“Warmth” may be the word I use to meditate on my experience serving as the visiting student rabbi at Temple Israel this past weekend. The smiles were wide enough to brighten even the darkest room. Of course, leading Shabbat services, engaging in text study, and delivering a d’var torah were a standalone blessing, allowing me the opportunity to play the role of a rabbi for a weekend, further invigorating my love of community, Jewish morals and ethics, and intellectual rigor. That being said, it is somewhat challenging for me to distinguish feelings of gratitude for the present moment from feelings of deep nostalgia. Standing in front of the congregation in which I grew up flooded back memories of religious school spaghetti dinners and the poignant conversations that followed. It reminded me of the hours upon hours spent studying liturgy, torah, and text for Bar Mitzvah. Childhood Shabbat songs and musical segments from interfaith choir rehearsals trickled into my ears. Simply put, returning to Temple brought warmth to my heart beyond comparison.
In this week’s parasha, parashat Sh’lach, the Jewish people travel from Mount Sinai toward the Promised Land. Interestingly enough, the Israelite people are not merely referred to as the traditional b’nei yisrael, the children of Israel. Rather, we can see the additional phrase of kol adat b’nei yisrael, the entire Israelite community. Temple Israel is not just my people–it is my Israelite community. It is my hope that our relationship continues to flourish in meaningful and fulfilling ways in the future. Kein y’hi ratzon, shabbat shalom!
If you look around the walls of our sanctuary, you will see the words of our evening prayer, Hashkivienu. In an amazing architectural feat, you can read the words from the inside as well as the outside. Simply put, our prayer is for peace. We ask God to spread over us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace.
A shelter of peace; what an incredible prayer. Here at Temple Israel, we strive each and every day to make that prayer a reality. We want Temple Israel to be a shelter of peace for all who enter it. We pray that every person who walks through our doors feels welcome, accepted, embraced, and loved. But it is not enough to demonstrate these values inside the walls of our building alone, we have to make sure we are embodying these values each and every day, inside temple, and out of it.
This is one of the many reasons that we are so excited that Temple Israel will have a strong presence at the Heartland PRIDE Parade this year. Partnering with Beth El, our two congregations have created a joint Task Force to mobilize our communities. Our communities will walk together, hand-in-hand, to demonstrate our support and embody the values that we hold dear. We hope that you will join us on Saturday, June 30 for this event as we celebrate Shabbat by praying with our feet. Together, we can take another step in spreading our sukkat shalom, our shelter of peace, over all of our Omaha community.
Temple Israel is taking part in the Heartland Pride Parade on June 30, 2018, and all congregants and friends are invited to join this fun, family-friendly event. Organized by the TI Pride Task Force, our presence at the Heartland Pride Parade will show congregational support for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) members and publicly demonstrate Reform Judaism’s values.
“One of our goals at Temple Israel and in Reform Judaism as a movement is that all people feel included and accepted for who they are,” says Rabbi Deana Berezin. “We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and we each have within us a spark of Divinity. We strive to make sure that every person who walks through the doors at Temple feels that they are treated with dignity, respect, acceptance, and love.”
Plans for Temple Israel’s parade entry include a rainbow-hued chuppah, t-shirts, and a banner. We will walk alongside other congregations of faith, community organizations, and businesses that share our values, reinforcing a message of love and acceptance of our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors.
The TI Pride Task Force started under the lay leadership of Robert Friedman, a Temple Israel member who wanted to help organize our involvement in issues and events for LGBTQ+ congregants and allies. With the support of Temple Israel’s clergy and the Board of Directors, TI Pride hosted a Shabbat dinner in February and started planning for the Heartland Pride Parade after hearing great enthusiasm for the idea.
“This is an exciting effort to show that Temple Israel is welcoming and loving to all people regardless of age, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” Friedman says. “Part of our mission as Jews is to repair the world. Marching in this parade is a big step forward for love and equality not only in our congregation, but also in our community. It is only through solidarity that we thrive and this effort to march in the parade shows the solidarity of our congregation.”
There are many ways to join in the festivities and support TI Pride. Everyone is invited to walk the parade route with the Temple Israel group in the morning of June 30 in Council Bluffs, IA; mark your calendar now and a schedule for the day will be available soon. Please send an email to RSVP@templeisraelomaha.com to let us know if you’re planning to walk at the parade and to reserve a t-shirt. We also need volunteers to help at the parade, to carry water and sunscreen. Look for a table in the Simon Community Court on upcoming Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings to sign up and pre-order your t-shirt.
After the Heartland Pride Parade, the TI Pride Task Force will continue hosting and promoting events for LGBTQ+ members and allies in our congregation and in the wider community. Contact Robert Friedman at email@example.com if you are interested in future opportunities or to learn more about our TI Pride Task Force. Or join us at our next task force meeting on April 22, at 10:30 a.m. at Temple Israel.
As we prepare to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt at Passover this Friday night, now is a time of year when we Jews think about the meaning of freedom, justice, law, and responsibility. Last week at the annual gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), I had the honor of opening the convention with a teaching on these issues, and I’d like to share that teaching with you:
The eleventh blessing of the weekday Amidah is a prayer for judges and the justice system. It says:
Pour Your spirit upon the rulers of all lands;
guide them that they may govern justly.
O may You alone rule over us in steadfast love and compassion.
Barukh atah Adonai, ohev tzedakah u’mishpat
Blessed are You Adonai, who loves righteousness and justice.
Why does this prayer conclude by mentioning both tzedakah and mishpat? Since it’s about judges and governance, wouldn’t it have been sufficient for it to say: “Blessed are You Adonai, who loves justice”? What does tzedakah have to do with the law?
This pairing of mishpat (justice/law) and tzedakah (righteousness) in relation to the justice system goes all the way back to the Tanakh – and our ancient Sages found it perplexing. They say in the Talmud: “Surely, where there is mishpat there is no tzedakah, and where there is tzedakah, there is no mishpat!” In other words, these two concepts would seem on their face to be mutually exclusive: Law is law, and righteousness is righteousness – and the one has nothing to do with the other.
In resolving this difficulty, our Sages discover a new concept of justice – “a synthesis of opposites,” as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik puts it – and this new concept would inform Jewish jurisprudence from that point forward. They call it: Mishpat she-yesh bo tzedakah – law that incorporates righteousness.
Rabbi Soloveitchik says that, in Jewish thought, mishpat and tzedakah – law and righteousness – are not mutually exclusive. Rather, he says, they are “two sides of the same coin.”
Mishpat (justice/law) refers to the rules, and the principles, and the processes that are written in law books and constitutions. These rules and principles are the backbone of the justice system. By necessity, they are formal and formulaic, and they are designed to be applied uniformly to everyone.
In mishpat, justice is blind.
But when it comes to real life, justice cannot be completely blind. It can’t be blind to the particular circumstances in which people exist and act, or the nuances and vagaries of practical living. And that’s where tzedakah comes in.
Tzedakah is the empathic, compassionate, human dimension of justice. It’s found not in books, but in life. It’s about real people, living day to day. It’s about listening to their stories, and empathizing with them.
It’s about understanding that life is messy and complicated, and that, sometimes, mechanically reading the text without also considering the context – and applying the rules without also considering what is right – may produce lawful outcomes, but not always just outcomes.
As Soloveitchik puts it: “Law that lacks tzedakah, that does not draw from the wellsprings of feelings and tenderness, of heartfelt ways of pleasantness and inner kindliness, that is confined by its boundaries and does not break through its borders to go beyond what the law requires – such law is absolute wickedness.”
The antidote to such wickedness is Mishpat she-yesh bo tzedakah – law that incorporates righteousness. This, in our tradition, is the meaning of true justice.
Barukh atah Adonai, ohev tzedakah u’mishpat.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who loves righteousness and justice.
During my year in Jerusalem as part of my studies at HUC-JIR, professors warned me that the spring would consist of “Purim, Passover, and packing.” No sooner does the year begin than we celebrate Purim, and before you know it, Passover arrives, and then, all of the sudden, you’re packing to leave to go back stateside. The spring, they said, always seems to go so quickly, and our holidays seem to come before you know it.
This year, it seems to me, that everything seems to be happening so very quickly. We just celebrated an incredible Purim together as a community and its already time to start thinking about Passover! It’s hard to believe that the time to stock up on matzah has already arrived! As I begin to think about preparing for this holiday, the themes of these two holidays have been on my mind. During Purim, we celebrate the strength of Esther who stood up for herself and her people. During Passover, we celebrate a different kind of strength — the strength it takes to walk into the unknown and know that, together, we find our paths forward.
There are so many times in our lives, each and every day, that we have to walk into the unknown and trust in ourselves, in God, and in one another, to navigate the road before us. During the month leading up to high holidays, we do a great deal of soul searching as we begin the year anew. This year, I’d like to suggest that we do the same in preparation for Passover. Just as our ancestors stood at the shores of the sea, staring at what seemed to be an impossible situation, we too find ourselves face to face with unrealistic odds each and every day. It takes tremendous strength and faith to believe that we can, and that we will, overcome. It takes mental and spiritual preparedness to confront and conquer the impossible. But we can, and we will. But we have to give ourselves the gift of time and patience. We need to do the soul searching, find the inner strength, and reach out to others when we need help.
We usually think of this meaning that you’re not supposed to use God’s name in curse words, or throw it around willy-nilly. But Jewish law understands this mitzvah much more specifically to mean: “do not swear falsely in God’s name.” It’s about taking an oath: swearing to God that such-and-such is true when you know it’s not.
It’s interesting that, right after telling us that there is only one God and we shall have no other gods, the very next mitzvah is this one – not to swear falsely in God’s name – a mitzvah not about action, but about speech. Why is that?
Rabbi Eliyahu Touger says it has to do with the fact that we are created in God’s image. Just as God’s created the world through speech, we have the power to create and impact the world with our speech.
The bottom line: Our words matter.
When we lie, our words can cause serious harm to other people. And when we swear to the lie in God’s name, we make God an accomplice to our lie – and we do real damage to God’s reputation, too.
Of course, as much as we know we’re not supposed to lie, people do lie all the time. Sometimes they’re really bad lies. But sometimes, we tell what we like to call “white lies” – lies we rationalize to ourselves are OK, because they don’t really hurt anyone.
Knowing this, our sages required litigants in certain court cases to swear an oath in God’s name. They reasoned that someone who might otherwise tell a white lie thinking it won’t harm anyone, would be deterred if it meant implicating God in the lie – and they knew God was watching.
But what happens when people think God isn’t watching?
There was a recent psychological experiment about this. Participants were asked to flip a coin. If it landed on heads, their assignment would be to watch a funny video. If it landed on tails, they would have to solve a hard logic problem or puzzle. They were told that whichever task they ended up having to do, the next person would be asked to do the other task. Then, they were left alone in the room to flip the coin and do the assigned task.
What happened? Ninety percent of the participants cheated, and gave themselves the easier task without even flipping the coin. They even did this knowing that it would mean the next person would have to do the much harder task.
When confronted about their cheating, they admitted it – but they all came up with some rationale to justify it: “I had somewhere to be right afterward.” Or: “The next person is probably better at logic problems than I am.”
The authors of the study said when they asked participants if it would be immoral not to flip the coin, 100% of them said yes. Yet 90% ended up doing it anyway.
(You can read the article about this study by clicking here. The experiment I described is discussed toward the end of the article.)
I wonder: if they had been asked to swear an oath to God that they would flip the coin honestly, would that have helped?
I guess the question is: how serious are we today about not taking God’s name in vain?
Today the Temple Israel hosted the Tri-Faith Initiative as they announced their founding Executive Director, Reverend Bud Heckman. Opening remarks from Dr. Maryanne Stevens, RSM, our Tri-Faith Initiative Board Chair, highlighted his impressive background and extraordinary readiness to guide the Tri-Faith Initiative to the next level. “To,” in his words, “make the impact of what happens here in Omaha be felt around the world.” Rev. Heckman emphasized how excited, truly excited, he is to be part of something he described as bold, unique, beautiful, and intentional. Our three clergy leaders followed with warm welcoming remarks. Rabbi Brian Stoller described the origin of Tri-Faith as an answer to the question “What if the children of Abraham could build something together?” Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes of Countryside Community Church answered, “The Tri-Faith’s time is now.” And Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi of the American Muslim Institute said, “We will build on the history of all our beloved institutions.” Dr. Stevens closed with an update on the Tri-Faith campus build, informing us that $7.5 million of the $9.7 million needed has been raised, Countryside Community Church will be completed in Spring of 2019, and the Tri-Faith building is tentatively scheduled to be complete in Fall 2019.
Do Reform Jews have to believe in God?
With so much pain and suffering and chaos in the world and in our own lives, a lot of people have a hard time believing in God. And yet, the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is to believe in the existence of God.
The sages say it’s because God is the foundation of the whole Torah, and without God, the other 612 mitzvot simply wouldn’t have any authority.
My student Judy came up with a great analogy to explain this: Suppose you drop your kids off at grandma’s house and tell them, “You better follow grandma’s rules.” The only way they’re going to follow Grandma’s rules is if they believe that Grandma is really in charge. And in order for them to believe Grandma is really in charge, they have to believe there actually is someone called Grandma, who gave them rules to follow.
It’s the same with the Torah.
God says, “Remember all my commandments and do them.” But if you don’t believe God has any authority to give you commandments, why would you follow them? And how could you believe God has that authority unless you believe that there is, in fact, a God?
Simple logic, right?
Well, maybe not so simple.
Reform Judaism, in every one of its four platforms since 1885, has affirmed the centrality of God in our religious philosophy. At the same time, we know that in Reform Judaism today, there are many who don’t believe – and we still think of them as good Reform Jews.
In the early 1990s, this issue was put to the test when a “humanist” congregation applied for membership in the Reform movement.
This synagogue practiced Jewish traditions, celebrated Jewish holidays, and its members were Jews. So what made them “humanist”? They had eliminated God from their prayer book and their services altogether. In effect, it was Judaism without God.
How do you think the Reform movement responded to their petition to join the Union?
They said “no.” (Click here to read the movement’s full statement outlining its reasoning.)
Belief in God has always been central to Reform Judaism, they said. So while individual members of Reform congregations can believe however they choose, a congregation that – as an institution – eliminates God from Judaism is simply outside the boundaries of Reform Judaism.
This means that – even with all the change in the world, and all the good reasons to doubt – in Reform Judaism, it is still a mitzvah to believe in God.
This week, we celebrated the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat, which is also the New Year for the Trees. It is a time to celebrate the bounty and the beauty of our Earth and our connection to it. One of the ways people observe this holiday is through a seder. When we hear the word “seder,” many of us immediately think of Passover. But, over the centuries, several different seders have been developed for holidays, for Tu B’Shevat, and also for Rosh Hashanah. The Tu B’Shevat seder is unlike the one we conduct on Passover in many ways, but there are some key similarities as well; namely, that we drink 4 glasses of wine and that we have a seder plate. We drink the four cups of wine and eat different fruits and nuts connected to the four seasons and to God’s creation and presence in our world. This holiday helps us to remember the holiness of creation and the sacred connection we have to our world, which is beautifully articulated in Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav’s Prayer for Nature:
Grant me the ability to be alone;
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grass – among all growing things
and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,
to talk with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart,
and may all the foliage of the field –
all grasses, trees, and plants –
awake at my coming,
to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer
so that my prayer and speech are made whole
through the life and spirit of all growing things,
which are made as one by their transcendent Source.
May I then pour out the words of my heart
before Your Presence like water, O God,
and lift up my hands to You in worship,
on my behalf, and that of my children!