Saturday, January 21, 2012

Parashat Va'era: Heschel, King and the Legacy of Hardened Hearts

A sermon given at Congregation Temple Emanu-El, Reno, NV:

Friends, at the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.

And Moses' words were, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go." While Pharaoh retorted, "Who's the Lord that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord. I will not let Israel go." The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began but is far from having been completed.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel uttered these words at the Conference on Religion and Race in 1963.

During a week when we honored the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., Heschels legacy rises quickly to the forefront, as well. Particularly with the advent of Facebook, everywhere I turned this past week, I saw a picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel, arms linked with Dr. King in 1965, marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during the march for voting rights.

When asked snidely why he wasn't in shul that morning, without pause, Heschel responded, "I felt like my feet were praying."

During my visit to Israel, Heschel's imprint and legacy weighed on my mind.

I visited the shuk, Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem three or four times each week. Avocados are being sold for a dollar per kilo! Yeah, thats right. Not each. But a dollar per kilo!

I bought the newest Israeli music on the shelves, a blend of the ancient and modern, weaving traditional narratives of Jewish texts in modern Hebrew to the tunes of rock and roll. As we have seen together during our studies, Jewish culture lives in totally new ways over the past 60 years, expressions of piety and spiritual searching both by people that label themselves as secular and religious.

I traveled to northern Israel and spent Shabbat atop a mountain in a small village, fully in nature, following the sun as my only clock for the 25 hours.

And then there were the many people in Yerushalayim who pulled over to the side of the road to ask me directions. During this visit, I felt more comfortable navigating the streets of Yerushalayim, and even directing others to their destinations, as any city Ive ever lived in.

But Heschel has been on my mind recently not because of the enduring power that Israel has on me. Though he has been at other points in my life for precisely this reason.

He was on my mind because of the national and international press that our homeland has gotten over the past month, both when I was in the country and since I have left.

Heschel spoke with the passion and vision of the Prophets that he studied throughout his life. He was a bridge builder among Jews, between Jews and other religious groups. He gave religion a voice in the American consciousness.

He looked the Other in the face.

This week we read of Moshes encounters with Pharaoh, a classic impasse in the history of mankind. Pharaoh has a hardened heart, one that is certainly unwilling to negotiate. But also a heart that is even willing to hear the views of the Other in front of him.

The twentieth century Jewish French philosopher Emanuel Levinas describes  a face to face encounter as a privileged phenomenon in which both the other persons proximity and distance are both strongly felt. He states The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shocking negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.

To translate into less complex English, Levinas expresses that an individual becomes more fully himself when looking into the face of another, and doing so does not compromise that person's individuality at all, but rather complements it.

This is the ultimate, and original Facebook.

Yet Pharaohs unwillingness to see Moshes face makes this transcendence impossible. This is the condition of a hardened heart.

This narrative of closed hearts beats within me during several weeks of inner strife among the Jewish nation.

More and more, women are being shut off from national discourse in the name of Judaism in our Holy and blessed homeland. And where it used to be a small group of marginalized individuals that did not give women a presence in discourse, it has now risen to a level of national policy.

Recently, Professor Channa Maayan was unable to receive an award from the Israeli Health ministry for her recent book on hereditary diseases common to Jews, because the event was gender-segregated. She was unable to be on the same stage as men.

The narrative of oppression became that much uglier on New Years eve when a group of Jews dressed up as victims of the Holocaust, placing Yellow stars that said Jude on all of the children in attendance.

But unfortunately the story is not resigned to this hyperbolic display of attention seeking by residents of the Meah Shearim neighborhood. This group was protesting what they deemed to be the mistreatment of their population for harassing Naama Margoles of Bet Shemesh.

Naama became famous because she is an eight-year-old girl who was on her way to school and was spit on for wearing clothes that some deemed to be too promiscuous. She was physically attacked by a group. An 8-year-old. She was dressed to go to school.

People have scratched out pictures of women from billboards. The Puah Institute for Medicine recently barred women from its gynecology conference. Yes, you heard that right.

The list I just read is a litany. It is ugly to think about, let alone to read.

During this week, of all weeks, where we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, I utter with utter conviction that separate but equal is not equal.

One groups declaration of Jewish and religious intolerance does not make it dogma. Isolating and limiting womens involvement in society strays profoundly from both the political values of a liberal democracy and the Jewish values established when God created humanity in God's image.

Yet, my teacher and mentor Chancellor Arnold Eisen states that for every no we tell about Israeli life, we must scream 5 yeses from the rooftops. Theres something quite sage about that. Its no secret that Israel has its detractors in the national and international community.

I am quite proud that we are bringing together the entire Reno community tonight around a shared passion for Jewish creativity and Israeli culture by watching the hit show Srugim. 7 pm right here.

Yet here we are in 2012, with a Jewish homeland that is fighting amongst itself in ways that resound heavily to the same strife that we saw 1950 years ago at the destruction of the second Temple.

Rabbinic literature speaks uniformly about the causes of the destruction of the Second Temple. Yes of course it was the Roman empire that breached the walls of Yerushalayim, and set flame to the Holy of Holies, a light that could be seen for miles on end.

But our communal narrative does not look outside of itself to remember our greatest catastrophies, the fall of the Temple. We look at our own civil strife. The Temple was destroyed, we tell, because of Sinat Chinam, because of senseless hatred.

The Jewish people were engaged in a civil war. And because of that, our people were helpless against outside attack.

Last month, Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Hartman Institute in Yerushalayim, a think-tank for Jewish studies, and the most prominent living Jewish philosopher in the world, wrote a feature-length article in the Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot entitled Religion is now more dangerous than the Arabs.

Our inner strife makes us weak, vulnerable to all attacks from the outside. As Hartman says in the article:

The leaders of Religious Zionism have lost all sense of purpose. Everything has become a war - a war with stones, a war to preserve power. Religion today is controlled by people who do not understand what Jewish revival is, what revolution is, and what we wanted to have here.

We stand at the brink of that civil unrest, one felt distinctly by citizens of the Jewish homeland. And this is the conversation by many currently in Israeli society, both colloquially and in the press. This was the topic of conversation over dinner during my second of three Shabbatot.

And here, I return to Heschel. In that same speech to the National Conference on Race and Religion, he said the following:

We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh. Daily we should take  account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation. Let there be a grain of prophet in every man!

We are both slaves and Pharaohs, part of the liberation Exodus narrative both as the oppressed and the oppressors.

As we have spoken about together, being a part of the covenant between the Jewish people and God means bearing witness to Wonder, acknowledging our flaws, not being afraid to question God, to question our own family. As Judy Hirsch said last month, This is a marriage, were in it for the long haul.

The events over the past month cause me such alarm precisely because I am in love with the country, because I return yearly to navigate the streets of Yerushalayim, to speak Hebrew with some of my closest friends.

The messages of the past months reinforce even more strongly that No Religion is an Island. We cannot isolate ourselves within our own comfort groups out of convenience. Refusal to do so creates Pharaohs of all of us, individuals and communities that have hardened hearts, unwilling to interact with anyone that challenges us.
Our message for Parashat VaEra speaks about encountering the Other, of Moshes approach to Pharaoh. Of Pharaohs inability no, his unwillingness to see Moshes face.

If we are going to declare ourselves with integrity that we are Moshe in this narrative, there is a certain requirement that we engage with people who are different than us. It mandates that we reach across the aisle and engage with people of different faiths. It requires us to learn about the Other in our own extended Jewish family.

During a week where we celebrate a national hero in Martin Luther King, Jr., we become abundantly aware of the work that remains to be done among our own family.

Being Moshe in this narrative means being aware when we close our hearts -- and then opening it again.

Our communal narrative mandates us to look the Other in the face. As Levinas explains, doing so does not compromise our individuality. We need not be afraid of it.

Let us find the other in our midst and engage with these people. The first conference of religion and race was between Moses and Pharaoh. There are many more engagements of differences that we need now, and in our day.

No Religion is an Island. May the work of bridge-building begin and continue into the future. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Walking by Revelation/Stopping to Witness Revelation

Every day upon entering the Jewish Theological Seminary, I walk under the institution's seal, an imprint of the burning bush from Sh’mot 3:2, and the words, “And the bush was not consumed.”

Victor Brenner first designed the seal in 1902, corresponding to the ascendancy of Solomon Schechter to be chancellor of the Seminary. Brenner would become famous in 1909 for designing the imprint of Lincoln on the United States penny. With the reorganization of the institution in 1902, JTS sought to impress on the Jewish community that Jewish learning and living would live on into the future on American soil, never being extinguished.

This week we read of Moshe walking along and bearing witness to this ultimate wonder of God (3:1-4):

1. Now Moshe was keeping the flock of Yitro his father-in-law, the priest of Midyan; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horev.

2. An angel of Adonai appeared to [Moshe] in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.

3. Moshe said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight, why doesn’t the bush burn up?”

4. When Adonai saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moshe! Moshe! He answered, “Here I am.”

Look closely at the verses. Moshe does not recognize this revelation of God until the angel speaks to him out of the Bush. He is walking along, and there happens to be a burning bush on his walk past Horev. Had there been no voice, it seems very likely that Moshe would have failed to notice this epiphany. Humans go through life seeing through a dark glass. We often walk right by the revelation of God, whether walking through the desert, or down Lakeside Drive. Sometimes we hear a still, small voice, and sometimes we don’t need it. Often we just pass on by.

Michael Fishbane, author of Sacred Attunement, describes this event as an “awakening of habitude, and through it we may perceive a first intimation of what covenant attentiveness might mean. It occurs in the wilderness, amidst the labors of sustenance and routine, in an endless terrain of sameness” (52).

This is an individual moment, the covenant of one person with God. The communal covenant will happen at Sinai.

“Hence the first experience of Moses only provides a model for theological reflection about the primariness of covenant living in one’s personal life; and it is only with Moses’s second experience that we can derive some insight into the way a covenant may also establish a social structure for God-centered living. It is the foundation of this form that is so primary for biblical religion and theology; and its ongoing revision is of absolute centrality for Jewish theology and its various life-forms” (55).

Through the model of explicating Torah, Fishbane outlines a lens of attuning to the divine in our lives. Covenant exists both in individual and communal contexts, sometimes overlapping, others not.

As we journey through the parasha this week, allow yourself some time to notice moments of revelation, those that call out to you and also those that you might have walked by.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A "closed parasha" during a week of chaos in the Holy Land

Finding the beginning of Parashat Vayechi is a harder task than any other parasha in the Torah. It is the only parasha that does not have a break between it and the previous one, dubbed in Hebrew a parasha setuma, a “closed parasha.”

Like in English rhetoric, the physical separation in the Torah between parshiot typically represents a thematic break of some kind. But why no break this week?

Rashi (Northern France, 1040-1105), citing the midrash, says that the first pasuk of Parashat Vayehi begins on a negative note, and thus the two parshiot are elided together in the writing of the Torah. We read in Breishit 47:27-28 (the end of Parashat Vayigash and beginning of Parashat VaYehi): 27 Then Israel lived in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they got them possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly. 28 And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years.

Rashi suggests that because Yaakov’s death has been foreshadowed, his descendants blocked (nistamu) their eyes and hearts from the upcoming slavery that would await them. Another interpretation, Rashi says, is that Yaakov attempted to tell the people of Israel that his days were numbered, but they prevented him from doing so (nistam mimeno).

Common to both of these interpretations is that form follows function: just as Bnei Yisrael did not want to hear the negative news, the physical structure of the Torah itself does not want to begin the parasha on such a foreboding note. 

Last week in shul, I heard Rav Benny Lau of Beit Knesset Ramban in Jerusalem add another interpretation to Rashi, dedicated to the memory of his uncle. He suggests that we have a parasha setuma in Parashat Vayehi not because of the beginning of Parashat Vayechi, but rather because the final pasuk of Parashat Vayigash speaks of the children of Israel becoming rich and multiplying while in Goshen. That was never supposed to happen. Yaakov’s children were supposed to make a quick trip to restock the food supply and then head back to Canaan. But they became preoccupied with the momentary wealth of this foreign land, ultimately being seduced by it. It would only be a matter of time before a Pharaoh “who did not know Yosef” would rise over the land of Egypt. 

Rav Benny Lau represents the creative religious energy that is so refreshing with each and every visit I make here. He delivers each dvar Torah with passion and humility, packed with content, with a take-away connected to the cultural currents of the day. He is a model to me for what it means to live a committed Jewish life fused with lived experiences of the real situations that surround him. He emphasizes the need to build the state upon the values of our tradition, of crafting Medinat Yisrael that lives up to the deep morality entrenched in the Torah. 

During a week of Jewish infighting in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh, I want to elevate Rabbi Lau’s model of religious passion and commitment to the fullness of Jewish expression in the Jewish state. Such creativity must shine forth during this nadir of sinat chinam (senseless hatred) among the nation of Israel.

The Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism recently created a website devoted to spreading the light of Judaism for all to see. In the midst of a group of Jews spreading darkness by dressing up in concentration camp uniforms and yellow stars, this message of the Rabbinical Assembly shows that so many Jews live a life committed to bringing the light of Torah into the world. Please consider adding your own pictures to the site.

As we learn from the parasha setuma between Parashat VaYigash and Parashat VaYehi, we do not end or begin a week on an ominous note, on one of destruction. As we finish the book of Breishit this week, let us bring the light of Torah, of Jewish creativity, with gusto into the world.