Category Archives: Humanity

Let us make humankind: being God’s image

Welcome
Welcome
Welcome
To this great arena
Durham, North Carolina
In the heart of the research triangle

We’ve come to this particular place tonight,
Because we gotta look at things from every angle
We need some answers to some complicated questions
If we’re going to get it right.

With those words does Randy Newman kick off his current release, Dark Matter. And if I’d commissioned the Grammy- and Oscar-winning composer to craft a song for Judea Reform Congregation on kol nidrei night, I couldn’t have asked for a better beginning.

That is my hope for this night of nights, and for the day of days that follows: that we come together in our diversity and complexity, ask the right questions, and come, with humility and grace, to “getting it right.” Continue reading

Did you ask a good question?

Throughout my career as a rabbi, I’ve loved sharing the inadvertent wisdom of Isaac Rabi’s mother, and encouraging students to “ask a good question.” How nice to get to offer a d’var torah at URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy during the week when our value was sakranut – “curiosity!” This, more or less, is what I said…

This afternoon at B’nai Mitzvah tutoring, a few kids were chanting ashrei, one of my favorite psalms. It includes a verse which goes like this: gadol adonai umehulal m’od, v’lig’dulato ein cheker. Which translates as, “God is huge, and so worthy of praise; God’s vastness cannot be measured.”

On that verse, a great commentator named David Kimchi once wrote, “Since God’s vastness is beyond measurement, and God cannot be fully understood, all we can do is acknowledge the vastness and praise it, each of us as best we can.”

Now, Kimchi was a great Torah commentator with a better head for Hebrew than almost anyone….but his approach to God’s vastness is out of place in a synagogue full of scientists. Beyond measurement, you say? Challenge accepted!

Our sakranut, our curiosity, doesn’t allow us to throw up our hands and say “Oh well, it’s really, really big, and that’s as specific as we can get.” We want to measure it with precision, and then take that measurement again, and again, to confirm our findings. Our curiosity compels us to ask, to seek, to know.

It was just that sort of curiosity that compelled Dr. Isidore Isaac Rabi. Dr. Rabi, a physicist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944. His work laid the foundation for the inventions of the atomic clock, the laser, and MRI machines, among other things. And Dr. Rabi was once asked why he became a scientist. This is what he said:

”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!’

We’ve got a beautiful Shabbat ahead of us, and then, for many of us, a trip home. All of us – Greg and Barak, your teachers, your counselors, your Rabbis and Cantor, everyone who invests their time and energy in Sci-Tech – wants you to go home having learned much. But even more than that, we want you to go home curious. We want you to ask good questions.

When Pride and Yom Kippur Collide

The unfortunate coincidence of NC Pride and Yom Kippur has elicited many reactions. Here’s mine…

I know you’ve received a good deal of communication already regarding the scheduling conflict that will keep the Jewish community from taking part in NC Pride this year. I’m writing to share my own sense of disappointment, and that of many within Judea Reform Congregation, at being excluded due to this conflict. As a religious community with longstanding and deeply-held commitments to LGBTQ justice, taking part in the parade is a chance to take the values we preach and teach out into the world.

For many years my synagogue did not take part in the parade due to the conflict with our sabbath. In 2015, we changed the policy that kept us from taking part in social justice events on Saturdays. We’ve participated as a synagogue for the past two years, and were looking forward to doing so again this year. Months ago we blocked off September 23 on our planning calendars (we’d assumed it was going to be held on the fourth Saturday, and failed to consider that it might be scheduled for the last), so that nothing we planned would conflict with Pride. You can imagine our surprise our surprise and disappointment when the date was published on the ncpride.org website.

As you know, and have acknowledged, this scheduling conflict is painful to Queer Jews and their allies. As an often-marginalized minority community in the South, most Jews are used to schedules being made by the dominant culture with scant concern for our participation. It’s doubly painful that the latest oversight came from the LGBTQ community, also so frequently marginalized. Adding to the pain is the particular moment in which this oversight occurred, a time of rising bias against the LGBTQ community and the Jewish community alike. Recent events have led to even more tension between the two communities (the Chicago Dyke March being the most obvious example).

I hasten to add that I assume no ill-will on your part, or anyone’s at NC Pride; I only mention all of this to provide some context for what I know has been an avalanche of reaction, much of it very emotional.

From all that I’ve heard, there is no way for a change to be made to this year’s schedule. I am hoping against hope for a miracle. Failing that, I hope that you’ll make a note to avoid September 30, 2028 (Yom Kippur), and September 30, 2030 (Rosh Hashanah), so that we can all stand together, in unity and with pride.

Sincerely,
Rabbi Larry Bach

Where Empathy Ends, Justice Begins

Sermon for Parashat Kedoshim, Judea Reform Congregation.

I’ve been saying for several weeks now how much I appreciate the fact that the book of Leviticus extends the realm of religion to include the earthier parts of life. When we say “Judaism isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life,” the parshiot we’ve just concluded are, in part, what we have in mind. Torah lays claim to the way we eat, the way we heal, the way we encounter birth and death, and the way we interact with people whom we’ve harmed. It is a torat chayim, a path for life. All of it. Continue reading

Standing for Voting Rights

Min hameitzar karati yah; anani bamerchav yah.
I cried out to God because everything was so cramped; God answered: “Make the circle bigger!”

Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifney Adonai Eloheychem, our Torah reading begins. Before we read, we’ll break down a few key verses and see what they have to teach us about turning away from narrow-minded ideas and the narrowly-drawn lines that enforce them, and embracing a much broader view of who we are as a nation. Continue reading

Base fears or better angels: Levi Yitzchak on leadership (Chukat 5776)

It was a scary time in the life of the young nation. Political infighting was rampant. A demagogue posing as a populist rose up and attempted to grab power. Though sustained and sated like no nation before, the people still felt insecure. A faction lived on appeals to nostalgia…though the “good ole’ days” were anything but. A woefully understaffed and overworked judiciary was utterly incapable of dispensing justice. Foreign policy? Forget about it. Enemies were on the horizon, and the tasks that lay before this nation seemed to them to be far beyond their capacity. They felt small. They were afraid. Yes, it was a scary time..for Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading

The Book and the Sword

June 13, 2016, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Remarks at a vigil in memory of the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre.

Sunday morning’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub took place during both Pride Month and Ramadan, timing significant for both the LGBTQ victims of the crime and the nominally Muslim perpetrator. For gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and the queer community, the timing is especially painful. The same can be said for the vast majority of American Muslims who are being unjustly tagged as complicit in the crime, or sympathetic to its goals.

Sunday also happened to be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a day which my Tradition marks as the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah. It is the day on which God proclaimed the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, sending the Word down from heaven into the world. It is a day on which Jews typically greet each other with the words chag sameach, “may your holiday be joyful.” This year, it was anything but. Continue reading

Tamid. Tamid. Tamid.

Caring Community Shabbat, May 20, 2016.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” So wrote Paul Kalanithi, a young father, a physician, and the victim of an aggressive form of lung cancer. Kalanithi’s journey is chronicled in a powerful book, When Breath Becomes Air, published posthumously earlier this year. Face to face with his own mortality, he recognized that, while some tasks can never be fully accomplished, the striving never ceases. Rabbi Tarfon said it well, in the pages of Pirkei Avot: “You are not required to finish the job; neither are you free to desist from it.” Continue reading

Old Column, Same Message

This is what happens when talk in the office turns to the nuts-and-bolts of synagogue bulletins: pulling up some examples of formats from my tenure in El Paso, I came across an old Rabbi’s Column (October 2010) that remains all too relevant, six years later. In it, I cite statistics about suicide rates among gay teens; for transgender teens, the suicide attempt rate is even more tragic. Much of the research reports that transgender youth are ten times more likely than their cisgender peers to attempt suicide. Like gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, trans kids who have been bombarded with messages of exclusion and worthlessness are most at risk. I’m reposting this in memory of North Carolina teens Ash Haffner and Blake Brockington, and with the fervent prayer that one particularly odious message of exclusion — H.B. 2 — will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.

I am writing this column in the last days of the fall festival season. The prescribed emotion is joy. Vesamachta bechagecha, vehayita ach sameach, “You shall rejoice in your festival; be entirely joyful!” I’m doing my best, but it’s hard when the picture that stares at me from every screen is that of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, zichrono livracha Continue reading

“Always Public, Never Partisan: Kosher and Treif Politics at Shul”

D’var Torah at Judea Reform Congregation, April 1, 2016.

The Priests were our teachers and guides in the realms of both ritual and ethics, and we are currently in the middle of their book, Leviticus. This week’s portion, called shemini, includes among other things, rules regarding which animals were considered proper, or kosher, for consumption.

Much ink has been spilled in the worlds of traditional Jewish scholarship and also in the academy trying to understand just why animals are on the menu, or off. Some see allegorical lessons whereby we ingest only animals whose character traits we find appealing. For others, kashrut amounts to an ancient health code. Some believe the purpose was simply to create an idiosyncratic diet as a way of cultivating group cohesion (you aren’t going to mix with others if you can’t dine with them!). Some see it as a way of cultivating compassion, as if to say, “your appetites conflict with the very lives of other beings, and so your appetites need to be limited.” And for others, the whole point is that the list is arbitrary: it’s there to teach discipline.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that to live within these particular mitzvot requires a well-developed capacity for havdalah, or “discernment.” The verse near the end of Leviticus 11, the lengthy chapter describing the various species, says it this way: l’havdil bein hatame uvein hatahor — “to discern, or distinguish, between that which is improper and that which is proper.” Continue reading