Friday, November 30, 2018

Infusing the Gifts of Human Hand and Mind With Gifts of Heart

Somewhere back in hoary antiquity, at least in the realm of modern technology, perhaps in the late ‘80’s or early 90’s, I was at a meeting of rabbis in Vancouver, British Columbia. Cell phones were still a curiosity, and turning the pages of books still more common in the quest for knowledge and information than online searches. Keeping in mind how far we have moved since that time, and holding the excitement and trepidation that comes with standing at the cusp of change, it is not surprising that I vividly remember the program that provided the learning content of that meeting.

While I don’t remember the technological details of set-up, one of our colleagues projected images of Talmud pages on a screen. With great excitement he spoke of how before long we won’t need the actual books, all that we want will be available online. As I wondered just what that meant and just how a rabbi, a teacher among the People of the Book, could imagine a time without actual books, I raised my hand. My question was snarky and I still regret the impolite way with which I asked it. In the face of his excitement, though, I asked, “but can you smell the page, can you feel the print, can you discover margin notes from a long ago hand that caressed the page…?”

I have never forgotten that moment, often reflecting on where the question came from and of its deeper meaning beyond the way of its delivery. I was really asking about connection and of engagement, of the book as something precious beyond the words on its pages. It is not at all that I am against technological advancement. An important challenge is whether there is really advancement, or if in advancing in one realm we take a step backward in another.

             Once having fancied myself as a Luddite, I fully acknowledge that I am no longer part of that club. I use a smart phone, delighting in texts of another sort, which at times are also holy, my Shabbos text messages to my children remaining my phone’s most important weekly use. I certainly use online searches for both Jewish texts and general information. The concerns raised by my younger self’s insensitively asked question, are concerns that need to be asked in regard to all technology. For every technological advancement, so many of great benefit, but not all, we need to ask what steps are we are going to inadvertently take in the other direction, remembering to ask what will be lost?

It is well recognized that as a society we have become far more solitary in our constant use of electronic devices. Staring at a screen for so many of our waking hours, dare we ask how much direct contact with people is lost? While Skype and FaceTime are miraculous in allowing us to see people far away, we also quickly realize their limitations, as in seeing grandchildren in Los Angeles, yet remaining unable to touch them. I cried with that realization a few years ago when we helped my dad (of blessed memory) to Skype with his great grandchildren. At one point, without any sense of irony, he reached his hand to the screen and began to caress the little ones brought to him on beams of light, their images refracted now through crystal tears.

I had not thought to go in this direction as I reflected on the nature of technology. More sinister questions had been on my mind in reading the weekly Torah portion of No’ach (Gen. 6:9-11:32). The portion begins with a very familiar story, earth so filled with violence that it could not be sustained, a great flood destroying all that was and had been, No’ach told to build an ark, then riding out the storm, preserving life and the possibility of its future. By the end of the portion, violence and arrogance have again filled the earth. God has promised never again to destroy the earth, yet waiting for us to make the same promise. At the end of the portion people come together to build a mighty city with a great tower whose top shall reach to the heaven… (Gen. 11:4).
The defining purpose of their endeavor is carried in the words that come next, and let us make a name for ourselves…. Of their seeking to storm the heavens, the great commentator Rashi (10th century France) speaks of this as a war with God, interpreting their words to suggest, let us go up above and make a war with God…. This is in stark contrast to Avram’s intention in the next portion when in building an altar he then proclaimed in the name of God.

The question for the most part is how we use our creative gifts, whether for good or ill. Speaking of those who built the Tower of Babel, the rabbis teach, their arrogance came from the good that had been given to them…. The question becomes how we use that which our minds and hands are able to create. Of the clay that is used to make the bricks for the tower, a Chassidic teaching looks at the word for clay, chomer, a word that is used to refer to all material substance. So we learn that the material realm needs to serve as a mediating influence, helping to strengthen the spiritual realm…. And yet, there is that which we have created that is a technological monstrosity, that which is evil in its essence, which threatens all life in its ability to undo all of creation in a nuclear flash.

            From the technology of online books and the search for knowledge to the technology of nuclear destruction is a long stretch, a reach across a chasm of diverse realities. The common denominator is to be aware and wary in our use and celebration of technology, to recognize the limits of devices and what is lost in their use. Even in using an online book, we can still sit with a learning partner and share in the joy of learning, words still to be as a bridge that joins. At times to take an old book and smell the page and feel the old print, inspired in the quest for knowledge whether with new medium or old. Neither at war with God nor with people, may we receive with humility the gifts of human hand and mind and infuse them with gifts of heart.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, November 23, 2018

In The Echo of the Shattering

In the echo of the shattering, amidst all the brokenness of today, we pause to take stock and to remember. It is hard to imagine the terror felt by German and Austrian Jews on that autumn day eighty years ago, November 9, 1938. It is the day that has come to be known as Kristallnach, the Night of Broken Glass. In Germany’s own reckoning with its legacy of guilt, this day has come be known more aptly as the Reichspogromnacht, the Reich’s pogrom night. It is stronger and more descriptive of what happened and how than Night of Glass, Night of crystal.

 Beyond a name, this was the beginning of the Shoah in earnest. The figures that tell of the destruction that happened in little more than a twenty-four hour period are staggering. Thirty thousand Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Thirty-six were murdered, some sources saying as many as ninety-one. Seven thousand five hundred Jewish homes and businesses were vandalized and/or set ablaze. Two hundred and sixty-seven synagogues were burned, seventy-six completely destroyed. Neighbors turned their backs, firefighters stood aside and watched the flames rise, prevented by the Nazi hoodlums from acting to quench the fires, even if they would.

In the echo of the shattering, the questions that weren’t asked that night pulsate across time and space, calling us to bear witness in our time, not to turn our backs as others did to us. What happens when neighbors become strangers and strangers become other? What happens when strangers are treated as other rather than as the neighbor who is to be loved? Thirty-six times the Torah reminds not to wrong or oppress a stranger, bringing it home personally, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt/ki gerim he’yitem b’eretz mitzrayim. The needs of the other are to be felt deep within our selves, felt as our own, felt in our bones, in our kishkes (innards), in our souls, for you know the soul of the stranger/v’atem y’datem et nefesh ha’ger (Ex. 23:9). It is about human connection. We are joined soul to soul with all who are oppressed. Our caring is held in the web of life as woven from the very beginning. The rabbis asked why the first human was created as one. And they answered, so that no one could say, “My ancestor was greater than yours.”

In the echo of the shattering, the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch were prescient in nineteenth century Germany, calling us to account today: “The treatment accorded by a state to the aliens living within its jurisdiction is the most accurate indication of the extent to which justice and harmony prevail in that state.” Long before it would ever be a reality, his words were meant as a challenge to his own people for when there would be a Jewish state, and as a standard of decency to every nation that presumes a collective conscience. In the irony of that presumption, we weep today with the statue of liberty who speaks with the Jewish voice of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free….”

 In the echo of the shattering, we remember what it means when all lives don’t matter equally. In Germany, two years ago, I could hear the echo, and I wondered then as I stood on a Berlin street corner, what if people had screamed out on that day eighty years ago, “Jewish Lives Matter?” Instead, we were blamed for Germany’s troubles. Jewish neighbors, long trusted and respected, became other, became strangers. Carefully calibrated and planned by the government, the violence that day was attributed to the passions of ordinary people, citizens lashing out with patriotic fervor in defense of the “fatherland.” The timing was not an accident, twenty years nearly to the day of the end of World War I, Jews blamed for Germany’s defeat and humiliation.

In the echo of the shattering, a reminder that blame is a dangerous game. In the weekly Torah portion Toldot (Gen. 25:19-28:9), the Philistine king, Avimelech, turned on Yitzchak and those who had settled in the land with him. Long respected as sojourners and neighbors among the Philistines, Avimelech becomes jealous and fearful as he sees Yitzchak’s success. In the span of just a few words, so simple, so sudden, envy takes root among the people, and we are told: the Philistines became envious of him (Gen. 26:14). And then, Yitzchak and his people are sent away. Would that eighty years ago it had only been a matter of exile.

        In the echo of the shattering, there is also something else, something that could not have been imagined in 1938, or in other times of jealousy and hate, of xenophobia and bigotry. There is a call to conscience in the air today, a call to repair, a throbbing challenge and reminder not to turn our backs on anyone. Neighbors all, no one is other, no one a stranger. Unlike then, we know today that as we stand with others, others are standing with us, that we are not alone as we stand with and for each other. Eighty years later, in the echo of the shattering, there is a song of hope.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

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