Friday, March 25, 2011

Shemini 5771

Shabbat shalom, everyone,

This week's Torah portion, Shemini, begins with the conclusion of a special ritual, the ordination of Aaron (and his sons) as the priests of Israel. The ritual describes a procedure of installation of the Israelite community's spiritual leaders, the ones who would lead the people in sacrificial worship and who would act as intercessors between the people and their God.

From the Bible's day to our own, the need of the Jewish People for inspired spiritual leadership has remained a constant. Eventually, with the destruction of the Temple, the priesthood would be relegated to a ceremonial role, and the rabbinate would emerge as the chief institution of Jewish spiritual leadership. Throughout the generations, the Jewish people has seen fit to ordain as rabbis people who exemplify deep learning and deep commitment to the highest ethical principles of our faith.

This week's Torah reading illustrates the place of primacy that our spiritual leaders have always held in steering the direction of our religious lives. The ceremony described in Parashat Shemini is one of high drama, with sacrificial blood and animal flesh, fire and smoke, sacred clothing and ritual choreography. It commanded the attention of the people, to say the least. They looked up to their priests who were invested with sacred power: the power to utilize sacrifice and offering to expiate sin, the power to marshall the people's energies and wealth to doing good, helping the needy and supporting their religious institutions, an almost mysterious power. Fortunately we do not invest rabbis with all the same powers! We do not need rabbis to reach out to God; we do not need rabbis to live vicarious Jewish lives for us. But we do rely on our rabbis to help us learn and live Torah.

This week, the Union for Reform Judaism, the synagogue arm of the Reform Movement, nominated its next President, the chief spiritual leader for over 900 Reform synagogues and 1.5 million affiliated members: Rabbi Richard Jacobs. It is a point of pride for our community in particular, because for the past 19 years Rabbi Jacobs has helmed with distinction, thoughtfulness, and a visionary outlook, the congregation that I also have the privilege of serving as one of its rabbis, Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale.

It is a particularly emotional development for me personally, because Rick is also the man I call my rabbi and whose mentorship and mutuality of leadership at WRT has been a signature blessing of my rabbinate.

As the Torah this week prompts us to contemplate the significance of our spiritual leaders in our midst, I invite you to read about Rabbi Jacobs and his nomination by following this link.

All of us at Westchester Reform Temple join hands and hearts in offering Rabbi Jacobs a heartfelt mazal tov and a pledge of support in his forthcoming, sacred work!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Thursday, March 17, 2011


March 19-20, 2011

My wife, the extraordinary Kelly McCormick, and I just made a whole mess of hamentaschen to celebrate Purim.

Get your triangle on all weekend long as we kick off a zany, happy holiday!

You are also invited to hear me defend the noble hamentasch in the first ever Westchester Reform Temple-sponsored LATKE-HAMENTASCH DEBATE, Friday Night, March 18th, at 7:45 PM Kabbalat Shabbat Services at WRT. I will be facing off against my esteemed adversary, Rabbi Jan Katzew, Director of Lifelong Learning for the Union for Reform Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom and B'te'avon (Bon Appetit)!

adapted from Judy Zeidler, The Gourmet Jewish Cook. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc. 1988, pp. 116-117

Makes 5 to 6 dozen

1/4 pound unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Cream Cheese Filling (below)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until well blended. Beat in 2 of the eggs, blending thoroughly. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt and blend until the dough is smooth.

Transfer to a floured board and divide the dough into 3 or 4 portions for easier handling. Flatten each portion with the palm of your hand and roll it out 1/4 inch thick. With a scalloped or plain cookie cutter, cut into 2 1/2-inch rounds. Place 1 heaping teaspoon of filling into the center of each round. Fold the edges of the dough toward the center to form a triangle, leaving a bit of the filling visible in the center. Pinch the edges to seal them.

Place the hamentaschen 1/2 inch apart on a lightly greased foil-lined baking sheet and brush with the remaining egg, lightly beaten. Bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to racks to cool.

adapted from Kerry M. Olitzky & Ronald H. Isaacs, The Second How To Handbook For Jewish Living. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 1996. pp. 198-199.

3/4 cup brown sugar
3 ounces cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional: add sliced almonds)
Best if chilled. Mix all ingredients. Fill dough and bake as per directions above.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Friday Night remarks by guest speaker Juliana Schnur

Dear Readers,

I'm writing to post remarks delivered by Juliana Schnur this past Friday at Kabbalat Shabbat Services. Juli, who became bat mitzvah at WRT and whose family are active members, is a Projects Coordinator at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism ("the RAC"). For 50 years, "the RAC" has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C., educating and mobilizing the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, and advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel and more. Her talk was entitled "Our Modern Mishkan - A Place of Grumbling."

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Our Modern Mishkan – A Place of Grumbling

Juliana Schnur

Take a deep breath. That is essentially what this week’s parshah, Pekudei, instructs us to do. Over the last five weeks, we have read and relived the construction of the first tabernacle in the Sinai Desert. The only task more daunting than following God’s meticulous building instructions might be that of a Starbucks barista who must constantly heed this level of extreme minutiae in satisfying his customers. There is a striking similarity between God’s “recipe” for the Israelites’ ancient Mishkan (“For the priests, I’ll have a gold, blue, purple and crimson wool ephod with connecting shoulder straps, a decorative band, shoham stones, two golden rings and a twisted pomegranate hem”) and today’s double-blended venti half-soy nonfat chocolate brownie iced vanilla double-shot frappuccino with foam. Like a coffee drinker’s palette, God’s taste is definitely “refined.”

Pekudei, which means “accounting,” is less about the accomplishment of a task than it is a reminder that our work is never finished. You see, while the culmination of a lengthy and strenuous project like building the tabernacle engenders satisfaction and an inclination toward rest, the structure is portable, so its “completion” actually marks the first stage in the process of its dismantling. “Accounting” is therefore a bitemporal word that connotes taking stock of what has been achieved in the past, while also anticipating what remains to be done in the future. Pekudei is our coffee break.

In Midrash Tanchuma, the sages highlight Exodus 40:17, which reads:

Vayehi b-khodesh ha-rishon b-shanah ha-shenit b-achad le-khodesh hookim hamishkan.

“It came to pass in the first month of the second year, on the first day of the month, that the tabernacle was erected.” The Midrash says,

“Whenever the Torah uses the word vayehi ("and it came to pass"), this connotes a woeful event. What woe was there in the Mishkan's completion? This is comparable to a king who had a contentious wife. He said to her: "Make me a purple cloak." As long as she was preoccupied with it, she did not quarrel. When her work was completed, she brought it to the king. The king saw it and was pleased with it, and began cry out, "Woe! Woe!" His wife said: "What is this, my lord? I have labored to do your will, and you cry, 'woe, woe'?" He responded: "The work is beautiful and favorable in my eye. But as long as you were preoccupied with it, you did not anger or provoke me; now that you are free of it, I fear that you will again anger me."

So, too, said God: "As long as my children were occupied with the Mishkan, they did not grumble against Me. Now they will again begin to provoke Me." Therefore it says vayehi--vy hi, "woe is it."

Although the Mishkan of the Israelites was in constant flux, being assembled and dismantled as the tribe migrated, today’s sanctuary is generally fixed (unless you take on a multi-year renovation campaign to green your synagogue). And so, with the mishkan constructed and the purple cloak project complete, we return to our grumbling.

I like the word “grumble.” It’s onomatopoeic and evokes the echo of an empty stomach gently reminding us of what our bodies are missing. And just as our stomach is part of a whole and takes responsibility for ensuring the entire body’s health, so too the Jewish people most grumble to God to ensure the wellbeing of humanity. And what more sanctified place is there to grumble, to provoke, to lobby God than in the space designated for our communion with him?

The modern mishkan is a place for grumbling. And we Reform Jews, a faith group whose religious observance is infused with a strong commitment to social justice, have a long list of issues to grumble about. I’m blessed to work in an office of professional grumblers, so in addition to lobbying God at temple, I get to do so every day at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC), the legislative office of our Movement. I can’t help feeling, however, that my grumbles are louder in DC than they ever were at home.

Working down the street from the Capitol, with unrestricted access to the offices of our legislators, I know my voice is heard. And while it’s no surprise that sitting in a Senator’s office and asking for his or her endorsement of a bill feels more effective than sending an electronically generated letter with the same request, I’m struck by the way in which our distance from power so greatly dilutes our sense of agency – our individual impact—in affecting the way that power is exercised, and our sense of urgency in speaking out.

I long ago noticed that friends and family from the DC area tended to be “political.” And until moving to DC, I used that word “political” pejoratively to describe someone who was always on, always pushing some issue, whose passion and drive for change made me feel guilty for my complacency. Why be political when you can just be, I thought.

Well, it turns out these “political” Energizer Bunnies are always on for a reason. From reproductive choice to religious freedom to freedom of speech, our rights are constantly under attack. While it was easy to mute the din of Washington in New York, it’s impossible for me to ignore these threats to our liberties when protecting those rights is now my job.

The Union for Reform Judaism frequently cites a quote from the Babylonian Talmud: “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Berachot 55a). This contention emphasizes the high value Jewish tradition places on accountability in our system of governance. Despite the fact that all Americans over 18 have the right to vote, those closer to power, whether physically or financially, are consulted more often than the rest of us, making their voices more significant.

I’m not here this evening to offer up a scheme for further enfranchisement; I’m here to tell you that one already exists. In addition to the RAC, whose mission is to communicate Reform Jewish values to our federal policymakers, Reform Jewish Voice of New York State is a body modeled on the RAC that communicates those same values to our state legislators.

With so many important issues being decided in Washington and popular upheavals toppling regimes in the Arab world, state governance may not seem at first blush like the most seductive of enterprises. But consider for a moment that only our State Senators and Assembly Members can decide whether same-sex couples have the right to marry. As the Roberts court erodes years of bipartisan campaign finance reform legislation, diminishing the individual’s voice in favor of the corporation’s, it is up to the state legislature to protect its elections from a similar invasion of corporate dollars. As the religious right co-opts more politicians and individuals in its crusade against family planning, it’s up to the New York State legislature to enshrine a woman’s right to choose in our state’s constitution.

Essential questions about civil rights, health care, criminal and economic justice and the environment are being legislated up in Albany and too many of us are sitting on the sidelines. Our coffee break is over and it’s time to grumble!

Reform Jewish Voice was founded in large part to fill a void in our state’s capital. For too long the faith voice in Albany was monopolized by the Catholic Bishops Conference, a group that does not always see eye to eye with us on important social justice issues. While we frequently partner with the Catholic Bishops on economic and criminal justice issues to fight for the protection of our social safety net and the rights of youth offenders, we find ourselves in opposing camps when it comes to reproductive choice, same-sex marriage, comprehensive sex education, stem cell research and a host of other important issues. The advocates who established RJV did so with a singular intention – to highlight for our state legislators that no one group has a monopoly on faith.

Over the last nine years, RJV has partnered with congregations throughout the New York to highlight social justice priorities for our state government. From our spring lobby day to our autumn Advocacy Shabbat, the goal of RJV is to ensure that the community is “first consulted” and that all faith groups get a seat at the legislative bargaining table.

Now more than ever we see how a fragile economy and unstable international community can put our rights in peril. Our vigilance must therefore extend beyond the purview of our families and communities to our state and our nation.

This Shabbat, as on all Shabbatot, we account for our week. We reflect upon our behavior, upon our triumphs and travails, and we resolve to do better. As you anticipate the week ahead, I ask you to do so with a heightened awareness of all the resources you have available to help facilitate our pursuit of a more just world.

Reform Jewish Voice is your mouthpiece in Albany, just as the RAC speaks on your behalf in Washington. Unlike Washington, however, your access to legislators is much greater at the state level. Your representatives are waiting to hear from you, especially as Reform Jews. As the progressive faith voice in Albany, we are one of the few bulwarks preventing a monolithic religious influence on state government.

Just as the mishkan cannot contain the divine, so our grumblings cannot be limited to the walls of the sanctuary. I conclude with this final grumble, “Endow us, oh God, with the wisdom to seek justice from the doorsteps of our homes to the steps of the Capitol. Let us not tire in our pursuit of a world where peace reigns and your children grumble no more.”

Friday, March 4, 2011


Adapted from Reform Voices of Torah, 2008
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake

What is the purpose of the synagogue?

The Hebrew term for synagogue is Beit Knesset. It means “House of Assembly” and thus approximates the Greek συναγωγή, transliterated synagogē, also meaning “assembly.” For centuries the synagogue functioned primarily as the ancient world’s idea of a “JCC,” a place for Jews to assemble. These institutions dotted the Jewish landscape even while the Second Temple—shrine of our ancient worship—stood. The synagogue of antiquity might have struck us as surprisingly “secular” in orientation. Originally, people may not have come to the synagogue primarily to pray or study. In the synagogue they conducted local business, promoting the general welfare of the Jewish community. Accelerated by the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, synagogues evolved to absorb many of the ritual and religious observances of an emergent Rabbinic Judaism. Over time the beit knesset also became a beit tefillah, a house of worship, and often a beit midrash, a house of study, too.

The archetype of the synagogue, the Tabernacle that constitutes the focal point of the wandering wilderness community, completes construction in Parashat Pekudei. “In the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, the Tabernacle was set up” (Ex. 40:17). The text credits Moses with erecting the completed structure and arranging all of its fixtures, beginning with its planks and posts, and concluding with the screen covering the outermost gate.

“When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle” (Ex. 40:33b-34). The Tabernacle, spiritual antecedent of the synagogue, is complete. The text signals God’s satisfaction with the work when God’s Presence enters the structure. A cloud rests over the Tabernacle by day, fire in it by night, as a constant, visible reminder of God’s nearness and as a guiding presence for the Israelites’ journeys (40:36-38).

That human beings have successfully brought God into their midst through the construction of a sacred sanctuary marks a dramatic shift in Ancient Near Eastern mythology. The Mesopotamian Epic of Creation is typical in its depiction of the gods creating their own dwelling place on earth, here to be named Babylon:

The Anunnaki [Babylonian deities] began shoveling.

For a whole year they made bricks for it.

When the second year arrived,

… They had built a high ziggurat for the Apsu [other deities] (Tablet VI, from Myths from Mesopotamia, trans. Stephanie Dalley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 262).

The Torah, in contrast, imagines human beings teaming up to fashion earthly materials (precious woods, metals, fabrics) into a place where God’s Presence will abide. The inversion is poetic and brings God’s work of creation full circle. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates a home for human beings to inhabit. In the last chapter of Exodus, human beings, Israelites charged with a holy purpose, create a home for God to inhabit.

This image invites us to return to our original question: “What is the purpose of a synagogue?” Ultimately the answer is, “to make God’s Presence noticeable.”

Sometimes the architecture itself can achieve this. Certain synagogues through purely physical means can elicit spiritual inspiration. Some sanctuaries through their sheer magnitude can inspire a feeling of awe; others achieve this effect through opulent materials, beautiful art, and carefully designed lighting and sound. Other spaces strive for intimacy or warmth. Natural light and windows that open to the world provide a different kind of inspiration than representational art or stained glass. Still other synagogues evoke the glory of Jewish history or images from the Bible and thus may both instruct and inspire. Many people report that a synagogue’s architecture helps them feel God’s Presence.

However, the synagogue must also make God’s Presence noticeable through other means. A famous midrash proposes that it was only through the meritorious behavior of humanity, culminating in the deeds of Moses, that God—long since alienated from the human realm by our transgressions—could return to earth and dwell among us (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Piska 1:1). God migrates to and from the world of human affairs in accordance with our ethical attentiveness or inattentiveness. Behavior matters more than a building. Indeed, the fulfillment of mitzvot on behalf of others, compassionate action for people in pain, and tzedakah for people in need, can all make God’s Presence more noticeable in the world. And the synagogue is the primary Jewish engine for organizing people into communities of caring.

Study, prayer, ritual observance, community building, tzedakah, concern for the welfare of all Jews and all humanity: these constitute the pillars of a thriving, inspirational synagogue. Every time I see our congregation reach out with a loving embrace, with hot meals and gentle words, to a family walking in the valley of the shadow of death, I see the synagogue making God’s Presence noticeable. Every time I see congregants awaken to a new insight during Torah study, I see how the synagogue has helped to make God’s Presence noticeable. When youth and adults from our congregation felt inspired to travel on a local Jewish relief mission to New Orleans, I saw our synagogue making God’s Presence noticeable. When we sing our Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night and even the people struggling with Hebrew are moved to sing along with “Lecha Dodi,” I see the synagogue making God noticeable.

Jewish mystical tradition claims that God is everywhere and in all things, if only our vision permits us to see. The shattering daily news makes it too easy to conclude that we live in a godless world. Our parasha would endorse the vital role of the synagogue in restoring our faith in a world in which God’s Presence abides. The synagogue functions as a spiritual magnifying glass. It helps us to see what has been there all along.