A Movement in Motion

“The tall, lanky dancer-turned-rabbi…”

It seems like every press mention of URJ President Rick Jacobs includes some version of those words. I’ve always found it a bit odd, and maybe somewhat patronizing, the way reporters focus on Rick’s physical traits. Perhaps I’m just jealous. After all, “the short, stocky rabbi who ran cross-country in high school before completely letting himself go in his 20s” doesn’t have the same ring (and fortunately, never shows up when people write about me). Continue reading

Nostra Aerate at Fifty

D’var Torah at Judea Reform, October 30, 2015…

The Jewish-Catholic dialogue that took place in synagogue growing up made a deep impression upon me. My Rabbi, Martin Silverman, modeled a deep public friendship with the local Bishop, Howard Hubbard, exchanging pulpits on a regular basis. It is probably thanks to them that I gravitated to such dialogue in my Rabbinate. Priests and Women Religious have been my study partners and co-teachers over the years, over many pulpit exchanges and visits to each other’s classrooms. I was entrusted by the Diocese of El Paso to teach the Jewish Scriptures to Deacon candidates. I had the great honor to travel to the University of Notre Dame to be a part of small working group on interfaith dialogue, at the invitation of the Rabbi to the Fighting Irish, Michael Signer (of blessed memory). I travelled there together with one of my ongoing study partners, a Franciscan priest named John Stowe who has since been elevated to serve as Bishop of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. I mention all of this not to name-drop but to give you a sense of why I feel compelled to speak tonight about Nostra Aetate.

In our time – nostra aetate – when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger…

With those words did Pope Paul VI begin his proclamation on the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate, “in our time.” The proclamation was issued fifty years ago, almost to the day, on October 28, 1965. This milestone anniversary affords us the opportunity to reflect on issues raised by Nostra Aetate in our time, an era in which it seems that, day by day, humanity is being pushed farther apart, and the ties between different peoples are becoming, if not weaker, certainly more strained and complicated.

A bit about the proclamation. It is brief, and straightforward. In language revolutionary in the life of the Church, it recognizes truth and beauty and light even in nontheistic Buddhism and polytheistic Hinduism. It refers however obliquely to the Church’s battles with Islam, and calls for what we might today call a “reset” with the Muslim world. And, in by far the longest section, it recognizes the Jewish people as a covenanted people, not guilty of deicide, and worthy of respect rather than contempt.

Now, in addition to being the week of Nostra Aetate’s jubilee, today is  also Shabbat Vayera, so we’re going to think about the one text in light of the other. Let’s travel from our time to Abraham’s time, and specifically to this encounter with a rival chieftain named Abimelech (Gen 21:22-24):

At that time Abimelech and Phicol, chief of his troops, said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything that you do. Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you.” And Abraham said, “I swear it.”

The passage begins “at that time.” At what time? We need only look back a few verses to see that Abraham and Sarah had recently welcomed Isaac into their lives, and Hagar and Ishmael had been banished from their home. It is precisely at that point in the narrative that we learn of Abimelech’s positive assessment of Abraham – “God is with you in all that you do” — and of his request that the two men establish what our commentary calls a “mutual nonaggression pact:” “Swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you.”

And really…what else would a rival chieftain say to the man who clearly has God on his side? Abraham’s been promised the Land, Abraham is party to God’s covenant, Abraham’s been blessed with a miracle-child. Of course Abimelech wants to establish détente.

Our translation has Abimelech referring to his “kith and kin.” The Hebrew idiom has it, l’nini ul’nechdi, “my son and my grandson.” And while you can see the comment below the text, which suggests that this idiom be understood to mean “forever,” we have a reading from the Middle Ages that goes in a different direction, and which is worth a look.

The teacher is Chizkiyahu ben Manoach, commonly referred to as the Chizkuni. We don’t know much about him. He lived somewhere in France, somewhere during the thirteenth century. He tells us that his father was martyred for the faith. On the verse in question, Chizkuni writes:

Do not deal falsely with me, or with my son or my grandson. More than this Abimelech could not ask, for God had already promised Abraham that in the fourth generation, Abraham’s descendants would return to conquer the land.

Is it any surprise that a thirteenth-century French Jew would look at a text like this and see a temporary and tenuous peace? Living under a sometimes violent, always triumphalist cross, he had no frame of reference to see Abraham and Abimelech as anything other than wary adversaries, the one’s success coming at the expense of the other.

Indeed, such a scarcity model is present throughout the stories of our Patriarchs, and was embraced by Jews throughout history as a way of surviving a cold and dangerous Diaspora. Ishmael, father of the Muslims, is banished to the wilderness. Esau, father of the Christians, trades away his spiritual provenance for a bowl of soup, prefiguring the way our ancestors saw themselves in relation to their Christian neighbors: “You may be on top right now, but we’ll see who comes out ahead in the world to come.”

We came by that way of reading Scripture honestly, of course. Robbed of worldly power, living under Caliph or Cross, we were subject to such readings everywhere and always. One example: a common motif in church art was “Ecclesia and Synagoga,” a trope that depicted two women, representing the two peoples and faiths. Ecclesia, the Church, is looking up at God, her eyes all aglow. Synagogue is downcast, blindfolded, a book slipping from her hands. “Ecclesia and Synagoga” was the metaphor for everything the Church believed and taught about Jews…until, fifty years and two days ago, when it didn’t.

So let’s return to our own day. What is the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism particularly, and between Judaism and other faiths more generally, at the present moment? Rabbi Signer would distinguish between the disputation which characterized so much of the history of Jews and Christians, the discussion which has blossomed in recent decades, and finally the real dialogue, which is now beginning to flourish. As whole generations of religious leaders and their people grow up in a world that provides opportunities for discussion and dialogue, we are beginning to do the deep listening that will move us forward.

Last month, during his U.S. visit, Pope Francis made an unannounced stop before leaving Philadelphia. It was to visit a sculpture called “Ecclesia and Synagoga in Our Time.” Recasting the hostility of the old form, this depiction has the two women, church and synagogue, looking into each other’s sacred books. Neither is winning, and neither is losing. They are equals.

Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, reflected on Nostra Aetate earlier this week, in the conservative Catholic journal First Things (can we imagine an Orthodox Rabbi writing in such a journal fifty-one years ago?). His words were both an appreciation and a call to action. As it turns out, Nostra Aetate’s boundless optimism, with all of us growing closer together, bound more strongly, proved to be misplaced. Religion is less a force for good in the world, and more a source of strife, than it was a half-century ago. Sacks surveys the landscape:

Religiously-motivated violence has brought chaos and destruction to great swathes of the Middle East, parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Christians are suffering the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing in countries where they have been a presence for centuries. Peaceful Islam is being subverted by radical jihadists, leading to barbarism and slaughter, often of other Muslims, on an ever-widening scale. Meanwhile antisemitism has returned in full force within living memory of the Holocaust.

He continues:

Few foresaw that religion would once again become a major force in the global political arena, and it has returned not as a still, small voice but as a whirlwind destroying all that lies in its path. We need, if anything, another and larger Nostra Aetate, binding together the great world religions in a covenant of mutuality and responsibility. The freedom and respect we seek for our own faith we must be prepared to grant to others. We need a global coalition of respected religious leaders with the vision John XXIII had in his day and the honesty to admit that much that is done in the name of faith is in fact a desecration of faith and a violation of its most sacred principles.

I think Sacks is on to something. And this is my prayer: May Church, and Synagogue, and Mosque, and Ashram, and Temple, and Shrine, and all the places where the light of truth shines, be turned toward one another. May we learn together. May we act together. May we nourish the chesed, the love, that has the power to transcend history and memory. May we push back the darkness, the shadow’s cast in the name of faith. And may we do all of this nostra aetate, in our time.



That was how Helaine would ask to be held when she was a baby. “Holjumee.” When she started saying it, it took us a little while to figure out its origins, but eventually we got it. We would hold out our arms and say, “Do you want me to hold you?” She thought “hold you” was the verb, all by itself. Thus, “Hold you me.” Or, “Holjumee.” Continue reading

Gut yuntif, pontiff(s)!

Kol Nidrei, 2015-5776

“May the words of my mouth be aligned with the meditations of my heart. May I say what I mean, and mean what I say. And may these words be what You want me to say, Source of Life, Rock, Redeemer.”

On Sunday morning, I had the honor (along with Margarita Suarez) of accompanying a group of our tenth-graders to Immaculate Heart Catholic Church. Our visit kicked off a series of field trips to houses of worship. Over the coming weeks, our students will have opportunities to observe and engage with a few different varieties of Christianity as well as with the Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh communities. I love that we do this sort of visiting; it’s so very important.

Our students were impressed that this week’s intercessory prayers included the hope that Jews and Muslims would have fruitful celebrations of their holidays, Yom Kippur and Eid al Adcha. Father Chris also invoked God’s will that we Jews and our Muslim neighbors would continue to grow deeper in our respective faiths. And so, in that same spirit of interfaith well-wishing, allow me to join many in the American Jewish community in welcoming Pope Francis to our country. The timing of his arrival just a few hours ago couldn’t have been more perfect, as it allows us to offer him the traditional holiday greeting: “Gut yontif, pontiff!”

It’s old. It’s cute, but it’s old. And believe me, you can get that kind of humor in any synagogue in the world tonight. At Judea Reform, we aim a bit higher. And since your Rabbi had a few idle minutes in the carpool line yesterday, waiting for his son to emerge from school, we’re going to go the extra mile with an original composition, a poem in honor of

a wildly popular pontiff
who’s up in DC over yontif.
A fine Holy See
against bad policy
the planet is bearing the brunt of.

My children will tell you that I just cannot resist the opportunity to share a groaner like that one. They’ve learned to recognize them coming a mile away, and to react accordingly, by imploring me to stop…and when that fails, by leaving. And they’ll also tell you that the only thing worse than a really bad “dad joke” is when that dad joke turns into a history lesson, or God forbid, a sermon.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word pontiff comes to us from the Old French pontif. Prior to that, it existed in Latin, as pontifex. But a pontifex wasn’t a pope; he was simply a priest. The fuller term for Francis and his papal predecessors is Pontifex Maximus. As you might expect, that’s what what you find in the ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, corresponding to Kohen Gadol, or “High Priest.” Pontifex Maximus.

Now, here’s what’s fun and interesting: by the time the Bible was translated into Latin, pontifex did indeed mean “priest.” But its etymology suggests an earlier, primary meaning of “bridge builder.” Why the word for “bridge builder” came to mean “priest” is an open question: some say that the Tiber River functioned as a god in the ancient Roman religion, and the one who “tamed” it by building bridges across was seen in a special light. Others opt for a more metaphorical reading: the job of the pontifex was to build a bridge between the people and their God.

I like that second take on pontifex, which seems to be in accord with our understanding of what the descendants of Aaron, the kohanim, did for our ancestors: they served as a bridge between the laity of Israel and the Holy Blessed One. By facilitating the sacrifices (which are called korbanot in Hebrew, from the word meaning “to bring close”) they shortened the distance between people and God.

And now? We are no longer a people with priests…at least not in the ancient sense. Two thousand years ago, the sacrificial system that was the priests’ livelihood was replaced by prayer, leaving them with the first aliyah on shabbes morning, and not much else. Reform Judaism came along two hundred ago, or so, and in a bold move toward Jewish egalitarianism, did away with even that honor. Now, lest I offend the fourteen Cohens, Kahns, or Katzes on our synagogue rolls, let me be clear: to be a kohen in the twenty-first century is to cherish one’s ancestry, the fact of one’s descent from a line of servant-leaders, and that’s not nothing.

But if genealogical claims to priestly status carry less practical meaning than they once did, our obligation to be a priestly people — all of us! — has never been more important. And that is our obligation, and our aspiration. I have in mind that beautiful passage in the book of Exodus (19:4-6a), just before the Ten Commandments are given, when Moses relays God’s charge to the people. God says:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

At our very best, when we’re faithful to our values, to our covenant, then we are transformed from a people with priests to a people of priests.

A kingdom of priests. That’s the vision so many of us have for our community. It’s what led us to step forward last week and take action in response to the Rosh Hashanah morning sermon. I mention that sermon in part to remind you that it’s not too late to indicate your willingness to join in one or more of those initiatives. The “Spiritual Pledge” to serve one another through our Caring Community Committee, the sign-up for Durham CAN and Orange County Justice United, and the action sheet related to alleviating the refugee crisis in Syria are all still available around the building. A kingdom of priests serves in those ways, for sure.

But not only in those ways. There are so many other ways our hands can reach out. As they priests of old reached out in blessing to the marginalized, even leaving the camp to be with people who needed to feel loved and included, so can we.

Tonight, I want to lift up one of those ways of extending our hands in blessing. It is our congregation’s participation in Durham’s Pride Parade this coming Saturday.

Ironic, no? A sermon using the metaphor of the priest to promote our participation in Pride? After all, it is the ancient priests who are most responsible for those biblical passages that have been used to uphold more “traditional” ways of thinking about gender and sexuality. The priests, whose spirituality was grounded in maintaining order and upholding rigid societal norms, who reveled in making lists of permitted and forbidden things….surely it is chutzpahdik of the rabbi to invoke the priests in order to bring folks out to Pride!

Maybe not. A true story: in 2009, the El Paso City Council made an adjustment to its employee manual and its operating budget, in order to extend health insurance benefits to the domestic partners of city employees, without regard to gender. Any recognized domestic partnership (this was determined by looking at joint ownership of property, bank accounts, and other things) would be the trigger to allow a spouse or partner to buy into the city’s health plan. Conservative Christians went ballistic, organized a group around the banner of “Traditional Family Values,” and began attending City Hall meetings, filling the public agenda with speech after speech. A few weeks in, yours truly arrived.

Upon walking into the chamber, I was warmly greeted by a fellow member of the clergy, an affable guy whom I genuinely liked, even though we disagreed on nearly everything. He was gushing as he grabbed my hand. “Rabbi, I just knew our Jewish brothers and sisters would show up to defend the Old Testament.”

“Actually, I’m here to speak in favor of the policy.”

“But Rabbi…what about….don’t you read….doesn’t it say….?”

I responded calmly, but firmly: “Yes, it does. But my faith isn’t only grounded in ancient text books. It’s grounded in contemporary text people as well. I have friends who are gay, and who are married with loving families. Don and Evan, a Rabbi and and Cantor couple. Julie, whose composed so much of the music we sing in my synagogue, and her wife Mary. They are my texts in this instance. And I’d like to think that the same priests who left us with the book of Leviticus and all of its lists would — if they lived today — recognize that theirs was not the last, and certainly not the best, word on the subject.”

I didn’t change his mind. He stayed on the other side of the issue, though he never really seemed to have the heart for the fight in the way some of his colleagues did. And over time, the will of the people was made clear. The Traditional Family Values Coalition lost their battle with Council. They failed in their effort to recall the mayor and the council members who stood for equality and dignity. They ran candidates against those leaders, and again, they lost in every instance. I was so proud of my city, every step of the way.

That was over five years ago, when equal marriage was but a pipe dream in so much of the nation. And now, to think that equal marriage has won the day and is the law of the land, even in places like Texas and North Carolina…there’s so much to celebrate.

And, there’s still so much to do. Employment non-discrimination is not yet the law of the land, and there are far too many places in our nation where it is perfectly legal to fire people because of their sexual orientation or their gender expression or identity. And even where the laws have changed, too many hearts have not. It is still unacceptably dangerous to be a gay or transgender kid in our society. It is still in some cases unacceptably complicated to be legally named parent of one’s own child. This kingdom of priests has work to do, building the bridges that will bring the whole world home.

Let me be explicit about something: all of this priest talk is not just a convenient rhetorical trope, a chance to play of the day’s headlines. No. I believe with every fiber of my being that if Aaron and his sons were alive today, those pursuers of peace, those bestowers of blessing, they’d be on our side, and they would march at Pride. I believe this despite the textual evidence, which is formidable. Because, whatever the the literary residue left to us of an uncompromising and zealous priesthood, there is simply no way that the Voice which said “love your neighbor as yourself” would take its stand with those who would enshrine bigotry into our Constitution, with those who would make our schools safe not for the underdogs but for their bullies. And so, to be mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests, is to get out of our comfortable tabernacle — yes, even on shabbes — and to stand with Pride. We’ll gather up at 11:30 on Saturday morning at the Jewish Federation’s table, on Duke’s East Campus, and we will march.

In this way, and in so many others, we shall live out our mission as a kingdom of priests, a nation of bridge builders. We will build bridges…

To each other, through our Caring Community;
To people of color, through our community organizing work;
To refugees looking for safe harbor amidst great storms;
To folks who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and who have spent far too long outside the camp;
To so many others who seek a way in or simply to know that the door is open and that they are welcome;

To all of them, we offer a bridge, in the form of our outstretched hands.

Our movement’s new prayer book says it this way:

The hands of the kohanim were a language in themselves.
Hands held out, with the palms facing up, indicate the desire to receive;
hands held up, with the palms facing down, indicate the desire to give.
So, when the kohanim lifted their hands to bless,
they did not wish to pray for themselves —
but only to bestow God’s bounty on the people.

Holy One, we strive to be a nation of priests,
our lives consecrated to holy work.
Help us to use our hands as instruments of divine service —
conduits of your goodness.
May blessings flow through us to our children, our friends,
and all those whose lives we touch.

In this new year, may each of us be a priest, a pontifex, a bridge builder. And may it be that when we gather next year, no matter where in the world Francis might be, this room full of bridge builders will offer each other that special greeting as only a nation of priests can do:

Have a wonderful yontif, you room full of pontiffs!

“Our Kids”


Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5776 – Judea Reform Congregation, Durham NC…

Robert Putnam, the Harvard social scientist best known for Bowling Alone, his book about the erosion of social capital, authored a new study earlier this year. It is called Our Kids. The title hearkens back to a time when, at least in the author’s recollection, the adults in the Ohio town of his youth saw all the kids in town as “our kids.” Putnam’s claim, buttressed with loads of data (as is his way), is that the sense of shared responsibility and community that once characterized our nation has deteriorated. In its place, a vast opportunity gap has opened up in America. Multiple generations of wildly disparate educational and economic attainment are firmly entrenched, and two children growing up today are likely to lead vastly different lives based largely on accidents of birth, like their zip code or the color of their skin. Our Kids tells a story that is bad, and getting worse. Continue reading

Inner and Outer Worlds are One

Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5776 – Judea Reform Congregation, Durham NC…

On her 1974 double live album, Miles of Aisles, Joni Mitchell introduces the singing of “Circle Game” with an observation about the nature of the performing arts. In her oh-so-groovy Laurel Canyon-inflected patter, she says to her audience,

that’s one thing that’s always, like uh, been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know. Like a painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that’s it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on some wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he’s never, you know, nobody ever, y’know nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it. That was it.

Joni’s point was that people do call out to hear “Circle Game,” again and again. And in listening to it, and singing along, it remains new and fresh, each performance its own work of art.

I’ve often wondered if the sermon, as an art form, is more like a painting, or a song. Rabbis pour themselves into High Holiday sermons. Are these efforts best thought of as “one-and-dones,” if not hung on a wall then hung on a synagogue web site or a blog, frozen in time? Or can we sing them again and again? Continue reading

“My father was a wandering Aramean.”

“Ki Tavo. When you enter the Land. Not if, but when. Because you will enter the land.”

That is how our Rabbi and teacher, Rick Jacobs, introduced this week’s parashah to the hundreds of people gathered in Raleigh yesterday evening to demonstrate their support for robust protections of our right to vote. Rabbi Jacobs, the President of our Union for Reform Judaism, stood on the platform flanked by key leaders in the drive to protect and restore voting rights. In his arm was a Torah, the same Torah that has now traveled over seven hundred miles from Selma, Alabama to Raleigh’s northern suburbs, and which will ultimately cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Washington D.C. Every step of the way, it has been cradled by Reform Rabbis and our friends on the march. Leslie, who carried this scroll through the congregation tonight, spent three days earlier this week on the journey. We march as allies in solidarity with the NAACP, which organized the march and named it “America’s Journey for Justice.” Continue reading

Hadevarim Ha’eleh – These Words

Eleh hadevarim, the book begins: “These are the words which Moses spoke….” And this week, we read about hadevarim ha’eleh, “these words” which we are to set upon our hearts, teach to our children, speak of at home and on our way. Eleh hadevarim. Hadevarim Ha’eleh.

But which “words” are the ones that Moses really “spoke?” Which words are the ones that we need to set upon our hearts, write on our doorposts, and bind to our arms? Several answers come to mind:

  • Maybe hadevarim ha’eleh refers to the entire book of Deuteronomy. It is called sefer hadevarim, after all.
  • Maybe hadevarim ha’eleh refers not to the whole book, but just to the brief section being spoken by Moses right in that moment. “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is One! Love YHWH your God with all your heart, and your soul, and your might. And now, set these words upon your heart….”
  • Or maybe hadevarim ha’eleh refers to a certain set of devarim, “utterances”Ten, to be precise — which Moses had just reviewed for the people in an earlier chapter.

Whatever the answer, it’s not an idle question. Which words we ascribe to Moses, and through him to God, matter. Which words we choose to set upon our hearts matters greatly. And the ones we choose to teach to our children…could anything matter more? Continue reading

Saving Lives, Saving Worlds: In Memory of Amer Mahmood

My message at the vigil remembering Amer Mahmood, who was murdered overnight on July 4, 2015, while working at a Durham JoyMart. Proud to be associated with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.

My Tradition teaches me that “whoever destroys a life, destroys a world; and whoever saves a life, saves a world.” I stand here today in solidarity with Amer Mahmood’s family, his friends, and with all in my new community who deplore the destruction of this life. A husband, a father, a provider, working late at night over a holiday weekend, killed in yet another in a long, sad list of violent crimes. A life destroyed; a world destroyed. Continue reading

Some Words about Words

D’var Torah at Judea Reform Congregation, July 17, 2015

Adonai S’fatai Tiftach….Ufi Yagid t’hilatecha. O Source of Life and Breath, open up my lips; let my mouth declare Your praise.

With those words, our tradition teaches, King David asked for the wisdom to find the right words as he poured out his heart in devotion and repentance. They found their way into our prayerbook, as a prelude to the most important section of the service, the section called amidah, “standing,” or just hatefilah, “the prayer.” Adonai, open my lips. Let my words be inspired by Your teaching, by Your Presence. Let that which I say not be about me, but about You.

Adonai S’fatai Tiftach is a good place to start these words of mine, words rooted in the opening verses of this week’s parashah, Matot. My words tonight are words about words. Continue reading