True, Whether It Happened or Not

Critics hate the scene. It’s manufactured. It never happened. Fake news.

I’m talking about the episode in The Darkest Hour, when Winston Churchill, brilliantly portrayed by Gary Oldman, abandons his chauffeur-driven car in a traffic jam and takes his maiden voyage on London’s Underground to get to a cabinet meeting on time. There, he interacts with ordinary citizens who buttress the Prime Minister’s faith that surrender is not an option. The British people would rather fight to their own deaths than subjugate themselves to the Nazi monster.

No, Churchill didn’t take the Underground. Still, the encounter is true. Prime Minister Churchill was indeed inspired by the resolve of ordinary British subjects. History’s largest civilian sea evacuation of a military force at Dunkirk — compellingly portrayed in two films this year, both Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour — proves the point. The British people were truly willing to risk their lives to save themselves and their island from tyranny.

I have often taught that “truth” and “historical accuracy” are not the same thing. Torah, rather than contemporary film, has typically been my text. Take, for example, two different midrashim, rabbinic interpretations, of God’s revelation and the Children of Israel’s acceptance of Torah. In one, the Holy One offers Torah to one nation after the other. Each nation asks what’s in it, quickly rejecting Torah because of its prohibition of murder, stealing, and the like. Only Israel welcomes Torah without question. Another midrash, on the other hand, imagines that God lifts Mount Sinai off its foundation, holding the entire mountain over the Israelites’ heads, threatening to bury them under it if they will not accept Torah.

Did either version of these events actually happen? Did the rabbis even imagine that they had? No. The rabbis weren’t writing history. They were teaching religious truths. One midrash argues that there are times when we must proceed on faith alone, following a God Who has earned our trust. The other acknowledges that Torah can be a burden which we may be hard-pressed to observe.

I understand why the reviewers abhor The Darkest Hour’s Underground scene. Truth is under assault in America today. National leaders eagerly purvey falsehoods to reinforce the narratives they want our population to embrace. Our prayer book is among the many Jewish sources that extol truth, insisting that it’s “first and last.”

The Darkest Hour doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. It’s not a history book with footnotes. Instead, it’s a work of art, creatively portraying an historical period to teach timeless truths. We might call it midrash.

As we journey the Book of Exodus, and extending through Passover, we may be repeatedly subjected to arguments about whether the Exodus ever happened. Rabbi David Wolpe, who (in)famously gave a sermon suggesting that it had not, faced a Herculean task in the December 24 New York Times, reviewing a new book that claims that at least some version of the Exodus did happen, The Exodus, by Richard Elliot Friedman.

The Exodus, like Churchill’s descent to the Underground, might never have happened. The story, though, is indisputably true. God is our hope and our salvation, assigning to the Jewish people a Moses-like responsibility to partner with the Holy One to bring liberation to all the world. That’s true, whether it happened or not.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Social Justice

Social Justice in 2018: Not for Ourselves

A cherished friend of mine, a Christian working as a Synagogue Administrator, once asked me, “How are the same people both conservative with the congregation’s money and so liberal politically?” Her observation was mostly accurate; the Board members eager to grow the Temple’s budget were as much in the minority as the political conservatives.

I answered: “Jews are commanded to remember the heart of the stranger. We take that seriously. Yes, we may fit in here in America now, but Jews acutely remember when we were despised, outcast, and impoverished. Therefore, we identify with those who are vulnerable, and we advocate for their interests more even than our own.” Viewed in this light, our social justice priorities are largely shaped by the welfare of others. Temple finances, on the other hand, are strictly about the health of our own institution.

Upon reflection, though, my answer was too simplistic. A political conservative may be just as concerned about the poor as the liberal, with different philosophy about how best to benefit those in need. Moreover, some of our social justice advocacy – on behalf of Israel, for example; or protecting the separation of church and state – is self-interested.

Perhaps the most problematic part of my answer, though, was that we are far from the only Americans with a history of persecution. Unlike other ethnic or religious groups that are mostly white and at least middle income, though, American Jews remain strongly identified with our historic vulnerability and that of many people around us. What makes us different?

Why are so many American Jews deeply worried that Dreamers may soon face deportation? Yes, a Jewish DACA beneficiary or two has been identified; but most American Jews today are neither immigrants nor the children of immigrants. Why have we made a priority of compassionate immigration reform when so many other groups who share our immigrant history have not?

Why is our Reform Movement mobilized to protect access to health care for the tens of millions of Americans who gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act? Yes, more than a few of us have ACA policies, but still more of us benefit from the tax reform that imperiled ACA’s viability by removing the individual mandate. Other demographically-similar groups tend to take the view opposite our Movement’s.

At the dawn of 2018, a century removed from the end of the last mass wave of Jewish immigration, we may think that we are motivated by our immigrant history, but we are more likely inspired by our religion itself. Torah is the reason. Thirty-six times, Torah reminds us that we must pay attention to the welfare of the stranger, having been oppressed as strangers in Egypt.

As we welcome 2018, in an era when the fastest-growing religious identity in this country is “none,” American Jews, even the self-proclaimed atheists among us, still believe: We are here to make the world a better place. We are duty-bound to seek the welfare of the most vulnerable in our midst. We are grateful that most American Jews are neither needy nor oppressed, and Torah turns that gratitude into action.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Social Justice

A Narrow Bridge

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav[i] taught: “All the world is a very narrow bridge; the key is not to be paralyzed by fear.”

I have been on a narrow bridge. The Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, Canada is only wide enough for single file, spanning its 230 feet, hanging 460 feet above a river gorge. Not afraid of heights, I wasn’t scared when I crossed, enjoying magnificent scenery. Trusting that engineering had permitted millions to cross before me, I never considered the possibility of not arriving safely on the other side.

Our world, though, is full of less secure, narrower bridges.

When a devastating hurricane drops four feet of rain or threatens deadly winds, a person’s world can suddenly become a frighteningly narrow bridge – from security to survival, from a roof over one’s head to the peril of homelessness.

When armed white supremacists march in the thousands, people of color rightly fear for their lives. Is America a safe home?

When we hear the phrase, “Muslim ban,” America may quickly become precarious foreign land, even for a citizen.

When thousands, perhaps millions, cheer a border wall, we may ask: Why is America narrowing its bridge to the world?

When Charlottesville marchers shout, “Jews will not replace it,” American Jews wonder: “Will we have to get on a narrow bridge again, hoping to arrive safely at our next land of refuge?”

When young immigrants – who know America as their only home; and who have lived honest, productive lives in this land of opportunity – nevertheless face the prospect of deportation, they need look no further than their parents to see the narrow bridge that life in this country can be.

When a Black-majority school board is replaced by one white man, sixty years after the hard-fought but minimal desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, we may be frightened by the answer to the question: What temporal power is keeping this bridge from collapsing?

When LGBTQ Americans in many states can legally lose their jobs solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, the supports on the bridge of LGBTQ life in this country, which seemed to be strengthening, may become wobblier yet again.

When the white working class sees industry change along with culture, they wonder if the sturdy highway of their lives has become a rickety bridge.

When millions upon millions of Americans, and billions around the globe, do not have access to adequate quantities of nutritious food or to excellent medical care, living paycheck to paycheck, if there’s a paycheck at all, then the slightest unexpected misfortune can destroy the bridge of life beneath one’s feet.

When climate change is denied, even as historically devastating storms rage, Rabbi Nachman’s words seem particularly prescient: The whole world is on a very narrow bridge, between a healthy environment and global self-destruction.

We who are on this bridge – and make no mistake, we are all on it – live in fear, and not because we are afraid of heights. We know about people who have crossed these bridges in the past. Too many did fall to their deaths. We cannot be secure about the engineering of the bridge we must walk to traverse oppression.

Tonight, we have come together to push the bridges’ boundaries, to make each one less narrow, and to shore up the infrastructure.

If an undocumented immigrant links arms with a Muslim, then the Muslim is not alone when her people are maligned, and the immigrant may imagine refuge rather than deportation.

If a cisgender woman of color brings a transgender woman with her into the restroom, then the transgender woman may feel more secure in her place of vulnerability, and the person of color will know she’s not the only target of white supremacists’ slogans.

If a white working class American and a descendant of slaves share their anxieties about our nation’s future, each may build a better future with the other.

If the wealthy nations of the world, beginning with our own, will take responsibility for reducing humanity’s carbon footprint, then we may all take responsibility for defeating the climate injustice whose victims are disproportionately the poorest people on Earth.

If the person of faith and the unbeliever share the diverse sources of their comfort, perhaps we can hearten one another.

We do not know what the months and the years ahead may require of us. Perhaps churches will need to transform parish halls into sanctuaries from deportation. Perhaps a synagogue will need to shelter threatened Muslims. Every single one of us will have to decide: Am I going to collaborate with oppression? Am I going to remain silent, imagining there’s nothing I can do? Or am I going to use my body and soul, my voice and any power I have, to stand in the way of injustice?

We do know this: All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the only way to conquer fear is to emulate the Children of Israel at the Red Sea, “joining hands, marching together,” to a Land of Promise.

We do know this: In order to fight injustice, we must be disturbed by it. If we are not personally suffering, then we are obligated to summon empathy for those who are. We must know the heart of the stranger, for all of us have been strangers in one Egypt or another.

Nearly two millennia ago, the rabbis of the Talmud made a decree about those who live in a community beset by suffering, a world like our own, on a very narrow bridge. Hear now the rabbis’ teaching: “When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul. . . Rather, a person should be distressed together with the community. . . And anyone who is distressed together with the community will merit seeing the consolation of the community.”[ii]

A task lies before us. Let me suggest that each of us seek to sit down for a meal with a person different from ourselves, a person we may not know well, a person who may be afflicted during these difficult days in ways that we are not. May we enjoy one another’s company, but let us also hear each other’s pain. Let the bread we break together also be our bread of shared affliction. Then, may we build a bridge – a strong, broad bridge – and may we be consoled, together.


Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 


[i] Unverifiable attribution.

[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 11a. Gratitude to Rabbi Paul Jacobson for pointing out the text.


Some Movies Deserve to Be “Spoiled”

“Allied” opens in Casablanca, home to the most classic of World War II movies. Its protagonists, Marianne (Marion Cotillard) and Max (Brad Pitt) are spies, she on behalf of the French Resistance and he as a Canadian officer in the Royal Air Force. Marianne teaches Max how to be a good spy, which requires him to pretend to be her loving husband, and to do so convincingly. Their mission to assassinate the Nazi Ambassador in Morocco is successful. Predictably, they fall in love and get married “for real.”

The movie is engrossing and entertaining. The audience roots for Marianne and Max — for their love affair as much as for the British, Canadian, and French Resistance fighters who are the movie’s real heroes.

Ultimately, though, Max is called to a meeting with the Royal Air Force command under the guise of a promotion. Instead, Max is told that Marianne is a double agent. The real Marianne has died fighting before the movie begins. Cotillard’s character has assumed her identity. That Ambassador in Casablanca? A dissident whom Hitler wanted dead.

Max goes on a quest to prove that his wife is no traitor. We continue to pull for them and for their family, now including an infant daughter born during a London air raid.

Alas, “Marianne” has been spying — yes, on Max — all along. And yet, the filmmakers persist.

First, Cotillard’s never-named character, the fake “Marianne,” claims that she had no choice; the Nazis threatened their infant daughter’s life if she wouldn’t cooperate. But that character had been a Nazi before ever meeting Max. Worse, the film treats the claim of “no choice” uncritically. Couldn’t Marianne have told Max, the two going to their Allied supervisors together, perhaps ultimately being secreted away to Canada with their young daughter?

After her suicide is reported as Max’s having carried out his duty to execute his treacherous “wife,” we are treated to a sepia-toned ending. Sobs reverberate in the theater. We hear Cotillard’s voice behind images of that infant daughter growing up back in Canada with her single father, a wedding photograph of “Marianne” and Max prominently on display. Cotillard’s character reads a letter she has written to her daughter the night before her suicide, proclaiming her undying love.

No. Nazis are Nazis. In England. In 1944. No tears should be shed at her death, and no real Max would prominently display his deceptive wife’s photograph as a role model for the daughter he raises in postwar Canada.

Even the film’s apparently redeeming feature betrays the past. Max’s sister lives openly with her female partner, and they are treated much as a lesbian couple would be in 2016, dishonoring the sacrifices required of and the indignities suffered by same-sex couples of the era the movie purports to portray.

“Allied” deserves none of the critical accolades it has received, and its makers do not deserve its suspense to be maintained to draw unsuspecting viewers like me into the cinema. “Allied” is a beautiful love story and captivating film only if being a Nazi is less incriminating than being in love is endearing.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.


The Lulav and Jewish Unity

We hold the four species of the lulav together, as we wave them in every direction, symbolizing that all Jews – indeed, all humanity – must be united if God is properly to be praised. Nevertheless, I’ve never resonated to the specifics of the midrash in Vayikra Rabbah, detailing the four types of Jews which the species are said to represent: the etrog, with taste and smell, representing Jews who study Torah and perform mitzvot; the palm branch, with taste but no smell, symbolizing those who study Torah but do not practice what they’ve learned; the myrtle, with good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who perform mitzvot but are not learned in Torah; and the willow, with neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who lack both learning and Jewish observance.

Let me suggest an alternative.

Perhaps the etrog represents those who participate actively in Jewish worship, study, and performance of mitzvot as well as the stewardship of the Jewish community. The palm, then, might stand for those who practice Judaism actively but aren’t engaged in the business of the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. The myrtle would symbolize Jews who give their time to Jewish communal governance but don’t often worship, study, or observe the mitzvot.

Dan Hotchkiss, author of Governance and Ministry, writes about a woman who has participated in building perhaps more Habitat for Humanity homes than any other volunteer. However, she has never attended a committee meeting. She wants to do the good work; governance doesn’t interest her. The converse is true of others, though they may engage in at least token volunteer work in Habitat’s service. The mistake we make, Hotchkiss teaches, is that we often ask people to be on committees, then frustrate them with unclear expectations: People who are eager to do the work end up being asked to make decisions, and vice versa. The palm branch and myrtle remind us that different Jews prefer engagement in different aspects of our community, and that we should embrace both.

But what of the willow, that symbol with neither taste nor smell? Which Jews does it represent? Each congregation I have served is blessed, and I do mean “blessed,” with more than a few “willows,” members who are neither eager to practice Judaism actively nor be involved in governance. Active congregants sometimes speak of these folks derisively, emphasizing that they attend “twice a year,” if ever. I, on the other hand, see these “willows” differently. Yes, I’m eager to find ways to engage everyone in Jewish life. Still, I am grateful for the “willows” who haven’t totally disengaged from the community, who stand up and let themselves be counted as Jews – and, in the case of the congregations I have served, continue to pay their annual financial commitments faithfully, even as they rarely “take advantage” of the “privileges of membership.”

On this Sukkot, let us rejoice in every Jew in our midst, appreciating even the “willows,” as we embrace members of the Jewish community of every proclivity. May we all pull together, appreciating one another, rejoicing that we do band together in diverse ways to serve the Holy One of Blessing.

Rabbi Barry Block serves serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Reform Judaism

One Is Silver and the Other’s Gold: Precious Gifts of Mishkan HaNefesh

“Make new friends, and keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” We all heard and likely sang that ditty as children. We were not thinking of prayer books, but about friends.

For many people, though, a prayer book is an old friend. I recall an older Temple member, who was ill and unable to attend services here on the High Holy Days. When I visited, she showed me the prayer books that she and her family had used for a private service on Rosh Hashanah eve, and planned to use again on Yom Kippur: Union Prayer Book, of course.

I suspect that those High Holy Days were the most meaningful of that family’s life, as their matriarch neared the end of her life, but still able to celebrate and enjoy her family. Only immediate relatives were present, with one friend: that prayer book, which had been a part of their lives for generations, linking them to all who had come before, and to their memories of Rosh Hashanah in the Temple that has been their family’s synagogue home for a century and a half.

For many, Union Prayer Book was and remains a friend. Though a generation or more has passed since that book was used for regular High Holy Day services here, many return to its special place in our homes, to seek comfort and guidance.

Gates of Repentance was a hip, contemporary friend for its era. That decade, the 1970s, was characterized by low regard for anyone over 30; and Union Prayer Book was far older than that. Radical change was in the air in the years immediately following the moon landing and Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights Movement and the dawn of Women’s Liberation. While young adults of that era embraced the change, throwing off archaic language – you know, all those thee’s and thou’s – offering more accessible English for a new generation, others mourned the loss of an old friend.MhN Standard - RESIZED FINAL

The 21st Century is sometimes called post-modern, meaning in part that we embrace advances without throwing away the gems of the past. Mishkan HaNefesh preserves more of Jewish tradition than any previous Reform prayer book, while also embracing more of our Reform heritage than Gates of Repentance.

On the one hand, Mishkan HaNefesh includes more traditional Hebrew than its predecessors. On the other hand, the Hebrew is all transliterated on each page as it appears, making it more accessible, as we have become accustomed with Mishkan T’filah.

Another example of embracing both traditional and Reform practice is in the scriptural readings. Those of us who’ve been Reform for as long as we’ve been alive, or at least for as long as we’ve been Jewish, may imagine that the Binding of Isaac is the traditional Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah morning. That’s only partially true. In traditional synagogues, that section is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Mishkan HaNefesh offers choices. This year, for example, we will read the traditional selection for the first – and in our case, the only – day of Rosh Hashanah, which is about the birth of Isaac. Then, we will immediately turn to a Haftarah designated by our Reform forbears, a selection from the Book of Nehemiah about an ancient Rosh Hashanah.

The evocative English of Mishkan HaNefesh is its greatest strength, whether in translations of traditional prayers or in the more interpretive sections on the left side of the page. We may find inspiration in prayer and poetry that is mostly new to us, and then turn to a reading that has brought meaning to Reform Jews since the first edition of Union Prayer Book.

The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh solved some nettlesome problems with grace. For some years, we have been awkwardly changing the words when Gates of Repentance refers to God as “He.” As with Mishkan T’filah, that problem has been solved in ways that are never noticeable.

The most important words on the High Holy Days are Avinu Malkeinu, previously translated, “Our Father, our King.” The solution in Mishkan HaNefesh is a thing of beauty: “Avinu Malkeinu, Sh’ma Koleinu, Avinu Malkeinu – Almighty and Merciful – hear our voice.” “Almighty and Merciful” is evocative alliteration, reflecting the opening “a” and “m” sounds of Avinu Malkeinu. More significant, the meaning is conveyed, even if not literally. We call upon Malkeinu, our Sovereign, to acknowledge God’s power to judge us when we have sinned. We call upon Avinu, our loving heavenly Parent, asking the Holy One to be merciful when we have gone astray.

Most creative is the placement of the shofar ritual. In Orthodox synagogues, the shofar is sounded during the mussaf service. Mussaf means “additional,” and it refers to a repetition of prayers, duplication eliminated by our Reform founders. Reform prayer books placed the shofar after the Haftarah reading, since traditional mussaf follows the Torah service. The shofar ritual has three parts – the first, emphasizing God’s sovereignty; the second, asking God to forgive us by recalling the merit of our ancestors; and the third, pointing toward amessianic, future. When the entire shofar ritual is compressed into one part of the service, whether in mussaf or after the Haftarah, each part loses its significance. Mishkan HaNefesh liberates us both from a tradition that is no longer meaningful to us and a decision of our 19th century Reform founders. We now separate the three sections, giving each its own special place in the service.

One is silver and the other’s gold. Mishkan HaNefesh enables us to make a new friend while keeping the old. It preserves our birthright, the old friends that are our Jewish tradition and our Reform heritage, with prayers from the ancient and medieval High Holy Day machzor and words from Union Prayer Book. It provides new poetry, a new friend, inviting our spirits to soar. Mishkan HaNefesh is art in our hands. The look and the feel of these gold and silver volumes are classic wonders, worthy to be cherished for generations, even in a future when these are the beloved old books on the shelf from a previous era.

We have received a magnificent gift, from our editors and from our Conference. Let our hearts, full of gratitude, find precious gems in the silver and in the gold.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.

Learn more about Mishkan HaNefesh.


More than a “Didn’t Deviate” Degree

On May 4, I was honored to celebrate with my classmates, as we received our honorary Doctorate of Divinity degrees from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, recognizing the 25th anniversary of our ordination there.

We rabbis joke that the “D.D.” degree stands more for “didn’t die” or “didn’t deviate,” than “Doctor of Divinity.” That cynicism may reveal some discomfort at receiving a doctorate we didn’t earn through academic work. However, it masks a couple of important realities.

First, the day was impactful in personal ways that were hard to expect and more difficult to describe. I was touched to mark the milestone with classmates who shared a significant piece of my rabbinic journey, including the Rosh Yeshivah and Dean who bestowed the doctorates upon us.

Second, and more importantly, the occasion is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of these twenty-five years, how much has changed and how much remains the same.

I became a rabbi because I craved the opportunity to inspire sacred living in covenant with the God of Israel through the performance of mitzvot. Though the ways in which I pursue that mission have changed with the years, my passion for it has never waned.

So, what has changed?

I pursue my mission ambitiously. I expect excellence of myself and of the congregation I serve. I am grateful for staff and volunteer colleagues at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock. They share a vision that we can unite a congregation and serve a community meaningfully, with God’s partnership. Still, my definition of “ambition” has changed with time. Once, like most men in the rabbinate before me, but fewer women, and not unlike other professionals; I saw “success” as quantifiable, at least to some degree. A “successful” rabbi was one who served a large congregation, headed a comprehensive staff, and had tremendous resources at his (or her) disposal. Now, I am grateful to explore how much can be done with less – maximizing resources, while recognizing their limit at the same time – and celebrating each person who is enriched by this covenant rather than in the “body count.”

More broadly, Jewish professionals of my generation have experienced a tremendous shift, from an emphasis on standards to placing a priority on engagement. For example, as recently as three years ago, I believed strongly that every child in the Religious School must be unambiguously Jewish. While I still affirm, of course, that a person cannot be both Christian and Jewish at the same time, the flexibility I inherited at Congregation B’nai Israel has taught me that we can serve God and our community best by opening the door at the front end. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks about “engagement before dues,” meaning that we must welcome folks to synagogue involvement before we talk to them about formal, paying membership. Translating that principle more broadly, we are here to engage people in Jewish life, and we mustn’t be deterred because they haven’t (yet) reached *our* desired destination for *their* Jewish journeys. On Shavuot Eve this year, five young people will confirm their faith at Congregation B’nai Israel. A sixth, who has attended Religious School at our congregation and at a Methodist Church in alternating years, has engaged fully and faithfully with our Confirmation program. He is slated to participate almost-fully in that Shavuot Eve Confirmation service with his class, even though he’s not (yet) ready for Confirmation.

These last five years have been the most profound period of my growth as a rabbi over a quarter century, despite or even because of their having included a traumatic professional upheaval. Having met Mussar, first through a former congregant who introduced me to Alan Morinis, I have come to appreciate that even the most negative experience can lead to a soul’s growth. I pray that I may continue to grow and learn throughout the years ahead.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.

Convention Israel

Patience: The Other Side of the Coin, in Jerusalem

Tuesday, during the opening sessions of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Israel Convention, I was impatient. No, the programs didn’t start late, nor were they slow. I was impatient about the content.

I have been at all four CCAR conventions in Israel since my ordination. Today’s sessions about the two-state solution and about the rights of Palestinians could have taken place at my first, in 1995. In fact, programs on exactly those topics have been held at all four Israel conventions that I have attended.

Convention planners cannot be blamed. A two-state solution is less promising today than it was in early 1995, when then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres shared his vision of a Middle East Economic Union, mirroring the European Union, which he dreamed would result from the fulfillment of the Oslo Accords. Peace is just as urgent as it was on March 9, 2002, when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up at the Moment Cafe, murdering eleven Israeli citizens and injuring scores of others, just blocks from our convention hotel. The rights of Israel’s Arab citizens remain as compromised as they were when a 2009 excursion took us to a Bedouin village that lacked both sewage and safe drinking water.

At the very same time when these sessions were in progress, the CCAR distributed a blog that I had written on the airplane, on the way to the convention, “The Supreme Court Vacancy and the Soul-Trait of Patience.” The irony wasn’t lost on me, stewing as I was in my impatience: Impatience over successive Israeli governments’ failure to make the two state solution an urgent priority and to grant every Israeli citizen the rights promised in the Jewish State’s Declaration of Independence. Should I be more patient with the Israeli government, just as I wished that America’s leaders had patiently waited until after Justice Scalia’s funeral before discussing or fighting about his successor?


In my study and practice of Mussar with Alan Morinis over these last five years, I have learned that patience is on everyone’s spiritual curriculum. More people tend to be too impatient than too patient, and I’m certainly in that larger group. Still, as with any soul-trait, one can be out of balance in either direction. One can be too patient.

Reform rabbis are in Israel this week to declare that we will be no more patient in urging the Israeli government to seek peace than we were with authorities’ refusal to permit women to read from the Torah at the Western Wall. We are no more patient in seeking full equality for all of Israel’s citizens than we are in demanding that marriages solemnized by our Israeli Reform and Conservative rabbinical colleagues be recognized by the state.

Tonight, we demonstrated our righteous impatience collectively, as we marched for tolerance from Dormition Abbey to Beit Shmuel. The Abbey has frequently been the target of so-called “Price Tag” vandals. The “logic” begins these attacks is that somebody must “pay the price” for violence against Jews. Who could disagree? Terrorists should pay a price for their crimes. A heavy one. Innocent German abbots at a Christian holy place, though, are anything but terrorists. To the melodies of a Hebrew psalm and German and English hymns, we prayed that the violence end. Marching behind a banner of tolerance and bearing lights, we demonstrated that we will be no more patient in awaiting the end of violence perpetrated by Jewish terrorists than we are in demanding the end of Palestinian terrorism.

Today, in Jerusalem, I was impatient. I expect to be impatient all week.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.

Death News spirituality

The Supreme Court Vacancy and the Soul-Trait of Patience

When Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly and unexpectedly, a week ago Saturday, I experienced the same surge of emotion that many Americans felt. Sadness for the life lost and for a person, his family and friends, none of whom I know, was tinged with either sadness and fear about the future of our country without Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court or gratitude at the prospect of the Justice’s being replaced on the Court by a fifth liberal.

In my own Facebook feed, I noticed both responses. One friend in the latter camp, where I also reside, confessed to a guilty conscience about any happiness experienced as the result of a person’s death.

By then, though, we had seen the statement by the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, declaring in the hours after Scalia’s death was announced that the Senate wouldn’t act on any nomination by the current President. That President quickly insisted that he would certainly make a nomination and expect the Senate to act upon it.

I suspect that both Sen. McConnell and President Obama began their statements with words of sadness and sympathy. Still, none can blame the media for leading with their sensational statements about the recently-deceased’s replacement on the Court.

I was appalled. Not at the press but at our national leaders.

When a person dies, Judaism teaches that our obligation is kavod ha-met, honoring the deceased. That priority is so important that we are forbidden even turn to nichum aveilim, comforting the mourners, until after burial. Turning so quickly to discussion of a successor justice, Sen. McConnell immediately changed the national conversation away from kavod ha-met to mundane and political matters. President Obama piled on.

Surely, neither Sen. McConnell or President Obama wished to dishonor Justice Scalia, a”h. Each would argue that his position best honors the deceased Justice — McConnell, by striving for a replacement who would fit Scalia’s own mold; and Obama, by arguing for a process that would adhere to the Constitution that Scalia defended.

Both men failed in a way that’s increasingly common in our modern world, giving in to an urge to act instantly.

I am often guilty: jumping to the phone when I hear that “ding” or feel the vibration, even if it’s just my turn in “Words with Friends.” At the same time, by studying and practicing Mussar, I have learned not to respond instantly when I receive a text or email that I initially deem irritating. Frequently, the simple act of waiting an hour softens my view of the communication I’ve received. At the very least, waiting changes the tone or medium of my response for the better.

How much healthier would we be as a nation, and how much more fittingly would Justice Scalia have been honored in the days after his death, had Sen. McConnell paid tribute to the newly-deceased Justice’s memory, declining to discuss any possible confirmation process until after a nomination were made? How much healthier would we be as a nation, and how much greater the honor to Justice Scalia, a”h, had the President declined to engage Sen. McConnell’s remarks until after the Justice’s funeral. As one who hopes for the confirmation of a successor justice nominated by President Obama, and who agrees with his constitutional argument on the point, I believe he would have carried the day by pointedly refusing to descend into public political discourse about any nomination until after Justice Scalia’s funeral, and certainly not in the hours after his death.

My Mussar teacher, Alan Morinis, reminds us that “sevel,” suffering, and “savlanut,” patience, are formed from the same Hebrew root. Perhaps the Senator would’ve had to struggle mightily, even suffering, to suppress the urge to make his point instantly. Maybe President Obama would’ve been pained by not joining a battle that has been initiated. Each has a “base” that expects no less than instant, repeated, hyper-partisan reaction to every event.

Similarly, we may be uncomfortable sitting with that provocative text or email, but we must suffer patiently in order to reduce the suffering we will cause ourselves and others with the instant, caustic response.

Now, because the Senator and the President lacked patience, the nation suffers.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.

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Balancing Critique and Gratitude: Lessons from the Study of Mussar

Like many rabbis, I receive a weekly email from the remnants of the Alban Institute, a premier source of information and consulting on issues facing religious congregations. Last week, Alban’s missive offered best practices for embracing young adults in congregational life. The source? Union for Reform Judaism’s Communities of Practice.

Few among us would have imagined that our Movement might set the bar for young adult engagement in American religious life. Fewer still would suggest that URJ is the source of whatever successes Reform Judaism might be having in that regard. I wondered if we are so busy criticizing the Union, among all our Movement organizations, including our own congregations and ourselves, that we fail to recognize success.

I received that Alban email on the day I arrived at the annual Kallah of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis (SWARR). This year, SWARR was treated to learning from our Movement’s leaders, including a panel discussion with CCAR President Rabbi Denise Eger, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and HUC-JIR Los Angeles Campus Dean Dr. Joshua Holo. Our leaders were asked about areas of cooperation and areas of difficulty between the organizations they lead. Rabbi Jacobs noted that his counterparts in other Jewish religious movements often marvel at the very fact that our congregational and rabbinic bodies and seminary talk to one another, meeting regularly. Apparently, we are somewhat unique in that regard. Dr. Holo told us that, to the best of his extensive knowledge, we are the only religious movement or denomination in the world that co-funds its congregational body and seminary.

I wondered: To what extent does the tochechah (critique), which many of us frequently direct at our Movement institutions obscure our capacity for hakarat ha tov, literally “recognizing the good,” or gratitude? Conversely, to what extent has our tochechah (justified, appropriately expressed critique) contributed to the success we might now celebrate?

From my study and practice of Mussar, as taught by Alan Morinis, I have learned to seek the “golden mean” in attempting to balance my middot (soul-traits) and behavior. In making my own cheshbon nefesh (accounting of my soul), I find that I have been out of balance, erring on the side of tochechah, criticizing our Movement institutions – URJ, above all – without sufficient hakarat ha-tov (gratitude) for their important contributions to my rabbinate and congregational life. Oh yes, I regularly express gratitude for two aspects of URJ that we all praise, i.e., camps and the Religious Action Center. Now, though, I’m aware that there’s much more to praise. To correct the imbalance, I need to go out of my way to practice hakarat ha-tov, expressing gratitude; and I need to still my tongue or my typing fingers when tempted to issue tochechah (critique).

I suspect that I’m not alone.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.