27 September 2013

The More Rooting Reality

Shabbat Breishit
September 27, 2013
23/24 Tishri 5774

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The impermanence of life, so illuminatingly rendered in Robert Frost’s concise verse, brings to mind a question I had never considered before about us Jews celebrating our New Year in the Autumn--Why do we seek to renew our souls, our souls, our lives, precisely when the earth and everything in it moves from the noisy vibrancy of summer’s growth to the quiet, cooling airs, shaking leaves of gold, the “hardest hue to hold?”

Our commitment to understanding the need for renewal in the face of the cycles of life, to birth and age and death, and rebirth, seems to be the essential threshing floor of beginning again.  Know what is good from the past year, leave the chaff for the compost pit, and plant seeds deep in the earth, practice patience, and prepare for springtime bloom and cultivation, flower, fruit, and life itself, being life.

Lest one see in this lesson a dark, heavy, brooding Jewishness (after all, our New Year is hardly celebrated with streamers, masquerade balls and champagne toasts) the Torah narrative at the beginning, where we find ourselves again, having celebrated Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, ending the year, and beginning the story of the origins of the universe and the Jewish people again, reminds us that in the beginning, God made light, that God saw that light, and declared it “good.”

Light to illuminate the darkness.  To allow discernment.  The Torah itself, the Tradition teaches, preceded creation.  Torah Ora--Torah of Light, Truth, Illumination.  Of inquiry, questioning, scrutiny.  In some interpretive traditions, the light exists in order to expose, tame and banish the darkness.  The light of the first creation, according to the Talmud, was not like the light of stars, suns and moons but rather was a great light of such enormous glow that one could see from one end of the earth to the other.  It brings to mind, on a certain level, those sublime spiritual moments between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we allowed ourselves to be exposed to the truths of who we really are, and as we stood in awe and humility before the gates of heaven, we allowed this light of inquiry to penetrate to the depths of our own souls and, if the system worked, to allowed ourselves the privilege of beginning our own lives again.

Refreshed and renewed from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we’re reminded, in the structured fragility of Sukkot, how fleeting and tenuous life can be--all the more reason to focus on what truly matters, what is truly essential, what is truly good.  

Ecclesiastes, who faces the vanity of vanities full on, concludes ultimately, that The sum of the matter, when all is said and done:  Revere God and observe His commandments.  For this applies to all mankind:  that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad.  סוף דבר הכל נשמע את האלוהים ירא ואת מצותיו שמור כי זה כל האדם  

The Sages, who were certainly by the Middle Ages well aware that scientific inquiry could potentially unravel the purely faithful idea of a God who is master of creation, had begun to grasp that science was beginning to speak in a voice of greater certainty.  And if that was so then faith needed to pivot.

Breishit doesn’t begin here, they said, with the creation of the universe, but in the middle of Exodus, when God commands the Jewish people with the structure of law, in this case, with the first rules required of the Jews before their escape from Egypt.  Inquiry allowed the Sages to pivot from pure faith in what could not be proven to a strengthened faith that took inquiry to heart by moving the foundation of creation to the founding of Law.  The food we’d eat, how we’d dress, how we’d be required to behave on the journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, would be circumscribed by the light of the law.

This illumination--that people are deserving of an inherent freedom and justice; that each individual made in the divine image is in possession of a basic human dignity; that we are asked to express our ultimate oneness with one another through acts of loving-kindness; these are the fundamental building blocks of life at the very beginning of time.  And that science, that light, never allows us to shy away from the truths that our work in bringing justice and freedom and love to the world is work that is never done.

In his beautifully rendered novel “Old School,” the writer Tobias Wolff paints a picture of a group of boarding school boys’ encounter with Robert Frost, just moments after the 1960 presidential election.  Frost visits the school and in one sharp and humorous exchange with a faculty member who questions whether or not modernity mandates that we rethink our relationship to “old forms,” (read metered poetry, or, for sake of argument, faith) Wolff imagines Frost saying, “ ‘Don’t tell me about science.  I’m something of a scientist myself.  Bet you didn’t know that.  Botany.  You boys know what tropism is, it’s what makes a plant grow toward the light...We all have that instinct, that aspiration.  Science can’t--what was your word? dim?--science can’t dim that.  All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.”

“So the true light can get us home.”

So this is where we find ourselves, renewed and refreshed at the beginning of the year.  No illusions about who we are and where we’re going.  Home to ourselves, to those we love, to our community, our God, our people.  Wherever we are going.  

The shell of physicality, the impermanence of one form, as Frost so beautifully and truthfully tells it, yields a greater, deeper and more rooting reality--that our journey in life is about finding a home for the soul.

May this beginning be for you a soul searching and soul-satisfying one.  And may the light of inquiry brighten your paths on the way.

Shabbat Shalom

25 September 2013

To Cerberus Capital Management on 9.24.13

Remarks Delivered Outside Cerberus Capital Management
Rabbi Andy Bachman
September 24, 2013

Cerberus Owns a 94% Stake in Freedom Group, the largest conglomerate producer of guns and ammunition in the United States totally nearly $900 million.  After the Newtown killings, Cerberus CEO Stephen Feinberg promised to sell the Cerberus stake in Freedom Group but 9 months later that has yet to happen.

I was with a group of advocates like Moms Demand Action, the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, and the Newtown Action Alliance to hold Mr. Feinberg to his word.


Good afternoon.  I am Rabbi Andy Bachman and I serve Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York but today I speak on behalf of countless members of faith communities across this city and nation who are demanding serious and meaningful gun laws in our country.

Today, during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, where our people celebrates its freedom from slavery and the fragility and blessing of life, we are reminded of the need to stay true to our word to build a safe and just world.  During this sacred season, we Jews read from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, where we learn the essential teaching that טוב שם משמן טוב--a good name is better than fine oil.  We stand here, outside Cerberus Capital Management, in this season, to ask you, Stephen Feinberg, to reclaim your 'good name,' stay true to your word, and divest Cerberus Capital Management from its ownership in the Freedom Group, which is responsible for nearly $900 million in gun sales in this country.

Ecclesiastes also teaches us that "a season is set for everything, there is a time for everything under heaven."  There is a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to slay and a time to heal; a time to weep and a time to laugh; to seek and lose; for war and peace.  But what of those whose time came too soon?  Who fell in the split second, at the bullets' blast, between light and darkness, between life and death?

How do we honor those beloved fallen?  How do we keep their good names alive with the love and respect they deserve?

Ecclesiastes asks, after this litany of everything in its time, everything in its season:  "What value, then, can the man of affairs get from what he earns?"

And so we ask you, Stephen Feinberg, we ask you today, what value do you really get from hundreds of millions in profits earned by the blood of innocents?  What value do you get from the profits of weapons made to kill quickly, efficiently, and without feeling?  What value do you get from assault weapons, dead children, grieving mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers?

We stand here today to ask you to redeem your good name, Stephen Feinberg.  טוב שם משמן טוב--a good name is better than fine oil.  Is better than profits; is better than money; is better than gain over loss of life.

The prophet Micah has great advice for us.  Preaching in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago, Micah told us that God will judge those who walk along the paths of Divine Instruction.  And what is that Instruction according to Micah?  "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

In a peaceful world with proper Instruction, Micah imagined "everyone under his grapevine, everyone under her fig tree."  For us, this means a classroom for every child; a job for every mother and father; a home, a meal, a bed for all in need.

טוב שם משמן טוב--Redeem your good name, Stephen Feinberg.  Invest your profits in people's lives, not guns that kill.  Invest in young hearts and minds, not bullets and bombs.  Not in the violent and darkened past of mankind's evil ways but in the bright light and hopeful horizon of peaceful present day.

Redeem your good name, Stephen Feinberg.  Redeem your good name.


14 September 2013

A Day and a Year

Yom Kippur Morning Drashah
A Day (and a Year) of Dying
Rabbi Andy Bachman
September 14, 2013
10 Tishri 5774

Ha Yom Harat Olam, Today is the birthday of the world, we say on Rosh Hashanah and now, on Yom Kippur, we prepare for our death.  Dressed in pure but funereal white, abstaining from food and sex, standing before an open Aron, an Ark, which is the same name for the casket which will carry our bodies to the grave, we are stripped down to our essence, before the Book of Life, willing to be judged.  To anchor the day even more deeply, we say Yizkor on Yom Kippur, recalling the souls of our loved ones, those who made us, brought us into being, in all their valor and love and complexity and imperfection.  They leave us, to finish their work, to heal the wounds they may have even inflicted on us, and to make peace so that they, and we too, can rest in peace.  Yom Ayom v’Norah.  A day that is awesome and full of dread.  So powerful in its metaphoric constructs, it’s no wonder we can only tolerate it once a year.

Unless of course one is in a year of mourning.  When that’s the case--an inescapable reality that faces each of us, unavoidably, at various intervals of life--we experience not a day of dying but a year of dying.  A year of shock and anguish; a year of irrational bursts of anger, hysteria, laughter, and depression.  A year of confusion, numbness, of never fully being able to get going.  A year of walking along the edge of commitments--to work, to family, to friends, to children, to obligation.  The very disorientation of death and mourning and what it does to us, the potential devastations it wreaks on our lives, its havoc-making, is both the most mundane and most profoundly transformative experience we humans know, especially since, after all, few of us remember our birth (but I suppose there is always an exception).

They say the Throne of God is surrounded by the souls of the dead, who plead on our behalf on this day, to make it into the Book of Life for another year.  Like many of you, I carry around a lot souls with me on Yom Kippur.  I carry my grandparents, friends who died from cancer and suicide and car accidents and terrorist attacks, teachers who animated my mind and soul and whose voices still guide my steps, and of course, my parents of blessed memory, who died thirty years apart, unreconciled to one another, incomplete.  I used to experience this day like that famous scene from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” souls neatly seated, observant of me though impenetrably distant, silent and virtually unknown to me.  At other times I experienced the dead as the Sages once imagined, unfinished souls tethered to earth, yearning for us, in life, to honor them with Torah and Prayer and Good Deeds in their name, thereby liberating them, setting them free into Eternal Life.  For more than twenty years this was the only way I could reconcile myself to the wreck my dad made of his life--a promising career and beautiful family dashed up against an unwillingness to face his demons, his anger, his depression; his failure to channel his gifts for the good.  Like a rodeo cowboy, I spent years capturing his demons, wrestling them to the ground, taming and domesticating them.  

(Some years, when I get distracted at services on Rosh Hashanah, I read texts in reverse--like maybe Isaac took his father Abraham and put him on the wood, lit the fire, and said, “Dad, you’re my sacrifice.  I’m giving you back to God.  You messed up.  You gotta start over.”  They say the Yemenites can read Torah upside down in the Beit Midrash.  I don’t know.  Seems to work sometimes.)

But after spending much of 2012 helping my mother die and then spending much of 2013 mourning that death from three different forms of cancer, I learned a few more things that I thought might be instructive to share with our community.  In all candor, I’ll say that on one hand I hesitate to do this.  After all, Yom Kippur is about all of us, our individual lives and our collective fate; I’m but one soul in this sea of souls on this holiest day of the year.  God forbid--seriously--that this should be about me.

On the other hand, in our Musaf service for Yom Kippur, when we recall the ancient ritual in Jerusalem, of the High Priest offering sacrifices on behalf of himself, his household, and the whole House of Israel, we are appropriately reminded of the great, shared, leveling experience of the mystery of death.  Death the Great Equalizer.   According to both Torah and the Talmud (and recorded in our Mahzor) the Priest’s sacrificial work on this day is so dangerous it could kill him.  His is a public drama, a ritualized staging of the fearsomeness of death caused by proximity to God as he pleads for himself, his household and his people, the Jewish people, to be saved for another year of life.

And I’ll be candid:  I walked that line in the last year.  There were times when those moments of terror that I imagine the High Priest to have felt, coming so close to death and having to face it, understand it, process it, and execute his duty to serve others along the way were nearly too much to handle.  But, if death is the great equalizer, so too, is its ineluctable characterological conclusion:  humility.  

Since the High Priest’s confession was public, I guess I’ll justify the personal, humbly requesting your forbearance, through that lens.   The foggy filter of recollection burned clear by the bright light of scrutiny;  anecdotal impressions that served as signposts, post-traumatic totems of truth that allowed me to feel my way through the year; searing truths delivered at moments of despair; ice-cold wake-up calls in the middle of the dark night of mourning; and then, as Rabbi Akiva so brilliantly taught us at the end of the Mishnah Yoma about the ultimate lesson for all the Jewish people with regard to the Temple Ritual on Yom Kippur: the experience of death is in fact like the cleansing waters of the mikveh, a chance to start over, a chance to be re-born, a signal fire of hope, from soul to soul, from hill to hill, from town to town.  Proximity to death purifies, Akiva taught, reduces us to our essence, which, in turn, allows us to begin again toward the future with hope.  

This is true for each of us--which is why this day’s lessons are so powerful.

Diagnosis and Facing Reality:  I remember when Mom’s breast cancer moved to her lungs.  I remember when the doctors, standing over her and us in a shady beige hospital room in Milwaukee said the word “inoperable.”  I remember looking at my sisters’ and brother’s faces and I remember imagining that at that moment a clock began, like at the start of a road race.  Digital tenths of seconds melding into minutes, hours and days of running away from and running toward a finish line no one wanted to cross.  I remember going for a walk down the hospital hallway and running into a childhood friend I hadn’t seen in thirty years, taking care of her mother, dying of cancer.  The initiation ceremony was brief and wordless.  But the vows last forever:  “They raised us up and we lay them down. That’s the order of things.”  Where did those words even come from?  How do we know how to do that?  Like a parent protects its young, the children rise up to lead their parents to the other side.  One of evolution’s tricks, I guess.

Bargaining for Time.  I was heroic for a long time during the year of Mom dying.  On planes every few weeks--Air Tran Airways into Milwaukee (crappy seats, a dying airport--though the ping-pong table is cool) or Jet Blue into Chicago, a rented car, and contemplative drives across the Illinois/Wisconsin border.  The silent soundtrack and landscape of the account-taking of life’s ultimate horizon.  When I’d bury people in Brooklyn, visit homes for Shiva, I’d see myself as super-human, beyond death, almost manic in my confidence.  Rabbis are faithful; brave; inexhaustible.  I was depleting myself, of course, without fully realizing it.  I ran non-stop.  The paths in Prospect Park seemed to move like airport escalators.  I wasn’t *really* aware until one day I showed up at therapy--straight from a visit with Mom to LaGuardia to the Upper West Side--in a Milwaukee Brewers hat; a sweatshirt from my favorite Milwaukee restaurant; with my favorite Milwaukee roasted coffee in a Green Bay Packer mug.  “You’re looking rather patriotic today,” my shrink said.  

So the bargaining came to a screeching halt.  The rally cap, that Shaman of modern sports, that nutty idol,wound up on the trash heap of superstition.  I was powerless to stop death.  I’d have to face my own limits.  And death’s ultimate lessons.

That’s When We Started Making Plans.  Mom wanted to be cremated.  I didn’t.  So we argued sometimes.  “I hate my body,” she’d say, describing cancer’s ruthless campaign.  Getting her to drink Ensure had been an issue.  Reminding her to take her medical marijuana and then preparing her poached eggs was a highlight.  So was sitting next to her in April and May, watching Spring descend on Lake Michigan, turning on a ballgame and parsing out a new pitching staff; and noticing lilacs in bloom.  She was a late convert to Depends, which was frustrating.  “I remember my father’s own funeral,” she began that day.  It was 1939.  She was six when he was killed by a mentally ill man with a gun.  An aunt lifted her up to his casket to kiss him goodbye.  “I stopped believing in God that day,” she said.  “But you taught me to pray,” I said.  “Why should I ruin a good thing for you,” she said.  We didn’t laugh so much those last couple months but there were alot of smiles, a bottomless well of sarcasm, searing truths to share.  “Burn my body,” she said.  I refused.  My sisters and brothers granted me the chance to persuade her to be buried and I mounted a two month attack.  I made the case for burial by saying that following the traditions of her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents was one of the most valuable lessons she gave me and that she had no right to deny me the expression of the value she had taught me.  “No take backs to life lessons,” I said that first month.  The second month I laid it on thick.  “I still visit grandma’s grave,” I told her.  “And your father whom I never met.  And dad’s parents who you loved even though you kicked him out of our house.  And dad.  And I’m going to visit you.  And one day your grandkids will have kids and they’ll visit your grave and will learn all about you.  Your laugh, your cooking, your knitting, your loyalty, your goodness.  And there it will be.  In our family plots.  In Milwaukee. This is our homeland.  The last piece of ground you’ll ever occupy and it will be yours and holy forever.  Sorry--this is all bigger than you.”  We were both crying.  “You win,” she said.  I officially had no regrets.  That night the Brewers even won.

Faltering Faith and Final Indignities.  One day, about a month before Mom died, when we were preparing to move her into hospice care at the Jewish Home, the last vestiges of her chemotherapy, which had ravaged her insides like acid, caused her to make a devastating indignity of herself in her bed.  She was ashamed, broken and unable to speak.  My brother and I picked up her, undressed her, bathed her, dressed her, and put her back into bed.  And it happened again.  So again we picked her up, undressed her, bathed her, dressed her, and put her back into bed.  

That’s when my Atheism crept in.  I began to allow myself to rebel.  My brother was silent and devoted and I was furious at God for allowing such a kind and decent person to suffer.  Not just now at the end of her life but at the beginning.  And in the middle.  The famous Talmudic legend of the Messiah cleaning and bandaging the wounds of the sick at the gates of the city fell flat.  I took off my tefilin.  I stopped praying.  I felt like a fraud and a fake leading services on Shabbat.  I wondered if families knew?  If there was a Golem like ALEF on my forehead, seen by all.  “Mi chamocha be’elim?”  Who is like you among the gods? sang Bnai Yisrael after their escape from Egypt.  But the Sages, having witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, said, “Mi chamocha be’ilmim?”  Who is like you among the deaf?  You, God, ignore suffering.  You’re powerless to stop it.  And I joined that accusation.  

It was there I remained.  If not atheist, certainly agnostic.  Too wounded to speak to God.  The bindedness of obligation a shadow, at best.  The funeral I ran on fumes.  The high of seeing family and old friends, of the absorption into sympathy.  I said Kaddish at my grandparents shul in Milwaukee and came back to Brooklyn to the embrace of this generous and remarkable community.  The outpouring of support was fundamentally beautiful and restorative.  But my faith was shattered.

At Shiva one day, my favorite moyel, Rabbi David Kedmi, pierced a moment of silence by saying, “כשאבא ואמא מתים יש לנו רק את משה רבינו--When our parents die, we are only left with Moses our Teacher.  And there I found comfort and tears.  In my parents my teachers, and my teachers my teachers.  Mosse.  Saposnik.  Hertzberg.  Dreyfus.  And all others, whose words in books were oxygen, piped to me beneath the surface of my descent into the rocky moonscape of faithlessness.  I read Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir and poetry of her mother’s death; Roland Barthe’s “Mourning Diary,” and Abba Kovner’s poems about his last days in “Sloane Kettering.”  Christopher Hitchens, atheist to the end, lifted me, like a baby eagle on the wings of an inveterate skeptic mother.  He who also died from a brutal cancer carried me for days from the pages of his little black book entitled, appropriately, “Mortality.”

But despite feeling liberated from the notion of an all-powerful, redeeming God, I was miserable and didn’t know how to express it.  “God said “ayeka” -- “where are you?” to Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden of Eden,” my friend Mish Zion told me one day.  “Rebbe Nachman taught that sometimes we say to God, “Where are you?”  Like instead of “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory,” sometimes we have to pray, “Where is God’s glory in all the earth?”

This invitation into the perception of Divine Absence was the greatest gift I had been given in the year of mourning.  It shattered my shatteredness.  Pulverized my righteous anger and allowed me talk to God again.  Where are you?  I prayed.  Your miracles?  Your healing power?  Your redeeming reputation?  Through the Hurricane and our community’s inspiring response; our activism against gun violence; our creation of a shelter for homeless men; our community’s trips to Israel, to the human made miracle of the first Jewish state in 2000 years; through all of this I gave my rage, my anger, my sadness, my silence, His silence, a voice.  

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Pisetzner Rebbe, who taught in the Warsaw Ghetto until the Nazis killed him, said, “Besides your many plans of action that you should use until  you have healed your soul, you can also take advantage of our Sages advice based on the verse in Proverbs 12.25, ‘When a person has a heavy heart, let him speak it out to others.’ (Yoma 75a).  The Sages make no mention of what the *listener* should do to ease the distress of the other.  That’s because just talking about it and getting it out in the open are so healing and prevent the need for self-deception to numb the buried pain.  The Baal Shem Tov explained the verse, ‘My soul was brought out when it spoke,’ (Song of Songs 5:6) in this context.  You can experience this with your own anger or upset; you may feel that the emotional pain has subsided, but it’s only from your conscious world.  Inside, the poisonous emotions still hide.  If more events continue to evoke those same emotions and you continue to suppress them out of sight, eventually your emotional bank will be bursting and will explode when even slightly provoked...This would not happen if they had a trusted friend before whom they could pour out their hearts.  They would immediately feel a load off their hearts and the pain lifted from their souls.”

This is the very solution, the very foundation of what it means to be in community, of the idea behind the oldest Jewish traditions of the Hevra Kadisha, the society of those who come together to break bread, to learn, to live, to talk, and yes, even to die.  Our blessing for bread was developed here and our birkat mazon for after we eat, giving thanks.  Our Kiddush.  Our Passover Seders.  And our ritual for the burial of the dead.  The Hevra Kadisha.  The Holy Society.  Each circumscribed by words, human words, forming questions and responses, cries of anguish in remembrance of evil and gratitude for the blessings of life, for friendship, for food, for drink, for community, for each other’s voices.  

I chose to say Kaddish at the end of the year of mourning in Jerusalem.  I was supposed to fly on Mom’s yahrzeit with the Bronfman Youth Fellows, who I would be teaching in Israel for the summer.  But the idea of saying Kaddish on a plane seemed wrong.  So I flew early, landed, joined the Women of the Wall on the first day, went for a run, took a nap, lit a yahrzeit candle, said Kaddish alone in the kitchen, and went for a burger and a beer.  It all seemed right.  Not in a minyan; not in prayer; but as a protesting partisan, in dialogue with my God, unsure of where this conversation would ultimately end up.  But kind of figuring I was already on the way back.

The Jerusalem running path became my house of prayer all summer long.  Five, six days a week, along the old Turkish rail line that the British manned before being taken over by the Israelis, I ran through layers of history.  The same nineteenth century that brought rail lines and European goods to Palestine brought Germans and Russians to Milwaukee, from where rail lines distributed industrial goods and agricultural throughout the United States.  I ran through pitched battles between Jews and Arabs, Nazis and Jews, Jews and Christians, Northerners and Southerners--immersed in history, its questions, great and small.  It’s effect on us all.  On how Jews became American and Israeli; on we suffered in the first half of the twentieth century our greatest calamity only to realize our greatest triumphs of a state of our own and the freest diaspora existence we have ever known.

And I kept returning to my conundrum.  That throughout the calamities and triumphs of our history, some of us were always talking to God and others were rejecting; some of us were making meaning of faith and others were building reality with the work of their own hands.  But all along we were talking.  About tragedy and triumph; about morality and ethics; about choices we make with, and even sometimes against our will.  

I ran and I talked.  I talked when I ran.  And on a few warm nights, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, in Tzfat, and even at a small Lotto stand in Hod Hasharon, I spoke to a friend about life and death; and fathers and mothers; and wives and children; and the past, the present and the future.  I downloaded apps to talk to Rachel for free; to sneak conversations in with the girls at camp;  and one day I realized that there was a “pain lifted from my soul.”  Talking brought me back to faith, to life.  קחו עמכם דברים--take with you words, said the prophet Hosea on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return.  The Return to life.  To dialogue.  To community.  Even to faith, bruised and battered as it is.  I found comfort.  המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך אבלי ציון וירושלים--Jerusalem is a place where I found comfort.  God is called The Place.  I found comfort in The Place.  Talking.

So I guess you can say we’re back on speaking terms.

I leave you with an image that marks an end and a beginning and what I hope will be the appropriate way of saying that on this day of days, on this day that is awesome and full of dread, that when we remember that all of us walk through the valley of the shadow of death, that all of us willingly and unwillingly must give ourselves over to the reality of our existence, its beginnings and middles and ends; and that in the endless choices we face navigating the lines between life and death; we are bound to talk and to listen, to talk and to question, to pray our pain and our doubt; and pray our triumphs and exaltations.  

My story is unique, I suppose that’s true, as are all our stories.  Maybe you found similar experiences when you faced death; maybe mine have been completely different from yours.  Either way, it’s my wish today that we make room to talk about it with one another, to listen to one another, to lead each other through the darkness, through the valley of the shadows of our pain and remorse into the clearer light of day when mourning lifts and we can come home again, having experienced the absence of a loved one and sometimes even God; but become again, paradoxically, more whole.

On one of my first days back in Brooklyn I went for a run in Prospect Park.  Verdant paths under shading trees, damp, late summer heat sweltering with each step.  In the still corner by the lower lake I saw a Great Blue Heron, tucked in the reeds, still.  I came to a dead halt and addressed him.  “Good day, fine sir.  I salute you.”  And in that flawless, effortless, powerful way of the larger of the species, he took flight.  His wings flapping like a pouring out of the heart.   His direction focused, his wings speaking, lifting pain from the hearts of the souls that beheld his beauty.   He took off over the water, the cleansing waters of hope.

May each of us on this day face our lives and their terrifying questions with an openness and honesty, reflecting on the end as a chance to begin again.  In the new year may that reflection bring us to a place, to The Place, of more clear-eyed reckoning, taking our words, talking the words, and the words of those who shaped us, into our daily lives--lives lived with blessing and  with hope.

Gmar Hatima Tova.  May you finish this year inscribed in the Book of Life for another year of blessing, hope and peace.

05 September 2013

How You Get There: Remarks for RH Day One

What follows are my remarks for Rosh Hashanah morning. This is a part of a larger set of ideas I hope to write about in the year ahead and I welcome your thoughts and comments here on this blog or over on Facebook. Shanah Tovah!

Rosh Hashanah Remarks
Rabbi Andy Bachman
September 4, 2013
1 Tishri 5774

In Vienna in the 1870s, in one five block radius of one another, lived Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl and Gustav Mahler.  Unknown to each other and certainly not yet the men of stature and achievement they would become, they were rather as yet unrealized manifestations of Vienna’s great turn-of-the-century atmosphere.  Little did they or their families realize that Freud would unleash the mind and create psycho-analysis; that Mahler would be among a number of artists critical to the invention of modern classical music; and certainly no one would have known that Theodor Herzl, who dreamed of a bourgeois career as a journalist and playwright, would twenty years later witness the Dreyfus Trial in Paris and change the course of Jewish history by setting into motion the First Zionist Congress and the eventual establishment of the first Jewish state in 2000 years.

At the same time, another Central European Bohemian, Isaac Mayer Wise, was establishing a new American Judaism.  Fueled and enamored by the enlightened democracy of a United States less than a hundred years old, Wise believed that an American Jewry rooted in the center of the country--Cincinnati--would emanate outward a new frontier in Jewish history.  His prayerbook, Minhag America, and periodical publications like the American Israelite, would position his vision of an American Jewry living according to the full realization of its religious and spiritual essence in this new Promised Land.  Wise’s founding of Hebrew Union College, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis would alter the landscape of American religious life down to our present day and lead the way for generations of Jews to Americanize and assimilate into Jewish practice decidedly non-orthodox practice that is now the dominant culture of Jewish religious life.

To grasp the enormity of achievement of each of these Jews, consider that Freud is most likely responsible for more Jews (and others) becoming therapists than is the Lubavitcher Rebbe responsible for making rabbis; and while we’re not certain about the algorithm for Mahler’s First Symphony and membership subscriptions for the New York Philharmonic, it should never cease to amaze us that in 1909, at the founding of Tel Aviv, fewer than 10,000 people spoke the modern Hebrew language; today, the greater Tel Aviv area is more than 3 million people, the modern State of Israel is 8 million people (including 6.5 million Jews, a number equal to the number of Jews in the United States.)  And the Reform movement, which this synagogue has been a part of since 1909, comprises 900 synagogues and more than 1.5 million Jews.

This latter point makes clear to us something that was inconceivable, totally unimaginable, a bit more than a century ago--that while the values and principles and narratives and rituals of Judaism have remained fundamentally stable, the Jewish people and how they answer to the call of history and the fulfillment of those values has always evolved and been adaptive enough in order to sustain and renew itself for another generation.  And further, that the organizational forms we put into place at one time are not necessarily the forms that sustain us into the future.  Early Jewish cultures had houses of learning, houses of prayer, meeting spaces for communal decisions, and of course, burial societies and cemeteries.  Most other institutions have adapted, risen and fallen throughout the centuries.  Especially in this Season of Return, we do well to remember that the eternal values of Judaism, Torah, Prayer and Deeds of Lovingkindness, have always sustained us no matter where and in what conditions we have lived, as we have held close to us, in the articulation of those values, the identity DNA of Land, Language, Sacred Texts, Faith and History.

Whereas a century ago--decades before the rise of Nazism and Fascism would destroy the mass of European Jewry--the assumption that there were two Jewish communities, American and European (leaving aside, for now, the masses of Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews, who, for a variety of reasons, did not enter the mainstream Ashkenazi Jewish narrative until well into the 20th century, despite enormous contributions through the ages), and that the organizing principle for Jewry was how to respond to emancipation into civil equality.  In Europe there were traditional Torah based cultures; Yiddish culture; Socialism; Bundism; Communism; Capitalism; or conversion to partial and full assimilation.  In America, the central organizing principle was denominationalism--the idea that one identified with a philosophical and theological system of belief and practice to his or her liking, such as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and eventually Reconstructionist Judaisms.  

The brief utopias of possibility unleashed by the fin-de-siecle mindsets of some Jewish leaders would be shattered, of course, by the traumas and cataclysms of the new twentieth century.  A mass migration of European Jewry, fleeing anti-Semitism and seeking economic freedom, would bring more than 3 million Jews to the United States between 1880 and 1920.  And by the late 1930s it was clear that the mass of those Jews who stayed in Europe would face great peril--with 6 million Jews eventually facing annihilation and self-sacrifice--”a whole offering”--a Holocaust.
As leaders in Washington continue to debate immigration policy and reform, we’d do well to remember the countless stories of migration, dislocation and most important, and particularly meaningful during these Days of Awe--the sacrifices--that were made by prior generations so that American Jewry could be, in the main, as truly fortunate as it is.

The sacrifice of past generations.  It’s a phrase, an idea, that is particularly and deeply resonant in these Days of Awe, especially with the story of the Akedah, Abraham’s binding and sacrifice of his son Isaac, a reading central to generations of Jews, on these days, for centuries.

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is without a doubt one of the most well-known of all the Biblical stories.  The example of all examples of faith for generations of Jews.  A text as challenging as it is troubling.  Evocative of the greatest complexities of man’s relationship to God and religion as any story in any sacred text and a call to philosophers and theologians to crack its code and reveal its meaning for each new generation of readers.  

In the main, the Jewish tradition, as we have said, has understood the story as nothing less than purely heroic--a virtuous role ascribed to both Abraham and Isaac, who, in the eyes of the Sages, seemed to both understand the depths of God’s call to them.  From God’s call to Abraham in Lech Lecha--to go forth from the familiar homeland of Ur to “a land that I will show you,” to be great, to be a blessing, and on through the early iterations of God’s covenantal relationship with the Jewish people, as God says of Abraham even before the birth of Isaac, that the purpose of the relationship is a relationship between God and the Jewish people, rooted, cultivated, and meant to bear the fruit of a just, righteous and peaceful world.  Just moments after Abraham’s circumcision at age 99, God comes to him to warn him of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh and to enlist Abraham’s sense of justice in determining what innocent lives ought to be spared.  God has chosen well, as the text teaches that God says aloud of Abraham, “for I have known him, to the end that he will command his children, and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Eternal, to do righteousness and justice.”

That is to say that the central, operating principle of Jewish civilization--from its foundation to today--is that the Jewish people are meant to understand their history, their tradition, their sacred texts, their rituals, their languages and their relationship with their God as nothing less than the call to bring justice and righteousness to the world.  All we do, all we say, all we sing, all eat, all we pray--is but a vast, sacrificial act to level the scales of justice in our world.

It is monumental; it is humbling; it is true.

Maimonides could not be more clear on the matter.  Abraham’s heroic gesture of total sacrifice is for all to see, “to perpetuate the opinion and draw people to it.”  It is, he wrote, “the most extraordinary thing that could happen in the world.”

Isaac Arama echoed this idea, claiming that the story’s depth was so great, its meaning so jarring and provocative, precisely because “every generation was meant to understand it.”

Rav Kook, the chief rabbi in British Mandate Palestine, wrote that the purpose of the story was to teach each generation of Jews the vital importance of passion and self-surrender; that there is something greater than us; that we are not our mere 80 years on this planet but part of a greater family, a nation of families, with a unique voice and a unique role to play in history.

In the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon, an early rabbinic text, the Sages argue that when Abraham lay his son on the altar, Isaac opened his eyes and saw not only the sufferings of future generations of Jews but saw the redemption of the Jewish people as well.  He saw that there was a purpose to sacrifice and suffering, though with himself bound on the altar, he clearly knew that his own role in was transitional--that he was but one step on a long road toward that realization of justice and righteousness for the whole world.  That despite the perils, the challenges, of past generations of Jews, the place of sacrifice, as the Torah demonstrates, is called “hashem Yireh,” the Eternal will see.  Every generation of Jews--especially those living in danger, in oppression, or even lining up for gas-masks as our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel are at this very moment in time--every generation of Jews, in living as Jews, are an eternal testimony to the idea that Source of Life will see--and be seen--in the future.  Seen in order to bring justice and righteousness to the world.

And of all the world’s religion’s visions for the promise of redemption, for the messianic era, for life in the world to come--from banquets to peace to walking in the garden with Pick Your Messiah to virgins in heaven and, to quote the great sage Al McGuire, “seashells and balloons,” what is more extraordinary than an eternal, covenantal promise of justice and righteousness for all?

Without the sacrifice of another generation, who would be here?  Without sacrifice of another generation, which one of us would really stake a claim to our lives?  

Using these ideas of sacrifice as the fulcrum to our argument, I want to bring the focus back to the beginning of the American 20th century and the nascent ideas that have, for the past century, animated Jewish life.  They are fundamentally the denominations and the spectral choices for theological engagement; the ongoing communal work of handling millions of Jewish immigrants from Europe over a twenty year period and establishing synagogues, cemeteries, schools, communal funds and institutions that care for the poor and elderly; and, on the perimeters of American Jewish life, there is Zionism--the least favored of all those choices.  The pipe dream.  The crazy experiment.  Finally, there is, unleashed already in Europe and gaining a foothold in the United States, the foundational ideas of a radical Jewish secularism--Freud uncovering the unconscious and Emma Goldman in 1907 sponsoring for “Freethinkers and Radicals” a “Yom Kipur Picnic.”  One can see, even in this kind of Jewish assimilationism, an undying commitment to Abraham’s sense of “justice and righteousness” made manifest in the labor movement, in the public school system, in immigrants rights--ideas and struggles still very much at the forefront of our own current political discourse in the United States, in Israel, and around the world.

The turn-of-the-century radicals sacrificed their particular religious Jewishness on the altar of universal rights of all people.  Similarly, on the altar of Americanization, past generations bequeathed a future of tolerance and success by changing their names, giving up observance of the Sabbath, kashrut, exclusively endogamous relationships.  We assimilated.  Our synagogues moved to the suburbs and became just like the church on the corner--parking lots, social halls, even Bingo nights.  Whereas the Torah scholar was once the mythic realization of Jewish intellectual and spiritual aspiration, by mid-century the American Jew had new priorities, placing the highest value on a secular education and a well-paying profession.  With virtually no barriers to Jewish advancement anywhere in the U.S., those immigrant Jews’ earlier sacrifices have born the fruits of sweet success.  

Without a doubt there are those who decry these developments.  Who take the view that every generation of Jews is the last generation of Jews.  That we are “Israel the ever-dying people.”  But imagine that ours is the generation that Isaac saw when he was laid upon the altar by his father Abraham.  That we are the future where God and the Jewish people are still seen.  A nation of 6.5 million Jews in Israel; an army of psychoanalysts unleashed on a nation of neurotics; and the most diverse, successful and free generation of diaspora Jews in our three thousand year history.

At home in an American culture where to be American is to be yourself; an increasingly diverse expression of language and nationality claiming this place as home; younger generations claiming multiple identities, bi-and tri-racial identities and individuated lives rooted in instantaneous communication and self-expression;  real-time gender realignments; visions of a post-ethnic Judaism (Russ and Daughters notwithstanding); and finally, not monolithic institutions or even synagogues built exclusively on denominational lines but rather communities of choice and election, of pluralistic voice and expression.

As many of you know, our community has spent the past year writing a new Torah scroll to celebrate our 150th anniversary in Brooklyn.  Apropos of what was unimaginable 150 years ago, this is the first Sefer Torah written by a woman scribe in New York City history, (and we will finish it and dedicate it on September 22.)

And if we could open up the scroll to the story of the Akedah, to Abraham making great sacrifices, as past generations of members of this community made great sacrifices to keep this community alive (just as generations of Jews have done for their communities around the world for generations) imagine if we’d see, among Isaac’s visions of the future, our own generation, having survived because of others’ willingness to make sacrifices, obligating us in turn.  Imagine Isaac’s vision as our own vision for the time in which we live as a Jewish community in Brooklyn.

We’d see in Isaac’s eyes a woman writing a Torah scroll; we’d see a multi-generational community remaining deeply engaged; we’d see a synagogue that has doubled in size--from 500 to 1000 families; we’d see a radical re-invention of Jewish youth education through Yachad and Keshet; we’d see a diversity of young Jews in Brooklyn Jews and Altshul staking their own claims to Jewish life, text and ritual; we’d see one of North America’s most successful engagement model for Israelis in Brooklyn; Shabbat experiences on Friday nights that mirror civic sing-a-longs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; CBE family trips and students trips to Israel each year that establish and expand the unique and extraordinary connections between the two largest Jewish projects in the world; one of the city’s best daycare programs in our ECC; after-school and camping programs that keep our diverse neighborhood engaged allowing working parents to afford child-care; social action projects from tutoring students at John Jay to visiting prisoners in the New York State system to forming a gun violence protection advocacy group after Sandy Hook, housing the homeless in May and June, and of course, to feeding more than 500 New Yorkers each day since Hurricane Sandy struck last fall.  

Looking into Isaac’s eyes would we not see Maimonides’ understanding of the moment Abraham placed him on the altar:  “the most extraordinary thing that could happen in the world.”  

Because no one could have anticipated would what come from late 19th century Vienna with Freud, Herzl and Mahler unknowingly circling around each other within a five block radius (Vienna was the goal, the end to be achieved) or what Isaac Mayer Wise envisioned for an American Judaism organized along denominational lines not unlike the American Christian Protestant traditions, we ought to be both humbled by the ideas and models we inherit while at the same time celebrating the unpredictability of it all, of the ways in which the only real models that remain unchanged are the narratives, the languages, the customs, the land.  Or, as Shimon HaTsadiq so succinctly taught us two thousand years ago, על שלושה דברים--that the world stands on three things--on Torah, on Prayer and on Deeds of Lovingkindness.  What more really distinguishes one Jewish community from other visions for life in our complex world?

It’s true, for example, that just as Vienna was end in its time, so, too, were the movements of American Judaism originally conceived of and intended to be the ends in themselves; and, that the distinguishing characteristics of each, the theological and ideological battle lines delineating the differences between one synagogue and another, between one Jewish community and another, were the whole point of the matter.

This community, founded in 1862 as a German orthodox synagogue, evolved over time and by the time it moved from downtown Brooklyn to Park Slope in 1909, was affiliated with the Reform movement.  The movement in general considered itself a manifestation of liberal American exceptionalism wedded with European Enlightenment values that continue to resonate today:  a critical and historical reading of sacred texts; a commitment to the equal roles of men and women and gays and lesbians in all matters of ritual life and leadership; openness to inter-married families; the centrality of social justice and universal human values; the centrality of Israel and the Hebrew language, along with the Torah, as the three eternal pillars of the Jewish people.

So in our commitment to these values, of course we remain proudly connected to the principles of Reform Judaism.  On the other hand, as ideas travel over time and continents and the exigencies of history, these are not exclusively “Reform” values.  The Conservative movement now ordains gays and lesbians as rabbis and cantors.  Orthodox communities are rapidly expanding roles for women and in some quarters, even ordaining women as rabbis.  And Reform Jews are re-embracing kashrut and tefilin.  It’s a beautiful, mixed up jumble of Jewishness.

What has truly emerged after a century and a half of migration, plurality, dislocation, conflagration, and the establishment of the first Jewish state in two thousand years is a multi-vocal, ethnically and spiritually diverse global Jewish people.  

If Isaac could speak into the present/future where we find ourselves, he’d say that the movements of American Judaism were not the ends but the process; they were the means by which we argued about what truly mattered during the experience of establishing our communities, determining what was sacred and which rituals we’d follow on the path of becoming American but not the only thing that mattered.  He’d say that if Torah is at the center, then the manifestation of God’s claim for Abraham could stand a chance of being made real.  He’d say, “Hope that you can merit what reward of words my father received in making sacrifices of faith so that another generation could live:  “for I have known him, to the end that he will command his children, and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Eternal, to do righteousness and justice.”

Wherever you are going on the Jewish journey, traveling the path of the particular Jewish vision of righteousness and justice is really what it’s all about.  

We return to Vienna and the United States in the few decades between the 1870s and 1920s, to one snapshot of a time in Jewish history where certain Jewish leaders were establishing what they thought were the structures of Jewish life that would answer to our time, structure the narrative of our existence, and sustain us for another generation.  And while honoring the great sacrifices made by those who stood before us, how can we not also marvel at all that we have not foreseen?  A robust, dynamic Jewish state of nearly 7 million Jews and an equally robust, diverse, and increasingly complex American Jewry, where, here at CBE (to use a quintessential example) new forms of post-denominational, pluralistic Jewish life are taking root.

Denominationalism has bequeathed to us critical thinking about texts and equality of place with regard to Torah and leadership, to be sure.  But we are as much a synagogue of those raised in Reform Judaism as those raised in Conservative Judaism as those raised in Orthodox Judaism as those raised in other faiths or no faiths.  

We are a Jewish community.  Coming together in a New Year.  Reading and praying and engaging and working through the covenantal ideas established nearly 4000 years ago when Abraham encountered his God in the desert and was challenged to be a great nation of blessing and inspire the other families of the earth to embrace the idea of blessing as well.

Through prayer and study; through children and the elderly; through meeting high school students for a tutoring session in math or rallying to end gun violence in our nation; through travel to Israel and engaging the endless questions and challenges that face our family there; to providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, for closing the gap between rich and poor.

No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, today is the day on this New Year to humble yourself before the past sacrifices of those who came before you and to see the reality of the future that Isaac saw when he opened his eyes upon the altar:  the vision for the realization of the most extraordinary thing that could happen in the world:  the realization of the values of Jewish civilization as they have both evolved and stood the test of time, in varieties of forms, with a multiplicity, a pluralism of expression.  As one Sage said, “It’s not where you’re going, it’s how you get there.”  Sometimes it’s the voice of Tradition; at other times it’s radical innovation.  

May your Rosh Hashanah be a year of unique journeys and inspiration; may your learning increase; may your connection to your family and the world around you deepen in meaningful ways; and may you be inspired to do your part to bring a great sense of justice and righteousness to our world.

L’Shanah Tovah.  Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

May you be written into the Book of Life for another year of well-being and peace.