Friday, December 24, 2010

A New Book of Torah: Shemot 5771

Dear Friends:

I'm visiting relatives this week, but wanted to remind you that Torah study will be conducted as per usual at 9:00 AM tomorrow (Saturday) with a brief minyan followed by our encounter with Parashat Shemot. Rabbi Dan Sklar will be present for leadership and assistance.

In this week's portion, a king arises over Egypt "who knew not Joseph." Under his watchful eye, the Israelites multiply so as to arouse the fear of the Pharaoh who tries to subjugate the people: first by calling for the death of the male children, then by imposing upon them corvée (forced labor) "in mortar and bricks."

Too many times throughout Jewish history, our people has endured its share of Pharaohs, of kings who had no appreciation for the positive contributions of our people to history, religion, culture, science; who would rather suppress than encourage the indomitable Jewish spirit.

Now is not one such time.

And yet dangers lurk.

I believe that we Jews living in America today are faced with unprecedented opportunity and public encouragement; at the same time we are a minority population awash in a multicultural sea of which Christianity is the dominant wave. On this Shabbat Shemot that intersects with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, please use the Comments section of our blog to offer your reflections on what it means to be Jewish in America today. Are we in any way like the Israelites in Egypt in this week's portion? Or are we free of the enslavements of the past once and for all?

I wish you Shabbat Shalom from my chilly outpost away from home.
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Friday, December 17, 2010

Vayechi 5771

Dear Friends,

The Torah portion Vayechi that concludes the Book of Genesis gives us a cause for hope and a cause for despair.

Hope, in that for the first time since Cain slew Abel, the broken families of the Book of Genesis find themselves reunited in the touching scene of Jacob bestowing blessings on his children as he lies on his deathbed (even if some of those blessings are more like sharp-tongued condemnations).

Despair, in that, ominously, we realize we have come to the end of the good old days for the people of Israel for a very long time to come. The family is in Egypt. After the beatific funeral scene for Joseph, we realize with a dawning dread that in the forthcoming opening lines of Exodus we will meet the "king who knew not Joseph" and our enslavement and torment will commence.

We Jews have spent more time in history living in states of relative Powerlessness than we have in positions of national, sovereign Power. Our Powerlessness led the Talmud wisely to conclude that "the law of the land is the law," a principle that enabled Jewish communities to survive even under sometimes hostile regimes that marginalized its Jewish residents, depriving them of full citizenship or economic parity.

I am now going to share with you a powerful, disturbing reflection on the interplay between Jewish power and Jewish powerlessness, in this scathing posting by Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Dr. Hartman is one of the world's preeminent advocates for Jewish pluralism. Please read it, reflect, and comment below.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

What No Rabbi in the World Outside Israel Would Ever Say (09/12/2010)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

More Theological Musings / Parashat Vayyigash

Shalom Readers,

Continuing a theme that we introduced last week, I have been drawn to the comfort seen in Joseph's "God talk," the way in which the character of Joseph evolves from a self-centered teenager into a man who understands that his abilities and his leadership derive from the Kadosh Baruch Hu, Holy One of Blessing.

Consider Joseph again in this week’s portion Vayyigash. By the time we reach the climactic scene of the Joseph story in our reading, Joseph has finally learned that he is more than his accomplishments. Recall that much earlier, Joseph, the obnoxious brat, dreamed of rising to power over his brothers and all too eagerly would crow about his destiny to anyone who would listen. Now Joseph has grown into a man of means, a ruler second only to the Pharaoh of Egypt, able to throw his weight around and play power games, which he did with his brothers in last week’s portion.

But this week the games come to an end. Joseph reveals his identity in the emotional scene you described. Simply and without pretense he announces, “I am Joseph.”

When the brothers respond in slack-jawed disbelief, he insists, “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt.” And further: “This was all God’s doing… “God sent me before you came so that I could save you.”

Joseph has come to see his own success as God’s providence, situating him in order to save his family. Surely Joseph knows that he is an intelligent, talented, charismatic man whose leadership saved Egypt from national ruin. But in the end, he offers no triumphal boast. He can only thank God with humility.

I believe that Judaism has no quarrel with a person climbing the ladder of success and even wielding his influence for good causes, but my teacher, Rabbi Les Gutterman, has pointed out that Judaism would also ask us to remain “open to the possibility that we may well be where we are at some critical moment in time because of some divine mandate that only we can carry out.”

As we consider Joseph as an inspirational role model of a mature, sensible faith, I'd also like to draw your attention to a question I was recently asked on my anonymous Ask the Rabbi forum provided by social media outlet Formspring. The questioner asks, "What do you think of atheists and agnostics?" I enjoyed tackling this challenging subject. I hope you enjoy, and keep your questions coming. Again, click here for the link.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

God Talk and Parashat Miketz 5771

In our ongoing cycle of readings, the Torah's chief concern these days is a Hebrew named Joseph who rose nearly to the top of the political hierarchy in a non-Jewish land, as reported in this week’s Torah portion, Miketz. Most remarkable about Joseph’s ascension to the center stage of Egyptian political life is his candor about his faith, his open acknowledgment of God. From the Palace to the peasantry, Joseph brings God to Egypt’s dinner tables.

While in Egypt, Joseph, having endured two years of imprisonment in the royal dungeon, heeds the Pharaoh’s summons. His eyes still adjusting to the palace light, Joseph receives Pharaoh’s challenge: “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Joseph, standing in a court of idolaters and sorcerors, at the seat of a nation that enshrines its Pharaohs as gods, replies without flinching: “Not I!” says he. “God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare” (Gen. 41:15-16). As Joseph proceeds to offer an interpretation for Pharaoh’s dream, he interjects along the way: “God has told Pharaoh what he is about to do” (41:25); “God has revealed [it] to Pharaoh” (41:28); “the matter has been determined by God, and God will soon carry it out” (41:32).

The beloved 20th-Century scholar Nehama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, points out that through this deliberate, repeated invocation of God, “even Pharaoh took the hint,” saying: “…Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you” (41:38-39). As Leibowitz puts it, “Pharaoh, king of Egypt defers for the first time to the supreme King of kings” (Studies in Bereshit, 442). Joseph’s courageous, outspoken references to God impress this most idolatrous of ancient societies, from the throne to the throngs.

A number of years ago, another Joseph emerged in a similar political position. Senator Joseph Lieberman’s openly acknowledged Jewish piety made a similar impression in American life. Many Jews took Lieberman's public religiosity as a point of pride. But before long, his God-talk started to freak some people out, Jews in particular. For some, it was too much: it’s one thing to request Saturdays off; it’s quite another to recite “Shehechiyanu” (even in English) on national TV.

Why do so many Jews feel uncomfortable with God-talk? Most of us rightly wish to see the separation of Church and State enforced at every level, and justifiably fear the damage done to this essential principle at the hands of fundamentalists. Jews work especially hard to protect civil liberties, ensuring that public schools and courtrooms do not become bastions of Church indoctrination. God-talk has appeared threatening or obnoxious to the Jews, when it has really meant, “our God – not yours.” Most of us rightly wish to avoid, as well, a rigidly doctrinal approach to religion, where the fervor of belief determines who is a good Jew. For these reasons and more, many Reform Jews speak of God haltingly, if at all.

But why should any Joseph’s personal devotion to God—abundantly evident, but never with the intention to missionize—elicit not joy, not pride, but discomfort?

Now more than ever we could benefit from welcoming God-talk into our lives: in routine affairs, in religious school, and at home. Even as we try to express that God is everywhere, we teach by word and deed that God does not belong in daily discourse, in our education, or at home. We say that God is everywhere, but we confine God to the synagogue. No wonder our conceptions of God often remain stifled, nebulous, and child-like well into our adulthood.

When I advise bringing God-talk into daily life, please do not hear me clamoring to bring the Bible to the courtroom or benedictions to the classroom…. Far from it. I’m talking about recognizing a Power higher than ourselves, finding a sense of Purpose in our actions and in the world, seeing the Potential for holiness and divinity in a world too often obsessed with the mundane, or worse, the vulgar.

America, despite its banner “one nation, under God,” celebrates the self so as to blur the line between self-respect and self-aggrandizement. America promotes hard work and self-reliance, but too often it rewards egotism, ruthless self-promotion, and the worship of celebrity. What was so refreshing about Joseph Lieberman—and his biblical namesake—was the insistence that their glory and honor derived not from their merit alone, but, ultimately, from God.

Maybe our reluctance to welcome God-talk into our daily lives comes from a sense that God is to be found only in the spectacular. It’s a notion enforced by Bible-literalists, faith healers, and even, on occasion, by our own prayer book. Sometimes, looking in vain for a supernatural sign, we miss the Presence of God in the godly deeds of a caring person, in the daily miracle of new life and life renewed, in the triumphs of intellect and compassion over ignorance and bigotry, in the artist’s brushstrokes and the poet’s arrangement of words, in the architecture of Creation, in the human capacity to dream.

A famous passage relates that the prophet Elijah finds God not in wind, or earthquake, or fire, but in a "still, small voice" (I Kings 19:11-13). By getting away from spectacular depictions of God—the impossibly majestic celestial Deity, all knowing and all powerful, who works miracles and wonders, who rewards the good and punishes the wicked—we open ourselves to more subtle forms of divinity. We begin to see the potential for God in the least expected places. It is, after all, in a dungeon that Joseph first perceives God in his life. Even in Egypt, Joseph learned, there was room for God.

We do agree that God-talk can be problematic in our public schools. That’s why we send them to religious school, goes the answer. But few Reform Jewish religious schools make the exploration of God—we call that theology—even a peripheral part of the curriculum. As part of an ongoing revitalization of our religious school curriculum, it will be essential—and exciting—to have God acknowledged, discussed, debated, and taught in our religious school, as a centerpiece of our religious education. Jews have always honored study as a religious experience. It is said that in prayer, we speak to God; in studying Torah and the sacred traditions of Judaism, God speaks to us.

Children want to talk about God—they want to wrestle with Big Questions: Why are we here? Why does suffering exist? Why choose good over evil? In sprawling late-night conversations with my college roommates, I discovered that these questions all lead to an exploration of God. In our religious school especially, God is too big to ignore.

The same holds true in our homes. We cannot leave the religious education of our children entirely up to the Temple (excellent as WRT's program is). So if we want to help our children learn morality, goodness, holiness, mitzvot, responsibility, and the other attributes of godliness, we’re going to have to talk about God! For many, the birds-and-the-bees talk is easier. It’s certainly more straightforward. How do we begin?

We begin with those big questions. Explore the questions deeply before trying to formulate grand answers. Children already know the questions—our first job is to listen and ask along with them. Sometimes simply asking the questions will elicit a deeper understanding of God.

Rabbis David Wolpe and Harold Kushner have each written excellent books on talking to our children about God, in ways that perhaps our own religious-school education never covered. Kushner, for instance, resists the familiar teaching that “God is everywhere,” noting that it “has given rise to more ludicrous misunderstandings in the minds of children than perhaps any other theological proposition ever uttered. Children have been quoted as saying, in fear or in glee, that God was in the bathtub, in the dark closet, in their sandwich….” Kushner invites us to rephrase the question, asking not “Where is God?” but “when is God?” “To ask ‘when is God?’ suggests that God is not an object, but a quality of relationship, a way of feeling and acting, that can be found anywhere, but only if certain things (study, gratitude, self-control, helpfulness, prayer, etc.) are in evidence at that particular moment” (53-54). How we could all benefit from such theological reflection, and from sharing such ideas in our homes!

God belongs in our lives, in our religious schools, in our homes. From Joseph we learn that God can thrive even in polytheistic, idolatrous Egypt, if only given an ardent dreamer and an outspoken advocate.

May God thrive here as well: in dream, in word, and in deed.