Categories
Books Healing News Prayer spirituality

A Prayer of Gratitude from URJ Biennial 2017

Take a moment to be fully grateful for just one thing in your life. That little pause may be enough to change your outlook and your attitude for the day.

At the URJ Biennial, CCAR Press offered that opportunity with a set of stickers and a poster board featuring the book, This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. Each of the stickers read ‘I’m grateful for…’ and folks who came by the booth could complete that line and add the sticker to the poster. Adults and kids, rabbis and cantors, educators, congregants, and lay leaders joined in. By the end of the convention, the board was covered with individual prayers of gratitude.

Gratitude for family and the Biennial appeared most often. One of my favorites came from a little girl who dictated her gratitude to her mother: “being fancy.” I got a chuckle reading “my puppy (woof).”

This is a prayer based on those stickers. I added the language in italics – as well as the punctuation and a few of my own gratitudes – and arranged the order. The words of the prayer are taken from the stickers written by Biennial attendees.

Biennial Sticker Prayer of Gratitude

We are grateful for so much,
All the gifts this world offers.
We celebrate:
The URJ, the CCAR and our congregations,
Biennial, the people, the music and the ruach,
The chance to learn and share,
Being a college ambassador
And singing in the Biennial choir.

I give thanks for:
My family,
My wonderful husband, my wonderful wife,
My children, my grandchildren,
My sons, my daughters,
Nephews and nieces,
Mom and dad,
Sisters and brothers,
My amazing boyfriend,
My fantastic girlfriend,
Thoughtful work friends,
My dog, my puppy (woof) and my cat,
My house, bed and toys,
Best friends and conversations,
Being who I am,
My camp, my nanny and my students,
Jewish music and my guitar,
You.

We marvel at the gifts of:
Dreams, spirit and creativity,
Opportunities, expected and unexpected,
Personal passions,
Good health and sleep,
The ability to grateful,
The ability to forgive,
Second chances and
Guardian angels,
Good food and better company,
Water, hugs and coffee,
Doctors, medicines and helping hands,
America,
Torah and Israel,
Books, puns, words and being fancy.

Today, Source of love and light,
We are grateful for
Every. Single. Thing.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. His teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud, UK, and synagogues throughout the U.S. Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017.

Categories
Reform Judaism spirituality

Rabbi, I Don’t Need Religion to Be a Good Person

I cannot recall how many times over the years I’ve heard the words: “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person.” I am sure we have all heard different versions of this statement, and it probably gave us pause. As a young rabbi, it sounded to me like a copout. After all, we all are expected to strive to be good people. Religion, as I understood it and still do, has as its main goal to make us good people. Certainly, religion can be easily misused or misapplied. But the founders of the great religions taught kindness and compassion and inveighed against evil. We Jews are taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” What binds the community together are our shared beliefs, customs, and traditions. Being part of the community teaches us we are all responsible for one another, and provides the opportunity to help others rather than look out only for ourselves.

Looking back, however, it has become clear to me I had been too judgmental in considered this statement a copout. Instead of dismissing it as a convenient way to “separate oneself from the community,” I should have focused on the words “a good person.” No one should be scorned for wishing to be a good person. Imagine, if everyone were a good person, there would be peace in the world. I should have said to the makers of that statement, “I applaud you for striving to be a good person. This is the worthiest cause of all.” I could have then gone on to say, “You need to find the best way for you to be such a person. I, personally, find religion to be helpful for me to achieve this goal, but everyone is different.” In other words, I shouldn’t have taken it as a rebuke or a criticism of me as someone who represents religion, and let the conversation end at that.

Life, one learns over time, is an ongoing search. We all search for something, and our search takes us in many different directions. For some, interacting with a spiritual leader may be a positive experience, and for others it may be the opposite. Most difficult of all is one’s experience of God. As children we are taught to believe in a good God who cares for you and who is interested in your well-being. But our faith is constantly being put to the test. Life, even under the best of circumstances, is the school of hard knocks. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us, bad things do happen to good people, leaving that person with the unanswerable question, why is God doing this to me? Losing faith in not uncommon, and it is often painful. We Jews who have experienced the greatest tragedy of our long existence in our own lifetime, have every reason to lose faith in a good and caring God. But many of us have made a conscious decision not to give up faith. “In spite of everything I continue to believe.” I believe that in the end good will prevail, no matter how difficult it may be.

I will remember next time someone says to me, “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person,” I will look kindly at that person in the eyes and utter the words I should have uttered long ago. This will definitely make me a better person.

Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber is celebrating fifty years as a Reform Rabbi. 

Categories
spirituality

Sitting With the Unknown: Continual Revelation of the Not-Yet Revealed

I have a quote on my bathroom vanity that reads, “I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it!”  In the middle there is a stick person with his hands triumphantly in the air.  Care to guess how many times I have exclaimed back to this piece of paper, “I do not love it!  I do not love it??!”

I framed this quote and its invitation to sit with the unknown precisely because, it is so, so difficult! We want the comfort of believing that we determine our destiny, or if we do X, Y, and Z this way, we will get what we want.  And while many of our actions shape our fate in profound ways, more often than not, we cannot control what happens to us or our loved ones.

There are some whose faith holds that God has a plan for them, and this is the reassurance that they need in times of uncertainty.  And yet, there are also many of us who do not believe the Eternal directly intervenes in human affairs, or that the Divine is even capable of intervening.  In fact, the Torah goes to great lengths to reassure the searching Jew that skepticism is healthy, legitimate, and even cele­brated in Jewish life.[1]  Rabbi Daniel Gordis asks, “Why does Ju­daism validate doubt? Judaism takes doubt seriously because it takes people seriously.  It recognizes that if Jewish life is to touch us, then it has to meet us where we are. That “place,” Jewish tradition understands, is often a place of bewilderment, of hurt, of skepticism.[2]

And yet, this place of bewilderment or skepticism also invites us to unite with the Eternal.  Reaching out to the Transcendent in moments of uncertainty is deeply Jewish. Our relationship with the Divine Mystery is not supposed to be easy blind faith.

Judaism doesn’t ask us to deny our doubts or fears.  Instead, it invites us to feel God’s presence precisely in these challenging moments.  Bringing mindfulness to these moments offers a helpful path through the struggle.  When we feel powerless, the practice of gratitude can open our hearts connecting us to the simple and profound—our ability to see the light glinting off a tree’s verdant leaves or feel the cool sweetness of a breeze across our face, or to taste the sweetness of a summer peach.

Acceptance of the present moment is another mindfulness practice. It requires patience and strength to sit with discomfort because we do not always know when our thoughts or circumstances will change. Practicing acceptance while sitting with discomfort or the unknown invites us to move into the Divine Mystery even as the unknown scares us. We are afraid things will never change even though we know things always change!  To master our fear, we tell stories and make explanations. However, it can be more skillful to let go of knowing.  Freedom comes with surrender to the unknown.

Martin Buber teaches, “the world is not comprehensible but it is embraceable.”  We do not always need to know how things will turn out, instead we can focus on how we respond in the moment. We can only feel the Divine when we are truly present.  God does not appear when we are worrying about the future, God is manifest in moments when we inhabit the here and now.

Sometimes we cannot summon tools to sit with the unknown, move into the mystery, or connect with gratitude. Sometimes, we are lost in a downward spiral.  If we are able to reach out to our friends, teachers, colleagues, and fellow seekers in these moments, they remind us that this is only temporary.  We have had other challenging moments and will again. They remind us that while the darkness may feel stifling or terrifying, it will shift.  They reassure us that they have been there too; moments of unknown darkness are part of the experience of being human.

We may draw solace in the thought that the Divine weeps with us too sometimes.  God is present in our tears and fear.  With this consolation, we are no longer alone. Here we find peace in the unknown.

The Sefat Emet, a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi, claimed that the destiny of the Jewish people lies precisely in our openness to the continual revelation of the not-yet-revealed.  The constant quest is openness to the Mystery.  Openness to the unknown.  And we can choose for it to be terrifying and miserable.  Or we can use it as an invitation to feel God’s presence—from gratitude, remaining present, and communal support.

There will probably be many more times when I will holler at the stick figure on my bathroom vanity.  In these times, my thoughts will be projecting all sorts of terrible possibilities in the future, or that a particular situation feels intolerable.  Instead, may these moments open us to the continual revelation of the not-yet-revealed– with patience, with acceptance, and with wonder.

Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall joyously serves Temple Beth Or in Everett, Washington.

 

[1] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/from-belief-to-faith/

[2] Ibid.

Categories
Books

The Legacy of Dr. Tim LaHaye: A God with Bite

Dr. Tim Lahaye, co-author of the “Left Behind” international best seller series, died recently. Dr. LaHay conceived the idea of fictionalizing an account of the Rapture and Tribulation, and he leaves behind Left Behind as a spiritual legacy, with more than 75 million series volumes sold.

Left Behind offers one Christian perspective of the so-called “end times,” including Armageddon, the Rapture, the anti-Christ and much, much more. To be sure, many Christians – the majority as far as I can see – repudiate this catastrophic vision of the future, but with all those volumes out there, best pay attention.

The first volume, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s last Days, opens at daybreak over the Atlantic Ocean aboard a Chicago to London-bound jumbo jet. If you fly overnight, you know the scene – engines droning, dark cabin, and people sleeping. All of a sudden, 100 passengers disappear without warning, leaving behind flight bags, clothing, jewelry, wallets, passports and loved ones. Confusion, panic and anger fill the cabin, as remaining passengers have no idea how spouses, children and companions vanished into thin air.

Reading on, we learn that the very same thing happened all over the world at the very same moment. Flight crews went missing from other airliners – planes fell from the sky. Back on earth, drivers disappeared from cars, busses and trucks, and vehicles crashed. Many of those left behind were badly injured and, without ambulance drivers or other health care workers, died. Every child vanished from the face of the earth in this horrible scenario. In fact, every fetus disappeared from the womb.

People concocted all sorts of wild explanations, including alien abductions. But in this work of religious fiction, the authors reveal that the innocent and the faithful were taken up in the Rapture to bask in God’s glorious presence for all eternity. Others – the unconverted, the unrepentant – were left behind to languish for lost loved ones, suffer, yet given a hint of an opportunity to make spiritual amends in the near future.

The series has made a mark. The inside cover cites Publishers Weekly, calling it “the most successful Christian-fiction series ever.” The New York Times says it “Combines Tom Clancy-like suspense with touches of romance, high-tech flash and Biblical references,” and Entertainment Weekly said, “Call it what you like, the Left Behind series… now has a label its creators could never have predicted: blockbuster success.”

Dr. LaHaye loved this vindictive Jesus. Elsewhere, he wrote, “Men and women soldiers seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin…. Their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated.”

End times scenarios, like the one in Left Behind, got a lot of attention leading up to the year 2000 and the worries over the so-called Y2K computer bug. In 1998, Dr. LaHaye prophesied that Y2K “could trigger a financial meltdown leaning to an international depression, which would make it possible for the Antichrist or his emissaries to establish a one-world currency or a one-world economic system, which will dominate the world commercially until it is destroyed.” Dr. LaHaye and others warned that Y2K could bring the return of a Jesus acting more like a vicious lion than a gentle lamb.  But Y2K came and went—gentle as a lamb.

I emailed a few progressive ministers I know for their reactions to Left Behind; each condemned the vision and book. They wanted everyone to be aware how strongly they repudiate this punishing Jesus.  One wrote that these end times scenarios, “are horrible distortions of the Book of Revelations.  God is a healer, rather than a vengeful judge.” And this comment takes us to my first reaction to this horrible vision: God loves all people, even souls who believe that righteous will be raptured and sinners will be left behind.

Just as many Christians want nothing of these angry ideas, a good number subscribe to them. It’s hard to be precise, but it appears that many self-described Christian Pentecostals, Evangelicals and Charismatics, for instance, believe that the faithful will be raptured up to heaven before this tough love Jesus returns.

There really is nothing new to this fire and brimstone God. My mentor, the late Rabbi Chaim Stern, told a story of a preacher’s forecast of a God with bite:

“I warn you! There will be weeping! There will be wailing! There will be gnashing of teeth!” At that point in the sermon, a worshipper rose and shouted, “But Reverend. I have no teeth!” And the preacher responded, “Let me assure you. Come the end of days, teeth will be provided.” There’s always been a theology with teeth.

Turning to my own faith, let’s recognize that some Jews hold on to extreme end times scenarios, too, such as resurrection of the dead to Jerusalem via underground tunnels. And there have been Jewish false messiahs, movements and predictions through history and today that involve personalities such as Shabbati Tzvi, David Alroy and Rabbi Menahem Mendel Shneerson. The point is that some Jews have put forward ideas as outlandish as suggested by Dr. LaHaye.

So Dr. LaHaye’s legacy lives on. Meanwhile, many of us faithful envision a time when all God’s children – sinner, saint and the many of us somewhere in between – will live together in peace. Our gentler voices – those of us with more embracing faith perspectives – are often lost in the din. The real problem is that followers of rapture theology, who hold high national and state office, seek to establish laws and policies based on these negative faith perspectives. We need to do better at spreading the positive word, so that our message – and our religious freedom – doesn’t get left behind the angry rhetoric.

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross serves at East End Temple in Manhattan. 

Categories
Rabbis

Rabbis on the Frontier

How much does being Jewish mean to you? Did you ever have one of those moments when studying about the Jewish martyrs during the Crusades when you asked yourself, “Could I do that? Would I be willing to die for my faith?” At the time, my feeling was, Of course! And then I had children, and the question became much more fraught.

I now know of a community whose passion for Judaism puts me to shame: I’ve made two visits in the last 12 months to Indonesia, a close neighbor of Australia which nevertheless remains a mystery to many of us. People scattered all across the archipelago have chosen to embrace Judaism despite the considerable challenges facing them. Most of them are former Christians (yes, there are many Christians in Indonesia, along with Hindus, Buddhists and even Confucianists!)  A close reading of the Tanakh has led them to feel that Judaism is more a reflection of the monotheistic ideal than Christianity. In addition, many of them have Jewish ancestry: an estimated 80% of traders in the Dutch East Indies Company were Jewish, and many of them put down roots in Indonesia.IMG_5380

Indonesia is a not a place where it is easy to be Jewish. Judaism is not one of the faiths recognized by the government. There is deep suspicion for the state of Israel, and that is often linked to Jews as a whole. In my conversations with the people I’ve met, I’ve learned that many of them have lost friendships over their choice, and a few have chosen to quit their jobs so that they don’t have to work on Shabbat. In Jakarta, a sprawling city of 25 million people, Jews may travel as much as 2 hours one way to reach the monthly Shabbat services. The Jakarta community rents a hotel suite, and those in attendance spend the whole of Shabbat together, praying, eating, and sleeping on mats on the floor. In West Papua at the opposite end of the country, a community of about 15 families saved for two years to bring me and Rabbi David Kunin from Tokyo over from western Indonesia for a visit. The monthly wage is about $200.

I am awed by their commitment to living a Jewish life. I am humbled. I feel that I, a life-long Jew and rabbi, am not doing enough, am not living fully enough as a Jew. As Nachman of Bratslav said in his tale “The Treasure,” sometimes we need to go far away to discover the truth which is close by.

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky serves Beit Shalom Synagogue in Hackney, Australia.

Categories
Death Healing spirituality

If I Should Meet God

A disciple came to his rabbi and lamented: “Rabbi, I have all these terrible thoughts. I am even afraid to say them. I feel absolutely terrible that I can even think these thoughts. Rabbi, I simply cannot believe. Sometimes I even think that God doesn’t exist.”

“Why not, my son?” the rabbi asked.

“Because I see in this world deceit and corruption.”

The rabbi answered: “So why do you care?

The disciple continued: “I see in this world hunger, poverty, and homelessness.”

And the rabbi once again responded: “So why do you care?”

The disciple protested: “if God is absent there is no purpose to the entire world. And if there is no purpose to the entire world, then there is no purpose to life – and that troubles my soul greatly.”

Then the rabbi said to his troubled follower: “Do not be disturbed. If you care so much, you are a believer!”

When the atheist Stephen Fry is questioned as to what he would say if he met God, he leaves the interviewer at a loss for words when he responds: “if I should meet God I’ll say: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is so much misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil!”

As a rabbi wrote: “it is time to raise the bar in the conversation about religion and faith, with the knowledge that most people, whether religious, agnostic, atheist, or whatever-ish, truly do want to do what is right, to find and express love, to live a life of purpose, and to be in a meaningful relationship with others.”

“It is good to question and challenge those with whom we disagree, but we deserve more than pithy catch phrases, caricatures of those who we have defined as our enemy, and the childish need to win. Human beings can be glorious creatures who, through conscious choice, can bring healing to the world, and we all need to do this together.”

In my many years as a rabbi, and especially since my illness, I have come to believe that more important than any theology or system of belief is caring, compassion and loving kindness. I have evolved spiritually to believe that no matter what we believe or don’t believe the true heart of our humanity is human goodness and decency.

Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Jacob in Newburgh, NY.  Rabbi Jaffe just celebrated his 80th Birthday in Israel after surviving cancer for the fourth time. 

This blog was originally posted on The Running Rabbi. 

Categories
Healing

I Do: When Fantasy Clashes With Reality

As anyone who has been married can tell you, marriage is all about reality: it is the process of creating a joint future in close quarters and close partnership. When it is a good match, it is one of the best things in the world; and when it is not – well, then let’s just let it suffice to say that it is not.

Weddings, however, are all about fantasy. My first husband had requested that I wear a big white dress with (in his words) ‘a draggy thing.’ So I had the yards and yards of tulle and the draggy thing, and a veil and 200 or so guests. I looked like Cinderella in white shoes.

That was the wedding in which I fulfilled everyone else’s expectations.

But later, older, wiser, and less prone to fantasy, I remarried. When I went to purchase a dress for my wedding to my husband Tom, I went to one of those cute little bridal shops and picked out a nice dress from a catalog: a bridesmaid dress, actually, in shell pink satin.

The day that it arrived, I was ecstatic: I wanted to go in and try it on and feel like a bride.  But as a single mom with a tight schedule, the only way I could go over there was to bring my son with me in an appointment sandwiched in between lunch and teaching.

Now, let me tell you: if you want to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, go to a bridal shop as a nearly-40 single mom in a subdued pink bridal gown, which is really a bridesmaid gown repurposed, and stand next to the 20-something young women getting fitted with big white dresses with yards of lace, beads, sequins, and tulle.

Go there and stand next to women who have not yet lost the glossy sheen of youth, who do not know love’s disappointment or despair.

My pink gown was wrinkled and the zipper was broken and gaping open, and my six-year-old son kept picking up those plastic clips that they use for fittings and clipping them randomly all over my dress. ‘Here Mommy: I found another one,’ he would say as he clipped it on.

There is reality, and there is fantasy, and the sales ladies at this little bridal salon were none too thrilled to have the two standing side by side.

We all have an image in our head of What Things Should Look Like; some of our greatest disappointments, in fact, are when things don’t match up to that fantasy. We might spend long years in denial, in fact, hoping that the image in our head is at some point matched by the facts on the ground.

What gets us into trouble, however, is when we pretend that the reality and the fantasy are one and the same. When we think that the job or the marriage or the living situation will get better when we know in our bones that it will not. But it is very easy to hold on to that fantasy and to hope for the best.

Our relationship to God – and by extension, our relationship to Judaism – can also be a bit like that. We think that things should happen a certain way, and then they do not. Should we give up on our faith? Should we get angry at God?

As I said, my first marriage started in fantasy – in the great white wedding with a tulle-and-lace Cinderella gown with a draggy-thing and a tiara and white gloves. And then that most lovely wedding ended in the reality of a divorce; the unraveling of the relationship began almost immediately even though it took many years to complete.

But that second dress – the shell-pink bridesmaid’s dress, beautiful at last after it had been steam-pressed, altered and repaired – was the one in which I traded fantasy for the reality of a mature and lasting love, the fairy tale for happily-ever-after.

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

Categories
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.

Categories
Books Rabbis Reform Judaism

Introducing “Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions”

In anticipation of the forthcoming publication of Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, CCAR rabbinic intern Andy Kahn interviewed editor Rabbi Paul Citrin.

Lights in the Forest is unique as an anthology of essays by a variety of authors on Jewish theological and philosophical questions. What spurred your interest in creating one?”

A volume that made a large impact on me was something published by the American Jewish Committee in the mid-60s called the Condition of Jewish Belief. It was a symposium compiled by editors of Commentary magazine where 38 rabbis from all of the streams of Judaism responded to five theological concerns. I found it to be tremendously interesting and helpful as an undergraduate student in Los Angeles. It recently dawned on me that there was nothing like that on the market today. I looked at 12 different publishers that produce Jewish books and there was nothing that came close to it, by which I mean a collection of essays by various contributors not targeted for either children or graduate students in philosophy.

The questions in the book are stimulated by real questions that congregants ask their rabbis. I find that there is a core of Reform and Conservative Jews who want to be well-grounded in Jewish tradition. Their Jewish knowledge and identity is a central part of who they are, even if they don’t have all of the formal education they may desire. This volume will help strengthen that serious commitment.

LITFXXX_Page_1 “This book is full of essays on topics that might seem a little heady. There are questions of theology, Jewish peoplehood, conceptions of humanity in general. Who is this book intended to reach?”

My hope was that such a volume would not only stimulate individuals, but that it would also be a resource for group study in synagogues and in learning communities. I can see it being used in synagogue-based adult education class or chavurah study groups, or in a Confirmation class of teens. This text is meant to be a goad towards wider discussion and deeper thought. It also doesn’t need to be read cover to cover in a few sittings. It can be read selectively and over time. Each essay can stand alone to a reader, while the whole collection together helps to provide a wide-range of perspectives on the deep theological issues present. Because of this it has broad appeal and is very accessible. Even people who do not necessarily consider themselves seekers may indeed find a light of curiosity or deeper interest turning on. I hope that this accessibility and flexibility will help to bring greater interest to our movement.

“What led to you picking the contributors who are included?”

We tried to find a wide and representative range of the rabbinate. It covers two generations of Reform Rabbis with people ordained 1974 all the way up to 2013. We strove for gender balance, and also for some geographical variety. We have one Israeli contributor, and one currently working in Hong Kong.  There are contributors who are pulpit rabbis, Hillel rabbis, and academics. Although the language is meant to be easily accessible for the non-technical reader, we have a wide variety of writers who thought a lot about these questions.

“What need or niche do you see this book filling?”

At the time I made this proposal I had been on the pulpit for 38 years. My experience as a congregational rabbi was that many Jews want something that is both an intelligent and a communicative discussion of key theological ideas from a liberal perspective. I think that clarity of theology helps to ground Jews in their connection to Judaism and the Jewish community. Theology is what yields values, and when we have values firmly rooted in our faith system we can take actions rooted in our theology and our values.

Aside from the Condition of Jewish Belief as an inspiration, often I have used a little vignette spoken by Rabbi Israel of Rhyzin about two people entering a forest. One person had a lantern and one did not. The two meet, and the one carrying the lantern is able to illuminate the path of the one travelling in the dark. When they part company, one is left alone in the dark once again. Rabbi Israel of Rhyzin says that from this we learn that everyone must be able to carry his own light. My hope is that this book will provide light for people’s paths to provide a wider horizon of ideas and permission to enter this debate and discussion of what Jews believe, along with further study.

About Lights in the Forest and the free downloadable discussion guide.

Rabbi Paul  J. Citrin  was ordained  by the  Hebrew Union  College– Jewish Institute of Religion in 1973. The focus of his rabbinate has al- ways been in congregational life. His passions are education, Israel and social justice. He is the author of a children’s novel, Joseph’s Wardrobe (UAHC   1987), Gates of Repentance for Young People (co-authored  with Judith  Abrams, CCAR,  2002), and  Ten Sheaves (Create  Space 2014). He serves the Taos Jewish Center on a monthly  basis.

Categories
CCAR Convention General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “The Rabbinate: An Act of Faith”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

Shortly after coming to Toronto from Chicago in the late 1960’s, I asked a friend to help organize a collection of food and clothing for the Vietnam War draft resisters living in the downtown area of City. “No problem,” he replied, and in little more than a day a caravan of cars was streaming down Bayview Avenue loaded with coats and jackets, scarves, socks, and a variety of pastries schnorred from local bakeries before they closed on Christmas eve. The hundred or so forlorn men and their families huddled in their center on Huron Street were predictably grateful for this gesture of largesse from the passel of Jews who had descended on them from somewhere in the great frozen wilderness north of Bloor Street.

If they were appreciative, I was overwhelmed by the quick response to the new rabbi’s appeal, especially at a time when many Canadians were unsure whether these people were refugees or deserters from a war supposed to save the southeast Asian nations from falling like dominos into the lap of the Soviet Union and China. Years later, I was recounting this story to one of the Temple members who had participated in the event. He expressed great puzzlement at my interpretation and responded, “Oh, no, Rabbi. You have it all wrong. We thought you were a bit of a wacko! But you were the new American rabbi, and we Canadians were too chagrined to tell you so!”

Forty years later, I find myself wondering whether they or I have changed appreciably. If the past is prologue, then, perhaps, many of our good deeds are the unmeant outcomes of our earlier patterns of thought and behavior. The greatest consequences of our efforts frequently defy our intentions, or bend them toward purposes little imagined in their infancy. Ask any parent, or any husband or wife to reflect honestly on what they anticipated and what they achieved in their marriage. Ask any rabbi what he or she intended for their congregation and what they accomplished. The rabbinate, like the family, is an act of faith. Our vision may be faulty, our motives obscure even to ourselves; but if, in the end, a student or child blesses us for giving them hope in a time of doubt or a spark of inspiration at a crossroads in their lives, then dayenu – it is enough. Whatever we intended has been redeemed, and we can pray with some conviction:  

Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech Haolam, she’chechiyanu v’kiyamnau, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai Elohenu, Sovereign of the Universe, for giving us life, and sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this day.