Monthly Archives: October 2017

Enough with the Knees?

Last time I was happy to report on some feel-good meetings and events that were testimonials to there still being some positive news in the world. Now I revert for a moment. Let’s talk football.

This fall has featured many national dramas unseen and unimagined before, including a debate about athletes and the flag/national anthem. By “athletes” we mean mostly African American pro football players. The country is pretty divided on the kneeling, which probably would have disappeared were it not for you know who. Everything has been said about this already. There are many levels to this discussion. I have two reflections that are not so mainstream.

One, I think the athletes have a complete right to protest against problems in our society. Protest is so American. Given the many ways that racism remains a strong poison in our society, these protests are not frivolous. So why does half the country think they are wrong? Some say the players are disrespecting the flag, or the servicemen. Maybe. And maybe it’s just racism (again) – think if it was white players protesting.

My theory on the negative reaction relates to the gladiators of old. From Wikipedia: “A gladiator was an armed combatant who entertained audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals. Some gladiators were volunteers who risked their lives and their legal and social standing by appearing in the arena. Most were despised as slaves, schooled under harsh conditions, socially marginalized, and segregated even in death. Irrespective of their origin, gladiators offered spectators an example of Rome’s martial ethics and, in fighting or dying well, they could inspire admiration and popular acclaim. They were celebrated in high and low art, and their value as entertainers was commemorated in precious and commonplace objects throughout the Roman world.”

Don’t a lot of those words fit? I think many of us view football players, especially the professionals, very much as our gladiators. Like the gladiators of old, were it not for their size and athletic gifts, they would likely have no social standing and live pretty segregated lives. Heck, they couldn’t even get a taxi. Though we admire their exploits on the field, and cherish their autographs, nobody seems to care that they are not going to live very long or healthy lives. We pay them very well, that’s enough. In return, we expect them to entertain us, not to point out what is wrong in our society or make waves of any kind. They should be entertainers not prophets, and they should stick to their jobs. That, I believe, helps explain the hostile reaction to these protests. I don’t hold that view, just think it’s a factor.

The other reflection is on the seriousness of the players’ protest. Kneeling for a few minutes is not that difficult, and then they play the game like nothing happened. If the athletes really wanted to make our society pay attention to the legitimate grievances and concerns that they are trying to highlight, they should put their money where their knees are. Let them choose a weekend and in mass not show up for the games. I guarantee that that would get people’s attention, and a positive conversation might result. If not, do it another weekend. As it is, what they are doing annoys some people and isn’t making a bit of difference for those whose plight makes the protests necessary.

Just some thoughts not a sermon. Wishing you a good week. Bill Rudolph




The News

Shalom. The news doesn’t bring much in the way of hope, and you are not crazy if you try to avoid it, but in one 36 hour period late last week, I saw some rays of hope.

First, Wednesday daytime I sat in on a Leadership Council meeting of Convergence: The Center for Policy Resolution. The brainchild of Beth El’s own Rob Fersh, and based on the principle that collaborative problem solving is the only way the big problems in our country will be solved, Convergence convenes people and groups with conflicting views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues. Areas of work include: education reimagined, building a better budget process, health reform policy (steps that can engage both parties), reentry programs to combat prisoner recidivism, and how to increase economic security for all (especially low income Americans.) Seeing who is involved, and the high level of expertise and commitment being brought to these issues, was a wonderful eye opener. You can learn more at

In the evening, same day, I was the rabbi for a Jewish/Christian/Muslim interfaith dialogue in Nova sponsored by the Rumi Forum. Despite it taking one hour and forty minutes to get to nearby Fairfax, I was encouraged to see people gathering to talk about their own religion and to learn about those of their neighbors. “Social justice through the context of faith” was our official topic. I felt good rehearsing the role of American Jews in building a just society – founding labor unions, support for the civil rights movement, leadership in the fight for women’s voting rights and equality. Except my pride was tempered by the chronology, that we haven’t done so much lately, but that is another story. More important, at my little table in the Convergence meeting earlier in the day, we identified fear as maybe the core problem in our society, more prevalent than economic scarcity and polarization. The best antidote to fear is meeting up with the “other” and realizing how much they have in common with us. Almost without fail, dialogue provides this helpful antidote and there is a growing thirst for it.

And then the next morning I helped convene, through the Greater Washington Forum on Israeli Arab Issues, a cozy little breakfast meeting with an amazing Bedouin entrepreneur and philanthropist, Ibrahim Nsasra. Our image of the Bedouin we see in our travels in southern Israel doesn’t usually include there being entrepreneurs and philanthropists in that population, but Nsasra more than fits the bill. He is now all of 36 years of age. When he was 21, he established Lahav Tours, by now one of the largest transportation companies in the Negev. Then in 2011 came Armonot HaNegev Catering Company that provides 10,000 hot lunches to Bedouin school children each day (the meals provided by government agencies were too “ashkenazic” and the food mostly uneaten so now the government funds Armonot), and just a few years ago he created the grass roots Tamar Center Negev which works to bridge the socio-economic gaps between Bedouins and the rest of Israeli society through education. Ibrahim gave the Center $1million shekels (about a quarter million dollars) of his own money to get it going. See Tamar Center aims for students to achieve A-level matriculation in math, physics and english, which most Bedouin high schools don’t even offer. Currently, only 1.5% of the high schoolers complete A-level matriculation in math, and the Faculty of Engineering at Ben Gurion University has only graduated 46 Bedouin students in its 42 years functioning and it’s not because they aren’t smart enough. Already hundreds of Bedouin students are getting STEM education, studying every Friday for 6 hours in 3 Tamar locations. Ibrahim is bright and he is impatient. While his father had power because he had 32 children (Ibrahim has 31 siblings), Ibrahim has “only” 4 kids and has learned that power comes from being educated, financially successful, and being a changemaker. And his initiatives are bearing fruit in wonderful ways, nice positive news from a region where that kind of news is rare.

There is good news out there.       Best, Bill Rudolph



Words and Music

Today is Hoshannah Rabbah. While the gates of repentance close on Yom Kippur at Neilah, the rabbis added in a little more time for those slow to change or to face up to the need for it. Today is it. Here is a relevant thought, before the holidays move totally to the rear view mirror.

As you may know, I am the rabbi AND the cantor in my little shul in Warrenton. The latter role is way more challenging. This year I had a cold on Yom Kippur, which made it even scarier. The High Holiday melodies are difficult to sing, and until now I didn’t have a clue why, thought it was just some kind of cruel trick on me. See what you think of this commentary by Elliot Dorff, a wise professor at our L.A. rabbinic school. Longer than my usual, take your time.

I have a Ph.D. [writes Dorff] in philosophy from a philosophy department that espoused analytic philosophy, which focuses on the meaning of words. I am therefore probably the last person you know who would tell you to ignore the words of Yom Kippur – the words of the liturgy and the words spoken in sermons during the day. Words bear meaning, and the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy are especially graphic in describing the brevity and weakness of our lives, the lack of control that we have over much of what happens to us, and yet the great responsibility that we have for what we think, feel, and, especially, do.
But music also conveys meaning. The exact same words sung to different melodies or at a different cadence can mean completely different things. The Kaddish, for example, is traditionally sung to nineteen different melodies throughout the Jewish year, and listening to a skilled hazzan sing the exact same words in different melodies and beats does indeed make them feel very different and thereby convey very different meanings, even though the words, if translated, would mean the exact same thing each time.
For me [this is all Dorff], though, the Aleynu prayer is the best example of how music conveys meaning. That prayer began as part of the Malkhuyot section of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. This section focuses on God’s sovereignty, because it asserts that we have a duty (aleynu l-) to praise God who created the world and taught us Jews our distinctive way of living and who, we hope, will teach that to the rest of the world so that all human beings understand that they must live with the recognition that only God is sovereign (not money, idols, etc.). The prayer is attributed to Rav, who lived in the third century, but during the Middle Ages the practice was begun to end every morning, afternoon, and evening service with the Aleynu prayer. During the year, the melody to which it is sung – you know it – hugs the melodic line. In contrast, during the High Holy Days, the melody to which it is sung [the one where the hazzan gets down on his knees] skips octaves. I want to suggest that that is not an accident – for most of the year we feel God’s immanence – that God is with and among us – but on the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, we feel God’s transcendence – that God is far above and beyond us and different in kind from us. By hugging the melodic line during the year, the music articulates God’s immanence, and by skipping octaves on the Days of Awe, the music draws attention to God’s transcendence.   The same is true for the iconic music of the Kol Nidre prayer. It too skips octaves [which is why Rabbi Rudolph fails miserably to sing it.] And its minor key adds to the transcendent feel of God, for it expresses our sense of fear and awe before the One who will judge us on this day, knowing, as we inevitably do, that in the past year we have not lived up to all that God would want us to be in our interactions with each other and with God.

So [Rabbi R now speaking] next Yom Kippur by all means pay close attention to the words of the liturgy and the sermons, but also pay attention to the music. Both the words and the music will hopefully make the Day of Atonement the cleansing moral experience in the face of a transcendent God that Yom Kippur is intended to be, and that Hoshannah Rabbah completes.
There is your music lesson, but it’s really theology. I hope it resonates. Best, Bill Rudolph