Friday, April 22, 2016

A Passover Meditation

Searching for Meaning at Passover
by Learning the Meaning of our Searching or
Rising to the Occasion, Even without Chameitz
A Passover Meditation Inspired by
Julie Silver’s “That We All May Rise”
Rabbi Steve Weisman -- Passover 5776

Tonight, we celebrate our freedom as Jews, as human beings, our rising from the oppression of Egypt, by eating bread that has been deliberately prevented from rising.  If that seems ironic, it should not, as the entire story of our Passover observance plays on subtle contrasts and connections.

We begin our celebration even before the holiday begins, when we search our houses to remove all scraps of leavened, risen food (chameitz).  We search until we can be reasonably certain that all the risen matter is gone, just as we start our journey from Egypt in the absolute degradation of servitude.  And yet, any search designed to make certain that something no longer exists, no matter how small the area to be rid of the matter, must end short of absolute certainty, for we never can tell if we have truly searched everywhere, can never be sure that there isn’t some other corner that was missed, some object not overturned, and therefore, there still MIGHT be something there, no matter how thorough our searching.  Likewise, when we look around at our history and our world, we must eventually recognize that, no matter how dire our circumstances were in Egypt, they did NOT represent the absolute worst conditions ever endured by humanity, or any part of our race.

We start our telling of the story at the seder meal by breaking the middle matzah to create the afikoman, which will be the last food we eat together at the meal, and then lifting up the matzah – the bread that cannot rise -- and offering to share it with those who are hungry and in need, inviting them to raise themselves up and join us.  We create something new, of significant value, at least within the seder meal, by breaking what already exists.  And, in the process, no matter how careful we are, we must create some crumbs – less than 24 hours after undertaking the exhaustive search to remove all crumbs from our homes, in anticipation of the holiday!  We take what is left of the matzh to invite those who might have only had crumbs for their meal, to join us and eat – to join our celebration and raise their spirits and condition.

At the end of the meal, we search for the (now stolen) afikoman, and the person who has taken possession of it, or have our children and grandchildren search for it, if we have hidden it.  We do this in order that it can be redeemed, so that we can end our seder meal in the traditional way, by sharing and eating a piece of the unrisen bread, that we had earlier broken, and turned partially into crumbs.  We share a broken piece of unrisen bread as a reminder of the redemption of our ancestors from servitude.  We are symbolically redeemed by that which is unrisen itself, and broken by us, shared by those whom we invited earlier to come in from their own broken world, to rise up and join us on our journey to freedom.  Our  historic redemption is inseparably linked to the redemption we hope to bring to others in our own day, symbolized in this last bit of unrisen bread that we share to raise us up.

And we eat this afikoman, symbol of both our ancestors’ redemption, and our desire to raise others from their servitude to forces, seen and unseen, that hold them down today, as the last taste of food at our seder table, just before rising ourselves from that table (or sending our children) to open the door for Elijah, herald of the day when we hope we shall all be permanently redeemed and lifted up to the ultimate glory.  This errand is, itself, a search, one which, once we grow older, we recognize was never likely to be successful.  And yet, there was always that moment of uncertainty right before the door was opened – would this be the year that Elijah WAS standing there, facing us as we opened the door for him?  A colleague this year shared the story of his mother’s twist on this piece of the seder – not wanting the children to be disappointed when they opened the door, she always placed a potted plant outside the door after the meal started (and they were searching for the afikoman), with a note from “Elijah,” apologizing that he couldn’t stay to greet them because he had so many homes to visit, but encouraging them to continue looking for him throughout the year, and again next Passover!  A beautiful addition, with a powerful message for us all.  And yet… I can’t help but wonder how this mother’s sacrifice impacted her own spirituality – forcing her to confront her assumption that there was no possibility that the real Elijah might show up after all!

Thus, we end our journey from the degradation of human servitude to the hope for ultimate rising just as we began – by partaking in a search that is destined to be somewhat futile, no matter how symbolically effective, no matter how hard we try.  And in this final moment of shades and twists in the story, in our journey, individually and collectively, we recognize that no matter how successful we appear to ourselves to have been, there is always something more to still be achieved, something else that COULD happen, if only we work hard enough, if only we are open to its possibility, when we are able to see beyond ourselves.  No matter how far we have come on the journey, there is still more road to travel, especially if our goal is to help others on the upward journey from where we were to where we hope to reach!

All this, inspired by applying the words and message behind this awesome song by Julie Silver to our celebration of Passover.  And therefore, thanks, as always, to this gifted artist and true mensch, for teaching a powerful lesson with her words, her music, her example.  And a Happy and Kosher Passover to those who are celebrating.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Sermon I Won’t be Giving This Shabbat

The Sermon I Won’t be Giving This Shabbat, But Wish I Was --
On Mishpatim, the NFL, “Concussion,” CTE, and Responsibility
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel – Bowie MD – Feb. 5, 2016

To make perfectly clear – the reason I am not giving this sermon this Shabbat is NOT because I find it in any way inappropriate.  It is merely because I am not schedule to preach this evening at all.  To the contrary, I believe it IS worth preaching, which is why I wrote it anyway, so I could post it on my blog, and spread the message this way.  As a result, knowing I am not bound by time restrictions, it is a little longer than usual.  But the silence on these issues has also gone on far longer than it should have.  So….

Frame 1 – Setting the scene of Torah -- Last Shabbat, we all stood at the base of Mt. Sinai, and experienced God’s presence, as we heard the Ten Commandments spoken to us from on high.  Now, this Shabbat, in parshat Mishpatim, Moses is up on the mountain, and God is filling his head with lots of other ethical/legal statutes.  Most of these fall under the category that modern lawyers refer to as “tort law,” issues of responsibility and recompense for injuries or property loss suffered by one party by the actions or inactions of another.

Among the best known material in this portion are two bits.  The first, is the so-called lex talionis – the “law of retribution,” known better as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.…”  The second, is a sequence of differentiated responses when a pregnant woman is injured accidentally by two men quarrelling with each other, which frequently serve as one of the foundation points for a Jewish “pro-choice” position on abortion rights.  All this Shabbat’s material – large or small, well known or not – combine to strengthen the ethical underpinnings upon which the Jewish community is supposed to operate in our dealings with each other and with our neighbors.

Frame 2 – Setting the Cultural Scene for the Weekend – For those who may not have been aware (LOL), this Sunday is the Super Bowl ™.  Oh, sorry, I am not allowed to refer to it as such in public, because I do not have the proper licensing from the NFL to use their trademarked name.  I should have said this Sunday is “the big championship professional football game.”  This is not merely a football game – this is a football game on a scale of a major game of what the rest of the world calls “football.”  People have seriously suggested, for some time now, that the scope of interest in this game is so large, that the Monday after should be a national holiday, so we have a day off to recover.  The two days of the year when Americans, as a whole, overeat the most, are Thanksgiving and the day of the “Big Game.”  And, with some fanfare this year, the ugly truth has emerged that the site of this game, each year, becomes one of the year’s biggest locations for human trafficking and prostitution activities.  So many reasons for national pride here – NOT!  And don’t even get me started on the unresolved issue of the trademarked name and mascot of the local team!

Frame 3 – Beginning to Raise the Issues with the Game Itself -- American professional football, right now, is a flawed product – far beyond the obscene drain on productivity caused by games, especially this Sunday’s, and the equally obscene advertising rates charged for air time before, during, and right after the “big game.”  It has become a televised spectacle, which uses instant replay to correct calls potentially made in error by part-time, untrained officials, who, as if that weren’t bad enough, after the first round of the playoffs, are put together as a team only for one game (albeit, a team of officials allegedly made up of those who rated the best during the regular season at their particular sub-specialty of officiating), with no practical opportunity to adjust to working together.

Under a claim of wanting to “get the calls right” to justify the microscopic critique of human calls made in real time, the NFL further damages its own product by creating a farce of a system for utilizing the replay technology, designed more to entertain viewers than get calls right, or provide fairness in the outcome of the game.  And, as a direct result of replay usage, the league has micro-defined certain elements of the game, such as what constitutes catching a pass, within an inch of their lives, far beyond either fan or player common sense recognition, and almost to a level of making the game impossible for referees to control in real time.

Rather than fixing the problems on the field of play, the league’s officials are also now overreacting, after years of willful ignorance, to inappropriate off-field player behavior.  In short, whether it is actually true or not, the average American AND the more involved true fan often believe that the league’s leadership is interested in profits and ratings first, good publicity second, making an entertaining show third, the integrity of the game on the field only fourth, and the health and safety of the players who make all of the above possible, last.

Frame 4 – Identifying the Real Issues -- And yet, like rats on crack, we Americans, many of whom have no interest in football on any other day of the year, will get together with friends, overeat, wager on the game, argue over the quality of the commercials, critique the quality of the halftime act, and generally turn the day into America’s version of the “bread and circuses” that symbolized the decline and fall of the Roman Empire under the weight of its own ethical lapses.  Even in this year in which the movie “Concussion” should have, once and for all, moved the NFL’s blatant disregard for the lives and safety of its players into the limelight!  Even this week, when the tragi-comedy that the life of former Heisman Trophy winner, now NFL failure, Johnny Manziel has moved from the football field to the point where his agent has dumped him and his father publicly fears for his long-term survival if he does not get himself help to deal with his issues.  Yet the NFL rules for not overshadowing “The Big Game” prohibit his team from releasing him until after the Game.  Even this week, when, despite the mountain of evidence against the league, their alleged leader, Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has never met a television camera he didn’t love, or a story he couldn’t spin to ignore the pack of elephants on the playing field, once again got up, and turned his “State of the Game” message into a glowing denial, in which everything is right with the game, a poor rip-off of the riot scene from the end of “Animal House,” in which an overmatched Kevin Bacon screams to the onrushing crowd “Remain calm, all is good,” just before being trampled by them into the ground.

Long before the biggest scandal connected to the movie “Concussion” was the failure of the Hollywood elite to extend a Best Actor nomination, richly deserved, to Will Smith for his portrayal of the African-born doctor who first identified the condition now called “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” or CTE, and its role in early onset dementia, and an overly large number of other health problems and mental illness manifestations that have killed more than a few high profile football players prematurely, this movie should have made Americans sit up and take notice of what has been happening in professional and amateur football for too many years without appropriate response.  Sadly, the Oscar-related controversy seems to have derailed the REAL scandal of this movie – the true story it told of cover-up, willful denial and negligence on the part of billionaire owners and their minions in the league office, afraid to risk their profits, even for the sake of player safety and survival in the face of undeniable evidence.

The movie explains, in layman’s terms, the frightening long-term impact of multiple concussions, but even worse, the damage done by “the compilation of sub-concussive hits over time.”  It focuses on the very real, high-profile cases of the first few players to be confirmed with the condition.  The problem is, CTE can only be positively diagnosed in an autopsy, after the victim has already died, as was the case again this week with the announcement that Ken Stabler, former quarterback of the Oakland Raiders, who died a few months ago from cancer, also suffered from an extremely advanced form of CTE.

I remember sitting in the theater, sitting with both my kids, and my daughter’s boyfriend, a young man who is actually an (off-field) employee of a professional football franchise, watching “Concussion,” and who left the theater as disturbed with the dissonance between his lifelong love of the game and the reality portrayed so clearly on the screen as I was.  For me, hearing the descriptions of the damage, and the behaviors the condition could cause, reminded me that this was NOT the first time I had learned of this condition through pop culture sources.  So I went and looked it up.

Sure enough, in December of 2011, during their 13th season, Law and Order:  Special Victims Unit did an episode called “Spiralling Down.”  The guest star was Treat Williams, playing a popular retired NFL quarterback accused of a crime against a woman.  As the case plays out, it becomes clear that he is no longer always in control of his behaviors, and showing signs of advanced dementia as well, which may have resulted in his alleged attack happening without his awareness or control.

This was SVU taking on the headlines that went with the original public disclosure of CTE, and creating a case.  I remember watching the episode, thinking that Williams was playing a character based on Joe Namath.  In truth, the character’s name was Jake Stanton, which, in retrospect, and influenced by this week’s news about Ken Stabler, makes me believe the character was written based on Stabler, but played like Namath.

Frame 5 – The Bottom Line – A big part of the drama in the true-life story of “Concussion” was the sad truth that the “powers that be” that control professional football at first refused to admit that CTE was an actual condition, then claimed that it wasn’t a real problem.  Only when the evidence started to mount, were they forced to admit the truth.  But, at that point, rather than take responsibility, and work to improve conditions and save lives, they opted instead to simply control the spin on the issue.  I cringed hearing “Commissioner Goodell claim this week, with a straight face, that the league has made substantive changes to improve player safety.  Sure, more concussions were reported, and more players forced to sit if concussions were either suspected in game, or confirmed.  Perhaps some equipment has been improved.  Rules have been tinkered with off the field.  But, enforcement on the field is, at best, inconsistent.  Several high profile cases occurred this year in which players who should have been prevented from returning to play were not.  Rules “refinements” on the definition of a catch in the end zone for a touchdown now almost beg a defensive back, in a last ditch effort to prevent a score, to attempt to separate a receiver from the ball by separating him from his senses unnecessarily. 

In one particularly galling and egregious incident, the outcome of a playoff game turned when a runner was illegally hit and knocked out on the field, and in the process, quite understandably, lost control of the football before hitting the ground.  Not only did the officials fail to penalize the illegal hit that knocked out the runner, as they are supposed to do, but after also failing to note the fumble, the rules allowed the team that committed the felonious assault to challenge the ruling on the field.  The rules further prohibited the officials from acting to correct their failure to penalize the guilty player and his team, and prohibited them from “doing the right thing” and continuing to refuse to recognize the “fumble” that resulted.

But “Commissioner” Goodell and his talking head PR team think the game is great, and the rules are fine, and they are making the players safer.  Excuse me, but I am throwing a penalty flag and calling “BS” on them.  I, for one, refuse to be silent in the face of such self-serving nonsense and lies!

Not when, in the meantime, more professional players’ lives are being destroyed with each violent tackle or block – legal or illegal.  Worse, by failing to take any meaningful ameliorative action, despite claims of concern and action, they are continuing to endanger the lives of young children whose parents allow them to get involved in youth football.  The fact that for these young children and their parents, the willfully dangerous decision is often strongly influenced by an equally noxious truth that for many inner-city, lowest income kids and families, football represents the best, and often only, potential path out of poverty and away from crime infested neighborhoods, only makes the continued denial and failure to improve conditions that much more heinous.

And for those, like the “leadership” of the NFL, who claim that there is not more that can be done, I offer the case of the Seattle Seahawks, who, for the past two years, have focused on teaching their players a different way of tackling.  The techniques are used in professional rugby, a similar game that is played without protect helmets or heavy pads, and involve driving towards a tackle more directly, far less frequently placing one’s own head in the line of the contact, targeting the ball carrier in the safe middle zone of their body, which is, not coincidentally, also the most effective place to achieve the goal of stopping a runner. 

They are the only team taking this approach.  Not coincidentally, they have had one of the best defenses in the league the last couple of years.  And they have suffered among the fewest concussions in the league since they started this approach, despite the number of reported concussions rising significantly in that time, despite the commissioner’s claims that players are now safer!  And yet, no other teams are copying them.  The league has not stepped in to evaluate and learn.  Few, if any, mainstream sports media outlets are reporting on this phenomenon.  And no one in authority has yet made the obvious suggestion to look at rugby, and consider the impact of the “protective” helmets and pads on the damaging contacts, with an eye to getting rid of them, and making players far more accountable, through increased risk to themselves, for their contact with other players. THAT would be a change for the better!

Frame 6 – Tying It All Together – I find myself asking tonight, what Mishpatim would have said about the sordid reality that is professional football today?  IMHO, the ethical system upon which Judaism is built, much of it expressed in this week’s Torah portion, clearly obligates the powerful to act with awareness for and concern about the impact on the weak; clearly values life and health; clearly expects and requires justice and fairness, honest communication, and admission of responsibility at all times.

On ALL of these yardsticks, the behavior of the NFL leadership towards its players and its game falls woefully short.  That they leave themselves open to the interpretation that they are more interested in maintaining their own personal profits and power than they are about the health and safety of those who work for them, or the integrity of the game, and the impact they have upon American society as a whole, only makes this a bigger set of failures.

In other words, according to this week’s Torah portion, this IS a Jewish issue – or at least an issue that Judaism DOES speak to quite clearly.  And yes, there may be larger issues in the world today that also cry out for our outrage, our advocacy, and our action.  But try to convince the families of the several dozen players who have already died and been posthumously diagnosed, or of the far too many others whose behavior, or injury history, now raise warning flags that they, too, may have already been permanently damaged by CTE, that there are bigger issues.  Try to convince the growing number of parents, now up to 30%, who, when surveyed, say they would NOT let their children start to play football, because of the potential danger.  Or the too many parents who are ignoring the data, and riding their slim hope of athletic success in football as the vehicle to escaping their poverty and dangerous neighborhoods – but at what price?

Because, if we learn anything from Mishpatim, it is that, even as an ethical society must assign monetary values to many daily realities of life, there is no price that we can ethically place on the value of human life.  And, while football may be a game, it is also a big business, and, until the concussion issue, and other issues, are properly addressed, an engine of life endangerment.

So, no, I will NOT be watching the game on Sunday.  I have never been so thankful that my team did not win this year, making this an easy decision for me.  I do not expect that anyone of significance, or even any of you, will be influenced by my decision, that my personal boycott will change any of the issues for the better.  But I will sleep better, happier that I am living my ethical values.  And I will keep pointing out the hypocrisies, the moral aversions, the outright transgressions, but most importantly, the dangers connected to this sport, and inviting others to break themselves of their football “habit,” to speak out and act in support of their values and the value of life.  Because if I don’t, it is very possible that no one else will.  And I cannot live with the guilt on my conscience that will come from continued silence.

Because Mishpatim also teaches us, in words repeated by the Rabbis in Pirkei Avot, some 1700 years ago, that “All Israel is responsible, one for the other;” that in a community, everyone has responsibility for the well-being of everyone else.  And THAT is a teaching central to my self-identity as a Jew, one that I strive to live by every day.  One that makes the difference between our success and failure as a community.  And THAT is a result I AM willing to bet on, and DO care about making real.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

On Being Commanded, and Our Values – Inquiry and Homage

Note:  Posting this for the response it received especially the bit that is now in bold and italics that is a reworking of the Ten Commandments in a more values based, general English than the specifics of the original, but, imho, still consistent with the original,,,

Musings for Parshat Yitro – January 29, 2016
Rabbi Steve Weisman, Temple Solel, Bowie MD

We have just heard the stirring sound of the “Ten Commandments.”  The words are still powerful and transformative some 3000 years later.  They still raise fascinating challenges for us tonight, even as we hear them rehearsed again – we may not all be able to recite them verbatim and in order, even with an assist from the windows of this sanctuary, but we certainly KNOW what they say to us as a whole.

Question number one – what do these words really give to us, as American Reform Jews of the early 21st century?  We, who do not believe in the compulsive nature of halachah – a comprehensive system of Jewish ritual and legal proscriptions that are binding upon our behavior.  So, what hold do these words REALLY have upon us?

Indeed, some have accused us, as a movement, of reducing these to the “Ten Commitments,” or “Ten Promises.”  After all, there is assuredly a difference between “I will try to observe Shabbat,” and “You shall observe Shabbat.”  And, if we are being honest, most of us, even those who have chosen to be here tonight, for whatever reason, and are therefore more aware of the reality of Shabbat in our lives in some way, are probably more comfortable with the former commitment than we are with the latter command.

For me, I choose to see these “Ten Words” (the literal translation of the Hebrew term for the words we read earlier – Aseret HaDibrot, and NOT the expected Aseret HaMitzvot) as the beginning and core of the basic values that Torah teaches us about what it means to be a “good” Jew.  To paraphrase them:  

...Think intentionally about God, and the role of the Divine in our lives.  
...Establish rituals for our lives, 
...and be careful in our use of words. 
...Set aside time to escape from the everyday world, recharge ourselves, and do things we don’t have time for during the rest of the week that allow us to remember and reconnect with God’s presence in our lives and the world.  
...Honor our parents, and all others who have been powerful (and positive, we hope) influences on us.  
...Value life, not just our own, but others'.  
...Value our relationships – of all kinds.  
...Respect what does not belong to us..., and those to whom it does belong.  
...Speak the truth and act upon it. 

Restated this way, these words can play a significant role in our lives, without forcing us to embrace a particular set of behaviors.  That is the beauty of values as opposed to commands – the latter demand obedience; the former require commitment to and investment in them.  Restated this way, they are more than theoretical, idealized goals – they instead become the foundation for all that we do as Jews,  even if we each interpret them differently and derive different paths of action from them.  Which hints at a question we need to return to in just a moment.

This reinterpretation leads to a second set of questions, that stem from this one – what does it mean for us, in this day and age, to be “commanded”?  This question requires us to confront our understanding of and relationship to and with our God.  Does God command us today?  If so, in what ways?  And how do we know?  And, for many of us, before we can get to those questions, we must confront even more basic questions about God – Do we believe in God?  If so, what do we believe about God?  How confident are we in these beliefs?  And, a question that seems to become more significant every day – how do we interact with God, and with those who have different understandings than we do about God?

Each of these is worthy of its own sermon and discussion.  For tonight, as Rabbi of this congregation, I am far less concerned with the specific details of our answers to each of these questions as I am that we have answers to them at all.  Because, without answers, we cannot approach the bigger questions that surround the idea of being commanded.  With them, even when we disagree, we at least have the beginnings of finding common ground, on which we can take the next few steps of our journey together.

This, too, hints at the same question we delayed raising earlier – How do our personal understandings about God, commandments, and being commanded impact our own words, behaviors, attitudes, our actions, our interactions and relationships with each other?  Our answers to this question are critical to how we live our lives, and are heavily influenced by our answers to all the previous questions we have raised tonight.

If we see the Commandments as requirements of a commanding God, then not only do we feel compelled to follow them, but to judge others – and ourselves - by how we perceive them succeeding or failing at following the Commandments as well.  Does anyone else recognize that reality in the headlines from our world today?  I sure do!

If we see them as Commandments, but are not sure of their Source or the process thru which we become commanded, how can we hope to succeed in acting as we are expected to act?  Here, too, I believe we can all recognize many truths about life today playing out in this reality.

If we see them as Suggestions, Commitments, or Promises, even if we have a high comfort level with God, and more so if we do not, what distinguishes these from other suggestions, commitments, or promises from other sources, at other levels of significance? What compels us to follow through on these, to act upon them better than in other cases?

BUT, if we see these words as the beginning and core of our system of values, then it is possible to embrace them with or without a solid sense of God’s place in our lives.  Indeed, these values can, and, one might contend, actually DO, lead us toward God.  And, even more, toward each other – whether we agree with their interpretations or not – BECAUSE WE ARE JOURNEYING, IF NOT ON THE SAME PATH AS THESE OTHERS, THEN ON PATHS THAT CAN BE EASILY SEEN AS BEING PARALLEL TO THEIRS, MERGING WITH THEIRS AT TIMES, or HEADING TO THE SAME PLACE AS THEIRS.

This understanding also allows us to balance better the twin pulls of modern liberal Judaism – accepting and embracing the tradition we have received from previous generations, even as we try to understand and reimagine what Judaism means for us today and tomorrow.

None of this can occur effectively in a haphazard manner.  This only works with personal commitment – to embrace tradition, to strive to develop our Judaism for our own realities, to reach out for God, to accept the values, and to reach beyond the self to journey with others. To live with integrity, consistency, and deliberate intention. 

Which is why, before God made these words known directly to ALL the Israelites gathered at the base of the mountain, God instructed Moses to have our ancestors prepare themselves for 3 days to receive what they would see and hear.  It is why God set physical limits around the base of the mountain, so that they had to maintain a respectful distance, in order to enjoy a sense of appropriate perspective.  And these preparations and precautions are a good lesson for us in our efforts to be intentional in our approach to the Commandments as well!

For these reasons and more, these words, these teachings, these values from this week’s Torah, are elevated above others in how I seek to live as a Jew.  In the words of Gates of Prayer – these words are equal to all the others of our tradition, because they lead to them all.  Without the values gleaned from this portion, from these three critical sets of questions raised by what we read tonight, it would be far more difficult, if not impossible, to live our lives in ways that allow us to connect effectively with each other, to walk together with and towards God in a Jewish way.  Btw, these 3 sets of questions align well with the elemental triangle of Judaism – our understanding of and relationship with God, Torah, and our fellow Jews - the basis of our Covenant with God!

Which is where my message should end.  However, I beg your indulgence for one more minute, as I acknowledge a deep debt.  I could not express this message, this essence of my understanding of Judaism today, were it not for having been privileged to learn from Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, quite possibly the leading Jewish thinker of the second half of the 20th Century, who raised these very questions, and led three generations of Reform Rabbis (and religious scholars of all stripes) to confront the answers for ourselves, and the Jewish people.

Gene left us last Friday, a few days short of his 92nd birthday.  My own relationship with Borowitz began long before I reached his class at HUC, when he encouraged me, as a teenager, to follow my interest in Judaism and the Rabbinate.  The encouragement he provided to me, the interest he showed to a young man who sat behind him in the pews at Community Synagogue in Port Washington (where he, too, was a member), were instrumental in my decision to become a Rabbi.  The example he provided as a teacher and Rabbi, and the intellectual integrity and rigor he demanded of me, and every student he learned from, is the same one I seek to provide today.  I hope and pray, and believe, that if he is capable of looking down upon us now, he may have been listening into these words tonight, no doubt with his green pen ready to make corrections, or raise unconsidered questions or inconsistencies in what I have spoken.  If he is, for the first time since I walked into his classroom, I hope and believe that he may find little reason to use that pen.  He was a blessing to me, and so many others, and with these words tonight, I hope I have been able to share that blessing.  May we embrace his challenge, and learn the lessons he sought to teach us all, and share them with future generations.

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