Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Prayer for Affirming Our Values

[Note:  I was also privileged to offer the opening prayer at yesterday's demonstration at the Annapolis State House on Syrian refugees.  This is that text…]

A Prayer for Affirming Our Values
By Rabbi Stephen J. Weisman

Heavenly Parent – we who gather here today call upon you by many  names.  But we know that, despite those different names, we are all calling upon You – the One God – Creator, Protector, and Nurturer of all humanity.

We gather here today, on the eve of our national day of Thanksgiving, because we recognize that You have graced us with many blessings, for which we owe You bountiful thanks.  But we also recognize that mere words of thanks are not enough, when there are so many in our world in need of Your Healing, Your Protection, Your Love. 

We recognize that we must also show our thanks through our deeds – defending the values which connect us to You and to each other, extending Your Healing, Your Protection, Your Love to those who are not as blessed as we are.  We acknowledge that we are a nation of immigrants, that many of our greatest blessings come from being able to enjoy the bounty and live by the values we share in freedom in this great nation, exactly because we, or our ancestors were welcomed to become part of this people.  Many of our ancestors came here with little, many fled from persecution and violence, many came in challenging moments of world unrest. 

An so we pray, for ourselves and our elected leaders – that we learn and remember the lessons of our own individual and collective histories, that challenging moments call not for retreat from our core values, but rededication to those values.  Moral leadership is judged in difficult times like these, and how we respond to real human challenges Bless us,  O God, and bless our Governor as well, with Your strength, for it is our responsibility to come together, in Your name, and speak of and protect the values that make our country great.

Bless all who recognize Your gifts and Your blessings, all those who merely seek a safe and welcoming place to re-establish their lives and create their new homes, all who use Your gifts to work to improve the lives of ALL Your Creation – today and always.  We ask this in Your name – whichever one(s) we use.  Amen.
Remarks at the Governor’s Mansion – November 23, 2015
Rabbi Stephen J. Weisman

[Note:  The following is the complete prepared text from which I spoke at the Annapolis State House, at a rally organized by Faith in Public Life, to protest Governor Hogan’s politically motivated grandstanding, fear-mongering, and victim blaming [MY words here] on the issue of welcoming Syrian refugees.  The material in parentheses was not spoken publically.  And, if you are reading this, you probably know that my revulsion at his lack of leadership on this issue goes far beyond what I diplomatically shared in public when I spoke, or even what I have written here. ]

Thank you to my clergy colleagues for standing with us today on this moral issue.  Thank you to the folks at Faith in Public Life for starting the petition process and organizing this event here today, one of four such events across the country on this issue today.  And thank you to the members of the media who have gathered here with us -- written copies of these remarks will be available at the conclusion of the event.

We are here today because, as clergy leaders serving communities in Maryland, we believe that we can, we MUST, keep our country safe without forsaking the shared values that have made our nation great.  Turning our backs on refugees who felt trapped between ISIS and the Syrian government, endangered by the continuing conflict that is destroying their country, so that they felt it necessary to flee the carnage, is morally wrong.  It is a denial of the American way.  We reject the false and forced choice between compassionate openness and personal security.

(We, gathered here today, recognize that humanity continues to face the urgent challenge of finding appropriate responses to two related issues:

The necessary response of strength and resolve in the face of the continuing scourge of terrorism, and those who wish to scare us into changing how we live our lives and value the lives of others;

And the equally compelling response of support, understanding, and compassion toward those who have been uprooted from their homes, and have now made the incredibly difficult decision that starting over in a new land is in their best way forward.

The techniques of terror are rooted in fomenting fear – physical fear in those who are directly in the line of fire; emotional fear in others that we might be next.  Because fear is a powerful motivator of our responses.)

I, and we, understand why many fear the possibility that terrorists will attempt to infiltrate our country.  We are neither blind nor deaf to the potential danger of terror in our own country.  Indeed, we remember all too well the pain and loss we ourselves felt not so long ago.  We, too, want to do all we reasonably can to protect ourselves, our families, our congregations, and our communities.  But we believe that our best protection starts by reinforcing our core values, not by turning our backs on them, even temporarily.

36 times – 36 times – the Hebrew Bible, what others call the Old Testament, commands us to care for the strangers, “Because we know what it is like to be strangers, having ourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”  The moral voice of the Book of Leviticus commands us “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

We recognize that the refugees, like the dead and wounded in Paris, are also VICTIMS of the terrorists, not terrorists themselves, and therefore we see opening our borders to them as part of the solution to terror, and not as part of the problem;

we recognize that giving into the fear, and changing our behavior in ways that are inconsistent with our core values as a people, gives another victory to the terrorists, encourages and emboldens them to new acts of outrage;

we recognize that no vetting process is perfect or can guarantee to prevent a terrorist from slipping into the country and doing damage… however, we also recognize that Syrian refugees are already vetted far more carefully than any other foreigners seeking entry to the US, and therefore we come to a different conclusion than our Governor, namely that losing our moral compass is a bigger threat to America than terrorist infiltration in the midst of the refugees given the current processes;

we sadly understand that this has become a political issue in which we, as religious leaders, would prefer NOT to get involved.  We would prefer to remain focused on the moral call of our faith traditions, encouraging policies and actions based in our shared core American values;

as Americans, we place the highest value on saving lives, on lifting up those who are fallen or held down, on making sure that all can feel safe and at peace within their own homes, part of a community that loves and respects them for who they are.  As the words of welcome engraved on the Statue of Liberty, which greeted my ancestors who fled to these shores after the Kishinev pogroms of Eastern Europe at the start of the last century, still invite - “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  And they do so with no limitation to certain people, no prior restraint based on any religious or cultural litmus test.

And therefore, we stand here today at the Governor’s mansion, representing more than 2150 of our fellow clergy members nationwide, some 100 of our fellow clergy across this great state of Maryland, to declare that we are prepared to open our doors and welcome these Syrian refugees to our communities, with faith that existing procedures for accepting refugees will protect our safety.  And we invite our Governor, now fully restored to his usual physical strength, to stop the political rhetoric, and use his strength to join us in a welcome that embraces our shared core values, and brings us together in common cause.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

"Affirmative Judaism"

[The following is an expansion on my Rosh Hashanah comments it is still written in my delivery format -- my apologies if this makes it more challenging to follow]

“Affirmative Judaism” – Not a New Movement, but a New Moment
Commentary for the Start of a New Year, 5776
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Starting omens – 16th year, 25 as Rabbi, 5776 – all perfect squares
            Back to the Future 2 – this is the year,
                        And in the movie, the Chicago Cubs win the World Series!

Contrast that with an honest and sobering look at the world –
headlines and realities scream out for our attention:
Iran deal                                    global warming
Gun violence                        immigration reform
#black lives matter            electoral rights and reform
Syrian refugees
            and so many more – indeed AJ4J and Iran vote

Our own realities as a congregational mishpachah and community
            Also require a greater amount of our time, energy and focus –
                        If not from all of us, at least from our leaders
            And let’s give ourselves permission to admit up front,
that none of us are looking forward to Yizkor this year
            b/c the number of friends and neighbors we lost this year
                        was painfully large

It is so very easy to get so caught up
in the needs and challenges of the moment
that we lose perspective,
and spend far too much time dwelling in the negative.

Don’t get me wrong – every one of these items
            And several dozen more that go unnamed for the moment
                        Deserve and require our attention and involvement.
                        Will hopefully receive appropriate focus in New Year

But, before we can be a congregation of caregivers to the world
            Fulfilling God’s first command to all of us thru Adam and Eve
            That we be good stewards of all of Creation,
Before we can fully embrace the imperative to work for tikkun olam
We must, as all good caregivers do,
            Remember to take time for ourselves,
maintain equilibrium, make sure we are strong,
                        B/c if we cannot maintain our own strength and wellness
                        We will be no good trying to help others.
This, to me, is one of our gifts as Jews,
            But one that too often gets lost, or overlooked
                        Judaism allows, maybe even requires us,
                                    To take time for ourselves
                                    To maintain both strength and balanced perspective
These HHDs, especially this RH
            Can be, and now more than ever, needs to be
            A moment of our personal and communal
                        Spiritual recharge.
As Hillel taught – Im ein ani li mi li… If I am only for myself…
            Friends, this season is the now of our Jewish year,
                        These HHDs feel like the now of our time and circumstances

This is the world’s birthday, after all
            As we will remind ourselves in the morning
                        As we fulfill the mitzvah to hear the sound of the shofar.
Birthdays are times of joy, and celebration – first and foremost.
They are also times of looking back at where we have been,
Of sharing our joy with those closest to us,
But also times of looking ahead – with hope, and vigor
            And the excitement of what lies ahead in the new year.

FB has changed how we do birthdays –
            For myself, at least, I marvel at how much they are improved.
            Several hundred people, from every corner of our lifetimes,
                        Reach out and stir up memory and connection,
                        THAT is a real-life blessing!
My standard wishes, for those who are closest to me,
as expressed in that medium, read like an RH card.
And, as is often the case, recognizing this changed reality as a truth
            Has allowed me to shift my understandings and behaviors
                        In other areas as well.

So even as I acknowledge that there are many needs in our world --
            Both uniquely Jewish and at times frighteningly universal
                        (and we will look at THAT balancing act on YK) –
            needs that require our attention,

Even as my own prophetically-inspired Reform Jewish soul
            Hears the cries, and yearns to reach out in response and support,
Even as we all acknowledge the need for our hope that
            5776 will be a better year for the Solel family than 5775 was,
I KNOW that our first act of the new year MUST be
            To embrace the joy, and hope, and celebration of the New Year
                        Especially with the great positive omens this year,
And to use this opportunity for a spiritual recharge and refocus,
            When that reminds us of all the positives in our lives,
                        Encourages us to add to them, and maintain our balance

In many congregations on these HHDs, there is a natural excitement –
            For some, new clergy leadership or other changes are the source;
            For others, it is the new possibilities and opportunities
                        Inherent in the shift of prayerbooks to Mishkan HaNefesh
For others, like ours, we need to create that excitement for ourselves –
            Playing on both the (hoped-for) comfort of the familiar,
            & the natural hope & excitement that comes from new beginnings.
We will turn to challenging ourselves more on YK – as is fitting
            Of course, for those who cannot wait,
there is plenty of material available on the lobby tables
plenty of ways to choose to get more involved
            to begin to make more of a difference.

Embrace the comfortable and familiar – but do not be fooled by it…
            We are in the midst of change – significant change
                        In no small part because the larger world
of which we actively choose to be a part
            is changing with frightening speed.
Many of us joke and say that we don’t do change well as a congregation
But I am here tonight to speak to that no longer being the truth…
            It may have been true, even a few years ago,
            But we are a very different congregation tonight
                        In a very different world
at the start of this new year
than we were even a couple of years ago
            at the start of our 50th!

And the best part is, much of that change happened quietly enough,
            Smoothly enough, with little or no drama,
            That many of us are surprised when we recognize the truth.
That, and the reassuring fact that, most of that change has been
            Both deliberate, and for the better,
            Evolutionary, not revolutionary,
With still other elements in the process of changing even as we speak.

Our world is changing.  Daily.  Sometimes by the hour.
Our Reform movement has changed and is changing.
That our congregation is in the midst of change is both needed and good
And, with the arrival of these HHDs,
we seek, thru atonement, to change ourselves!

To help us tonight, I would like to propose a significant change
in how we refer to and see ourselves as Jews.
I do so NOT to seek to create a new form of Judaism,
            But rather to reflect who I believe we already are
and who and what we seek to be,
as Jews, as members of the Solel family,
for most of us still as Reform identifying Jews.
It is only a little more than a decade since our movement changed name
            UAHC à URJ, WRJ and NFTY (and regions) before that
                        To reflect changing times & sensitivities,
who we had already become.
We still are, and will continue to be, a SOLEL –
and even if we did not originally chose the name
            for all of its political and philosophical implications,
            we embrace still the ideal of being trailblazers
                        building ramparts in the (relative) Jewish wilderness.

And be clear – Reform still carries great meaning and power
            I am not running from that identity,
                        But rather, hoping to strengthen it
                                    By making myself and others think about
What it really says about us and others.
Indeed, I have rarely been prouder to call myself a Reform Rabbi
            Than in the last few weeks,
                        With our statement on the Iran deal, and AJ4J.

But I am also aware that, for many, both scholars & the next generation,
            We live in a post-denominational world.
And therefore, I need to be able to express myself for who I am,
            And hopefully you will come along,
so we can do likewise as a community,
                                    Without the baggage of labels
                                    That may not be as positive to others
                                                As they are to me or you.
If we can find language that more accurately reflects
who we already are,
who and what we take pride in being,
            doesn’t that strengthen us?
If that same language also makes it easier
            For others to see value in who we are,
            Removes stumbling blocks and makes them want to join us,
                        Then it is even better!

So, starting tonight, in this new year,
            You will hear me start to refer
                        At least to myself, at first,
                                    As an “Affirmative Jew,” and “Affirmative Rabbi.”
And, if I am correct in this, as I believe I am,
            I hope we will begin to see ourselves and call ourselves
                        An “Affirmative Jewish Community”!

As with all well-managed change, for me at least,
            This is NOT nearly as revolutionary as it may sound at first.
            But rather, the product of natural evolution over time.
“Affirmative,” as descriptive of my Judaism, works in (at least) 3 ways:

First, it is a statement that one of the perpetual goals of my Jewishness
            Is to affirm the history and values, laws and teachings
                        Of 3500 years + of Jewish tradition
                        On who I am and wish to be
            Even as I struggle to re-imagine how Judaism should look today,
For myself and others.

Second, it affirms Judaism as a “way of life,”
            More than just a religion, or culture, or ethnicity
And ergo, that there are multiple valid ways of being Jewish.
Few of us, as individuals, start by embracing Judaism as a way of life.
Rather, as individuals, we see it is primarily, if not exclusively,
            As one, maybe two out of religion, culture, or ethnicity.
Therefore I seek to be more than inclusive,
            More than respectful or tolerant,
                        But truly accepting of and open to
new and different ideas and identities from my own,
that allow others to care, feel and do Jewish, as I do;
            Accepting others’ self-definitions,
                        Even when wildly different from my own,
                        Even as I maintain that connection to our past
                                    Individually, communally, historically, practically,
                                    By valuing k’lal Yis’ra’eil
The unity and totality of the Jewish people;
            Even more important, accept them for who they are,
                        Not automatically seeking to change them to my definition,
                                    But genuinely offering opportunities
                                                To those who seek them.

Third, by embracing these truths, and focusing on Jewish values
            I seek to develop a Judaism that allows me
                        To see the world, and be seen by the world
                                    In the affirmative – as a positive force and value.

Here are some of the things that do NOT change for me
in embracing this new descriptive:
1.    Being American defines my Jewishness
2.    Being Jewish defines me as an American
3.    BOTH define who I am as a person

As an Affirmative Jew, I take ownership of these truths
            And their implications,
                        Even the ones that create cognitive dissonance at times.

I do so POSITIVELY, and proactively,
            Defining and AFFIRMing the person they make me,
            The community they lead me to seek, build, and be part of,
            Refusing to allow others to define me negatively or passively.
2 E.G.s -- I am a Choveiv Tzion – a lover and supporter of Israel –
            BY MY OWN CHOICE, and ON MY OWN TERMS,
                        Which at this moment is neither AIPAC nor J Street,
                                    But still stridently pro-Israel.
My love and support for Israel must be, empirically,
            Different from someone who lives there,
                        For their experience is different,
                        And therefore, so must their priorities be.
But, that difference does not mean
            They are more authentic than I – in most things,
That they are automatically more (often) correct than I am.
It DOES mean their voice must count more
            On existential matters within their community,
            Just as mine must count more than theirs,
                        On essential matters to my community.
Not because one of us is right, and the other is not,
But rather, because of our different positions in different places.

Put practically, as a person who is an American, and who is Jewish,
            I value true peace more highly than almost anything,
                        And therefore, my tendency is to prefer
                                    A negotiated agreement over going to war.
As an American,
I recognize that there are opportunities and responsibilities
            Unique to our country,
            That require us to act in certain ways
                        For ourselves and others.
As a Jew, and a Choveiv Tzion,
            The survival of Israel and its prosperity
                        Matter more to me than to many other Americans & others.
Acting on any of these three identities alone in the current reality
            Is likely to take me to two, maybe three, different results.
Acting on them all together, obligates me to compromise between them,
            Harmonize differences,
                        And come to the consensus that best represents
                                    Each individually and all together.

Likewise, I am a Jew who chooses to live in the open society,
            And not in homogeneous, self-selecting, closed communities.
I accept that those who make the other choice have their reasons,
            And I pray that their decisions
                        Work as well for them as mine do for me,

                        Even if, when I am being honest, most of the time
                                    I must admit that I cannot see how they could,
                                    Because of my different experience,
                                    Because of my unwillingness to make their choice.
I am challenged by living as a Jew in the larger society,
            But those challenges are a positive choice I affirm daily
                        A force for growth and strength to be embraced
                                    Not to be feared and run from.

But I am a JEW who lives in that open society,
            And therefore HOW I choose to live as part of it,
                        Will, at times, differ from the ways of my neighbors,
                        When I embrace my Jewish learning, experience, history
            That truth makes neither I nor my neighbor right nor wrong,
                        Neither is better than the other.
                                    Just different.
And, as Mark Twain once so eloquently put it:
“If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary. 
Even though some of us disagree on the ______ issue,
each of us is necessary in reaching a resolution.”

Here are some more things that do not change for me
            As I embrace my new moniker,
                        Because I came to my positions on them
                                    By already being a positive, engaged, affirmative Jew
Even before embracing the language:
4.    God, Torah, and Israel are central elements
Of Judaism, and bind us to each other
5.    How I interpret them,
and value them relative to each other
            is a product of my unique experience,
            helps to define me as a distinctive Jew,
            and distinguishes me from other Jews,
even as they bind us together as one family.
6.    I embrace a Prophetic view of my role as a Jew --
placing the spirit of the law above letter
            when the two are in conflict,
providing Jewish motivation for all that I do,
encouraging me to find meaning in all that I do.

7.    This encourages me to do tikkun olam
To be “God’s shepherd” in tending to all Creation
            And to my fellow human beings
Not for myself, but to repair God’s world
            And improve everyone’s lot in it.
8.    This also encourages me to live my Judaism
In relationship with others,
            Both Jews and non-Jews.
                                    Indeed, my Affirmative Judaism, our Judaism,
                                                Is often most strongly defined, motivated,
                                                Most positively lived
THRU these relationships.

Again – what emerges is AFFIRMATIVE –
            It helps me to see the world through positive eyes;
            It encourages me to take action;
            It allows me to do so in a way that connects me to the past,
                        Even as I strive to live in the present & embrace the future.

And one last set of truths, somewhat unique to me,
            But concepts I have already been placing at the forefront
                        Of who I hope we become, and maybe already are
                                    As a mishpachah – an extended family of support
                                    As a k’hillah k’doshah – a sacred community.
9.    Because I see my Judaism, affirmatively,
As a “way of life,”
            Far more than just religion, culture, or people
I also see it, and the larger world,
10.         This leads me to seek not only healing,
For that which is not whole,
For what has become worn down or broken
            In myself, my family,
            My community, my world
                                    But also WELLNESS –
                                                A combination of the physical, mental,
                                                            Emotional, and spiritual
                                                That allows me to interact on multiple levels.
                                                Like my Jewishness,
it is greater than the sum of its parts,
                                                which allows me, at times,
to pre-empt the need for healing
from external sources,
                                                By affirming my own strength,
                                                            And reinforcing it,
                                                Even as I seek to help others
to do the same for themselves,
                                                                        individually and communally
11.         As I help to build the community,
It helps me recognize 3 truths
about my own personal motives:
A.   My need to be loved, respected, accepted
For who I am,
            And who I seek to be
B.   My need to make sense of the chaos
Of the world all around us
And within myself
C.    My need to leave a legacy behind
That tells others that I was here
            And hopefully made the world
                        A little better for it
                        12.              And to recognize these 3 truths
                                                            In all those with whom I work
                                                Empowering me to recognize, support
                                                            And empower them
                                                Just as I hope and need to be.

Friends, as we start the New Year 5776
            I embrace who I am and who I have become
                        As an AFFIRMATIVE Jew.
I am empowered not only by new language, by a new name,
            But by the process of introspection and affirmation
                        Which led me to dare to suggest it in public.

I hope that we all can recognize, both in my words and in my process,
            That each of us, too, either already is, or seeks to be,
                        An Affirmative Jew.

And even if we do not (yet) recognize ourselves in this way,
            I hope we can agree that this IS a significant goal
                        towards which to work – individually and collectively.

And, at the very least, even if that is still not on our horizons,
            I pray that we will recognize
                        In the process of introspection we each took to get here
                                    so central to our atonement-seeking at this season,
                        The value of recognizing the positive,
                                    And not just the negative,
not just for its own sake of being positive,
                                                not in some pollyannish “all is well” denial,
            But for the awesome power that comes when we allow ourselves
                        To grow not only in learning from and correcting mistakes
                        But in moving ourselves from strength to strength,
                                    From good, to even better, to [dare for] greatness.
                        To moving ourselves nearer to the best that is in us,
                                    And closer to each other,
                        By seeking and finding the spark of God
                                    That dwells in each of our souls.
            So that, by growing closer to each other, and our best,
                        We also draw closer to God,
                                    Not just at this season of our justifying our lives,
                                    But every day!

I made a conscious decision with my words tonight,
to speak for myself as an Affirmative Jew,
Both because what I suggest may not yet feel right to many,
But also so my words could model my message and my approach.
For those who found this helpful, I am grateful,
For those who found that decision made it harder to hear my message,
            My profound apologies.  I pray to do better on YK,
                        On this, and so many other things!
As I point out every time I do a wedding –
            1 + 1 can and does equal three,
                        when two (or more) individuals seek to come together,
                        and become a group, united with each other.
            The strength and success of the united group is dependent on
                        The continued strength of each individual.
            It cannot extinguish that individual strength,
                        But rather, grow it stronger by teaching it only
                                    To self-limit for the sake of the united whole.
May our 5776 start in joy, peace, and hope,
            Allowing us to begin the new year positive and strong,
                        Affirming our Jewishness – as individuals and as a group,
            So we can confront the challenges we face
                        In working towards perfection for ourselves and our world
                                    Like the perfection of the square in 5776,
                        With full vigor of body and soul, of spirit and mind,

                        Positive and affirming in all that we think, say and do.  KYR