Friday, November 16, 2018

Suffering and Transformation

                  When I have quiet time or am engaged in some activity that doesn’t require my whole attention, like  washing windows or doing the dinner dishes or scrubbing the bathroom shower, my mind wanders to thoughts about how to live in this world of conflict and division and violence and suffering and disrespect.   Sometimes it is hard to hold a spacious mind and heart and pull back far enough to glimpse the Big Picture - - to actually see if there is meaning in what I experience as a kind of insult or assault on my sensibilities with each day’s headlines or news reports.  I wonder if we are on some irreparable path of destruction from which we will not recover or are we on a long and tortuous path to some kind of wholeness, the end point of which we cannot yet see.

As if in dialogue with my inner musings, the daily meditation that I receive in my morning email from Richard Rohr (Center for Contemplation and Action) gave me some more verbal tools for the inner wrestling:

Jesus says, “There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah” (see Luke 11:29; Matthew 12:39, 16:4). Sooner or later, life is going to lead us  into the belly of the beast, into a place we can’t fix, control, explain, or understand. That’s where transformation most easily happens—because only there are we in the hands of God—and not self-managing.   Suffering is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego. The separate and sufficient self has to be led to the edge of its own resources, so it learns to call upon the Deeper Resource of who it truly is (but does not recognize yet): the God Self, the True Self, the Christ Self, the Buddha Self—use whatever words you want. It is who we fundamentally are in God and who God is dwelling in us. Once we are transplanted to this solid place, we are largely indestructible! But then we must learn to rest there, and not just make occasional forays into momentary union. That is the work of our whole lifetime.

Whew!!  Maybe that thought expands the picture too much and too quickly!  Just getting my head around the notion that we may be in the “belly of the beast” - or in the “refiner’s fire” (to use a different metaphor from Malachi 3:2), part of a grand process of cleansing and redemption that will take us to a deeper level of “humanity aware of its divinity” is a bit mind altering to say the least.

I went with a friend to see a one woman performance titled “ETTY” last night.  An hour long glimpse into the life and thought and spirit of Etty Hillesum, taken from her diaries while awaiting her fate as a Jewish woman during WWII in Holland in 1941.  

       This is how Etty describes the indestructible nature of the True Self in the midst of all the horrors of the Westerbork transit camp, a staging ground for the deportation of Dutch Jews during the Holocaust:

This morning, while I stood at the tub with a colleague, I said with great emotion something like this: “The realms of the soul and the spirit are so spacious and unending that this little bit of physical discomfort and suffering doesn’t really matter all that much. I do not feel I have been robbed of my freedom; essentially no one can do me any harm at all.” [1]

Another mind bending take on the transformational possibilities of immense suffering. 

Each week as I return home from Shabbat services on Friday and Saturday and then from Sunday morning worship, I feel gratitude for the communities in which I find grounding and strength for living through the coming week and healing for my spirit of the spiritual wounds encountered in the prior week.   The morning meditations from Richard Rohr are another resource for each day.  Buddhist reflections on simplicity and loving kindness from Christina Feldman are an ongoing source of inspiration. 

I am  seeing that my hunger for community and for spiritual strength and wisdom are part of a transformational process that is going on in me in response to the daily unfolding of events in the headlines.  Maybe my ego is truly undergoing a gradual process of “dismantling” as I recognize “the teacher” veiled in the grubbiness of the social and political milieu. 

Now, if I could only stand back far enough to be able to see and know whether the vast social, political, ecological, economic and spiritual suffering on this planet is indeed working a collective transformational process that “destabilizes the imperial ego”  of systems and politicians in the service of the human spirit.  I am impatient for some reassurance that this is so.  But maybe witnessing and acknowledging  my own process will have to be enough for now.

Vicky Hanjian

[1] Etty Hillesum, Letter (June 29, 1943). See An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 287-288  cited in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center For Action and Contemplation, October 21, 2018

Friday, November 9, 2018

Getting, Doing, Being

Although I wrote about this experience some years ago, I believe it bears repeating. While I was Chaplain at a college in Maryland, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was the graduation speaker.  The Swiss psychiatrist had recently published her book "On Death and Dying," based on near death experiences with her patients. I was moved by her speech and impressed by the wisdom I found in her book. One idea stood out above all the rest. According to Kubler-Ross, the dying value the opportunity to talk about their death with someone who is able to listen.

As my father lay dying after a long illness, I mentioned this to my mother. She responded with, "don't look at me. You're the minister in the family." Since my siblings were not present and I didn't think any of them would relish the task, I took a deep breath and decided I would do the deed.

          I went into my father's room where he lay quietly on the bed. After a few minutes of meaningless conversation I said something like, "Dad, it seems like you are OK with dying, if that's what happens, as well as  with pulling through this illness alive." There was silence. I may have been holding my breath. Then he said the wisest and most value laden statement I ever heard him make. He said, "I've always believed it doesn't matter what you get or what you do. What matters is who you are. If that's what you believe, there's nothing more you have to get or do and you can die anytime having fulfilled your purpose." Then there was the kicker. "And I've tried to teach my children this. What do you think?"

At that point I realized I was the one who needed him to talk with me about death, not the other way around. He had it together. I was still learning.

The reason I'm recalling this experience is because of the implicit values. We live in a time where we need to re-examine the fundamental values that guide our behavior and communicate who we are. Is life about getting and doing, or about being? For many of us, that means looking again at the life of Jesus and the values of the Christian faith, where my father was schooled.

       We were talking about values in my religion class the other day. One of the first mentioned was humility. Reference was made to the parable of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke about the Pharisee and the tax collector. It ends, "for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." Also mentioned was the passage in Philippians where we are encouraged to "do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." I couldn't help but think about our current political situation as I read that passage.

Another value mentioned was forgiveness. We had seen the film "The Power of Forgiveness" the week before. In several different scenarios from cold blooded murder to the terror of 9/11 and the holocaust, the film explores the possibility and potential consequences of acts of forgiveness. The film makes clear that the act of forgiveness is often more helpful to the one forgiving than to the forgiven. Carrying bitterness and hate around for weeks or years is not healthy. And sometimes the one most in need of forgiveness is one's self!  Jesus said forgive seventy times seven. He even forgave those who crucified him.

A third value we discussed was inclusion. Jesus was inclusive! No one was turned away! He touched and healed those the culture had rejected. He stopped the stoning of sinners. He spoke with the despised Samaritans. He welcomed into his presence all those the religious authorities of the day discarded. His disciples represented the common people, not celebrities. 

If one reads the story of the eunuch and Philip in the book of Acts, one finds the model for Christian inclusion of others rejected by institutional barriers and religious requirements. The eunuch who would never be allowed in the temple because he wasn't "whole," is baptized at his request, into the inclusive community following Jesus. Once again, our present political situation stood in stark contrast to the inclusiveness of the Scriptures.

Finally, the class discussed the big three Christian values: faith, hope and love. 

The students I see are not optimistic about the changing climate. To a person they do not believe the human community will act to prevent climate catastrophe. When I ask if they are depressed or in despair, many admit they are. But one student said she was hopeful. That's different from being optimistic. Hope is one of the most significant values the tradition provides for our time, where the demons of greed, war, famine and extinction continually rear their ugly heads. 

The second of the big three, faith, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," is essential, if hope is to have life. And love underlies them both. 

Values are useless unless they are integrated into human lives and into the societies people inhabit. We encourage individuals to learn values from early childhood. Those who do we soon identify as persons of integrity. But we aren't as adept at cultivating and adapting those values into our social and cultural institutions. 

Wake up America! It doesn't matter what we get or what we do. It's who we are!

Carl Kline

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Rabbis' Letter to his Community on Hearing of the Slaughter at the Tree of LIfe Synagogue in pittsburgh

A Rabbi’s Letter to his Community on Hearing of the Slaughter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

Dear Chavraya,
With heavy hearts we hold each other, reaching out and encircling with love. Shabbos peace was shattered today, but not the Shabbos hope for a world of peace. I only heard toward the end of Shabbos, from someone knocking on the door, of the horrific shooting today at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We joyfully celebrated a Bas Mitzvah this morning, oblivious to the terror that engulfed others of our extended Jewish family. We are joined with them in pain and sorrow, sending with so many others our grief filled prayers that might somehow offer comfort, if simply to know that we are one.

          At the start of this evening's long-planned Jewish Arts program, we made Havdallah together, a large circle taking in the sweetness, the bitter-sweetness now, even more so than the usual touch of melancholy as Shabbos leaves. Havdallah marks the transition from Shabbos peace, its wholeness and sweetness, to the days of the week. Today that wholeness was shattered and with Havdallah we seek transition from the violence and hate of this world, of this country, of this time. The hope of Shabbos for a better time, its yearning for the day that is all Shabbos, is forever intact, inspiring and urging us to go out from Shabbos and help to bring that time. As this week begins, we go out as mourners determined to say with our deeds a great amen to the blessing held in the memory of each precious life that was taken today.

      Near the end of Shabbos my office phone rang. I didn't answer because it was still Shabbos. Then immediately my cell phone rang and I knew I needed to get it. It was the minister of Bethel AME calling with condolences and to offer a prayer. It was three years ago that we gathered in his church to mourn with the African American community in response to the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. As we have reached out and stood with the African American community, as we have reached out and stood with immigrants, as we have reached out and stood with all of those who are hunted and hounded and hated in this country today, they now reach out and stand with us. Racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and all other hatreds are part of the same web of hate that poisons our country, a hatred that we have known as Jews throughout our history and to which we continue to respond proudly as Jews. 

Many text messages and emails have been coming in tonight from the interfaith community of which we are so much a part. There was a police car parked outside tonight during our program. Though its presence did not make me feel less vulnerable, when I went out to thank the officers, I was touched by their offer of condolence. Similarly, just now as I write, a call came from a police liaison officer to remind us of their presence and partnership.

As we come together as Jews, joined from one holy community to another, we are encircled by the love of all of those who now reach out to us. We hold their love as part of one circle of light, together becoming the wine, the spices, the light of Havdallah. Going into this week of sadness, knowing that so many of our people in Pittsburgh will begin to sit shiva in the coming days, we will strive nevertheless to infuse the days ahead with the essence of Shabbos. 
              We will be its gentle joy, its sweetness, its light, a light that shines brighter because we are joined together with so many good people, joined as the many wicks of the braided Havdallah candle. Shabbos peace was shattered today, but not its hope for the world.    In spite of all, Shavua tov, a week that is good because we fill it with goodness,

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, October 26, 2018



Every semester I show my students clips from a film called "Walking the Bible." In it, the narrator tries to walk in those places that one reads about in Scripture. It's a way for me to introduce my students to the idea of context. Those events recorded in Scripture have a geographical context. They didn't happen on the plains of South Dakota in the twenty first century. They have their own time and place. I believe it's important for my students to know the origins of the text.

In the same way, each of us as individuals has a context, an origin story. I remember one of my mentors, an African American minister, telling me the origin of his name. He didn't learn about it till his early thirties when he made a trip home. His name is Polk, after President Polk, as his forebears were slaves on the Polk plantation. As one of the President's slaves, you always took his last name. President Polk had plenty of slaves, even while in office. He tried to keep that knowledge from the public at the time, as anti-slavery ferment was slowly rising during his tenure.

Hearing this story from my mentor made me more curious about my own family history. So I drilled my parents. My father's parents came from Germany and settled in Pennsylvania in what was commonly known as Pennsylvania Dutch territory. His was a large family, with nine brothers. My mother's national origins are unknown, as she was adopted as an infant. When I first learned this I was frustrated. So I began to do some research. But adoption in those days was a very secretive operation and I had limited success. I was angry that here was a side of my family history I would never know. In later years I've considered it a blessing, as I claim anything and everything; Irish on St. Patrick's day and maybe even some Erie tribal blood.

     I was reading the other day about a Tunisian fisherman, Chamseddine Marzoug. He regularly finds bodies washing up on the beach near where he lives and works. People are desperate, fleeing war torn and economically chaotic places like Syria and braving the Mediterranean waters trying to reach Europe. Many don't make it. In 2017 alone, Chamseddine buried 81 corpses, believing every human deserves a decent burial. In one instance, he buried a mother and child side by side, believing they might be related, and placed a toy car and flowers on the mound. His graveyard has a sign in six languages, "Cemetery for Unknown."

There are 68 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, with over 25 million of them refugees. More than half of those are children. It's not uncommon for children fleeing violence and famine to wind up in watery graves, in cemeteries or detention camps, in one country or another. All this as the U.S. administration reduces the level of those admitted to this country to historic lows. Whereas the refugee resettlement agency has in place the infrastructure to care for 75,000 refugees, the ceiling was set at 45,000 for 2018, with less than half that number admitted so far. The ceiling for 2019 has been reduced even lower to 30,000. Why we would allow successful resettlement programs, like the one offered by Lutheran Social Services in South Dakota, to falter for want of refugees is shameful. 

     We are beginning to see the signs of displacement from climate change and environmental refugees in our own country. Hurricane Maria sent more than 100,000 fleeing their homes in Puerto Rico. One wonders if Mexico Beach, Florida will be rebuilt. Clearly, real estate on many beach fronts is beginning to take a climate hit. Realtors are looking to work with higher ground in Miami and insurance companies are finding many places un-insurable. Those seeking refuge around the globe are on the rise, along with the seas and human violence.

Those who profess Christianity should recognize that the faith is transparent. We are to welcome the stranger and the alien. The Hebrew Scriptures couldn't be clearer. Jesus also has a simple but explicit response to the question of, "who is my neighbor?" Think of the one most despised by some of your countrymen; that's the Good Samaritan. The way our neighbors to the south have been stereotyped, they might well be the Good Samaritan in a contemporary context.

So are we going to remember our context, our historical and national origins as refugees and immigrants? Can we move into a promising future without remembering who we are and where we have been and welcoming those we have often helped displace? Are we going to love and welcome the neighbor?

Carl Kline

Friday, October 19, 2018

All God's Creatures Great and Small

Think back to the last time you voluntarily killed a living creature. Perhaps it was an ant in your kitchen, or a spider in your bedroom, a squirrel that had gotten into your attic or a rat that had gotten into your compost. How did it feel to kill that creature? How do you feel now that you think back on it? Do you regret it? Would you do it again?

Prior to this week’s Torah portion, the Rabbis teach that humans were vegetarian. (Sanhedrin 59b) It would seem that, in this way, God valued all living creatures equally. Part of the perfection of the Garden of Eden is in this equality of all of God’s creation. Indeed, the Rabbis suggested that God created humans from the “upper” and “lower firmaments” so that there would be peace on earth without the upper or lower firmaments thinking one was greater than the other.   On the sixth day, God came to create man. Said God: “If I create him belonging to the celestial world, this will outnumber the terrestrial by one creation, and there will be no peace in the universe; while if he is of the terrestrial world it will be likewise. But lo! I will create him as partaking of both the celestial and the terrestrial worlds, for the sake of peace.” (Bereishit Rabbah 12:8)

At least for some of our sages in some periods of history, humans are considered united with, rather than above, all of creation.

This is so interesting when we consider that in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Noach, God destroyed all but two of each species that lived on the land or flew in the sky because “the earth had become corrupted.” (Genesis 6:11). We learn that this corruption was a result of human sin, mostly of a sexual or violent nature, but also having to do with theft and deception. (Rashi on Genesis 6:11) God created humans with the power to destroy the earth and all that is on it. Makes sense when you consider that we are in relationship with all of creation; one species’ actions can affect the whole system. Only Noah was righteous in his generation; only Noah took care of God’s creation as God intended it to be cared for. Only Noah saw himself as part of, rather than apart from, creation.

God’s gift after the flood to Noah, and by extension to us, is that we can now eat animals. The dominion over animals given to humans in Genesis 1:27, compared with the rabbis’ notion that humans were created equal to the rest of creation, is an example of God’s and our own ambivalence about being the stewards of every other plant and animal species. Noah’s care of the animals, taken in light of permission to eat them, seems to suggest that he owns them and can do what he wants with them. We, like God and our Sages, seem also to be ambivalent about our role as stewards of the rest of creation.

Modern consumerist culture perpetuates the position that we are in a hierarchical relationship with the rest of creation. For example, we measure the health of our economy by the production of new goods, such as the number of new homes built in a fiscal period. We don’t measure the concomitant destruction of creature or vegetative life. So a new home might also mean the extirpation of a grass or flower species or the extinction of a bug species. It might mean the further sectioning of a bird’s or fox’s feeding grounds, causing the bird to have to fly further, the fox to hunt longer for its food. That in turn can mean the eventual loss of a species to the area.

What would happen if we measured the health of our economy by the number of new saplings developing in a forest or the return of species to an area that has been environmentally rehabilitated? What would happen if we looked at our food, our homes, our clothing, our computers as gifts given to us by the earth, rather than as our right to take as the superior species in the hierarchy of species? The Potawatomi (indigenous people of the Upper Midwest and members of the Algonquian family) biologist Robin Wall Kimmer writes that “the essence of the gift is that it creates relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of responsibilities’ attached.” Kimmer knows what most of us are unaware of: that the pecan trees, for example, work as a community when growing their fruit. (From Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of the Plants.)

      Upon exiting the ark, Noah “built an altar to God and, taking of every pure animal and of every pure bird, offered burnt offerings on the altar. God smelled the pleasing odor, and God said to Himself, ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of humans…” (Genesis 8:20-21) Noah offered animals on his altar in an attempt to show gratitude and love to God who saved enough of creation so that creation could continue in spite of the human capacity to act immorally. The man who loved and cared for the animals also loved and cared for his God. He then planted a garden, perhaps suggesting to us that if we are to take from the earth and from the animals for our own sustenance, let us be sure that we are taking in a responsible way, only what we need, and ensuring conditions for the continuation of every species.

Rabbi Lori D. Shaller, guest blogger, is a community rabbi. She serves as a guest spiritual leader with various Jewish congregations and Unitarian Universalist churches; teaches and facilitates life cycle ceremonies; leads interfaith spiritual direction groups for clergy and sees private clients in spiritual direction; and is the chaplain for Hospice of Martha's Vineyard. Her blog originally appeared in "Torah From T'ruah:Noach"

Friday, October 12, 2018

Understanding A Rape Culture


            After watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I found myself looking for a biblical story to help me understand what I had witnessed. Clearly the Republicans had no interest in hearing her statement. They went so far as to hire a prosecutor to interrogate her. Both parties, it seemed to me, were intent on using her witness for their political ends.   My first thought was to turn to the story of Daniel in the lion's den. Dr. Ford was clearly an embodiment of that ancient biblical story.
            But upon further reflection it seemed that the biblical story of David and Bathsheba is more fitting and revealing.  In the following I limit myself to the biblical story, inviting readers to draw parallels as you see fit. In the biblical account King David rises from his bed, perhaps a sleepless night or maybe he knew what he would see if he went up to the rooftop for a look around. In any case, he went and soon thereafter he saw Bathsheba and desired to be with her.            He invited her to dinner. The Bible says that after dinner he "went into her." Less gently, he raped her.
When he later learned that she was pregnant, the king arranged for her husband, Uriah, to be brought home from the front lines. David's plan was for Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba and thus cover his own crime. The plan failed.  Uriah was sent back to the front lines. Secretly David gave orders for Uriah to be placed in a spot where he would killed.  We can imagine the king arranging for Uriah's name to be inscribed on the wall commemorating the fallen. After an appropriate time of grieving, David married Bathsheba.

End of story--almost.

       At this point the biblical narrative takes a fairy tale turn. A member of the #MeToo movement shows up and challenges the king's version of events.         We have to ask why this warrior king listened to  the prophet, Nathan, of #MeToo movement?  According to the law, David had stolen Uriah's property. He had committed a crime, but power has it's privileges. Power brings with it a sense of permissive entitlement. David saw Bathsheba and followed the dictates of his desires. Later, feeling threatened, David used the instruments of power to defend himself and his position while destroying Uriah, and tacitly sending a message to Bathsheba: for the sake of the child he would take care of her if she did not bear witness against him. Uriah was dead. There would be no investigation. There would be no one to tell a different story.

             What can we learn from the ancient narrative? I suggest the following lessons: The violence of a rape culture is pervasive. It destroys families, men and women, and has unseen consequences for future generations. Social institutions are undermined. Public trust is eroded. Those in positions of power and privilege convince themselves and others that they are good people. Think about King David's illustrious reputation in mythology. There is no guarantee that the system will right itself. There is no assurance that those who speak will be heard.  There is no alternative. Without systems that create transparency and accountability there will be no change.

Rev. David Phillips Hansen
Author and contributor

Friday, October 5, 2018

Playing by The Rules

Last Sunday, the church school teacher engaged the children in a children’s sermon about rules.  She began by asking them if they had ever played “Hide and Seek”.  Most of them had.  Then she asked them about the rules for playing “Hide and Seek.”   Some said the “seeker” had to count to 100 while others said counting to 50 was the rule.  Each child had different ideas about the rule for establishing “out of bounds” and there were varying opinions about what the seeker needed to do if they caught a person before she reached “home free.”   The rules for “Hide and Seek” vary from place to place depending on the traditions of a neighborhood or group of kids.    Sometimes the rules are pretty simple.  At other times they may be more involved and complex in the curious way that rules for games evolve.   The church school teacher moved the discussion along by observing that it is confusing for us if the rules for playing a game are not clear or if they keep changing.

             She then segued into talking about Micah and  the text for the day: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  (Micah 6:8 NRSV)   “Rules” - - principles to live by that do not change depending on the neighborhood tradition or the group of “kids” with whom I am playing.  While how I live them out may involve a complexity of thought and action, the principles themselves are straight forward - - fairness -kindness - humility in daily living and interactions.

I  continue to return to Christina Feldman’s book The Buddhist Path To Simplicity: Spiritual Practice For Everyday Life  and I’m currently re-reading her chapter on Integrity.  She writes: The exploration of integrity is the exploration of integrity and freedom.  It is integrity of heart that directly contributes to releasing us from the distress of guilt, regret, shame, and fear...Adherence to rules alone can disguise unethical sentiments of moral superiority, self righteousness, or fear. A truly ethical life is born of wisdom and contributes to wisdom, it is born of compassion and embodies compassion....our (spiritual) teachers have been met in the countless experiences of our lives that teach us the ways of generating complexity and confusion, and the ways of cultivating simplicity and peace.

As I listen to and read about the intense energy surrounding the seating of the next judge to the Supreme Court,  I can’t help reflecting on the way the complexity of the drama reflects the elements of guilt, shame, fear, regret - - and how the firm and unyielding embrace of a complex order of rules for the process serves to “disguise unethical sentiments of moral superiority, self righteousness or fear” rather than adding to the sum of wisdom and compassion required for a just and sane outcome.

Richard Rohr, of the Center For Action and Contemplation,writes in his daily meditation for today: Human history is in a time of great flux, of great cultural and spiritual change. The psyche doesn’t know what to do with so much information.....In light of today’s information overload, people are looking for a few clear certitudes by which to define themselves.

    Kids need clear and unambiguous rules in order to enjoy a satisfying game of hide and seek. In our  search for the truth in the midst of the lack of certitudes, in our desire for unambiguous guidelines for how to proceed in our discernment we might do well to sit with Micah a bit and perhaps feel in our bones what “the Lord requires” - - to do justice and act with fairness, to love kindness and act with mercy and compassion, to walk humbly with the Source of Being, and get our immense egos out of the way so that we can more clearly hear what is good and what is required.

The path Micah offers is one of relative simplicity.  We each hear “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.....” with different ears and with different ways of responding, but the challenge offers a way to engender simplicity and peace rather than complexity and confusion in the midst of deeply trying times.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, September 28, 2018

An American Rabbi's Quest for Wholeness in Jewish Antwerp - a Universal Search Through a Jewish Lens

I share vignettes of Jewish Antwerp, one in particular, that offer teachings for making our way through brokenness, through the summer season of mourning in the Jewish calendar. It was during the Three Weeks that lead to Tisha B’Av, day of mourning and destruction in which we are meant to reflect on ways and deeds that join us to each other and that, God forbid, separate us from each other. The rabbis identified sinat chinam/wanton hatred of one for another as the cause of the churban, the destruction of the Second Temple and the source of exile, exile from the Land, from each other, from ourselves.

I have a complex relationship with Antwerp. It is one of my favorite cities, drawn to both of its worlds, the Jewish quarter and the “Belgian.” Long before a connection of place that comes through my Belgian-born wife, Mieke, I was drawn to the city, traveling there as a young person to explore my own roots, to feel the aura of my grandparents. My grandparents lived there for several years while on the journey that would eventually bring them to the United States. I feel a deep churning of Holocaust connections to Antwerp. The largest number of Belgian Jews who did not survive the Shoah, were from Antwerp. Two who have become beloved to me, of whom I often speak and write, were from Antwerp. Rachel Mandel recta Kwadrat and Israel Isaak Lipshitz were married in a secret ceremony in the Belgian transit camp, the Kazerne Dossin.   They were married by Rabbi Michoel Lustig who was imprisoned with them, reaching out to comfort and to hold even there, a rabbi who celebrated life in the face of death, love in the face of hate. They were married in July, 1943 on the Friday of Torah portion Mattos-Massei (Numbers 30:2-36:13), the Torah portion of the week I had come to Antwerp. Leading into Shabbat on that Friday this year, the Friday of Torah portion Mattos-Massei, I held them in mind and heart on the anniversary of their wedding, knowing that tomorrow would be the anniversary of their deportation to Auschwitz. The second of the two Torah portions of this week, Massei, means journeys, eleh massei b’nei yisrael/these are the journeys of the children of Israel. On that Shabbos, along with remembering my father, who had recently died, I said Kaddish for these three in the in the little synagogue that I attend in the small beach town of Knokke on the Belgian North Sea coast, there among many Jews from Antwerp.

As Mieke and I wandered the streets of the Jewish quarter, we stopped several times to ask people for directions, sometimes young Chassidic men hurrying along by bicycle or on foot, or stopping once in a kosher market and speaking with a young Chassidic woman at the cashier’s counter.      In each case, we spoke Hebrew, directions carefully spelled out, taking care to point us in the right direction. In response to my grateful expression of appreciation, our various guides each smiled and said, b’simcha/with joy. A connection was made, people joined along the way of their journeys.

I have long had a favorite Jewish bookstore in Antwerp, Siletsky’s. I knew already last summer that it was about to move. It was packed with shelves from floor to ceiling, with little room to move about, tall ladders on wheels rising up to the top shelves. Old Mr. Siletsky seemed to hold the entire inventory in his head; stroking his long white beard as he paused to think before responding to the requests I would come with each summer for many years now. I found the new location, but it was different. The floor-to-ceiling shelves were gone, and the tall ladders on which to ascend. The jumble, the dust, the magic were all gone, and so too, Mr. Siletsky. Even though I was no more foreign than I had ever been, I felt out of place and uncomfortable in the new store.
I asked the owner about a few books for which I had come to search. He was polite, but offered little by way of concern or desire to help, not like the old bookseller who would ascend to the heights on my behalf. I browsed for a bit, drawn to several s’forim/holy books, caressing a particular prayer book, deciding that it wasn’t the time or setting in which a holy book might be the reminder over time of an emotional connection.

As I thanked the bookseller and turned to leave, a chossid/Chassidic man standing at the counter seemed to mutter something. I heard the bookseller say to him in English, seemingly for my benefit, “be a gentleman.” I turned for a moment, but then continued toward the door and the streets of Jewish Antwerp. Realizing that the man had said something derogatory in my direction, I felt deep pain, struggling with whether to turn around and go back. I continued on my way, carrying a sense of brokenness, trying to remember the cheerful response from those who offered directions on these same streets b’simcha/with joy.

Through that week, I played out in my mind what I might have said to the man at the bookseller’s counter. I imagined speaking to him in Yiddish, in di mamaloshen/the mother tongue, in order to speak most directly from heart to heart in his language, carefully trying to draw together enough words to express myself. Standing directly in front of him, so have I imagined speaking:

             Mayn fraynd, in di letster Shabbos mir hob gebentched di kummidiker choydesh/my friend, last Shabbos we blessed the coming month, takke, M’nachem Av/indeed, the month of Av the Comforter. Nisht host du gedavent di vertlach, chaverim kol yisroel/did you not pray the precious words, all Israel are friends/joined to one another? Iz dos emes, mayn fraynd, oder sheker/is this truth my friend or a lie? S’iz geshribn, yoh, netzach yisroel lo y’shaker/it is written, yes, the Eternal One of Israel does not lie? Lomir machen dos emes/let us make this truth/ich un du tzu zaynen chaverim/I and you to be friends. Nu, sholem aleichem, mir gayen in sholem itzt/nu, peace be upon you, may we go in peace now.

I pray that my words find their way to another’s heart, whether spoken directly to him or not. Along the streets of Antwerp and in all of its worlds, these are the journeys of the children of Israel, of loved ones remembered, the living and the dead joined as one in God’s hand. We are all one, all Israel and all humanity. During those summer weeks of mourning and remembrance, we are reminded that we are to love each other, to help each other along the thoroughfares of life, bridging time and space and difference b’simcha/with joy.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, September 21, 2018

Finding Hope In Hard Times

In the past, as in the present, people who occupied positions of political leadership had their own press agents, who were paid handsomely to make their employer look splendid in the eyes of the people and in the historical record. But there were also court reporters who told an unvarnished version of events.
While the former spun straw into gold, the latter chronicled the heavy human price paid for such finery. Take the case of King Solomon, for instance. The question we must ask ourselves as we read the biblical text is not which version of events is true, how do we separate fake news from the truth, but rather, how do we distill hope for the present and the future from this history.

To this very day Solomon is renowned for this legendary wisdom, When he became king, he asked God for the gift of wisdom.Clearly his ambition was to make Israel great again.He assembled a core of press agents to "capture" stories that might detract from his goal and to promote news that would advance his agenda. The royal press agents were so successful in their effort to cast the king in a positive light that the phrase "the wisdom of Solomon" has slipped into common usage.

Reading the biblical text more closely I find that there are lesser known and less celebrated aspects of Solomon's reign that members of the press corps inserted into the historical record. For ease of reading I do not cite chapter and verse in the following. Rather, I invite readers to do their own investigation of biblical texts and draw their own conclusions. The following highlights of Solomon's time as king raise two questions for me. Why were these stories allowed to remain in the sacred text? What lessons might we take from this history.

When King David was approaching death there was more than one candidate to take his place as king. There were no televised presidential debates as we have now, but clearly Solomon was neither the natural choice, nor was he everyone's first choice. There was backstage maneuvering and palace intrigue. Solomon did not have the popular vote, but the Electoral College was on his side. This helps explain why Solomon conducted a palace purge soon after his coronation. Loyalty paved the pathway to the king's inner circle.

Marital fidelity was not one of Solomon's virtues. According to the legend he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. In the eyes of religious conservatives Solomon's lack of fidelity was his great sin. They did not forgive him.

Solomon had a great edifice complex. He not only built a great Temple for God, he also built a fine palace for himself, and he is credited by the biblical story with erecting many other impressive buildings. There is no record that he named any of the buildings after himself, but he had enough gold and sliver and precious gems that he could easily have done so if he had wanted. He was not lacking in hubris.

King Solomon was a skilled deal-maker. He used the power of his office to build international alliances, and to amass great personal wealth. There was no emoluments clause to fuss with. Legend has it that many rulers from many lands came to him to pay tribute, stay in his hotels, and shower him with favors and gifts of every sort. He was a very wealthy man.

Some would refer to the reign of Solomon as Israel's "Golden Age," but others might call it the "Gilded Age." Forced labor was a fact of life for many, while the few basked in the blessed light of previously unknown prosperity. The chasm between the rich and the rest was deep and wide. And, there was no social safety net for so-called "takers."

Near the end of his reign Solomon reflected on all that he had done, and he wrote the following:

"So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil that I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (Eccl 2: 9 - 11, RSV).

      Upon Solomon's death the kingdom was split in two, never to be reunited again.
Yet, to this very day there are many who cherish the hope that perhaps, one day, a new Temple will be erected on the very spot where Solomon's Temple once stood, and there will be a new Golden Age for Israel.

This nationalist dream is not unique to any one nation. Indeed, we live in an age when nationalist ideology is re-asserting itself in many forms and in many places. In some instances this resurgent nationalism borders on idolatry.

Rather than thinking of the reign of Solomon as a Golden Age, I see it as the foreshadowing of a failed state. His policies, practices and priorities left a divided nation that did not have either the will or the resources to heal itself. While Judaism remains a vibrant and vital religious heritage and faith, Israel itself has perhaps never fully recovered from the hubris of Solomon. Other nations, including our own, labor under their own outworn mythologies of exceptionalism.

I ask myself if we are witnessing the making of a failed American state today. Our national debt has reached historic heights, yet the stock market continues to climb ever higher; the social safety net is being shredded in the name of fiscal austerity, yet the defense-homeland security-industrial complex continues to expand; federal oversight and regulatory agencies are stripped of power and personnel, yet the ecological crisis deepens; and, a growing chasm separates the rich from the rest. The list of concerns grows longer if not by the hour then by the day.

         Are golden dreams the only refuge we have for hope?  .

While wrestling with the above, I have been reading Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America (Monthly Review Press, 1997). First published in 1971, it remains a compelling book. In the concluding chapter, Galeano writes: "In this world of ours, a world of powerful centers and subjugated outposts, there is no wealth that must not be held in some suspicion" (p. 267).

I am inclined to believe that there were reporters in the age of Solomon who were suspicious of wealth and so they seeded the official record with stories of dissent, knowing that in doing so they were sowing seeds of hope for a more open society.

The questions for us, then, are these: Where do we see seeds of hope being planted today? What stories are we telling and celebrating? Perhaps these questions are the true legacy of a wise king who at the end of his days wanted to tell a cautionary tale.

David P. Hansen,
Author and Contributor

Friday, September 14, 2018

Crossing the Bridge to Freedom

I remember well that day, February 11, 1986. I was sitting with a group of colleagues that had formed a religious court, a Beit Din, at the mikveh in Vancouver, British Columbia. We had just served as midwives, if you will, having welcomed several new Jews into our people. Far away, and worlds away, a Jew had been returned to his people. It was the day that Natan (then as Anatoly) Sharansky had crossed from East Germany to West as part of a prisoner exchange, ending the long saga of his imprisonment in the Soviet Union. Along with his wife, Avital, who had campaigned tirelessly for his release, his was the face of Soviet Jewry.

On that day in the winter of 1986, three rabbis sat spellbound, responsibilities completed, listening to the news and sharing what we had read. Beyond the euphoria of one person’s liberation, of a long trek to freedom completed, we kept coming back to one moment, the very final moment of the trek, continuing to imagine it, to replay it, exploring its significance as we might mine a text for meaning. The text in this case was one person’s courageous final act in the face of oppression, one final step toward freedom in which that step became its own affirmation of what it means to be free.

          Sharansky crossed from East Germany to West at the Glienicke Bridge, where at its Berlin terminus of Wannsee, Nazi chiefs affirmed the “Final Solution” in 1942. As he began to walk alone across that bridge to freedom, when we might have expected him to virtually run, to at least walk as directly and quickly as possible to the other side, he did something very different which bewildered all of those who watched, those waiting for him at the other side and all of those watching on televisions around the world. The newly freed prisoner took a long, slow, zigzag course across the bridge. Beyond the deep, existential questions of survival, of faith, of hope that would become the primary questions over time, answers to inspire and challenge, the immediate question was obvious. Asked by newscasters and loved ones, by common folks and famous, by three rabbis in Vancouver, British Columbia, the question was the same, asked with incredulity, the answer awaited with baited breath. Why had he walked that zigzag course across the bridge? The answer was as startling as it was simple. The KGB agents who had brought him to the bridge had told him to walk quickly across in a straight line. And so, of course, as his one last act of defiance in the face of his oppressors, turning to the right and turning to the left, he walked in a slow zigzag course across the bridge to freedom.

I haven’t thought of that story for some time and am intrigued that it came to me while reading one verse in the weekly Torah portion called Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21:9). Such is the joy of making our way through each year’s Torah cycle, a journey repeated year after year, new insights and associations emerging in the context of a given year’s realities, whether from within ourselves or in the worlds around us. I have never thought of that story before while reading Shoftim, but for some reason it came to me this year. Perhaps it is because the specter of tyranny is afoot in the land, the call to resistance and courage needing models to inspire, joined together in holy disobedience. Perhaps it is because the tensions within the Torah are the tensions with which we live, the tensions we seek to resolve, or not, in seeking our way across the bridge.

The Torah portion opens with a call to appoint judges and officers to insure that justice be done in the land. A call to justice as the way of the nation, there is an underlying recognition that the collective flowering of justice depends on each one’s adherence to doing what is right. The challenge of justice is addressed to each one of us and then to the nation that is the collective formed by all of us, tzedek tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue (Deut. 17:20). The entire passage at the outset of the portion is in the singular, understood in Chassidic commentary to mean that each of us is to appoint an inner judge to mediate our engagement with the world. Placed within our hearts, or at each portal of the senses, we are to discern from within the way of good or evil. It is from within ourselves that we are to learn the way of self-control, whether with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, our hands, that we channel our desires in the way of doing good and not harm.

Of the external judges, the priests, the Levites, the judge that will be in those days/ba’yamim ha’hem, meaning in each age, that will be in our own time, we are told that we shall do according to the utterance of the word that they will tell you…; you must do with care all that they will teach you…. There is to be a process of collective discernment, a process of learning that leads to teaching that leads to doing. Then comes the verse that brought to mind that zigzag journey across the Glienicke Bridge, Upon the utterance of the teaching that they will teach you, and upon the judgment that they will say to you, must you base your [own] action; you must not turn aside from the word that they will tell you, [neither] to the right [n]or to the left/lo tasur min ha’davar asher yagido l’cha yamin u’s’mol (Deut. 17:11). Our commentators wrestle to understand what these words mean, the latter ones in particular. There are conflicting views. One suggests that even if it appears to us that left is right and right is left, we should do as instructed. Another view says precisely the opposite; that we should do as told only when left is left and right is right, when our actions do not violate the truth that is before us, the very truth that the Torah itself has planted within us. The commandments are holy and are meant to guide us in the way of truth and justice, of compassion and peace, helping us to see the image of God in each person. Rejecting a ruling concerning the ways of Torah may at times be the greater affirmation of Torah. The rabbis taught that at times we should even violate a negative commandment of the Torah when another person’s honor would be compromised in our heeding of Torah (B’rachot 19b). 
         Ideally to walk hand in hand, in accord with good and righteous teaching, learning and inquiry as the way of discernment, the way of the nation, accepted and affirmed, inner judge and outer judge then to be in harmony.   There are times when the truest way of walking the straight and upright path, at one with Torah, God, and people, is to walk a zigzag course that says no to tyranny. With discernment, courage, and hope, the vision affirmed in the way of our walking, we cross the bridge to freedom.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein