Category Archives: Humanity

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

Remembering Amalek…and Remembering to Return

D’var Torah at Judea Reform, March 18, 2016…

The Shabbat just before Purim is called shabbat zachor, the Sabbath of “Remember.” It gets its name from the opening words of a special Torah passage (Deut 25:17-19) which tells us to “remember what Amalek did to us on our journey.” As Purim approaches, we note the connection between Amalek and Haman, and many a sermon on Shabbat Zachor has called attention to the need for Jews to be ever-vigilant in the world, on guard against the oldest hatred of all. Continue reading

Reflections on the Detroit Debate: finding each other’s faces again

Last-Minute Larry. I came by my childhood nickname honestly, preferring the rush that accompanied a tight deadline to the calm sense of accomplishment that came with finishing my assignments early. Not much has changed, I guess. Sharon Halperin, who directs the Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education of North Carolina gave us several weeks’ notice that we’d be welcoming teachers from around the state to our services this evening as part of their attendance at a two-day workshop entitled “Witnessing the Witnesses: Teaching the Holocaust in North Carolina.” Still, my message was crafted in the aftermath of this week’s Super Tuesday primaries. Oh, why deny it? My message was crafted in the aftermath of last night’s Republican debate on Fox. Continue reading

“Dealing shrewdly,” in ancient Egypt and present-day America

January 1, 2016

The Honorable Loretta E. Lynch
The Attorney General
Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building
950 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001

Dear Madam Attorney General:

Six months ago to the day I had the privilege of spending ninety minutes with you on the campus of North Carolina Central University. Your office brought together law enforcement officials, clergy, and human rights leaders for a round-table conversation about justice and civil rights. Charleston had just happened, churches were burning, and the voting rights trial was about to commence in Winston-Salem. It happens to have been my first day on the job as as Rabbi of Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, so I remember it well.

Your charge to us in the room that day was to hold you and your department accountable and to keep the lines of communication open. It is for that reason that I write, adding my voice to the many others calling for a broadened investigation into the conduct of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty regarding the killing of Tamir Rice by Officer Timothy Loehmann. Tamir’s family deserves better than they received from the local authorities. If ever there were a case that cries out for a trial (at least), it is this one. Continue reading

From the Rabbi’s Study, January 2016

My January/February JRC Bulletin Message…

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9)

For me, it’s that verse that most accurately describes the Jewish mission. To empathize with the marginalized, and to turn our empathy into action, is what we’re all about. Our texts, our holidays, our daily prayers….all of the particularly Jewish things about being Jewish point us toward that universal truth. Calling out oppression when we see it and standing with the oppressed against their tormentors: this is what it means to be a Jew. Continue reading

In-stalled


My installation remarks from Friday night, December 11. I had no idea, when I decided to craft these remarks around the seasons, and to teach about impermanence by looking to the trees, that our Religious School had created a huppah in my honor that teaches the very same thing, in the same way.  It was presented to the congregation as part of Sunday Morning’s Installation.

 Lots of folks have asked me, “Haven’t you been our Rabbi for quite some time? What changes on December 11?” And the answers are, “yes,” and “not much.” Certainly, some of the big transitional moments are already behind us. My election. Our first service together. Our first High Holidays. Other moments of transition are still out in the future. We haven’t yet celebrated Purim together, or Pesach, or Kabbalat Torah, or an Annual Meeting, to name but a few “firsts” that are still in the future. My colleague Barry Block has written about transition not really being finished until a rabbi has been in his or her position for two full years, and I’m inclined to believe him.

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A gift from the synagogue, created by Galia Goodman

And yet, here we are, celebrating my “installation.” Lots of jokes about the similarities between rabbis and large appliances are just waiting to be made, but the truth be told, “install” is a verb that was applied to members of the clergy long before it was applied to washers and dryers. To “install” something is to put it in its stall. And clerics in the Middle Ages had semi-enclosed chairs called stalls in which they sat as a part of the choir. “Installation” was the act of getting into one’s stall for the first time. It is, essentially, the act of taking one’s seat, of settling in. Continue reading

Nostra Aerate at Fifty

D’var Torah at Judea Reform, October 30, 2015…

The Jewish-Catholic dialogue that took place in synagogue growing up made a deep impression upon me. My Rabbi, Martin Silverman, modeled a deep public friendship with the local Bishop, Howard Hubbard, exchanging pulpits on a regular basis. It is probably thanks to them that I gravitated to such dialogue in my Rabbinate. Priests and Women Religious have been my study partners and co-teachers over the years, over many pulpit exchanges and visits to each other’s classrooms. I was entrusted by the Diocese of El Paso to teach the Jewish Scriptures to Deacon candidates. I had the great honor to travel to the University of Notre Dame to be a part of small working group on interfaith dialogue, at the invitation of the Rabbi to the Fighting Irish, Michael Signer (of blessed memory). I travelled there together with one of my ongoing study partners, a Franciscan priest named John Stowe who has since been elevated to serve as Bishop of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. I mention all of this not to name-drop but to give you a sense of why I feel compelled to speak tonight about Nostra Aetate.

In our time – nostra aetate – when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger…

With those words did Pope Paul VI begin his proclamation on the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate, “in our time.” The proclamation was issued fifty years ago, almost to the day, on October 28, 1965. This milestone anniversary affords us the opportunity to reflect on issues raised by Nostra Aetate in our time, an era in which it seems that, day by day, humanity is being pushed farther apart, and the ties between different peoples are becoming, if not weaker, certainly more strained and complicated. Continue reading