Ethics Healing Rabbis Reform Judaism

The Red Tent: Oddly Compelling, Despite it All

I was slightly too young to swoon over the iconic mini-series “The Thorn Birds” in the early 1980’s (though my babysitters weren’t).  So imagine my excitement, tinged with an eye roll or five, when I saw that “The Red Tent,” based on Anita Diamant’s best-selling novel, would be broadcast over two nights (two nights!) in December.  In spite of more inaccuracies than the rabbi in me could count, Lifetime Television for Women (coincidence?  methinks not!) did manage to present the movie around the time the Torah portion containing Dinah’s story is read.  “The Bible Gave Her One Line” the trailer intoned dramatically.  Fine.  They had me at one line.  With a December 2nd article from the Forward titled “159 Thoughts We Had While Watching ‘The Red Tent’ (We Watched It So You Don’t Have To) beside me, and my husband happily watching the Packers game in the other room, I settled on the couch and prepared for Part One, also known as “A Blissful Two Hours Of Mockery.”

And I found I couldn’t look away.

So embarrassing!

To assuage said embarrassment, and mostly thwarted mockery, I’m playing with a few theories as to why.

Good production values.  I want to say that the Torah is just as visually arresting, and sometimes it is.  But sometimes sweeping desert vistas, ominous drum beats, what sounds like the almost constant accompaniment of the sitar, and veils softly billowing in the wind help things along.

Even better hair.  Whether growing up under the watchful eyes and shaped by the hyper-articulate wisdom of her mothers, lighting up a darkened palace with her first sexual awakening, losing more than anyone has a right to, suffering terribly, then flourishing in ways she never predicted, Dinah’s curls were unfailingly gorgeous.

Genuinely moving theological soundbites.  I still can’t put my finger on what lifted reflections like “God’s will doesn’t come through words – it’s in what we become,” and “To mourn is respectful; to remember is holy” out of the realm of florid nonsense.  Could it be that when you peel away the mannered accents on the actors’ part, and the tendency towards sarcasm on mine, these insights are more or less true?  The lump in my throat said yes.

To round out all the possibilities, at a pre-Chanukah gathering last night, I asked a member of our congregation’s Sisterhood what had moved her about “The Red Tent.”  She told me it had to do with Dinah’s ability to take what the women in her life had taught her and to use it to survive what the rest of her life brought.  Well… right, I thought.  If we’re very lucky, that’s something we all do with the memories of those who matter to us most.

I read The Red Tent in 1999, just months after my mother died, during my first year at HUC in Jerusalem.  It was neither my favorite nor my least favorite piece of literature.  But this congregant’s words struck a chord.  I realized that this story – however hyperbolic — is bound up with a specific loss in my life and with the person, and the rabbi, I have since become.  That’s what our best stories do.  They give our worlds back to us.  We bind ourselves to them.  And they point us towards something new.

By the way, the Packers won.  And against all odds, “The Red Tent” as a mini-series did too.  I’m filing it under “oddly compelling.”  And then I’ll be putting the word out to see if anyone has a used, double VHS tape of “The Thorn Birds.”

Rebecca Gutterman is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, CA.

Ethics Prayer

“Rabbi, How Can I Pray if I Don’t Believe in God?”

Many of us find it difficult to think of the world as having any kind of metaphysical aspect to it at all. But if that’s the case, then there’s no room for God if the empirical world is all there is. And if that is the case, then why should we pray?

Consider the Sh’ma, for example. It is a Biblical text that we recite in each of our services: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Your God the Lord is one. That’s what it means – it gets called the ‘watchword of our faith’ in the old Union Prayer Book, because it’s a foundational text for us. If you don’t believe in God, how can this statement be meaningful to you?

There is a way to approach it even if you don’t want to adopt a grand metaphysical view of the world. Let me explain.

The first word is often translated as ‘Hear’ – but it could also be translated as ‘Listen’ or ‘Pay heed.’ That means: don’t just hear it, but put down your phone or your magazine, stop thinking about something else, and really listen. This is important. Are you fully present? Are you fully engaged?

Listen, Israel. The Lord, your God.

‘The Lord’ is actually a euphemism. We are avoiding saying what’s literally written there. The text says Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, which is the unpronounceable name of God. It’s God’s first name, if you will, and only the High Priest may say on Yom Kippur. Otherwise, we say Adonai in place of that unpronounceable name. Adonai is our way of addressing the transcendent divine creator – the God of everyone – in the context of our own uniquely Jewish relationship.

But you could also think of it as the name for the creative force in the world, the energy that drives evolution forward that allows chemical reactions to become life. You could decide to say ‘my Lord’ instead of ‘blind chance.’ You are naming a process here; it does not have to be a person.

The Lord is one.

When we say that the Lord, Adonai, is one, echad – what does that mean?

The point of saying echad is the idea that God is singular. By singular we mean unique, unlike anyone or anything else. Extraordinarily different. Transcending time and space, beyond our definitions of it, more than our imaginations allow.

This might not seem like a particularly important point, but it is actually most crucial. When we try to define God – when we try to tame our God-concepts so that they might be comprehensible – we imagine things that are not God.

It’s like creating a small box and asking God to step inside so that we might carry God around with us like a good-luck charm.

God is so much bigger, and grander, and wilder than our charms and incantations. What most folks call ‘God’ is just a subset of the whole.

What do you do, then, if that’s a bigger statement than you want to make? Is it necessary to take it literally? Perhaps you might think of it this way: every human being is created in the image of God.

Imagine, then, that it says, ‘Listen, O Israel: every human being, your fellow-humans, every human being is singular.’ Take that message to heart and act upon it.

In other words: if you find it too much, to grand, to foolish to contemplate God, the universe, and everything in the macro scale, then think about God in the microcosm. Value human life, each individual you meet. Listen carefully when people talk. Put down your phone, and stop thinking about what you are going to say next, and listen. Every human being is singular, created in the very image of God. Listen.

If you listen long enough, eventually you might see that person as an individual, rather than as an example of a category. A person rather than a stereotype.

In other words, if you are not sure how to love God with all of your heart, all of your mind, and all of your being, then direct your attention to the individuals around you, find what is godly in them, and love them for it.

Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD., serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York and teaches at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Ethics News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Meaning in a Half-Opened Eye: Reaching the Unresponsive

When I interviewed for hospice chaplain jobs, a question I got just about every time was, “What do you do when you visit an unresponsive patient?” By that my prospective boss meant patients who would not respond to anything I did, like touch their hands, talk or sing. Usually they could not talk, or if they did, it was to themselves or to the world at large. During such visits I could feel invisible. If that is so, you might wonder why an interviewer would ask such a question. But rather than being a gratuitous curve ball, it strikes down deep at the essence of a chaplain’s role and to what it means to exist as a person.

While some patients truly could not respond because they were in a coma or were asleep, I often found many so-called unresponsive patients did respond if I loosened the definition of communication, or spent a long enough time to give the patient enough chance to respond. I remember one time when I introduced myself to a lanky man as I sat down in a metal chair by his bed. He did not reply, and after several seconds, I figured he had not heard me or did not understand me, so I drifted off into my own thoughts and guessed this would be a very short visit.  Luckily I lingered in my own reverie. I say luckily because after a full 30 seconds at least, he had processed what I had said, and gave an answer that a normal person would give after just a second or two max. I said something else, waited another 30 seconds as if that were the normal way to talk, and again he gave an appropriate answer. I thought to myself, “I bet most visitors casually stopping by would give up before they found out he could converse.  I wonder how long he went without having a chance to talk.”

The key task of a chaplain is to find a way to reach people. This means slowing down enough to see details that the average visitor would miss. Like an eye half opening or a finger moving in response to my voice. Like more rapid or more relaxed breathing when I hold the patient’s hand, or their turning their head towards or away from me when I sing, indicating their yay or nay to hearing it. (Believe me, there were plenty of “nays” to the music option.) It is not I who is invisible with these patients. It is the patients who are invisible to those who too automatically designate them as “unresponsive.” The patients’ essence as persons, I believe, is their ability to reach back in return, to connect with others.

Interviews are not the ideal environment for nuances, so my answer to what I did with unresponsive patients ran along the true but more superficial lines of, “Well if I knew they were religious, I would say a prayer. Otherwise I would touch their hands, sing a calming song, or say something friendly and soothing. Sometimes I would just sit by their side, in case they could sense the presence of another human being who cared enough to notice them.” Perhaps my interviewers liked this answer (at least the ones who hired me did) because they thought that kind of patient gave nothing for the chaplain to do. On the contrary, finding the key that will breach what separates them from me takes the observational skills of a Holmes and the deliberateness of an artwork restorer.

A board certified member of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains) Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan served as a hospice chaplain for 7 years, including Princeton Hospice in New Jersey. Now a writer and teacher, her book Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) is available on Amazon and can be useful for caring committees. This post was taken from her blog,, a useful resource as well.

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.

Ethics News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Marriage Equality: The Long Parade of Our History

Last night, I went to see a high school production of The Laramie Project—the play that portrays the people of Laramie, Wyoming in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shephard, a gay college student.  A class of high school juniors and seniors at an exclusive, private school here in Chicago put on the production.  I went to support one of our synagogue’s high school students who played a few roles in the play. Fighting tears through much of the second act, I was heartened by the portrayal of brave priest who organized vigils and preached compassion and healing.

I find myself increasingly using every opportunity I have to carefully teach Biblical texts that have been used to perpetuate a close-mindedness that has too often led to violence and oppression of the spirit.  Midrashim (ancient and modern) abound illustrating creative and compassionate ways to interpret our Torah, while giving kavod to the text.   Owing much to brilliant colleagues and other thinkers including Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler and her son Rabbi Amitai Adler—to name a very few—I have found new ways to understand ancient texts, adding new blessings and rituals to fit current situations.

I love bringing these values home to my two sons Eli (6) and Ben (4).  In the fall, I took Eli and Ben to Springfield, Illinois for a rally and lobby day on Marriage Equality.  My sons already had experience with the Pride Parade literally strolling aside Temple Sholom’s float.  I thought this would be another fun, memorable, and meaningful experience—especially when we found out that my parents would meet us there.  The only problem… I didn’t read the weather report.  In Springfield, we stood outside in a downpour, barely shielded by the boys’ kid-size umbrellas.  Finally, we found some space underneath an overhang near the steps of the capitol building.  By this point, our oldest son was crying—loudly—“I want to go home!”  I bent down so that we could make eye-contact.  I said, “Look around.  Many of the people who are here did not have such an easy time growing up, falling in love and marrying the person whom they love.  When they see you, they have hope that the future might be different for your generation.”  Eli, who is an old soul, met my eyes and said, “I know, mommy.  I know.  But this is NOT FUN!”

So, the day was memorable and meaningful, but as Eli said, not fun.  Yet, it made an impact.  The next day, Eli shared his experience with classmates during circle time at Chicago Jewish Day School.  Ben, along with his friend who has two daddies, has become known in his Gan Shalom classroom as an “expert” on Marriage Equality.  When we heard the news that Marriage Equality passed the House in Illinois, we sat in the boys’ bedroom making celebratory phone calls to my parents and my grandmother.  It felt like we all could share some small part in this collective victory.  After the phone calls, when my husband arrived home, we all sang the Shehechiyanu thanking God for bringing us to this sacred time.

Toward the end of the Laramie Project, a character shares how moved he was during the first Homecoming Parade following Matthew Shephard’s attack.  He said:

As the parade came down the street … the number of people walking

for Matthew Shepard had grown 5 times. There were at least 500 people

marching for Matthew. 500 people. Can you imagine? The tag at the end

was larger than the entire parade. And people kept joining in.

I feel like I am joining in this long parade of our history—following those who have attempted to bring more compassion into this world.  For this, I am grateful.

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.

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Affirming Affirmative Action

When I was a high school student, I had clear-cut ideas about affirmative action: it wasn’t fair. Inspired by that great principle of American Democracy that “all men are created equal”, it seemed simply unjust that students who might not otherwise be as qualified as others should be granted admission to top universities on the basis of their racial background. If all people were created equal, then objective measures should be the only standards used for admission, employment and more: anything else was simply unfair.

This was a remarkably easy conclusion for a young white male teenager of privilege to reach in the comfortable confines (if not ivory tower) of an upper-class suburb. While I knew about the generalities of injustice in the world, and had been taught by my parents’ actions how to see to the needs of the vulnerable, I never questioned the role that the accident of birth plays in determining so many lives. I imagined a talented teenager from the South Bronx had as good a chance of becoming a corporate CEO as an equally endowed student in Great Neck. I never considered that children growing up in poverty might go through half the school day hungry, until they eat their first food of the day at a federally-funded lunch program; so how could I have imagined the impact that severe hunger (let alone the emotional angst that might have accompanied it) on a student’s academic performance? After school, I could choose between being a Jock or a Theater Geek; there were no gangs tempting me to drop the charade of public education to live a different life on the street.

Not knowing any of these things, I certainly couldn’t have encompassed the remarkable role race often plays in issues of poverty and policy. I didn’t dwell on the inherent biases of SAT and ACT tests; I wasn’t equipped to consider how a growing test prep industry turned these purported examinations of intelligence into an inquiry of the financial resources students’ families had to properly prepare them to game the system. I had learned about the victories of (my personal hero) Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honestly (and naively) thought that Civil Rights in America had been secured for all.

There was a lot I didn’t know when, as a teenager, I believed Affirmative Action was wrong. I rejected this unfair policy because I genuinely didn’t know the world wasn’t fair. My textbooks and privileged reality prevented me from learning just how unfair our world, our nation, is for so many people.

Our world remains unfair. And, this morning, I woke up to the sad news that for those in our nation who tend to be the disproportionate victims of injustice, the balance has skewed even further against them. Our Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision, upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in public universities. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, stakes out a position as naïve and uniformed as the one I have outgrown since high school: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” It sounds as perfect and tautological as any argument ever mounted. And it works very well if you are male, white and privileged.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot surprisingly, our Court’s two female Justices dissented from this disappointing decision. Justice Sotomayor, herself the beneficiary of Affirmative Action policies, recast Roberts’ ruling: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” she wrote, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

When I was a child, I had dewy optimistic eyes that looked at our nation through its lofty rhetoric and aspirational ideals. Part of meaningful maturation is opening our eyes to the world around us and allowing reality to challenge our preciously held positions. With a ruling made, in my opinion, with six sets of eyes widely shut, our Supreme Court yesterday made it harder for all of us to overcome the unfortunate effect of centuries of racial discrimination in America.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.  

Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism Torah

Parashat Sh’mini, Mindfulness, and Food

In Vermont, where I spent the last year living (and where I still spend my time off), there’s a beautiful culture of paying attention to where food comes from. In part this is because of the agricultural heritage of the state, and lucky for me, it’s meant that I’ve made a number of friends who are farmers. As a result, over the past year I’ve farm-sat when friends have gone on vacation (to Israel, no less – our local Jewish educator is also a farmer), helped friends tap their maple trees to make homegrown maple syrup and cared for chickens and lambs. I have harvested the summer’s abundance, too: dried garlic, blanched kale, made raspberry jam from local berries picked by my own two hands, and turned pounds (literally, pounds) of basil into many frozen containers of pesto – enough for the (very) long Vermont winter! I’ve even learned to make my own sourdough bread and created my own sourdough starter.

For a Rabbi’s kid who grew up in Chicago this has been a wonderful, unexpected and delicious adventure. I feel truly blessed. I have learned, intimately, where my food comes from, and the incredible labor that it takes to feed the state of Vermont. I have also become a regular at the local farmer’s market, friendly with the guy who sells me my kale, have found a farm where I pick up eggs and bread year-round, and have, overall become much, much healthier. I have also, for the first time ever, begun to understand the place of dietary laws in the Biblical imagination and what it must have felt like to live according to an agricultural rhythm where you always worried what the new harvest might (or might not) yield. Food, I have learned, is never merely a product. It’s also a process. 

This week’s parshah, Sh’mini, is known for its dietary laws, the laws of kashrut.  And though I could write at length about kashrut and Reform Judaism, I’m more interested in asking us to consider how halachic structures around eating can help us sacralize and become mindful of how we eat, elevate it from noshing to something worthy of blessing. Because serious engagement with the tradition and with the parsha calls for not just a historical critical interrogation of where the laws come from but also an acknowledgment that the laws present us with an opportunity to think deeply, and seriously about how we consume (and if we are doing so ethically). And though we ultimately may not choose to give up cheeseburgers or non-kosher meat, we might at least feel compelled to engage in a centuries old conversation about what it means to sanctify this simplest of acts.  

Jordie2For me, this has meant making an effort to know where my food comes from, and a commitment to only buying food that is organic, free-range, hormone free, or sustainably raised  (this means I eat much less meat, as it’s far more expensive this way). For others, it may mean becoming a vegetarian or vegan; but no matter what, it will mean consuming consciously, thoughtfully, in a manner that reflects our understanding of the earth – and all its inhabitants – as holy and precious in their own right. This, though not traditionally halachically observant, is halachically responsible, in keeping with the spirit of a law which asks us to bring a disciplined heart and head to what – and how – we consume.

This, in part, is what it means to eat Jewishly.


Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom in Montreal. 

For more on Judaism and food, check out The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethicedited by Rabbi Mary Zamore

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Vayikra: The Blessing of a Blank Slate

I’m a perfectionist. If I could spend weeks writing (and suffering) over each and every sermon, rather than just a few hours (or sometimes, much less time) I would. If I could meet with every wedding couple 8 times, I’d do that too. If I could spend my days mulling over every shiur and Torah study, and assembling the perfect teaching texts, I’d do it. And if I could make every congregant happy all the time, I’d try to find a way. But that’s not the nature of the job, especially in the congregational Rabbinate. And so I regularly have to let go of my aspirations, to forgive myself for doing the best I can in the time allotted.*

This week’s parshah, Vayikra, gives itself over to various sacrifices. But the sacrifice that’s always intrigued me most is the chatat – or ‘sin offering’, which, conventionally, has been understood in a negative light – a way of absolving ourselves of wrongs we have committed. But I believe we might also understand chatat psychologically, as a way of externalizing the letting go of grudges we may be holding against ourselves for mistakes we have made, or ways we have fallen short. Because, often, it turns out that the people who we have the hardest time forgiving when wrongs have been done are ourselves (and this is especially true of Rabbis, who, though they are constantly being judged by their communities, are often, ultimately, their own harshest critics). The sacrifice of a bull in Vayikra, therefore, may be better understood as the sacrifice of an idea or judgment of ourselves as flawed, as failures, as people who make hurtful mistakes. Gunther Plaut put it best: “Ceremonial atonement for unwitting violations of the law was a psychologically sound procedure. People are often deeply disturbed if they cause harm by accident, ignorance or oversight [and] sacrifice relieved a troubled conscience.”

My mom, a surgeon, used to tell my father, a congregational Rabbi, that if he needed to make everyone happy all the time, and be universally loved, he’d chosen the wrong career.  Everyone makes mistakes, and no one can make everyone happy all the time. Not even Moses. (Not even God!) This is true. But what’s also true is that most Rabbis are born people pleasers. We go into this work because we love people, and want to serve them, and help them make meaning of their lives. When we fail – even in minor ways – in this holy work, there is no one harder on us than ourselves. When we miss a hospital visit, or forget a name, or give a less than stellar sermon or have to answer a question about Biblical history with “I don’t know.” It can sting, not just our egos, but our hearts.

And so how do we let go now that we don’t have sacrifices (or bulls, unless we live in Texas)? Might there be other ritual ways that we can – outside of Yom Kippur – forgive ourselves, let go of our mistakes, and bless ourselves with a blank slate? There are.

Here are a few ideas: what if, on a weekly or daily basis, at Shabbat services each week, or before we go to bed each night, we make a commitment to take 2 minutes to let ourselves – one last time –  go over the mistakes we’ve made, and then let them go.  Such that we make a habit each week of giving ourselves permission to just start over again. Such that we free ourselves from whatever burdens we have been carrying – whether it’s a disagreement with a loved one, or anger at ourselves for something as small as procrastination or as big as truly hurting someone (or ourselves) by acting negligently or thoughtlessly.

I believe this is one of the most powerful lessons of Vayikra: not just the obligation to sacrifice, to let go, but the blessing of it – and how, by letting one idea of ourselves go, we open ourselves up to becoming so much more. This is my blessing for all of you, my colleagues, this week. May you let something go, so that something new, and more beautiful, can take it’s place.

*(My daily insight meditation practice helps enormously with this – it teaches me over and over again, to let go.)

Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom in Montreal. 

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Taking out the (Sacred?) Trash

Leviticus assigns some very messy duties to the Cohanim, the Priests of otherwise exalted status in the ancient Temple.  Not only is the Priest charged with slaughtering the sacrificial animal and sprinkling blood according to prescribed ritual, he is also required to clean up after the ritual is complete.

Yes, that’s right.  The same Priest who presides over the sacrificial ritual is the custodian.  He changes clothes, sweeps up the ashes, and takes them to the dumping ground outside the camp — to the dumpster, if you will.

We may be surprised that Torah assigns this garbage run to the Priest himself.  After all, Levites are charged to assist the Priests by taking on less exalted duties connected to the Temple service.

So what’s the lesson?

Recently, I transitioned from service as rabbi of a larger congregation of about 1000 households to a medium-sized synagogue of some 350 families.  My new congregation employs one full-time custodian who doesn’t work on Saturday or Sunday.  (I write “Saturday” rather than “Shabbat,” because he does work Friday evenings.)

We have a robust attendance at Shabbat Torah study, which always includes a breakfast snack provided by volunteers among the participants; and our Men’s Club assures that a lovely Kiddush follows Shabbat morning worship.  Shortly after I arrived, an insect infestation inspired a decision that the garbage from this Shabbat morning gathering would need to be taken to the dumpster at the end of the morning’s activities rather than sitting in the inside trash can until Monday.

As the only staff member regularly present on Shabbat morning, I’m often the guy who takes the trash to the dumpster.  Suffice it to say that I never took trash to the dumpster even once in 21 years at my previous congregation.

While I never reacted badly to this garbage duty, or imagined it beneath my station, I also didn’t find it edifying.  Slowly, though, I began to see קדושה in the duty.  No, I’m not a Cohen, but the trash is sacred:  It is the refuse of the holy endeavors or Torah study and worship.

At my new congregation, every member, including the rabbi, needs to be a custodian.  After Shabbat Kiddush, if I’m visiting with a congregant in need or a newcomer, or if I need to rush out to a pastoral or family obligation, a lay leader will take out our sacred Shabbat garbage.

The word “custodian” is often treated as a synonym of “janitor.”  However, if we pay attention to the word, we will note that a custodian is one who has custody, who maintains a responsibility, often for something holy.  Indeed, our most regular usage of the  word “custody” refers to children!

Being a custodian wasn’t what I expected when I became a rabbi, or even when I sought placement in a smaller congregation, but I am grateful to have found meaning in taking out the sacred garbage.

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