Israel resolutions

One Resolution, Many Voices

The CCAR Board recently adopted a comprehensive resolution entitled, “CCAR Declaration of Love for the State of Israel and Its People.” As chair of the Resolutions Committee, I was responsible for shepherding the process of developing an idea into a proposal fit for the Board’s consideration.

Toward the end of debate, hours before the Board approved the final, amended resolution, one Board member referred to the document as “polyglot.” Thin-skinned and exhausted at the climax of an arduous process, I took that characterization as an epithet. I was wrong. What our colleague meant was that the resolution reflected many voices. The resolution finds its greatest strength in being multi-vocal.

This Resolution began with the submission of a proposal, “End the Occupation,” by Rabbi Hillel Gamoran, co-signed by a large number of colleagues.

The Resolutions Committee considered that proposal carefully during two successive meetings. After the first, I presented it to the Board, with the recommendation that the Resolutions Committee propose a more comprehensive resolution, to address the issues raised by Rabbi Gamoran and others. By that time, CCAR leadership and I had reviewed our existing resolutions on Israel — notably a comprehensive piece, “Where We Stand on Israel,” a 2002 statement in need of replacement. The Board asked the Resolutions Committee to proceed.

A long drafting and consultation process ensued. Colleagues who lead ARZA, MARAM, and the CCAR Israel Committee were intimately involved. Colleagues from across the ideological spectrum were asked to review drafts, and none were shy about offering suggestions. ARZA leadership reminded us to be careful, given that we treasure Israeli colleagues and cherish a growing Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. We knew that; after all, we had already consulted the chair of MARAM. Still, the delicacy of our task was brought home to us very clearly.

At one point, a colleague consulted by our President, Denise Eger, submitted a complete re-write, which didn’t change the substance of the proposal, but which was better written, strengthening its voice. I substituted that version for the one with which I had been working, changing it only in ways that were necessary to maintain the support of our key partners.

Throughout the process, Denise Eger, Steve Fox, and I were mindful of the large number of colleagues who had signed onto the earlier proposal that Hillel Gamoran had placed before us. A Resolutions Committee member who lives near Rabbi Gamoran repeatedly brought him drafts, inviting input, which was carefully considered. (To cite only one example, at Rabbi Gamoran’s suggestion, the phrase “Occupied Territories” was included in two places.) Naturally, not all of the input we received, from Rabbi Gamoran nor anyone else, from across the ideological spectrum, could be accepted.

Throughout the process, I adopted a philosophy about suggested edits: Unless I absolutely couldn’t make a suggested change, I accepted it. Working in Word, the function I used the most was “accept insertion (or deletion).” I rejected only edits which violated my arcane sense of English grammar and style or which I knew would force our key partners to withdraw support. The process required a level of bitul ha-yesh (getting my own ego out of the way), which isn’t necessarily characteristic of me!

Ultimately, after again considering Rabbi Gamoran’s submission, and much discussion, the Resolutions Committee substituted our own draft for Rabbi Gamoran’s proposal. The Board adopted the Committee’s recommendation with amendments.

The result is long and multifaceted, reflecting the complexity of the issues and the variety of topics addressed. I hope that signatories to Rabbi Gamoran’s proposal will see that concepts they viewed as important are reflected, even as I hope that those who declined to sign with Rabbi Gamoran find the adopted resolution to be a statement that they can support. I note that several issues surely important to signatories of Rabbi Gamoran’s proposal, but not included in it – the status of Reform Judaism in Israel and equality of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, to name just two – are included here. Other issues that the CCAR hadn’t previously formally addressed in a resolution – most notably our rejection of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement – also merited inclusion in this comprehensive document. On that last point, I should add that the Resolutions Committee is now working on a stand-alone resolution on BDS, a topic that requires greater exploration than it has received in the past, too extensive to fit into our “Expression of Love for the State of Israel and Its People.”

I have chaired the Resolutions Committee off and on for many years – too many, in fact; but that’s a subject for another day. I mention my longevity in this role here only to emphasize that I have never steered a process that invited the interest of so many CCAR members, or one that included so many voices in both the drafting process and the final product.

Otto von Bismarck observed, “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.” I used this metaphor a few times toward the end of the process described above, lamenting that I had been “standing over the sausage grinder for a couple of months.”

Upon reflection, though, our resolution reminds me less of sausage than of chocolate cake made with orange juice. I don’t understand how orange juice is in some chocolate cake recipes; but I know that, when it is, the cake is delectable. Standing over a mix-master can be tiring, and one never knows how the cake will turn out. Still, adhering to a recipe that assures that the cake will rise, while remaining open to innovation, can produce a delicious cake.

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

Rabbis Reform Judaism

I Didn’t Build It

Showing visitors or newcomers around the synagogue, I hear the compliment, “What a beautiful temple!” I respond: “Yes, and I can brag about it, because it was all here, just like this, when I got here a couple years ago.”

Congregation B’nai Israel was founded in 1866. I was called to Little Rock as rabbi in 2013. I am responsible for none of the congregation’s many blessings, the edifice being only one. Whether marveling at the congregation’s outstanding youth engagement, magnificent worship music, or extraordinary level of volunteer commitment, I am constantly reminded that I have very little to do with what makes this synagogue terrific. No, nobody else says, “You didn’t build it.” Those words come from a voice inside my head, in contrast to how I regarded my role at my previous congregation.

That other synagogue had been serving its community for 118 years before I came on the scene. Still, by the time I left, 21 years later, I wrongly viewed the congregation as largely my creation. I could even cite examples: By 2013, even the historic edifice had been altered substantially since 1992. I had been significantly involved in the building’s development, and certainly in dramatic changes that ranged from worship style to youth engagement.

But I didn’t build that other congregation, either. Its magnificent Sanctuary was constructed before even my parents were born. Its worship style would surely have evolved with a different rabbi in my place during those two decades.

We rabbis regularly refer to the synagogues we serve as “my congregation.” If challenged, we would defend ourselves: After all, members refer to the place as “my temple.” Why shouldn’t we? The possessive pronoun doesn’t really designate possession in this case. Or does it?

Because of what I’ve learned from my study of Mussar with Alan Morinis, I recoil from referring to Congregation B’nai Israel as “my congregation.” Yes, I feel at home here, perhaps even more than I did in my previous congregation, a development I couldn’t have imagined in 2013. I hope to be here until retirement. Still, I reflect on the daily affirmation we recite when practicing the middah (soul-trait) of anavah (humility) in programs of The Mussar Institute: “No more than my place, no less than my space.” I don’t call B’nai Israel “my congregation,” because I have come to believe that it denotes an unhealthy level of rabbinic ownership, taking up “more than my space.”

This past summer, Congregation B’nai Israel remodeled its offices. Now, one corner of the building looks different than it did when I came. I had something to do with that: The rabbi’s study wasn’t sufficiently private – not so much for me, as for those who come to meet with me. Still, I am acutely aware that two volunteers did not execute my vision, but rather turned a problem I articulated into a solution that addresses issues I hadn’t even noticed. The result is both beautiful and functional in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The same is true of positive developments that range from worship style to youth culture. (Sound familiar?)

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

Rabbis Social Justice Statements

Bearing True Witness: Raising the Collective Rabbinic Voice

Late last week, the New York Times treated us to a column featuring two Reform rabbis, Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig and Rabbi Yoel Kahn, along with other religious leaders who have been pioneers in the struggle for LGBT equality. The article’s title suggested a problem it was striving to correct: “Push Within Religions for Gay Marriage Gets Little Attention.”

Reading the news, one could easily develop the impression that religion itself opposes LGBT equality and reproductive liberty, while demanding easy access to fire arms, to name just a few examples. Consider discussion around the Boy Scouts of America’s policy change, permitting gay and lesbian adults to serve in leadership capacities. We have all heard much about religious groups’ demand that they be permitted to bar gay men and lesbians from serving in these roles in the Boy Scout Troops they house, but precious little about religious groups that will only host Boy Scout Troops with clear, enforced non-discrimination policies.

Amplifying the progressive religious voice is hard work. As the New York Times’ headline writer suggests, our endeavors often garner “little attention.”

This week, I experienced the power of our collective rabbinic voice. On Monday, I had a phone call from a friend who works for Planned Parenthood. Her voice was filled with frustration, even loneliness, as she articulated the pain of being accused of gross inhumanity. Later that same day, our Reform rabbinate issued a statement, “CCAR Condemns Deceptive Campaign against Planned Parenthood.” I sent it to my friend. She was deeply moved that a group of clergy had rushed to Planned Parenthood’s defense. Not Jewish, and not being religious at all, her principal association with religion is in the claim of many that God hates Planned Parenthood, its work and its advocacy. Suddenly, a group of clergy has rushed to Planned Parenthood’s defense, boldly asserting “truth” to combat the lies that threaten to cripple women’s reproductive liberty.

In its 2015 session, the Arkansas Legislature, like many before it, resolved to welcome tablets of the Ten Commandments to stand on the grounds of our State Capitol. While I oppose doing so, in this week of reading Parashat Va’etchanan, which includes those Ten Commandments, I would suggest that the very people behind such efforts have much to learn from those commandments. When they claim that God commands that we discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, they take God’s Name in vain. When they charge that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for profit, they bear false witness against their neighbors.

When I posted the CCAR’s Statement about Planned Parenthood to Facebook, one of my friends asked whether mainline Protestant groups had made similar declarations. I don’t know the answer, but I’m not aware of any. What I don’t do is take the bold truth-telling of the CCAR for granted.

Whether the issue is racial justice or gun violence, religious freedom in the United States or Israel, LGBT rights or reproductive liberty, we may be grateful that our CCAR President, Rabbi Denise Eger, and our Chief Executive, Rabbi Steve Fox, among other leaders, are prepared to raise the collective rabbinic voice to bear true witness: God loves all, created in the Divine image; and God demands truth.

And let us pray that, some day, no longer will a headline writer for the Times or anyone else have to say that our collective religious voice for truth “gets little attention.”

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


Transition: Two Years, Two Sides

I write on July 1, 2015, mindful that many colleagues begin new positions today, two years to the day after I commenced my tenure at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.

When I arrived, I found a transition-weary congregation, after eight months without a resident rabbi followed by a year with an outstanding interim rabbi. Staff and congregants had circled July 1, 2013, as the red-letter day when the “permanent” rabbi would arrive and transition would end.

I, though, was fresh from CCAR’s outstanding “First 100 Days” seminar for rabbis in transition. Steve Fox had told us that transition would continue at least for our first 18 months in our new positions, perhaps until our second contracts were signed. I emphasized to a receptive lay leadership that a new phase of transition was only beginning. I reminded everyone that even Rabbi Ira Sanders, z”l — whose tenure, including his emeritus service, had spanned six decades — wasn’t “permanent.” However, a key staff member had endured enough transition, giving notice only three weeks after I arrived. Another left after the fall holidays. At URJ’s terrific Shallat Seminar for rabbis and congregational presidents in transition, key lay leaders and I learned that our level of staff turnover or more was common and to be expected. Still, the loss of institutional memory in our office was often debilitating.

Our Transition Committee Chairs understood and would have been up to the challenge, but their committee had been constituted to fill in the gaps when the congregation didn’t have a resident rabbi. They were prepared to throw a party — several parties, actually, which were very helpful — once the new rabbi arrived. Then, though, the Transition Committee was determined to disband.

Much was awkward during the first year. In my twenty-third year as a congregational rabbi, I frequently felt like a novice. Lay partners and I often tripped over each other, with their deference to my rabbinic leadership often running counter to my eagerness to be true to the congregation’s traditions. I was new to certain roles that had been filled by others in a larger synagogue, and needed to develop new competencies. Often, services and programs felt like an uneasy mixture of my style and the congregation’s, not yet seamlessly meshed.

Complicating matters, the congregation wasn’t the only party going through a challenging transition. The loss of my previous position had been traumatic. Even though I had a year’s sabbatical before entering the new congregation, I was still reeling from losing my home of 21 years, where I expected to stay to the end of my career and beyond.

My own trauma was matched by my family’s dislocation. My wife and younger son adapted quickly and happily to Little Rock, but were giving up a great deal in the process. Our older son took longer, and that first year was rough. Meanwhile, my dad was nursing his dying wife in their home around the corner from where we had lived in our previous community. I was busy in Little Rock, but my mind was often directed to my father’s home and to grieving the loss of my step-mother of 29 years.

Personal adjustments were tough. Professional adaptation is more at the heart of this essay’s subject. During the first year, what may be called “post-traumatic stress” amplified my reaction to even the smallest and most limited criticism. Moreover, having done outstanding due diligence in the search process, my new lay leaders were well aware of my foibles and were understandably concerned when even faint hints of those issues arose.

What a difference the second year made!

In the second year, the less-new rabbi is no longer leading the congregation through any annual event for the first time. The congregation’s receptivity to what I had to offer was more easily combined with what I had learned about the congregation’s long-established patterns. Our staffing had stabilized, with a talented Administrator joining our team at the end of my first year.

At a personal level, I had begun — imperceptibly, at first — to let go of the traumas of the past. My family was now at home in Little Rock, including my father, in his own home on our very street.

Today, my wife and I are returning to Little Rock from a brief “kids at camp” getaway. By coincidence, we went to the same vacation spot three years ago at this season, shortly after I had resigned my previous pulpit. Perhaps “déjà vu” would be a better word than “coincidence:” During both of these trips, to a place we haven’t been any other time, others were moving me out of my office. The two moves couldn’t be more different. Three years ago, I was being moved out of an office I adored, where I had only three months earlier had every reason to believe I would spend the rest of my career. This summer, at my no-longer-new congregation, our offices are being remodeled for many reasons, not the least of them being to create a quieter and more private space for congregants to meet with me. Three years ago, at a retreat that was supposed to be relaxing, I was constantly on the phone, confronting compounding trauma. This week, even with a big move happening in the office, I didn’t make more than a handful of phone calls in four days, and none of them was frantic.

Ten days ago, at our congregation’s Annual Meeting, I was pleased to announce that I was ready to declare our mutual rabbinical transition complete. Yes, I was talking about a transition that many had imagined finished two years earlier. The truth is, though, that Steve Fox had been correct. Two years would be required for congregation and rabbi to feel fully at home with one another.

At that same meeting, the congregation approved the extension of my rabbinic term, for five years beyond the first three, in effect ratifying a contract already approved by the Board to take effect beginning next summer. Yes, after two years, transition is complete, for both rabbi and congregation.


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


Grateful for the Unexpected: Mussar on Vacation

Our family vacation didn’t entirely go as planned. A week-long Galapagos cruise turned into a four-day voyage when an airplane mechanical failure caused us to miss our original departure. Houston, even in a comfortable hotel and with every possible movie in the world’s largest multiplex, doesn’t match snorkeling with sea turtles or gazing at blue footed boobies.

I knew to be grateful, even to the airline that botched our departure rather than risk an unsafe flight. Thanks only to long practice of Mussar, I was able to keep my anger in check, not only about a situation out of everyone’s control, but when the airline inexplicably couldn’t produce our luggage for our unanticipated Houston layover. As Alan Morinis has taught, losing my temper wouldn’t change the outcome, but would only make me — and worse, the people around me — miserable; and I would model badly to my children. Other middot (soul-traits) helped, too, significantly including bitachon (trust). For the first 24 hours, we weren’t sure we would get to the Galapagos at all; but I continually told my family (and myself) that, whatever the outcome, we would be fine and we would have a good vacation. Oh, and I was grateful that, months ago, I had exhibited the zerizut (alacrity) to purchase the trip insurance that would make that outcome financially feasible.

I knew, too, that most people — indeed, even most Ecuadorians — never get to explore the Galapagos, that such a glorious vacation is out of the reach of most Americans, not to mention the entire human family. So our family remained grateful for four days in the Galapagos, even as we acknowledged our disappointment.

But it wasn’t until the end of the first full day of the cruise that I recognized the fullness of the goodness we had been granted. During one two-hour hike on the island of Espanola, we had the closest of encounters with a dozen sea lion colonies, including hundreds of young. We were within inches of thousands of Earth’s only sea-going iguanas, called “Christmas Iguanas” because the males take on bright red and green coloring only at one time of year, which happened to be the season of our trip. We watched up close as two couples of albatrosses, a monogamous species, engaged in elaborate love dances that even our guide had rarely seen. Among countless nesting Nasco Boobies, we spotted one day-old chick huddling under its mother. We gazed on as an immature albatross spread its wings and took its first few feet of flight.

1482877_675529182489913_1028566581_nOh, I forgot to mention: Espanola is home to lots and lots of dung: bird poop of every kind, sea lion poop, iguana poop, you name it, that island has it. One could, I suppose, spend those precious hours on Espanola disgusted by the poop. One could return to the ship, calculating the tons of excrement, instead of the scores of species. Similarly, we could return from our trip, recounting the delay and all its trials rather than the magnificence of our destination. Instead, hakarat ha-tov (gratitude, literally “recognizing the good”) prevailed. We returned to narrate our magnificent photographs of boobies and sea lions.

Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt for more than four centuries. The forty years that followed were no picnic either. Still, we tell that story as one of the greatest liberation humanity has ever known, culminating in the Promised Land. Even when there’s a lot of poop in the way — and in life, there always is — may we gratefully recognize and celebrate the wonder of life on Earth.

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

Death Healing Rabbis

Mussar for Rabbis – Bitachon (Trust), Life, and Death

“Rabbi, I wouldn’t want your job,” congregants have often said to me, most often in connection with the rabbi’s proximity to death.  My response often surprises people:  “Being with those who are dying, and with families coping with the death of a loved one, is actually the most meaningful part of being a rabbi for me.”

Make no mistake:  The rabbi is not immune from feelings of sadness in the midst of mourners.  Having served more than two decades in one community, and now forging meaningful bonds in a new one, I frequently experience real personal loss at the death of a person who has become dear to me.

Still, the well-boundaried rabbi does not become consumed by grief at the death of a congregant.  With true caring for the person who is dying, or who has died, and for the family, the rabbi can play a unique role to bring healing.  The rabbi can leverage the liminal moment to draw people closer to the congregation, to the Covenant, and to God.  Most importantly, the rabbi can convey authentic faith, which I have come to understand most importantly as the middah of bitachon (the soul-trait of trust), thanks to my learning with Alan Morinis.

In significant measure, I take my cue from the Christian funeral, a comment I make in the context of a witticism I often share about Jews attending a Christian funeral:

A group of Jews gets in the car after a Christian funeral, after offering condolences to the family and kind, if not entirely sincere, words to the minister or priest.  The car windows are rolled up.  I have been in this car.  “Geez,” one person exclaims, “I thought we were going to Ploni’s funeral.  But I didn’t hear hardly anything about Ploni! Did we just attend Jesus’s funeral?”

Naturally, the Christian service doesn’t resonate to Jews.  We don’t share the theology proclaimed there.  We are not imbued with faith that Ploni has found the blessings of life eternal because of his/her relationship with Jesus.  That Christian funeral does not inspire bitachon (trust) in us.

IMG_2309The question remains, though:  Do our own funerals offer faith and hope to us and to our own people?

In our own day, people often ask why rabbis bother to give eulogies at all.  After all, family members are often eager to speak, and they knew the deceased better even than a rabbi who has shared a long relationship with the departed.  While I agree that the loving words of familial mourners are meaningful, and certainly called for (as in Proverbs 31), the rabbi can fill a role that most family members cannot.

I minister to dying individuals and their families, and I craft each eulogy, with a clear, rabbinical goal in mind:  I am there to offer bitachon, trust, despite the unhappy circumstance before us, that:

1) Life is an inestimable gift from God, exemplified by the life now ending or ended.  The dying or recently deceased person has made an important impact on this world which will not soon be forgotten and is indisputably not erased by death.

2) We who yet live can keep this person very much alive here on Earth by finding our own ways to live our dear one’s values.  I suggest that this responsibility to a person’s immortality on Earth is what we mean when we say that we are reciting Kaddish “for” somebody.  Literally, the Kaddish is an opportunity to praise God on behalf of one who no longer can do so.  We may interpret our Kaddish obligation more broadly as a duty to perform mitzvot, to offer cheesed (loving-kindness,) and tzedakah (righteous charitable giving), and/or to continue shalshelet hakabalah (the chain of Jewish tradition) on behalf of the one who no longer can do so, thereby granting immortality in this world.

3) Life after death for the departed in the World to Come is also a meaningful part of our Jewish faith.  This is the hard part, for countless reasons, not the least being that any honest discussion of Jewish theology in this regard doesn’t fit into a eulogy.   Still, I affirm that even poetic, oblique reference to eternal life in God’s embrace offers faith and hope that our funerals might otherwise fail to convey.

Serving my congregants at their times of greatest spiritual need, I have come to realize, has bolstered my own bitachon, my own ultimate trust in the Eternal.  Death is a difficult aspect of the human condition, from which rabbis are not exempt.  Striving to help others face death with faith serves as a constant reminder to me:  I must pursue tikkun middot, the repair of my own flaws, to deepen the meaning of my own earthly existence; I am charged to recall the goodness of my grandparents, of blessed memory, by striving to “say Kaddish” for them through my own actions; and I would do well to remember that I, too, am “but dust and ashes,” my body destined for the cemetery, my soul in the hands of God, a prospect I increasingly accept with bitachon, with faithful trust.

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

Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism

Mussar for Rabbis: Order

Alan Morinis teaches that each נשמה (neshamah – soul) has its own “curriculum.” In other words, each of us is out of balance with respect to this or that מידה (middah – soul trait) in ways that are unique to us.

When we come to סדר (seder – order), one can be out of balance in either direction. As Morinis writes, “The soul-trait of order is all about the middle way. Too little order gives birth to chaos, while at the other end, too much order ties us up in obsessive rigidity” (“Everyday Holiness,” p. 87). Most of us have “order” on our “curriculum,” even as each person’s challenges may be so different from another’s as to be opposite.

For rabbis, these extremes can be particularly problematic.

The disorganized rabbi may be chronically late for appointments, fail to submit a signed marriage license, or even miss a life cycle ceremony commitment.

The rigid rabbi may burden others with unrealistic expectations of timeliness and precision. We could become such “yekkes” that we insist on starting a service on time, even if the bus with the family and out-of-town guests has broken down, causing distress to the very family we are ostensibly serving. Order is by definition obsessive if we are valuing precision over human beings.

Alan Morinis has also taught me that imbalance with one מידה (middah – soul trait) is often best addressed by emphasizing another. Awareness of a need to change, while essential, isn’t sufficient to bring about the improved behavior. For example, a person who is chronically disorganized may well be aware of that shortcoming. S/he may even say to him/herself: “I need to become better organized!” We often know such things about ourselves; but if change were so easy, we would simply change.

Let me offer examples of how imbalance on the מידה of סדר (the middah, soul trait, of seder, order) may be addressed by emphasis on another virtue altogether.

Perhaps the disorganized rabbi is nevertheless filled with זריזות (zerizut, enthusiasm) for a particular project. This rabbi will not make or keep a schedule for its own sake. S/he may typically be less than responsive to calls and emails. And yet, by summoning the passion s/he is devoting to the project at hand, perhaps the rabbi can summon a level of organization that doesn’t come naturally.

Are you that disorganized rabbi, whose passionately-pursued project is foundering? Perhaps you despair that you can suddenly become punctilious, even to accomplish a cherished goal. Try this method, adapted from Alan Morinis’ prescribed Mussar practice: Journal each evening about the project’s progress. Where is it succeeding, and where is it stalled? Who is questioning and criticizing you and what are their stated reasons for doing so? Even if your initial impulse is to ascribe those critiques to others’ impatience or lack of flexibility, try an experiment: Make a game out of just how timely and responsive you can be. Revel in the repentance of your erstwhile critics, and understand that their newfound partnership is a result of your סדר (seder), of your orderliness, however manufactured.

At the other end of the spectrum, the rigid rabbi may find relief in the מידה (middah, soul trait) of דן לכף זכות (dan l’chaf z’chut, benefit of the doubt). The hyper-organized may become frustrated when others don’t reply with our desired alacrity, constantly complaining that our colleagues or lay partners are poor at follow-through. Unable to imagine misplacing important papers, we may deem a less organized co-worker to be grossly irresponsible. We may not even believe that the bus with the out-of-town guests is lost, but rather assume that cousin Joe or Joanne was dawdling!

Soon, we start that service ruthlessly on time or pepper our partners with harassing emails. The disorganization of others is simply intolerable!

The ultra-organized person isn’t likely simply to accept that others’ standards of סדר (seder, order) are different and equally acceptable. Instead, we may work toward another solution. We may think twice about the motive (or lack of motivation) we ascribe to the less organized person. Make דן לכף זכותך
(dan l’chaf z’chut, benefit of the doubt) a “game.” Be imaginative! Work to make a list of all the possible good explanations for what you have regarded as disorganization. Perhaps the source of your frustration is absorbed in a critical project of which you’re unaware. Maybe he is stressed at home. Perhaps her computer crashed. Maybe the bus really is lost.

I close with a personal anecdote. I’m a pretty organized guy. All the same, from time to time, my office desk has become a disastrous mess. When that has occurred, I haven’t been able to summon סדר (seder, order) itself to clean my desk. I couldn’t convince myself to make order for its own sake. When I began studying and practicing Mussar, I considered what other מידה (middah, soul trait) could help me clean that desk. I identified כבוד (kavod, honor), and came to see that I was dishonoring the people who came to see me — in my case, to see “the rabbi” — indeed, that I was dishonoring the synagogue itself with that disgracefully messy desk. And so, I cleaned it.

Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism

Mussar for Rabbis: Humility

Beginning a process of תיקון מידות (tikkun middot, repair of one’s soul traits) starts with ענוה (anavah – humility). Without humility, one cannot confess that one’s מידות (middot, soul-traits) require repair, so The Mussar Institute’s programs begin with that essential מידה (middah, soul trait). Even if I don’t imagine myself flawless, a haughty attitude would prevent my openness to Mussar teaching and its required rigorous practice to address my impatience, my lack of generosity or gratitude, or my failures of truth, for example.

My rabbinic humility was challenged from the moment that a new Temple Board member asked me whether we could undertake Mussar learning in my former congregation. Could I retain my regard in the eyes of this congregant if I confessed that I knew nothing beyond the most basic definition of Mussar literature? What kind of a rabbi isn’t well versed in any aspect of our Jewish textual tradition? I was chagrined as I haltingly admitted to being that kind of rabbi.

The congregant pointed me to the Mussar Institute. I was impressed with a lecture by Alan Morinis that I saw there, and I approached him about the possibility of a scholar-in-residence weekend. Seeking to maximize “bang for the buck,” I proposed to teach some of the texts in the months leading up to his visit. He would offer a Shabbat Eve talk during services, to reach a wide audience, and then we would hold a Shabbaton exclusively for those who had already studied the material.

Morinis seemed to like the plan, explaining that, to do what I proposed, if I would first have to take “Everyday Holiness” online and then take מנחים (manchim – leaders) training to enable me to offer a Mussar Institute course to my congregants.

What chutzpah! Who did this Alan Morinis think he was? “I’m a rabbi,” I thought; “Give me a text; I’ll study it, and then I can teach it.” Divine intervention is the only explanation for my I summoning humility I did not then possess, agreeing to Morinis’ lengthy demands.

The payoff has been beyond measure. My נשמה (neshamah – soul) continues to need repair, and always will; now, though, I do possess just enough humility to accept that somebody else — in this case, Alan Morinis and the Mussar Masters who preceded him — have a system better than any I could have created on my own. Through daily affirmation, repeated study and introspection, and journaling, coming to grips with my failures, I continually seek to become a better husband, a better father, a better rabbi, a better human being.

Humility or ענוה (anavah) is not exclusively about eschewing haughtiness, important as that is. The Mussar Institute’s recommended daily affirmation for ענוה (anavah – humility) is, “No more than my place, no less than my space.” The second half of the phrase suggests that one who is “too humble” isn’t humble at all. Now that’s a חידוש (chiddush, a new insight), particularly important for rabbis.

Moses, we know, is called “very humble, more than any other person on the face of the Earth” (Numbers 12:3). The context of that characterization is Korach’s rebellion, an incident during which Moses is anything but meek. He stands in his rightful place and chides the rebels for stepping beyond their own.

Rabbis could be tempted to “go along to get along,” not to take controversial stands or stand up to injustice or unethical behavior within our communities. Morinis cites a story from the Talmud (Gittin 55b-56a) to illustrate how failure to lead, excessive meekness, is a failure of ענוה (anavah – humility) which can have disastrous results.

We are taught, “The humility of Rabbi Zechariah Ben Avkulus caused the destruction of the [second] Temple in Jerusalem.” Actually, Zachariah’s failure is of taking up “less than his space.” The specifics of the story are unsavory. The Romans, encouraged by a Jewish accomplice, present the priests with a “Sophie’s choice,” either to sacrifice a blemished animal proffered by the Romans, thereby violating Torah, or insult the Romans and incur their wrath by refusing the offering. A harsh solution is proposed: Kill the Jewish accomplice, so that he can’t report to the Romans that the sacrifice has been declined. A decision is sought from Rabbi Zechariah, who analyzes the terrible consequences of each choice but declines to rule. The sacrifice is declined. In keeping with the accomplice’s plan, the Romans, convinced that the Jews are in open rebellion, proceeded to destroy the Temple.

Thankfully, contemporary Reform rabbis aren’t faced with such dire consequences. At the same time, we may well be tempted, like our predecessor Zechariah, to avoid difficult choices. Do we step into our proper role, responding with compassion-tempered תוכחה (tochechah – rebuke), each time we receive that oft-forwarded offensive email about how few Arabs and how many Jews have been awarded Nobel prizes? Do we respond with both caring and integrity when asked to make inappropriate accommodations for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in a family of wealth and power? When a member of our staff is unjustly attack by a leader who could threaten our own tenure, do we clearly name the insult, at our own peril?

Humility is tough for rabbis — yes, because haughtiness may be an occupational hazard; and also because excessive meekness may be wrongly regarded as a rabbinic virtue.

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

General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

We Are All the Interim Rabbi

In the opening months of my tenure at my new congregation, I said to a group of lay leaders, “I am the interim rabbi.”  No, I didn’t mean that I would move on at the end of a year, like the outstanding intentional interim colleague who served so well in that capacity before my arrival.  Still, I meant what I said.

There was a time that such a thought would have shocked me.  I served more than twenty years in one congregation, beginning a year after ordination.  I expected to serve there until retirement, then actively as rabbi emeritus until burial in that Temple’s cemetery.  I envisioned my rabbinate as intimately bound to that singular synagogue.

The future I envisioned was not to be.  After a traumatic upheaval, I submitted my resignation; then, however awkwardly, by mutual agreement, I continued to serve in limited ways during a year’s sabbatical.  Over the course of those months, I came to the realization — at first painful, and ultimately comforting — that the congregation and I would be just fine without one another.

I began to divide the ways of that congregation into three categories:  1) Practices that predated my rabbinate there; 2) Aspects that colleagues, congregants and I had built together; and 3) Innovations that sprang into being after me, before I was even fully out the door.

My division of that congregation’s world, though, was false. Even if I was there much too long to have been what we derisively term an “unintentional interim,” I had been the interim rabbi.  We all are.  Congregations have stories that begin before we arrive and continue after we leave.  Even our most lasting and well-remembered impact would likely have happened, in one form or another, had somebody else been in “our” pulpit.  בלעדי, Yoseph said, “Without me, God (and unseen forces of history) will see to (the congregation’s) welfare.”

This realization requires a humility, a ביטול היש, that challenges everyone, perhaps particularly rabbis.  Its acceptance, though, may lead to a healthier, happier rabbinate, not to mention more successful congregational transitions.

Whether we serve five years or fifty, we can help our congregants become the Jews they can best become, facilitate meaning and service in our communities, and summon the Divine Presence.  If we see ourselves as interim rabbi, for four years or forty, we can leave our congregations healthy.  Read that last sentence again; it’s an intentional double entendre:  Both we and our congregations need to be healthy at the end of our tenures.

When an interim rabbi leaves, at the end of one year or a full career, s/he can find a new, fulfilling life, potentially including meaningful rabbinical service, outside that congregation.  When an interim rabbi leaves, after two years or twenty, the congregation can be primed to welcome a new rabbinical leader, to continue its history into its future, from strength to greater strength.

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


The Blessing of CCAR Chevruta

Much more than a decade ago, our colleague Rabbi Bob Loewy spoke to SWARR (Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis) members from the pulpit of Congregation House of Israel in Hot Sprints Arkansas, where we were gathered for a Kallah.  Bob was the President of SWARR at the time, and he described that position as the greatest honor of his career to date.

Truth be told, the SWARR presidency is determined by seniority, i.e., the President is the most senior member of SWARR who has been active in the region and not yet served as president.  Therefore, Bob wasn’t chosen as SWARR president as an honor, per se, nor was I several years later.  So why did Bob describe that position as כבוד (honor)?

Bob has served in this region throughout his career.  I have, too, except for one year.  I resonated strongly to Bob’s discussion of the importance of SWARR to his rabbinate.

SWARR is a far-flung region.  We gather annually, not monthly.  Our Kallot feature significant study and important communication from the CCAR.

More importantly, SWARR is an important place for sharing, in a way that our fabulous but very large CCAR conventions cannot be.

I write from SWARR, in Memphis this week.

This morning, over breakfast, a colleague and his spouse talked with me about their journey from the traumatic end of a congregational tenure to healing, now in their fifth year in a new position.  Their message was important for me to hear, at an earlier stage in my own similar journey.

The conversation then grew to include others at the table.  We contemplated a panel discussion of rabbis and rabbinic families who have lived through professional trauma.  We reflected on past SWARR conversations that have been particularly moving.  We met in Oklahoma City shortly after the bombing of the Murrah Building, and we heard from David Packman about rabbinic leadership in a community crisis. On the same panel, Ken Roseman, whose wife had died after a long struggle with cancer, talked about living through that tragedy in his family, congregation, and community.  We shared a similarly meaningful moment when we met after Katrina, hearing from our New Orleans colleagues, an encounter so moving that it was repeated at a CCAR Convention.  A couple years ago, we heard from a panel of Rabbis Emeritus about the joys and challenges they face in the pews of congregations led by their successors.

Each year, we lovingly remember recently departed colleagues who served in our region.  Often, few in the room knew the colleagues described, long since retired.  The personal אזכרות, each delivered by a rabbi who enjoyed a personal relationship with the departed, deepen our bonds across the generations.  Along those same lines, I am acutely aware that, at 50, I am no longer a young rabbi.  My encounters with new colleagues at SWARR, engaging in intentional conversation over dinner or in the hospitality room, have deepened my rabbinate meaningfully each year.

I am grateful for my SWARR חברותה (chevruta), and pray that all CCAR colleagues enjoy a similar opportunity.

 Rabbi Barry Block is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.