Truths You Can Use

Certain parts of the Bible are easy to appreciate. We know we should not murder, steal or commit adulerty. We know why we should try to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even if we struggle to follow these types of laws, we know they matter today.

Yet, certain other parts seem irrelevant. Difficult biblical passages challenge us constantly. One of them addresses the topic of leprosy.

In the book of Leviticus, the Bible prescribes an intricate series of actions to be taken when someone has leprosy, including quarantine and sacrificial offerings.  

Then it proceeds to describe a series of ritual actions to be taken after the sores have healed. The language is technical and graphic. Clearly, the spread of leprosy was a concern at the time. Yet, what possible meaning can it have for us today?

Here are two possible answers:

1. The 11th century Jewish sage Rashi pointed out that the Hebrew word for leprosy resembles the Hebrew word for “gossip.” Like leprosy, gossip spreads quickly through a community. It hurts those whom it infects. It can also isolate people from one another.

It can even kill, as has been so tragically reflected in recent reports about the suicides of two female teens whose lives had been plagued by gossip and bullying. We need to do everything we can to guard against and avoid gossip.

2. The 18th century sage Samson Hirsch points out that the Bible suggests leprosy strikes “only after the land has been completely divided up into individual holdings so that every home has its own permanent inhabitant.” In other words, the people did not experienced a leprosy crisis until they had settled into their homes.

While this observation does not make sense medically, it does convey a moral lesson. The way we behave where we spend the most time matters deeply.

It is easy to be polite in a restaurant or at work. It is easy to put on our game face or our good manners.

When we are settled in our homes, however; when we are with the people who know us best, we can become complacent. We can take them for granted. We can let our worst insticts take over

Hirsch uges us not to do so. The temptation to gossip, to spread ill will about others, exerts a stronger influence in a place where we know everyone. What we say can hurt people more sharply.

Thus, it is here that we have greater responsibility. It is here where our words matter most. 

A  fellow rabbi once told me that it’s easy to give a great sermon when you are the guest speaker. The harder and more important sermon is the one we tell with our lives. It is the one we deliver with our deeds. It is the one we live with our hands and our hearts.

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I recently visited an astounding site in Israel. It is the ongoing reconstruction and uncovering of the oldest part of the city of Jerusalem, known as the “City of David.” It is the tiny strip of 15 acres on top of a hill where King David built his palace. Other Israelites lived in the area, which was protected by surrounding hills.

Over time Jerusalem moved West, and David’s son Solomon built a great temple on the adjacent Mount Moriah. What was particularly astounding was a tiny artifact found by archaeologists about 6 years ago. It is an ancient seal with the name Gedaliahu ben Pashur who was part of the court of the late king Zedekiah.

The Tragedy of King Zedekiah

Zedekiah ruled when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. His unwillingness to heed the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah and permit the Babylonians to pass through Jerusalem en route to Egypt led to his downfall. He believed he could withstand and defeat them. He was wrong.

The figure mentioned on the seal was a supporter of Jeremiah. He resisted the King’s hubris, urging him to follow Jeremiah’s wise counsel. As a result, his family survived the Babylonian’s sacking of the city, and he was permitted to remain a powerful figure. He is even mentioned in the Bible in chapter eight of the Book of Jeremiah. 

An Ancient Prophet

It is he whose wisdom we remember today, not Zedeiah. Zedekiah was not wicked, but he had the wrong kind of courage. He dreamed big, but he refused to listen and heed the warning signals of impending doom. Ultimately, he believed since he was the king, he could do no wrong. He did not need to heed the prophets. He did not need to listen to counselors. One of his ancestors, Hezekiah, had withstood a siege of Jerusalem. Why couldn’t he? 

By comparing himself to Hezekiah and believing his status as king allowed him to ignore the voices of caution around him, Zedekiah ensured the destruction of Jerusalem. He reminds us of what hubris can do to a leader, and to his country. 

How Countries and People Are Destroyed

He also reminds us of something even more relevant. Destruction is not inevitable. We often bring it on ourselves. We refuse to listen to other voices. We think power or wealth makes us immune from criticism. We forget that our fate is linked with the lives of those around. 

Jerusalem, the Jewish sages sought, was not destroyed by the Babylonians or the Romans. It was destroyed by senseless hatred. It was destroyed by hubris.When we do not listen, when we do not adapt, when we do not have the humility to see the presence of God in others, we risk the same fate. 

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This evening begins a modern Jewish holiday. It is not a holiday of celebration. It is one of memory. We remember the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.

What did not die, however, is hope. The Holocaust exemplified the enormous evil humans can inflict one another. We must not be blind to it. Yet, Israel exists, and Hitler does not.

god holocaust

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “Jewish faith is not about believing the world to be other than it is. It is not about ignoring the evil, the darkness and the pain. It is about courage, endurance and the capacity to hold fast to ideals even when they are ignored by others.”

The most difficult question in the world

What challenges me each year during this time is the question I am asked more than any other. “Where was God during the Holocaust? Why did not God not stop it?”

I do not have a set pre-formulated answer to these questions. They haunt me every day. Anyone who claims to know the answer lacks the humility demanded of any person of faith.

What I can offer, however, are premises I affirm. They shape the way I think about this question. They can guide each of us in our own struggle.

1. The better question is where were we?

God did not murder six million Jews. God did not start a destructive war. Human beings did. Since Cain and Abel, we have known human cruelty. God gave us the gift of free will, and we cannot blame God for the way we use it. The Holocaust challenges humanity not God.

2. God cried alongside the Jewish people. 

A rabbi named Kalonymous Shapiro was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1941-1943. He wrote a journal in the evenings, and buried it shortly before he was deported to a death camp. In it he records the his mounting losses.

He describes his family being taken away, his community, his neighbors. His pain reaches a peak as he writes of God crying in the heavens, with His tears carrying such power that if one of them were to escape from heaven to earth, it would destroy the world.

3. Never Again

It is hard to escape the connection between the Holocaust and founding of the state of Israel. The war ended in 1945, and Israel was founded in 1948. Yes, Israel existed during the age of the Bible, and modern Zionist movement started in the 1880s.

Yet, for those survived, Israel became a refuge of hope amidst despair, life amidst death. Israel reminds the world of the Jewish people’s will to live, and its strength declares that genocide can never happen again.

4. The best answer we give is the way we live

After the Holocaust, some survivors felt inconsolable pain. They had lost their families, their hopes, their dreams. They could no go on. Others, however, felt a stronger imperative to live. The only way to challenge the horror they experienced was to live with greater fervor and higher ideals. In the face of death, they sought to bring the Jewish community back to life.

Perhaps they took guidance from a story of the 18th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He once saw a man whose house had burnt down. The man had been crying terribly about his losses.

As he began looking through the rubble, he found bits and pieces of wood and metal to start rebuilding. One by one he made a pile of pieces.

Rabbi Nachman said, “See how he is collecting pieces to rebuild. Even when we think there is no hope, we are already collecting pieces to rebuild.”

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Chelsea Clinton Marries Marc Mezvinsky In Rhinebeck, New York

Nearly three years ago the world witnessed a seminal moment in American Jewish history. Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of an American President and a Secretary of State, married Jewish American Marc Mezvinsky, who was clad in atallis (Jewish prayer shawl) and yamakah (traditional headcovering). A rabbi officiated along with a minister. The wedding unabashedly embraced Jewish marriage symbols, and even some of the most traditional rabbis who strongly oppose interfaith marriage acknowledged the power of Marc’s open display of Jewish ritual.

Few people outside of a small group of rabbis criticized the interfaith marriage ceremony. The American public and most of the Jewish community have overwhelmingly decided that intermarriage is not a shanda (Yiddish for a scandal or embarassment). Intermarriage is part of the fabric of American Jewish life.

Still, many rabbis resist officiating at interfaith weddings. Some see officiation as giving intermarriage a rabbinic stamp of approval. Others see it as not within their purview of responsibility. Others think it contributes to assimilation and the decline of Jewish life in America.

I see it differently. Part of my job as a rabbi is to embrace interfaith couples and help make Judaism a compelling and important part of their lives. That means being their rabbi at the most sacred moment of life. Here’s why:

Intermarriage Is Not a Rejection of Judaism

For most of Jewish history, interfaith marriage was not only rare but effectively served as an exit visa from Jewish life. Prior to 1960, the rate of intermarriage among American Jews was less than 3 percent. This rate began to climb in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This new trend reflected the evolution of American society. Through the 1960s and 1970s, many of the barriers that had impeded Jewish advancement collapsed. University quotas ended and professional positions that had once been effectively closed to Jews became open. Indeed, by the 1990s many of the Ivy League universities that once had Jewish quotas now employed Jewish presidents.

As Jews became integrated into mainstream American culture, they began to meet and marry those from other faiths and backgrounds. This new generation of Jews did not see intermarriage as a rejection of Jewish life. Rather, they exemplified Rabbi Alexander Schindler’s understanding of intermarriage as the inevitable result of American Jewish acculturation.

Should We Circle the Wagons?

Unfortunately, some responded to this new reality with a “circle the wagons” approach. Growing intermarriage, they reason, demands that synagogues and communities build stronger walls and promote greater resistance to the “dilution” of Judaism that intermarriage represents. To do anything otherwise would be to give tacit approval to a dangerous phenomenon.

On the other hand, many leaders have argued for a policy of outreach. Rather than reject the intermarried, they say, let us welcome and engage them.Significant differences exist, however, even among advocates of this more inclusive approach. These differences usually center on rabbinic officiation.

Many say that rabbis can welcome interfaith couples to Jewish life without officiating at their weddings. Such officiation, they contend, violates one’s role as a rabbi and constitutes an endorsement of something that the Reform movement officially discourages. Furthermore, performing such a marriage limits the incentive for conversion. From this point of view, conversion is the strongest indicator of Jewish commitment and increases the likelihood of raising Jewish children.

Rabbinic Officiation Makes All the Difference

I understand this point of view and appreciate the way many have come to it.My faith and my reading of the evidence, however, suggest that a different approach is more effective.

A wedding is often a peak moment of life, and it is an opportunity to imprint a wonderful Jewish memory and help a couple begin life together with Jewish guidance and support. Rabbinic participation and counseling can help a couple appreciate the beauty and significance of Jewish rituals and values. It can also help them avoid the damaging feelings of abandonment and guilt frequently experienced by those who feel isolated from their religious community. Many devoted young Jews who fall in love with and seek to marry a non-Jew experience despair when unable to stand under the huppah at their synagogue with their rabbi.

This an enormous lost opportunity. Rabbinic officiation can serve as an invitation to Jewish life. It can convey the message that we want a couple and their future family to become part of the community, create a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family. It can demonstrate the potential for Judaism to be a source of joy and meaning in an interfaith family.

‘Go and See What the People Are Doing’

Reform Judaism is the only liberal religious movement to have grown numerically over the last quarter century. Its growth has benefitted enormously from interfaith couples and their extended families. Young adults who grew up in Conservative congregations and who are now intermarrying find the most welcoming home in Reform synagogues, and they are frequently joined later by their parents. This reality has led one of the country’s most prominent Conservative rabbis (and a personal friend) to call for a rethinking of the movement’s policy.

Judaism has survived for more than 4,000 years because we evolved and adapted to our time and place. The great first century sage, Rabbi Hillel, urged leaders of his generation to Puk Hazai Mai Amma Davar – “Go and see what the people are doing.

We should do no less. A great number of American Reform Jews are part of interfaith relationships, and few of them chose their partner in an effort to distance themselves from the Jewish community. Rather, many today are seeking a warm and welcoming rabbi and community. They are searching for a spiritual home and a place to educate their children. We can build those homes. We can exemplify the commandment of welcoming the stranger. And in so doing, we can create vibrant communities for American Jews and their families in the 21st century.

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