Saturday, November 7, 2009

This week’s Torah portion is Vayera – it begins vayera eilav adonai – and God appeared to him, “him” in this case being Abraham. The Rabbis teach that this is a continuation of last week’s parsha which ended with Abraham and his household being circumcised, so God is visiting Abraham during his convalescence, from which we derive the sacred duty of bikur cholim, visiting the sick.

Then three travelers appear in the distance and Abraham breaks off the visit from God to greet them and invite them to rest and share a meal in his camp. From this the Rabbis infer that the mitzvah of hospitality to strangers is so important that Abraham puts it ahead of being in the presence of God (and God doesn’t seem to mind). Of course the strangers are malachim – angels – one who will proclaim the miracle of Sarah having a child at age 99, one who will visit God’s wrath on Sodom and Gomorrah, and one who will oversee the sacrifice of Isaac. Angels play a big part in this parshah.

Something also worth noting is that each of these angels play a part in an incident where Abraham interacts with God to make something happen. In fact, while the story of Abraham occupies a relatively small portion of Genesis, it’s interesting that whenever Abraham goes up against God, God changes.

In the ancient world view, there is heaven above, hell below, and earth in between. Until Abraham, the relationship to God was transactional - God gives, we take, we ask, God grants, we sin, God punishes, we sacrifice, God is appeased. In the early parts of Genesis, God’s relationship to humanity is parent-child – with Adam and Eve, with Cain, even with Noah the relationship is superior-subordinate. With Abraham we see a new relationship – what is called in Latin mutatis mutandur – in the act of changing, the changer is changed.

This view of God begins with Abraham and comes to full flower with Moses which is more of a partnership, particularly in the desert. We could say that the God of Genesis and Exodus moves through stages of development:

  • Creative (the creation)
  • Idealistic (Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel)
  • Destructive (Noah, Sodom & Gomorrah)
  • Collaborative (Moses, Joshua, Prophets)
and that Abraham is the catalyst for this development

Most divrei Torah on Vayera concentrate on the Akeda – the binding of Isaac, and almost all look at it from Abraham’s point of view – imagine the horror of being commanded to sacrifice your son, the son you and your wife had longed for and finally had when you had given up hope. Some Rabbis consider the akeda a test of Abraham on God’s part, others a provocation or punishment for signing a treaty with the King of the Philistines instead of wiping out the inhabitants of the land as God had commanded.

Occasionally we get an interpretation from Isaac’s point of view – remember Isaac is not a child at the time of the akeda – he is about 35 years old, yet he goes along without complaint.

But what about God’s point of view? For whatever reason, God decides to command Abraham to kill his son; Abraham obeys without cavil, even though this is the son he and Sarah prayed and wished for and that God himself granted. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that God is appalled that Abraham would obey such a heinous command and realizes the power he holds over his creation. He relents with regard to Abraham and is changed by the experience – God is confronted with the fact that (to quote Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) “with great power comes great responsibility,” and is changed in the process. God begins to mature from the idealistic God of Eden to the God of Moses who is a partner and is open to discussing his conclusions with his creation.

This idea engenders a very different worldview than that of the ancients, a worldview we subscribe to today. Today we consider the view of heaven above and earth below simplistic. We know that if heaven exists it is in a different cosmos than ours, and that the reality in which there is God and angels and heaven is in a realm that is other than the physical reality of planets and space and time. Quantum physics validates the notion of multiple “realities” and we accept that, at least conceptually, even if we don’t understand it.

Similarly, I think we have to challenge the traditional view of God as omnipotent, omniscient, unchanging, and detached from humanity. If we are created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God, is it too much of a stretch to suggest that we interact with God? In the words of Process Theology, God is not only transcendent – operating beyond the limits of experience (the traditional view), but also immanent – present, operating in this domain. Process theology holds that God is changed by interacting with God’s creation as much as that creation is changed by its interaction with God.

It seems to me that if we take b’tzelem Elohim and Shema Yisrael seriously, we are led to the process view. You’ve heard me espouse that there is a translation of the Shema that is more accurate than the traditional one of “Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God is One.” If you’ll forgive my repeating it, there are two words in Hebrew that translate as “one” – echad and yachid. Echad is a unity greater than its parts, as in "one+one+one is three", and as in "God is one" - not one as in "one and only," but rather a unity of multiples becoming one as, for example, a man and woman are “made one flesh” in marriage. Yachid - means individual, single, singular, as in "every single one of them", Yachid does not have the denotation of "whole" that echad has, but does mean "unique” or “singular." In the Yigdal hymn we find the phrase “echad v’eyn yachid” in reference to God – oneness without severalness. So a better translation of the Shema would be “Listen, Israel, God is Unity.”

So what do we get if we combine “in the image of God” and “God is unity?” For me, this evokes the notion of a hologram – in a hologram, each part of the image contains all the information of the whole image, and the more of them you combine, the clearer and sharper is the resulting image. What if we are all – and I mean “all,” not just Jews or Christians or Muslims, but all, are like holograms of God, and the more we connect to each other, the clearer is the immanence, the presence, of God?

There is a bit of folklore that the Messiah will come when one of two things happen:
  • When every Jew in the world observes Shabbat on the same day
  • When every Jew in the world violates Shabbat on the same day.

Maybe it’s not the observance, it’s the unity.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Proof of the Existence of God

I think the cognitive/emotional/cultural development of the human race is the strongest argument imaginable for the existence of God.

I’ve had occasion recently to attend two events – one a concert by a young (in her ‘30’s) violin virtuosa, Elizabeth Pitcairn, playing the three-hundred year old “Mendelssohn Stradivarius” – the “red violin” of movie fame – and the other the Reno Philharmonic with its new conductor, Laura Jackson, playing Gershwin, also brilliantly.

It’s not just the music I’m talking about, though that was itself inspired, but so much more. As I looked around the two halls at hundreds of people sitting engaged with the music, I was struck by the sheer diversity – young, old, men, women, all races, you name it.

The other thing that struck me (and know that other than liking to listen, I am about as musical as a rock) is how remarkable it is that a large group of people can play a diverse lot of instruments in perfect coordination. It was fascinating to watch the conductors – what, exactly, do they do? I see a lot of body language, intense concentration, and nothing short of a miracle as they orchestrated (pun intended) a perfect blend of instruments, voices, and soloists.

So what does that have to do with the existence of God? I don’t know, really, but when I think about the evolution of the human race, from the caves and jungles through the middle ages, through the present day, and I see this kind of coordination and the ability to produce beauty so exquisite I can hardly be in the presence of it, I really understand where the “intelligent design” folks are coming from – this can’t be an accident.

Don’t get me wrong – I think creationism and intelligent design is a crock, but I can understand that it is impossible to think that all this happened by accident or a series of lucky coincidences – natural selection in a vacuum won’t cut it. It’s too much of a stretch to find a “survival of the fittest” explanation for the creation of music – music, art, artistic brilliance have no survival value that I can find credible, and while I can see survival value in collaboration, this is way beyond that.

So I choose to see the hand of a Great Unity behind it. If I’m wrong, then I think we’re poorer for it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why Did Adam Need Eve?

God said “it is not good that man shall be alone. I will make a help meet for him.” Why was it not good? What did God see, in this Western creation myth, that gave God second thoughts about his initial idea, which was to create one man?

For most scholars and most of us, the Bible, particularly the early parts of the Hebrew Canon, are considered metaphors and parables, written sometime around the Sixth Century BCE, well after most of the events described in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible took place. It’s possible that much of the creation myth was written in a post hoc attempt to explain life as the writers knew it. There were men and women – they must have come from someplace. Taking the cultural primacy of men as a given, what better explanation (and justification) than primacy of creation? Men had to work hard, women gave birth in pain, how to account for that. They were close enough to pre-axial times that an angry God who exacted punishment would not be a leap of reasoning.

If we set aside this post hoc explanation, what else might be possible? How do we account for God’s judgment that “It is not good that man shall be alone, and given God’s omniscience, why didn’t God see that in the first place and create two men (the “Adam and Steve” hypothesis)? Or why not fashion man so that it was good for man to be alone?

If we take the entire Garden of Eden story – from Adam’s creation to the expulsion – as a metaphor, what does it tell us? God creates a man from the Earth, thereby joining Heaven and Earth in humanity. No other animal was created this way; only humans are part Heaven and part Earth. Further, this being is created b’tzelem Elohim – “in the image of God.” Then God creates a woman from the substance of the man, so she simultaneously embodies the unity of Heaven and Earth as the man does, but also the unity of humanity – men and women are not different in substance, only in form, but they are different, and difference is the point.

What was different when Eve was created? If we assume for a moment the spiritual unity of humans with God and with each other, then God and the world could now be approached from two different angles, two points of view. We could argue that until there was a second point of view, Adam really had no choices to make – whatever he did was what there was to do, not unlike an animal that follows its passing attention to this or that path. As soon as Eve was created, humanity became capable of choice – there were two views of everything – so we could say that if it was God’s intention to give humanity free will, then a second being – similar enough to be connected with but different enough to have a distinct view of the world – was needed. It was “not good for man to be alone,” and the “help” she would provide would be the most essential help – another view to make them both smarter.

So far, so good. But this was Eden – there were no “wrong” choices, except one – the metaphorical tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or we could say the tree of the awareness of choice. I say the tree is metaphorical because, in this view, it was not the fruit that provided the choice, but the existence of the tree itself. God created the possibility of choice when God created Eve. God created the reality of choice with the command not to eat of that particular tree, placed carefully in the center of the garden.

Anyone who has raised children knows that the surest way to get a child to do something is to tell them they are not allowed to do it. With that injunction, this tree, theretofore distinguished only by its placement in the center of the garden, became a shining temptation. No serpents needed. Adam and Eve were confronted with choice and it was Eve – the embodiment of difference – who made the choice and Adam who followed, and humanity was realized in its fullness as the entity that chooses and that learns through exploring differences. From there we can read much of Genesis as an exploration of how we dealt with differences – Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and his father Terah, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and his father-in-law Laban, and Joseph and his brothers.

One story that is particularly interesting in this regard is in Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel. According to this account, after the Flood humanity had achieved the Divine ideal of unity, united by a universal language. In what is clearly an allegory inspired by Babylonian myth and architecture, we are told that human arrogance and materialism resulted in the dispersion of humanity and a great diversity of human language. Now God became known by different names – in today’s terms, Adonai, God, Allah, Buddha-nature, Brahma, Krsna, etc.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger said that “language is the house of being – in it, man dwells.” It was a short step from calling God by different names to thinking we were talking about different gods. Somehow we have no problem with the fact that what we call a chair is, in various places, called a silla, chaise, kisay, sedia, stuhl, or stol. We understand that these are simply signifiers for the same object. We seem to have a great deal of trouble, however, understanding that God and Allah and Krsna, and Buddha-nature could likewise be the same.

It is an accepted view in communication theory today that differences can make us smarter. James Surowiecki, in his book The Wisdom of Crowds presents ample evidence that a group, if it is diverse, will come up with smarter answers to a question or problem than its smartest member could have thought of. On the other side of the question, the report on the Challenger disaster, analysis of how we got mired in the Vietnam War, and other analyses of failed efforts show that “groupthink” – the tendency of a group with insufficient differences to stop thinking once they all agree – makes groups less smart. The historic tendency of religious institutions to demand conformity to their view of God, humanity, and nature flies in the face of this evidence. It would not be an exaggeration to say that religious dogma and religious institutions have tried for centuries to undo the work that God did in making us diverse.

If we accept the Christian Canon, then there are two instances in which God recreates Godself in humans – the first is Adam, the second is Jesus. If we accept the idea of b’tzelem Elohim, we can take this to mean that the qualities of God are invested in human form. However, if we start from the Creation, then this is true of all humans – Adam is the progenitor and is infused with both Heaven and Earth, and Eve, formed fully from Adam’s substance, is the same. If Jesus is “the new Adam,” that quality lies not in his being a unique creation, but in his consciousness of his unity with God, a unity all people share but of which they are less aware. If we postulate that the route to this unity with God is through unity with each other (this is consistent with both the Hebrew Canon and those parts of the Christian Canon that we can reasonably attribute to Jesus’ teaching, as well as with Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim teaching), then institutional religion, in its attempt to get everyone thinking the same, is its own worst enemy, or at least the enemy of that which it professes to promote.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sermon at St. Patricks March 29, 2009

There was a bad accident on Mt. Rose Highway last Sunday. Just past the Mt. Rose ski area as you go from here to Reno, the road very quickly became a sheet of ice, and cars began to skid and spin out as they hit it. It was around the curve just below the ski area, so cars going toward Reno would hit it unawares, and in just a short time there were 8 or 9 cars around the sides of the road, and more skidding past. People don’t always act in the smartest way in these situations, and some got out of their cars to look at the damage or talk to a driver of a car they’d hit or that had hit them. One such fellow, early on in the pile-up, got out of his car and was hit by a skidding car. He lay on the snowy ground, face down, bleeding and not really conscious.

A young man – pretty ordinary type, snowboarder clothes, driving an old pickup that had been hit and was in a snow bank, went over to the man to see if he was alright, and just as he reached him and was trying to decide what to do, whether to move the man, another car came skidding right toward them. The young man grabbed the injured man and moved him out of the way, then getting out of the way himself. All his indecision and worry about moving the man vanished, and he just acted, and in so doing he saved the man’s life.

The theme of today’s readings is service, particularly service when it’s uncomfortable, or difficult, or dangerous to serve. In the Gospel, Jesus says “Now my heart is troubled---and what shall I say? Shall I say, 'Father, do not let this hour come upon me'? But that is why I came---so that I might go through this hour of suffering.” Remember. In Hebrews, Paul says:”In his life on earth Jesus made his prayers and requests with loud cries and tears to God, who could save him from death. Because he was humble and devoted, God heard him. But even though he was God's Son, he learned through his sufferings to be obedient.” In the reading from Jeremiah, we see that God is so committed to people following his Law that he will “write it on their hearts, and they will all know God.”

Jesus also says “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”

When he was near death, Joshua, who had led the Children of Israel, confronted the fact that, now that they had reached the Promised Land, the Hebrews were attracted by the local gods and the local worship. Toward the end of the Book of Joshua God, through Joshua, gives them a capsule history of their covenant back to Abraham, and then demands their total commitment. Joshua then adds:

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell;

And then Joshua makes this ringing declaration:

Va’anochi uvayti, na-avod et Adonai!

but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)

But what does it mean to “serve the Lord?” the word Joshua used is instructive in this regard. נעבד (na’avod) is from the Hebrew root עבד, (avod) which means “work,” so to serve God is to work for God – to do God’s work.

In his sermon a couple of weeks ago, Jim mentioned Albert Schweitzer – Schweitzer was quite a guy – a Physician, philosopher, theologian, and musician, and expert in all four fields. He wrote, lectured, played the organ at a virtuoso level, and – oh yes – in 1913 he founded a hospital in what is now Gabon in West Africa and spent the rest of his life ministering to the poorest of the poor until he died at the age of 90 in 1965.His philosophy was called “reverence for life” and he never hesitated to take on the “powers that be” on behalf of the poor, animals, and the environment. As a young man he preached a famous sermon that began Our culture divides people into two classes: civilized men, a title bestowed on the persons who do the classifying; and others, who have only the human form, who may perish or go to the dogs for all the "civilized men" care. After that introduction, he got really nasty about it, and then left for Africa. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his philosophy. This is what he had to say about service:

"I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve."

The Prophet Mohammed said “to serve God is to serve your fellow man.” Jesus, by his words and his example, seems to make it clear that we’re expected to serve even when it’s hard, uncomfortable, or dangerous, to the extent that he likens it to a kernel of wheat – it must die to its current form in order to be of use. Jesus exemplifies doing the right thing, the ethical thing, the compassionate thing, even when we don’t want to. In Luke, he says “Father, if you’re willing, let this cup pass from me. Nonetheless, not my will, but yours be done.” So a good question at the end of the day (or the end of days) might be “how have I served today, and if we find in the answer we’ve done the easy thing, the comfortable thing, the safe thing, maybe to resolve that tomorrow we will look for a better way to serve.

That young man on Mt. Rose Highway earned the accolade “good and faithful servant.” Can we say the same?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pittsburgh Principles

In last month’s column I alluded to the Pittsburgh Principles of 1999 in which Reform Rabbis set what was intended to be the direction for the Reform Movement at the turn of the century. These Principles defined what it is to be a Reform Jew in terms of Dialogue with God, Dialogue with Torah, and Dialogue with the Jewish Community. I mentioned then that William Isaacs, in his important book Dialogue, defines dialogue as ““a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before.” Isaacs goes on to say that “The intention of dialogue is to reach new understanding and, in doing so, to form a totally new basis from which to think and act.”

In that context, what does it mean to say that a fundamental of Reform Judaism is dialogue with God? What is the center of the conversation, and what are the differences we will channel toward a new understanding, a new basis from which to think and act?

The other book I mentioned, which the Thursday night study group is using as a base text, A Vision of Holiness by Rabbi Richard Levy, makes short work of the naïve notion that a conversation or dialogue with God would take the form of a conversation between people, with each party speaking and listening. Rather, he places the center of the conversation on the human side, in a person’s communing with the Infinite, seeing God in nature, in ourselves, and in other people, from our side speaking with God, and trusting in listening from God’s side and even in God’s answering, though not in words or in a voice as we understand it (Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass said “if you speak to God, you’re praying; if God speaks to you, you’re crazy).

So if the center of the dialogue is within each of us, what are the differences that give the dialogue its energy? Well, first of all, God is God and we are not. God is infinite and we are finite. At the same time, as Jews, we live inside a covenant with God that we would be chosen to bring God’s word to the world and in turn we would be “a realm of priests and a holy people.” Levy notes that the Priests and Levites in the days of the temple wore a band on their forehead that read “Holy to God,” so that the were, in a sense, never off duty, and suggests that if we saw each ,people and to the world very differently. If we saw everything – people, sunsets, trees, empty bottles, oil, and even our enemies as “Holy to God” we would, indeed, have “a new understanding, a new basis from which to think and act.”

Most of us live here at Lake Tahoe out of some sense that the mountains, the lake, the weather, and the opportunities to live closer to nature are more to our liking than we would find most other places, particularly in cities. Levy suggests that the Dialogue with God may consist in appreciating God in each of these natural phenomena and recommends the Jewish practice of “a bracha for every occasion” as a kind of what the Buddhists would call a “mindfulness practice” to remind ourselves that yes, nature is awesome, but nature is a manifestation of God and we are no less a manifestation of God, created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. So when we say Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reishit (Praised are you God, Ruler of the Universe, who continues the work of creation) we are creating a conversation with ourselves as the center, highlighting the difference between the Creator and the created, and creating a new basis from which we can interact with nature.

Similarly when at the end of Shabbat we wish for a good week for ourselves and others, and on the succeeding Shabbat we notice that it was a good week, we have created a conversation in the form of a request and God has answered. And if we have the thought that it wasn’t such a good week, but then we notice that at the week’s end we are here, we are healthy, and we have another opportunity to have a good week, we can take the opportunity to understand that, in God’s way, our prayer has been answered.

So the Dialogue with God the Rabbis created in the Pittsburgh Principles is, I believe, accessible to all of us – even those whose conception of God is not of an all-powerful old greybeard on a throne surrounded by angels singing hymns of praise and those who are not sure, and even those who do not believe in God – because even making the effort not to believe creates a dialogue.

Reform Judaism

Joining NTHC ten years ago was, as I’ve written before, my first serious foray into Reform Judaism. Over the years, and particularly since Rabbi Postrel came to us, I’ve gotten more and more interested in what RJ is, after a lifetime of defining it by what it is not. Recently I’ve discovered that the RJ movement itself began, in a sense, by defining itself by what it is not.

In 1885, a group of fifteen Rabbis met in Pittsburgh to deal with what they saw as a growing threat from the then-new Conservative. The document they produced, called the Pittsburgh Platform, declared that only the Torah’s moral laws were binding on Reform Jews, and that laws regarding diet and dress, for example, were not. There were several subsequent convocations to continue defining RJ, but no substantial change until 1999 when, again in Pittsburgh, North American Reform Rabbis convened to articulate anew the direction of the Reform Movement. At that meeting, they created a new document, the Pittsburgh Principles, that defines RJ in the 21st Century. In that meeting the Rabbis took back much of the tradition discarded in 1999, making the use of Hebrew and a commitment to mitzvot acceptable in RJ.

More than that, though, they placed God, Torah, and the Jewish Community (Klal Yisrael) including the State of Israel, at the foundation of RJ, with individual autonomy and informed choice as its guiding principles. In this column and in several to come over the next few months, I’d like to explore these four areas – first the guiding philosophy of RJ and then the Reform Jew’s tripartite dialogue, with God, with Torah, and with the Jewish People. I will be drawing on a number of sources for this conversation, but my primary one is an excellent book on the subject called A Vision of Holiness by Rabbi Richard N. Levy of Hebrew Union College, published by URJ Press in 2005.

What makes RJ unusual among Western religions is the centrality of individual autonomy and informed choice, and these are also, in my opinion, what makes it misunderstood. In the Western view, indeed in the view of most of the non-Buddhist world, religion is prescriptive – it tells its adherents what to believe and how to live. RJ, on the other hand, says the choices are ours to make and asks only that they be informed choices.

This single element of informed choice gives the lie to the view that RJ is “do it yourself” Judaism, or that RJ makes no demand on its followers. Yes, we are free to make choices, but to call ourselves Reform Jews, these choices need to be based on learning and thinking. One of the most fundamental commandments in the Torah is “na-ase v’nishma” – to act and to listen. RJ reverses the order of these: first we must listen – to God, to Torah, and to the Jewish Community – and then act.

The very act of studying Torah to inform ourselves before we make our choices makes us Jews rather than simply “spiritual” or “non-affiliated” people. The NTHC Board begin each of our meetings with a prayer by the Rabbi to dedicate our work to the study of Torah and a D’var Torah by one of the Trustees, so that the context for all of our deliberations as a Board is Torah.

I know people who consider themselves “cultural Jews” or “culinary Jews,” but I really don’t get it. To be a Jew is to be in a dialogue – in fact, the modern conception of dialogue draws heavily on the work of Jews, particularly Martin Buber and the physicist David Bohm. In a recent book, William Isaacs draws on both Buber and Bohm when he defines dialogue as “a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before.” I believe it is in this sense of the term that the Pittsburgh Principles are framed as dialogues between the Reform Jew and God, Torah, and the Jewish People.

The notion of RJ as a dialogue also resolves, I think, the superficial contradiction between individual autonomy and informed choice. Yes, we have as individuals complete autonomy. Any one of us at any time can invent our own brand of Judaism or declare ourselves not Jews at all. But if to be a Jew is to be in dialogue with God, with the Torah, and with Klal Yisrael, then it behooves us to bring this autonomy to the dialogue, and to have the dialogue inform our choices rather than simply to make up what Judaism is based on our own prejudices or how it was where we were brought up, or how it is convenient for us to have it be. In the coming months I will address these three dialogues in detail.

The War on “Holidays”

Not too long ago we used to hear concern among Jewish families about the “December dilemma,” wherein Jewish children, surrounded in school, in stores, and on TV with the iconography of Christmas, would suffer a kind of religious identity crisis and feel left out of the mainstream culture’s most important holiday.

Today we are seeing a different December dilemma. Most people in the United States have become aware of and sensitive to the fact that (a) this is probably the most religiously diverse country in the world and (b) the Framers of the Constitution intended expressly for the government to be neutral on the question of religious in order to ensure freedom of and (if desired) from religion for everyone in the United States. As a result of this increased awareness and sensitivity, the Christian Religious Right (hereafter “Christianists” – think “Islamists”) is crying “foul” and attempting to retake what they see as their right to declare the US a “Christian Country.” Fox News personalities Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson have decried what they call the “war on Christmas” and urged boycotts of stores such as Macy’s and Target, who use the word “holidays” in their ads and do not mention Christmas. (Wal-Mart, also a target, has already backed off and changed its ads to Christmas), and even the Bush White House has come under fire for its “holiday” cards and tree (The tree is now a Christmas tree).

Actually, this supposed war on Christmas is nothing new – Henry Ford, writing in 1929, blamed it explicitly on the Jews, and the John Birch Society in the ‘50’s updated it to the Communists (and we all know who they are, wink wink). Today’s Christian Right do not blame the Jews explicitly but rather what they consider the encroaching forces of secularism, conveniently ignoring that the country has been secular since 1789. Not aggressively secular like France, where no hint of religion is allowed in public, but inclusively secular – open to all religions and to the non-religious and anti-religious, while founded on the assumption that there is a God and that what God has granted to one God has granted to all.

The Christianists insist that this is a Christian Country, founded by Christians for Christians, and the rest of us are here out of their generosity and Christian love. The Supreme Court under both Conservative and Liberal leadership has repeatedly rejected the Christian country notion, but they are not deterred by this.

It seems to me that as Jews and as human beings we must resist this latest attempt to hijack the national culture by one group who claim to represent a majority view. The term “holidays” is inclusive of Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and unless it comes early as it did this year, Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Christmas does not even include Orthodox Christians who celebrate Jesus’ birth on January 7th or sects such as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not celebrate it as a holiday at all.

I know there are those, including some in this Congregation, who consider the Christianists our friends because they are pro-Israel, albeit for reasons that have nothing to do with the welfare of the Jews. I don’t think that’s relevant here and mention it only to forestall their cries of anguish as I risk insulting our “allies.”

By the time you read this, the holidays will be over, but the Christianist effort will not end there. This is a case where those supposed allies, led by the likes of O’Reilly, Gibson and Falwell are attempting to bend a quasi-religious argument to their own political ends. Edmund Burke said that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. We cannot afford to do nothing in this case or we will, indeed, find ourselves living in a “Christian Country.”

Lech Lecha 05

The Torah Portion Lech Lecha (Genesis XII – XVII) begins with God telling Abram “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great and you will be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless you and curse them that curse you and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

Later in the portion come the story of Hagar and the birth of Ishmael and of the birth of Isaac – Ishmael is held to be the founder of the Arab peoples, and Isaac of the Jewish, and therefore the Christian peoples, so all three of the Western religions look to Abraham as their ancestor – he is a blessing to the world because he belongs to the world.

From this beginning, the history of animosity and persecution between the three Abrahamic faiths seems a distortion of God’s intent. Diversity, including religious diversity, must somehow factor into God’s plans for humanity, yet we continue to operate as if, somehow, religious differences are rooted in error, and only those who hold to the “true faith” are following God’s path.

Often our position as Jews in this religious conflict reminds me of the three monks who took a vow of silence. As night fell, one turned to a servant and told him to light a lamp. The second monk said “we are not supposed to talk,” and the third monk said “I’m the only one who hasn’t spoken.”

We Jews remind me of the third monk – when we speak of religious differences and persecution, we focus on what has been done to us, and say “we’re the only ones who don’t persecute.” In fact, though, throughout history we haven’t really needed the others to persecute us – we’ve done a good job on our own to our own. In the early years of the Common Era Pharisees argued and fought with Saducees, Hellenists were opposed by traditionalists, and divergent sects such as the followers of Jesus were hounded as heretics. Later, in the 18th Century Jewish enlightenment, the Maskilim, or “enlightened” Jews fought with Talmudists, and Mitnagim fought with Chasidim. Today in Israel the ruling Orthodox are still fighting a rear-guard action against all other approaches to Judaism, and of course we have the century-old antagonism between Jew and Arab that has cost both sides so much.

In modern times our internal antagonism has abated somewhat. Ashkenazim and Sephardim live side by side, and have adopted some of each others’ customs, food, etc. Western European Ashkenazim such as German and Austrian Jews have mostly dropped their antipathy toward those from Eastern Europe, and, outside Israel, at least, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews live peacefully together, and show signs of learning from each other.

Maybe it’s time for a genuine effort at interfaith outreach and understanding, and I can’t think of a better place for that to start than here In addition to the religious diversity in our own temple, we live in an area that is at least as religiously diverse as most outside the big cities. Just in this area I know, and I suspect you do as well, not only Jews but Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics, deists, and atheists, and we all seem to be living together pretty well.

This Fall we have had and will have some outstanding opportunities for interfaith encounters. On Wednesday, November 16, Rabbi Postrel and Father Jim Beebe of St. Patrick’s in Incline created an interfaith Thanksgiving service, held in our Temple. On Saturday, December 10, we will be hosting a celebration of the formal installation of Rabbi Postrel as our Rabbi, and we have invited not only Rabbis and Cantors from around the area and other parts of the country, but also local clergy as well. The next day Father Beebe will be installed as the new Rector of St. Patrick’s as well. Then at the end of December, Chanukah begins as Christmas Day ends – what an opportunity to share both holidays with our non-Jewish friends.

In business and in politics there is a growing recognition of the power of dialogue as a solution to problems that have seemed unsolvable. One author describes dialogue as “a conversation with a center rather than sides.” Maybe it’s time for the world’s religions to undertake a serious dialogue, one designed to celebrate and learn from diversity rather than to attempt to eradicate it by taking sides and trying to prove whose view of God is the “right” one, and maybe a place that dialogue can start is here.

We call the patriarch “Avraham avinu” – Abraham our father – but the Torah clearly says that Abraham is not exclusively our father any more than I am exclusively the father of one of my children and not of the others – the concept is ridiculous.

“I will make you a great nation…and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Later in the parshah, God renames Avram Av raham – the father of a multitude of nations. “My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” I think we forget that part about all the families of the earth shall be blessed. God clearly does not intend to institute one single way of worship – Abraham is the founder of monotheism, and of all the Western religions. If the Jewish people are “chosen,” it is because we are singled out for the fulfillment of this mission. Perhaps it is not an accident that, of the three great faiths, we are the only one that has been persecuted, but not, for the most part been persecutors of anyone but ourselves - -maybe that has positioned us to be the brokers of peace and the agents of the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. If not us, then who? If not now, then when? And if not here, then where?

Let’s start here, let’s start now.

Reform Judaism

Leading services weekly over a couple of months has been a really interesting experience for me. I’ve never really studied the Torah and commentaries on the Torah in depth, and so for each service I have had to do some studying to get behind the text to what it may have to teach us for life today, particularly for those of us who are not “commandment Jews.”
A Rabbi who visited recently, Oren Postrel, made the distinction in some teaching he did between “Commandment Judaism” and “Reform Judaism.” He made the point, and I think it’s a good one, that the fundamental difference between the two starts with each branch’s view of the Torah. Commandment Judaism holds that the Torah was given as a whole to Moses and the Jewish people at Sinai, and that every word was written by God. Reform Jews believe that the Torah was written over time, inspired by God and written by a variety of people.
Rabbi Postrel made the point that, if you believe as Commandment Jews believe, then it follows that you must obey every commandment in the Torah, if not literally, then as interpreted by the Rabbis, since Commandment Jews also hold that the Talmud is God’s word. Reform Jews’ position is not nearly so clear. Some hold that Reform is “pick and choose” Judaism – follow those injunctions and prohibitions that you like, don’t follow those you don’t. I, for one, reject this view – it’s just too facile for me.
I came to Reform Judaism late in life. I was raised Conservative, in a congregation that was just making the transition from Orthodox to Conservative; my parents were raised Orthodox. In my life I have engaged with both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, with mixed results in terms of my own personal search for spiritual meaning. I have also engaged seriously in the study of Buddhism, less seriously studied Hinduism and could not help but learn about Christianity as one must in this country, though the nuances that separate the various branches of Christianity continue to elude me.
As I’ve engaged with Reform Judaism over the past ten years or so, I’ve become more and more interested in it because it seems to me to demand more engagement and thought, not to say faith, than do the more doctrinaire forms. In my personal development I have come to value inclusiveness very highly in all areas of life – the more of life, the more people and points of view I exclude, the less rich is my intellectual life – and I find RJ, and this congregation in particular to be explicitly inclusive, to the extent that even non-Jews are welcome and part of the community. This fits for me.
Mostly, though, RJ has caused me to really think about God and Torah, outside the bounds of doctrine. This has taken me, particularly lately, to thinking about what might be the fundamental message of the Torah – that which is behind the arcane rules about sacrifices and the stories of people being struck dead, that which is the real essence of being a Jew and maybe of being a human being. In preparing various divrei Torah over the past weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that underneath it all the Torah is teaching us two things: first, that God is One. Not that there is one God - that may have been news in Abraham’s time but not now – but that God is a whole – all of it, everything – that there is nothing outside God and that good and evil are under our control and consist of our choices to turn toward or away from God.
Second to the oneness of God is the admonition to “be holy, for God is holy.” Said another way, to live in imitation of God. For this, the Torah is an instruction manual, but one that is meant to be read metaphorically not literally. The dietary laws, for example, tell us which qualities God means for us to incorporate (e.g., cleanliness, humility, living together in peace) and which God wants us to reject (e.g., predation, isolation, ferocity). The repeated injunctions to remember our slavery in Egypt and the Exodus can be understood to be reminders to treat others with dignity and compassion and to remember that, though we were chosen by God, we have been at the bottom of the social ladder many times in our existence.
So I’ve come to really value and respect Reform Judaism – with its commitments to thinking for oneself, to inclusion, to equality of all genders and orientations, to tikkun olam, and most of all to being able to be Jews without divorcing ourselves from the modern world.


This week’s Torah portion is a double one - Thazria and Metzora (Leviticus XII - XIII and XIV – XV). After last week’s recounting of what animals are clean and unclean, we move into the rules for people – what constitutes being clean and unclean, and if one is unclean for whatever reason, how to become clean again.
In addition, this is Shabbat Hachodesh, the Shabbat at the beginning of the month of Nisan, when Passover occurs, and we also read the passage from Exodus XII: 1-20 that establishes the basis for Passover and Nisan as the first month of the calendar (though the spiritual year begins with Rosh Hashana).
My reading on the Torah portion suggested that there are two ways to look at the whole business of clean and unclean – hygienically and spiritually. Commandment Judaism takes these verses quite literally – every Orthodox community includes a Mikvah – a ritual bath – to be used for ritual cleansing, and the rules regarding childbirth, sexual contact, etc. are scrupulously adhered to. But most progressive Jewish scholars see the rules as more metaphorical. Remember, the context for the whole book of Leviticus is the injunction “You shall be holy; for I, the Lord your God am holy,” and the Shema, proclaiming that God is one – that there is no “other,” nothing that is outside God.
In this reading the rules of cleanliness and uncleanliness reflect the struggle of human beings between good and evil, between life and death. If there is nothing outside God, then, really, evil is an illusion – the choice people have is between moving toward God, being like God (‘holy for I am holy”) or moving away from God – not physically, that’s impossible, but in their minds and hearts. When we read about which animals are permitted to eat, the progressive interpretation was that what was in question was not the inherent worth or even the cleanliness of the animals, but the qualities of the animals that would bring us closer to God or, in the case, for example, of ferocious predators, take us farther from God.
In this regard, two things stand out for me from the Torah portions. First, the question that has troubled women and particularly feminists for a long time – it is the one that opens the chapter. When a woman has given birth, she is then unclean and must be cleansed and offer sacrifices both in thanksgiving and in atonement for sin before she can rejoin the community. Whatever they may have thought 5000 years ago, we know today that there is nothing sinful or unclean about childbirth. And could they really have thought so then? Not likely, given one of God’s first commandments to Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful and multiply.” So what then? One possibility that has been advanced is that the real issue is not cleanliness but life – creating life is a holy act – it brings us closer to God – and when a woman is carrying a baby, she has a double portion of life – hers and the baby’s. When the baby is born, while that life continues in the new person, the woman has lost a portion of the life she contained, and the cleansing, prayer, and sacrifices are a way for her to deal with the loss – kind of an early treatment for post-partum depression. Incidentally, a woman who gives birth to a girl has twice the atonement to do than one who gives birth to a boy. Because girls are more unclean? No – because in giving birth to a girl, a bearer of life, she gives up twice as much life that was in her than in giving birth to a boy.
The second area the portion deals with is more obscure. The Torah speaks of a disease called tzara’a. No one really knows what this disease is. It is traditionally translated as leprosy, but everyone agrees that this does not refer to the physical disease called Hansen’s Disease. Rather, the Torah refers to spots appearing first on the wall of a person’s house, then on the person’s clothes, and finally on the person’s skin. The Rabbis (and here commandment and progressive Judaism seem in agreement) interpret the Torah to be saying that the disease, whatever it was, was a consequence of spreading gossip or slander. In Hebrew this is called lashon hara – a bad tongue, and the prohibition against lashon hara is one of the oldest and strongest in Judaism. The Talmud says that we as Jews are forbidden to say anything bad or negative about a person even if it is true – an early version of “if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.” Imagine – what a discipline. In fact, I suggest you try it for a couple of days or a week and see how hard it is – the only exception is if the purpose of saying it is to improve the condition you are referring to, and that means saying it to the person directly or not at all. The Torah recognizes in this the enormous destructive power of gossip and slander (slander is gossip that is not true). One of the things I’ve learned in my years as a psychologist and a consultant is how strongly we human beings are given to negativity. I have yet to tell me what possible benefit there could be in your coming to me to tell me what a jerk Joe is. What people usually say, if pressed, is either that “it’s true,” as if that somehow made it beneficial or valuable, or that they were “just talking” as if words had no power. But just imagine for a second. You come to me and tell me that Joe is a jerk. I then go and tell someone else, who tells someone else, and pretty soon Joe lives in a community consisting of people who, without knowing why, consider him a jerk, and are sure it must be true because, after all, “everyone says so!”
I worked with a consultant once who had a standing bet that he could bring down any organization of any size in six months to a year through gossip alone. People pooh-poohed the idea, but never, to my knowledge, did anyone take him up on the bet.
I don’t know if it’s possible to root out gossip – the lashon hara seems to be the most visible and one of the nastiest manifestations of the yetzer hara – the evil inclination in human beings. I do know, and can tell you from experience, that the more I try to live in the discipline of not speaking negatively about other people (and I probably fail as much as I succeed at this), the better my life seems to go.
The other Torah portion this week is the story of the first Passover. It is meant to remind us that Pesach is coming and we need to prepare. Again here, we have cleanliness as a connection to moving toward God – for Passover, instead of slaughtering and eating a lamb, we are to cleanse our house of chametz – anything that could contain leaven, particularly the five grains – barley, rye, oats, wheat, and spelt. Over the years, particularly among Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazim) this rule has been expanded to include rice, peas, peanuts, millet, beans, sesame seeds, and a variety of other things including some that make so sense at all – wild rice is forbidden to Ashkenazim because the Rabbis thought it was rice, when it is really a grass, and corn, which was unknown in Europe until the 16th Century, is forbidden, probably because “corn” sounds like “kern,” the Yiddish word for “rye.” Sephardim have it much easier – they are forbidden only the 5 grains and eat all the rest of that stuff.
But whatever you do or don’t eat, what is important is the separation of Passover from the rest of the year in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, the turning toward God and remembering what He did for us. In my view that’s what all of this is about – turning toward God and having the turning create a separation between clean and unclean, good and bad, sacred and profane – because that is what it is to “be holy” – to be kadosh is to be distinct, to be separate from those things that turn us away from God – that is the real choice we have as human beings – which way we turn.


On a wall in a cellar in Cologne, Germany, where Jews had hidden from the Nazis, there was found an inscription. The anonymous author who perished with his fellow victims left behind these words: "I believe in the sun even when it's not shining. I believe in love even when not feeling it. I believe in God even when He is silent."

Normally on Rosh Hashana I address the state of our congregation and our community, kind of an “state of NTHC” report. I will try to touch on this in my remarks on Yom Kippur, but today I want to address something more pressing, namely the need for us as Jews to speak out in the current national crisis.

The world is a bit less than it was a week ago.

· A little less safe
· A little less certain
· A little less civilized
· A little less human.

People have compared the attack on September 11th to Pearl Harbor, but the similarities are superficial at best. Pearl Harbor was an attack by an established, military force against military targets; yes there were civilian casualties – too many of them – but they were collateral to the military nature of the operation. Sneak attack, yes, but sneak attacks as a military tactic go back to the Trojan Horse and before. The attack on America last week was a cowardly assault on targets that can only be seen as civilian in nature. Even the Pentagon has many more civilians than military personnel.
I was in the San Francisco Bay Area when the attack occurred, and was astonished at the degree to which this attack, 2500 miles away seemed to have personally touched each person I met. Our son Eric’s office is across the street from the World Trade Center. He was there just after the second plane hit and (thank G-d) got home safely to Brooklyn before the buildings collapsed. Others I spoke with had friends, family, and relatives in New York, at the World Trade Center, in Washington. One man who lives barely 5 minutes from the Pentagon did not know, as late as 5 pm our time, that anything had happened.

Within hours, US residents of Arab descent or extraction and US Arab groups were attacked, a mosque in Seattle was burned, shots were fired, and yesterday a Sikh in Arizona was shot – a Sikh is about as related to anything that has happened as is a Tibetan Buddhist. Within days right-wing talk radio was filled with callers using the occasion to beat the drums for their favorite racist cause – close the borders to Mexicans, stop supporting Israel, you name it.

Within hours, the fringe on the left was also heard, lamenting that we (the U.S., Israel, the West, whoever “we” are) had driven the poor oppressed terrorists to this extreme. I heard many times that “we have to get to the origin of this – what makes people into terrorists.” One person even said that Osama bin Laden (may his name be erased) was once an 8 or 10 or 12 year old boy and somehow this meant he should not have come to such a place as he is in now. No mention was made of the people on the planes or in the buildings or the rescuers who were, presumably also once 8 or 10 or 12 years old, and who did not deserve to die on September 11th.

What nonsense. What unadulterated, self-serving, myopic drivel on both sides. The facts are plain here, a week later. Fanatics, using religion as the content of their fanaticism, perpetrated the most heinous act of mass murder in history, and in so doing created a de facto state of war, not only with the United States but with all of humanity that is deserving of the name. No decent human being, regardless of race, religion, culture or ethnicity can fail to condemn this atrocity against innocent civilians, without regard to the race, religion, culture, or ethnicity of those victims. No decent human being can fail to condemn an attack on innocent victims, using other innocent victims as weapons. No decent human being can fail to condemn the use of suicide bombing as a tactic. In World War II we were appalled at the Japanese military personnel who committed suicide raids as kamikaze bombers, but those were military men, making a personal decision, and taking only their own life in the attempt. These arrogant cowards took innocent airline passengers with them to add to the horror of the event.

And no decent human being can stand any longer for the teaching of hate and the glorification of terrorism in elementary and secondary schools. Anyone asking “how are terrorists created?” need look no farther than the schools of Gaza, and the West Bank, and the massaras of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Talmud teaches that each individual human life is sacred, that he who saves one life saves all of humanity. Clearly the version of Islam that the terrorists subscribe to does not hold to this truth. They have forfeited the right to be considered decent human beings, to be considered anything but criminals comparable to those who stood in the dock at Nuremberg.

Last week one individual lost no time writing a letter to the Bonanza and the Reno Gazette-Journal blaming this terrorist act on US support of Israel. My response to this anti-semitic diatribe will be published in tomorrow’s Bonanza and in the Gazette Journal, signed in my capacity as president of your congregation. That same day other ignoramuses sought to use the occasion to vent their spleen against other groups. No one, to my knowledge, has attacked Jews directly, but “Israel” and “Zionism” have long been code words for “Jews” for anti-semites.

We must not be silent. It will be too easy for right- and left-wing fringe reaction to this to turn on us as Jews, particularly if, as is likely, President Bush’s declared war on terrorism results in American losses and/or further terrorist acts and attempts against the US. We must learn from the mistakes of American and European Jewish communities before World War II, who remained silent too long. We must speak out in support of President Bush, regardless of our domestic politics or parties. The war against terrorism is a war against the enemies of Israel and of Judaism. I ask that you look for opportunities to speak out as individuals and for your Board and officers to speak out for the congregation. Write letters, call talk shows, do what you can.

Edmund Burke, the 18th century English statesman said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Let us not contribute to the triumph, or even the temporary victories of evil through our silence.