Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Some Simple Ways to Build Community on the High Holidays

Giving People More of a Stake in High Holiday Services
15 Elul, 5768/29 September, 2007

As I prepare for my first High Holidays at Temple Beth Shalom, I wanted to give you a peek into some of the things I am planning for our services. There a few tweeks that I will make to give the services a special feeling. While I am spending a lot of time preparing sermons, I also give a considerable amount of time to plan the order of services, a sort of scripting. It is in this planning that you are able to add d imension and depth to a service. Ultimately the quality of the service will be determined by the ‘lev’-the heart that is felt by those who lead and how all of us participate in the service. Making openings for the heart to find expression is one of the keys to planning.

The High Holiday services are a unique opportunity to build a sense of community as well as to create a space for the individual to express his or her spiritual needs. There are a number of communal prayers that are recited just after the Haftarah-the prophetic reading which provide opportunities to acknowledge people who serve and people who have made significant transitions in their lives. During these prayers I will be asking people to come up on the Bimah to honor them. You might be among them, so now you are duly notified.

Rosh Hashannah First Day
Prayer for New Babies: This communal prayer custom is unique to TBS. We call on all parents and grandparents who celebrated the birth of a new child in their families during the past year.
Prayer for the Congregation: I will invite all new members and those who converted to Judaism during the past year to come up to be honored for their decision to join our community and our people.
Prayer for the Country: I will invite to the Bimah those who serve in our armed forces, veterans, civil servants, and public officials within our congregation who will receive our gratitude for serving our country.
Prayer for Jewish Communities: I will invite members of our congregations who come from Jewish communities outside the United States to acknowledge our diversity as a Jewish community.
Prayer for Israel: I will invite all of you who visited Israel during the past year to affirm our commitment as American Jews to the Jewish homeland.

Yom Kippur Day
Yekum Purkan (Prayer on behalf of Scholars) I will invite to the Bimah our members who have served the Jewish community as educators, professionals, and have taught Torah during the past year to wish them success and to extend honor to them for their efforts.
Prayer for the Congregation: I will invite to the Bimah our Board of Directors and all those who have served on synagogue committees during the past year to acknowledge their service to our community.
Prayer for Peace: I will call to the Bimah our worshippers who have volunteered with organizations to help improve the world. We want to acknowledge social activists in our midst who dedicate their lives to social justice and improving the human condition either as professionals or volunteers.

The Temple Beth Shalom Paginator: Hama’amad- (from the word amud-page)
As a kid I sat behind a wooden scoreboard at little league games and put numbers in the slots to tell the score. When I was a young man I went to a shul that had its own type of scoreboard. A child stood behind it and kept on flipping pages with large numbers on it. I wondered if there was some sort of competition on the Bimah between the cantor and the rabbi. Maybe they were keeping thetime of the service. Upon closer observation I saw that this scoreboard announced the pages so that the Rabbi or Cantor did not have to verbally announce the page and detract from the service. When I became a rabbi I commissioned a woodworker to make this contraption and called it a paginator or the Hebrew term Hama’amad.. I then recruited kids who could follow the service to sit on the Bimah and flip the pages so everyone in the congregation knew where we were in the Siddur.

One of my first official acts as rabbi at TBS was to commission a paginator to be made by Master Paginator Builder, Lyle Margulies, of the Northwest Jewish tribe of Seattle. (He is a member of another Beth Shalom up in Seattle, one of the Beth Shalom franchise shuls that dot our fine country.) He hopes to have it to us by the High Holidays where it will bless our Bimah and will help all of you not to lose your place at services ever again (unless the paginator operater falls asleep or misflips a page which will all cause us to be on the wrong page, God forbid.)

There is a method to my madness about something that seems inconsequential or quaint as a synagogue paginator. It is one of the methods I use to increase participation in our worship. It provides an opportunity for young persons to sit on the Bimah and to engage in the service. It removes anxiety from people who have trouble following Hebrew about where we are in the service. It allows the Rabbi and Cantor to focus on leading the prayers. It makes our service more accessible to newcomers. It may even allow us to keep score. I hope you enjoy our new paginator and that it enhances your worship experience at TBS.

Younger Persons: Become a Flipper or a Greeter Usher by joining the Future Mentches of Israel-FMI
The Future Mentches of Israel-FMI-is the name of our loose organization of young volunteers at Temple Beth Shalom. To join all you need to do is volunteer for the following. Parents and Teenagers: Please sign yourself or your children up by responding to this email or by calling and emailing the office before 9/7/07.

Paginator Flippers

I call upon our children to serve as ‘page flippers’ during High Holiday services. Children need to be available to sit at least one hour on the Bimah. Flippers will sit near the Rabbi who will help them to keep pace with the service and flip the correct pages. I recommend that the starting age for a flipper on the High Holidays be 10 and up or any child that has basic Hebrew reading ability. Even if you don’t, please volunteer. Younger children will be given an opportunity to be flippers on Shabbat. Paginating can be counted as community service for those who go to schools that require community service hours. We will be organizing a regular sign up process for services throughout the year after the holidays.

Young Adults as Greeter-Ushers
Speaking of community service, I call upon teenagers, post Bar Mitzvah and up, to serve as greeter ushers during the High Holiday services. All volunteer greeter ushers may apply this activity toward Junior High and High School community service hours. By ushering you get an automatic membership in FMI.
This invitation also goes out to adults at TBS, who want to enhance our services by making them more welcoming. I will be hosting a dessert and 1 hour orientation meeting on how to be a greeter-usher at the synagogue on Sunday, September 9th at 7:00pm in the Beit Midrash which is a prerequisite for getting community service credit. Please note that anyone who serves as a greeter usher is also fulfilling a mitzvah-hachnasat orchim-welcoming the guest. Jewish hospitality is the congregational theme this coming year.

My wife Robbie and I wish each of you a Shanah Tovah,
This will be posted to Rabbiblog. To see previous entries, please ciick


Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

The Story of Eugene Schlesinger

The most enjoyable aspect of coming to a new community is eliciting people’s stories and Jewish journeys. I have been doing a lot of listening, giving opportunities for people to tell their stories in private or in groups. Some of you are ready to tell your story. Others want more time. I hope to hear from all of you over time. Judaism is a story telling religion and people. Our most beloved book-The Haggadah of Pesah-means telling. We are commanded to tell the ‘story’ of the Exodus to our children. By extension, we are commanded to tell our own exodus and birth stories to our loved ones and to our community.

In this Igeret (epistle) I would like to share with you a few stories I heard this week from a long time, beloved, and respected member of our congregation, Eugene Schlesinger. Eugene invited me to his home to spend some time together. He proceeded to share with me his stories of growing up in a small village and surviving the holocaust in Czechoslovakia. Eugene gave me permission to share them with you.

Eugene grew up in very traditional Jewish home in a small village which had a handful of Jewish families. There were similar villages in the area, all with their handful of Jewish families. None of the villages had a synagogue or the capacity to make a minyan. So Shabbat rotated from village to village, with the families from close by villages staying with families in one of the villages to be able to make a minyan and to hold services. They had no rabbi, but in Europe regular Yiddin were well educated religiously and could organize their services without a rabbi. I was very touched by this picture of a movable minyan and the readiness of these pious families to move out of their homes for an entire Shabbat to create community with their ‘landsmen’ in another village. This shows that you do not need a building to create community. What really builds community is the love and desire to share special time with others. Sabbath is what ideally binds the Jews. What a remarkable illustration of its power.

Eugene told me many amazing stories about the holocaust, but this one stands out. When the Nazis came to take him, he had to part with his mother. She told him to wrap his Tallit and Tefillin each morning in order to stay alive. Through four years in the camps Eugene kept her command, wrapping his tallit and tefillin often in the most extreme conditions. Toward the end of the war he escaped from one of the camps as the German war machine was collapsing. He recovered a German army uniform from a dead soldier and put it on to disguise his identity. One day he came upon a field and saw a large assemblage of German soldiers standing with their arms up. He realized that they were prisoners of an advance Russian unit. He started to walk toward the prisoners but was stopped by a Russian soldier who ordered him to hand over his knapsack. He rifled through it and pulled out Eugene’s talit and tefillin bag. He looked at Eugene and said, ‘Ivri (Hebrew)?’. Eugene nodded. The Russian soldier pointed to the forest and Eugene realized that he needed to leave right away. He ran toward the forest to safety and heard the machine gun fire behind him as the German prisoners were gunned down by the Russians. He realized that the Russian soldier was a Jew and realized that Eugene was wearing a German uniform to survive.

A couple of weeks ago at Shabbat morning services I asked people to share with me their most vivid Shabbat memory. Eugene told me that he did not speak up at the service because his most vivid memory was deeply painful. Eugene came to his home village after he was liberated and found himself to be completely alone. Apparently, no one had survived from his family or his neighbors. Friday evening arrived and Eugene lit the candles in his empty house and observed Shabbat by himself. At this point in our conversation, Eugene wept. I was so deeply moved that he shared this Shabbat memory. May Eugene be blessed with many more joyous and loving Shabbat memories. I hope that Beth Shalom will be a place for many of those joyous and loving Shabbatot.

As a young man I came to affirm my Jewishness as I learned of the holocaust and heard accounts of those who came through it. I eventually chose the rabbinate in part because of my passionate commitment to help strengthen the Jewish people after this great trauma. I have been a rabbi for over twenty years and as one would expect it is easy to forget the reasons for choosing the arduous life for the rabbinate. Eugene’s moving and emotional accounts of his experiences brought me right back to my convictions for being a rabbi and serving the Jewish people. I was honored to be in the presence of a person who survived these very dark days and emerged from the crucible a mensch. He has blessed this community, this country, and the Jewish people with his exceptional leadership, generosity, and courage.

I have heard other amazing stories from the folks of Beth Shalom will try to share them or to get the tellers to share them with our community and with the younger generations. Please feel free to tell me your unique story and what brings you to our community.
Shalom, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Info on the Blog-Flapping at Home Depot

‘Igrot Mei Hof Hayam’-Epistles from the Seashore
Emails from Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Friday, Aug. 10, 2007 Email V.1;E3

To the folks at TBS and cyberspace,

Introducing Rabbiblog
Thank you for the positive feedback to the Epistles from the Seashore. I will try to keep these coming. I will now be posting them on my blog. It is dangerous for Rabbis to discover new media. We tend to be long winded in general and the blog is well suited for rabbinic windbags. I have for the most part learned the art of keeping my live sermons short (It took two decades of rabbinating to do that) but I am still mastering the blog form. In any case you can log onto my blog which is artfully named, Rabbiblog. I know you will want to bookmark this, so here it is: .

My Purple Period
You can read postings from the last three years. Like artists, rabbis go through periods. Picasso had his blue period and rose period. The last nineteen years was my teal period, a Northwest color, still worn occasionally by the Seattle Mariners during Spring training. The last three years were my hot teal period, a time of creativity and new ideas. I started a new non-profit and experimented with some new rabbinic approaches. You can read about them on the blog. Many of these ideas were generated because I was out of the pulpit and had the opportunity to create without the pressures of a pulpit life. So you will see a different side of my rabbinate.
I think I am entering the purple period, when rabbis have the chance to summon experience, wisdom, and insight from years of service. Purple is the color of the priesthood as well, so I hope I demonstrate the worldly wisdom of the Cohanim. In any case, I hope this recent turn in my career will bode well and will be reflected in the blog. Please feel free to comment, since the blog allows for that. While I cannot promise to respond promptly, I will try to do so to realize its potential for communication.

Sermon Postings
I will also post sermons I write out on the blog for your review. I know most people don’t make it to shul or don’t want to come. But people do tell me they would like to read or hear the sermon. Any sermon I write out I will post here on the blog. I will post them after Shabbat after I have delivered the sermon, but for a special fee I will send out previews so you can decide whether it is worth coming to shul for a live version. (If you think I was serious, don’t read on.)
I am currently doing a series of sermons named after an impressive book by my colleage, Rabbi Alan Lew, the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Shalom in San Francisco, (another shul in the Beth Shalom franchise, 100,000 polyester kippot sold!). The book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared gives a beautiful interpretation on how to understand the High Holiday period. Rabbi Lew argues that the High Holiday period runs from Tisha B’av, the fast day in mid summer to the end of Sukkot in the fall. In this framework he gives a deeply spiritual understanding of this annual journey we do as Jews. I have been teaching from this book and adding my own insights during this series of Friday evening sermons which will continue through Sukkot. I suggest that you get the book in preparation for your own holidays. I think it will greatly enhance your experience of services and beyond. Look at the emailed or hard copy, Hasofer Lashavua-The Weekly Scribe, for the sermon schedule.

Shabbat Morning Live
On Shabbat mornings I have introduced a new (for TBS) form of rabbinic presentation called a ‘Limud’. Limud means study. I take a few verses from the portion of the week, illuminate their meaning while also bringing one or two texts from the Talmud * or Midrash . I ask questions, encourage comments, and keep the content rich, stimulating, and funny. My main goal is to show the infinitely fascinating world of the rabbis and how they understood life through our great texts. I was very pleased to see the level of participation, especially from the young people.

Flapping Hands
I was in the Home Depot on one of my recent moving shopping ventures and I saw a teenager with his family in the aisle flapping his hands wildly. As I approached I saw the mother take his hands and put them at his side, pleading softly with him to calm down.
I have an autistic son who I love deeply. He does similar things. His name is Mori. I likes to walk tiptoe and to put his forefingers on his temples. He coos out loud and makes funny faces. I grew to be proud of his eccentricities and the strange encounters his expressions would engender. I melt every time I run into an autistic person in a public space. So when I passed by the family, I commented to the mother, “I have one too.” She turned to me and said with some relief, “So you know what it’s like.” I nodded and smiled and we went on our way.
There is a blessing upon seeing a unique individual: “Baruch ….Mshaneh Haberiot. Blessed are You, Adonai, who has made all your creatures different from one another. “ I said it to myself as I passed and meditated on our shared fate as parents of disabled children. Nothing like going to Home Depot to have meaningful human encounters.

I am attaching the talk I gave about Mori the week before his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. This is one of my favorite sermons. I hope you like it too.
May you have a restful and joyful Shabbat,

A Proper Blessing at a Bar Mitzvah
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Jan. 25, 2003 Shabbat Yitro

Next week our children, Moriel and Fay will be marking their Bnei Mitzvah at Shabbat morning services. During rehearsal this Sunday we practiced the parental blessings. After chanting the Birkat Hacohanim, we started to chant the Baruch shepatarani blessing over our son, Mori. I realized at that moment that I could not really say this blessing over him. I paused for one moment before turning to Fay and practicing saying it over her.

This blessing, which parents recite over children when they reach the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah, is Baruch ata adoshem eloheinu melech haolam shepatarani meonsho shelazeh. It is translated in the new RA manual as Praised are You, Adonai our God who rules the universe, who has freed us of some responsibilities and conferred new ones upon this child. Perfectly appropriate for Fay, but not for Mori, who will never have the ability to choose responsibility for the observance of Mitzvot. I wondered, what blessing should we say for Mori?

In Parshat Yitro, we celebrate the giving of the Decalogue and remember that great turning point at Sinai. Jews over the generations regard the giving of the law as God’s greatest gift. Every Bar Mitzvah is a reenactment of that great moment when God brings us into a holy way of life. Our sages understood the gift as a precious burden as well. That is why the Bar Mitzvah blessing is formulated in the negative --shepatarani meonsho shelazeh.-God has exempted us (the parents) from the punishment for his transgressions of the Torah.

It is strange when a parent covets the possibility of punishment as part of the vain hope that a child may gain the capacity for conscience.

It is the transgression of the 10th utterance, thou shalt not covet, that a parent of a severely disabled child commits over and over again. I cannot deny that when I see another child Mori’s age, for a fleeting moment I covet his health, his capacity for making friends, his plans for his future. I covet a family’s relaxed air at a restaurant while I sit nervously afraid that Mori might make a scene over food. Paul, the first Christian, so alienated from his Judaism and so misunderstanding of it, at least had it right about thou shalt not covet. This Mitzvah makes you aware of how deep seated jealous longing is and how painfully difficult it is to consistently fulfill this divine command.

On NPR’s Talk of the Nation this week there was an hour devoted to describing the life of families with autistic children and siblings. I was particularly struck by the observations of callers about how afraid they were to go out in public with their autistic children for fear of embarrassment. The expert on the show observed that families with autistic children often shut themselves in their homes because they feel that no one can understand their autistic child or be sensitive enough to respond to his strange behaviors. I listened as the callers described their own peculiar struggles to make what was familiar to them acceptable to the outside world.

As painful as it is, it is totally understandable when people react negatively to a disabled person’s disruptive behavior or strange appearance. We actually find this attitude in the sources. When determining whether or not a Shoteh, a mentally incapacitated individual, is entitled to monetary compensation for insult, one finds this comment in Baba Kama: “It may be said that the Shoteh by himself constitutes a disgrace which is second to none,” meaning that one who is already disgraced to such a degree is not vulnerable to further degradation, and thus is not entitled to compensation.

But here is what Mori’s presence in my life has brought home to me: I believe that one of our main purposes in this life is to progress from gnut to shevah- the Rabbis’ phrase for describing the narrative progression of the Passover Seder. Translate it as the move from degradation to praise--the journey from disgrace to dignity. One such way for us to provide a semblance of that journey to our son is to allow him to participate in a Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

When my daughter Fay began thinking about her Bat Mitzvah she offered to share her Simcha with her brother, Mori. Mori was already 14 at the time and we had not given serious consideration to having a ceremony for him. How could a person who would never be obligated for Mitzvot have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony? But as we thought about combining their simcha, we imagined that this occasion would not only mark Fay’s becoming a commanded Jew, but give Mori a chance to receive loving attention and praise from his community – to be seen.

Each child with autism is an individual and will be different from other children with the same diagnosis. Like every other autistic child, Mori has a unique personality. He is a very affectionate child. He loves to smile, hug, and kiss those around him. He is most of the time very responsive to requests and instructions. He lets you know what he likes and dislikes. He appears to be happy most of the time. He is also a great mystery to us. We do not know the extent of his self-awareness or even his intelligence. While he appears to be low functioning he constantly surprises us with his capacity to respond to complex commands and to show a wide range of emotional expression.

The decision to include Mori in Fay’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony was not an easy one. But it was guided first by Fay’s willingness to share this with her brother. Siblings of severely disabled kids have a special lot in life. They grow up knowing that their lives are often very different from others. They have to develop special sensitivities and responses that most other young people never have to deal with. I greatly admire Fay’s decision to share her special moment.

We did mull over the issue of a joint ceremony, however. We decided to go ahead with it because we were convinced that Mori had the capacity to participate in the rituals with some degree of intention and cooperation. We have rehearsed every week for over four months and he very early on showed his ability and willingness to perform several parts of the service. Recent problems with his medication have made his cooperation less predictable, but I know one thing for sure: he loves to be on the Bimah.

Another reason guided our decision to carry this out. Because of Mori’s disability he remains hidden to the community and unknown by his peers. His strange behaviors are sometimes misunderstood and among some adolescents held up to ridicule. But Mori, like any other young person, deserves a place of dignity in his community. Like any other child he should be given an opportunity to develop and fulfill his potential as a human being.

Finally we decided to do this as a way to celebrate our unique expanded family. Mori and Fay is only one combination. Mori and Zach is another. Mori and Nancy and Ed, his incredible loving guardians are another. Mori and Joanne and the many loving caregivers and teachers are other special relationships. A Bnai Mitzvah ceremony is a family celebration that takes place within community. . In our case we have a very large, unusual family--natural and adopted, Jewish and non-Jewish--who will mark this holy moment.

On one level I hope next week is not different from any other Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I would just like to shep nachas like every other parent for that ceremony that we wait 13 years for as parents. As Rabbi of a congregation I know that I am at the very center of congregational life. But as a parent of a severely disabled child, I also know what it feels like to be on the margins of community. I also know how difficult it is for any family in our situation to share with others our reality that we more often seek to keep out of view. I hope that my speaking about Mori today will encourage other parents who struggle with the demands of special children to know that our community welcomes their children and gives them a special place in our collective life. I hope that this will inspire our Beth Shalom community to actively reach out to families with disabled children and to educate our young to be caring and loving to children with special needs.

There is a beautiful passage in tractate Megillah quoted in the name of Rabbi Yosi: “For a long time I was perplexed by the verse, “And you shall grope at noonday as the blind gropes in the darkness.” (Deut 28:29) Now what difference does it make to a blind man whether it is dark of light? (I didn’t find out) until the following incident occurred. I was once walking on a pitch black night when I saw a blind man walking in the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him, ‘My son, why are you carrying this torch?’ He replied, ‘As long as I have this torch in my hand people see me and save me from the holes and the thorns and the briars.

Some who are disabled know how to let people know that they need help; they can let themselves be seen. Other disabled people need help from loving people to put the torch in their hands so they can be seen. With that assistance we enable our community to respond with love and compassion to help a disabled person avoid the holes and thorns and the briars in life.

So what should we recite for Mori this coming Shabbat when the time comes to give the parental blessing? I have chosen a different blessing: the one we say when seeing something good in the world: Baruch….. Hatov vhametiv. It will be so good to see Mori outside of the shadow--so good to see him next to his sister and brother, so good to see him amongst his community, so good to let him sit, twitching and shouting, bathed in the love and acceptance of both family and friends.

I appreciate the opportunity to share this part of my life with you. Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Torah as a Way of Wisdom

Torah as a Way of Wisdom
How I Bring Torah to You
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Temple Beth Shalom
Shabbat Devarim 7/21/07

In selecting me as your rabbi, you have entrusted to me the interpretation of the Torah. I serve as your mediator between the tradition and yourselves. That is the classic role of the rabbi, a teacher who makes the Torah relevant, meaningful, and authoritative in the lives of each generation.

Given this role you have asked me to fill in your lives, I thought it wise to share with you a bit of my approach to teaching Torah. It is Chutzpadik of me to just start giving you sermons and Divrei Torah without sharing with you how I approach teaching and interpreting the Torah. How do I mediate this vast tradition to you? And what makes my approach different from others who seek to make this text relevant and meaningful to people?

We live during a time when the Bible has again become a controversial book. Recently I heard an account of the new creation museum in Kentucky. The $27 million museum was funded by evangelists and features the same set designer who developed the Jaws exhibit at Universal Studios. The museum is the reverse of a natural history museum. Its purpose is to present the biblical account of creation as fact using quasi scientific justifications. Its primary purpose is to show that the world is 6000 years old (or to be more precise it is 5767 years old. (Read the NY Times Review of the Museum) It is a monument to the literal reading of scripture which rejects other ways of knowing nature, history, and the human experience.

The website of the museum states proudly, “The Bible speaks for itself at the Creation Museum. We’ve just paved the way to a greater understanding of the tenets of creation and redemption. Our exhibit halls are gilded with truth, our gardens teem with the visible signs of life.” (Read Creation Museum Website)

There are many in our country and around the world who read scripture with piety and absolute faith that the text is never wrong and its truth overwhelms all other claims to truth. This is because the Bible, according to these readers is unlike any other book; it is the product of a divine hand. Of course, each group of readers denies the truth of other groups of pious readers. Each group of readers thinks its reading is the only way to read the text.

On the other side of this view of the Bible stands a newly strident group of antagonists, culture warriors against the Bible. Popular books like the End of Faith and the God Delusion pummel the Bible as a book of dangerous folly and antiquated world view. This is not new. The attempt to criticize the bible, to diminish its sanctity, and to reduce its cultural and religious influence began with Spinoza in the 17th century.

In a skeptical secular culture the Bible can at best teach us parochial and historical truths about the beliefs of the ancient children of Israel. It is the Jew’s national book, which is in fact, how it is taught in Israel in the secular schools. But the more radicalized critics in our time, especially since 9/11, see the Bible and other religious scriptures such as the Koran as lethal sources of fanatic faith and religious narrowness. This view is held so strongly that a recent attempt to offer a course on religion and faith at Harvard University was defeated by a faculty protest.
Ultimately this view leads to the rejection of the Bible as an essential book for a literate person.

A few years ago I was asked to give a lecture about Judaism at an elite private high school in Seattle. One of my kids from the youth group was a student there. She warned me that the kids did not know the Bible at all. I taught one of the Genesis stories about Abraham, and indeed, outside of my student, the 60 others in the class did not know who Abraham was.
Our culture is polarized over the bible, with one side reading it with super reverence and the other disparaging and dismissing its relevance. One side elevates the bible to infallibility while the other rants about its folly.

We are reading the Torah at this present polarizing cultural moment. We cannot take the Torah for granted. But then how should we read and study it? What role does it play in our lives?
I was inspired to do this teaching from Leon Kass’s excellent book, Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Kass argues that we must read the Bible as a source or wisdom. It is much broader than the narrow role claimed by biblical antagonists but it is not the singular source of truth claimed by the pious reader. He calls for a philosophic reading of the Bible by which he means an effort of wisdom seeking and wisdom loving. This is a way of reading the Bible in which we “single mindedly and whole heartedly-yet thoughtfully and self-critically seek to discover the truth about the world and our place within it and to find thereby guidance for how we are to live. “ (p. 1)

Kass adds that the Biblical narrative is a “vehicle for conveying the timeless psychic and social elements of principles of human life in all their moral ambiguity. The stories cast a powerful light, for example on the problematic character of human reason, speech, freedom, sexual desire, the love of the beautiful, shame, guilt, anger, and the human response to mortality. The Bible shows us not so much what happened as what always happens in the realm of human experience. By holding up a mirror in which we readers can discover in ourselves the reasons why human life is so bittersweet and why uninstructed human beings often get it wrong.”
The Bible is concerned with this key question according to Kass:

Is it possible to find, institute, and preserve a way of life, responsive to both the promise and the peril of the human creature, that accords with a human’s true standing in the world and that serves to perfect his god-like possibilities?

The key term here is “way of life”. We seek guidance on how to live. As a rabbi, I am dedicated to helping people live lives of meaning and self awareness. Such a life must lead to action and to building full and meaningful relationships with a large web of others, partners, families, communities, peoples, strangers, and enemies.

The question is not merely meant for religious people. My teaching is for both secular and religious people, more precisely to anyone who seeks a broader and deeper life, anyone who is asking serious questions about life, and anyone who fights against falling into the pit of purposelessness, cynicism and hopelessness.

How then do I approach teaching Torah?
1. I try to understand the text in its own terms, but also try to show how such an understanding may address us in our real lives.
2. That the Torah and the bible in general when fully understood helps to illuminate the most important and enduring concerns of our experience as human beings.
3. That the Torah and the Jewish tradition have a unique approach to the questions of how to live an ethical and spiritual life which is not only worth preserving but should be more widely known.
4. I open the text as a possibility and entertain different readings and interpretations with the conviction that the multiplicity of readings gets us closer to the truth. This is also a distinct and honored Jewish approach.

Is there a prerequisite for reading the Bible? Ironically the fanatic believer and disbeliever agree. The believer argues that a blind faith must be prerequisite to know the Bible’s teaching. The unbeliever agrees and declares the Bible irrelevant because his he regards his faithlessness makes the Bible a closed book for him.

I ask every reader, everyone who bothers to come to shul and to listen to the Torah, to try a third option: to foster an attitude of thoughtful engagement, to suspend belief in the truth of any biblical text, and to be open to where the text may take us when we explore it deeply.
Biblical texts when read in this way offer a gift which makes reading them a great and unexpected pleasure. The Bible is a sparse text, filled with “ambiguity, reticence, and a lack of editorial judgment” that invite us to interpret and argue over its meaning. This is truly Judaism’s unique way of understanding the Bible. We have always recognized the open form of the biblical text. We can sense its reluctance to offer us final and indubitable interpretations. The Bible and subsequent Jewish literature help to cultivate and openness, thoughtfulness, and modesty about our own understanding. This according to Kass is the hallmark of the pursuit of wisdom.

Do we want to devote our lives to the pursuit of wisdom? Where do we find wisdom in our world today? What are the choices and what are the paths? The mindless life is the choice of most, awash in a sea of chattering media and numbing entertainments. My job is to make it easier for you to find wisdom in the cacophonies of modern life, to focus on this book as the say in Long Beach-an oil well-a source of rich wisdom hidden deep within our ancient text. May I be able to inspire in you a return to this book and the capacity to share its insights with those who you encounter in your journey of life.

A Mourning Mover and an Unmovable Cart

‘Igrot Mei Hof Hayam’-Epistles from the Seashore
Emails from Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Wednesday, August 1, 2007 Email #2

To my TBS and cyberspace friends,

I am entering my third week at TBS, my acronym of affection for Temple Beth Shalom. My old congregation was Congregation Beth Shalom (CBS) and people always confused it with a television network. I do not know any other famous networks or governmental agencies called TBS so I think I am fine. I will also call it “Shul” as well.

Temple is an interesting term for a Conservative congregation. In the 50s many Conservative and almost almost all Reform congregations were called ‘Temple’. Jews historically did not call their synagogues ‘Temple’, out of respect to the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem (Beit Hamikdash). Rather synagogues were called in Hebrew ‘Kehilah Kedoshah’ (Holy Congregation), (Adat) Assembly of …. , or Beit ….. (House of ….). The term Temple came into popularity in the 50s as a way to give synagogues a sense of greater dignity and majesty than had been associated with them in the past. It is no longer common for Conservative congregations to be called Temple, so I won’t use the term by itself. But I do respect the local tradition of designating our synagogue as a Temple.

I have been calling members from the roster bit by bit to say hello. I have found that there are some errors with the phone numbers. Because of this I have met some interesting people I would have not met otherwise. Instead of John Williams I met a friendly person named Brian who told me all the calls he got for John. He told me his life story and how appreciative he was to talk to a rabbi for the first time. I told him he was always welcome to come to TBS even though he was not Jewish and that we offered free circumcisions.

In the course of these errant calls I have met
· A tattoo artist
· A pornographic movie maker
· A full time surfer
· The mayor of Los Angeles
· A Laotian Shaman

I am grateful for this opportunity to meet such interesting people. If you feel this is wasting the rabbi’s time, please send in your amended membership form and give us your most updated information and I might be able to talk to you.

On Sunday I met with a Havurah of TBS to begin what I hope is a frequent encounter with small groups within the congregation. I asked people to share their Jewish journeys and shared my own. What followed was a most fascinating telling of people’s Jewish stories. One person was a survivor of the camps and told a touching story about how she met her American husband as a refugee in a mid-Western town. Another person told how he discovered he was Jewish in his 40s after having been brought up as a Christian. Another person told how they got out of Germany on the last boat and living in England with a new family during the war. There were many more amazing stories.

The participants in this Havurah had been meeting monthly for over 10 years, but had never shared their personal stories in this manner. This is something I hope to do with all of you. I want to hear your stories and have you share them with your friends and family. This is the way we build community. After all, the Jews are a storytelling people. The word, Haggadah (used for the Passover story), means ‘telling’. When we tell our stories we make meaningful connections and build lasting relationships.

Please let me know if you would like to host a gathering at your home with your Havurah or friends from the synagogue so you can experience this special time of storytelling and connecting to the hopeful future of our congregation.

Last Friday my movers finally came. One of the movers was a local Black man who helped the driver to unload my boxes. At the end of schlepping all my things we sat down for some refreshment. He asked me about my family and I asked him about his. He told me that his mother had died the night before. I asked him to talk about his mother and her life. I asked him how he could work given his loss. He told me that he wanted to work to get his mind off his sorrow and to earn a few dollars to help toward the funeral.

I gave him a generous tip and watched him as he walked away to catch the bus. Loss is so surreal. We try to keep the routine to diminish its shattering impact. I did not feel comfortable knowing my stuff was born by a mourner. The restrained grief sticks to my boxes and furnishings. I felt sorrow for him to have to work instead of being with his family.

I have been shopping a lot of late as I have had to acquire some household items to help in my settling in. I was at the new Target near the shul on Atlantic which just reopened (Yes, a new shopping opportunity in our neighborhood!). I was with my wife, Robbie, and we had parked our car on the street. As I made my way with my cart to the ramp leading to street, the cart jammed and would not go further. I kept on trying to free the wheel and to push the cart, but it refused to budge. I yelled out to Robbie, “I can’t move! I can’t move! I kept on trying for about 5 minutes until a Target employee came buy, helped unload my things and bring them to the parked car. Then he told me that the wheels have electronic sensors which when the cart reaches the ramp causes them to lock to prevent people from going down the ramp and possibly walking away with the cart.

What happened to the days when carts moved without effort? The tradition talks about the ‘locking of the gates’ on Yom Kippur. We live in a world of secret locks and gates. It is not as easy to get around in a world of multiple fears and insecurities. The next time you get stuck, look around for electronic sensors and wonder at how easier it is for things to be locked down in our world.

Shalom and Kol Tuv,
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Southern California Boy

July 20, 2007-5th Av, 5767

To my new Southern California friends,

At this writing I am starting my first week at Beth Shalom. Thank you for the many warm invitations, calls, and notes from people. I am adjusting rapidly. It is hard to get used to the sunny days following one after another. Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for several years, I had come to expect gray and overcast skies most of the time. I went to Walgreens and bought a lot of suntan lotion.

I have noticed a number of things about my move back to S. California. There are a lot of cars here. Cars and anything related to cars are everywhere. The freeway is full of them and so are the parking lots.

I have also noticed that the barbecue sections in the hardware stores are huge with dozens of different types of cookers. There are even Shabbat barbecues that stop cooking before Shabbat and turn into heating trays. I figure that if you have sunny days all the time, then there is a lot more time to barbecue. That is the most plausible explanation or S. California must have more manly men than the Pacific Northwest. In any case, I am trying to not covet my neighbor’s barbecue which is an explicit prohibition in the Torah.

I have also noticed that there are four public radio stations that I can pick up on my car radio. In Seattle we only had two. How to choose? I also realize that there are a lot more baseball teams in the area. I only had an American League team up in Seattle and they had to have a special roof to prevent the rain from falling on the players and the fans. .

I had the opportunity to meet Maury Wills, the Dodger great during my visit in June. I told him I was a Giant fan and almost ended the conversation right there and then. But he is a generous and understanding man. He signed a baseball for my father and called Sandy Koufax to tell him that he was schmoozing with a rabbi. We only got his answering machine. Too bad.

Before coming to Long Beach I was in Israel for 10 days. My trip helped me to acclimate to the weather here in Long Beach. I am much better adjusted than having come directly from Seattle. In Israel I graduated as a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute where I have been on a fellowship for four years. The fellowship involved two visits to Jerusalem each year and a weekly commitment to study with the Hartman scholars. This was a fantastic experience for me. I hope to share with you in the coming months and years some of the great learning I did in this program.

The other purpose of my visit was to celebrate my parent’s 55th wedding anniversary with my brothers and my Israeli family. We had a very lovely family reunion and managed to bring under one roof a very diverse family. One part of the family is very ultra-orthodox. Another brother of mine is gay and his partner is a Reform Cantor. My other brother married a convert and has two children who are not recognized by the ultra Orthodox part of the family. And I am a Conservative rabbi. We cover all the bases of Jewish life. But we all had a good time honoring my parents for their successful union. I call them the parents of the Jewish people.

August is a slow month for everybody but Rabbis. We start working on our High Holiday sermons and the fall schedule. I will continue getting to know the community better and setting a direction for our community. I encourage you to get in touch with me as I get to know the members of the congregation. You can reach me at my email at Enjoy the rest of the summer.

Shalom, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg