Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Jewish sources in Christian Scriptures: Lecture notes

 Jewish sources in Christian Scriptures

Study Notes:
It is impossible to read Christian Scriptures without recognizing their roots in the Tanach ( our sider of the Good Book) , Jewish thought in the period following the return exile ( as preserved in the “Sefarim Histzoniim”-the Apocrypha and contemporary literature, & the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Rabbinic literature, which while compiled later, is based on earlier traditions.
For that reason, the early Church rejected attempts to separate the Christian teachings from its Hebraic roots ( the Marcionite heresy) and the Protestant Reformation, which opened up European civilization from the hold of medieval Christian thought, was founded upon a deep understanding of the Hebraic roots of Christianity. In my library, for example, I had a Bible dictionary from the 1600’s, by a Protestant scholar,Johanes Cocceis, who relied on Rashi and the Talmud for his definitions. I had a Talmud manuscript facsimnile, published by a Protestant scholar of Judaism, Herman Strack, who also published the Rabbinic parallels to Christian scriptures.

The readers of these notes will soon recognize that, while Jesus is speaking in Jewish phrases and concepts, he is not speaking as a humble country “Rabbi”( a term not yet in use in his day), nor as a prophet, but already as a quasi-angelic or quasi-divine being, who is to bring about the long awaited “end of days”, in which the existing human order will be overthrown. It is already here that the split with the rest of the Jewish people is inevitable.

Here are some sample parallel texts.
A.      The Gospel According to Saint, John:1:1  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 
Jewish source: The first systematic Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, used the term Logos ( Word) to mean an intermediary divine being, or demiurge. Philo followed the Platonic distinction between imperfect matter and perfect Form, and therefore intermediary beings were necessary to bridge the enormous gap between God and the material world. The Logos was the highest of these intermediary beings, and was called by Philo "the first-born of God." Philo also wrote that "the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated."( Wikipedia).  Aramaic equivalent: Memra. Hebrew: Dibur, also, “Chochmah”, Wisdom in Proverbs.
B.Golden Rule:
“One gentile came before Shammai : Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand.  The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.( Go study. Talmud Shabbat 31 a)
This phrase is found both in the positive “do” and “negative” don’t” in Jewish texts a century or more before this time. Hillel’s admonition is that platitudes are just that, without definition and specification of application, a classic Jewish perspective.
C.      Klal gadol- The great principal
One day an expert in the law stood up to test Him. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26“What is written in the Law?Jesus replied. “How do you read it?” 27He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”… 28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus said. “Do this and you will live.”…( Luke 10:27. In Mathhew and Mark, Jesus says it to the scholar)
 (Leviticus 19:18) "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Rabbi Akiva says: This is the great principal of the Torah. Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30B ( However, in the same context, Rabbi Akiva’s collegues,Ben Azzai disagrees and says: This is the account of the story of humanity…He created humans in the divine image.”Gen 5:1. He explains that morality based on the self is self-defeating, unless we ground each other in our shared divine image, a far greater concept).
D.Turn the cheek
 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h]39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.(Mathhew 5)
On eye for eye: Mishnah Bava Kamma 8:1 One who injures his fellow is liable for five categories of payment: damages, pain, healthcare, unemployment, and shame.
This is a rejection of the position of Saduccees, the priestly party, who took the Bible text literally, and insisted on eye for eye, literally.
I gave My back to those who strike Me, And My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting. Isaiah 50:6
Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. Lamentations 3:30
The understanding here is that affliction is not from one’s enemies, but from God, and is to be accepted as “ tough love” ( yisurim shel ahavah- afflictions caused by love, as in the classic statement by fathers,    ” This hurts me more than it does you”).
 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; 22For you will heap burning coals on his head, And the LORD will reward you.…Proverbs 25:21
Ex 23:5 If you see your enemies donkey under a burden, you must help him with it.
Another understanding of these statements was promulgated by scholars, such as Dr. Albert Schweitzer ( who set up health clinics in Africa) that these are conditional morality statements, based on the idea that the end of times is around the corner, tomorrow, and therefore, there is no time for tit-for-tat; the end of days will resolve all disputes!
E.Sermon on the Mount ( Matthew 5)
He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Isaiah 66:2 “These are the ones I look on with favor:    those who are humble and contrite in spirit,    and who tremble at my word.
 Blessed are those who mourn,    for they will be comforted.
Isaiah 61:2 to comfort all who mourn,   and provide for those who grieve in Zion—.
 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,    for they will be filled.
Isaiah 55:1 “Come, all you who are thirsty,    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,    come, buy and eat!( drink and eat the words of the prophet)
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
And the Sages taught: About those who are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in suffering, the verse says: “And they that love Him are as the sun going forth in its might”(Judges 5:31). Shabbat 88b
F. The Lord’s Prayer: Matthew 6
This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,--Avinu Shebashamayim  (“avnan d bishmaya” in reconstructed Aramaic)
hallowed be your name,-yitgadal veyitkadash shmay raba ( Kaddish text)
 your kingdom come, yamlich malchutey (kaddish text)
And lead us not into temptation,– al tavienu lo liday chet vlo liday averah ( morning prayer)   but deliver us from the evil one.’-vehaser mealenu oyev, dever veraav …vhaser satan milefaneu umelachareynu ( evening prayer)
Jesus is complaining about people who pray too long. It is reflected in a Rabbinic dictum that the ideal prayer is that of Moses for his sister, Miriam,” Al Na Ref Na La”-5 words only,” God, please,heal her, please.”

G. Jesus as a dissident Pharisee:
The Fulfillment of the Law Matthew 5  17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
It is clear that Jesus, while in conflict with the Pharisees, is setting Halakhah as the standard to pass, not eliminate.
Washing hands?
Matthew 15 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Note- This is not a Biblical, but Rabbinic law.This is not yet a hard fast Jewish law- it is still debated by Rabbi Akiba many years later.
Shabbat  Matthew 2:27
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” ( Note the twist from “Man” to “Son of Man”.)
Talmud Yoma 88b  Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says that it is stated: “But keep my Shabbatot” (Exodus 31:13). It implies that there are circumstances where one must keep Shabbat and circumstances where one must desecrate it, i.e., to save a life. Rabbi Yonatan ben Yosef says that it is stated: “For it is sacred to you” (Exodus 31:14). This implies that Shabbat is given into your hands, and you are not given to it to die on account of Shabbat.
What Jesus has done is usurp everyone with his own status as” Son of Man.” Son of Man is a term of that period to mean a semi-Divine being, like the Logos, that comes to bridge between God and mortal man. It is this attribution, more than the claim of “ Messiah” that sets up the divide between Jesus and the rest of the Jewish world.

H Jesus as a Zealot, Jewish militant nationalist: Mark 15 22
22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity ( Tyre & Sidon) came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

It is to be noted that Jesus miracles are clearly reiterations of the miracles of Elijah and Elisha. He is indicating that he is the avatar of Elijah that has come to mark the end of days. He is sent here to deliver the children of Israel. Therefore, he pished away the pagan woman, and only answers here when she demeans herself in his presence.  Contrast: Elisha is sent to Zarefat in the same pagan area to be protected by a widow and he helps her-she is clearly a foreigner!
Jesus is against missionizing: Anti-conversion Matthew 23:15
… 15
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You traverse land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. 
Militant    Matthew 10:38
 33But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in heaven. 34Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to turn ‘A man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.… 36A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ 37Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me
This is the direct opposite of the words of the prophet, Malachi: Elijah will return to bring the heart of the fathers back to the sons, lest I smite the earth.”
Jesus calls for rejection of parents. When Elijah appoints Elisha in his place, Elisha must first take leave of his parents before he can follow Elijah, with Elijah’s blessings. It is very clear at this point, that Jesus no longer sees himself as long-awaited Eljah, but is the  placing himself above Elijah in importance.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Curing the National Pain Yom Kippur 2017

Curing the National Pain   Yom Kippur 2017
            Those of you who were here Rosh Hashanah the second day will recall that I spoke of the power of stories.
            Among my favorite story tellers is Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. You see, my Hebrew name is Nachman, too. He is Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and I am Rebbe Nachman of West Hollywood. He is famous for his Kafkaesque stories.
            Among his stories is one called the Tale of the Princess. I am going to read you only the opening few sentences:
            “Once, there was a king. The king had six sons and one daughter. The daughter was very dear to him, and he would cherish her exceedingly and play with her very much.
One time, while he was together with her on a certain day he became angry with her and the words, "Let the not-good one take you away!" escaped from his mouth. At night she went to her room; in the morning no one knew where she was. Her father was very afflicted and went here and there looking for her.”
The story goes on and on, a never ending story, of how the king’s trusted servant is sent out to find and return the Princess to her father. But I will stop here, as I have gotten to the point of the story that interests me.
The story is filled with kabbalistic meanings.The is King is of course, the Ain Sof, the Infinite One. The daughter is the Malkhut, the Kingdom, the Malkah, the Queen, the Shekhinah, the divine presence. She is the vehicle whereby the infinite is engaged in the finite world. She holds the spiritual and physical realms together.
Now, we come to the end line—the Princess is captured by the “ Not –Good One”. That is the “ Other Side” in Kabbalah. The universe is in turmoil. Something has come between God and his universe and he has become angry. In Rebbe Nachman’s twist on kabbalistic philosophy, even the King, the Inifnite One, has an anger-management problem. We, as Jews, as God’s servant, have to repair the terrible breach.
            We have a national breach here, as well, in which a mood of discord and anger seem magnified beyond the norms. 
            I am not going to get into politics. People have posted how much they appreciate that we have managed to avoid it, and allowed them to feel the warmth of the services.
            So,  instead of politics, will talk of "Unpolitics." I will talk about healing, what we call, in Jewish parlance, tikun hanefesh, repairing the soul, of getting us down from our national malaise. It will begin, here, today, in this sanctuary.
            Almost all of us use Facebook for posting. We share events, we share news, we share images, and we share moods.
            I believe that you have noticed something happening with the posts in the past year. The posts are becoming increasingly volatile.
It started with using all caps on key words, then on entire posts. “All caps” is a stand in for “shouting”. I saw more as time went on. Soon, “Caps” was not enough. The people at Facebook clearly enjoyed this, so they allowed for more shouting--oversize fonts and dark red backgrounds. No longer just screaming, but screaming bloody murder. Families and friends have suddenly been “ unfriending” and “ unliking” each other.
We get carried away. We become so sure of our position that we block out any other position.
A handful of students at UC Irvine a few years ago discovered that they could block the Israeli Ambassador from being heard just by being obnoxious. Now, it has spread to many campuses, wherein a core of students effectively barred speakers from appearing. The first targets were Israeli speakers, and while far-right speakers have been the ostensible targets, it has spread to the point that UC Berkeley spent  $600,000 on police protection to enable a columnist for the Jewish Journal to speak because someone had decided he was a Nazi.
It happens on the right- it happens on the left. We are living in some echo chamber. One person sends one message and is echoed a million times over because of very effective and powerful social networking. This is how, our sages taught us, the plague of frogs began. One frog croaked, and then a second frog appeared, and another and another, until the land was flooded with croaking frogs. 
Even if we are mostly decent and well-thought, what we see outside is a cacophony, magnified, until it overwhelms us. A plague of croaking frogs.
It is time to turn things around. And it will start with us. It will not come with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, it will not come with twitter –blasts of denunciation and empty symbolic acts.
We all know that disease is contagious, but now we also know that the contagion is not solely spread by microbes. There is a famous case of the June bug epidemic, in which workers in a factory showed signs of illness from an infestation of bugs. There were no bugs, but people fell ill and were hospitalized. People infect each other in many ways.
It also means that health is contagious.
Social service agencies discovered that when they brought people together in social networks that shared activities and healthy living advice, these healthy behaviors spread from person to person all around .” We call this process “contagious health.” (
Contagious health.
If it is true for physical health, then it is even more so true that Emotional health and social health are contagious.
I want to start a health contagion here, at Hollywood Temple Beth El. We can undo the rancor and the divisiveness around us. So we need to make our first steps.
We start with ourselves.
First step- we are commanded, as Jews, to celebrate in “ Simcha”, in happiness. The same Rebbe Nachman of our story , taught”- Mitzvah gedolah -“It is a great command to be happy always and fight away sorrow and bitterness with all one’s might.” It’s a mitzvah, a command-  Happiness is a big task. That’s why our Declaration of Independence made it a basic right: “The pursuit of Happiness”  
Our happiness requires also that we broadcast it:
One of our Sages, Shammai, himself very impatient and honestly blunt, nevertheless insisted  .” Greet every human being  “besever panim yafot” - with a pleasant face, with a smile.  I assume the Dalai Lama studied Pirke Avoth, because he too said: “My practice when I see someone, is to smile”
Take that inner happiness and broadcast it out side. Do it on the street, do it your emails, do it on the phone, do it on your posts. Even if you don’t feel like it, do it; it will be contagious. It will come back to you. Instead of flaming and shouting, send good messages. Report on good things you have seen or observed.
Next step-
We all know the phrase “ kina hora”- no evil eye, Ayin HaRa. It is a look of jealousy, a look of meanness. There is its opposite, “The Good Eye”. 
The Rabbis teach that one of our key goals to attain is ” Ayin Hatov”, the Good Eye. ( Avoth 2:10)
What if we would look at each person we meet with a “Good Eye”. That means to look for good aspects, good potentials. Suddenly, instead of seeing people in silos, we begin to see individuals. Instead of splitting ourselves up- left versus right, red versus blue, bi-coastal versus fly-over states, race versus race, male versus female, and all the other tiny button-holes we are pegged into, we suddenly see people, like ourselves.
The Torah tells of a very old Abraham, who sits in his tent in the heat of the day, presumably after his circumcision, and God has appeared to him. He sees three strangers walking in the desert sun and abruptly abandons God, gets up and runs to greet these strangers. He did not ask what party do you belong to, what is your position on x, what passport do you have. At that moment he saw three people in trouble in the desert. Our commentaries teach us from this that reaching out to our fellow human being is greater than being with God because that is where God is to be found.
Looking at our fellow human being and seeing the presence of God. That is the “Ayin Tov”- the Good eye.
The third step-  cultivate a circle of people who are positive, who can help you grow and whom you can help grow.
That same verse of Pirke Avot that talks about the “ Good Eye” also states, in the list of desirable attributes—A good neighbor—and chaver tov,a good friend.
In truth getting a good neighbor sometimes is out of our hands,  but getting a good friend is in our hands and is something we can do. In every bad neighborhood, there are good friends, just as, in the best of neighborhoods, there are bad friends.
If we build a circle around us of positive friends, who build us up, whom we can lean on, we begin the process of spreading our immunity. Eventually, our circle will grow, and we will change those around us. You can start building your healthy community with the people here today at Hollywood Temple Beth El.
Finally, the last step, in our search to cure what ails us:
Do we wish to live long and well? The psalms tell us: “ Netzor leshoni mera.“ Keep my mouth from evil. “Sur me ra”. It’s Google’s famous slogan, “ Don’t be evil.”  “V’aseh tov”. and do good. That’s the challenge. We move away from attacks, pot-shots, innuendoes, slights and slurs-whether in person, or email, twitter, Insta- this and that. 
We move on to “Do good”. That’s the big challenge.
Anger and hatred are contagious, they spread when there is no group immunity. Good deeds and good words are vaccines. As in all vaccines, they create a herd immunity, wherein even the dour and morose are saved by the goodwill of the others.
There is even scientific support. You see, if you don’t believe the rabbi because he quotes the Torah, or the sages, or even the Dalai lama, surely you will believe a science report. This is from a chemist who specialized in pharmaceutical chemistry. You want to live longer? Here is his explanation:
“Genuine kindness creates feelings of warmth and connection, as does love.” In short, it produces agents in the body that lower blood pressure, stimulate anti-oxidents, and relieve inflammation, among other benefits.
. (How Kindness Can Heal The Body .Published on May 11, 2017 by David R. Hamilton PhD)
For this project to succeed, we need to begin with the first step within the context of community. Remember that the internet, ipads and smartphones were prophesied to solve our great problem of loneliness and isolation. With so many friends and so many likes, we must all feel very, very happy. But we are not. It tears us apart as much as it brings us together.
We need flesh and blood, people we actually know. We need community to help us stay well.
I have seen it in my former congregations and in this one. I have seen it when someone has died. It is the circle of friends and companions coming to the home, bringing food, calling up, visiting, that helps us all deal with our pain and move on. It is found in reaching out to each other in times of trouble.
It is also in good events- in weddings and Bnai mitzvah celebrated together. I just officiated at the wedding of a young man at whose Bar Mitzvah I had officiated some 25 years before. People have come to me with memories of something I said over 40 years ago. Memories of good things.
We are an old establishment by Los Angeles standards, going back nearly a century, to the early studio founders, the Laemmle of Universal, the Warner Brothers, the Meyer of MGM
That is a glorious past and we have an opportunity to create a glorious future.
 We are at a unique junction here at Hollywood Temple Beth El. We sit at the major north-south and east-west thoroughfares of Los Angeles. We are in the heart of a region of artists and musicians, entertainers and performers, young people trying to find themselves and older people still trying to find themselves, and just plain folk.
We will soon continue with our memorial to the martyrs of our people. We are here because we are heirs to a stubborn and stiff-necked people who have survived the worst that humanity could devise. Yet we are here because we are the heirs to those who refused to give up, who refused to lose hope in the ultimate redemption of humanity. By supporting this community at Hollywood Temple Beth El, we give testimony to their dedication.
We will then continue with our Yizkor service in memory of those whom you loved during their lifetimes. Among you today are those whose parents and grandparents dedicated themselves to this community. Again, as you involve yourselves in this community, you bear active witness to the love and support they gave you.
With you, we can create a community of support and friendship. Here is the first step in reversing the alienation, the loneliness, and the anger. I will start with us and spread out, a good contagion, to the rest of the country. We can instill in us all with words that we use in the Jewish wedding ceremony:“ Ahavah v’ achvah, shalom v ‘reut—Love and  brotherhood and sisterhood, peace and friendship” and then we will find “gilah-rina-ditza v Chedvah” -Joy – and song- gladness and laughter.

May we see this happen, here, today, on this Yom Kippur Day, this day of redemption and reconciliation. Amen.

We fall into our own traps- but we can still get out of them!

We fall into our own traps- but we can still get out of them! 
Based on “ A Pinch of Snuff” by Y L Peretz-
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 -2017
            We Jews love a good story. Why do we love stories—so we can take them apart, turn them inside out find meanings where there were none. Tell a Jew a story, and he will immediately give you a better one, with a better ending.
            To prove it, I’ll tell you a story. A tale from the Talmud, of two preachers who set up open air classrooms in the middle of the market place. (Sotah 48a)
            The first, the scholar, a brilliant teacher, leads a difficult discussion on a very complicated and intricate piece of law. Hardly a minyan listens to him.
            The second, whom we would call a maggid, a story teller, offers a simple tale, some verse from the Torah, and then a string of beautiful stories and examples that address the imagination.
            The scholar realizes that his audience has shrunk, while the other’s has grown. Very frustrated, he goes over to his competitor.
            “ I don’t understand it. I have studied under the greatest scholars, I can present arguments that split mountains, but—no listeners. You, however, you come by with some simple tales and legends, and you are surrounded. How can that be?
            To this, the story teller replies,” I will answer you with a riddle.”
            “Two merchants came to market. One sold diamonds, the other sold pins and needles. Which one do you think had more customers?”
The scholar answers scholastically, “ Low price, high demand draws more buyers than high price, low demand.  The seller of pins and needles had more customers
The story teller replied.” You just answered yourself. You sell diamonds, which no one needs, but I sell pins and needles, which everyone needs.”
So, I am going to sell pins and needles.
I have adopted a story by the Yiddish writer, Yitzhak Leib Peretz. He, like most Jews of his day, were no longer religious but he used the world of Jewish imagination and folk belief as the vehicle for his tales
So I will use his story, as we explore, on this Rosh Hashanah, how it is that we still  didn’t get our act together since last year. It is called “A Pinch of Snuff” . (Maurice Samuel Translation). For those of you too young to know, a pinch of snuff was an old Jewish and non-Jewish social activity, tobacco without cancer and no drug abuse, but with a lot of sneezing.
Satan, the Evil One, the Enemy of Mankind, the Tempter and Destroyer, sat one day in his private office, idly examining his account book.
. . .And then suddenly his complacency vanished and he clapped his palms together: he had come upon the page bearing the name of the rabbi of Chelm, and it was as blank as blank could be. . . .
(Satan understood that he had only a short time to make the old Rabbi fall into his trap. After all, for a human to have lived without a single failure would undermine both Heaven and Earth) . .
Some little lust of his," murmured Satan, licking his chops. Some tiny desire, some obscure appetite!"
He calls upon his demons to do their best to entrap the rabbi of Chelm.
So, as the story unfolds, the Rabbi of Chelm is offered a bribe of a bag of diamonds to settle a case between a driver and passenger, and of course, he rejects it. The diamonds and the two litigants vanish in a puff.
Now, dear friends, that should not worry us either. Very few of us have the chance to have a bag of diamonds dangled in front of us. It’s not our problem.
He is then presented with a roll of money by an itinerant beggar, money that had been earned by conning others in the name of fake charity. “ Give it to the poor.” At once, the Rabbi gleefully shouts for all the poor to come. And the beggar and the money all go up in a puff.
And that too, my friends, is unlikely to be our problem. These big bundles of money, after all, for most of us, are only in fairy tales.
The Lillith, Queen of the demons, knows how to trap him, "I'll bring him in—the old ways are the best."
Here, too, she fails miserably, to seduce, even to have him glance at her for a moment, for the rabbi of Chelm is so deep in his prayers, that he ignores her completely.
Even here, to be frank, how many of us are going to be approached by “ drop-dead gorgeous.” Hah! A pipe dream!
Finally, Lillith recalls that the Rabbi had only one habit- he would take a pinch of snuff.  An entrepreneurial demon hits upon the solution. . ..
Every Friday afternoon, having bathed for the Sabbath, the rabbi of Chelm used to go for a walk in the woods. He always took the same path and as he walked, he repeated by heart  the Song of Songs.

Now, knowing himself to be an absent minded man, and fearing that some Friday afternoon he would wander out too far and fail to return in time to receive the Sabbath, he had measured the distance against the time it took to repeat the Song of Songs and halfway through the prayer he reached a certain tree. There he would sit down, treat himself to a hearty pinch of snuff , rest awhile, then get up and return, saying the second half of the prayer. Thus, he would get back exactly in time to welcome the Sabbath.

One fateful Friday, just before the rabbi of Chelm set out for his walk, a spindly-legged little fellow, . . . appeares on the scene, uproots the tree mentioned above, and carries it out farther into the woods; he replants it and sits himself down on the farther side.

The rabbi, meanwhile, arrives on the spot where he has always found the tree. He is halfway through the Song of Songs, and the tree, he perceives, is quite a distance off. He is shocked. Obviously, he has been repeating the prayer mechanically, rapidly, without absorption and contemplation. He will do penance at once. He will refuse himself that pinch of snuff until he has reached the tree. His nose itches for the grateful tickle of the snuff, his heart is faint with longing — but no! Not until he has reached the tree.
His limbs are feeble, and his steps are tottering. It takes him a long time to get there. And all the time there is this aching and longing, so that he can hardly see. And now at last he reaches the tree; he sits down and snatches the snuffbox from his pocket; but his hands are all atremble, and just at that moment a wind begins to blow from the other side of the tree and the snuffbox falls out of the rabbi's hands.
He reaches for it. The wind grows stronger and the box rolls away. The rabbi crawls after it on all fours, his body crying out for the strong taste of the snuff.
Not only has he failed to welcome the Shabbat, but even worse
For the demon kept blowing, the snuffbox kept rolling, and the rabbi, crawling after it in anguish, went out far beyond the bounds of Shabbat.

The brilliant young demon, returning to the nether regions, was at once entrusted with another highly important mission. Addressing the toxic assembly before his departure, he said: "Gentlemen, nobody stubs his toe against a mountain. It's the little lusts that bring a man down."
Very simply, we understand what it is that gets in our way. It is the very little things, the day to day shortcomings that bring us down. “Nobody stubs his toe against a mountain. It's the little lusts that bring a man  or a woman down.”
We all recognize this shortcoming of ours. We don’t need to blame some picturesque demon from a Yiddish tale; after all, we do it by ourselves, very well. And it has nothing to do with keeping the rules of Shabbat or any other religious observance.
We live, for example, in a very fast age. Instant this, instant that. Very good, very convenient, very beneficial, and very much like a pinch of snuff.
Think of friends, for example. At one time, you would actually go across the street to chat in person with your friend. You had eye contact, you could see facial expressions, and you understood well all intentions. Then, we found telephones. No need to walk across the street, but at least, you could hear the tone of voice, and feel the intentions.
Now, that is too time consuming. We email, and text and instagram and tweet. All faster and faster.
Now, admit, how many times are you sorry that you sent a message to a friend that was misunderstood?
You hit send before you finished your message. You forgot to end with a kind word. You type one thing and your smart program types something else. It happens all the time. You push send. Our you push to all your list. Need I say more? All the imps and demons of that Yiddish story are jumping for joy.
Moral of the story- like something as simple as a pinch of snuff, a trivial push of a button, things turn topsy turvy. We don’t stub our toes on huge mountains. It’s the little things that trip us up.
 But if I were to finish my Rosh Hashanah moralizing in this manner, I would be amiss, for it would seem to doom us all, since we all fall short of the Rabbi of Chelm. As a Rabbi, I must end a story on a redemptive note, a note of promise. If we can’t help each other to achieve a change of heart and deeds, then, after all, why be here?
The answer I will give is from a Rabbinic image. From one story to another. We see our shortcomings, and they may overwhelm us. The deck is stacked against us, it may seem. We are constantly stubbing our toes for nonsense, like a pinch of snuff. So this Rabbinic word gives us all hope. ( Talmud Shabbat 32 a)
The account in the Talmud asks us to imagine that we are standing in front of the scales of justice, nine-hundred and ninety-nine angels convicting us, and only one angel in our favor, and even if that one angel is only one tenth of one-percent in our favor, the scales of justice still tilt in our favor.
Yes, we get off track, we fall for a pinch of snuff, we fail for a word sent hastily, or without careful thought.
We can fix, we can repair, we can make amends. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of hope. None of us knows what anyone else has gone through, none of us knows what guilt or pain may be inside. We have our doubts, we fall for something as simple as a pinch of snuff.
But our great message is that, as long as there is one millionth of a shred of  decency in us, we have hope. Hope that we can turn ourselves around, even if it be for something as simple as a pinch of snuff. Hope that we can wake up tomorrow with a sense of decency, hope that we can wake up tomorrow and look ourselves in the mirror and smile.
How much more so is this possible when we are brought together, as today, as a community, as we have here, at Hollywood Temple Beth El. No one of us is an island . Together, we are a continent, a world. We hold and bouy each other up, together.
May we have a million reasons to smile as we face each new day and each new year.  And enjoy a pinch of shnupf tabak. L’ Shanah Tovah.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

I am a Jew

I am a Jew
Rosh Hashanah 2017 5778

            I am going to jump ahead about three months and take us from Rosh Hashanah directly to Chanukah.       
               You are familiar with the Chanukah song by the comedian, Adam Sandler—
It’s one way to identify someone as Jewish. 
               Guess who eats together at the Carnegie Deli
Bowser from Sha Na Na and Arthur Fonzerelli
Paul Newman's half Jewish, Goldie Hawn's half too
Put them together, what a fine lookin' Jew.
               The song has been revised over the years, but one thing stays eternal in that song- No matter what generation- The greatest or their boomer kids or gen x and millennials- we are here tonight because we know we are Jewish and we know that, tonight, we belong here.  That is why we opened the doors of Hollywood Temple Beth El, wide open, so everyone could feel that here we belong.
                But it is hard, often, for us as modern Jew to articulate the reasons for that need.
               For my grandfather, who grew up in the end of the 19th century, it was no problem. 
He knew he stood at the foot of Mount Sinai with Moses. He felt it, he knew it in his bones. But in my father’s times,
 that clear identity had already begun to evaporate—one could be an internationalist or a loyal citizen of the Empire 
, one could be a Marxist, or a Freudian. The options were wide open. Legend has it that the ocean floor at Ellis
 island is filled with the tefillin that Jews threw overboard when they came to this country.
 A century ago, the preferred choice was “anything but Jewish”. So it would see to continue down to our times.
               Yet, for all that, we keep coming back, in one way or another. 
               A little over 50 years ago, one of America’s great magazines, Look Magazine, ran a doom and gloom
 indictment of the American Jewish community. It was titled “ The Vanishing American Jew”. The joke is 
that Look Magazine vanished, but we are still here.
               Yes, we are the eternal vanishing people.
               Still around. But why? What for?
               David ben Gurion, the founding father of the State of Israel, was very much disturbed by the problem, 
“ What is a Jew”? What could be more Jewish than a man who creates a Jewish state.  To have a State for Jews
 means to know what a Jew is, but this answer escaped the founder of the Jewish state.          
               Ben Gurion had himself questioned the leading Jewish scholars, religious and secular, for a good answer
. Finally, he came up with his own: 
“A Jew is one who says he is.
A Jew is one whose neighbors say he is.
A Jew is one whose friends say he is.
A Jew is one whose enemies say he is.”
               But this is only an excuse for an answer, especially if we have to let our enemies tell us we are Jews. 
               So what is a Jew?
               One way is to define ourselves by what we aren’t.
               We live in a Christian society, a very hospitable, open and accepting Christian society, which we 
appreciate very much, a first and one of the very few of its kind in history. Yet, we choose not to be Christians. 
We know we share common roots, but we also know that we are very different.
               We Jews have lived in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, among Moslems. Yet we did not become
Moslems. Our religions bear striking similarity, and it could have been so easy to just melt into the majority. 
Yet we remained distinct. That is now a moot point, as, the Islamic Middle East has expelled almost all of its
 indigenous Jews.  
               Of course, we have, in the previous century, in other parts of the world, lived in a Marxist-Leninist society, 
and, truth be told, it drew a great many of us. There is no God and Marx is his prophet, religion is the opiate 
of the masses, and Jews have no place, as Jews, in the new proletarian utopia. These were the “ Jews of Silence.”
 Yet, irony of ironies, our fellow Jews there retained their identity and they refused to disappear despite some
 70 years of oppression. One in ten US Jews is a former Soviet Jew. Many are in this room, and in our own
 families. Marx fell and we are still here.
               We know what we are not. So, now, what are we?
               We know that we are part and parcel of the Jewish people. 
                If we have any questions about the worth of belonging to the Jewish people, then we could find no
 better answer than these words of the Second President of the United States, John Adams:
I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. … They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth . . . They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern. (From a letter to F. A. Van der Kemp [Feb. 16, 1808] Pennsylvania Historical Society.  
Now, if you prefer Hamilton to Adams, because of the musical, he went to a Jewish day school himself and rumor has it, was of Jewish origin. He too wrote: “Progress of the Jews . . .From their earliest history to the present time has been and is entirely out of the ordinary course of human affairs. Is it not then a fair conclusion that the cause also is an extraordinary one – in other words, that it is the effect of some great providential plan?’” ( Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow).
So we have our pride in being part and parcel of a unique and dynamic people. What better way to express that pride than to be an active part of a Jewish community? That is why we opened our doors to help you come in and share in our community. Be part of that amazing people that so enchanted our founding fathers and mothers.    
We also know that we can’t just sit back and glory on what our predecessors did. Adams and Hamilton aren’t here today to remind us.  
            A Jew has to be a Jew for something, a Jew for Judaism. That identity with the Jewish people must have shape and form, a common core of behaviors.
            We are not, and never have been, a people of formal theology or philosophy. We have always been a people of common behavior and activity, a Jewish way of life, of observance.
            We Jews measure content by do’s, not dogmas, even if, in truth we don’t observe much of our 613 commandments.
            A century ago, in Germany, without Hitler, Jewish religion and identity was thought to be on its last legs. A young German philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, was on his way to be Baptized when he walked into a small synagogue on Kol Nidre eve and had an epiphany, to borrow a Christian phrase. He led a revival of Judaism that gave rise to unprecedented creativity and engagement. He was once asked by his students if he put on tefillin every day. His reply was, “ Not yet.” What he meant is that “ Not Yet” means a readiness to explore the possibility of “ Now.”  Or, as President Kennedy once quoted a Chinese proverb,” Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
            So, tonight, you can take that first step- or second step- or, if you get there, even the 613th step. We are here for you. By coming into our community, by our services or our holiday events, you can be involved in that great step forward.
            Finally, for all of this, Jew by identity and Jew by observance, there must be an underlying basis. A Jew is a Jew by virtue of studying and learning Judaism.
            We are Jews for a message. If I am to be a Jew, I might as well be a Jew to the core. At the core, A Jew is a Jew of a searching faith, a seeking faith, open, not closed.  It is for that reason, that we find people, not born into the Jewish faith, yet choosing the Jewish faith.

Ours is a faith of seeking and inquiring , in the words  of the prophet Amos: Dirshuni vich’yu.” Seek me, inquire, examine and probe , and you shall live.” Seek into our Jewish sources, see how our teachers argued and debated eternal values, and find your purpose and meaning in life.
Again, we have opened our doors for you. Our study sessions are open, our events are open for you. We can do even more, when we know we have your involvement.
I want to conclude with the thoughts of a  French Jewish  writer, Edmund Fleg, who grew up without any Jewish affiliation and then became an active and involved Jew He wrote this in 1927, before there was a State of  Israel, and without any Nazi defining him as a Jew, about why he decided to stay a Jew.
 “I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of me all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; people are completing it.
I am a Jew because, above the nations and Israel, Israel places humanity and its Unity.
I am a Jew because above humanity, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the divine Unity, and its divinity.”
I want to wish each and every one of you that on this coming year will bring you to the next step of your Jewish journey in life. May this journey bring you fulfillment and personal happiness.  May this coming year  be good and sweet, may it  be a year of health and prosperity and of doing good to others.
At this moment, I want you to turn to your neighbors, to right, the left, front and back, to greet him or her and wish each other the best for this coming New Year. L’ Shanah Tovah- For a good year.