Please Don’t Let It Be a Muslim

Rami Abadi was hanging out at a hookah bar in Paterson NJ when he heard the news of the recent terrorist attack in the bike lanes of lower Manhattan. Like others in his community interviewed by Post journalists, his immediate reaction to the news was simple: “Please don’t let it be a Muslim.” Interestingly, I had the same reaction. And, as horrible as it was, I found myself being “thankful” that the church shooting in Texas was not perpetrated by a Muslim.

So, how do we Jews react when a Jew commits a high profile crime? Think Ivan Boesky or Bernie Madoff, or now Harvey Weinstein. Or think a former Israeli Prime Minister and President, in jail simultaneously. Do we wish these weren’t Jews? I surely do. Others I talk to are mostly not as concerned, or more selective – eg. what Madoff did plays on historical images of the Jewish goniff whereas Weinstein is embarrassing to men but not necessarily to Jews.

Why my reaction? I have some theories, not sure which is operative:
1. It’s the old mah yomru hagoyyim? “What will the Gentiles say?” Think of Jacob’s response to his sons killing all the Hivite men in Shechem after the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34:30) Minorities worry about their place in the society and how their neighbors perceive them. Jews are no different.
2. “Is it good for the Jews?” The classic prism by which people like me judge the actions of Jewish people.
3. It’s an embarrassment when a member of our tribe acts so poorly. (This is somewhat like #1 but the tribal element is different.)
4. On the deepest level, where did we go wrong? Is there something in Jewish culture or religion that leads to, or justifies, wrongdoing, or rationalizes it?

You will tell me if there are more theories to be considered. In the meantime, I don’t think theory #1 should be in play here. We are well accepted in this society (thank G-d) and are blessed (I believe) with not having to worry that we will be judged by the behavior of a few of us. On #2, maybe. On #4, I don’t think there is anything inherent in Judaism or Jewish life that justifies or rationalizes bad behavior. Theory #3 may be most on target, especially if we think Jews have a mission to be a light to the nations, but it is interesting to understand (from my conversations with millennials ) that younger Jews are not nearly as tribal as my generation and don’t own that these bad actors have much to do with them.

Is my reaction, hoping the latest crook or jerk isn’t Jewish, then age- related and, barring the unforeseen, Jews won’t have it much longer? Or is it just that I am a rabbi and worry about the Jewish people 24/7? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic.
Best regards and Shabbat Shalom.       Bill Rudolph

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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 http://www.convergencepolicy.org.

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 http://www.mtamar.org.il. 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

 

 

Two Receipts

 

An Erev Yom Kippur Thought

A nearby colleague wrote about what she discovered when she went through her father’s special metal file box after he passed away. There were birth certificates, death certificates, cemetery plot deeds, a brown notebook containing poems his wife wrote to him while he was away fighting in World War II, elementary school class photos of all of the kids (including my colleague.) And then there were two receipts next to each other: a receipt for a monthly payment towards The World Book Encyclopedia (remember the days when there were no computers and no wikipedia and the library wasn’t so close?) and a receipt for an Israel Bond.

My colleague pondered these receipts a long time. Why only those two retained for posterity? On the World Book first: neither of her parents attended college as young people. They both went right to work after high school. They were hard working and self-sacrificing. They wanted their kids, she thinks, to have every opportunity they didn’t have. In purchasing this encyclopedia, they were obviously investing in their kids’ future.

As for the Israel Bond, it must have meant more than the U.S. Savings Bonds that they also collected for the kids’ college costs; there were no receipts for those. Her parents were first generation Americans. Their parents had immigrated to America to escape anti-Semitic persecution in Europe before WWII. The relatives they left behind all died in the Holocaust. They knew what it was like for Jews in a world without a Jewish State. Israel for them was a great hope and a great consolation.

Of all the possible receipts, just those two in a file in his special metal box. Why? My colleague thinks that they were saved because they made her father proud: proud he could provide for his kids’ future, proud he could nurture their young and inquiring minds, and proud that he could be part of the inspiring undertaking of reestablishing and sustaining the then new Jewish State of Israel. And perhaps he saved them together to leave her and her brothers a message about what was most important to him: being a proud modern American and a proud Jew, caring for one’s family, expanding one’s knowledge, and identifying with, and supporting, the Jewish people and our homeland, Israel.

When the time comes, please God, not for many many years, I hope that when our kids sort through our things, they will also be reminded of the values that we hoped to instill in them. For me and I think many of you, those values would mirror those we saw above: a love of learning, pride in being American and Jewish, and a love for and commitment to the people and land of Israel. Maybe that values legacy is already assured, or maybe we resolve at this holiday season to do what we can to make it so. It is never too late for that.

Wishing you an easy fast and a great new year. Bill Rudolph

Questions

Shalom:;  Here are some questions to carry with you to shul on the holidays or discuss at the dinner table during the holiday and the days leading up to Yom Kippur.  I suggest you print them out. They are courtesy of Rabbi Kalman Packouz and, though not new, I think they remain useful in helping us frame our individual thinking and introspection at this time of the year. Gail and I wish for all of you a good sweet New Year in a slightly more peaceful world. Rabbi Bill Rudolph

1)    When do I most feel that my life is meaningful?

2)    How often do I express my feelings to those who mean the most to me?

3)    Are there any ideals I would be willing to die for?

4)    If I could live my life over, would I change anything?

5)   What would bring me more happiness than anything else in the world?

6)    What are my three most significant achievements since last Rosh Hashanah?

7)    What are the three biggest mistakes I’ve made since last Rosh Hashanah?

8)    What project or goal, if left undone, will I most regret next Rosh Hashanah?

9)    If I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I undertake to accomplish in my life?

10)  What are my three major goals in life?  What am I doing to achieve them?  What practical steps can I take in the next two months toward those goals?

11)  If I could give young people only three pieces of advice, what would they be?

12)  What is the most important decision I need to make this year?

13)  What important decision did I avoid making last year?

14)  What did I do last year that gave me the strongest feeling of self-respect?

15)  When do I feel closest to G-d? If I could change one thing about my spiritual life, what would  that be?

16)  Do I have a vision of where I want to be one, three and five years from now?

17)  What are the most important relationships in my life?  Over the last year did those relationships become closer and deeper or was there a sense of stagnation and drifting?  What can I do to nurture those relationships this year?

18)  If I could change only one thing about myself, what would that be?

Arms Too Short?

Shalom. I want to share more High Holiday material that doesn’t reach the big time. Last week it was life as a lottery. Look at Irma’s path, isn’t that what we were talking about? This post is about God. At no time of the year is God so much the subject and object of our thoughts as now. Believing in God is not easy. Almost from the beginning, people had questions. Bad things happened to good people long ago. Think Job.

The questioning continues today. In my lifetime there was an evil about which it was hard to be silent. The death of the righteous was an everyday occurrence in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Public executions took place often. But there was one time that was different than the others, a time when two adults and a thirteen year old boy were to be killed. Elie Wiesel was there, in the camp. He tells us:

The three victims mounted together onto chairs.
The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the head of the camp the three chairs were tipped over.
Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
Then the march past began.
Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where Is God now?”

For many people, perhaps for some of you, God died in the concentration camps. After Auschwitz, it was impossible for many of our people to even remain Jewish. But not for Wiesel. He still remained a Jew. He still believed. He knew that God was not destroyed at Auschwitz – only a certain way of thinking about God. And he knew, as Maimonides also knew, that there are many different ideas about God, perhaps as many as there are people! They are complicated, these other ideas, and if you’re interested, any half decent rabbi would be honored to teach you about them.

When we pray the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur we will ask that we be released from all vows made foolishly, or in haste, or under duress. One of the worst of these is the oath, almost a curse really, that faults Judaism for being meaningless because many of our traditional concepts have been shattered on the rocks of historical change. I cannot tell you how many otherwise educated, liberal, people have told me that Judaism is of little use because its concept of an omnipotent deity is outmoded.

You have the right to question, you have the right to explore. You have the right to pick and choose, accept and reject, and even create a form of Jewish expression that is meaningful to you. If you do not do any of that, however, if instead you swear false oaths against your faith, than you squander some of your most precious gifts.

Some time ago there was a Broadway play called, “All Our Arms Are Too Short To Box With God.” Whatever we believe, or don’t believe about God, tells us something about ourselves, but nothing about God. We are not in the same ring. Whatever God is, S/He is untouched by our concepts. All our arms are too short to reach all the way up to the Divine.

But. though our arms are too short to reach God, they should not hang limply at our sides, reaching out for nothing because some magnificent ideas of the past have lost their meaning for some of us. Our arms are not too short to reach out to each other, to our families, to our community, right now to those sufferings the ravages of the hurricanes. Our arms are not too short to grapple with the many ideas that are there awaiting our consideration. Nor are they too short to create new ideas, new truths, and new opportunities for human sanctity and dignity.

All of our arms are plenty long enough, if we have the will, to reach out, and with God’s help, create a more beautiful world in which we all may live. Ponder that as the holidays loom closer.           Bill Rudolph