Word from Our Rabbi

I Will Set My Bow in the Clouds!, October 2020

What an amazing time we have shared together for our High Holiday services virtually. Services were much more participatory and uplifting than I ever thought possible over Zoom. Special thanks to everyone who participated and who logged in. We have truly been blessed with something special here at Temple Beth Shalom, and for that I am deeply grateful! When we gather for the reading of the Torah on Shabbat morning, October 24th, we will be reading from Torah portion Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32. This Torah portion covers a broad range of very interesting topics, beginning with an introduction to Noah and his family. About two chapters are devoted to explaining God’s decision to destroy the world, including most of mankind and most of the animal kingdom (6:9-8:22). That is followed by an account of life starting over again, the Almighty promising not to destroy all life by flood again, and the establishing of a set of laws which our rabbis have called the Noahide Commandments, or laws of Noah (9:1-17). Most of chapter 10 is taken up with the repopulation of the earth, including specifics on the families and their descendants. Then in chapter 11 we get the fascinating story of the Tower of Babel and the decision by God to scatter mankind over the earth and to give the various family groups each a different language (vv. 1-9). Chapter 11 concludes with the records of the descendants of Noah’s son, Shem, culminating in the first introduction in the Hebrew Bible of our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah (vv. 10-32).

Regarding this Torah portion, it is my sincere belief, that like hundreds of generations of Jews before us, we too, in the modern age, can find light and inspiration from these ancient passages of Scripture. That may, however, require deep study, questioning, and discussion. One question that might arise from the accounts in Genesis 1-11 is: “How did the creation that, when observed by God in Genesis 1:31 was said to be “very good,” get so off track, that by Genesis 6 we read the chilling passage, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of humans was great on the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that humans had been created on the earth, and God was grieved to the heart” (vv. 5-6)?” Surely this demonstrates that being created in the image of God, as man and woman are, brings with it an extremely high level of free will or choice. That freedom of choice obviously has amazing potential in both directions—evil or good. Clearly the evil was prevailing in the days of Noah leading up to the flood. But in our own day, I would like to believe that we have learned the lesson of history, and that we are channeling our choices toward the good. I think I see evidence of that around me. For example, when we had the horrific racially motivated murders at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, rather than sparking more racial hatred and friction, I believe the crime moved many, many individuals to reach across racial lines and show a willingness to enter into dialogue, and even expressions of brotherly love. When a disaster befalls our country like the current coronavirus pandemic, are not the hearts of many stirred to help and to give what is needed to bring healing and restoration to the affected areas and individuals?

Another question that naturally arises from the flood story as it begins in Genesis 6 is: “Why would the Almighty choose to destroy not only the evil men and women, but also a very large portion of the plant and animal life on the planet?” This question is difficult to answer. Could it possibly be to show that those creatures which were created in God’s image, namely man and woman, bear a deep responsibility for everything that happens on this planet and for all species both plant and animal? Surely we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries how our decisions, our use of resources, and our lack of proper waste disposal have had a profound impact on the entire earth ecosystem. Once again, I believe that we are learning from the past and from our mistakes. We are taking definite steps to rein in many of the wasteful and polluting practices of the last 200 years. Of course, more needs to be done!

Also on a global scale, it is from Torah portion Noah that the rabbis of the Talmudic period derived seven laws applicable to all mankind. A discussion of these Noahide Laws or Commandments, as they are called, can be found in the Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin a-b. Those seven laws are the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality, stealing, eating the flesh of a living animal, and the positive commandment to establish courts of justice. One of the amazing things about these seven laws is the universalist view of God’s relationship with humans that they convey. Going back to the earliest days of the Jewish faith, our sages never saw the need to convert all humankind to Judaism, thus the absence of proselytizing from our religion. The laws of Noah were seen as elevating all people to the will of the Creator, and making them equal partners in the perfection of the creation that was entrusted to man and woman from the very beginning (Gen 2:15). All men and women share the Divine image, and it is incumbent upon them all to make choices which are “godlike.” In so doing, the earth, including the plant and animal kingdoms, can be moved in a positive direction, fulfilling the ultimate plan, expressed in the Hebrew Prophets, of what God intended this garden planet to be.

The Haftorah portion associated with Torah portion Noah, Isaiah 54:1-55:5, reinforces this view of individual and corporate responsibility for our actions, and also reinforces the idea that while negative things may happen as a consequence of poor decision-making, there is always the opportunity for turning from our ways (repentance) and the insurance of a brighter future. The prophecies found in this passage from Isaiah, come on the heels of a severe destruction which was delivered to the people of Israel through the hands of the Assyrians in the seventh century B.C.E. And then of the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E. We learn elsewhere in the Prophets that those destructions were the consequence of the northern ten tribes, Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah, not being faithful to the laws and precepts of God. But, the message of the Haftorah portion is one of hope. It is connected by the Prophet Isaiah with the situation in the time of Noah. We read, “For this is like the days of Noah to me; when I swore that the waters of Noah should not flood the earth again, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you nor will I rebuke you…. My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken, says the LORD” (54:9-10). Amazing promises are they not? The entire Haftorah reading is full of hope. Look, for example at verse 8, “In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you.”

Heartening that though we may make mistakes, and though we may fall short of the ideals set forth for us in God’s law, bringing consequences that are sometimes severe, there is always the opportunity of turning from our wrong choices and changing the course of events for ourselves and for our world. I notice that this Isaiah Haftorah reading closes with a mysterious statement, referring obviously to a future time, “Behold, you will call a nation you do not know, and a nation which knows you not will run to you, because of the LORD your God, even the Holy One of Israel.” I have some definite views on who that nation that will turn to the Jewish people is, but I will save that for another message. For now, as we ponder the passages of Torah portion Noah and its Haftorah from Isaiah, may we receive insights that inspire and elevate us to partner with the Creator in bringing not harm, but good to all of the amazing creation with which we have been entrusted! Ken yehi ratzon!!—May this be God’s will!!

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The Month of Elul—Let’s Prepare for the High Holidays, September 2020

What a year 5780 has been! We have experienced perhaps the greatest crises in a generation as we have struggled through the threat of the worldwide, novel coronavirus compounded by the ripping apart of our society as we wrestle with the age-old problem of racism. I know that with the coming High Holidays many of you will be hoping and praying along with me for a better year ahead for our families, our nation, and our world. As I write this, we are already in a very special time of preparing our hearts for the coming holy days. Friday, August 21st , was Rosh Chodesh Elul, the New Moon of the month of Elul, an 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 (the first day of the month of 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 particular 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, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness 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 you 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 you 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, and 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, actually 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 by 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 serve 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, of course, on Shabbat; nor is it blown the day before Rosh Hashana, 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 5781, I encourage all members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom to study our precious Jewish heritage and implement more and more of its enduring principles. I like to honor the teaching of my beloved 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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Wrote the Bible?, August 2020

During the course of my rabbinical studies, I have had the opportunity to read many excellent books. Perhaps the best book of any that I have read is Professor Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? There are in the course of one’s life a small number of books that affect one so deeply they can be called life changing. For me this is one such book. In Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman summarizes over 300 years of biblical research in such a readable way that I have told friends I literally could not put this book down. Now for Dennis Jones to say that is one thing, but to my amazement after finishing the book I read some of the attributions, and Frank Moore Cross, the well-known professor of Hebrew and oriental languages at Harvard University, summarized my feelings in a nutshell: “Who Wrote the Bible? is a fascinating and brilliant book. It is more than a record of past discoveries. It is full of new insights and fresh discoveries. I read it at one sitting. I have spent much of my lifetime reading books about the Bible and must confess that I do not remember another that I could not lay aside unfinished.” And while Professor Friedman’s book is readable even for the laymen, it is extensively footnoted in the back, for those who want to dig deeper.

Now, I have always been an individual who takes a scientific approach to faith and religion. In fact, one of my favorite lines of prayers/meditations in the modern liturgy is in a Shabbat morning prayer in the Mishkan T’filah, which reads, “I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind” (p. 203). In keeping with that scientific approach, it is only natural that I would want to probe the history of the compilation of Scripture. According to our Jewish tradition and according to Christian tradition as well, Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But, if you stop to think, this claim is not really made by the books themselves. In fact, I think most people would agree that Moses did not write about his own death and burial as it is recorded in Deuteronomy. Nor did he pen the verse which states, “Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut. 34:5-10). And I am going to go out on a limb here and say that Numbers 12:3, which states, “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all of the men which were upon the face of the earth,” was not written by Moses. Would the meekest man in all the earth tell following generations that he was the meekest man in all the earth? And, if he did tell them so, would that not disqualify him from being the meekest man and all the earth? Once it becomes clear that Moses could not possibly have written every verse in the five books attributed to him, the question becomes who wrote which parts and when?

Who Wrote the Bible? deals with the history of research that is available on the writing and compilation of the five books of the Torah. Since the 19th century, the well-known Documentary Hypothesis has been the standard for understanding the origin of the first five books. To summarize, the Documentary Hypothesis assigns the Torah to four authors. One author refers to God with the four letter name, yod-heh-vav-heh, often translated Yahweh or Jehovah, thus this author’s designation as ”J.” A second author refers to the Deity as Elohim, and thus this author’s designation as “E.” The book of Deuteronomy, and for that matter, the following books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings exhibit a subject matter, vocabulary, and grammar that are consistent throughout, but not consistent with the previous books of the Torah. This writer has come to be designated as the Deuteronomist, or ”D” for short. Those large sections of the Torah which deal with sacrifice and the minute functions of the priesthood were written by a Priestly writer, known to us as “P.” Sometimes to J, E, D, and P, another author is added who edited and wove the sources together to make them seamless and fluid. This individual is referred to as the Redactor.

What are the “new insights and fresh discoveries” that Professor Friedman reveals in Who Wrote the Bible? I will reveal some but not all of them in this brief summary. Friedman builds on the research already available on the characteristics of J, E, D, P, and the Redactor, but he uses clues within the texts to be far more specific about the identity of each author, the place the author lived, and the time period in which the author wrote. J, for example, the writer who referred to God as Yahweh or Jehovah, would definitely have been from the southern tribe of Judah, probably a member of an Aaronite family, and almost certainly wrote in the southern kingdom from the time of the split under Rehoboam but before 722 BCE when the northern tribes of Israel were carried into captivity by Assyria. Astonishingly, he even puts forth evidence that the author of J may have been a woman. E, the writer referring to God as Elohim, would have been from a group of priests, possibly descended from Moses, who lived in northern Israel, headquartered at Shiloh. These priests were rejected by Solomon in favor of the Aaronite line of priests during the first Temple period. The writer of E would have lived in and written in the territory of the northern kingdom. E most probably recorded his account after the kingdom split, when Jeroboam, from the tribe of Ephraim, became the northern king, but before the northern kingdom was destroyed in 722. Next in our timeline would have been the Priestly writer, P, another Aaronite priest, definitely male, and definitely writing from the southern kingdom of Judah. The historical imprint found in the writings of P allows Friedman to place him firmly in the reign of Hezekiah (716-697 BCE).

Previous researchers had surmised that the writer of the Priestly sections of the Torah was also the redactor who combined J, E,D, and P into a unified whole. Professor Friedman disagrees with that theory. He presents evidence from the texts that quite convincingly place the redactor in a separate time and place from the Priestly writer. One of the things that makes Who Wrote the Bible? difficult to put down is the specificity of time and place ascribed to each author. It even goes so far as to identify by name the author sometimes called the Deuteronomist and the Redactor, the final compiler of the entire five books. Now I am not going to share those names with you here because I do not want to ruin the suspense of a book that I truly hope you will purchase and read. I will say that I found the identification of the Deuteronomist and the Redactor very compelling.

In closing, I want to say what a profound effect my reading of Who Wrote the Bible? has had on me. I have now read the book twice from cover to cover. The second time I read it, I gleaned facts and insights that I had missed on the first reading. I am guessing if I read it again, the same will occur. It is hard to overstate the effect this book has had on my study of Scripture. When I began my studies of the historical origins of the five books that have become our Torah, I assumed that studying those origins would cause me to lose respect for the sanctity of the holy writings. To my amazement, I found that just the opposite has occurred. Knowing the historical periods in which each writer composed, and the perspectives from which the writers presented the material, has brought to every passage of the Torah a greater amount of meaning. Everyone has passages in the Torah that cause them difficulty; for example, the passage where Moses is angry that the commanders of the Israelite army had spared women and children in a battle with the Midianites. The Bible has Moses commanding the officers to kill every woman who has been with a man and every male child among the captives (Num. 31:14-18). Placing such passages in their historical context is key to being able to understand how such a brutal concept may have originated.

The Bible has for over two millennia had a profound effect on the development of Western civilization. I am awed when I consider the amount of hours of scholarship that have been put into the understanding of that collection of literature. In just the last few centuries our understanding has increased exponentially. This new light of discovery has made me able to be a better Jew and a better student of Scripture. It is true, as Professor Richard Friedman closes his book, Who Wrote the Bible?: “The question, after all, is not only who wrote the Bible, but who reads it.”

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We Can Overcome Racism!!!, June-July 2020

“I have been far too silent for far too long. It is time to step up; it is time to speak up; it is time to act!”

One of the things I love about Judaism is that it has logical and workable answers to every human problem. You know that I often refer to our progressive Judaism as “the thinking person’s religion.” Perhaps this wealth of wisdom is because for almost 4000 years our people have overcome, I believe by the Hand of Adonai, almost every imaginable persecution, oppression, war, famine, and affliction. We as American Jews, are once again dealing with difficult times. The threat of the worldwide, novel coronavirus compounded by the ripping apart of our society as we wrestle with the age-old problem of racism which has become once again seared in our consciousness by the horrible mistreatment and killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmud Arbery, just to name a few of the too many. Because we are Jews, we know we must use these combined crises as a motivation to rise up, act, and overcome. We have done it many times in our history, and we can and will do it again! Judaism has the answer, and I speak of it often—tikkun olam. Permit me, if you will, to remind you of the Biblical and historic basis of this much needed mission. It is my prayer that these words might stir your passion for the fulfillment of one of Judaism’s core hopes—a time when all humankind will be united under Adonai’s unchallenged rule. My heart rejoices on Shabbat morning, when we pray: “Bless our country as a safeguard of peace, its advocate among the nations…. Strengthen the bonds of friendship and fellowship among all the inhabitants of our world” (Mishkan T’Filah, p. 259). We can make this happen!

Chapter 2 of Genesis makes two interesting assertions regarding the creation of humankind. In verse 5 the Torah tells us, “Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for The LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth; and there was no human to cultivate the ground.” After the creation of human beings, the Torah states, “Then the LORD God took the humans and put them into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (v. 15). From these statements, the view began to develop early within Judaism that men and women were created to be partners with God in completing the creation which God willed into existence. That understanding was ultimately expressed in the principle of tikkun olam, variously translated as “repairing the world” or “healing the world.” It is noteworthy that during the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods of religious history, when the emphasis of most major religions was transitioning from an earthly to a heavenly orientation, the rabbis and sages of Judaism kept emphasis firmly on the here and now—on our responsibility to the earth and to society.

The phrase “mipnei tikkun ha-olamJewish Literacy, p.121). Its use in the Talmud is applied to a number of social obligations, including rules for divorce, collections for widows, and redemption of captives. Our Rabbis were concerned that performing such mitzvot just because they were a Torah requirement might cause them to be misapplied or fall into disuse. Thus, the impetus of performing them for the betterment of the community was invoked.

The concept of tikkun olam was expanded greatly by Rabbi Isaac Luria, a renowned 16th century Kabbalist. In brief, it involved light from the Creator being lost in the creation and intermixed with the material world. Performance of the mitzvot was seen as one means to restore balance to the creation. The expansion that Rabbi Luria made on the concept of tikkun olam was that he applied the principle as a motivation both for acts of social welfare and for acts of a more traditionally religious nature, such as prayer, meditation, and the saying of blessings (Noparstak, J., “Tikkun Olam,” http://learningtogive.org/).

In the 1950’s, Shlomo Bardin (founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute in California) brought the concept of tikkun olam into our modern consciousness, when he connected our obligation as partners in the creation with a line in the Aleinu prayer. Bardin asserted that, “l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai—then the world will be perfected under the rule of the Almighty” encapsulated the obligation of all Jews to work toward the perfection of the world. Over the course of the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and '70's this understanding became ever more popular, becoming the motivation for unprecedented social action, tzedakah (charitable giving), and gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion) in the Jewish community (Rabbi Daniel Danson, http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/).

The Prophet Isaiah, in line with most of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, gives us some breathtakingly positive glimpses of humankind’s future. A particularly powerful and oft-quoted prediction is Isa. 2:4: “… and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” As I think of the incredible strides humankind has made in the areas of science, technology, medicine, and human rights in just the past 100 years, I am optimistic enough to hope that the vision of the Hebrew Prophets is, in fact, possible. I tell my students frequently that the American constitutional experiment has yielded amazingly beneficial results. Never before in history have so many individuals been afforded such equal rights under the law, or such broad access to food, shelter, medical care, and wealth. I believe that our country’s movement in such a positive direction is principally because it was founded and has continued to operate on the deeply embedded Judeo-Christian values of honesty, hard work, and acts of generosity and kindness. These are at the heart of the concept of tikkun olam. But, our work is not done! We are not there yet!!

An individual’s behavior has repercussions in the community and in the world in proportions beyond our immediate perception—much like ripples in a pond. The tiniest of pebbles, when thrown into a pond, produces waves that proceed outward in concentric circles, ultimately encompassing the entire pond. So it is with good deeds. One person performs an act of kindness. Another is helped or touched, and passes along the kindness. Then another, and so on until a cycle of good can encompass an entire community, a country, and even the whole world. This cyclical expansion of positive effects will also flow from one generation to the next, then to the next, and so on. This is the process of tikkun olam.

In the words of our Aleinu prayer, we pray: “O may all, created in Your image become one in spirit and one in friendship, forever united in Your service” (Mishkan T’Filah, p.589). We are in difficult times! Will you join me in overcoming these by committing to increasing our acts of kindness, compassion, and social justice? May our motivation not just be that the Torah implores us to do so, but because of the beneficial effect it has on ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world—tikkun olam. My conscience is seared by this latest string of unacceptable incidents of the extrajudicial killing of people of color. While I have always been silently supportive of social justice, I now believe that I have been far too silent for far too long. It is time to step up; it is time to speak up; it is time to act! I have faith enough to believe that when a critical mass of people commits to pursue good, the day will come when the utopian vision of the Hebrew Prophets can be realized. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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“Holiness”—What Exactly Does That Mean???, May 2020

As we enter the sixth week of Governor Roy Cooper’s “stay at home” order here in North Carolina, I want to remind all members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom what the Talmud teaches us in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5: “…if anyone has caused a single life to perish…, it is deemed by Scripture as if that one had caused the whole world to perish, and anyone who saves a single life…, that one is deemed by Scripture as if to have saved the whole world.” Preserving life is central to all the mitzvot/commandments of Torah. This time of taking measures to slow the progression of the Coronavirus has caused many of us anxiety, anguish, and even fear. I want to join the growing chorus of psychologists, religious, and secular leaders who are calling upon us to stop using the term “social distancing” and to substitute instead, “physical distancing— while staying socially connected.” The physical distancing is truly a mitzvah, even if we save only one life, it is as if we had saved the whole world. But, I believe that by taking these measures we can significantly slow down the progression of COVID-19 and save many hundreds, if not thousands of lives. The important thing is to stay socially connected during this critical preventative endeavor. You know that I talk often about how blessed we are as a people to live in the 21st century United States of America. We enjoy a level of prosperity, plenty, technological advancement, and civil liberties unparalleled in human history. Let us use these resources, particularly the technology, to reach out to one another.

I am thankful to have a lovely house to shelter in, surrounded by plenty of food. But my heart does go out to all those who are not so fortunate. What are our responsibilities toward them? Well, that is exactly the subject of this week’s Torah portion, and, you guessed it, one of my favorites—Kedoshim!! The concept of holiness is addressed often in the Torah, but perhaps nowhere more forcefully and succinctly than in this Torah portion. Kedoshim is the 30th weekly portion in the Torah reading cycle, and the 7th reading in the book of Leviticus (19:1-20:27). At 64 verses, it is one of the shortest portions in the Torah reading cycle. Kedoshim is read twice a year, both as part of the weekly cycle and as the special reading on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Some of you may recall that Kedoshim is also the title of the fifth order in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud.

The Torah portion begins, “And Adonai spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” Now, I have said in jest many times that the Almighty did not choose us, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, because we make good bagels, although we do. The Torah is very clear that their descendants were called for a very specific purpose, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The Creator apparently saw in Abraham and Sarah the qualities of loyalty to God, to God’s laws, and to God’s plan for humankind. And the Almighty must have known that these qualities would carry on in Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. I like to call this the “Family Plan” for spreading the Torah message to all humankind. As the descendants of Abraham and Sarah role model these lofty statutes and ethics, the Prophets tell us that eventually all humankind, indeed every nation, will adopt the Creator’s laws and plan. This will lead to a time when war, sickness, and famine will be completely done away with according to the Hebrew Prophets.

Kedoshim is the masculine plural form of Kadosh—holy. But, what exactly does holiness mean as the term is used in the Hebrew Bible? When one thinks of holiness one usually envisions a monk, cloistered in a medieval monastery, reading holy writings, meditating on heavenly things, and abstaining from most of the joys of everyday life, such as eating, drinking, etc. This view derives from a Greco-Roman concept of holiness, often referred to as a dualistic worldview. In it the heavenly realm, the spiritual, is deemed to be good, but earthly things, the physical, is considered to be inherently corrupt or tainted. That is not the Hebraic view. At the time of creation, Adonai saw six times that those things which were created were good. Upon the completion of God’s ultimate creation, man and woman, the Hebrew Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:32). So it is, in Jewish tradition, that holiness is not entailed in abstaining from enjoying those elements of creation that God has graciously given to us, but rather in their judicious and moderate use. As summed up in Talmud, Yevamot 20a, we are instructed, “Sanctify yourself also regarding that which is permissible to you.”

Holiness in Judaism is not so much a state of mind, and definitely not a system of belief. Rather, it is the demonstration of very specific behaviors toward God and toward our fellow human beings. Those behaviors cannot be done in seclusion. That is why many sages have pointed out that the opening words of this Torah portion, “speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel…,” have the implication that holiness is not something done while cloistered away, but is something that is engaged in with and for the community. The specifics of the behaviors that define holiness are not left to subjective choice. Fortunately, they are very clearly spelled out in the Torah and in the later writings of the Jewish sages. Chief among the enumeration of those laws would, of course, be the Ten Commandments, given in the Torah in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In the Midrash Rabbah, Rabbi Levi shows us that all of the Ten Commandments are, in fact, restated in Torah portion Kedoshim:

  1. “I am the Lord your God,” is stated here also (Lev. 19:3).
  2. “You shall have no other gods before me,” appears as “Nor make to yourselves molten gods” (19:4).
  3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” is written here as, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name” (19:12).
  4. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” is restated as, “And keep my Sabbaths” (19:3).
  5. “Honor your father and mother,” is rendered here as “Every man shall fear his mother and his father” (19:3).
  6. “You shall not murder,” is conveyed in the passage, “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (19:3).
  7. “You shall not commit adultery,” appears here as, “Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (19:10).
  8. “You shall not steal,” is written here as, “You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie to one another.” (19:11).
  9. “You shall not bear false witness,” is entailed in “You shall not go about as a talebearer” (19:16).
  10. “You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s,” is more than reflected in, “Love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18).

  11. (Translated in “Parshat Kedoshim in Depth,” www.chabad.org)

It has always impressed me that in this “holiness code,” as it is often called, relatively few of the verses are devoted to our relationship with the Creator and to holy things such as Sabbaths and offerings. The vast majority of verses are devoted to our relations with fellow human beings. The level of compassion given to that topic in this portion is palpable. Think for a minute about such seemingly simple, but powerful, actions as not reaping to the corners of your field so that there will be gleanings left behind for those who are in need (v. 10). And, not allowing the wages of someone hired to remain with you even overnight (v. 14). Also, not allowing injustice in judgment even to the extent of being partial to the poor nor deferring to the great (v. 15). And, not going about as a talebearer, or in other words slanderer, among your people (v. 16). And then, of course, there is the ultimate commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18). This principle has become a cornerstone of most of the world’s major religions. And, lest one think that one’s neighbor only refers to fellow countrymen or women, the Torah is crystal clear: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you; you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (19:34).

The level of devotion to one’s neighbor and compassion for those in need found in this Torah portion connects strongly with the constant theme of the Hebrew Prophets, social justice. Micah sums it up best, “What does Adonai require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). The fact that “love your neighbor as yourself” has become a core belief of so many world religions is proof to me that the Almighty’s “Family Plan” is working. When the adherents of those religions truly apply those lofty principles, putting them into action through their behaviors (behaviors laid out so specifically in this Torah portion), humankind will surely enter the time spoken of by the Prophets. When nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4). It is my prayer that we might live to see this fulfilled in our day. Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

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I and Thou, April 2020

These are difficult times. Our nation and the world face the greatest threat to our well-being that I have witnessed in my lifetime. While some days I am almost overcome with fear and angst, I have sought refuge in faith and prayer. The knowledge that the Jewish people have faced innumerable trials, persecutions, and oppressions over our four thousand year history, but each time have been delivered by the Hand of Adonai, gives me strength. Passover celebrates a miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt. On this Passover, as we pray for a present deliverance from the ravages of Covid-19, I want to share with you another writing of one of our great Jewish philosophers and theologians, Martin Buber. You know that I call progressive Judaism “the thinking person’s religion.” The more I read and study our rich Jewish philosophies and traditions the more enamored with them and inspired by them I become. Perhaps my favorite of all Jewish theologians is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But, did you know he actually credited much of his thinking to Martin Buber. Buber wrote in German and is not an easy read—his ideas are complex, but are, at the same time, genius and are considered foundational in the philosophy of modern Judaism.

In Jews, God and History, Max and Ethel Dimont, place Martin Buber in the rise of Jewish Humanism which occurred in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Buber’s emphasis on the individual stood in stark contrast to the emphasis on community organization that was going on in Western Europe and the Americas as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Martin Buber is seen as the father of existentialist Jewish philosophy. He “has come to be looked upon as a prophet and acknowledged by Jews and Christians as one of the most influential modern day philosophical theologians.” (Dimont, 1994, p. 366)

It is difficult to summarize Buber’s philosophy in his book, I and Thou, in better words than Max and Ethel Dimont have chosen. They state that according to Buber:

    Man has a soul, …his unconscious national soul. This unconscious soul in the individual Jew is a mirror image of the collective soul of the Jewish people, a soul which compresses four thousand years of Jewish history with in it. …Each Jew can reexperience this collective encounter with God on an individual basis. …Such a belief neither contradicts reason nor opposes science, and it answers the need of man for faith. (Dimont, p. 367)

Martin Buber was born to a wealthy Viennese family in 1878. After his parents died at an early age, he was raised by an observant grandfather. That is how he came into early contact with Hasidism. Buber was impressed with Hasidism’s emphasis on the individual and its focus on performing acts of lovingkindness in and for the community as an expression of one’s belief in the invisible God. Buber remained involved in pro-Jewish writing and education in Germany, ultimately joining the Zionist movement. Unlike Theodore Hertzl, who advocated a secular Jewish state in the holy land, Buber stressed the importance of Jewish religion and culture. He saw Jewish humanism as it was portrayed in the Hebrew prophets—that Israel would be a light to the nations, the model of an ideal state. Buber was forced to flee Germany in 1938 with the rise of the Nazis. He settled in Jerusalem where he became a professor at Hebrew University. Buber remained in Jerusalem until his death in 1965. (Dimont, pp.366-368)

Buber’s most famous treatise, I and Thou, is divided into three parts. The First Part explains the difference between I-You and I-It relationships. Buber believed, “Basic words do not state something that might exist outside them; by being spoken they establish a mode of existence.” (I and Thou, First Touchstone Edition, 1996, p.53) The individual’s reality and very existence are seen in the relationship of the I and the You. Or, according to Buber, “Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation.” (p. 55) In contrast to the relational basis of the I-You interaction, stands the experience of the I-It. These dual forms of experiencing existence occur for Buber across three spheres: the sphere of life with nature, the sphere of life with humans, and the sphere of life with spiritual beings. (p.57)

The I-You relationship is completely interactive. I does not exist without the You. The I is constantly acting upon the You and the You upon the I. The I requires a You to become an I. Or, as Buber puts it, “All life is encounter.” (p. 62) I-It experiences, on the other hand, can be categorized, ordered, and organized. Not so with I-You relationships, as they are present and constantly becoming. To Buber, “…in so far as a human being makes do with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no presence.” (p. 64) Since relation is reciprocity, Buber sees love as a “cosmic force.” “Love is responsibility of an I for a You…” (pp. 66-67)

In a very complex way, Buber describes human existence as the interplay of I-You and I-It. According to Buber, “Every You in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least enter into thinghood again and again.… The It is the chrysalis, the You the butterfly. Only it is not always as if the states took turns so neatly; often it is an intricately entangled series of events that is tortuously dual.” (p. 69) Buber explains this complex interaction historically by appealing to the concrete world of primitive human beings. The primitive human’s interaction with nature and formation of the I concept would be parallel to that of a young child forming ideas of self through interaction with the self’s surroundings. Buber posits that it is also through these interactions that humans gain their understanding of spirit. Or, as Buber puts it, “…in conscious life cosmic being recurs as human becoming. Spirit appears in time as a product, even a byproduct, of nature, and yet it is spirit that envelops nature timelessly.” (p. 75) No doubt, Buber is correct when he maintains that all human beings whether young or primitive have an innate longing for relationship. So to Buber, “The development of the child’s soul is connected indissolubility with his craving for the You.” (p. 79) Buber concludes the First Part of I and Thou with the understanding that, “Only as things cease to be our You and become our It do they become subject to coordination.” (p. 81)

It is in the Second Part of I and Thou that Buber develops his now famous thesis that the individual soul is a reflection of the corporate experiences of the soul’s community over a period of history. He laments that over this period of history both the human soul and the human race have moved progressively toward an increase of the It world. This move toward experience and toward the It results in a diminution of spirit because, for Buber, “Spirit in its human manifestation is man’s response to his You…. Spirit is not in the I but between the I in the You.” (p. 89) In this historical context, Buber lays out the necessity for a strong religious community. Buber maintains, “A living reciprocal relationship includes feelings but is not derived from them. A community is built upon a living, reciprocal relationship, but the builder is the living, active center.” (p. 94) Buber does not see the human being’s desire for power or profit to be evils in themselves, as long as they are tied to the benefit of human relationships around them. The It world cannot be dispensed with, but should be submitted to the benefit of the You world—community. Buber argues against compartmentalizing human existence into such divisions as work, community, and spiritual life, because he sees all existence as relation. “The person becomes conscious of himself as participating in being.” (p.113)

In his Third Part, Buber explains the extension of the I-You to the intersection with the eternal You. Humans have addressed their eternal You by many names throughout the centuries, and yet, for Buber, that You is one. “For whoever pronounces the word God and really means You, addresses, no matter what his delusion, the true You of his life that cannot be restricted by any other and to whom he stands in a relationship that includes all others.” (p.124) It is in this section that Buber explains the Jewish view of a relationship with the eternal You not as separating oneself from the world, but rather is bringing the eternal You into the world through pro-social acts of justice, charity and lovingkindness. “For entering into the pure relationship does not involve ignoring everything but seeing everything in the You, not renouncing the world but placing it up on its proper ground.” (p. 127) Buber argues that all human beings have this innate You sense that cannot be satiated until the soul finds a relationship with the eternal You presence. And, while Buber claims that humans need God, he also maintains that God needs them. How else would one explain the very creation and existence of humankind?

Creation—we participate in it, we encounter the creator, we offer ourselves to [the creator], helpers and companions. Two great servants move through the ages: prayer and sacrifice. (p. 130) According to Buber, it is through prayer and giving that we become partners with the eternal You—the Creator—co-creators, as it were, for the good of the cosmos: “…the whole human being, without reserve, and the all-embracing God; the unified I and the boundless You.” (p. 137)

I found Buber’s expressions of his own relationship with the eternal You, of his relationship with his God to be powerful:

    I know nothing of a “world” and of “worldly life” that separate us from God. What is designated that way is life with an alienated It-world, the life of experience and use. Whoever goes forth in truth to the world, goes forth to God. …God embraces but is not the universe; just so, God embraces but is not my self. (p. 143)

Buber closes his Third Part with the explanation that in humanity’s effort to bring permanence to relationships and to institutionalize beliefs, humans exert sincere effort in the formation of religions. This by its very nature has dangers, as it pushes the relationship with the eternal You toward an I-it status. This “form” as Buber terms it, is not necessarily a bad thing. Buber points out, “Form is a mixture of the You and It, too. …In true prayer, cult and faith are unified and purified into living relation. …God is close to [God’s] forms when man does not remove them from [God].” (p. 167) Ultimately for Buber, the truth of any religion is the actualization of God in the world through acts of kindness, justice and love. Buber compares humans’ relationships with their eternal You as spokes which connect to create the wheel of community. For Buber, “the God-side of the event whose world-side is called return is called redemption.” (Emphasis Mine, p. 168) And, so ends Buber’s amazing treatise.

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L’Shanah Tovah—Again!!, March 2020

Purim has just recently passed, and I see that my article on that holiday is still available on the web at http://www.hickoryjewishcenter.com/messages.html. Please check it out!! Now I want to turn our attention to another holiday that is just a bit later this March—the Jewish New Year. Did I get your attention??? Our next Torah reading service, Saturday, March 21st, marks Shabbat Hachodesh. Shabbat Hachodesh is the Sabbath that corresponds with or immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year, 2020, Nissan 1 is on Thursday, March 26th.

The twenty verses in the Shabbat Hachodesh special maftir reading detail the taking of a Paschal lamb into the home in preparation to observe the Passover, followed by instructions for the seven days for the eating of matzah, unleavened bread. The passage opens, “Now Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you’” (Ex. 12:1-2). This is quite an amazing statement to a modern Jew who has grown up with the understanding that Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishri, is the Jewish New Year. The Talmud records an interesting debate between Rabbi Eliezer who believed the world was created in Tishri and Rabbi Joshua who believed the world was created in Nissan. “It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer says: in Tishri the world was created; in Tishri the patriarchs were born; in Tishri the patriarchs died…. Rabbi Joshua says: Whence do we know that the world was created in Nissan? Because it says, ‘And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit.’ Which is the month in which the earth is full of grass and trees [begin to] produce fruit? You must say that this is Nissan” (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a). The ruling (based on the Mishnah, Rosh Hashana 1:1) is that, “There are four New Years; the first of Nissan is the New Year for kings and for festivals; the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing animals; the first of Tishri is the New Year for years, …for agriculture, and for vegetables; the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to what the School of Shammai, and the School of Hillel say on the fifteenth.”

It should not seem unusual to a modern reader that a year might contain many beginnings. The beginning of our calendar year is January 1, but a fiscal year typically begins on July 1. The school year traditionally begins in early September. It has also been pointed out that the progression of times and seasons is cyclical. You will recall that a circle famously has no beginning or end. So, truly, any point on the circle might be designated as the beginning (See, e.g., “Our Other Head,” by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, http://www.chabad.org/). What is interesting is that this very first commandment given to the Israelites as a nation involves time at all. According to Rashi, these verses are “the true beginning of the Torah” (“Shabbat Hachodesh,” Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, https://www.ou.org). You see, prior to Exodus 12, the Almighty had already given humankind ten laws, according to the sages. The first, of course, was the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” found in Genesis 1:28. That is followed by the seven Noahide laws, derived by the rabbis from Genesis 9. These eight taken together would apply to all humankind. Later in Genesis we read that God gave our father Abraham the commandment of circumcision specifically for himself and his descendants (Gen. 17:10-14). The tenth ordinance in the Torah is the prohibition given to Jacob and his descendants of eating the sciatic nerve of any animal (Gen. 32:33).

What makes the laws of Exodus chapter 12 different is that they are given to the entire nation of Israel and that they relate to time. Moses and Aaron, upon the receipt of these instructions, are commanded, “Speak to all the congregation of Israel” (v. 3). It is significant that these first national commands involved the keeping of time. Slaves do not need to mark time. They go to bed, get up, eat, and work as they are commanded by their master. Free peoples, on the other hand, are in control of their own destiny and thus have the need to order and budget their time. Even more importantly, the new nation of Israel was being called to a very specific purpose, according to the Torah, to be witnesses to the Creator God and to role model the Creator’s laws to the other nations of the earth. The Torah records the Almighty’s passionate words to Moses while on the holy mountain, Sinai, “Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). A crucial part of being witnesses for Adonai was the observance of “holy time,” most notably the weekly Sabbath, the seventh day, as instructed in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:8-11). The Sabbath calls humankind’s attention to God’s creative work, but also to God’s redemptive work as the One who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt to be a holy nation (See Deut. 5:15). In addition to the weekly Sabbath are the annual festivals, which the Almighty refers to in Torah as “Adonai’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations— My appointed times are these.” God is referring, of course, to Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. These holy times are detailed quite clearly and concisely in Leviticus chapter 23.

But, the whole concept of marking time in general, and holy time in specific, begins for the Israelite nation in the 12th chapter of Exodus. One can understand why Rashi viewed this as the true beginning of the Torah. It is instructive that the rabbis of the Mishnah viewed the first of Nissan as the “New Year for kings and for festivals,” for surely a large part of the responsibility of being a “kingdom of priests” is the observance and communication to others of the importance of Adonai’s holy times. It is a sad fact that for many centuries the vision of the Jewish people to be a kingdom was purely a matter of the heart. Living in exile they did not have an earthly kingdom of their own. But their longing for one never faded, as is summed up poignantly by this poem of the German-Jewish poet, Ludwig August Frankel, from a century and a half ago. It is entitled, “Juda’s Farben (Judah’s Colors)”:

    The Jew turns his gaze to the east

    And the worries of his soul;

    He thinks of his kingdom’s fate

    And the morning of freedom.

    Like a ruler who has been banished,

    Who, in the pains of exile

    Still feels himself in his heart

    To be the king of his lost country.

I have remarked many times, what a miracle it is that we have lived to see the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in our ancient, sacred land. Something that was only a dream for our people for almost 2000 years is now a reality. But, with this great miracle/gift comes great responsibility. May we as a people never waver from the high ethical standards of the holy Torah that was entrusted into our care. So, as we begin the biblical cycle of another Hebrew year, will you join me in recommitting to those lofty statutes and to this high calling. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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Abraham—A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, February 2020

I vividly remember the day that I heard about the brutal murders at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015. I was shaken to my core. Shortly after that horrific act, it was reported on the news that the murderer, whose name I will not honor by mentioning it, had done this evil deed in an effort to spark a “race war.” I reacted with every fiber of my being. As I sat on my couch watching the newscast that night, I clenched my fist and vowed that I would strive with every bit of strength that I had to work to promote unity among people of different races, among people of different religions, among people of different nationalities. I committed myself to strive to tear down those artificial barriers which have separated humankind for centuries, and to put in their place bonds of friendship and, yes, even love.

In the months leading up to June 2015, Barbara Laufer and I had been in discussions with several local spiritual leaders about organizing a local interfaith group in the Catawba Valley along the lines of the well-known Mecklenburg Ministries interfaith organization in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over the next two years we were able to successfully put together such an organization, establishing rules for membership, constitution and bylaws, and acquiring 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. I have had the privilege of serving on the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council (CVIC) Board of Directors since the organization’s inception. Since June 2017, and it has been my great honor to serve as its president.

One of the many community activities that the Catawba Valley interfaith Council has sponsored was a February 2018 book reading and interfaith discussion by four local spiritual leaders: a Rabbi, an Imam, a Pastor, and a professor of religion. The book we chose to read and discuss was Bruce Feiler’s Abraham-A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. That book is Feiler’s attempt to foster Interfaith dialogue and cooperation through the establishment of a common anchor, the patriarch Abraham.

Now I am a chronic optimist. I 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 time will come, as we pray in the Aleinu, “O may all, created in 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 in each of the major religions’ view of Abraham. 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. Won’t you get your copy today, and let me know what you think?

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God’s Name in Jewish Sacred Literature and Tradition, January 2020

It is hard to believe that we have entered not only a new year, 2020, but also a new decade. And what an exciting time to be alive! Having just dealt with a serious medical issue and going through surgery, I am astounded by the progress made by modern medicine in just the last few decades. This progress has been paralleled in many other disciplines as well, helping us to live longer and more productive lives while at the same time staying connected with friends and family worldwide. We, in America, are particularly fortunate to be heirs of one of the most stable and prosperous governments in human history. Our constitutional republic has provided an unprecedented level of peace, prosperity, and individual rights to its citizens. And, we have worked diligently to expand those rights to all classes of humankind, not only in our own country, but to citizens of foreign lands as well. I pray with pride every Sabbath and holiday, “Bless our country as a safeguard of peace, its advocate among the nations” (Mishkan T’filah, p. 179).

2019 and the decade it closed was also quite good for congregation Temple Beth Shalom. We are blessed to be in solid financial standing, and our membership has continued to grow slowly but steadily. I cannot say enough good things about our dedicated and hard-working Board of Directors and the many volunteers who make our Temple such a warm and inviting spiritual home. That warmth is reflected, I believe, in the positive responses of the many visitors whose company we have enjoyed this past year. I know that I for one relish the opportunity to interact with members of all faiths, as we seek to deepen our understanding of one another.

As our congregation has grown and I have taken on more and more Hebrew students, the question frequently arises as to the translation and meaning of the name of God in the Bible and prayer book. Since the next time we get together at Temple Beth Shalom for Torah reading, Shabbat January 18, we will read in portion, Shemot, about Adonai’s revelation to Moses of the Divine name for the first time, I thought I would take this opportunity to share my understanding of God’s name in Jewish sacred literature and tradition once more.

I have always believed that a glimpse into the great mystery that is God can be provided by a study of the Divine name. The name of humankind’s Creator, the Sustainer of All Things, has been clearly revealed to us in the Hebrew Bible. And yet, the average reader of scripture remains relatively unaware that the Almighty has a name at all, let alone what it is. That is because this name is not translated as a name in most well-known scriptural translations. You can only imagine my shock and amazement, when, as a young college student in the 1970’s, I began an indepth study of the Hebrew Bible and discovered that the name of God is used almost 6000 times in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings (Tanakh). And, yet, I had never seen it. That is because most modern translations, in following the King James Version, have translated the four letter name of God, yod-heh-vav-heh, as LORD in all capital letters. I completely understand and respect the translation editors’ intent to honor ancient laws and traditions guarding against taking “the name of yod-heh-vav-heh in vain,” as the third commandment implores (Exodus 20:7). Yet, a side effect of that editorial decision is that millions have been denied a more intimate knowledge of the Creator’s name. “LORD” is a title and not a name. And, while I am a husband, a father, and a teacher, none of those titles conveys a personal knowledge of who I am like my name, Dennis Steven Jones, does.

The name of the Creator is revealed for the first time in Hebrew Scripture to Moses in his encounter with the burning bush on a mountain called Horeb (Ex. 3:1-15). You will recall that while he was pasturing a flock he came upon a bush that appeared to be burning, though not consumed. From the midst of the bush, a voice called out to Moses with the identification, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6). Moses was, of course, commissioned to approach the Pharaoh of Egypt to request the release of the Israelite populous who had been serving as slaves there. Moses protested, “I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now, they may say to me, ‘What is God’s name?’ What shall I say to them?” (v. 13) At that point, the Almighty made the stunning revelation, “eh’yeh asher eh’hey…. Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘eh’yeh has sent me to you’” (v. 14—keep in mind there are no capitals in Hebrew). Now, the Hebrew phrase, “eh’yeh asher eh’ye,” is difficult to translate, and has been rendered in most translations as, “I AM THAT I AM,” although that is probably not the most accurate translation (Gerald L Schroeder, God According to God, p. 85). I will definitely explore that possibility more fully in a future article. For our present purposes, it is most interesting to note that in the very next verse in the Torah, God tells Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘yod-heh-vav-heh, the God of your fathers…, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial unto all generations” (v. 15). One might ask why the revealed name changed within the space of two verses from “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh” or simply “eh’yeh” to “yod-heh-vav-heh”? That question may be answered by an understanding of how the name, yod-heh-vav-heh is pronounced.

As a result of efforts by our sages to safeguard the extreme sanctity of the name of God, it appears that the exact pronunciation of that name may have become lost to us. The vast majority of scholarship on this subject favors the pronunciation, “Yahweh.” I do not find that view compelling in that the Hebrew word, Yahweh, conveys no apparent meaning. That would be extremely unlikely, as the vast majority of names used in the Hebrew Bible do convey some type of meaning in their translation. Take for example my Hebrew name, Dani’el, “God is my judge.” There is a minority scholarship opinion which favors the pronunciation, “Yehovah,” for the Divine Name, a pronunciation which does convey meaning. At least one scholar (James D. Tabor, Restoring Abrahamic Faith, p. 20) has posited in this pronunciation of the name the contraction of three Hebrew verbs that have been preserved in the ancient Hebrew hymn “Adon Olam.” In the seventh line of that hymn we chant regarding the Most High, “v’hu hayah, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yihyeh b’tifarah—roughly, the One who was, the One who is, and the One who will be” (Gates of Prayer, p. 729). Hayah translates as “was,” hoveh-“is,” and yihyeh-“will be.” If one were to place these verbs in this order, YIYEH, HOVEH, HAYAH, and then to contract the emboldened letters, one would have YEHOVAH, a contraction meaning quite literally “the One who will be, is, and was.” What strikes me most is not only how this correlation imparts such rich meaning to the pronunciation of the Divine name, but also how it seems to reconcile an apparent discrepancy between verses 14 and 15 in chapter 3 of Exodus. Both verses would contain only slightly alternate renderings of Hebrew verbs for “to be.”

Now, the Divine name is not some kind of talisman or incantation that one has to “get right” in order to earn merit. But, an understanding of the name does seem to figure quite prominently in the message of the Hebrew Prophets, particularly in their predictions of a future time of peace and prosperity for all humankind. One of the more well-known references is in Joel (ch. 3, v. 5Hebrew), where the prophet states, “And it will come about that whoever calls on the name yod-heh-vav-heh shall be delivered.” Another is the one we chant in every synagogue service as a part of our Aleinu prayer. It is a quote from Zechariah 14:9, “b’yom hahu yihyeh yod-heh-vavheh echad u’shemo echad—in that day, Adonai/Yehovah will be one and God’s name one.” These are just two of the many references to the Divine name and its importance, particularly in a time period referred to by the Prophets as “the latter days.” But, that is a topic for a future message. For now, my sincere prayer for each of you is the utmost of health, happiness, prosperity, peace, and spiritual growth in the New Year, 2020! Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will!

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