About Rabbi Jonathan Kraus

Jonathan Kraus is the Rabbi of Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Massachusetts.

MLK Message, 2016

{This is the prayer I delivered on Monday, January 18, 2016 at the annual Belmont community breakfast honoring Dr. King.}

MLK

Every year around this time, I tend to hear Dr. King’s voice, that beautiful, eloquent preacher’s voice–reverberating in my head and my heart. I especially tend to feel, rising up within me, fragments of that beloved, “I Have a Dream” speech delivered all those years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Every year, I feel like I hear that powerful preacher’s voice all over again with its familiar cadences and those rising waves of deep feeling as the waves flow from Dr. King’s soul through each of us, as those waves of truth wash over all of us. I hear the voice speaking difficult, painful truths that remind us of how broken we are. But I also hear the voice speaking inspiring, hopeful truths that remind us of who we once meant to be, that remind us of who we still are capable of becoming, even now.

This particular year, my heart keeps returning to the sound of Dr. King’s voice as it quotes the prophet, Amos. Standing there, on those famous steps, a modern, Baptist prophet quoted an ancient Hebrew prophet when he said: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).”

But here’s the thing I keep thinking. While those waters of justice may have their source in God, the stream that flows with those waters has to be a human creation. Those waters of righteousness may be born in the mysterious depths of our souls or in a place some of us call “heaven,” but the only force that can make those holy waters flow in this world, the only power that can open those floodgates in our society is human words, human actions and human choices. God creates the possibility of justice in the world and God surely calls us to righteousness. But it is left for us to make that promise real.

So, here’s my prayer to honor Dr. King’s life and legacy and teaching. Yes God, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Help us to find the courage, the commitment, the patience, the wisdom, the humility and the faith we will need if we are ever going to move those deep waters of justice. Yes God, help us, together, to become that mighty stream. Let the waters of righteousness move through legislation we pass, through effective advocacy in our communities and our nation, through peaceful protest, and yes, also through simple conversation with our neighbors who are, far too often, still strangers to us.

Help us, God, to make those waters rush with a fierce, insistent call for justice, but let the path they carve in the world and in our hearts be redemptive and not destructive. Let the river we create together flow with a love that is strong and a strength that is loving. Help us to bring the day soon when those mighty waters wash away old walls of fear and ignorance and hatred and leave behind, instead, the rich soil in which we can plant new seeds of hope. And let us all be privileged to witness the healing power of those waters on the day when, at last, they flow into an ocean of brotherhood and sisterhood, into a sea of generosity and kindness and understanding.

So, yes God, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream; help us, please, to stir that water of justice, to move that water of righteousness, to free that water of all constraints and guide it past every obstacle so that the river of justice will flow, once again, towards life and blessing and goodness and peace. Amen.

Preparing in Elul

For the week of August 30th, 2014

Parashat “Shofetim”
(Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

This week, as Moses continues to prepare the people for their life without him, he instructs the Israelites about the institutions of justice they should create once they are settled in the land.  Among those institutions, Moses discusses the potential choice to have a human king (rather than only God) who will rule over them.  In Deuteronomy 17:18, Moses gives the following instruction concerning such a king:  “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.”

Commenting on this verse, Ketav Sofer quotes Rashi who wrote:  “If he [the king] does so, he will be worthy of having his reign endure.”  Ketav Sofer asks:  Is the implication that whenever the king is sitting on his throne, the Torah must be [continuously] written?  Rather, Ketav Sofer says, the meaning is found in the phrase “it shall be” (in the future)–if he acts all the years of his reign– “as when he was seated upon his royal throne”–like the day he [first] ascended to rule, like the day of his coronation, [a day] on which he is good and does good, is gracious and compassionate to all, behaves with love and forgiveness towards all the sinners, and with that same feeling continues to rule, [then] “he will be worthy of having his reign endure.”

This is, of course, a wonderful derash [interpretative teaching] about the challenges of leadership.  We believe that most of our leaders at least start their work with the best of intentions and with high ideals.  Many leaders begin with an inspiring vision of what they hope to accomplish and, in the early days of their work, they pursue that idealistic vision with enthusiasm.  But as the challenges of actual leadership begin to accumulate, the sometimes overwhelming pile of distractions, frustrations and serious obstacles causes many leaders to lose heart and lose their way.

Ketav Sofer (with help from Rashi) reminds us of the urgency of leaders holding on to that initial, inspiring vision, that beautiful, starting intention.  Ketav Sofer emphasizes how critical it is that, to the best of the leader’s ability, he returns to that vision and continues to live in accordance with it even in the face of inevitable obstacles and disappointments.  To do so, the Torah suggests, we need tools and strategies that will help us to remember, that constantly will call us back to our best intentions whenever we forget and lose our way.  Hence, the commandment to have a copy of God’s teaching written and placed by the king at all times–a Torah that is to serve both as a vital guide for ruling with justice and compassion and as a symbolic, visual reminder of the holy intentions with which the king first began his rule.

We are in the first days of the Hebrew month of Elul.  Elul is, traditionally, a month of preparation for the very difficult, spiritual and moral work of the Days of Awe that follows in the month of Tishri.  We are supposed to begin the process of cheshbon hanefesh (doing a kind of spiritual and moral accounting) and, based on what we uncover, to begin making amends for the ways in which we’ve fallen short during the past year.  We seek out people we’ve harmed to ask forgiveness.  We make plans for how we will try to live differently and better in the upcoming new year.  We begin the process of setting our intentions for the new year, a process that will culminate on Yom Kippur.

And many of us will be like those leaders.  We will start with great enthusiasm and determination.  We will even take some initial steps in the right direction and begin living differently.  But then, reality will set in and we will get distracted and discouraged or simply forget our wonderful intentions.  Parashat Shofetim reminds us to think not only about our holy intentions but about the strategies, tools and practices that might help us sustain those intentions.  What specific things will we do to remind ourselves of our Elul/Tishri intentions in the months that follow?  What tools or practices will call us back to our Elul/Tishri intentions when we’re celebrating Chanukah in Kislev or Pesach in Nisan?

When I posed the question during services, one person suggested the use of ritual practice to remind ourselves of the values by which we want to live.  She mentioned prayer, Torah study, celebrating Shabbat as regular practices that could help to remind us of who we intended to be this year.  And there may be other “rituals” (officially religious practices or not) that can help to accomplish the same goal for some of us.  Another person spoke about the importance of having a community, of having partners with whom to share this work.  And so, we might seek out a kind of teshuvah chevruta, a partner(s) for the work of returning, over and over again, to our intention to be our best selves.  In such relationships, we could encourage each other in moments of difficulty, cheer each others’ successes and yes, gently, lovingly remind one another of what we said our intentions were.  Yet another person spoke about the importance of seeing the inevitable obstacles as opportunities to clarify and renew our intention rather than as impossible walls we will never get past.  Everyone spoke to the importance of using Elul not only to think about what specific changes we hope to make but also to think about how we actually can remember, return to and act on those intentions more frequently.

For my part, I was struck by the basic lesson of the Torah portion and by some wonderful, transformational learning that I’ve been doing through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  The king described in Shofetim is supposed to have the Torah written down and close at hand as he sits upon his throne. So, consider writing down your intention  and putting those words where you can’t help seeing them.  Perhaps, this simple but powerful practice can help us to recall and return to living out our best intentions when we forget or lose or way.  In just a phrase or a sentence (e.g., “May I be more patient and forgiving”), write down your intention for being a better human being in the new year.  And then put that piece of paper where you can’t help but see it on a regular basis.  Perhaps, like the king, keeping our own, holy words near at hand will help us to be more worthy of being sustained for another year of life and blessing.  May this be God’s will.

A Hymn for Thanksgivukkah

In the spirit of the Thanksgivukkah season, I have taken the liberty of adapting a favorite Thanksgiving hymn for this once-in-a-lifetime Chanukah.

Of course, I offer my apologies to Theodore Baker, who wrote those familiar English words back in 1894.  However, in fairness, it should be noted that Mr. Baker, himself, was appropriating an old Dutch folk hymn whose original words apparently celebrated the Dutch victory over Spanish forces in the Battle of Turnhout.  If you’re interested in all this, you can find more information here.  Oh, and if you need a refresher on the melody, there’s a lovely YouTube recording here.

In any case, I hope you enjoy my adaptation and Happy Thanksgivukkah!

“We Gather Together”
Original Text: Nederlandtsch Gedencklanck; trans. by Theodore Baker
Music: 16th cent. Dutch melody; arr. by Edward Kremser (1838-1914)

We gather together 
for gelt and for latkes,
and horas to dance.
his plan, it sure did shock us:
Destroy our holy place!
We did not stand a chance.

But Maccabees rose up
to fight for our freedom,
their leading succeeding,
our Temple reclaimed.
Its”rededication”
gave joy to the whole nation
(in Hebrew, “Chanukah,”
which accounts for the name).

We’re cleaning and beaming 
to have back the Temple
when tsurris did strike
and our joy nearly spoiled.
But miracles happen
to help fill in a gap and
then eight, full days of light
came from one jar of oil.

So now, we thank God for
the help and the freedom,
for courage to fight
against all tyranny.
A day of thanksgiving
for faith that goes on living,
for light and love and joy,

and the chance to be free.

 

Sharing the Kotel (Western Wall)

Lesley Sachs Photo

Lesley Sachs, Director of “Women of the Wall” arguing with a police officer back in October because she’s wearing a tallit while praying at the Kotel (which is currently against Israeli law).

Below, you’ll find the text of a letter that I just sent to Chairman Natan Sharansky of the Jewish Agency.  As you may have read in the news recently (click here for an example), in response to international outcry over the treatment of women praying at the wall, Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked Chairman Sharansky to suggest ways to better accommodate the diversity of Jewish religious practice at the Kotel (Western Wall).

I hope you’ll join me in reaching out to Chairman Sharansky and urging him to take significant steps towards guaranteeing Jewish religious freedom and equality at the Kotel.  You can do so via the IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) site by clicking here.  While it’s always difficult to be certain, this turn of events may be a watershed moment for advancing the issue of religious freedom in Israel and the unity of the Jewish people.

{My letter follows}

Dear Chairman Sharansky,

I am thrilled that you will be studying the issue of Jewish religious freedom at the Kotel.  I believe it ought to be possible for every Jew who holds the Kotel a powerful symbol to pray there fully and freely.  It has long seemed at best ironic and, at worst, shameful that all Jews are not able to pray free of harassment or fear at the holiest Jewish site in the world.  Despite our rich variety, in the heart of Jerusalem and at the heart of the Jewish people, we should aspire to live as one people with one heart.

I recognize that in order for such an ideal to become reality, all sides will need to make compromises. As we teach our children, such compromise is the inevitable prerequisite for sharing something that we treasure.  We have to be willing to allow others to use it and sometimes, to do so in a way that is different from our own custom or preference.  But surely for a people who has survived so much and reinvented itself so many times, this goal is attainable.

The Kotel does not belong to Orthodox Jews or Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews.  It is the legacy of all Jews–of “Am Yisrael.”  And therefore, the issue you will be considering is a test of our aspiration to live as “Am Echad.”  It is a measure of Israel’s continuing capacity to unite the Jews of the world in common identity and vision.  Can we find the creativity, the generosity of spirit and the flexibility to share a site that ultimately must belong to all of us?  I hope so.

 I pray for your every success in responding to this urgent and complex challenge and thank you for your service to our people. 

Rabbi Jonathan Kraus

 

 

The Necessity of Hope

For the week of December 22, 2012

Parashat “Va’yigash”
Genesis 44:18-47:27

In this week’s parashah (Torah portion), we reach the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers,  With roles reversed, Joseph (the former victim) has his brothers (the former victimizers) completely within his power.  Having framed Benjamin for the theft of an expensive goblet, Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, explains that he’ll allow the rest of them to return to Canaan but Benjamin must remain behind as a slave.  Va’yigash begins as Judah steps forward and, following an eloquent plea, offers to remain as a slave himself in place of Benjamin.  Poignantly, Judah asks:  “For how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer (Gen. 44:34)?”  After Judah has spoken these words, Joseph is overcome with emotion and, at last, reveals himself to his brothers–“I am Joseph–is my father still alive (Gen. 45:3)?”

This is a complicated moment for our understanding of Joseph.  Was the whole point of Joseph’s machinations to test his brothers and find out if they’d changed?  Before he could trust them, was Joseph trying to see whether his brothers would respond differently when faced, once again, with the prospect of abandoning a brother and causing terrible anguish to their father?  Or was Joseph simply struggling with the temptation to exact revenge and make his brothers suffer?  Did he only change course at the last minute because Judah’s plea softened his vengeful heart?  Perhaps, Joseph himself wasn’t sure of his motivations even as he was manipulating his brothers.  We can’t be sure.

For my part, I would like to believe that no matter how hurt and angry Joseph still felt, some part of his heart held onto the hope that his brothers could have changed.  After all, Joseph didn’t just throw them all in jail or deny them food and send them back empty-handed to face the intense famine in Canaan.  Instead, whether intentionally or not, Joseph left the door open for his brothers to do the right thing and Judah literally “stepped up.”  If Joseph had given up all hope that his brothers might have changed over the years, if he’d decided that things could never be healthy between them, the story would have had a very different and probably far more tragic ending.

Like Joseph, our people’s ability to  sustain this kind of stubborn and resilient hope, sometimes in spite of ourselves and certainly, despite the evidence of Jewish history, has been one of the strongest guarantors of our survival.  To give up hope is to give up on the future and the possibility that things still could change for the better.  To give up hope is to surrender to the dark cynicism and despair that threaten to corrupt our hearts and smother our will to do the slow, frustrating but essential work of creating change.

As I’ve continued to worry about events unfolding in Israel, a line from Naomi Shemer’s beautiful song, Al Kol Eileh (written after the 1973 Yom Kippur War) keeps rising up in me.  You’ll find a charming YouTube video version here and lyrics with a translation here.  In the second half of the chorus, Shemer writes:  “Do not uproot what is planted; do not forget Ha’Tikvah (the Hope).”  This is, of course, both a reference to Israel’s national anthem and also to hope itself.  The message of the song is undoubtedly nationalistic and patriotic.  But the lyrics also express a continued longing and hope for peace.  And what I fear these days is that too many Israelis, understandably exhausted by decades of disappointment and missed opportunities and terrible violence, have given up on the hope of peace.  I worry that too many Israelis have accepted as a sad, hard  but inevitable reality that there will never be peace with the Palestinians.  And they have adjusted their worldviews and political positions and choices accordingly.

If I’m right (and I pray that I’m not), this development bodes ill for Israel’s future.  Of course, Israel must continue to protect herself vigilantly and not be naive about the very real threats she faces.  At the same time, I believe Israel’s future depends on her ability to continue nurturing the hope for peace, perhaps like Joseph, in spite of herself and in spite of the evidence of much of her history.  I pray that Israel, like Joseph, can somehow leave the door open for an unexpected but not impossible transformation among those who have done her harm in the past.  While it’s possible that such a stubborn hope may never be rewarded, we know that if we abandon the hope of peace, it certainly will never happen.  Al tishkach et ha tikvah–don’t forget Hope.

Help Get Our Young People to Vote!

A terrific, young woman who grew up in our congregation has started a project to urge young adults to get out and vote.  Note that the project is non-partisan and does not support a particular candidate or issue (other than the issue of reducing political apathy among young adults!).

At this website, http://www.ourtime.org (here’s a link if you’re especially lazy!), there’s a really engaging video to watch and then a request to sign a pledge to vote.  It’s young people reaching out to other young people and trying to convince them to get involved in shaping the character of our society by voting.  What could be bad?

So please get on your Facebook pages, or Twitter accounts or email lists or blogs (or whatever other way you communicate with the young adults in your life) and encourage them to go to this website and take the pledge to vote!

Matters of the Heart

For the week of November 3rd, 2012

Parashat “Va’yera”
Genesis 18:1-22:24

Perhaps like some of you, I’m definitely ready for the campaign season to be over.  During these final weeks, we’re besieged by television commercials, postcards, newspaper editorials and phone calls that promote the virtues of one candidate or warn about the dark consequences of voting for an opponent.  These emotional appeals, particularly appeals to our fears and resentments, remind us that elections and politics are at least as much a matter of emotion as of reason.  Apparently, political consultants have figured out that if you can manipulate people’s emotions successfully, you often can get them to vote one way or another.  All of which helps to explain the commercials’ threatening music, their shadowy backgrounds and the presentation of even the smallest biographical fact in a manner calculated to make us worry, to make us suspicious or to cause us to resent someone.  Because though we may like to think otherwise, we often make choices, even our most consequential choices, based primarily on how something or someone makes us feel and not based on a rational, careful review of the pros and cons.

According to some translations of the Torah, this tendency also may be a challenge for God.  Va’yera includes the passage in which God informs Abraham of the approaching punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham famously pleads for the cities.  In Genesis 18:23, Abraham asks God:  “Will you indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked?”  What would it say about God’s justice, Abraham asks, if the innocent and wicked were  to suffer the same, terrible fate?  Amazingly, the Creator of the entire universe seems to be compelled by Abraham’s argument.  God agrees that even if there are only 50 righteous people in the cities, everyone will be spared for the sake of those 50.  We know the rest.  Abraham eventually convinces God that only 10 righteous people would mean sparing the cities but tragically, not even a minyan of righteous people can be found.  Sodom and Gomorroh are destroyed.

But some alternative translations for Genesis 18:23 suggest that Abraham may be warning God not to make a rash decision based in anger.  In the Hebrew, Abraham asks,  “Ha’af tispeh tzaddik im rasha?”  The usual translations render  “ha’af” as something like, “Will you really…?”  or, as above, “Will you indeed…?”  But according to Rabbi Plaut’s commentary, the Targum* and Syriac** versions of this verse treat the Hebrew word, “af” as “anger” and therefore understand Abraham’s question as, “Will You, in anger, sweep away the innocent with the wicked?”***  In other words, Abraham is cautioning God not to be ruled by emotion–especially a powerful emotion like anger–when making such a crucial, life-and-death decision.

Setting aside the interesting, theological question of an anthropomorphized God (who feels human emotions), this nuance teaches us important Torah.  First, these translations teach us about the value and urgency of having concerned advisers who will call us back to our best selves when we are in danger of making rash, emotional decisions.  How many of us have lived to regret a decision made in the heat of anger or fear or hurt or sorrow or even infatuation?  While there definitely can be a certain romance in spontaneous reactions to moments of deep emotion, such reactions also have the potential to cause a great deal of damage.  In such moments, we are blessed to have our own “Abrahams” who ask us the challenging but valuable questions that remind us of our best selves.  This interpretation reminds us to treasure such people in our lives (even though we sometimes may find their questions annoying!) and also to do our best to serve as worthy Abrahams for those we love.

Second, this interpretation reminds us that we tend to make the best choices when we don’t rely exclusively on either our rationality or our emotions.  We need both****.  Our humanity is discovered, defined and deepened in the creative space, in the constant dialogue between our hearts and our minds.  And if we aspire to wisdom, we will need to listen to both–apparently, just like God.

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*An ancient, Aramaic translation and paraphrase of the Bible.  See here for more information about “Targum”.

**Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that apparently dates back to the 2nd century C.E.

***The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised), ed., Rabbi W.G. Plaut (New York: URJ Press, 2005), note to Gen. 18:23 on page 125.

****Here it seems worth reminding ourselves that for the Bible, the heart is the source of thought and skill as much as of feeling.  Regardless of what we now understand about human physiology, the Biblical view might instruct us about the importance of integrating reason and feeling in order to become “wise-hearted” (see, for example, Exodus 31:6 and Psalms 90:12).

Please Sign The Petition!

Anat Hoffman at the Kotel

Last night, Anat Hoffman, the courageous leader of the Women of the Wall (and a leader of our movement in Israel) was arrested by Israeli police for singing the Shema at the kotel (Western Wall in Jerusalem).  You can read a brief account of the arrest here (from “The Jewish Daily Forward”).  And you can learn more about the Women of the Wall here.

Noa Sattath, Director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center wrote the following in an email to supporters of religious freedom in Israel:

“Last night Anat Hoffman was arrested at the Western Wall. This occurred during a prayer service in the woman’s section with 250 other participants, including members of Women of the Wall and Hadassah.

Anat was detained and held overnight in police custody for disturbing the peace. She was arrested for saying the Shema, Judaism’s central declaration of faith, out loud at the Western Wall.   Anat was put through a terrible ordeal.

The experience was both frightening and humiliating, simply for wanting to pray as a Jew at the Kotel. We are all so relieved that Anat is now back home.  She also wants to express her profound gratitude to all of you for your support and good wishes.

Anat will be writing about this experience herself in the coming days. As we move forward we are more determined than ever to achieve equality for women, everywhere in Israel, including the Kotel. Please sign (and share) our petition, which calls on the Israeli government to end the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over the Western Wall.”

I have signed this petition myself and, if you are so inclined, I urge you to do the same.  You’ll find the petition here.  As I discussed during a recent High Holy Day sermon, we owe it to ourselves as liberal Jews but even more so to the future of Israel to stay informed, involved and to help Israel find her way back to her best self.  We also owe it to courageous leaders like Anat Hoffman and Uri Regev, to support and stand with them in their ongoing work of justice and tikkun.

The Power and Limits of Words

For the week of October 13th, 2012

Parashat “B’reisheet”
(Genesis 1:1-6:8)

Among the astounding presumptions of the Torah’s cosmology is the power of spoken words.  God says, “Let there be light… (Gen. 1:3)” and light comes into being.  God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly over the earth… (Gen. 1:20)” and fish and birds come into being.  The Torah takes it as a given that spoken words, at least God’s spoken words, have the power to create (or change) physical realities.  In B’reisheet, God speaks the world into being.

 That this was an important theological claim for our rabbis is seen in a comment of Ben Zoma on Genesis 1:7, “And God made the firmament… .”

This is a verse whose apparent implication caused Ben Zoma to shake the world [of Jewish learning].  ” ‘And God made!’–(is) an unbelievable utterance,” he said.  “Did not the firmament come into being by God’s word–“by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth (Psalms 33:6)?”1

 For Ben Zoma, of course, it was important to emphasize God’s power even while upholding the belief that God doesn’t have a body.  Genesis presents us with God who doesn’t have (and doesn’t need) hands or arms or eyes to make things (or, to make things happen!).2  Setting aside the related question of how a God with no mouth can speak, the creation narrative captures the rabbis’ sense of the awesome, spiritual mystery of a God who is clearly the Source of creation but also transcends it.  Unlike us, God doesn’t make things through physical effort but with ideas and intentions that are translated into spoken words.  God’s words have the power to create.

Of course, at times, our spoken words also have some power to change physical realities.  Leaders “declare” war or peace and people’s lives are sacrificed or saved.  Judges and juries “announce” sentences and people are jailed or set free (or sometimes killed) by the power of those spoken words.  Clergy “pronounce” couples married and a whole set of legal and property rights as well as behavioral expectations are created.  We “promise” to meet people somewhere or do them a favor and, on the basis of our spoken words, they act differently because of an expectation that our words have created.

 Yet, we also know that sometimes, spoken words can be empty or meaningless.  They have no power at all to effect change or create new realities.  A person says, “We should get together sometime” but we know it will never happen.  An unhappy child yells at a parent, “You can’t tell me what to do!”  but, of course, the parent usually can.  A chronic liar promises us, for the one hundredth time, that they’ll act differently this time and we just don’t believe them.  These words have no power to create.

 With human speech, the key to words that have power seems to be a relationship of trust.  In order for spoken words to be effective, the ones to whom the words are spoken must believe in the integrity and authority of the speaker–the speaker can do what he says and he will.  After all, if I don’t believe that you mean what you say or that you have the authority to make such a statement, your words are just sounds.  They can’t create new realities.  The creative power of spoken words depends on the quality of the relationship in which those words are spoken.

All of which brings us back to God and creation.  If one of the ways in which human beings are “created in God’s image” is the potential, creative power of our speech, then perhaps, we can read aspects of our own, human experience back into the Genesis story3.  Perhaps, for God’s creative speech to be effective, God had to have a depth and intimacy of relationship with the universe in which God’s integrity and authority were beyond question.  Maybe, the universe had to be deeply connected with God, had to “feel” God’s power and love and Truth, in order for God’s spoken words to have that much ability to create and form a new world.

And perhaps the same is true of God’s creative words to us–words that tell us to protect the vulnerable in our society, to regard every human being as a potentially holy reflection of God, to balance compassion with justice, to be good caretakers of the earth, and to do our best to sanctify each moment.  The effectiveness of these holy words in reshaping reality depends on the quality of our relationship with God.  They only have the ability to create or change us if allow ourselves to feel God’s integrity, power and love as well as the Truth of those words.  Otherwise, they’re all just empty sounds or indecipherable marks on parchment.

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1Quoted in The Book of Legends–Sefer Ha-Aggadah:  Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, eds., Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York:  Schocken Books, 1992), #16, pg. 8 and citing as its sources Genesis Rabbah 4:6 and Yalkut B’reisheet 6.

2For the rabbis (and most of Jewish tradition), the Torah is limited by the ability of human language and imagery to describe what is, ultimately, beyond words.  So, when the Torah speaks of God “seeing” or “speaking” or of a God who frees slaves “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” these are only inadequate, human metaphors for a reality that is, ultimately, beyond the power of our words to name.

3Clearly, this idea won’t work for fundamentalist readers of the Bible.  To suggest that the universe (or we) have a choice in the face of God’s spoken command, that the authority of God’s command depends on the quality of our relationships with God, can be heard as denying God’s absolute power.  But isn’t it also possible that the same God who is understood as the source of humanity’s free will chooses to make the power of these commandments contingent on the evolving quality of our relationship with God?

Rabbi Uri Regev is Coming to Beth El!

Rabbi Uri Regev

 

As I mentioned during Yom Kippur services, I’m thrilled that Rabbi Uri Regev will be coming to Beth El on Shabbat morning, Saturday, October 20th, 2012 (click on the link below to see the flyer for full details)!

Rabbi Regev currently serves as the President of Hiddush, a new education and advocacy organization he helped found that works to protect religious freedom in Israel.  Prior to his work at Hiddush, Rabbi Regev served as President of both the World Union for Progressive Judaism and as the Executive Director of Israel Religious Action Center.  Among his other accomplishments, he has successfully argued for recognition of the rights of non-Orthodox Jews before the Israeli Supreme Court.

Even if you can’t join us on October 20th, I encourage you to check out the Hiddush website.  You also may want to read Rabbi Regev’s recent post about eliminating the role of Israel’s Chief Rabbi (on the Open Zionism blog of the Daily Beast website).

Rabbi Uri Regev Flyer