Friday, December 8, 2017

Hanukah and Christmas

The word Hanukah means rededication.   In 165 B.C.E. the Maccabees were able to recapture and rededicate the temple in Jerusalem.  There was not enough oil to light the temple candles but for one night. The candles resisted the darkness and stayed lit for eight nights.

Hanukah is a holiday of lights that proclaims the darkness will not last forever.  Christians too are approaching their holiday of lights and their belief in Jesus, the light that overcomes the darkness.

For all their differences both Jewish and Christian traditions know about the reality of evil.  They know despite over two thousand years of Hanukah and Christmas celebrations, evil has not been defeated and seems to be doing quite well. The lighting of Hanukah candles and Christmas trees is very nice but insufficient.

Over two thousand years ago, the Maccabees were the Maccabees because they were not indifferent.  Jesus was Jesus because he resisted the darkness. 

Let us light our lights, Jews and Christians, and recommit ourselves to do what we can do to resist, to resist and to resist again the power of the darkness, in ourselves and wherever we live. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Telling the Truth about Men, Women and Sexual Harassment

My students are usually surprised at how much sex is in the Bible.  From Adam and Eve running away naked, to the sexual exploits of Noah and Lot’s children, to Abraham’s various wives, to Jacobs various wives and maids, the rape of Tamar, to Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, not to mention the women who can’t get pregnant and God shows up and the babies appear.  And that’s just Genesis.  There are plenty of more stories.  The best one may be the story of David and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba.  David used his power to rape and take advantage of Bathsheba for the sake of his own pleasure.  When Bathsheba gets pregnant, David tries to cover up what he has done and finally has Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah killed.

The point is we did not invent power and sex in the 1960’s.  It has been a problem for as long as men and women have roamed the earth.  Sex is a power we all use and abuse.  So much of what happens with sex is biologically and culturally determined.  We are sexual by nature and our culture trains us to be sexual. We are taught what it means to become intimate with someone.  We are taught the purpose of sex, its relation to having babies, the role of contraception, what turns us on and what does not.  We are taught what is sexy and what is not.  We are taught who is supposed to do what and when we are permitted to do it.  But what we are seeing today is a culture that is no longer sure what is permitted and what is not.

We learn the rules of sex from parents, friends, television, movies, books and most important in our time, the internet.  And once you disconnect sex from love and marriage and turn it into a commodity, it gives some the impression that anything is permitted. When I was in India a few years ago and spoke to some Indian young men, they talked about their impressions of women in the United States after having seen “some American movies.”  They assumed all American women are eager to have sex at any moment, that American women are eager for men to grab them at will.  When I told them they were wrong, they thought I was lying. They thought of America as a place where anything was permitted.  Let’s be honest: There is a problem with the way we have or have not established sexual boundaries and limits.

So, what do we do?  First, we call people to account.  The prophet Nathan tells David God knows what you did and is not pleased.  David feels bad and says he is sorry.  David had to learn to respect women and to respect himself enough to care. Did he understand why what he had done was wrong and did he gain a new respect for women?  Did he learn that he could not do what he wanted to do just because he felt like it?  Could he be trained to be a different kind of man? 

If you study the David story, you will know the answer to the questions.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Jewish Saying For Life

“Whoever saves one life has saved the world entire.”  You may remember this saying from the film, Schindler’s List. Yitzhak Stern also tells Oskar Schindler “the list is an absolute good.”

The Talmud, (Rabbinic commentary on the Bible) Sanhedrin 37a states:


Sometimes, in these days, we feel completely ineffective and useless when we think of all the problems in the world.  There are so many people and situations we cannot fix.  It’s true.  But the Talmud explains, if you save one life, you save all the generations born from that one life.

Whatever your religion or irreligion, there is something you can do.  Write a letter.  Say a prayer.  Shed a tear.  Wherever you live, do what you can do to save one life.  All the rest we do is commentary.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Jewish Thanksgiving

My favorite Jewish holiday is Passover.  Passover celebrates the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  This yearly event is centered on the Passover seder or meal.  It involves eating a variety of symbolic foods which reminds us of the exodus from Egypt.  This is a time when Jews remember.  We say, “In memory lies redemption.”  Remembering the Passover is not merely believing that something happened long ago.  We relive and reexperience what happened.  We assert that we ourselves have been slaves to Pharoah.  And we say, had God not acted we, all of us, would still, to this very day, be slaves. It is a corporate experience of thanksgiving.

As a boy, I remember the excitement in our small apartment in the Bronx when it came time to put away the regular dishes and take out the special Passover china from the front closet.  For a moment, our little place became a holy place where memory was celebrated.  The apartment was scoured and cleansed.  All bread and anything associated with leaven was removed.  And then came the day when the big boxes of Matzoh arrived.  We would eat unleavened bread for 10 days to remember what had happened to us when we had to run away with haste.  

We held two seders on successive nights. There were just four of us, my parents, my brother and me.  In our family my parents were the only ones to survive the Nazi madness.  There were no visitors, no grandparents, no cousins, no uncles or aunts, no one else around the table.  My father in Hebrew, Yiddish and English recited from a book called the Haggadah (the telling).  I can still hear his voice and the distinctive melodies he brought with him from Europe.  

Here is something strange though.  In all those Passover seders, the word Nazi was never mentioned. Despite what had happened to my parents, despite most of their relatives having been murdered in the camps, they continued to remember and give thanks for the exodus from slavery.  They refused to grant Hitler and his killers a posthumous victory. 

My parents were not very sophisticated when it came to religion.  But they were determined to remain Jewish despite what had happened to them, despite what had happened to the Jews and despite the silence of God. 

In so many ways, I am a Jew today because of their despite.  Bernard and Pola Haar, thank you.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reading the Bible Without Driving Ourselves Crazy

Some of us have turned the Bible into an idol.  We think every word in the Bible was dictated by God into the ears of the writers.  But that is not true!  Jewish and Christian scripture was written by human beings inspired by God. The Bible is not inerrant or infallible. 

There is no such thing as, “The Bible says.” The Bible on its own cannot speak.  It is only when a human being picks it up and begins to interpret what it says that the scripture can begin to speak.  Even then, it is not saying anything on its own.  The words of the Bible are always being interpreted.  And when they are being interpreted they are being interpreted from a specific perspective through someone’s eyes.  The person interpreting may be an atheist, an agnostic, a member of another religion, a conservative, moderate or liberal, a Christian, A Jew or a Muslim.  We all wear glasses.  And the glasses we wear affect the way we read and interpret.  Everybody says they’re open and but everybody, at some point, is closed.  We see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear.  Our glasses enable and disable us at the same time.  As soon as you have a written text, you have the virtue and problem of interpretation.

Isn’t this all terribly confusing?  Yes.  So, what we are forced to do is argue out our interpretations in community.  We each know our interpretations are limited and could be wrong.  We ought to be eager to hear where we may have gone astray.  We need to listen to interpretations inside and outside our community.  Which parts of scripture and tradition are descriptive and which parts are prescriptive?  This is an ongoing debate. By the way, the debate is part of faith. And it is ok to disagree.

Let’s stop driving ourselves crazy with our Bible reading.   Jews, Christians, Muslims and all the rest of us are not saved or related to God because of our interpretations.  We live and breathe by the kindness or grace of God, the universe, the force or whatever you call that power at the heart of the universe, for us and not against us. All the rest is interpretation and commentary. Stay sane out there.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Jewish View of the Reformation

The Reformation is an important event in the life of the Christian Church.  Martin Luther, the prophet of grace, altered the life of the Christian community whether he intended to or not. It was the creation of a movement in the Church Catholic to emphasize the grace of God as explicated by the apostle Paul, Augustine, and restated by Luther. Luther believed the Church had lost sight of what ought to be central to Christians:  justification by faith. 

As revolutionary as Luther was, he could not disengage himself from 16th century antisemitism.  This is well known by now and the Lutheran Church has disowned any of Luther’s statements on the Jews. All to the good.

What is not so well known is that Justification by grace through faith is a Jewish notion.  Jews have always held to the understanding that God has a special relationship with the Jewish people.  And Jews through the centuries have trusted in God despite God’s rather odd methodology. While most Jews did not adopt the Christian belief in original sin, they knew that they were not perfect and could depend on the gracious forgiveness of their God.

Think about it.  When the apostle Paul writes his letter to the Romans he asserts that Abraham himself was justified by faith.  His example is telling.  Paul says when Abraham and Sarah were unable to get pregnant, Abraham believed in the promise and kept on having sex with Sarah no matter how long it took. Abraham had faith despite what was happening.  Abraham was justified by faith.  And Paul advises the Roman gentiles to emulate Abraham’s faith.

A thousand years before the Reformation, the Jewish tradition was aware of the kindness or chesed of God. The Torah given to the Jewish people was a gift from God.  Jews knew God before Jesus, before Paul, before Augustine and before Luther. The grace of God which Luther asserted had been part of Jewish tradition for centuries.

Maybe what Jesus and Paul were up to was to make gentiles or non-Jews as Jewish as possible?!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Why We Killed the Prophets

Why do people kill the prophets?  After all, we admire prophets; prophets are fascinating people. They are usually esteemed in retrospect.  They are spoken of as being courageous truthtellers.  Books are written, monuments erected to remember their words.  Yet, most prophets were persecuted and killed.

In the scriptures, Prophets were threatening figures who did what they could to change people at the root.  Prophets were called by God to speak words they themselves found dangerous. And, prophets were not part of the religious establishment.  In fact, they were usually quite critical of religious leadership and the way people disconnected religion from justice.  Maybe, the only real prophets are the biblical prophets.

Prophets were not pastors or rabbis hired by religious institutions to transmit the tradition.  A prophet was someone who spoke the truth.  Usually, a prophet gave his or her message in the most shocking language available because the goal was not to constantly comfort pew sitters with more and more forgiveness and “cheap grace.”  Prophets were out to wake people up from their stupor. The goal was to change people, to cause them to turn around, to live their lives another way.  The religious word is repentance.

But we have romanticized and domesticated prophets after their death. We made their disturbing radical words part of our bibles and thereby defanged them.  Look what’s happened to Jesus.  Whatever else he was about, he was a prophet.  In every gospel he gets in people’s faces, gets angry and argues with religious people, calls on folks to repent of their hypocrisy and false religion.  He cares about the poor, orphans and widows and uses shocking language to wake people up.  But if you go to most Christian Churches this Sunday, you will find a kind, loving, gracious, friendly Jesus palatable to the masses.  We take out all the juice from the message of the prophets and then wonder how worship services became boring.

And why were prophets killed?

Because they know who we were behind our disguises and masks.  They forcefully ask the terrible questions that silence us.  They get close and personal in our faces.  They won’t shut up.  They don’t care for tact. They are not religious diplomats, politicians or functionaries. They are out to change us, at the root. We honor them in retrospect but we would not have listened to them.  That’s why we kill the prophets.