The Meaning of Passover

To understand the Exodus narrative, and the festival of Passover which begins Friday evening, March 30, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will–between gods.


In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see the First Chapter of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

The One True God

In the other corner, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished. The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

A Showdown

Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.

Because God intervenes in history so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay.

Imagine for a moment that you are watching your small toddler. Something distracts you, and in a split second, your child has wandered into the middle of the street. You look up, see a large truck bearing down on him, and realize with terror that there is no way you can save him! In the nick of time a woman dashes into the street, grabs the child, and pulls him to safety. There is no way, of course, that you can adequately repay that woman saving your child!

In the same way God saved us. Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.

Yet, we try!

We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society. Our Passover celebrations have meaning only if they inspire us to do whatever we can to repay our debt to the Eternal One by working to make the world a better place.


(I hope you will purchase, read and recommend that your friends read my new book, Who Created God? and Other Essays, available on AMAZON and through my website



A Jew Looks At Jesus

As children, my sister and I often argued over what we would watch on television at 8 o’clock on Friday nights. While our parents were usually at services, we were home trying to decide between Our Miss Brooks, a situation comedy about the trials and tribulations of a high school English teacher, which she preferred, and Crossroads, a series of dramas about the experience of clergymen, which I preferred. Interestingly, my sister became a teacher, and I became a rabbi.
She was older and usually got her way, but I prevailed one night, and Crossroads it was.

I remember a scene where a young boy in a baseball cap asked his priest: “Father, what’s the difference between you and Rabbi Silver?” The priest gave the boy a sympathetic look and said, “Think of it this way, son. We are both in the same league; it’s just that we play for different teams.”

Since that night I have wondered: did the priest mean that he and the rabbi both pursued the same objective in different ways? Or did he mean that they were in competition with one another? The question remains with me and lies at the heart of my inquiry into the role of the Christian Messiah.
A famous author wrote, “…One need only read the lives of Jesus written since the sixties and notice what they have made of the great imperious sayings of the Lord, how they have weakened down His imperative world-condemning demands upon individuals, that He might not come into conflict with our ethical ideals … “
How correct the author seems! We have seen since the nineteen sixties Jesus made into a jeans-wearing modern, very much like us in many ways, yet with a message and a mission which set him apart. We have seen since the sixties Jesus Christ popularized with music and visual effects designed to capture both the imagination and the entertainment dollar.
The author’s statement about what has been done with Jesus since the sixties is not surprising until we realize that the author is Albert Schweitzer, his statement published in 1906 in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and his reference is to the 1860s, not the sixties of the last century.
In his famous study, Schweitzer concluded that the historical Jesus is largely beyond discovery. More than a century later Geza Vermes’ 25-year study of the life and times of Jesus yielded a similar conclusion. He wrote: “Certainly unless by some fortunate chance new evidence is unfolded in the future, not a great deal can be said of Jesus at this distance of time that can be historically authenticated.”
To this day “the Quest” remains fraught with uncertainty. One of the reasons the historical Jesus is so elusive is that the Gospels (even the similar accounts of the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke) disagree on many details. Vermes contended that the Gospel do not “provide more than a skeletal outline of Jesus as he really was.”
To this Samuel Sandmel added: “We cannot be precise about Jesus. We can know what the Gospels say, but we cannot know Jesus.” Though the historical Jesus is largely unknowable, we can and must deal with the image of the personality, teachings, and influence of Jesus which has come down to us. As Schweitzer wrote, “Jesus as a concrete historical personality remains a stranger to our time, but his spirit, which lies hidden in his words, is known in simplicity, and its influence is direct.”
Of course, Schweitzer wrote as a Christian. We Jews too, though, must deal with the influence of Jesus more than the elusive historical figure whom centuries of dedicated research have failed to fully reveal.
Without denigrating in any way the figure who inspires the Christian religious experience, we acknowledge frankly that we Jews do not see Jesus as Christians do.
Simply stated, the basic Christian concepts which Jews do not accept are:
  • That Jesus was God’s anointed, the Messiah whose coming many   Jews longed for both at the     time Jesus lived and during other periods of Jewish history.
  •  That the martyr’s death of Jesus in any way effects atonement for the collective sins of humanity or for the sins of an individual.
  •  That God became or is likely to become incarnate in any human form, making any human being a suitable object for worship.
  •  That, as Paul contends in his Epistles, the life and death of Jesus rendered the elaborate system of Jewish law functionally useless.
 These are the main claims Christians make for Jesus which Jews do not accept. Jesus was not the Messiah for Jews because he did not fulfill the clearly understood Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would do. As Samuel Sandmel wrote, “In a word, the people who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah rejected the claims because the expectations did not materialize. The power of Rome was not broken, the Davidic line was not restored, the scattered were not miraculously restored to Palestine; day to day life went on as before.”
The basis of the Jewish rejection of the Messianic claims made for Jesus are offered without apology and without rancor. These are matters of faith and feeling. Beliefs such as these are not matters of right and wrong.

In interfaith relations, our goal should be to go beyond mere tolerance to an acceptance of one another’s feelings. Without trying to convince or convert, we should open our minds and our hearts to an understanding and an appreciation of what we each hold dear.

Unfortunately, for the bulk of the 2000 years since Jesus lived, Jews and Christians have been at loggerheads over the issue of the “status of Jesus.” Christians have persecuted Jews for their lack of belief, and Jews have responded with resentment and furtively written anti-Christian polemics.
Many years ago, Rabbi Samuel Goldensohn described the roots of the Jewish-Christian conflict this way: “Temperamentally, the Children of Israel were profoundly earnest. No one who reads the Scriptures can escape the conviction that the people who could face the issues of life with such courage, who could lay bare their shortcomings, failures, and convictions with such frankness… no one can deny that this people was exceedingly earnest.”
As for the early Christians, Rabbi Goldensohn pointed out that the converts to the new doctrine “championed it with equal zeal.” It is important to understand, he concluded, “that there is no zeal so strong as that felt by those who are responsible for a doctrine or are recent converts to it.”
Fervent belief, zeal, mutual earnestness, to use Goldensohn’s terms, fostered the antipathy which existed between Christians and Jews for so many centuries. Hopefully, that mutual antipathy will continue to wane. Hopefully, in this time and in this place, we are able to gracefully and graciously accept the legitimate religious differences which exist. Hopefully, we are at a point where Christians need not proselytize Jews in a forceful or unbecoming manner, and where, therefore, Jews need not regard Christians with mistrust and disdain.
As I relate the reasons why Jews do not believe in Jesus, I do not suggest these are reasons why Christians should not believe in him.

But it is wrong for a Jew to believe in Jesus. It is one of the few notions that is totally alien to the Jewish religion as it has historically developed. Belief in Jesus may be ineluctably right for Christians, but it is outside the pale of Jewish belief.

That, is why I harbor such great resentment of so-called “Jews for Jesus.” I do not mind if Christians try to convince others of the merits of their faith. I reject, however, the notion that one can be both Jew and Christian at the same time. If a Jew wishes to become a Christian, let him do so in good conscience. At that same time, though, let him not delude himself into thinking that he is still in essence a Jew.

A Jew for Jesus is no more a Jew than a Catholic or Protestant who denies Christ is a Christian.

But what of Jesus himself? It would be most interesting to see what place he would hold in Jewish thought were his life and career not encumbered with the enmity they have spawned. Had Jews never been branded as Christ-killers. had we never suffered as we have in Jesus’ name, what place would this teacher from Galilee have held in our religious tradition?
On this one can only speculate, for Jews have been blinded to Jesus’ merits because of the suffering his followers have caused us. If Christians are to understand Jews, they must understand that the issue of Jesus is so fraught with emotion that some of us are incapable of discussing it objectively.
Why? Our conditioning is such that when we hear the merits of Jesus extolled, we instinctively expect that soon to follow will be an attempt to convert us to the faith of Christ, or to condemn us for rejecting that faith. Christians must realize that, because of the past 2000 years, Jews recoil instinctively at the name of Jesus. We somehow feel that, following the pattern of Martin Luther, kindness will be followed by condemnation if we fail to “see the light” as Christians see it.
Through the early 1520s, Martin Luther often condemned the persecution of Jews by Christians and recommended tolerance and understanding toward us. As Jews continued to resist the message of Christianity, though, Luther grew increasingly hostile. In the 1540s he wrote, “On the Jews and Their Lies” and “Admonition Against the Jews.” In these works, he called us “thieves and brigands” and “disgusting vermin” who ought to be banished from society or subjected to forced labor.
We Jews must make Christians aware of the emotional process which makes us automatically wary when we hear Jesus exalted. The reflex has been bred into us through centuries of experience with pogroms, expulsions, and worse. My prayer is that the same reflex can be bred out of us, not by forgetting the past but by overcoming it, not through ignorance or denial of our history, but through subsequent centuries of mutual acceptance and friendship.
Perhaps  the reflex is no longer appropriate. The last decades give us cause to hope for a lessening of suspicion in interfaith relations. Much of this lessening of tension has been due to active effort on the part of the Christian community. Our hope is that such efforts continue to grow and that we in the Jewish community continue to warmly receive and reciprocate them.
Jesus is not to blame for our inbred wariness. Some of his followers are. With this in mind, let me try to speculate on how we, were we able to transcend history, might regard Jesus himself.
Certainly his conflicts with the religious authorities of his time would not have left Jesus unalterably condemned. Acceptance in their own time was certainly not one of the ingredients always found in viable Jewish heroes. Moses, the greatest of our leaders, was often discredited and defied by significant numbers of people. Great prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos were despised and rejected by the establishment of their day. Even Elijah, for whom we open the door every Passover, was so discouraged by the treatment the people accorded him that he complained. to God, “I have been very jealous for the Lord…but the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword; and I, only I, am left.” (I Kings 19:10)
No, the fact that these individuals were often in conflict with the people they confronted has not damaged their ultimate reputations. Neither would that fact cast Jesus from the ranks of Jewish luminaries.
Personally, I see in Jesus a loyal Jew despite his alleged differences with the Jewish establishment of his time. The controversies he raised seem to have been “for the sake of heaven”, that is, positive-minded controversies. Whether Jesus’ notions were right or wrong, they aimed to deepen the people’s understanding of the essence of religious practice.
In addition, I see Jesus as a gifted leader and teacher with an exceptional flair for the use of parable. I see parallels, as Geza Vermes has indicated, to the accounts of his miracles and healings in Biblical figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and in contemporary Galilean sages, Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa.
Yes, the concept of God’s love which Jesus presented did add a new dimension to Jewish religious life. For those of us who remain Jews, though, Jesus’ idea of a God whose love and forgiveness are unconditional is less attractive than a God whose primary interest is in a moral world of respect and justice, tempered by mercy and compassion. In short, we find ourselves more drawn to the God of the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature than to the God Jesus portrays.
Here, too, we accept and respect that others feel differently. We ask in return that the followers of Jesus respect the tradition from which Jesus sprang and which he affirmed throughout his life.
We ask that Christians discontinue and discourage efforts to set up Pharisaic Judaism, which is indeed our Judaism, as an arid and floundering legalism into which Jesus breathed the reviving breath of love. It is simply unfair and untrue to deem the laws and outlooks of the Pharisees as void of love and compassion. We ask that Christians study the writings of their own enlightened scholars, like R. Travers Herford, George Foot Moore, and Morton Scott Enslin, to gain a true appreciation of the Pharisaic legacy.
Indeed, if Christians treat our faith with the respect it deserves, then we must respect their kindness as representative of the master of their faith. It may not be fair to him, but since the historical Jesus is beyond recovery, our assessment of Jesus will necessarily hinge on the actions perpetrated in his name.
Jesus is not, nor will be ever be, to Jews what he is to Christians. If modem Protestants can continue to accept this fact with equanimity, then the virulent anti-Semitism which infected Martin Luther in his later years will be of only historical interest. If modem Catholics can continue to graciously accept us as we are, then we can safely consign the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the expulsions and edicts directed against us to the increasingly distant past.
 No, Jesus is not our Messiah. We looked for things from the Jewish Messiah which Jesus never brought. Claims were made for Jesus which we can never accept. It is not just a matter of time until we “see the light”.

For our Christian friends, though, Jesus is both the hope and the inspiration for “peace on earth and true good will among humanity.” If Jesus fosters these ideals in his followers, and if his teachings help create a better world for all of us, then we as Jews, rather than recoil at the mention of his name, should acknowledge Jesus’ positive impact and be grateful for it. Our view of Jesus from now on will depend less of what he was than on what his followers make of him.

What Does It Mean to Be Created in God’s Image?  

It certainly does not mean that we look like God.

It means that of all the creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers. It means that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for life on this planet. It is an awesome responsibility with which God has entrusted us.

God charges us: (Genesis 1:28)

פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ וכבשה

ורדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים

ובכל-חיה הרמשת על-הארץ

My rendering of this passage is:

“Be fruitful and multiply fill up the earth and take responsibility for it. And rule compassionately over the fish of the sea the birds of the air and all the living things that creep on the earth.”

My translation reflects the midrashic teaching (Bereshit Rabbah 8:11) that we human beings stand midway between God and all the other animals on earth.   Like the animals we eat, drink, sleep, eliminate our waster, procreate and die. But in a godlike way, we have the power to think, analyze, communicate and shape our environment in a manner far beyond other creatures.

In Gates of Repentance afternoon service for Yom Kippur (p. 415) we find a magnificent liturgical expression of what it means to be created in the divine Image:

We were unlike other creatures.

Not for us the tiger’s claws,

the elephant’s thick hide,

or the crocodile’s scaly armor.

To the gazelle we were slow of foot,

To the lioness a weakling,

And the eagle thought us bound to earth.

But You gave us powers they could not comprehend:

a skillful hand,

a probing mind…

a soul aspiring to know and fulfill its destiny

Being created in the divine image means that we humans are the only creatures on earth who can mine ore from the side of a mountain, turn the ore into iron and the iron into steel and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human brain or an open heart. But we are also the only creatures on earth that can go to that same mountain, mine the same ore turn it into iron and steel to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or maim. Being created in God’s image means we have awesome, earth enhancing or earth shattering power.

God’s hope in creating us in the divine image is that we use our power to help create on this planet a more just, caring and compassionate society than exists today. But we – not God – will decide if we choose to do so or not.


Once Again I Felt Alone

My 72nd birthday that I celebrate today is a stark reminder that my 50th Hamilton College reunion quickly approaches. On that weekend Vickie and I shall be in Germany where we will teach about the Holocaust in schools, and I will speak in several churches and synagogues. I am sorry to miss it.

That said, I wish I could reflect more lovingly on my Hamilton years. I learned so much, but I often felt alone and lonely at our then men’s college in the middle of nowhere.

As a Hamilton student I was closer to academic probation than Phi Beta Kappa. It was not for lack of trying. I studied hard, but the knowledge the professors wanted me to demonstrate on exams did not seem to penetrate my brain.

My only real success on the Hill came on the tennis courts where I treasure my 50-3 varsity record and the ECAC and NCAA (regional, college division) tournaments that I won. Perhaps the most touching compliment I have ever received was when (our Coach) Mox Weber told me as he presented me the MVP award for the ’68 tennis team: “Steve, you’re the best team captain I’ve ever had, and that’s not just in tennis. That’s in all sports.”

Looking back, I see the total absence of Jewish life on campus in those days as one of the factors that led me to become a rabbi. I missed what had been a significant part of my childhood and high school years.

In my rearview mirror I also see a significant measure of what I call “academic anti-Semitism” on campus then. There were no Jewish studies courses and no Hillel or other outlet for Jewish religious or cultural expression.

I am thankful that the Hamilton of today is a very different place.

I thought of that academic anti-Semitism this past Wednesday when I attended a lecture by the Swedish Political Scientist, Johan Norberg at Sanibel’s Big Arts’ Forum. He spoke about all the advances that in learning and technology that make the times we live in the best era in human history. He lauded the contributions of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Africans and Asians all of which propelled human progress forward in important ways.

As I sat there I thought, “What about the Jews?

What about a people who comprise less than 1/3 of one per cent of the human population but who somehow has won 30% of the Nobel prizes given since the awards’ inception. Have we done nothing noteworthy enough to advance human progress?

I am convinced Professor Norberg’s omission was not accidental. His notes were in the open computer in front of him.

As his lecture progressed he spoke of the perils of extreme nationalism that creates barriers among people and place some in superior positions to others.

Without mentioning Israel by name, I heard behind his words all of the bromides and slogans of the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) movement against Israel pushed so hard in many academic circles.

There was nothing overtly “wrong” with Johan Norberg’s lecture. He was urbane, witty, and entertaining. The audience seemed to enjoy the presentation although some commented that it lacked the substance and depth they hoped for.

But as I listened to Professor Norberg, I felt transported back to the Hamilton College I attended in the 60 ‘s. I felt isolated and alone. I felt part of “a people לבדד (l’vadad)) alone among the nations”, as Balaam in the Bible described the ancient Israelites. (Numbers 23:9).

We well remember when not enough people stood up for us when other marginalized us. Professor Norberg reminded me of those times.

It was not his intent, but he also reminded me that I must stand up for others who feel marginalized and alone even in this, the best of all eras to live in human history.



Four Times Chai Reflection

I am 72 years old today. 4 X chai. And I am overjoyed.

Seventy-two, you might think. Big Deal. In Sanibel, 72 barely qualifies you to run for president of the Youth Group!

But to me it is a very big deal. You see, neither my father nor either of my two grandfathers lived to this age. With that history and two major open heart operations and a life threatening strep-infection in my medical history, I feared I would not make it to this four-times-Chai milestone!

This is not the first time I have shared a birthday reflection with my community. The first was when I gave a sermon in Columbia, Maryland titled, “From the Top of the Hill Looking Down: Thoughts on Reaching Thirty.”

On my thirtieth birthday, I joined a group of rabbis at the wonderful Tio Pepe restaurant in Baltimore for a tribute dinner marking the retirement of the venerable rabbi Abraham Shaw, of blessed memory.

On that night through the haze of a glass of sangria, I imagined that the gathering was to celebrate my birthday, and I tried to peer into the future to imagine my own retirement dinner. It seemed so far away.

I looked around at the estimable collection of colleagues in the room, and I saw different types.

  • There was the scholar-rabbi whose books and lectures were brilliant but unintelligible to the vast majority of people.
  • There was the businessman rabbi who was a whiz at administration and fundraising. He really ran a tight ship.
  • There was the glad-hander rabbi, who always had a smile and a pat on the back for everyone he encountered.

Yes, on my thirtieth birthday I looked around the room—in which I was the youngest person present — and saw rabbis I did not want to emulate. But I also saw those I admired greatly. I saw those who were learned, sincere, cared about people and cared about the Jewish future. They were my role models.

The years have flown quickly since that day 42 years ago, and now I am the retiree looking back on my career. I hope I have been the type of rabbi I set my sights on so long ago. I hope I am still evolving and will continue to work on it.

In the meantime, I count every day as blessing, and pray with full heart when I wake up: Modeh ani lifanecha, melech chai v’kayam… I thank you, living and eternal Ruler that you have returned my soul to me. Great is your faithfulness,” and may I use this day to make a small difference for good for someone, somewhere.




Remembering Matthew Shepard as We Confront Homophobia Today

My 50th college reunion approaches, and it makes me aware of how much things have changed.

When I graduated from Hamilton College in 1968, it was an all men’s school, and none of my classmates was openly gay. By the time we celebrated our 25th reunion a good number had come out.

For much of my career, I was silent on the issue. I regret that silence because there are events, which force us to confront who we are and how we think. There are events, which motivate us to change.

For me such an event was the tragic death of Matthew Wayne Shepard. Murderous thugs savagely beat Matthew Shepard, and then hung him on a fence post like a scarecrow to die for only one reason in Laramie, Wyoming on October 6, 1998. He was a homosexual.

His horrible death taught me I could no long stand idly by the issues of rights for gay and transgender individuals. His death taught me that we are all either part of the problem or part of the solution.

Matthew Shepard could have been anyone’s brother, son cousin or friend. His horrible death evoked appropriate outrage across the country.

But his death also unleashed acts of homophobia and hatred too despicable for adequate description. A TIME Magazine article by Steve Lopez noted, “While his family prepared for his burial and spoke of Shepard’s gentleness and tolerant ways, a Kansas minister with a website called made plans, “to do a grave dance at the funeral.”

In Fort Collins, Colorado, some members of Colorado State University fraternities and sororities rode atop a homecoming float with a scarecrow figure, which resembled the body of Matthew Shepard, tied to a fence post.   The float makers attached a sign to the Shepard like figure, which read, “I’m gay.”

Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network noted, “People would like to think that what happened to Matthew was an exception to the rule, but it was an extreme version of what happens in our schools on a daily basis.”

For too long religious teaching has been part of the problem. To my sadness homosexual hatred finds its greatest support in the words of our Hebrew Scriptures

“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” (Leviticus 18:22) And, “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death — their bloodguilt is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13).

I have no cute exegetical tricks to re-interpret these passages.   Like many other biblical verses to which I could point they have no validity and make no sense in our times.

As Rabbi, Jerome Davidson, of Great Neck, NY, noted in reference to homosexual acts, “The Bible (only) knew of these acts in the context of war, coercion and idolatry– not in the context of loving, caring relationships.”

For me here is a prior, more enduring passage that supersedes those I quoted earlier: It is the Torah’s first story that teaches that God created human beings in God’s image, in the very image of God.

I believe homosexual men and women are the way they are because God made them that way. If God made people a certain way, how dare we judge them inferior to the way God made others?

When it comes to our LGBT neighbors, every day each of us must choose: Are we part of the problem or part of the solution?