Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Apikorus of Vilna: The Middle Ground for Religious and Cultural Jews

The Apikorus of Vilna: The Middle Ground for Religious and Cultural Jews
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, 12/13/08, Temple Beth Shalom of Long Beach

In our portion, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure at night. In his victorious struggle, Jacob receives a new name: Yisrael. “For you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:29) Many commentators have pointed out the implications of this name. Jews carry on Jacob’s heritage of God wrestling. God is at the center of our religion and our tradition, yet our collective and individual relationships with God are not characterized by a blind or unquestioning faith. Jewish wrestling with God takes many forms and has many results.
Last Shabbat as a Shabbat animator, I was asked to wrestle and lead a conversation with this question: Can you be a good Jew and not believe in God? There were people at the table struggling with this question. It is a good Jewish question. Why? Jews are more concerned about goodness than belief in God. Being good is crucial in a world more than the belief in God’s goodness. The Talmud has a famous passage to suggest that it is better spurn God than to spurn his commandments. This is because doing the commandments produces concrete good in the world, but belief in God does not necessarily lead to this.
The Jewish preoccupation with good behavior over proper belief is illustrated in this story from the old country.
An apikorus (a blasphemer) from Yennesvelt had heard of the great Apikorus of Vilna. Like all good Jews he wanted to ‘kaneh lecha rav’-acquire a master teacher for himself. He decided to travel to Vilna to learn from the great Apikorus of Vilna. He chose to visit him on the holiest day of the year when he imagined his heroic master would be engaged in the most astonishing apikorsus imaginable. So he packed his wagon and traveled to Vilna, spending most of Yom Kippur on the road. He ate his pork sandwiches on the way reveling in his anticipated encounter with the great apikorus.
When he reached Vilna, he kept asking the irritated religious Jews on his way where he could find the Apikorus of Vilna. They curtly pointed toward the city center, wishing to avoid contact with this small town apikorus who gleefully showed contempt for them and their holy day. When he reached city center, he was directed toward the Grand Synagogue of Vilna. The Apikorus of Yennesvelt was perplexed what his hero would be doing at the Grand Synagogue, but he thought it must be completely outrageous.
When he walked into the Grand Synagogue at the hour of Neilah he discovered that the Apikorus of Vilna was in front of the congregation, draped in Tallit, serving as Shaliah Tzibbur for the holiest service of the year. The scene was astonishing: The Apikorus of Vilna chanted the prayers with fervor, the congregation wept in prayer, and the room was filled with yearning and hope. Our Apikorus of Yennesvelt was completely stunned, unable to comprehend why the most famous Jewish blasphemer was leading the holiest service of the year.
When the service ended with the dramatic Shofar blasts and people with shining faces left extending greetings of Shanah Tovah, our apikorus made his way to the Bimah to confront his hero. He reached the Apikorus of Vilna as he was folding his beautiful tallis into his bag and eating a morsel to end his fast. The Apikorus of Yennesvelt confronted him: “How can you, an apikorus’ lead the Neilah service at Yom Kippur?” The Apikorus of Vilna smiled and gave his pupil the first lesson in apikorsus. “The difference between you and me is simple. I am an apikorus. You are an am Haaretz (an ignoramus). “
This old story from the late 19th century Eastern Europe helps to answer our question. Yes, you can be a good Jew and not believe in God. The reason is that Judaism does not focus on proper belief, but on mitzvot and actions that improve the human condition. Moreover, an apikorus despite his doubt in God can see in certain aspects of religious life specific goods and needs that should be honored. Does he think his prayers will be heard by God? Maybe not. But the Neilah service helps people to be hopeful about their lives and to feel connected to each other. So it is a good to be honored and supported.
Upon deeper reflection on our story suggests a couple of things about the tradition of skepticism in Judaism. A skeptical (apikorus) Jews could be both a learned and practicing Jew. At the very least the skeptical apikorus had a profound respect for the religious traditions and behaviors and often could be an exemplary practitioner, an observant Jew in every respect.
Another revealing side of the story is that the Apikorus of Vilna was given the honor of leading the holiest service of the year in a religious community. The implication is that this religious community held this man in the highest esteem, since traditionally the person chosen to be Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) for the Days of Awe was chosen from among the most respected persons in the community (He was not necessarily a professional Hazzan as is contemporary practice.) The religious community depicted in our story is also tolerant and lives by a broader standard of what a good person is.
There was a rich middle ground in Jewish life recalled by this story which seems harder to achieve, in our own times, but is a worthy goal. One of the sad realities of contemporary synagogue life is the loss of this middle ground in which religious and cultural Jews interacted and shared a common way of life. But I believe that recreating this rich middle ground is critical for Conservative synagogues and the spiritual life they aspire to. Let me share with you briefly a number of approaches how we might help create and sustain this middle ground in our congregation.
1. Emphasize within the congregation Judaism’s imperative to pursue the good and to practice Hesed-kindness regardless of whether you believe in God or not.
2. The life of mitzvot is the Jewish way of focusing on individual and collective practice on living a good life and finding a common language for doing so. Can we restore to centrality the life of mitzvah as the common language and way of Jews regardless of whether we are ‘religious or cultural’?
3. Give reasons for doing mitzvot that integrate religious and humane motivations. People who do not believe can be moved by cultural, psychological and humanistic reasons for doing mitzvot. We can encourage people to do Shabbat to respect the environment, make quality time for friends and family, avoid enslavement to our working lives, and express gratitude to those we love as well as to frame this holy day as a Day for the Lord.
4. Help people to gain depth and knowledge of practices that reduce embarrassment and increase meaningful participation and a sense of the broad commitment to goodness central to Judaism. I do believe that when people have some mastery of Jewish practice and language they feel a strong attraction to our Jewish way of life.
5. Work with our knowledgeable and traditional members to cultivate a tolerant, non judgmental, flexible, encouraging, and generous stance with others who are not religiously inclined or Jewishly knowledgeable. I have worked on myself to embrace these characteristics throughout my rabbinate. I understand this as “Torah and Derech Eretz”.
6. Encourage younger parents to learn, try practice, and model devotion to practice with their children. At the same time parents need to encourage questions their children raise. Modeling the Jewish middle ground for our children is a very deep, challenging, and rewarding way of parenting.
7. Make it safe to talk about God where people can express skepticism, doubt, disbelief, and faith and encourage all parties to listen to each other with respect. Also when talking about God, we must learn about and share the remarkable diversity and depth of approaches to God in Judaism.
At the dinner we held last week the discussion we had about God and goodness was long and engaging. I don’t know if the skeptical persons around the table were moved, but I do know that they were relieved not to have been judged harshly for their skepticism. One of the lessons I learn from doing lots of Shabbatot at people’s homes is that the table conversation about Judaism, God, and the purpose of life is a precious opportunity to explore these questions interactively. This sermon that emerged from that conversation is a by product to the all important conversation that I hope continues with those who joined me at their table that night.
Our conversations about God and living a good life has a direct ancestor in our God wrestling ancestor, Yisrael who we read about in this week’s portion. The name of our people comes out of this wrestling. When we wrestle with these issues we encourage our loved ones and friends to join us, we carry on the authentic tradition of our people and our relationship to God. The Apikorus of Vilna lived in this tradition and whether we are filled with faith and filled with doubt, we all can participate in being Bnai Yisrael.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Synagogue and the Secular Jew: The Challenge of Being Spiritually Relevant in a Skeptical Time

The Synagogue and the Secular Jew: The Challenge of Being Spiritually Relevant in a Skeptical Time: Summary-Jews are the most secular "religious community" in America. Jews pray less than any other religious grouping. Why are Jews so Secular and how does it impact communal religious life? How then do synagogues which are religious institutions by definition connect with a largely secular Jewish public?

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach, CA
Sermon Given: 12/6/08
Copies are at the synagogue website:
Our portion, Vayetze opens with a collision of sorts. “Vayifga bamakom-Jacob collided with this place.” It is on his hurried journey to escape the wrath of his brother Esau who wants to kill him. The Torah proceeds to describe Jacob’s unexpected night encounter with God. The Rabbi’s interpreted the phrase: Vayifga Bamakom as a proof text that Jacob introduced the evening prayer (Maariv). No one, according to the Rabbis, had ever tried praying at night. According to the rabbinic imagination, Jacob’s grandfather had introduced Morning Prayer (Shahrit) and his father, Isaac, fathered the Afternoon Prayer (Minchah). But Jacob completed the triad of Jewish prayer by praying in darkness.

Thus according to tradition the template of worship was laid out by our forefathers. Our patriarchs are depicted as inventors of a sort, innovators of prayer. Their startup religion, the religion of Yahweh, centered on prayer-the human approach and encounter with God.

It is with great irony then that in 21st century America, Jews are the religious group least likely to be found in its houses of worship. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently published data on religion in America ( ) showing that Jews are closer in their behaviors to the unaffiliated Americans than to religiously defined Americans of Christian denominations. While Jewish identity tends to be relatively strong, religious practice is much weaker. This is also evident in Israel, where most Israeli Jews are decidedly secular, rarely attend synagogue, do not observe Shabbat and more and more do not observe dietary laws. Over my career I have probably converted over 500 people. The most common perplexity of almost every convert I ever mentored was why most of the Jews they knew were less religious than they aspired to be as new Jews. How curious this perplexity. How miraculous that these new Jews hear the music of Jewish religious insight, but so many born Jews are tone deaf, unmoved by the songs of their legacy.

What is the impact on a Jewish community in which most of its people are secular? What are the implications for synagogues as religious institutions? These questions are often not honestly faced in synagogues? We sweep them under the rug? Or we let the Rabbi serve as the lightning rod for these unresolved communal issues. The reason is that there is an uncomfortable accommodation, especially in Conservative Synagogues between those who are more on the so called religious spectrum and those who are more comfortable on the secular side. Orthodox synagogues don’t suffer from these tensions as much because they are unambiguously religious in orientation and demand more strict observance from their members. Reform also has less ambiguity since they assume the secularity of the great majority of their members. Conservative congregations wobble, built on shaky coalitions so called traditionally oriented persons, but in reality a very broad spectrum of culturally oriented secular Jews and traditionally leaning Jews who find Orthodoxy too stringent or closed minded.

Who are secular Jews? The term itself is broad. They are variously described as unaffiliated, but the truth is that many are affiliated. Sometimes secular are described as non-religious. But even the so called religious in a Conservative congregation are selective in their observance of commandments, like coming to services but not having a kosher home or only observing some Shabbat laws. The term ‘apikorus’ is rarely used but helped previous generations portray secular Jews as non-believers, open atheists who still maintained an ardent loyalty to their people. I prefer the nomenclature of ‘cultural Jew’. Cultural Jews have an affinity to many aspects of Judaism including many of its religious dimensions, but are not pious or meticulous in their commitment to the traditional commandments.

This in turn helps us to describe a religious person. There is no term for religious in classic Hebrew. Rather a person who was devoted to a religious life was described as Shomer Mitzvot-a guardian of the commandments. In Conservative synagogues the underlying tension is between those who shomer-guard certain communal commandments like the koshrut of the kitchen or the laws of the Shabbat services in contrast to the members who don’t guard those traditions with equal fervor. Thus there is often a tension in a Conservative synagogue between those who piously value attending services and those who don’t often attend or who casually attend based on reasons other than a sense of religious personal obligation.

As a congregational rabbi I have to mediate these often subterranean tensions. I have had 25 years to think through this problem and here are some principles I have arrived at.

1. There are many mitzvot in the Torah. The Torah does not generally prioritize them, so my role is to praise and validate whatever mitzvot a Jew has taken on to do.

2. I believe every Jew does some mitzvot. So called cultural Jews do mitzvot. Jews who attend synagogue do other mitzvot. Jews who work in social action do mitzvot. Jews who go to Israel do mitzvot. They all deserve praise.

3. While I think the mitzvot connected to communal synagogue life such as prayer are very important, I do not guilt trip, browbeat, and condescend to cultural Jews who do not focus on these mitzvot. I will also not function as a DGT (designated guilt tripper) on behalf of congregants who think the rabbi should do this. I encourage people to perform these mitzvot and teach people who are willing to listen why they are important.

4. I acknowledge that there is a lot of alienation from the synagogue by cultural Jews and realize that one of the ways to connect to them is in other places than synagogues: at their home tables, at their workplaces, in supermarkets, and at social justice events. Therefore I believe that rabbinic work involves serving as a rabbi in these contexts.

5. Most important, most Jews are agnostic and atheistic. Therefore they have often unarticulated or sometimes highly thought through opinon about prayer, God talk, and rituals that assume belief and affirmation of the God of Israel. Assuming that everyone has resolved this issue in their minds when we conduct public rituals strikes many Jews as either arrogant or pure obliviousness. I hate to be viewed as just another oblivious rabbi, so I try to work hard to acknowledge this ambivalence on the part of most Jews.

6. Our services should be places for people to express their faith and doubt. Jewish prayer has one great advantage over worship in other traditions. It is highly participatory and allows for people with different levels of faith to participate and to feel involved. This beautiful flexibility has led me to emphasize giving as many people as possible roles in public worship that overcome resistance to the religious ideas and expectations of the prayers. The more people participating the better. They become stakeholders and ‘spiritual citizens of the minyan’.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Larwence Kushner beautifully expressed how synagogues should accommodate and support different types of Jews. I believe his words are very important for Conservative synagogues and creating a climate of communal purpose, toleration, and collaboration.

“Jews need one another, and therefore congregations, to do primary religious acts which they should not and probably cannot, do alone. Doing primary religious acts is the only way we have of growing as Jews. Consequently, it is also the only justification for the existence of a congregation. Everything else congregations do, Jews can always do cheaper, easier, and better somewhere else. “

“There are three ancient kinds of primary Jewish acts: communal prayer, holy study, and good deeds, or in the classical language of Pirke Avot: Avodah, Torah, and G'milut Hasadim. This is not a capricious categorization. Prayer is emotional: song, candles, dance, meditation, and silence. A matter of the heart. Study is intellectual reading, questioning, discussion, rigorous logic and argument. A matter of the head. And good deeds are public acts: helping, repairing, matching, fighting, and doing. Matters of the hand. Only rare individuals are able to do all three with equal fervor and skill. And so our membership in a congregation and association with a broad spectrum of Jews will compensate for our personal deficiencies. “

In our portion, Jacob after his ‘collision’ with the places has a dream. He wakes up and says: “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.” The challenge of modern synagogue is to create ‘collisions’ in which people end up saying Jacob’s words. Right now, many Jews don’t expect to find God in the synagogue, much less anywhere else. All we can do is open the many doors of Jewish life for our fellow Jews and hope that they have a Jacob-like collision. That is the holy work I have committed myself to and I hope you will join me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

America’s Days of Awe

America’s Days of Awe
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Delivered 10/9/08 on Yom Kippur, 5769

Please understand that I offer the following words according to the traditional warning every responsible darshan must give to a congregation. I give these words, ‘lefi ani’ut daati’ according to the poverty of my opinion. Please accept it as heartfelt, and my best attempt to capture the momentous times we live in.
“On Rosh Hashannah it is written. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many will leave the world, and how may shall be born. “
These austere words come from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we chant on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. Unetaneh Tokef paints a vivid picture of a God sitting in judgment of His creation: “You review every living being, measuring the years and decreeing the destiny of every creature. “ Our fate hangs in the balance. Following a litany of couplets of opposing fates, life and death, health and sickness, serenity and depression, we respond with words of hope:
“But Repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness can remove the severity of the decree.”
This is the prayer that captures the mood this season of the year and gives it the gravity and solemnity we associate with the Days of Awe. The gravity flows from our tradition’s view that at least once a year we really need to take stock of our lives and make a serious effort to change our direction. The truth is that like anything else, this annual ritual can become rote and thoughtless. But not this year.
Not this year, because we are witnessing a strange and powerful convergence. Our annual season of Teshuvah corresponds to a national perhaps a worldwide crisis of Teshuvah. What do I mean? During this season Jews are supposed to review our actions, overcome denial of our wrongful behaviors, apologize to those we have hurt, confess to these behaviors to God , and begin the arduous process of internal and external change which we call Teshuvah. We are not the only ones trying to do this during this season. Our entire nation is engaged in a sort of Teshuvah as it comes to terms with the truth concerning our situation. We are now in a crisis that is forcing us to review our past actions. We are compelled to confront our national denial. New realities have placed before us the true weight of the challenges ahead of us.
So this is the American Unetaneh Tokef prayer of 2008:
Who shall grow rich, who shall sink into poverty; who shall sleep securely in her bed, who will find herself on the street; who will draw from his savings, who will find his savings are no more; who will go to work every morning, who will have no job go to; who will go to his medical specialist; who will not see the doctor to save expenses; who will go bankrupt, who will have money to invest at the bottom of the market; who will lose his house to a hurricane, who will benefit from a climate change ; who will fear a terror strike, who will feel secure from violence; who will feel let down by his country, who will find new hope in his country; who will be proud of his country, who will feel betrayed by his country; who will gain faith in humanity, who will lose his faith in humanity.
Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedaka avert the harshness of the decree.
Our tradition uses the terms Teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedaka as actions that will avert the harshness of the decree. We know what these mean in our Jewish cultural-religious framework. What do they mean for a country that is at such a critical fork in the road, at a decisive moment in our history?
Our country needs to strive for Teshuvah. What does national teshuvah mean?
Teshuvah means to turn or change. Everyone is calling for change. Real change comes after we overcome denial. We have been in the relentless grip of denial.
First, we have been in denial about the consequences of our indebtedness. The economy in a tailspin has brought this denial into sharp and scary focus. In 1980 the ratio of national debt to the gross national product stood at 31%, the lowest since 1931. By 2006 public debt topped nine trillion or 70% of the gross national product. Take our own personal debt. In the postwar years personal savings had averaged a robust 8-10% of disposable income. After 1985 that 10% collapsed to what it is today: Zero.
According to a report on national debt: Between 1989 and 2001, credit-card debt nearly tripled, soaring from $238 billion to $692 billion. By last year, it was up to $937 billion. As the foreclosure crisis and the credit crisis has brought home, we have been living in a house of cards built on debt. We cannot deny this as we witness millions of people falling out of the middle class. This irresponsibility starts at the top. When Vice President Cheney was asked if cutting taxes might be at odds with invading Iraq, he said: “Deficits don’t matter.”
Second, we have been in the grips of a long standing denial about the consequences of our dependence on foreign oil.
In World War II, America was able to fully supply its energy needs. That is not hard for us to imagine in Long Beach since we see the remnant of the oil industry still pumping up and down in our neighborhood. We can go to the 60’s era Petroleum club building across the street on Linden and reminisce about a time of an energy independent America. But in 1972 domestic oil production peaked. At the end of Reagan’s presidency foreign oil constituted 41% of oil consumed in the United States. In 2005 60% of our oil came from outside the country and we consume 25% of the world’s oil supply.
As we fight two wars, our dependence on foreign oil also fuels those who are fighting our soldiers in Iraq and. As Tom Friedman writes, “our purchases enrich conservative Islamic governments where portions of their profits find their way to charities, mosques, religious schools that help sustain anti- American terrorist groups, suicide bombers, preachers, and anti- Semitic textbooks and propaganda. --- purchase are helpings to strengthen the most intolerant, anti-modern, anti-Western, anti-women’s rights and anti pluralistic strain of Islam. Our oil purchases are helping to finance a reversal of the democratic trends in Russia, Latin America, and elsewhere that was set in motion by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism. Our growing dependence on oil is fueling an ugly global energy scramble which is exemplified by China’s propping up of a murderous and genocidal dictatorship in oil-rich Sudan.” (from Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Tom Friedman)
Our oil addiction is even more destructive than this for as Friedman argues, “it makes global warming warmer, petro-dictators stronger, clean air dirtier, poor people poorer, democratic countries weaker and radical terrorists richer.”
Listen to these words: “We must end this intolerable dependence on foreign oil. Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this Nation and it can also be the standard around which we rally. We can seize control again of our common destiny…. We need a federal agency to cut through the red tape, the delays and the endless roadblocks to completing key energy projects.” (President Carter as quoted in Bacevich, The Limits of Power.)
These were not said on the campaign trails of 2008, but from a president in a national address to the nation in 1979.
We are paying big time for 30 years of denial. We have been in denial about how our consumption is undermining our nation and altering the earth.
Tom Friedman, quoting an environmental scientist, writes. “People don’t seem to realize, that it is not like we are on the Titanic and we have to avoid the iceberg. We’ve already hit the iceberg. The water is rushing down below. But some people don’t want to leave the dance floor; others don’t want to give up on the buffet. But if we don’t make the hard choices, nature will make them for us. Right now. “ p. 216.
What is it that stands before us, which we cannot deny:
In his excellent new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman, identifies five big problems which we can no longer ignore.
The growing demand for ever scarcer energy supplies and natural resources; a massive transfer of wealth to oil rich countries and their petrodictators; disruptive climate change; energy poverty, which is sharply dividing the world into electricity haves and electricity have nots; and rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss, as plants and animals go extinct at record rates. These five problems define the Energy-Climate Era we have entered. “ p. 26.
Teshuvah is overcoming our denial to face reality. Our next president will be judged on his ability to lead us toward facing these problems squarely. We cannot afford to wait another 30 years.
After Teshuvah, we are called to engage in Tefilah-prayer. But will prayer really help us. Take for instance the prayers for rain of the former Prime Minister of Australia. On April 19, 2007, in the face of the Big Dry, a seven year drought, John Howard asked his countrymen to put their hands together and beseech the Good Lord for a gully washing downpour. His prayers did not save Howard from voter wrath.
The election held in Australia later that year was the first election in history in which climate change-specifically the government’s failure to respond to it with policies rather than prayers, was among one of the issues. Howard and his party were defeated. The new prime minister ratified the climate change protocols of Kyoto immediately after his election which the previous administration had refused to do.
Prayer cannot overcome bad policy. Desperate prayer and the yearning for a messianic solution is a sign of people coming under the grip of an apocalyptic world view. This is a real danger, because apocalyptically generated prayers produce a passivity which will further undermine our efforts to stem the global crisis we face. Rather the prayer that is called, appeals to God to give us the strength to be courageous, to overcome complacency and despair, to act, to find ways to join with others to live purposely to fight against the impacts of global warming.
Which brings us to the final action that averts the harsh decree, Tzedaka. Tzedaka is not only charity or the giving of gifts to the poor. Tzedaka means to act justly, to right a wrong, to balance something that is imbalanced.
First, to live according to tzedaka we must pay attention and confront what we have denied. We are called upon to engage in what we have ignored and act to correct our errors.
In the case of our dependencies on oil and our environmental impacts, we have a lot to do. We must try to live as environmentally sustainable life as we can. We must make sure our environmental awareness and behavior is always improving. We need to consider the products we consume, the cars we drive, the way we eat, the causes we support. This will not suffice.
Tzedaka means to act with others to bring about improvement to the world because acting as individuals is not sufficient. Do you support organizations that work to address the issues I have placed before you? If not, you need to learn about them and support them. Does our congregation provide a way for people to come together to learn about what we can do? It is not right that we have no active Tikun Olam group in our congregation that educates our membership and helps us to act more powerfully as a collective. Are there people willing to step up to help our community participate in the most important cause of our lifetimes?
Tzedaka involves scrutinizing the causes we support and the leaders we choose to lead us. As Friedman suggests, “it is much more important to change your leaders than your lightbulbs.
One of the great debates of our time has been the role of government in helping or hindering the confrontation with our indebtedness, our dependency on foreign oil, and our exacerbating climate change. We must hold our leaders accountable for they write the rules and regulations. The rules and regulations shape markets and change the behavior and incentives of millions of people at once.
We need to hold our leaders accountable. Do they take action to face the situation or do they give excuses or fail to lead?
Tzedaka carries with it a connotation which applies to the enormous challenge before us. In Genesis God decides to reveal to a human being his innermost thoughts about the fate of Sodom and Gemora. This part of our Torah is unique in all of ancient literature because it depicts a God who desires to consult with a human being. How does God justify this consultation?
“I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing just what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Avraham what he promised him.” (Genesis. 18:19)
Abraham is chosen by God because of what he will do for his children. He will teach them tzedek and mishpat. The sign of a Jew is to model and educate the next generation into a life committed to doing what is right and just.
What kind of world are we are giving to our children and grandchildren? Have we shown to them that we care, that we have tried our very best to give them a sustainable world?
A 12 year old spoke these words at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janero a few years ago.
“In my life, I have dreamt of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles and rain forests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see. Did you have to worry about these things when you were my age? All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. You don’t know how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can’t bring back the forest that once grew where there is now a dessert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it.
At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to share-not to be greedy. Then why do you go out and do things you tell us not to do? -----Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying everything is going to be alright; it’s not the end of the world. We are doing the best we can. But I don’t think you can say that to us anymore. Are we even on your list of priorities? My dad always says, You are what you do, not what you say. Well what you do makes me cry at night. You grown-ups say you love us, but I challenge you. Please make your actions reflect your words.” (P. 396 in Friedman)
God will avert the harshness of the decree when we act with all our energy to give a sustainable world to our children. I ask all of us? Are we doing enough?

Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue. Part 3: A Call to Hesed

Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue. Part 3:
A Call to Hesed
Kol Nidre, 5769
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

A man comes to the Thursday morning minyan who is saying kaddish for his recently deceased father. To all of our disappointment on that particular morning, we fail to reach a minyan and he is unable to recite the kaddish for his father. He becomes upset. He complains to me that the synagogue has an obligation to provide a daily minyan, so mourners like himself can say kaddish.

I responded to him politely, “Did you ever attend the minyan before your father died?”
He said, “No, I did not have the time.”

I then asked him, “If you are not willing to help someone else say kaddish by attending the minyan, why do you expect others to do it for you?”

This story is a microcosm of our country. We have forgotten the virtue of sacrifice and service. One of the good things about this election cycle is that both candidates speak strongly to the value of sacrifice and service. They exemplify it by their personal biographies. One was a courageous war hero; the other was a fearless community organizer. Both served causes greater than themselves. Because of their example they will be better able to call on us to sacrifice and serve in ways that leaders in recent years failed to do.

The failure to lead by example is perhaps most evident after the catastrophe of 9/11. In the weeks and months after that horrible attack the most memorable message that came from the White House was to go back to shopping. The president, with the nation united behind him could have called on the country to wean itself off its oil dependency by imposing a stiff tax on gasoline and putting major government resources toward energy independence.
In the years that followed America entered two wars which were fought by a professional army that spared the country from the need to spread the heavy burden of fighting foreign wars from the bulk of the citizenry. Meanwhile at home we entered a housing bubble which caused a frenzy of greed and self dealing which we are only now beginning to see the consequences.

I believe that the peeved man at the minyan who complains about the synagogue’s failure to mount a minyan for him is an indirect result of a culture and an era in which sacrifice and service is overshadowed by selfishness and self dealing. This is not only reflected on the national level. As the story of the minyan demonstrates it is most evident on the local level in our communities, our activities, and our attitudes.

Why did we lose our way?

A prominent cultural critic reports about a survey of younger Americans. When they were asked if they would like to reserve the right to be tried by a jury of peers they all said 'of course'; then when they were asked if they would agree to serve on the jury, they said, 'no, of course not.'. They had more important things to do. We want benefits; we avoid responsibilities. This pervades all realms, politics, economics, and religion.
We lost our way because we look at our religious institutions just like we look at any other service we use in modern life.

get article about fungible property from Garret materials 2. Get Dione book on politics. 3. Get article about community from support group. 3. Read the good society by BellahI received a letter from a resigning member who expressed admiration for Beth Shalom, but then wrote in the next sentence: "Since we do not use the congregation we have decided to terminate our membership."
An astute observer of contemporary religion, Rabbi Larwence Hoffman, writes that we join organizations and hold them responsible, or liable, for a limited list of services. He calls these limited liability associations. Members see themselves as consumers of goods or "special experiences" - that is, we view the basis of our association with a synagogue in the same way we might join a health club for the exercise machines. You get what you pay for. Because market thinking and language so pervades the way we look at the world, we look now at our communities as entities that exchange value with us. They get our membership (i.e. our money and even our time) and we get their offerings and special goods. When we have no use for their services we discard community like an obsolete record player.

Institutions also treat their members as consumers. I recently read a promotion for a synagogue, which promises prospective members that by joining you can access the Rabbis for your personal and spiritual needs. The synagogue, like any business, exists to provide customer satisfaction and reinforces the perception that the community offers and provides for our needs, but does not make claims on us.

But perhaps the most devastating cause for the decline of sacrifice and service is the physical demographics of American life that weaken, even severe relationships. Americans experience change and disruption in our lives more than at any time in our history. We move an average of once every 5 years. Fewer and fewer Americans live near their parents or extended family. Every one of us knows someone (if not ourselves) whose life has been profoundly disrupted by divorce and family breakup. Economic factors wreak havoc on families who face sudden unemployment and sharp declines in the standard of living. Because of this reality people have less and less time to devote to community and volunteering.
At Beth Shalom over the years we have faced severe demographic realities that have altered our community and have weakened the ties that we have with each other. So many of our long term members no longer have children in the area. Many of our younger members are transplants whose parents and relatives live elsewhere.

The result of the trends in the culture and the demographics on the ground present us with real challenges in building community and a culture of service and sacrifice in our congregation. The single most difficult reality of our congregation is that the older generation and the younger generations do not know each other. Because we don’t know each other, it is more difficult to bring us together in common purpose.
Because of the different and disparate groups in our congregation, it is likely that someone in the congregation may feel their needs are not being met. And because we live in a culture where needs are more important than duties or sacrifice, there is a certain static of dissatisfaction which can hinder our ability to move forward to forge a stronger community.

There is a way out of this predicament.

“It was taught: Rabbi Meir used to say: What is meant by the Scriptural text, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all human beings, and the living will lay it to his heart, (Kohelet 7:2). What is meant by "and the living will lay it to his heart?" Let him realize that if a man mourns for other people others will also mourn for him; if he buries other people, others will also bury him; if he lifts up his voice to lament for others, others will lift up their voices to lament for him; if he escorts others to the grave others will also escort him; if he carries others to their last resting place others will carry him.”

This is the first step toward creating community. The foundation of community is the importance of relationships. When we give to someone else, it creates a chain reaction of mutuality. Note that the text does not say. “Let him realize that if a man mourns for his friends, his friends will mourn for him.” The text clearly says “other people”. The key to mutuality, sacrifice, and service in a community is the continual building of relationships between people where they have opportunities to help each other and to serve others. A community must constantly open new opportunities for new or renewed relationships that cut across generations, families, and groups and bind all of them together in common purpose and meaning.

It is in the context of relationships that we can make claims on others and that others make claims on us. The challenge for a congregation like ourselves is to find a common meeting ground for relationships to form and for people to have real opportunities to help each other.

As you may recall, the theme of my High Holiday sermons this year is to “Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue.” Syn, spelled, S-Y-N means to bring together. Our goal this year is to create both joyful and meaningful ways for relationships to form in our congregation. On Rosh Hashannah I spoke about our new approach to Shabbat which encourages people to celebrate Shabbat at home with friends and guests with the help of Shabbat Animators provided by our congregation. On the second day of Rosh Hashannah I spoke about new approaches to invigorate worship at Beth Shalom. The underlying thread to everything we do is to foster an environment where people meet each other, bridges are crossed, new relationships are forged. This is the precondition for a community where there is mutuality, sacrifice, and service.

Today I ask the congregation to step forward on the most important piece of our effort at communal renewal. We want to build community by inviting everyone in our community to engage in Gemilut Hasadim-acts of loving kindness within our community.

What is Gemilut Hasadim?

Gemilut Hasadim translates as acts of loving kindness. The Rabbi’s teach that we engage in Gemilut Hasadim because it is what God does.

"To walk in all His ways" (Deuteronomy 11:22). These are the ways of the Holy One: "gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon. . . ." (Exodus 34:6). This means that just as God is gracious and compas­sionate, you too must be gracious and compassionate. "The Lord is faithful in all His ways and loving in all His deeds" (Psalm 145:17). As the Holy One is faithful, you too must be faithful. As the Holy One is loving, you too must be loving.

The task of human beings is to imitate God. The Jewish conception of God as compassionate is even more important than the idea that God is One. Our notion is that God is good and that God’s goodness makes a claim on us to commit ourselves in every aspect of our lives to being good. We have a transcendent responsibility to act with loving kindness.

Gemilut Hasadim is greater than Tzedaka-a gift of money to the poor.

Our Rabbis taught: Deeds of loving kindness are superior to tzedaka in three respects. Tzedaka can be accomplished only with money; deeds of loving kindness can be accomplished through personal involve­ment as well as with money. Tzedaka can be given only to the poor; deeds of loving kindness can be done for both rich and poor. Tzedaka applies only to the living; deeds of loving kindness apply to both the living and the dead.

In other words, Gemilut Hasadim creates an arena of generosity and mutuality which enables people to help each other regardless of their income, or their age, or their standing in the community. It concentrates our acts of sacrifice and service on real people, creating relationships that bind each of us to another. And it is these acts more than prayer or ritual that bind us to God, whether we believe in God or not.

Our tradition even teaches us that if we don’t believe in God, we should act as if we did by engaging in acts of loving kindness. Gemilut Hasadim is an equal opportunity mitzvah. You don’t have to know Hebrew, be versed in Talmud, be a Jew by birth, or even believe in God. Yet our tradition sees a life built around Gemilut Hasadim as the most authentic Jewish way of living.

Today we introduce to the congregation the Temple Beth Shalom Hesed Society. (I ask Michele Sztraicher and Amanda Rudman who are chairing the Hesed Society to come forward). Michele, Amanda, and I invite members of TBS to join us as we strive to create a congregation wide commitment to gemilut hasadim. Our efforts initially will focus on 4 areas:

We need people to help prepare dishes and food, run errands and deliver meals, attend a shivah minyan, or serve as an occasional greeter at Shabbat services.

To succeed we will need people to volunteer on two levels. We ask every member to sign up to be on our help list when there is a need. We ask a smaller number of members to give a greater commitment to serve as neighborhood captains as we divide the congregation into at least 6 neighborhood groupings. The job of the neighborhood captains will be to coordinate neighborhood help for a member who is in need. Our coordinators will also ask people to serve as greeters at services to welcome members and guests to foster a more welcoming environment at our congregation.

More important is our call to all of you to let us know when you are in need. If you have a loss, or you are sick or injured, or you have a new baby, or you are going through a rough spot, please let us know. We ask you to make room for your congregation to help you in your time of need. By doing so you give opportunity for people to help you and to create a more caring community for everyone.

I hope in the future that you will be able to come to synagogue on this holiest day of the year and you will see people who came to your home to make it possible for you to say kaddish when you lost someone special, or you will see that person who visited you at the hospital when you were sick, or brought you a meal after your baby was born. I hope you will encounter people will come to you to express their gratitude for the kindness you extended to them in their time of need. We can then look at each other and truly revel in the sense of having fulfilled our purpose as a holy community. For in truly caring and sacrificing for each other we become a holy congregation.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Put the Syn Back in Synagogue: An Introduction

Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue
Putting the Bayit Back in Beit Knesset
An Introduction to the High Holiday Sermons of 5769-2008
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

A traditional Conservative congregation in a Midwestern city needed to build a new sanctuary. When the sanctuary was completed it had a large center dome in which the building committee intended to install a chandelier. The congregation didn’t have enough money to finish it off, so they left the dome waiting from year to year. Many years passed. Eventually the shul came into some money. At a board meeting someone made a resolution that they should install the chandelier. One of the charter members, Mr. Goldfarb, stood up and turned to the people and said, “This is a traditional shul. It has always been a traditional shul and it will always be a traditional shul. There will be no chandelier in this shul.” He sat down, so obviously agitated, that the people on the board were afraid he was going to have a heart attack. They didn’t understand what he was so upset about, but in deference to Mr. Goldfarb, they voted down the installation of the chandelier.

A year passed. They brought the chandelier idea up again and, again, Mr. Goldfarb went apoplectic. As had happened the year before, the proposal went down in flames. Finally, three years later, the young Turks had taken over the Board, and despite Mr. Goldfarb’s protests, they voted for the installation of the chandelier. At the end of the dramatic meeting Mr. Goldfarb sat back resignedly in his chair and sighed, “All right, so tell me, who’s going to play the chandelier?”

Change is hard. Change brings on anxiety for we fear the bad things that change may bring. Most people are willing to live with something they don’t love which is familiar than to risk major disruption to try to bring something better to replace it. And as our story about the congregation demonstrates, people can be so aversive to change that they assume that any change represents a rejection of their long held values or practices.

But change is in the air. We live in a time of great insecurity and anxiety. The last two weeks have been described as a crisis on the scale that sparked the Great Depression. The country is led by a lame duck president whose approval ratings are the lowest of any American President in the history of these ratings. Two presidential candidates fight over who is going to be the leader who will bring change to the country. We know there will be change if either one wins, but we really don’t know what those changes will be much less their consequences. We truly live in a time of uncertainty.

This is a period of change for our congregation as well. The changes at Beth Shalom are both exciting but also disorienting. Many of the changes that have begun to take form here are very gratifying. We are enjoying during these High Holydays our newly renovated sanctuary. The synagogue completed just last month a newly renovated Beit Midrash and library. Most dramatic are the impending changes to our property as we enter the final stages of the sale of the North 40 project. These projects reflect the conviction of the synagogue leadership for the need to take dramatic action to put the synagogue on firmer financial footing and to address severe needs of our facility that was showing signs of serious wear and tear.

We do not only face structural changes, we also face demographic and generational issues that threaten the future viability of our congregation. During my first year at Temple Beth Shalom, I devoted much time to meet the members and to learn as much as possible about the forces at work on the congregation.

While our congregation faces many challenges we are truly blessed with a great asset and vital link to the congregation’s past as embodied by our Cantor Emeriti who have served the congregation for a continuous period since the 60s. Rabbi Hazzan David Kane and Rabbi Cantor Gelman (who by the way received his rabbinic smichah this past year) have defined the public worship of our congregation with their beautiful Hazanut and inspiring presences.

One of the challenges I observed after being here a year is the reality of a very fragmented congregation. We are fragmented along generational lines. We have circles of people who know each other well, but do not know other members who have joined the synagogue in recent years. Most of the younger families do not have parents or grandparents in the congregation and most of the older members do not have children or grandchildren active in the congregation. In short we are not yet a cohesive community. We are a congregation of clusters who are disconnected from each other with different needs and expectations.

My theme this year and during the High Holidays is Putting back the Syn (SYN) in synagogue. Putting the Bayit back in Beit Knesset.

Now I am sure putting the syn back in synagogue opened some eyebrows. No, it’s not what you think. Syn is spelled S-Y-N and means to bring together. Our goal this year is to help make our synagogue better at bringing people together.
The second part of our slogan is to put the Bayit back in Beit Knesset. The word for synagogue in Hebrew is Beit Knesset which has the word-Bayit-house embedded within it. That bayit stands for house, home, place of dwelling. As you will learn, we seek to bring Jewish life back home, to link the synagogue to the home.

Everything we are trying to do this year is to build a stronger sense of community in our congregation. Building community means finding new ways to bring people together. Building community means to create new and lasting bonds. Building community involves fostering selflessness, generosity, sacrifice, and support among all our members.

To do this I will propose in my sermons a renewed consideration of the spiritual building blocks of Jewish communal life:
Shabbat-the Sabbath; Tefilah-Prayer; and Gemilut Hasadim-acts of loving kindness. Tomorrow I will share with you my vision for renewing Shabbat at Beth Shalom. On the second day, I will explore with you the great challenges we face making communal prayer meaningful and how we may envision reinvigorating our worship at Beth Shalom. On Kol Nidre I will address how we can create a truly caring community through a renewed commitment on acts of loving kindness.

My last sermon on Yom Kippur will move from a local focus to sharing with you my sense of the unusual times that we are witnessing. We have as the Chinese are apt to say the fortune to live in interesting times.

These are times of heightened worry and uncertainty. We will need each other. We need family and friendship. We need people to lean on. We need a responsive community composed of members who are genuinely concerned about each other and are ready to be supportive in times of need.

The writer, Mitch Albom, who wrote the beautiful book, Tuesdays with Maury, captures the underlying purpose of the changes we will introduce to you these High Holidays. He wrote,

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” I seek to inspire you to focus anew on each of these critical areas of life: caring for others, serving community, and seeking meaning and purpose.

Please join us as we put the Syn back in synagogue and the Bayit back in Beit Knesset.

Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue: Part 1 We Make Shabbat Housecalls

We Make Shabbat Housecalls
Rosh Hashannah, First Day 2008
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

The Talmud tells us,

“When the Second Temple stood, six blasts of the Shofar announced the approach of the Sabbath to the Jewish community.
The first blast signaled the farmers to stop their plowing, digging, or other work in the fields.
The second blast directed the merchants in the towns to place the shutters on their windows and close their shops.
The third blast meant that all the cooking must end and the time had come to light the Sabbath lamp.
Soon after, three more blasts proclaimed the official beginning of the Sabbath.”

While we associate the sound of the Shofar exclusively with Rosh Hashannah, our ancient forbears associated the sound of the Shofar as the siren for the commencement of Shabbat. The Shofar served as the alarm to end work and begin Shabbat. It called us to rest, to put aside our struggle for survival for a respite. The Shofar was a call to stop and turn in a new direction toward rest and freedom.

This year as we blow the Shofar we are particularly anxious. We are consumed with financial worries because of a teetering economy. We are stressed parents with jobs and family demands 24/7. We are business people with sleepless nights worrying about the viability of our enterprises. We are retirees who are terribly anxious about the fate of our nest eggs. We are all Americans witnessing our country in the midst of an historic election with fateful consequences. We are all Jews who worry about the future of Israel as it faces mortal threats to its existence. We are all humans worried about the impact of climate change and the consequences of our addiction to oil and environmentally degrading behaviors.

We can give up in hopelessness and despair, or we can do concrete things to help improve the world. We can also change our lives to live in better synch with our physical world and our fellows.

In this time of uncertainty the Shofar provides a hint to a source of a source of hope and relief. It points us to the Shabbat-the spiritual resource our tradition offers as a counterpoint to anxiety and the strains of living in a world of uncertainty.

My argument is straight forward. In these times of uncertainty and worry, of excess and degradation, we need to return to the time tested way we Jews have used to live in this world. We desperately need the Shabbat.

Why do we need Shabbat?

We need Shabbat because we have lost the capacity to rest. year 000
Here are a few examples:
Americans are working more than medieval peasants did, and more than the citizens of any other industrial country.
On average, we work nearly nine full weeks (350 hours) LONGER per year than our peers in Western Europe do.
Working Americans average a little over two weeks of vacation per year, while Europeans average five to six weeks. Many of us (including 37% of women earning less than $40,000 per year) get no paid vacation at all.
We need Shabbat because we need a pause from a pace of life that is making us sick and even is killing us.
Last week I had the opportunity to speak to parents at our new Shabbat afternoon program for the Torah school. I shared with them one of the main aims of Shabbat is to create an island of time free from stress and anxiety. I then asked them to share the anxieties that they carry with them that they would like to find a way to reduce. The litany of anxiety was striking, made even more severe by the absorbing and scary events of Wall Street in the past couple of weeks. The heaviness in the room was palpable as parent after parent confessed to their anxieties about money, work, and caring for the children. Their stress is echoed across America as people complain of unprecedented levels of busyness in everyday life. We worry about frenetic schedules, hurried children, no time to be together, or to share meals. We face an onslaught of "hidden work" from proliferating emails, phone calls at any moment of the day, and an endless information glut from the Internet.
We need Shabbat to rediscover how to be together with our families and friends

We live in a culture in which eating is crammed into a compressed, frenetic schedule. One study found that 1/5th of all eating of a typical American is in the car. Michael Polin, the chronicler of our national eating disorder, describes the typical family meal of 2008: “Mom might still cook something for herself and sit at the table for a while, but she’ll be alone for much of the time. That’s because dad and each of the kids are likely to prepare an entirely different entrĂ©e for themselves, preparing in this case being a synonym for microwaving a package. Each family member might then join mom at the table for as long as it takes to eat, but not necessarily all at the same time. Kraft and General Mills are now determining the portion sizes, not mom and the social value of sharing food is lost. A meal at home looks a lot more like a restaurant meal, where everyone orders his or her own dish.”

His account reminds me of the movie Avalon which depicts the changing fortunes of a Jewish immigrant family’s by depicting their festive meals and family gatherings from the early days of their immigrant ghettos to their eventual move to the suburbs. The last scenes show a fragmented family, glued to the TV set while eating their TV dinners, and unable to interact with each other anymore.

We don’t know how to share a meal together in a relaxed way. We don’t know how to turn off our anxiety. We don’t know how to stop working.

We have lost the WHOLENESS OF SHABBAT. That wholeness is captured by the Yiddish word: Shabbasdik. How many of you recall the word and what it meant. To say something was Shabbasdik indicated that it had an emotive connection to Shabbat. Gefilte Fish is shabbasdik. Sleep is shabbasdik, singing is shabbasdik. As one great Rabbi once wrote, It is the duty and the privilege of the Jew to be able to make the Sabbat, laasot, to Sabbath a Sabbath. His point is that Sabbath should not be considered a noun, but is a verb, a behavior, a way of living that we have lost. We must learn again to Sabbath a Sabbath.

We have lost the art of sabbathing a Sabbath because we have slipped into a reality in which we live to work, not work to live. We run because we no longer no how to walk. We rush because we feel compelled to keep up.

How do we recover the Wholeness of Shabbat, how do we relearn to Sabbath a Sabbath?

First, we can recover the full meaning of Shabbat by becoming intentional about leaving our anxiety and worry behind on Friday evening.

When I have people to my home for Shabbat, I pass out a basket and ask people to put in objects of the work week in it as a way of letting go of the devices that add to our daily stress. People put in their keys, their cell phones, their wallets, to spare themselves of the anxiety of the week for a few hours. I ask people what worry or anxiety they would like to let go of for Shabbat.

Authentic Jewish spirituality is tied to our ability to detach from the demands of our daily lives and to “rest”. Shabbat Menuchah-Sabbath Rest- is a Jewish mode of living in which we refocus on dimensions of our lives and those around us that the demands of survival prevent us from pursuing. Do we have the ability to elevate our lives? Do we know how to give quality time to those we love and like to be with? To Sabbath the Sabbath is to find joy in spiritual rest. A shabbasdik person has learned how to detach from the obsessions and distractions of labor, habits, and the daily grind.

Second, we can recover the wholeness of Shabbat if we strengthen our synagogue as a Shabbat gathering place where we experience rest, joy, and community: We have to ask ourselves, Do our services create community? Do they impart the spirit of Shabbat to us? Do they connect us one to another?

This year we have begun to rethink how Shabbat is experienced and presented at the synagogue. It is not sufficient to offer services, rather we have to think about how those services or anything we do on Shabbat creates a caring and mutual community and instills within us a love for the Sabbath day.

As part of this rethinking we have introduced two new initiatives: We are launching this fall a new Friday night service cycle featuring beautiful and spiritual moving musical services. We have found that the musical services led by Cantor Kripper bring joy and comfort to many of our congregants. People desire to sing and to participate at services. The new musical services make it easier for people to connect and to connect to each other. Rabbi Cantor Gelman is also planning on introducing an occasional musical Shabbat morning service as well along the lines of the music he has introduced for the first time on this Rosh Hashannah.

The second initiative involves our community of families. We have started on Shabbat afternoons a monthly family Shabbat program through the Torah School. It is called the Shavua Tov program and brings together all our families to share in a relaxing Shabbat afternoon together at the synagogue. Families learn, pray, play, eat, and hang out together for a whole afternoon. We have parallel activities for children and adults culminating in whole family Shabbat celebrations and Havdallah.

Third, we will rediscover the Wholeness of Shabbat if we bring it home.

Why do I urge that Shabbat be brought home? Isn’t it enough to go to Shabbat at the synagogue? One of the unintended consequences of the Conservative Movement’s decision in the 50s to permit driving to the synagogue was to make Shabbat too synagogue centered. Three generations of Conservative Jews learned that you only do Shabbat at synagogues to the point that most Conservative Jews no longer know how to Sabbath a Sabbath at their homes.

Our friends in Chabad saw early this empty space in the spiritual lives of Conservative Jews. Wherever Chabad established itself, its shelichim (representatives) started inviting Conservative and other non-Orthodox Jews to their homes for Shabbat meals. Over the decades Chabad built its stellar reputation on this commitment of sharing their Sabbath tables with any Jew who said yes to their frequent invitations. The Jewish demographer Stephen Cohen told me that the one of the most common markers of young Jews identifying with their Judaism is their having experienced Shabbat dinners in the homes of rabbis, Jewish educators, or fellow Jews.

We need to come home to having Sabbath at home. Beth Shalom is setting aside one Friday night a month to encourage our members to do Shabbat at home. We provide support to everyone who wants to host a Shabbat dinner and encourage them to invite friends and guests to their tables. But we go one step further. We help our members offer the most stimulating, fun, and engaging Shabbat meals by making available a special guest. This guest is available to come to your home with a Shabbat experience to share with your family, friends, and guests. They are called Shabbat Table Animators. We have recruited seven of them, including myself and our Education director, Rabbi Hanien. Each of us is available to make Shabbas house calls. Instead of you coming to the synagogue, the synagogue comes to you.

This idea was awarded a prestigious national renewable grant from the Legacy Heritage Innovation Fund. This initiative is called the Shalom Aleichem Shabbat Program after the beloved hymn that opens the Friday night Shabbat rituals. We hope that many of you will host at least one Shabbat dinner on one of the six Shalom Aleichem Shabbats over this coming year. Or if you are not ready to host, sign up to be a guest and experience some of the most enjoyable and inspiring Shabbat experiences.

(The details of this program and our new Friday night cycle are in the Shabbat Renewal Packets you have received when you entered this morning. )

The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel captured the essence of why Shabbat is the greatest idea and most beloved mitzvah of the Jewish people. I paraphrase a passage from his classic, The Sabbath

What is it to live the Sabbath? To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of war, a day for cultivating our spiritual selves, a day of detachment from commonplace concerns, of independence from draining obligations, a day on which we stop obsessing over the idols of technology, a day on which we turn away from money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow human beings and the forces of blind nature.

As you now know, the Shofar was a call for Shabbat as well as an audial signpost for the arrival of the New Year. According to many Jewish commentators, the primary purpose of the blowing of Shofar on RH is to jar people to change-to turn-to make Teshuvah-the Hebrew term for turning away from sin. Change is at the heart of the blowing of Shofar before Shabbat in ancient times. The Shofar calls on the Jew to pivot: from sin to repentance, from labor to rest, from missing the mark to finding the way, from anxiety to joy.

Let us listen to the spiritual call of the Shofar and reclaim the spiritual capacity to pivot, to change, and to preserve holiness in our lives. Join us in our effort to reclaim the holiness of Shabbat at Beth Shalom.

Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue. Part 2: Must Prayer be Thoughtless

Putting the SYN back in Synagogue: Must Prayer be Thoughtless?
2nd Day Rosh Hashannah, 5769
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

In a certain suburban neighborhood, there were two brothers, 8 and 10 years old, who were exceedingly mischievous. Whenever something went wrong in the neighborhood, it turned out they had a hand in it. Their parents were at their wits' end trying to control them. Hearing about a minister nearby who worked with delinquent boys, the mother suggested to the father that they ask the minister to talk with the boys. The father agreed.

The mother went to the minister and made her request. He agreed, but said he wanted to see the younger boy first and alone. So the mother sent him to the minister. The minister sat the boy down on the other side of his huge, impressive desk. For about five minutes they just sat and stared at each other.

Finally, the minister pointed his forefinger at the boy and asked, "Where is God?"
The boy looked under the desk, in the corners of the room, all around, but said nothing.

Again, louder, the minister pointed at the boy and asked, "Where is God?"

Again the boy looked all around but said nothing.

A third time, in a louder, firmer voice, the minister leaned far across the desk and put his forefinger almost to the boy's nose, and askedk, "Where is God?"

The boy panicked and ran all the way home. Finding his older brother, he dragged him upstairs to their room and into the closet, where they usually plotted their mischief. He finally said, "We are in B-I-I-I-I-G trouble now!"

The older boy asked, "What do you mean, B-I-I-I-I-G trouble?"

His brother replied, "God is missing and they think we did it."

God is missing and we did it. This is the issue with the way we pray. Despite our emotional attachment to the prayers of the High Holidays, we have a lot of trouble with the God part. I know that this is a controversial claim. But I want to speak the truth to you about the ambivalence that afflicts us during these many days of prayer.

The Jewish philosopher, Leon Wieseltier captures this ambivalence in this passage from his masterpiece, Kaddish.

“The rabbis famously say that those who cannot pray for the sake of praying should pray anyway, because it will bring them to pray for praying’s sake. I never liked this statement. It is behaviorism or it is opportunism, since it finds a religious utility for faithlessness and thereby steals the thunder from belief and unbelief.
Anyway it is obvious that many people who pray do not pray for prayer’s sake, and do not bring to prayer the philosophical propositions on which it must be premised. Are there times, then, when philosophy does not matter? Of course. the world would not work if it waited on philosophical understanding. It is a good thing that people act in the absence of reasons, or of clear reasons. Thoughtlessness is a lubricant of life.
And yet it will not do to say that we are muddling through and that is the end of it. It is always possible to muddle through less complacently. Even though one may act without reasons, one should search for reasons. Even though one may pray without meaning, one should mean it.”

Wieseltier expresses an insight about the problem of our communal and personal worship.

“The rabbis famously say that those who cannot pray for the sake of praying should pray anyway, because it will bring them to pray for praying’s sake.”
Our Rabbi’s accepted that our prayers might not come from the heart. It is better to go through the motions of prayer than to not pray at all. It’s OK to pray by rote. If we go through the motions then at some point we might catch spiritual fire and pray with fervency and intention. In other words, Fake it until you make it.
But then Wieseltier picks a fight with the Rabbis,
“I never liked this statement. It is behaviorism or it is opportunism, since it finds a religious utility for faithlessness and thereby steals the thunder from belief and unbelief.”

What is the cost of the rabbinic concession to rote worship? What happens when you say, Fake it until you make it? Accomodating rote worship causes the act of prayer to lose its spiritual and religious power. As AJ Heschel famously noted, rote worship becomes ‘ceremonial’ as opposed to a service of the heart. This is prayer on Prozac. The problem with ceremonial prayer is that it loses its power to deeply inspire a connection to God or to potentially provoke within us a real crisis of faith.

Have you ever prayed in a place where you knew everyone around you was praying fervently? Or do you remember moments when you or someone you knew reacted angrily to a religious ritual. By sanctioning insincere prayer, don’t we make it harder to achieve true belief and faith or an authentic grappling with whether God is listening to us?

Wieseltier then admits what many of us Rabbis discover early in our careers.
“Anyway it is obvious that many people who pray do not pray for prayer's sake, and do not bring to prayer the philosophical propositions on which it must be premised. Are there times, then, when philosophy does not matter? Of course. The world would not work if it waited on philosophical understanding. It is a good thing that people act in the absence of reasons, or of clear reasons. Thoughtlessness is a lubricant of life.”

At my former synagogue a visiting scholar in residence asked the Shabbat morning regulars to raise their hands if they believed in God. A few hands went up, but most remained down. He asked how many of them had taken a class on the meaning of Jewish prayer or had read a commentary on the prayer book. Most admitted they had not. He then asked if they loved the prayers or the service, and they all raised their hands. These congregants had an emotional attachment to the prayers which had little to do with any theological self consciousness or reflection.

Thoughtlessness is the lubricant of many who pray. Our fear of engaging the meaning of prayer leads some to a focus on form and the proper conduct of outer ritual. But thoughtlessness is also the lubricant of those who are not interested in prayer as well. The form and the ritual of prayer do not hold their interest or they are simply bored by the ritual intricacies of Jewish worship. We have failed with our patterns of worship to create a hunger for prayer or even a curiosity.
Why is this so?

The mitzvot and the halachot-laws about of prayer in Judaism make it one of the most demanding obligations for an observant Jew. An observant Jew (whether Orthodox or Conservative) who seeks a life of piety commits to praying three times a day, preferably in the company of a minyan. He wraps tefillin every weekday, offers blessings throughout the day as many as 100 times, and will add personal petitions and psalms when the need is felt

This world of personal or communal prayer is remote from us. We pray once in a while, only with a minyan, rarely in private, without tefillin, and lost in the fog of a prayer book that we hardly understand.

The struggle to maintain Jewish communal prayer in America has many causes. Most American Jews don't know Hebrew-so we can't fully engage or plumb the poetic power of the Hebrew liturgy. Some of us can read Hebrew phonetically, whatever we salvaged from religious school, but we cannot decipher or translate what we read. But truthfully, Israelis who know Hebrew, are not praying in droves either. Secular Israelis don’t relate to prayer book Hebrew that seems old and disconnected from their living reality. And because they understand what they are reading they come face to face with the problems of meaning that we Americans can dodge due to our lack of understanding.

The traditional Siddur and Mahzor are collections of prayers written by rabbis and poets expressing a theology of antiquity and the middle ages. It speaks of a personal God in patriarchal language who listens to prayers, intervenes in history, and protects the Jewish people in their exile, resurrects the dead, and ultimately sends to us a human messiah to redeem us. To most Bar Mitzvah kids I teach,, these ideas make absolutely no sense. They don’t have the interpretative skills or intellectual or emotional maturity to make sense of them. And since so many Jews stop receiving a Jewish Education after Bar Mitzvah, we retain an immature, underdeveloped understanding of prayer. Our prayer is pediatric; our insight is adolescent. The Jewish spiritual treasure house was locked and the key thrown away when we reached puberty. For some of us, that is a very long time ago.

Wieseltier recognizes this and reaches a sober observation:
“And yet it will not do to say that we are muddling through and that is the end of it. It is always possible to muddle through less complacently. Even though one may act without reasons, one should search for reasons. Even though one may pray without meaning, one should mean it.”

His point is that Jewish prayer is challenging to make sense to most people. Therefore the best we can do is attempt to make sense of it while recognizing that it will not come easily to most Jews. You know who get’s this? Chabad, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish missionaries to the Jewish people who get this. Anyone who has gone to the Chabad affiliated Shul by the Shore in our own community can see this understanding at work. This synagogue, run by a talented Chabad Rabbi for non Orthodox Jews, accommodates to the reality that modern Jews either don’t know how to pray or are not willing incorporate it into their lives. Shul by the Shore offers vastly shortened services with the rabbi’s entertaining running commentary and asides.

This may be hard to hear for those of us who love traditional worship as we have preserved it here at Beth Shalom. We very much want to preserve the traditional prayer service and cannot understand why the younger generation does not connect. Younger Jews who do not feel the same loyalty to the Conservative Movement are ambivalent about personal and public worship in general and have a very hard time connecting to traditional forms. The differing relationship to Jewish prayer has created a movement wide generation gap with many shuls trying to find ways to accommodate conflicting worship needs. Like many other Conservative congregations we are trying to find this way on this issue as well.

But there are efforts to renew prayer in Conservative congregations. Let me share a few examples.

A few years ago a dying congregation in Manhattan hired a rabbi from Argentina who introduced a unique musical service based on his years in South America. This synagogue, Bnai Jeshurun, pioneered the services with musical ensembles and vigorous congregational singing. The service was not conceived as an entertainment, but rather uses beautifully crafted music to create a spiritually meaningful and meditative experience. The service created at Bnai Jeshurun took the Upper West Side by storm and to this day attracts hundreds and hundreds of Jews of all ages. Cantor Kripper this year has introduced the Neshama Minyan and High Holiday Family service which are indebted to the innovative approach to services developed by Bnai Jeshurun.

Another contemporary attempt to revitalize prayer is the Independent Minyan movement. These minyans have sprouted all over the country and are formed by young people using classic community organizing methods. They start by recruiting a core of committed members, some with skills and others who want to learn. They teach themselves to daven and build a congregation from the foundation upwards. It is now possible to send minyan pioneers to a training center in New York City which specializes in Jewish worship startups.

Whether these models are right for our congregation is not yet clear, but I wanted to share with you that the challenges we face are also being faced by congregations everywhere. At Temple Beth Shalom we are entering a period of generational transition in our communal prayer. We want to preserve the link to our past, but we must find ways to make prayer relevant for a new generation.

We are blessed with extraordinary Cantor Emeriti who enliven traditional worship with their commanding voices and beautiful interpretations. We also have one of the finest talents, in Roni Kripper, who is introducing new ways to bring meaning to traditional worship.
Ultimately we must make an effort to deepen the experience of our congregational prayer. We must make a vigorous effort, even if we fail. Listen the words of the master, AJ Heschel, who speaks of those who try to pray, but fail.
“Those who honestly search, those who yearn and fail, we do not presume to judge. Let them pray to be able to pray, and if they do not succeed, if they have no tears to shed, let them yearn for tears, let them try to discover their heart and let them take strength from the certainty that this too is a high form of prayer.

A learned man lost all his sources of income and was looking for a way to earn a living. The members of his community, who admired him for his learning and piety, suggested to him to serve as their cantor on the Days of Awe. But he considered himself unworthy of serving as the messenger of the community, as the one who should bring the prayers of his fellow-men to the Almighty. He went to his master the Rabbi of Husiatin and told him of his sad plight, of the invitation to serve as a cantor on the Days of Awe, and of his being afraid to accept it and to pray for his congregation.
"Be afraid, and pray," was the answer of the rabbi."*
A. J. Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, p. 256.

Let us be afraid and pray.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Day in the Life of Rabbi Gartenberg-Jewish Contractor and Dog Stories

A Day in the Life of Rabbi Gartenberg

A woman called me last week.

She said, "Oh, Thank God, I found a Rabbi. You are the first one who answered the phone."    

"My pleasure." I said, "How can I help you?"

"I have a Jewish contractor. He was very nice before I hired him. But since he started to work for me, he is very rude and inconsiderate. I felt that by speaking to a Rabbi, I might get advice on how to speak to him."

I said, "I think you should confront him, share with him the behavior you find unacceptable. Ask him to be considerate and respectful of your needs. If he continues to be rude, then you have every right to discontinue your business relationship."

She said, "I was hoping that I could tell him I spoke to a Rabbi who is prepared to speak to him directly about his behavior. "

I told her that I did not think I would be prepared to speak to him, but that she needed to do this herself. I told her that it was unlikely that he would listen to a rabbi he did not know. I asked her why she thought he would listen to a rabbi. She told me that he was Israeli. I told her that it was even less likely that he would listen to a rabbi. She continued to fret with a strangely cheery voice about how to deal with this contractor. She obviously did not know the Jewish art of 'kvetching'. I saw that this was a morass that I best not get involved in, apologized and wished her the best of luck.

When I got off the phone, I realized what I should have said to her.

Get a Jewish lawyer.


A good joke to pass on.


Morty visits Dr. Saul, the veterinarian, and says, "My dog has a  problem."
Dr. Saul says, "So, tell me about the dog and the problem."
"It's a Jewish dog. His name is Irving and he can talk," says Morty.
"He can talk?" the doubting doctor asks.
"Watch this!" Morty points to the dog and commands: "Irving, Fetch!"
Irving, the dog, begins to walk toward the door, then turns around and says, "So why are you talking to me like that? You always order me around like I'm nothing.  And you only call me when you want something.  And then you make me sleep on the floor, with my arthritis.  You give me this fahkahkta food with all the salt and fat, and you tell me it's a special diet. It tastes like dreck!  YOU should eat it yourself!  And do you ever take me for a decent walk? NO, it's out of the house, a short pish, and right back home.  Maybe if I could stretch out a little, the sciatica wouldn't kill me so much!  I should roll over and play dead for real for all you care!"
Dr. Saul is amazed, "This is remarkable!  So, what's the problem?"
Morty says, "He has a hearing problem!  I said 'Fetch,' not  'Kvetc


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Observations about Young at Heart, a Film

Young at Heart, a film

May 26, 2008

I saw the film, Young at Heart the other night. It is documentary about a chorus of seniors that sings rock hits. The filmmaker spends 7 weeks filming them as they rehearse for a new show. It is much more than a film about a group of performers; it is a very moving portrayal of the will to live, the power of art and community, and the triumph of hope over despair. There are a couple of remarkable scenes. The performance at the jail by these octogenarians is a thing to behold. They had just lost a beloved member who died hours before the performance. Yet they sang their hearts out to the prisoners who were visibly moved to tears. The humanity of the moment comes through to the viewer. I was moved to tears. The many poignant moments of the documentary are marked by hilarious and touching interviews of chorus members and funny scenes from the rehearsals. The most remarkable person in Young at Heart is the director, Bob, who brings out remarkable performances from everyone while shepherding the group through loss and illness.

The film asks the question about how we serve others? It also asks the question about how we use our talents as we age? The film also makes us think of the mitzvah of Hidur Pnai Zaken-honoring the elderly. Young at Heart is a beautiful portrayal of this mitzvah in a society that neglects the old and fixates on the young.

I welcome comments to Rabbiblog.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

My Stand on the Question of Gay and Lesbian Marriage in California

My Stand on the Question of Gay and Lesbian Marriage in California

Given May 24, 2008

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg


This past week we witnessed the historic decision of the California Supreme Court to legalize Gay and Lesbian civil marriage in our state. I support this decision and hope that any attempt to roll it back with a Constitutional amendment will be defeated by the electorate. I share with you my perspective on Gay and Lesbian union ceremonies with Jewish tradition so you can understand my perspective on this issue within Judaism.


Several years ago I was asked to perform a commitment ceremony for two Jewish Gay men who are members of my former congregation. This would be a private religious ceremony since the State of Washington had no provision for giving legal weight to their relationship. Their request led to my review of Jewish law and the contemporary deliberations on the issue of homosexuality and Jewish religious life.


    The issues associated with consecrating a Gay or Lesbian relationship within Jewish tradition are very difficult and weighted by pejorative understandings of homosexuality going back to the Torah itself. For instance, in Lev. 18:22 we read, "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence." In Lev 20:13 we read, "If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death-their bloodguilt is upon them." While all Conservative scholars have shown that the sanctions against homosexuality no longer hold, they disagree on whether to continue to view homosexual sexuality as a 'toevah'-an abomination. . The Movement welcomes Gays and Lesbians as synagogue members and is active in defending the rights of Gays and Lesbians in civil society. This past year the movement in a split decision decided to accept Gay and Lesbian candidates to its rabbinical school.


A few years ago the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly invited several scholars in our Movement to submit essays concerning the question of homosexuality and Jewish law. The papers reveal the wide disparity of views within the movement. My teacher, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, composed the most convincing essay on the subject. He argues that compelling contemporary factors force us to reassess the biblical prohibition on homosexual relations. The biblical prohibition on homosexual behaviors assumes that homosexuality is a matter of choice. According to the predominant scientific opinion of our times, homosexuality is not a matter of choice; rather it is an irreversible orientation over which a person has no control. If this is the case, modern interpreters of Jewish law must take this into account when dealing with the issue of homosexuality.


Dorff argues that we cannot deny what our basic orientation dictates. Quoting a passage from the Talmud Rabbi Dorff suggests the matter is akin to a patient's need for food on Yom Kippur: "When a person says, "I need it," even a hundred doctors say that he does not need it, we listen to him, as Scripture says, 'The heart knows its own bitterness'.


Jewish law assumes that we cannot refrain from the most basic instincts such as eating and sexuality. It regulates, however, the circumstances in which these compulsions may be legitimately met. For example, we may eat, but we must follow the dietary laws and pronounce blessings over our food. We desire sex, but we engage in it within the framework of marriage. This is the Jewish way of sanctity-channeling our natural drives into a holy framework of behaviors and living.


Rabbi Dorff concludes that if homosexuality is an orientation over which a person has no choice, then modern interpreters of Jewish law should hold that homosexual acts, like heterosexual ones, be regulated such that some of these relationships can be sanctified (monogamous and exclusive) while others are regarded as sinful behavior (indiscriminate sex).


In addition to Rabbi Dorff's powerful reasoning, I have experienced directly the pain of many Gay and Lesbians and their families over their exclusion from Jewish life. If we give a message that homosexuals are welcome in the synagogue, but prevent them from sanctifying their committed relationships in our community we add to their suffering and sense of isolation. Let's approach this from the positive side. One of my brothers is Gay. I have seen him sustain a beautiful and loving relationship with his partner of twenty years. I believe that we are doing a great Mitzvah by making it possible for Gay and Lesbian couples to consecrate their relationships.


Rabbi Dorff's essay is a superb example of how a vital religious tradition absorbs new knowledge and evolving moral insights. We have to engage in a deep reading of the Torah to accomplish this, to ask questions not posed by previous generations. We embrace a way of reading the Torah that on the one hand recognizes its continuing sanctity and authority in our lives, while also recognizing the time and context of its outlook. The Torah is not just what is found in the Five Books or in the Talmud or in a Medieval commentary, but also in Rabbi Dorff's wedding of tradition and contemporary insight.


I still do make a distinction between commitment ceremonies and wedding ceremonies within the framework of Jewish law. When I am invited to sanctify the union of a Gay or Lesbian couple, I distinguish between Kiddushin (a wedding ceremony) and a commitment ceremony. I believe the traditional Kiddushin ceremony is built around deep assumptions of the union of a man and a woman. I support the creation of ceremonies and liturgies using blessings the sanctify Gay and Lesbian unions distinct from the Kiddushin ceremony, but carrying the same legal weight of consecration of the relationship in the eyes of Jewish law.


The ceremony that arose as a result of these reflections was also created in the same spirit. I worked with the couple on a commitment ceremony that was distinct from a wedding ceremony. We anchored the new ritual in the ritual language and the feel of a Jewish wedding ceremony, but we crafted language and ritual acts that made this commitment ceremony unique and original. I do look forward to doing similar ceremonies with the knowledge that they will also have the status of civil marriage in the State of California. I welcome Jewish Gay and Lesbian couples to invite me to officiate at their ceremonies and welcome them as couples and families within our congregation.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

May 24, 2008

Israel at 60: Is Israel the Beginning of the Sprouting of Our Redemption?

Israel at 60: Is Israel the Beginning of the Sprouting of Our Redemption?

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

May 23, 2008


The prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel and the Harahaman prayer in the Grace after Meals for the State of Israel contain a formulation that we have said for many years. The formulation is found in many modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rites as well as in the public ceremonies of federations and Jewish community centers. The prayer was written by the Israeli chief rabbinate upon the creation of the state. I would like to reflect on this prayer and what we mean by it as we mark the 60th birthday of the State of Israel.


    "Our Father in Heaven, Rock and Redeemer of the people Israel. Bless the State of Israel, the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption (or as translated in another text, the dawn of our redemption)."


What is the meaning of `reishit tzemichat geulateinu'. Reishit means `the beginning', while tzemichat describes the sprouting of a young plant. The word Tzemah is an allusion to the Messiah in Mishnaic Hebrew as found in the Amidah. In a sense the phrase is a redundancy. It could have read reishit geulateinu-the beginning of our redemption, or tzemichat geulateinu-the sprouting of our redemption. As we shall see, the curious phrase `reishit tzemichat geulateinu' reveals the language of compromise.


    Geulah, meaning redemption is a traditional religious concept with different connotations. The traditional notion of redemption has these principle features:


  1. Geulah will be an era of peace and prosperity ushered in by God through his messiah.
  2. Geulah will be a time of justice and compassion between people.
  3. With Geulah the Jewish people will regain their faith in God and will follow the Torah.
  4. As a result of Geulah the Jews both living and dead will be brought back to the land of Israel where they will witness the restoration of the Jewish commonwealth, the Temple in Jerusalem and the Davidic monarchy.
  5. The Jewish people will no longer be oppressed and will live in security in their land.


    This phrase is not universally accepted by Israelis. .


    For secular Zionists the phrase reishit tzemichat geulateinu is highly questionable if not totally objectionable. Most of the founders of the state were not traditional Jews in any way. The religious notion of redemption was anathema in their eyes. They blamed the suffering of Diaspora Jews on their submissive loyalty to the idea of a divinely dependent redemption. Traditional religious life had value as an instrument of Jewish preservation in the Diaspora. But now the new unfettered Jew living in Israel would bring on a sort of secular redemption without the help of God, by building up the land and creating the State of Israel.


    For many secular Zionists, identification with the historical destiny of the Jewish State is not only necessary for being a Jew; it is also sufficient. Zionism is a more effective tool for making possible the continued existence of the Jewish people in history. A Jew's commitment to the state of Israel is the new substitute for traditional Judaism and its messianic vision.


    Meanwhile, the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, refuse to recite the prayer Reishit Tzemichat Geulateinu. Their objection derives from a discussion in the Talmud in tractate Ketuvot about the meaning of the Jewish dispersal among the nations. Based on an interpretation in the Song of Songs, Rabbi Zera of Babylonia teaches that Israel must remain in the Diaspora. God stipulates that:


    First, the Jewish people shall not go up to the land of Israel all together as surrounded by a wall (that is they shall not return to Israel en masse); second, that the Holy One, Blessed be He adjured the Jewish people that they shall not rebel against the nations of the world; third is that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured the idolaters that they shall not oppress the Jewish people too much while they dwell amongst them.


    Rabbi Zera understands Israel fate amongst the nations as a sort of a three way covenant between the Jewish people, God and the nations. We promise according to Rabbi Zera not to go to Israel en masse unless God brings us there directly. Meanwhile we must stay amongst the nations and the nations will make our lives miserable, but not too miserable.


    Our redemption and our return to the land of Israel will be on God's terms, not our own. The Ultra-Orthodox believe that the restoration of the Jewish nation will be the messianic culmination of the Torah and its vision of history. The authentic Jewish commonwealth will not share the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the secular Jewish state. The messianic Jewish commonwealth will last forever. It will be free of all the tragic features of human history and most notably free from the historical sufferings of the Jewish people. .


    Therefore, the Ultra-Orthodox do not see a promise of redemption in the secular return to Zion. Moreover, they vehemently reject any attempt to give religious significance to the modern state. The current state is one of heretical Jews and is no different than other nations in its spiritual standing. The Ultra-Orthodox refuse to say reishit tzemichat geulateinu because they do not believe a state started by apikorsim and compromised religious Jews can be the first step to the messianic ingathering of the Jewish people.


    It was the modern religious Zionists, especially the settler movement which established the religious communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza advocated for the phrase reishit tzemichat geulateinu. In adopting these words they made an interpretive leap in their understanding of modern Jewish history and the significance of the return to the land. The modern state of Israel may have been settled and governed by secular, non-practicing Jews, but as the third commonwealth matures, God will divert the course of events, turning the Jewish state into a holy nation. Secular Jews planted the seed of the Messianic Days. By resettling the Land, they set the stage for God's dramatic culmination of history. The secular and religious views of the meaning of the modern Jewish state are thus welded together.


    As we observe the 60th birthday of Israel, how do we make sense of this phrase? The Ultra-Orthodox continue to refuse to say it, convinced more than ever that the Jewish State is not what is promised in the messianic teachings of the Talmud and Kabbalah. Many Ultra-Orthodox have come to terms with the reality of the State of Israel which serves as their benefactor, but they accommodate with it just as Jews accommodated with the nations they sojourned in the Diaspora.

The national religious Jews who embraced this phrase have lost faith in the phrase. The evacuation in Gaza and the growing unpopularity of the settlements in recent years have left many of these Jews alienated from the Jewish State. Many of them have a darker vision of Israel of defiant resistance against a compromising and anti religious Jewish state. They understand that the next decades will revolve around the fate of Jewish settlement in the territories.

More and more of them feel that the Messiah will not come from the liberation of the land, but in defense of those who refuse to follow the orders of the State that will likely at some point demand from them to give up their settlements.


For the majority of secular Israelis, the phrase `reishit tzemichat geulateinu' connotes little or no significance. This is not an idealistic time in Israel. Israelis don't see Geulah around the corner, whether religious or secular. Contemporary Israeli culture is focused on the here and now, on keeping the nation strong, while attempting to live as normal lives as possible. This is the modern crisis of meaning in Israel.


The challenge of the poet, the liturgists, the prophets, and the dreamers is to find a new phrase that encapsulates the hope of the Jewish people and the yearnings of our brothers and sisters in Israel. These yearnings may be found in the revival of interest in study of Jewish texts shared by a growing number of Israelis. These yearnings may be found in the spiritual searching that characterizes many secular Israelis.     They may be found in the new story tellers such as Edgar Keret or the blossoming and greater popularity of Israel movies and TV shows.


As we reach the 60th birthday of Israel, the phrase, reishit tzemichat geulateinu, no longer can convey the meaning of Israel for most Israelis. This is the spiritual challenge which is behind the challenge of physical survival that stands before Israel as it looks forward. Most Israelis have no patience for seeing themselves as the vanguard of the Messiah. They dream of having normal lives without fear of violence and war. They will fight for this, however long it takes. But they say emphatically to us, Cut out the messianic stuff.


This is beautifully expressed by the late poet, Yehuda Amichai


Tourists, Part 2
Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David's Citadel
and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of
tourists stood there around their guide, and I became their point
of reference. "You see the man over there with the baskets? A
little to the right of his head there's an arch from the Roman
period. A little to the right of his head." "But he's moving,
he's moving!" I said to myself: Redemption will come only when
they are told, "Do you see that arch over there from the Roman
period? It doesn't matter, but near it, a little to the left and
then down a bit, there's a man who has just bought fruit and
vegetables for his family."