Sunday, May 31, 2015

That Yizkor Not be in Vain

            That Yizkor Not be in Vain 

 Shavuot Yizkor 2015

            There are many things which we take for granted in the Jewish tradition yet for which we can find no clear origins in the Bible or the Talmud. They are, rather, based on the power of custom: Minhag. Minhag, custom, is so powerful, that we say minhag kedin hu, the custom is as powerful as a law.
            Jews are an amazingly conservative people. It is not only loyalty to our law but also loyalty to our minhagim that has bound us together so well over the course of these many centuries. In fact, we often get to the point, where we say in Yiddish  a minhig brecht a din , Custom can violate a Jewish law.
            Even as great a figure as Rabbi Josef Karo, of Spanish ancestry, could not get the Jews of Eastern Europe to accept his Shulkhan Aruch until it was amended by Rabbi Moshe Isserles to incorporate the unique customs which had arisen in Germany and Poland. Shulkhan Arukh means “The Table is Set” but it was missing, said the Ashkenazic Jews, the table cloth, Mapah,which Rabbi Isserles provided. The Shulkhan Arukh became the universally accepted  Code of Jewish Law only when it had with it the code of European custom.
            Thus, a Yarmulka is a minhag, a custom, not a law, and one may observe both Biblical and Talmudic law and go about without a head covering. Nevertheless, minhag kedin, Jews have struggled to be allowed some kind of head-covering at the workplace, even in the military, as if it were an inviolable element of Jewish law.
            Much of the rules of Kashruth on Pesah are matters of minhag, not law. Thus, I have been asked by many if  real pasta is KP, while everyone knows that rice is not. Yet, the Halakhah, the law, is that real pasta, certainly, is not kosher for Passover, because it is, like bread, the result of the mixing of flour and water, which is the heart of the process of Hametz, and pasta is not baked, but allowed to sit until either boiled, or dried. Today, for Pesah, you can get fake pasta, made from all sorts of ersatz elements but no wheat flour, and certainly no good Italian restaurant would dare serve that kind of pasta!
            On the other hand, rice, as well as peas and beans, are Hametz, which everyone knows, but only for Ashkenazim, as a custom, whereas, by law, halachah, Sefardic Jews eat rice and legumes and they are correctly kosher for passover.
            It’s the power of custom. Minhag.
            Then there is Yizkor.
            Three times a year, in Ashkenazic tradition, at the three festive holidays, and on Yom Kippur, we Jews come in larger numbers than usual to recall those whom we love, at Yizkor.
            What is this Yizkor which draws us in in such large numbers, so that on Yom Kippur, we are packed in probable violation of all safety regulations?
            The name comes from the first sentence of the prayer of remembrance for our dead, "Yizkor elohim"--May God remember..." It is properly called " Hazkarat neshamot", Memorial for the Souls. 
            Where is it from?
            We only know that in the time of the Maccabees and in later Rabbinic times, it was a custom to bring offerings or prayers on behalf of the dead, to atone for the sins of the deceased.
            Later on, it became the practice to pray on behalf of the dead on Shabbat. They would pray for the dead sinners, that after Shabbat's rest they not be returned to hell but be forgiven once and for all of their sins.( Midrash Tanhuma).
            By the early middle ages, it had become accepted that such prayers were offered on festivals and on Yom Kippur and this was actually opposed by the great Rabbinic leaders of the day. It is what you do in life, not what someone else does for you when it’s too late, that counts before God, they insisted. They insisted and lost, as they lost on many other issues where custom overrode the law. Rabbis didn’t rule with force of police, after all; they could only persuade.
            It is an ironic example of a minhag brecht a din, custom overrides a law. By law, one may not mourn or display signs of mourning on Shabbat and the festivals, and by practice, one does not recite the El Maleh prayer in memory of the deceased on a Shabbat or festival, not even at a funeral during the mid-weeks of the Festivals for the act of mourning detracts from the joy of the festival. Yet look! Minhag brecht a din, the custom violates the law and we recite the prayer just when we are not allowed to recite it. The need to remember and ease the burden of memory is greater than the law itself.
            Yizkor ultimately became embedded in the Jewish psyche, however, by the reality of Jewish existence.
            During the Crusades, and again, in the seventeenth century, the Jews of Europe were the victims of the most horrible of massacres, and every Jew was a survivor, afflicted with the pain of memory of a loved lost one brutally murdered.
            In our day, then, the individual loss of a loved one has been compounded by the loss to all the people of Israel of the great mass of the Jews of Europe who were murdered in the Holocaust, and by the smaller, but very significant number of Jewish heroes who were killed in the defense of the State of Israel.
            Yizkor has taken on the function of a communal dedication to our slain that as we may say in the words of LIncoln, " That these dead shall not have died in vain".
            Yizkor is more than just praying on behalf of the dead, more than what our ancestors felt was an act of filial piety; it becomes the event whereby we reconnect with those who trod upon the world before us or with us, those who gave us life and love, those who taught us, those who made our lives possible.
            We ask ourselves the question: if we gather in their memory as Jews, what is it that they stood for? Surely, if anything, they stood for their role in the great chain of Jewish tradition and teaching, and we in their memory must take our part in keeping that great chain intact.
            For Yizkor to have any significance it is not enough to mumble words that we do not understand. Our lives must be consistent with the teachings of Judaism which directed the generations before us: A life of doing what God expects of us, as the Jewish people have interpreted it in mitzvot and understanding and studying God's teachings, as the Jewish people have interpreted it in the form of Torah.
            Central to all this, is the institution which has kept the heart and soul of the Jewish people together over tens of thousands of miles and over the course of three and a half millennia--the ancient Temple, and its successor, for 2000 years, the synagogue, the bet knesset.
            I want you to keep in mind what a synagogue is for, especially this one, in the midst of West Hollywood, within the heart of America's fantasyland, where dreams and vision are put to celluloid and cds. This synagogue has gone through so many traumas, as we all know, and has nearly folded but with the efforts of some good volunteers it is still up and running.
            Obviously, a synagogue is for praying, which is admittedly no longer a strong Jewish profession.
            We must have a synagogue for studying in, and I try to bring that sense of study into our services
            A synagogue is also the cite for rofeh lishvurey lev--the healer of the broken hearted.
            There were many times that I had to open the chapel because someone needed to go to pray and meditate, undisturbed.
People come to the synagogue for an ear to hear.
I have had to counsel a rock and roll musician who lost his girl-friend to an early death.
Then there was a Samoan native, son of a Christian missionary, who had a dream that he needed to know who are the children of Israel. He sat out front, barefoot and in US military uniform, waiting for the Rabbi, because only the Rabbi could help him. Where else but here?
            A young man was struck down in the prime of life in a road accident. To whom could the family talk, who would alley their pain at the funeral and afterwards if not the Rabbi ?
            I bring up all these remembrances of Hollywood Temple Beth El, but not to say Kaddish for it and not Yizkor. This is a challenge to all of us here.            Again, we think of Yizkor. If we wish to memorialize our dead, it is up to us to protect that which our loved ones sought to build and maintain, synagogues and centers of Judaism and the Jewish people, past and present, here and abroad.       
            I mentioned Lincoln's Gettysburg address, as an appropriate theme for the meaning of Yizkor. He concluded his address, by taking a famous quote about the Bible, "of the people, by the people, for the people", and applying it to the United States. I wish to turn his words around, now, again to apply it to our message of today:
            “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here, to the unfinished work which they who have fought here thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion- that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
            We highly resolve that those of the builders of this congregation from the original Laemmles, Warners and Meyers *, down to the newest immigrant finding his place in the New World, shall not have struggled in vain. Amen.

*Some background- among the founders of Hollywood Temple Beth El in 1922 were the founders of Universal Studios, Warner Brothers, and MGM. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

From the Sacred Society to a Greater Society

From the Sacred Society to a Greater Society
            Thoughts on Kedoshim
            The Dead Sea Scrolls are now on display at the California Science Center. We owe so very much to the members of the society at Qumran, where these scrolls were found. It was their dedication to writing the words of the prophets as well as the words of later teachers that has given us an invaluable window on the world of Judaism in antiquity.
            These people, identified with the Essenes and other groups of the period, were exemplars of piety- frumkeit, to use the Yiddish expression. So frum, that they refused to get married, bathed daily to remain pure, devoted themselves to poverty and acts of charity. They refused to send sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem, because it was, in their eyes, impure.They disassociated themselves from their fellow Jews, whom they saw as “ The Children of Darkness” or the “ Children of the Worthless One.”
            You might think that they would gain the respect of the great scholars for their outstanding idealism. However, the Rabbis denounced anyone who refused intentionally to have marital relations and the great Hillel warned, probably with such Jews in mind,” Do not withdraw from the community, do not trust in yourself until the day of your death, do not judge your fellow until you have put yourself in his place.( Avoth 2:5) It was a direct challenge to those who considered themselves holier than the rest.
            The deserts around Judea in the years that followed were filled with Christian monasteries carved into the cliffs hundreds of feet up the side of inaccessible mountains. The Christian monks, in many ways, followed in the path of these Jewish monks.
            Yet Jewish monasteries disappeared and Qumran was left aruins, unknown till a shepherd stumbled across it in 1946.
            What did we Jews do then, in the centuries before and after and during that gave us our sense of the sacred, without running off into the desert. We definitely did not take the advice of Hamlet to Ophelia,” Get Thee to a Nunnery”.        No Ashram, no Zen meditation in splendid isolation.
            No, we created families, we created communities, and we worked in town and country.
            Our path to sanctity is laid out in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, ( Lev 19 ). Kedoshim Tihyu  ,“You shall be Holy because I , the Lord your God, am Holy.” It then goes on with a chain of social laws, laws of fairness, laws of justice, as well as laws of religious obligation.
            Holiness was to be found in the realities of society, with all its grit and dirt.
            We Jews are very sensitive as a result to social issues and we sometimes identify Judaism with social justice, often to the exclusion of other values.
            I confess that like other young Jews of my generation, I flirted with socialism. At one time, that was the route that all Jews took.      
            When I was in Israel, I had worked for Israel's Labor Federation, the Histadrut, which was closely aligned with the Labor party. I ran a program for adult Jewish studies  under their auspices  At one time, every institution in Israel was Labor based, socialist in orientation, if not to some extent also Marxist.
            How times have changed. Do you realize that I was among the last of the " Red Rabbis"? The last May Day parade in Israel, organized by the Labor Federation, was in 1988, and I marched under the red banner, the international socialist banner, “Worker’s of the World Unite” banner of the Israeli Histadrut!
            I also organized a Passover Seder at Bet Berl, the college of the Labor movement, and the Israeli newspapers wrote of the Secretary-General of the labor Federation, that he was at our Seder, among the  adumim, among the Reds at Bet Berl.
             Then the Soviet Union fell, and the color red has fallen  with it. ( I could never stand the current usage of red for Republican and blue for Democrat, a convention caused by cartographers, since it distorts the historic connection of the  colors, red for socialists, white for royalist, black for anarchist and so forth. But what do map drawers and news analysts know of history!)
            Since then, the Red banner has been changed to red and blue, and now, all blue and the May Day parades have faded into history. Labor Party is no longer labor. There is little economic difference in Israel between the two parties .
            Tempus mutandis-the times change everywhere.
            It is true that the strategies and theories that underlie these ideals of social justice- these controlled societies and central planned economies proved to be great social disasters or the world scene and even here, in the US, the image of a Great Society has not come to be, despite vast sums of money pumped n.
            Nevertheless, the themes of the books of the Torah still disturb us. We can’t run off to the desert. We have neither Dead Sea sects nor grand revolutionary dreams. How then do we keep alive the sense of Kedoshim in society that of necessity, in order to be a free society, must also be a market society, a society that inevitably results in inequalities? How do we keep such a society form devouring itself?
            Do we, as Jews, do we still have a social plank today?
            When I worked for the Histadrut, I tried to create a statement for a foundation of social justice on the basis of Jewish tradition, not on the basis of Marx, nor Lenin, but, to quote one of our old members Max Cukier, a declaration he heard from David ben Gurion,"  Jewish socialism is not from Marx-- it is from Isaiah."
             What I sought was a Jewish and Judaic basis for a true society, not a Republican, not a Democratic, not capitalist, not socialist-but a posture rooted in Jewish social ethos.
            Where do we begin? What is our Jewish social platform?
            We can begin it with this week’s Torah portion. Our founding principal is in this very portion:.Ve ahavta lereekha kamocha-- you shall love your neighbor as yourself. As I pointed out last week, it extends to the stranger who seeks to live among us as well and adopts our laws and society. (Lev 19).Our sage, Rabbi Akiba, adopted this verse as the great principal of the Torah.
            His colleague, Ben Azzai, insisted on another principal, which does not contradict, but really supplements this, from the book of Genesis,” Man and woman are created in the image of God.”
            In both cases, we premise our social concern on the sanctity and holiness of the individual human being. This is very different from the premise of Karl Marx, very different, premise in which class and production are the only bases of human value.
            We do have a special sense of responsibility for our fellow Jews, but that does not exclude the rest of humanity. The Haftarah which we read today  reminds us, in the words of the prophet, Amos," Are you not like the Ethiopians unto me"-- God is God of all nations, the mover of history for all peoples.
            From the Jewish perspective, we carry a tremendous responsibility for the life and well-being of each person.  Our Torah portion commands us," Do not stand by idly over your brother's blood."
            Do you recall history's first recorded homicide? It was the case of God vs Cain, Cain who killed Abel, Cain who shirked responsibility, Cain, who asked “Am I my brother’s keeper."
            The foundation for Jewish judicial procedure is found in the Mishna, in the tractate Sanhedrin, the court system. It is there, in the oath administered to witnesses, that we are told,
" Whosoever destroys one life,  it is as if he destroyed an entire world-- but whosoever saves one life, it is as if he saved an entire world." (This is a position stated in the Quran)
            That same Mishna reminds us that each of us is of such great value, that we must say
" For my sake the world was created." For my sake and there I am therefore responsible for this world. I can't shirk off my responsibility on someone else.
            That same Mishna takes as its premise the uniqueness of each one of us . The world, for practical purposes, may well be broken up into class, into sexes, into races, into nations--but none of us is forced to choose right or wrong because of our birth. Instead, our sages were amazed at the uniqueness and variation of the human species, and so that Mishna declares: Thus, all mortals are created in the image of the first man, all share that same common human origin, yet no two faces and no two minds are alike. Therefore, must each one say," For my sake the world was created."
            Since we are each in the divine image, each one of us unique, we are in principal free from human bondage, servants only to God.
            This freedom, for the Jew, is summed up in individual responsibility for one's actions.
            We Jews have a theory of government, as well. The Torah is the first document in history to limit the power of the Kings, and the Talmud provides the basis for a legislative body in the form of the Sanhedrin, and the grounds for majority rule are present in Jewish jurisprudence. The concept of rule of society by law is deeply imbedded in every page of Jewish history. " Zedek Zedek tirdof, You shall pursue justice, that you may inherit the land which the Lord has given you."
            It is a law which must be applied equally, as the Torah dictates, without regard to wealth, without regard to  country of origin," One law shall you have, for the citizen and for the stranger who lives in your midst."
            Finally, throughout the Torah and Rabbinic rulings, with all the exhortations to personal responsibility which I mentioned, with all that, Jewish teachings also recognize that human beings, by nature, look out for themselves alone. Exhortations to be charitable and pious platitudes do not solve the problems of society.     
            We know that we can’t create an absolutely equal society. Every attempt to do so has been drenched with blood and has bound people in immense political, social and physical chains, far worse than the chains of capitalism.  Nevertheless, we are aware that when we give tzedakah, our sages tell us, we do not expect to get a thanks—because, they remind us, we are protecting our own interests—we could always be next. When we create a fair society, we are not just being nice--we are facing the truth that our sages knew, that each one of us has the responsibility to keep our neighbors from hitting that bottom because we could also be on the bottom.
            The challenge to the leaders of our government is to address such issues, both from the Republican and from the Democratic sides of the aisle, and it is our position, as Jews, to help both parties keep their eyes on the ball.
            Thus words for all, from Moses, from the book of Deuteronomy :
            You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow's garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there...the forgotten sheaf in the field, the fruit of the olive tree...the grapes of your shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow- Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt."
             May we always remember what we, as individuals and as Jews , owe our fellow human beings, that, in Moses words, The Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings and we can be “ Kedoshim”, Holy as a people. Amen.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Mother's Day Poem From The Holocaust

My mother, Irene Weinberg, kept a copy of a poem in Polish, Dzien Matki, Mother's Day, by Zofia Nawrocka,  which describes the anguish of a woman who learns of her mother's capture by the Nazi's during the Holocaust. My mother translated it into English.