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.

Open Letter to My Students 5: Honoring The Ordinees of 2020

“I knew in an instant that everything would be alright” (Naval recruit, Ludovic Kennedy, after hearing a broadcast by Winston Churchill, in the midst of a crisis a thousand times worse than our own).

It was the opening days of World War II. In a “lightning-like” Blitzkrieg, Hitler’s army had swept across Belgium, overrun France, and trapped the British forces on the beaches of Dunkirk. Miraculously, the British were largely rescued by a veritable armada of naval vessels, private yachts, and tiny fishing boats; but British joy was tempered by the realization that it would be equally possible for a German armada to go the other way — a Dunkirk in reverse, as it were.

At the Prime Minister’s 10 Downing Street address, in Buckingham Palace itself, and in every British city, town and village, nerves were frayed, fears were rising, spirits were low. Then came the speech that Kennedy remembered with such clarity.

“We shall go on to the end.  We shall fight on the seas and the oceans…. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

A private secretary to Churchill, John Martin, got to the heart of the matter when he described Churchill’s leadership genius as the ability to convince people that they were “protagonists on a vaster scene and champions of a high and invincible cause.”[1]

 This, dear ordinees, is what we have been preparing you for all these years of Bible, Talmud, history, theology, liturgy and nusach: the certainty that we human beings are protagonists on a vaster scene and champions of a high and invincible cause.

You might think that here, in America, where your ordination is taking place, people must already know that. But we don’t: we haven’t known it for some time now. The official national rhetoric has mired us in just the opposite supposition: that the only thing of consequence is our own national interests, not any principles at all; and within those interests, it is increasingly the interests of the rich and powerful that have mattered, no one else’s. Even as I write these words, one-fifth of America’s children may not have enough to eat, and a senate majority is refusing to expand long-term food-stamp relief.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote Emma Lazarus, for an America that she personified as “The Mother of Exiles.” There’s a “high and invincible cause” for you – imaged right out of Jewish tradition. America as Shechinah! The Great Seal of the United States portrays the providential eye of the divine, with the hope that America will be a “a new order for the ages” (Novus Ordo Seclorum), our undertakings earning the favor of God (Annuit Coeptis). How much will the mothering presence of God smile upon an America that won’t feed her children?

And here we are today, in a blitzkrieg of disease, bunkered down in the four walls of our respective homefronts, dependent on our own armada of “required workers” and volunteers – hospital staffs, police, firefighters, ambulance drivers, lettuce pickers, proxy shoppers, and more. They are indeed saving us: a new and American Dunkirk is under way. We all know, however, that the war isn’t over; we may be in this for a longer run than we care to imagine. So we wait to hear not just that we will survive (we pretty much know we will) but that the fight is worth it because in the end, we are “protagonists on a vaster scene, champions of a high and invincible cause.”

And we wait in vain: because our dominant governmental voices do not even know how to frame sentences about a higher cause, a nobler vision, an America of kindness, gentleness, and elemental human decency.

Who, then, will remind us of all that now? Who, if not you? You graduate this week with the most ethereal of degrees, something called “ordination.” You sport no degree in medicine, law, or accounting; you have no elected office. You might think that you are powerless. But precisely there, you are wrong. You have the enormous power of moral suasion. You are exactly what we need right now, because you are the keeper and transmitter of the “high and invincible cause” that we inherit just by being human.

You will very shortly discover that your work as cantor or rabbi is far more onerous than what you are used to as a student: you must be pastor, priest, and prophet, all rolled up into one. A pastor to care for the well-being of those you serve; a priest to invoke God’s presence at every marriage, birth and death, at public worship, and at study of Torah; a prophet to speak the truths of Judaism’s moral certainties — and in between it all, you will manage the office, wade through daily to-do lists, and negotiate the politics that are inevitable in human affairs.

You will be tempted to think that success can be defined as honorably clearing your desk of such responsibilities, but if you do, you will wear yourself out even as you wear yourself down, because each new day brings just another set of tasks, and eventually you will wonder whether it is all worth the effort. You too need to remember that you are “protagonists on a vaster scene, champions of a high and invincible cause.” And in so remembering, you have to remind us – not just “us” the people you serve; but “us” the body politic, that has forgotten that there is any “vaster scene” or “high and invincible cause” altogether.

Remember, therefore, how much we need your regular reminders of the higher scheme of things. There will be times when everyday banalities completely fill your days; when bureaucratic interests harden your institutional arteries; when the official rhetoric of injustice and untruth starts sounding acceptable; when affairs of business and of state, important as they are, eclipse affairs of the human soul. In all such cases, you are the keeper of the sacred, the source of inspiration that will save us. When we are mired in the muck of hopelessness, lift our eyes to the sky; in the perennial affairs of the moment, remind us of the momentous.

Every step of your journey to become rabbis and cantors has been in service to the inherent nobility of human life; the decency that marks us at our best; the high and invincible cause of goodness and holiness, love and compassion, justice and truth. May these certainties sustain you — that you may sustain us.

[1] Quotes Kennedy and Martin are from Eric Larson, The Splendid and the Vile

Open Letter To My Students 4 : Never Happy Or Good?

Sometimes a poem gets it “Oh so right!”

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

In this case, it is W H Auden’s lament over Hitler’s invasion of Poland: entitled September 1, 1939,

It became a staple at funerals during the AIDS epidemic (Auden himself had been gay), and it was widely cited after 9/11 (for its references to New York City).[i] With Covid-19, it returns to haunt us – especially in its even more dramatic fifth stanza.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

At least metaphorically, isn’t that us? The lights of life darkened; the music silenced? And not so metaphorically, here we are, quite locked away – not in forts we imagine as homes, but in homes that have become forts.

I wonder, however, about the last line: We are indeed reduced to “children afraid of the night,” but have we “never been happy or good”?

Where did Auden get that idea?

Auden’s devoutly religious family of origin had instilled it in him with the belief in original sin and a suspicion of pure enjoyment. As an Oxford undergraduate, he rebelled, by embracing Freud, Marx and Berthold Brecht, but by 1937, he was already beginning to despair of his youthful left-wing hopes and flirting with a return to his Christian roots.

In December 1939, with America still neutral in the war, he attended a movie in New York City’s “Germantown” (the Yorkville area, around East 86th St.). As a newsreel showed German soldiers taking Polish prisoners, the German-American audience erupted in shouts of, “Kill them! Kill them!” Auden was stunned.

On what grounds, he came to wonder, did he even have a right to expect anything better of those around him? His inability to answer this question, he explained, “brought me back to the Church.”

But he was already on the way back, after visiting Spain in 1937, and seeing civil war there tear apart his leftist ideals. Then Hitler invaded Poland, and by the fall of 1940 he was going to church again, and would affirm the Christian faith for the rest of his days.[ii]

Auden’s rediscovery of original sin, the view that we had “never been   happy or good,” was a commonplace event for intellectuals of his day. In 1908, G. K. Chesterton wrote an entire book to explain his return to the Christian fold, putting it down to “the fact of sin – a fact as practical as potatoes” and “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”[iii]Auden himself admired Kierkegaard’s view that “Before God we are always in the wrong.” September 1, 1939  was cited in an introduction to Paul Tillich’s theological masterpiece The Courage to Be, because for all his modernism, Tillich too taught that the ultimate experience is the despair of guilt. The “courage to be” is the courage to affirm oneself in spite of it.[iv]

Is that the lesson we are to draw from our plague of the moment? That the lights have gone out, the music has stopped, and we realize now that all along, we have never been happy or good? Because after all, we are inveterate sinners? Really?

It is not Christianity to which I object. Most Christian thought has nuanced the concept of sin – it’s hardly as black and white as I have portrayed it — and anyway, you see a different form of it in medieval Judaism too, including medieval Judaism that persists, here and there, today. Evangelical Christians were not the only group to defy the social distancing rule so as to pray in droves for a divine end to the pandemic; some Haredi Jews did too, not out of concern for “original sin,” but because of “ordinary sin,” the sin that makes us Jews at least “primally” sinful, if not “originally” so – to the point that plagues may be divine punishments that we deserve. This is the attitude that blamed the Shoah on the victims for not putting m’zuzot on their doors. If that is true religion, then spare me from it.

I see another response to the Covid debacle, a reaffirmation of the more mainstream Jewish belief that human beings, at our core, are really a mixture of bad and good – not essentially sinful, as Auden, Chesterton, and Tillich presupposed. I love Auden the poet, Chesterton the writer, and Tillich the philosopher, but try as I may, I see the world differently.

I think that locked away in “our dives on 52nd St.,” the lights out and the music silenced, we are indeed “children afraid of the night,” but all the more frightened because we know we have indeed been happy and good, and we wonder if we will ever be so again.

I do worry about American society and the American dream that I have come to know and love. It is April 2020, not September 1939, but we too might rightly claim to be watching “the clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade.” And so far, the next decade doesn’t look all that much better, not if we judge tomorrow by the headlines of today: the uneven impact of our plague upon the have-nots and left-behinds; and the bailout efforts gerrymandered to favor corporate banking favorites, for example.

But yesterday, here and there, amidst the April rain and gloom, a rainbow majestically appeared. We are, God help us, ordinary dust of the earth, alive all too often to just our personal well-being, our own self-enrichment, our own creaturely comforts — as much of them as possible before we die, and others be damned. But we are also, equally, and maybe even usually, the love and light of God’s presence, the purity of soul breathed into us at the beginning, our better natures that do come out in the midst of a storm to shine like the sun: the self-sacrifice of hospital workers and first responders; the folk who buy groceries for elderly neighbors and sew makeshift masks because our government cannot get them for us; the phone calls we all make and get with people we haven’t spoken to in years.

In the middle of this April winter of our discontent, the support staff at Hebrew Union College in New York, who double as professional singers and work for us in between their gigs in operas and musicals, sent around their version of the priestly benediction (

I see promise where others see defeat.

And even Auden, back in September, 1939, still had his doubts about the human incapacity to, at least partially, save ourselves, because he ended his masterpiece in a poetic flourish that defies despair:

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Exactly. We seem “defenseless,” feel “beleaguered,” but are charged now more than ever to “show an affirming flame.” Things can change. Tomorrow can be better than yesterday. “The Just can exchange their messages.” The happy and the good can prevail.

[i] Ian Samson, “The Right Poem for the Wrong Time: WH Auden’s September 1, 1939,” The Guardian (August 31, 2019).

[ii] Alan Jacobs, “Auden and the Limits of Poetry,” First Things (August 2002). 

[iii] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy  (1908: Image Books ed., 2001), pp. 4/5.

[iv] Peter Gomes, Introduction, Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be , 2nd edition, (New Haven: Yale University press, 1952).