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Torah

What Tazria and M’tzora Can Teach Us about Disease and Leadership

What is the real purpose of leadership? In ancient Israel, as in many of the ancient cultures, there were two leadership segments, the actual government rulers, and the leaders of that culture’s religion. In ancient Jewish history, religious leadership was the kohanim, priests. What was the true purpose of the priests? According to Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who wrote the Anchor Bible commentary books on Leviticus, the priests’ roles were to do as much as possible to ensure God’s presence in the community. Moses, by the end of the book of Exodus, had literally brought God’s presence into the center of the Israelite community. Numerous midrashim from the rabbinic era state how human actions either increase or decrease the Divine presence. Milgrom’s commentary teaches how in the best-case scenario the High Priests’ focus was to lead the community in maintaining God’s presence.

Leviticus shows how the different aspects of the High Priests’ duties combine with the general population’s situations. This starts with the sacrificial system, whose purpose was to communicate to God that the people had either made a correction for something wrong, or did something right. A sacrifice was an invitation for God’s presence to return, or to increase. Sacrifices could not be holy on their own, but only if they properly represented the Jewish people’s actions in moving towards holiness. There were moral commandments spelled out in detail, outlining a large part of the population’s obligations. The Holiness Code in chapter 19 is a primary example. Morality was presented as a requirement to increase the Divine presence in our world.

An additional approach appears in this week’s dual Torah portion of Tazria and M’tzora: how to deal with a certain kind of disease. Tazria gives great details in how priests should examine and diagnose the disease called צָרָ֑עַת, tzaraat, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The symptoms describing what the priests would examine are not what we typically know as leprosy, but versions of different skin afflictions, anything from eczema or psoriasis to deep infections. The priest’s diagnosis would determine if the person had to be quarantined, or was actually clean enough to stay in the community. The priest who examined a specific case had to re-examine after a week. If the affliction continued, he determined if it was on the level of an infection like leprosy, or something much milder.

The priesthood’s tending to the disease was part of their duty to ensure God’s presence. There is no question that some priestly leaders were more efficient, more diligent, or more productive than others, but none of that undermined the level of their honesty or morality. That was determined by the way a High Priest took his position and/or how he used his authority. Stories of numerous corrupt priesthoods, most notably those egotistically desiring authoritarian power instead of focusing on God’s presence, are told in the first segment of the Talmud’s tractate Yoma. This was common during the era of the second Temple.

When we try to put this into today’s perspective, we can gain a lesson about how a leader should combine necessary medical science with duty to God. While we can notice mistakes made in ancient times, because less was known about disease, the central point is to use medical knowledge to increase the holiness of a community. That is not dependent, for example, on congregating in mass to praise God, but knowing when to isolate those suffering from certain diseases. Saving lives is a key part of creating divinity in society. A true religious leader is not concerned about who shows up for an event, but who is healthy and who needs treatment—be it physical or spiritual. The connections, between physical and spiritual illness, leap forward in this week’s second portion, M’tzora.

Beginning in Leviticus 14:33, a potential plague on the stones of houses, and how to address them, is described. The same word is used to describe the stone plague as the skin disease in Tazriatzaraat. A priest determines if the treatment needs only to be of the stones containing the affliction by removing or scraping them, or if the entire house needs to be torn down.  The context given in the Torah is when the Israelites took Canaan that this plague might exist in certain houses. Rashi saw this as a way for the Israelites to find gold hidden in the walls by the Amorites, perhaps a lesson on the wrong way to focus on materialism.

A deeper interpretation of the reason for a house’s stone infections is a midrash from Vayikra Rabbah, chapter 17. It says that tzaraat occurs to a house when the residents who have plenty of food refuse to give help to people who are starving, especially by lying. For example, if asked for wheat and they lie by saying they have none, the house gets the disease. This illustrates how immorality causes a sick environment. The very next midrash in the same chapter of Vayikra Rabbah lists ten sins that will bring on tzaraat. Besides sins against God, the list includes, stealing from the public, usurping a position for which one has no right, displaying excessive pride, using evil speech, and wrongly seeing others as evil.

If we put together an overview approach of this week’s double Torah portion, a leader truly dedicated to improving their community must correctly diagnose a disease. They must be consistent in treating and reanalyzing the situation. They must be aware of the immoral aspects, and cannot allow an over focus on existence simply for materialistic reasons. God’s presence can increase only if human life is respected and served on the highest level. Leviticus verses 14:46 and 47 show that a leader himself must be careful not to get over exposed to the affliction. In the context of the midrashimwe can add that a leader must not get corrupted by the disease of “sin.”

These Torah portions give us a context to add key questions about the pandemic situation we are experiencing today: How are our leaders protecting exposure? Are our leaders making proper use of the available medical knowledge? Are they too focused on materialism over preserving life? Are leaders dedicated to God’s presence or to practicing their authoritarian wishes? Is their focus on their personal situation or what is best for the whole community? Are they providing what is needed for the poorest and most distraught? Finally, what are we as individuals doing to increase the Divine presence? Are we only concerned about ourselves or also caring about others? Are we appreciating those who must do the most work in dealing with the problems caused by the pandemic, e.g., all health workers, teachers, deliverers, and leaders making hard decisions? All of us can be part of the influence that when this is over, will God’s presence be more, or less?


Rabbi W. Jack Romberg worked in business for eighteen years, then, at age 42 entered HUC-JIR. After ordination, he served for eighteen years as the rabbi for Temple Israel in Tallahassee, Florida, and upon retirement in June of 2019 received a key to the city from the mayor. As Rabbi Emeritus, he writes weekly Torah commentaries for the congregation.

Categories
Israel

CCAR Israel Leadership Trip

Greetings from Eretz Yisrael, where I’m privileged to be studying and traveling with a group of CCAR colleagues.  What distinguishes this journey from previous ones: an opportunity for us to reflect on “using” Israel as educators —  both in terms of intentionally creating meaningful itineraries as we lead groups (of congregants) here, and in terms of bringing this week’s experience back to our respective communities.

The beautiful lunch that the Druze community served us.

Our itinerary has been chock-full of the pressing issues of the day.  We had mifgashim that have touched on the ongoing Arab-Israel question, gender, LGBTQ inclusion, and the list goes on.  But for the moment, I find myself holding on to the interaction we had with the Druze outside of Haifa.  Many of us (myself included) have encountered the Druze, and their world famous hospitality, in previous visits to Israel.  We have heard of their vaunted sense of service in contributing to the Jewish State (as Arabs) by serving in the Army, often volunteering for combat roles.

This week’s encounter went deeper.  We were privileged to hear from Reda Mansour, a prominent Israeli Druze who holds the distinction of being the youngest Israeli ever appointed as an Ambassador in the Diplomatic Corps.

Mansour was teaching us about the Druze and their desire to be an active part of the communities they are living in.  Beyond their noted IDF service, he talked about the Druze’s longstanding commitment to building institutional relationships with the synagogue and church communities that are their neighbors.  The Druze embrace the notion of surrounding themselves with those who are different from them.

Mansour went so far as to suggest a strong similarity between the Druze of Israel, and the Jews of America.  Both communities, he noted with pride, have long records of engagement in the surrounding world.

Mansour also reminded us that the Druze have a very strict policy: a Druze cannot marry a non-Druze and remain in the community.  Period.  And they do not have a mechanism that would be analogous to our sense of conversion.

A speaker from the Druze community shares his experiences with us.

This seemed paradoxical.  On the one hand Mansour’s community was open to assimilation.  Young people are not required to dress traditionally.  Everyone is expected to engage with the non-Druze community.  And yet, their tradition does not seem to be equipped to deal with the social ramifications of that assimilation.

As Mansour repeatedly invoked his assertion that American Jews and Druze were similar, I couldn’t help but think that in one respect he was incorrect.  We liberal Jews have worked hard to adapt (and we continue to adapt) our Judaism so that it fully engages with modernity.  Our ritual practice has evolved.  And the definition of a Jewish family has evolved with it.  We’ve made room in our homes, synagogues, and communities for significant others who are not Jewish by birth – regardless of whether they are moved to formally convert.  We’ve embraced this willingness to regularly reform our sense of (communal) self, because we recognize that the survival of a meaningful contemporary Judaism depends on it.

I’m grateful for the Druze for the warm hospitality they extended to our group.  And I’m grateful for their devoted service to the State of Israel.  But most of all, I’m grateful that our encounter reminded me how proud I am to be part of a tradition that has the capacity to grow, change, and thrive over time.

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown serves Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El in Scarsdale, New York.

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CCAR Convention Rabbis

The Leaders of Leaders

Rabbi Harry Danziger

L’dor vador.  Generation to generation.  I never understood the opening of Pirki Avot more than when we honor and celebrate our colleagues who have been 50 years in the rabbinate.

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the  elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.

At the Shacharit services the first morning of our conference, we honor those who have reached the milestone moment of 50 years in the rabbinate.  I always tear up as they are called to Torah along with their spouses as we honor theses rabbinic families. The rabbis and their spouses, these leaders have given of themselves to bring Torah to the world.  They have taught and comforted and lifted up the Jewish people and built bridges to the non-Jewish world.

This year “my rabbi” was celebrated for his 50 years as a rabbi. Rabbi D, as I always still lovingly call him, read Torah this year for his classmates ordained by the College-Institute in 1964.  Rabbi Harry Danziger, rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Memphis, TN taught me, encouraged me, helped me, and mentored me to become the rabbi I am today.  Always embracing me with motivation was his beloved partner in life, Jeanne Danziger. It was their direct encouragement that helped nurture me through my teens and college years to consider becoming a rabbi and urging me to apply to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The HUC-JIR Class of 1964 at #CCAR14
The HUC-JIR Class of 1964 at #CCAR14

Rabbi Danziger’s leadership of our congregation and the Memphis Jewish community and his work on interfaith relationships was always a model for me of the possibilities that would be available. His leadership of our Conference as president of the CCAR also showed me the absolute necessity of rabbis supporting rabbis.  His care and leadership led our Conference through a critical period with his usual deliberate judgement and diligence and menschlikite, which to me always beams through his bright smile and open heart.

As President-Elect of the Conference, Rabbi D continues to model for me the best of being a leader, a rabbi, and a caring spouse and parent.  I am grateful for his many kindnesses to me.  And that here in the safe and supportive space of our CCAR Convention, we can honor those rabbis who came before us, who raised up many disciples and taught us to protect and uplift the Torah.

Rabbi Denise Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and is President-Elect of the CCAR.

Read Rabbi Harry Danziger’s reflections on his 50 years in the rabbinate.

Categories
CCAR on the Road Ethics News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Who Is Our Next Generation of Leadership?

Two members of Temple Beth-El's young leadership at the Consultation
Two members of Temple Beth-El’s young leadership at the Consultation

We in institutional Jewish life keep hearing how we are challenged by the under-35 demographic.  They supposedly aren’t joiners.  They “won’t” pay for Jewish life.  To the extent there’s a secret to attracting them, we are told that eliminating the “institutional footprint” is the key.

But I’ve been at the Consultation on Conscience this week with a delegation of nine from Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, four of them young adults.  That’s up from tiny delegations when there were any at all, and certainly no young adults, throughout my 21 years at the congregation.  Admittedly, winning a Fain Award attracted some of us. But young adults are the real difference.

Rabbi Elisa Koppel recruited four 20-somethings to join us at the Consultation, aided by the RAC’s recognition of this demographic’s importance:  The registration fee for the under 35 crowd was a manageable $50.

So who are these young adults?  Three are Jews-by-Choice, and the fourth is well along the path to conversion.  They are all LGBT:  one lesbian and three gay men, including a couple whose marriage I officiated last month.

All four jumped at the opportunity to be part of our Reform Movement’s commitment to social justice, which was key to attracting them to Judaism.  But these are not single-issue Reform Jews.  The married couple keeps a kosher home.  All four celebrate Shabbat regularly at Temple and at home.  They are active in Machar, the Temple’s young adult engagement, and they volunteer at the free summer day camp, Beth-El Food and Fun, for underprivileged kids who live in the Temple’s neighborhood, the project
recognized by the Fain Award.

In other words, the “institutional footprint” is heavy in these young adults’ Jewish lives.

And here they are, using two days of their precious few annual vacation days, and plunking down real money for the experience, albeit appropriately reduced by the RAC and with some help from  rabbinic discretionary funds toward the flights.

This Consultation experience, and Machar’s success, suggest a model for engaging the next generation of Reform Jewish leadership.  Without dismissing other models, please consider this combination:

Social justice work.
Participating in social justice.

1.  Meaningful tikkun olam opportunities, engaging young adults both in groups of their contemporaries and in more diverse groups (like the Brickner Fellowship unites  rabbis of different generations).
2. A public rabbinic voice for social justice, heard widely in the community, not only by those already engaged in our Jewish institutions.
3.  Pricing structures that require young adults to make a commitment but are appropriate to their circumstances.
4.  Celebrating a community that already includes Jews-by-birth and -by-choice, straight and LGBT, partnered and single, families of all kinds, who come on Shabbat and who don’t, etc., demonstrating the real diversity that comes naturally to this age group is key.
5.  A relevant Shabbat worship experience, spiritually and intellectually stimulating, with regular reference to social justice.
6.  Opportunities like the Consultation for the most engaged to celebrate their involvement and find partners across North America.

The slides in the front of the room at the Consultation this morning make clear that the under-35 crowd is changing America.  In their demographic, even the majority of evangelicals support same-sex marriage!  Jews, more than most Americans, understand celebrate the ways our society has changed since the 1950’s.  We should be eager to embrace the changes that millennial even to our hallowed institutions.

When I sit with my young adult friends at the Consultation, this almost-50 rabbi is re-energized by their social justice commitment, by their rich Jewish lives, and above all by their vision of a society freed of discrimination and hatred, poverty and hunger, where “justice will roll down like a stream!”

Rabbi Barry Block has been named Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, beginning July 1, 2013. Currently, Rabbi Block is on sabbatical as Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served since 1992.

Categories
CCAR Convention News Rabbis

Leading the Shift: The CCAR Convention Opening Program

Rabbi Steve Fox, Zev Yaroslavsky, Tiffany Shlain,  Dr. David Feinberg, and Rabbi Asher Knight.
Rabbi Steve Fox, Zev Yaroslavsky, Tiffany Shlain, Dr. David Feinberg, and Rabbi Asher Knight.

The stated objective of this year’s CCAR Convention is, in part, “…to engage colleagues in deep conversation on the issues about which they are passionate.”  Tonight’s opening program was designed to initiate this series of conversations by offering short talks presented by thought leaders in other fields: medicine, politics, and multimedia art.  Each of these exceptional figures – Dr. David Feinberg, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain – offered perspectives on how to “lead the shift” by drawing on their own personal experiences of challenge and success.

I loved Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s comments about the messy work of political coalition-building, and was energized by Shlain’s ideas about the overlapping “participatory revolutions” that we see around us today in the world of culture and technology.  More than anything, however, I was moved by the comments of Dr. Feinberg, who is the President of the UCLA Health System and CEO for the UCLA Hospital System.

Feinberg talked about the way he succeeded in transforming the UCLA hospitals after he took the helm – humbly pointing out that he had no formal training and suggesting that he had had no appreciable experience to recommend him for the post.  He spoke about how he brought about a system-wide shift in consciousness by insisting that members of the hospital staff become radically patient-centered at all levels, from hospital parking attendants to neurosurgeons in the operating theater.

The reorientation that Feinberg brought about was massively sprawling in its scope, but he suggested that it could be boiled down to focusing hospital employees’ attention on improving one single statistic: the number of patients who responded positively to a simple question: “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend?”

Feinberg’s idea is not a new one; in fact, it was documented and explored at length by Fred Reichheld several years ago in his book The Ultimate Question (Harvard Business School Press, 2006).  Reichheld argued that the way customers answered this question would be the most revealing metric that predicted a company’s long-term growth and profitability.  But Feinberg has been uniquely successful because he recognized that this mode of assessing a business’s success and effectiveness can be translated effortlessly to the healthcare field as well.

I’d like to suggest that the same thing is true for the not-for-profit realm, and specifically for the landscape of Jewish communal institutions.

I wonder what Jewish life would be like if our communal leaders – clergy, lay staff, and volunteers alike – spent their time being obsessively focused on improving their constituents’ answers to that question.  What would our communities feel like if we were single-mindedly devoted to exceeding members’ wildest expectations of us and our institutions?  What could the future become if every Jewish professional set out to turn every interaction as an opportunity to turn constituents into evangelists, to transform them into walking billboards for our organizations, celebrating the wonderful services we provide and the inspiring missions we embody?

I have participated in numerous conversations with colleagues who lament declining membership numbers, shrinking dues revenue, and an overall diminution of k’vod ha-rav, the respect traditionally accorded rabbis as spiritual guides and communal leaders.  The beauty of Feinberg’s approach  is that it recognizes that prospective patients are influenced most powerfully and effectively by the testimony of their friends and peers – not necessarily by the expertise of doctors or hospital staff.  The same would be true if we succeed at carrying this approach into the world of Jewish communal work; unaffiliated, unengaged, and uninterested Jews in our communities are much more likely to be convinced to walk through our doors if they receive impassioned recommendation from a friend whose judgment they trust.

Feinberg’s strategy proved revolutionary, which is particularly exciting given the simplicity of the approach.  Its success and its simplicity both recommend it to us rabbis, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain from employing it.  When I leave Long Beach and return home to my own organization, I will look forward to doing my part to “lead the shift” by concentrating on improving the way my constituents answer this simple and potent question, and I hope that my colleagues across the country will do the same.

 

Rabbi Oren Hayon is the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the University of Washington Hillel.