Choosing to Be Chosen

“So,” I have heard people say. “You Jews are ‘the Chosen People.’ Does that mean you think you are better than everybody else?”

No, not at all!

This week, we read in the Torah that God chose Abraham, Sarah and their descendants to start a new way of life to create a just caring and compassionate society.

Yes, I believe God chooses specific individuals for specific tasks. I believe God chose Abraham to begin the journey that created the Jewish people. I believe God chose Moses to lead us out of Egypt. I believe God chose William Harvey to teach humanity about the circulation of blood, and I believe God chose the Wright brothers to inaugurate the era of aviation.   I believe God chose Abraham Lincoln to end slavery in this country, and I believe God chose Martin Luther King to make the dream of racial equality more of a reality in our society.

If individuals can have destinies, why not peoples as a whole? Just as God chooses individuals for certain tasks, so too does God choose peoples for certain tasks. As I look at history, I agree with the late Professor of Labor Relations at Cornell, Milton R. Konvitz who wrote, “Many are Called And Many are Chosen.”   He noted that God chose the ancient Greeks to bring the world an unprecedented sense of beauty, and God chose the Romans to teach the world new ideas about order.

God chose us Jews too. God chose us, as Thomas Cahill teaches in his best selling The Gifts of the Jews, to give the world a sense of the sanctity of time. Before we came along, Cahill notes, people perceived life as a series of repeating cyclical events.

“The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world…” Cahill’s book is a defense of the concept of chosenness.

Nearly three thousand years ago the Prophet Amos taught that we are not better than others, but that we have particular responsibilities. “Amos wrote: “I have known you uniquely among the peoples of the earth. Therefore I will hold you accountable for every one of your transgressions.”

No, to be chosen does not mean we consider ourselves better than anyone else.   Still, many Jews, both famous and ordinary, shy away from the concept of chosenness because they fear anti-Semitic reactions. Do we really think we will mollify anti-Semites by disavowing our destiny as a people?

Think again. Anti-Semitism is the responsibility of anti Semites, not the responsibility of us Jews.   Abandoning the idea that God has chosen us for the task of bringing the ideals based on Torah to the world will not stop either anti-Semites or anti-Semitism.

Jews do not hold exclusive rights to acts of goodness. God revealed Torah to us, the Midrash teaches, in the desert, so we would know that its ideals are open to everyone who wishes to embrace them. They are not the exclusive property of any one faith or people.

It is well and good that other peoples have adopted those ideals. Let them pursue them in their own ways. Their ways often inspire those who follow them to remarkable acts of caring and compassion that we do well to emulate.

Still, Judaism has done so much to civilize this world. It is no accident that Jews who represent less than ½ of one per cent of the worlds’ population have won more than 30% of the world’s Nobel Prizes. It is the product of a religious and cultural system that has stressed learning and literacy as ways of serving God. It is the product of a religious and cultural system, which teaches us, Lo Toochal liheetalaym. You must not remain indifferent to the suffering of another even if the other is our enemy. It is the product of a religious system that calls on us to be “L’or Goyim, a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 49:6)

Look at the values and culture of the world around us. Look at the violence that stalks our schools, our cities and our towns. Is it really time for us to turn away from a way of life that has done so much for humanity over the centuries? Can we really afford to be less particular in our Jewish practices and studies? Should we trade Jewish worship and practice for a generalized civil religion, which says, “just be a good person?”

No, let us cherish the belief that God chose us out to bring the ideas of Torah to the whole world. Chosenness does not mean privilege, and chosenness does not mean exclusiveness. Still, there are people who want no part of it.   We have often been the targets of enemies, and many have looked at our history and our suffering and said with Tevye the Dairyman, “God if this is what it means to be chosen, please, choose someone else.”

And yet, we continue to persist and exist, and with God’s help we shall continue to do so.

Chosenness is a choice, a challenge and an achievement. The choice to be chosen is ours to make or reject. Choosing to be chosen, I believe, is to believe that God cares deeply about the choices we make— not only as individuals but also as a people whom God chose to bring the ideals of Torah to the constant attention of the world.

Remembering Dr. Joel Deutsch

This week in synagogues around the world we begin the story of God’s Covenant with Abram,Sarai and all of us. That Covenant is the basis of everything we do as Jews. In it God promised to protect us, give us children, makes a permanent people and give us the land of Israel. But we don’t get those things for nothing: In return God charges us: 

1. Be a blessing (Genesis 12:2)

2. Walk in My ways and be worthy (Genesis 17:1

3. Fill the world and teach your children to fill the world with צדקה ומשפט “righteousness and justice.” (Genesis 18:19)

Over the years of my rabbinate few individuals have come closer to living up to the Covenant’s ideals than Joel Deutsch, M. D. It is more than seven years since Joel left us, but in tribute to his memory and as a reminder to us all of the Covenant’s ideals, I wish to share his eulogy with you.

Joel Deutsch loved Congregation Beth Israel with a prophet’s love. He eloquently and sometimes stridently demanded that we live up to the highest values of our tradition. He called us to account for not caring enough about the new Americans in our midst, for not showing sufficient deference and ceding sufficient power to the seniors of our community, and for a lack of fiscal transparency and accountability.

He would have been, quite honestly, a pain in the neck except for the fact that Joel backed up his complaints with tireless efforts in every realm of our community’s life. Rare was the Shabbat when he and Harriet did not worship with the congregation. Rarer still was the Shabbat morning when he and Harriet did not bring their minds and their hearts to the serious study of Torah at 9:30 a.m.

Joel’s passion for Jewish learning did not end with Torah study. When I taught my first graduate course at Hartford Seminary on Reading Scripture through Jewish eyes, I discovered to my delighted surprise Joel and Harriet among the students enrolled.

Joel was a sponge for Jewish knowledge. I can hardly recall an adult learning opportunity in which he did not participate. Learning for Joel – secular, scientific and religious – was a consuming passion. But knowledge was not an end in itself. Knowledge for Joel Deutsch was the means to use his vast talents and abilities to make the world a better place.

As Joel’s favorite Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The God of nature is the God of history, and the way to know Him is to do His will.” I have never met a person more eager to do God’s will than Joel Deutsch.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 15, 1926. He graduated from NYU and Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia. At Hahnemann he caught the eye of Harriet Miller, a young research assistant who worked at the medical school. “He was quiet, respectful, and very loving,” Harriet recalled. “He enjoyed talking about philosophy.” They married on June 26, 1949 after Joel’s graduation from medical school, and they shared 58 loving years together. They had two children, Bob and Dick.

When Bob brought Laura into the family, she became like a daughter to Joel. He also became the devoted grandfather of Jessica, Ross, Dan and Jay.

“Dad encouraged us to do our best,” his sons remembered, but he never pressured us. He always told our mom that her job of raising children was much more important than his job as a doctor, and he meant it. The most important things he taught us were that true riches have nothing to do with money and to respect people from all walks of life.”

Anyone who knew Joel even slightly knows that respect and concern for the Divine image in which God created all people was the hallmark of his philosophy. As a young army physician in the early 1950’s Joel was assigned to care for patients in a military prison. He found the living conditions there to be unacceptable, and he protested to his superiors. When his complaints fell upon deaf ears, he journeyed to Washington D. C. to consult higher authorities. Even their threats to ship him off to a war zone in Korea did not deter Joel from speaking out against the injustice he saw.

In 1974 Joel and Harriet moved to this area when he accepted the position of Chief of Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. He took great pride in his role as a physician and a teacher and was equally devoted to his patients and his students. The experience of actually holding a human heart in his hands filled Joel with a feeling of awe and responsibility to use his talents to improve life for others.

He was very proud of his role in developing one of the first Physician’s Assistants programs at Mount Sinai Hospital. As President of the Hartford division of the Connecticut American Cancer Society Joel was instrumental in setting up over I-84 the powerfully impactful billboard that depicted a skeleton smoking a cigarette.

Although surgery was Joel’s medical specialty, he was truly a renaissance physician devoted to compassionate care of the entire human being. His never ending thirst for knowledge and his passion to share that knowledge extended to the fields of oncology, psychology, cardiology, orthopedics and just about every medical field.

In his retirement he became the medical consultant to every member of Beth Israel’s SAGE program. Countless individuals have regaled me with stories of how Joel took a personal interest in their case, did extensive research about their disease and told them just what questions to ask their doctors and how to navigate the often confusing world of Medicare, prescription drugs, hospital visits and so many other things.

Amazingly, Medicine and Jewish learning were only two of Joel’s interests. He was a computer maven who was a “walking search engine” on almost any subject. He loved telescopes and gadgetry. He was a gifted photographer and an inveterate fan and user of all the latest photographic equipment.

He particularly loved photographing flowers. He was always proud that the Mount Sinai Hospital oncology unit commissioned him to decorate its walls with his floral photographs.

Joel also loved music, cartoons from the New Yorker, and sharing the wisdom of his years with his grandchildren. At significant family occasions he would say, “I am not going to wait until I die to tell you what I have learned in life.” He would then proceed with an “ethical will” which encapsulated his values and ideals.

Yesterday (August 7, 2007), I made my monthly presentation to our congregation’s SAGE group. I always look forward to being with this wonderful group of congregants and find the experience very gratifying. But yesterday, something palpable was missing. And it has been missing ever since.

It was Joel. Joel’s probing questions, his challenge against doing things the way they’ve always been done, his advocacy for the seniors in our community, his love of Judaism, Israel and Jewish values; his reminders to support the Wiesenthal Center, the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center – all of these were missing, and it will never be the same. In fact, nothing at Beth Israel will be the same—not Torah study, not worship, not our social justice initiatives, not even our Ongai Shabbat where Joel would often take me aside to remind me of another important matter that needed my attention.

He has gone now to another realm, and heaven better be ready to make some changes. Here on earth, though, we will think of him often. We will remember things that he taught us and that he did for us. His values and his passion will inspire us. Yes, Joel has gone to another realm, but his memory will remain with his family, his colleagues, his patients and so many–-in this sacred community and beyond-–whose lives he touched for a blessing.


From Breslau to Neumünster: A Long Journey Home

From Breslau to Neumünster is not so far, but it is a longer journey if the route is via, Spain, Switzerland,New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But that is the route my mother-in-law, Stefanie Steinberg, now 93-years young has taken.

Stefanie was born in Breslau and spent a happy childhood there displaying remarkable talent as an artist. But when the storm clouds of Nazi hegemony threatened the idyllic existence–indeed childhood itself–ended for her> In her own words:

My father realized that Germany was becoming a dangerous place, and suddenly the government no longer permitted him to treat Kranken Kasse patients, his primary group of patients. He began to make preparations to take us out of Germany. During that time, he was again given the permit to treat the workers because he had been a decorated officer in World War I, and had been given the Iron Cross. Wisely, he had the foresight to take his family out in 1936. He brought us to Barcelona, Spain, where he set up a medical practice, having brought his radiology equipment with him. Six months later, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and the women and children of foreigners were forced to evacuate the country. Father could not leave until much later, and had no possibility to work in Switzerland. My mother, brother, and I had small bags packed, and we went by refugee boat to Marseille, and from there by train to Zuerich, Switzerland. With the help of Julius Schueller and the International Council of Jewish Women, I was sent to Kinderheim, Wartheim, in Heiden, Canton Appenzell as an unpaid helper, a Practicantin with two other teenage girls and about forty children. My mother went to Dijon, France, to work as a secretary for a woman professor, and my brother was sent to live with a family in Switzerland who treated him poorly. Much later, my father went to New York to try to set up a medical practice there.

When I first arrived at the Heim, I was quite shell shocked, and the other people there called me the Steffie who does not talk. After a while, I began to thrive, and even taught the children a calisthenics class outside. After I had been there about a year, the children put on a play for the delegates of the Council of Jewish Women, and I painted the whole backdrop, a forest scene. When the delegates saw what I had painted, they helped me to get a scholarship to attend an art school, called the Kunst-schule Muench-Winkel in Zurich. I was able to attend that school for about a year, until 1938.

In the summer of 1938, my mother and I boarded a boat in Le Havre, bound for New York. My brother could not leave Switzerland until he graduated from the Institute Juventus in Zurich. He came in October of 1938, just a few weeks before Kristallnacht. When we boarded the boat, I had just had my 17th birthday. It so happened that I met my future husband, Ulrich Steinberg, whom I would marry 7 years later, on the boat. Unfortunately, when we arrived in New York, I didn’t attend high school, I went straight to work. One of my first jobs in New York was in a ladies hat shop on Diekman Street, sewing felt onto hats. For that, I was paid $5.00 a week, far less than someone who was born in the US would have been paid. Sometimes I had to work until 10:00 at night, and Uli would pick me up from work and bring me home half asleep, using the subway.

My next job was at a store called Jane Engel, on Madison Avenue, an elegant store not far from where we lived, where I was paid $7.00 a week. I worked there for about three years. I would usually walk home for the lunch my father prepared for me. His doctor’s office was then on the ground floor, and we lived on the third floor above his office. Later, I worked painting on ceramics and on silk ties. When my father became sick with cancer, I worked in the mornings, and in the afternoon I visited my father in the hospital. My brother took mornings off in order to visit him. When my father died, at Mount Zion Hospital, where he had volunteered in the outpatient department, the hospital would not release his body because my brother and I did not have enough money to pay the fee. Eventually they released him, and my brother and I moved into his small office and living quarters.

I decided to leave New York and worked my way to California, where I looked up Uli in the phonebook. We married a few months later, in April of 1945, and lived in his tiny bachelor apartment.

For a while, I painted on silk ties, and then I painted a blouse for myself. I wore it to the Ambassador Hotel gift shop on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and asked the owners to give me some of the blouses, called “dogs” that they could not sell. I painted them, and they sold like “hot cakes”. I painted more and more blouses, and even painted a ball gown for the actress Joan Fontaine to wear in the movie, “Emperor Waltz” (about Franz Joseph) which she starred in with Bing Crosby. The famous movie designer, Edith Head, had asked me to paint the ball gown. We then rented the top floor of an office building, and hired 10 artists to paint my designs. We sold our creations all over the US. We painted on blouses, ties, bras, girdles, swim suits, undergarments. It became a big company. At that time I also took classes at the Art Center School. Then a large Chicago company brazenly copied our best selling flamingo blouses. After the lawsuits, money ran low, our company folded, and I worked as a designer for a factory that made decorated clothes. Shortly after that, we moved to San Francisco, and began anew.

In San Francisco, I had the chance to take classes at San Francisco State University, which was in walking distance from our apartment. I took classes in drawing, painting, and art history. I became a member of a long established organization called The San Francisco Women Artists, served on its board for many years, had many paintings and photographs exhibited in their gallery over the years, and became its president for two years as well. I am still a senior member, after more than 50 years, and they chose to feature a painting of mine in one of their most recent exhibitions.

My works were also exhibited in various San Francisco museums, both painting and photography, and while an active member of the Bay Area Photographers, I received numerous awards for photo montages in black and while photography.

In 1989, I joined CLIR, the Center for Learning in Retirement which is part of the University of California. This gave me the chance to attend excellent classes taught by University of California professors, in art, photography, and in how to use the computer to enhance the quality of photographs. I still attend lectures and events there which are intellectually stimulating both because of the high caliber of the lectures, and because of the quality of the other seniors attending, who have become friends over the years.

In my free time I still enjoy painting and taking photographs of subjects which capture my attention. I enjoy visits from my two daughters and sons-in-law, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren. I also take care of my cat, Blackberry, and my garden both in front and in back of my house which I consider to be my personal, private paradise!

Today (October 28) In Neumünster, a wonderful exhibition of Stefanie’s life journey ones for edification of high school students. Pastorin Ursula Sieg, with the enthusiastic cooperation of my wife,, Vickie, and Stefanie herself, has put together this wonderful interactive learning opportunity. Vickie and I have already met with groups of students doing projects that center around the exhibition. As I write, Vickie is putting the finishing touches on her exhibit-opening speech, and soon we will drive to Neumünster for the event.

At home in San Francisco, Stefanie still is an active artist who lives independently. In a very real way, she has come back home to Germany triumphant over the forces of evil that inflicted years of pain and hardship on her and so many. It is a source of pride to her and all of us who love her that her life journey will teach valuable lessons to a new generation of Germans.

The Church of the Broken Cross

“You must be joking,” I said to myself, when, shortly after we arrived in Germany, Pastorin Ursula Sieg informed me that she arranged for me to preach in a church whose Pastor in those days was a Nazi murderer. She was not joking, but I have come to trust Pastor Sieg implicitly, and so I agreed.

 Kaltenkirchen is such a beautiful picturesque village, but it is also the site of a former concentration camp where prisoners endured brutal, near starvation conditions. Wealthy neighbors nearby lived their lives in comfort.

Since my visit to the camp, whenever I drove through the region the image of Nazi soldiers with snarling Rottweilers hunting for me flooded my brain and marred the woods’ beauty.

 The Michaelis-Kirche in Kaltenkirchen, just a few kilometers from the camp is a magnificent 16th century structure that was once the pulpit of Ernst Szymanowski (who Germanized his Polish name to Biberstein). Biberstein was an ardent Hitler supporter who left the church to become a Lt. Colonel in the SS who supervised at least two mass murders that claimed at least 2000 lives. He was tried at Nuremberg for his crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was commuted to life in prison, and through pressure exerted by the Lutheran Church, Biberstein was released from prison in 1958 and lived out his life in comfort until he died at 85.

 Yesterday I accepted the gracious invitation of Pastorin Martina Dittkrist and became the first rabbi ever to preach in that church. My text was the Exodus passage in which God commanded Moses to carve out two tablets of stone to replace those he smashed, and assured of God’s forgiveness, lead the people forward.

 I referenced the Midrashic teachings that our ancestors not only carried the new tablets of the Covenant in the ark, but the smashed broken ones as well. The lesson is that we learn as much or even more from our failures in life as we do from our success.

 I also emphasized the difference between the anger of God, which might endure up to four generations, and the love and mercy of God that extends to the thousandth. This was my message. Yes, you must always carry the broken stones that Biberstein represents with you, but you can go forward confident that your atonement is accepted and that your generation does not bear direct responsibility for the sins of the past.

 And then I addressed the ghost of Biberstein and said, “Despite your sins, we Jews are still here! Where are you?! Your evil has died and burns in hell, but Wir sind hier zusammen! We are here together? We cannot undo the past, and we must always carry its lessons with us. But we do so not to wallow in pity but to shape a better a future.”

 The symbol of Michaelis-Kirchen in Kaltenkirchen will always be the haunting painting of “The Broken Cross” by Hannelore Golberg that hangs in its reception room as an acknowledgment of the sad chapter in the church’s history. As I sat beneath that painting answering questions of a standing-room crowd about our visit and my sermon, the soldiers and Rottweilers were no longer looking for me, and I imagined another cross in the painting standing upright next to the broken one. With Pastorin Dittkrist’s, loving guidance may the lessons of both crosses lead the congregation forward on its journey of atonement, reconciliation and faithful service to God.

Broken CrossPastorin Martina Dittkrist, Hannelore Golberg, me and Vickie with the painting of “The Broken Cross.”

Today’s Agenda

Today, I have been invited to preach at the Michaelis-Kirche in Kaltenkirchen.The church is very close to a former concentration camp. The Pastor of the church during the nazi era, Ernst Biberstein, was an ardent Hitler supporter, a Lt. Colonel in the SS and commanding officer of Einsatzkommando 6. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials for having overseen at least two mass murders and was sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life, but he was released due to church pressure in 1958 and lived until 1986.
The Michaelis-Kirche displays a broken cross as a symbol of its atonement. The current Pastorin Martina Dittkrist and the congregation see my visit as part of that process. I am humbled and excited by this opportunity.

I will have more to say after I process this experience.

Why Can’t We have Just One Religion? Here’s Why!

 I am moved by the story of the Tower of Babel because it answers the question non-Jews ask me most frequently (second only to “Why do Jews not believe in Jesus?”). That question is: “Why do we have to have all these different religions? Wouldn’t the world be better if there was one religion instead of all the problems caused by religious differences?”

My response to the question if the asker is a Christian is, “Whose religion would it be? Would it be yours, where the life, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to heaven of Jesus are the guiding beliefs and set of religious principles? Or would it be mine, in which the life and death of Jesus plays no role whatsoever?”

I am very proud to be a Reform Jew. I wold never want to be anything else. But that does not mean for a moment that I think everyone should be like me or believe as I do. Our world is enriched, not diminished, by religious diversity. The problems come when people are not able to accept that thinking people can differ on how God wants them to believe. The Tower of Babel story teaches that God is the force that created religious and cultural diversity. If diversity is God’s creation, then it is blasphemy to try to proclaim that one and only one religion is right!

No. Religious unity should not be our goal. Rather, respect for, and appreciation of honest religious differences is what will lead us to a better world.

The Jewish Marriage Ceremony

My rabbinical colleagues have been having an animated exchange about merits of traditional elements in the Jewish Marriage Ceremony. I offer the following essay to couples to help them decide how they wish to structure their ceremony.

“It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting partner for him.” (Genesis 2:18) In this verse one finds the initial expression of what became the classical Jewish view of marriage. The ancient Rabbis considered marriage both the norm and the ideal. They frowned upon celibacy and viewed marriage as a necessity for complete human fulfillment.

Because the Rabbis viewed marriage as God’s desire for humanity, they carefully examined scripture for insights into this divinely ordained relationship. In pondering the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, the Rabbis asked, ‘Why does scripture portray Eve as evolving from Adam’s rib?” They answered their own question by asserting, “She was not taken from his head to be superior to him, or from his foot to be beneath him. Rather, she was taken from his side to be equal to him and from near his heart to be loved.”

The Hebrew word for marriage is kiddushin, which literally translated means “holiness”. Through the marriage ceremony a man and a woman consecrate themselves (i.e., make themselves holy) to one another. The Hebrew concept of holiness contains the notion of uniqueness. In the marriage ceremony the partners set one another apart from the rest of the world and enter into a uniquely holy partnership.

Often, on the day of their wedding, a bride and groom will fast until the ceremony. Jews ordinarily fast on the Day of Atonement, the solemn holy day on which the Jew seeks forgiveness for his/her wrongdoings of the past year.

Jewish tradition emphasized the unique holiness of a couple’s wedding day by considering it, like the Day of Atonement, a day when their past misdeeds are forgiven. When a couple affirms this traditional outlook, they begin married life with their hearts and minds focused on the future they will build together, not on past errors.

The Jewish marriage ceremony takes place under a chupah, a wedding canopy which symbolizes the home the couple will establish. Whether the chupah is simple or ornate, its purpose is to remind the bride and groom of the important role each must play in the creation of a meaningful Jewish home life.

In traditional Jewish weddings, the bride will walk around the groom seven times when she joins him at the chupah. By encircling him seven times, the bride symbolically enters into the seven spheres of the husband’s soul referred to in Jewish mystical tradition. The act of circling represents the intimate unity, understanding, and mutual concern which the couple will, hopefully, strive for in their married life. She also symbolically presents herself as a wall of protection for her husband.

An important feature of the wedding ceremony is the couple’s sharing of the cup of wine sanctified by the appropriate blessing. Wine is a religious symbol of joy and a prominent ritual feature at all Jewish festive occasions. By sharing the wine cup under the chupah, their symbolic home, the couple sets a pattern for observing holidays and festivals according to Jewish custom in the real home they will establish. Also, by sharing from the same cup at their wedding, the bride and groom affirm that they will share together whatever joy or sadness the cup of life offers them.

In addition to the traditional blessing over the wine, the ceremony contains six other benedictions, making a total of seven wedding blessings appropriate to the occasion. Because of its prominence in Jewish biblical, rabbinic and mystical tradition, seven is considered an extremely fortuitous number.

In the period of the Talmud (from 200 BCE to 500 CE) there were two formal ceremonies leading to marriage. The first was a ceremony of betrothal which could be dissolved only through divorce proceedings. A year later, in most cases, the actual wedding occurred. In time, it became the custom to combine the two ceremonies. At traditional Jewish weddings today, the couple will share the goblet of wine at two points in the ceremony to symbolize the once—distinct rites of betrothal and marriage which are now celebrated together.

A vital feature of traditional Jewish weddings is the reading of the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. The ketubah, which delineates the conditions under which a marriage occurs, was originally designed to carefully protect the rights of women in married life. The Rabbis considered Jewish marriage as a legal covenant in which both partners have dearly defined rights and obligations. At the same time, the Rabbis viewed marriage as the quintessence of personal relationships characterized by love, growth and mutual sharing.

Often, the ketubah, which is a legal document under Jewish law, is beautifully hand-lettered and ornately decorated. Such artistic ketubot (plural of ketubah) symbolize both the legal guarantees and romantic ideals of the marital relationship.

The repetition of the Jewish marriage formula by the groom is an essential feature of any Jewish wedding ceremony. As he places the wedding ring on his wife’s right forefinger (where it can be most clearly seen), the man repeats the Hebrew formula which means “Be consecrated to me as my wife with this ring according to the religion of Moses and Israel.”

In every ceremony that I conduct the bride also places a wedding ring on her husband’s finger and (changing “wife” to “husband”, of course) will repeat the exact same formula as the groom. This act symbolizes that not only does the husband acquire a wife, but the wife acquires a husband as well. Jewish law stipulates that wedding rings be of plain metal, containing no gems or stones. The metal of the ring, it is felt, should be unbroken by gems just as the harmony of the couple should be undisturbed by outside influences.

The ceremony concludes with the groom crushing with his right foot a glass which has been carefully wrapped to prevent shattering. Although the origins of this custom are shrouded in mystery, several explanations have been offered for its familiar place in the wedding ceremony. One of them is that the breaking of the glass symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a sorrow which the Jews should remember even during happy times. For many modern couples, the breaking of the glass is significant as a reminder that even in moments of supreme joy, we remember that there are many in the world whose lives are broken by sadness and pain.

The groom’s act of forcefully breaking a glass also provides a reciprocal response to the wife’s circling him at the outset of the ceremony. Just as her act is a sign of her vow to protect him, his breaking of the glass serves as a warning to any who might intrude on the sanctity of the marriage.

Immediately following the ceremony, the couple repairs to a private room to break their fast with a brief meal and spend their first precious moments as a married couple alone together. After a few brief minutes of privacy, the couple emerges to greet their guests.

Not all Jewish weddings contain all of the features mentioned here, because couples vary in their desires for traditional elements in their ceremony. No matter what practices it includes, though, a Jewish marriage ceremony endeavors to give warm expression to meaningful religious symbolism. A ceremony, no matter how rich or warm, cannot insure a successful marriage. Hopefully, though, the Jewish couple who are aware of the meaning behind the ritual will emerge from their chupah with greater appreciation of the rabbinic ideal of mutual affirmation and protection in marriage and the hope that the Eternal One will bless their union.

My Grandfathers: Vividly Alive on Simchat Torah

One of my fondest childhood memories is of my mother’s father being in synagogue on Simchat Torah. The rabbi always ordered the hakafot (processions around the synagogue with people carrying Torah scrolls) by age, and my grandfather, Benjamin Goldstein, was in the first one. I don’t remember him as a particularly religious man (he died when I was 10), but I will never forget the joy on his face when he carried the Torah.

Simchat Torah was (as it still is in many places) the occasion for the Consecration ceremony for students beginning their religious school studies. The rabbi called us up to the bimah for a blessing with a huge tallit spread above our heads, and then we each received a miniature Torah from the pile on the steps to the bima of small gold boxes containing the scrolls .

When I was six, I must confess, I came back into the empty sanctuary after the service was over and helped myself to as many of the remaining miniature Torahs as I could carry. I cannot remember how I hid this larcenous deed from my parents, but I stashed the contraband in the bottom draw of my bedroom night table where they remained for many years.

When I pilfered those scrolls, Torah study was not what I had in mind as a professional pursuit (I planned to be the catcher for the New York Yankees), but I hope the Almighty will consider my rabbinical career to be suitable penance.

The scrolls certainly came in handy in later years. During the meal at the first communal Passover Seder I conducted at my congregation in Columbia, MD, I remembered to my horror that I had forgotten (and no one on the committee had thought of it either) to buy a prize for the young person who found the afikomen (the piece of matzah hidden and looked for after the meal by the children present). While everyone ate, I quickly drove to our house and grabbed a miniature scroll to give to the winner. I don’t think I have ever revealed that I was making a young boy or girl party to my trafficking in stolen goods.

On Simchat Torah we read the last verses of the book of Deuteronomy and then immediately begin again to read the opening lines of Genesis. Even when I was six the message came through: the study of Torah never ends. As years have gone by I consider it increasingly remarkable that we have a special celebration just to honor study!

This year, as I prepare to celebrate Simchat Torah in Kiel, Germany, another memory rushes into my consciousness. Just before I went up to the bima for my blessing as a child, my father told me to ask the rabbi if Kaddish (our prayer for the dead) would be part of the ceremony because the Yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of his father was Simchat Torah. I remember being terrified by my father’s request. “Me,” I thought, “speak to the Rabbi! I could never do that!” But I did, and the rabbi said he would include the Kaddish in the service.

My father never really knew his father because German soldiers shot him during World War I when my father was 18 months old. My grandfather was in Belgium on business when soldiers asked for his papers. When he reached into his pocket, they thought he was reaching for a gun and killed him.

For all the years of my childhood, Hirsch Wolf Fuchs was only a photograph that sat atop my father’s highboy. Now that I am in Germany I will tell my grandfather’s story before I lead Kaddish at our Simchat Torah service here. I will think of my own father lovingly, with a new awareness of how difficult it must have been for him to be a father because he grew up without one.

I will also be grateful for the love of Torah that he and my mother planted in me, and I will pray that the way that love continues to sprout will always be worthy of their efforts.




The Parsonage Has A Sukkah!

The Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot begins five days after Yom Kippur. We celebrate by building a sukkah, a small hut outside our homes to symbolize the temporary homes of our ancestors while they traveled through the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt.

“A child who has the experience of building a sukkah,” my Theology/Liturgy Professor, Jakob J. Petuchowski, of blessed memory, used to tell us, “has a Jewish experience worth six months of Sunday school.”

The outstanding American writer, Noah Gordon, in his 1964 best-selling novel The Rabbi, captured the essence of just how important a sukkah can be for a child: “The bond between Michael and his zaydeh (grandfathergrew stronger during the early fall, when the days began to shorten and the autumn feast of Sukkot drew near. Each autumn during his four-year stay with the Rivkins Zaydeh built in their postage-stamp back yard a sukkah, or ceremonial hut. The sukkah was a small house of wooden planks covered with boughs and sheaves. It was hard work for an old man to build it, especially since hayfields, corn shocks and trees were not plentiful in Brooklyn. Sometimes he had to go deep into Jersey for raw materials, and he badgered Abe for weeks until he was driven to the country in the family Chevrolet.

‘Why do you bother?’ Dorothy asked him once when she brought a glass of tea to where he strained and perspired to raise the hut. ‘Why do you work so hard?’

‘To celebrate the harvest.’

‘What harvest, for God’s sake? We’re not farmers. You sell canned goods. Your son makes corsets for ladies with big behinds. Who has a harvest?’

He looked pityingly at this female his son had made his daughter. ‘For thousands of years, since the Jews emerged from the Wilderness, in ghettos and in palaces they have observed Sukkot. You don’t have to raise cabbages to have a harvest.’ His big hand grasped Michael behind the neck and pushed him toward his mother. ‘Here is your harvest.’ She didn’t understand, and by then Zaydeh had been living with them long enough not to expect understanding from her.”

Our family sukkah to which we invited congregants every year was a very precious part of our family’s Jewish identity over the years. Our children were fascinated by it as babies, loved decorating it as children, and helped set it up when they were older. They loved inviting their non-Jewish friends over to help decorate. Now they have children of their own, and celebrate Sukkot with them.

Each year we looked forward to having our congregants join us for a reception in the sukkah. As much as our sukkah meant to our children, it meant at least as much to us. 

In addition to the huts our ancestors lived in when they wandered through the desert for 40 years, the sukkah today symbolizes that too many have homes to live in all year around that offer no more protection against the elements than these fragile huts. The Sukkah teaches us that the less fortunate are our responsibility. We cannot in good conscience turn away.

Yes, Rabbi Petuchowski was right about the sukkah and six months of Sunday school. In fact I think he might have  understated the case.

This year in Bad Segeberg, Germany, our hosts Pastorin Ursula Sieg and Pastor Martin Pommerening got wind of how important the custom was to us back home and took it on themselves to erect a sukkah in their backyard. This gesture means so much to us. This sukkah more than any other we have ever enjoyed symbolizes our hope for inter religious cooperation and reconciliation that inspired us to spend these ten weeks in Germany.

Eternal God, spread סוכת שלום “the Sukkah of Peace” over us, over all Israel and over all humanity! May we may dwell in it together in harmony!


Sukkah photo

Pastorin Ursula Sieg (l) Pastor Martin Pommerening and my wife Vickie sitting in the magnificent sukkah Martin and Ursula erected for us to honor the festival of sukkot in their backyard.