rabbi seth m limmer

continuing to reform Judaism in a modern world

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Disrupting our Lives

Yom Kippur 5776: Chicago Sinai Congregation

On Yom Kippur, we are forced to face our shortcomings, we need to come clean about our defects.  And so I begin this morning with a confession: three years ago, I basically ruined a good friend’s holiday party.  It started during an innocent conversation with my host about the election results.  Suddenly, someone, simply having heard the president’s name, butted in abruptly: “Obama is ruining the country!”  Shocked, I asked this acquaintance—let’s say he’s Steve—what he meant. “It’s harder and harder to make money these days with Obamacare, with government giving my hard-earned money to poor people.”  I should mention Steve worked for the bailed-out Bank of America, earned a hefty salary, owned two million-dollar houses.  Regardless, he appeared nonplussed when I suggested most people in America weren’t doing as well as him, needed help with fundamentals like healthcare.  “If they want healthcare, they should get jobs and pay for it,” another guest—let’s call him Greg—swiftly submitted.  Irritated, I was past risking offense: I reminded Greg not everybody lived in luxury, not everyone could get a job including healthcare. Steve dove back in vengefully, taking out on me the pain he predicted the President would inflict on him, “I came from a small town: I worked hard, earned every dime of the money I made. I’m proof anybody who wants to work hard can be successful.”  Steve had a point; he grew up in modest means. Still, I was upset, exasperated.  Here two rich guys—driving costly cars, vacationing all over the world—couldn’t find any understanding for folks who had a harder time then they did.  I hit my limit: time to ruin the party.  So I said, “Steve, I know how hard you’ve worked, from where you came. Did you ever stop and ask yourself how much of your good fortune you owe to the simple fact you were born white?”

I’m happy to report that when I visited Armonk this past summer, and attended a lovely pool party at the same house of that same good friend, Steve and Greg avoided me as if I had the plague. While I am certain they remember that unpleasant cocktail conversation, it’s also safe to say they probably find me unpleasant, too. After all, I had the arrogance to try and shatter the precious veneer they painted over a life they want to believe is perfect, in a world they likewise imagine is perfect.  Since that holiday party, I have passed the breaking point of people pretending the world works in a way I know it does not. It is a matter of fact: our world is not perfect; our world isn’t even fair.  Three years ago, I had the temerity to try and force my friends to wake up to this unfortunate fact; that unfairness, the bitter brutality of our world, is a reality from which none of us can escape today.

Our country woke up last year and was brutally reminded of how unfair life is.  It started last summer with pictures of Mike Brown face down in Ferguson.  Then news of Eric Garner’s strangulation on Staten Island, stories of twelve year-old Tamir Rice shot dead in Cleveland, images of Sandra Bland arrested by a Texas State Tropper, buzz about burning in Baltimore, a Charleston church group executed in hatred.  All this horror compounded by pictures of police militarized in ways America hasn’t seen since Selma’s teargas and Bull Connor’s tank terrorizing Birmingham. We are waking up to the fact that there are two different Americas, living side by side: while a simplification, one America is White America, prosperous, doing pretty well since the Dow rallied a few years back; the other America is Black America, still segregated—now more subtly—still struggling, still being squashed by those who want to create a second class.  We have to wake up and face the fact that racism is still a problem in America.

Racism is the problem in America.  It is not crime, it is not gangs, it is not guns.  Racism is the problem.  Not segregation; we know there is overlap between individuals and communities that are black and white.  Not a “race” problem, because it’s a fallacy to subdivide our human family into separate species.  Racism is the problem: bigotry based on the color of one’s skin, pernicious prejudice that in too many cases deprives Black bodies of their very life.  Perhaps you look at today’s difficulties as the privileged and the disenfranchised; perhaps you think that the struggles in America have less to do with the color of your skin than the class to which you belong.  I have severe doubts that is the case.[1]  And it’s not just because of what I learn from Black teachers like Ta-Nehesi Coates, who felt forced to tell his son he “must be responsible for his body in a way others cannot know.”[2]  Witness a painful story shared with me by a colleague in Dallas about a white member of his luxurious suburban synagogue:

She decided, over the course of this past year, to adopt a two year-old black child. Since doing so, she sought the advice of black men about what to tell her son about race. She asked a trusted mentor, a vice-president of her company, who shared with her same advice he gave his son: dress conservatively, especially on the day he gets his driver’s license; that is the picture the police see when they pull him over.  This mentor suggested this new mother teach her son to smile because people are afraid of angry black men. But he warned her to teach her son not to smile too big, because people are scared of black men who smile too much.  Scared of black men who don’t smile, scared of black men who smile too much: in America, her black mentor—father of a black son himself—suggested she should teach her son to smile, but not very much of a smile at all.[3]

This story breaks my heart. I have the privilege of never thinking about advising my daughters about these issues.  A colleague of mine heard this story and saw how different her white world is.  She gets her toddler to take off his T-shirt by pointing her finger at him, popping her thumb, and saying, “Hands up!”  Her playful joke with her son about changing his clothes is a figure of fear in black America. The world we live in is far from perfect.

In our Jewish tradition, an ideal world existed for but a brief moment: in Eden. Since Adam and Eve ate the Apple, we imperfect people have been trying to perfect ourselves—and our world—that we might again attain Eden.  Part of the promise of this Day of Atonement is that each of us, created in the Divine Image, can make our world Divine again.  Some suggest the very reason we fast on Yom Kippur is to attune ourselves to our potential for perfection.  I used to wonder, “How does neither eating nor drinking help us become better people?”  Wouldn’t it be easier to study our behavior if we didn’t hear the grumbling of our stomachs, feel the parching of our palates?  How does today’s abstinence help anyone atone?  The answer, in our Jewish imagination, is that disrupting our lives is the only way to get back to Eden.

The connection between Eden and not eating goes back to Torah.  Five times Torah teaches on Yom Kippur תענו את נפשותיכם, You must oppress your soul.[4]  Leviticus 16 commands: in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month you must oppress your souls; two verses later we are reminded, you must each oppress your soul.  The 23rd Chapter of Leviticus repeats the double injunction, and the Book of Numbers goes so far as warning us that the Jew who does not oppress his soul on Yom Kippur is spiritually and physically cut off from the Jewish people. Five times we are commanded, You must oppress your souls.  But not once in the Torah are we told just how or even why we are to commit such acts of self–oppression.

The Rabbis in the Mishnah conjecture what it means to oppress our souls.[5]  These Sages created five prohibitions in parallel to Torah’s five, Oppress your souls: to fast; not to wear leather shoes; neither to bathe nor wash; not to put on perfumes; and, finally, to abstain from sexual activity.  No food or drink, no bathing, no perfume, no leather shoes, no sex: our Rabbis wrote the list of how to oppress our souls. They do not teach how these five prohibitions aid atonement.  A few years ago, I read an interesting take on the five types of self-oppression, this Jewish method of disrupting our lives.[6]  On this theory, God created Yom Kippur in the Garden of Eden to allow Adam and Eve to atone for eating the Apple. The five prohibitions were meant to bring back a perfect world.  Why no washing?  Outside Eden, Adam and Eve worked by the sweat of their brow.[7]  Why no food or drink? Outside Eden, Eve and Adam labored to produce the food that in the garden grew freely.  Originally, Adam and Eve were unaware—unashamed—of their nudity; all the trappings of desire—from anointing perfumes to the sexual act—only occur outside of Eden. Two more prohibitions understood. Why no leather shoes? Here, we can only guess: perhaps so, outside of Eden, a snake doesn’t again bite at our heels.[8]

This creative understanding of why we fast—how we oppress our souls—focuses us on restoring our world to a pristine state. Whether or not it is the greatest reading of Genesis, we see an appreciation of what our liturgy and ritual of Yom Kippur force us to confront.  Today we want to restore ourselves—and our world—to a pristine state. The Jewish way is not to pretend that today is like any other day when—sated and satisfied—we perhaps set aside private moments to examine our existence. Yom Kippur comes to disrupt our lives in the most profound way possible: we do not eat, we do not drink, we put all thoughts of companionship from our mind, we even allow ourselves to smell slightly on a day we encounter hundreds of friends. Why all this oppression of the self?  Yom Kippur teaches we must disrupt our lives if we had any hope of making our lives the slightest bit better, making our world even a little bit more perfect.

Disrupting our lives is the prescription for our Day of Atonement.  Yom Kippur causes us to confront deep problems that, usually, we have the luxury to ignore.  Given the unfolding events since I spoiled a party in Armonk, given the endless episodes of blatant or concealed racism America has witnessed since Trayvon Martin was shot dead on a Florida street, a disruption of American life is the only meaningful way to address the ills eroding our society. We have no modern Mishnah to teach us five simple steps to respond to racism; we must find new teachers to instruct us how to end patterns of prejudice.  I can share with you three lessons I learned this year of soul-searching.  First, academic activists like Michelle Alexander and David Kennedy taught me to make myself uncomfortable.[9]  Second, personal memoirs of Bryan Stephenson and Debby Irving illuminated the importance of examining the evils of racism from up close.[10]   Third, the civil rights crusaders of our past—and my participation walking the steaming Selma pavement with the NAACP—reminded me of the power of finding faithful partners to walk towards the Promised Land we envision.[11]  From the teachers of our own time, I have discovered three ways we should oppress our souls this Yom Kippur; three steps we can take to the continuing plague of prejudice.  The first step is making ourselves uncomfortable, the second asks us to get close to racism, and the third calls for joining hands and marching together.

I’ll start with discomfort. I saw the images of Ferguson on TV, was as indignant as you would expect of the Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation to be. I went and wrote what I hoped would be a thoughtful—even inspiring—sermon race in America.  As I stepped into the sanctuary that Friday, proud of the thinking I had done, I remembered: at Sinai, we have members who are black.  It hit me: who am I to talk about race? What if this white guy is wrong?  Worse still: what if the words I say, hoping to be helpful, cause greater pain to people already suffering?  Had I been quick on my feet, I would have scrapped my sermon, said something else.  But I was too distracted by my own discomfort to think of anything else.  After Silent Prayer, with no other option, I stood up and spoke about race as I felt it in my heart.  When services were concluded, it was nice to have congregants compliment me.  But when a Shabbat regular, a black woman, told me she appreciated what I said, that was the moment of true gratification.

Talking about race is uncomfortable.  So far this morning, I have not used the expression “African-American”.  I’m forcing myself to use “black”—no matter how uncomfortable it makes me—because I no longer want to avoid the obvious issue: we are dealing with racism based on black and white, not any nation of origin.  I am not necessarily comfortable speaking this way, but it is time to push myself to this uncomfortable place. It is the smallest oppression of my soul.  And we all need to make ourselves uncomfortable if we want to address racism, if we want to get anywhere of value.  No matter how people knocked Starbucks for trying to initiate racial conversations, they were on the right track.  Problems persist when untreated; no problem can be solved if we fail to acknowledge we have a problem. Since my sermon about Ferguson, I have made myself uncomfortable about race time and time again.  I have asked black pastors how their lives are different due to the color of their skin; I discussed with a clerk at Columbia Sportswear her history of protest marches; on my own march in Selma, I asked the President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—that’s not too comfortable to say out loud—about whether my attempts to talk “race” were helpful to him, to his cause, to his family.[12]  The conversations were not always easy. But what I’ve learned from them—and my continuing commitment to have them—is that only by making myself uncomfortable can we truly appreciate the complexities and profundities of the problem of racism.

If we want to perfect the world, it is not enough for us to make ourselves uncomfortable. We need to understand what we do not see: we need to go and experience and ask and question and listen.  Civil Rights activist, attorney Bryan Stephenson, calls this Getting Proximate. He reminds us what his grandmother taught him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… you have to get close.”[13]  I have taken Stephenson’s instruction to learn about racism up-close as a mandate; this has been my year of getting proximate.  I have studied the massive tangle of American laws that enforce structural inequalities of access and justice.  I have travelled to neighborhoods in Chicago many natives never visit.  I even watched a painful YouTube video sent to me of Samuel DuBose assassinated by a Cincinatti officer:  I sat at my desk and watched the image of a black man shot by uniformed authority, on my screen saw him die in his car.  From reading the daily papers to following the alternative avenues of social media, I learned black lives are being violated with pernicious persistence.  Getting close to the tragic deaths of the past year caused me to realize that while I obviously care about every single human life, now is the time I need to affirm #BlackLivesMatter.[14]

In addition to “getting proximate” with the wider world, we also need to take a good look at ourselves.  It is a kind of oppression of our souls to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations; we also need to disrupt our lives, to go beyond studying the racism in our world to look in our own hearts to see if there might be racism hiding in there.  The wonderful book Waking Up White can help us in that search.[15]  Its author, Debbie Irving, talks about her sudden realization that it wasn’t everyone else around her who had a race; she did, too.  In Waking Up White, Irving tells her often painful—the book jacket claims “cringe-worthy”—story with such openness we are drawn into a similar process of introspection: Irving gets close to her own racism.  Waking Up White ends each chapter with questions, so readers can explore their situations regarding race and racism.  Irving’s questions, like this day of Yom Kippur, stir our souls. Here are just two:

  • Consider each of these tangible aspects of your life: work, social connections, education, healthy food, legal protection, housing, transportation, medical care, how easy or hard has it been for you to attain each?
  • Create a column that contains these labels: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Jews, Latinos, Muslims, Whites. Next to each quickly write at least five stereotypes that come to mind for each. Do not pause, censor, or correct. Now look at what you’ve written. Does it surprise you? If you are white do you have any stereotypes for whites? Why do you think this is?[16]

Why do you think this is? It’s a good question, one that must guide how we get close to the issues of racism.  First we have to look at ourselves, and then—armed with self-understanding—we must go out into the world for further exploration.  This is hard—if not impossible—to do all by ourselves.  Thus this fall, Chicago Sinai Congregation will offer a new way to explore racism.  Partnering with six Chicago houses of worship, we will launch a campaign to create honest dialogue: our “Come to the Table” initiative.  Throughout the fall and winter, our sacred communities will be convening for intentional conversations about race, about racism.  Members of each of our houses of worship who want to participate can sign up to go a dinner party with the intentional purpose of breaking bread around an honest conversation about race.  Facilitating each one of those dinners will be leaders from each of our congregations who have been trained to lead such difficult and emotional conversations. We know as an interfaith community that we are called to action to work against the ills of racism. We also know that before we can work together, we must understand ourselves and understand each other.

I have read lots of books, engaged in countless conversations.  There is no doubt the most meaningful experience I had regarding race, and the place where I learned the deepest lessons, was the time I spent marching with the NAACP in America’s Journey for Justice.  I learned in August in Selma—was reminded last week in Washington—that joining hands and marching together towards a common solution is the most powerful way to fight racism.  Working together is the fun part, where we find camaraderie, build friendships, discover sympathetic souls with whom we can share our sorrows about the current state of affairs and look forward to celebrating changes we commit to making real.  Working together we find the true unity of community.

For all the friendship forged in solidarity and the joy of marching with kindred spirits, I share one caveat about what means for us to work for real solutions to racial injustice. If we approach this work with a full sincerity of our hearts, we must first acknowledge that any solution we discover will most likely require sacrifice on our part.  Although hardly to a person, in the main we here at Chicago Sinai Congregation benefit from the way society is structured.  Knowing American racism is enforced by systematic injustices—how housing laws are written, which drivers are pulled over by the police, the fact that drug raids are about a hundred times more likely to happen in black neighborhoods than on white college campuses—we know America’s laws favor the majority of us praying here today. To correct structural injustices of society, we will need to sacrifice the privileges we so deeply enjoy, the “invisible package of unearned assets” you are handed if born white.[17]  On Yom Kippur we oppress our souls and engage in symbolic sacrifices, giving up food and drink—perhaps perfumes and shoes and sex—for the purpose of making ourselves better people. But I cannot imagine that there will be a way for us to move America past its racist ways without many of the people in this room taking on real sacrifices. Quite literally, we will be asked to pay a price to make our world a better place.  Religiously speaking, that will be our sacrifice.

Now you know your Rabbi is not only good at ruining cocktail parties, but also at getting people to walk out in anger on the holiest Sabbath of the year.[18]  I am aware that what I am saying might be difficult to hear; it might seem patronizing to those of you who racially are not considered Caucasian; it might seem outrageous to those who think a Rabbi’s role is to stick with religious instruction and refrain from politics, period.   My words might be taken as destructive; I did design them to be disruptive. It has taken me a year since the events unfolding in Ferguson to understand the role I need to play in restoring justice to our nation. It has taken me over forty years of living to come to terms with the fact that neither Martin Luther King nor Barack Obama signals through his leadership the end of pervasive prejudice in our society. I might hold up a black reverend as my spiritual mentor, or vote with joyful tears in my eyes for a black president of the United States.  I am not colorblind; neither is America.[19]  I am waking up to that fact.

This is my personal journey of growth, the spiritual march I have made from last Yom Kippur to today’s most Sacred Sabbath.  The journey we are all on together—as a sacred community and as a Jewish people—is symbolized by the rite and ritual of this great Day of Atonement.  The promise of Yom Kippur is that we can each rise to the potential of our best selves; the expectation of Yom Kippur is that we will elevate our world again to that Divine perfection of Eden. Yom Kippur teaches us the path to perfection is paved by shattering the rhythms of the regular; this disruptive work should make us uncomfortable. This disruptive, spiritual work involves understanding ourselves and others, and will require real sacrifice to join hands and march towards that Promised Land we imagine. Such is the expectation and the promise of our Yom Kippur. And, in the mind of this disruptive Rabbi, such is the prescription for the work in which we must engage as a Jewish community, as partners in the beloved community, in the coming days and months and years.

May we so disrupt our lives, that by shattering the broken patterns of our existence, we might piece together a world finally repaired.

May it be our will.

[1] To get a sense of how race is at the root of so many American injustices even since the victories of the Civil Rights movement, see Tim Wise, ColorblindThe Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, especially pp. 51ff.

[2] Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me, p. 71.

[3] Thanks to Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanuel of Dallas for sharing this story with our colleagues engaged in the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis project of the CCAR, RAC and Just Congregations.

[4] Leviticus 16:29, 16:31, 23:27, 23:32, and Numbers 29:7.

[5] Mishnah Yoma chapter 8.

[6] The teacher’s name is vi Rabinowitz.  I read his lecture previously posted by NYU, yet it has since taken off the web.  I apologize for not being able to cite his work any more fully.

[7] See Genesis 3:16-17. for a listing of the “curses” of Adam and Eve, and these five major changes in human life outside the Garden of Eden.

[8] This is where Rabinowitz’s case seems to fall apart, as the best he can conjecture is the following: (a) God made leather garments for Adam and Eve, (b) the curses in Genesis mention the snake will always be at the human heel, thus (c) we wear shoes to protect us from snakes and (d) on Yom Kippur, we don’t wear the protective garments (c) on our heel (b) in the material God created in the Garden (a).  It’s a long way to go, for sure.

[9] Probably the two most helpful books for me in my continuing quest to understand these issues and my place in fighting them are Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and David M. Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.

[10] I was fortunate to hear Bryan Stephenson speak this past spring at the Consultation on Conscience of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I immediately bought his book, Just Mercy, and was glad I did.  I’m also glad you can currently buy it at Starbucks.  Debby Irving’s Waking Up White was also helpful, and perhaps the highest-recommended book to me by my colleagues.

[11] For background on the march, please go to www.naacp.org .  For my reasons for joining, please see http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-torah-marches-from-selma-met-20150731-story.html.  For great pictures and news stories, please follow the hashtags #JusticeSummer and #TzedekSummer on Twitter and FaceBook.

[12] The answer, from Cornell William Brooks (and many others) was a resounding: Yes.

[13] Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy, p. 14.

[14] I came to the realization I needed to say something publicly on January 6, 2015.  See my blog post, https://rabbilimmer.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/why-black-lives-matter-to-one-rabbi/.

[15] I was delighted to learn that, thanks to our Director of Religious Education, Heidi Kon, we at Chicago Sinai Congregation do this exercise annually with our Confirmation class.  That exercise is based on thePeggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.”  This powerful essay is easily available on-line, at sites such as: http://www.cirtl.net/files/PartI_CreatingAwareness_WhitePrivilegeUnpackingtheInvisibleKnapsack.pdf, which explains the essay as follows:

Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available for $4.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181 The working paper contains a longer list of privileges. This excerpted essay is reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.

[16] Debby Irving, Waking up White, pp. 60 and 91, respectively.  At the last minute, I removed this question [p. 81] from the draft: “Have you ever had anyone doubt, dismiss or minimalize an experience that was formative for you? How did it feel? How did if affect your feelings about that person?”

[17] This powerful phrase is from Peggy MicIntosh, “White Privilege”.  She explains the insidious nature of American systems that enforce racism with the following revelation, “I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”

[18] My wife suggested this line read “riling people up and creating discontent”.  Yom Kippur will tell which of us was right.

[19] Here I share the important insight of Heidi Kon on the difficulty with being “color blind””

It is a privilege to be able to be colorblind.  People of color cannot be color blind because so much of their world is bound-up in race.  While people don’t have to think about race unless they want to.



Kol Nidre 5776

Chicago Sinai Congregation

I love the reflective quiet of Kol Nidre.  I’ve always felt this eve of magnificent meditation is a strange spot for sermons.  Tonight, rather than hail down great fire and brimstone, on the onset of this sacred Sabbath I want to frame our humble self-reflection with a series of small fables for our souls. 

The Fable of the Frog and the Scorpion

 A Scorpion is waiting on the shores of a riverbank. The reason he needs to cross have been lost through the sands of time, the retelling of the tale.  There sits the Scorpion, gazing at the distant shore, when along comes a Frog.  “Excuse me, sir,” says the Scorpion, “But would you mind ferrying me to the far side of this river?”

The Frog looks puzzlingly at the scorpion.  “What kind of fool do you think I am?” asks the Frog, “The second I take you on my back to travel across the river, you will sting me, and I will die!”

“I understand,” responds the Scorpion, “Because usually it is the way with me – and all of my kind – that our pointed tails prey on animals like you. But just think,” posits the pleading predator, “Why would it benefit me to sting you while you carry me across the river? If I did, I would kill you, and then I would assuredly drown. So please,” pleaded the scorpion, “Carry me across the river. I promise we will both make it safely to the other side.”

The Frog pauses.  He, too, had ingested his share of insects from time to time. And here was another creature not only in need, but also with a thoughtful explanation of his plan. The Frog stared one last time into the Scorpion’s eyes, and ultimately assented, “Hop on my back.” Sure enough, halfway across the river, the Scorpion stings the Frog. Just before the poison kicks in and they both drown, the Frog the asks the Scorpion with his last breath, “Why did you do that?”

To which the Scorpion responds, “You didn’t really expect me to change, did you?”

The Fable of the Frog and the Scorpion is as old as Aesop.[1]  The moral of the story is clear: we cannot change our nature.  The moral of the story is antithetical to the very reason we come together this Kol Nidre evening.  The essence of our Yom Kippur rite and ritual is that we are not animals: we are moral individuals.  Not only can human beings change our nature; but our Jewish tradition provides us with this most holy of days in order to ensure—every year—we do change for the better.  Yom Kippur denies the defiant stance of the Scorpion; tonight we are not allowed to throw our hands in the air and say, “I have lived this long, this is who I am, don’t expect me to change.”  Instead, our holiest day of the year challenges us to do just that which we fear: change. Change, for the better.

Yom Kippur is a time of remarkable empowerment.  This Sabbath of Sabbaths teaches us we have the power to cast off binding shackles of bad habit, to discard the encrustation of too many days lived with too little self-examination.  This sacred evening marks a time of remarkable empowerment, because the very existence of this day reminds us all human beings possess the power to orient our lives in a new direction.  Paradoxically, this most holy of days, while recognizing our abilities, forces us to do some serious damage to our self-esteem.  We fast and submit ourselves to other limitations—what Jewish tradition calls oppressing our own soul—in order to rein in our ego, to ensure we value our sense of self less than the morals and commitments we would have guide our lives.  Our liturgy reminds us of this balance: בשופר גדול יתקע, וקול דממה דקה ישמע, The great shofar is sounded, the still, small voice is heard.[2]  On Yom Kippur, the big voice belongs only to the call of Sacred tradition.  Tonight, we must make ourselves little, small, in order to truly appreciate the greatness of the power, the moral power, that is in our hands.

We do not live in a society where the still, small voice is often heard.  Contemporary America is dominated by the biggest, ugliest, most outrageous voices of them all.  But the situation is worse than just loud voices crowding out our airwaves: everything today is about me.  iPhone, iPad, iHome, iLife, follow me on Facebook, follow me on Instagram, follow me on Twitter: it’s all about me, me, me.  Even worse than this significant solipsism, our society has succumbed to the myth of the great individual.  The great individual comes in many guises: the TV pundit we admire for so scathingly skewering the people with whom we disagree; the political candidates on whom we pin our hopes to change society all by themselves; the wide receiver who celebrates a touchdown through a choreographed dance solo, forgetting that ten teammates on the field and forty-two on the bench had roles to play in his success.  Contrary to the obvious fact that we all come from families, all grew up in communities, all are a part of civil society, the myth pervades that we have individual achievements, that we can be proud of remarkable things because—in the mantra of our age—“I did it myself”. The myth of the great individual is even more disheartening than any fable Aesop ever told about a scorpion and a frog.

David Brooks, in his insightful book  The Road to Character, has a name for this myth of the individual.  He calls it “The Big Me”.  Brooks asserts that, “Our basic problem is that we are self-centered,” a plight perfectly captured in David Foster Wallace’s commencement address from Kenyon College:

“Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. You rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it so socially repulsive. But is pretty much the same for all of us. It’s our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”[3]

Wallace thinks our default setting is that we are the center of the universe. The myth of the young man in love with his image named this phenomenon: Narcissism.  Sociologists developed a narcissism test where they read statements to people and ask if the descriptions apply to them.  Such statements say “I am extraordinary” or “Someone should write a biography about me”.  In the last 20 years, the median narcissism score of Americans has risen by nearly one third.[4]  In 1950, the Gallup organization polled high school seniors and asked if they thought themselves to be a very important person: 12% said yes.  The same question was asked of high school seniors in 2005, and this time 80% of high school seniors considered themselves to be very important people.  If basic self-centeredness is hard-wired into our motherboards, America has done a remarkable job of nurturing this natural instinct and elevating our tendency to self-aggrandizement to our highest national value.

The Big Me—all the self-important narcissism that ignites our insistence on individual achievement—teaches that our aspirations are to become “Masters of the Universe”.  We remember these “Masters of the Universe” from Tom Wolfe’s book, Bonfire of the Vanities, those powerful protagonists who thought that they could not only buy and sell bonds, but do the same with human life.[5]   Self-styled “Masters of the Universe” are hardly a fictional fable: we see them in the powerful industrialists who pollute the earth for their own profit; we see masters of the universe raise their rhetoric and rouse the masses for military campaigns; we see masters of the universe in our sporting stars and acclaimed actors who think themselves beyond account to any moral code.  Our question, on this Yom Kippur when we try to be in touch with our still, small voice, is: do we see a Master of the Universe when we look in the mirror?

Our Jewish tradition challenges the assumption that any of us is the master of the universe.  In fact, our Torah is pretty clear about the identity of the Creator of our Universe, and—most certainly—it is not us.  If anything, what we have been taught from the time of Adam and Eve—who were put in the Garden of Eden to tend it and till it, to care for it and to nurture other creatures—is that we are stewards of this world, not masters.[6]  We are members of our universe, with remarkable responsibility to that great world we inherit.  Instead of thinking ourselves the Crown of Creation, we need to see ourselves as just one part of the creation. Our Jewish tradition would have us ignore the narcissism that dominates our day, would force us to see our role in our world quite differently.  Only a fool could contemplate all of Creation and see himself as a Master of the Universe.  Thus taught Moses Maimonides bluntly, “Only an ignoramus imagines that everything exists for his own sake; only an ignoramus imagines it is as if nothing exists except him.”[7]

Now, I need to be clear.  I do not think it is our obligation, each of us, to walk out of this sanctuary this evening believing in the actual existence of some Creator of the Universe who is greater than us.  If the Greeks can have their myths and fables, so too can we Jews: we should be free to take our great teaching, our Torah, metaphorically. So you need not believe with perfect faith that there exists a God and that God created the universe and that we are but one small part of it. The lesson is we shouldn’t think ourselves the most important, primary being in the Universe.[8]   Such overvalued sense of self is a Jewish fool’s errand, as Maimonides put it plainly, the imaginings of an ignoramus.  Our tradition demands we realize what we already know to be true: we did not create this Universe.  We are but a small part of the great chain of history.

I learned—literally, and far from figuratively—how it feels to be but one small part of the great chain of history, the great progression of humankind, that remarkable march of progress.  On August first, I found myself at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL.  It was the same famous spot from which Martin Luther King, John Lewis, James Bevel and many of my heroes departed for no fewer than three protest marches.  This summer—with members of Chicago Sinai Congregation, colleagues from across the country, and new comrades-in-arms—we set out on our own protest: together we undertook the first steps the NAACP’s “America’s Journey for Justice,” a thousand-mile trek to make the world a better place.  I was graced—truly honored and overwhelmed—by the privilege of carrying a sacred scroll of the Torah over the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, taking about 700 of the one million steps that lay ahead on the sojourn to Washington, D.C.  I walked, double-file down the highway, 12 miles in the blazing 98-degree Alabama heat.  I have never felt more important in my entire life.

And I have never felt more unimportant.  Such was the sensation of carrying the Torah on that historic highway: I have never felt smaller or bigger.  I was one small person carrying the Torah down a remarkably long road for one brief time; I could hardly see the end of the day’s walk, let alone the final destination.  Carrying a sacred scroll down an open highway—playing a small literal role in a massive literal journey—erased any capacity for me to relate to the situation metaphorically.  I have never stood so proud and tall as I did as the clock approached six and my feet were blistering.  Yet I was humbled—in the most gratifying way—to know that others were arriving that night to carry the Torah the next day, the next step of the great journey.  I carried the Torah proudly, served my role, played my small part of being but one of over 200 rabbis carrying the Torah, one among thousands of people praying with their feet in this march of protest.  Then I watched, day by day on Facebook and Flickr, as that Torah was lofted high through Alabama, into Georgia, towards South Carolina, then North Carolina, via Virginia into our nation’s capitol. I was amazed, last week, to land in D.C. and touch that Torah again. During the precious moments when I carried that sacred scroll across the Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, I couldn’t stop thinking of the many hands and hearts that had helped it travel its historic path.  I knew I played just a small part in the great Journey.  The awareness of being but a cog—yet still a vital part of the machinery making our world a better place—brought me a deep sense of Awe at the majesty of the Universe.

ראשית חכמה יראת ה’, taught our Psalmist: Awe at Eternity is the beginning of wisdom.[9]  We discover wisdom when we understand our relationship to Eternity, to Adonai, to the Eternal Oneness of all being.  On these days of Awe, we Jews are meant to feel that deep Awe, to sense that Great Transcendence uniting all life in a cosmic oneness.  Some call this God, some specifically Adonai, others Nature; I think of it as a profound sense of Awe.  That experience of the truly Awe-some should lead us to discover our still, small, voice; our experiences of Awe should lead us to be humble.[10]   Humility, in the Jewish tradition, grows out of our assessment of ourselves in relationship to the Universe, to the Cosmos, to God.[11]  We discover our humility when we sense the incredibly important, yet remarkably small part we play in the epic of the Universe.  As the Proverbs preach: עקב ענוה יראת ה’, Humility follows in the footsteps of our Awe.[12]  The only path to wisdom, to any Jewish enlightenment, is to be able to listen to our still, small voice, to follow it on the path of discovering our humility.

We humbly gather on this remarkable night to have our souls pierced by the cry of Kol Nidre that we might be able to assess ourselves in relation to the Cosmos.  On these Days of Awe, it is our job to discover Awe.  We need to move beyond the myth of the Big Me in order to understand the Little Me: our still, small voice, our place in the Cosmos.  And that is where our part in paradise returns.  It is precisely when we understand that we are not Masters of the Universe—but rather role players who strut and fret our hour on this stage—[13]that we understand our moral duties and our daily actions cannot reflect only our personal desires but also the part we must play in continuing to create our majestic, transcendent Universe.  Humility leads to Awe, Awe is the beginning of Wisdom, and Wisdom leads us to do for others instead of only for ourselves.[14]  The Big Me would privilege our personal needs and wants; the still small voice understands our desires should be informed by the needs of the many.  The Big Me is committed to the particular point of view that the individual is the apogee; the still small voice cries out that only a community can achieve what is best for our world.  The Big Me argues we do all for ourself and all by ourself; the still, small voice paradoxically preaches that we reach our greatest heights when we work as a collective.  The key on Kol Nidre is to find Awe on our Days of Awe, and then to act accordingly in terms of how we think about ourselves, and what we do for others.

It just so happens that there is a Jewish version of the fable “The Scorpion and the Frog.” It is told in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Nedarim, page 41a. The fable appears, in abbreviated form, at the end of a series of discussions regarding the futility of trying to escape our human mortality.  The consistent refrain of this passage is that when one’s final day has arrived, we have no power to escape our fate.  For example, a story is told about a man who tried to run from the Angel of Death, mounted a mule, and came to a crossing in the river the Angel couldn’t pass.  At the foot of the bridge, the mule shied and threw the man down: despite his best efforts, his fate caught up with him. After learning of this man’s failed attempts, we encounter the terse Jewish version of The Scorpion and The Frog:  Samuel saw a scorpion borne by a frog across a river; it stung a man, and he died.[15]

Samuel saw a scorpion borne by a frog across a river; it stung a man, and he died.  Our Jewish version of this fable doesn’t seem to be about the nature of the scorpion or the gullibility of the frog, but focuses on the mortality of man. A man tried to run from death and somehow these enemies, the scorpion and the frog, came together to serve the Divine Plan and execute judgment.  It’s as if a miracle was wrought to remind us that human beings cannot escape mortality.  Perhaps.  But I see the story slightly differently. That is because, unlike a fable of Aesop, our Talmudic tale has two morals.  One moral of the Talmudic tale of The Scorpion and the Frog is that we are not Masters of the Universe: we are mortal.  We are born into the world and even our greatest efforts cannot prevent us from leaving this world.  But that is only half the story.  The Jewish version of The Scorpion and the Frog also teaches that despite our lack of control over the universe, we are nonetheless in full control of our character.  Even a devious scorpion, when attuned to the Divine Plan of the universe, can withhold his sting and swim across a river on a frog’s back to perform the part he is meant to play in our world.  In the Talmud’s tale, even the scorpion can change his character when he senses a plan greater than his instincts and desires.  In Aesop’s version, the scorpion is the paradigm of arrogant, self-destructive narcissism; in our Jewish fable, the humble scorpion controls his character and acts out of wisdom, because understands the role he is meant to play in our universe.

During the Days of Awe we are inspired by the sounding of the great shofar to listen to our still small voice.  Even though that still small voice is not meant to be the arrogant Big Me, “Master of the Universe”, our still small voice nonetheless has remarkable power. The power of our still small voice is humility, Jewish humility, understanding that because we do not control the universe, we need to do everything in our own limited power to perfect the universe. On this most holy Day of Awe, may we be moved by that awe to the beginnings of wisdom that allow us to understand our place in the cosmos.  May the sounding of the great shofar aid us in hearing our still small voice.  And may our still small voice—from a place of great humility—join together with all the other still, small voices in our world dedicated to justice and peace and righteousness and good.  And may our still, small voices unite into a remarkably humble yet powerful chorus committed to changing ourselves so, together, we might change the world.

[1] Although this fable is often attributed to Aesop, there is academic dispute regarding that notion.  However, all agree the ancient Greek Aesop tells a similar tale, “The Farmer and the Viper”.

[2] The language of קול דממה דקה, the “still small voice” comes from I Kings 19:13; it has been juxtaposed with the sound of the great shofar by the Unetane Tokef prayer of our High Holy Day Liturgy.

[3] David Foster Wallace.  The previous citation from Brooks as well as this extended excerpt from Wallace are found in David Brooks, The Road to Character, p. 10.

[4] This, and all the data in this paragraph, are from Brooks, The Road to Character, pp. 7-8.

[5] Sherman McCoy was the wealthy New York bond trader who considered himself a “Master of the Universe”, and who serves as eponym for the first chapter of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

[6] Genesis 2:15.

[7] Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, III:12.

[8] In this sense, first century scholar Shimon bar Yochai taught that every arrogant person is like an idolator.  Babylonian Talmud, tractat Sotah 4b.  Much of that entire page of Talmud is occupied with the excesses of arrogance.

[9] Psalm 111:10.

[10] Humility in Judaism is far from what we might often associate with a religious sort of self-abnegation, any humiliation.  Often people erringly associate humility with thinking that their destiny is be eaten by worms, that they should allow themselves to be abused or mistreated by others, sometimes in fantastic ways.  Judaism doesn’t identify abstemious acts at all with being humble; it labels those humiliations as lowliness, a degradation of the spirit.  These specific examples are found in Rabbinic Literature, and are described by the Hebrew phrase שפל רוח, meaning “lowly in spirit”, which also carries a sense of the downcast or degraded.  The phrase about being “eaten by worms” comes from Mishnah Avot 4:4.  The notion of suffering abuse to make peace comes from the Midrash Kallah Rabbati 3.  Fascinatingly, Maimonides, in his commentary on the Mishnah, Avot 4:4, gives the example of a person who is “lowly of spirit” as one who allows others to urinate on him.

[11] Thanks to Moshe Halberthal for his helpful teaching on this issue:

In the [Jewish] tradition of humility, the lowly self-assessment doesn’t reflect a comparison of the modest person to other people; instead it reflects the sense of awe, which leads him to assess himself in relation to the cosmos or God.

Moshe Halberthal, Maimonides: Life and Thought, p. 160, slightly abridged.  I am particularly indebted to these pages in the chapter “Nobility and Saintliness” which informed my thinking and supplied many textual resources for these thoughts about humility.

[12] Proverb 22:4

[13] Thanks, William Shakespeare.  Macbeth, Act V, line 24.

[14] According to Frank Zappa, “Wisdom is the Dom of the Wiz”.  “Packard Goose,” Joe’s Garage, Act III.  I am inexplicably indebted to that particular song for the formulation of the cited sentence.

[15] Babylonian Talmud, tractate Nedarim 41a.

Moving Beyond Magnificent Myths

Rosh HaShanah 5776: Chicago Sinai Congregation

What is the most difficult question you’ve ever been asked by a child?  Why is the sky blue?  Where do babies come from? Where do we go when we die?  Take a minute and think: how did you respond?  Did you give the full answer, scientifically explaining why the sky seems cerulean? Perhaps you dodged the question, speaking of storks or cabbage patches, convincing yourself a little fib nobly told a toddler was more appropriate than an awkward truth?  Perhaps you heard yourself offer an answer you didn’t believe—speaking of harps and angels and loved ones reunited—when you’re not really sure that’s the case? Did you feel like you gave a good answer, or were you just relieved you ducked a difficult question?

Many of us lie to our children—or are at least not fully honest—because we believe it is the right thing to do. Sometimes we are ambiguous when they ask about age-inappropriate issues; we talk of “The Birds & The Bees,” because we want to spare children details of sexual reproduction that have little to do with matters avian or apian.  At other times, we fudge facts because we fear how they will be interpreted.  I remember how a former congregant shared that when his kids asked if he used cocaine, he lied and said he hadn’t; he was afraid his honesty might open dangerous doors of emulating his behavior.  Sometimes, rather than giving an answer that puts the ‘pain’ in ‘painfully honest’, we talk around the truth.  We don’t believe the best way to answer a simple question is with a straightforward answer.  Part of being a parent, a teacher, a Rabbi—anyone in the position of discussing difficult issues with young people—is striking that balance being helpful and being honest.

Abraham had to strike a balance between being helpful and being honest.  Abraham wanted to help put in place God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  If Abraham chose to be honest—telling Isaac he was walking towards his own death—he could have undermined his own effort, compromised the solitary goal of his arduous journey.  Caught between the virtue of telling Isaac the truth and vice of sabotaging his greater goal, Abraham did what many of us would do: he kept quiet.  Not knowing what to say to his son, Abraham said nothing about his intentions atop the Mountain.  That lack of communication lasted three days, until Isaac finally broke the silence with a straightforward question, “Here are the fire and the wood; where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”  Abraham needed to speak, to say something.  Abraham answered: אלהים יראה לו השה לעולה בני, God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering my son.[1]

God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering my son.  Is this the truth?  Or is Abraham’s answer a convenient dodge of a serious question?  On a simple read, it appears Abraham is not telling the truth: God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac atop the mountain, and here he is pretending he intends otherwise.[2]  Our tradition, however, hesitates to see our noble ancestor as a liar.  Rashi, the famed Torah teacher, explains we should see Abraham’s answer as painting two scenarios, as an either/or statement: God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering; but if not, my son, he will be the sacrifice.[3]  Rashi’s answer is as unsatisfactory as Abraham’s: we don’t know what Abraham wanted to impart to his son, what lesson our story tries to teach.  In one interpretation, Abraham lies to Isaac so his Divine errand is not compromised.  The kindest case is that Abraham vacillates between the fact God commanded Isaac to die and his hope God wouldn’t make him commit the deed.  Any way we understand Abraham’s answer, we are unable to discover the truth, a simple meaning, a solitary moral for us to learn.

Isaac, however, took away a painful lesson from Abraham’s answer: he decided his father was untrustworthy.  Following his father’s fateful response, the son decided listening to his father was no longer worth his time.  As we read Genesis, we see the very last words Abraham ever says to Isaac are: God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering my son.  Following the episode atop the mountain, Abraham returns home; Isaac does not go with him.[4]  Actually, Isaac never sees his father again.  The only time Isaac returns home is for Abraham’s funeral: Isaac, with brother Ishmael, buries Abraham.[5]  If we do not know what Abraham tried to tell his son on their trip up the mountain, it is clear the near-sacrifice of Isaac costs Abraham any future relationship with Isaac.  I imagine Isaac severed communication, cut off his father, because he felt betrayed.  Whether or not Abraham intended his words to be clear or foggy, Isaac came to realize—after the ordeal of being bound and set on sticks with burning fire—that his father was not fully honest with him. The price Abraham paid either for deception or intentional imprecision was never talking with his son again. Even if he thought he was doing the right thing, even if Abraham hoped God in fact would provide a lamb for the burnt offering, Abraham’s dishonesty—or at least lack of complete candor—cost him a relationship with a child he had hoped for over a hundred years.  Abraham’s failure to give an honest answer to a straightforward question cost him any continuing relationship with his son.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is ancient.  But I fear similar tales about our failures to be fully honest with our children are remarkably modern.  Earlier this year, an old, dear friend—let’s call him Ted—invited me for a meal when work brought him to Chicago.  After catching up on personal lives, the subject matter moved, as it often does when Ted and I talk, to Israel. I was surprised by a story Ted told me about an interaction with his niece.  It started when, on Facebook, Ted’s niece “liked” a post about a Princeton program about BDS: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions from Israel. My friend Ted responded viscerally: “You ‘like’ a BDS vote? I don’t get it!”  Ted couldn’t stop there, adding, “You need to do some thinking on this.  This is nothing but the Trojan horse for bigots and Jew haters to deploy against the only democracy in the Middle East.”[6]  Now, that was just the start: from that post onward, the virtual conversation intensified. The Facebook debate ranged from why there was no organized boycott of Saudi Arabi to whether Israel could be called democracy if it occupies the West Bank.  My friend got into a consistent and angry side debate with one of his niece’s college friends: a Jewish friend.  I’ve seen the transcript; it was pretty heated. And so my friend’s niece sent him a private message.  “Uncle Ted,” it read, “I am removing your comments from my Facebook post.  I love you, but please do me the favor of not commenting on things like this in the future.”

Needless to say, my friend was not the least bit happy.  There are certain parts of the thread I’m sure hurt more than others.  I know the whole exchange made Ted feel remarkably out of touch with the lives of his niece and her peers.  Here was a Jew of a younger generation challenging Ted’s perspective, saying, “Most friends and family would agree with you.  But I ask you, Ted, to consider how the world sees Israel.”  On top of this, the young debating partner skeptically questioned if Ted was being completely honest; he challenged that Ted was repeating PR talking-points more borne of right-wing spin than based on real-world actualities.[7]  The gap, the divide between how Jewish Americans of different generations see Israel was made clear—painfully precise—to my friend.  And, worst of all, the young Jews involved denied further dialogue, cut Ted out of the conversation.  With all his passion and opinion, my friend was banished from the discussion.

At this point in the telling, Ted then looked me squarely in the eye, waited for my gaze to meet his so he could be completely clear.  “Seth,” he started, “You are in a unique position. I’m afraid we are losing my niece, her friends, her peers, when it comes to Israel.  I’m afraid that this young generation won’t carry a deep love for the State of Israel.  I’ve learned they won’t listen to me because they don’t believe I’ve been sharing the whole story or telling the entire truth.  But you, you’re a rabbi, you have the opportunity”— he spoke with deeper resolve—“and an obligation.  You can speak to the next generation of Jewish people honestly.  You can point out the complexities of Israel. If you tell the entire truth, they will listen to you; they won’t think your words are spin. And maybe, if you can do this successfully, maybe we won’t lose our own children.”[8]

Todd’s request is specific to our Jewish experience.  But his hope is remarkably human.  For millennia, every parent in the human family confronts communicating with children, imparting important ideals, determining how much truth to tell them, when are the right moments to reveal the sometimes painful fullness of unvarnished truth.  Throughout history, parents—alone, in pairs, united under the banner of “society”—have chosen to hold back the truth in the name of some greater good.  Abraham, I imagine, did so in not telling the whole truth to Isaac.  The Greek philosopher Plato had a name for this phenomenon: in Greek it is gennaion pseudos, translated into in English as, “A Noble Lie”.[9]  A Noble Lie, in Plato’s philosophy, is the type of prevarication intentionally told in the interests of the greater good.  Plato has in mind legends and myths: the kind of society-cementing stories “poets tell and cause others to believe”.[10]  In light of our Torah reading today, we who think Abraham might have withheld the full truth from his son so as not to compromise a mountaintop sacrifice can see Abraham as telling a Noble Lie.

Plato didn’t posit it appropriate for parents to tell their children Noble Lies; he takes a wider view, saying society is often happier believing a Noble Lie than knowing the truth.  If we don’t like Abraham lying to one child, it is hard to embrace the nobility of Plato’s Lie to an entire nation; we who cherish sincerity and honesty wouldn’t want to be a part of any culture that has falsehood at its foundation. [11]  But there might be a better way to appreciate what Plato is attempting to expound.  Classics scholar Desmond Lee claims “Noble Lie” is a mistranslation; he posits the phrase should properly be understood as “Magnificent Myth”.[12]  Plato has been unfairly criticized, Lee argues, for wanting to base society upon a calculated lie; if Plato defends Magnificent Myths, he calls for no pedestrian prevarication. A Noble Lie—any Magnificent Myth—is in keeping with all national traditions, any communal expression of shared values through an embellished narrative.  We all know the legend about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree; his confessing, “I cannot tell a lie,” is itself a lie Americans tell themselves to idealize the icon of our independence.  But we are smart enough to understand that the episode of our Founding Father with a Cherry Tree is a national myth, no bald-faced fabrication.  Taking Plato as teaching not Noble Lies, but arguing for Magnificent Myths, we see the stories we share with our children—the foundation tales we tell an entire society—are not meant to be taken as literally true, but rather as a figurative expression of our most deeply held beliefs and ideals.

I realized in my talks with Ted that we Jews have many figurative expressions of our most deeply held beliefs.  If we are to be honest with ourselves, on this High Day of Holiness, we must admit that for over sixty years we have mostly spoken about the State of Israel in categories and fashions that resemble the Magnificent Myth.  We describe the miracle of Israel’s birth, out of the ashes of the Holocaust, after 2,000 years of exile.  We speak of the Sabra spirit, of the grit and glory of Israel’s pioneers.  We laud films like Exodus or Raid on Entebbe that valorize the noble heroism of young Israel.  But even these Magnificent Myths—our cherished connections to Israel—do not always tell the whole story.  Here, I share my own experience.  I was taught that in ’48 Arabs fled from Israel at the behest of enemy nations who wanted a clear path to drive Jews into the Sea.  Even though I know that to be true, until recently I never learned how the Israeli Army also violently expelled Arab populations from villages like Khirbet Khizheh.[13]  In the days of my youth, the Six Day War of ’67 was lionized as Israel’s greatest military achievement.  It wasn’t until my third decade that I realized that Jewish luminaries—from David Ben-Gurion to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik—considered the occupation resulting from that war to be Israel’s greatest failure.[14]  It is not that Magnificent Myths are untrue; they simply do not tell the whole story.

Young people today seem to know the whole story.  It’s not only that those who come to college campuses or graduate from them perceive our deepest convictions as Magnificent Myths.  This generation owns its own truth that contradicts what we assume as certainty.  Let’s just take my Noble Truths as examples.  I believe Israel is a vibrant democracy—the only democracy—in the Middle East; many young people today can’t consider a country that occupies another people a democratic State. I believe Israel is surrounded by enemies, some of whom seek and will be satisfied only by Israel’s destruction; many millenials instead see Israel as the only Middle East regime with nuclear weapons. I believe Israel has a remarkable role to play in the spiritual life of the Jewish people; too many students experience Israel as a religious autocracy that oppresses minority communities, including Reform Jews like themselves. If I am to be honest, there are plenty who hear even my lefty, liberal take on Israel as just a Magnificent Myth, maybe even a lie.  As we learn from our story of Abraham and Isaac, we risk alienating our children when we are not fully honest with them.  If we do not learn how to be honest—to move past myth and be painfully precise—we risk alienating our children from Israel, and potentially from living a meaningful Jewish life as well.

It is painfully ironic, now that we have a Jewish State after millennia of exile, so many of our young people are alienated from Israel.  That alienation—that spiritual exile from Israel—runs much deeper than a powerful story shared by a friend.  Every article in the newspaper, every poll published testifies we are failing to connect our kids to the State of Israel.[15]  How, then, do we proceed? How do we who love Israel fiercely and hope for its thriving future engender similar commitment in the coming generation?  First and foremost, we need to move beyond Magnificent Myths to a time of talking total truth.  Two thousand years ago, our Sage Avtalyon taught the importance of being painfully precise: אבטליון אומר חכמים הזהרו בדבריכם, Wise ones should be wary of their words, lest their words lead to exile.[16]  When we speak about Israel, we need to be careful: we could be cut off from our kids, we can alienate them from Israel.  Avtalyon says affirmatively what we learn from Abraham in the negative: if we do not tell the complete truth to our children, they will stop listening to us, we risk losing them.  We need to be wise about our goal: inculcating an honest commitment to Israel in the rising generation.  Their commitment needs to matter more than our truth.  And so we must change the conversation.

If we want to change the conversation with our children about Israel, we cannot tell them why they are wrong.  We need to listen to them.  We need to learn from them.  We need to give them straight and honest answers, so we can continue to a deeper conversation about values.  We can move past arguments of interpreting history to a focused discussion of how to ensure Israel can become a thriving, democratic—and potentially redemptive—State, despite the realities that today prevent Israel from attaining our highest aspirations.  What might this look like? For starters, we can admit Israel is imperfect; we have to learn criticism of Israel does not betray Israel’s fundamental right to exist.  Next, we have to realize that the historical narrative we were taught about Israel’s founding differs from what young people learn today.  For example, rather than fight over the details or results of the Six Day War, we should engage this rising generation in the value of moving beyond wars to peace.  Lastly, we should shift despair with the current situation to dreams of a better future.  In place of debating Israel’s relative religious freedoms, we can talk with our children about Israel’s potential to model the tolerance and understanding we cherish.  Instead of arguing over words like ‘territories’ and ‘occupation’, we can discuss how Israel in the past returned land for peace, and hope for a future filled with peaceful solutions that improve life for Israelis and Palestinians.  We should talk about the reasons we have faith in Israel, and the ways we hope Israel can be even better than it is today.  Our children—not too far removed from their own adolescent years and the shortcomings they overcame—will be able to understand the faith we place in the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of Israel just as they appreciate the faith we have always placed in them.

It’s a funny thing about placing faith in our children.  When we do, it usually works.  And when, like Abraham, we fail to trust our children with the truth, they often—like Isaac—learn to trust us no more.  Which brings me back to my friend, Ted.  I called him a few weeks ago to make sure the words I was sharing in this sermon were accurate.  He corrected my text where I was wrong, and added, “Don’t you want to know how the story ended?  I followed your advice and got to a great place with my niece.”  I had to admit to Ted I had forgotten my own counsel.  He reminded me, “You said not to argue about facts and perceptions, but to talk about strategy and purpose.”  Evidently, that worked: a few months after the Facebook affair, Ted and his niece were together at a family gathering.  By then, Ted had lived up to his pledge, had kept his comments to himself about his niece’s Israel opinions.  He didn’t fight with her over what she perceived to be the facts.  Perhaps that’s why she was receptive when he approached her, saying, “First of all, I love you.  Granted, I don’t agree with your take on all this, but that’s o.k.  Still, I do want to talk about your hope for an outcome, and how you’re planning to get there.  Who knows? If we think together, we might find a better way to reach your goal.”

And so different generations talked about a shared goal: creating, ensuring, and fighting for an Israel of meaning.  Once he stopped arguing about historical narrative and competing truths, Ted was able to engage his niece on what really matters: not the past, but the future.  And Ted’s niece—like so many, the vast majority of our young people—desperately wants something positive from of the State of Israel.  Yes, she and her peers want honest answers from us about how history has reached this remarkable place of suffering for two peoples.  But it is the vast minority of the Jewish people who respond to the tragedy of the current day by arguing Israel should be no more; most in this rising Jewish generation desperately want an attachment to, relationship with and love for the State of Israel.  Fostering an honest commitment to Israel in our younger generation is within our reach, because it is a goal shared on both sides of this painful generation gap.  Fostering these real relationships with Israel is especially within our reach here at Chicago Sinai Congregation.  Just hear the reminder—the New Year’s wish—from one of Sinai’s students: “I wish Sinai would do more in the effort on college campus because Sinai has [an important] perspective to offer.”[17]  What is the perspective we share at Sinai?  Our age-old commitment to honest, open, civil dialogue; our continuing dismissal of facile ideologies and majestic mythologies; our constant willingness to confront hard realities, to answer difficult questions, to speak straight and tell the truth.

So let us tell the truth.  Every Magnificent Myth has a shelf life; plainly-stated truths are the best path to true understanding.  Our Reform Judaism was founded three centuries ago out of a commitment to move past mythology, a commitment to be honest, even brutally so, when it comes to religion. If we think of how divisive our conversations about Israel are today, imagine what happened when Reform Rabbis in the 1700’s started publically eating pork! Years later, our commitment to seat women next to men in the congregation—and ultimately to allow them equal status as clergy—continues to rankle many in the Jewish world who keep women behind screens, in balconies.  Reform Judaism moved beyond the myth that women were second-class citizens; Reform Judaism moved beyond the myth that our LGBTQ family and friends were violating religious law by being true to their born identity; Reform Judaism moved beyond the myth that the only way to produce and engage Jewish children was to marry someone who had been born or converted to be Jewish.  Today, at long last, the day has come when we must move beyond more Magnificent Myths: the ones we tell about Israel. Our straightforward speech will not minimize our love, but instead engender deeper affection for Israel because we are willing to be honest about our hopes and concerns for our Jewish home.

Communication is hard. Even when we speak plainly we are often misunderstood. Especially when, as Abraham must have been ascending that mountain, we are filled with anxiety, our linguistic equivocations misdirect more than provide meaning.  On this Rosh Hashanah, may we make sure that when we bring our loved ones with up that mountain, we not only walk down with them hand in hand, but continue to walk through life together, hand in hand, continuing to talk, continuing to listen, continuing towards the same goals even if on slightly different paths.  On this Rosh Hashanah, may our noble love for the State of Israel allow us to be open and honest about the reasons for our love, as well as the concerns we have for our loved ones. On this Rosh Hashanah, with all its majestic mythical imagery, may we penetrate through the mere semblance of reality and arrive at true meaning we can express, we can share, we can pass on securely to future generations.

May we find the courage to talk honestly.

May we find the strength to listen openly.

May we walk into a wonderful future hand in hand.

May it be our will.

[1] This, the story of the Binding of Isaac, is from Genesis chapter 22.  All translations are my own.

[2] The medieval commentator Bekhor Shor noted Abraham’s answer has two meanings. On one hand, Abraham could be expressing to Isaac an inner hope that—even though they walk towards a sacrifice with nary a sheep—God, Providentially, will provide an animal atop the mountain.  Alternatively, Abraham says what we see: God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, namely you, my son; Issac, you are destined to die.  Abraham’s ambiguity is a literal matter of life and death to Isaac: if Abraham thinks God will provide another animal, Isaac lives; if Abraham tells Isaac he is the sacrifice, Isaac walks up Moriah knowing he will die.  As we will see in the analysis of Rashi’s commentary, Bekhor Shor’s interpretation still leaves us with important questions: What are we to make of this?  But which interpretation should we follow?  How should we understand God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering my son?

See the commentary to Genesis 22 of the 12th century Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor of Orleans.

[3] The commentary to Genesis 22 of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki [1040-1105] of Troyes.

[4] Genesis 22:19.

[5] Genesis 25:9.

[6] I thank my good friend Ted Soloway for many things, including sharing this story, and the actual transcript of the Facebook exchange, from which this citation is literally taken [with only his niece’s name expurgated].

[7] “Do you wonder how Western youth perceive Gaza/the West Bank? Or do you repeat Hasbara talking points?”  Hasbara is the emerging word for PR, specifically used for trying to put a positive spin on the lack of any progress in attaining peace with Israel’s neighbors.  In 2006, I sat in a meeting with Israeli government representatives claiming that all was good with Gaza and the West Bank, but that Israel was losing the hasbara war.  Thus, this government official claimed, Israel was investing in PR firms and the like to help the world see the situation in a better light.

[8] This is not a transcript of a conversation, but a Ted-approved version of the evening.

[9] γενναῖον ψεῦδος.  See Plato, The Republic, III: 414c.

[10] Plato, Republic, III: 414b-c.  In The Republic Plato argues that those most fit to govern should serve as “guardians” of a state; he wonders how the entire populace can be convinced that these men should govern, “Could we somehow contrive one of those lies that comes into being in case of need… some Noble Lie?”

[11] Karl Popper, who is sympathetic in many ways to the Noble Lie, faults Plato in particular for making a fabrication, an invention, the ultimate basis of society.  Karl Popper, Open Society and its Enemies, “6: On Religion as a Noble Lie.”

[12] See Plato, The Republic, Penguin Classics edition, tr. Desmond Lee, p. 177:

Plato has been criticized for his Foundation Myth as if it were a calculated lie. That is partly because the phrase here translated “magnificent myth” (p.414b) has been conventionally mistranslated “noble lie”; and this has been used to support the charge that Plato countenances manipulation by propaganda. But the myth is accepted by all three classes, Guardians included. It is meant to replace the national traditions which any community has, which are intended to express the kind of community it is, or wishes to be, its ideals, rather than to state matters of fact.

[13] Khirbet Khizeh, by S. Yizhar.  Yizhar Smilansky was an intelligence official in the Israeli Army in 1948, and wrote his account of forcible expulsion of an Arab village that same year.  Due to security reasons, he changed the name of the town; “Khirbet Khizeh”, like S. Yizhar, is a pseudonym.  This amazing book was published in Israel in 1948 and remains an official part of the state educational curriculum.  However, it wasn’t translated into English until 2008.  My thanks to Marjorie Susman for sharing that translation with me.

[14] Amazingly, these two luminaries came out against the occupation—although they would not have used that word—in 1967 itself.  For the position of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, see the thoughtful article by Ami Gluska, “What Turned Ben Gurion from a Hawk into a Dove,” HaAretz, June 3, 2011: http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/what-turned-ben-gurion-from-a-hawk-into-a-dove-1.365716 .

I learned of the opposition of Rav Soloveitchik from one of his most remarkable students: my friend, Rabbi Yehiel Poupko.    He can date the Rav’s opposition to a firm date: June 16, 1967.

Current Israelis are also of this opinion, most notable author and activist Amos Oz.  To see the thinking of Amos Oz on this issue, I recommend an article in the English-language edition of Haaretz from March 13, 2015, entitle, “Amos Oz has a Recipe for Saving Israel” [http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.646562].  There you can read this excerpt about how Amos Oz has moved past many Magnificent Myths about Israel:

I will now say something controversial: Since at least the 1967 Six-Day War, we have not won a war. Including the Yom Kippur War in 1973. A war is not a basketball game, in which the side that scores more points wins the trophy and gets a handshake. In a war, even if we burned more tanks than the enemy did, and downed more planes, and conquered enemy territory – that does not mean we won. The victor in a war is the side that achieves its goals, and the loser is the side that does not achieve its goals.

In the Yom Kippur War, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s goal was to break the status quo that was created in 1967, and he succeeded. We were defeated, because we did not achieve our goal, and the reason we did not achieve it was that we did not have a goal, nor could we have had a goal that was attainable by military force.

[15] See the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” from October 2013 as an indicator of the waning commitment to Israel in younger groups of Jewish Americans:

[16] Pirkei Avot 1:11.  The full text reads:

אבטליון אומר חכמים. הזהרו בדבריכם. שמא תחובו חובת גלות ותגלו למקום מים הרעים. וישתו התלמידים הבאים אחריכם וימותו. ונמצא שם שמים מתחלל:

Literally, this reads:

Avtalyon says: Wise Ones, be careful with your words, lest they force you to cast yourself into exile, to a place of evil waters.  [And lest] your students who follow you drink [these evil waters] and die, and thus the Divine Name is profaned.

In a setting of this for song, composer Robert Applebaum and I came up with the following poetic rendering:

Avtalyon says:

Wise ones should ever

Be wary of their words,

Lest they place themselves

Into exile from the world

Lest their actions bring

The Name to be profaned.

[17] This is a somewhat abridged quote taken from footage filmed for Chicago Sinai Congregation’s 5776 Video New Year’s Card.  While, as in TV cop shows, all names are changed to protect the innocent, you can see this video on www.chicagosinai.org.

Holding Contradictions, Holding Hands

There is something significant about a handshake.

Not a cold, clammy, mere formality, but a real handshake. When, after a good day’s work, a shared struggled endured, or an arrival at a rest stop on a long road, one human being locks hands with another—locks eyes with another human being—and shares the physical contact, the strength, of two hands from two different people are powerfully clenched together in communion, in community.

I had more real handshakes on August 1st, 2015, than on any other day of my life. This was the day when I was lucky enough to pronounce the final benediction at a ceremony blessing the outset of the NAACP‘s 45-day American Journey for Justice. This was the day when I was able publicly to share words of Torah in Selma before marchers undertook the first steps of an 865-mile trek to make the world a better place. This was the day I was graced—truly honored and overwhelmed—by the privilege of carrying a sacred scroll of the Torah over the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, taking about 700 of the million steps that lay ahead on the sojourn to Washington, D.C. This was the day I walked, double-file down the highway, 12 miles in the blazing 98-degree Alabama heat. Yet what I will remember most about the day was the power I felt with every meaningful handshake.

“We are now bonded,” said my new friend, Mary Sorteburg, in a remarkable embrace that topped everything else. That’s how I felt after my day, only one day, one in a series that will be marched by my compatriots who yearn for justice, by my new partners and friends in the NAACP leadership, and by my colleagues who will march that same Torah scroll all the way to D.C. I felt bonded.


Bonded to Mary and her remarkable husband Jeff Markley, who–despite being the Senator from Oregon–is now my spiritual representative in our Nation’s Capitol. Bonded to the remarkable Cornell William Brooks, the President of the NAACP, with whom I walked that remarkable road as we shared our stories in the blazing sun. Bonded to leaders Leon Russell and Dwayne Proctor, with whom I shared continuing conversations; bonded to Sierra Club President Aaron Mair and a man named Middle Passage, both of whom I came to know as they carried the Torah down State Highway 80. Bonded to Rabbis Denise Eger, Bruce Lustig, Beth Singer and Jason Roditch—who previously had been at best a quick ‘hello’ at convention or sometimes just a disembodied voice on the other end of the phone—and who are now brothers- and sisters-in-arms. Bonded to Susan Solomon, Merle Terry, Jill and Grant Peters, who traveled with me from Chicago Sinai Congregation to help our Torah scroll take its place in the American Journey for Justice. Bonded to the struggle to prove that Black lives matter. Bonded to the fight to end racism, to fight racism, to talk honestly about racism.

And bonded to the Torah scroll. I am not a rabbi overly focused on ritual, often moved by symbolism. But carrying a sacred scroll down an open highway, playing a small literal role in a massive literal journey erased any capacity for me to relate to Torah metaphorically. Even having passed the scroll to a beloved and esteemed colleague, I now feel as if I have a missing limb: part of my mental energy is constantly wondering where the scroll is, in whose treasuring arms it rests. But with the Torah on that historical highway, I have never felt smaller or bigger: I was one brief person carrying the Torah down a long road for one brief time; I could hardly see the end of the day’s walk, let along the final destination. I have never stood so proud and tall as I did as the clock approached 6:00 and my feet were blistering. I was able to carry the Torah proudly, to serve my role, to play my small part. The knowledge of being but a cog—but a vital part of the machinery to make our world a better place—is exactly the lesson of our American Journey for Justice.

August 1 was filled with love, with hope, with solidarity and community. It was also filled with anger, confusion, and disappointment. It was a day of contradiction. We were so generously and safely guided and granted passage by Alabama State Police; how different not only from 50 years ago when police presence on the other side of the bridge signaled danger, but also what a vast chasm from the terror black people continue to face in nearly every encounter with law enforcement. The Chicago Tribune published a wonderful story about my colleagues’ choosing to walk in support of the NAACP; the only ink the Tribune spent on the American Journey for Justice was to document the participation of White people. In one day, I feel as if I built real relationships on the road that will last into the future; in 13 months in Chicago, I have built precious yet few relationships with Black leaders. The contradictions of the day still puzzle me; it is upon me now to work towards their resolution.

On September 15, I will fly down to DC to meet up again with my comrades in justice, to carry that Torah scroll again in my arms as we bring it together into the very seat of our American Democracy. I will travel with members of my congregation, my daughter, and my determination to bring about racial justice. I look forward again to being with Cornell, with Jeff, with Bruce, with Dwayne, with Leon, with Mary, with so many more: the handshakes, the hugs, and the commitment to end racism. A commitment that binds us as tightly as hands clenched together in hope and love.

America’s continuing Journey for Justice

Thirty summers ago, my family packed into the station wagon for a cross-country road trip.  One of the highlights of our entire experience was a visit to the old Universal Studios.  My favorite part of the back lot tour, was this trick you could play, back in the day when Universal was a fun-filled studio tour and not a massive amusement park.  After driving through Amity Island and having Jaws attack your boat, after parting through the waters of the miraculously parted Red Sea, there was a random van sitting in an otherwise empty parking lot.  This was just a standard seventies junk-mobile: no crazy Cadillac or even quirky VW Minibus.  Still, this van was special: it was made out of Styrofoam.  Therefore, quite easily, you could lift up the entire “vehicle” with just one hand and hold the rear bumper high over your head.  A properly taken photo made it look like you were Superman: saving the day, rescuing whatever family member had the tawdry task of lying down on the ground so you could “rescue” them.  Somewhere there’s a picture of my dad rescuing me from such a crash; I remember thinking how cool it was, and how much I wanted to grow up and be superman, rescuing the day, just like my dad.


[this picture is not of my family!]

            Fifty years ago, two other phenomenal photos were taken that continues to inspire me, too.  This one’s more famous. It was taken on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Captured in the center is Martin Luther King, undaunted, returning to cross that bridge peaceably no matter whet Sherriff Jim Clark had waiting for him on the other side. In the crowd of leaders walking with King stands out a bearded face: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who later famously describe the moment crossing the bridge as “praying with his feet”. The second photo, taken three days later in Montgomery—when the voting rights march had reached its destination—featured not only Dr. King with Rabbi Heschel on his right.  Standing immediately to the left of Dr. King was Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of the Reform Movement of Judaism.  In his arms, Eisendrath holds a sacred scroll of our Torah.  Judaism standing for justice: these photos are the reason I became a rabbi.


Three weeks ago, I participated in a conference call for the National Conference on Civil Rights.  Because too little has changed in 50 years, most of the call discussed strategy and tactics for a key Voting Rights rally in Roanoake, VA.  Yet, towards the end of the call, NAACP President Cornell Brooks asked for “fifteen more minutes of our time” to share with us some important news.  By the time that quarter hour had concluded, I was inspired: the NAACP was undertaking a 40-day march from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C., calling it “America’s Journey for Justice”.  The remarkably appropriate headline of the trek was, “Our lives, our votes, our jobs, and our school matter.”  Every night of the 860-mile journey, travelers would come together in prayer, and study together in teach-in sessions on the compelling civil rights issues of our day.  A massive rally would celebrate the Journey’s reaching our nation’s capitol, and a large-scale advocacy day for civil rights would follow.

I was “in”.  My mind immediately made associations: 40 days of walking towards the promise of a better America were so perfectly parallel with my people’s saga of walking 40 years towards our own Land of Promise.  The two pictures from 50 years ago entered my mind: I knew the Jewish community needed to be on this march, from beginning to end.  Inspired by the image of King and Heschel on the bridge, I wanted to find a way to make sure a Rabbi—most likely a succession of 40 different ones—shared the entire distance of this journey.  Compelled by the picture of Eisendrath, I thought it would be powerful if our Torah scroll didn’t just appear in DC for the final rally, but accompanied us the entire 860-mile journey.  I knew I could no longer be inspired by pictures of the past if I wasn’t willing to walk the walk in the present.

This week, our Reform Movement invited leading rabbis to cement our support for and participation in “America’s Journey for Justice”. Coordinated by our Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., there will be countless opportunities for participation.  Our Rabbis, through the work of our Central Conference of American Rabbis, and our Rabbis Organizing Rabbis initiative, will coordinate several dozen rabbis walking the distance of the journey, carrying the sacred scroll of our Torah [a scroll from my own Chicago Sinai Congregation, bearing the most appropriate cover “All its ways are Peace”.].  The Congregations will come together not just to walk, but to be vocal participants in the many “rally days” to be held in multiple State Capitols along the way.  Learning resources and advocacy materials about voting rights, structural economic injustice, mass incarceration, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement will be brought to the institutions of Reform Judaism throughout America.  Those who can join the march personally will form relationships on the ground made through the experience of shared travel; the many who cannot attend will likewise be able to learn about the depths of racial injustice in America, and work to solve them.  I cannot wait to see how I am–how we are–changed by the experience.  And, how this shared experience of a Journey for Justice can change America.

I was lucky enough to visit Selma eight years ago.  In its lovely Civil Rights Museum, visitors are greeted by a wall covered with post-it notes with the words “I was there” printed across the top.  The remainder of every note contained personal reminiscences of those who stood on both sides of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.  It is a wall of powerful testimony.

I ask myself, “What do I want to put on the post-it note that will be read by the next generation?”  That I watched the Journey on TV? That I read about it in the paper?  No. I want to write, “I WAS THERE”.

This new generation can no longer look at pictures of the past to draw inspiration.  We need a new generation of Reform Jewish leaders to step forward and to say, “We were there”. We need to be there today.  There might be some who think the task is too big, be it the coordination of multitudes to march 860 miles, or making serious changes to the structural injustices so deeply engrained in American society.  However, if we really want to make our nation a true land of promise for all, we need to take a page out of the old playbook from Universal Studios: we need to think we are Superman, and we need to imagine accomplishing the impossible, we need to believe we can do all that is required to bring justice to our United States of America.  And lest we think that is too long a road to travel, we need to remember every journey worth taking begins with a simple step.

I look forward to taking my simple steps on August 1, in Selma, Alabama.

Vigilance about Violence

Ten human beings killed.  Fifty five wounded.  On a holiday weekend celebrating our nation’s independence from tyranny.  Among the dead was Amari Brown, all of seven years old.  This half-year of 2015 alone, over 1,300 people have been shot in our city of Chicago.

Chicago is not the only city ravaged by the plague of gun violence.  We know, too well, about the murderous church shootings in Charleston, SC, that victimized a sacred community engaged in the holy act of bible study.  The list of towns—from Aurora through Sandy Hook—rehearses a litany of tears.

Our prophet Isaiah dreamed of the day when Violence and Destruction shall no longer be heard in your land; neither despoliation nor destruction within your borders.  How we cling to that vision of Isaiah today, and how starkly remote it appears.

The question remains: what do we do about it?

How do we respond to this plague of gun violence in addition to our anger, our outrage and our sadness?  There are no easy answers.  Our federal government seems remarkably disinclined to do anything to control gun violence; our city seems to be short on solutions as well.  Creative campaigns, like the IAF’s Do Not Stand Idly By effort, are working with manufacturers to make guns (and gun distribution) safer for all.  But there is a very big mountain to climb in overcoming this towering problem.

In addition to campaigns and advocacy, simple awareness of any societal ill is always important.  Here at Chicago Sinai Congregation, before I joined the community as its Senior Rabbi, we began the practice of recalling the names of those killed by guns in Chicago before our Shabbat recitation of our Mourner’s Qaddish prayer.  I was proud that our community made awareness of this matter a regular part of our practice; I also was aware—and a little wary—that the liturgy of our prayer service, and a precious moment for personal memories, was being brought into the realm of the political.

I was proud when a member of our Confirmation class marched into the offices of Senator Mark Kirk and asked the Senator to take action on meaningful gun control.  In explaining why the issue mattered so much to her, she shared with the Senator’s staff how important it was to have the weekly reminder of how many lives were ended, and how many families are shattered, due to gun violence.

I was sympathetic when members of our community shared that while they thought awareness of the problem was important, the Mourner’s Qaddish was a time for personal reminiscences, and not ideally suited for an awareness-raising campaign about an issue for our body politic.

I was torn about maintaining our commitment to the issue of gun violence and its particular placement in our worship.  I could not summon the wisdom of Solomon to balance these competing claims.

But I wasn’t unsure at all what to do on the Friday night after the church killings in Charleston: in solidarity and sadness, we read the names of the nine victims.  It seemed appropriate beforehand, and absolutely right afterwards.  The tragedy was of the moment, and in all of our minds.  The Qaddish wasn’t about a political issue or any awareness-raising: we read the names of the victims because all of us in the sanctuary actively mourned their passing.

That was when I knew it was time for our practice to change.  Every Shabbat at Sinai, we will continue to bear witness to those killed in our city by gun violence, and we will continue to raise awareness of this societal plague.  However, rather than reciting their names before our communal Qaddish prayer, we will recall every week—in our Shabbat bulletin—the names and ages of those who have died in the past week.  I do not know if this is a wise decision; it does feel remarkably right to me.

We will preserve our congregation commitment to work for an end to gun violence, and we will maintain the time of our Qaddish prayer as an expression of the mourning our community brings into our sanctuary.  Of course, through our Social Action Committee and our partnership with United Power, we will continue our action, advocacy and partnership on the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign.  We will work towards the day when Isaiah’s vision becomes ever more true, and violence and destruction are no longer heard within our borders.

Reform Judaism for the 21st Century

20th Century Fox found themselves with a wonderful problem on their hands after the summer of ’77: a relatively small-budget Sci-Fi film unexpectedly made them hundreds of millions in a single season.  Flushed with the kind of cash to which they were not accustomed, 20th Century Fox tried to figure out where to invest their windfall. Somehow they decided they should not be just in the entertainment industry, but in the “Entertainment & Leisure” business. So they acquired two pieces of property: the ski resort of Aspen and the golf course at Pebble Beach. Five years later, when 20th Century Fox was sold to new owners, they decided to be only in the entertainment business, without the leisure.  With haste, the new Fox ownership “dumped” Pebble Beach and Aspen, because they weren’t adding to the bottom line.

It is finally my turn to talk on the topic of “Reform Judaism for the 21st Century”. We have already gained insights into this issue from the Presidents of the Union for Reform Judaism and of the Hebrew Union College, the CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the new Director of our Religious Action Center.[1]  At the culmination of such a series of speeches, it is now my turn—as I am installed as Senior Rabbi of this remarkable congregation—to speak on this subject. I share with you the story of 20th Century Fox as a cautionary tale about predictions.  Sometimes we cannot foresee our greatest successes; no one would have predicted that Star Wars would become a worldwide phenomenon of a franchise. Likewise, we sometimes fail to see our greatest assets: it’s safe to say that both Aspen and Pebble Beach have done okay since 20th Century Fox deemed them disposable.  Predictions of the future are sometimes helpful, but frequently the only thing that we can foresee about our future is that it will surprise us.

Allow me one more prefatory remark regarding the movie business, however.  A few months ago, my younger daughter Lily and I sat to snuggle and watch some movie on some Sunday.  Maybe it was Night at the Museum III, perhaps it was our umpteenth time watching The Simpson’s Movie; what mattered was time spent with my daughter. As the opening titles rolled, Lily asked me a really good question. “Daddy, when are they going to change the name of this company to 21st Century Fox?”[2]  My daughter’s question reminds us that, if we don’t pay close attention, the fundamentals we take for granted exceed their expiration date:  we hum along with the opening title, but fail to notice the outdated name of the company whose theme song we sing.  That might be fine if we are viewing a film, but it is no way to ready ourselves for the onset of a new age.  Thus, while we know much about the future will surprise us, there is enough we understand about today to chart a course to tomorrow.  Tracing the trajectory connecting our current situation towards that limited part of the future we can predict is my limited goal for these remarks.  Tonight I plan to speak about three contemporary realities that dictate how Reform Judaism needs to adapt for the future, namely: an evolution in the nature of identity, the unfortunate side-effects of our American Jewish success story, and transformations in the construction of community.

The first place to talk about Reform Judaism for the 21st Century is to return to the roots of our liberal movement in the 18th century.  Without delving deep into the intellectual waters of Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, we know—from our very beginnings—Reform Judaism values the ultimate dignity of every individual; our movement makes thoughtful, autonomous decisions the highest hallmark of religious life.  Individual choice and Reform Judaism have always been synonymous; we have walked proudly for over a century under the banner, “Choice through Knowledge”.[3]  “Choice through Knowledge” will remain essential in our new century as well.  But the choices 21st Century individuals make will be far different from the how’s-and-why’s of wearing religious garb or the evaluation of a religiously appropriate approach to eating.  Reform Jewish decisions in the past were made within the context of Judaism itself: how many days to observe holidays, what traditional liturgy would remain part of worship, who could qualify as clergy.  The choices autonomous individuals are making today exceed the traditional canon and calendar of our heritage because they are happening in the wide-open field of 21st century identity formation.

According to sociologist Peter Berger, Hairesis, meaning option or choice, has become the quintessential feature of modern society.  This is because “persons are no longer born and socialized into a community as if by fate.  Rather, identity—including religious identity—now becomes in large part a matter of negotiation, an expression of choice.”[4]  In our Post-Modern society, we are aware that the identities we were handed at birth are mere social constructions. Identity is no longer a reflection of the situation into which one was born or the value system by which one was raised: in our new, modern America, individuals are unafraid to construct their identity from a variety of sources. People experiment with identity today in ways that are unprecedented: a person born as a male Methodist in Minnesota can easily grow up to be New York Jewish woman.  Our selfhood is hardly determined at birth; thanks to Hairesis, identity is  fluid, a constantly evolving process.  In the 21st Century, option and choice are the defining features of how we see ourselves.

Reform Judaism is ideally suited for a society in which evolutionary choice is the zeitgeist.  But that hardly means our Judaism doesn’t need to adapt for the challenges of an age of Hairesis.  In the previous century, we already started this process: we acknowledged that being raised as a Jew, and not pure parentage, was the essential element of Jewish identity; we abolished millennia-old societal constructions and affirmed first that women—and soonafter Gay men and Lesbians—should be fully embraced as Rabbis; we were bold enough to welcome into our fold—through the sacred covenant of marriage—those who were not themselves Jewish but wanted to partner in building a Jewish home.  Here we adapted to the changing tides of the past; where will be the shifting sands of the future?

I see the sands of spirituality shifting in two different directions.  One direction follows those people raised in Jewish homes and committed to Jewish living who adopt practices of other traditions: this happens noticeably in the burgeoning community—calling themselves “Jew-Bu”s—blending Buddhism with Judaism.[5]  Those whose stated identity is Jewish-hyphen-other are a growing group: some are born into blended religious families and others adopt practices of traditions they encounter in the open marketplace of ideas.  While we should never lose sight of the brilliant integrity of a unified Jewish existence, we must make Judaism available to those who are not seeking such a solitary religious identity.  This can open new horizons for our conception of Judaism, as when we delve deeper into intrinsically Jewish mindfulness and meditation practices.  Unfortunately, we will also come up against the limits of those moments of meaning we will be able to support, as I have when I declined to officiate at a combined Bris/Baptism ceremony.  We will face both challenges and opportunities in a world where the boundaries distinguishing our sacred tradition are perceived, more and more, as permeable.

Opposite from those who enrich their lives with multiple faiths is that far larger group seemingly distanced from and devoid of religion entirely.  Here I speak of the many Jews disaffected by the organized Jewish community, and also of the Jewish individuals more likely to receive their regular dose of spirituality from a daily Yoga class than a weekly Shabbat service.  It is not that we need to compete with Soul Cycle; we do need to understand that fewer and fewer people are purchasing piousness as a package deal, and many are seeking spirituality everywhere except synagogues.  A serious challenge to the synagogue of the 21st century is learning how to bring meaningful Jewish experiences to those who think the last place they will find it is in a Temple.  However, we know people long for the meaningful framework religion provides; even the former Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, remarked last week, “People are looking for things to believe in more than just money.”[6]  Reform Judaism adds serious value to our existence with a focus on thoughtful personal choices and a commitment to continue to evolve.  Yet, given the depths of choice hairesis entails, Reform Jews will have to work harder to deliver our message of meaning and autonomy amongst countless competitors in the wide-open marketplace of religious identity.

One specific group will be most challenging to the Jewish establishment of the 21st Century: how we accept, include and integrate those who take hairesis to its etymological extreme by committing heresy.[7]  Of which heretics do I speak?  Those who are skeptical about the existence of God, doubt God’s ability to act in the world, disbelieve in the God depicted in our prayerbooks, identify as agnostics and atheists.  In 1991, Beth Adam, an avowedly atheistic synagogue in Cincinnati, was denied admittance to the Reform Movement; we refused to make room for those as confident in their disbelief as we did the crowd comfortable in their faith.[8]  Recent polls, however, document the meteoric rise in “Jews of No Religion”; Jews who describe themselves as “atheist”, “agnostic”, or “nothing in particular” today constitute 22% of the American Jewish community.[9]  These numbers increase in the younger generation: a full 32% of Jews under 35 identify as these “Jews of No Religion”.  But what is fascinating—and what should cause us to adapt our posture, and potentially our liturgy—is that these atheists and agnostics, instead of rejecting religion, still strongly identify as Jewish.  In the past, we altered our prayers and practices for a variety of inclusive reasons: we ended gendered language of God, we stopped speaking of Jewish particularism, and we expanded our messianic understanding to include all peoples. In the next generation, we will need to evaluate the sheer certainty of our God language to ensure that those who—despite their skepticism or doubt—identify fully as Jewish are as comfortable in our congregation as are those who abundantly believe.

The reason Jews are afforded a variety of contemporary choices stems from our success integrating into American life: Jews contribute across the spectra of education, government, culture and commerce.  The progress we have made is in part due to Reform Judaism encouraging Jews to participate proudly in American life.  Our success is accompanied, however, by a few unfortunate side-effects; on these negatives I don’t want to linger, yet it would be inappropriate not to take note.  The first of these has to do with the fashion in which many take aim at the successful.  Unfortunately, as can be seen in the streets of Paris and in certain American quarters as well, the great achievements of the Jewish community have fanned flames of hatred never fully extinguished: once again, we confront a rise in Anti-Semitism.  While the seeds of that hatred are deep and external to us, there is no doubt that our overwhelming success as a community will likely make us an even larger target in years ahead.

The other potentially troubling outcome of our achievement is not how our success makes others feel about us; the problem stems instead from how we look at ourselves.  Here in Chicago, we can trace how a poor immigrant Jewish community settled on Maxwell Street, made enough money to move to Lawndale, found even greater comfort in relocating to the suburban North Shore, and now has found a new home in central Chicago, on the aptly-named (and thriving) Gold Coast.  Our prosperity has led us to posh places; our affluence affords us the ability to be removed from some of the uglier parts of our world.  My concern is that the American Jewish community is becoming complacent; our ease and wealth distance us from the reality our Jewish tradition forces us to face.  Our Exodus story teaches we were brought out of bondage not purely to pursue our own success, but rather to work for a world where no one suffers the oppression we experienced in Egypt.  It is increasingly difficult for us, in our daily lives, to see who it is that is being oppressed today; we experience neither the depths of poverty nor utter hopelessness about our children’s future. We read about crime in the paper; see evidence of human hardship on TV.  Yet we know, simply by the roads we choose to travel and the neighborhoods we never visit, we are distanced from experiencing real oppression in our lives.

It is hard for us to work against oppression if we don’t really understand its forms and causes.  Bryan Stephenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, argues that the first thing we need to do to fight injustice is to get proximate to injustice, to show up and see things with our own eyes; he recalls his grandmother teaching him, “You can’t see understand the important things from a distance, you have to get close”.[10]  We are so far removed from so many injustices: the ordeals of new immigrants; the cruelties of our system of mass incarceration; and the visceral fear of living amidst rampant gang violence, to name just a few.  In the 21st Century, we Reform Jews who are fundamentally committed to justice will need to overcome the trappings of our own success: we must get close and get proximate to suffering and hardship if we have any hope of living up to our religious mandate of repairing our broken world.

So, where does the synagogue fit in to this difficult American landscape of hyphenated hairesis and the potential pitfalls of our achievement?  How can the primary institution of Jewish life, the synagogue, respond to the emerging challenges of our new day?  We will need to create new approaches for Jewish engagement, innovative opportunities to get close to society’s ills.  In blazing these news trails for our future, we can look back to paths we paved in the past.   Fifteen years into the 20th Century, Chicago Sinai Congregation adapted to the new realities of an American Jewish community whose adults had, for the first time on these shores, been raised in secular society.  In 1915, the Jews of Chicago—or at least Sinai’s German Jews—went not to yeshivot but to secular schools; they knew top hats, but had never heard of a yarmulke; they understood far more about the American Constitution than they did about Torah or Talmud.  For that generation, Chicago Sinai made needed changes: times called not just for a house of prayer to inspire the Jewish community; the age necessitated a synagogue that could teach the very fundamentals of Jewish life.  In 1912, we built a new congregational home with something novel: the Sinai Social Center.  This center was to be a school for Sinai’s children, a home to Jewish women’s organizations that—in the age of Jane Addams—were beginning to flourish, and also a cultural hub for entertainment and even sports.[11]

Fifteen years into another century, Chicago Sinai Congregation must again adapt its forms for a new age.  We will need to alter the predominant patterns of the last hundred years: institutional silos, synagogue structures, and fiscal sources.  For too long we have been educating pre-schoolers in one place, young children at a separate time, and adults in other ways.  In the future these programmatic silos will likely collapse: we will need to integrate our ages and interests, teaching parents as we educate their children, fusing all into the fullness of congregational life.  And that congregational life can no longer be limited to the physical structure of the synagogue: we need to bring learning to the loop, Shabbat to Bucktown.  If, in this era, many Jews are intimated by or turned off to synagogues, it will be our responsibility to bring meaningful Jewish experiences to them, wherever they may be located.

Lastly, we will need to re-examine the resources by which we sustain ourselves.  The last decade witnessed the disintegration of the dues-based membership model.  It is not just that congregations are unable to fund themselves solely through dues; the message of individual “membership” is incongruous with our creed that Sinai is a house of prayer for all people.  Pragmatically, in this age of fluid identity, it takes years before people feel secure enough in their Judaism to put money down on that proposition.  More importantly, making financial mechanisms the primary determinant of “belonging” undermines Jewish values.  Obviously, we do need, literally, to keep the lights on.  But we need to discover new ways to make our ends meet our goals.  We need to work towards a future—this will take great ingenuity and greater generosity—where the bottom line of belonging is not membership dues.  It should not be our goal to get more and more people every year to say “I belong to Sinai.”  It is our job to create such a center of inspiration and action that more and more people say, “I belong at Sinai.”[12]

Reform Judaism for the 21st Century demands we dismantle structures of the past as we build new models for an emerging era where community and identity are continually being redefined.  We may need to let go of long-loved programs, and face the fright that often accompanies meaningful change.  Growing pains will sometimes be painful as we evolve to meet the new needs of our community.  Yet what is so special about Chicago Sinai Congregation—and what fills me with faith and enthusiasm for our future together—is that while our forms might transform in coming years, our inherited allegiances will not change; the fundamental values of Sinai will always be there to ground us.  In fact, our core qualities are precisely what Jews of the 21st century seem to be seeking.[13]  Our dedication to open and honest religious inquiry, our continued commitment to interfaith partnerships—between institutions or within families—and our unwavering fervor to bring justice to every crooked corner of our society: these are precisely the religious values that resonate widely in our new world. [14]  I am honored to partner with this inspiring congregation to make history in our future as we bring these values forward to enhance, enrich and invigorate Jewish life for the 21st Century and beyond.

Allow me one final thought in this sermon spurred by my daughter’s question about the 21st Century.  In this coming year alone, we will celebrate countless weddings, mourn at myriad funerals, and rejoice with precisely 29 bnai mitzvah.  One of these b’not mitzvah will be my older daughter, Rosey.  I know well that the families who mark their lives with Jewish meaning here at Sinai do care about the future of Reform Judaism.  But I also know that these same families need us to support them, to celebrate with them, to comfort them, to challenge them and to educate them in the here and now.  Even as we discuss our grandiose path to the future, we cannot forget the enduring importance of the present: we need to be present, here and now, or else tomorrow is unimportant.  So let us go forth tonight into our shared future with a dual challenge: let us build together—on the remarkable foundations we have inherited—a transformative congregation for a new era of the Jewish people; and let us work, together, every day to make sure we value and take care of each and every person who walks into our home, this sanctuary we are honored to call “A House of Prayer for All People.”[15]

[1] My thanks, respectively, to Rabbis Rick Jacobs [September 12], Aaron Panken [October 31], Steve Fox [January 30], and Jonah Pesner [April 10], who have made this such a remarkable year of learning here at Chicago Sinai Congregation.

[2] In fact, 20th Century Fox arrived at this conclusion themselves, albeit not until 2013:

21st Century Fox was formed by the splitting of entertainment and media properties from News Corporation. News Corporation’s board approved the split on May 24, 2013, while shareholders approved the split on June 11, 2013; the company completed the split on June 28 and formally started trading on the NASDAQ on July 1. Plans for the split were originally announced on June 28, 2012, while additional details, and the working name of the new company were unveiled on December 3, 2012.


[3] Witness the “Centenary Perspective” published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1973 on the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Hebrew Union College and the anchor institution of the Reform Movent, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [now the Union for Reform Judaism], “Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.”  [Quoted from Reform Judaism Today, Eugene B. Borowitz, p. xxiii.]

[4] David Ellenson, “Interreligious Learning and the Formation of Jewish Religious Identity,” in Jewish Meaning in a World of Choice [JPS: 2004], p. 166.  Ellenson cites Berger’s The Heretical Imperative regarding hairesis in this article originally printed in 1996.

[5] Jew-Bu’s, and other religious integrationists, are intentionally combining our religious heritage with other theological systems  Roger Kaminetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus, proudly affirms he is ushering in “a new stage of Judaism,” where “my teachers are not all  Jews”.Roger Kaminetz, The Jew in the Lotus, Introduction.

[6] At the opening program of The Chicago Forum on Global Cities hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at Chicago’s Pritzker Pavillion on May 27, 2015, I posed a question to the panel, “What is the proper role for faith institutions to play in helping their cities to excel?”  While my inquiry at first stumped the panel [another former Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, deferred answering as he admitted, “I wasn’t prepared for that kind of question”]  Henry Paulson, however, gave a lengthy and thoughtful remark that included the following: We need a civil society, and not just government… People are looking for things to believe in more than just money… values of religion hold communities together.”  A satisfying if not surprising response from  the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, and the many whose signature is featured on U.S. currency!

[7] “The English word ‘heresy’ comes from the Greek verb hairein which means ‘to choose’. A hairesis originally meant, quite simply, the taking of a choice.”  Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative, p. 24-25.

[8] http://www.jta.org/1994/06/15/archive/reform-group-overwhelmingly-rejects-membership-for-humanist-congregation.

[9] The Pew Research Center, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 2013. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/03/infographic-survey-of-jewish-americans/.

[10] See Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

[11] “Apart from offering a better home for Jewish women’s organizations, Sinai aimed at the many unaffiliated Jews and especially their children.  The center was not uncontroversial.  There were concerns that religion would be sidelined by sports and entertainments.” Tobias Brinkman, Sundays at Sinai, p. 239.

[12] Thanks to Ted Naron for his help in getting right the formulation of these two sentences.

[13] This, not just from anecdotal stories, but from the Pew Poll Data, which contains these points: 69% of all Jews believe leading an ethical life is an essential part of being Jewish; 56% believe working for justice is essential to being Jewish; and 49% maintain “being intellectually curious” is essential to being Jewish.  These three commitments overlap with such a large portion of Sinai’s historic mission.

[14] Amazingly, the notes from the 51st Annual Meeting of Chicago Sinai Congregation, held at the outset of a new Century on May 22, 1912  state those core qualities perfectly: “Our gates are open to all that will enter, be they women or be they men, be they white or be they of other color, be they Jews, or be they non-Jews.  Here shall be at home all who search for knowledge.”

Tobias Brinkman, Sundays at Sinai, p. 240, citing Sinai Papers in the collection of The American Jewish Archives.

[15] These, the words from Isaiah 56:7 that have been emblazoned above the doors of every building Chicago Sinai Congregation has called its home.

on blasphemy

this week’s torah portion tells the tale of the crime and punishment of the blasphemer.  in a world where people lampoon other’s gods for sport, and those offended take up arms to kill, it seems necessary to return to the lessons of Leviticus 24

What is the boundary which our blasphemer has crossed?
He has committed two offenses: Pronouncing a קללה, or curse against God,
and performing an act of נקיבת שם, of piercing God’s name.

In Sanhedrin, God proclaims: אל קללני, “Do not curse Me!”
Cursing God is serious:
the one who curses God is a קופר בעיקר, denies the principle of faith.

However, cursing is only half the crime of blasphemy; its complement is נקיבת שם,
Piercing the Divine Name.
נקיבה: boring a hole, gouging, piercing, doing damage
The crime of the blasphemer is not only that he curses God, but also that he does damage to God’s name: he pierces it.

The Talmud makes it clear that “piercing” is an act of destruction
The rabbis compare it to the shredding of a Torah scroll,
hearing blasphemy is likened to hearing of the death of one’s parents,
the tear caused by blasphemy is as irreparable as the rent garments of the mourner.
Blasphemy is analogous to death.
Talmudic law claims that when people hear blasphemy, they must tear their garments: it is as if someone has died.

But God is not dead.  Is God damaged? What could it mean to do damage to God?

We read on the High Holy Days:

שמך נאה לך ואתה נאה לשמך

ושמנו קראת בשמך

Your Name is worthy of You, and You are worthy of Your Name.

and our name is pronounced through Your Name.

When Sanhedrin reports the line, “I am God, do not curse me,”
We should understand we are not to curse, to deface, to deride or devalue
That which represents God, that which is Divine.

Just as we should not blaspheme against God’s holiness, so should we not blaspheme against the fundamental holiness of every created being.

Blasphemy is failing to recognize the holiness which resides in every human being.
Blasphemy is using God’s name—or religion, that which is done in God’s name—towards the unholy end of devaluing human beings.
It is not blasphemy to utter, when the hammer comes down upon the thumb, “Goddammit!”
It is blasphemy, however, to stare with piercing hate into the eyes of another human being and say: god damn you.

Why Black Lives Matter to One Rabbi

Judaism teaches that every human being is created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God.  My tradition challenges me to see, in the face of every human being I encounter, the presence of the Divine.  While I cannot prove this to be true, I believe it to my core.  It is not that every human being is created equal; every person possesses immeasurable dignity.  Judaism teaches me that all lives matter, because every single human being bears the imprint of the Divine.

To understand today, I turn to yesterday.  It is well known that an early stage of the Nazi system of dehumanizing the Jewish people was forcing them to sew a yellow star onto all articles of clothing.  It is also well known that two-thirds of the Jews of Europe were exterminated by the Nazis during World War II.  What is not so well known is that, of all the countries conquered by the Nazis, one was able to save 99% of its Jewish population.  That nation was Denmark.

I learned in Hebrew school why this happened.  One night, the Nazis ordered all Jews sew Yellow Stars onto their clothing.  The next morning, King Chrisitian of Denmark exited the royal residence with a yellow star saying Jude on his regal robe.  The nation was so moved by his act of leadership and solidarity that, by the time the sun set, every Dane—Jewish or Christian—proudly wore a star of gold.  The Nazis’ plan was undone.

All lives matter.  But in 1943 in Denmark, it wasn’t King Christian’s obligation to remind his country that all lives mattered: he needed to make a very specific point that Jewish lives mattered.  That is why, today, I need to say—loudly and clearly and publicly—that Black lives matter.  While I understand the importance of every human soul, I also understand the gross distance between what I call Justice and what has occurred in Ferguson, Staten Island and beyond.  This moment doesn’t call for me to wear a yellow star of the emblem of united humanity.  Today I need to don the hashtag Black Lives Matter.  This is the lesson I learn from the painful past of my people, and one important instance of resistance in Denmark.

I do need to speak out and say #BlackLivesMatter.  However, I also need to admit that—despite its power—the legend of King Christian is just a myth.  Yet what actually happened—what in truth saved the Jews of Denmark—is more powerful.  When the Nazi’s decreed the Jews should wear a star, the King didn’t put on one.  However, the Danish political parties and state church immediately denounced the decree and pledged solidarity with the Jews.  The Bishops wrote a letter to that effect, and had it read in every church in the nation the following Sunday.  The people of Denmark knew Jewish lives mattered because the church said it loudly and publicly and proudly.

If that doesn’t speak enough to our responsibility today to show solidarity and to raise our voice, one other fact should.  In October of 1943, when 7220 of Denmark’s 7800 Jews were ferried to safety in Sweden, 686 other people went with them.  Who were they?  The non-Jewish family members of Denmark’s Jews.  It is not just that the Danish people knew they needed to speak up for their Jewish citizens; Denmark considered its Jews to be part of the family.  While in Germany Jews had friends and neighbors, most of those stood silently by the atrocities of the Holocaust.  In Denmark, they  didn’t.  Why?  Because the Jews were not just citizens of that nation, they were family.

I do not believe the world started with just Eve and Adam, but I do believe we are all human family.  I know that every human life matters.  I also know now is the time for me—for all of us—to say Black Lives Matter.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Yom Kippur 5775

Chicago Sinai Congregation


In the summer of 1903, Rabbi Emil Gustav Hirsch, asked to address a community who had heard of him but never heard from him, opened his remarks with a request, “I should feel constrained, by way of introduction, to ask at your hand the indulgence due ‘a stranger in a strange land’.”[1]  Explaining his unease in the East as a rabbi from the West, Rabbi Hirsch continued to caution his crowd, knowing assertions he serenely stated at Sinai sometimes aroused violent dissent when he traveled to new places.  He concluded his commencement with the admission, “Perhaps it will be impossible for me to escape this fate today, as I avail myself of the generous hospitality of this platform to phrase a few suggestions that seem vital to me.”

This new rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation has moved from that East to this Mid-West, yet despite the opposite direction of my movement I feel a certain kinship with my predecessor in this pulpit.  To begin with, we are just coming to know each other.  I am certain that many members of my former congregation, where I spent fourteen years, could finish my sentences, let alone my sermons; here in Chicago I am still the shiny new object, the unknown quantum whose obligation it is to make myself known.  Like Rabbi Hirsch, I can only guess how my words will be received in these moments when I avail myself of a most generous hospitality on your part to phrase a few suggestions that seem vital to me.

Today, I invoke the biblical image of a stranger in a strange land.  In contrast to Rabbi Hirsch, this New Yorker has felt most at home these past three months in Chicago: the warm welcome so many of you have given me and my family, combined with the beauty and potential of this great city, have truly helped us feel most at home.  When I think today of the phrase “a stranger in a strange land”, I do so not as one recently relocated, but rather as a rabbi, a student of our Jewish tradition, one who takes the lessons of our heritage to heart.  In my mind, there is no occupation more central for us to consider—on this holiest of days or on any day—than our tradition’s understanding of, empathy for, and identification with the stranger in a strange land.

We were strangers from the very beginning.  Abraham and Sarah journeyed to an unknown land; at his most vulnerable moments, Abraham felt himself as a stranger, a sojourner: in Hebrew, a Ger.[2]  Abraham’s children wandered as strangers amongst the peoples of Canaan; only his great-grandson Joseph found a secure place for himself: that was in Egypt.  400 years later, Joseph’s descendants found no such secure footing: Pharaoh enslaved our ancestors, embittered their servitude through brutal cruelty.  Moses, the Israelite raised as a stranger in Pharaoh’s palace, grew into the hero who ended oppression, led us to liberation.  Standing with emancipated Israel at Sinai, Moses formed our freedom with instructions, injunctions, and command.  First and foremost amongst these is: You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.[3]  Soonafter Moses again charges: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.[4]  Before Deuteronomy ends, concluding the five Books of Moses, we hear the command not to oppress the stranger a total of 36 times.[5]  It is, by a tremendous order of magnitude, the most repeated commandment in our tradition.

Our sensitivity to the stranger is central to Judaism.  Let alone the remarkable repetition reminding us to respect strangers, our entire movement from slavery to redemption is the hallmark of our Jewish experience.  Every Passover we internalize the bitterness of oppression not only to savor sweet freedom, but also to remember the embittered existence of so many suffering in servitude.  We figuratively eat cement, dip our food in tears, and choke on the fumes of painful persecution in order—literally—to put the taste of oppression in our mouths.  We even end our Seder saying, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” because we are aware that so many people in our world are so regrettably remote from any Promised Land.  Our festival of freedom teaches we should not consider ourselves normal, naturalized citizens of a certain country, but see ourselves as strangers in a strange land.

Moses, even before emancipation—before the miracle of liberation could be contemplated—internalized this sympathy with strangers in a compelling manner.  We recall that Moses, feeling alienation in Egypt, killed a taskmaster who beat an Israelite.  When he learned his crime was discovered, Moses fled to Midian, a desert oasis.  There he found shelter, along with a wife.  Soonafter, a son was born, along with the image Rabbi Hirsch invoked over a century ago when speaking in the alien East: [Moses’ had] a son, and he named him Gershom, for he said, “I have been a stranger in a strange land”.[6]  The name itself is a pun: Ger-Sham is Hebrew for “I was a stranger there”; Moses effectively named his son for the formative experience in his life: not fitting in any place he found himself.  Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace with all the privileges of monarchy, despite the fact that same monarchy was oppressing the people to whom he truly belonged.  Escaping Egypt, Moses was an outsider among his wife and new family in Midian.  His entire existence was expressed in his son’s name: Ger-Sham, Gershom, I was a stranger in a strange land.

Sensitivity to the stranger is central to our Jewish experience.  Because we are commanded to sympathize with strangers, we must see ourselves as strangers in a strange land.  However, that sympathy is not meant to be internal, to redound only to the realm of feelings and emotions.  We are charged not only to feel sympathy, but also not to oppress, not to wrong, not to subjugate the rights of the stranger amongst us.  We are taught time and time again to establish the same law, the same rule, the same standard, for strangers and citizens.  Our feelings are meaningless if they do not translate into action; our broad consideration for humanity in general must translate to how we interact with individual men and women, individual strangers, who come before us.[7]  But that is not so easy.  It is one thing to know that, as Jews, we are responsible for the strangers in our midst, we are to feel their pain, we are not to oppress them because we were once strangers ourselves.  It is an entirely other matter, however, to translate that sensitivity, that moral sensibility, into action.

This Yom Kippur, this great Sabbath when we are focused on our potential for the coming year, I want to avail myself of the hospitality of this platform to share a few suggestions that seem vital to me as to how we can live up to our Jewish expectation of sympathy for the stranger.  While this motif from Exodus will be our guide, our theme has many variations, multiple meanings that alter the way we lead our lives in the coming year.  These diverse understandings of being a stranger in a strange land come to us from the teaching of three great Torah commentators: Umberto Cassuto, Ovadiah Sforno, and Rabbi Samuel ben Meir.[8]  Each of these sages’ understanding of the stranger in a strange land informs how all of us, in this coming year, can fulfill our powerful injunction to be sensitive to the stranger, to understand their plight, to remediate their alienation.

[Moses] named him Gershom“I was a stranger there”for he said, “I have been a stranger in a strange land”.  Moses is clear about his child’s nomenclature.  Umberto Cassuto, Chief Rabbi of Florence in the early 20th Century, thinks Moses is mistaken.  “We must not regard [the Torah’s text] as proper etymology,” he explains.  Cassuto asserts that the name Gershom is derived from the verb garish [‘drive away’, ‘banish’], and not from ger [‘stranger’.][9]  According to Cassuto, Gershom got his name not because Moses was a stranger in a foreign land, but because he was banished, driven away to an alien location.  His disagreement with the seemingly straightforward sense of Scripture aside, Cassuto captures something essential about Moses: he was a refugee.  He stood up against oppression in Egypt, and as result, fled across the border to Midian.  Moses sought sanctuary from the ruler who forced his parents to hide him in the shadows, from the Pharaoh who caused him to be cast in the rushing river Nile.

Moses was a refugee.  He came from a long line of immigrants.  We, Moses’ descendants, have assumed the moniker of “The Wandering People”; our history is replete with expulsion and exile.[10]  We have been a migrant people, constantly seeking sanctuary, refugees scattered across the face of the world: from the time of Moses we know what it means to be strangers in strange lands.  But here—in America generally and Chicago in particular—even this New York rabbi doesn’t feel like a stranger.  Sitting in this sanctuary on our Sabbath of Sabbaths are those who can trace their lineage through five generations of Chicago Sinai Congregation, let alone America. At this historical moment, we are not refugees; few of us feel like immigrants.  We are the settled.  That is why—given the lessons we draw from our history—it is our obligation as settled, naturalized Americans, to alleviate the suffering of the immigrants in our midst.  Over 11 million individuals are undocumented in America; these people—who build our society by driving our taxis, harvesting our food, maintaining our economy, and educating their children for our shared future—are forced to live a life in the shadows.  Nearly 63,000 children—fleeing oppression, forced prostitution and death in Central America—sought refuge this summer at our Southern border.[11]  Yet we have a Congress that refuses even to discuss Comprehensive Immigration Reform already enacted by the Senate, we have a department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that is racially profiling populations, and we have a President of the United States who has sent so many people back to their unwelcoming home he has been called the “Deporter-in-Chief”.[12]

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.  We live in a country whose government—arguably actively, profoundly passively—oppresses the stranger.  How are we Jews to react?  I would argue we need multiple approaches.  First and foremost, I believe we need—each of us—to spend time with the immigrant community so they know they are not alone, so they know we welcome them.  Some of us can do this by joining the good work of coalitions like the Illinois Campaign to Protect Children and Families, other might offer support or counsel through settlement homes like Erie Neighborhood House; I met a man last month who asks every taxi driver where they are from, listens to their story, and then thanks them for coming to build a better America.  On an individual basis, there is so much we can do to alleviate the suffering of the undocumented and afraid.  Nationally, I believe we must continue to push our House of Representatives to implement Immigration Reform: we need constantly and consistently to keep this issue before our elected officials, especially so they hear the concern for the undocumented and our refugees coming from a stable, settled community such as ours.  We need to remind our representatives in Washington, D.C., that Immigration Reform is not an issue for asylum seekers or Spanish speakers alone; we Jews understand it is our religious duty to cause our country to see sensitivity to the stranger and the refugee as our American obligation.

Umberto Cassuto fled Florence as fascism took root; perhaps his personal experience led him to see strangers in a strange land as refugees.  Obadiah Sforno led a different kind of life.  He, too, was an Italian Rabbi; he lived, however, in the 15th Century, a time of relative peace for our people in his country.  Sforno never needed to leave home, but gained such a scholarly reputation that he travelled throughout the Italian Peninsula his entire career.  Perhaps that is why he offers a different twist on a stranger in a strange land: Sforno teaches that this epithet is about being in a new place, a land not of one’s birth and upbringing.[13]  Born in Cesena, moving from Rome to Bologna and beyond, Sforno was never an outcast, often an outsider.  Here your new rabbi feels kinship.  For I do not sense Chicago is a strange land at all; however, I was not born, educated, or raised in this city of broad shoulders.  Many times this summer I’ve been told, “It’s so refreshing you are bringing an outsider’s eye to this city.”  I understand the sentiment: when we settle in one city for so long, we become so accustomed to its practices we often overlook its beauty, fail to see its faults.

Fulfilling our obligation to see ourselves as strangers in a strange land, Sforno insists, involves seeing a place with an outsider’s eye.  It is not that we feel alien, but that we make ourselves examine our home from a new perspective.  This point of view is important.  In Chicago, we can become so accustomed to victims of gun violence dying on our streets that these very human beings gunned down in our city seem only sobering statistics.  We shop at the new Target, Whole Foods, or any superstore in the retail corridor south of North Avenue and are thankful that the blight of Cabrini Green was eradicated; looking at the new homes and the obvious gentrification, do we wonder where those who lived in that neighborhood now find a home?  To what new land were they banished?  We are inured to unfilled potholes, failing public schools, shady tax increment finance districts,[14] and more urban ailments than we could enumerate: do we throw up our hands in frustration?  Or worse, do we become so habituated to the happenings here that our hearts get hardened, our eyes even fail to see the problems that beset us?  Such a failure of awareness—either because we intentionally don’t want to know bad news or have become so used to hearing it we are immune to it—such a failure of awareness to real problems, Sforno reminds us, is a failure to sympathize with the stranger.   We cannot fulfill our religious obligation unless we are willing to see society not through our own tired eyes, but with the unique outlook of an outsider.

Sforno teaches we can experience the feelings of the stranger if we examine our everyday experience from a new perspective, with outsider’s eyes.  Cassuto instructs us to remember our refugee past, when we were strangers in so many strange lands.  One additional scholar suggests there is another important aspect to our religious sensitivity.  Rabbi Samuel ben Meir was born in Troyes in 1085, and lived there to the day of his death.  You see, Samuel was the grandson of Rashi, the great Talmudist of Troyes, head of the Yeshiva, Chief Magistrate of the Court, already in his lifetime understood to be the single most important teacher of Jewish tradition.  Not surprisingly, Samuel, Rashi’s grandson, became one of our legendary interpreters of Torah; his brothers likewise are renowned for their great Talmudic commentaries.[15]  Rabbi Samuel ben Meir was born into an elite inner circle of Jewish life, and remained part of that proverbial nobility to the end of his days.

Never really leaving home, always welcomed and treated like royalty, it is not surprising that Rabbi Samuel understands being a stranger in a strange land differently from the exiled Cassuto or the roving Sforno.  Samuel’s exegesis of Exodus is subtle, nuanced: he explains that the “strange land” of a stranger in a strange land implies a location distant, a territory remote.  Cassuto charges us to see stranger as refugee; Sforno focuses on the strangeness, the new-ness, even of our own territory.  Rabbi Samuel examines the land itself: it is foreign, alien.  “Distant” is the word he uses.  When he teaches that Moses felt a stranger in a distant land, he captures how remote Moses felt from family, from friends, from those who knew him: Moses was a lonely stranger in a land where he felt alienated from others.

How often we ourselves are in Moses’ position.  And I am not literally limiting myself to people like me who move to new cities away from so many friends and family.  We all know what it’s like to walk into a room where everyone else seems an insider; we sense there is an elite crowd into which we were not born and do not feel welcome.  We can be made to feel remote even within a few feet of our own doorsteps: clannishness, cliquishness, can cause us to feel as isolated as Moses was in the lonely desert.  Rabbi Samuel is reminding us that people from our own town, who know our language, who look like us, who are members of our own clubs—synagogues, even—sometimes are made to feel isolated and apart.  Amazingly, for a man born into the inner circle in which he lived his entire life, Rabbi Samuel reminds us that it is our responsibility—especially if others see us as “on the inside”—to make sure that we don’t cause others to feel on the outside, peripheral to our friendships or community.

I have only been in Chicago for three months, but I know that there are those who unfortunately feel like outsiders even at our beloved Chicago Sinai Congregation.  I was fortunate, like Rabbi Samuel, to join this sacred community as an obvious insider; I have felt so graced to receive such a warm welcome and kind attention from so many during this first season together.  But I am also acutely aware—as plenty come to meet me every Shabbat—that there are others in our lobby, our sanctuary and our social hall, to whom no one says hello.  In meaningful conversations, I have heard from many of you that—in addition to receiving so much from Sinai that nourishes your souls—you are looking for a higher level of community, of connection with others, of human relationships to be formed in this house of the Divine.  What we must change, together as a congregation, is making sure that our House of Prayer for All Peoples is also a House of Friendship for Any who Enter.  It was not so long ago, when people physically lived distant from our temple, that we transcended the bounds of our building to create the Hi-Rise Fellowship.[16]  If anyone today is made to feel remote from the center of our congregation, we need to transcend the limitations of our favorite friends and regular crowd to build a different kind of Sinai Fellowship.  Yes, this will likely include important details, like continuing our social events from the summer and wearing name tags so it’s easier to build bonds with others.  However, fundamentally, to create a real sense of Sinai Fellowship, programs and implements only go so far: Fellowship will only come to Sinai if each of us, every one, makes sure to welcome, to honor, to recognize the humanity of others every time we enter our sacred halls.  That obligation falls on our broad shoulders each and every time we enter the sacred halls of Chicago Sinai Congregation.

Over a century ago, Rabbi Hirsch described what we rabbis do: avail ourselves of your hospitality to make a few suggestions that seem vital to us.  It is of vital importance to me, your new rabbi, that we welcome this coming year by showing deepest of sympathies to all strangers in a strange land.  While most of those efforts will lead us to act outside Sinai’s doors, we must begin with our obligation to end the alienation and isolation far too many feel within our synagogue walls.  Furthermore, we need to face serious truths about the city of Chicago if we want, together, to fix rampant failures in public education, gun violence, and patronage politics.  Finally, our tradition calls us to repair more than our own characters, congregations or cities: there is a broken world out there to which we are responsible as well.  Strangers, immigrants and refugees are piling up on our borders or are forced to live undocumented in the shadows of our skyscrapers. Even before Moses named his son a stranger in a strange land, we Jews have known the plight of the stranger. Ever since, we have been commanded to work for a world where no stranger is oppressed, where no alien is forced to feel like an outsider.  I am not so naïve as to think that 5775 will be the year in which everyone around the world will sing kumbayah, become friends living in a peaceful land; I am nonetheless optimistic that together we can make our congregation, our city, and our country less strange and less oppressive, more warm and more welcoming, in the coming year.

May it be our will.

[1] Emil Gustav Hirsch, “Judaism and the Higher Criticism,” delivered July 1, 1903, Atlantic City, NJ, to the Jewish Chatauqua Assembly.  Reprinted in My Religion, p. 223.  In the remainder of the above paragraph, I edit his words. The full text is as follows:

I should feel constrained, by way of introduction, to ask at your hand the indulgence due “a stranger in a strange land.”  I use the phrase advisedly.  There is something in the atmosphere of the East which puts us from the West on guard.  I myself have been taught by previous experience that assertions which in my home surroundings cause not as much as the slightest ripple in the placid surface of the current of thought, have had the effect to arouse violent dissent and were put under the ban as heterodox and revolutionary.  Perhaps it will be impossible for me to escape this fate today, as I avail myself of the generous hospitality of this platform to phrase a few suggestions that seem vital to me.

[2] See Genesis 24, following Sarah’s death, and Abraham’s self-reference during his dialogue with Ephron the Hittite.

[3] Exodus 22:20.

[4] Exodus 23:9.

[5] This is according to our Sages of Blessed Memory, who noted that the Torah repeats this commandment 36 times [or perhaps 46!] during their discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metsia 59b.  There, the 36 citations are not listed, which made me skeptical about the actual number being accurate.  However, having done a database search of the term “Ger/Stranger” in the Bible, I amazingly came up with precisely that number of citations that speak of our obligation to the stranger.  Although these commands are not exclusively found in the Five Books of Moses, this skeptic is nonetheless surprised that the number totaled the legendary 36.  Here is my list:

Exodus 12:49, 22:20, 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 19:33, 19:34, 23:22, 24:22, 25:35, 25:47; Numbers 9:14, 14:14, 14:15, 14:29, 25:14; Deuteronomy 1:15, 10:18, 10:19, 24:14, 24:17, 24:19, 24:20, 24:21, 26:12, 26:13, 27:19, 29:10, 31:12; Isaiah 14:1; Jeremiah 7:6, 2:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 22:29; Zecheriah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; Pslam 146:9.  Admittedly, there are a few of these that are less cohortative than others, or simply define the ger as equal to the citizen.  But they are all pretty explicit as to our consideration for the stranger.

[6] Exodus 2:22.

[7] Here I am informed and moved by the words of Jane Addams, good friend and partner of Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch.  She wrote:

Those who believe that Justice is but a poetical longing within us, the enthusiast who thinks it will come in the form of the millennium, those who see it established by the strong arm of the hero, are not those who have comprehended the vast truths of life.  The actual Justice must come by trained intelligence, by broadened sympathies toward the individual man or woman who crosses our path; one item added to another is the only method by which to build up a conception lofty enough to be of use in the world.

Jane Addams, 20 Years at Hull House, p. 34.

[8] Often known by his acronym, Rashbam.  And Ovadiah Sforno is also known by his full name, Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno.

[9] Umberto Cassuto, Commentary on Exodus, to Exodus 2:22.

[10] According to historian Salo Baron, this epithet was first used in the early years of Christianity.  Extant manuscripts have shown that as early as the time of Tertullian, some Christian proponents were likening the Jewish people to a “new Cain”, asserting that they would be “fugitives and wanderers (upon) the earth”.  See Salo Wittmayer Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, Vol. 6.

[11] For a helpful Q&A about this crisis, see http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/15/us/questions-about-the-border-kids.html?_r=0.

[12]  Even a cursory web search of “racial profiling by ICE” will turn up cases across the nation; I became intimately familiar with this process while working to stave off the deportation of Yestel Velasquez, who was detained when ICE raided a civil rights meeting held in a Latino neighborhood of New Orleans.

By April, 2014, President Obama oversaw over 2 millions deportations.  It was as he passed this number that the National Council of La Raza declared him the “Deporter-in-Chief”.  See http://www.politico.com/story/2014/03/national-council-of-la-raza-janet-murguia-barack-obama-deporter-in-chief-immigration-104217.html.

[13] Literally, his comment is “I am a stranger in this land that is not the place of my birth.” Sforno, Commentary to the Torah, to Exodus 2:22.

[14] To understand precisely how shady, see this excellent essay by Ben Joravsky: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/tax-increment-financing-transparency-rahm-david-orr/Content?oid=14199766.

[15] Specifically, Rabbi Samuel was the older brother of the a specific category of Talmudic teachers known as the Tosafists: Rabbi Isaac ben Meir (the “Rivam”) and Jacon ben Meir (“Rabbeinu Tam”).

[16] The Hi-Rise Fellowship consisted of Rabbis Karff and Kranz leading services (and providing other programs) outside of Sinai’s Hyde Park home, most notably in the towering condominium buildings that lent their name to the project.  See Tobais Brinkmann, Sundays at Simai, p. 294.