Thursday, December 3, 2020

In this Moment: Hanukkah Edition; God Prefers Parishioners Who Aren't Dead

 In This Moment

 Shabbat-O-Gram, December 4, 2020

Mazal tov to Alexander Cohen (and family), who becomes Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.  The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Alex's parents Sherry and Ken Cohen in honor of Alex.


Screen grab from last week's Bat Mitzvah of Ilana Gilbert.  
See more photos, videos and her d'var Torah by clicking here.


Shabbat Shalom!

Mazal tov Alex Cohen, who becomes Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning, and to his parents Ken and Sherry, as well as his grandmother Marge Shameer, who is also a long time member of TBE.  

As we head toward the Festival of Lights next week, we are faced with perhaps the darkest month in our lifetimes.  Covid is now killing nearly as many Americans per day as died on 9/11.  Each day.  And the Thanksgiving surge is only now beginning to be truly felt. Yes, a vaccine is on the horizon, so this very dark month will herald brighter days to come - but only if we are alive to see them.  With that in mind, I implore everyone to be even more cautious over the coming weeks and not to mix socially if at all possible.  In Los Angeles they are saying, "Just be smart and stay apart."  The same holds true everywhere in the country, with infection rates rising precipitously.  

In the midst of the pandemic, we also are refocusing on social justice issues. 

This evening is the first part of our two-part series on bias.  I'm also looking forward to next Tuesday, when I'll be teaching the first of a two-part series with Rev. Dr. Michael Christie, "The Jewish and Christian Roots of Racism and Inclusion"on Zoom.  Check our Temple Announcements for the links.

Here are some articles worth looking at this week:

A house divided will stand (Times of Israel - My commentary on this week's Torah portion)

In Memoriam

Sadly, this week we have lost several former congregants who had long term ties to TBE, and two of them with ties to our longstanding havurah (fellowship  group) known as the Discussion Group: Marlene Dobrin, beloved wife of Bernard Dobrin, and Georgiana Geller, beloved daughter of Harry and Polly Geller. You can find Marlene's obituary here.  I've inserted Georgie's obituary below.  Our deepest sympathies go out to both families.

Georgiana (Georgie) Leslie Geller
February 9, 1969 - November 15, 2020
Beloved daughter, mother, sister, companion, aunt, cousin, friend: Georgiana (Georgie) Leslie Gellerof Bridgeport, CT, passed away peacefully and unexpectedly on Sunday, November 15, 2020. Georgie was raised in Briarcliff Manor, NY, Lexington, KY and Stamford, CT and attended Riverbank, Cloonan and Westhill schools in Stamford. She is survived by her parents, Polly & Harry Geller of Stamford, her daughter, Chloe Kelly, her three brothers, Adam and his wife Eiko and their children; Daniel and his wife, Ellen, and their children; Corey and former sister-in-law Laurie Geller; Chloe's father Paul Kelly and his partner Diana Levison, and numerous friends and relatives. Georgie received her religious training and Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth El, Stamford.
 Georgie will be remembered for her warmth and love, her incredible ability to relate to people, and her support of so many in her large network. She is fondly remembered as a Barista par excellence. "You make the best coffee, Georgie." She loved both baroque and rock music and dancing and frequently volunteered at music festivals of her favorite bands. Talented in crafts, she crocheted and knit gloves scarfs and sweaters and enjoyed floral arranging.
Due to the pandemic, a private graveside ceremony was held at Long Ridge Union Cemetery. In remembrance of Georgie, donations may be made to Person-to-Person in Darien/Norwalk/ Stamford or to the Greenwich Choral Society. Georgie, you remain in our hearts; we miss you; you are loved.

Hanukkah begins next Thursday.  See the bottom of this email for a complete listing of our candle-lighting events each night.  On the eighth night, it is my hope that we can light up the cyber cosmos with fully lit menorahs glowing in a hundred Zoom windows, shining brightly from the homes of a hundred congregants.  Or maybe 200 (we upgraded our Zoom account so why not go for 500?).  So join us.

Also, on  Sunday the 13th, join us for another virtual tour of Israel led by Peter Abelow:

Hanukkah, Hellenism and Herod: A Virtual Tour

Sunday, December 13, at 11 AM 
Zoom link:

Our first Virtual Israel Tour led by expert tour guide Peter Abelow was a big hit, drawing over 50 to the Zoom session in November.  Now, by popular demand, and as part of our TBE Hanukkah celebration, we present our second in the series.

King Herod governed Judea with an iron first during the final four decades before the common era, at a time when the Romans ruled the entire Middle East.  Aside from being a ruthless tyrant, he was a great builder, as well as a descendant of the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family and final link to their dynasty.  His career highlighted the tensions of assimilation (Hellenization) that are key to understanding Hanukkah. Join Peter as he leads us on a virtual journey of places Herod made famous, Caesarea, Masada and Herodium, climaxing with a celebration of Hanukkah for the ages.

Here are some Hanukkah links from MyJewishLeaerning:

How To Light the Menorah for Hanukkah
How To Light the Menorah for Hanukkah

How To Play Dreidel
How To Play Dreidel

During the holiday, at services, lightings and minyans, I'll be using Sources of Light: Hanukkah Inspiration Cards, distributed by Ritualwell. Each of these cards reflects on a different theme each night of Hanukkah, through the lens of the quality represented by each candle. 

Here are a few examples:


And also these suggestions for your candle lighting:

God prefers parishioners who aren't dead

Can the government impose attendance restrictions on houses of worship during a pandemic?  I say yes. 

This op-ed, recently featured in the Times of Israel, echoes messages I delivered on Yom Kippur and is a response to last week's Supreme Court ruling restricting the ability of governments to limit attendance at religious services during a public health crisis.  Given evidence such as the photo below of a recent Brooklyn wedding, such restrictions are in fact needed.  My article demonstrates how religious leaders can't always be trusted not to abuse the extraordinary trust placed in them.

Thousands attend the wedding of the grandson of Satmar Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum in Brooklyn on November 8, 2020. (Screencapture/YouTube)

In a surprising and reckless move, last week, the US Supreme Court sided with conservative religious groups in scrapping New York State's Covid attendance limitations. As a religious leader, I strongly oppose that decision.
For those of us who work in religious institutions, there is no question that we deliver essential services, but my synagogue does not need to be physically open for that to be the case. Congregations with integrity have understood that our most essential purpose is in saving and enhancing lives. 
We were alerted to some of the dangers unique to our ilk early on in the crisis, when a church choir rehearsal in Skagit County, WA led to the infection of 53 members. There was something about a lot of people praying together that was getting them sick.
But despite this, there are some clergy who have led their congregations astray and into the pit of disease and death, by flouting protocols and reopening prematurely, sometimes even breaking the law, and encouraging their congregants to shun masks and spacing when it is common knowledge that crowded church services can be super-spreading events.
Like that Tampa, Florida pastor who was arrested in April for defying the authorities by holding services for hundreds of parishioners. Or the pastor in San Antonio, who later apologized for encouraging hugging at his church, resulting in at least 50 cases of the coronavirus. Or the Louisiana pastor who was arrested for defying stay-at-home orders after holding live services for hundreds of people. Or the church in Seoul, South Korea, that flouted regulations and was later found to be linked to more than 5,200 cases.
It's a Jewish problem too. Like that super-spreader Hasidic funeral in Brooklyn that drew 2,500 people. And then there was Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Israel, who said that yeshiva students should stop being screened because "it could lead to a mass loss of Torah study." Then he went on to contract the virus (and recover).
Or the pastor in Maine who, after officiating at a superspreader wedding, knowingly spread it to his congregation, defiantly mocking state and CDC guidelines, stating that God wants him to expose his people to disease. He said, "I want the people of God to enjoy liberty."
Give me liberty, or give me breath!
Well, the God I pray to prefers parishioners who are not dead.
Or the thousands who attended a California megachurch, the Grace Community Church. Pastor John MacArthur defied a state order and 6,000 - 7,000 people showed up.
"We don't orchestrate this, MacArthur said. "This is a church. We don't ask people to make a reservation to come to church," he said.
Well, maybe they should. Many do.
"We opened the doors," he added, "because that's what we are, we're a church, and we're going to trust those people to make adult decisions about the reality of their physical and spiritual health and how that balance works for each one of them," he said. "Nobody's forcing anything, they're here because they want to be here."
They apparently believe that God wants them to be sneezing all over each other.
They clearly did not read this passage from the Talmud, and perhaps the Supreme Court needs to read it too:
If there is plague in the city, gather your feet, i.e., limit the time you spend out of the house, as it is stated in the verse: "And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning." (Bava Kamma 60b)
The Supreme Court is encouraging misguided clergy to do precisely the opposite, and to lead their trusting congregants off a cliff.
Leviticus 18 teaches:
 וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה
Ye shall therefore keep My statutes, and My ordinances, which if a person do, they shall live by them: I am the LORD
We are told, regarding the mitzvot of the Torah, "V'chai bahem," Life takes precedence over just about everything else in Jewish law, including Shabbat observance.
The Talmud teaches that Shabbat is holy only because we are alive to observe it. It isn't holy in a vacuumIf a Shabbat falls in a forest and no one is there to observe it, it is irrelevant. If the coronavirus kills all of us, when Friday evening arrives, there will be no Shabbat. We "make Shabbos." If we don't make it, it doesn't get made.
So preserving life takes precedence even over Shabbat observance. You are required to profane one Shabbat if that will enable you to live for many Shabbats to come.
The most essential service we can provide is to help people survive until next Shabbat - or to next March, or to whenever the vaccine brings immunity. Nothing else matters. All the rest is commentary.
With vaccines so close at hand, encouraging unnecessary risk by populating our places of worship prematurely is the equivalent of asking congregants to be like those thousands of unlucky soldiers who died on Armistice Day, when all seemed so serene on the Western Front.
We are all responsible to keep one another alive. Religion's role is to remind us of that fact, imploring us to accept willingly and gratefully the public health advice of experts - even if it means our staying away from the pews for a while.  The Supreme Court should do nothing to detract from that essential objective.
The God I pray to wants us to stay inside, while the pandemic rages on.
Hanukkah: It's Complicated 
Hanukkah is complicated. Nothing is as it seems. For one thing, it is the festival the ancient rabbis wanted to get rid of. They hated the Maccabees (primarily because their descendants, the Hasmoneans, became corrupt rulers) and devoted very little space in the Talmud to discussions of this holiday. Purim gets an entire tractate, Hanukkah barely a page.  But it was too popular to get rid of.  So the rabbis tried to gerrymander it to fit their visions.
Some have asked me how we can say, in the blessing, that we are "commanded to light the Hanukkah candles," when Hanukkah is not even in the Torah and doesn't seem to have been commanded anywhere.  The rabbis got around that one by invoking a verse from Deuteronomy ascribing special authority to sages living during the Second Temple period.  It's complicated, but the idea is that the verse gave these sages authority to give a non Torah activity "mitzvah" status, to be included among the 613 commandments.  So a new commandment was shoehorned into the Torah for a holiday that's post biblical.
Even the simple dreidel game, one of Hanukkah's best known customs, is complicated. It's in fact derived from an English and Irish medieval Christmas custom.  Sorry, Virginia, it's one of those freaky ironies of Jewish history that in order to celebrate a holiday that marks our victory over cultural assimilation, we play a game that resulted from cultural assimilation.  You can read more about the origins of the dreidel and more Hanukkah exotica, here
As we delve more deeply into Hanukkah and find other examples of cultural borrowing.  What is this season about, after all, for so many cultures, but the spiritual power of fire and night.
In a technological society, one of the great purposes of religion is to enable human beings to return to the bare essentials of life.  In our age, religion serves as a sort of paint stripper, removing layer upon layer upon layer of artificiality, reminding us who we are and where we come from, begging us to embrace simplicity and rediscover the basics.
Hanukkah is the holiday of fire and night, two of creation's most necessary, and most feared, phenomena.  The festival comes at a time when the days are shortest and even the night sky is at its darkest - since it is the end of the Jewish month.  With no sun or moon to light up the sky, and December's winds blowing briskly, it is up to us to create the fire that will sustain us physically and spiritually while the days begin to grow longer and the moon larger.
On Hanukkah we light that fire, demonstrating that human beings have the capacity to create light and harness the power of fire. That's why it's possible for so joyous a celebration to occur at so dark a time of year.  The fact that Hanukkah begins on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev and Christmas occurs on the 25th of December is not entirely coincidental - and this year, the stars are aligned perfectly and the two dates coincide.   Both holidays are responding to the universal and ancient need to light up the night of winter - it's a need that gave rise to all the winter festivals celebrated throughout the world.  It is the bond that links the flickering Hanukkah menorah to the Christmas tree, and it is a need that predates both.
You can read here how Christmas originally was moved to the winter months in order to compete with Zoroastrian and then European pagan celebrations.  Also, at this time of year, Hindus in India, and all over the world, celebrate Diwali (or Deepawali), a festival of lights that is as big as Christmas is for Christians. And the Chinese New Year, celebrated in several weeks, is also a festival of light featuring lanterns and flames (and if you've dodged the fireworks in Chinatown on that day, you know exactly what I mean).
So cultures share.  That is a fact - one that we should celebrate.  We are all human beings, after all, with the same fears and hopes.  But we Jews also celebrate the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, with our great heroes of the battlefield and of the spirit.  And the fact that our ancestors had the faith to light the lights, even when all seemed so hopelessly dark.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

No comments: