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Shabbat Ha-Chodesh

Shabbat Ha-Chodesh - Parshat Vayikra “A Faith That Unites, A Faith That Divides”

March 23, 2012

When the common people come up to God for the holidays, whoever goes in by the North Gate to pray shall proceed to leave by the South Gate; whoever goes in by the South Gate to pray will proceed to leave by the North Gate; he shall not return by way of the gate he came in, but shall go forth straight before him.” ( Ezekiel 46.9/Haftara for Shabbat Ha-­Chodesh)

In 1970, I and some members of our youth group developed a relationship with a couple of the local Lubavitch rabbis — Rabbi Manis Friedman and Rabbi Moishe Feller. They invited us to come and visit them at Chabad House in St. Paul for a Shabbat and we were intrigued. Their friendliness,  the non-judgmental attitudes, their  enthusiasm  was  very  attractive to  me  and  to  my  friends. We were passionate about our Reform  Judaism, but mainly  through  our  commitment to social justice, although we really  enjoyed  the Shabbat weekends we spent with  our friends from other cities four times a year.

We were talking about this in the youth lounge at Temple Israel when we got word that Rabbi Shapiro wanted to see us. Max Shapiro, the senior Rabbi at Temple Israel, was the kindest, most compassionate rabbi I have ever known. But that day, he frowned at us and his brow was creased.

“Why do you want to visit our Lubavitch friends?” he asked, with a bare hint of a smile. We answered that we were interested in expanding our contact with other Jews and thought maybe they had something to teach us. I was the one who said, “They have invited us for Shabbat.”

Rabbi Shapiro sat behind his desk and ruminated. “Well,” he said, “I’m not sure about this at all.” And after another minute or two, he continued, “I give you my permission to visit them. But remember, you should look at what you experience there the same way you would regard visiting a Catholic church.”

It was now our turn to be unsettled. We all loved Rabbi Shapiro, so nobody was going to disagree with him, especially in his own study! So, we made our goodbyes and went down to the youth lounge and closed the door, after which everyone  opened  their mouths.

“What did he mean, give us permission!” “… the same as a Catholic church? “That was weird,  man…”

“He can’t tell us what to do!”

“I didn’t want to go before, but now  I  do!”

And suddenly, instead of 2 or 3 of us, a bunch of us decided to go to accept the Shabbat invitation from Chabad. We planned it for when school got out so it didn’t interfere with our studies or activities.

When the day came, I drove over to the Chabad house with a friend and where we were greeted warmly by Rabbi Feller, who told us where to put our overnight bags. We found a dark bedroom, turned on the light and figured who and what would go where, changed for Shabbat and went back downstairs.

The evening went by in a blur. We had a rousing Shabbat evening service and a boisterous meal. It was half way through the evening when I realized that there were no girls at the table, only serving us food. I wandered out from the table and found a whole group of girls in the front hall, apparently having a separate program that night. I asked one of them her name and she looked at me seriously and said, “Uhh, I think you should ask Rabbi Friedman why you shouldn’t be talking with me.” Which kind of freaked me out, because for a whole bunch of us, talking to girls was one of the main attractions of going on Shabbat weekends in the first place.

We stayed up until 3 AM with the rabbis that night, talking about everything under the sun, including why they thought we shouldn’t be talking with girls. We protested our innocence and they said they weren’t worried about our words, only what we might do if we were alone. The mood broke and we decided to go to bed.

I climbed the steps and found my room. When I opened the door, I realized, to my horror, that someone had left the light on. I may have been a Reform Jew, but I knew you didn’t turn lights on and off on Shabbat. And I was not going to break Shabbat at Chabad House, even if it was to turn off a light at 3 AM so I could sleep. No, I slept that night with a towel wrapped around my head!

That is where my journey traveling the many expressions of Judaism began. Within the next two years I spent all night studying at a Conservative synagogue, found myself bewildered at an Orthodox Rosh Hashana service, and still friends with Rabbi Feller and Rabbi Friedman. Some of that original group had gone farther and taken up very traditional Jewish practices, which drove their Reform parents crazy. All of us who went that night were changed, even if we didn’t all change our belief and practice.

At the University of Michigan, my Hillel Rabbi was Yehiel Poupko, the son of Rabbi Baruch Poupko, z’l, from Shaare Torah here in Pittsburgh. And pretty soon, I was leading the Reform minyan on Friday nights and praying with the Orthodox minyan on Shabbat morning.

In those early days, I was stunned by the amount of prejudice I heard from both sides about each other. My Reform friends would look at my suspiciously when I talked about my Orthodox friends, saying that they were nothing but medieval, superstitious  relics,  incompatible  with  the  truths  of  modernity.  My  Orthodox friends would scoff at my Reform friends, scorning them as virtual pagans (I have softened the language of both sides for public consumption…).

Things came to a head when, after the summer of sophomore year, in a story some of you know well, I proclaimed to my parents that I would no longer do chores on Shabbat, having taken on a strict personal practice of the day. They surprised me by agreeing instantly, saying I could just do them on Sunday. I was feeling quite bold now, so I continued, and said, “Well, I want you to know that just before it gets dark on Friday for Shabbat, I  am going to unscrew the light  bulb in the refrigerator so I do not turn on a light every time I open it to get a  glass  of milk.”

My parents looked stunned. But my mother, never at a loss for words, looked at me and said, “You go to Mars.” “What?” “Just what I said! You go to Mars. I didn’t raise you with motzi every night and Shabbat every week for you to turn into some kind of refrigerator light Jew who cares more about light bulbs than his own parents!” And she stomped out of the room. My Dad gave me a withering look and went after her. He didn’t care about the light bulb, but the household ran smoothly on only one principle, which was don’t upset Mom — which I had just done. It was a rough summer until I went back to Michigan.

And now, more than 40 years later, I find myself still deeply involved in the battles of our people, the tough ones involving how we speak to each other, how we organize our community and share its wonderful resources. This can be very hard, for we are members of a faith that unites, and a faith that divides as well.

How does our faith unite us? On easy issues when there is no alternative but to stand together:

  • First, there is Iran, which has delegitimized Israel in every public forum. We all agree that it should not have nuclear weapons that will make it easier to wipe their Israel off the map. We have near unanimity on that one.
  • Second, anti-Semitic murdering terrorists in Toulouse and Mumbai threaten all Jews, regardless of which stream of Judaism they are involved. We pretty much agree on that, too.
  • Third, American Jewish kids shouldn’t have to pray in public schools, observe Christmas or Easter or be ostracized because they do not profess or practice some form of Christianity. Our Jewish high school athletes should not be subjected to prayers of another religion as the price of walking out onto the playing field. Most of us agree with this, but not all of us.

No matter whether or not we keep kosher or Shabbat, we have an interest in making sure we are all okay. When Beth Shalom suffered from a major fire several years ago, Jews of all kinds came together to ensure the safety of children and adults and to rescue the Torah scrolls from damage.

We do so well when we face an outside threat. It is in those moments that the old slogan from the Six Day War in 1967 actually comes alive. “We Are One.” We are one in Toulouse. We are one in the face of every threat to our community, here and abroad.

It is when things are calmer that we too often form a circular firing squad. We question each other’s legitimacy and reduce our authentic disagreements to a zero sum game: “Well, we can’t BOTH be right!” This is something I have heard from Jews of every stripe about other Jews who disagree with them. This is when our faith, the thread that holds us together, is snapped.

I have heard an Orthodox Rabbi wonder aloud in public if he could say “Amen” to my b’racha, or blessing over bread.

I have heard a Reform Rabbi threaten to dissociate from me if I maintained friendship with an Orthodox  Rabbi.

I have heard a Conservative Rabbi reduce all our differences of principle to the variety of ice cream flavors found at Baskin Robbins. I mean, how can I get mad at you if you like mango and I  like  chocolate?

I have heard atheist Jews denounce we who are religious (and yes, we Reform Jews are religious!) as the cause of all the troubles we have suffered.

I have heard Zionist Jews blame American Jews for lack of support and American Jews accuse Israeli Jews of lack of gratitude.

Sadly, in the last 40 years since my visit to Chabad House, the rhetoric on the extremes has gotten worse, along with the difficulties in working together for a common cause.

When I began as your Rabbi in 1988, we hosted the community Yom Ha-Shoa (Holocaust Remembrance) service in this very sanctuary, with world-renowned scholar Emil Fackenheim as our speaker. We opened our doors to the Falk Auditorium  to  accommodate crowds that resembled  those on  High Holidays.

Within seven years, by 1995, we could not come together in the sanctuary of Beth Shalom to mourn the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin because my Orthodox friends would not enter that space. We crammed ourselves into the social hall instead and the feeling in the room was less than what we had hoped for.

In Israel, even Orthodox Jews are not all readily accepted by each other. When I visited the city of Beit Shemesh, not 25 minutes from Jerusalem, with a group of mixed gender rabbis, we witnessed the pain and heartache of Modern Orthodox Jews who faced insults, menacing and even vandalism at the hands of a few extremists in the Charedi community.

When we met with a Rabbi representing that community, we had to meet in a secular school setting for his and our own safety. The rabbi who spoke to us, Shmuel Papenheim, admitted that he is not even trusted by his own people because of his willingness to meet with us in the first place.

And many of you know of the threats against Anat Hoffman, the head of our movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, when she dared to carry our Temple Sinai Torah scroll at the Western Wall plaza on the women’s side.

The trends are not good, they do not augur well. But, in the face of this lack of common purpose and courtesy, we here in Pittsburgh have not sat back and cried into our sleeves.

No, we have made steps, small and large, to promote civility, understanding and even respect among Jews who believe such powerfully different things about the nature of  our faith:

For going on 15 years, I  have presided over efforts behind closed doors that   have challenged us to state differences stripped of contempt, disrespect and name-calling. Through the Jewish Unity Project and now the Intra-Faith Dialogue of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, we have created forums for audiences small and large in which we have stood up and stated our principles  with integrity and  humility.

We have spent the time to learn about each other as gifts of God, so even hard differences of principle do not outweigh the respect and caring shown for each person.

I began on this challenging, but enriching path of cooperation and understanding with a unique soul, Rabbi Yisroel Miller, who served Poale Zedek for more than 25 years. I heard someone complain about his friendship with me, saying to him, “But you’re Orthodox!” He replied sweetly, “Actually, no, I’m Charedi, quite a bit to the right of most Orthodox.”

Years ago, our local Federation asked us to visit the part of Israel that is our Partnership 2000 region, Carmiel and Misgav. I went with Rabbi Miller and then leader of Beth El of the South Hills, Rabbi Neil Scheindlin. Three lay people of each group  went with us.

By that time, Rabbi Miller and I were studying Talmud together every week, now good friends. The week before we were to leave, he closed his Talmud folio and said with great concern, “Jamie, there’s something I have to  tell you  before we go.” I said, “Go ahead.”

He said, “There may be an occasion in which we are asked to pray together as a group for one of the regular daily services.” I nodded. Then he dropped the bomb. “If that happens, just know that I can’t count you in the minyan (the 10 men necessary for public prayer).

I breathed in slowly as I tried to work out his reasoning. After some silence I said, “Yisroel,  I  think  I  have  this  straight.  You  are  not  claiming  my  mother  isn’t Jewish.” Now it was his turn to nod. “So, you must think that I am not  what is  called in Jewish Law, ‘an infant stolen by pirates’ or one who doesn’t know   anything  about  traditional  Jewish practice.”

He nodded again, more vigorously this time. “So,” I concluded, “you must think I actually know enough about Judaism to be a heretic! And heretics don’t count in the minyan!”   He  nodded  again.  “That’s right.”

And I said, “Thank you, Yisroel, for respecting my intellect and learning enough to consider me a heretic!” But then I said, “But you have to understand, Yisroel, that I don’t grant you one whit of authority to delegitimize me at all!” And that’s when he broke out into a great big smile and said, “You are absolutely right! I don’t have that authority! You get it perfectly!” And we went back to studying Talmud. Both of us absolutely right on our core issues of integrity and principle!

As we finished studying that day, Rabbi Miller looked at me and said, “You know, Debbie and I would love to have you and Barbara over for dessert next week.” And, thinking of our difficult conversation, I said, “Yisroel, we would love to, but we could never accept your invitation without knowing in advance that you and Debbie would come to our house and eat our food on our dishes as well!” He thought hard and finally said, “You’re right. Debbie and I would be delighted to eat at your house.” This was amazing in that Rabbi Miller did not usually eat in the homes of his own congregation!

Since that day, the conversations between our different communities have been just as rich and challenging. Just last week there was a wonderful concert of Jewish music led by Jewish women of every conceivable Jewish affiliation.

Actually I should say I heard it was great, because I was not invited. It was only for women. And you should know one thing – they love Sara Stock Mayo!

Just last week I wrote a letter to our Federation supporting the use of community funds to rebuild our leaky mikvah, or ritual bath. I did so because Rabbi Symons and I, indeed all the rabbis of our area, use the mikvah without even a peep of complaint from the Orthodox community. My Orthodox friend, Judy Kanal, who asked me to write this letter, was so happy with what I wrote she was on the verge of tears as she said, “Only in Pittsburgh.” You see, in most communities Reform and Conservative are barred from using the Orthodox mikvah — but not here.

The last amazing moment of revelation occurred in a discussion I had with community members when my Orthodox friends came to realize that Reform Jews give generously to our Federation community to help support Orthodox institutions because they are good Reform Jews! Not just because they are generous, but because they are impelled by their Reform Judaism to help all Jews in our community! At that moment, I saw nods of real understanding among my Orthodox friends. Yes, we Reform Jews benefit from the tenacity of both Conservative and Orthodox brothers and sisters who practice their faith with determination. Our traditional brothers and sisters benefit too, when we are the best Reform Jews we know how to be.

We come in different doors, but we stand with each other. We leave by different doors, but we are one people, just as Ezekiel preached more than 2,000 years ago. The Temple of Ezekiel’s time has become the notion of peoplehood, something we all affirm, no matter the path we enter or exit.

Just two nights ago I heard the wisdom of Dr. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us. He was trying to figure out the answer to the puzzle of how Americans are, at the same time, the most fiercely religious people of any Western democracy, the most diversely religious people and, at the same time, the most tolerant!!

The essence of his book echoes Ezekiel. People who attend religious services, groups and activities are demonstrably nicer than those who don’t. Read his book for the convincing data. We are nicer to those who are like us and even those who are not. And this social phenomenon has nothing to do with religious ideology. It is the fact of simple social interaction. Even atheists who attend religious services are demonstrably “nicer” than those who don’t!

Because, in my view, they all live out the wisdom of Ezekiel – we come in from different entrances and leave by different exits, but when we are together, we recognize each other’s humanity. And when we do, we can smile, even at those who  believe radically  different things than  we do. We affirm  each other as Jews.

I believe that if we are true to ourselves, we can care for each other — such a simple lesson to comprehend. Hillel taught it 2,000 years ago. What a hard lesson to integrate into the fabric of our lives. But, as Hillel went on, as if to specifically inspire us - if not now when?

Im ein ani li mi li                              If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Uch’sheani l’atzmi ma ani         But if I am only for myself, what am I?

V’im lo achshav, eimatai?         And, if not now when?

If not now, when? Hillel asked long ago. And you know, he is asking us now as well. If not now, when will we choose to become one? When will we reject divisiveness? When will we affirm our common history and shared destiny? If not now, when?

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784