Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Faith and Religion

I recently had the misfortune of reading a best-seller entitled God is not Great.  True to the negative and judgmental nature of the title, I was treated to a sprawling condescension of all things faithful and religious. 

The author characterized religion in the most fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, stupid and brutal manner possible.  He denied any significant refinement of belief over time, and seemed oblivious to the reality that the vast majority of religious people in the world are made more peaceful, more thoughtful, more educated and more social through their engagement with the religion of their upbringing or choice. 

What is Faith, and what is Religion?  In Hebrew, we have two words:  Emunah (Faith) and Da’at (religion).  They are not the same, and having both is the ideal in Jewish tradition.  One is an attitude which includes any of a variety of beliefs.  The other is the system of norms and behaviors which we hold in common with our co-religionists.

Dermot A. Lane, a Christian theologian and author, once wrote that secular and religious people are often equally faithful.  Disbelief or doubt in God does not require one to be devoid of any faith.  “Primordial faith is an attitude of trust and confidence and acceptance that is brought to bear on the value and worthwhileness of human existence… Faith allows us to live in community.”

The truth is that no human – rabbi or otherwise – has the ability to comprehend and describe God accurately.  God is, to put it simply, far beyond the limits of my comprehension.  Each of our attempts to describe God is equally valid, because it is equally flawed.  Our faith in Judaism is not a dogma or creed which describes God.  Rather, it most basically asserts God.

After Shema Yisrael:  Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad.  Heed, O Israel:  The Lord our God, The Lord is One, the remaining paragraph of the Shema does not contain beliefs.  Rather, it prescribes actions.  Love, teach, speak, and write these words for the Lord your God…  Succinctly, “God IS, so ACT.”  Faith, and Religion.

Emunah is related to the word “amen” which we say whenever we hear another person recite a formal berakhah (blessing) in our tradition. Saying “amen” asserts feelings of affirmation, hope, and gratitude, in an implied relationship between God and our fellow Jew who is fulfilling the obligation to perform that particular mitzvah or to say that particular prayer.  It does not have to mean “I absolutely agree with every dogmatic detail of what you just said.”

Each morning, we sing to our children modeh ani lifaneikha, … rabbah emunatekha.  I acknowledge before you… great is your faith.  God must have faith in us as well. Faith is an expression of hope which makes today a day of profound potential meaning rather than a trial of survival or conquest. 

Da’at, on the other hand, is “Religion.”  Da’at comprises both specific creeds, and specific behaviors.  Da’at is where love becomes real.  A husband, wife, friend or family member who professes love but never shows it in deed will not be believed for long.  Our Jewish identities and love of God are no different.  “Religion” is how we love God, Torah and our Jewish community everywhere.  We are demonstrably different from other religions or atheists in that we actually do things that others do not do.  This does not necessarily make us better, but it does ennoble, uplift, renew and identify us within a Covenant of sacred ancestry and heritage which is immeasurably precious. 

In the end, our common commitment to be, live, and hope within the realm of Jewish emunah and Jewish da’at is what we are all about when we enter Jewish life and Jewish community.  Each of us has our own touchstones, our own journey, our own hopes and doubts to wrestle with in the lives that God has granted us.  John A. T. Robinson, a former Bishop of Woolrich, England, once wrote, “All I can do is to try to be honest… honest to God and honest about God.”  Our tradition requires the same of each of us.

B’emunah sh’leimah,

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wishing the World Well

Wishing Each Other Well in December

“Mommy, why don’t we celebrate Christmas?”  At some point, every Jewish family faces this question in some form.  With great respect to all of the many families and relatives that are a part of our community, I would like to offer an approach that can only strengthen our relationships and help our children in their Jewish upbringing.

I believe that it is important for children to be raised with a single system of religious symbols.  Adults can manage to sift through the complexity of fully formed, mature differences of a spiritual nature.  Young children can’t.  They need consistency, and even if mom and dad are of different faiths, they need the home to reflect the singular Jewish identity that they are forming.

The key to the “December Dilemma” is to wish your Non-Jewish friends and loved ones  well on their holidays, and to ask them to wish you and your children well on your holidays – all the time keeping a strict separation between your home as a Jewish Home, and another’s home as a Christian home.  The problem will be solved the day we can say to our children, “Remember when Uncle Chris came to seder and gave us a Passover card?  Well this is his holiday, and we’re going to wish him a happy day just like he wished us.”  

Even if the Christian is a close relative, a family that has decided to raise Jewish children should not have a Christmas tree or receive Christmas presents.  At the same time, we should be absolutely comfortable supporting that person in having their own tree, and we should certainly give him or her presents and a card in celebration of their holiday.  I am always touched when a Christian friend sends me a card at Rosh HaShanah – and I do the same in return at Christmas.  And while different people have their own levels of comfort, I am happy to attend Christmas dinner at a friend’s house.  I don’t sing carols that proclaim the birth of Jesus, but I have nothing against “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

December is a lovely time of year.  The darkness is ablaze with lights.  And Chanukah has become very important in this regard.  But it is also important to put it in the proper context of a minor holiday.  Chanukah pales in comparison to Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, or even Sukkot and Shavuot.  Chanukah truly is a minor holiday.  But the surrounding world demands that our children feel that Judaism is as positive, generous, and loving as the Christian world is every December, so we have exaggerated Chanukah.  All in all, I see no harm in that. Sure!  Make Chanukah festive! But please be sure that the day Chanukah is over, it is over, and that it is not mistaken as a “Jewish Christmas.”

Christmas is not a “secular” or an “American” holiday.  It is a profoundly religious Christian celebration – even if a given Christian does not relate to it as such.  Secular holidays, such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Martin Luther King Jr. Day are open for Jews to celebrate - and in fact it would be seriously negligent for us to ignore them.  But overtly Christian days, such as Christmas and Easter, are clearly inappropriate for the Jewish home and family.  I think that it would be disrespectful to the millions of believing Christians for me to take one of their religious symbols, like the tree, and to use it for a secular purpose.

So what do you say to your child who asks you why we don’t celebrate Christmas?

It is important for us all to do 3 things every December.  

  •  First, every year we should talk with our kids about Christmas, Christians, and being Jewish.  
  •  Second, we should make a point of spending serious time and money sending greetings and gifts to our Christian friends and family at this time of year. Our children should be a part of this. 
  •  Third, we should make a point – well ahead of time (June or July would be good) – of letting our Christian friends and family know how grateful we are that they wish us well and want to be generous to our kids, but that Christmas presents for our Children are inappropriate.

Christians should wish us well on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach.  We should wish them well on Christmas and Easter.  Mutual respect, honesty, and clarity are the best possible results.

We should educate the well-meaning Christians in our lives about our observances.  Thank the stranger who wishes you a “Merry Christmas” and wish them a “Happy New Year.”  But if the Merry Christmas comes from a close relationship, take a moment to talk with them in a frank and loving manner.

The world is big enough for many avenues to God, and each of them  can be a source of blessing for the other.

Happy Chanukah, and a Happy (secular) New Year to each of you and yours.

Monday, December 19, 2011

"President Obama: the most supportive of Israel in 30 years" - AIPAC

This past Shabbat morning we had the pleasure of Eric Sachs, Northeast Regional Director of AIPAC, speaking in our congregation and answering questions.

Not surprisingly, 3 of the 6 questions in the Q and A were about the Obama administration and Israel.

AIPAC does not endorse candidates, but many in attendance wanted to know how this administration has measured up in its support of Israel as compared to previous presidential administrations.

Mr. Sacks shocked many and declared Mr. Obama the most supportive President in the last 30 years when it comes to Israeli security, naming Presidents Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II specifically. All this at a time when the Republican candidates are competing for the title of Most Supportive of Israel.

For those who haven't followed actual facts on the ground, Mr. Sachs' assertion was surprising. Yet he argues that for security issues such as missile defense, military aid, intelligence and more, it is true that there has been no more supportive US administration to Israel in the last 30 years than the Obama Administration.

Mr. Sachs noted, as I have in the past, that the Cairo speech at the start of Mr. Obama's presidency was crippling to the "trust" issue between him and the supporters of Israel.  The justification for Israel is not the Holocaust, but the ongoing - never broken - connection to and inhabitation of the Land of Israel by the Jewish people.  Mr. Obama clearly has adopted or sympathized with major aspects of the Palestinian story.  Thankfully, this has not translated to significant policy.

It is a sad delusion to expect the Palestinians to be empathetic of Jewish refugee status after World War II. Not only is that claim to Israeli validity historically insufficient, it is short sighted, and demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the conflict's own self-understanding. Such an error is deeply rooted in a moral critique of power which equates current suffering with ultimate righteousness.  Such thinking is a projection of foreign values onto a political landscape which is entirely unsuited to it.

In truth, both side's NEGATIVE experiences have validity, though not equality. At the beginning, Israel suffered from united Arab attack and threats of annihilation, and continues to suffer threats and attacks on a daily basis.  The Palestinians, through remarkably inept leadership, wound up with refugee status of displaced populations instead of peace from the beginning.

Over time, the Palestinians' leaders continued to seek solutions through violence for most of Israel's history.  Israel's response was a constant and enduring military presence in their lives. And yet, a Palestinian state with borders and land swaps has been repeatedly offered by Israeli leaders and repeatedly rejected by Palestinian leaders.  And now the peace conversation has broken down again as the Palestinians attempt an end-run in the international community by going to the U.N. and other organizations for legitimacy and recognition.

The truth is that the cause of each side's suffering is not morally equal, but both sides certainly have a story to tell. From the Cairo speech it would seem that the negative/suffering side of the Palestinian story resonates more with Mr. Obama than the positive side of Israel's story.  Hence the lack of trust among Zionists.

But what Mr. Obama missed or ignored is that both side's simple and POSITIVE arguments make the situation what it is, and must drive the conversation.  The Palestinians have a right to self-determination, and security.  The Israelis have a right to self-determination and security.  Both have moral ethical arguments about those rights. Neither agrees that the morality of the other's argument is equal to their own.  Therefore one land does not allow for both, and there must be two states.  Everything else is obfuscation.

Yet perhaps Mr. Obama learned his lesson.  And perhaps he has come up with a workable long-term and patient plan:   Rather than continue to preach the nobility of each side's suffering, which will never be a unifying argument, the Obama administration turned around and began seeking concrete, practical, current, on-the-ground policies to diffuse tensions.  Focusing on increasing defensive military aid and cooperation to the Israelis eliminates Israel's need to take aggressive actions.

The thinking is suitably subtle:  If Israel is protected and takes no aggressive actions, the Palestinian complaint about oppression will begin to recede on the ongoing timeline.  If enough time goes by, the Palestinians' claim to righteous suffering will lose immediate validity.  In that circumstance, they will be seen as stubbornly refusing to cooperate.  And perhaps then they will return to the table.  And in the meantime, Israel will be safer and more peaceable.

Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, all of this will take much longer than the 11 months he has until his next election.  Lovers of Israel will have to believe enough in this strategy to give him a Pass on the topic when they vote.  Knowing that patience is nobody's strong suit when it comes to the Middle East, Republicans are beating the drums.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Football, Faith and Freedom

Much has been written about Tim Tebow, the quarterback for the Denver Broncos.  He is a remarkable and over-the-top personality, famous for scrambling, rushing, and driving his team forward in difficult circumstances with an unrelenting and positive desire to win.  To all of this he credits his Christian faith, with credit and glory given at every press conference and touchdown to the God of his understanding.

As a rabbi, I love this.  This is not only great entertainment. I have come to truly enjoy and appreciate that style of Christianity, despite how different it is from how I praye and express gratitude to God.  While I would feel differently if it were a public school teacher or elected official, among athletes and entertainers I have no objection to their public proclamation or display.

I don’t often quote Chassidic stories, but one comes to mind, which seems very appropriate.

The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, who was riding a wagon with several of his students from place to place.  The wagon-driver was not Jewish, and as they entered the town they passed in front of a tall church with a high cross on it.  The driver quietly and uneventfully drove the wagon passed the church and into the town.

As they stopped to rest, the Baal Shem Tov instructed his followers to disembark from the wagon and bid the wagon-driver thanks.  As the wagon driver left, the students asked him what they would do next?  “Hire a wagon to continue our journey,” came the response.

Surprised, they asked, “But we just left a perfectly good wagon.  Why didn’t we continue with him?” 

The Baal Shem Tov pointed out that the wagon-driver passed by a church and did not cross himself. In Christian Europe, if a wagon-driver did not show respect for his own religion, how could he be trusted to do the right thing for Jews?

He also told them that it was better to do business with a non-Jew who believed than with a Jew who did not believe. For the Baal Shem Tov, a person who believed in a Higher Being – was far more likely to be act with integrity than a person who did not believe.

The discomfort some feel regarding these public declarations of personal beliefs comes from a feeling of resentment that the athlete or performer is foisting their beliefs upon us against our will.  I disagree.

When a missionary knocks on our door, and denies the legitimacy of our religion to our face, that is horrid.  When missionaries seek to convert our children on college campuses, we should speak out and oppose them.  And when missionaries put on the trappings of Judaism, call their ministers “Rabbis” or similarly seek to deceive the unaffiliated or marginal Jew into a foreign faith, we must condemn them and fight against it.

But I think it is necessary to differentiate between the frontal attack of the missionary and the personal professing of faith by a Christian in public at their moment of personal triumph.

I prefer to look at the football player as a kindred spirit, who sees the world as a place of miracles.  Such a person tries to live with an awareness of God’s presence and the gift of our lives at all times.

I would love to see a Jewish champion some day stand at a press conference and say “She-hechiyanu.”  Wouldn’t we all love that?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Respecting our Diversity

Among the teachings of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot is the oft quoted "Eizo hu mekhubad? Ha-Mekhabbed et ha-bri'ot Who is Honored? The one who honors others." Kavod - honor - is to be given to friend and rival alike.

Recently I was disappointed to learn that Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization for which I have had great hope and affinity, launched a public campaign to attack the Jewish National Fund regarding a specific  real estate conflict in Silwan, the City of David in Jerusalem.  Admittedly, any conflict in Silwan is going to have multiple layers of tension and agitation.  It is precisely the area that I would expect RHR to examine, and perhaps be active.

I am not convinced of the injustice claimed by RHR in this case, but wiser voices than mine are disputing it.  My complaint, and it has profoundly shaken my enthusiasm for RHR, is that they attacked a cornerstone organization of Zionism without a courtesy call. Where was the polite inquiry on behalf of the family as advocate?  Where was the conversation between RHR and JNF before going to the papers? It seems clear to me that the "splash in public" on this issue was the main goal of RHR.  The call to publicity, rather than relationship, bodes ill for our people. It may be good for fundraising from their base, but it is not the ethical approach which I would have expected from a human rights organization.  More's the pity.

There is a strident arrogant tone afoot in many of our strongest institutions today.  This must be tempered and replaced with clear attempts at common cause.  Again, we seek unity over uniformity.  Justice would be better served in quiet kavod than shrill or triumphant shouting.  We are all on the same team.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

7 Days to Chanukah

With Chanukah rapidly bearing down on us, I recommend that you go shopping not just for presents, but for a few noble ideas to share.

Each night we follow the lighting of the candles with the declaration al ha-nisim that God has indeed performed miracles for our ancestors at this time of year.  Dedicate the first night to "Miracles."  What miracles have you already experienced in your life?  What miracles do you yet hope for?

And then, as we light the candles, we proclaim hanerot halalu anachnu madlikim - These candles which we light tonight are dedicated solely to our appreciation.  We do not use them for other purpse, even to read by.  Dedicate your second night to "Appreciation."

Other high ideals of the Chanukah holiday include Emunah- - Belief, Cheirut - Freedom, G'vurah - Heroism, 'Or - Light, Ahavat Am Yisrael - Love for the People of Israel, Shleimut/Shalom - Peace and Wholeness.

I am sure you can find your own.  Make each night its own miracle as you celebrate the growing light amidst the darkness.