Word from Our Rabbi

A Shot in the Arm for the New Year!!, September 2022

Rebbetzin Kathy and I had the privilege of kicking off the 2022-2023 Sunday School year on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. We are both super-excited about the number of students who will be learning with us this year. Those who know us know how passionate we are about the Jewish faith/ tradition. We consider it such an honor to be passing that tradition along to the next generation. And, speaking of passion for Judaism, I will never forget the way my heart swelled with Jewish pride the first time I read Max Dimont’s Jews, God and History. If you have not read it yet, or if you just need a shot in the arm for the upcoming Jewish new year, 5783, I highly recommend it.

First published in 1955, the first edition of Jews, God and History became a classic in Max’s lifetime. He was in the process of updating his volume and re-publishing it at the time of his death in 1992. Fortunately his widow, Ethel Dimont, continued his work and completed the publication of the second edition in 1994. Since Judaism is the foundation stone of the three major religions of the Western Hemisphere and of many of the Philosophies of the Enlightenment and Modern Periods, this book should be of interest to just about every student of history. Ethel Dimont points out in the preface that most books are written by Jews for Jews or by scholars for scholars, but not this book. It is laid out in a popular and readable format, accessible by anyone. And even at 490 pages, the book is riveting from cover to cover.

In a world with almost eight billion people, of whom less than eighteen million, that is less than one third of one percent, are Jews, one would expect that the people known as the Jews would be barely heard of in modern times. Yet, our contribution to Western society is far out of proportion to our small numbers. Why is that the case? The Dimonts believe they found the answer(s). When is the last time you met an American Hittite or a British Jebusite or a French Hivite or a German Amorite perhaps a Turkish Assyrian or even an Italian Etruscan? Most small clans and even some larger national groups have come and gone on the stage of history, but again our people, known as the Jews, have existed in nearly every culture in nearly every country on every continent for over four thousand years. The Dimonts claim that history has thrown six major challenges at the Jewish people throughout our history. Not only did we overcome those challenges, but each challenge influenced and sharpened us, and we in turn influenced and changed history. Jews, God and History does not make the decision as to whether this survival was the result of divine intervention or of divine interaction or of natural sociological and political forces, but the book lays out the case for each and allows the reader to decide.

The history of the Jews begins, of course, at a time about 4000 years ago when a man named Abraham had an encounter with the God known to him as Jehovah (Jews, God, and History, p. 17). In about 2000 BCE, Abraham’s father, Terah, had brought his family from the cosmopolitan, Babylonian city of Ur across the river Euphrates to the land of Haran. It is here that Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants first became known as Hebrews meaning the people “who crossed over…from the other side of the river.” (p. 19). It is at this point that Abraham perceived that his God, Jehovah, was making a special covenant with him and his descendants, sealed by the rite of circumcising all male children on the eighth day. While many things have changed about Jews and Judaism over the millennia, “this idea of a covenant with God has remained constant” (p. 20). Once Jews began to champion the idea of monotheism, their behavior began to change in radical ways from the pagan nations who surrounded them. The Jews, or Hebrews as they were called, spent the next two to three hundred years in a mostly nomadic lifestyle, acquiring territory and possessions in the land which would later become known as Israel. They continued to serve their invisible and transcendent, one God and to develop rituals in line with God’s values.

It was probably during the time of the Hyksos domination of Egypt that the Jews under Joseph were invited to live among the Egyptians. The Hyksos were a Semitic people, like the Jews, who rose to power over the ethnic Egyptians in about the 17th century BCE. This idea makes sense because it accounts for the fact that once the ethnic Egyptians rose up and expelled the Hyksos they also turned on the Jewish population and enslaved them. It was under the leadership of the next great figure of Jewish history, Moses, that the Hebrew peoples were liberated from that bondage in Egypt. The covenant with Jehovah that Abraham had made was renewed under Moses. Some very interesting historical questions arise at this point. Since it is highly unlikely that all Hebrews went down to Egypt under Joseph, and considering that the two earliest strata of the Torah used two different names for the deity, Jehovah and Elohim, the Dimonts pose several possible historical scenarios:

    Could it have been Abraham who originated the ideas of monotheism and the “chosen people,” and could it have been Moses who reintroduced them? Or, could it have been that Moses originated both ideas, which then were attributed origins of the Israelites? Or was Moses perhaps even a non-Jew, as some scholars claim, who chose the Jews as the people to whom to give his religious ideas? This then might give a secular explanation to the origin of the term “chosen people.” Did a fusion take place in Canaan, between the Israelites who Moses led out of Egypt and the Hebrews who did not enter Egypt with Joseph? (p. 28)
The Dimonts devote many interesting pages to fleshing out the various possibilities, but ultimately allow the reader to decide.

As the Hebrew people began to reestablish themselves in the land of Israel, after a semi-nomadic beginning and then a long sojourn in Egypt part of which was spent in slavery, what was the glue that held them together? The Dimonts make the case that it was a combination of the Jews transcendent and invisible God, with the addition of a powerful written code, the Torah. The very idea of a written code of human conduct seems to have been a Semitic invention, as law codes began to emerge among the Sumerian people around 2500 BCE. The Dimonts argue that the Torah was a “bold leap into the future,” surpassing any of the existing codes of that time for many reasons. They state, “The Mosaic Code…was the first truly judicial, written code and eclipsed previously known laws with its all-encompassing humanism, its passion for justice, its love of democracy” (p. 33). Jews, God and History continues to trace the development of Jewish history to the period of the judges and into the early days of the monarchy, examining both religion and culture. It maintains that the high level of intellectualism that has become associated with the Jewish people was the result of the interplay between an abstract invisible God and the concrete specifics of a written Torah which demanded constant reapplication as times and situations changed. A great deal of time is spent on the historical development of the Torah itself. I will not repeat that here as it is covered better in another book report (Who Wrote the Bible? Richard Elliott Friedman, 1987).

From the beginning of the monarchy, through domination and periodic destruction by local superpowers, including Assyria, Babylonia, Persia and Egypt, the Dimonts see the emergence of the Prophets is the next major phase of Jewish religious and cultural development.

    From the Prophetic teaching that the Jews must set an example for the rest of mankind through the idea that the physical commandments of Judaism were for the Jews only, but that the spiritual and moral message of Judaism was for all mankind. … Judaism, which began its life as the exclusive property of a few Jewish families, enlarged by Moses to include all the tribes of Israel, expanded by Josiah to bind the Jewish nation, was now made universal by the prophets. [Emphasis mine] … The Jews created two new ideas which have since become the possession of mankind. Instead of a temple for sacrifice the Jews built synagogues for religious assembly; instead of rituals for God, the Jews offered prayers to God. The synagogue became the prototype for the church of the Christians and the mosque of the Muslims; prayer became the universal symbol of devotion to God (p. 58).
With these religious and cultural developments, the Dimonts point out that Judaism began to expand beyond the borders of the Holy Land and to make proselytes in many nations in many cultures by the middle of the Roman period. It may have expanded to such a point that it would have ultimately engulfed the entire Roman Empire were it not for a religious newcomer on the scene, Christianity.

With the destruction of Judea at the hands of the Romans, Judaism entered into its next major religious phase, the Talmudic period, which was dominated by the rabbis. The many chapters that follow in Jews, God and History trace the complex interplay between Judaism and early Christianity and between Judaism and medieval Christianity. Perhaps the most interesting dynamic of that phase of history is how the antiJudaism of the early and medieval church transmitted into the secular anti-Semitism of the modern era. That too is covered in greater depth in another book report (Christian Antisemitism—A History of Hate, William Nichols, 1993).

In spite of the many obstacles they have endured, the Jewish people have survived to contribute religiously, philosophically, mathematically, scientifically, and artistically in almost every culture and every age. The Dimonts make much of the strong correlation between the American system of government and the teachings on government in the Torah and the Prophets, as well as in later Jewish writings. Jews, God and History culminates with the resettling of the Jewish people in the land of Israel and the establishment of the modern state of Israel. What seemed only a dream for 2000 years is a reality in our lifetime. Won’t you join us for services at Temple Beth Shalom as we celebrate another New Year of the Jewish dream for humankind? L’shanah tovah tikatevu!!!!!!

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Countdown to the High Holidays!!, August 2022

What an oppressive summer of heat we have had! The heat index, which factors in heat and humidity, has been at or near 100 degrees for almost three weeks now!! As I wrote in my June/July bulletin article though, according to our sages, this oppressive heat should break on Friday, August 12th, the 15th of Av. Shortly thereafter, at sundown on Saturday, August 27th, we come to Rosh Chodesh Elul, the New Moon of the month of Elul, a very important time in Jewish history and tradition! Elul, which is the sixth month of the Festival Calendar and the twelfth month of the Civil Calendar —leading up to Rosh Hashanah, has (since Talmudic times) become a season of particular introspection, repentance, and restitution.

According to the Sages of Israel, it was on Rosh Chodesh Elul, that Moses ascended Mount Sinai following the people’s sin of the “golden calf” to make intercession before Adonai. You will recall that Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days. That would have covered the thirty days of the month of Elul and extended ten days into the month of Tishri, bringing Moses’ sojourn on the mountain to an end on the very day of Yom Kippur. It was on that visit to Mount Sinai that Moses received the second set of stone tablets containing the Law of God, since the first set had been destroyed at the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 33-34). It was also on this visit to Sinai that Moses had the opportunity to glimpse just a tiny portion of God’s glory. This amazing self-revelation by the Creator has become known as the “Thirteen Attributes” of God and is chanted in Hebrew at many of our most moving prayer and worship services, particularly during the High Holidays: “Adonai, Adonai (God’s Name repeated twice), compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps loving kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7).

Many Jewish sources have pointed out that the name of Elul, spelled aleph-lamed-vav-lamed in Hebrew, could serve as an acronym for the verse, "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li—I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). The Sages have long interpreted this verse as an allegory for the relationship between God, the beloved, and the people of Israel. Just as Moses drew close to the Almighty on Mount Sinai at this season of the year following the Israelites’ miraculous redemption from Egypt, so should we draw close to our “beloved” Creator in the period preceding our holiest of days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (See Tracey R. Rich, “The Month of Elul and Selichot,” http://www.jewfaq.org/elul.htm).

The Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, used to liken the month of Elul to a time when “a great king is in the field” as opposed to a time when the king is confined to the palace. When in the field, the king is among the people, and easily accessible to anyone desiring a royal audience (“Elul Observances in a Nutshell,” http://www.chabad.org/holidays/).

Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire Torah is the verse following the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’chal levavcha uv’chal naphshecha uv’chal me’odecha.” It translates, “And you shall love the LORD (Adonai’s Name) your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” My congregation at Temple Beth Shalom probably gets tired of hearing me ask the rhetorical question, “Now, loving someone or something with all your heart, soul, and might…, what exactly would that look like?” Would you have a hard time getting that one out of your thoughts? Would that one’s name be the first thing that entered your mind upon arousing from sleep in the morning? Would your thoughts be on that one as you drifted off to sleep each night? Would you be overwhelmed with joy when in that one’s presence, and perhaps saddened to the point of sickness upon being separated from that one? I know that despite my best intentions and re-commitments each year, I fall far short of honoring and remaining conscious of the Source of All Life to the level directed by the Torah. And, I am sure that many of my co-religionists must feel the same. The month of Elul is a wonderful opportunity to re-examine our relationship with the Creator, and to map out strategies for greater devotion—more diligent study of Torah, more prayer and thanksgiving, perhaps greater support for our house of study and worship.

Elul is also an opportune time to examine our relationships with our fellow men and women. You will recall that in one of the most powerful of our High Holiday prayers, we pray, quoting from the Mishna, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another” (Gates of Repentance, URJ High Holiday Prayer Book; Mishna Yoma 8:9). In Jewish tradition, we have an entire month, Elul, to consider our behavior toward others and make amends and possibly even restitution where needed. This month is also an ideal time to consider becoming more proactive in our relationships with others—increasing our acts of social justice, tzedakah (charitable giving), and gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion), for the sake of tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Over the last two millennia, the Sages of Judaism have developed the richest of traditions to serves as guideposts for the implementation of our faith principles. Beginning on the second day of the month of Elul and continuing until two days before Rosh Hashanah, it is the Ashkenazi custom to blow the shofar daily (after morning prayers), as a call to reflection, introspection, and repentance. The shofar is not sounded on Shabbat, nor is it blown the day before Rosh Hashanah, in order to separate rabbinic custom from Biblical command. Also, during the month of Elul, Psalm 27 is added to the morning and the evening prayer services. In that Psalm, David exclaims, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the refuge of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? … One thing I have asked from the LORD, that shall I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.” These words are a clear reminder that the Protector of Israel is continuously in our midst, and we are continuously in God’s Presence. Finally, at sunset on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, S’lichot prayers, special petitions for the mercy and forgiveness of the Almighty are added before the shachrit/morning prayer service (Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “ABC’s of Elul,” http://www.aish.com/).

As we prepare for the coming of the Hebrew year 5783, I encourage all members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom to study our precious Jewish heritage and implement more and more of its lofty principles. I like to honor the teaching of my mentor, Rabbi Theodore Gordon, who used to say, “As a liberal rabbi, I am certainly not going to tell people what they need to do to be Jewish. BUT, DO SOMETHING!” There are, according to the sages, 613 commandments/mitzvoth in the Torah. Explore it! Find which ones resonate and are meaningful to you and in your life. And I remind you regarding all the commandments, as we pray in the Shabbat morning service, “…sh’adam okhel peiroteinu b’olam hazeh v’hakeren kayemet lo l’olam haba— the one (who keeps them) eats their fruit in this world, and reward accrues to that one in the world to come.” As we say in Hebrew, “Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!”

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Summer is Here!!, June/July 2022

I can remember when Temple Beth Shalom participated in Hebrew Union College’s student rabbi program, and we would take the summer off from services. Since we have a rabbi of our own now, we no longer do that. We do still give our bulletin editor a bit of a break—no July newsletter. In lieu of that, I wanted to share some thoughts on the hot summer season in this month’s article. Anyone who watches the thermometer knows, that the intense heat and humidity of summer has begun. Summer afternoons in the South get so hot, one is often driven to hide in the air conditioning or just take a nap! Interestingly, these same days of oppressive heat have long been considered a low point on the Hebrew calendar by the sages of Israel. Beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and extending until the 9th of Av, is a three-week period that has traditionally been a time of mourning and sadness for the Jewish people, at least as far back as Talmudic times (100-300 C.E.). The primary purpose of our mourning during this time is given by the sages as the destructions of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, and then of the Romans. The sages also saw the darkness of these days as deriving from incidents which occurred at the time of the Exodus. For example, the beginning of the three weeks, the 17th of Tammuz, in the fourth month of the Hebrew calendar, commemorates the day in 70 C.E. when the Romans breached the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem. Rashi tells us that it also corresponds with the timing of the “golden calf” incident following the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (Rabbi G. Rubin, “Matan Torah According to Rashi,” http://ohr.edu/ 991).

According to the Rabbis of the Mishnah, the time of sadness culminated on the day of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, in the fifth month of the Hebrew calendar. They stated, “Five misfortunes befell our fathers ... on the ninth of Av. ...On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land; the Temple was destroyed the first and second times; Bethar was captured; and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed up” (Mishnah, Ta'anit 4:6). Recall that Moses had sent twelve spies into the land of Canaan ahead of the arrival of the children of Israel, and when those spies returned they reported to the people that it would be impossible for the Israelites to overcome the inhabitants of the land. According to the Torah, the people believed the spies negative report, and sadly, Adonai decreed that that doubting generation would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel (Numbers 13:25-14:45). This “sin of the spies” seems to have put a black mark on the day which has persisted throughout history. Particularly disheartening to the sages was the fact that the focal point of Israelite worship, the holy Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed first by the Babylonians (586 B.C.E.), then after its rebuilding by the Romans (70 C.E.) on this very same day in the month of Av. And, fresh on their minds were the slaughter of over 500,000 Jews at Bethar and the plowing of the destroyed city of Jerusalem by the Romans at the time of the Bar Kochbah revolt (135 C.E.).

In addition to the tragedies falling on the 9th of Av, as enumerated in the Mishnah, a host of dreadful events have befallen our people on or very near that day throughout history:

  • The First Crusade began, August 15, 1096, in which 10,000 Jews were killed in the first month alone.
  • The Jews were expelled from England, July 18, 1290.
  • The Jews were expelled from France, July 22, 1306.
  • The Jews were expelled from Spain, July 31, 1492.
  • Germany entered World War I, August 1, 1914.
  • Himmler approved the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” August 2, 1941.
  • The deportation of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka began, July 23, 1942.
    (See Tracey R. Rich, “Judaism 101,” http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayd.htm)

Customs for mourning this dark time period in Jewish history have varied from community to community and from time to time, but there has been general agreement that, beginning on the 17th of Tammuz, weddings are not to be performed. As the first day of the month of Av approaches, mourning traditionally intensifies. During the nine days from the first to the ninth, many observant Jews abstain from cutting their hair or shaving, abstain from the drinking of wine or eating of meat except on Shabbat, and abstain from pleasurable activities and recreation. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the fast of Tisha B’Av was to be every bit as strict as the fast of Yom Kippur. Extending from sundown to sundown, the individual is prohibited from eating or drinking, washing or bathing, applying creams or ointments, wearing leather, or enjoying marital relations. The sadness of the day is intensified by the reading in the synagogue of the woeful book of Lamentations from the Hebrew Bible. The only difference from the High Holiday fast of Yom Kippur is that if the 9th of Av falls on a Shabbat, it is not observed until the next day (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, pp. 593-597).

Did you know that according to at least one sage of the Talmudic period, there was to be a major holiday following the intense summer time of mourning? “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur” (Talmud, Ta’anit 26b). In fact, the Talmud goes on to record at least six major positive events that occurred on Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av. The Mishnah tells us that the “daughters of Jerusalem” would borrow fine linens and go out to dance in the vineyards. Young men who were not yet married would look upon the maidens to find a suitable wife (Also Ta’anit 26b, Yanki Tauber, “Why Do We Celebrate the 15th of Av?” http://www.chabad.org/). As nights became longer, the intense heat of summer began to fade, and the early cool breezes anticipating fall began to blow, the Rabbis encouraged the Jewish people to turn from their time of mourning to a time of joy. And, this has been a recurring theme of Jewish history, that times of oppression and tragedy have been followed by times of redemption, victory, and joy, by the hand of the Almighty.

If you are moved to recognize these ancient observances this year in keeping with the traditions of our people, the 17th of Tammuz falls on Saturday, July 16. That day is followed three weeks later by the fast of Tisha B’Av on Saturday, August 6 (postponed until Sunday, according to tradition). Our time of rejoicing returns with the festival of the full moon of Tu B’Av on Friday, August 12.

Such has been the history of our people from ancient times until now that periods of tragedy and sadness are followed by periods of deliverance, joy, and rebirth. The story is told of a 19th century British politician who was walking outside of a synagogue on the 9th of Av. From inside the synagogue walls, he heard the reading of the book of Lamentations and the weeping of the people. Upon inquiry, he was informed by a bystander that the Jews were mourning the loss of their ancient Temple and the many tragedies that have befallen their people during this time of year. So impressed was he, that he exclaimed, “Surely a people who mourn with such intensity the loss of their homeland, even after 2000 years, will someday regain that homeland” (Telushkin, p. 595). Amazingly, we have regained that homeland, modern Israel, and are prospering there. And this return was predicted by the Hebrew Prophets over 2500 years ago. In one such prophecy, Zechariah even refers to the fast of the 9th of Av: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the fast of the fourth month (Tammuz 17) and the fast of the fifth month (Av 9) …will become joy, gladness, and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah; so love truth and peace. …many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem.... In those days, ten men from the nations of every language will grasp the corner of the garment (tzitzit?) of a Jew saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zech. 8:19-23). As one who has had the privilege of converting to Judaism, I find the words of this prophecy chilling. Could it be possible that we are witnessing the fulfillment of these ancient words in our own day? Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will!

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The Implications of the “Priestly Hand” for the 21st Century World, May 2022

For the entire month of May we read from the book of Leviticus, Vayikra in Hebrew. Beginning with Kedoshim on May 7th, we proceed to Emor, then Behar, concluding with Bechukotai on Shabbat, May 28th. I have commented many times in the TBS newsletter on Kedoshim, which is frequently referred to as “The Holiness Code.” Today let’s switch our focus to Bechukotai. Scholars tell us that the book of Leviticus definitely betrays the hand of a priestly writer. There are constant references to the Levites and Cohenim, most with minute detail in the laws and precepts for which they were responsible. Leviticus also goes into great detail on the specifics of animal sacrifice, a subject that is not very appealing to the discerning 21st century reader. But, embedded in the priestly laws and statutes is a theology of individual and corporate responsibility that has become a cornerstone of Western society. It is no secret that I see the grounding of Western law and ethics on principles enunciated in the Torah as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. We chant, as a part of every Shabbat Torah service, the second part of Isaiah 11:3, “For the Torah will go forth from Zion, and the Word of Adonai from Jerusalem.” But we stop just short of verse 4, which goes on, “And God will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples. And they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore.”

An excellent example of Leviticus/Vayikra’s emphasis on individual and corporate responsibility is found in Torah portion Bechukotai, which begins, “Im bechukotai telechu—If you walk in my statutes” or alternately “by my decrees...” The passage goes on to enumerate the rewards that will accrue to all the people of Israel for keeping God’s laws, but also provides a list of some of the most dire consequences for breaking God’s commandments. The Hebrew root of that parshah’s name, Bechukotai, is chuk (chet-quf). Translated as “statute” or “decree,” the root literally means “engraved.” This undoubtedly hearkens back to the idea that God’s laws, the Ten Commandments, were engraved on stone tablets. Later sages have invoked the root meaning of the word to demonstrate that the Torah of Adonai is imprinted on an individual’s soul. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi put it, “There is a dimension of Torah that is chuk, engraved in our being. There is a dimension of Torah which expresses a bond with God that is the very essence of the Jewish soul.” (“Parshat Bechukotai In-Depth” www.chabad.org).

The rewards detailed in this Torah portion for the keeping of God’s statutes are many and lush. It should also be pointed out that they are given by the Almighty in the first person. God says, “If you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments…, I will give you rains in their seasons…, the land will yield its produce…, the trees of the field will bear their fruit. Your threshing will last until your grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sowing time. You will thus eat your food to the full and live securely in your land. I will also grant you peace in the land… I will also eliminate harmful beasts from the land, and no sword shall pass through your land…. You will chase your enemies, and they will fall before you…. I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will confirm my covenant with you I will make my dwelling among you... I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:3-12).

The punishments ascribed for disobedience to God’s laws are devastating to the point of being catastrophic. Again, they are stated by the Almighty in the first person, “But if you do not obey me and do not carry out all these commandments…, I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that shall waste away… You shall sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies will eat it up. You shall be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when no one is pursuing you… Your land shall not yield its produce and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. … I will let loose among you the beasts of the field which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your cattle and reduce your number so that your roads lie deserted” (26:14-22). It gets far worse but let this suffice for our discussion now.

The blessings and curses enumerated in this passage have sparked the ages-long debate over whether these rewards and consequences are to be taken naturally or supernaturally. The supernatural view would envision an omnipotent God sitting in the heavens dealing out divine judgments for obedience or rebellion. A more natural view would assert that a mindful Creator has built into the universe certain laws of cause and effect that cannot be abrogated. One cannot jump out of a second story window, for example, and expect not to smack into the ground. Actions have consequences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, “You cannot overeat and take no exercise, and at the same time stay healthy. You cannot act selfishly and win the respect of other people. You cannot allow injustices to prevail and sustain a cohesive society. You cannot let rulers use power for their own ends without destroying the basis of a free and gracious social order.” (“Bechukotai—The Politics of Responsibility,” www.aish.com). There is nothing necessarily supernatural about these consequences, but as Rabbi Sacks points out they are moral.

One of the many things I love about progressive Judaism is that it gives to every individual the freedom to choose whether a supernatural, natural, some combination, or even neither of the two views of positive and negative consequences resonates best with his or her own conscience and convictions. Regardless of the view one chooses, it cannot be denied that this concept of justice, tzedek—“doing the right thing,” has been chuk—engraved on the Jewish conscience from ancient times. The Torah’s view of individual and corporate responsibility as it relates to social justice is deeply ingrained. The rich cannot buy special favors, nor should the poor be deferred to on account of their poverty. Every soul is an indispensable part of the social fabric and should be treated as such. The needs of one are seen as the needs of all. This Jewish sense of individual and corporate responsibility, purpose, and destiny is very succinctly stated in the words of the British Catholic historian, Paul Bede Johnson:

    No people have ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. At a very early stage in their collective existence, they believed they had detected a divine scheme for the human race of which their own society was to be a pilot.They worked out their role in immense detail. They clung to it with heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering. Many of them believe it still. Others transmuted into Promethean endeavors to raise our condition by purely human means. The Jewish vision became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man-made. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose. (A History of the Jews, p. 2, Harper Perennial, 1988)

In affirming Mr. Johnson’s historical analysis, I attempted to find words to inspire my readers to take the precepts of the holy Torah to a new level, applying them daily in their own lives in ways that are meaningful to them. But I am hard-pressed to find words more moving than those already written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his comment on Johnson’s observation:

    The people who change the world are those who believe that life has a purpose, a direction, a destiny. They know where they want to go and what they want to achieve. In the case of Judaism that purpose is clear: to show what it is to create a small clearing in the desert of humanity where freedom and order coexist, where justice prevails, the weak are cared for and those in need are given help, where we have the humility to attribute our successes to God and our failures to ourselves, where we cherish life as the gift of God and do all we can to make it holy. In other words: precisely the opposite of the violence and brutality that is today being perpetrated by some religious extremists in the name of God. (“Bechukotai—A Sense of Direction,” www.aish.com).

All I can add is…Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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The Great Sabbath!!, April 2022

Greetings, members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom! I wanted to let you know that our Shabbat morning service that fell on the Saturday before Passover was known in our tradition as Shabbat Hagadol. According to our sages, this Sabbath fell on the 10th of Nissan in the year of the exodus, the very day when the children of Israel chose their Passover lambs (Orach Chayyim 431:1). Translated, the Great Sabbath came to be associated by our rabbis with the “great day” of God that will eventually usher in the messianic age. In fact, the Haftarah reading for that day, Malachi 3:4-24, is the very reason we chant “Eliyahu Hanavi” at every Havdalah service. It states, “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers….” (vv. 23-24). As we prepare on Shabbat HaGadol for the coming of Passover this year, my thoughts turn once again to what might be the greatest Passover miracle of all. Through faith in the Almighty God, a battered down and oppressed group of slaves was ultimately liberated and transformed into a chosen people, a blessed nation, and a “light to all nations.”

The Jewish saga began, of course, with the calling of the family of Abraham and Sarah. We read in Genesis 12: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to a land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (vv. 1-3). For insight as to why the Almighty chose Abraham and his family, one might take note of Genesis 18 where in God’s own words it is recorded, “For I have chosen [Abraham], in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what God has spoken concerning him” (v. 19).

After a long sojourn in Egypt, estimated from various sources to have been between 250 and 430 years, originally necessitated, of course, by a famine in the land of Canaan, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah had become enslaved by the ruling class of Egypt. Known at that point in history as the children of Israel (of Jacob the grandson of Abraham and Sarah), the labor of the Israelites was exploited by the Egyptians for the building of their famed cities and temples. The hard bondage of the Israelites became so intense and unbearable that the Creator decided once again to intervene in the affairs of mankind. The deliverance from slavery in Egypt appears to have fulfilled a twofold purpose, keeping promises made to the matriarchs and patriarchs while at the same time establishing a platform for the next step in the family outreach plan of Adonai. As Moses is commissioned to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, God declares in the book of Shemot, (Exodus), “I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant.... I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ch. 6: vv. 5-7). Through a series of events that can only be described as miraculous, this oppressed group of slaves did manage to attain their freedom from what truly would have been the greatest superpower on earth at that time, the nation of Egypt. After their escape, as the people of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, about to receive instructions from the One who had provided their freedom, God affectionately instructs Moses to tell the people of Israel, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all of the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). This amazing proclamation was immediately followed by the giving of the Ten Commandments.

The “light to the nations” passage I mentioned earlier is found in Isaiah 49. It picks up on this same theme. The verses containing the passage are among a group of similarly themed messages in Isaiah known as the “servant songs.” And, while scholars agree that they refer to the calling and commissioning of the prophet Isaiah himself, it cannot be denied that the “servant songs” have a deeper and transcendent meaning applicable to the people of Israel as a whole. This can be seen in chapter 49, verse 3, where the Almighty states quite explicitly, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will show my glory.” This statement is paralleled by another servant passage in the book of Isaiah in which the entire nation of Israel, at that time, is clearly being addressed, “You are my witnesses, declares the Lord and my servant whom I have chosen in order that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am. Before me there was no God formed and there will be none after me. I, even I, am the LORD; and there is no savior besides me” (Ch. 43: vv. 10-11).

In our 21st century “politically correct” age, a call to be a light to the nations might seem controversial or intimidating to some, but I assert that to a very large extent the commission is already achieving success, and in a way that many people might not even realize. Keep in mind that the primary purpose for the original call of Abraham was the teaching of God’s laws first to Abraham’s family, but by extension to all humankind. Is it merely coincidence that those laws have become incorporated in the religious precepts of what is already a majority of the world’s religious population? Jews, of course, have followed the laws in the Hebrew Bible for generations, but they are only a tiny proportion of the world’s current population, 0.2% according to a Pew Research analysis of 2020 population data, about 15 million people. But, Christianity, whose roots are also in Judaism, deemed it appropriate to accept the Hebrew Bible into its own canon of scripture, thus bringing the laws and traditions of Abraham and his descendants to the world’s 2.4 billion Christians. That is approximately 31% of world population as of 2020. Add to that the Muslim faith, whose roots are in Christianity and Judaism, which has also ratified and brought forward many of the laws and traditions of the ancient Hebrews in its own holy writings, and one finds the laws of the Creator, originally enunciated in the Hebrew Bible, reaching another 2 billion people, or 25% of the population of the world. These three major Western religions alone, all tracing their traditions back to the patriarch Abraham, accounted for a total of 56% of the world’s population in 2020, a majority already. You might also add to this number those in the western world who consider themselves religious/spiritual but unaffiliated, 600 million people or 8% of the world’s population. Based on my research, I would also posit a connection between the ancient Hebrew tradition and the teachings of Hinduism (15%) and Buddhism (5%) bringing the world influence of the “Abrahamic faith” up to 84% of the 2020 world population, but that connection will definitely have to wait for a future article.

You see my point is that the One who willed this creation into existence is also the One who chose Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. And the One who miraculously brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and entrusted them with lofty precepts and a worldwide mission. This is the One who is now known and revered worldwide as a result of that mission, just as the Hebrew Prophets foretold. But there is still much to be done! We as Jews have experienced the bondage of slavery in Egypt, so we must never fail to take up the cause of those who are still oppressed in our modern world. We experienced starvation then, so our compassion must remain with those who still do not have enough food. We were strangers in a strange land; let us continue to reach out to all who are disenfranchised in any way. As we celebrate the Divine gifts and miracles provided to our ancestors at this holy time of Passover, will you commit to join me in carrying the mission forward to be in the words of our holy writings, “a light to the nations”? Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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Chag Purim Sameach! Happy Purim!, March 2022

It seems like 2022 just started. I can’t believe we are already about to observe Purim!! Falling this year at sundown Wednesday, March 16, Purim is a time of celebration for Jewish families the world over. We will observe the four mitzvot or commandments of Purim which are enunciated in the Hebrew Bible (Esther 9:20-22), and reinforced in the Mishnah (Mas. Megilah 2a), at our Friday evening service at Temple Beth Shalom on March 12. The mitzvot are: the reading of the Megillah of Esther; matanot l’evyonim—giving money to the poor; mishloach manot—gifts of food to friends; and feasting. Our hearts will be filled with gladness! But, we should also take time to remember that Purim represents a very serious subject as well, the age long struggle of those who would stand for good against the forces of evil. It is a sad fact that the enemies of Israel and of the Jewish people have borne a hatred so intense it seems unexplainable in terms of normal human emotions. Unfortunately, that hatred is both ancient and modern

We read in the Torah that as our people were coming out of Egypt, a tribe called Amalek was lying in wait along the way and attacked Israel from the rear as they passed through. Amalek picked off the weakest members of the Israelite group, women, children, and stragglers (Deut. 25). The Torah states that Amalek “did not fear God.” A very stern pronouncement against Amalek occurs twice in the Torah, once in Deuteronomy, “It shall come about when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies in the land which the LORD your God gives you..., you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget” (vv. 17-19). This commandment appears to be a clarification of the more cryptic statement in Exodus 17, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.’ And Moses built an altar and named it, “The LORD is My Banner.” And he said, “The LORD has sworn; the LORD will have war against Amalek from generation to generation” (vv. 14-16).

The connection between Amalek and Purim might not be immediately obvious to most readers. The evil Haman, whose hatred of the Jews defies rational explanation, leading him to seek the Jewish people’s annihilation, is referred to in the book of Esther as an Agagite (3:1). The connecting link to Amalek is found in the book of First Samuel (Ch 15). The newly crowned King Saul is leading the Israelites in a life and death struggle against the neighboring tribe of Amalek. God, through the prophet Samuel, had instructed Saul that God was about to punish Amalek for the crimes done to the people of Israel when they were on the way out of Egypt, and the judgment was to be harsh. Saul, in defiance of God’s command, spared the king of Amalek, Agag, the ancestor of the wicked Haman (I Samuel 15:1-9).

Parallels to those who hate the Jewish people so intensely and who seek our annihilation, while difficult to comprehend or accept, can be found in almost every generation, most recently and egregiously in the acts of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Lori Palatnik, a writer, educator, and the founding director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, tells the story of a neighbor she had while living in Toronto whose name was Mr. Cohen. He was a holocaust survivor. As a youth of only 17, Mr. Cohen had been taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz. Knowing he would be there for a long time, if he survived, Mr. Cohen memorized the Jewish calendar for the next several years. He was known by his peers in the camp as a walking calendar. They would ask him, “When is Shabbat?” “When is Hanukah?” “When is Pesach?” And, Mr. Cohen would be able to tell them. When it was Purim, Mr. Cohen and a group of men met secretly in their barracks. They had smuggled a few bits of potato and bread crust as well as a book of Esther into their deplorable living area. The men stood in a circle as quietly as possible so as not to arouse Nazi suspicion, and they passed the bits of bread and potato from man to man in fulfillment of the mishloach manot commandment. The last to receive the morsels of food was Mr. Cohen, for it was he who was about to read the megillah of Esther. As they read the story of Esther under the harsh oppression of the Nazis, you can only imagine the joy it brought to their hearts to hear of the victory of the Jewish people over their enemies on Purim over 2300 years ago. We ultimately gained victory over the Nazis as well, though many, many precious souls had to give their lives in the process. Still, the Jewish people survives, thrives, and prospers. Truly a modern miracle! (http://www.aish.com/)

Jewish author, Tracey Rich, tells a similar Purim story about Joseph Stalin. Rich relates the story from Chabad, the Lubavitcher Hasidic Jewish group, that in the year 1953 Joseph Stalin was planning to exile all of the Jews in the Soviet Union to camps in Siberia. At a Purim gathering of the Lubavitcher Jews that year, their Rebbe was asked to give a blessing on the Jews of the Soviet Union. Instead of a blessing, he told a story about a Jewish man who was in attendance at the election of a Soviet official earlier that year. The crowd was shouting, “Hoorah! Hoorah!” as the candidate stood on stage. The Jewish man did not want to validate the candidate by shouting, “Hoorah,” but neither did he want to draw the suspicion of the crowd. So, he indeed shouted, “Hoorah,” while knowing in his own heart that he meant “Hu ra,” which in Hebrew means, “He is evil!” Moved by the Rebbe’s message, the Jews at the Purim celebration began to shout in unison, “Hu ra! Hu ra! Hu ra!,” referring to Joseph Stalin. Later that same night, March 1, 1953, Stalin experienced a stroke that led to his death a few days later. His plan to deport the Jews was never carried out (http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday9.htm).

Rabbi Benjamin Blech reminds us that the meaning of Purim can be found not only in the great miracles of the ages, but also in the small miracles of everyday life. A common term for such everyday miracles is “serendipity.” Defined as “a fortuitous happenstance” or “a pleasant surprise,” serendipity can be thought of as a beneficial occurrence that seems to defy statistical odds. For example, one evening you have just been thinking of a friend whom you have not seen for many years and with whom you long to reestablish contact, and the next day you happen to bump into that friend at the grocery store. Or, you set an arbitrary date to meet with your friends based on your busy schedules, and then you find out in retrospect that the day you chanced to pick is, in fact, the anniversary of some important event that is meaningful to you and those friends. Rabbi Blech points out that some of the greatest scientific achievements of all time were made under the most serendipitous of circumstances.

How does this relate to Purim? The miracle of Purim is recorded in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Esther. Esther is one of only two books in the Bible which do not mention God or the name of God at all (the other being Song of Songs). And yet, one cannot read the amazing details of the hatred and plot against the Jews, the coming of a Jewish princess into a position of power disguised and against all odds, and the ultimate triumph of the Jewish people over their enemies, without sensing the power and the hand of God in the events. So it is with serendipity. God may not be working in overt, readily observable ways or in mighty miracles. But, according to Rabbi Blech, “Serendipity is God whispering to us; it is God’s still small voice that beckons us to be aware of God’s presence” (http://www.aish.com/).

As we observe the holiday of Purim and mark the final month of the Hebrew calendar, Adar II this year, leading up to our beloved Pesach, it is my prayer for you that you too will find God working in your life, whether in grand ways or small. I know that you will also join me as we celebrate this year, in remembering our fellow human beings in both Ukraine and Russia and praying that Adonai will bring peace quickly to that war-torn region. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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Peace in the Middle East???, February 2022

In my January article in the TBS newsletter, I shared how I have turned to interfaith dialogue and understanding to address many of the complex issues that 21st century society wrestles with. As you will recall, I endorsed the approach Bruce Feiler recommends in his wonderful book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. Feiler contends that common values resulting from the major western religions’ reverence for the patriarch, Abraham, might establish a foundation for at least beginning dialogue on some of the complicated issues that divide humankind. He calls it at the very least “the seed of hope.” I found it quite serendipitous that the very next book I read after submitting last month’s article suggested that same possibility. More about that in a minute.

You know, as a rabbi I am frequently asked by both colleagues from other faiths, and by students, to explain the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I guess those asking assume that as a Jewish spiritual leader, I should be an expert on the founding of the state of Israel and on the competing claims of the Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land. Well, I most certainly am not!! But, in an effort to familiarize myself more fully with the claims of each side I have read two riveting books. I will review first one here in this issue of The Bulletin, and the second book in The March Issue. The first book is by a Jewish Israeli citizen living in East Jerusalem. The other is by a Palestinian who was born and raised in Gaza.

As is frequently the case, the book I am reviewing in this article was recommended to me by our Temple president, Susan Goldstein. The book is Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi (HarperCollins, New York, 2018). Klein Halevi is an American-born Jewish writer who has lived in Jerusalem since 1982. He is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, whose mission, is “to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity, and pluralism; to enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and to ensure that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century” (www.hartman.org.il/). Partnering with Imam Abdullah Antelpi of Duke University, Klein Halevi also codirects the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative.

In 1990, as a soldier in the Israeli military, Klein Halevi served a stint on patrol in the Gaza refugee camp at Nusseirat. Almost a decade later, in 1998, Klein Halevi returned to Nusseirat, this time as a “pilgrim.” Klein Halevi set out on the pilgrimage into Gaza and the West Bank to explore the faiths of his Muslim and Christian neighbors in the Holy Land. He was not so much interested in understanding their theology as he was in experiencing their personal devotional lives. In Klein Halevi’s words, “My goal was to see whether Jews and Muslims could share something of God’s presence, could be religious people together in this of all places, where God’s Name is so often invoked to justify abomination.” (Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, p. 4)

Klein Halevi is a deeply religious person. He states, “For me, the only notion more ludicrous than the existence of a Divine being that created and sustains us is the notion that this miracle of life, of consciousness is coincidence” (p. 8). In the first several of his “letters” he summarizes his view of Jewish history, faith, and ethos for his imagined “Palestinian neighbor.” These chapters were a very reinforcing read for me, as Klein Halevi’s views so closely parallel my own. Don’t you love it when that happens!? Klein Halevi, in a very concise and readable way traces the evolution of Judaism from its beginning as a nomadic tribal/family faith into the universal expression of beliefs and ethics that it is today, while still retaining its family and faith elements. According to Klein Halevi, “The synagogue became a substitute for the Temple, prayer a substitute for animal sacrifices—a major step forward in the spiritual evolution of Judaism” (p. 31).

Since Judaism is both a family and a faith, Klein Halevi asserts, “The purpose of Judaism is to sanctify one people with the goal of sanctifying all peoples” (p. 53). I found this part of Klein Halevi’s treatise particularly exciting and uplifting. He goes on to explain that while the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all universalistic in their approach, Judaism is distinct from the other two faiths in one particular way. Both Christianity and Islam envision a future world where all humankind will eventually convert to their way. “In the Jewish dream of the future, all of humanity will recognize the unity of existence and ascend on pilgrimage to the ‘house of God’ in Jerusalem. But Judaism has no expectation that humanity will become Jewish” (pp. 54-55, emphasis mine). Klein Halevi goes on to tout that since Judaism is a faith intended for one family to share the vision of the Creator God with the rest of humankind, it has remained far more tolerant of the validity of other faith traditions.

Klein Halevi passionately lays out the yearning in the Jewish soul for the return to the Holy Land while in exile. He shares with his Palestinian neighbor how deeply rooted that longing is in our scriptures, rabbinical writings, and prayers. Klein Halevi attempts to convey to his Palestinian neighbor that for nearly two thousand years, most of which were years of trouble and persecution for the Jewish people, the return to a land of their own was only a dream. Like me, Klein Halevi considers the rebirth of the state of Israel in the 20th century and the resurrection of the Hebrew language as a national language to be the fulfillment of prophesy and a miracle. Yet, Klein Halevi’s sincerity is palpable when he expresses his grief and anguish over the difficulties that the Jews’ return to the land has caused the Palestinians who called it home for so many years, particularly those who were displaced in 1948 and 1967. That grief and anguish was the basis of Klein Halevi’s pilgrimage into Gaza and the West Bank in 1998 and is the basis of his reaching out to his Palestinian neighbors in this book. As a part of that appeal, Klein Halevi points to Abraham. He states, “Both our traditions note that Abraham/Ibrahim was buried by Isaac and Ishmael, who overcame their rivalry to honor their father. … Perhaps the memory of [their] hospitality [towards each other] can help us find a way to accommodate each other’s presence in the land” (p. 153).

I was thrilled to find, that like myself, Klein Halevi proposes a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders as the best path toward peace. He sees that as the fair sharing of the land to which both Jews and Palestinians have valid but competing claims. Klein Halevi admits that this solution is a tough sell to both sides, since many Israelis envision a “greater Israel” based on boundaries described in the Bible and ancient history, and many Palestinians cling to the hope of a Jewish-free Palestine that is all under their own control. That is why Klein Halevi is so committed to both sides entering into honest dialogue about their needs, hopes, and dreams. The one thing Klein Halevi requests from his Palestinian neighbors is that they do not deny his right to exist in the land. As he puts it, “Criticism of Israeli policies, of course, isn’t anti-Semitic. … But denying Israel’s right to exist, turning the Jewish state into the world’s criminal, and trying to isolate it from the community of nations—that fits the classic anti-Semitic pattern” (p. 185).

Here is where it gets really interesting. Klein Halevi closes his book with a chapter containing a dozen or so letters from Palestinians back to him in response to his request for dialogue—giving his Palestinian neighbors the last word. Many of those letters brought tears to my eyes. I thanked Adonai for the faith, kindness, and grace they expressed, even when disagreeing with Klein Halevi on some of his facts. The closing chapter, actually the entire book, renewed my belief that in time the moderates on both sides might prevail and facilitate a transition into a time of peace, yes, even in the Middle East. Ken yehi ratzon —May this be God’s will!!

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Can Abraham Offer Insight on Healing America’s Wounds?, January 2022

Happy civil New Year, everyone!! I enter 2022 with a great deal of optimism, tempered, of course, by deep concern for several serious issues. Like many of you, I had hoped and prayed that the world would have been well over the Covid-19 pandemic by now. Yet, here we are in the midst of the surge of a new variant, Omicron. I am pleased with the progress our country is making in the area of race relations. We are not where we need to be yet, but I have warned before that our current situation is the result of centuries of wrongdoing and inequity. I believe it will take years of vision and hard work to achieve the level of equality under the law that is aspired to in America’s founding documents. So, we must struggle on toward that goal. My other deep concern as we enter 2022 is the level of polarization and animosity that has emerged between conservatives and progressives in our political system. We have certainly been more polarized at times in America’s history, but this is certainly the worst it has been in my lifetime.

One of the ways that I have chosen to attack elements of each of these concerns is through the avenue of interfaith understanding and dialogue. We as human beings have much more that unites us than that divides us. Through dialogue we can focus on our common needs and goals and put divisive issues into perspective. As we enter 2022, I am approaching the end of my 5th year as president of the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council. You know I say often from the bima, what an honor it is to be the spiritual leader of the local Jewish community. Only adding to that honor is the fact that my interfaith colleagues have chosen the Jewish representative to the Council Board to be president for five years running

Particularly since the brutal murders at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, I have been single-mindedly committed to build bridges across any lines that divide humankind —religious, racial, ethnic, national, political, etc. I have speculated before that the common respect among western religions for the patriarch, Abraham, might be a starting place for dialogue. If you have not read it yet, I heartily recommend Bruce Feiler’s book, Abraham-A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2002).

Most of you know by now that I firmly believe in the words of the Hebrew Prophets when they say, “Then they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore. In that day every person will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, with none to make them afraid” (Isa. 2:4; Micah 4:3-4). As we pray in the modern Jewish liturgy, “I am a Jew because Israel places humanity and its unity above the nations and above Israel itself” (Mishkan T’filah, CCAR 2007, p. 203). I do believe that a time will come, as we pray in the Aleinu, “O may all, created your image, become one in spirit and one in friendship….” (Mishkan, p. 289). In his book entitled Abraham, Feiler explores the possibility that it may just be this one biblical figure, so central to each of the three major Western faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that has the historical credibility and depth to bring these faiths together.

Feiler starts off his book with a brief overview of the life of Abraham, summarized from Biblical sources. He delves into the view of Abraham from the perspective of each major religion. Now Feiler is not a theologian, so his assessment of each religion’s development of Abraham is brutally honest. I know that I, as a progressive Jewish rabbi, enjoyed reading Feiler’s assessment of Judaism’s view of Abraham, blemishes and all. One of the topics Feiler treated most bluntly is a topic that I have remarked on many times myself. That is how the rabbis of the late second Temple period, once they realized that Rome was about to destroy the nation and the Temple, began to re-interpret Scripture in such a way as to convey the individual importance of keeping Torah. In their effort to reinforce the antiquity of the moral code they were promoting, the rabbis of this period gave novel interpretations to ancient passages that sometimes undermined the validity of the plain meaning of the text. In addition to that, those same rabbis’ own commentaries were regarded more and more highly to the point their weight may have begun to equal or even exceed the weight of the Torah as written. This concept has become widely known as the “Oral Torah.” Now, as a progressive Jew, that idea is not offensive to me. I understand that the ancient writings must be constantly reinterpreted in the light of changing societal needs and new historical and scientific discoveries. I believe that the Torah, similar to the United States Constitution, is true enough and sound enough to endure that modernization without weakening its validity or authority.

I must share, however, that one of my very good friends, who is an evangelical Christian pastor, shared with me that he took great offense at the way Feiler handled Scripture and tradition in his book, Abraham. Feiler argues that once the Jewish rabbis opened the door to scriptural reinterpretation and the elevation of commentary to a level of scriptural authority, the Christian writers and commentators used this same approach to advocate their own interpretations of the Scripture and to establish their own traditions. They, of course, were followed soon by Muslim interpreters. It is true, I suppose, as Feiler notes in his discussion, that most religions would not want to admit that their views have evolved over time or in reaction to external forces (Abraham, p. 131).

Following the brief overview of each religion’s view of Abraham, which, as noted, explained each faith’s methods of historical and scriptural understanding, Feiler begins a brief study of the history of interfaith activities. The Parliament of the World’s Religions is widely regarded as the beginning of the interfaith movement. It was the idea of Charles Bonney, who proposed inviting representatives from each of the world’s major religions to a convocation to be held at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This was followed quickly by several major world interfaith organizations in the early 20th century: the World Missionary Conference (1910), the World Congress of Faiths (1933), and the World Council of Churches (1948). Feiler points out that by the “start of the 21st century, the idea that one religion was going to extinguish the others was deader than it had been in two thousand years…. A new type of religious interaction was needed, involving not just swords, plowshares, and the idea of triumph, but conversation, interaction, and the idea of pluralism” (Abraham, p. 195).

Feiler contends, quoting Walter Brueggeman, the well-known theologian from Georgia’s Columbia Theological Seminary, that it is “perfectly legitimate” for Christians, Jews, and Muslims to draw their own meaning from history and tradition. “It is not legitimate for Christians or anyone else to presume that theirs is the only direction” (Abraham, p. 201). Needless to say, not everyone welcomes this assessment. Feiler notes that according to Brueggeman and other scholars, “the percentage of believers who would agree to the principle of spiritual parity among the faiths probably totals around two-thirds of Jews, half of Christians, and a third of Muslims (p. 202). Another problem with interfaith dialogue, according to Feiler, is that it often results in “bland paeans to loving one’s neighbor” or striving toward some mystical “spiritual oneness.” Feiler quotes Harvard’s Jon Levenson who says, “90 percent of interfaith dialogue is bunk” (p. 203).

What Feiler advocates, on the basis of the scholars he consulted, is that a new type of conversation is needed—one that does not minimize differences but accentuates them. Feiler believes the leaders of interfaith initiatives need more than just “mandates and dictums.” He proposes a “common source.” That source for Feiler is, of course, Abraham. Feiler reveals that he found in Abraham his own personal anchor. He states, “I needed to believe that loving God, that being prepared to sacrifice for that belief, and that believing in peace had not somehow become incompatible…. I needed Abraham” (Italics mine, p. 215).

It is not, as Feiler maintains, that Abraham is a perfect vessel for interfaith reconciliation, “but he is the best vessel we’ve got.” Abraham is, after all, the root of the common heritage of the three major western religions. In many respects, Abraham’s descendants have become as numerous as the stars. And yet, I agree with Feiler when he says that Abraham’s greatest contributions may still be in the future. “Abraham is the seed of hope” (p. 226). If you believe, as I do, that interfaith dialogue, understanding, and cooperation is a necessary step toward the eradication of fear and hate, and toward the establishment of peace, friendship, and even love in our communities, then this book is a must-read. I look forward to discussing it with you further after you have read it, as we work together to bring healing, peace, prosperity, and freedom to ALL of God’s children in all lands. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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