Wednesday, August 31, 2022

A Huge Change for the High Holidays…That Most of You Won’t Even Notice

In times of chaotic, unbridled change, religion simultaneously – and paradoxically - plays the dual roles of initiator and bulwark.  It promotes transformation when our values demand it but doesn’t enact change without considerable deliberation.  It sparks the combustion than gums up the works.  This is especially true of the Conservative movement, which is by its very definition believes that tradition should never abandoned without good reason.  For us, the wheels of transformation spin slowly.  But change happens, and a big one will take place during our High Holidays services that very few of you will notice, because it will occur at a time in the service when relatively few are at services – at the beginning of Mincha on Yom Kippur.  Yet the change is significant. 

Our Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon will now be the “alternate” reading, from Leviticus 19:1—18, rather than the traditional reading from the prior chapter, Leviticus 18.  Both readings are found in our Lev Shalem Machzor and the alternate has been designated as a legitimate option for years, so the switch is hardly radical.  In fact, given the stark differences between the old one and the new, one might justifiably ask why we took so long.

Although the two passages are found in consecutive chapters, their messages couldn’t be more contrasting.  The alternate reading contains some of the most central ethical teachings of Judaism, including “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Meanwhile, the traditional reading focuses on forbidden sexual relationships.  In ancient times, young Jews would meet-up following the temple ritual.  So, a reminder of the dating “dos and don’ts” would have made sense in that setting.   

But not in ours.  While the alternate passage is all about love and acceptance, the traditional one emphasizes distinctions and boundaries.  That traditional passage also contains some of the most problematic verses in the entire Torah, including the one ostensibly banning homosexuality.  Sexual ethics have evolved considerably since biblical times, especially in regard to our understanding of the nature of LGBTQ relationships.  Conservative Judaism has long since validated that shift, while at the same time affirming our need to continue to grapple with, rather than tossing aside, difficult traditional texts.  But just because we never toss the Torah aside, that doesn’t mean we need to feature some its most problematic passages in the passage selected for our holiest day.

Like the alternate reading, Yom Kippur is all about love and forgiveness, not exclusion and harshness.  The whole focus of the liturgy is to call upon divine qualities of mercy, rather than harsh justice.  If anything, justice is Rosh Hashanah’s bailiwick, not Yom Kippur’s. 

I’m brought back to an early episode of “The West Wing,” where a talk show host defends calling homosexuality an "abomination" by saying that that is what the Bible says in Leviticus 18:22. This annoys President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, who proceeds to ask a few pointed questions about just what one should accept from the Bible.

He asks:

"I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleaned the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?"

"My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?"

"Here's one that's really important cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7 If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football (back when they had that name!)? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?”

“Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?”

"Think about those questions, would you?"

Aaron Sorkin, who grew up Jewish in Scarsdale but never went to Hebrew School, is right to have his characters question those who take the entire Bible literally, without challenging some of its more difficult verses.  For Jews, this is hardly new.  The rabbinic sages did the same thing 2,000 years ago.  As my professors used to remind me constantly: We are not biblical Jews.  We are rabbinic Jews. 

Which is part of why I didn’t rush to replace the traditional reading when the alternate became available. Yes, it’s problematic, but one of the lessons of the High Holidays is that being a Jew is something we should struggle with and not take at face value.  We don’t just toss the Torah aside if we don’t like what it says.

The other (and main) reason we stuck to the traditional reading is that we have one reader who has been reading the second Aliyah for over thirty years, since he was a teenager. Jed Sackin never missed his reading once.  How could I take it from him?  Some traditions are worth keeping.  And as Jed’s parents passed on and his sister Hope moved away, it seemed even more important to me that his family continue to be represented at our service.  So year after year, he did that problematic (and very long) reading.

So what changed?  Two things.  One is that the other Mincha readings no longer have legacy readers (for years, certain teens have claimed certain High Holiday readings as “their own”).  And second, Jed agreed to learn the alternate reading for the second Aliyah and actually thought it was a good idea.  So, Jed will still read this Yom Kippur – and we’ll learn about how important it is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

There will be something new this Yom Kippur, a flavorsome blend of Sackin and Sorkin, the same reader, a new reading – and an eternal message of love and acceptance.

Wishing you and yours a good and sweet 5783!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, August 25, 2022

In This Moment: The Munich Massacre, 50 years Later; Elul Reflections

In This Moment

Last Friday's Barbecue and Borechu brought about 200 of us together for a perfect summer's Shabbat evening. Click here to watch a video of the service.

Meanwhile, Yaffa and Pinchas Gross celebrated their daughter's wedding this week in En Hemed, a gorgeous national park in the Jerusalem hills. Mazal tov to their family!

Dear Rabbi,

We had the most wonderful wedding of Michelle and Yoav ๐Ÿ˜. We had over 400 guests, participating in a magical chuppah, followed by enthusiastic Jewish music and dancing of all 400 participants. We also arranged two days of guided tours in Jerusalem, before and after the wedding, for our guests who came from abroad, and these three days were just unforgettable.

Love. Yaffa and Pinchas 

Munich Plus 50

Shabbat Shalom.

Join us for services this Shabbat as we end August and begin Elul - and start the home stretch toward the High Holidays.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Munich Olympic Massacre over the coming days, there will be many reminiscences and retrospectives. The anniversary is mired in controversy, as victims' family members are threatening to boycott over the lack of support they've received and the lack of protection for the athletes. The Bavarian authorities have only now made public their files as to what exactly happened on that fateful day. And now, fifty years later, we ask what lessons can be learned, what has changed and what hasn't? For Israel, the biggest lessons involved deterrence and self sufficiency. Never count on someone else to protect you, and make sure that those who wish you harm know that there will be a steep price to pay. The perpetrators of the Munich massacre found that out first hand, and that doctrine is now playing itself out in the multi-front war between Israel and Iran.

While Israel is undeniably stronger than it was back in 1972 - and strategically less isolated - the Jewish people have never really gotten over Munich. The symbolism of how it happened (with the entire world watching), when it happened (during the Olympics, when countries trust that their athletes will be protected) and where it happened (Germany, less than a generation after the Shoah), has led to a deep frustration with the hypocrisy of a world so quick to point fingers at the victim.

Chronology of terrorist attacks in Israel, introduction

Part 1: 1948-1967

Part 2: 1968-1977

Part 3: 1978-1985

Part 4: 1986-1992

Part 5: 1993-1995

Part 6: 1996-2000

Part 7: 2001

Part 8: 2002

Part 9: 2003-2004

Part 10: 2005-2007

Part 11: 2008-2013

Part 12: 2014

Part 13: 2015

Part 14: 2016

Part 15: 2017-2020

Part 16: 2021

Source: UN Watch Database (click to see this chart enlarged)

Elul Soul Searching: Sorting Out Our Priorities

1) The month of Elul begins this weekend.

What is essential about being Jewish for you?

What is the most essential part? 

Do you agree with the results of this recent Pew survey?

2) As we focus on refining our human frailties during this month of soul searching, Maimonides calls on us to choose the path of moderation. Click for his Laws of Personality Development (Hilchot Deot) from his law code, the Mishneh Torah. Move next to Maimonides' Laws of Repentance (Teshuvah)perfect for this time of year. Here are annotated excerpts, from Deot and from the laws of Teshuvah. Take a look at these valuable resources; one focuses on action and the other on character...which raises the question:  Is Judaism primarily a value system based on deeds or character? Or does one necessarily lead to the other?  If so, which comes first?

Recommended Reading

  • Dana Bash says her new CNN special on antisemitism is ‘one of the most important things I’ve ever done’ (JTA) - The topic is a personal one for Bash, in more ways than one. To accompany the special, she authored an essay on CNN’s website in which she discusses her own recent apprehension when her preteen son asked her if he could wear a Star of David necklace in public. Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy on antisemitism, is interviewed in the special, and also discusses why she wears a Star of David as she works. “My young son showing the world that he is Jewish made me nervous,” Bash admits in the essay, because “I knew that antisemitism is on the rise in America.” But, she later concludes after working on the special, “It turns out that normalizing the practice of and pride in Judaism is one of the antidotes to prejudice — something that my young son understood innately.”

  • 125 Years of Zionism (World Zionist Organization Gala Event) On August the 29th 1897, the First Zionist Congress was convened by Theodor Herzl to deliberate the founding of a Jewish state and the creation of the World Zionist Organization, an institution that would pave the way for the establishment of the State of Israel.This year marks the 125th anniversary of this historic date and we would be honored to invite you to celebrate and join think tank sessions in a series of events in Basel, Switzerland, where Herzl's vision first came to life and where we will be gathered to honor the past and discuss the future.
Temple Beth El
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A Conservative, Inclusive, Spiritual Community

Thursday, August 18, 2022

In This Moment: The Climate Bill is this Generation's Moonshot; The Jewish Boxer of the Week is one of our own! The Cool-Hottie Rabbi in Netflix's "13"; Israel icon Tzvika Pik: Best known among American Jews for songs not on his hitlist.


Parshat Ekev: Circumcise your Heart
Click above for a summary of this week''s portion, which includes the second part of the Sh'ma and the strange commandment to "circumcise your heart." See also parsha packets othe second paragraph of the Sh'ma and the history and practices regarding the bima, (what it is, where it is and who is allowed to ascend). Included in the packet is an article I once wrote comparing the exclusiveness of the bima with the Berenstain bears' treehouse. ("No girls allowed!"). In 2002 I descended from the bima on Shabbat and sat among the congregants, and that's where I remained until Covid forced me back up those steps. It's just one more way that Covid has set us back from the vision of intimacy in communal prayer that we had long pursued.

In This Moment

Shabbat Shalom.

Join us for our annual Barbecue and Barechu (or vice versa) on Friday night, and again on Shabbat morning and on weekdays. This week's portion, Ekev, means "heel," as it's opening lines instruct us to walk in God's ways. Whenever we come to this portion, I'm reminded of a famous poem by Mary Stevenson, which I share here. While the passage is most often presented in a Christian context, a look at the author's bio brings home the universality of Stevenson's struggles and how this Depression-era passage can inspire people of all faith backgrounds, living through all manner of hard times.  Now, as if Covid wasn't enough, there's monkeypox too, and to top it off, they had to being polio back. Really, I'm not that nostalgic!

I hope this can being a little healing to those who are in pain.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
A Thai Buddhist monk prays for 12 boys and their soccer coach in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand, on June 27, 2018. Rain continued to fall and water levels kept rising inside a cave in northern Thailand, frustrating the search for the boys and the coach who were missing in the sprawling underground caverns. All were eventually rescued. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

(RNS) — Last week Congress passed the most consequential climate change legislation the United States has ever attempted, designed to reduce carbon emissions by 40% and solidify America’s position as the world leader in the fight to save our planet.

Saving our planet is this generation’s moonshot, and we have finally, and belatedly, achieved liftoff: The journey from the Mercury program’s initial forays into orbit to Apollo’s lunar landing was much shorter than the five-decade odyssey to this moment from the first warnings of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “the carbon dioxide problem,” back in 1969, two months after the moon landing. 

So here we go, but it’s important to note that this week’s liftoff was horizontal, not vertical. Our focus must turn now from outer space to inner space, from the planets and stars to the overflowing rivers and parched forests. But there is much that the prior moonshot can teach the current one. 

One man who seems to realize this already is Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning director whose new film, “Thirteen Lives,” brings us back to the tense early summer of 2018, when an international team of experts and volunteers joined forces to rescue a boys soccer team stranded in a flooded cave in Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but see similarities to “Apollo 13,” Howard’s 1995 movie, in which, with teamwork, ingenuity and outside-the-box thinking, another skilled team was able to rescue highly trained astronauts from an infinite void, with no atmosphere, no climate and no possibility of sustaining life.

In “Thirteen Lives,” the rescued are children imperiled by a supercharged atmosphere driven by a changing climate

The Chiang Rai cave where the boys were trapped was flooded very early in what turned out to be a particularly extreme monsoon season throughout eastern Asia that year. Their rescue, though cause for celebration, was a Pyrrhic victory when we consider the deaths of so many climate change victims before and since, including those who died these past few weeks in rain-drenched Kentuckyfire-torched California and sunbaked Europe

Earth, one senses, is angry at our hubris and is sending us a final ferocious warning before it all goes up in flames.

In Howard’s new film, the wrathful rains are personified by the mythical princess Jao Mae Nang Non, also known as the “reclining goddess,” whose image looms over the mountain and cave (that both share her name) where the boys were trapped. Legend has it that her ill-fated love met a tragic demise in that spot. Villagers make offerings to appeal to her for mercy, while the rains fall like tears from her grieving eyes. She is a constant, visible reminder that we have made a mess of our relationship with nature, and now we are paying the price.

Unlike last year’s climate change film, “Don’t Look Up,” the message of “Thirteen Lives” is that we need to look down, into the darkest fissures of the earth, the caves and sinkholes, the submerged rice paddies and gushing tributaries. Look down into the eyes of the princess.

“The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth God gave over to us,” the Bible’s Psalm 115 reminds us. We need to fix what’s in our backyard and not be distracted by the shinier objects above.

Curiously, both of Howard’s rescue films have the number 13 in the title, which points to another shared lesson: Both the celestial and earthbound moonshots are profoundly spiritual missions, boosted by a fusion of humility and hope. “Who knows thirteen?” — Jews sing at the conclusion of the Passover seder. “Thirteen are the attributes of God,” referring to the 13 qualities of mercy through which God governs the cosmos. Through these attributes, we can sense God’s presence and the unity of all creation. 

This summer, the James Webb Space Telescope enabled us to see galaxies being born and dying and light that was generated at the dawn of time, just after the Big Bang, 13 (yes, 13) billion years ago. In the Israeli media, the Hebrew word used for this Webb’s-eye view of the universe was Ein Sof, which in the secular context means “infinity,” but it is also a well-known kabbalistic name for God’s most mysterious and unknowable essence.
When we gaze back through those 13 billion years and slip the surly bonds of time and space, we approach the face of God. The closer we come to seeing the beginning — and touching God — the more we recognize that we are not God, and the smaller we feel. That stunning vision from the heavens should fortify us with humility for the struggle that awaits; for back here on earth, the reclining goddess is growing impatient.

In the Talmud, 13 is also the age of responsibility. And what greater responsibility do we have than to take those God-like qualities of mercy and apply them to sustaining life here on our home planet? For while we look up and our Webb-enhanced view gets clearer and sharper, we look down and our view of what lies beneath us becomes muddier and murkier. As more sinkholes start to appear, the ground gives way and the waters rush in. The princess is begging us to act.

“Chiang Rai,” the princess of the cave cries, “we have a problem!”

We need to summon the same dogged determination of Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell and flight director Gene Kranz as we grapple with humankind’s most intractable predicament: “From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon,” said Lovell. “And it’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.”

Kranz put it best as he wrestled with the unmanageable challenge of bringing the boys home: 

“Failure is not an option.”

Now the work can begin, at long last, thanks to the underwhelmingly named Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. 

Let’s call it the “Inconvenient Truth Act” of 2022. 

Recommended Reading

Kudos to Ha'aretz for talking about these innocent victims. Terror hit home for Israelis as well this week, with an early morning attack on a group near Zion Gate in Jerusalem, involving a family from Brooklyn. Still, thank you, Ha'aretz for helping us to focus on the human cost of war for all sides. Also, Israel struck a note of transparency when its investigation indicated that five Palestinian children said to have been killed by a misguided Islamic Jihad rocket actually were killed mistakenly by Israelis.

For most of my life, I tried to hide stuttering as much as possible, an experience of constant anxiety, shame, frustration and exhaustion. As a chubby kid who stuttered, raised in a very observant, Orthodox household in Columbus, Ohio, I was desperate to fit in. If I was capable of hiding stuttering, even a little bit, I would. For me, hiding a stutter often meant simply not talking, even when I desperately wanted to. I also avoided stuttering by constantly changing words and phrases as I spoke, usually approximating what I originally intended to say, but not always expressing the complete intent of what I wanted to....

Slowly, I’ve become more and more comfortable saying exactly what I want to say when I want to say it. In pastoral situations, I’m more able to be present and to care for my congregants and their loved ones because I’m less worried about my stutter. When I looked for a new job several years ago, the prospect of talking in front of interview committees was scary. Ultimately, acknowledging and owning my stutter for all of these communities only helped to make a connection with them. 

  • How the Rabbis Thought About Work (Hartman, video lecture) Work shapes our lives, our relationships, and—for better or worse—our status in the world. The nature of work is also rapidly changing. Over two sessions, David Zvi Kalman looks at how the rabbis understood the ideal role of work in our lives, the kinds of work that were best, and their understanding of the relationship between work, rest, and play.

  • Antisemitism Once More (Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner) - Amid the discussion around the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago and what it might mean for Trump and the rule of law in America, there is a detail that I worry isn’t receiving enough attention but that points to a dangerous reality in the United States today. It centers on Bruce Reinhart, the magistrate judge who signed the FBI's search warrant. As his name became public, he has faced a withering volume of threats from those who believe Trump should be above the law. In today’s America, with the MAGA crowd revved up for attack, that was to be expected. But that attacks were to be expected should not obscure the fact that they are dangerous. Very. The possibility of their leading to violence should not be underestimated. Many of these threats focused on the fact that Judge Reinhart is Jewish. It got to the point that the synagogue where Judge Reinhart sits on the board had to cancel Shabbat services:

  • Fire hits vacant Grossinger’s hotel, once a Catskills jewel (AP) The famous resort closed down decades ago, but this final indignity was a sharp reminder of how everything eventually turns to dust. But so many people search vainly for a way back to those summer days and huge buffets. This quote from "Brideshead Revisited" comes to mind: "I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world."

13 The (Bar Mitzvah) Musical - on Netflix

Here's my take on Josh Peck as the Cool Hottie Rabbi: He’s a nice guy, and I like when he goes "full rabbi" by replacing his baseball cap with a yarmulka ("Respect the yarmulka!"). But what's with this haftarah done with piano accompaniment? Also, he describes God in a binary, patriarchal manner, (“God’s calling; HE’S asking for HIS language back.”) No self respecting progressive rabbi on the Upper West Side would pigeonhole God with such binary language as these days. Rabbi Shapiro’s Hebrew is OK, but it’s clear that his knowledge of Hebrew is not natural to him, from the way he overdoes it with the “shva na” vowel pronunciation in the word holchim, which he pronounces correctly but too-correctly as HOLE-LEH-CHIM (see the grammatical rules for this obscure but fascinating Hebrew vowel and scroll down to see the word in question, ื”ื•ืœื›ื™ื). And the attempt to pronounce a “resh” like an Israeli is as laughable as the horrible Boston “r”s you hear in crime movies. (And I would know; I'm your rabbi, from Boston!). On the Today Show, Peck talked about his own Bar Mitzvah at a posh NYC restaurant. Which synagogue did he go to? There was no synagogue...

Quickie quiz. Can anyone guess which haftarah portion Evan has? Answer below...

The music is top notch, especially the opening and closing numbers, and I definitely recommend the film, especially to middle schoolers. If you've always felt your Jewish grandmother sounded a bit too much like a waitress from "Cheers," you'll love Rhea Perlman as the grandmother, and Debra Messing is just plain great.

Quiz answer: Portion is Beresheet, and haftarah is from Isaiah 42 (Evan's few lines are below), a famous passage glorifying the wonder of Creation and proclaiming that Israel should be a "light unto the nations."
"13" Song Clip | 13: The Musical | Netflix After School
"A Little More Homework" Song Clip | 13: The Musical | Netflix After School

Prime Minister Yair Lapid mourned the loss of the singer and songwriter, noting that Pik sang the words, “‘Music penetrates the heart’ — a sentence that describes most of his songs and tunes that penetrated the heart and Israeli culture… Zvika was a revolutionary artist of his generation, a pillar of Israeli pop. Zvika died today, but his songs and music that are left behind will continue to be played for many years.”

American Jews might be most familiar with three songs that do not register near the top of his greatest hits in Israel. It's similar to the different ways Americans and Israelis have experienced people like Golda Meir, or the last two American presidents. We are just different, though Israelis and American Jews all agree that Michael Aloni is dreamy. But Pik's long list of Israeli hits does not include two early melodies of his that we sing all the time over here; his 'Sh'ma" and "Shehechianu" melodies have become iconic in progressive worship here, and "Light a Candle" was very popular as a Eurovision hit that combined Hebrew and English.
ืฉืจื™ืช ื—ื“ื“ - ื ื“ืœื™ืง ื‘ื™ื—ื“ ื ืจ - ืงืœื™ืค - Sarit Hadad - Light a Candle
ืฆื‘ื™ืงื” ืคื™ืง -ืฉื”ื—ื™ื™ื ื• - ืžืชื•ืš ืคืกื˜ื™ื‘ืœ ื”ื–ืžืจ ื”ื—ืกื™ื“ื™ ื”ื—ืžื™ืฉื™ - 1973
ืฆื‘ื™ืงื” ืคื™ืง ืฉืžืข ื™ืฉืจืืœ Svika Pick
"Light A Candle" (top left) "Shehechianu" (top right) and
"Shma Yisrael" (directly above)
Long-hidden synagogue mural gets rehabbed, relocated (AP)See also The Lost Mural website. - A fascinating story about how the Eastern European style of synagogue folk art somehow found its way to Vermont - only to be lost, and then rediscovered. it was picked up by the AP this week. Click below to go to the website and read the full story.
Temple Beth El
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203-322-6901 |
A Conservative, Inclusive, Spiritual Community