Chappy Challahween!

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People are always surprised to learn that my kids go “trick-or-treating”.  Cheryl and I have no problem with our kids celebrating Halloween.  We both grew up with Halloween and have great memories of dressing up, getting scared and eating too much candy.  Yes, I know that Halloween has pagan roots and was influenced by Christian teachings.  But, the holiday that our kids take part in tonight is an American “ritual” devoid of anything religious.  While some of you will disagree with me, I believe it is perfectly fine for our kids (under our watchful eyes) to become one of the ghosts or goblins that wander our streets tonight looking for junk food.

 

Many are bothered by Halloween because they feel that Judaism stays away from the dark world that Halloween glorifies.  This is just not true.  Judaism has her fair share of ghosts and goblins.  In the spirit of Halloween, I share with you an excerpt from one of the most popular posts on my blog, a post that gets many hits on a regular basis.  The post contains a 16th century Jewish exorcism ritual that I discovered while researching Jewish ghost stories.  Read it, if you dare, and see for yourself that our tradition believes in a dark side!

 

…[t]o remove a demon from the body of a man or woman, or anything into which a male or female demon has entered…Take an empty flask and a white waxen candle and recite this adjuration in purity:

 

I adjure you, the pure and holy angels Michael, Gabriel, Shuviel, Ahadriel, Zumtiel, Yechutriel, Zumtziel…by 72 names I adjure you, you all the retinues of [evil] spirits in the world – Be’ail Lachush and all your retinue; Kapkafuni the Queen of Demons and all your retinue; and Agrat bat Malkat and all your retinue, and Zmamit and all your retinue, and those that were made on the eve of the Shabbat [This refers to a rabbinic dictum (Avot 5:6) that demons were spawned on the twilight of the sixth day of creation, though in his translation Chajes cites Tikkunei Zohar for this tradition] – that you bring forth that demon immediately and do not detain the mazzik [destructive spirit] of so-and-so, and tell me his name in this circle [circles are important protection against demons and warlocks – Sefer ha-Chasidim 2, Zera ha-Kodesh, Megillat Setarim] that I have drawn in your honor….Immediately they will tell you his name and the name of the father and the name of his mother aloud [demons procreate – Chag. 16a, Eruv. 18, Alef-Bet ben Sira; knowing the name of a spirit is critical to gaining power over it – Testa. Of Solomon]; do not fear.

 

Recite this adjuration in such a way:

 

I adjure you the demon so-and-so, by the utterance of the watchers and the holy ones [Dan. 4:14] by YHWH God of the Heavens, with these names I adjure you the demon so-and-so, son of so-and-so and so-and-so, that you now enter this flask immediately and immediately the flask will turn red [Chajes reports that bottling up the spirit was commonplace and also appears in Islamic exorcism rituals – the inspiration for “I Dream of Jeanie”]. Immediately say to him these five [divine] names YHW….That demon will immediately cry a great and bitter cry from the great pressure; do not believe him until he swears by YUD HA VAV HA explicitly [more divine names in permutation, thereby binding him to do no further harm]. Then leave him alone and pay him no further heed.

 

Text taken from Shoshan Yesod ha-Olam, 16th century medieval magical Hebrew text compiled by Rabbi Joseph Tirshom, a kabbalist from Salonika.  The text above was translated from the Hebrew by Israeli scholar Jeffrey Chajes and can be found in his book, Between Worlds.

Living the Good Life

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In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the deaths of Abraham and Sarah.

“Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything.  Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people”

“Sarah lived to be 127 years old: [These were] the years of Sarah’s life.” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, says that the latter part of this verse was intended to teach that each of Sarah’s 127 years was equally good.

But we have been reading the story. We know that Sarah had some very bad years. She wrestled with infertility. She made the mistake of permitting her husband to have a child with Hagar, the housekeeper. And let’s not overlook what must have been an extremely arduous journey from her homeland in southern Iraq after her husband received a “call” from G-d to travel to Canaan (Israel).

We know that Abraham too had his challenges and struggles. Just last week G-d tested Abraham, asking him to slaughter his son, Isaac. Abraham had to banish his son Ishmael, wrestle with his nephew Lot and struggle with G-d over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. G-d blessed him with everything?

As Sarah dies this week, we read how Abraham owned no land to bury her. He doesn’t have everything! He has to prostrate himself before the Hittite people before he is able to purchase a cave that will serve as a burial place for Sarah.

Why does the Torah make it seem like Abraham and Sarah’s lives were filled with only good years? Why are we taught that they had everything? Because, despite challenges, Abraham and Sarah did have everything and, in their entirety, their lives were good.

How can we say this?

Because our matriarch and patriarch spend their lives developing a relationship, a holy covenant with G-d who promises both of them that their special bond with G-d will be passed on to their offspring forever. Abraham and Sarah’s lives are spent securing the future of their family. Thus, it is not a coincidence that as we read about the death of Abraham and Sarah this week, we also read about Abraham purchasing his first plot of land in Israel (the burial cave) and securing a wife for his son Isaac. As Abraham and Sarah pass away, the stage is set for the next generation to continue living in the holy land with G-d. What a gift Abraham and Sarah give to Isaac and his children.

I say it is time for us to go back to the biblical definition of a good, meaningful life, a life in which we have everything. A “good old age” should not be measured by material possessions, net worth and professional accomplishments. A good old age should be measured by the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren.

 

A Pew Review For The American Jew! My Latest Podcast

Some more insight from my gathering of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders! You can listen here.

Rabbi Andrew Jacobs shares some of the insight he gained at his first gathering of Clal’s (National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) Rabbis Without Borders. The focus of this gathering was on the Pew Survey of the American Jewish community that was released this month (October, 2013). Rabbi Jacobs discusses the survery results and other interesting facts on the American Jewish community – including the six most popular rituals American Jews engage in. Rabbi Jacobs also talks about how synagogues and other Jewish institutions today put up borders that keep the average Jew from affiliating with them. He discusses how powerful it is that a significant number of American Jews feel that remembering the Holocaust, living an ethical life AND having a sense of humor are essential to being Jewish today.

http://www.buzzsprout.com/7399/123870-a-pew-review-for-the-american-jew

Judaism Is Innovation: Day 2 Of Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship

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I returned from my first session of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders late Tuesday night.  As I reflect upon the myriad of information and ideas that were shared with me and my colleagues during our two days in New York City, one interesting moment at Ramat Shalom keeps popping into my mind.  The moment, which happened just recently, involved an anxious bat mitzvah mother.  For those who do not know, each of our b’nai mitzvah families are required to fill out a form for me listing the names of all family and friends who will take honors during the bar/bat mitzvah service.  On the form are listed all of the honors that a family may assign.  In this interesting moment that I keep thinking about, the bat mitzvah mother emailed me saying:

Rabbi, I need to see you immediately.  I need help with the honors for the service.  There is one that I simply can’t assign and all my friends who have had a bat mitzvah at Ramat Shalom tell me I have to assign it.  Help please!

The mom and I set a time to meet and she came into my office.  She was really upset as she explained that she did not have a family member to give the honor of being the “siddur holder” (siddur is the prayer book).  Since all of her friends told her she had to have a “siddur holder”, she did not want to leave it empty and look like she was not respecting an important Jewish tradition. As the mom explained her concern, I smiled and explained to her that the “siddur holder” was an honor I invented about five years ago.  There is no sacred tradition involving a siddur holder.  I made it up in an attempt to give our many inter-faith families an honor to assign family members during the Torah Service.  All of the honors involved with the Torah service are reserved for Jews as they involve carrying and blessing the Torah.  For years, I watched families put together beautiful supplements for their services that listed the names of those taking honors during the Torah Service and the bar mitzvah dad’s name, grandma’s name or the name of another important family member who should have had a real role to play in this sacred part of the service was left off because they were not Jewish.  This felt wrong to me – so I created the “siddur holder” which could be assigned to an important, non-Jewish family member who is willing to hold the prayer book while the bar/bat mitzvah holds the Torah and says a few prayers.  My creation was a brand new Jewish innovation that, over the years, has become a pretty well respected tradition at Ramat Shalom.  Thus, the bat mitzvah mom felt she needed to assign it in order to respect Jewish tradition.  Her husband is Jewish and all important family members and friends were given an honor.  While it took a little convincing, she finally agreed that there was no need to assign the siddur holder.  All was good.

This moment captures one of the crucial aspects of the Rabbis Without Borders discussion this week.  Every tradition and ritual we have in Judaism –every single one – was once a new innovation.  Time made these innovations into valued traditions.   King David knew nothing about a synagogue as there were none when he ruled around 1000 BCE.  Abraham and Sarah did not light Shabbat candles 4,000 years ago.  This ritual developed long after they lived.  When Judah the Maccabee attended a wedding, he did not see the groom break a glass under the chuppah.  The first Jew to do this was living in Babylonia in the fourth century, more than 400 years after Judah saved the Jewish people.  Moses’ wife was not an Israelite – but that did not affect his children’s ability to enter into the covenant that still defines Judaism for many.  It was not until sometime around the second century that one’s Jewishness was based upon the religion of his/her mother.  None of the great rabbis of the Talmud had a formal bar mitzvah ceremony.  It would be their descendants, centuries later, who would become the first bar mitzvah boys.  And what about the bat mitzvah?  This innovation was not introduced until 1921 and would be followed by the spread of egalitarian practices and, in 1972, the ordination of the first female rabbi.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, who is the Co-President of Clal along with Rabbi Brad Hirshfield (I wrote about Rabbi Hirshfield’s insight earlier this week), spoke with my colleagues and me earlier this week about the Pew Survey that I have mentioned in a previous blog post.   Despite the statistics reported in Pew that document the dramatic lack of involvement of Jews in Jewish life, Rabbi Kula is optimistic – directing our attention to the fact that the vast majority of Jews are proud of their Judaism and feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.  The problem is, however, a significant number of these Jews are on the other side of a border that separates them from those of us who are, in some way, actively engaged in Jewish practice.

This is where Rabbis Without Borders come in.

It was Rabbis Without Borders who, 2,000 years ago, were able to look beyond the sacrificial system that defined Judaism and introduce the concept of the synagogue to the Jewish world that was still reeling from the destruction of the ancient Temple.  It was Rabbis Without Borders who would begin to encourage everyone to light candles on Friday night and bring the joy of Shabbat into the home – demolishing the concept that ritual practice was limited to the priests in the Temple.   In doing so, they would give generations of Jews one of the most meaningful rituals we have.  It was the courageous Rabbi Without Borders, Mordechai Kaplan, who broke down barriers and paved the way for young women to celebrate their coming of age in the Jewish world by creating the bat mitzvah ceremony.  Rabbi Kula urged my colleagues and me to follow in the footsteps of these and many other innovative rabbis who were not afraid to create new ways to engage and connect Jews to Judaism.  Their creations brought new life to their generation of Jews.  Today’s Rabbis Without Borders have the potential to do the same thing.  Today’s Rabbis Without Borders need to be willing to see new ideas as not being outside the boundaries of Judaism and, thus, detrimental to tradition.  On the contrary, today’s Rabbis Without Borders are being urged to see new ideas as tomorrow’s rituals that will knock down borders and engage those who are waiting to be inspired.

I am very proud to be counted as a Rabbi Without Borders and I look forward to discussing new and creative ways to make our synagogue walls more permeable to the vast majority of Jews who dwell outside of them.  I know that many of you will be a vital part of this discussion and I invite you to share your ideas with me.

Knocking Down Borders: Day 1 Of Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship – BRING IT ON!!!

At my first gathering of Rabbis Without Borders today, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the Co-President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, suggested that more and more, American Jews are in need of the Torah of Rabbis and not the Profession of Rabbis.  This was very hard to hear.  In essence, Rabbi Hirschfield, who has been recognized by Newsweek as one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis, told a bunch of American rabbis that our profession, as we know it today, is at risk of becoming irrelevant.   20% of rabbis face the real possibility of being out of work according to Rabbi Hirschfield and Rabbi Irwin Kula, the other Co-President of Clal. 

American Jews still need and want what rabbis have to teach them, but they are not so willing to pay rabbis for our knowledge.  Rabbi Hirschfield cites the trend away from paid clergy in the Protestant community and asserts that the Jewish community tends to eventually embrace Protestant trends.  As a career rabbi who has invested a great deal of time, energy and resources into becoming the best “professional” clergyman I can be, Rabbi Hirschfield’s suggestion that I and my colleagues might soon be irrelevant made me extremely uncomfortable.

As a rabbi in South Florida, I often see how highly trained, reputable and experienced rabbis who have earned their rabbinic title only after years of extensive study at nationally recognized rabbinic seminaries are being marginalized, replaced by people who have every legal right to call themselves “rabbis”, but do not have the impressive credentials of rabbis who were ordained by national seminaries.  Arguing over who is and who is not a legitimate rabbi is a waste of time and will get us nowhere. 

Instead, my colleagues and I must ask ourselves: “how do we keep ourselves relevant?”  This question must be asked and a serious conversation must be started.  I feel so strongly about this because I do believe that rabbis who have spent years studying Torah in a seminary while developing cutting-edge educational techniques and learning about the complexities of the Jewish community have valuable tools to offer American Jews.  These tools are our stories, our passions, our understanding of why Judaism matters.  These tools, if shared appropriately, have the potential to connect American Jews to Torah and unleash their own Jewish story.

Continuing down the same old path that we rabbis have been on for many years now, working in our synagogues, training b’nai mitzvah, teaching adult education classes, leading services – this is not what is going to keep us relevant.  Lots of people can do these tasks – tasks that are essential and not ones we should walk away from, but tasks which lock us into positions that can be replaced by someone with less training and skill.

I am not willing to see the American Rabbi as irrelevant.  But, as I type these words, I know that this mean that I must be willing to take chances with my rabbinate, push down my borders and seek new paths that will allow me to inspire my community and others seeking a real connection to Judaism.   So, as I complete Day 1 of my Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, I say: “bring it on!”

Thank you to all who inspired me today.

Incredible, Inspiring, Astonding Jewish Commitment

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My latest podcast focusing on tremendous Jewish Commitment is now up.  Warning: you will remember this podcast the next time you say you are too busy or too tired to connect with your Jewish community.

http://www.buzzsprout.com/7399/121011-incredible-inspiring-astonding-jewish-commitment

Cell Phones And The Ark: What The Flood Story Teaches Us About Technology

With this podcast, I think I might be up to date….https://www.buzzsprout.com/admin/episodes/120438-inviting-in-the-wanderers-remembering-our-roots-the-power-of-the-ushpizin