Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pesach Reflections - 5770

Shalom and Mo'adim L'Simcha (a happy Festival season to you!),

I hope everyone reading this has enjoyed your Passover sedarim and is looking ahead to a week filled with reflection on the meaning of the Festival week.

The Talmudic tractate Pesachim provides us with a comprehensive overview of our Passover observance. Specifically, this Talmudic tractate elucidates the Seder ritual and the necessity of asking the Four Questions as the starting point of telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is clear from the Talmud that it is considered desirable to have (a) child(ren) present in order to ask the questions, so that the adults around the table can answer and thereby explain the story. However, the Rabbis point out, if no child(ren) is/are present, the adults around the table are still obligated to ask the questions even if they know the answers! In other words, it's not enough to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The "ikar," or essence, of the observance is to ask questions and initiate a discussion. Even if all of the participants around the Seder table are rabbis, we must first ask the questions.

So much of what Judaism deems a meaningful life has more to do with asking hard questions than receiving easy answers.

What questions keep you up at night?
What are the most significant questions you have ever asked, and what did you discover upon asking them?
What questions would you wish for your rabbi(s) to engage with you?

I would welcome your comments--and we need those comments/questions this week!--in two locations: in the "comments" field below this posting, and in the "Ask The Rabbi" module along the left-hand margin of this blog site. The unique advantage of the left-hand "Ask The Rabbi" module is that you can opt to remain anonymous. I will receive your questions and answer, in time, to the best of my ability. Answers will be posted here:

May this season of questions yield fruitful discussion!

Have a sweet and meaningful Pesach.

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reflections on Parashat Tzav 5770

This week's Torah portion, called Tzav (from the same root as "mitzvah," meaning, "command") speaks of sacrifices and offerings. It contains one of the most inspirational verses in all of Torah—but only if we read the text not on the surface, but deeply. “A perpetual fire shall be kept on the altar, not to go out,” the Torah says (Lev. 6:13).

Our Rabbis found this precept puzzling: why bother keeping the fire going night and day, day and night, even at times when no one was offering a sacrifice? Was this not a waste of firewood, a possible fire hazard, an multiplication of ash pollution—not to mention a burden on the priests who had to monitor the flame minute by minute?

From this puzzle they deduced an enlightening answer. What is the altar on which the fire must be kept burning perpetually? The altar is the human heart, and the fire is the passion of the soul. Even in the darkest hours, our people have kept burning a flame of hope and a passion for life.

Perhaps that explains the following story. A Hasidic teacher was once asked the one thing he would save if his house were on fire. He answered, “The fire!” because only the fire was irreplaceable. This teacher illuminated a truth: the fire of our passion that ignites an impulse to sacrifice on behalf of others is indispensable to what Judaism calls a meaningful life.

So now I ask for your comments: What is the "fire" that animates and gives purpose to your life? How does your Judaism kindle the spark of meaning and dedication within your day-to-day and week-to-week routine?

I am eager for you to share.

L'Shalom and Happy Studying!

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

PS: If you look to the left-hand margin of this blog page, you'll find a new "Ask the Rabbi" box. You can use this module to submit questions anonymously that I will receive and answer (choosing which questions to answer at my discretion). I look forward to hearing what's on your mind.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy One Year Anniversary to our Blog -- and Heeeeere's ... Leviticus!

Parashat Vayikra introduces us to the word "korban," meaning sacrifice.
The root of the word, however, implies "to draw near."
What practices (Jewish or otherwise) cause you to "draw near" to God even as the sacrifices of old brought the Israelites in communion with the God of Israel?

Happy studying (and happy sacrificing),

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5770: "The Old Shall Be New and the New Shall Be Sacred"

Vayakhel - Pekudei 5770

March 12, 2010 - 7:45 PM

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

So, 500 Reform rabbis walk into a bar….

It may sound like a joke, and it may in fact be a joke, but it is also an accurate portrayal of how I spent four nights this past week, having gathered in San Francisco for the annual convention of the CCAR, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is the professional association of the Reform rabbinate.

From the convention brochure one could not tell if the meeting had been convened solely for the purpose of exploring the Bay Area’s panoply of museums, restaurants, scenic vistas, and wineries. But I will assure you that the purpose of my visit was business and that most of the pleasure came from catching up with long-distance colleagues, typically after a very full day, in the hotel bar to which I alluded in my opening line. These informal get-togethers included a robust contingent of WRT members and clergy alumni, among them Rabbi Aaron Panken, Rabbi Jan Katzew, Rabbi Beth Singer, Rabbi Ken Chasen, Rabbi Laurie Katz Braun, and recent ordainee Rabbi Beth Kalisch.

I guess the bar setting felt appropriate enough given that the past year has been a sobering one for our Movement. The financial meltdown has prompted major budget cutting and restructuring in all Reform Jewish institutions, chiefly the URJ--the Union for Reform Judaism, our synagogue arm; the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, our seminary and training ground for Reform Jewish clergy and other professionals; and the CCAR, which has seen many of its rabbis face unemployment or underemployment in 2009. Nevertheless we persisted in good spirits throughout a week filled with learning, professional development, and discussing stuff like financial concerns and internal governance; and yes, a goodly amount of time in the bar. Above all the CCAR convention provides an opportunity for rabbis to take the pulse of the Reform Movement and a set its direction.

The theme of this year’s convention was, “The old shall be new and the new shall be sacred.” As I let that phrase roll around in my head for a while, I felt drawn to this week’s Torah reading, the double portion Vayakhel-Pekudei which concludes the book of Exodus by teaching us about the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting where the Israelites encountered God in their wilderness wanderings. I would like to walk us through one possible meaning of the Mishkan in light of what I believe is the most important overarching question facing the Reform Movement now and for years to come.

To wit: How shall we, the largest Jewish denomination in America, come to embrace a non-Orthodox population that continues to diversify, hybridize, and undergo fission into ever more particular stylistic niches? Those whose job it is to observe such trends point out that some of the best and brightest of the next generation--young Jewish urbanites in their twenties and thirties--are not necessarily choosing to affiliate with large Reform congregations, but are instead starting up their own exciting “post-denominational” chavurot--study, prayer, and social action groups--in America’s largest Jewish population centers, like New York City, where the number of such groups has exploded in recent years.

The Reform Movement should think about the work of growth, diversification of its appeal, and inclusion of as many as possible, with renewed urgency now, because Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, current president of the CCAR correctly identified in her sermon on Monday that “the rate of change itself is accelerating exponentially.” Surely the Reform Judaism of our children and grandchildren will look as different to us as will technology fifty years hence, or as different as now seems the Reform Judaism of a hundred or even just fifty years ago. Those of you who may have known WRT in its earliest years can well attest that despite the stability and longevity of this congregation and its rabbis, the dominant constant has been change!

Earlier this week I put up a question on Facebook, soliciting any readers to offer their opinions about the areas of greatest change and challenge facing Reform Judaism. Variations on a theme of inclusion continued to emerge. One congregant thoughtfully opined: “While multiculturalism/pluralism is a good thing overall, there will be a struggle to maintain our own identity and celebrate all things Jewish without ‘rejecting’ non-Jewish traditions. We need to keep striving to keep our houses of worship within our tradition, but with an open feeling to all who wish to be there, including non-Jews….”

The Torah reading this week concerns the building of a new sanctuary for the Jewish people so it’s a topic to which all of us at WRT can relate. The Mishkan of old was a tent, a thing of poles and curtains and sockets, a thing both collapsible and expandable. Like our sanctuary, it was also beautiful and eco-friendly, constructed of locally sourced materials like goat hair, acacia wood, and copper which is smelted in the deserts of the Middle East. And like WRT, the Mishkan had to be big enough, resilient enough, and adaptable enough to embrace a large and diverse community, inclusive of all, with each person’s attendant abilities and disabilities, varying viewpoints and political preferences… all the while without becoming so big, so impersonal, as to lose its unique identity among the mixed multitude. How like Reform Judaism today!

What’s more, the Mishkan, we are told, comes into the world only through the combined efforts of the whole community. “This is what the Eternal has commanded: Take from among you gifts… everyone whose heart so moves shall bring them” (Ex. 35:4-5). “Let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Eternal has commanded…” (Ex. 35:10) “...and everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit was moved came, bringing offerings” (Ex. 35:21). Now more than ever, the Reform Movement needs to open wide its embrace to the offerings, the talents, the skill and the service, that each man, woman, and child would give.

The big story that the national news wire picked up from San Francisco ran the following headline: “Reform Rabbis Suggest Welcoming Interfaith Couples.” Perhaps you saw it in the Times, which reported:

A Reform Jewish task force on intermarriage said Monday that the movement should do more to encourage mixed-faith couples to be active in Jewish life, including creating special blessings for major life events such as weddings and funerals.

The panel proposed no changes in the movement's policy on officiating at interfaith weddings. Reform Judaism formally opposes the practice but allows each rabbi to decide.

Instead, the panel proposed other steps, including educating rabbis on how they can engage intermarried families, and creating blessings for ceremonies that involve a non-Jewish spouse.

Leaders of the task force said their two-year study represents a shift away from trying to prevent intermarriage and toward encouraging mixed-faith couples to create Jewish homes.

I attended a discussion group on the subject capably facilitated by Rabbi Ken Chasen. We recalled that the active inclusion of interfaith households is already a generation old in the Reform Movement, having begun in earnest under Rabbi Alexandler Schindler’s outreach program in 1978. Nevertheless many of us found it refreshing to hear our Movement’s leadership affirm the need to embrace our interfaith households from the moment of a couple’s engagement until well beyond the chuppah, and to hear that the Movement will be making available resources for rabbis to counsel interfaith couples who are preparing for, or who are already partners in, marriage, even as the Movement affirmed each rabbi’s autonomy in choosing how best to address the delicate question of officiation at interfaith weddings.

Also under the banner of outreach, the CCAR issued the following public statement during our conference:

"...the Central Conference of American Rabbis has long advocated for full and equal rights for gays and lesbians in all areas of American society. The United States Armed Forces are not, nor should they ever have been, any exception... We are confident that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' can be ended swiftly and effectively, not only without negative impact on military readiness, but indeed with the positive impact of permitting all service members to serve our country honestly."

I for one am proud that our Movement’s tent is wide enough to embrace the LGBT community fully, including the ordination of LGBT rabbis. We are indeed a Movement of Inclusion and our thoughtful responsiveness to changing circumstances is enshrined in the word Reform. We should not rest on our laurels, however.

Even as I offer these words a bill awaits the consideration of Israel’s Knesset that includes an amendment that would make it so that converts who have previously been to Israel, or who reside in Israel, are excluded from the Law of Return, which gives the right of citizenship to all Jews. Orthodox political leaders cite the possibility of non-Jews exploiting conversion as a means to gain citizenship in Israel. In essence, this law has the potential to eliminate the rights of Reform and Conservative converts, who have previously been to Israel even on short organized community or synagogue trips, from gaining citizenship, people, for instance, like my wife Kelly. This legislation labels converts, including Orthodox converts, as second-class citizens who have to go through the naturalization process even though they are Jews, rolling back gains already won in Israel’s Supreme Court. If this bill succeeds, Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel would continue to be unrecognized, and the bill would create a discriminatory distinction between Jews by birth and Jews by choice. The power to perform conversions would rest solely with the Chief Rabbinate – which recognizes only Orthodox conversions.

The Reform Movement’s work of enlarging the tent of Inclusion must extend to Israel where provincial Jewish sectarianism continues to hold sway.

I am especially proud to represent Westchester Reform Temple at a CCAR convention because WRT has earned recognition as a pacesetting congregation within our Movement. In all of the above ways--in our own demonstrated eagerness to include all who would enter our synagogue in a spirit of a shared journey with a welcoming embrace, and in our leadership in bringing a vision of religious inclusiveness to Israel, I leave this year’s CCAR convention feeling very good about our synagogue’s place in the Movement. Indeed, in an economic climate still turbulent with storm and stress for many of our colleagues and the synagogues they represent, in a Movement where many rabbis continued to report the resistance they have encountered trying to introduce small changes into their congregations, like the new prayer book Mishkan Tefillah, I had to be careful not to boast too loudly of all the exciting growth and change we have experienced of late here at WRT and the partnership we rabbis enjoy with our members and lay leadership.

I can be candid with you, however, and I know that we will continue to occupy the vanguard of American Reform Judaism for years to come, eager to lead the way in such forthcoming initiatives under discussion at the convention, like the development of a new Machzor, or High Holiday Prayer Book, to take place over the next seven years or so, and much sooner forthcoming local efforts in congregational based community organizing, mobilizing local synagogues, churches, mosques, and community institutions here in Westchester to transform areas in our county beset by the long-term effects of entrenched poverty and governmental inaction.

Recall that God did not summon Moses to do work of the Mishkan alone, but rather directed each person in the community to give his or her time, money, skill, talent, or energy, each of their contributions needed, celebrated, recorded. So too, the Reform Movement can’t get by on its rabbis, cantors, and educators alone. We thrive here because devoted members and dedicated professionals join forces. Only when each of us gives whatever we can as generously as we can will our synagogue continue to be what the Mishkan was for our ancestors: a sacred place that doesn’t stay fixed in time or space but rather accompanies us on all our journeys, disassembled and reconstituted again and again.

After all, as Rabbi Dreyfus reminded us this week, the Tabernacle “was designed to become obsolete when we arrived in the Promised Land”--a symbol that each generation must renew and reform its Judaism if we wish for Judaism to survive, and more, to thrive. The old shall be new and the new shall be sacred.

Reform, renewal, change: these efforts are not easy, not even for a congregation eagerly embracing of change as our own. “What we want to change we curse,” wrote poet Marge Piercy. “And then pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can with eyes and hands and tongue. If you can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”

Amen and Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What are the Changes Facing the Reform Movement?

Dear Friends,

I'm happy to share this video, recorded here in San Francisco where I'm taking part in the annual CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis--the professional association of Reform rabbis) convention.

In my remarks, I reflect on the link between the parasha Vayakhel-Pekudei which describes the completion of the Israelites' portable Tabernacle, a temple-like structure that was uniquely adaptable and responsive to change, and the needs of the Reform Movement to remain adaptable and responsive to change in our world.

What do you think will be the biggest areas of change facing the Reform Movement, and world Judaism in general, in the decades to come?

L'Shalom from San Francisco!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Parashat Ki Tisa 5770: Carrying the Tablets and Allowing the Tablets to Carry Us

Dear friends,

My new video about the weekly Torah portion asks the question: Is your faith something that burdens you or lifts you up? Please take a few minutes to view and comment these reflections on the story of Moses and the Golden Calf.

Warm good wishes,