Not much makes me apoplectic. I value the spectrum of beliefs, opinions, world-views that reflect the diversity of the human experience. I do not expect . . . indeed would not want . . . everyone to be like me. (One of me is enough!)
I'm a rabbi, I've got some very strong convictions and commitments. One of them is that God created humanity with free will, with curiosity, intelligence and the capacity to aspire . . . and that God expects us to use these gifts.
When people say they are speaking in the name of religion and condemn the curiosity, intelligence and capacity to aspire of any other human being, I get angry. When people say they are speaking in the name of religion and incite others to verbal and/or physical violence, I get angry.
I'm a rabbi. Obviously, I don't agree with Jessica Ahlquist that God does not exist. On the other hand, the voices that have been raised against her in the name of religion have now convinced this young woman that the world of faith is a world she would never, ever want to explore. Hence my apoplexy.
I am grateful to my good friend and colleague, Reverend Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, for creating a platform for a wide spectrum of real religious leaders in our state to raise our voices in an interfaith harmony of tolerance, mutual respect and civility . . . in faith.
I share with you, below, my statement at our January 24th press conference. If you are interested in reading the statements of others at that press conference, click here.
I am Rabbi Amy Levin of Temple Torat Yisrael, here in Cranston. I also serve as the Vice-President of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis.
When Jessica's concerns about the prayer banner in the Cranston West High School auditorium were being discussed about a year and a half ago, i held a discussion with members of my congregation who grew up in Cranston and attended Cranston West in the1960s. I asked them how they had felt as Jewish students sitting in the auditorium with the prayer banner on the walls. They told me that they felt uncomfortable, that their parents felt uncomfortable with the prominently-displayed school prayer in the room in which the school assembled. They told me that in the 1960s, their parents were afraid to speak about against the presence of that school prayer. Fifty years later, Jessica has given public voice to the discomfort of generations of students who came her. She has voiced concerns that those parents were hesitant to raise fifty years ago. She has been subjected to the treatment that others feared to bring upon themselves.
For all that a religious declaration addressed to Our Father in Heaven does not belong on the walls of a public high school, I would suggest that anyone who has internalized the values expressed in that prayer would never verbally or physically attack or threaten to attack a person who does not identify with a statement addressed to God. Walking the talk of that Cranston West prayer banner means discourse with mutual respect and honor for every human being created by God.
As one of the clergy assembled today, I have come to reassure every person of faith in our State that taking down this banner can never pose a threat to anyone's faith. Your faith goes with you wherever you go . . . Faith needs no banner to live in our hearts.
I am wishing all my Torat Yisrael members a warm "Shabbat Shalom" now because I will not be in Rhode Island this Shabbat. For four years, I have enjoyed the privilege (and I really mean "enjoyed") of mentoring senior rabbinical students at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS).
The Legacy Heritage Foundation wanted to address the struggles of many tiny Jewish congregations around the United States and crafted a unique Fellowship program which grants funding to a select group of senior rabbinical students at JTS the opportunity to provide rabbinic leadership to congregations too small to sustain even a part-time rabbi on their own. By definition, these students are working in congregations in which there is no rabbi in the community to provide guidance, serve as a sounding board, make helpful suggestions. That's where I come in. As a mentor, I speak with my rabbinical students as they prepare for their monthly visits to their congregations, I debrief them afterwards and help them process their experiences.
As a mentor, I also spend one Shabbat a year with each of my students so I can see for myself how they "present" on the pulpit, how they interact with the members of their communities, what teaching skills they are mastering.
So I will be in Reno, Nevada for Shabbat sitting in the back of the sanctuary taking mental notes about one of my very intelligent, creative, energetic and inspiring students.
This is a great Shabbat for me to be with Zach. Not necessarily because Reno weather is better than East Greenwich weather (although it will be a few degrees warmer) but because our parashah/Torah reading this week begins with a short illustration of successful collaborative leadership. Which is most certainly an approach that new rabbis should learn to appreciate.
At the beginning of Chapter 7 of Sh'mot/Exodus, towards the middle of the parashah, God, Moses and Aaron are gathered in a strategy session. The goal is to extricate the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and to unequivocally prove to Pharaoh that the God of the Israelites is so universal a God, that the distance between the Israelite God's "home turf" of Canaan means nothing. Geographical boundaries, prior claims of local pre-eminence by local Egyptian gods all count as nothing when the God of Israel is roused to redeem Israel.
God says: "You [Moses] shall speak everything that I command you; and Aaron, your brother, shall speak to Pharaoh, that he let the children of Israel go . . . and I'll harden Pharaoh's heart, and I'll multiply My signs and wonders . . . and Egypt will know that I am Adonay when I reach out My hand on Egypt, and I'll bring out the children of Israel from among them."
According to our tradition, Moses will become the progenitor of the rabbinic role and Aaron became the progenitor of the Kohanim, the priestly caste. At this pre-exodus moment though, they are learning how to work as a team: the vision conveyed by Moses is as crucial to the success of the effort as is the polished oration of Aaron. The only way to move Pharaoh and to fill the children of Israel with the confidence to leave the familiar role of slavery is for the leadership to communicate well with each other, share a vision, and then to continually communicate and share with the people themselves. Each brings strengths and gifts and shortcomings to the role of leader and it is only by working together that their strengths are elevated and their shortcomings diminished.
Mountains can be moved with that kind of mutual respect and team work.
This week's parasha/Torah portion includes a passage that has become iconic for all people engaged in a relationship with God, and that has particular significance for those of us in the Conservative/Masorti denomination of Judaism.
In the biblical account of this moment, Moshe is shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Yitro/Jethro in Midian. Out in the middle of nowhere, Moshe is drawn to an astonishing sight:
"And an angel of God appeared to him in a fire's flame from inside a bush. And he looked, and here: the bush was not consumed! And Moses said, 'Let me turn and see this great sight. Why doesn't the bush burn!?'" (Shmot/Exodus 3:2-3)
Back in the 15th chapter of Breishit/Genesis, in the evocative moment of covenant between God and Avram, we are first introduced to the association of God's presence with flame: "And the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke and a flame of fire that went between the pieces [of animals, echoing an ancient near-eastern treaty ceremony]. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram...." (Breishit/Genesis 15:17-18)
This same association will recur as God guides the progeny of Israel through the wilderness with a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night.
In our parashah this week, the connection is firmly established: "And God saw that he turned to see. And God called to him from inside the bush, and He said: 'Moshe, Moshe.'
And he said: 'I'm here.'" (Sh'mot/Exodus 3:4)
How can we interpret this intense image of the bush that is not consumed? God's presence is the flame and the bush represents our world: rooted in the earth, organic and mortal. As God's presence infuses the earthly bush, the bush is illuminated, elevated, enlivened . . . but it is not burned up even when filled with God's presence. Here is an irresistible image of encouragement for those seeking to engage God in the real world . . . which is precisely the passion of Conservative Judaism: living in the real, modern, multi-faceted world informed by the wisdom of Jewish tradition and a passion for finding God around us.
Those who established our Conservative movement over a century ago, turned to this same iconic image of the burning bush to express their conviction that their evolving approach to Jewish life in America would similarly embody the eternity and passion and symbiosis of the burning bush. Indeed, a beautiful relief of that image adorns the front of the Jewish Theological Seminary building . . . which is the photograph on the left below.
As you can see, the theme of the flame, associated with God's presence and the light of Torah, is a consistent theme in the logos of our movement's major organizations. This week's parashah is "home base" for those of us who consider ourselves Conservative/Masorti Jews.
When I return to our "home base" image of the burning bush, I am recharged by the promise of that image: I am reminded again that God's presence is not only inextricably part of Creation, of that organic, mortal world I inhabit, but that the fact of God's presence is meant to generate heat and light. The heat of passion for my people and my tradition. The light of Torah as cast by God.
This final parashah/Torah reading in the book of Genesis includes an evocative scene: the patriarch is close to death, his twelve sons are gathered around him as he speaks his final words to each and every one of them. The Torah tells us that the patriarch, Jacob, blessed each son according to his blessing.
Try as I might, I find little that's heartwarming or inspiring in this scene: Jacob's daughter, Dina, is nowhere to be found and does not receive a parting blessing from her father . . . which might be a blessing in itself.
For what Jacob does say to each son, in the presence of all the others, isn't what I'd call a blessing . . . indeed, many of the sons seem to be condemned by their father more than blessed.*
"Reuben, you're my firstborn, my power, and the beginning of my might, . . . unstable as water, you'll not be preeminent, for you ascended your father's bed . . . (49:3,4).
"Simeon and Levi are brothers: implements of violence are their tools of trade. Let my soul not come in their council..." (49:5-6)
"Dan will be a snake on a road, a venomous snake on a path, that bites a horse's heels,and its rider falls backward." (49: 17)
"Benjamin is a tearing wolf: in the morning eating prey, and at evening dividing booty." (49:27)
Of course, other brothers fare slightly better:
"Zebulun will dwell by seashores: and he'll be a shore for boats..." (49:13
"Issachar is a strong ass crouching between the saddle-packs: and he saw rest, that it was good, and the land, that it was pleasant. and he leaned his shoulder to bear and became a work-company servant." (49:14-15)
"Naphtali: a hind let loose, who gives lovely words." (49:21)
And a few are truly blessed:
"Judah: You, your brothers will praise you. Your hand on your enemies' neck, your father's sons will bow to you." (49:8)
"A fruitful bough is Joseph, a fruitful bough over a spring . . . archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and despised him. and his bow stayed stong, and his forearms were nimble, from the hands of the Might One of Jacob . . .Shadday [another name for God] will bless you . . . blessings of your father, the mighty and most high, blessings of the mountains of old..." (49: 22,23-24, 25-26).
So it's no small surprise when we read: "And Jacob finished commanding his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired. And Joseph fell upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him." (49:33-50:1)
Thirteen children, twelve gathered at the death bed, and only one mourned him.
It is certainly the case that some of Jacob's sons were responsible for some very questionable acts. And I believe that parents are most effective when they are not blind to their progeny's shortcomings. But a dying father might say to his fanatically revengeful sons (see Genesis 34): "My prayer for you is that you will be broken down with remorse and then rebuild your souls as upright men of honor, maturity and perspective." A dying father might say to the son who slept with his father's concubine, Bilhah (see Genesis 35:22): "My prayer for you is that you will be broken down with remorse and then rebuild your soul as a man who has control of his urges and has respect for women and for family relationships."
There is a lot that is broken and dysfunctional in this biblical family. Jacob's parting words to his sons almost seem designed to plant chaos and dissension among them.
Then two profound things happen. Two profound things that demonstrate to me how much Torah is truly a light for us in every generation:
Joseph, the one child who truly mourns his father, receives permission from Pharaoh to journey to Canaan to bury his father in the family burial plot in the cave of Mahpelah. And the Torah relates: "And Joseph went up to bury his father, and all of Pharoah's servants, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, and all of Joseph's house and his brothers and his father's house. Only their infants and their flock and their oxen they left in the land of Goshen." (Gen 50: 7-8)
In other words: as abusive as their father may have been, Jacob's sons stepped up and did him the honor due to him as the source of their lives. Jewish tradition teaches us that as adults, when we are no longer physically dependent on an abusive parent, we are not obligated to fawn over them, to keep trying to earn their love. But the adult children of abusive parents are obligated to make sure that their parents are safe, have respectable food, clothing and shelter and that their are honored in their death as the source of life and for whatever gifts of parenting they may have had. This is what we learn from Reuben and Simeon and Levi, Judah, Zebulun and Issachar, Dan, Gad and Asher, Naphtali and Benjamin.
The second moment of light comes as the family gathers together after Jacob is buried. Joseph's brothers speak among themselves: "And Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said, "If Joseph will despise us he'll pay us back all the bad we dealt to him." (50:15).
But Joseph has grown, not only in stature, but in faith and maturity. Perhaps being cut off from his family for so long has taught him the importance of family. He responds: "Don't be afraid, because am I in God's place? And you thought bad against me. God thought for good: in order to do as it is today, to keep alive a numerous people. And now, don't be afraid. I'll provide for you and your infants. " And he consoled them. And he spoke on their heart. (Gen 50: 19-21)
The long journey of this family of Jacob's begins with the pain of the effects of an abusive parent and ends with the healing power of a faithful and loving sibling.
*All translations are from Richard Elliott Friedman's excellent English translation of the Torah.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.