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.

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.

High Holy Days Rabbis Reform Judaism

Holy Atheism!: The Role of Faith in Judaism

As Yom Kippur, our only holiday which focuses on our relationship with God, fades behind us, I am reminded of a 2007 article I read in Newsweek. Christopher Hitchens quoted these words Mother Teresa had spoken:

“For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”   “Such deep longing for God – and…repulsed-empty –no  faith- no  love- no  zeal.”

Mr. Hitchens points out that such doubt for Mother Teresa would indeed have caused crisis, not only for her, but for the catholics for whom she was such an inspiration.  “Mother Teresa doubted God?!”  In the height of heresy, Mr. Hitchens goes so far as to accuse her of (gasp) atheism!

I was puzzled reading Mr. Hitchens’ article.  Mother Teresa doubted God.  So what? As a child I feasted on stubborn Jonah, angry Moses, poor confused Saul, and the one from whom we inherited our name; the struggling Jacob/Israel. I expected to play Divine hide-and-seek with the God of my understanding.   And yet, Mother Theresa’s words reverberated deeply through my soul.

I’ve always seen faith as secondary to Judaism.  Great if you feel it, irrelevant if you don’t.  I can never get too excited about avowed Atheist Jews.  One doesn’t really need God in order to live a Jewish life.

To live a Jewish life, one need only follow mitzvot, doing so with a little compassion is even better.  It wasn’t Mother Teresa’s struggle or doubt which pulled at me.  It was her pain.  It was her pure human pain.

And this is the point of who we are as Jews.  Angst, emptiness, sadness, loneliness, silence…it is only natural that these words will relate to our search for the divine.  But for us, angst, emptiness, sadness, loneliness, and silence….these words should shock us, drive us into action when they relate to the feelings of human beings.

When he was hosted in the U.S. during WWII, my father was raised by Morris Bagno, one of the leaders of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Uncle Morris’s entire life was dedicated to bringing dignity and justice to the laborer. Except for family s’machot (joyful events), he refused to enter a shul or synagogue, and, believing that religion drove a wedge between class unities, declined to send my father to cheder (Jewish day school).  He never even mentioned God.  But, this man’s influence on my father and on my family is one of the reasons I became a rabbi. Uncle Morris’s sense of social justice was the epitome of “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” (Justice, justice, shall you pursue). He lived Torah so absolutely that he was, in most aspects of his life, the walking personification of Torat Chayim—the  the living, breathing Torah.

In fact Uncle Morris was such an atheist, he would not have understood why Mother Teresa was so worked up.  If Uncle Morris heard her lament, he would have heard the cry of human suffering – and the silence surrounding it.  This, not divine longing, but a human being hearing silence…this would have moved him.   Just as it should move us.  Around us at every moment, near and far, are those who hear only silence and emptiness, those who wish to cry out, but cannot speak.  As a Jew, I know this silence is not God’s; it is ours.

We have neighbors and friends struggling with physical and mental illness, parents who cannot feed their children, and politicians so warped and distracted by their own job security that they cannot hear the weeping all around them. We have masses of citizens gassed and killed by their government’s own hand. “The silence and the emptiness is so great.” Is it ever.

And because it is, we do not have the luxury of struggling long with faith.  As Jews, we are commanded not to believe, but to do. While most religions also command us to action, to response, to feeling and hearing, and then helping – we are commanded with no expectation of belief.  We are commanded with prophetic urgency not to tolerate anguish in this world.

Can we lift the emptiness and silence?  Read anew Mother Teresa’s words, hearing them as an echo of the suffering in this world…   “For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”

So I ask you now…what are we going to do about it?

Rabbi Andrea Berlin is Director Congregational Networks – West District with the Union for Reform Judaism and is the co-director of NCRCR.

General CCAR News Reform Judaism

To the City of Boston

in the light of day
darkness was revealed.
We are in shock. Stupefied. Angry.

If the heart of every living being is good,
and if the soul you have given us is pure,
how does evil appear?

Hear our prayer!

Help us to have faith when there is doubt.
Bring healing to those in pain.
Comfort us in our grief.
Give us courage in our confusion.
Grant us strength
to look straight into the darkness,
defiant and determined
to pursue peace and establish safety
in our fractured world.

Oseh shalom bimromav
You who make peace in the high heavens
Help us find the way to make peace here on earth.

Rabbi Karyn Kedar is senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL.