Saturday, August 1, 2015

Dvar Torah for Vaetchanan - A Need for a New Set of Commandments

If you had asked me earlier in the week to tell you what I would be talking about this Shabbat, I guarantee that it would not have been what I am going to talk about.

I would not have awoken one morning to see the picture of a smiling dentist next to the dead beloved endangered and protected which was lured out a nature preserve so that he could shoot it and claim it legal. He paid $55,000 for the opportunity to kill Cecil, Africa’s most famous lion and a national symbol of the people of Zimbabwe.

I would not have seen pictures and video of the Israel Defense Forces who were evacuating a settlement deemed illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court be accused of aiding the Nazis.

I would not have seen postings about stabbings by a religious zealot at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, thought they were talking about events of a decade ago, and then realized that not only did it happen again, but that the same hate filled religious zealot had done it again after being released from prison three weeks earlier.

I would not regularly be hearing accusations that people who advocate for the Iran Deal, which attempts to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon which it could use to threaten genocide against Israel, are in fact working to hasten that result by so trying.

I would not have conversed with Reform Rabbi colleagues of mine made so uncomfortable by the nature of the advocacy in support of the Iran Deal that they find themselves believing, as unfortunately do I, that antisemitism is now fair to use as long as you don’t use the words, “Israel, Jewish national organizations, Lobbying, Money, Lies and War” together in one sentence, but using them over and over in connected sentences seems to be fine even for our national leaders in press conferences with Jewish advocates!

I would not have had a conversation with an African American childhood friend who was vigorously arguing that I shouldn’t call the Holocaust “the greatest evil” because he felt it important that I recognize that American slavery was. The Holocaust was my people’s evil.

And I would not have awoken this morning to the news that Jewish religious terrorists set two Palestinian homes on fire, killed an 18 month old boy, Ali Dawabsha, and severely injured his four year old brother who may yet succumb to his injuries.

I should not be entering this Shabbat with its Deuteronomic Torah portion containing the second rendition of the Ten Commandments along with the Shema and V’ahavtah, instead thinking about the exhortation to do violence against sacrilege in Chapter 7 and how that may have motivated despicable actions this week.

Thou shall not murder.
Thou shall not covet, much less steal.
Thou shall not create or worship false idols.
Thou shall not make false accusations against the innocent.
Thou shall not take God’s name in vain.
What has happened in our world when those respected by society and the most pious neglect even these commandments?

I am disheartened by the events this week. I am crushed by the events over night in Israel.

I am made more hopeful by some of the responses to these awful things. Yair Lapid, leader of the “There is a Future” party, Yesh Atid, and a Member of the Israeli Knesset did a wonderful job of summing up much of how I feel about recent events in Israel in response to the terror attack overnight. He said:

We’re at war: for the future, for Zionism, for our existence…and we can’t afford to lose.

And our enemy is ourselves.

We cannot afford to lose sight of our goals, nor how important it is to stand up for our beliefs.

I am merely a rabbi. I do not claim to have prophetic visions and I certainly have not been visited by God upon a mountain as the Torah tells us that Moses was. But, I think, I have a few commandments to offer that might do us some good.
  1. Thou shall remember that we are all created in the image of God, that all of us bleed red blood when we are injured, and that all of us cry, fear, laugh and hope.
  2. Thou shall not dehumanize so as to consider murder something other and lesser.
  3. Thou shall not act as if political advocacy entitles us to demonize our opponents.
  4. Thou shall not allow hatred to rule over us.
  5. Thou shall not forget that once people we certain that the world was flat.
  6. Thou shall remember that we were strangers.
  7. Thou shall remember that we were persecuted.
  8. Thou shall remember to try to understand each other and overcome self-centeredness.
  9. Thou shall remember to be compassionate.
  10. Thou shall surely remember that “there but for the grace of God” could go any one of us.

May the coming week be a week that sees Shalom return to our world and be a greater part of our lives. 

May it be a week during which we see stories that make us hopeful and remind us of what is good in our world and of the best that people can be. 

Kein yehi ratzon! May it be God’s will!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Enough! Balaam's Ass and Church Conventions

When we teach bible stories to the kids in the religious school, there are many that are difficult for the students to understand or which fail to hold their attention long enough to explain so that they might. This Torah portion contains one of the stories that belies those problems. This Torah portion is one during which they giggle when we discuss it. You see, it features a donkey. But of course, the text doesn’t use that term. It uses “Ass.” Giggle. Giggle. “The rabbi said ‘Ass!’” Yep, it’s even true for adults. The story of Balaam’s Ass is one of the best in the Jewish tradition and certainly one of my favorites, not because I get to say the word “Ass” from the pulpit, but because it is a meaningful story.

The story is about how Balaam riding his donkey encounters an Angel blocking the road. Of course, the donkey sees the Angel. Balaam, looking right at the Angel, doesn’t see it and gets angry with the donkey which does. Balaam then beats the donkey, which then speaks up to stop him. Of course, the fact that this is a TALKING ASS doesn’t register as strange for Balaam either.

By now, you’re all thinking “And I know a few of those…” That’s another reason that adults giggle. Regardless, this Torah portion speaks to us, for sure. But other than enabling us to giggle at its vocabulary and get a jab or two in at those we know who at times act like donkeys, how is this story relevant for us today?

To get there, I’ll ask a question. What does the donkey say to Balaam?

He says, “Look, I am the ass you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” And Balaam answered, “No.”

To what topic does this simple conversation apply? It occurred to me that it applies all too well to one that is important and problematic for Jews today.

Any guesses as to the one about which I speak?

How about if I rephrase what the donkey stated as follows, “Look, I am a Jew that you have known and interacted with years? Have I been in the habit of doing or supporting what you casually accuse other Jews whom you don’t know of doing and supporting?”

This is a good explanation of how antisemitism and anti-Jewish racism found its way to be commonplace at the national conventions of our progressive Christian friends. This story helps us understand how, knowing Jews in their personal lives who act nothing like the way that some in their movements are accusing Israeli Jews of acting, progressive Christians too often nonetheless ignore the Jews in their midst whom they know well and instead act as if even the most heinous accusations make sense of the entire population of Israel.

This week, the United Church of Christ, perhaps the Reform movement’s closest of all of our friends in the Christian community, with whom we regularly interact on almost every social issue that arises, chose to beat us without talking to us. That’s a bit blunt. What a significant majority of its national conference delegates did was to condemn Israel based on false testimony, to advocate for the spreading of falsehoods about Jews and Israel as facts, and to do so without making any effort to reach out to Jews who were loudly protesting their actions until after the fact, if at all.

My friend, Rev. Matt Mardis-Lecroy of Plymouth Congregation, the largest UCC affiliated church in Iowa, reached out to me yesterday to apologize for not conversing with me before the vote which took place earlier in the week. He also sent along comments which he will publish stating that this vote doesn't necessarily bind or represent his church. I appreciate those sentiments, especially since he is the only one of a number of UCC ministers who could have reached out. We have yet to meet to discuss the issues, but this far he, nor any other UCC minister here in Des Moines has offered any statement of significant disagreement with or outright rejection of the contemptible discussions and votes which took place at the UCC national convention.

And they were contemptible. Not only did the UCC vote to divest itself from companies that “profit from the occupation,” a significant majority of UCC voters actually supported a vote that would have deemed Israel an “Apartheid state,” AND the UCC is advocating that the basis of its education concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be the “Kairos Palestine” document which the Central Conference of American Rabbis stated in 2009 was both full of falsehoods and outright antisemitism.

On Wednesday, the CCAR issued what is perhaps its strongest ever condemnation. I am going to read it to you:

With sadness and dismay, we condemn the action of the United Church of Christ (UCC) to target Israel with divestment and boycotts. With this vote, the UCC has now taken sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has explicitly joined the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a contemptible effort to delegitimize the State of Israel and deny the Jewish people's right to statehood. We do thank and commend the small, brave, minority of delegates to the UCC General Synod who voted against the wrongful, self-defeating resolution.

[I add my appreciation for all those in our local UCC churches who would have done so if given the opportunity.]

We note with even greater revulsion the majority vote of the General Synod to brand Israel an apartheid state. We take cold comfort in the fact that the "apartheid" resolution failed for want of the two-thirds majority required for adoption. This vote most closely resembles the odious 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism. Though later revoked, it marked the emergence of the U.N. as a venue of implacable anti-Israel hostility.

Reform rabbis are particularly saddened by this development, because of the long-standing and meaningful relationships that many of us and our communities have cherished, and will now be forced to re-evaluate with UCC clergy and congregations. We note with disgust that our UCC colleagues chose to consult a virulently anti-Israel organization, calling itself "Jewish Voice for Peace," rather than their trusted friends and allies who lead the organized Jewish community. Like our UCC colleagues, Reform rabbis are deeply engaged with the plight of the Palestinians, and we strongly support the peace process to achieve two states for two peoples.

We affirm what the CCAR resolved in 2005: "We deeply deplore efforts that blame [only] Israel for the failure of the peace process or that seek to use economic actions against Israel, including singling out for shareholder actions or divestment, companies working in Israel. These shareholder efforts are more likely to hinder rather than advance the peace process. Israel's adversaries may interpret them as endorsing continuation of their strategies of rejectionist and terror. In addition, the one-sided nature of these actions undermines their credibility [,. . .] thereby creating the perception that the sponsoring entities [in this case, the United Church of Christ] seek to delegitimize the very existence of the State of Israel."

This decision is a shameful episode for the United Church of Christ.

Yet, how more shameful was it to invite Rev. Mitri Raheb to offer a keynote speech the day before the UCC voted to support divestment?

Rev. Raheb, beloved by those who advocate for the Palestinian side, believes that Palestinian Christians have inherited all of the blessings offered to the people of Israel in the Torah, that the Jews who exist today are all people from Eastern Europe, descended from Khazars who converted to Judaism, and that today’s Jews have no historical connection to the land of Israel at all. Raheb always refers to Jesus as a Palestinian and not as a Jew.

These things are not representative of a difference in policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are representative of racism and antisemitism as well as utter ignorance and hate.

Let me be very explicit here. It is both ignorance and racism to argue that Jews as a race descend from Khazars. End of discussion. Racism. And antisemitism as well because this utter falsehood demeans Jews as people. It is therefore clearly anti-Jewish. Finally, the argument that Jews have no connection to the land, an obvious falsehood, is designed and used to instill contempt of the Jews by arguing that the Jews as liars have stolen what never belonged to them and therefore have no rights to any state at all.

My friend, Dexter Van Zile, wrote about Raheb’s speech at the UCC Convention. He said in a recent article for
No, Raheb is not a Nazi, but no one who knows about previous efforts to separate Jesus from Judaism can applaud Raheb’s sermon in good conscience. No one who knows anything about the impact of efforts to separate Christianity from its Jewish roots can applaud Raheb’s polemic.
But that's what UCCer's did at the denomination's 30th General Synod.
What makes Raheb’s sermon so much more troublesome is that when he did mention Israel in his sermon it was in reference to “the occupation.” Clearly, Israeli policies have an impact on Palestinians, but nowhere during his talk did he mention Palestinian violence against Israel, only the “suffocating Israeli occupation.”
In sum, Raheb removed Jews from the land of Israel, deprived them of their history and then portrayed the modern Jewish state as the singular source of suffering endured by the Palestinian people.
And for this he got a standing ovation.
Raheb, the people who invited him to speak, and the people who applauded after his sermon engaged in a sinful act of false witness against the Jewish people and their homeland.
Our friends, who have known us a long time, are blinded and are wrongfully beating us. It is time for us donkeys to speak up about it.

Rev. Matt Mardis-Lecroy and I will be meeting in a couple of weeks and I will make an effort along with others among the Jewish leadership in town to reach out to others.

Our message is simple:

We may disagree on the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the possible ways in which it might be resolved, but the promotion of anti-Jewish racism and traditional antisemitism as well as Christian supercessionism are not an acceptable part of the conversation whether they are being discussed by known White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis, for whom they are standard tropes, or by Palestinian Christian religious leaders, or even by Nobel laureates. And furthermore, study materials concerning the history of the conflict and its possible resolutions, along with any discussion of the nature of the Jewish people or of Israelis as Jews, must be devoid of that racism, antisemitism, and Christian supercessionism to be meaningful and helpful in approaching possible resolutions.

It would be unfair to suggest that only the UCC is guilty of this type of behavior, though the extent of what took place at its recent convention deserves specific condemnation. Unfortunately, the UCC simply has added its advocacy to a number of other churches who have chosen to promote hateful Antisemitic tropes in their anti-Israel pro-Palestinian advocacy efforts. 

This week, as we read the story of the Ass, let us hope Balaam will stop beating us long enough to realize he’s wrong.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Nearing the Mountaintop - We Made A Difference

Forty-six years ago this weekend, June 28, 1969 in Greenwich Village at the Stonewall Inn, police raided a gay nightclub in an attempt to arrest its patrons because being gay was illegal in New York City. Being gay was illegal. Riots ensued and, in their aftermath, the LGBT rights movement was born.

In light of the situation in America five decades ago, today’s Supreme Court decision arguing that gay and lesbian individuals’ rights are ensured by the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause, including the right to marry whomever they choose, could be seen as miraculous.

The Executive Director of the Central Conference of American Rabbis CCAR said:
As Jews, we believe we are all formed in God’s image. For many years, Reform Judaism rabbis have called for equal rights for all members of our communities, and we see today’s Supreme Court decision on marriage equality as a huge moral victory for the United States.
The Reform movement has been a strong advocate. Last March, the CCAR marked the 25th anniversary of a 1990 resolution calling for the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis, and installed its first openly gay president, Rabbi Denise Eger. I personally have performed a number of same-sex marriage ceremonies and spoke on several occasions at the Iowa Capitol about it. 

The majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy is not a simple legal document. It is beautiful. For example, it states the following about the institution of marriage:

The annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations. The centrality of marriage to the human condition makes it unsurprising that the institution has existed for millennia and across civilizations. Since the dawn of history, marriage has transformed strangers into relatives, binding families and societies together.

Beautiful! Yet, the stories of the three couples cited by Justice Kennedy in the opinion are heart wrenching:
  1. 1.     A married couple wherein one spouse died from ALS, but because the state in which they resided didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, it refused to list the surviving spouse on the death certificate. Imagine not being listed as the spouse of your beloved because the state decided you weren’t allowed to marry.
  2. 2.     A married couple with children, wherein because the state would not recognize the couple’s same-sex marriage, neither would it recognize both parents as the legal guardians of their adopted children leaving not only the couple, but the children as well, at risk should anything happen to one of them.
  3. 3.     A couple including a soldier who served with the Tennessee National Guard in Afghanistan, whom when he returned home found that he was considered unmarried.

Justice Kennedy noted:

Even when a greater awareness of the humanity and integrity of homosexual persons came in the period after World War II, the argument that gays and lesbians had a just claim to dignity was in conflict with both law and widespread social conventions. Same-sex intimacy remained a crime in many States. Gays and lesbians were prohibited from most government employment, barred from military service, excluded under immigration laws, targeted by police, and burdened in their rights to associate… For much of the 20th century, moreover, homosexuality was treated as an illness…

Change was slow to come. It wasn’t until 1990 that even the highly progressive Reform Jewish movement was willing to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis and congregations were not exactly banging down the door to hire them when it did.

Justice Kennedy explained that times and our understanding of our world changes, something at the basis of Reform Judaism, discussed 130 years ago in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. The Justice wrote:

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed…

It is noteworthy that rather than speak to a definition of civil marriage, Justice Kennedy spoke of what marriage should be. He stated:

The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation… Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.

While, in the opinion there are many paragraphs about legal benefits based in marriage and problems caused by exclusion from it, how beautiful is the statement, that marriage “offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other?”

I’m personally not sure I would have needed any more than that statement alone to justify what the Supreme Court of the United States did today. Yet, the concluding paragraph offered by Justice Kennedy is worthy of sermon and will itself be long remembered and oft quoted.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

And so 46 years after the Stonewall Riot in Greenwich Village when simply being gay was cause to be arrested, today it is legal for two gay men to be married there and their marriage will be recognized everywhere in America.

I often urge us to action as I did last week. I point out that we can make a difference even if what our own actions contribute is but a drop of water. Many drops, as was all too clear this week here in Des Moines, create a river and sometimes a very flooded one. What we can clearly say, after this Supreme Court decision, is that our drops of water, all of our advocacy through the years, created that river. 

We made a difference.

I stand before you, thinking of my own family members, who were never able to publicly acknowledge that they were gay or lesbian.

I stand before you, thinking of those in our congregation and in our community who have struggled to have their freedom and rights recognized, often suffering persecution and discrimination because of their views.

I stand before you, having spoken often about Antisemitism and the Holocaust, remembering pink triangles and getting choked up about it. This has been a long and painful struggle.

I stand before you, knowing the elation of nearing the mountaintop, having labored so hard and long on the climb. What a feeling!

We are here on a day when these words ring more truthful, “We the people who hold this truth to be self-evident, that we all are created equal.”

Today, my friends, we live in a nation beginning to live up to the lofty promise made by its first President to a little community of Jews in Rhode Island 225 years ago. In the words of President George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in New Port Rhode Island and quoting the words of that congregation’s leader, Moses Seixas:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy, a policy worthy of imitation.

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of the inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…

May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

This is truly a momentous day.

And so, how can I conclude this sermon with anything other than Shecheheyanu, thanking God for bringing us to this long sought after day?

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, for sustaining us in life, strengthening us, and enabling us to reach the day!

Friday, June 19, 2015

We Still Have A Dream - On the Charleston Shooting and Faith

The Torah relates that when Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, were killed, that Aaron was silent. Speechless. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes there are too many words, perhaps too many unhelpful words. Rage words. Too few understanding words.

Tonight, we lift our prayers and give strength to those in Charleston, South Carolina, to the members of the AME Church across our nation, to the African American community that has once again suffered a grievous wound, to all those of faith…knowing it could easily have been us, too often for we Jews it has been us,… we offer support. It is a great honor for me to be able to host this service, to have heard Pastor Black share her thoughts tonight, to be joined by so many faith leaders and so many caring hearts here to offer prayers and strength.

My friends, a confession.
I am a prejudiced man.
I am a man who discriminates.
I am a man who bears hatred.

I am prejudiced against intolerance.
I discriminate against those who proclaim it.
I hate those who act upon it.

Such people have caused endless suffering. The history of my people is replete with haters who have acted in ways not unlike what happened in Charleston, South Carolina. I do not have to struggle to imagine something similar happening in a Jewish context, in a synagogue, in a community center, in a kosher supermarket. It happens all too often. We know that suffering.

But to apply Rabbi Hillel’s famous statement,
“If I am not willing to take on the challenge of changing the world, can I expect anyone else to do so?
What will I become if I do try?” and finally,
“If I am not willing to stand up here and now and say ‘NO MORE?’ When will I?” Too late? When Maurice Ogden’s Hangman knocks upon my door to take me to the gallows?

Here we are on June 19, 2015 mourning the killing of nine members of an AME Church in South Carolina, including four pastors.

June 19 is an important date in Black History. On June 19, 1865, a date that came to be known as Juneteenth and has been celebrated annually since, Union Solders landed on the shores of Galveston, Texas with the news that slaves were truly free. 150 years ago, today.

150 years after the end of slavery in this nation, a young man joined a prayer service at a historic black church, sitting with those attending for an hour, before opening fire on peaceful prayerful men and women simply because of the color of their skin.


I was asked by a man in despair over the martyrdom of the innocents in Charleston, how we may overcome the hatred in our world. I immediately thought of Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.”

Tomorrow will not be the day that hatred vanishes from our world. It won’t be the next day either. It won’t be because you and I spoke out and said, “Hatred be gone!” or because God finally acquiesced and decided to make peace on earth because we sang a rousing chorus of Oseh Shalom as we will later on tonight.

When the time comes, when that day of peace finally arrives, when hatred and war are banished, it will be because each of us individually made a little bit of difference; little drops of water in the stream of justice will allow righteousness to flow like a mighty river.

We are in this together, my friends: as Americans and as people of faith.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech:

With this faith, we will indeed be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
With this faith, we will indeed be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
With this faith, we will indeed be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together.

Tonight, I am reminded of another line, often forgotten, in that same speech, the one introducing the dream. Dr. King said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

Do we still have a dream? Do we still have a dream? …I think we do.

We still have a dream.

We still have a dream that our children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

We still have a dream.

We still have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

We still have a dream today. Juneteenth, 150 years to the day.

We still have a dream of freedom from slavery, freedom from the shackles of hatred and the bonds of prejudice; freedom from those who see only skin deep and see otherness as inhumanity.

We still have a dream!

And we have faith! Look around you tonight. But don’t just look. Truly see! Perceive!
These people here tonight and all those around our nation gathering together in vigil after vigil are people who care. These are people who like you have had enough! These are people…We the People…who hold this truth to be self-evident, that we all are created equal. We all matter.

You are not alone.
We are not alone.
No one is alone.
We stand together.

That is our dream. Let us make it real.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Boldly Go – In Memory of Leonard Nimoy

Tonight’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is focused on the priestly raiments. We learn about the Ephod, the Breastpiece, the robe, a fringed tunic, headdress and sash, the kinds of yarns that are to be used and metals and gems for adornment.  There was a whole lot of commentary connected to this Torah partion today with people arguing about whether the priestly dress was white and gold or instead blue and black!

After describing the priestly vestments, the Torah speaks of the method of consecration, of the sacrificial practices that must be performed. Finally, we hear of where God will meet with the priests, in the Tent of Meeting which will be sanctified by God’s presence.

The specifics of the discussion of priestly garments are not directly appropriate to the matters of the day, or perhaps considering the many discussions about the color of that dress, all too appropriate. Yet, the Torah which was taught this afternoon was indeed connected to the priests. It focused on the Priestly Benediction and the hand gesture of the character Spock from Star Trek. The much beloved actor who portrayed Spock, Leonard Nimoy, passed away today at the age of 83.

Leonard Nimoy, who grew up Orthodox in Boston to Ukrainian immigrant parents, helped to bring Jewish ideals into millions of homes through Star Trek. Nimoy, actor, director, photographer, poet, ended up so connected to the character of Spock that he struggled to make his own way. His two autobiographies were entitled, “I am not Spock,” published in 1977 and “I am Spock,” published in 1995.

Star Trek, which debuted September 8, 1966 took on the social issues of the day though a campy sci-fi show set in the distant future. Star Trek challenged numerous social norms from women’s rights, to race, equality and much more. Spock’s character presented and represented several challenges to social norms.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, called him the “conscience of Star Trek.” Spock was a vehicle used to bring science and reason to confront human emotional reactions and beliefs. Whenever a prejudice or some aspect of faith impacted a storyline, Spock was there to squash it or to highlight it.

My favorite Spock scene is one from the movie Wrath of Khan. Spoiler alert, I’m going to tell you how the movie ends. Plug your ears if you’d rather not hear.

The ship was crippled and the only way to save it was for Spock to enter a room full of a lethal level of radiation. The doctor discouraged Spock from entering. Spock incapacitated him, entered, and saved the ship along with all those onboard. When Captain Kirk arrived and interacted with Spock as he lay dying, Leonard Nimoy’s character explained himself by saying that, “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper."

It’s a very Kantian message, based in science and reason.

Star Trek’s real message, however, is in Captain Kirk’s response, the Jewish response, set up by Spock’s statement. It is found in the following movie, “The Search for Spock,” which was directed by Nimoy. In it, the crew takes a great risk to recover Spock’s now resurrected body from "The Genesis Planet," I won’t even bother to comment on the obvious religious overtones of that.

Spock, not remembering what happened, asks Kirk, “Why would you do this?” “Why go through this great risk, put the whole crew at risk, to help me?” Captain Kirk responds with a rabbinical statement, “Because the needs of the one, outweigh the needs of the many.” It is a statement based on Mishnah Sanhedrin, which teaches, “Whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”

Nimoy’s character, Spock, was part of an inter-racial family--well, actually an inter-species family. Spock was part human and part Vulcan. His character and its narrative of nearly five decades of Star Trek episodes and movies about his character, helped people understand mixed-race, multi-cultural, and interfaith families. We followed many story lines about religious rites, cultural stereotypes, discrimination and prejudice. Star Trek taught tolerance and did so significantly through the character of Spock.

Spock showed that geeks could be leaders and helped make science cool. His was a character far ahead of his time, beloved by science fiction fans from the start.

Star Trek’s theme in its early incarnation was “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” The statement was about exploration, about human adventure. In retrospect, it was also what the show did in confronting the accepted ideas of its day. It was bold.

Commander Spock’s character, Start Trek as a show, and Leonard Nimoy throughout his life, went boldly forward and urged us to follow. “Lekh lekha!” Get up and boldly go from where you are used to being and what you are used to having around you. Things are going to change! It was a biblical message. It was the message of the 1960s. It was a Jewish message.

Today, was a day that fans of Star Trek have long dreaded. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock is now truly dead, not to be resurrected in the next movie.

His memory lives on. It was something special today, seeing people all around the world sharing a Jewish sign, the Priestly Benediction, with one another? How meaningful on this day of political argument, of fears of terrorism, of division, that so many offered each other a blessing? “Live long and prosper!”

Leonard Nimoy will always be remembered for his portrayal of the character of Spock, for his on stage portrayal of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, for his love of Judaism and for the many things he taught us all about how to live, to be proud of our Judaism, and to care for one another.

Live long and prosper, my friends. Live long and prosper! Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On Bread Bag Shoes and Insulting the Poor

It's time for the unpopular prophetic voice. Friends, partisan politics aside: Please explain to me why we're making fun of Joni Ernst because she grew up poor in rural Iowa? Policies, argue away. Don't like her choice of camouflage footwear or "making them squeal," criticize away. You want to complain about Ernst playing up her poverty as a child, if she is, go ahead. You don't have to agree with her or like her.
I have to take exception with making fun of the fact that Joni Ernst's mother, wanting to protect her shoes because they couldn't afford new ones, had her put bread bags over them in bad weather. Anyone who cares for the poor shouldn't be making fun of that. Are we now going to make fun of which plastic soft drink bottles poverty stricken people in India or Africa tie around their feet? We're going to have jokes about Mountain Dew giving them a greater lift? "Hey, wonder if that guy knows he can get a pair of shoes 2 for 1 at Hy-Vee this weekend?" This whole meme about bread bags is highly elitist and offensive. If you wouldn't walk up to a homeless person and insult their clothing, heaping insults on Ernst because she shared a memory of being a poor kid is probably not an appropriate thing to do. It isn't a Jewish thing to do either.
Proverbs 17:5 "Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their maker."
Here endeth rant.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Clarion Call - The Death of Liberty

We do our best to be tolerant of religious sensibilities. Tolerance indeed requires a willingness to avoid offense. Yet, we cannot be tolerant of those who resort to violence because someone offended their sensibilities. Freedom requires the ability to say what others, and especially those in power, do not want to hear: the criticism and the challenge. Let's just recall a few quotes shall we:
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. - George Orwell
If Freedom of Speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. - George Washington
Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of the opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
(Special message to the Congress on the internal security of the United States - August 8, 1950) - Harry Truman
Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear! - Catherine of Sienna, 14th Century
We have been warned time and again.

We can neither ignore the fact that we face active threats from violent Islamists nor the threat that fear will additionally produce in limiting liberty. We know that:
Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech. - Benjamin Franklin
We now see the world's major media outlets refusing to offend. Oxford University Press is now discouraging the use of pigs in children's books because that might offend Muslim sensibilities. So prepare yourselves for the "Three Little Chickens and the Huffing and Puffing Wolf." Yes, we know with absolute certainty that there are people who are intolerant and even those who will engage in violence against those who challenge and disagree. Their goal it is to overthrow our liberty. Should we simply concede our freedom because the way we use it offends some?

Fran├žois-Marie Arouet's philosophy fueled the American and French revolutions. He is better remembered by his nom-de-plume used so as to avoid persecution by those eager to silence him. Perhaps, his words will motivate us today:
I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. - Voltaire
Let me add my own statement and my own warning to the list of those who spoke before:
Our freedoms are based on on our willingness to fight and die for them against those willing to fight and die to limit them.
We can watch freedom slowly erode and cower in fear under threat with Jews gradually or rapidly leaving for safety in Israel from all over Europe or we can accept the reality that the one thing the west cannot tolerate is a willingness to abdicate freedom to avoid offending those who disagree with how we put it to use.

On Sunday, January 11, hundreds of thousands rallied in the streets of Paris for the sake of freedom and in support of those who are threatened. Many others in France did not rally because they do not value the defense of freedom and support the threats. Today, France and truly all of Europe face a stark choice:

  1. Stand up and act against the growing tide of oppression that has developed because of toleration of the intolerant or 
  2. Watch liberty overthrown.