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empathy training

Shabbat Shemot | January 18, 2020
A congregant told me this week his friends don’t think he’s capable of empathy. He said to me, “I just don’t understand why they feel that way.”
In part, empathy is a personality trait. In part, empathy is an emotion. Most of all, empathy is a necessary response to others and a key human tool for living in a kind and caring society. We have to be able to call on each other for comfort and compassion in those moments when we are weak or hurting.
Currently, we live at a time of empathy overload. Too much that is sad or painful in the lives of others demands our attention at home and around the world. We need a way to replenish our compassion and give of our concern. We need empathy training and to become empathy trainers.
This sensitivity is a core demonstration of Jewish values. Torah often commands us to be considerate of the feelings of others. “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. stated it this way. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?”
Imagine this. “You’re in a barebones apartment. A pile of bills topped by an eviction notice sits on the desk before you. A radio to your left broadcasts a report about rising unemployment while your landlord knocks on your door, demanding rent you don’t have.”
At Temple University, this is a virtual reality simulation about becoming homeless. It allows users to experience the process of being evicted, getting ticketed for sleeping in a car, and riding a public bus through the night to stay warm.
For social service professionals, this is a new form of empathy training. By using virtual reality headsets and simulations students gain insight into the daily struggles of future clients and patients. It’s an immersive method for trying to feel what others feel and see what others see.
It makes sense to use technology in this way because we know people empathize most easily when they see other’s suffering with their own eyes. As one neuroscientist explained to me, feeling empathy for others is difficult because it requires our expending personal emotional energy we prefer to save for our own circumstances. That’s why we need empathy training and to become empathy trainers.
Rather than virtual reality, for the moment let’s train through our religious values. We meet Moses for the first time in this year’s Torah reading cycle. Moses is our empathy trainer.
Why is it, Jewish tradition asks, that Moses is God’s choice to represent the Hebrew slaves before Pharaoh and seek their freedom?
The answer emerges from Moses’ origin story, the second chapter of Exodus, a story filled with empathy and angst. Moses is born to a Hebrew slave woman determined to save his life. She raises him for three months at great risk to them both. When able, she sets her baby boy into a basket and sends him down the Nile River to an unknown fate, protected by his older sister.
Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby boy, suspecting he is a Hebrew child. Empathetic to a mother’s fear, the Egyptian princess lifts up the baby to save him and, knowingly or not, hires his mother to nurse him. As the child grows, Pharaoh’s daughter takes him in as her own son and names him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.” This royal princess’ choice to heal the pain of a young boy and his family raises Moses into a position of prominence.
We all know well what follows. Slavery and plagues lead to exodus and God. Ever since, we the Jewish people find purpose and destiny in our master story, the story of Moses who leads our ancestors to freedom, the story of our people's covenant with God and history, a story replete with empathy, justice, and redemption.
As a grown man Moses walks among the Israelite slaves, aware these are his people. Moses sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Feeling for the beaten slave, Moses strikes the Egyptian oppressor and buries him in the sand.
The next day, Moses finds two of the Hebrew slaves fighting each other. Again feeling bad about their conflict, he steps in to stop them. They reject his outreach and retort, “Do you mean to kill us as you killed the Egyptian?” Martin Luther King, Jr. summarizes this scene for our contemporary times. “We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”
Now aware Pharaoh seeks to kill him, Moses flees the scene. Arriving in Midian, Moses comes to a well. He sees a group of young women coming to water their flock. He witnesses other shepherds scaring the women away from the well.
Our empathy trainer, Moses, “rose to their defense, “vayoshian – he saved them, and he watered their flock.” The Hebrew in this verse, vayoshian, is prescient. Eleven chapters later after the Children of Israel walk through the Sea of Reeds to their freedom, the Torah announces, “The Eternal God redeemed, vayosha – God saved, Israel that day from the Egyptians.”
The word used to describe Moses’ actions on behalf of the vulnerable women is the same word used to describe God’s actions on behalf of the vulnerable Israelites. Empathy is a Godly tool of justice for us all. Again, I quote Martin Luther King, Jr. “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
In gratitude for his act of kindness, the young women’s father invites Moses into their home. Moses marries one of the women, Zipporah, who bears him a son Gershom, a name of empathy meaning, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”
And then the Torah tells us “a long time after that, the king of Egypt died.” Moses is now free to step into his role. Ready, too, for a change in their destiny the Hebrew slaves cry out to God who now empathizes with their plight. The process of redemption begins. Professor Avivah Zorenberg writes, “The human rage that shakes the dulled world is a divine power within the human being.”
One commentary, the Sefat Emet, further explains. Until the people themselves understand the true nature and outrage of their condition, until their inner sense of empathy is stronger, they cannot see the promise of redemption. Martin Luther King, Jr. summarizes the point. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
In part, empathy is a personality trait. In part, empathy is an emotion. Most of all, empathy is a necessary response to the circumstances and conditions of our lives and a key human tool for living in a kind and caring society. We train ourselves and other others to be empathetic and responsive by first seeing the facts of our own experience, and through a personal lens, identifying with the pain of others. We’re all capable of empathy.
Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed. “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Reacquainted with the beginning of our people’s exodus story this Shabbat, and honoring the legacy of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, may we reclaim the empathy present in each of our souls, and sensitive to the needs of others be true to the story of our people's covenant with God and history, a story replete with justice, redemption, and empathy.
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

don't argue on the way

Shabbat Vayigash | January 4, 2020
Twenty years ago, we anticipated the start of a new millennium. Many of us spoke excitedly about living at the start of the 21st Century. My father, of blessed memory, really wanted to cross that timeline from 1999 to 2000. Though he did not live to do it, I carried with me his sense of reaching a new era on that New Year’s Eve.
I remember the Y2K scare. What would happen to so many things computer dependent if the software didn’t properly adjust to the new date ending in 00? Though it all worked out fine, back then we sensed correctly that technology was going to transform our daily lives. What we did not envision was a world transformed by terror since 9/11/01 and the unending wars engulfing us still. Nor did we foresee the great recession or resurgent antisemitism.
Now it’s 2020. Twenty years later, we take stock of the 21st Century so far. Great achievements and remarkable accomplishments, along with once unimaginable occurrences have captivated and inspired us.
We have more entertainment options than we have time to enjoy. We relate and communicate through social media. Our communities are more diverse and our awareness is more global. Yet, our sense of social community seems diminished.
What we did not envision on the eve of the new millennium was the more polarized and divided world we live in today. Social, political, and economic schisms divide us. We hold less trust in civic institutions and religious traditions. We’re more parochial and individualistic than ever before.
Looking back, we know rarely will we predict the future correctly. Looking ahead, we can still imagine what may be better and remember what we believe. Therefore, rather than guess about what the future will be, I offer instead a hope, even a prayer for this New Year and beyond.
I take the content of my aspiration from guidance Joseph provides.
Joseph, our Biblical forebear who stands before his brothers as a ruler in Egypt.
Joseph, who received a precious ornamented coat from his father Jacob.
Joseph, a dreamer whom his brothers cast into a pit when he was a naive lad.
Joseph once sold into Egyptian slavery, who his brothers and father presume is dead.
Joseph, who interpreting dreams believes he rose to prominence out of slavery and prison by God’s design.
Joseph, who serves Pharaoh by managing Egypt’s crops through plenty and famine.
Joseph, who watches his brothers come before him to seek food when there is a shortage in Canaan.
Joseph, who tricks his older siblings into bringing his youngest brother Benjamin down to him in Egypt.
After all of this, and much more drama in the journey of his days, Joseph reveals his true identity to them. He then instructs his brothers as he sends them home to retrieve their father, Jacob. “Don’t argue on the way,” (Genesis 45:24)
“Don’t argue on the way,” a strange instruction I think.
After years of yearning and days of disguise, in this moment, a Torah story scene filled with emotion and surprise, if you were Joseph, with all you have experienced, with all you have learned, with all you dreamed once upon a time would come to be, what parting words would you offer to your brothers? What advice or wisdom would you speak as they journey home to get your father? A strange instruction, I think. “Don’t argue on the way.”
Well, maybe not. Afterall, the brothers arguing is what led to them to cast Joseph aside in the first place. The medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra acknowledges this. Joseph now worries his brothers might be feeling guilty for what they did. They might argue about it. A schism might form among them.
Jewish tradition imagines a deeper level of concern. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eleazar states that Joseph told his brothers not to argue over Torah and Halakhah on their journey home. Such intense debate can be distracting. Rabbi Eleazar worries for Joseph that his brothers might lose their way while arguing and not reach home safely.
Rabbi Eleazar seems to know. The experience of passionate discussion, especially an argument over who is right or who is wrong, can lead away from its intended goals. It can divide rather than unite. It can break rather than resolve. How often in the past decade or two did debates devolve into distasteful arguments? How often did holding to strongly held opinions obscure respect for those on the other sides of many arguments?
In Jewish law, while it is important to refine the details, it is more important to preserve the ethical principles behind the law and our relationships with all who practice it. We learn.
The reason for preferring the religious decisions of Rabbi Hillel’s students over those of Rabbi Shammai’s students is Hillel’s disciples were genial and modest. They showed restraint when affronted. When they taught the law, they taught both their own views and the opinions of their colleagues’ learning with Rabbi Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Rabbi Shammai’s students over their own.
Twenty years from now, if blessed to live toward the middle years of the 21st Century, I hope we have long since arrived in an era like the one from so long ago the Talmud remembers.
On the Jewish New Year we pray, “V’yei-esu kulam agudah ahat, la’asot r’tzon-kha b’lei-vav shalem.” “God has created all of humanity bound together as one, carrying out Divine will wholeheartedly.”
On this New Year, as we engage with others, may we be true to the values we believe in and believe in the value of what others hold dear. May our culture heal and our society progress because each of us holding to our particular visions and values are open to what other people have to say.
I sincerely hope we can grow to balance our passion for ideas with our compassion for one another.
I genuinely pray we can respect those with whom we disagree and disagree with those whom we love.
These are my simple hopes and prayers for 2020 and beyond. Headed toward whatever may be our common experiences this year and into the future, as Joseph asked of his brothers let’s ask of ourselves in the spirit of drawing closer together and not farther apart. “Don’t argue on the way.”
© 2020 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

who we are

Shabbat Vayishlah | December 14, 2019
On April 25, 1915, a year before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Louis D. Brandeis spoke these words.
“Enlightened countries grant to the individual equality before the law; but they fail still to recognize the equality of whole peoples or nationalities. We seek to protect as individuals those constituting a minority; but we fail to realize that protection cannot be complete unless group equality is also recognized.”
We were told this week that President Trump would sign an Executive Order on Wednesday defining the Jewish people in America as a nationality. He did not. He signed an Executive Order without that definition. I don’t know if the initial reporting was wrong or simply misunderstood.
Immediately, and at the same time a violent antisemitic attack took place in Jersey City, there was a rush to take sides. Different opinions were cranked out, including the usual pro and con Jewish organizational press releases, as to the wisdom and necessity of this order.
Here is the language of the Executive Order. “Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance. While Title VI does not cover discrimination based on religion, individuals who face discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin do not lose protection under Title VI for also being a member of a group that shares common religious practices. Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based on an individual's race, color, or national origin.”
In other words, Jewish or not, individuals may not be discriminated against because of their race, color, or national origin. So, instead of declaring Jews as a nationality in America, the Executive Order affirms that discrimination against Jews in education could violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act if it is based on perceived Jewish ethnic characteristics.
To my mind that’s a symbolic, not a legal, statement. It’s not possible to outlaw antisemitism in the world. It has become necessary to use the bully pulpit to speak out against antisemitism and to call on America’s educational institutions to step up their responses to the harassment of Jewish students on college campuses.
Which is what Wednesday’s Executive Order actually does. It recommends for Title VI consideration an accepted, non-legally binding, definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
As best as I can describe them, those are the facts. Now, for a few moments this morning, enter with me into a noise free zone. In here, there is no president you do or do not like. There is no social media and op-ed shouting and arguing. There is no Executive Order to debate. There is only an important and complex question for us to think about.
Judaism is structurally different from other monotheistic religions. Religion is the core element, but not the only element of being Jewish. We all know Jews who may not believe in God or practice Jewish religious traditions, yet they are connected to Judaism through culture, family heritage, language, art, Zionism, or social justice.
Anyone who wishes to be Jewish can become Jewish and so Judaism includes people of all races and ethnicities. Therefore, Jews are not a race. But, we are not only a religious group. Most commonly, we talk about being "the Jewish people."
In 19th and early 20th century Europe, most governments declared Jews to be a nationality so they could discriminate against them for being different from the majority culture. That's part of what lead to the Zionist movement to create Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people.
In Napoleon’s France, the French National Assembly stated that citizenship required Jews to relinquish their national distinctiveness. “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.”
In Israel today, notably, the nationality of Jews is listed as Jew, and of Arabs, as Arab. What they share in common as Israeli Jews or Israeli Arabs is citizenship - which comprises anyone of any ethnic or religious background, or nationality, if they wish to be a citizen of Israel.
Think about this. Had it occurred that our government wanted to declare Jews a nationality in order to protect Jewish students on college campuses from discrimination, had it occurred, it would have been the reverse of what happened generations ago in Europe when claiming Jews were a nationality was an excuse to discriminate against them.
This isn’t the first time in American history when the status of Jews as a nationality within American society has been discussed.
A group of Jews from Amsterdam sent a petition to the Dutch West India Company seeking to join the first expedition to America in 1655. “As foreign nations consent that the Jewish nation may go to live and trade in their territories, how can your Honors forbid the same?”
On July 21, 1820, speaking in the company of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Jacob De La Motta explained that Jews are a people, a religious sect, and a nation.
“A nation whom, while appreciating the benefits granted by a spotless constitution, cast an eye on their brethren in foreign lands, writhing under the shackles of odious persecution, and wild fanaticism, with the fondest hope, the measure of their sufferings will be soon complete.”
Louis Brandeis elaborated on this idea in his April 1915 speech. “W. Allison Philips recently defined nationality as, ‘An extensive aggregate of persons, conscious of a community of sentiments, experiences, or qualities which make them feel themselves a distinct people.’
Can it be doubted,” asked Brandeis, “that we Jews, aggregating 14,000,000 people, are ‘an extensive aggregate of persons’; that we are ‘conscious of a community of sentiments, experiences and qualities which make us feel ourselves a distinct people,’ whether we admit it or not?”
For myself, in the spirit of Brandeis, I don’t want the government of the United States to declare who or what I am. That's up to me. As Jews, we define our self-understanding, just like all other groups of people. I don’t want the government labeling me or categorizing me in order to protect me. Acts of discrimination and hate speech are always wrong, regardless of who is the target, and must be rejected strongly.
For all of us, understand. The question of Jews being a religion or a nationality goes all the way back to the Bible.
Twice in Torah we read that our forefather Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. After a long night struggling with his conscience and fears, he wrestles with a man who injures his hip. After their encounter Jacob is told, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” In this verse, Israel means, “To struggle with God.”
To be Israel, more personally to be a Jew, is to struggle, to search for the meaning we require. We wonder about God and we ask about human nature. We debate right and wrong. We try to figure things out for ourselves and ask our many questions about life. We confront the blessing of being who we are and the challenge of recognizing who others are.
Jacob struggling with God as Israel represents we Jews as a religion.
At the end of Jacob’s journey God appears to him and blesses him. God declares, “You shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” In this verse, Israel means, “God will rule.”
To be Israel, more personally to be a Jew, is to receive a distinctive identity, to be set apart as a group. God says to Jacob, the newly named Israel, “Be fertile and increase, a nation shall descend from you.”
Jacob blessed by God as Israel represents we Jews as a nationality.
Regrettably, the time has come for us to leave the noise free zone, to return to the real world where knowledge doesn’t always inform opinion, and differences of opinion become nasty and divisive.
When you next ponder the important and complex question we’ve considered today, a question that will always be here for us to think about, first, remember how Justice Brandeis concluded those remarks of his back in 1915. He said, “Let us make clear to the world that we too are a nationality striving for equal rights to life and to self-expression.”
Then, consider this more contemporary perspective of Israeli educator Dr. Abraham Infeld who explains. “There is nothing like Judaism. It is not a religion. It is not an ethnicity. It is not even a nationality. It is a people.”
Think about all of it. Though I don’t want the government of the United States to declare who we are, we most certainly can and must.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

good enough isn't

Shabbat Vayera | November 16, 2019


My father always told my sisters and me “Good enough isn’t.” He didn’t want us ever to settle for less than the personal best we could do or become. In our home there was no objective standard or comparison to others. Our genuine best was the only measure, which of course produced varying results in various ventures. We grew to understand. To bring less than our fullest efforts or consideration was to underestimate ourselves.
I have always cherished Dad’s lesson. I believe his message. Often, we set our expectations too low. We don’t demand enough of ourselves and, where it is our proper place, we don’t ask enough of others. We settle, too often in our lives, too often in our society, too often in our world. “It’s good enough,” we tell ourselves. Even though we know it isn’t fully the best we can do or the best it can be. You see, good enough isn’t.
I’m mindful of this when I speak with parents, teachers, and managers. We all have hunches about how much an individual may or may not accomplish. We all want to be honest about their capabilities and proclivities, always aware of their strengths and challenges. Nonetheless, we cannot use our assumptions about them to set goals for our children, our grandchildren, our students, or our colleagues. Instead, it is our task to support their progress, to encourage their best efforts, and to observe how much more they may actually achieve, unaware we ever had any lesser expectations.
We each deserve the same. When we insist we are not able, we lack the skills, we are shy of the capacity, we simply care less than we could, we deny ourselves something of our own dignity. When it comes to each and every one of us, good enough isn’t!
It’s not that we can do anything we set our minds to, or even everything we may want to do. Honestly, we cannot. We’re being unfair with ourselves if we think we can. But, we will never know what we actually can do, or may care deeply about doing, if we do not consistently greet life’s opportunities and responsibilities with our best efforts.
Torah portrays God and Abraham in this same manner. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” God muses. It’s not good enough to contemplate the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah alone. The medieval Torah commentator Rashi imagines God’s thought process. God appointed Abraham as the “father of a multitude of nations.” The people of Sodom are also Abraham’s children. Should God not tell a father the fate of this children? Will Abraham bring a different perspective?
“Shame on you!” Abraham shouts at God. “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” Good enough isn’t. Abraham challenges God toward a deeper justice. “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”
The Talmudic sage Rabbi Abba ben Kahana explains. “It would be less than your sacred best to punish the righteous with the wicked.” In other words even for God, good enough isn’t. God accepts Abraham’s challenge. Ours must be the moral courage to challenge ourselves and to question God.
This is how the spiritual lens of our Jewish tradition looks out at the world. We yearn for meaning, for hope and ideals, for a vision of better days and moral ways. Six days every week we work. We engage in all we can and all we must to learn and grow, to make a living, to care for others, to give of ourselves to the people and communities of our lives, and to enjoy the gifts and miracle of being alive.
Obadiah Seforno, the 16th century Italian Torah commentator observes. “One should always remember Shabbat while working during the six days of the week.” In theory, Shabbat celebrates the world’s creation. In practice, Shabbat is the first gift of human freedom, introduced just after our ancient Israelite ancestors passed through the Sea of Reeds out of slavery into freedom. Of course we work. We can also choose to rest.
One day each week we pause from our routine efforts. We stop to appreciate and celebrate what we actually did, what we really accomplished, and all we truly love. Our weekly celebration of Shabbat reminds us. Good enough isn’t. As we celebrate all that is and exists this week, we imagine what more can still become of ourselves and our world.
On Shabbat we hold out for our ideals. One day each week we realize good enough isn’t. We seek to internalize and actualize our visions for goodness and peace. It is when we set our expectations to be better than good enough, it is when we set our sights high while acknowledging we may fall short, it is then we discover our best selves.
Abraham could not prevent God from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the story, the good people simply weren’t there. But he tried. He set for himself the highest possible expectation he could.
Later on in the Torah text, in other challenging moments, Abraham himself falls short of this very standard he set before God. He makes some mistakes. Everybody does. Yet the last thing we read about Sodom and Gomorrah is this. “When God destroyed the cities of the Plain…God remembered Abraham.”
Voices in our tradition ask, how did God remember Abraham? In response to Abraham’s shortcomings, they answer, God shows compassion for him, just like Abraham sought for the innocent people he hoped to find.
Though we all may fall short, even when we do, we are striving to greet life’s opportunities and responsibilities with our best efforts. Ours must always be the moral courage to challenge ourselves and to ask hard questions. Just like my father taught me. Good enough isn’t!
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

god's selfie

Shabbat Lekh Lekha | November 9, 2019


Our smart phones with cameras, relatively new tools rarely out of our easy grasp, are radically impacting the culture in which we live, in good ways, funs ways, in a variety of ways. For example, many of us enjoy taking selfies, pictures of ourselves alone or with others. We take digital photos to capture the memory of a moment, of an activity we’re enjoying, of being next to someone else.
I don’t particularly like pictures of me, so a selfie by myself isn’t my thing. Plenty of other people take true selfies, pictures of themselves by themselves. 52% of all selfies posted on Instagram are pictures of individuals.
In our large and often overwhelming world, people want others to know them. They express their personal identities and try to stand out from the crowd by posting pictures of themselves doing all sorts of things. The routine of their lives most days may not bring them much personal satisfaction. They seek to find fulfillment in their digital diary open to real and on-line friends alike. Capturing moments of meaning and memory, in selfies people choose how they present themselves to the world.
Selfies can be expressions of personal identity. People measure their status in how many likes they receive. In virtual community, which may or may not overlap with tangible community, they count. They belong.
For some who post them, selfies may also be reflections of unhealthy self-importance or narcissistic self-involvement. For most people, let’s summarize, selfies demonstrate their desire to be known, to express their personal identity, and to have an impact on others.
All of us share in these hopes, however we may exhibit them. In fact, we can learn these same three goals, to be known for something, to stand apart from others, and to have an impact, from the way our earliest ancestors imagine our patriarch Abraham’s story.
Monotheism, the belief in One God, the idea for which Abraham is famous in religious history, monotheism was once a new concept, something that radically impacted the culture of its day, and humanity in every day and age.
The Torah never tells us why God delights in Abraham. To fill that curiosity void, Jewish tradition portrays young Abraham as a spiritual prodigy. “When Abraham was three years old, he went out of the cave and observing the world wondered in his heart: Who created heaven and earth and me? All that day he prayed to the sun. In the evening, the sun set in the west and the moon rose in the east.
Upon seeing the moon and the stars around it, he said: This one must have created heaven and earth and me - these stars must be the moon's princes and courtiers. So all night long he stood in prayer to the moon. In the morning, the moon sank in the west and the sun rose in the east. Then he said: There is no might in either of these. There must be a higher God over them. To God I will pray.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel derives from this lore of Abraham’s conclusion a religious insight for all of us. “Thinking about God begins when we do not know any more how to wonder, how to fear, how to be in awe.” What to do with our sense of wonder and awe is the original religious question, Heschel teaches, the source of Abraham’s awareness of God. Or as I like to say, “Life’s mystery is God’s reality.”
Another ancient source, one much less well known, influences the rabbis’ image of Abraham. The Book of Jubilees, a text outside of the Bible, a text not adopted for religious use by the rabbis, a text written sometime between 160 to 150 B.C.E., a text known to the Hasmoneans of Hanukkah fame, and a text retelling the stories of Genesis with different detail, offers this version of Abraham’s childhood.
Abraham’s father and grandfather were students of the idols. Named for his maternal grandfather, Abraham was but two weeks old when “he separated himself from his father that he might not worship idols with him. And he began to pray to the Creator of all things…”
In Jubilee’s telling of the story, as a child Abraham challenges his father, Terah. “What help and profit have we from those idols which you worship, and before which you bow? They are the work of men’s hands. Do not worship them.”
Terah agrees with Abraham, and then complains. What is he to do with those around him who buy his wares, whose “souls cleave to them,” and whose anger he won’t be able to bear? After hearing his father’s anguish, Abraham “burned the house of idols, and he burned all that was in the house and no person knew it.” Then Abraham turns to pray to God, who commands him.
Lekh Lekha…Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
Our Religious School students and their parents studied the other, more familiar, version of this story on Thursday in a discussion about their families’ spiritual values. They read the midrash of Abraham smashing his father’s idols.
Abraham seized a stick, smashed all the idols, and placed the stick in the hand of the biggest of them. When his father came, he asked: ‘Who did this to the gods?’ Abraham answered: ‘Would I hide anything from my father? A woman came with a bowl of fine flour and said: Here, offer it up to them. When I offered it, one god said, I will eat first, and another said, No, I will eat first. Then the biggest of them rose up and smashed all the others.’ His father replied: ‘Are you mocking me? They cannot do anything!’ Abraham answered: ‘You say they cannot. Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying!’”
Whether or not we take selfies, and whatever we may make of the lore surrounding Abraham’s spiritual legacy, in our own lives we all desire to be known, to express our personal identities, and to have an impact on others.
For the earliest sources of our Jewish tradition, it seems to be important that Abraham is known for rejecting the idolatry of his time. Abraham stood out for what he believed to be true. Through monotheism and the world’s monotheistic religious traditions, Abraham’s story greatly impacts human history.
By our lives and beliefs, I hope we seek the same. What do each of us want to be known for? What truths are part of how we present or identify ourselves? What is our impact on others because we are true to ourselves and our values?
If Abraham stood among us today, he wouldn’t need to smash our idols, though we can all identify items people falsely worship. I think Abraham would mock self-sufficiency, the belief of some people that nothing else and no one else is greater than them. The idea inherent in some selfies that people who don’t already care about me might still care about what I’m wearing, what I’m eating, or what I’m doing.
Even if we were self-sufficient and able to find personal fulfillment without anyone else, which itself is an absurd and false claim, we would still crave something more. It’s human nature to strive beyond our finite selves toward something greater. Our patriarch Abraham’s legacy teaches that beyond is God.
Monotheism isn’t about any one of us alone. Proclaiming One God, monotheism is about everybody. To believe in One God is to believe in the equality of all people because we all originate from the same unique source for all that exists. To believe in One God, and therefore equality, is to believe in shared standards of justice and goodness for which we are all responsible. To believe in One God, and therefore equality and responsibility, is also to believe in an ultimate vision of human harmony and peace.
“On that day, the Eternal God shall be One, and the name of God, One.” All people smiling and striving for a world of human equality, responsibility, and mutuality. That’s God’s selfie.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

high holy day sermons 5780

In my High Holy Day sermons this year, I spoke personally about Jewish ideas and concerns as I reflected with you on our society, our community, our people, and our lives. I’m gratified by your responses to my thoughts and look forward to our on-going conversations. My sermons follow below in this order.
On Yom Kippur I delivered “My Rabbinic Letter: ReJEWvenate.”
Kol Nidre eve I invited you to join me in “Reclaiming Personal Prayer.”
On Rosh HaShanah morning I asked, “What, Me Worry?”
On the Second Day of Rosh HaShanah I introduced you to “Practical Theology.”


Yom Kippur Sermon 5780 | October 9, 2019


“Your visit to the synagogue should be very short. In fact, it is better to pray at home for it is impossible to be spared from jealousy or from hearing idle talk in the synagogue.” Oops, wrong opening. Sorry. That was intended for a congregation in 18th century Lithuania, not us here at Beth El.
I meant to quote this excerpt from the Vilna Gaon’s letter to his family in Lithuania, written sometime in the mid-1700s. “For God’s sake, guide your children well and gently. Take care of their health and make sure they always have enough to eat.” Oops, wrong reference for today, sorry. That was the Vilna Gaon’s advice for his children, as they became parents.
Let’s try this quote from Nahmonides’ letter to his family written in Israel in 1267. “I will now explain to you how to always behave humbly. Speak gently at all times. Consider everyone as greater than yourself. In all your actions, words and thoughts, always regard yourself as standing before God, for the Divine Presence fills the whole world.”
That’s the one! Advice appropriate to the day and useful as we consider our teshuvah, our personal change, growth, and repentance. I speak to you this Yom Kippur, as I have previously, in the tradition of rabbis writing letters to their communities. In many lands and for a vareity of reasons, through the generations rabbinic letters have captured the spirit of the times and the deepest concerns of their writers.
Today I will address with you the Jewish spirit of our times, and one of my deepest concerns for Jewish life.
Dear Friends,
I’m worried about the future of the American Jewish community. From what I hear, many of you are, too. Some of you are nostalgic. You remember when with warmth and fond memories. Others of you don’t carry memories of any good old days. When younger, you felt left out or uninspired. Some of you weren’t involved in an earlier time in American Jewish life or the life of this community.
In spite of the insecurity about which I spoke on Rosh HaShanah, living at the greatest, safest, and most creative time in Jewish history, today we face challenges. All of us are curious. What is our future?
Here’s a simple truth about Jewish life today. We spend too much time feeling Jewish and not enough time doing Jewish. Study after study portrays our Jewish attitudes. Being Jewish is more important to us than doing Jewish. This has to change.
On Rosh HaShanah we are universalistic. Then we considered what troubles us in the larger world. On Yom Kippur we focus on our behavior. We think less about what we feel and more about what we do.
Today we remember there is a standard of personal activity and choice by which we measure our lives, toward which we aspire. We climb upward on a ladder toward doing better and doing more.
We Jews have standards. We Jews measure behavior. We profess deed over creed. “Lilmod u’lelamed, lishmor v’la’asot.” Being Jewish is about learning and teaching, preserving and doing. Though I’m always aware. What Judaism says and what Jews do are often two very different things.
Please accept my admiration. Each of you marks this unique and compelling observance of Yom Kippur. Each of you has my respect for the ideals you sustain in this very physical and real way. Spending this day in reflection and repentance, we call on our conscience and our common sense to guide us toward doing better in the choices we make for ourselves and toward one another.
Whatever our age, no matter our circumstances, being here we demonstrate hope. In a world poisoned by hatred and pain, conflict and hypocrisy, here we measure our lives by a standard born of our history and foretelling our destiny. We believe we are each and all responsible for a vision of goodness, caring, and meaning we strive to attain. We find meaning in being and doing Jewish.
Three things are happening in the American Jewish community. Demographics: we’re aging in place. Behavior: we ask less of our children and ourselves. Globalization: Jewish community is less local than it used to be.
As a consequence of these trends, strident, insular, and sometimes fundamentalist forms of Judaism grow. Filling the void in response to a more prevalent secular and cultural American Jewish identity. The traditional yet modern, religious yet reasoned forms of Judaism we practice here at Congregation Beth El, though we’re doing fine, resonates less in the hearts and minds of American Jews today.
This development troubles me because Jewish fundamentalism doesn’t inspire most of us. It’s too ethnocentric and intellectually isolated. A fundamentalist Judaism that doesn’t recognize legitimacy beyond its own limited and literal understandings troubles me.
On the other hand, the Jewish liberalism we prefer clearly isn’t engaging enough of us. It blurs the boundaries of a distinctive Jewish place and purpose without which we have no reason for being Jewish, let alone doing Jewish. Good feelings alone won’t sustain us.
Our response must be to rejuvenate Jewish life. We each need to be engaged in the 21st century multi-faceted Jewish conversation swirling around us about our values, our people, and our traditions because we are in the midst of a generational turn over.
Disconnected from mainstream Jewish institutions, our children and grandchildren are either walking away from, or creating their own, Jewish settings. Many of those who care to explore anew what being Jewish means are not doing their Jewish here. They’re doing it online, on podcasts. They’re doing it around town. They’re doing it in communities that reflect their styles and experiences, not ours.
In today’s world, one has to stand out not blend in. Authority comes from within, not from on high. Next generations, not literate in the rudiments of Jewish cultural memories and communal norms important to their parents and grandparents, many not Jewishly literate as well, ask about and explore anew what being Jewish can be about for them.
We need to join with them, engage like them, and wherever possible, become role models for them. In this global environment of information and technology human beings still require meaning and purpose. We still desire values and ethics. We still care about who we are, what we do, and why we live. We continue to crave community.
Ours is a cultural and ethnic Jewish identity. Ours is a Jewish identity that finds warmth in seasonal traditions, in family heritage if we’re fortunate to have family around us, and in life cycle celebrations. For many of us there is a genuine, emotional bond with Israel and Jewish Peoplehood.
Devoted to God by caring for others, we are actively involved in Jewish communal causes and organizations. Some of us enjoy regular Shabbat dinners with family and friends. Most of us share in periodic holiday celebrations: these High Holy Days, Hanukkah, and Passover. Though sometimes we adjust our gatherings for calendar and convenience in a very stressed and over programmed world. Ambivalent about religious and communal authority, we cherish our autonomy and govern our lives as sovereign selves.
Going forward we’re going to be a smaller community of American Jews. The American Jewish future will reflect quality in experiences over quantity of participants. The American Jewish community will contain two worldviews: those of us who engage actively in our own comfort zones of doing Jewish and those of us who engage passively in our own comfort zones of feeling Jewish.
This may not be a new reality, but it is ours. Historically and sociologically these things move in generational cycles. Let’s not wait. The Jewish future we hope to greet with our children and grandchildren is too important for us to remain stuck in our current places.
We need to rejuvenate. We need to respond to the Jewish spirit of our times by getting up out of our comfort zones and engaging in Jewish life and learning for ourselves. In the 21st century, we will create a compelling and dynamic Jewish community only if and when we raise our expectations.
We are going to do this here at Congregation Beth El. We will work to engage in the 21st century multi-faceted Jewish conversation swirling around us about our values, our people, and our traditions. We will call these efforts, Re-JEW-venate. What does that mean?
Speaking openly with one another, we will start to unpack our beliefs and assumptions with an eye toward reclaiming authentic Jewish visions of social ethics, communal purpose, and personal meaning for the world we live in, one inconceivable to our ancestors, upon whose ideas everything is based.
As Nahmonides wrote to his family back in 1267, in all of our actions, words, and thoughts, we shall strive to regard ourselves as standing before God, for the Divine Presence fills the world.
Over time and between those of us who choose to engage, ReJEWvenate will include conversations about prayer and celebration, theology and social justice, Israel and the Diaspora, technology and individuality, the individual and the community.
My Dear Friends,
On this day of introspection and renewal, let’s make rejuvenation more personal. Consider the challenges you confront, the visions for life you embrace, and the shortcomings of your efforts so far. What steps do you need to take? What honest and possibly hard questions do you need to ask yourself? What from the past do you want to reclaim? What for the future do you need to establish? What risks will you take? What choices will you make? What promises will you state?
Last night I made a promise to myself, and maybe even to you, to begin putting my Personal Prayer Project into motion. Today, I do the same, promising myself, and maybe even you, to figure out what it can mean to rejuvenate the kind of Jewish life we and our people desire and require for today and tomorrow.
Now you know, beyond the honor of serving as one of your rabbis in this warm and sacred community, what I want my rabbinate here at Congregation Beth El to be about. To compare and contrast our lives with the lives and practices of our ancestors and to reach individuals whose positive feelings about being Jewish are not yet connected to compelling Jewish meanings, to make doing Jewish how we find purpose in being Jewish.
In this New Year, may you also make progress toward the realization of your dreams and the rejuvenation of all you are working to establish for yourself, for your loved ones, and for the world of your relationships and involvements. May you also know all the goodness of life – health, happiness, and peace.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah,
Rabbi Ron Shulman
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

reclaiming personal prayer

Kol Nidre Sermon 5780 | October 8, 2019


When I was 9 or 10 years old I remember going to High Holy Day services with my father, a friend of mine and his father. We two boys sat next to our dads who seemed so engrossed in their recitation, their davenen. They were mumbling under their breaths along with others in the congregation.
We were intrigued. What were they saying? We knew our Hebrew skills weren’t good enough. We whispered to each other if we could just figure out the secret to their words, we too could pray like adults.
So we listened very intently. We concentrated as best we could. Then I heard it! “I’ve got it,” I told my friend David. “I know what they’re saying!” “Really,” he answered with excitement. “What’s the word?”
“Watermelon,” I declared. “They’re saying, ‘Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon!’” That’s what I heard. I was trying to mimic incoherent mumbling that only later I grew to recognize as the beautiful Hebrew words of Biblical psalms and rabbinic poetry.
It becomes second nature for all of us familiar with the texts and formulas of the Siddur, our people’s book of ordered and established prayers. We lose ourselves in the rhythm and chant. We find ourselves achieving a deeper consciousness of soul and solitude. Some of us become aware of ourselves in relationship to God.
I’m not 9 or 10 anymore. Deciphering what seems like mumbling is no longer my challenge. Making prayer mean something is what concerns me now.
I worry for the Jewish people. I worry for the Jewish community. Too many of us and our children don’t know how to pray, even if we know what words to recite from the prayer book. I’m telling you this because if we don’t talk about it here, on a night like tonight, when else are we ever going to discuss it?
Prayer is important because it sustains Jewish identity. Jewish prayer connects us to the continuum of Jewish experience and provides context for understanding our life experiences.
We identify as Jews because of people, other Jewish people with whom we have a kinship and sense of collective memory. We each tell the story of the Jewish people as our own.
We also identify as Jews because of ideas, Jewish concepts and beliefs with which we form our values and about which we ask our questions. In our Jewish worldview, we find life meanings and purpose.
This is why Jewish prayer is important, especially when celebrated in a synagogue setting. Prayer nurtures our Jewish identities as we convey our story and discover our inspiration. This is why I want us to learn again how and what to pray.
This Kol Nidre eve I don’t want to teach you about what we read in the Mahzor, the prayer book and its contents. On this sacred night when we turn inward to reflect and repent, I want to teach you how to pray.
Can you hum a melody and think a thought? Can you listen to music and read a book? Can you dislike a person and still be polite to them? Can you know you are doing something wrong? If you can do any of these things, then you are able to sustain multiple levels of awareness.
Sustaining different levels of consciousness at the same time is the secret to successful prayer. Jewish prayer is the ability to be mindful and engaged with our many and varied thoughts while reading or skimming, chanting, or listening.
Most service settings throughout the Jewish world confuse prayer with rote, mechanical reading and recitation. I think this should bother us, not only because we want more from prayer, but because we respect the generations before us who composed and created our formal prayers from their own inner sensations of inspiration and faith.
After 80 or 90 years, 60 or 70 years, 40 or 50 years, 20 or 30 years, or even after just a few hours of synagogue service attendance, I bet no one has ever told you this before. Whatever is on your mind while you are here is your personal prayer.
You can't pray for anything that doesn’t involve you. How do you pray for health, for safety, or for love without asking yourself to do something?
You can't pray, “God give us peace” with your arms folded. You can't pray, “God, heal us,” and turn your head away from your responsibility to care for the sick or ailing. You can't pray “God, give us health” while acting toward your body in unhealthy ways. You can't love God and then exploit or embarrass people.
Prayer must stir up your conscience, your heart and mind, and your determination to act. As a result of your prayer, you come alive. Your prayer must always include you.
Prayer begins within each of us. Prayer pushes us beyond ourselves toward awareness of God and the actualization of our spiritual self. In the vast universe of existence we are each infinitesimally small and remarkably significant. Prayer validates who we are and that we matter. Prayer reminds us of the ideal as we reflect on what’s real.
Prayer both calms and excites us. Prayer brings order to the chaos of our emotions. Prayer nurtures our souls. Prayer challenges our consciences and ethics. Prayer connects each of us with one another in Jewish community and with the flow of life. Prayer unites our lives and daily concerns with the story, memories, and hopes of the Jewish People.
Prayer helps us both to celebrate and confront the ultimate meanings of existence. Prayer is an expression of our hearts’ yearnings, our lives’ concerns, and our personal joys. Prayer is boring only if our lives are dull.
I’ve served as a congregational rabbi for many years, facilitating hundreds of synagogue worship services. I’ve officiated in large, full sanctuaries and in large, empty sanctuaries. I’ve conducted prayer services in a variety of smaller, more intimate settings. In communal prayer, I’ve been moved, affected, and inspired, sometimes deeply, and I’ve been none of those things or worse, I’ve been uninterested.
What I have never been is satisfied that the contemporary synagogue prayer experience works for most of us.
Why not?
The usual list of reasons is familiar. Well educated in life, many of us are not well versed in synagogue skills. Praying to God confuses us. We’re unsure about Judaism, what we do and don’t believe, and what to do with our questions.
We’re also very busy. In life, so much else holds our attention. Some of us feel lonely in synagogue, too. Our peers are not present. As a result, we don’t feel connected to or welcome in the community of those who are regular worshippers.
There’s another reason. Typically, the synagogue services we attend do not value our presence. They don’t enable our participation. They don’t capture our imagination. They don’t touch us emotionally. They don’t challenge us thoughtfully. They don’t engage us personally.
They used to.
What happened earlier when I stopped the service, asked you to turn to each other, and talk about what we were praying. It’s Kol Nidre eve. I didn’t ask you to share out loud the promises you are making to yourself in God’s presence tonight. I did ask, do you find it difficult to keep your promises? Are promises to yourself harder or easier to keep than promises you make to others? Did it feel awkward, engaging, or worthwhile?
Jewish prayer did not begin as recitation from a book. Originally, prayer was extemporaneous, voiced to God by someone because of a specific need or in response to a particular situation. Be it petition or praise, each prayer was a singular expression.
Over time, familiar experiences produced common themes within small communities. People shared their prayerful, heartfelt concerns with one another. They began to gather and express themselves together. Patterns and forms for prayers developed.
As we do on the High Holy Days, what if we took turns presenting a personal prayer or Kavanah, a statement of personal feelings and thoughts? What if we each responded to a question relevant to our prayer experience or provided a quote, text, or insight to enrich our reflections?
What if you had permission to skip all or part of paragraphs in the prayer book you can’t feel or believe as you read them? Perhaps you will connect to them another time. Perhaps not. What if you could choose which words you want to say and really mean them? Well, you can! On each page, at each section or paragraph, we start a theme together. We go off on our own to daydream and consider. Then we reunite with one another in chant or song.
It’s like reading the newspaper. Each morning I skim the headlines. I focus on what immediately catches my interest. Some articles I delve into deeply. Others I get the gist of and move on. Some sections of the newspaper I skip over entirely.
Imagine brief prep sessions before each service. Organizing what’s in our hearts and on our minds into the agenda or themes we want our prayer to be or to inspire. Determining who will take responsibility for various roles or elements of a service.
Prayer can touch us, inspire us, and challenge us. Traditional patterns of prayer are important. But, they are not sufficient. True prayer is personal in the midst of community. Mediating meaning out of our lives’ circumstances and realities, prayer draws us nearer to one another and to God.
In truth, all you need to know in order to pray are two things. The first is who you are. Who are you today? What aspects of your personality, of your various concerns and involvements, what of your own character and nature are you aware of when you wish to pray? And second, what are you feeling? What emotions, cares, or inner rhythms form the parameters of your mood during a moment of prayer?
Jewish prayer is an activity of the heart, advocacy before God, a quest for self-awareness and understanding, as well as blessing and praise in celebration of life.
Jewish prayer is an activity of the heart. It must express emotion and feeling and be expressed through song and music, public moments of sharing personal expressions, and private moments allowing for personal reflection.
Jewish prayer is advocacy before God, a quest for self-awareness and understanding. It must inform our values and be relevant to our concerns. It must inspire our consciences and meet our needs. Why can’t a prayer service allow for debate and discussion, discovery and question? What visual cues and technological tools might help trigger our prayer in these deeper ways?
Jewish prayer is blessing and praise in celebration of life brought alive by the fixed words of our tradition, our senses of gratitude and wonder, the melodies we sing, and the community of friends and peers who embrace us.
We live in a culture that pushes us forward and sometimes acknowledges us but rarely encourages us to think about who we are, where we’re going, and why. We know ourselves better than that. Or we ought to. That’s why we pray. To remember who we are; to recognize with whom we belong; to review what we think and believe; to renew our hopes about what we’ll be able to do on every next day of our lives.
Long after mumbling “watermelon” was just a cute memory, it became my aspiration to reclaim something of what prayer once was so we can promote the promise of personal prayer for our lives today. I have worked and waited many years to put all of this theory into its fullest practice. It’s not easy.
Friends tell me personal prayer is the wrong thing to emphasize in synagogue life today. “Really,” I respond. “In a synagogue we shouldn’t strive to help Jews pray effectively and meaningfully?”
My promise to myself, and maybe even to you, is to give it a try here this year. I invite those of you to whom this appeals, and all of you for whom this may add perspective and meaning to your lives, to stay tuned and to join in.
Y’hi-yu l’ra-t’zon im-rei fi v’heg-yon li-bi l’fa-ne-kha Adonai t’zuri v’go-a-li.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to You, Eternal God, my Rock and my Redeemer.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

what, me worry?

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5780 | September 30, 2019


Our escort pulled out his gun and told the driver to stop the car. “Don’t worry,” he said in broken English as he opened the car’s front passenger door. What, me worry? I wasn’t worried. I was outright afraid. A man I had met just a few hours earlier, holding a gun while opening the back car door, was sliding himself onto the seat next to Robin and me.
I’ve never felt more insecure. I sensed a threat and was unsure about what was going to happen. Of course I was afraid, too.
Robin and I were on our way back to Israel driving through the Sinai Desert Peninsula on our way to the Suez Canal. Earlier in the day our planned flight from Cairo to Tel Aviv on Air Nefertiti took off without us in spite of the fact that we had confirmed tickets and were at the airport 3 hours before the scheduled departure time.
It was the spring of 1981. Robin and I were living in Jerusalem. After 10 fascinating days in Egypt, which we enjoyed with my parents, Robin and I needed to get back to Israel. The only flight available had left 3 hours early. The travel company apologized and offered us a private car escort. An 8-hour drive from Cairo to Jerusalem, through the Sinai Desert, crossing the Suez Canal, and transferring to an Israeli car and driver at the border.
All was fine as we drove on a single lane asphalt road over desert hills and sand dunes until we reached, what our escort described as, “a rough neighborhood.” He had taken out his gun and moved into the car’s back seat to protect us, he explained, hoping, though failing, to make me feel better.
You are the first congregation to whom I’ve ever told this story. Before, it never felt like the right illustration to use. Yet, gathered here in a different time, place, and circumstance, to be sure, I again sense a threat and am unsure about what is going to happen next. Today I’m absolutely not afraid. I am a bit apprehensive.
Before I go on, I want to ask how you’re all feeling this New Year’s Day. We’re all insecure about something. We wouldn’t be emotionally healthy, otherwise. Can I say, we wouldn’t be Jewish otherwise? Every one of us seeks approval and acceptance. We all want others to validate our presence and our worth.
I suppose there may be a few in this room without a care in the world. The rest of us are uneasy about some aspect of our lives.
Illness prevents family members and dear friends from being here with us. Some of us are living with the pressure of underemployment and financial stress. Others of us bear the burden of strained personal relationships. Who in this room doesn’t feel some personal regret? Who among us doesn’t feel now, or hasn’t felt at times before now, unfulfilled or inadequate to the moment?
I’m curious about how you’re feeling because I recently read that 73% of we American Jews feel insecure these days, less secure than we did two years ago. Beyond whatever may be our individual concerns, it seems as a group we’re apprehensive about our safety and security. Intolerance and hate, antisemitism and racism top our lists of many social concerns.
I’m asking you. Take a moment, turn to the person next to you, if you feel so inclined and comfortable, and tell them what worries you? When and where, during what moment of your life, did you feel insecure, threatened, or unsure about what would happen? How did you resolve those feelings? How are you feeling today?
The renowned psychoanalyst Eric Fromm guides us. “The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity.” Today, I want us to do more than tolerate insecurity. I want us to overcome it.
No one of us should ever feel insecure because we are Jewish. Not physically, not spiritually, not emotionally, and certainly not personally. Which is why this New York Times headline troubles me. “Synagogues, Responding to Violence, Add Security as High Holy Days Near.”
The first paragraph of the article explains, “After a year of high-profile antisemitic violence…Jewish groups…are planning increased security for services during the High Holy Days.”
Observed one rabbi, “Like many congregations…we’re taking increased security measures, not as much for protection but more of a statement of strength.” Here at Beth El, I hope our security protocols are about safety and strength. As we’ve been saying for the last many months, when we are here, in a welcome setting, we want to “Be Safe and Feel Safe.”
Needing to do this, and my feeling the need to speak to this, violates the spirit and vision of an open and accessible Jewish community we all cherish. It represents a very sad capitulation. Ours is not the free society in which we think we live. Our souls cry that it has come to this in 21st century America.
But, you need to know this. The New York Times published the headline and article I just quoted twenty years ago, on September 6, 1999. As French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously said, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. “The more things change the more they remain the same.”
Except things aren’t the same.
For most of my life, I’ve felt Jewish from within. My Jewish identity and awareness come from my heart, my mind, and maybe even my soul. I think Jewish thoughts. I look out at the world through a Jewish lens of values and ideas. I read, study, and teach about Judaism.
Sometimes, I think in Hebrew words and phrases. I remember so many Jewish experiences and celebrations.
To be completely honest, outside of my rabbinic role and functions, though I don’t hide it, my Jewish identity is not on public display. It’s who I am personally, and how I live privately. For most of my life, I’ve felt Jewish from within. I imagine the same is true for many of you even though we’ve grown and lived in very different communities all over the world.
I am well aware. My internal Jewish identity is an anomaly, possibly a luxury. Throughout history, external forces defined identity for the vast majority of Jews. We, and many we knew, were told where we could live, what we could do, and whether or not we would survive.
The 20th century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who was not Jewish, observed, “The Jew is a person who other people consider Jewish.” It isn’t a compliment. We are Jews, according to Sartre, only because of what others imagine us to be. Our own history and experience transmit no inherent value or actual identity.
This imagined identity is the delusion of the antisemite. It is the root of hatred. It is again present and much too prevalent to ignore in our country and our world. This is why, secure in so many ways, you and I feel a bit more insecure than before. We didn’t expect to be feeling this way again, or ever, in our lifetimes.
If not a bit insecure, how should we feel these days? Since Pittsburgh and Poway we protect our synagogues and Jewish institutions. In political diatribe and international duplicity we respond to challenges to Israel’s legitimacy, which are really tools to undermine Jewish history and identity. On some college campuses students meet hostility or disrespect for affirming their Jewish heritage.
One student from a prominent university on the east coast reports she told a professor she would need to miss class for the High Holy Days. He told her to re-evaluate her religious beliefs and then told his class to imagine a world without Jews in it. Can you imagine the outcry if he said that about any other ethnic or religious group?
Well, happy to say, we are here at this only time in history when Jews live in a free and dynamic Diaspora coexisting with a free, dynamic, and sovereign Jewish state. We all ought to be able to distinguish between anti-Israel or antisemitic prejudice, which we must oppose, and political or policy disagreements, which we properly debate, and which ironically are a reflection of mutual care and concern.
I don’t agree with a current popular narrative that sees a break between American and Israeli Jews. The most recent Gallup Poll on this subject supports me. 95% of American Jews “have favorable views of Israel.” The divide isn’t as real as the noise. The reality is a reflexive reflection of our bonds and our sense of insecurity. We actually need each other.
If not a bit insecure, how should we feel these days? We answer questions about our loyalties as American citizens. We receive blame for the evolving demographic changes taking place in America. We witness the moral morass and cruel attitudes perpetrated as immigration policy. We know when immigrants and strangers are demeaned in any society, including our own, which is wrong in and of itself, we Jews are also seen as “the other.” Demagoguery against outsiders in America has led to an increase in antisemitic acts.
You and I cherish our internal Jewish identities. We will not allow anyone’s external and morally blurry vision redefine who we are and how we live. No one of us should ever feel insecure because we are Jewish. Nor should the xenophobia and hateful ignorance of anybody’s resentment ever minimize a person of any other personal identity or cultural heritage.
Our internal Jewish consciousness is exposed anew to all of these external and resurgent antisemitic lies and threats. In the midst of harsh days, we greet the New Year. If not a bit insecure, how should we feel?
Like Jews always have. Proud of who we are, devoted to what we believe, and sensitive to the people and world around us. Our security comes from knowing who we are, not worrying about what others may think about us. The German philosopher Martin Buber describes our need. “To stand one’s ground in openness and strength and to respond to insecurity with trust.”
Our ancestors’ desire to be open and strong, to honor and preserve their distinctiveness as Jews in 1st century Greece, brought about history’s earliest recorded expressions of antisemitism.
In his treatise, “Against Apion,” the Roman Jewish historian Josephus seeks to refute the falsehood of various stories told about the Jews of ancient times. He decries the lies and mischaracterizations of Jewish character traits he hears in anti-Jewish rhetoric. He refutes pernicious deceits about Jewish history and efforts to delegitimize Jewish sovereignty.
What was the French quote? “The more things change the more they remain the same.”
Toward the end of his argument, Josephus writes about we Jews. “I would therefore boldly maintain that we have introduced to the rest of the world a very large number of very beautiful ideas. What greater beauty than inviolable piety? What higher justice than obedience to the law? What more beneficial than to be in harmony with one another…and to be convinced that everything in the whole universe is a reflection of God?"
We too boldly maintain beautiful ideas about who we are and what we believe. We are devoted to God by caring for one another and the world in which we live. We cherish life’s gifts and blessings. We inherit a tradition that stands for human dignity and equality, freedom and justice, compassion and goodness. We are heirs to standards of personal ethics and celebrations marking the seasons and milestones of our lives. When we act on the privilege of our Jewish identities we manifest something truly good and important whether or not those who hate us grasp it or not.
Earlier I asked what worries or angst may be yours. As headline issues of the day swirl around us personal insecurities bother us much more. No one of us likes feeling unsure about what may happen next. I didn’t on my desert drive from Cairo to Israel. You don’t now with whatever confronts you.
Insecurity results when our confidence wanes. Security results as our confidence grows. Confidence comes from the courage to be ourselves, from the commitment to do our best, and from the convictions we affirm.
Only when I’m secure in who I am can I feel secure about where I am and how I live my life. The most effective response to insecurity is to do something about it, to secure the present and plan for the future.
In this New Year, we will discover in ourselves the resilience to overcome what we can and the courage to cope with what we can’t. We will stand confident and sure where we are to become even more so where we aren’t yet.
In this New Year, we will reasonably do what we can to protect ourselves and care for one another. We will promote who we are and what we believe. We will demonstrate in our lives and for our society God’s attributes of compassion and kindness.
In this New Year, we will call out antisemitism and hatred of any kind. They are truly ignorant and irrational evils. We will never mollify or tolerate them. We will clearly and forcefully speak out against harmful ideas and hurtful insults. No matter their source or purported purpose. “Silence is consent,” teach our sages. “Shtikah k’hodayah damya.”
In this New Year, we will speak and conduct ourselves according to the highest ideals our Jewish tradition teaches in God’s name: to care for one another, to believe in each other’s humanity, and to bring dignity and decency into every human encounter whenever and wherever we can.
In this New Year, we will engage proudly and loudly in joy-filled and life-affirming Jewish experiences and celebrate a Jewish state that is safe, resilient, and humane.
The Talmud asks, “What difference is there between a person who performs mitzvot out of love and a person who performs mitzvot out of fear?” Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar answers, “Mitzvot done from love endure throughout the generations. Mitzvot done from fear don’t endure beyond the moment.”
I believe emphatically by affirming our love we can get past this ugly moment of fear. Our love of being Jewish, our love of Jewish ideas, our love of the Jewish people, and our love of doing mitzvot in this New Year will carry us forward from insecurity to confidence, from answering external threats to affirming the internal and intrinsic good of being Jewish in the world.
What, me worry?
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

practical theology

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5780 | October 1, 2019


His gaze told me he was uncomfortable. I was too. Neither one of us wanted to be there, holding off impatient parents excited to visit their children. Our instructions were clear. Keep the gate closed. Keep the visiting parents with their picnic baskets and care packages out of camp until everyone down below is ready.
“Welcome to Visitor’s Day,” we greeted our summer camp guests. Wearing our camp staff t-shirts and brightest smiles, my gate-duty partner Ken and I were all that blocked the way of frustrated parents who wanted to get out of the July sun, walk down the hot asphalt road into camp, and spread out their blankets and banquets under the shade of the camp’s largest trees.
“How much longer?” snapped each new parent when they got to the gate. “Why can’t we wait inside?” they each asked, understandably. To be honest, I didn’t have a good answer to that question. It wasn’t up to me.
Try as we might to make their wait pleasant, the growing crowd wasn’t happy with us. “The oldest campers just returned from a three-day hiking trip.” One of the summer highlights we shared trying to keep our visitors calm. “They mud-hugged all of the younger campers to celebrate. It was a fun mess,” Ken described as he showed those curious how to give a mud-hug.
As Ken and I walked up and down the line offering our guests cold water to drink, we knew no one wanted to hear our stories. They wanted to see their children. Even so, we tried to introduce parents of campers in the same bunk to each other and keep morale up.
By my watch, we had to stall another 30 minutes. That’s when I looked up and saw the President of the camp’s Board of Directors approaching us at the gate. Maynard was a large and affable man, fun to be around and deeply devoted to Camp Ramah in Ojai, California where all of us were waiting for the annual summer Visitors’ Day to begin.
“Hi Maynard,” I called out. “Great to see you!” As we shook hands, just like all the others he asked me, “How much longer before you open the gate, Ron?” “About half an hour,” I replied awkwardly. “But, the camp director told me to let you in whenever you got here. He’s expecting you.”
Maynard looked around at all of the eager parents hoping to get in and get set up very soon. Turning to Ken and me he asked, “Who were the first ones to arrive?” I pointed at the earliest group of parents who were now waiting at the start of the camp entry road. Maynard walked over, chatted with them for a few moments, and came back.
“I’ll wait with you,” he told us. “We’re all equal here. Isn’t that a Jewish belief we affirm? If camp doesn’t want any visitors until they’re ready, then I’ll wait here together with everyone else. What message about our camp’s values would I send by going in first, before any of these nice people waiting here?”
Maynard then turned and walked back toward the line, introducing himself to who he didn’t know and greeting our summer camp guests. Ken’s gaze told me he was surprised.
“It’s rare to see someone live out what they claim to believe,” Ken exclaimed reacting to Maynard’s choice to wait at the gate with everyone. “I expected him to go into camp and leave us with a complaining crowd,” he admitted as we walked down the windy asphalt road to reunite with our campers and friends.
More than five decades have passed and here I am retelling that story. Clearly, it made an impression on me. As I recall, Ken and I spent many warm nights at camp talking about Maynard. He started us thinking. What would become our life principles? He motivated us to start searching. Which were the ideas by which we might choose to live? He got us wondering. Were there other people of such integrity we might know?
More than 180 decades have passed since Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi lived during the days of Roman occupation in Second Century Judea. He is the redactor and editor of the Mishnah, the founding document of Rabbinic Judaism published sometime around 200 C.E.
In Pirkei Avot, the Mishnah’s collection of rabbinic sayings and wisdom, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi asks, “Which is the proper path a person should walk in life?” In other words, reflecting on our beliefs and values, how ought we behave? The rabbi’s answer considers both the character of the individual and their relationship to others. “The one which brings honor to the person and which other people also honor.”
I once met an older gentleman, a distinguished Jewish educator, who embodied this lesson. In a conversation with me he spoke passionately about living his life with a sense of mission. He proudly voiced commitment to the principles he believed in, many of which he derived from his learning and teaching about Judaism.
Before continuing his reflections, he paused. He began to speak in a softer tone. “Most of my students don’t share my beliefs,” he told me candidly. “As a result,” he mused with a tinge of sadness, “I’m not sure what I accomplished as their teacher.” Sensing my new acquaintance’s disappointment, I sat quietly,
Suddenly with much more confidence he completed his thought. “This gap between my beliefs and those of my students is the source of my life’s meaning. My personal purpose is to represent the principles and values I honor. I am responsible for acting according to my beliefs. I hope I have some influence and have earned my student’s respect. But, other people’s choices are theirs, not mine.”
Judaism’s earliest days and my early experiences inspired and challenged me to determine the principles by which I would conduct my life. As best I can, I strive to act on the values which I claim to believe. I’ve grown to call it “Practical Theology.” I’ll show you what I really believe by virtue of what I actually do.
We demonstrate what we believe more effectively than we profess it. Especially true in Jewish community, we achieve our bond by shared practice before declaring any common belief. My practical theology prioritizes “deed over creed.”
This is a good thing because most Jews I know can’t tell me what they believe. They’re generally more certain about what they don’t believe. More than once I’ve had a student ask me, “Rabbi, I’m Jewish. What do I believe?” “I don’t know,” I reply. “What do you believe?”
I do know it’s not easy to uphold personal principles or sustain religious practices without understanding why. Deed without creed lacks any compelling meaning beyond habit or social convention.
Ken and I discussed this late one evening many summers ago. “Maynard wasn’t just being polite at the camp gate that day,” Ken remembered. “He was demonstrating something he sincerely believed. Someday,” Ken looked up and stated, “I want someone to admire me like I respected Maynard.”
I’ve thought a lot about Ken’s goal. How many of us want what he does? How many of us can answer Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s question about which path is proper by the principles we put into action?
My principles are the core ethical, religious, and personal values that refine my character, reflect my conscience, and represent my religious beliefs. They are not my opinions because they transcend the limits of my experiences and preferences. They link me to the promise of human goodness and the purpose of Jewish identity.
I discern my principles from the consequences of my mistakes. I find them in the integrity of others. I discover my principles in the democratic ideals of America and the universal truths all human beings ought to cherish. Most of all, I learn the principles for my life in the moral wisdom of Judaism’s texts and the particular lessons of Jewish history.
It’s practical theology. When our choices demonstrate our values, when our behaviors represent our beliefs, when our presence in life matters to others, we imbue our Jewish identities with meaning and know we’ve made a difference in the world.
In this New Year, I intend to think through and explain the core principles by which I try to live my life. These days feel like a particularly good time for moral clarity and personal resolve. I plan to share my work and my progress with you. I encourage you to do the same. Answer these two questions for yourself. What do you believe? How would the rest of us know?
Or, as I said to Ken at summer's end long ago, “Thanks, Maynard.”
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Wed, January 22 2020 25 Tevet 5780