expression of affection for each other. Is this a matter of cultural insensitivity or cultural appropriation, or does it represent a different or time-bound opinion about what is appropriate?

 My point is that motivation, intention, and historical context should be considered when we judge another person’s actions. This is certainly the Midrash’s understanding of the judgment of Aaron. Moreover, if the indiscretion or insensitivity occurred long ago, should not the sinner’s behavior in the intervening years be considered? The point of progress is not to destroy one’s opponents, but rather to convert them. And, if that conversion has been operative for many, many years, should the discovery of a very old sin affect the sinner’s current moral standing? Hate the sin; love the sinner! Hate the sin; love the repentant sinner!

Organized Religion, Part II

February 15th: Tetzaveh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, as we continue God’s instructions for the Mishkan, the portable tent temple that we carried with us in our wanderings, I would like to continue last week’s discussion of Organized Religion and why some people find it problematic. Our starting point was the original Jewish building fund, launched in Exodus 25, when God requests gifts from the Israelites—gifts for the sanctuary so that the Divine could dwell among us.

 We talked about spontaneity versus fixed forms in worship, the various administrative challenges that often arise in organized religion, and the imperfection of some of the people involved in religious institutions. These issues are serious, but I maintain, the goodness and purity of the religious message aspires to transcend these challenges. As this week’s Haftarah (Ezekiel 43.10-27) makes clear, moral contrition and repentance are essential to qualitative spirituality. We need to do religion right.

 Another issue, brought home by the Divine request for building materials, is the whole financial angle of religion. Money is necessary for organized religious institutions, but paying for religion is off-putting for many, so much so that they resist fundraising or simply do not affiliate.

 There was a time, in the ghetto paradigm of Jewish life, when individual Jews did not have the option of standing apart from communal institutions. The Jewish community was given the power to tax all ghetto residents, and this enforced financial support allowed it to sponsor synagogues, schools, infirmaries, mikva’ot, and charitable endeavors. However, when the gates of the ghetto were opened, this all changed. In our free society, participation is a matter of personal choice, and religious institutions have no enforcement power.

 It is hard to say whether the original building fund campaign in Exodus is voluntarily or forced. Though God specifically says, “Accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so inclined(Genesis 25.2), everybody know that God is the One Who is asking, and I wonder whether the individual Israelites feel autonomous or obligated. In any event, our ancestors respond enthusiastically, and the drive brings in much more gold, silver, copper, yarn, ram skins, etc. than is needed. When the artisans report, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done” (Exodus 36.5). Moses sends out an announcement to all the camp telling people to stop bringing gifts.

 In our congregation, we’re not quite there (yet!).

 How are we to regard the continual need for money in religion? Is it an intrusion into spirituality or an enhancement of spirituality? I think about this every year when we plan our Yom Kippur services. On Kol Nidre, do I place my sermon before the annual Kol Nidre Appeal—heightening the spiritual moment before we break it off and talk about money, or do I place my sermon after the annual Kol Nidre Appeal—seeing the appeal as a buildup to the spiritual message I bring to the congregation? In other words, is the appeal a part of the worship experience, or is it an interruption?

In Christian churches, there is a big emphasis on giving money, and they build it up sermonically, liturgically, and musically as a form of holiness. The ushers pass the baskets and then walk them up the aisle to present to God on the altar. As alien as this might seem to us, it is very close to the description of our ancient Temple worship. Look at Deuteronomy 26.1-10 and notice the beauty and sublime appropriateness of the ritual: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish the Divine Name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, ‘I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to assign to us.’ The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt small in number and dwelt there, but there he became a great and exceedingly populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us, forcing us to work at hard labor. We cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our pleas and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and awesome power—displaying signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.’”

 We do not pass baskets for money during our Sabbath services—as part of our traditional prohibition of commerce and carrying money on Shabbat, but this does not mean that our financial contributions cannot be touched by spirituality. When we write a check to the synagogue, we are participating in the religious work of God, continuing our ancestors’ commitment to a relationship with the Divine and keeping the light of Judaism burning brightly. It is also a way to give thanks to God for the blessings in our lives and to offer some back to God. 

Is giving money to religion a distraction or necessary evil? Or, is it a form of prayer? It’s all a matter of our kavannah—our spiritual intentions.


Organized Religion, Part I

February 8th: Terumah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though many may consider this section of the Torah to be among the most pointless, it has the potential to be among the most relevant? Why would some thirteen chapters on the assembling of the Mishkan—the ancient “tent temple” which traveled with our ancestors during their wanderings in the desert—be relevant? Because this is the first organizational meeting in Jewish history, and we have the original synagogue building fund! “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so inclined. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointed oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.1-8)

 In the practical work that allows synagogues to exist, funds must be raised; leadership must be elected; worship services and programs must be arranged. There are lots of details which must be determined, and the product of the membership and traditions and decisions are what we could call organized religion. It is organized because communal endeavors require organization. What then are we to make of the comment, “I do not like organized religion”?

 Is the complaint that one wants spontaneous religiosity rather than something that has been planned? This is actually an ancient concern, expressed in the Mishnah by Rabbi Shimon: “When you pray, let not your prayer become routine, but let it be a sincere supplication for God’s mercy.”  (Avot 2.18) As a result, there is a dynamic tension in Judaism between keva, the fixed forms of prayer, and kavannah, the spontaneity that is necessary for a true connection to God. All forms of Judaism work on keeping both approaches, but the Reform Movement encourages it even more—hence our many “creative prayer books” that incorporate traditional forms and more modern expressions. 

 Or, is the complaint that all the organizational work—fundraising, committee decision making, the adjudication of different and competing visions of congregational life—is distracting from spirituality? There are certainly different skills and activities involved, but a mature person realizes that a certain amount of work is always necessary in enjoyable or meaningful activities. Just as a good meal requires preparation and cleanup, so does the spirituality in religion require planning and infrastructure.

 Or, is the complaint about the inadequacies of many of the people involved in religion? Whether it is outright criminality or rude or disrespected behavior in the holy precincts, religion is often maligned by its own practitioners: “religious people” behaving irreligiously. This can certainly be disappointing and off-putting, but it is the exception which proves the rule. Though religion can bring out negative personality traits in people, its aspiration is to bring out the best. When we are beset in congregational life with conflict or bad behavior, it is an opportunity to respond with respect, patience, and the love that God has for us. Remember Hillel’s advice from Avot (2.6): “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human!”

 Unfortunately, examples of “religious people behaving irreligiously” abound. Among the most notable is the ongoing scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Somehow, the Church has been unable for decades to deal properly with the child abuse practiced by a number of priests, and it is a stain on their pride and the holiness. Indeed, many Catholics have had their faith shaken to the core. It so happens that a friend and colleague of mine, Kathleen Cotter Cauley, a devoted Catholic and a mental health therapist, is one of the people working on the Church’s response and at a fairly high level. She knows the sinfulness and the irresponsibility that has plagued the Church in this regard—as well as the grave damage caused to many, many members of the Church, and nonetheless she is hopeful. She is hopeful because she believes in the pure message of the Catholic Church and in the need for this message in members’ lives. And, she is hopeful because she sees her beloved Church, a large and slow-moving religious institution, finally responding in appropriate and holy ways to a religious tragedy.

 The word religion too often gets a bad reputation because individuals bring their imperfections to religious institutions. The religions preach goodness, but the goodness is tenuous and can be obscured or diverted by people who mistake their own egos for the will of God. Every time it happens, it is a shame, and, all too often, it is worse. But, the imperfection of these individuals does not take away from the message of goodness and godliness. It just means that the religious message is not being communicated successfully.

 This was certainly the view of Rev. Franklin Littell, a United Methodist minister who spoke of the Holocaust as a Shadow on the Cross. Since every person who carried out the crimes of the Holocaust was a baptized Christian, he sees the Holocaust as a failure of Christianity in Europe, and he dedicated his career to teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. With his ministry of the Anne Frank Institute in New York, his mission was to bring Christianity back to its pure and godly message—and to purge it of the hate that shamed Jesus and every other true Christian.

My point is using these extreme examples is that the very real problems in religion are not inevitable. They are rather failures of religion. It is not the organization of religiosity that is the problem; rather, it is the imperfection of people who misuse the spiritual energy religion makes available. While some may reject religion outright, my position is that we are called to use religious teachings and energy correctly—with kindness, compassion, righteousness, and understanding, with the Divine love that God bids us to share.


Next week, we’ll continue our discussion of the organizational pitfalls and possibilities of religion.

The Strangers Among Us

February 1st: Mishpatim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the Rabbis’ rules of thumb is the belief that God is not redundant. If the Torah says something more than once, it is not mere repetition. Rather, the double or multiple expression of a thought or mitzvah is for a reason—and the Rabbis’ task is to figure out what God has in mind.

 A prime example of this Midrashic work is the number of cups of wine we drink at the Passover Seder. The purpose of the Exodus was to save us from Egyptian slavery, but God does not just say this once. Instead, in Exodus 6.6-7, God uses a bunch of synonymous statements to speak of our redemption:
1)      “I will bring them forth from their suffering in Egypt,
2)      I will rescue them from their slavery,
3)      I will give their lives meaning with My outstretched arm and great actions,
4)      I will take them unto me as My people.”

The Rabbis see each phrase as a different dimension of the salvation, and they prescribe a different cup to celebrate each one.

 (There is, of course, a slight complication. While the Exodus 6.6-7 passage identifies four dimensions of redemption, the very next verse gives what could be considered a fifth: “And I will bring you into the land.” Does this verse mean that we should add a fifth cup of wine? There were divergent opinions among the Sages, and the debate raged for years. Finally, the Rabbis realized that a resolution is currently impossible, so they decided to wait until the end of days, when Elijah will herald the coming of the Messiah, and all questions will be answered. In the meantime, we pour five cups, drink four, and leave one for Elijah.)

 The Four Children section of the Seder is similarly based. Four times God gives the instruction that the Israelites should tell their children about the Exodus—in Exodus 12.26–27, Exodus 13.8, Exodus 13.14, and Deuteronomy 6.20–21. Is God just being emphatic, or is there a subtle difference in each mitzvah that suggests a different kind of telling. The Rabbinic answer is that there are four different types of children, and that each one needs the message to be communicated in a particular way.

 This principle of God is not redundant comes to bear in this week’s Parshat Mishpatim where we hear a single message spoken twice. First, we read Exodus 22.20: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The mitzvah seems obvious and simple enough. Why, then, would God repeat the message just nineteen verses later? “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9)

 The commentary in Etz Hayim suggests that the two mitzvot are directed at different audiences—the first being an instruction for individual Israelites in their daily lives, and the second being a specific instruction to judges. Just as a judge should not favor people he knows, so should he not show judicial prejudice against outlanders/strangers. This is a principle approached several times in the Torah. In Exodus 12.49, Leviticus 24.22, and Numbers (15.29), we read that the same laws and rules should apply to both native born and resident aliens.

 One could also interpret these two mitzvot as referring to two types of strangers—two types of strangeness. Some are strange because they come from other places—from other cities, states, countries, religions, or cultures. When we encounter these strangers, we are bidden to find the common humanity we share and to treat them with respect and fairness. As the Prophet Amos reminds us, (9.7), God loves all humanity and has a special relationship with every people. “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir.”

 How are we to treat people from other places? Within our country, there are often differences with which we need to contend, but what happens when people seek to join us from other countries? Though we certainly have the right and the responsibility to maintain our borders and to protect our country, we also have an obligation to respect the humanity of the immigrants who arrive upon our shores or at our borders. The Torah reminds us that they are human beings and not political footballs, but the political process seems more focused on politicking than approaching these human beings with respect and fairness. The solutions to our immigration debate have been obvious for some thirty years, but our administrators and legislators have allowed themselves to be paralyzed by political gamesmanship, and the immigrants and the many citizens who depend upon them have been forgotten in the politic haggling.

 The other strangers among us are individuals who are not foreign but who are strange in their appearance or abilities. Most of us have enough manners not to publicly berate or make fun of someone with a developmental disability, but do we extend the same awareness and respect to those who are unattractive or socially awkward? And, what about the people with disabilities? We have laws mandating accommodation for them in employment and public facilities, but do we treat them as human beings and welcome them into our conversations and social circles? One of the most upsetting things about adulthood is the realization that we never outgrow middle school and the dynamics of socializing and ostracizing.  Oh, how we need the wisdom of the Torah when we are tempted to focus on someone’s strangeness and not on the image of God residing within.

 We are given guidance in this sensibility by the second version’s psychological clause: “for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing that you yourself have been a stranger…” Though we work very hard to find places where we belong—where we fit in, the fact is that we have all experienced social alienation, and we know the awkwardness and psychic pain of being strange. Let us take these painful memories and use them for good. Let us pay attention to our social dynamics and endeavor to make everyone feel at home. We know the heart and the pain of the stranger; let us take the Torah to heart and extend to every stranger the warmth and the welcome we all need.



At the Mountain: Intensity and Purpose

January 25th: Yitro
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This is the portion where we stand at Mount Sinai and hear the Eternal One thunder the words we know as the Ten Commandments. Beginning with, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: you shall have no other gods besides Me”  (Exodus 20.2-3), the Torah makes it very clear God’s words are at the center of our Divine purpose—and our relationship with the Divine.

 Shortly before the actual revelation, the Lord explains to Moses the nature and purpose of the relationship which is now being made official: “…I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Me. Now, then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6) The Ten Commandments are not just words; they are the basis of a covenantal partnership.

 The intensity of the experience at the mountain—a volcano like fire at the top and God’s words thundering from On High—frightens the people, and they shrink back from the Divine. “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. ‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’” (Exodus 20.15-16)

 This is an early case of people dosing themselves with religion—a process in which all human beings are involved. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we decide how much religion or spirituality is helpful, inspiring, perhaps even challenging? How much, on the other hand, is too much for us—too much or unnecessary or perhaps even distracting from other important components of life? All of us need some spiritualty, so the key is determining how much we require.

 Some of us thrive on more religion; it is just the way we are. So, as much as our Tradition urges us to increase our religious thinking and observance, the Tradition also teaches us limits. Notice the famous proverb from Simon the Righteous in Pirke Avot (1.2): “On three things does the world stand: on Torah, on Worship, and on Deeds of Lovingkindness.” This ancient founder of Rabbinic Judaism certainly sees religion—Torah and Worship—as important, but it is not the only important component of life. As Reb Shimon instructs us, going out into the world and doing good deeds is also vital.

 Perhaps this is what God was thinking when God repeatedly tells Moses to descend from the mountain—or from the intimacy of a direct encounter with God—and return to the people. This is not to say that God does not enjoy Moses’ company but rather that God sees the relationship with Moses as a conduit for a greater relationship with the people.

 This comes out again in Moses’ review of Israelite history in Deuteronomy (1.6-8): “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai), saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill county of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, the hill country, the Shephelah, the Negeb, the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates. Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them.’”

 Some focus on the territorial aspects of the Deuteronomy passage, wondering about why we never actually obeyed the mitzvah and took possession of all this land. Some modern zealots insist that it was and is a sin to refuse to take over the entire Middle East. Others realize that this mitzvah was and is impossible—that, if God actually intends it as a mitzvah to perform, it is for a time in the distant future. Halachah does not consider every mitzvah it a present expectation: some must wait until God makes them possible.

 There is, however, another way to look at the passage. Just as God instructs Moses to descend from the mountain in order to instruct the people, this passage could be God’s way of sending the people out to teach the world. The time with God in the wilderness—both at the mountain and in the years establishing the holy community—is precious, but that time is preparatory, intended to help Israel learn how to bring God’s words and God’s ways to the world.

 As we pursue our lives, finding a balance among all of life important components, let us not forget the precious relationship that we can have with the Divine. It is a relationship that our religion can help us develop and nurture. But let us also remember God’s stated desire that we take the good and holy thoughts of our faith and bring them to life in the world.


God Dwells in Us


January 18th: Beshallach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In Beshallach, we read about the long awaited Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.
“They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13.20-22)

The excitement and drama is incredible as God’s Redemptive power is on display. Huge numbers of people who have lived in slavery their entire lives are suddenly able to go marching forth—with God leading them with giant pillars of cloud and fire!

In all the redemptive glory, however, we can fail to notice the internal dynamic at play. Not only is freedom dawning within each Israelite and within the community, but also awakening is purpose. A well-known passage from the Psalms can focus our attention.
“When Israel came forth out of Egypt,
The House of Jacob from a foreign people,
Judah became the place of God’s holiness,
Israel the place of God’s power.” 
(Psalm 114.1-2)

God’s Presence is triumphant—in Egypt and at the Red Sea, but notice how the Psalmist emphasizes the Presence of the Divine in the community. Not only is it manifest in the world—in nature and in supernatural events, it has entered the people of Israel and will be manifest on the human level.

The Children of Israel are on their way to the Promised Land—with holiness of the Land held up as a central part of our holy mission, but, for the forty years in the wilderness and for all the years in the Diaspora, God’s Presence is found in the hearts and minds and communities of God’s people.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the field of historiography was taking shape—and being influenced by Darwinism, scholars saw in civilizations the life patterns of species and organisms. There seemed to be a pattern throughout history as civilizations developed and rose and then fell. It was a life cycle, but there was one curious exception—the Jews! Though we had endured defeats and diaspora and seemingly continual persecution for some 4000 years, historians and historiographers marveled at the way our ever-dying people managed to survive and even thrive. The religious explanation is, of course, that God is active in history and that Jewish survival and agency are part of God’s plan. However, for these historians and social scientists, supernatural or theological considerations were not part of their working or thinking vocabulary. How did the Jews manage to avoid the cyclical rise and fall of every other civilization?

A very persuasive theory came from the poet Heinrich Heine who spoke of Judaism’s portable homeland. The Torah and the way of life it teaches comprise a way for us to live spiritually and culturally wherever we are and whatever our physical condition. Many Jewish thinkers picked up on his notion and used it in their teaching of Judaism and in their conceptual crafting of modern Judaism. Our God and our relationship with God are not dependent on any particular land or landscape; they exist in the commitment we have and the approaches we have developed over the years. In the words of the Psalmist:
”The Jewish people are the place of God’s holiness,
The Israelite people the place of God’s power.” 

 I do not know if Rabbi Chananyah ben Teradion had this in mind, but his famous teaching in Pirke Avot (3.3) resonates with this sensibility: “When two people sit and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them.” If God is universal, and if Torah can help us to access God, then we can live in holy relationship with God anywhere.

 In both Israel and in the Diaspora, the salient aspect of Jewishness is whether and how we manifest Torah—God’s holiness and energy—in our lives.



Wandering and Permanence and God

January 11th: The Book of Exodus
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

As we closed our study of Genesis, we considered God’s words to Jacob: “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will also bring you back…” (Genesis 46.3-4) Though God knew of the slavery that waited for the Israelites in Egypt—and while Israel with his prophetic abilities probably knew about it as well, God’s instructions say that the move from Canaan to Egypt is a good plan—for now. Later, it will be time to leave Egypt and return to Canaan, but now Egypt is the place to be.

In our long history of wandering, there have been innumerable places that have been good. It was good in ancient Egypt for a long time. It was good under the Greeks for a long time. It was good under the Romans for several periods of their rule. It was good in Babylonia in many periods (of our 2500 year sojourn there). There was a kind of Golden Age of Jewish life in the Rhineland (Speyer, Mainz, and Worms) for a few centuries. The times were so good in Andalusia (Muslim Spain) that we call that period the Jewish Golden Age of Spain. Though anti-Semitism reared its ugly head from time to time, Jewish culture, religious scholarship, prosperity, and involvement in the general community thrived in many places and for many years. One can even point to the good years in places like Germany and Austria of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. As for England, things have been good there for several centuries—though Jews were banned for some 350 years, from 1290 to 1657.

Even when much of the European climate was hostile, the anti-Semitism was sporadic. When one king or bishop sanctioned oppression, another one 100 or 200 miles away would encourage Jewish refugees to come to his region, and things would be good there.

As the late historian Ellis Rivkin used to explain, there is no tenet in Christianity or Islam that demands the destruction or even conversion of the Jews. Otherwise, the whole of Christendom or of Islamdom would have united in such a campaign. What we have, rather, are certain texts in both religions that can be used for anti-Semitism in economic or political crises. Dr. Rivkin could go through a list of anti-Semitic incidents in history and, for every single one, show an economic or political problem in which anti-Semitism was used by despots to relieve or divert the crisis.

As we begin Exodus, we reflect on how our good life in Egypt turned bad: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’ So the Egyptians set taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh; Pithom and Rameses.” (Exodus 1.8-11)

What could account for such a change of attitude? Contrast it to the initial invitation from a different Pharaoh: “Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land…never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Genesis 45.17-20)

An important thing to remember about history is that we Jews were/are not the only wanderers. Permanence in the human experience is at best temporary. Who knows where the “original Egyptians” originated or how homogenous were the Egyptians who built the Pyramids. Egyptologists work on putting the story together, but there seem to be a variety of ethnic, religious, and power groups that vied for influence during the thousands of years of “the Egyptians.” Around 1640 BCE, the then current rulers of Egypt were displaced by a well-organized and militarily better equipped people from Anatolia known as the Hyksos. They swept into the Nile delta and took over for over 100 years. Then, they were driven out by the “native Egyptians” around 1532 BCE who installed their own new king/Pharaoh. Some historians believe that it was a Hyksos Pharaoh who welcomed Joseph and his family—and a post-Hyksos new Pharaoh who expelled the “foreigners” and enslaved our ancestors.

One could compare the situation to the Edict of Expulsion from Spain in 1492 when the Jews were expelled as part of the Reconquista, a centuries’ old effort to rid the Iberian Peninsula of the Muslims who had conquered it some six centuries before.

The point is that our wanderings from place to place—and the good times and bad times we have faced—have been part of the context of human impermanence. Rulers change. Borders and countries change. Weather and topography change. And, we humans scurry around trying to find good places.

 Our Tradition draws two lessons from this dynamic in which we have lived and in which we continue to live today.
(1)   Appreciate the blessings we have and the resilience of our bodies, our wits, our families, and our cultures. Like Jacob who became a Patriarch in a struggle, we find our best humanity in the striving of life and in the search for meaning.

(2)   Realize that the only permanence lies with God. We need to learn to live in relationship with the Eternal One Who is the context for all existence. Like every one of our forebears, we are accompanied along the paths of life by God.


Facing an Uncertain Future

December 21st: Vayechi
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

A sense of dread hovers over the Torah portions as we conclude Genesis. The refuge of Egypt is wonderful—with Joseph in charge and Jacob and the Children of Israel all welcomed, but we know that the Book of Exodus will soon begin with the new Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph.” As wonderful as it was when, last week, Pharaoh says, “Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land…never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Genesis 45.18-20), a little voice in my head is crying out, “No, don’t go. You’ll end up being slaves there for 400 years!”

This is not a surprise for God, nor is it for Jacob. Before Jacob/Israel leaves for Egypt, God appears to him in a vision by night: “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will also bring you back…” (Genesis 46.3-4) In other words, going to Egypt is a good idea—for now. Later, leaving Egypt will be a good idea, but the fact that things will be bad at a distant time in the future does not diminish the good sense of going down there now.

We who like to think in terms of permanence are troubled by the temporary. We want to solve problems, resolve situations, and remove any and all anxiety. Given our incredible technological abilities—and given the many privileges which characterize our lives, we feel that complete fixes are within reach and that not achieving total security is a personal failing.

The problem is that the world itself is impermanent, and the only permanent feature of life is change. Nonetheless, we yearn for “things to be settled,” to be fixed, to be permanently good. We even learn and teach about the wisdom of permanent security in our common wisdom. We read, in The Three Little Pigs, how we should build strong houses that won’t fall down. There is a parable in the New Testament (in both Matthew and Luke) about the wisdom of building a house on rock and not on sand. We even have Abraham Lincoln cautioning us that “a house divided cannot stand.” However, the permanence of any human construction is only temporary, and this persistent, inevitable impermanence has plagued the human psyche since time began.

I am reminded of the very anxious Mrs. Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and how she looks at the marriages of her daughters—when they are “all settled”—as the completion of her parental responsibilities. Little does she realize that parents are concerned for children forever—and that this concern is part of the blessing of a loving relationship.

This notion of the permanence of love leads us to the religious response to impermanence—the search beyond the worldly to the spiritual. When the usual candidates for certainty—money, power, strength, status—fall by the wayside, the Psalmist tells us to look to God because God is permanent—eternal, everlasting, infinite. When we attach ourselves to God, we can attach ourselves to infinity.

Thus does Psalm 15 list the traits of honesty and truthfulness and conclude, “One who lives in this way shall never be shaken.”

Psalm 90 (verses 10-12) speaks of our limited lifespan—“three-score years and ten, or, even by reason of strength, four-score years”—and the travail and vanity that are inevitable, and then holds up the ideal. “Teach us to number our days that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”

 We cannot be victorious forever, but God can.
“How great are Your works, O Lord, how very subtle Your designs!
A brutish person cannot know, nor can a fool understand:
Though the wicked may sprout like grass, and evil doers may blossom,
They are only temporarily: they shall be destroyed forever.
But, You, O Lord, You are exalted for all time!” 
(Psalm 92.6-9)

We even read this in our High Holy Day prayer books:
“Many of our actions are vain, and our days pass away like shadows. Our lives would be altogether vanity were it not for the soul which, fashioned in Thine own image, gives us assurance of our higher destiny and imparts to our fleeting days an abiding value.” (Union Prayer Book for Jewish Worship, Part II, 1894)

 We could muse with Kohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, vanity. All is vanity,” but even this tired and frustrated philosopher realizes that the problem lies in our expectations. “Put not your trust in princes, nor in a human being, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146), nor even in things that seem immovable—mountains, oceans, rivers, continents. Try instead to develop a relationship with the one thing that is immovable—God—and that wants to have a relationship with us. Over and over, our Tradition teaches us that God wants us to participate in the Divine Process—to do the work of godliness in the world. This is our ultimate hope, our chance to be a part of God. Thus does Kohelet ultimately reset his frame of reference and conclude, “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe God’s commandments! This applies to all humankind.”

 Yes, we are mortal, but we have a chance to touch eternity. As Rabbi Jacob explained, “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world that all the life of the world to come.”  (Avot 4.16)


Watching Our Enemies Squirm?

December 14th: Vayigash
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There is a verse in the Sabbath Psalm that speaks to Joseph’s potential mindset. Abandoned to slavers (or, in some versions, sold to slavers) by his brothers, forgotten by his family, misjudged by his employers, and forgotten by his friend, Joseph has lots of enemies. He could have mused with the words of Psalm 92, “The wicked flourish like grass—those who do evil are blossoming!” He might have continued, “Yet they are doomed to destruction…See how Your enemies, O Lord, see how Your enemies shall perish—how all who do evil shall be scattered.” Then, he could have imagined a day of release and reckoning, “You lift up my cause in pride, and I am bathed in freshening oil. I shall see the defeat of my foes; my ears shall hear of their fall.” (Psalm 92.8-12)

Though he was a victim for a long time, Joseph is now a major figure in Egypt and in charge of all the food. When his brothers arrive, asking on bended knee for provisions, Joseph is transported back to his youth and to his victimhood. The brothers do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. What should he do with his enemies?

His response is interesting. He does not tell him who he is, but instead plays a kind of “cat and mouse game” with them. Is he trying to figure out what to do? Is he testing their moral fiber? Is he setting them up for a dramatic and humiliating moment of reckoning? The story gets rather lengthy, and one can imagine significant emotional turmoil in Joseph’s head as each step of the drama goes on. Finally, after pushing the brothers to the limit, one brother, Judah, stands up and self-sacrificingly tries to save Benjamin from the trap Joseph has set, and Joseph can no longer control his emotions. He has seen his enemies on bended knee before him. He has manipulated them and can dispatch them in any way he chooses. But, the family love comes back to him, and he sees them as brothers and not as enemies. “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” (Genesis 45.3)

We all have our enemies, and we often need to know how to defend ourselves against them. God comes to tell us, however, that there may be remedies to enmity. When we can de-escalate conflict or hostility, when we can remove the element of danger and anxiety, there is a possibility of seeing the other as one of us. This is not always possible, but sometimes it can be the case.

In the midst of hostility, how do we hope to see our enemies? The Psalmist’s answer—and often ours—is that we want to see them weakened, frightened and at our mercy. We want the threat removed, but do we really want them dead?  At our better moments, I believe we can regard our enemies as God approaches sinners. As we are taught during the High Holy Days: “This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live. Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You.”

The analogy is not completely accurate because we are not God, and our enemies can do us real harm. However, once we have defended ourselves, we can aspire to be like God in hoping that our enemies turn from their evil ways—and behave like friends.

In so many instances of human conflict, the ideal resolution is of rapprochement, with a violent destruction being, at best, a tragic consequence. Remember the Midrash about the angels singing joyfully after the Splitting of the Red Sea. They are exuberant, but God shushes them with, “How can you rejoice when My children are floating dead in the sea?”  Though the Egyptians are evil and thoroughly deserving of their punishment, they too are God’s children, and God is grief-stricken at the consequences of their actions. God’s ideal resolution would have been for them to repent and return to the hospitable and just ways of the Pharaoh who knew Joseph and who welcomed the Hebrew strangers with, “Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt…” (Genesis 45.18)

A number of years ago, I was part of a group of interfaith leaders invited to attend the consecration of the new Roman Catholic Bishop. It was a beautiful and spiritual event, and, toward the end, we were all invited to come up to their bimah and greet the new bishop. When I reached out to shake his hand, he said to me, “I am Joseph, your brother.” It puzzled me for a minute because his name is John, but then I realized that he was quoting the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Though the Roman Catholic Church has been an enemy of the Jewish people for over 1500 years, the last 100 years have seen a major change in its thinking. Repenting in both theology and behavior, the Church has reached out to the Jewish community and has engaged us in many positive ways. In fact, the Catholics have helped to lead other branches of Christianity in renouncing supersessionism and other vestiges of anti-Semitism and engendering better and more respectful interfaith relations.

So when Bishop John Ricard said, “I am Joseph your brother,” he was expressing ex cathedra (because he was sitting in his Bishop’s chair) the new practice of the Roman Church to see Jews as brothers and sisters and fellow believers.

Do we forget the tragedies and atrocities of the past? Of course not. However, we should give thanks that God’s spirit of tolerance and respect is alive and well in our sister religion. It is a good resolution to an old problem.

Though we can understand the yearning of the Psalmist to “see the defeat of his foes,” our Tradition also encourages repentance and reconciliation. As we learn in the Talmud (Berachot 10a, Midrashically interpreting Psalm 104.35): “Some criminals in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood were giving him a great deal of trouble, and Rabbi Meir prayed that they should die. His wife Beruriah said to him: ‘How can you think that such a prayer is permitted? Is it written, “Sinners will cease?” No. It is written “Sins will cease.” Pray for an end to sin, and the criminals will stop sinning.’ Rabbi Meir prayed for them, and they repented.”



The Value of Suffering? Part II

December 7th: Miketz
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In the Torah this week, in Par’shat Miketz, we see the beginning of the end of Joseph’s suffering. It has been a long road of abandonment, exploitation, and injustice, but God’s redemption is coming. Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers the Hebrew lad who can interpret dreams, and he calls Joseph to Pharaoh’s attention. Pharaoh calls Joseph from the prison and poses his two perplexing dreams. Joseph humbly explains that he cannot interpret dreams—that he is merely channeling God’s message, and he gets down to business, interpreting the dreams and suggesting a course of action. Pharaoh is impressed, and a day that began with Joseph sitting forlorn in prison ends with him as the second most important official in Egypt.

We are also, of course, celebrating Chanukah—a very happy holiday. The Festival of Lights celebrates the dual miracles that led to the rededication (chanukah) of the Temple back around 165 BCE AND the resilience of our people and our faith. We are happy, as were the Maccabees when they were able once again to worship in the holy Temple. However, a lot of suffering was necessary in order for that first Chanukah to take place, and the suffering continued as the war with the Greek Syrians continued for a number of years.

 A hint of these generally forgotten difficulties comes in the English version of Ma’oz Tzur, the Chanukah Hymn. In the second verse we have:
Kindling new the holy lamps,
Priests approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine
Brought to God their offering.

 And, in the first verse, we sing:
Furious they assailed us,
But Thine arm availed us,
And Thy word broke their sword
When our own strength failed us.

We don’t tell the children about the fact that Judah Maccabee died in the ongoing war with the Greek Syrians—and the fact that the wars were real wars, with plenty of casualties on both sides. There was also suffering before the wars when many Jews were martyred for refusing to worship the Greek idols.

These stories are not in the Bible because they happened after the Bible. And, they are not included in the Talmud because the Rabbis did not want to emphasize the warrior ideal of the Maccabees. After all, they put together the Talmud in the aftermath of disastrous military efforts against the Romans (70 CE and 135 CE). From 140 CE until the mid-1800s, Judaism eschewed any kind of physical and forceful resistance—and therefore Chanukah was remembered through a different filter. (If it were not for the Christians and their Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha, the four intertestamental Books of the Maccabees and their stories of gruesome martyrdoms might have been lost.)

This situation of large-scale martyrdom directly counters Biblical “Deuteronomic Theology.” The reward for faithfulness to God’s mitzvot is supposed to be earthly reward. So, when Jews died because they were faithful to God and God’s commandments, it seemed that Deuteronomy is wrong.  Believing that God is ultimately just and fair, the Rabbis—the scholar class which supported the Maccabees and which was swept into religious authority with their victory over both the Greeks and the Hellenized Jewish Priesthood—figured that our purview must be too limited. Perhaps they intuited, God’s justice is not only for this world, and they began to teach about the Olam Haba, the World-to-Come, the place we go after we die—a place where the scales of Divine Justice are brought into balance. Thus, the suffering of this world can be seen as a test—a test that, if passed, can prepare our way for the eternal rewards of Olam Haba.

 Modern Judaism does not emphasize this reward-in-the-afterlife part of our tradition, but it has been a very important element for those dealing with suffering. If, despite the dangers and deprivations and profound sadnesses that afflict us, we can remain faithful to the mitzvot of morality and our religious responsibilities, then the rewards of Olam Haba will far exceed the pain we experience in this life. As Rabbi Judah says in Pirke Avot (4.16): “This world is like an anteroom before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the banquet hall.”

There is also the notion of an eternality one can achieve through godliness in the world—through acts of  nobility, principle, justice, righteousness, compassion, lovingkindness, charity, and love. In fact, Rabbi Jacob followed up his teaching on Olam Haba with this eternal but more earthly wisdom: “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world that all the life of the world to come.” He is not negating his previous teaching, but he is speaking about a closeness to God in the deeds of this world which is of ultimate value.

Is there value in suffering? We certainly do not want to suffer, but we have learned through the ages—and through our lives—that suffering can be transformed to a purpose. It can be something to endure for a future goal, or it can be an opportunity to give witness to a greater good.

Through it all, we are taught, God is with us—with us at every moment: doing justice, soothing pain, setting free, giving light, lifting up, taking care, inspiring, challenging. In both the good moments of our lives and the bad, God is our companion and our eternal hope. As we sing: Children of the martyr race,
Whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs,
Where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering
That the time is nearing
Which will see all free
Tyrants disappearing.