Sign In Forgot Password


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

living history and today

Shabbat Mattot-Masei 5778 | July 14, 2018
On Tuesday, after 18 days of drama that gripped Thailand and the world, the last people exited the flooded cave complex in which 12 young soccer players and their coach had been trapped. Yet, while we were focused on that scene, 124 people died in torrential floods in Japan.
Each and every day as so much happens in our lives and in the world around us, we can’t manage all of the information we receive. We have to make choices. Pay attention to this. Respond to that. Remember this. Do something about that. Our attention spans seem to contract just as our need to process events and emotions expands.
True for each of us personally, it’s also true for us collectively. True in our personal experiences, it’s also true in our memories as members of a family, a nation, and a people. Ten days ago, on July 4th we celebrated 242 years of American independence.
Here’s a piece of historical trivia. July 4, 1776, the day our founding fathers made their declaration of independence, was on the Hebrew calendar the 17th of Tammuz, a Jewish fast day declared by our ancient sages to commemorate the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70.
Though most years the dates do not coincide, this year the 17th of Tammuz was observed July 1st, it’s their theoretical overlap that intrigues me this morning.
On the Jewish calendar, we are in the midst of a three-week period of sadness leading up to Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, a day of fasting and mourning to commemorate the tragedies of Jewish history, in particular the destructions of the First and Second Temples that stood in Jerusalem.
What are those ancient events to me, to us? July 4th moves me as an American citizen every year. I celebrate and cherish this nation and the ethos of its founding. Tisha B’Av also moves me every year. I commemorate my people’s history and our moral memory. But…
To what degree is my Jewish identity and the Jewish meaning I seek for my life rooted in historic, ancient events I did not witness? To what degree is my Jewish identity and the Jewish meaning I seek for my life rooted in current experience, in the things I see and experience now?
Is it more important to remember the fall and the breach of Jerusalem’s walls and to know about the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem? Or is there a statute of limitations on memory? Ought we celebrate today instead the reunification and the rebuilding of Jerusalem?
Is it more important to mourn the Babylonian and Roman destructions of the ancient Temples or to think about Israeli society today and the transformation of Jewish life in Israel? In the modern State of Israel, what does it mean to be a majority with responsibilities for the minorities in our midst?
It’s not a new question. Even the Talmudic sages, with real memories of the Second Temple amidst its ruins, wondered. “Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did several unusual things. He planted a sapling on Purim. He bathed in Tzippori in public on the Seventh of Tammuz. He sought to abolish the fast of the Ninth of Av. And with respect to the Ninth of Av, the Sages did not agree with him.”
The Talmud also reports that Rabbi Akiba laughed while walking amidst Temple ruins. He laughed, explaining now, in the aftermath, God’s promise of a redeemed and rejuvenated Holy City can be achieved. For many years I have learned and taught to observe the fast of Tisha B’Av in the spirit of Rabbi Akiba’s vision. For half a day my spirit grieves and my body fasts. And then, for half a day my spirit revives and my body renews.
Over time our memories, personal and shared, blur. What events of long ago or recent days ought to continue their hold on us? How long shall we mark them? I fundamentally believe history is the foundation and backdrop giving our Jewish identities context and purpose today. I equally believe our Jewish identities have to be lived out as real reflection of the world in which we live today. I remember Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s famous insight. “The past has a vote, not a veto.”
For each of us and all of us, these questions challenge and motivate our Jewish sensibilities. How do any of us transmit all we have lived and witnessed to those after us for whom our experiences are not personal memories? How do our children and grandchildren, who don’t feel what we once felt, who didn’t see what we once saw, remember what we do?
By reclaiming our memories for themselves. By making new memories of their own. This is the way we Jews retell, recount, and recast our story in every generation. We encourage those who come after us to find themselves in what we pass along. Simultaneously, we empower them to find meaning in what they encounter each and every day.
Or as the contemporary philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote, “Life itself is the mysterious, incomprehensible blending of the new and the old, of what already is and what is coming into being.”
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Wed, April 24 2019 19 Nisan 5779