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Being a Jew At Christmas Time

[I wrote this article in 1992, fully 28 years ago, but just came across it again, and decided to reproduce it here, just as it was written. I offer it as a not-too-heavy, not-too-long, and really-rather-enjoyable, piece of reading for this season – one of the better things that I have done. I do have a few afterthoughts that I have appended at the end, although, overall, I was amazed at how little things have changed.] 

Thank my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Schneider, for my introduction to Christmas. As public-school teachers go, she was, I gather, something of a religious fanatic. Among other things, she held gospel-study classes in students’ homes every Wednesday after school (this was Canada in the 1950s, when it was genuinely a Christian country). I will never forget the day I sat on my front porch watching some 20 or so of my classmates following Miss Schneider into the home of my neighbor and best friend, just two doors down from me. Joining the class was the thing to do and I couldn’t do it; I was Jewish. To be sure, with what can only be described as conversionary zeal, Miss Schneider tried regularly to remedy my religious status, a project that prompted my parents to remove me from her classroom by February. But in December, I was still a Schneider ward. And that is where I encountered Christmas.

            I was later to find out, however, that when it came to Christmas, all my teachers were more or less Miss-Schneider clones. Every year, as Autumn slipped steadily into winter, even the most humanly sensitive and open-minded teachers became carried away by the spirit of what we now call, euphemistically, “the Holiday Season.” By early November, the classroom had already been turned into a swiftly accelerating vehicle for welcoming Christmas. By late November, we had heard the Christmas story several times over. Red and green decorations floated lazily down from ceilings and doorways. A large decorated tree outfitted the main hall, and a smaller one greeted visitors entering the principal’s office. In art class, you painted Christmas scenes; in English class, you composed Christmas stories; in music, you sang Christmas carols. A huge schoolwide Christmas assembly, followed by a gala Christmas party, marked the end of the first semester, but everybody returned at night when the school’s crack choir presented its annual Christmas concert.

            As welcome as I was in my country, there were certain times when I suspected that as a Jew, I didn’t quite fully belong. Heading up the list of such times was the annual Christmas fever that swept through almost everyone else, but passed me by. None of the Jews in my town kept any Christmas customs in those days. The close-knit Jewish community, tiny enough to know everybody else’s business, would have looked askance at such a thing. A Christmas tree, for instance, would have been viewed as one step short of apostasy. In larger communities though, a small minority of Jews did decorate their own trees, hang stockings and give gifts. It seemed the Canadian, if not the Jewish, thing to do.

            It was, and still is, no picnic explaining to your children that we Jews don’t keep Christmas. They stare at you in disbelief. Everyone keeps Christmas, they plead. It is the topic of every television program, the display in every store window. Here in New York, The Radio City Music Hall features its annual Christmas spectacle and the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays Christmas artifacts. What do you mean, “We don’t celebrate Christmas”? Does that make us the Grinch? Maybe Scrooge?     

            Once, when my children were young, a well-meaning babysitter, looking to be creative, helped each child assemble a tiny Christmas tree, made of colored paper, cellophane, and fallen branches collected from the wintry outdoors. The children beamed at us with glee when we came home. What does a Rabbi’s family do with their children’s ready-made, personally constructed Christmas trees? Certainly not call them Hanukkah bushes and compound the sin of syncretism, doing injustice is both Judaism and Christianity at the same time. Patiently, quietly, and with all the love we could muster, we explained to our children that as much as we adored the work of their hands, the trees had to go. We were Jews; Christmas trees were for Christians; it would be wrong for us to have them – – wrong because it was false to Judaism, and wrong because it made light of Christmas. Hanukkah was important for Jews; Christmas was sacred for Christians. 

            Another year, Nick, our neighbor across the way, came to the door to announce his plans to show up in everybody’s living room on Christmas eve dressed in a Santa Claus suit. Did we want to be included in his list of stops? The kids would love it, he assured us. We thanked him, but reminded him we were Jews. He knew that, but explained how lots of Jews would be on his list. What does a religious commitment of Judaism have to do with keeping or not keeping Christmas? For that matter, what does Christmas have to do with Christianity? For Nick, as for his Jewish takers, Christmas is just a fun time with music, parties, and wishes for world peace. Go argue with that. Scrooge indeed!    

            For Jews like me who take Judaism seriously, however, that is not what Christmas is. It is a feast on the Christian calendar celebrating the incarnation of the son of God. I take seriously the religious significance Christmas has (or should have) for Christians. Since I’m not a Christian, it is self-evident to me that I cannot observe the occasion in my home– not in good conscience, anyway –even though life would be a lot simpler if I could.

            Historians tell us that Christmas was not always the cultural fulcrum that balances Christian life. There was a time when Christians knew that the Paschal mystery of death and resurrection was the center of Christian faith. It was Easter that really mattered, not Christmas. Only in the consumer-conscious nineteenth and twentieth centuries did Christmas fully become the centerpiece of popular piety. Madison Avenue marketed the change and then colluded with the entertainment industry to boost Christmas to its current calendrical prominence.

            My Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which falls about the same time as Christmas, is now being hyped as a sort of Jewish equivalent – – as in “Hanukkah bushes.” It doesn’t matter when Hanukkah falls. Since it is pegged to the Hebrew calendar, it may occur anytime from late November to late December. Regardless of which it is, people wish me a happy holiday around December 25, as if all real holidays ought to happen then.

            I have kindled Hanukkah candles happily and beautifully all my life. Some of my fondest family memories consist of standing with my arms around my children as we sang Hanukkah songs in the flickering candlelight. But the religious part of me regrets the fact that fewer and fewer Jews observe the High Holy Days, Shabbat, and even Passover (which used to weigh in as everyone’s favorite), while more and more identify Judaism as a gift-giving cult centered on Hanukkah. In any event, the Hanukkah hype won’t work. It may sell merchandise, and even inspire Peter Paul and Mary to write “Light One Candle” – – a terrific song by the way – – but it won’t make Hanukkah into a Jewish version of Christmas, and it won’t address the alienation of so many Jews who genuinely like the Christmas they see and feel all around them, the Christmas that they cannot fully share.

            Where I live now, Christmas starts officially at the end of November, with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Cities outside of New York schedule their own parades then, but Macy’s version typifies the genre. It takes no semiotic genius to get the message. The parade route winds down Broadway following its own yellow brick road to the shopping Mecca on Herald Square. Bringing up the rear, but leading the way for the folk who follow the official parade route, is Santa Claus, who will soon reappear daily at malls around the country promising goodies to good little children.

            I am no Scrooge. I like Santa Claus too. I like the Christmas music – – even the bad music – – that surrounds the Santa ritual; I like the crisp winter weather, and the bell ringers, and all the rest of the paraphernalia that make most people look forward to December 25. I like my neighbors’ wreaths and the mistletoe, and above all, the genuinely religious Christmas carols that you can hardly hear anymore because they have been replaced by soppy songs that melt down the Christian message of this holy day as quickly as snow in a heat wave. Great music is great music, after all. I enjoy it.

            It is, in fact, my liking (or not liking) of Christmas that constitutes the key to the role of Christmas in American culture. By contrast, I neither like nor dislike Easter, just as I have no opinion of, say, Ramadan. As a Jew I naturally evaluate my own holidays, but I feel no compulsion to appraise the sacred calendars of others. Christmas is an exception to this rule. American mores expect me, even as a non-Christian, to welcome Christmas as a positive good in my life. Not to appreciate the Christmas spirit is considered a cultural sin. Why is that?

            I have in mind three manifestations of Christmas in popular culture. The first two are modern-day fairy tales depicting the ultimate triumph of good over evil: the Broadway hit, Annie, and what was billed (when it came out) as “the summer movie of all time,” Batman Returns. To say that both have been box-office bonanzas is to be guilty of understatement. They obviously touch something very deep in our collective cultural psyche.

            In both, Christmas appears as a symbol of the myth of American virtue. The Batman theme is simple and direct: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil. Unlike real life, however, from beginning to end, and no matter how bad things appear in the middle, not a soul in the movie theater has any doubt about who the final victor will be. It is only a matter of time until Batman wins and Penguin loses. And at the end, the protagonist lives happily ever after. That is the nature of fairy tales. They portray things as we wish they were, not as they are. They may be absolutely ghoulish in the hideous trials to which the heroes are exposed, but in the end, Cinderella marries the Prince, Little Red Riding Hood escapes the wolf, Hansel and Gretel don’t get baked in the oven, and Batman restores order to Gotham city.

            What makes Batman interesting, for our purposes, is the fact that the hero is portrayed against the backdrop of Christmas. The entire movie is set in the Christmas season. In his last line of the film, Batman links his own success at foiling the Penguin with the underlying theme of Christmas. “Merry Christmas,” he says, “and goodwill toward men – – and women.” Christmas thus functions as a cultural trope for the way we wish things were, or, better yet, the way we like to pretend things already are. In the actual world, bad things really do happen to good people; real life Penguins do prowl our land. The goodwill quotient measured in the absence of ethnic, racial, and religious rivalries is rather low right now. But the myth of Christmas allows us to put aside untidy evidence from newspaper headlines and to believe instead that all is right in Gotham. Christmas stands symbolically for a secular version of redemption: Jesus doesn’t save, Batman does. If evil has been eradicated, it must be Christmas, goes the logic, as in fact it is in Batman Returns.

            The evidence from Annie is even more transparent. Annie is an orphan who is adopted by Daddy Warbucks. Along the way, evil raises its ugly head in the shape of the manager of the orphanage and her brother, who, in effect, kidnap Annie by posing as her parents. But in the end, their scheme fails, and Annie returns to her wealthy benefactor. As in BatmanAnnie too has been written so that it culminates in Christmas. In the very last scene, not only Annie, but all the other orphans too celebrate a lavish party in Daddy Warbucks’s mansion. If Batman is the message of good conquering evil in general, Annie is the application of that message to American values in particular. Daddy Warbucks is a self-made man, a shining example of what hard work and business enterprise will get you. Never mind the fact that he made his money as a war profiteer – – the play passes silently over the significance of his name, “Warbucks.” The point is that Daddy made it on his own. He hobnobs with FDR and the White House crowd, gets J. Edgar Hoover to unleash the FBI in the search for Annie, and lives the life of luxury that is the stuff of the American dream. But the message of Annie is precisely that those dreams can come true, if only we are hard-working and virtuous. Annie, after all, escapes the orphanage.

            Again, we are dealing with pure myth. In real life, almost no one is self-made anymore. When Anniecame out, it is true, Wall street millionaires abounded and law firms were hiring first-year graduates at astronomical salaries. But most of America was getting poorer, not richer. Homelessness on a scale unknown since the Great Depression was about to become the norm for millions. Nonetheless, Annie told us confidently that even the poorest orphan could become a Warbucks heir. American capitalism triumphed once again. 

            In Annie, Christmas functions artistically not simply as the embodiment of moral victory but as a potent symbol for material success. The last scene focuses on munificent gift-giving. There is absolutely nothing spiritual about the day. No one sings Silent Night, let alone Adeste Fideles; the birth of the Savior is the farthest thought from anyone’s mind. Christmas, pure and simple, is nothing but the myth of endless American wealth born of capitalist entrepreneurship. The myth of secular redemption has reached its pinnacle.

            To Batman and Annie, add the third piece of evidence: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote his masterpiece precisely at the time that Christmas was becoming the cultural focus of the secular year. England had prospered from the Industrial Revolution, where, once again, the myth of capitalism was wrapped up in the tinsel of Christmas packaging. In reality, the terrors of the time are readily apparent from almost every page of every book that Dickens wrote. But not here. The capitalist myth merges with Christmas, as secular redemption allows Tiny Tim and his family to be saved from poverty (not from sin) and celebrate (a secular feast, not a sacred one) with Christmas plenty donated by none other than Scrooge himself. In his pre-repentant days, Scrooge is the very antithesis of the benevolent capitalist ideal. He is a rich man like Daddy Warbucks, but he hordes his wealth and despises the poor. Naturally, he despises Christmas too. But in the end, he is converted. Christmas is the symbol of good will in general, gift-giving in particular, and the triumph of the nineteenth-century pure capitalist ethic as a general good for one and all.

            I now understand my own Christmas dilemma. Christmas has been secularized, capitalized, and mythologized. As most people keep it, and certainly as popular culture presents it, it is the myth of the America we all pretend we inhabit: a place where Penguins are foiled, Annies are adopted, and even the poorest among us celebrate the wealth that comes from good old-fashioned hard-working industry. Not to observe Christmas is to blow the whistle on the myth, to expose such naked realities as a trickle-down economy where nothing trickles down, in a country rife with social ills and economic deprivation.

            The problem is that even in its secularized form, Christmas is not religiously neutral. It is still Christian. So as a Jew, I am in a bind. I am naturally attracted to Christmas as mythic wish fulfillment, marked by smiling Santas, festive parties, and gifts for everyone. At its secular best, it is at least one day in the year when we remember what we still might be: peaceful people infused with goodwill toward all; and a generous country, where everyone has a dinner to sit down to: heady stuff! But my conscience rebels against adopting what is still, for me, a Christian feast with a Christian message. There may be two Christmases here, the age-old religious celebration and the modern secular one. But they are not easily separated. Religious Christians may well be uneasy about the triumph of the secular variety, but at least they don’t have to worry about toggling back-and-forth between the secular and religious landscapes. They can enjoy the American myth that the secular holiday presents and, simultaneously, observe the religious event for which Christmas was formulated in the first place. That is a luxury I cannot afford.

Fortunately, along with most other Jews I know, I’ve come to terms with our Christmas dilemma. By no means do I yearn to celebrate Christmas. As the public pomp and ceremony becomes somewhat overwhelming, I slip into the role of a visitor to a foreign culture. I appreciate, even enjoy, much of the Christmas ambience; I share my Christian neighbors’ happiness, as they share mine when my holidays roll around. The academic part of me wonders how the religious message of Christmas got so overwhelmed by a secular mythology, and the religious part of me feels a little sorry that it happened that way. There are Jews who keep a Passover Seder, but with no idea that the event has any spiritual significance beyond families getting together. There is nothing wrong with family gatherings, but the life of faith is impoverished if the Passover meal is no longer rooted in the religious verities that have animated it through the centuries. I imagine the same must be true of Christmas for Christians. There is nothing wrong with sleighbells, Bing Crosby, and Christmas pudding, but I should hope Christians would want more than just that, and as Christmas comes more and more secularized, I am not sure they get it.

            In the end, the problem of Christmas is not mine, any more than Christmas itself is. The real Christmas challenge belongs to Christians: how to take Christmas out of the secularized public domain and move it back to the religious sphere once again.

Afterward: Looking back from 2020

1.  I am amazed at how the economic problems of 1992 have only worsened with time. Back then, “millionaires abounded on Wall Street” while “homelessness on a scale unknown since the Great Depression was about to become the norm.” Now, “millionaires” are “billionaires”; homelessness in 1992 was nothing compared to 2020. In 1992, I described “the goodwill quotient measured in the absence of ethnic, racial, and religious rivalries“ as “rather low.” That “goodwill quotient” is a thousand times worse today. I regret, especially, that I failed to specify racism, in particular, as an evil that devastates America. 

2. I fear the original wrongly paints me as an opponent of capitalism. I actually applaud capitalism, as an economic system. The problem lies with the selfish ethic that can accompany it, buttressed by a sort of “Ayn Rand” philosophy that says we all get what we deserve, so that those with privilege need take no responsibility for those without it. 

3.  I did not adequately express my actual ambivalence with the “cultural” Christmas round about me. On the one hand, I deplore the false promise of the secular myth where everything works out and everyone is saved by the likes of Daddy Warbucks, Batman, and a repentant Scrooge. On the other hand, I enjoy very much even the secularized spirit of hope that maybe, just maybe, things can get better. 

4.  Over time, I have come more and more to enjoy being a visitor in homes where Christmas is celebrated, and not just religiously. I remain convinced of the tragic loss entailed by religious holidays so fully secularized that they lose their religious depth. But I made too light of the secularized version which itself is not necessarily without spiritual value. 

Open Letter to My Students 11: True East

I sometimes compare my own seminary education with what today’s students receive – not as an exercise in nostalgia, but to learn something important about being clergy in our world. I speak only for the NY campus which I attended; Cincinnati graduates may have their own story; there were no LA graduates yet. 

HUC of the 1960s was not even remotely the same school as it is now, roughly half a century later. There was, for example, no Israel program, so unless we knew Hebrew already (or took a year off to go to Israel on our own) our modern Hebrew competence was pretty much non-existent. Our five-year-long lockstep curriculum was heavy in text, but the only Hebrew grammar most of us knew upon entering was whatever we had picked up from a single summer preparatory course. We spent the next five years “deciphering” texts, word for word, with minimal success.

Part of the problem was the text teachers, giants in knowledge, but a generation for whom modern pedagogy was not so much a lost art as it was an art not yet discovered. I can only imagine their own frustration, having to put up with students like us. I recall one professor struggling to coach one of my classmates through just a few lines of Talmud; and then plunking some coins down on the table with the sardonic request, “Please go to the payphone; phone Bellevue Hospital; reserve a room for me in their mental ward.”  Nowadays, he might be reprimanded for a microagression, but we took his remark in stride. Given the chance, we might have booked rooms for ourselves. 

What I didn’t learn in text, I more than made up in history and theology because of two outstanding teachers who changed my life forever: Eugene Borowitz, zikhrono livrachah, and Martin Cohen, yibadel l’chaim. They made massive reading assignments and held us responsible for them. For roughly one semester a year (and for five years!) Dr. Cohen assigned up to a book or article a week – and tested us on it every Friday morning. Dr. Borowitz assigned Baeck, Buber, Kaplan, Rosenzweig and more – incessantly; in just the introductory course alone, we wrote three lengthy papers, redoing them if we did not live up to his formidable standards of acceptability. Both professors lectured back then – an era when we appreciated great lectures from which we filled our notebooks and our minds with organized synopses of data we could never get in any other way. I was ordained immensely knowledgeable in Jewish history and thought.

More significant, however, is something else that I learned from these two teachers – and from others too, whom I have not mentioned: what we nowadays call “formation.” All the history and theology – and even the text skills that I did not learn until later – are beside the point if they are not guided by “formation.”

Formation is a combination of character, vision, depth and commitment. It is the seminary equivalent to what Bill George, the noted Harvard Business School professor from 2004 to 2014, called our “true north.”

“True North” he writes, “is your orienting point – your fixed point in a spinning world – that helps you stay on track …. It is derived from your most deeply held beliefs, your values…. It is your internal compass, unique to you, that represents who you are at your deepest level.”

Formation is the way seminary education helps us locate our “true north.” It is the internalization of a deep and lasting sense of “mission”: not the details of “what we do” (teaching, counseling, preaching, etc.) but the big picture of “what we are doing in the first place” and “why it matters that we do it.” It confirms our linkage to something necessary and profound. Once internalized, it fortifies us for life.

Given Judaism’s traditional preference for facing East (as if Jerusalem, Jewish history, and even God, inhabit some metaphysical east, no matter where on the globe we actually live), we might call it our “True East.” 

Formation of the Jewish True East happens around the edges: not just in formal lectures, but in hallway conversations, in communal prayer, and in meetings (planned or unplanned) with professors. It comes from observing the commitment and calling of our teachers, seeing in them the character and passion that we then emulate. 

Looking back, I see more clearly what I attained from my student years at HUC, certainly from Rabbis Borowitz and Cohen, but also from others: my exceptional thesis advisor, Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, and even some of the professors whose absence of pedagogical skills I have lamented. HUC cemented within me the foundation for my true-east formation: honesty and compassion, faith and fortitude, empathy and truth; love of Jewish learning and of Jewish peoplehood; respect for other paths to God (not just the Jewish way); a certain selflessness in pursuit of the common good; and the certainty that Judaism has a mission in the world – that the world would be impoverished were Jews not in it to make it matter.  

These remain today. At moments of vocational confusion, doubt, or despair, these have rescued me. 

Two particular components of this True East need special mention, because I consider them critical, and they are under attack.

First is my commitment to the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment, the faithful pursuit of goodness, nobility, progress, beauty and truth. As much as we immersed ourselves in Jewish classics, we had teachers who were equally at home in what 19th-century critic Matthew Arnold called “the study of [human] perfection…. the best that has been thought and said.” My Talmud teacher, Dr. Atlas, was also a formidable interpreter of Kant. Dr. Henry Slonimsky – a magisterial classroom presence, if ever there was one — taught an elective in Nietzsche, to help us confront the scourge of nihilism. Dr. Fritz Bamberger taught 19th-century idealist philosophy as the intellectual milieu in which Reform Judaism had emerged. To be sure, we now expand the Enlightenment “canon” to include women and cultures whom Matthew Arnold did not recognize, but the goal has not changed. I was formed to see Judaism working hand in hand with the richness of the human spirit. That intellectual, ethical, artistic and spiritual partnership remains part of my True East, and I am richer for it.

Second was my teachers’ commitment to Reform Judaism as that form of Judaism that has historically, and most clearly, articulated the Jewish partnership with universal wisdom. To be sure, especially in New York (where our founder, Stephen S. Wise, had instilled the love for Clal Yisrael), we valued modern Judaism of all stamps: the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements too, of course, but secular Zionism also. 

I saw my place, however, as a proud interpreter of Reform. The Second Temple’s fall had not doomed us to exile; it had raised the curtain on a world stage where we could pursue a role that was the whole point of Judaism, its unique contribution to human betterment. Ethics mattered most; I could not escape my conscience. Reform had worked in the trenches (so to speak) of modern life: it was the first to embrace the need for change, sometimes radical change: worship reform; authentic but non-halachic Judaism; full inclusion of women and then LGBTQ+ identities; expanding our musical canon; inventing the modern cantorate as clergy partners with rabbis; insisting on an American religious presence in Jerusalem. 

The record is not all successes; we have had our failures as well; and the details of Reform as we understood it would change with time, but that we had a historical mission and a historic role in history I have never doubted. I have regularly seen myself standing on the frontiers of history, developing Judaism for every new tomorrow, but always in line with my Jewish wisdom and conscience wed to universalist values, and motivated by the divine purpose of human endeavor in the first place.

In this era of radical choice, we need strong Jewish addresses all along the Jewish spectrum – who knows where seekers of Jewish wisdom will find their home? But no single person can live everywhere; so we must each take our own personal stand somewhere on that spectrum. I study with, work with, and value equally all who labor for their own responsible Jewish address, whatever that address may be. I need them, and they need me; we need one another; it is my job to offer the best Jewish depth and insight that my Jewish address allows me to see. If I fail in that, I let everyone down. If I succeed, I become a partner with Jewish teachers everywhere, all of us striving for our elusive, but real, true east.

Open Letter to My Students 10 — MABA: Make America Beautiful Again

Shortly after 9/11, I wrote a liturgy for a Hebrew Union College Board of Governors. It ended with the especially passionate singing of “America the Beautiful.”

The Trump passion, by contrast, was to “Make America Great,” a far cry from making it beautiful. “Great” measures power: how we can make things be, even if they ought never to be that way. “Beauty” measures perfection, how things ought to be, even if they are not fully that way yet. 

Greatness leans into a zero-sum game: one country’s greatness at the expense of another’s weakness. Beauty has neither winners nor losers: the beauty of Grand Canyon does not diminish the beauty of the Mojave Desert. Greatness crushes our opponents; beauty has no opponents to crush. Greatness is fine, if exercised in the cause of beauty. God is great but God is holy, and we speak of the beauty – not the greatness — of holiness.

Truth be told, to descendants of slaves, as to other perennial have-nots, America hasn’t looked all that beautiful, but millions of people for whom it is beautiful would like to make it so. “The other side,” as it were, the most extreme of the Make America Great stalwarts — racists, misogynists, white supremacists, and their fellow travelers – will not go down in history for making America beautiful for all its citizens. They will be remembered instead for taunting, threatening, and menacing; for inciting hatred, embracing dictatorship, trampling truth and trashing the planet. So much for greatness untethered to beauty. 

When I say “the other side,” I carefully exclude those Trump supporters who voted for him because they feared for their livelihoods, suffered the disdain of liberal elites, or were naively taken in by disinformation. I most especially do not include people of good faith, even faith I do not share, fiscal conservatives and evangelical Christians, perhaps, who see things differently than I do but are not on that account “the other side,” a term which the Kabbalah (on one hand) and Star Wars (on the other) reserve for the truly evil. 

Still, there was plenty of truly evil in the last four years: not just systemic racism, for example, but the empowerment of people who like that system as it is. Making America More and More Great was making America Less and Less Beautiful: all that vitriol, the regression into barbarity, the war on the most vulnerable among us.  

“War on the most vulnerable” deserves special mention, especially for Jews who know that the Rabbis reserve that reproach for Amalek, the biblical arch-enemy who killed off the weakest of the Israelites, the stragglers who fell behind on their trek through the wilderness. This election was not about voting Democrat or Republican; liberal or conservative; “left” or “right.” It was a referendum on Amalek, the man who thought good people could belong to a mob shouting “The Jews will not replace us!”; who tacitly condoned  an attempted kidnapping of a governor; who wouldn’t denounce white supremacy; who proudly abuses women, and leaves immigrant children to die on our borders. How could half the country willingly vote the Amalekite ticket?

I am Canadian-born, and whenever I alight from a plane on Canadian soil, I feel myself back home. But equally, I identify with my adopted America, and I think, now (with the Trump nightmare [I hope] in the rear-view mirror), I know why. I fell in love with the American dream: not its tawdry defects like militarist manifest destiny, but its Pledge-of-Allegiance ideal of “liberty and justice for all”; its Abraham-Lincoln principle of “malice toward none, charity toward all”; its Emma-Lazarus, Statue-of-Liberty, embrace of the “tired,” the “poor,” the “huddled masses yearning to be free.” All of that resonated so clearly with my Jewish upbringing: the biblical promise of redemption; the rabbinic commitment to truth and to justice. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jews who invented Superman, knew what they were doing when they created a hero whom the 1942 radio version could herald as the guarantor of “truth, justice and the American Way.”

I grant you, the fullness of the American dream is not yet a reality, not for people of color, certainly, but dreams, in Jewish tradition are called the stuff of prophecy (Rashi to Joel 3:1), visions that evoke the godly, the beauty, of what still can be. The Trump years made the American dream a nightmare: boogaloo boyz, QAnon conspirators, assault rifles in record numbers, militias on the ready. And that nightmare is still with us. 

When nightmares do not evaporate with the light of day, Jewish tradition (Talmud, Ber. 55b) advises us to acknowledge them publicly. Those before whom they are acknowledged are to assure us that “God transforms lament into dancing” (Ps. 21:12); “mourning into joy” (Jer.31:12). Dancing and joy are measures of beauty not of greatness. Nightmares unacknowledged freeze us in fear. Nightmares acknowledged invite transformation.

So we start by naming our nightmare: the worship of raw power in pursuit of a greatness that cares not one whit for the beautiful. From naming, to hoping; from hoping to action; from the American nightmare back to the American dream. Not marching in the streets with torches and guns; but singing in the streets to the words and sentiment of America the Beautiful. 

I do not demonize well-meaning voters who did not see the Amalekite in Trump, but I am not blind to those who did see it and liked it. I will name this nightmare again and again, the way I read about Amalek again and again – to remember what Amalek looks like, whenever he comes again. And meanwhile, I am reigniting my love affair with the American dream and its prophetic capacity to encompass everyone. We can Make America Beautiful Again.   

Open Letter To My Students 9: Seriously Speaking

We Jews should be reading the recent encyclical (October 4, 2020) by Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, “Brothers All,” more precisely “Little Brothers, All.” The title was chosen to accord with the language of St. Francis, whose name and legacy the pope adopted, and who considered himself a “little brother” within his religious order.[i]

Jews are likely to wonder why a papal encyclical should concern us. It is, after all, part of no Jewish-Catholic dialogue, but, rather, Catholic-Sunni rapprochement, following conversation between the pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt. And weighing in at just under 43,000 words, it is no quick read!

It is, however, a very significant document. It implicitly reaffirms serious Catholic-Jewish dialogue for its own sake, and (with remarkable rhetorical power) it urges joint efforts at demanding human dignity, combatting authoritarian regimes, and saving our planet.[ii]

The backdrop for it all is the half century or so since Vatican II, the momentous convocation that reversed decades of theological defensiveness and launched the Catholic Church into modernity. As part of that effort, on October 28, 1965, the Church promulgated its historic document Nostra Aetatedecrying “hatred, persecutions, [and] displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (para 4). To be sure, the statement did not go as far as it might have — Church conservatives watered down the original draft;[iii] but for its time, it was a phenomenal breakthrough, and more was to come. 

In 1980, Pope John Paul II said expressly that “the old [Jewish] covenant” has “never been revoked by God,”[iv] a claim repeated in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (para 121). In 2015, the 50thanniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Church proclaimed that it “neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”[v] The same document assigned the Jewish-Catholic Dialogue “special theological status”; denied the old supersessionist theory that Christianity replaced Judaism; and called on both religious communities to work together — for mutual religious enrichment, to combat anti-Semitism, and “in joint engagement throughout the world for justice, peace, conservation of creation and reconciliation.”[vi] Francis himself has said, “We hold the Jewish people in special re­gard because their covenant with God has never been revoked … we cannot consider Judaism as a for­eign religion.”[vii]

Fratelli tutti  continues the positive approach to Jews. It expressly honors rabbinic tradition by, for example, attributing Jesus’ golden rule to “Rabbi [sic] Hillel” (from the Talmud, Shabbat 31a). It goes out of its way to warn (para 247), “The Shoah must not be forgotten”; then pays “homage” to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and expresses “horror” at the “slave trade and the ethnic killings that continue in various countries”(para 248). Jews can only applaud the conclusion, “Nowadays it is easy to be tempted to turn the page, to say that all these things happened long ago and we should look to the future. For God’s sake, no!” (para 249). 

What stands out about this incredible encyclical is its universalist call for all good people of faith to join hands in opposing social evils. But even more impressive is the tenor of the piece: it is not just exhortatory; it is also deeply thoughtful; it is both pious and profound, a passionate and informed discussion of economics, politics, globalization, the social media, and even the Covid moment and what it portends – no surprise, of course, for a pope who has consistently voiced universalistic concern for “poverty and vulnerability… the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly… [victims of] human trafficking” and who has insisted that in all of these, “There is greater complicity than we think.”[viii]

The clarion clarity of Fratelli tutti is everywhere in the document: 

  • On Covid, for example (para 7): “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned is the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.” 
  • On the building of walls (para 27): “Those who raise walls [will thereby] end up as slaves within the very walls they have built,” if only because “They are left without horizons.” 
  • On the loss of common decency (para 45): “Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures.” 
  • On intellectual seriousness (para 50): “Wisdom is not born of quick searches on the internet.”
  • Particularly significant for Jews is Pope Francis’s appreciation of universalism (on one hand) and the particularism of peoplehood (on the other). With only the first, he says, we get “caught up in an abstract, globalized universe.” With just the second, we become “a museum of local folklore” (para 142).

To be sure, I disagree with some things the pope says; and I think he overstates some others. His reading of culture is altogether too conservative for my liking. 

But that is not the point. The reason we should read this is that it exemplifies religious seriousness. It is a reflective overview of the human landscape and the role of religion within it. If we want to change the world, we are unlikely to do it on our own. We will need religious allies, and not just our obvious ones, the ultra-liberal religious communities with whom we have a natural affinity.

Progressive Jews are painfully aware of our differences with some Catholic teachings. We sympathize with those Catholic women who level feminist objections to Catholic doctrine and polity. We have profound disagreements on issues of sexual ethics, birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage. We have painful memories over Vatican policies regarding the Shoah[ix] and the early days of Israel. As there are all kinds of Jews, moreover, so too there are all kinds of Catholics – Francis’s encyclical is not necessarily what gets preached in the local church around the corner from our synagogues. Empirical studies in Germany, at least, demonstrate an ongoing positive correlation between churchgoing (both Catholic and Protestant) and anti-Semitism, even today.[x] I do not make light of any of this.

But our Jewish moral imperative of tikkun olam (“correcting the world”) is a political project, and politics requires coalition-building. Extraordinary issues face us if the planet is to survive, if the ugly rise of totalitarianism around the globe is to be defeated, if hatred and superstition are not to win the day. Fratelli Tutti is an outstretched hand for help from a pope who represent the positive flow of history as regards both Jewish-Christian relations and the universal call to righteousness. How can Jews not rise to the occasion and offer our hand in return?

I do not mean to say that we Jews have been oblivious to interfaith efforts at countering evil. I am not the first or only Jew to read Pope Francis’s words. But interfaith energy is at a very low ebb these days, and, having no centralized hierarchy and no Jewish “pope” of our own to call us to action, the onus falls on each of us, locally, to take the necessary initiative. As long-term Speaker of the House of Representatives (1977-1987), Tip O’Neill, famously said, “All politics is local.” I write this, and you read it, as “locals,” able to effect change wherever we are — and not just with Catholics. The neighborhood is full of potential allies whose religion we do not share but whose voices might be joined to ours in this supreme hour of need.

We should all be elevating religious dialogue on our agendas, not because it is “good for the Jews,” but because it is good for the Jewish mission, which is why we are here in the first place. 

Much gratitude goes to wise and wonderful friends who offered exceptional advice and help in my writing of this: John Baldovin, Edward Foley, Virgil C. Funk, Gordon W. Lathrop, Richard S. Vosko, and Janet R. Walton.

[i] For criticism of the gender-exclusivity, see, e.g., Joshua J. McElwee, “Catholic Women Criticize ‘Mansplaining of Pope’s Masculine Encyclical Title,” National Catholic Reporter (Sept. 24, 2020).

[ii] Ecology and climate change are treated extensively in Francis’s prior encyclical (2015), Laudato si‘ (“Praise be to You”, from the opening line of the Canticle of St. Francis), an evocative call that likens the earth to a sister being ravished for the pecuniary profit that is part and parcel (in Francis’s view) of consumerism. 


1[iii] The original had Jews at the center and expressly denied the crime of deicide; the final document addressed relationships with all non-Ch`ristian faiths and blames at least some Jews of old for killing Christ. It also stopped short of an express two-covenant theology that would have granted Judaism parity with Christianity as its own licit covenantal religion with God.

[iv] Nov. 17, 1980. Address to Representatives of the Jewish Community in Mainz, West Germany.

[v] “The Gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”: A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate (No. 4), Para 40.

[vi] Ibid, Section 7.

[vii] Evangelii Gaudium, “Relations with Judaism,” para 247.

[viii] Ibid., “Concern for the Vulnerable,” paras 210/211.

[ix] See, especially, David I. Kertzer, “The Pope, The Jews, and the Secrets in the Archives,” The Atlantic  (Aug. 27, 2020).

[x]  Katharina von Kellenbach, “In Our Time: Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation and Jewish-Christian Dialogue Fifty Years After Nostra Aetate” Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations 10 (2015), p. 19.

gratitude goes to wise and wonderful friends who offered exceptional advice and help in my writing of this: John Baldovin, Edward Foley, Virgil C. Funk, Gordon W. Lathrop, Richard S. Vosko, and Janet R. Walton.

Open Letter to My Students 8: On a High-Holy-Day High

These High Holy Days were game-changers. 

As to place, most of us videoed from the sanctuaries, rabbi here and cantor there, musicians and choir (if there was one) scattered or dubbed in. Some had real congregants in place, masked and at safe distances. Others did it all by toggling back and forth from private homes: cantor here, rabbi there, Torah read from somewhere else.

As to time, most people videoed some of the services in real time, but along with backdrop readings, imagery and music prepared in advance. Others videoed everything in advance, and became congregants to their own prerecorded services. 

But place and time were secondary to the real issue: our first serious foray into post-print culture.

Liturgy is always a product of technological competence and the culture that technology permits. In the Rabbinic oral culture of late antiquity, worship was like jazz: an agreed-upon outline of an underlying liturgical structure, but dependent on the local artistry of the prayer leader, unencumbered by a book with fixed wording. There was no davening, for example, because no one had a book to daven from; most people listened to the prayer leader and made short responses – repeating a line or saying Amen. Liturgy was as hoc, local, face to face, unmediated. 

With print, words became fixed, and with fixity, came detailed halachic or theological strictures (which themselves required writing down for study and for reference). Worship went beyond the immediacy of the prayer leader’s artistry to include the private experience of engaging with a book. Print also expanded experiential residue: the oral prayer was not capturable, except in individual memory. Print provided a permanent prayer text and endless written commentaries on it. 

For some time now, we have been flirting with the post-print culture; but just flirting. These “covidic” High Holidays have forced the issue.

I saw three responses to the challenge:

Double Down: Some congregations insisted on doing the service as if these were ordinary High Holy Days but with congregants at home, zooming and livestreaming. Those of us who love services as they always were got them again, just that way: long sermons, a full Un’taneh Tokef, all those confessions, and the music that we know and love. Especially on Yom Kippur, that worked, I imagine: sitting there fasting, what was there to do but follow the service from beginning to end? And there was comfort in the familiar, not to mention a sense of proud defiance, doing it all despite whatever the enemy named Covid could throw at us.

Adapt: Other congregations adapted the usual service to fit Zoom limitations. They included what they could but scaled down in size – like “the best” of an opera for people who want the arias and story but not all five hours of it.

Reimagine:  Some people did more than allow for the new technology; they embraced it, and reimagined the liturgy for it. Check out, for example, two Temple Micahs: one in Nashville and another in DC. They reconfigured the liturgical staples; added imagery and video; translated captions of moving Hebrew songs; had an artist paint an ongoing mural to reflect the prayers being said. They reshaped and repackaged it all to accent the High Holy Day themes – for a global congregation attending from around the world. 

Cultural evolution is expansive, like the expanding universe itself: new technologies, that is, do not replace old ones; they enlarge them, the way quantum mechanics didn’t replace Newtonian calculations, but just accounted for phenomena that Newton couldn’t. Worship in the oral culture of the Rabbis who started it all was immediate, face to face, and unrepeatable – it could not be saved, revisited, pored over for meaning, and passed along from generation to generation. Worship in the print culture that we are leaving behind was still face to face, but it was mediated by a written script that shaped it. The script developed halachic strictures; rules multiplied; verbal creativity died and musical inventiveness did double duty: same old words from one Shabbat to the next, but an infinite possibility of musical settings.

Covid has exposed the limits of print-based worship, where a single text becomes sacrosanct even if much of it is outdated, aspiritual, and unmoving. Our diminishing core of regular worshipers love that text, but for twenty years or more, we have been playing to fewer and fewer regulars who come less and less and are older and older. The goal, in any event, was never to venerate the text; it was to facilitate the experience of prayer, and that experience can still be enormously compelling – as we learned from the reimagined worship on the post-print technology these High Holy Days.

The new technology which is virtual does for print what print did for orality: it further expands our reach and our capacity to archive and even relive it. Most important, the worship performance itself becomes critical; not just the written script for it.  

Equally significant is the fact that the expanded worship network on Zoom, Vimeo and Facebook, challenges us to redefine what “congregation” means. We have always had two congregations: the regulars and the rest, but now we reach a virtual congregation of untold hundreds or thousands from virtual platforms that we are just beginning to appreciate. 

Print culture took half a century to mature.  The stodgy printing technique of Johannes Gutenberg (circa 1450) made prayer books possible. But it took mechanization, the steam engine, a rotary press, and much much more, to create the multiple prayer books of the last two centuries. And only now, do we have multi-colored prayer books with aesthetically designed layouts, and accompanying art.  

Our 21st-century zooming is like the 15th-century Gutenberg press! It is far too early to imagine fully where virtual worship will go, but wherever it goes, we will get there faster, now that Covid has forced us into its early stages. We will surely return to congregational worship face to face, not just virtual participation at a distance; and we won’t utterly abandon print. But virtual presence (with its worldwide web of worshipers) beckons, and we would be fools not to invest our time, means, and creativity in it. 

Open Letter To My Students 7: A Pre High Holy Day Tale (Not To Be Missed)

Here’s a High Holy Day story, a ma’aseh shehayah: it really happened. You will especially appreciate it if you are young and entering a current High Holy Day assignment with anxiety over what might go wrong. But even if you are not, read on. You’ll like it.

In days of yore, when I entered HUC, there was no Israel program. To the extent that we learned any Hebrew at all, we learned it here, and there were so few students, that we received High Holy Day assignments in our very first year, sometimes (if the holidays arrived early) even before school began, when we knew virtually no Hebrew at all, and certainly no liturgy. Before I had even stepped foot in HUC, therefore, I was assigned to a nursing home for seniors — an “old-age home,” as we called it back then — just a short train ride out of Manhattan.

The faculty member doing the assigning explained that I was to lead a traditional service, but pared to an hour and a half – that being the most that the elderly congregants would sit for. I had been chosen for this dubious task because of all the entering students, I was the only one who had attended an Orthodox shul as a child. I could at least read Hebrew. Besides, they understood that when I was ten, I had been in a High Holy Day boys’ choir; I must know some melodies. What I didn’t know, I could fake.

After endless hours paging through the hundreds of pages in the traditional machzor, I somehow made a list of what to do and what to skip, and arrived ready to chant services in some made-up nusach of my own, mostly from the Shabbat morning service, which I actually did know; and facing away from the congregation, of course.

The evening went fairly smoothly, I thought, but by morning, from behind my back, there soon arose a few anxious murmurs of dismay, largely by one man in particular. I ignored him as best I could (there is something to be said for not facing the congregation!); then somehow finished the ordeal, and left to take the train home.

On the way out the door, I ran into the nursing-home director, who asked me how things went. “Well,” I replied, as honestly as I dared, “I am afraid I did not live up to the expectations of these people. They really know the traditional service, and I am just learning it. One man especially was quite vocally upset.” “That must be Mr. Schwartz,” she replied. “He can be difficult. But don’t worry, Rabbi. He’ll feel better about you by Yom Kippur.”

“Yom Kippur?” I thought. I had forgotten that I had to come back. And did she really call me “Rabbi”?

After ten hard days of anxious planning, not to mention learning to sing Kol Nidre (more or less), and never mind writing two sermons with no prior experience in homiletics, I did, in fact, return. This time a gentleman from the congregation opened the door. It was Mr. Schwartz, who broke into a broad smile and the assurance, “Rabbi, we are so happy to have you back; and we are looking forward to another lovely service.” God alone knows what dire threat the director must have levelled at him!

But the next day did go moderately well, until I got to musaf, polished off the shortened Torah reading (with some mistakes of course), and then, feeling my way on the home stretch (we had dispensed with N’ilah), I launched into the last bit of davening.

That’s when it all fell apart.

From behind me, I heard first one voice, then another, and finally a rising chorus: yoyni, yoyni, YOYNI, YOYNI, Y O Y N I !! And then I got it. It was Yiddish for “Yonah, Yonah, Yonah, Jonah, Jonah, Jonah” I had completely forgotten the haftarah, the one thing that pretty much everyone in the room knew and was waiting for. What should I do? Interrupt musaf to go back to the haftarah? Ignore the crowd and forge on?

Before I could decide, a sound rang out, like a veritable voice from heaven, so loud it overcame the rebels! It was Mr. Schwartz to the rescue! “Sha! Quiet! You hear me? Who is the rabbi here, you or him? HE is the rabbi; YOU are not. Whatever HE says goes.” And with that, I finished the davening, ran through a final Kaddish, ended with Adon Olam (or some other song I knew), and left for home.

On the way out, Schwartz made sure to congratulate me. “Well done, Rabbi,” he lied; and then added, “You have a fine future ahead of you.” Shortly after, I entered HUC; and went on to become an expert in liturgy!

Here’s the moral. Do your best leading services over zoom or however you have to do it. But no mistake you make can prove fatal. And whatever you do, remember: you have a fine future ahead of you.

“Zoom is not all bad.” Signed, God

Zoom isn’t all bad. For Selichot this coming Saturday night, I am part of a program addressing Reform Jews throughout all of Canada; and 23 hours earlier (6:00 am, my time, gulp!) I am part of a similar effort for Australians (hosted by North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney). People need not come to us; we get to go to them, reaching into homes not just locally here and there, but all across the world.

On a humorous note, I confess to wondering whether keeping Selichot twice gives me a pass for Yom Kippur.

More substantively, I continue to marvel at the wonder of virtual community across the miles, a phenomenon everyone has noted, although not always appreciated. Many prominent Christians who are focused on the mass (Catholics) eucharist (Episcopalians) or holy communion (Lutherans) – all the same thing – have denied that God’s presence can be found in virtual communities; they will have to do without it until they can return to church. In the Australian Selichot program, the noted author, columnist, and historian of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass, and I discuss all this theologically; we both value actual community, but agree that, however we define God, God cannot limited by the internet.

Jews have it easier here. We fought the “God is present” battle when the Temple fell and decided God goes into exile with us. When Christianity became empowered as a world religion, it planted churches everywhere, established an elaborate public worship there, and forgot its lowly origins as a faith to be celebrated around ordinary kitchen tables. Jews lost the “world prominence” battle but kept the focus of table and home. Synagogues didn’t actually become centers for prayer until at least the 4th century, maybe even the 6th! So while churches eclipsed Christian homes, the synagogue arose as just one of two sacred foci for Jews, who even now celebrate Shabbat and holidays in our homes (Shabbat and holiday dinners, Passover seder, building a sukkah) as much as in synagogues.

We ought to use Covid times not just to remember all we miss at synagogue but all we have at home. A few months ago, I urged people to join Zoom services from a place in their homes decorated to reflect whatever is sacred to them:  a virtual bimah – no Torah ark and scrolls, perhaps, but an aesthetic arrangement of such things as candles, flowers, and pictures of those we love. If you want to see what can be done, check out Rabbi Elyse Goldstein’s very helpful article, illustration, and even a background poster, saying, “May this space be a sanctuary.” 

The poster can be ordered :

Her article can be referenced:

The Australia link is: 

The Canadian program requires registration. See my Facebook page for it.

Open Letter to My Students 6: Jewish Wisdom About Monuments of Oppression

1. Tradition and the Rule of Creepy Crawly Things
How do we use Jewish tradition to help us navigate life’s challenges? Just like love, tradition is a many-splendored thing, but its wisdom comes liberally mixed with age-old prejudices, superstitious nonsense, and downright stupidity. Thirty years ago, while researching an article on the subject, I asked my teacher and colleague, the late Harry M. Orlinsky, to define “tradition” and he replied, “Tradition is just a lie going back at least a century.”
That pithy definition made it into my article, along with my equally jaded observation that as much as tradition is often a very good thing, the wrong traditions, like the wrong food, can kill you; the wholesale recovery of Grandma’s favorite ethnic recipes turns out to be less wholesome than we expected.
Another metaphor made it into my book on circumcision, when research dug up various medieval traditions that I found abhorrent. It occurred to me that tradition is like a high-rise apartment building where each generation lives atop the abandoned apartments of earlier generations who occupied the floors below. From time to time, we walk nostalgically through the places downstairs, looking for old and dusty ancestral pictures to resurrect, refurbish, and reframe as our own. Often, however, what our ancestors admired simply embarrasses us.
The basement can be particularly disturbing; it’s where our forebears deposited what even they considered the detritus of their times. And for every grimy picture we find there and choose to redisplay back home, there are a hundred that we are happy our ancestors got rid of. We don’t readily even admit they are still there. That every tradition has an embarrassing basement is what I call “The rule of Creepy Crawly Things.”
It’s worth frequenting tradition’s basement on occasion, not to find what is recoverable but to admit what is not: to see what we once were, to remember how we have improved, and to keep in mind the likelihood that we probably still have a long way to go.
2. A Short List of Continuities
I think of this analogy whenever people ask me what Judaism has to say about things, because everything depends on what part of the Jewish apartment building we investigate; and what antiquated basement specimens we choose to dredge up. Tradition’s mixed bag of goods should come as no surprise, mind you. Nobody would seriously ask, about some matter of moment, “What is the position of western philosophical thought?” – as if everyone from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell must have a single point of view. Why do they imagine Judaism must be any more homogeneous in content?
Traditions on their own (whether religious or philosophical) can teach us nothing: they are layer upon layer of interpretation, some interpretations properly relegated to oblivion, others deserving renovation, but “relegation” or ”renovation” is a matter of subjective judgement.
Still, as I wander through my Jewish apartment building looking at all the generational dwellings below my own, I cannot help but notice some things that pretty much everyone valued and pretty much no one repudiated as disgusting basement rubbish. These are what we mean by “Jewish values,” Jewish tradition’s attitudinal continuities that are more likely to prove lasting.
My short list includes Five Principles:
1. Learning: the supreme regard for learning, reason, and argumentation “for the sake of heaven,” to get at the truth. We question everything, preserve minority opinions, have no hierarchy we must follow, encourage debate, answer questions with more questions, and love learning for its own sake.
2. Truth: we have, by and large, welcomed truth from all quarters, not just Torah but the world of science and the arts as well. The Talmud valued the physics, astronomy, and mathematics of its time; medieval rabbis became physicians, philosophers, and poets. The best of modern rabbis too are widely read and convinced that science and philosophy matter. Truths may be eternal, but our knowledge of them is not: as we grow in knowledge, we see the truth of things more clearly.
3. Justice: a passion for justice, and the absolute horror at the idea of a social order without trained, compassionate, and thoughtful judges, dedicated to arriving at the truth by reasoned and impartial investigation. The worst that can be said of a society is, “There is no justice and no judge.”
4. Political realism: the realization that without government, we would “swallow one another up alive” (Avot 3:2); balanced by the caution that people in power will usually sacrifice principle to the furthering of their own interests (Avot 2:3).
5. A mistrust of violence, especially mob violence: not because Jews were the ruling parties protecting their own monied interests, but because they knew how easily mob violence settles for scapegoats and achieves no substantive change.
Given the Rule of Creepy Crawly Things, we can easily find exceptions to all of this: the very rabbis who warned against abuse of power could be powerfully abusive themselves. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox elite are hardly committed to the open-minded search for truth. Left to their own devices, rabbinic ”true believers” too resort to violence to achieve their ends. But overall, my Five Principles have adorned the various levels of Jewish tradition enough to make them “continuities.” They are my starting point for thinking about what to do with the monuments of oppression, now under attack across America.
3. Monuments of Oppression: A Museum of the American Amalek
Principle 3 (Justice) demands we do something about these monuments because we see now how injustice is perpetuated by them. That we never saw it before should not blind us to what we see now, because Principle 2 (Truth) leads us to welcome revisions of truth based on new evidence. Alas, Principle 4 (Political Realism) reminds us that politicians and power brokers will not always do the right thing; they are likely, instead, to do what their interests dictate. However, Principle 5 (Mistrust of Violence) warns us not leave it to mobs on the street, not even the mobs we like; the last thing we want is on-the-spot decisions to tear things down violently, especially because it will be easy for people with power to sacrifice a monument or two and do nothing to correct the actual injustices. Principle 1 (Learning) recommends empowering a process of study to decide the best course of action. If nothing happens, there are other principles that kick in, including ways to change the governmental order through nonviolent means, wherever possible. But in fact, despite outliers to the contrary, we already have widespread acceptance that something must be done. We have made great progress in just the last few weeks.
I suspect I will not make anyone’s short list of the thinkers charged with the decision on the monuments, but I do have a piece of Jewish wisdom that I would recommend. I am thinking of the biblical arch-enemy Amalek who attacked the fleeing Israelites as they struggled to make it out alive in their trek across the wilderness to the Land of Israel. Instructed ever after to eradicate Amalek’s memory (Exodus 18:14), Jews dedicated an annual Sabbath to reading the Bible’s indictment of him (the best way, ironically, to perpetuate the memory we want destroyed).
The idea seems to be this: only by retaining our worst memories of cruelty can we be assured that humankind will not again revert to the very same cruelties again – hence, the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery. I would, therefore, dismantle the offensive statues and remount them in a Museum of the American Amalek, a series of rooms dedicated to showing how even the greatest of American heroes went terribly wrong, how generations then perpetuated their wrongdoing, and how at last we dedicated ourselves to doing the right thing.

Open Letter to My Students 6: “Protest and Change, and Doing What We Do”

I didn’t travel to New York to join the protests this week; I wish I had; I couldn’t. And I wonder how many other people feel that way.

I’m 77 years old with an underlying heart condition. My wife has cancer and is on chemo. Were I to contract Covid-19, I stand a pretty good chance of dying. Were I to infect my wife, she would almost certainly not survive. So I stayed home. Call it white privilege, if you like — I could afford to do it. But there it is.

I am also, I admit, just not the marching type. I don’t do well in crowds, am inherently non-confrontational, and have an irrational fear of violence. I loathed the rough-and-tumble boy-

culture of my childhood; and the only semi-contact sport I ever played was intramural high-school basketball, which I dropped when its aggressive nature so rattled me that the first time I got the ball, I headed in the wrong direction and scored against my own team. No doubt all of that played a role in my decision.

So what does someone like me do, as the early summer swelters with the stench our country’s rotten underbelly, in the form of George Floyd’s murder?

If I don’t habitually march, I do obsessively think, so I have been thinking. If I play no role in the today’s street, mIght I find my proper place in tomorrow’s aftermath? And might you, dear students, friends, and colleagues join me?

Begin with what we want to prevent: a real-life rerun of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s reflection on Europe’s abortive 1830 and 1848 revolutions. The operative word is “abortive.” People marched and were killed and nothing changed. Nor do we want another French-style revolution with a bloody “reign of terror” (already there are calls to disband the police, as if the police per se are the root of our problem). But we dare not return to where we were with some social band-aids here and there, until someone else is murdered and we start all over again.

How do we get peaceful revolution: an evocation of the national conscience that finally ends racism; that invests seriously and heavily in reversing past injustices; that uproots obscene discrepancies in education, wealth and opportunity; that resurrects respect for decency; and guarantees the simple joys of work and of play and of safety, food, and shelter?

Such change may begin in the streets, but it doesn’t end there. If my place lies not in the streets, then it may lie somewhere else.

According to the classic study of revolution (Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, 1956), societal change begins when conditions of injustice are sufficiently transparent for more than just the underclass to say, “No more!” There must also be a catalytic crisis to ignite the moment, usually a series of them, with one culminating blow that is just too much to bear. That’s where we are today: a president who encourages white supremacy and spews hatred enough for even our military leaders to express their horror; America hovering on the brink of fascism; the Covid crisis, that reveals how sick society is, how unprepared and undefended we all are – and this latest and culminating ignominy, one more black man murdered in cold blood and the president teargassing protesters so he can hold aloft a Bible in front a church.

The underclass and middle class joined in common cause? Check.

A catalytic crisis beyond our wildest fears? Check.

That’s what makes these protests different. That’s why we harbor hope that they will not be in vain.

But protests alone have insufficient staying power. Eventually – in a week, a month or a year — they exhaust themselves; people necessarily return to jobs, families and school. As frustration builds, the leaders who remain become increasingly radicalized, frightening off yet more of the coalition, until the powers that be intervene with force or buy off the revolutionaries with promises that never materialize.

Hence, the necessary next step: spreading the moral urgency beyond the streets into the very fabric of society, where those with power, means, and opportunity can carry the torch of reform. And that is where we clergy come in.  We are the bridge beyond the protests in the streets. Religion through time has been rightly criticized for using the bridge to hold change back — part of the problem, not the solution. No wonder those who dream of a better age have nothing good to say about organized religion and those who represent it,

But clergy can equally be the moral force that sears the cause of the street into the conscience of the nation. We hold bully pulpits, and are trusted to tell truths that no one else will. We are the last best bet to keep the hope of change alive when the street dies down.

So what do we do, if you, like me, cannot or do not see the streets as your sole or major contribution? The answer is, we do what we were called to do: we speak, and sing, and argue the moral truths of our tradition. We hammer home the reality of America’s ethical decay; we condemn fascism in the making; we say that black lives matter, that immigrant lives matter, that the life of our planet matters, that education matters, that science matters, that children matter; that hate-filled alt-right evil is dangerously afoot in our land, aided and abetted by knowing winks from the White House and by partisan elected officials who are cowed into compliance; we insist on ethical and compassionate leadership, in league with America’s sacred best not its unholiest worst.

I spent yesterday listening to sermons by colleagues who are rising to the occasion and telling these truths, sometimes at risk to themselves. I join my voice to theirs. We may not hold the power to effect deep change ourselves, but we are the bridge from the street toß the people who do.


Why We Need Denominations

[Last week, the Forward invited reactions to the news that the financial crunch is already forcing our movements to downsize. Rightly or wrongly, I took the invitation as a suggestion (once again) that denominational Judaism has had its day. Aren’t denominations divisive? Aren’t people increasingly “just Jewish” — rather than Jewish in a denominational way? I so strongly disagree that I used my 300 words to say why we need denominations more than ever. Some colleagues were represented in the on-line forum; I was proud to be associated with them. My remarks are reproduced below:]
Think of Judaism as a grand work of art spanning the centuries, the Jewish people’s glorious experiment in the mysteries of life, the purpose of existence, a full and spacious vision for this grand gift of God that we call the human condition. Art evolves, mutates, surprises: baroque is not romanticism; impressionism is not cubism. Artists take their stand in a given artistic tradition, not in “art” as a single generalized ideal.
As its own work of art, Judaism supports independent schools of religious artistry: these are our “denominations.” All Jews share a common heritage of historical memory, textual tradition, calendrical cycle, and so on. But we share them differently, and that is all to the good. Music needs Bach, but also Tchaikovsky; museums are richer with Monet in one room and Picasso in another.
At their best, denominations are not just programs and shared best-practices: they are evolutions of Jewish artistry in the making. You cannot combine, erase, or homogenize them any more than you can combine, erase, or homogenize Vincent Van Gogh, Henry Moore, and Andy Warhol. Denominations need to flourish as what they are. Losing any single one is like lopping off the museum room with Rembrandt or with Chagall.
It has often, and properly, been said that whether born as Jews or not, we are all Jews by choice. But no one chooses Judaism as a whole – it is too big for that. Implicitly, at least, we are attracted to some particular Jewish artistic school in the making, one denomination rather than another. In an age of choice, we need strong Jewish addresses all along the spectrum of Jewish life. Losing any single one would be catastrophic.