Whither Reform Judaism

When did we stop caring about Jewish identity? When did we stop caring about Jewish continuity? And why?

When I entered HUC-LA in the fall of 1968, the very first weekend featured an informative seminar on officiating at interfaith marriages. The panel consisted of the eminent Rabbi Max Nussbaum, z’l, of Hollywood Temple Israel, and two others.

Rabbi Nussbaum persuasively represented what was at the time – by a vast margin — the majority position of CCAR rabbis. He explained why he does not officiate. His role, he emphasized, was to create Jewish families and promote Jewish identity.

Another panelist, from the surrounding LA area said he would officiate if the intention of the couple was to have a Jewish home and Jewish children. In other words, he would officiate at an inter-marriage if he felt it would create a Jewish family and foster Jewish identity.

The third position was so outlandishly unusual at the time that they had to import a rabbi all the way from Baltimore to represent it. He stated, “My condition for officiating at a marriage ceremony is that a couple asks me to.”

Little more than half a century later, it seems that this “third position” has become almost mainstream. The evidence is in the online advertisements that many of our colleagues’ post proclaiming themselves eager and happy to perform weddings not only for interfaith couples but in cooperation with clergy of other faiths.

How did we get from where we were in 1968 to where we are today?

One reason is that there are fewer Jews affiliating with congregations, and therefore fewer congregations hiring rabbis. HUC-JIR’s goal in the 80’s, 90’s and to this day seems to be to create as many Reform rabbis as possible without concern for what the job market can carry. The result is that more of our colleagues must find new and creative ways to earn a livelihood. Without question wedding officiation can be a viable avenue.

Then, as has been frequently observed, there is the relatively recent phenomena of “Rabbi Mills,” online “seminaries” offering quick and remote learning processes leading to “ordination.” These “rabbis” in my observation rarely impose conditions on marriage ceremonies they are asked to perform. 

We must also consider the evolutionary development of Outreach. When he first introduced the term in 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, z’l, was very clear: “We oppose intermarriage, but we embrace the intermarried.” Rabbis who worked for the UAHC (which became the URJ) were forbidden to officiate at interfaith ceremonies.

In relatively short order the tension between those two legitimate values – opposing intermarriage while embracing the intermarried — proved difficult if not impossible to maintain. Increasingly, congregations demanded willingness to perform interfaith marriages as a condition of employment.

When, despite my unwillingness to officiate at interfaith marriages, I was invited in 1986 to assume a pulpit in Nashville where my predecessor of 25 years officiated, colleagues from around the country contacted me to ask, “How did you do it?” I doubt I could “do it” today.

Rabbis who changed their position and announced their willingness to officiate reported the joy with which their congregations greeted their decision to become “open-minded” on this important question.

In the wake of “audacious hospitality” recent statements by Reform Rabbis decry any concern with “Jewish identity” and distance themselves from the once universally accepted notion that it is preferable for Jews to marry Jews.

Increasingly too, Rabbis consider it fine for member families to raise their children as both Christians and Jews. Consequently, they willingly perform baby naming or brit milah ceremonies for children who will also be or have been baptized. 

Before long, I fear, the increasingly strong push by many will cause HUC-JIR to welcome as candidates for ordination students with non-Jewish partners. As one younger colleague has shared with me, “It’s not a matter of, “If,” but, “When.”

Some colleagues who believe in these wide-open door innovations happily report upticks in involvement and their ability to reach increasing numbers of Jews. They see these developments as keys to a viable Jewish future.

Since the direction of our movement seems irreversible, I hope they are correct. But I have my doubts. “In The Origins of the Modern Jew Michael Meyer describes Moses Mendelsohn’s effort to live as an Orthodox Jew in the European world of his day as, “an ephemeral solution.”

The prevailing attitudes that are becoming predominant in our movement strike me similarly as an ephemeral solution only.

I cannot see allowing non-Jews to serve as Temple officers, ceasing to talk about the desirability of endogamous marriage, giving Hebrew names to babies also being raised as Christian, or of HUC students with non-Jewish partners becoming rabbis as being in the best interests of Jewish life.

The Story of Balak and Balaam reminds me that no outside force will ever destroy us https://findingourselvesinbiblicalnarratives.net/2015/07/02/before-you-sing-mah-tovu-again-please-read-this-parashat-balak-numbers-222-259/

Although present trends in our movement cause me to worry, that we may destroy ourselves, I cling to hope that we will not.

Despite all we have endured through history, the Eternal One has seen fit to keep our ancient Covenant intact and viable. So, I pray those moving Reform Judaism in the United States in its present direction are wiser than I am. And if they prove not to be, I pray that God will look to the indisputable loftiness of their motives and guide us through the error of their ways.

An Inspiring Journey*

Stefanie and I at her 100th birthday party

Born in Breslau in ’21

To begin an inspiring 

100-year run.

And now, surrounded

By so much love

Century Two has

Just begun.

As a child your art

Showed promise and flair,

You won a contest

Run by Luft Air.

You were to soar

Up over the city

But you could not go

And that was a pity.**

An idyllic childhood

The Nazis disrupted

Fating you with

Youth interrupted.

From Spain to Swiss land

And so many chores

It wasn’t fair

You had to scrub floors.***

When you left Breslau 

For Barcelona

Could you imagine

You’d land on Wawona?****

With Uli, Vickie, 

And my Lawdie, Lawdie

At age 42

Along came Miss Claudie!*****

Sons-in-law, grandkids

The numbers kept mounting

Six great grands you claim, 

And yes, we’re still counting!

But we could not know

That in more recent years

Your story would reach

Many hundreds of ears

Of youngsters in Germany

Whose lives you inspire

To strive, persevere

And climb ever higher.

Your journey, your struggles

Your triumphs your tears

Put a face on sad history

And make cloudy things clear.

Part of your legacy,

A gift we shall treasure

Are the lives that you’ve touched

In ways beyond measure.

German teens will reflect

On what happened then,

And because of your story

Vow, “Never again!”******

Yes, Steffi, you’ve had

A remarkable run

But the impact of your life

Has barely begun!

*Stefanie Steinberg, my wonderful mother-in-law, celebrated her 100th birthday recently. Here is my poetic tribute to her on that occasion. She is a celebrated artist whose paintings and collages adorn with great pride the homes of her children and grandchildren.

**At age ten, Stefanie won an art contest sponsored by Lufthansa airlines. The prize was an aerial tour of the region of Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) where Stefanie was born and lived until she was 14. Unfortunately, she became ill the night before she was to fly and could not claim her prize.

***In 1936 the family fled the Nazis to Barcelona, Spain. After the Spanish Civil War broke up Stefanie lived in a Kinderheim (orphanage) in Switzerland, where, yes, she had to scrub floors.

****Wawona is the name of the Street where Stefanie has lived since 1961 in San Francisco.

*****Stefanie and her husband, Uli (1915-1990) became parents of Vickie and then, by surprise, 15 years later of Claudia.

******An exhibit recounting Stefanie Steinberg’s life and experiences has been the basis of lessons Vickie and have taught beginning in 2014 in several German high schools where students identify with Stefanie and what she went through.

From Fear to Faith

For the first time in nearly two years Vickie and I are away from Sanibel and in San Francisco visiting our older two children and their families.  

Soon, we shall travel to Connecticut to reconnect meaningfully with our youngest and his growing clan. What a blessing it is to feel safe to travel and be with those we love! 

Recently, after a delicious vegan Chinese meal from one of San Francisco’s many wonderful Szechuan restaurants, I opened my fortune cookie and read: “Success is not a destination. It is making the journey.”

Such wisdom from a fortune cookie!

The cookie’s message reminded me of one of my favorite prayers written by, serendipitously, the late San Francisco Rabbi Alvin Fine, who – also serendipitously – was Vickie’s rabbi as she grew up.

Rabbi Fine wrote:

Birth is a beginning 

And death a destination 

And life is a journey

From childhood to maturity

And youth to age…

From defeat to defeat to defeat

Until we see that victory lies not

At some high point along the way

But in having made the journey…

How quickly the time has gone by! 

While I hope I have made the journey “from childhood to maturity” there is no question I have made the journey from “youth to age.” I must also acknowledge that at 75 I am closer to my “destination” than to my journey’s “beginning.” How did it happen so fast?

Wasn’t it yesterday that our children were babies crawling around on the floor?  Now our three are full-blown adults and have made Vickie and me grandparents eight times with a ninth on the way.

As I watch them play and interact with one another, I count my blessings and replay in my mind a flood of scenes from my past. I recall things I thought about and did when I was their different ages.

Without question, my life has had it share of “high points along the way” as well as its share of “defeats.” But thankfully, my journey continues.

In that regard Sanibel has been a source of untold inspiration.  Every day I see and marvel at people much older than I, who continue to live their lives with purpose and meaning. They are learning new things cultivating new hobbies and pursuing ones that have been meaningful for them over the years with great vigor and enthusiasm.

As I continue my journey, I pray to move – and I pray that all of us can move — in Rabbi Fine’s words:

From offence to forgiveness

From loneliness to love

From joy go gratitude

From pain to compassion

From grief to understanding

From fear to faith.

Pamela

I first met her in the spring of ’98.  Congregation Beth Israel needed a new Cantor, and she came to interview. I was the new rabbi and part of the committee assigned the task of selecting my new pulpit partner.

Pamela sang well, but it was her spiritual essence that captured me.  Some of the committee members preferred the voice of one of the other interviewees. But the murmuring of my heart became a drumbeat: Pamela, Pamela, Pamela.

I had not planned to insinuate my opinion too heavily into the deliberations.  After all the lay people engaged the Cantor and she would be there to lead – not simply work with me – as our prayer leader.  Plus, I had not yet been there a year. I should express myself in a low-key way. 

But I felt my very future was at stake.

And so, I was insistent. 

“The other Cantor also has a fine voice,” I acknowledged, “but I have thirty plus years of pulpit intuition calling to me that Pamela Siskin should be our Cantor.”

 Looking back, I am so glad I was assertive.  More importantly, I know everyone else in the congregation is as well.

We worked together for thirteen years.  Her voice, her spiritual presence, and her work ethic all inspired me.  And that just speaks to her role on the pulpit.

Off the pulpit, she was if anything, even more amazing. She came to my office shortly after she arrived and announced, “We have to have a program for Seniors,” and she proceeded to outline an ambitious agenda including a discussion, a luncheon and a program.

“Great,” I said. “Let’s do this once a month.”

“No,” she answered, “we shall do this every week.” And she did. Under her direction SAGE (I always forget what the letters stand for) became the best senior program I have ever seen. It drew an enthusiastic crowd every week. It was a centerpiece of the lives of those who attended.

I marvel at Pamela Siskin’s creativity and musicianship. Purim, under her direction, became a “third High Holy Day” at Congregation Beth Israel.

One of the most joyous experiences for me in my retirement congregation in Florida was when Cantor Siskin guest-starred in our 2018 Purim celebration.

Most recently, one of Pamela’s dear cantorial friends has fallen on hard times. But it is no surprise to me that Pamela is spearheading a major fund-raising effort to help her out.

Looking back over my career at age 75, I gratefully count many blessings.  High on the list has been the privilege of sharing a pulpit, many confidences and my innermost hopes and dreams with Cantor Pamela Siskin.

Dick Goldberg

May 11, 2021 – Temple Isaiah

Just last Thursday, when I called him on Rita’s birthday, I told Dick that his place in the history of Temple Isaiah was comparable to the place of Babe Ruth in the history of the New York Yankees. Baseball was just one of many loves we shared.

I think the analogy is apt. Dick continued to play an active role in the workings of this congregation even though he has lived two hours away since 1994.  That was the year Dick left his position as Associate General Counsel and Vice President of the Rouse Company to further his distinguished career in Real Estate Law as a partner in the Ballard-Spahr law firm in Philadelphia.

The climax of Dick’s legal career came with his election as president of the American Collège of Real Estate Lawyers. In March of 2018, Dick received the Frederick S. Lane Award, the highest honor bestowed by the American College of Real Estate Lawyers. 

Dick retired from the practice of Law in 2011 but kept very busy in the ensuing years as an adjunct professor at Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law. In addition, Dick lectured and taught Continuing Legal Education Classes across the country.

Yes, Dick enjoyed a truly distinguished professional career, but he spent so much time and energy as a volunteer in the Jewish and general communities that I marveled that he found time to practice Law at all.

In Philadelphia he served as President of his condominium association and the Center for Art and Wood. He was also a very active member of the Franklin Inn Club.

Although he gave time and energy to many activities, there is no doubt at all that Dick’s most passionate community interest was Temple Isaiah.

Dick and Rita came to Columbia a few weeks before I arrived on September 1, 1973, and our lives have been closely intertwined since then. He served as President of the Howard County Jewish Council and then as Temple Isaiah’s president. During that time, we met for lunch weekly and often at other times as well.

I learned so much from him, and I have never met a more dedicated volunteer.

Dick and his beloved Rita were married well over 50 years. Their precious son – their one and only – Andy tragically died in March of 2009. Rita died in the spring of 2018.

After she died, I wrote: “No more poignant definition of the word, ‘Alone,’ comes to my mind than Dick without Rita.”

But Dick bravely and purposefully carried on. He continued to devote himself to community activities and he continued to devote himself in many ways to the welfare of this congregation.

Almost all of us in this room and on this Zoom, have spouses, children, or siblings.  While he cherished the love of Rita’s sister Ellen, and his cousins, Jodi, and Stacey, for Dick, Temple Isaiah was his family. He loved this congregation and with good reason.

The leadership of Rabbi Axler was a great joy to him. His warmth, wisdom and menschlikeit inspired him.

I also cannot count the number of times Dick recalled to me with gratitude the support and comfort he received from Rabbi Panoff in the days preceding and following Andy’s tragic death.

And the Temple returned his love. His birthday Aliyah at the end of April brought him joy. And he was very proud to be, as he put it, “the only two-time Congregants’ Hour speaker in the history of the congregation.”

For Vickie, our children and me, Dick’s death is a very personal loss. Vickie finds it hard to imagine not being able to pick up the phone and hear his voice ever again.

As a little boy Leo reveled in his overnights at Dick and Rita’s. He told me, “Dad, you never had a greater supporter than Dick Goldberg.” When Leo decided to study to become a rabbi at age 42, Dick remarked, “My only surprise is that it took him so long.” Dick zoomed into some of the study sessions and services Leo conducted at his student pulpit in California. Indeed, Just as Dick was a great help to me on my rabbinical path, so has he been to our son.

Sarah Jenny, we like to say, was pushed out of the womb by the matzah balls Vickie ate at the second night Seder we shared at the Goldberg home on April 12, 1979. “He’s gone to be with Rita,” Sarah said when she heard he had died.

Dick gave Ben valuable advice when he left the Financial Planning firm for which he worked and went into business for himself.

As Vickie noted, “The Goldbergs have known us all our married life and have shared every important milestone with us including our children’s B’nai Mitzvah and their weddings. We were so honored to be part of their intimate 50th wedding anniversary dinner. It is hard to imagine life without them.”

For me Dick remained a friend and confidante until his last days. In our last conversation five days ago, Dick wistfully noted how true he found my words: “The definition of ‘Alone,’ is me without Rita.”

I think Dick endured that “Aloneness” as long as he could. Now, I think, and I hope, Sarah is right. They are together again, Dick, Rita and Andy, all healthy, strong and full of life:

At his Bar Mitzvah, on the Shabbat during Sukkot in 1982 Andy Goldberg read from the Torah these words from the book of Exodus that God addressed to Moses: “I have singled you out by name, and you have found favor in my sight.” (Exodus 33:12)

As the Eternal One welcomes Dick to his Eternal home, I imagine God addressing him with those very words: “I have singled you out by name, and you have found favor in My sight.”

Rest in peace, Dick! You are not alone, anymore.

Darnella

Vickie and I do not watch a lot of television, but we were glued to our set, hands tightly intertwined, while waiting for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial.

The trial was unique.

Millions of people were eyewitnesses. There was not a sudden burst of activity that one could either miss or misinterpret.  The world watched in horror as Derek Chauvin choked the life out of George Floyd for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds.

 When the judge announced that the jury had found Derek Chauvin guilty on all three charges, we breathed a sigh of relief.

Much credit must go to Darnella Frazier, the seventeen-year-old woman who filmed the entire episode for the world to see. Her courage enabled us to reach a turning point in American history.

I am proud to have been present on that historic day in 1987 when the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion honored Rosa Parks. The citation for the Roger E. Joseph Prize presented to Mrs. Parks reads: “who …with total conviction and courage, launched a boycott, changed a law, and helped reform a nation. Her indomitable spirit was the life force and catalyst for what has become the civil rights movement of this country.”

My hope is that it will not take HUC-JIR 32 years to honor Darnella Frazier in a similar manner. Her courage has sent a message across the cities, towns, and villages of the United States that people of color suspected of misdemeanor crimes are not subject to summary execution by the police.

Make no mistake! The overwhelming majority of police officers are dedicated professionals, who risk their lives daily to truly protect and serve all the citizens of our country.

Growing up, I was always proud of my cousin, Stanley Ferber, and his distinguished career as a member of the New York City Police Department.

Recently, I read the account of LaVonte Dell a black man pulled over by a white officer, Joshua Scaglione. When the officer asked why, Mr. Dell’s daughter was not in a car seat, he replied that it had been a tough year, money was tight, and he could not afford one. Officer Scaglione took Mr. Dell to Walmart where he purchased a car seat for him with his own money.

When asked why, the officer said: “I’m just doing my job.  What good would giving you a ticket do besides putting you further in the hole?”

Yes, Officer Scaglione felt he was just doing his job.  In a similar way, so did Darnella Frazier. 

In each of the five years preceding the pandemic, my wife Vickie and I spent between five and ten weeks each year in Germany teaching high school students about the Shoah. In our lessons we stress that the Holocaust did not happen only because of the unspeakable evil of Hitler and his lieutenants. It happened because too many everyday people were willing to look the other way.

So, we emphasize, when you see evil — let’s say a group of students bullying another — you can do one of three things.  You can join in and be popular. You can pretend it’s not your problem and walk away. Or you can have the courage of Darnella Frazier and call out the evil you are witnessing.

The Holiness Code (Leviticus 19:16) demands that we “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  In other words, in Jewish thinking there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.

Clearly Darnella Frazier understood the importance of this vital principle of Torah.  The world will be a better place if all of us do as well.                                                                                                                                                                                     

Thoughts on Elijah at Mount Horeb

With Passover approaching my thoughts turn to Elijah for whom we open the door at our Seder to express the hope that we can make the world better than it is.

Elijah is the most storied character in all of the Hebrew Bible.  If one counts Midrashim there are more Elijah stories then there are stories about Moses (and more than the character who has the second largest number of Midrashic vignettes, Solomon). This phenomenon is due in large measure to the work of the prophet Malachi who at the end of his book transformed Elijah from a ninth pre-Christian c. figure of might and courage to the one who in Jewish longing would return one day to announce the coming of the Messiah and with him bring an end of war and bloodshed.  With the coming of the Messiah an era of everlasting peace and harmony would begin on earth.  Jews, of course, still await such a messiah or find inspiration for their efforts to create a world of peace and harmony in the hope that Elijah represents.  For Christians, Jesus is that Messiah, and they work to prepare the world for his return when the Jewish messianic hope will be fulfilled.

But the ninth C. BCE Elijah was subject to the same emotional highs and low that many of us experience. He had been the fearless champion of the Almighty yet – like many who selflessly give of themselves – he has fallen into a deep depression of self-doubt.  Even after his greatest triumph – decisively defeating the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel — he fears that his work has been for naught and will have no lasting effect.  And worse, the wicked Jezebel still has a price on his head.

God tries to encourage him and by mystically transporting him to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where, like Moses — whose career Elijah’s parallels in many ways – Elijah stays on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.  There he is granted an extraordinary vision that offers those of us who believe today one of the most effective ways of explaining God’s presence in our lives.  Like Moses, and like many of us, Elijah seeks evidence that God is real!  God wants to help and sends a great wind, but God is not in the wind.   Then God sends an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake, nor is God in a fire.  But Elijah – like many of us – does perceive God’s reality in Kol D’mamah Daka, a still small voice.

Yes, if we listen very carefully we can perceive God’s will for us in a voice that speaks to us from the quiet stillness of our hearts.  It is that voice that encourages us to make the choice to use our talents in whatever ways we can for the benefit of others.  But the Voice only encourages; it does not compel. The choice as to how we use our talents is ours.

As profound and wonderful as it was, though, not even God’s voice could completely lift the cloud of despair from Elijah, and God knows the time has come for him – as it came for – to relinquish his role as God’s prophetic representative.  The Eternal One tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to serve as prophet in his place.

This should not be perceived as punishment.  At the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20) God knew that Moses’ unparalleled career had to end and that he would not be the one to lead the Children of Israel  — despite his eager desire to do so – into the Promised Land.  Like Moses and Elijah we must all some day relinquish our hold on the raison d’etre of our lives and trust others to carry on our work.

Those of us who aspire to be servants of the Almighty like Moses and Elijah can find valuable instruction here.  Our task is to do as much as we can for as long as we can. We must realize, though, that our prime years of productive service will not last forever.  That knowledge should give us urgency to make the most that we can out of every day that we have.  And, as the time approaches for us to let go, seek to empower others to carry forward the work that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

Still, Thankfully, Looking Ahead: Thoughts on Reaching 75

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

If you attended Shabbat Eve worship at Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland on March 19, 1976 you heard me deliver a sermon titled: “From the Top of the Hill Looking Down: Thoughts on Reaching Thirty.”

For those of you who could not make it that night I said:

Getting up early for morning Squash is not so easy as it once was, and each day the bathroom mirror testifies to the presence of an additional gray hair.  Age has been creeping up on me, and last Tuesday it tapped me – not at all gently – on the shoulder.

“celebrated,” I continued, “is hardly the appropriate word to associate with my thirtieth birthday…’endured would be more descriptive.

The trauma of the completion of my third decade lies in the passage of youth.  I am not old – just older –and not really young anymore. I am at the height of my physical strength, but I can expect my strength only to diminish. I feel like one at the top of a hill.  All that is left is the descent.

Then I recalled attending a lovely celebration on my birthday a few days prior at Tio Pepe’s, one of Baltimore’s finest restaurants to celebrate the retirement of Rabbi Abraham Shaw who was completing forty years as Rabbi of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore.

After drinking just one margarita that night, it was easy for me to close my eyes and imagine the celebration was not for Rabbi Shaw but for my thirtieth birthday. I began to wonder what my reflections would be 40 years later when I looked back, hopefully with the same satisfaction as Rabbi Shaw, on my rabbinical career.

I looked around our private room that night and formulated my perceptions of the older colleagues  (I was easily the youngest one there) with whom I sat:

One I labeled, “a bookworm rabbi,” who so immersed himself in Jewish study and writing of which most of his congregants understood and cared little. Yet they basked in the reflected glory of “their rabbi’s” scholarly achievements.

I classified another celebrant as “the businessman rabbi,” who, conducted his rabbinate like a corporate executive. He was a cracker-jack administrator and a great PR person with a ready smile and the knack for running from place to place and getting lots and lots of things done.  Unfortunately, I judged, that way of life allows little time for in-depth study, family life and intense personal involvement with the joy and sorrows of those he (and they were all he’s rabbis in the room were he’s at that time) serves.

There was another rabbinic colleague I considered an “acquiescent.” He just seemed to roll with the punches, does his best to give people what they want while seeming to have lost the desire that might have once burned inside of him to really challenge his congregants from the pulpit.

As I look back today, perhaps I judged my colleagues too harshly. After all, each was considered a success, but on that night forty-five years ago I resolved I would not become like a bookworm, the businessman or the acquiescent with whom I dined.

I promised myself that I would never lose my idealism, my desire to really make a difference in people’s lives or my personal integrity for the sake of popularity or position. 

I have tried my very best to keep that promise. 

But I wonder how a young colleague at my 75th birthday celebration would judge me.

I feel so blessed to have landed \in Sanibel where you inspire me to realize that 75 doesn’t have to be old. Those of you who are five, ten, fifteen and 20 years older than I have been such a blessing to me. You have made me realize that with God’s help I can still be productive and still make small differences in people’s lives. Jeanette Keyser, who died this past Shabbat at age 94 inspired me every time she trundled or wheeled herself into this room. Her body was frail, but her eyes shone with curiosity and the desire to learn.  She never lost her sense of wonder, and that is what I want for myself.

As I arrived at the tennis court on my birthday, Peter Danford wished me a happy birthday and friends asked me, “How do you plan to celebrate?”

“I am celebrating,” I answered, “by being here in the sunshine to play the game I love so much.”

Oh, I have seen enough and heard enough and experienced enough in my life personally to know that things can change in an instant. 

When they cracked my chest open for the first time to replace my congenitally defective aortic valve when I was fifty, I could not imagine my 75th birthday. There have been other significant bumps in my road including the need to open my chest a second time in 2012 to replace the replacement valve and sheath a life-threatening ascending aortic aneurysm. So, believe me, I know robust good health will not last forever, and it can vanish at any moment.

As I stand before you tonight the words I just read from the Torah, the exact words I read for the first time as a Bar Mitzvah 62 years ago resonate more than ever. I know that too many times (and once is already too many times) words I have spoken or things I have done have caused hurt and pain to people I love or people who depended on me in other ways. I never meant to. I was not aware on those occasions that I had given offense. But the Torah starkly reminds me that ignorance is no excuse. I am still guilty and must take responsibility for my actions as must we all. 

So, my sermon to myself at 75, which I invite you to apply to yourselves if you deem it appropriate comes from the third verse of Psalm 141:  

Set a guard, O Eternal One, to my mouth. Keep watch at the door of my lips.”

With that important admonition in mind, now that I am 75 I redouble my desire to live every day as fully as I can, enjoy what pleasure life affords me and try my best to fulfill the charge God made to Abraham 4000 years ago as he launched the new way of life, we now call Judaism:  והיה ברכה

“Be a Blessing,” to myself, my loved ones, to all of you, and all of those whose lives I may yet touch.

Amen

Hatach’s Story

I am Hatach, but I bet many of you have never heard of me.  Well, I am here to tell you that I am the unsung hero of the Purim story. Oh, I am easy to forget. In fact, I am so good at being unobtrusive that even Esther and Mordecai sometimes forget about me.  

But at the end of the day, I am the one who you should thank for Esther’s foiling Haman’s plot to kill the Jews. 

You see Esther was locked away in her sumptuous palace. Mordecai, a commoner had no access to her. He could only sit in the outer courtyard, and sometimes even then he breached protocol by dressing in sackcloth and ashes.  Of course, as Iwas to find out, he had good reason. Only because I took his message to Esther and successfully conveyed its urgency did Esther find the courage to risk her very life to see the King.

Do I make too much of my role? Hah! If I do, it is only because for two thousand plus years people have forgotten all about me. So, I want to set the record straight,

But then I am getting ahead of myself.  We have a story to tell

It takes place in imperial Persia long long ago …

Join us at the ZOOM link below to hear the story at 7:30 this evening!

 CLICK HERE TO JOIN OUR PURIM/SHABBAT CELEBRATION FRI 2/26

Why God Chose Abraham and All of Us

This is a much longer essay than I usually post. It expresses the essence of how I view the Bible and how I see our connection to God and our role on this planet. I welcome your comments.

In contrast to the gods worshipped by the pagan peoples the God of whom the Hebrew Bible speaks wants more than anything else for human beings to create on this earth a just, caring, and compassionate society.

In the pagan world gods were forces presumed to have power, and the purpose of religion was to appease these gods.  For example, if I planted my crops, I would make an offering to the “agriculture god.”  If I had a successful harvest that told me the god had accepted my offering.  If I had a poor harvest, or if there was a flood or drought, that proved that the god had rejected my offering.  

If I feared an invasion from a neighboring country, I would make an offering to my war god. If I won the war, my offering had been accepted.  If I lost I either concluded that my offering had not found favor, or I abandoned my war god and began worshipping the one of the nation that had conquered mine.

The God of the Hebrew Bible is very different.  Not only is our God indivisible and incorporeal, our God ahs a completely different agenda.  Our God creates humanity in the Divine Image.  That means not that we look like God, but that of all creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers.  

As the Midrash teaches, we human beings share characteristics with both the terrestrial animals and with God.  Like the animals we eat, sleep, eliminate our waste, propagate and die.  But our powers of thought, creativity and self expression are so far above the other earthly creatures that they are considered more God like than earth bound.

Put another way we are neither as swift as the cheetah nor as strong as the rhinoceros, but neither of those creatures is going to build a room like the one in which we worship or perform delicate surgery to repair a damaged heart.  Only humans have that power.

That means – for better or worse — that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for this world.  

We are the only creatures that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore form the mountain and turn that ore in to steel with which to perform the delicate operation referred to above.  At the same time, we are the only creature that can go to the same mountain, mine the same ore, turn into the same iron and forge steel with which to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or to maim.

In other words we possess awesome power, and the abiding hope of the God of the Bible is that we shall use that power to create a world of equity, justice, compassion and peace.

When I began to take religious studies seriously, I pondered a perplexing question.  If the book of Genesis is the story of the beginning of the Jewish people, and if Genesis has fifty chapters, and if Jewish history starts when God calls to Abraham to leave Haran and journey to the promised land, and if that call comes in chapter twelve of the book, then what are the first eleven chapters doing there?

If I wrote a paper for one of my professors at Hamilton, the Hebrew Union college or at Vanderbilt, and the paper had fifty pages, but I didn’t get to the subject of the paper until page twelve, then the professor would justifiably demand that I get to the point sooner.

So, we might ask about Genesis. If we don’t get to the subject of the book until the twelfth of its fifty chapters, what is the point of the first eleven?  

The first chapter of Genesis is a glorious account of creation.  It is not a scientific attempt to explain how the world got here.  It is a religious attempt to explain why.  That is why if people ask if creationism should be taught in science class, my answer is a resounding “no!”

The story of creation is a marvelous poem which sets forth the basic assumptions about life under which the Bible and all of subsequent Jewish thought operates.  It teaches four main points.

First, God is the initiator of creation.  Second, creation is not an accident.  It has purpose and meaning.  If life has purpose and meaning, then our lives have purpose and meaning.

Third, in the Creation story.  Everything prior to humanity is created by simple declaration or divine fiat.  God says “let there be, and there was…’  Let there be light…let there be dry land… let there be vegetation…  Only when the story describes the creation of man and women do we read, “And God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, in the very image of God and they shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and everything that creeps on earth…”  In other words, God created us to be in charge of and responsible for this earth and charged us with the awesome task of creating the just caring, compassionate society.  Note well, nowhere does it say that God creates that society, or that God makes us create that society.  It is only clear that God want us to create that society.

Chapters 2-11 delineate three attempts on the part of the Almighty to have us humans do just that.  They are the society in Eden, the society after Eden until the time of the flood, and the society following the flood.  None of these societies work. None becomes the type of society God yearns for us to create.   Let us take a closer look at them.  Each has its own set of ground rules—operating principles under which the societies function.

Eden for example was a place of no birth, no death, (I would argue though some may differ) no sex) and no need to work hard.  I argue for no sex because sex leads to procreation.  And really you can only have it one of two ways, a world like Eden with neither birth nor death or a world like ours with both birth and death.  A world with birth and no death would quickly be overrun, and a world with death but no birth would quickly die out.

Now whatever our religious conviction, it is clear that society in Eden did not work.  For traditional Christianity the eating of the forbidden fruit represents the Fall of Humanity.  

According to that interpretation, we had it made!  God gave us everything we 

 could possibly want asking only that we not eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  We blew it! We ate from the tree and God expelled us from paradise.  In our act of disobedience, we separated ourselves so far from God, that we are powerless on our own to repair the breach.  But, according to traditional Christian doctrine, God gave us a second chance.  He sent us his only begotten son and if we believe in the saving power of Jesus’ life, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension to heaven, we can overcome the chasm created by this original sin.

For traditional Judaism it was also a sin that the first couple ate the forbidden fruit.   We suffer because we do not live in Eden anymore, but we can under our own power and through our own actions approach God on our own.  We need no intermediary, and Jesus plays no role in our theology.

A third way to look at the story is more radical.  Life in Eden was pristine but dull.  It was boring.  There was no challenge, no purpose.

After a long year of work I am so very eager to take a vacation.  I can think of nothing more enticing than to lie on a beach with no worries or responsibilities, be able to reach up whenever my heart desires and pick a piece of non pesticide infested fruit with which to nourish myself and lie on the warm sand and let the clear blue waters lap against my toes.  I would enjoy this immensely—for about a week.  Maybe this past year I could have used ten days.  

But then I would start to look— as I suspect most of us would – for something meaningful to do something that would make a difference.  This is how I can imagine Adam and Eve felt in the Garden.  What I am suggesting is that the eating of the fruit—far from being the fall of man—represented the elevation of man into a creature ready to accept the challenge of finding meaning and purpose in life.

But however we look at the story, the Eden society did not work.  So out went the first couple to live with new ground rules outside the Garden.  Those new ground rules thrust them into a life where people had sex, were born, people died, and people had to work to earn a living.  Unfortunately, that society went quickly downhill with the murder of Abel by Cain.  The descent was rapid until God decided to destroy the world because it was filled with lawlessness and violence

 By the way there are many flood stories in the literature of the ancient near east.  Of them all, though, only the biblical flood story is cast in moral terms.  Only the biblical flood occurs because a good, caring God, desiring humanity to set up a just, caring, compassionate society is frustrated y humanity’s inability or unwillingness to do so.  Only in the biblical flood story does God choose the hero because he alone was righteous in his age!

So, Noah builds the ark, takes the animals and his family aboard, and survives the flood.  The flood ends and the curtain rises on society number three—a new society with new ground rules.  Like society number two the third society was a place of work, sexuality, birth and death.  

In addition, though, God adds three new ground rules in this third attempt to make the world work.  For the first time God gives humanity permission to eat meat.  God charges humanity with responsibility for brining to justice and punishing those who shed blood.  In other words, human beings must hold other human beings accountable for their actions.  And finally, God forswears the option of destroying the physical world again and starting over.  God says: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gn 8:22)

Unfortunately, the third society works out little better than the other two.  Noah immediately gets drunk.  Ham his youngest commits some unmentionable act against his father that brings a curse upon him.  

Then there is the story of the Tower of Babel—which depicts humanity’s seeming attempt to overthrow God.  Yes, society three is working out little if any better than the other two.  But now God has a dilemma.  God still cares about the world.  As much as ever God wants to see humanity create a world of justice, caring and peace, but God is still dissatisfied.  Furthermore, God has promised not to destroy the world again.  So, what is God to do?  The answer is: that God picks one individual one family and says to Abraham: “Go forth form your native land, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  (GN 12:1) And that begins the Covenant that God makes with Abraham and his descendants.

From a Jewish perspective God’s choice of Abraham is neither whimsical nor unexplained.  God chose Abraham because of his suitedness for the task.

Two Midrashic stories illustrate.

 When Abraham was born the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter.  Nimrod’s astrologers tell him of a baby born that will overthrow his kingdom, and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed. Abraham’s father hides him in a cave.

At the age of three he walks out of the cave and being a most precocious child asks: “Who created the heavens and the earth and me?”  He looked up at the sun and imagined that was the creative force.  So, he worshipped it all day.  That night the moon came out. And he thought the moon must be stronger than the sun.  So, he worshipped the moon all night.  When in the morning the sun came out again, Abraham reasoned that their must be a God more powerful than both the sun and the moon who is responsible for creation.  So according to this story, Abraham at a very young age chose God, and that helps explain why God chose him

Another story tells that when Abraham was a boy his father Terach was a merchant who had a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods.  One day, Terach had to go on a trip and left Abraham in charge of the store.  While he was cleaning up, he accidentally broke one of the idols.  Rather than try to hide it from his father, he placed a stick in the hands of the largest idol in the shop and left the broken idol on the floor.

When his father came home, he demanded that Abraham tell him what happened.

Abraham answered that the broken idol was misbehaving, and the bigger idol beat him with the stick.

Fool, said his father, “Don’t you know that idols can’t do anything.

“If so,” answered Abraham, “Then why do you worship them?”

The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry and further explains why God chose Abraham to begin the fourth society and present an entirely different idea of and approach to God.    

God tell Abraham “Go forth from your native land and from Your father’s house to the land the I will show you.” (Gn 12:1) Then God makes a Covenant with Abraham in which the Almighty promises to Abraham and his descendants:  Protection, progeny, permanence as a people and the land of Israel.  

In return, Abraham and all of us have to as God said to Abraham, “Be a blessing,” (GN 12:2) “Walk in My ways and be worthy” (GN 17:1), and work to create a society and teach your children to create a society based on “justice and righteousness.” (Gn 18:19)

That is still our charge today.  God chose Abraham and all of us his descendants because the world before him did not live up to God’s hopes and dreams.  Will the world of the future?

  The answer is in our hands!