From the Bimah: Jewish Lessons for Life
Summary: Bringing weekly Jewish insights into your life. Join Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz, Rabbi Michelle Robinson and Rav-Hazzan Aliza Berger of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA as they share modern ancient wisdom.
How do we think about the person whose views are not only different from our own, but antithetical to our own? What they stand for, we stand for the exact opposite. And yet we share a planet, we share a country, we share a community, perhaps we even share a family. They are not changing. We are not changing. They are here. We are here. How do we see this other human being on the other end of a contentious issue in a contentious time?
Uvalde. Buffalo. Santa Ana. Bomb threats at JCCs (including our own). If the Messiah were ever going to come to fix our broken world, now would be a good time. On Shabbat we are going to take a look at three texts that deal with the Messiah. The first is an Elijah story. Elijah famously tells a rabbi searching for the Messiah that you can find him in a leper colony, among the most diseased and impoverished people. The second is a story by Israel’s Nobel Prize-winning author Shmuel Agnon called The Kerchief, which is a literary treatment of the passage from the Talmud about the Messiah coming from a leper colony. The third is a sermon by Rabbi Harold Kushner, delivered at his son Aaron’s Bar Mitzvah (Aaron would pass away later that year), on the Agnon story.
If you ever asked Barry Shrage, the long-time former head of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, how he was doing, he always answered in an utterly unique way. In all my life, I have never heard anyone else answer this way. He would always answer: Never better. Never better. What a great response. It is unique. It rhymes. Never better. It is short and to the point. It radiates positive and hopeful energy. There is only one problem. Does it ring true? I have been thinking about Barry’s signature phrase this week given the events of the world. With Buffalo, and Santa Ana, and all the other dreadful news that you do not need me to remind you of, is it possible to say and mean : never better? We could engage the world as it is, but that might make us depressed. We could ignore the world as it is and focus on the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the Heat. But can we engage the world as it is, and still radiate positivity?
Two years and three months later, we now know two things. Covid is not going away any time soon. There will be new variants and new cases. And we have to get back to life. There is a short and haunting passage from the tractate Berakhot 3A that connects deeply with our reality. Rabbi Yose (from the Maxwell House Haggadah) is in Jerusalem, after the Temple was destroyed. God’s house is ruined. The people are exiled. The community that was is no more. He is there apparently alone, and he goes to the Temple ruins to pray. Elijah (he did not die in the Bible, but went to heaven in a fiery chariot, leaving him free to come and help the vulnerable in the world) pays Rabbi Yose a visit in the ruins. Please read this brief story ahead of our class on Shabbat with an eye towards four questions. 1. The passage imagines how God must feel in this new, changed, sad world—what Abraham Joshua Heschel would call the divine pathos. God has an inner life. God has feelings. We see God roaring like a lion, cooing like a dove, and shaking his head like a resigned parent. What is the Talmud trying to say here, and how, if at all, does it connect with us? 2. Elijah and Rabbi Yose regard one another with extreme courtesy. There is a lot of “my teacher,” “my teacher and master,” “my son.” What is the point of this extreme courtesy, and what does it teach us? 3. What drives Rabbi Yose to pray in a ruined Temple? 4. What are Elijah’s concerns? After all, he comes down to earth specifically because he does not love the rabbi praying in the ruins. What does the Rabbi learn from the prophet’s concerns, and what do we learn? Like the rest of the world, Temple Emanuel has to reimagine life in this new, hard, uncertain age. What do we learn from a rabbi and a prophet conversing in the ruins of the Temple in the holy city of Jerusalem?
Last Shabbat an event of great importance happened: the Kentucky Derby and the unexpected, unlikely, implausible victory of a horse named Rich Strike. It is a double miracle underdog story. As of the day before the big race, Rich Strike was not even supposed to be racing. At the last minute, because another horse that had been scheduled to race was a last-minute scratch, Rich Strike was the last horse to enter the field. And Rich Strike was an 80 to 1 underdog. That made his upset victory the greatest upset victory since 1913.
The conversation about abortion in this country is strident and polarized. You are either pro-life or pro-choice. Every voice is passionate and convicted. There is no space for nuance. That is why, when the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the union of Conservative movement rabbis, published their statement in the wake of the Supreme Court leak, they were unanimous and unequivocally pro-choice. But Jewish tradition, and certainly Jewish law, is never unnuanced. A close reading of the sources reveals that Judaism does not fall neatly into either the pro-life or pro-choice camp. Instead, Jewish sources reveal a third way to engage this issue—we are a tradition that is pro-life, that values the sanctity and holy potential of every spark of life, and we are a tradition that understands the need for medical intervention which can include abortion. This Shabbos, we will be doing a deep dive into the sources to explore the way our tradition invites reflection, nuanced evaluation, and a sensitivity which is all too often lacking in the political conversation unfolding around us.
These remarks were delivered on May 7, 2022 by Rabbi Marc Baker, President and CEO of CJP, Combined Jewish Philanthropies. You can find more information about Marc here.
In general, we like to say that we don’t do politics at shul. We teach Torah. We try to teach and to live Jewish values. There are other places where divisive politics can be discussed and debated. Let the shul be a political-free zone. Does that paradigm apply now? After all, immediately after news of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion came out, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the union of Conservative movement rabbis, immediately, strongly, and unambiguously came out with a robust statement criticizing this opinion: "The RA is deeply troubled by reports that the Supreme Court will soon nullify the constitutional right to abortion. Reproductive freedom is again under assault, this time from the highest court in our nation. The RA supports full access for all those who need abortions to the entire spectrum of reproductive healthcare and opposes all efforts by governmental, private entities, or individuals to limit or dismantle such access." What is particularly striking, and noteworthy, is that the usual Jewish rule—two Jews, three opinions— does not apply here. What time do we pray the evening prayer, the Talmud’s first question. There are three answers. Should a woman be able to get an abortion where “continuation of a pregnancy might cause severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.”? The answer in our movement is yes. What does that call on us to do now?
For the last 45 years or so, our shul has been distributing candles that we light at night to usher in Yom HaShoah. Each candle carries the name of one person, one out of the Six Million. As I shared at this year’s Yom HaShoah program, our members Barbara and Steve Grossman showed me their folder that has the names of the individuals that they thought about as they lit the candles every Yom HaShoah for the last 45 years. They have kept every name. I won’t go through all 45 years, but just to give you a sense of it: In 1994 they remembered Esther Kligerman. In 1995 Raizel Farbman. In 1996 Moshe Bikel. In 1997 Else Paradies. In 1998 Samuel Hirsch Kornblatt. In 1999 Theres Neuberg. In 2000 Moshe Fish. In 2001 Gertude Meidedner. And so it goes for 45 years. For each one, they would ask, we would all ask: where was the rest of the world? What was the rest of the world doing? That was always our question, at every other Yom HaShoah.
Caron Tabb has, at last, solved a puzzle that I could not solve for the last 25 years: how to get an entire class of 5th graders totally immersed, totally focused, totally engaged, for a good long time on Jewish ideas and what they mean to our lives. When our 5th graders walked into shul today, they were immediately drawn to Caron’s different exhibits which are now installed in the Leventhal-Sidman Community Court and the Casty Gallery. Caron was there to greet the thirsty young learners, and seeing her dialogue with an entire mesmerized class of 5th graders was a true delight. Those 5th graders sense that Caron’s art calls, beckons, invites, and challenges. That is why they listened with rapt attention. That is why they kept asking great follow-up questions. All of which means two things. Talmud on Shabbat will be a special segment. Michelle, Aliza, Dan, and I were taped yesterday in dialogue with Caron about her various works of art. (Elias is in Argentina visiting his mother.) The conversations are so rich and generative. This class will be a lovely introduction to Caron’s offerings.
There is a famous vignette in the Talmud that resonates mightily for our time. It concerns a traffic jam. One morning a bride and her retinue go off to her wedding. A happy procession. There is singing and joy in the air. It is palpable. The bride is so happy. She can just imagine the rest of her life, building a life with the love of her life, the good times they will have, the family they will build, the home they will create, the good that they can do together. But at the exact same time, a funeral procession takes off. A wife is now to lay her husband of many years to his resting place. There is sadness in the air. Worry. What will be? The widow weeps: I cannot imagine life without my husband. We have been together forever. I have never been alone. How am I to live alone? The bride’s laughter, the widow’s weeping, collide. The two processions cannot make it through at the same time. What should happen next?
The prophet Elijah, whom we last encountered at our seders, poses a conundrum. Elijah has this favored slot in Jewish history: the harbinger of hope and redemption. At the seder, we sing Eliyahu ha’navi as we move along the trajectory from darkness to light. At your son or grandson’s brit milah, the chair of Elijah invites the prophet into our lives at our choicest family moments. We bring Elijah into every Shabbat and Hag service in the blessings after the Haftarah and Havdalah. We bring Elijah into grace after meals every time we bench. Of all the protagonists in the Jewish canon, Elijah is by far the most recurrent presence in Jewish ritual: more than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Moses, Aaron, Saul, David or Solomon. Why so much Elijah? If you read the biblical story, this role is not only unexpected. It is a shocker. Elijah would be the last figure to get this job as harbinger of redemption. Fact 1: Elijah’s last act as prophet is to be the Butcher of Mt. Carmel. He slaughters 450 prophets of Ba’al. A war crime. An atrocity. And that is not just a modern read. Leading to fact 2. Fact 2: God fires Elijah for being only a zealot, and not being open to any other moves but hot zealotry. That is why God tells Elijah to appoint his successor, the gentler and more nuanced prophet Elisha. So why exactly do we invite the Butcher of Mt. Carmel, fired by God, to our seders, to our britot, to our Shabbat prayers, to our grace after meals, as the harbinger of redemption? We are going to be doing a four-part series to answer this question based upon a great new book that just came out, Daniel C. Matt, Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation (Yale University Press, March, 2022).
April 22, 2022
Now that we have finished both seders this year, I have a question: What is the relationship, if any, between the words we say at the seder, the deeds we do at the seder, or that we commit to do, and the world we live in? Does our living a Jewish life, the prayer, the rituals, the community building, in what way, if at all, does that Jewish living affect the world? Will the two seders we just had affect the world, or will they only affect how we feel going through the world?
April 16, 2022