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back to school


Shabbat Ekev | August 24, 2019
A group of high-school students in Southern California gave a Nazi salute and sang a Nazi song during an awards ceremony last year, according to recently released video.
The video shows 10 members of the boys’ water polo team at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove throwing the salute once used to greet Adolf Hitler while singing a Nazi marching song played for German troops during World War II.
In response to the uproar that followed the discovery of this act on video, the Garden Grove Unified School District explained, “While the district cannot comment on student discipline, the school did address this situation with all involved students and families.”
My first reaction is that this isn’t a disciplinary matter. This is a teachable moment, if we understand the right lesson to teach.
“The district adheres to strong policies about harassment and cultural sensitivity, and we condemn all acts of anti-Semitism and hate in all forms. We remain focused on educating students about cultural sensitivity and are committed to holding students accountable, educating them on the consequences of their choices, and the impact these actions have on our schools and community at large.”
That’s fine, but not the lesson I suggest teaching in response to this episode. Let me provide some context for my perspective. First, a personal reflection. Second, an insight from this morning’s Torah portion.
I remember a back to school night many years ago during which we learned all about points and tests and extra credit but heard not one thing about what the teacher wanted our daughter to learn in class. The next day we transferred her to a different teacher.
As an educator, I’m guided by a few principles, and also this quip from Albert Einstein. 80% of what we learn in school we forget. To which I add - the 20% we retain is less fact and more idea.
This past week and in the days to come, our children and grandchildren return to school for a new year of learning and discovery. I have a hope for our children in the new school year. Whatever their aspirations, whatever their achievements, whatever their difficulties, whatever their abilities, I hope they are challenged by ideas and pushed to develop character.
Too often in education we put the emphasis in the wrong place. Worried about scores and advancement, we forget to ask what it is we want our children to learn. Those students from Pacifica High School don’t need to be punished. They need to learn about isms and ideologies. The need to understand the hateful nature of Nazism, the moral depravity of totalitarianism, why American fought in Europe during World War II, and the powerful ideas that animate America like “liberty and justice for all.”
Here’s my request of parents and grandparents at the beginning of this new school year. Ask your student’s teachers what ideas, not only what facts, they are teaching in their classrooms. What are the core concepts and texts students are to discover? What ideas are challenging their thinking, motivating their questions, and training their ethics?
We forget what it’s like to be a child, a student, pressured to achieve, nervous socially, striving to define and understand who they are. Loaded down with heavy backpacks and assignments, activities and diversions, dreams and demands, we forget what it’s like to be our children today.
I believe it is more important to measure the development of our children’s characters and moral values than the requirements they must fulfill to get into the next school on their educational journey. What are we teaching our children if not the organizing ideas for their values and their choices?
Education ought to train our sons’ and daughters’ consciences, help them to gain perspective about who they are, encourage them to stay balanced and honest in a world that is neither. Ask your children’s teachers what ideas they are teaching your kids.
In the midst of his farewell address, Moses wants the Israelites encamped at the Jordan River poised to enter the Land of Israel to consider this question. “What does the Eternal God ask of you?”
Moses offers an answer. “Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk in God’s paths, to love and serve God with all your heart and soul.” Rabbinic tradition puzzles over this answer. “Everything is God’s to enable except reverence,” observe our sages. “What to believe and whether to be good or bad is for each person to determine,” comments Rashi.
As a Jewish educator, I believe this is particularly important. It’s not enough that we deal with shortened time frames, convenience instead of commitment, and value apathy. The real purpose of Jewish education has to be engaging learners of all ages with compelling concepts and important insights.
Let’s learn with our students about what we may think and believe, interpret and understand, debate and discuss just as our forebears did and passed down to us in so many forms. Let’s teach not only how but how it relates to me, not only when but when is it meaningful to me, not only what but why.
When we do that, when discussion is about content and substance, then innovation flows as students seek out more, not less. They make fewer foolish choices like the one made by those water polo students at Pacifica High School.
The Talmud teaches us, “Parents should be careful to keep their children away from falsehood.” I believe that simple comment is about more than facts. It’s about the truth of our ideas and answering Moses’ question. What does God, what do our students and children as they live and grow, ask of us?
As a new school year begins, we wonder what will speak to our students’ minds and captivate their hearts. Whatever their achievements and setbacks, whatever their interests and abilities, I pray they are challenged by the power of the ideas they learn, inspired by the wisdom they discover, and excited by the possibilities of their futures.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

the rules of the game


Shabbat Matot-Masei | August 3, 2019
Rules define the game. When we take the field, step onto the court, deal the cards, or set up the board, we know the rules of the game we’re about to play. When we compete with each other, or against one another, be it in business, politics, or sports, we agree to accept the end results because we agree to the rules at the start. We know the competition is fair. In our culture, fair play is a necessary foundation of sportsmanship, commerce, friendship, and society.
Rules also govern how things are done. Rules tell us how we are to behave, especially in relating to others. Some rules are clear. Other rules are informal. Sometimes the rules allow for roughness, like hard tackles on the football field or negative comments in a debate. Most of the time, rules help to keep things in order.
Philosophers call these rules our social contract; the unwritten conventions and mores of our society by which we are able live together as diverse people. This unwritten and assumed compact between us enables respect, tolerance, justice, and the bonds of citizenship.
The Biblical prophet Jeremiah lived in 7th century B.C.E. Jerusalem. He anticipates destruction and desolation for his generation because they violate the terms of their covenant with God and their social contract with one another.
We read God’s rebuke in Jeremiah’s words, “For My people have done a two-fold wrong, they have forsaken Me and hewed out cisterns that cannot hold water.” In other words, they turned away from God and from caring for one another.
Overtime, Jeremiah’s reproach becomes his lament. He witnesses the destruction of Jerusalem. He mourns for the people who are sent away to Babylonia in exile. In a letter to the exiles from what remains of Jerusalem, Jeremiah encourages the exiles to build new lives where they are. He defines a social contract. “And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Eternal God on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”
I want to ask about Jeremiah’s instruction for us today. My question is simple. If rules are supposed to guide our interactions, if social norms are useful for sustaining civil society, if we are to seek the welfare of our cities for everyone’s benefit, what should we do when someone decides the rules don’t apply to them? How should we react? How should we respond?
It can be a friend or service who violates our trust. It can be a criminal whose bad act hurts us. It can be a student or colleague whose cheating undermines our best efforts. It can be an arrogant or insecure person whose bullying makes us uncomfortable or inhibits our participation. It can be a politician or government, a media outlet or celebrity, a corporation, any collective entity, or individual who asserts the might, if not the right, to set different standards for themselves than for all others.
This is the social and ethical dilemma we find ourselves in these days. Words of hate are not a strategy. They’re words of hate. Misstatements made to obfuscate facts are not opinion. They’re lies. Harassing opponents is not dispute. It’s undisputedly offensive. We have to be honest about challenges to our social contract and the social ethics of our current culture. We have to be clear about the rules.
On the Jewish calendar, we are in the midst of a three-week period of introspection. This Shabbat is 8 days before the 9th of Av, our calendar’s sad day of mourning and remembrance. For 1,949 years, since the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E, we Jews have appropriately and necessarily discussed this ethical impasse in synagogue. What do we do when people act as if the rules don’t apply to them?
Here’s how our Talmudic rabbis discussed it among themselves in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple.
“Considering the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was sinat hinam - wanton hatred during that period.”
The rabbis draw an interesting distinction in this text. During the era of the First Jerusalem Temple, which was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., though the people openly violated the terms of God’s covenant and acted corruptly, they kept any bad feelings or enmity toward each other quiet. Yes, the rabbis believe they were punished. Yes, the people went into exile. But, after some time God redeemed them. They returned from Babylonia and rebuilt their Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Generations later, during the era of the Second Jerusalem Temple, the social fabric ripped open. Animosity and hatred with no constructive purpose, sinat hinam, divided the community and enabled the Jewish People’s enemies to overrun them. To this day, the Jerusalem Temple is no more.
This is how the rabbis understand the difference between the two most calamitous events in ancient Jewish history. It’s both human nature to like and dislike those around us, and part of our social contract to keep those feelings under control, more hidden than revealed. Animosity and hatred with no constructive purpose, sinat hinam, divides us. In hate’s aftermath, teach our Talmudic rabbis, it is very difficult to rebuild.
When someone does not feel personally or professionally bound by our social contract, by the rules and norms of civil and polite society, we have little leverage over them. We argue toward no resolution. We get upset. We make it personal. We give their words or actions the attention they seek. We end up bolstering their tactics.
Rabbi Shimon ben Meir, known as the Rashbam, understood this back in 11th century France. About secular law and social norms he explains, “Laws apply to all citizens only if it is their desire to honor them.”
We have little leverage over those who do not feel bound by a social contract, by the rules of our games and the laws of our land, except to reassert these rules and standards for ourselves and to insist on them for whatever comes next.
Or, as Elphaba famously sings to Glinda in the Broadway show, Wicked, we need to be done “playing by the rules of someone else’s game.” Only with a shared understanding of the rules of our game, our social contract, will we build the society all citizens deserve.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

american ideal

Shabbat Korah | July 6, 2019
For all of the reasons as Americans we had fun celebrating the 4th of July on Thursday, as American Jews I hope we had fun and felt a spirit of genuine gratitude.
Jews have lived in America for 365 years, since the first 23 of our citizen ancestors came to New Amsterdam fleeing persecution from Recife, Brazil in 1654. By the time of the American revolution in 1776, fewer than 2,500 Jews called the American colonies home.
Today 5,700,000 Jews live in the United States. Confronting many challenges and holding many concerns, you and I enjoy the freedoms and achievements of America like no group or generation of Jews before us has known in any other Diaspora country. We ought never diminish or take for granted the gift of America in Jewish history. We must always dedicate ourselves to protecting and preserving the promise of this nation.
On July 2, 1776 the Continental Congress declared independence as the British fleet arrived in New York harbor. On July 4, 1776, the congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. On July 8, 1776 they read the Declaration in public for the first time.
Toward the end of the summer of 1776, George Washington faced one of the Revolutionary War’s most daunting tasks, to defend New York City from the approaching British. It didn’t go well. On Long Island, Washington’s soldiers suffered 1,400 casualties. From atop Brooklyn Heights Washington observed the battles and waited for the expected British assault, an event that would most likely have led to a decisive British victory. American morale was at a low point. Many soldiers talked of surrender.
During this difficult period, Rabbi Gershon Seixas of Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in New York, carried the community’s Torah scrolls out of the city, “into exile,” as he said, for protection. Inside the synagogue, his community gathered to pray on Shabbat. Rabbi Seixas offered the following prayer translating Jewish concepts into an American context.
“O, Great, tremendous, mighty, high & Exalted King of Israel, Lord of Hosts…bless, guard, preserve, assist, shield, save, supremely exalt and aggrandize to a high degree…His Excellency George Washington, Captain, General & Commander in Chief of the Federal Army of these States…May the Supreme King of Kings, through his infinite mercies, save and prosper the men of these United States, who are gone forth to war…speedily permit that among us may be heard the voice of Him who bringeth glad tidings, announcing that “The Redeemer Cometh to Zion.”
America exists in its ideas and its ideals. Americans find national purpose and identity in understanding and upholding America’s ideas. It is a revolutionary and important truth. Not since Judaism’s promise of a monotheistic creed for all who so choose to believe has the world known an identity born of thought rather than family, tribe, or location.
This July 4th weekend step out of the absurd noise overwhelming American life today. Join me in stepping back into America’s founding ideals.
America does not self-limit through race, ethnicity, or even national origin. America’s boundaries are not merely geographic. We draw them in the concepts and principles of our democracy. These ideas are what make America unique. They are what we debate. They are what enabled a colonial era rabbi to speak of America as Zion, and of the British attack as forcing his people into exile from their home.
Our nation’s history, including what’s taking place today, is the struggle to live up to our founder’s ideals. Ideals that allow for the diversity, strength, and the best visions of our country. It’s an intense and challenging debate. It always has been. No wonder we shoot off fireworks on the 4th of July!
In his book, American Gospel, Jon Meacham observes for Thomas Jefferson, as for many of America’s founders, “liberty and religion, freedom and God, and goodness and faith were intertwined, each an indissoluble element in the American experiment.” Or as Jefferson himself wrote just before his death on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, “I never told my religion nor scrutinized that of another…for it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read.”
I agree with Jefferson’s sentiment. We show what we believe by what we do, not by what we say.
America roots its ideals in the 18th and 19th century concept of individual rights no government can abolish. Of course, we recognize it from words of Torah. The Book of Genesis describes humanity as created in God’s image. The Book of Exodus rejects human subjugation or oppression.
The claim of Jewish religion is that inalienable human rights derive from God, secured by the individual and social responsibilities incumbent on us all. This is what gave colonial era Jews comfort with America’s founding values and what we need to remember and celebrate today.
In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson linked fundamental American ideals to a vision of the world with roots both in the philosophy of his day and the Hebrew Bible.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
No wonder the congregants of Shearith Israel prayed for Washington and his men in the summer of 1776. In a world where Israel and Zionism did not yet exist, at a time when America’s founding ideas represented the best hope of humanity, those early American Jews chose to link our people’s covenant with God to America’s destiny and unknown future.
243 years of history and experience later, as Americans we had fun celebrating the 4th of July. As American Jews, I hope we had fun and felt a spirit of genuine gratitude.

© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

history and census

Shabbat Bemidbar | June 8, 2019
I’m mindful that Thursday, June 6, was the 75th anniversary of D-day, the largest, and perhaps the most courageous, seaborne invasion in history, the day on which the Allies sought to liberate France and ultimately Western Europe from Nazi Germany. It’s always sobering to remember the cost of that battle. 4, 414 allied soldiers died. More than 9,000 allied soldiers suffered wounds or are missing.
Author Stephen Ambrose observes. “At the core, the American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn't want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So they fought, and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful.”
Some of you knew those citizen soldiers. We honor their heroism and memory with humble gratitude.
I’m also mindful that Wednesday, June 5, was the 52nd anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. “Our goal is clear,” said Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, “to wipe Israel off the map.”
The “Six-Day War” produced a consciousness change in Israel. That June 1967 war proved to Israelis and to the world, and to Jews around the world, that we the Jewish people could and would defend ourselves. This consciousness also impacted our Jewish community in America. Ours became what many of us now appreciate, a more overt, public, and positive expression of Jewish identity in American culture.
These two memories, the memories of D-Day and the Six Day War serve as a backdrop to our discussion this Shabbat. Each year when we read the census of ancient Israel as they journey through the wilderness, it’s my own personal practice to review some of the numbers of contemporary Jewish life. The Torah tells us there were 603,550 men journeying with Moss from Mt. Sinai into the wilderness. When we account for women and children with them, scholars guestimate the Biblical story’s authors want us to imagine Moses leading a people of almost 2 million ancient Israelites.
In modern history, the world’s Jewish population peaked in 1939 at 17 million, the most Jews who have ever lived at one time. After the Shoah, as we all understand, the remnant number was 11 million, of whom 4.5 million were American Jews. In 1967, the Jewish population of Israel was 2.6 million people. Then we were 5.5 million American Jews.
For those who don’t focus as closely on Jewish demographics, let me explain why this is important. Alive today are approximately 14.5 million Jews in a world of 7.7 billion human beings. We Jews comprise just under 0.02% of the world’s population. The reason this number is important for we who identify as Jews, is to remember.
In a world of 7.7 billion human beings, where there are but 14.5 million Jews, no one has ever met us. They don’t live in New York, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, or other Jewish population centers. No one has ever met us. Our story, our purpose, the values we have given to the world through the Bible, let alone through life, are unknown to humanity.
6,451,000 Jews live in Israel representing 44.5% of the total number of Jews in the world. 5,700,000 Jews live here in the United States accounting for 39.3% of Jews worldwide. The third largest Jewish population lives in France where 456,000 Jews currently reside, just 3% of the world’s Jewish population.
Here in San Diego we count 100,000 Jews among 1.4 million San Diegans. There are almost as many Jews living in this city as there are in Australia and Germany. Canada, the United Kingdom, Argentina and Russia have slightly larger Jewish populations. However, as for where Jews live in the rest of the world, more Jews live in San Diego than in Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine, Hungary, Mexico, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Chile, Uruguay, Turkey, and Sweden.
Just recently, the American Jewish Committee published a survey of Jewish attitudes in the three largest Jewish population centers: Israel, America, and France. Israeli Jews identify far more Jewishly than the others. A close look at the data reveals that, although majorities in all three countries consider being Jewish important in their lives, a huge gap emerges over whether being Jewish is very important. Fully eight out of every ten Israeli Jews thinks so, as compared to 41% of the Americans and 33% of the French.
While it is hardly surprising that almost all Israeli Jews (91%, as compared to 72% of Americans and 53% of French) think that a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, more Israeli Jews than American Jews believe a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, 74% to 65% to 51%. Interestingly, the age group that feels most strongly about the importance of a thriving Diaspora is Israeli Jews between 18 and 34.
I find this fascinating. 75 years after the beginning of the end of World War II, the most catastrophic destruction of the Jewish Diaspora ever perpetrated, and 52 years after overcoming an existential threat to their very lives, more Israeli Jews than American Jews, more younger Israeli Jews than younger American Jews, believe a healthy and dynamic Jewish Diaspora is important for the well-being and future of Jews and Judaism.
This is a new moment in Jewish history. Israel is the country with the most Jews. Israel is the eternal and re-established homeland of the Jewish people. Israel is the land to which our Biblical ancestors are marching through the wilderness in Torah this very Shabbat. Israel is now where the next generation of Jews see it as their responsibility to care for we Jews who live elsewhere.
Is it really possible Israeli Jews see it as their responsibility to care for us even more than we do? It’s hard to say. In my view, the Israel-Diaspora relationship today feels more complicated than it really is. Yet if true, this is a very different moment in the experience of the Jewish people.
If true, this twist on Jewish mutual responsibility comes to be because Israeli Jews use national identity to define their Jewish status. You and I can’t. We are a sub-community. We strive to maintain Jewish identity within the greater cultural and national life of America, like every other Diaspora community through the ages.
In fact, this beautiful sanctuary is a very Diaspora building. Designed as a tribute to European communities lost before the end of World War II. Designed for La Jolla as a statement of Jewish tradition, continuity, and renewal.
Which is the point of this journey through history and census. In a world of 7.7 billion human beings, these things are true. We will always need to defend against evil. We will always need to promote goodness. We cannot assume others share our values. We who are Jewish can certainly not assume that anyone in the world understands what we believe and what we’re about. Which means we have to actively champion and actively represent what we believe where we do live. We always need to preserve our place in the world and tell our story.
If we are but 14.5 million Jews world-wide, or closer to home 100,000 out of 1.4 million San Diegans, or counting more narrowly a couple of hundred synagogue attendees this Shabbat, my lesson, my message, and my conclusion after this journey through history and census is: each one of us has to count, not only be counted.
Each of us can accept the privilege of our places as responsible members of the Jewish people. How we live, how we tell our individual chapters of the Jewish people’s story, who we are, and what we do in relationship to each other, and to that story that is only ours, is just as important as where we live, and much more important than how many we are.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

security challenge


Shabbat Behukotai | June 1, 2019

I invite you to come into the room with our Congregation Beth El Board of Directors. We’re in the midst of a very difficult and emotional discussion.

In response to recent events and the rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and acts throughout our country, let alone within our own community last month, in addition to other security measures we’ve taken we’re considering erecting an interior security fence around the buildings here on our campus.

Should we do so, and I believe we will, this choice reverses almost three decades of work in American synagogue life to open up synagogue campuses and buildings. Until now, it was our project to make synagogues accessible, open, and welcoming sacred spaces.

In my rabbinic career, I’ve spent a lot of time learning and teaching all over the country that a synagogue facility tells a story about the community building it. A well designed synagogue facility reflects the purposes and values of the community gathering there.

Look around this sacred space. Words of Torah envelope us on the windows. Memories of earlier Jewish generations inspire us in the design of the space. We sit facing one another and together focus on what we are here to do. We bring the outside natural world in and go out to an open space reminiscent of Israel right here in La Jolla.

Back to the board room discussion. No one of us wants to do this, to build this security fence. Most of us know we have to.

I have stated my position very clearly. As Ron Shulman, I oppose this fence. It violates the spirit and vision of an open and accessible Jewish community. It represents a very sad capitulation that ours is not the free society in which I think I live. My soul cries if it has come to this in 21st century America.

As Rabbi Ron Shulman, I support this fence as a moral duty to this congregation, to our children, and to our guests. Rabbi Meyers in Pittsburg and Rabbi Goldstein in Poway did not arrive at Tree of Life synagogue on October 27th or Chabad of Poway on April 27th expecting to do anything more than enjoy Shabbat with their communities and friends.

As your rabbi, first I must ask us to be reasonable, responsible, and prepared. It is critical that we protect and defend.

This morning we conclude our reading in Sefer Vayikra for this year. The last verse of this Book of Leviticus reads, “These are the commandments that the Eternal God gave Moses for the Children of Israel on Mt. Sinai.”

The sages of the Jerusalem Talmud observe. “If you fulfill it as a Mitzvah it is a Mitzvah, if not, if you perform the deed unsuitably, it is not a Mitzvah.

For example, if on the first night of Passover one recites the blessing for eating Matzah over a stolen piece of Matzah, he or she is not doing a Mitzvah. You and I are accountable and responsible for the quality and character of our Jewish expression, here and everywhere.

We see this taught more clearly from an earlier verse in Leviticus. “You shall keep my laws and My rules, doing so you shall live by them, I am the Eternal God.”

About this verse, the Talmudic sages comment: “You shall live by them, you shall not die because of them.” About which, in 1902, Rabbi Baruch Epstein comments, “This is to teach that the Holy One, Blessed be God, does not expect people to observe the commandments of the Torah when danger is possible.”

As your rabbi, first I must ask us to be reasonable, responsible, and prepared. It is critical that we protect and defend.

As your rabbi, second, I must challenge us. We are not secure physically if we are insecure spiritually. It is vital that our communal dialogue not be about hate and security.

I challenge us. Let’s strive to match the dollars we will spend on security with dollars we can spend on Jewish education, celebration, and affirmation. Responsible for our safety, we are also responsible for securing the next generation of literate and engaged Jews.

My challenge echoes this insight from Dr. Israel Abrahams, a distinguished Jewish scholar of the early 20th century. “For Jews the moral is to answer anti-Semitism with more Semitism, if by Semitism we mean greater devotion to the great ideals which Judaism proclaimed to the world.”

My challenge extends a thought of Rabbi Abraham Neuman, who immigrated to the United States from Austria as a child in 1898 and went on in his American life to hold many prominent rabbinic and educational positions. In 1953 he spoke to this responsibility. “Jewish institutions of learning are the laboratories where weapons are forged to repel anti-Semitism to the degree that such a course is possible.” Those weapons are Jewish education, Jewish behaviors, and acts of loving kindness.

The first Chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Rabbi Judah Magnes, who lived between America and Israel, likewise said. “Anti-Semitism cannot be the guiding negative principle of Jewish life. Only freedom and service can be the guiding principle of the living Jewish people.”

As your rabbi, second, I must challenge us. We are not secure physically if we are insecure spiritually. It is vital that our communal dialogue not be about hate and security but about Torah and life.

Yes. We will call out anti-Semitism and hatred of any kind. They are truly ignorant and irrational evils. We will never mollify or tolerate them.

Yes. We will reasonably do what we can to protect ourselves and care for one another. We’ve coined a term to describe our security protocols and protections here at Beth El. When we are here, in a welcome setting, we want to “Be Safe and Feel Safe.”

Yes. 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.

One last thought. The rabbis of the Mishnah tell us to “make a fence around the Torah.”

So, yes. We will create and sustain a compelling and meaningful Jewish communal experience inside any new fences we may need to build around the Torah.

Though maybe instead of seeing it as a security fence we can call it a security gate. Gates protect and at the same time allow people to come inside. As the Psalms rejoice, we “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving.”

A synagogue facility tells a story about the community building it. A well designed synagogue facility reflects the purposes and values of the community gathering there.

On this campus, our story and our purpose always will be about feeling the freedom and confidence as Jews that is ours, and as the caring people we are, to learn and to renew, to celebrate and to affirm all that is good and right in our world.

© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

collective Memories: a synagogue sermon for memorial day

Shabbat Behar | May 25, 2019
Robin and I had the opportunity this week to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. I’m sure others of you have been there. I encourage all of you to make the trip, if and when you get the chance.
It’s been almost 18 years since that dreadful day. I vividly remember it, and its aftermath through the weeks, months, and years until today. I imagine many of you do, as well.
It all felt familiar as Robin and I walked through the hushed corridors and gripping exhibits in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. We did rediscover details we forgot. We did learn new information. We saw personal possessions. We heard terrifying testimonies.
Walking amidst the artifacts, pictures, videos, and information displays we became conscious of other museum visitors. Many of them were learning the facts and watching the 9/11 attacks for the first time. Aware of the date’s infamy, they hadn’t ever been up close and personal to the experience of 9/11. That’s what most impressed us.
It’s normal over time, of course. You and I can’t remember what we didn’t see or experience. At best, like at the 9/11 museum, we can pass on our memories to those who weren’t there. Each one of us holds memories we inherit from those who came before us. Each one of us transmits our own memories to those who follow, along with the memories of others we have made our own.
It’s why some of us are in this very room this morning. In synagogue on Shabbat, we celebrate ideas we hold from memories of the ages and our ancestors, ideas about measuring personal growth, social responsibility, and Jewish identity. We read the memories recorded in an ancient text for contemporary purpose and meaning. We think of the milestone miracles and tragedies of Jewish history we want always to recall and learn from.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains. “History is his-story. It happened to someone else, not me. Memory is my story, the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations yet to come.”
Through our individual and collective memories, we bond as families. We connect in communities. We derive religious beliefs and traditions. We identity as members of the Jewish people and as citizens of our American nation.
American lore tells of a chime that changed the world on July 8, 1776. The Liberty Bell rang out from the tower of Independence Hall summoning citizens to come hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. Four days earlier, on July 4, 1776, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson became a committee of three tasked with designing a Great Seal for a new nation declaring independence. Franklin’s design included Moses outstretched hands over a split sea as he led the Israelites to their freedom. Though they didn’t adopt this image, America’s founders in part saw themselves and their cause in what they called “The Old Testament,” in our story, the Torah story of the Exodus.
Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris first ordered a bell for the bell tower in 1751. Cast in London it cracked on the first test ring. Local metalworkers melted down the London bell and made a new American one. It rang to call lawmakers to their meetings and townspeople together. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “The Bell rings. I must go and talk Politics.”
No one recorded when or why this new Liberty Bell first cracked, but the most likely explanation is that a narrow split developed in the early 1840's after nearly 90 years of hard use. In 1846, the city decided to repair the bell prior to George Washington's birthday holiday. Metal workers widened the thin crack to prevent its farther spread and restore the tone of the bell. The wide crack we see in the Liberty Bell is actually the repair job.
Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris chose a Bible verse we read today for inscription on the bell. Leviticus 25:10 states, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, (to all the inhabitants thereof) for all of its inhabitants." Historians believe Norris chose this verse to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges, which granted religious liberties and political self-government to the people of Pennsylvania.
Jewish tradition intuits personal dignity and the right to be responsible for one’s own destiny from these Biblical words. Liberty means having the ability to pursue personal fulfillment and opportunity.
Interestingly, the inscription of liberty on the State House bell went unnoticed during the Revolutionary War. After the war, the bell’s message inspired abolitionists seeking to end slavery in America. As I said, some of America’s founding generation saw themselves and their causes in parts of “The Old Testament,” the Jewish people’s story. Little appreciated these days; shared collective memories link we who are Americans and we who are Jews.
This Memorial Day weekend, we need to reassert the vision and values of America’s collective memories. We must do more than remember the fallen by enjoying our time at barbecues, ballgames, and shopping malls. We need to remember their lives by remembering America’s story. Memorial Day is meaningful in the memory of why the fallen fought and sacrificed.
Like some of our nation’s founders did, may I be so bold as to suggest, in spite or perhaps because of rising anti-Semitism, there is great need again for our Jewish story at this moment in America. America needs to reclaim the liberty, compassion, justice, and respect engraved on and represented by the Torah verse on the Liberty Bell. Social ethics we derive from the collective memories of the Jewish people and the American nation.
When we affirm among ourselves our collective memories, we stop being strangers to one another. We begin to understand each other. We overcome fears, ignorance, and hate. We begin to see something of ourselves in other people.
This holiday weekend, let’s ask family members and friends to talk about their service to this country. Let’s ask people who come to America from other places to tell their stories of immigration. Let’s begin to talk together more openly and proudly about what it means to us to be Americans. Let’s recall and pass along our collective American memories.
On Passover and so many other occasions we encourage ourselves to tell the stories and discuss the meanings of our Jewish identities. We now need to bring this practice into American culture and society. It is through our individual and collective memories that we identity as members of the Jewish people and as citizens of our American nation, this Diaspora society we call home.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

mixed feelings after poway - op ed article

(This is an Op-Ed version of my sermon. You can find the full text and audio of sermon below.)
Twenty-six weeks ago, this is how I began my Saturday sermon, “This is the next Shabbat, the Shabbat after the tragedy in Pittsburgh.” This past Saturday I said, “This is the next next Shabbat. The Shabbat after the tragedy in Poway.”
I came into this past Shabbat with mixed feelings.
Foremost among them, I felt anguished hope. May I never have to declare another next Shabbat following any tragedy, most especially a tragic attack against a synagogue and those inside.
I felt sadness in the face of the tragic loss of a righteous woman’s life. Many of my congregants knew Lori Gilbert-Kaye. They grieve her murder. They seek comfort for her family, and for themselves.
I felt admiration for Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein’s courage and conviction. For his embrace of the gift of his future even as he tries to make sense of the horror he experienced.
I felt rage at a deranged young man’s evil attack on our neighbors at Chabad of Poway. I am outraged that we must expend more and more of our resources on providing security at our synagogue in 2019 America. We have even coined a term to describe our security protocols and protections. In a welcome setting, we want to “Be Safe and Feel Safe.”
I felt anger that our society is unable to have a conversation about the real issues. How and why these acts of hate and terror continue unabated. I am angry that a 19 year old justified his synagogue attack in the vile of his anti-Semitic on-line manifesto. I’m angry that he used a military type semiautomatic rifle, which by any common sense standard he shouldn’t have been able to access.
I am angry that anti-Semitism remains the most durable and adaptable hatred in human history. I am angry that ours is a culture in which anti-Semitism and other hatred flourishes because there are no more filters, controls, or pushback on stupidity, ignorance, and hate. There is no shame in our society anymore, fostered largely, but not exclusively, by social media.
I agree with P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, who explain in their book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, that tech companies and government leaders must accept political, social, and moral responsibility for what social media has thrust upon us. “When someone engages in the spread of lies, hate, and other societal poisons, they should be stigmatized accordingly.”
I felt embarrassment that too many people are theologically unequipped to grapple with the pain of this event. God does not desire the murder of a loving wife and mother who is a devoted community member. Terrible things do not happen for reasons only God knows.
Judaism teaches God’s moral gift to humanity is free will. In our choices to do good or bad, right or wrong we discover the ethics and justice that derive from God. Maimonides explains. If God does not endow us with free will, God can never demand of us justice. Our actions must be our choices, not God’s. In life there will be those who violate boundaries of acceptable behavior. We cannot believe God is the cause of human evil acts. To implicate God in this event corrupts the goodness we ascribe to God’s nature and undermines the moral Sovereignty of God to inspire in our lives righteousness and love.
I felt gratitude for my community and my people. We are the Jewish people, and so many others, who cherish life’s gifts and blessings. We inherit a tradition that stands for human dignity and equality, freedom and goodness. We are heirs to standards of personal ethics and celebrations marking the seasons and milestones of our lives. It is our privilege and our purpose to represent this in the world.
After a tragedy like the attack on Chabad of Poway last Saturday, Judaism teaches us three responses. First, we perform acts of loving kindness and righteousness wherever we can. We embrace. We comfort. We hug and support. We contribute. We feed. We sustain. We bring kindness and love.
Second, we study. For Jews and Judaism learning is a potent response to evil. We seek wisdom from those who came before us. We search for insights and perspective.
Finally, we gather. It is from community, friends, and family that we receive and give care, uplift, and goodness. We are not afraid. We are aware. We gather in the synagogue to celebrate, to congregate, and to dedicate ourselves to the ideals and joys of being Jewish.
I felt conviction. To remember and honor Lori Gilbert-Kaye who lost her life so needlessly, and all in Poway and our San Diego Jewish community who need healing, strength, and renewal, we must live the values we believe in. We must teach our children and practice in our community respect and dignity toward all, and affirm the pride and goodness we cherish in our Jewish lives.

mixed feelings after poway - full sermon


Shabbat Aharei Mot | May 4, 2019

Twenty-six weeks ago, I said, “This is the next Shabbat, the Shabbat after the tragedy in Pittsburgh. This Shabbat, we remember and honor those who lost their lives so needlessly last Shabbat by being here in synagogue together.”
Today, this Shabbat, is the next next Shabbat, the Shabbat after the tragedy in Poway. I come into this Shabbat with mixed feelings. Foremost among them, anguished hope. May I never have to declare another next Shabbat following any tragedy, most especially a tragic attack against a synagogue and those inside.
I come into this Shabbat with mixed feelings.
Sadness in the face of the tragic loss of a righteous woman’s life, a woman many of you knew well. May the memory of Lori Gilbert-Kaye endure beyond the bonds of her loved ones and community. May her memory touch us with love and compassion. May her memory stir us to affirm the glory and hopes of the Jewish people in our own lives and synagogue community. May her soul be bound up in the bonds of the on-going life of the Jewish people. May she rest in honor and peace. May God embrace her soul and may all who remember her sustain their love.
I come into this Shabbat with mixed feelings.
Admiration for Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein’s courage and conviction, for his embrace of the gift of his future even as he tries to make sense of the horror he experienced.
I come into this Shabbat with mixed feelings.
Rage at a deranged young man’s evil attack on our neighbors at Chabad of Poway. Synagogues are where Jews gather. Synagogues represent Jews and Judaism to the larger world. Like last Shabbat, synagogues are sometimes the target when hatred is aimed at Jews. I am outraged that we must expend more and more of our resources on providing security at our synagogue in 2019 America. We’ve even coined a term to describe our security protocols and protections here at Beth El. When we are here, in a welcome setting, we want to “Be Safe and Feel Safe.”
I come into this Shabbat with mixed feelings.
Anger that our society is unable to have a conversation about the real issues as to how and why these acts of hate and terror continue unabated. The recurring problem is anti-Semitism. That’s a constant. Like the disgusting cartoon many of us saw in the International Edition of the New York Times last week, in which a guide dog wearing a Star of David with the face of Benjamin Netanyahu leads a blind Donald Trump who is wearing black glasses and a kippah. I am angry that a 19 year old justified his synagogue attack in the vile of his anti-Semitic on-line manifesto. I’m angry that he used a military type semiautomatic rifle, which by any common sense standard he shouldn’t have been able to access.
I am angry that anti-Semitism remains the most durable and adaptable hatred in human history. I am angry that ours is a culture in which anti-Semitism and other hatred flourishes because there are no more filters, controls, or pushback on stupidity, ignorance, and hate. There is no shame in our society anymore, fostered largely, but not exclusively, by social media.
In their book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking bring their military intelligence and conflict expertise backgrounds to describe this new, unfettered internet moment.
“The modern internet is not just a network, but an ecosystem of nearly 4 billion souls, each with their own thoughts and aspirations. Those who can manipulate this swirling tide can accomplish incredible good. They can free people, expose crimes, save lives, and seed far reaching reforms. But they can also accomplish astonishing evil. They can foment violence, stoke hate, sow falsehoods, incite wars, and even erode the pillars of democracy itself.”
Singer and Brooking are very clear. They want tech companies and government leaders to accept political, social, and moral responsibility for what social media has thrust upon us. “When someone engages in the spread of lies, hate, and other societal poisons, they should be stigmatized accordingly.”
Here in San Diego we should pay particular attention. California has been home to 80 known hate groups. More than any other state, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. As many of you know better than I do, San Diego also has a not so secret history of white supremacist rantings and anti-Semitism.
I come into this Shabbat with mixed feelings.
Embarrassment that too many Jews are theologically unequipped to grapple with the pain of this event. God does not desire the murder of a loving wife and mother who is a devoted community member. Terrible things do not happen for reasons only God knows.
Judaism teaches God’s moral gift to humanity is free will. In our choices to do good or bad, right or wrong we discover the ethics and justice that derive from God. Maimonides explains. If God does not endow us with free will, God can never demand of us justice. Our actions must be our choices, not God’s. In life there will be those who violate boundaries of acceptable behavior. When we are hurt by their wickedness, God too, grieves amidst the victims. “I regret that I made them,” the Torah records as God’s sad answer to those who do evil. We cannot believe God is the cause of human evil acts. To implicate God in this event corrupts the goodness we ascribe to God’s nature and undermines the moral Sovereignty of God to inspire in our lives righteousness and love.
I come into this Shabbat with mixed feelings.
Gratitude for the traditions we practice and the community we share. Today in synagogue we affirm who we are. We are the Jewish people who cherish life’s gifts and blessings. We inherit a tradition that stands for human dignity and equality, freedom and goodness. We are heirs to standards of personal ethics and celebrations marking the seasons and milestones of our lives. That’s who we are and what we represent to the world.
After a tragedy like the attack on Chabad of Poway last Shabbat, Judaism teaches us three responses. First, we give Tzedakah. Funds where they may be needed and acts of loving kindness and righteousness wherever we can. We embrace. We comfort. We hug and support. We feed. We sustain. We bring kindness and love.
Second, we study. For Jews and Judaism learning is a potent response to evil. We seek wisdom from those who came before us. We search for insights and perspective for ourselves, our children, and our community.
Today, we study this text. In the weekday Amidah, our daily prayer for redemption and personal purpose, the rabbis of Yavneh in 90 C.E. include this statement. “Frustrate the hopes of all those who malign us. Let all evil soon disappear. Let all Your enemies soon be destroyed.”
The evil and hatred we confront today is not new. It’s ours to oppose. Jews reciting this prayer in different times and places had their particular enemies in mind. Like us, our ancestors wanted evil to cease now, not sometime in the future.
I’m moved by what follows. The next statement in the weekday Amidah reads, “Let Your tender mercies, Eternal our God, be stirred for the righteous, the pious, and for us all. Praised are You, Eternal God, supporting and sustaining the righteous.” After speaking out against the wicked, this prayer of redemption seeks to stand up for those who do good. We believe in the moral Sovereignty of God to inspire in our lives righteousness and love.
It’s our Jewish instinct. Our response to what’s wrong in the world is to do our part to make it right. This ethical wisdom is our inheritance and our responsibility.
Finally, as we did throughout this week and are doing today, we gather. In response to whatever are the events of our lives, it is from the community of my people, my friends, and my family that I receive caring, uplift, and goodness. I told our students and anyone else who would listen this week. We are not afraid. We are aware. Now, as before and always, we gather at the synagogue to celebrate, to congregate, and to dedicate ourselves to the ideals and joys of being Jewish.
To remember and honor Lori Gilbert-Kaye who lost her life so needlessly, and all in Poway and our San Diego Jewish community who need healing, strength, and renewal, we must live the values we believe in. We must teach our children and practice in our community respect and dignity toward all, and affirm the pride and goodness we cherish in our Jewish lives.
The ultimate vision of Passover is to see our world redeemed and at peace. After a week of matzah and meaning, this was our spiritual hope last Shabbat as our service ended and we walked across the Plaza from the Sanctuary to the Community Hall. Dreadful news disturbed our good mood. We turned to each other for strength and comfort. We also promised to remain hopeful.
This Shabbat we reclaim that hope, the love and peace Shabbat is about. I came into this next Shabbat with mixed feelings. Thank you for being here to express what you are feeling. To study Torah. To sing and pray. To think about our world, and most importantly, to be together.
Shabbat Shalom.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

holocaust Memorial wall dedication

May 2, 2019 | Yom HaShoah 5779
In 2018 there were 1,879 acts of anti-Semitism in the United States. 249 of them carried out by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other like-minded extremists. It’s an upsetting statistic. We take notice. We are not afraid. We must be aware.
I learn this attitude from the many Holocaust survivors I have been privileged to know. Their lives and their legacies urge us. It is crucial that we remember and teach. It is critical that we protect and defend. But, it is also vital that our communal dialogue not be about hate and security.
We must speak together and to others about dignity and goodness. We are not Jewish because they hate us. We are Jewish because we love the Eternal our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might.
On your behalf, I sent a letter of care and support to Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein and Chabad of Poway. In it I wrote, “Your trust in God, resilience, and courage in the face of this great evil inspire all of us to embrace and honor the imperatives and ideals of Jewish tradition.”
Our cherished survivors came through much more than the cruelty and inhumanity of World War II. They survived and live true to the values and sensibilities of their natures. It is simply an amazing testimony to all survivors, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, that their post war lives embrace genuine goodness and purpose in response to unparalleled evil.
Recognizing this, standing before this Holocaust Memorial Wall, I am concerned. We cannot ever let go of the survivor generation’s courage and resilience, or their commitment to life and goodness. From so many different walks of life, survivors tell us about the power and promise of redemption. We cannot ever let this go.
Ours is a time and moment when we require people of character around us. We need people who knowing the truth about human nature’s horror and beauty can teach the rest of us how to build personal lives of love, hope, and achievement.
At this commemoration of Yom HaShoah, I ask you. Where do the character and resilience demonstrated by so many survivors come from? How do we give our children today, raised and living in a completely different circumstance, the gift of identifying and promoting goodness in their lives?
Goodness must become what we expect. A goal we strive to achieve for all people. Being good is a commitment that takes root in a person’s mind, heart, and soul. Just as I said before. We are Jewish because we love the Eternal our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might.
Survivors respond to unspeakable evil, consciously or sub-consciously, by urging us to do good. Memory of the Holocaust demands we build the world those who perished didn’t know. We best remember the Shoah through awareness of life’s gifts and intensely holding to life’s blessings. We best honor the memories of those whom the Nazi’s murdered by demonstrating the courage and character of our best convictions.
Fortunate today to live in relative comfort, and somewhat self-absorbed, I ask us to consider. What gives our children and us the will to strive toward dignity and goodness?
My hope for this poignant Holocaust Memorial Wall is that our seeing it and understanding it inspires us to answer this question. I pray this memorial help us to remember, to teach, and to speak together and to others about dignity and goodness.
Goodness is a choice. A choice we must make repeatedly, constantly, as we consciously move from moment to moment, situation to situation. Here and now, we must choose to forge a better world than the one in which all those whom we remember this evening lost their lives.
We can wallow in the depths of human cruelty and shake our heads in despair as we monitor current events that continually demonstrate inhumanity and sow fear. We can talk about hate and security.
Or, like the survivors we cherish and the message of this beautiful Holocaust Memorial Wall, we can reject history’s pattern and with all of our hearts, souls, and might affirm the possibility and necessity of goodness for ourselves, for our families, and for our world. For in life, truly, this the only way any one of us survives and thrives.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

mitzvah isn't a choice

Shabbat Tzav | March 23, 2019
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, once hired a wagon driver to take him to a nearby town. The two men soon passed by a field filled with luscious produce.
The driver stopped the wagon, turned to the Baal Shem Tov, whose identity he did not know, and said, “I'm going to get us some good vegetables from that field. You be the lookout. Call out if you see anybody coming.”
As the driver bent down to pick up some vegetables, the Baal Shem Tov screamed, “We're seen! We're seen!”
The frightened man ran back to the wagon and raced away. After traveling a short distance, he turned around and saw no one behind them.
“Why did you call out like that?” he angrily castigated the rabbi. “There was nobody watching.”
As we focus on the challenges and opportunities of Jewish life today, some of us have been asking if anybody is watching. The question on our mind is this. What are the necessary life skills can we observe in others or identify about ourselves for living Jewish values?
In addition to knowledge and know how. What emotional or spiritual insight? What inner strength or self-awareness? What belief or conviction? What disposition or temperament? Which of these - or what other elements - lead to the concrete demonstration of personal and group value concepts? Do our public behaviors reflect our personal ideals? Can they?
Giving Tzedakah is important to me. What compels me to do so? Eating matzah instead of bread on Passover is part of my tradition. What motivates my choice? Helping someone in need is the right thing to do. Why do I inconvenience myself on behalf of someone else?
I know I shouldn’t spread gossip. What prevents me from spreading a rumor I heard? Human dignity matters to me. What inspires my respect of others? I want to be kind. What keeps my less than kind impulses in check?
Is it altruism? Is it conscience? Is it belief in God? Some or all of that. Depends on each one of us. Depends who we’re watching. What is it?
This evening on our way home from Emily’s Bat Mitzvah celebration, or wherever we may be, let’s imagine two of us come across a person who asks for a few dollars of assistance. You smile. You reach into your pocket. You voluntarily and cheerfully give a few dollars and feel good about your gesture. I kvetch. I mumble my aggravation. Then, out of a sense of obligation, I too reach into my pocket and begrudgingly give a few dollars.
Would someone watching us think one of our actions is better than the other’s? Is it better to give cheerfully or resentfully? To use popular Jewish language. Which one of us actually did a mitzvah? According to Talmudic tradition, “One who feels commanded and acts is greater than one who acts but does not feel commanded.”
It’s a concept rooted in Torah. As Moses declares to the people. “This is what the Eternal God has commanded to be done.” As Rashi explains, Moses acts to ordain the Kohanim and lead the people in response to God. Not for his own reputation.
Religiously, that’s precisely what we mean by “doing a mitzvah.” A mitzvah is an act making real our individual and communal conceptions of God. A mitzvah is a consequential act. One that matters and has impact. Mitzvah reflects meaning and hope rather than cynicism and emptiness. We are set apart as a people through God’s commandments. Mitzvot are a path to sacredness and life purpose.
Many of us do all kinds of mitzvot. We encourage and teach our children and grandchildren to do mitzvot. Here’s something different for us to consider. It’s not a mitzvah if it’s a choice. Lots of people choose to do many very good things. Jewish values and the Jewish people aren’t alone in doing good deeds and advocating for goodness.
We are unique in calling for the performance of mitzvot. Imperatives that define Judaism’s spiritual content. Ethical behavior and ritual practice are distinctively Jewish acts when they are our intuited, individual and shared, personal and communal responses to something beyond our own thoughts and preferences. A mitzvah is a response to an imperative. To a call from beyond our own instincts and inclinations.
A mitzvah is a response to life not found elsewhere in society. It is well and good to perform good deeds. But, good deeds are universal acts of caring and compassion. They certainly are not the exclusive domains of any religious traditions. No matter how central a tenant and teaching.
Yes, it’s always nice when my instinct and desire coincides with what I feel called upon to do. But, as we well understand, that’s not always the case. Which is why the Talmud sets out a rule. To be a mitzvah the action must be accompanied by the intention that it is so. “Mitzvot tzrikhot kavanah.”
Sitting here this morning and listening to the Torah reading isn’t a mitzvah if I don’t sit here with the intention to listen. If I just happen to be here and coincidentally I hear people read Torah, that’s nice. It’s not a mitzvah. The same thing is true of tzedakah. Giving because I want to isn’t doing a mitzvah. Giving because I believe in some inspiration or motivation to give beyond my desire, which is always nice, is what makes my giving a mitzvah.
What are the necessary life skills can we observe in others or identify about ourselves for living Jewish values? In addition to knowledge and know how. What inner strength or self-awareness lead us enact the values we hold most dear?
When that wagon driver asked the Baal Shem Tov who was watching, the rabbi taught him this moral lesson. “Know what is above you: a Seeing Eye, a Hearing Ear, and that your deeds leave a record.”
How many of us here have said something harsh to someone we love or to someone we don’t know very well? Did we think no one was actually listening?
How many times have we mocked someone else? Did we think no one was watching?
Who have we judged unfairly based on their appearance or our perception of their usefulness? Did we think they weren’t recording our attitude in their broken heart?
Unless we’re by ourselves, someone is always paying attention to what we say and do. Even when alone, it would be wise for us to pay attention to ourselves.
“Know what is above you: a Seeing Eye, a Hearing Ear…”
The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav interprets this moral text this way. “Seeing eyes: let your eyes see your conduct. Hearing ears: let your ears hear words of admonition.” Then he adds the answer to our quest. In others and ourselves what we’re looking for is “an understanding heart.” May our hearts understand our true purposes and intentions.”
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

workism & judaism

Shabbat Pekudei | March 9, 2019
A recent article I read in The Atlantic gnaws at me. The author, Derek Thompson, observes that “work is not life’s product, but its currency. What we choose to buy with it is the ultimate project of living.”
Like many of you, I spend a significant number of hours working. I love what I do and the multi-faceted aspects of my rabbinic career. I’m challenged and delighted by the opportunities of each day, by the people I meet and bond with, and by the service I strive to provide. My studying and teaching, along with my efforts to facilitate Jewish life through synagogue community, are important to me. Yet, after all these years, I’m not sure I know what I’ve bought with my work earned currency.
I’m more than my career or position. Many avocations and interests capture my attention. I deeply enjoy the time I spend with family and friends, the time I spend travelling where and doing what I can. The larger world beyond Congregation Beth El beckons and engages me. Substitute my work or profession for yours, and I imagine you agree for yourself and the experience of your life.
You and I may be adherents of what Thompson describes as workism. “Workism is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.” We work for our livings today not only to support ourselves and our loved ones, or even to achieve status, but to find meaning for our existence.
I want us to be all about meaning even as we push ourselves toward accomplishment and attainment. Which in the article I read happens to be a symptom of workism.
Meaning in life results from how we see ourselves and our role in the world. Albert Einstein wrote. “The person who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy, but hardly fit for life.”
To be fit for life is to be able to see every experience through the lens of its potential meaning. To be able to look at what happens or what we do and see significance in the moment. Meaning results from being in or being at a moment that leaves you with an enduring memory or enables you a sense of personal purpose.
Viktor Frankl, the famous psychologist who survived Auschwitz observes the same thing in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. “What matters,” he writes, “is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
Think about these questions. If you didn’t, or you don’t, have to work to live (rather than live to work if that is or was your calling) how would you, or do you, use your time? What activities do you engage in that produce enduring memories or a sense of purpose?
At the conclusion of the Book of Exodus our Israelite ancestors are involved in a building project to create their portable tabernacle, the Mishkan. When Moses is ready to inspect their work and dedicate the Mishkan for use, we read, “Just as the Eternal God had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work (avodah). And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (m’lakhah), as the Eternal God commanded, so they had done, Moses blessed them.”
The Torah uses two different Hebrew words to describe the Israelites’ efforts. The first phrase reads, “so the Israelites had one all the work-avodah.” The second phrase changes the word for work, “they had performed all the tasks-m’lakhah.”
An early 17th century rabbi from Prague known as the K’li Yakar explains the use of two different words. Avodah is work or service we do at the behest of someone else. M’lakhah is creative effort we enact of our own design or initiative.
In other words, there’s a difference between the work we have to do in order to sustain our lives and the work we do in order to find fulfillment for ourselves. The K’li Yakar is describing an ancient form of workism. M’lakhah is the work we do to find meaning for our existence.
M’lakhah is best defined as “creative endeavor.” We derive it from the same Hebrew root used to describe how God created the world. “On the seventh day God finished the work-m’lakhah of making the world.”
What is your m’lakhah? What creative effort reflects your unique, and possibly enduring, gift to others, to community or society, to life?
It’s a bit ironic, actually. M’lakhah is the form of work we are taught to abstain from on Shabbat. On Shabbat we try not to change the world through our creative acts and activities. Why? Shabbat is a day to celebrate what is and what has already been created. A day to be in and of the world and all of its splendor. Resting from and reflecting about our own creative endeavors for just a little while each week.
On Shabbat we derive meaning from the memory of our weekly strivings by celebrating what we’ve already done or completed. We sense our purpose and anticipate a better world aware of what work still awaits us to be done.
Shabbat, writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” Shabbat “is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
Maybe this is the ultimate project of living. To be in and of the world, spending our work earned currency at every chance to truly appreciate the gift and beauty of our lives, the meanings we apprehend, the ideals we cherish, and the people and community we hold dear.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

wisdom of the heart

Shabbat Vayakhel | March 2, 2019
Here’s a brief autobiographical moment. When I was an undergraduate in college my major was Political Studies. One of my professors was aligned with Congressman Jim Wright of Texas. My professor was working on a strategy to help Congressman Wright’s campaign to become the Majority Leader in the House of Representatives.
For a course project and hands on political experience, my professor invited a couple of my classmates and me to work with him on the strategy. We were successful. In 1976 Congressman Wright narrowly won the election by one vote, which put him in position just over a decade later to succeed Tip O’Neil as Speaker of the House.
In 1988, Speaker Wright faced an ethics investigation after which he became the first House Speaker in history to resign his position. A few weeks later he resigned from congress. At that point, I was happily being a rabbi up the coast in Rancho Palos Verdes. Mr. Wright’s minor fundraising scandal and embarrassment reinforced for me the choice I made to enter the rabbinate rather than pursue some sort of career in politics, which less and less these days remains for me an avocation.
I don’t want to sound naïve to any of you. Nor am I a Pollyanna in my understandings of realpolitik. But I’ve never forgotten “The Politics of Aristotle,” which asks, “Is the goodness of those who rule the same as the goodness of those who are ruled?” In his discussion, which explores social class and the nature of the soul, Aristotle concludes, “The ruler must possess moral goodness in its full and perfect form.”
Since my lens on the world runs through Torah, I can’t help but wonder why we can’t reclaim some minimalist, basic standards of character or goodness in those we choose for public service. I’m not addressing any leader’s skills, talents, or political acumen. I’m not reflecting on any policies with which I agree or disagree.
To be honest, I’m speaking of character in the shadow of an Israeli Prime Minister under indictment and an American president under suspicion. I have to tell you, l tried not to go here this morning. I just can’t help myself.
With the help of this week’s Torah portion, I want to tell you what I think is missing in our political culture and society today. We don’t lack from relevant knowledge or information. We don’t lack from data, either. We don’t lack from opinions and perspectives born of experience and bias. We don’t lack from opportunities to learn. We certainly don’t lack from the need to foster understanding and the renewal of covenants: the American pact of a shared national memory and destiny and our bonds as Jews with other Jews, and with God.
“The problem of humanity all over the civilized world is social and religious,” wrote Walt Whitman. “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States,” he observed in 1871. I’m well aware. None of this is new. That doesn’t make it right.
Writing after the Civil War, it was Whitman’s hope that the nation would bind its wounds and come together. But during Reconstruction the country still confronted corruption, division, and inequality. Today, we seek out how to end our civil war of words and attitudes. The divides are deep. No single answer effective.
Even so, we’re missing a key ingredient to moving forward, or reclaiming the romantic memory of a more cohesive past. Instead of compassion we express cynicism. Instead of reconciliation , we seek retribution. What’s missing is what you and I know as Hokhmah, wisdom. Hokhmah is a quality of insight and understanding beyond the information and opinion we bring to our discussions and relationships.
A man complained about his son to the Ba’al Shem Tov. The man claimed that his son had abandoned God. “What shall I do?” asked the man of the great teacher. The Ba’al Shem Tov replied with Hokhmah, wisdom. “Love him more than ever.”
Torah introduces us to this particular kind of Hokhmah. Let’s explore.
“And let all among you who are skilled [hakham lev- wise of heart] come and make all that the Eternal has commanded.” As the artisans create the materials and furnishings of the Mishkan, the trait Moses seeks has a character more than skill. Moses seeks wisdom of the heart, a know-how of purpose, not only proficiency.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva in late 19th century Russia, known as Ha’amek Davar, “delve into the matter,” teaches. “All those who are wise in heart includes not only scholars and artisans but everyone whose heart inclines toward God. If they would come to participate in the making of the Tabernacle, God would assist them even if they had never learned a skilled craft prior to this.” As one midrash reminds us. “God looks at a person’s heart before God looks at a person’s brains.”
Maimonides goes further, teaching that Hokhmah, wisdom is humanity’s purpose. Elaborating, the Rambam tells us that wisdom of the heart is knowledge of truths leading to God. Wisdom of the heart represents a sense of values, goodness, and moral character. Wisdom of the heart is what’s missing in the culture around us. It’s what Walt Whitman sought and we require.
Wisdom of the heart emerges from experience and knowledge. It suggests caring, compassion, and a spiritual sense that living is about more than what I think and desire. Living with others means thinking about what’s best for we, not only for me. Wisdom of the heart is about empathy. Wisdom of the heart bids us to see in others something of ourselves. “Wisdom is the spirit of human love,” teaches the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon.
Taught the Mezeritzer Rabbi: “Wisdom is God’s power in action; for without it everything is but theory.” This is what’s missing in our society today. More than theories and ideologies, in addition to relevant knowledge or information, beyond our opinions and perspectives, we need to speak the wisdom of our hearts in the course of our everyday conversations, debates, and relations.
Actually, in this space every day we reflect on our need for wisdom of the heart in our prayer. “Allow our hearts to understand and discern; to hear, study, and teach; to observe, fulfill, and perform with love all the teachings of Torah.”
We need to give each other the insights, sentiments, and thoughts of our hearts, not only our minds. For Aristotle’s question still hovers over us. “Is the goodness of those who rule the same as the goodness of those who are ruled?”
Or as the Psalmist sings: “Teach us to use all our days that we may attain hearts of wisdom.”
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Anti-Semitism as idolatry

Shabbat Ki Tisa | February 23, 2019
For obvious and correct reasons, we in Jewish life are focused on anti-Semitic statements and action. More so than in the recent past. We even have a somewhat new vocabulary for it. Today we talk about anti-Semitic tropes. Something different, to be sure, from our usual following of the Torah tropes as we read and study each Shabbat.
In short, tropes are phrases or images that evoke classic anti-Semitic ideas rather than state them explicitly. Recently, when freshman Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar complained about AIPAC she invoked age-old stereotypes of Jewish power and control. To which came this response, “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters” are deeply offensive.
Intentional or not, users employ tropes as codes hoping to avoid the direct charge of anti-Semitism. Though it is possible to partake of a trope without meaning to, and occasionally we hear anti-Semitic intent where none is intended, most of the time we are aware and alarmed that anti-Semitic themes are creeping anew into our social and political discourse.
These days in our country we’re monitoring two types of anti-Semitic tropes calling out around us. One uses criticism of Israel and questions Israel’s legitimacy as its tool to undermine Jewish history and identity. The other blames we who are Jews for our nation’s challenges with immigration policy and changing demographic trends.
Overseas, we take pause, as well. We hear the Prime Minister of France Édouard Philippe, in the context of a rally opposing anti-Semitism, say in Parliament, “Anti-Semitism is profoundly rooted in French society. It takes incredibly varied forms.” It is difficult to fight anti-Semitism in France, he admits. “We’re going to do it with humility as to the impact.”
Humility isn’t exactly the best attitude to adopt in opposition to hatred. Humility is for us however, a way into understanding something different about what anti-Semitism is, and perhaps, how to react to it.
I learn this from Scott Shay, Chairman and co-Founder of Signature Bank of New York. In a recent article he explains, “Anti-Semitism is about power. It is distinct from other prejudices by its obsession with perceived malevolent Jewish power and by its pervasiveness among disparate societies, political and ideological groups, and eras.”
To set a context for this definition, first we turn to a most difficult moment for the Children of Israel during their wilderness journey to the Land of Israel. After creating the Golden Calf and incurring God’s wrath for their idolatrous sin, the Israelites watch Moses return atop Mt. Sinai to receive a second set of tablets further defining and refining God’s covenant with Israel. Moses records God’s attributes like compassion and kindness. Attributes not possible for inanimate false deities. God declares, “I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will work such wonders as have not been wrought on all the earth or in any nation.” Following the Golden Calf, Israel is sure to appreciate God’s actuality.
Next comes the key reminder. “You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.” Ibn Ezra explains: “All idolatry is prohibited, even in a case like the Golden Calf, through which they intended to worship God.”
At its most basic, idolatry is reverence for a false god. Idolatry is worshipping an icon, item, or interest as if it were God. Rabbinic tradition labels idolatry as “avodah zarah - foreign or strange worship.”
A Talmudic tale. Philosophers once asked the rabbis in Rome, “If your God does not want idolatry to exist, why doesn’t God eradicate it?” The sages replied, “God would if people worshipped things that were of no importance, but they worship the sun, moon, stars, and planets. Should God destroy the universe because of fools? The world pursues its natural course, and those who act wrongly will have to account for their actions.
Scott Shay writes this about idolatry. “Idolatry is the process of attributing superior and inexplicable power and authority to finite people, animals and natural processes. Since finite beings are limited by nature, which also limits all forms of power, idolatry is by definition a lie.
Since no person is or can ever be divine; no person can ever have power or authority beyond nature. The Torah mandates us to treat each other equally. Justice is the opposite of malevolent power. Idolatry destroys the conceptual foundations of justice.
“Yet this lie is the basis for so much human injustice.”
“Anti-Semitism” Mr. Shay claims, “is the projection of idolatry onto Jews. Anti-Semites are people who themselves harbor projects of domination and exploitation, but who fearing to be exposed, project their own malevolent intentions onto Jews.”
What did the Charlottesville marchers chant back on August 12, 2017? “Jews won’t replace us.” An anti-Semitic trope reflecting the prejudicial, idolatrous belief of white supremacists.
“By accusing Jews of malevolent and demonic control over organs of power (media, Congress, banks, etc.) true idolaters (whatever their specific ideology) project their own onto the Jews and thereby maintain their own delusions. Every idolater fears that their lies about power could be exposed. Yet since they refuse to reject their own injustice and lies, idolaters must eliminate the Jews.”
If anti-Semitism, by this definition, is the projection by haters of idolatry onto Jews, in their eyes we represent their own evil intentions toward others, how do we react when we hear, see, or experience it?
We can employ our Torah tropes in response to their anti-Semitic tropes. What do I mean? Each cantillation note that guides how we recite every word of Torah in our public reading is part of a structure designed to tell our story with emphasis and emotion. Some trope notes bind images and ideas together. Others keep them separate.
For example, the Kadma – “proceed forward” note boldly binds one phrase to the next. The Azla – “go on” note confidently separates its partner word from what comes next. So…
First, it seems to me, we can proceed forward and boldly call out anti-Semitic tropes and voices for their true malevolent intentions.
Second, we can confidently go on to promote who and what we really are and believe, demonstrating in our lives and for our society God’s attributes of compassion and kindness.
Third, like an Etnahta – “a note of pause,” we can take a break from being upset to affirm, not with humility, and not with arrogance, but with justified pride that those who can’t grasp or don’t recognize the goodness and dignity Judaism empowers us to represent, promote, and uphold hate us. If our mere presence among them is so bothersome then we must actually represent something truly good and important.
Our monotheism informs our commitment to social justice and human dignity. Their idolatry, their insufficiency and insecurity, their anti-Semitic tropes, make them out to be fools who must be held accountable for their actions. As the Prophet Isaiah describes idolaters, “The makers of idols all work to no purpose; and the things they treasure can do no good.” But we can. No matter what others may say, do, or imply let us always be about and bring goodness into the world.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

seeing God


Shabbat Mishpatim | February 2, 2019
On the eve of the Super Bowl, I want to share with you a P’sak Halakhah, a Jewish legal ruling.
The Posek, a legal scholar opines that in an important playoff or championship game, should a referee crew declare a play mutar-permitted when players and fans see it as clearly being assur -forbidden, in other words when the referee doesn’t call an obvious penalty, even if the player’s action is clearly stated in the rule book, l’hathila, to be assur – forbidden, b’di-eved, after the fact, the call on the field stands and the fans may complain to the Av Beit Din, the league’s commissioner.
The proof text for this obscure ruling is derived from Chapter 19, verses 7 and 8 of the Book of Job, a text examining life’s unjust experiences. “I shout but can get no justice. He has blocked my way so I cannot pass. He has laid darkness upon my path.”
Gathered as we are in synagogue this morning, I want to point out certain similarities between attending a sports event and attending a religious service. Sporting events and religious occasions both have devotional vocabularies, using words like loyalty and commitment, community and team. Both use rituals and ceremonies. We wear special garb and recite various chants in unison. In both settings we share in moments of celebration and consolation.
Social psychologists point out that fans are committed to their teams in a way that helps them focus beyond themselves and gives a sense of meaning to their lives. We can say the very same about what we’re doing here in this sanctuary on Shabbat.
In addition, sports spectatorship can be a transformative experience through which fans connect their lives to a larger cause or pursuit, something beyond the scope of their daily efforts. Something we certainly affirm as a purpose of demonstrating our values and ideals through Jewish religious activity and affirmations of Jewish peoplehood.
There is, however, one very big difference between attending a game and participating in a synagogue service. In the stadium, we’re the spectators. In here, you and I are the ones on the field. Loosely stated, we’re playing the game.
Leaving any further discussion of sports and the Super Bowl to tomorrow, I want to explore a bit of Jewish theology with you this morning. (I began with the sports talk as a way to invite you to join me on the field.)
In a remarkable and mysterious scene at Mt. Sinai God calls Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu (two of Aaron’s sons) and seventy elders from among the people to ascend and draw nearer to God’s presence.
Here’s what the Torah tells us. “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw, Elohei Yisrael, the God of Israel: under God’s feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet God did not raise God’s hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.”
I have many questions about these three verses. You probably do, too.
What does it mean to see God? Why would God be angry with these men, after all didn’t God call them up? How are we to understand what’s happening here? What religious insight can we infer from this for ourselves?
Let’s consider a few possible answers. Professor Richard Elliott Friedman suggests that this scene “is arguably the culminating moment of human history since Adam and Eve in this narrative, and it is as mysterious as anything in the Bible.” It is never repeated, he claims, and ultimately understood only by those who experienced it.
Maimonides maintains that “seeing” God refers not to perception by the senses but to perception by the intellect. To see means to understand. (Though I like Maimonides’ rational instinct, I’m not sure it’s fair to what the text is describing.)
Other medieval commentators equate this vision to those described by so many of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Rashi believes the vision was of history, the sapphire symbolizing God’s radiant joy at Israel’s freedom.
Umberto Cassuto, a great modern scholar of the Bible, finds the description of seeing God at first surprising, “for expressions so corporeal are uncommon in the Torah.” But, he notes, there is not “reference to the likeness itself that they saw, but only to what they saw beneath God’s feet.”
What does it mean to see God? I believe that recorded here is a religiously imaginative form of memory. A memory our ancestors want to transmit to us. A truth about God and humanity they hope we’ll consider.
If you felt yourself to be in God’s presence, how would you describe it to the rest of us? Can any of us look back on a unique experience in our lives and today claim we saw God?
I cannot. I have not seen God. Have any of you? What I have seen are incredible reflections of God in the world. I have seen people’s courage and determination. I have heard their cries and laughter. I have felt their fears and pride. I have sensed their relief and resilience. I have witnessed the compassion and support people offer each other. I have beheld the impact on so many people of nature’s wonder and wrath. I have known life’s deepest pains and greatest joys. I have seen it all, but I have not seen God.
Or as the Prophet Ezekiel describes in his vision of God, I have seen “the appearance of the semblance of the glory of God.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches we do not see God. “Long before we attain any knowledge about God’s essence, we possess an intuition of a Divine presence.” In other words, we perceive God’s mystery in the experiences and relationships of our lives. Only from “an intuition of God’s presence” can we come to “an understanding of God’s essence.”
A spiritual essence, God’s is not a physical existence. You and I were not with Moses and the others atop Mt. Sinai. We can’t affirm their vision. What we can recognize is the mystery they seek to comprehend and the meaning they hope we’ll also apprehend.
You see, when we speak about God, we’re actually talking about ourselves. We impose on God the images and concepts we need in order to find meaning in and define purpose out of the experiences of our lives.
There is literally nothing we can say for certain about God. We develop our ideas about God in contrast to what we know about ourselves. We are physical. God is incorporeal, spiritual. We are finite. God is eternal.
I believe that life’s mystery is God’s reality. I find God within the workings of the world, innate to our experiences, not beyond them. God is intrinsic to our being, within our lives and not external to them, God grants our world and each one of us the resources, talents, and gifts to survive and, hopefully, to thrive.
Those of us who watch tomorrow’s Super Bowl will enjoy a few hours of entertainment. If our team wins, we’ll feel good. If they lose, we’ll be frustrated. But win or lose our lives will go on unchanged. We’re just spectators.
Yet, in so many other endeavors as players on the field of life, when we respond to each other, when we are present to the opportunities and challenges we meet, we may actually see, or at least intuit, incredible reflections of God every day.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Standing at sinai and in Washington DC


Shabbat Yitro 5779| January 26, 2019
The scene is very confusing. At first, and even in hindsight, no one is sure what to make of it. A large crowd gathers. There’s great noise and commotion. Drums beat and instruments play. Shouts are heard coming from all sides. It’s a mixed multitude of people. Standing in close proximity, perhaps afraid, they are actually far apart. Witnesses to the event debate and wonder what happened and what it means.
You decide. Am I describing the scene at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. a week ago Friday? The standoff between students from Covington High School in Kentucky and a Native American elder which has received lots of media attention as understanding what happened is reviewed and revised.
Or am I describing the scene of revelation as Moses and the Children of Israel stand at the base of Mt. Sinai to receive Torah? They have prepared themselves carefully. It is the third day. Moses pronounces the first report of revelation, the Ten Commandments. The Torah continues. “And all the people saw the thunder and lightning, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they moved back, and stood at a distance.
Or am I describing both episodes, each one telling a very different story.
The revelation at Mt. Sinai is a dramatic and enduring a Biblical narrative. It conveys the impression of an event beyond all norms. Like an impressionist painting, the text depicts a mood, an atmosphere rather than a clear image, something taking place like never before or since. Accompanied by “thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.”
The incident in Washington D.C. is a symptom of these contentious days. Initially, what happened at the Lincoln Memorial seemed clear to the pundits. Some high school students were mocking a Native American elder. Then video footage emerged showing a fuller picture of the confrontation. There was a different group taunting the students who started chanting in response, resulting in an awkward standoff. As one observer notes, “the students don’t look great, but neither do any of the adults involved.”
The scene at the Lincoln Memorial is about people standing their ground rather than seeking any type of common ground with different individuals.
The scene at Mt. Sinai is about unifying a newly freed people around a shared vision that makes space for different individuals.
Lefi kohan shel kol ehad v’ehad - The Divine word spoke to each and every person according to his or her particular capacity,” teaches Rabbi Yosi ben Hanina.
We stood earlier while reading the Ten Commandments. We did so to symbolize the drama of revelation. We did so to honor the religious imagination of Jewish tradition. “The souls of all Israelites yet to be born were actually present at Mt. Sinai.” We are aware that what we heard this morning is not an accurate, factual account of what happened. We stood to transmit again the enduring impression of a sacred memory, a defining memory of Jewish identity and purpose.
To my mind, the most challenging part of the whole scene is that moment when Moses finishes speaking. “And all the people saw the thunder and lightning, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they moved back, and stood at a distance.
At the moment of revelation, the magnificent moment of contact between God and humanity, the people step back. Why? It doesn’t seem so unusual. After all, who among us can imagine such a frightening and unique experience? Thunder, lightning, smoke, kol shofar, and God’s warning not to touch the mountain. The people were afraid. They moved back.
Ibn Ezra underlines the fear: “A sound of the shofar the likes of which has never been heard!”
The people instruct Moses to speak to God for them and for God to them. Yet Moses, aware of the people’s fear attempts to calm them. “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, God has come only in order to test you.”
Rashi suggests that we shouldn’t translate the word nasot as test. Instead we should read it as a term describing greatness, derived from the word nes, meaning sign or wonder. In Rashi’s view, Moses’ effort to calm an anxious people is an effort to instill pride and a sense of Divine worth among them. Perhaps such confidence can encourage their coming closer to God.
Ramban, Nahmonides, disagrees with Rashi. Ramban writes that God’s extraordinary appearance at Mt. Sinai is designed to produce Yirat Shamayim, a positive and reverent awe of God rather than the fear Moses himself understands. As Moses tells the people, “in order that the fear of God may be ever with you so that you do not sin.” But the people maintain their distance, along with the promise to obey, and Moses alone comes close.
By stepping back, the people of Israel become witnesses to revelation. Witnesses explain what they saw.
The distance between God and Israel that occurred at Sinai allows we who are the Jewish people, throughout our history, to live a collective life testifying to the promise and meaning of revelation. “Atem edai. You are My witnesses, declares the Eternal God,” through the Prophet Isaiah.
By stepping back, the people of Israel gain some perspective. They seek to understand their experience and to learn from it for their future.
Judaism emerges from real events and ideal visions acting upon each other and revealed anew in every generation. You and I are heirs to it all, to the accumulated interpretations and insights of Jewish tradition. Our opportunity is to step closer to the mountain, closer to God’s presence, and closer to embracing the imperatives and privileges of Torah.
The Ten Commandments divide into two sets of five. The first five are uniquely Jewish affirmations to acknowledge God who redeemed us from Egypt, to honor Shabbat and our parents so we may live well in the land of Israel and beyond.
The second five feature universal moral prohibitions, behaviors all people must not do. They are direct and clear. Do not commit murder or adultery. Don’t steal or bear false witness. Do not covet what is your neighbors’. The message is simple, if not easy.
Live and let live. Be content in who you are and what you have. As you live in society with others never strive to improve yourself and your lot by overreaching and causing someone else harm or indignity. Don’t be responsible for anything less than your best behavior toward others. This is the lasting message and memory of the scene at Mt. Sinai.
May it also become the perspective gained from what took place at the Lincoln Memorial. Instead of distrust toward others, justifications for callousness, accusations of media bias, and finger pointing, let us reclaim the American revelation of “liberty and justice for all.”
May you and I help our families, friends, and neighbors to see ourselves as a nation of disparate individuals and groupings who stand together on common ground at the hallowed places of American memories, and everywhere else.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

come together

Shabbat Bo | January 12, 2019
We the Jewish people are born into freedom and the future in the Torah text of this Shabbat. “And it was, on that very day, the Eternal God freed the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage by their masses.”
Ramban explains the people went out of Egypt together, each group part of the whole. The Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai explains the Jewish people didn’t leave Egypt in a chaotic manner, rather they left with ceremony and order. (Possibly the one time in all of Jewish history!)
We begin as one people, moving into the future all together, organized according to our types and our sub-groups. From the very beginning our unity as a people reflects our diversity as people of different stations in life.
The name of today’s Torah portion is Bo. It’s a Hebrew word that means to come and to go. When God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh, God says, “Bo.” When I ask you to come close to me, I say, “Bo” come near.
Born into freedom and the future as a whole people comprised of many parts, we can approach the reality and relationship between American and Israeli Jews today the same way. We can draw nearer to one another and maintain our bonds or we can send each other out into the world to go our separate ways. I argue for Bo as drawing near, coming together, rather than growing apart.
I don’t agree with a current popular narrative that sees a break between American and Israeli Jews. As Jonathan Weisman recently described it in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, “There are roughly 6.5 million Jews in Israel. There are roughly 5.7 Jews in America. Increasingly, they see the world in starkly different ways. The Great Schism is upon us.”
Dr. Gil Troy and Natan Scharansky describe it this way. “Many American Jews wince when they think or talk about Israel, and many Israelis wince when they think or talk about American Jewry. Many on both sides feel insulted and disrespected.” They suggest we are living through an era of bad feelings feeding pessimism about any prospect of a shared Jewish future. I think it’s exaggerated.
I recognize the tensions. I don’t accept the premise. Intense debate and disagreement, which ironically are a reflection of mutual care and concern, certainly. Are we at the point of an actual break? No.
Remember, this is the only time when Jews have ever lived in a free and dynamic Diaspora coexisting with a free and dynamic, and sovereign, Jewish state. This is something new for us to work through and figure out.
Especially now because we are living two different realities both highly influenced by political trends. Our disputes take place at a time when partisan political positions impact other aspects of our lives and identities. Much more than used to be the case.
A recent Stanford University study finds dearer than racial, cultural, and religious heritage to many of us, our strongest personal attachments are connections to political parties. And the strength of these partisan bonds amplifies the level of political polarization in the United States, and I would claim, in Israel, and between the Jews of America and Israel. We’re arguing politics, even policies, not the precious truth of Jewish peoplehood.
“Partyism,” as the researchers label it, is a choice, unlike most other personal identifiers like race, religion, and ethnicity. Today there are few, if any, constraints on the expression of hostility toward people who hold to opposing political ideologies. Unlike the still assumed socially proper conduct expected toward people of different walks of life.
So, if possible, think with me about American Jews and Israelis outside of a partisan political context.
We Diaspora Jews use religion and religious values to navigate Jewish identity. What makes Jewish life in the Diaspora both compelling and challenging for us is the struggle to sustain Jewish distinctiveness in the marketplace of American choice. Secular and religious, we are Americans and Jews, not one or the other.
Israeli Jews use national identity to define their Jewish status. What makes Jewish life in Israel both compelling and challenging is the struggle to define the role Judaism and Jewish values play in Israeli society. Secular and religious, Israeli Jews are all citizens of the Jewish state.
Israelis, responding to the existential threats on their borders and the venom hurled at them within international discourse, understandably turn more inward and defensive to express strength, purpose, and confidence in their national identity and cohesion.
We American Jews respond to the comfort of America freely self-selecting for ourselves Jewish meanings or connections, if any. Though warier of anti-Semitism right now than in the recent past, it has always been a vision of American Jews to thrive in and contribute to the mainstream of American society. Opportunities denied Diaspora Jews in most other countries throughout Jewish history.
Therefore, we are wrong, in Israel and America, to define our nations’ ethos and mores by the partisan and particular whims and demands of any political leader or party and their self-righteous claims to indispensability. Both countries and both cultures have histories and destinies larger than the intense political and policy debates or personalities of this or any given moment.
Israelis ought not to see the universal sensitivities of American Jews as a rejection of Jewish peoplehood and pride in the Jewish state. Instead, Israelis ought to see these displays of liberal values as a quest for Jewish significance in a uniquely pluralistic and multi-cultural society.
And we American Jews need to recognize Israeli focus on Jewish particularism is not the totality of Israel’s national vision. As American Jews navigate the challenges of expressing Jewish identity and values in an open society, Israeli Jews seek to mitigate the challenges of sustaining Jewish identity in a democratic Jewish state built on the same western liberal values as America, but in a very different part of the world.
So, rather than speak of a schism or a divide between American and Israeli Jews, why can’t we seek to understand and appreciate our different and particular challenges, and then affirm the Jewish memories, origins, and ultimate destiny we share in common.
Note the law of observing Passover also taught in Torah this morning. In the years following the Exodus, when it comes time to bring the Passover offering, “kol adat Yisrael, the whole community of Israel shall offer it.” Our rabbis teach. Before the Exodus, anxiously anticipating deliverance, the offering was prepared separately family by family. After the Exodus, as a people born into freedom, we are responsible for coming together as a whole and holy people.
We American and Israeli Jews can draw nearer to one another, seek to understand each other, and maintain our bonds or we can send each other out into the world to go our separate ways. “Bo. Come near.” Even when our different perspectives and settings cause us tension, I hope we will strive harder to come together rather than grow apart.
© 2019 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

The shabbat after pittsburgh

Shabbat Haye Sarah | November 3, 2018



This is the next Shabbat, the Shabbat after the tragedy in Pittsburgh. This Shabbat, we remember and honor those who lost their lives so needlessly last Shabbat by being here in synagogue together.
We grieve for the victims and their families in Pittsburgh. We support one another as best we can. Because we are privileged to join in celebration and Jewish expression at Congregation Beth El, we have each other to turn to for strength as we try to make sense of this sad moment.
Upset by this tragedy, I found comfort this week in the outpouring of care and concern that came my way from family and friends all over the country, and here at Beth El. At first the expressions of worry and check in surprised me. Then I remembered the symbolic truth of all we share here and in every synagogue community. People sought reassurance for themselves during these sad days by connecting with routine and continuing synagogue activities.
Synagogues are where Jews gather. Synagogues represent Jews and Judaism to the larger world. Like last Shabbat, synagogues are sometimes the target when hatred is aimed at Jews. That’s why this Shabbat we need to be here together. Not only to reflect on what happened in Pittsburgh, but also to reclaim for the world the love and peace Shabbat is supposed to be about.
At weekly Shabbat services members of a synagogue family check in with one another. During Shabbat services we affirm our individual connection to the whole of the Jewish people. Sure, some of us come to pray. Others of us attend synagogue to read and study Torah. Yet, all of us can be present to one another. Each Shabbat, we reunite with each other. We step away from everywhere and everything else to affirm our bonds and our ideals. We join in celebrating the gift of our lives and to support each other. Thank you for showing up for Shabbat this morning.
Twenty-three years ago this week, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. A day or so later, I spoke at a community vigil devoted to his memory as community members reached out to each other and gathered for consolation and perspective. Just as many of us did this past Monday evening at Beth Israel.
A few of the words I spoke that night remain with me today. “Rhetoric matters,” I said. I spoke out against the hateful rhetoric of Rabin’s political opponents whose words inflamed fringe elements and a zealous adherent into action.
We must speak and conduct ourselves according to the highest ideals our Jewish tradition teaches in God’s name. The words we cherish reflecting God’s name ask us 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. We must 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 response to this tragedy we cannot be silent.
As we speak out, however, let’s not do what is routinely done these days. Let’s not politicize the deaths of 11 innocent souls in a synagogue last Shabbat. The Pittsburgh shooting was the crime of one individual, an act of hate, to be sure. It was an evil act motivated by the obvious and painful current of divisiveness and hatred around us.
Let’s not try to justify our political views one way or the other through this tragedy. The hysteria of public discourse is dehumanizing all of us. It only stops if we stop it. It only stops when we stop following hateful tweets. It only stops when we the people stop following the hate machine on social media. It only stops when we stop normalizing what is not normal. It only stops when we demand decency in civil discourse and determination in standing up against hatred and intolerance. It only stops when we act in these ways among our families, friends, and colleagues and insist everyone else do the same.
Anti-Semitism is the most durable and adaptable hatred in human history. Scholar Daniel Goldhagen explains, “Anti-Semitism’s reach is unparalleled, both historically and today.” Anti-Semitic words and deeds are based in the absurd view that Jews are of essence different from other people, and harmful to society.
Historian Paul Johnson describes anti-Semitism as an “intellectual disease, extremely infectious and massively destructive. It is a disease to which both human individuals and entire human societies are prone. What strikes this historian is its fundamental irrationality. Anti-Semites contradict themselves.” Jews will and won’t assimilate. They’re uncultured or they’re too cultured. Jews are lazy or they work too hard. Jews are capitalists or communists. They’re miserly or too generous. And the slurs go on.
Today, in particular, having achieved our own country in Israel and remaining a people dispersed among other nations, the white nationalist and globalist anti-Semitic memes that “inspired” the Tree of Life synagogue murderer are a new form of this confused, irrational ancient hate. Also new are the tools to spew this venom never available before this age of the Internet and Social Media.
Aware of all of this, we have to pay close attention, if we weren’t before. Remember what the attacker posted on-line. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in.”
When immigrants and strangers are demeaned in any society, including our own, which is wrong in and of itself, we Jews discover we too are seen as “the other.” Demagoguery against outsiders in America in 2017 led to a 57% increase in anti-Semitic acts, according to the ADL.
I said to our students this morning and throughout the week, while we must be aware of and understand what anti-Semitism is, and know that it is real, we must also know that Jews are among the most admired religious groups in American society. Jews are more welcome, more integrated, and more a part of American culture and community than anywhere else at any time in history.
In addition, I have a slightly cynical reaction to the anti-Semitism and hate we witnessed this week. I, for one, am proud those who can’t grasp or don’t recognize the goodness and dignity Judaism empowers us to represent, promote, and uphold hate me. If my mere presence among them is so bothersome then I must actually represent something truly good and important. They, the hate mongers of our world, are the lost and forlorn. Not us.
Today in synagogue we affirm who we really are. We are the Jewish people, and many other people, who cherish life’s gifts and blessings. We inherit a tradition that stands for human dignity and equality, freedom and goodness. We are heirs to standards of personal ethics and celebrations marking the seasons and milestones of our lives. That’s who we are, and that’s what we must all represent to the world at large, responsible people who teach, model, expect, and live goodness. A compelling reason we gather each week to observe and cherish Shabbat.
To remember and honor those who lost their lives so needlessly, and all who need healing, strength, and renewal, we must live these values we believe in. We must teach our children and practice in our community respect and dignity toward all, and affirm the pride and goodness we cherish in our Jewish lives. “It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it and all who hold onto it are blessed.”
This Shabbat we reflect on what happened in Pittsburgh and reclaim for the world the love and peace Shabbat is supposed to be about. Thank you for showing up for Shabbat this morning to study Torah, to sing and pray, to think about our world, and most importantly, to be together.
We pray the memories of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger endure beyond the bonds of their loved ones and community. We pray their memories touch us with love and compassion stirring us to affirm the glory and hopes of the Jewish people in our own lives and synagogue community.
May their souls be bound up in the bonds of the on-going life of the Jewish people. May they rest in honor and peace. May God embrace their souls and may all who remember them sustain their love. Amen.
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

talk about god

Shabbat Lekh Lekha | October 20, 2018
An opinion piece in the last Sunday’s New York Times caught my attention. “It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God,” is the headline. The author, Jonathan Merritt, reflects on a recent study revealing that most Americans, more than three-quarters, do not often have spiritual or religious conversations.
Only “7% of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly.” But here’s what really concerns the author, only 13% of folks who regularly attend worship services engage in any kind of weekly spiritual conversation.
Mr. Merritt explains, “Many people now avoid religious and spiritual language because they don’t like the way it has been used, misused, and abused by others.” In particular, he calls out “toothy televangelists” and politicians pushing unjust legislation by using religious language.
Finally, he complains, when the rest of us refrain from speaking about God “those who are causing the problem get to hog the microphone” which prevents reviving the inspirational power of sacred speech he seeks.
To be honest, the study only tracked 1,000 self-identifying Christians. I don’t know how accurately it reflects those of us who profess other religious traditions. I do know this. I have no trouble speaking spiritually or talking about God. It’s what I do for a living!
I’m also fortunate, as an adherent of Judaism, to know that anything we say about God is symbolic. We name or describe God in order to capture some aspect of life in this world that’s important to us. When we speak about God, we’re actually talking about ourselves. We impose on God the images and concepts we need in order to find meaning in and define purpose out of the experiences of our lives.
As Rabbi Neil Gillman taught, “All of our human thinking and speaking about God uses our familiar human experience in a metaphorical way. All of our characterizations of God are human creations…never objectively true or false. They are shaped by human communities, products of the cultures in which they arose.”
Let’s consider two of many examples present in the Torah portion, Lekh Lekha. In Genesis chapter 16, verse 2 we read: “And Abram heeded Sarai’s request. (Literally, Abram heard Sarai’s voice.) The important medieval Torah commentator Rashi, quoting a rabbinic legend explains, Sarai’s voice means the Divine spirit within her. Which leads us to wonder and ask.
How is God manifest in our voices, in what we speak? God creates the world through spoken words. So do we. Our words reflect the worlds of our creation as we express our intentions, thoughts, and desires.
This is how we talk about God. Every conversation impersonates what is God-like about us all. Our ability to think, to wonder, and to create.
In the next chapter, Genesis 17, verse 1 God informs Abraham. “Ani El Shaddai, I am God Almighty.” Let’s explore. What does this name of God mean? The Talmudic sage Reish Lakish answers, “It means: I am God, sh’dai, Who said to the world: Enough!” (Sh’ represents God said. Dai means enough.)
This name for God represents: boundaries, perspective, limits, and contentment. Enough. God’s nature results in our mandate. We can have too much. We can work too much. We can want too much. We can control too much. We can worry too much. We can eat, drink, spend, yell, consume, waste, and talk too much.
We debate do some entities have too much at the expense of others who don’t have enough. We wonder about the limits of nature’s resources. We often find ourselves encouraging those whom we love to strike a balance between work, or study, and play. There is such a thing as too much.
Isn’t it fascinating, the name of God, El Shaddai, which translates as “God Almighty,” as in all-powerful, is understood by voices in Jewish tradition to represent limits, “enough.” Even of power there can be too much. Dayeinu!
You see, when we speak about God, we’re actually talking about ourselves. We impose on God the images and concepts we need in order to find meaning in and define purpose out of the experiences of our lives. In this image, we discover the value of limits, of not only dreaming big dreams, but finding satisfaction in living as we must.
This is how we talk about God. We give voice to the limits and dreams, possibilities and expectations we discover in the world. In another interpretation, the Talmud records, “Ani El Shaddai, I am God Almighty.” I am the One who spoke and said, “enough.” With the creation of humanity the world is complete.
Rabbi Baruch Epstein, an early 20th century scholar teaches, “The Holy One, Blessed be God, intends the creation of the world for the happiness and honor of humanity so that people may strive to distinguish themselves by their engagement with the world.” This is how we talk about God. We engage in the promise and potential of the world, striving to distinguish ourselves for the contentment and goodness of all.

© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

a remarkable endeavor

Shabbat Bereshit 5779 | October 6, 2018

We begin again a most remarkable endeavor. For how many centuries have the Jewish people read Torah with an interpretive eye in order to bring forth meaning and spiritual insight? You and I, gathered here on a bright and lovely October morning, are not the original audience for the text we read today.
The story we encounter this morning was written for an ancient audience. People who knew about Greek gods, Mesopotamian myths, and Canaanite lore. People who believed gods became mortals and humans divine. Torah myths compete with other fabled traditions to capture minds and teach lessons.
Torah comes to us from an ancient time and a different context. Yet, we do with this sacred text precisely what generations of Jewish students and readers before us did. We probe narrative and textual detail, infusing words, stories, and even letters, with significance which may help us in our lives. We draw out ideas to engage us and ideals to inspire us.
We read and study Torah each week and every year to find truths not facts, to glean wisdom not data. We read and recount the tales and commands of Torah in order to place ourselves in the ever evolving and continuing story of the Jewish people, in order to bring purpose to being Jewish in a large world with a vast history. We are a small yet proud people who carry with us in every age and place the hope we have something to say for the benefit of all of humanity.
“When human beings began to increase on the earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of the humans were and took wives from among those who pleased them. The Eternal God said, My breath shall not abide in human beings forever, since they too are flesh; let the days allowed the humans be one-hundred and twenty years.”
It’s a strange tale, perhaps a tall tale. Why is it here? What can we learn from it? Remember, legends about relationships between gods and mortal women were popular in the Ancient Near East. These ancient tales of other cultures often describe how human beings and gods are similar creatures, with comparable features.
The core message of Torah is monotheism, that God is unique. The authors of Torah understand humanity has limits. We are not God, though being less than divine we strive in character and behavior to be God-like. It is humility and not arrogance the Torah strives to impart. For all of our physical, intellectual, and creative abilities, we confront real, finite limits on who we are, on what we are able to do, and on what we ought to do.
Even the greatest of all Torah personalities, Moses, described as the humblest of men; in Torah narrative lives no more than 120 years. For all of our striving and achieving, for all of our exploring and discovering, for all of our yearning and wanting, for all of our greatness and prominence in life, Torah reminds us. We’re only human.
Intended to clarify for an ancient audience the dignity and place of human beings, intended to set forth a new monotheism, which means a new sense of justice, for the world, this message of humility and perspective is no less necessary today.
Too often in our contemporary culture arrogance taints legitimate goals and disavows differing perspectives. The Rabbinic sage Reish Lakish observes that when human beings began to increase on the earth “quarreling came into the world.” It’s one thing to differ, to disagree, and to argue. It’s quite another to bluster and berate in order to achieve some false agreement. When someone wins at all costs everyone loses in the end.
The very last line of this morning’s Torah portion moves me. After God declares it very good that humanity exists, then seeing how people mess it all up, God despairs at the violence and rivalry people bring into society. We read, “But Noah found favor, hen, with the Eternal God.” Favor, hen, is graciousness and kindness.
We, too, hope to find favor in the people around us. Surrounded in our society by so much that is wickedly competitive and cumulatively crass, we need to reclaim the graciousness Noah represents to God.
We begin again a remarkable endeavor of the Jewish people, to read Torah with an interpretive eye in order to bring forth meaning and spiritual insight for our times and our lives.
Let’s start our venture with hen, with favor and graciousness. Let’s read and interpret Torah this year for affirmation, for inspiration, and for goodness. And, let’s strive to be for one another, if not like God, like Noah, kind and humble individuals.
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

my rabbinic letter about meaning

Yom Kippur Sermon 5779 | September 19, 2018


I hope to make it my practice each year on Yom Kippur to deliver my sermon as a letter to you. Along with a few personal reflections, I hope my letter is about a significant subject for us to consider on this most sacred of days. They say, whoever “they” are, that something isn’t a tradition until it has happened three times. Maybe so, but I can’t get to a third annual letter next year if I don’t deliver a second one today.
In my inaugural letter last year, I asked the question why. To answer, I explained why I believe our lives matter, why I believe our lives as Jews matter, and why I believe our Jewish practice and celebration matter. That letter is available here. Today my letter is about when life matters.
The practice of rabbinic letter writing comes down to us through the generations. An Iggeret is what we call rabbinic teaching in the form of a letter. Rabbi Israel Salanter of Lithuania wrote a particularly important one in 1858. He titled it, Iggeret haMusar, a letter about ethical behavior, and included this insight about human nature. “We love what is momentarily pleasant without anticipating the consequences, even though its end be bitter.”
For myself, and I suspect some of you, I learn Rabbi Salanter’s counsel in thinking about some of what I’m here to confess and atone for. I also recall the story of students in a college writing class who received this instruction about writing a short story. The short story they wrote had to contain three elements: religion, sexuality, and mystery. I’m now going to read you the only short story from the entire class receiving an A+ grade. “Good God, I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it.”
I will now begin “My Rabbinic Letter About Meaning.”
Dear Beth El Friends,
Last Yom Kippur afternoon during the break between services, in conversations with some of you, I decided today’s letter would be about meaning. Your words intrigued me. I listened to your descriptions.
“Life feels so demanding,” you said. We’re too busy. We push our children and ourselves toward accomplishment and attainment. It’s an effort to keep up and in our efforts to get it all in we fear something is missing.
“Meaning,” I told myself. Through all that engages us, we’ve lost sight of how meaning enters our lives, how we know our purpose along the way. We imagine life’s meaning is illusive. We suspect life’s meaning is some esoteric, spiritual, or unknowable truth. Today I want to offer you a different perspective.
Grateful we are together, I imagine what we do and experience here means something different to each and every one of us. We crowd this room with more than people. We fill this room with the contents of our lives, privately held and publicly shared.
Here we bring our memories and regrets, our expectations and desires. Here we confront the most mysterious and compelling aspects of our lives. Here we seek to wrest meaning for every other day in the physically and morally challenging spiritual exercise of observing Yom Kippur. We crowd this room with the individual and intimately personal meanings we attach to the successes and failures of our lives.
Consider this. Meaning in life results from usage. How we use, for ourselves and in our relationships with others, our words and thoughts. How we use our bodies and strength. How we use our power and position. How we use our talents and traits. How we use our emotions and frailties. How we use our beliefs and values.
As I write you this letter, I recall something Albert Einstein wrote. “The person who regards his (or her) own life and that of his (or her) fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy, but hardly fit for life.”
I hope you can understand this with me. To be fit for life is to be able to see every experience through the lens of its potential meaning. To be able to look not only at what happens but to see a significant and enduring memory in the occurrence. Let me share a unique example from the very early days of my rabbinate.
I was officiating at a Young Professionals’ High Holy Day service at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. We were meeting in the Don Rickles Auditorium. Mr. Rickles asked if he could address the group, and I had been waiting for him to appear – which he did at a very inopportune moment during the service.
I approached him and asked, “Do you want to speak right now, or…” Before I could ask him if he could wait just a few minutes, he answered me. “No you Hockey Puck rabbi, I want to speak next week!” Somewhat surprised, I walked him over to the podium and introduced him to the congregation.
Don Rickles then spoke sweet and sincere words. Don’t ask me what he said. I don’t remember. All I remember is the moment, a fun memory, and the meaning it produced for all of us who were there.
Here’s a more serious memory.
I was once witness to a conversation with Elie Wiesel. During the course of his musings and recollections, he thought out loud about the meaning of life.
“Life is not made of years, but of moments,” he declared. “Some are great moments. Others are sad moments. But in the end, the weight of those moments is a reflection of what you have done with your life, of what has been done to you.”
Those words have resonated with me ever since I heard Elie Wiesel speak them. He is absolutely correct.
Life matters in the moments. That’s it. There’s no bigger secret. Life matters in the moments, only in the moments - and afterward in the memory of those moments.
Few are the great speeches remembered after they are spoken. Many are the words appropriate to framing a moment and making it meaningful.
Few are the great plays made in a ballgame. Many are the plays that make up a game, comprise a season, and result in a successful career or a championship.
Few are the special ceremonies that mark the milestones of our lives or our accomplishments. Many are the occasions marking the seasons and stages of our lives.
Few are the profound conversations we share with loved ones and friends. Many are the simple words we speak to one another conveying interest, caring, and connection.
Few are the extraordinary days of distress or delight that define us. Many are the ordinary days during which we expend most of our efforts.
Few are the events of our daily experiences that stand out from the routine. Many are the moments that matter as they happen.
Looking back over the years of our lives, and the lives of those whom we remember, we discover life isn’t really about the days, months, or years. The meaning of life is this. Life matters in the moments.
Ours is a tradition rooted in moments. Grand and glorious moments like the creation of the world, the revelation of the Torah, and the redemption of our ancestors when we meet God in the religious and historic memories of the Jewish people. Ours is also a tradition rooted in simple and significant moments like the Shabbat and holidays we celebrate, the seasons and years we count, and the life cycle milestones we mark.
Judaism is a religion of time. We experience God in time not object, in history not place. We identify sacred time and ordinary time, living in concentric calendars of culture, religious values, public dates and personal occasions.
Therefore, understanding meaning in life, we begin with time, our most precious and fleeting possession. The reason we count the years, celebrate Shabbat and holidays, and mark the passing of time is precisely to give our lives their meaning. That’s our continual responsibility, to bring meaning to the very moments we live. Which suggests we have to pause, plan, and collect our moments. Which means we have to choose what and when they will be, how we will be present in them, and not be deterred by so much other busy-ness instead of them.
Occasionally, we may discover meaning in life through unexpected events and our spontaneous consumption of time. I recall an anecdote from another time and place.
A woman came to the synagogue one evening. She was in trouble. No place to sleep. No food to eat. No money. Two kids, an old car, and a broken spirit were all she had. She met me walking out of the building. “My name is Carol, can you help me?” I asked her what I could get for her. “Something for my children to eat,” she requested, “and gas money to get down to the shelter. I’ll pay it back, I promise.”
I went into the kitchen, found some food for her family, and from my wallet took out some money for her. Carol was embarrassed, hurt, and quietly grateful. I assured her there was no need for repayment and wished her well. I handed Carol the money with the hope that it would last a bit longer than the next few hours. “Thank you very much,” Carol said before we parted.
To tell you the truth, over the course of the next few of months, I forgot about Carol, I forgot about that moment we met, until she returned. She was dressed very smartly. She was driving a new car. Her children smiled and seemed well. “Thank you,” Carol said to me. “I have a new job, a new apartment, a new car, and a new life. It all began with those few dollars you gave me. That night at the shelter I decided to change myself. I wanted to live a productive life. I trained for a job. I lifted my kids and myself up. I wanted you to see and to know.”
The ancient sage Ben Azzai once observed, “Every person has his or her moment.” Each one of us has a time when we are celebrated. In other words, life matters in the moments we are present to each other and how we honor them.
We can honor them with respect. We can honor them with humor. We can honor them with patience. We can honor them by listening. We can honor them in compassion. We can honor them with love. If we can honor each moment with its proper response, through them all, we can best honor their promise and see their actual meaning.
Occasionally, we may discover meaning in life through unexpected events and our spontaneous consumption of time. More often, we must consciously and conscientiously mediate the meaning we seek for our lives, anticipating which will be our lives’ meaningful moments.
Viktor Frankl, the famous psychologist who survived Auschwitz observes the same thing in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. “What matters,” he writes, “is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” Life matters in the moments.
It’s actually a paradox. Life matters in the moments. Yet our memories of the moments sustain us, and when we are gone, and with us our memories, the moments we remember are also no more. Every person we remembered today cherished the memories they knew. Some of those events and memories we share with them. Others we do not.
Most of the memories we hold and pass along, memories of particular moments, do not endure. That’s why every moment must inspire us. As we live them, life matters in the moments.
My dear friends,
I pray you greet many days in this New Year filled with situations of significance and meaningful moments. I encourage you to try and see every experience that comes your way through the lens of its potential meaning. Our precious privilege in this wide world is to mediate personal meaning. Our unique opportunity is to call on Jewish tradition to assist us in finding the purpose we seek.
Life’s meaning is not illusive, nor is it really a mystery. It’s present every moment we choose to know it. Meaning is present in life when we dedicate ourselves to seeing it. Like every time we say these familiar words.
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam,
she-he-he-yanu, v’ki-y’ma-nu, v’hi-gi-anu laz’man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe,
for the gift of our lives, for all that sustains us,
and for enabling us to reach this moment.
Life matters in the moments.
In this New Year, may you see your life’s meaning in many, many moments and may you know all the goodness of life – health, happiness, and peace.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah,
Rabbi Ron Shulman
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

God Talk

Kol Nidre Sermon 5779 |  September 18, 2018


To begin tonight, I want to collect a little background information. How many of you were raised as Conservative Jews? Orthodox Jews? Reform Jews? Secular Jews? Zionists? How many of you come from backgrounds rooted in different religious traditions?
How many of you are “nones”? (Not the Catholic type!) “Nones” are people who social scientists describe as having no religious affiliation or particular religious education.
Today “nones” is the fastest growing religious group in the United States. They don’t reject God. They reject religion. One observer calls them “the undecided of the religious world.”
Gathered on Kol Nidre eve, we are aware that in American Jewish life something else is happening. The way we identify ourselves religiously is changing. Less interested in our classic American denominations, Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, or Reconstructionist, we’re morphing into three distinct types: the religiously observant, the religiously engaged, and the not engaged.
In other words, as strict religious observance appeals to a growing number of Jews, and little or no religious interest reflects the vast majority of Jews, you and I are still in the middle. We’re not religiously observant and we do practice Judaism in a meaningful way. We’re the religiously engaged.
On this day of introspection, we have a chance to understand something more about who we are and how necessary our perspective is.
Not to be overly dramatic, here’s the real difference between more observant Jews and folks like us. They talk about God. We don’t. Well, some of us do. Some of us aren’t sure how to. Some of us don’t. Right? I want to be fair to everyone.
Religiously observant Jews express their values. They respond to God’s commanding voice, dutifully in delight. Judaism values deed over creed. How we live demonstrates what we believe.
Though I have philosophical and theological differences with fundamentalism, I also have great admiration and respect. To love the Jewish people is to embrace and love every Jew, all Jews.
I am a Conservative rabbi who accepts, admires, and has good relations with all serious and sincere expressions of Judaism in today’s world. That said - I don’t desire to live my Jewish life like those religiously to my right or my left. I am a passionate religious centrist.
I’m also worried. Aware of the religious trends in our community, I warn you. If you and I, if we cede the conversation about what Judaism teaches about God to the Orthodox alone, we risk losing the attention and interest of those unengaged Jews who find conventional religion intellectually and spiritually unappealing.
We also risk giving greater prominence to fundamentalist teachings that do not respect our pluralistic values and do not authentically represent the whole of Jewish history and tradition to the world.
This chair I place beside me, let’s call it Elijah’s chair, represents our children and grandchildren. Perhaps it’s a placeholder for many of us, as well. This chair is for everyone who has real questions to ask about God. I would love it if we could take the time to have those of you who want to come sit here and ask your questions. Instead, we’ll do that tomorrow afternoon when we meet for our question and answer session.
For now, imagining you are sitting beside me, I’ll pose the three God questions I’m asked most often.
First you ask. With everything we know about the world today, science and technology, history and archaeology; upset by everything that troubles us with natural disasters and disease, and in the evil people perpetrate against each other, (here comes the question) is it still possible to believe in God? “Yes.”
Second you ask. Are the Bible’s stories of miracles and wonder true? Do you think they really happened? If yes, see question #1. If no, then what is it possible to believe? “A lot.”
Third you ask. There are so many different religions and religious traditions. They seem to divide people. They cause disagreement, disrespect, and conflict. Who’s right? Why do they matter at all? Isn’t it enough just to be a good person? “No.”
Thanks for asking! How much time have you got?
First you asked, “Is it still possible to believe in God?”
Ok, let me attempt to answer your question. Yes, I believe it is still possible to believe in God. For me, it depends on how you understand God’s essence.
Aware of everything we do know, and so much more we hope to discover and understand, I believe that life’s mystery is God’s reality.
As such, I do not believe that God is a physical being. Instead, I find God within the workings of the world, innate to our experiences, not beyond them.
I hope I’m being clear. What’s that? “Doesn’t science also explain the mysteries of the universe?”
Yes, it does. Science is a crucial and important human endeavor. The purpose of science is to explain how the world in which we live works. Religion, on the other hand, is the search for the answer to why we live and exist, our ultimate questions.
I find absolutely no conflict between the discoveries of science and the teachings of religion. I understand that they are seeking to answer different questions, and I want both answers.
“Different questions?” What do I mean by that?
I’ll tell you a cute story. A thousand years from now when scientists have solved all the questions that plague humanity, they are finally ready for the ultimate challenge. They elect a representative to address God.
“God,” says the scientist in charge. “You are no longer needed. You served a function in Your day, but that day is gone. We can do everything that You can do, so goodbye.”
There is a moment of silence. Then a voice booms out of the sky: “Everything?”
“Can you make a human being from dust?” “Absolutely.” “Ok,” says God. “Let me see you make a human being.”
The scientist reaches down and digs his hands into the earth. “Oh no,” says God. “Get your own dirt.”
You see, I’m a religious person. I believe in God. But, I do not believe faith to be fact.
Religious descriptions of God’s design for human life and the world establish the meanings and purposes of our existence. They are not attempts, even in their ancient origin, to explain how the processes of being and life take place.
Here’s what I’m trying to explain. It’s a classic divide. Religion asks why. Science learns how. God’s reality is found in the mystery and wonder that we exist at all.
I hear you, yes, perhaps the hardest part of your question is about all that troubles us in the world.
Personally, I’ve never understood why we pin that on God, but then again, my own view is that things don’t happen to us because of some external controlling force or fate.
No person’s evil act or natural tragedy, no person’s illness, is God’s will. Neither are our achievements. Rather, God is present through us, through our responses to life’s challenges and joys, and through the world’s wonder.
You’ve never heard that before? Ok, well spend more time with me!
Let me say this politely, but very clearly. God’s reality is not that of a magician granting our personal wishes. Instead, through our plans, and as a result of our reactions to every day’s surprises, we make progress.
My faith trusts that because God is intrinsic to our being, within our lives and not external to them, God grants our world and each one of us the resources, talents, and gifts to succeed.
“Well then, rabbi, why do you pray?”
My prayer is for inspiration and encouragement. It is an exercise in evaluation, a moral check on my purpose, and a humble affirmation of my identity. It keeps me aware of God.
Think about it this way. Imagine our competition for God’s attention if the decisions of health or world events were really God’s to make.
Jewish tradition teaches us that God is present in all of life. Every instance of pain and comfort, of fear or resilience is a sacred moment in which God’s blessings touch our lives.
Remember my definition, God’s reality is present in the mystery, not the activity, of all of our lives’ experiences.
Second, you asked me about the Bible. Are the stories of miracles and wonder true?
Remember, because in my view faith is not fact, my belief in God is firm enough to root me and elastic enough to assimilate whatever new information comes to be discovered.
If tomorrow we discover something contradictory to the tradition as we have it, it’s not God that’s different. It’s our understanding of the past that changes.
Oh, so what you really want to know is “why is the Torah important?”
I understand the Torah to be religious memory and literature. It expresses awareness of God in the collective memory and history of the Jewish people. It lays out values and roots us as a people and binds us together today and through the ages.
Please understand, however. Torah is our first expression of faith and practice, not our only.
“Rabbi, we can’t change what the Torah says though, can we?”
No, of course we don’t change what it says. We seek to understand it in the context and times from which the Torah’s texts emerge. We struggle with difficulties and we reject what our consciences can’t abide. We interpret the Torah for today.
“Really? My conscience and sense of ethics is relevant to the Torah?”
Yes, it most certainly is. We bring our questions and all that we’ve learned. We bring everything we’ve got to the Torah. We agree with what it says, and we disagree.
That’s why Jewish tradition and Jewish community are the on-going debate society that we cherish.
“Aren’t you making Judaism too subjective? It can’t just be what I want it to be?”
True. You and I can’t just choose for ourselves (though most people do.) In our community, however, we do define how we interpret what we’ve inherited. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “the Bible is a book about man, not God.”
Third, you asked me about religious variety. Isn’t it enough just to be a good person?
Let me show you a cartoon. It shows God’s words observing, “You know…people are funny. They are always claiming to know what I think. Throughout history people have twisted, mangled, and misused my words. Making rules and starting wars. What makes people presume they know exactly what I think?”
“God only knows,” responds the cartoon angel. “That’s my point!” God shouts.
I think Judaism is unique in this respect. Judaism does not claim to know God’s will. What we possess is our best current understanding of God’s will. Whatever anyone of us may claim to believe, at best it reflects only one small insight of a much larger and greater truth no one comprehends.
That’s why different religions result from different group memories and interpretations of experience through the ages. Each one explains and presents the consciousness of God for that group.
Judaism believes in One God, but not in one religion. Our responsibility is to honor what we believe, and respect the beliefs of others. From our diversity and difference there ought to come great sharing and dialogue.
‘That’s nice, rabbi, but it seems easier said than done.”
That’s right. It is. However, I fault neither God nor religion for human weakness. I look to both God and religion for the strength to heal what’s broken.
So to answer your question directly, yes. One can be a good person and not a good Jew; one can be a good Jew and not a good person. People of all faiths or no faith can be good people.
I like the way Karen Armstrong puts it. “The point of religion is to live intensely and richly here and now. Truly religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance.”
She also explains that belief in God emerges historically from people’s attempts to “honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being.”
That said, we still have to choose the kind of people we will be, and the way we think about God as we make our choices.
Let me tell you one more story.
The story is told of a man who came to confess to his rabbi, the Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotz, that he could no longer believe in God.
“Why not?” asked the rabbi. “Because I doubt that the world has any rhyme or reason. The righteous suffer, the wicked prosper.” “So why does this concern you?”
“What do you mean why does this concern me? If there is no justice in the world, there is no God in the world.” “So what do you care if there is no God in the world?” “Rabbi, if there is no God in the world, my life makes no sense, it has no meaning at all.”
“You care that much about the world?” asked the rabbi. “Yes, I do; with all my heart and soul, rabbi.” “If you care so much, if you are pained so much, if you doubt so much, the truth is, you believe.”
You want a summary of all I’ve just said? Hmm, I’ll try.
I believe in mindfully rational religion, intellectually rooted in sacred history spiritually based in conscience and common sense, expressing wonder and worry, asking questions and seeking answers, cherishing hope and dignity, helping me to be aware that life’s mystery is God’s reality and our lives are gifts to cherish and celebrate. I believe in our world such honest religion can be a path to meaning, community, and purpose.
I also believe we have to put these kinds of ideas, authentic to what Judaism teaches, out there clearly and passionately. We have to renew our ability to talk about God and to believe what we say.
You’re quite welcome. Thank you for your questions, and for considering my answers.
I presented this dialogue because today is about introspection and return. The majority of our sins involve our behaviors. The things we shouldn’t have done. The things we shouldn’t have said. We mislead ourselves in thought, too. Yom Kippur is a day to challenge personal assumptions, a day to ask ourselves what ideas are core to our souls.
What motivates and animates our behavior? What truth of life in our experience compels us to be here? To repent? To regret? To grow? To change? To live better this year as an individual, a spouse, a partner, a parent, a child, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, a human being, a Jew?
Believe what you will. My goal is to challenge you, not to convince you. Except of this.
We who are non-Orthodox Jews, well-educated and worldly people, we who pride ourselves on being Jewish and being part of the Jewish community, we have to reframe how we understand what Judaism is and reclaim our ability to talk about how we believe in God.
Our children and grandchildren, and in my view, the religious future of the Jewish people, all depend on it.
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman


best for me or we

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5779 | September 10, 2018


I think this is remarkable. Truly. All of us gathered together in synagogue. All of us bound together by this tradition we share, by the variety we represent, and by the ideals of goodness, renewal, and hope we cherish. In this room we sit: hundreds of individuals, choosing to be here, who outside of this space are involved with every imaginable type of career, business, academic pursuit, and personal interest.

Briefly stepping away from all that engages us elsewhere, we come here to touch the sacred, to mark the passing of time, to take stock of our lives, and to remember that whatever else we may do and wherever else we may go, we do so as Jews proud of our heritage and identity.
I think this is remarkable. Thank you. We do not give ourselves enough credit for the significance of this day we share each year. What we do here together is worthy of praise, grateful for each and every soul in this room. Sensitive to the transcendent truth of our connection, we are one precious synagogue family beginning another year in the continuing life of the Jewish people. As a result, something happens here that we need to carry away with us when we leave.
After one year here at Congregation Beth El, I am proud to celebrate with you and about us the diversity of life experience, heritage, and opinion present in our synagogue community. Our variety inspires me. It also makes me curious.
Can we create among ourselves, and for our neighbors, an environment where self-interest is balanced by shared interest? Where disagreement fosters discussion? Where knowledge leads to understanding? Where diversity is the source of unity?
This morning I want to discuss how being Jews and drawing on Jewish wisdom can help us through the maelstrom of social discord and division, ethical lapses and difficult debates we monitor every day.
First, here’s some context.
For the past many years in a new global era, we evolved into a “what’s best for me” culture and lost sight of a “what’s best for we” society. This, in part, explains our polarization, the wide gulf in our perceptions of reality, and our inability to talk with each other about all of it. What’s best for me isn’t always what’s best for we.
Professor Steven Brill explains it this way. Over the course of decades, with no bad intention or design “America all but abandoned its most ambitious and proudest ideal: the never perfect, always debated, and perpetually sought-after balance between the energizing inequality of achievement in a competitive economy and the liberating, community-binding equality of power promised by democracy.”
In other words, with the education, attainments, status, and outlook I earn, due to my hard work, a fortunate circumstance, or even inherited privilege, I am responsible for helping to safeguard opportunity and dignity for others in society who, for whatever reason, have not or cannot achieve what I have.
You know this. Long ago, Rabbi Hillel said the same thing in simpler style. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am only for myself, what am I? Ukh-sh’ani rak l’atzmi, mah ani?” Even as I take care of myself,” teaches Rashi, “I have an obligation to take care of you, too.”
At our last Beach Shabbat in August, a man pushing a grocery cart filled with his possessions happened upon us and sat down in the back row of chairs we put out for the service. A couple of us smiled at him and let him be. A few minutes before the crowd arrived, I walked over and introduced myself to him. I asked for his name. “I’m Paul,” he answered.
I told Paul we were about to conduct a religious service, after which he was welcome to join us for dinner. I invited Paul to move the chair and his belongings over to a shady area just beside our makeshift prayer space and rest. During the service I noticed whenever we rose, so did Paul. When we bowed in prayer, so did he.
After the service, our good friend Laurielynn invited him to help himself at the potluck buffet. Instead, Paul chose for her to bring him a plate of food, though he did ask for and help himself to seconds. After he ate and spoke politely with a few folks, Paul said thank you and pushed his grocery cart on down the road.
The Torah story we read earlier introduces us to our matriarch Sarah’s handmaid, “Hagar HaMitzrit, Hagar the Egyptian.” Yet, consider this. Because the Torah scroll has no vocalization marks, the vowel signs of the Hebrew language under and beside the Hebrew letters, the name Hagar can also be read “ha-Ger, the stranger who is Egyptian.” “Cast out that slave-woman,” Sarah demands of Abraham. Without name and seemingly out of place, when we meet an unknown other, a supposedly undesirable other, we don’t actually meet the person he or she is.
In 2018, in the 5,779th year of Jewish consciousness, I’m struck by how many people still have trouble with the stranger, the other one. The other one who looks different than I do. The other one who believes differently than I do. The other one who comes from a different place than I do. The other one whose life circumstance is so different from my own. Or, whoever the other one may be. Realize with me on this sacred day, it can’t only be about me or us. In this New Year, it also has to be about you and them. It can’t only be “what’s best for me.” It also has to be “what’s best for we.” “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
We need to get past false dichotomies and choices like me or we. We need to see the world through a larger and more perceptive lens.
Consider this series of questions. Think about and answer them for yourselves. For lunch today, do you want Brisket or Turkey? Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Do you drive a Tesla or a Toyota? That was the first, easy set of questions.
Now, answer these questions. Do you love your mother or your father? Do you care about the Jewish people or humanity in general? Do you care about Americans or Israelis?
We’ll call these Either/Or questions. Some Either/Or questions are simply a matter of choice. I’ll have the brisket, not the Turkey. Some are a matter of ethics. When asked, we ought to choose right over wrong, good not bad, fair not unfair. But, other Either/Or questions define who we are and how we act in the world.
If I choose one parent over the other, it reflects a problematic situation in my family or my life experience. If I say, “I care about the Jewish people,” it sounds as if I don’t care enough for humanity. If I say, “I care for humanity,” it sounds as if I do not care sufficiently for my own people. These types of Either/Or questions are traps. Do I care about the members of Congregation Beth El or Paul? Do I do what’s best for me or we?
A Jewish outlook on life is usually more nuanced than Either/Or choices. The rabbis see God in nature and beyond nature. The rabbis imagine God rejoicing at Israel’s freedom and crying as Egyptians drown in the sea. The Hebrew prophets seek ritual and justice, national pride and compassion. Jewish tradition announces our people’s special mission and seeks out the righteous of all nations.
Think about the discussions and controversies engaging us these days. In a sense, we’re in the midst of a series of Either/Or debates and the tensions they produce. Try to answer these next questions for yourselves. Then, later on, try these questions on your old-enough children and grandchildren. I suspect you’re in for an energetic dialogue.
Can I disrespect an elected leader, agree or disagree with his or her policies, and still love my country? Can I maintain my relationships with family and neighbors who support what I oppose or oppose what I support?
Can I defend against anti-Semitism where it is present and protest racial bias toward others where I find it? Can I agree with you about the facts and disagree with you about their implication? Can I believe in equal justice under the law and express partisan preference?
If I believe that Israel is the Nation-State of the Jewish people, does that mean I don’t desire equal rights for all of Israel’s citizens? If I rejoice in Israel’s intense and innovative society, if I proudly and passionately demand security for Israel and the recognition of Israel’s historic legitimacy, does that mean I can’t be concerned about Palestinian distress? Does validating someone else’s experience actually diminish my own?
Can I hold different feelings simultaneously? Can I honor America and object to disparities in our society? Can I take offense when a Conservative rabbi is arrested for performing a traditional Jewish wedding in Israel and take pleasure when our children travel to Israel and encounter the richness of Jewish life in the Jewish state?
Can I be an American whose Jewish identity is shaped by and seeks to speak in this society, and understand an Israeli whose Jewish identity is shaped by and seeks to speak in that society?
These are hard questions. I want to be honest with you. In my line of work, at this time of Either/Or debates, it is challenging to teach social ethics, which is the public purpose of Jewish values and Torah study. It is challenging to teach social ethics and Judaism’s moral vision because it is hard to be heard as respecting the different and strongly held ideological views among us.
I choose to think we’re capable of better. I choose to believe we’re capable of more. I can’t and I won’t accept the devolution of culture and social discourse present in these false choices. I will not sacrifice an ideal in a clash about what is real.
My answer to each of the questions I posed is, “Yes!” Is the only way to affirm who I am to minimize who you are? Am I the only source of good ideas? Is mine the only valid claim? Of course not!
While we’re on the subject, let me share one other concern I have about we who are the Jewish people. There are two poles of opinion in Jewish life today. I reject the absolutism present in these two opinion constructs. At one end, Jewish particularism prioritizes the welfare of the Jewish people over the concerns of others, and the rituals and customs of the Jewish tradition over other activities. At the other end, Jewish universalism prioritizes the welfare of humanity and protests injustice where seen.
Both ends of this continuum of Jewish outlook present us with a false choice. The true Jewish response to all of these complex questions is not Either/Or. It is Both/And.
Our particular Jewish identity is unique in the world. Only we live it out and profess its ideals. Only because we are rooted in our particular vision and values, covenant and convictions, only because we participate in Jewish life, do we have anything to say to everyone else. Especially because we are rooted in our particular vision and values, covenant and convictions, because we participate in Jewish life we can be open to what everyone else may have to say.
V’yei-esu kulam agudah ahat, la’asot r’tzon-kha b’lei-vav shalem.” The Mahzor, the very text we use today, celebrates the Jewish people, the Jewish land, and the Jewish tradition only after it declares of God, “You have created all of humanity bound together as one, carrying out Your will wholeheartedly.”
In this New Year, let us be about the particular values we believe in and believe in the universal value of what we do. Kindness is not a choice. Neither are honesty, compassion, and human dignity. Judaism teaches us to use words carefully and to act with integrity.
Ethics, equality, goodness, justice, honesty, compassion, respect: these are not modern inventions. These are not liberal or conservative inclinations. They are not optional pursuits. Neither are celebrating Shabbat, studying Torah, or any of the mitzvot and unique privileges of Jewish life. All of these are part of the core purpose of living in the world as practicing Jews, people who choose to step away from the world at large for a few hours of holy day celebration and contemplation before returning to it.
Learn this Talmudic text with me. “Rabbi Elazar be Azariah taught: ‘the House of Hillel and the House of Shamai sharply disagreed on matters of Jewish law. And so they were asked, if the Torah is given by a single God, how is it the case that there exist differing interpretations?’” They debate the question, and then comes this answer for us all. “Make for yourselves a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shamai and the words of the House of Hillel.”
Can we do it? Can we be people with hearts of many rooms? Can we make space for different perspectives and preferences? Can we move beyond Either/Or thinking to Both/And understanding? Can we live with ambiguity, feeling conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty? Can we do what’s best for me AND for we?
I sincerely believe we can. I believe we can be people with hearts of many rooms, open to people with different experiences and from different backgrounds. I believe we can balance anger and frustration in one part of our lives with compassion and contentment in another. We can accept life’s complications along with life’s simple pleasures. Respect those with whom we disagree and disagree with those whom we love.
I also believe we here at Congregation Beth El, diverse and inclusive as we are, can set a tone for our families, friends and neighbors. Our learning can produce insights. Our discussions can open minds. Though our individual interests may diverge in our shared experiences we can merge.
In this New Year, we make this commitment. We make this choice. What’s best for me can also be what’s best for we. After all, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Mon, May 29 2023 9 Sivan 5783