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How To Find Life After Death: Memorial Day in Israel

By Rabbi Evan / April 15, 2013

The standard Jewish toast is L’Chayim, to life! Yet, during its last 65 years, the Jewish state of Israel has experienced a disproportinate share of death. 25,578 people have died as a result of war and terrorism.

This fact headlines the newspapers today in Israel. It is Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day in Israel, where fallen soldiers are remembered in ceremonies around the country. What is Unique About Israel This day in itself is nothing unusual. Most countries have a Memorial Day. Yet, as we the sun sets on Memorial Day, the country begins Independence Day! Streets fill with people preparing to watch fireworks and celebrate their freedom and independence in a sovereign nation. Why the rapid transition? Is it psychologically healthy? Shouldn’t we have room to mourn our losses before celebrating our victories? The rapid shift proclaims an audacious message. Only when we acknowledge death can we fully appreciate gift of life. Remembering our loved ones reminds us of the imperative to live. The Courage to Rejoice In this regard, Jewish tradition echoes beautiful words of playwright Thorton Wilder, “All that we can know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” In other words, we remember by living. Our lives proclaim the faith that those we loved live on through us. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, “It requires moral courage to grieve; it requires religious courage to rejoice.”
   

Where Was God During the Holocaust?

By Rabbi Evan / April 12, 2013
We just experienced a modern Jewish holiday. It is not a holiday of celebration. It challenges to ask about God. It challenges us to remember. 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. 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.”

Where Was God During the Holocaust?

By Rabbi Evan / April 6, 2013

Posted for Beliefnet.Com 

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. 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.”  

Why I Officiate At Interfaith Weddings

By Rabbi Evan / April 2, 2013
Chelsea Clinton Marries Marc Mezvinsky In Rhinebeck, New York originally published on the Huffington Post   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.

Why Americans Love Israel

By Rabbi Evan / March 25, 2013
obama aipac A remarkable new survey was released just before President Obama’s visit to Israel. According to the poll,Americans heavily favor the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64 percent vs. 12 percent. This is the highest percentage of support for Israel since the Gulf War in 1991. Israel retains support across age demographics and political affilation, though Republicans had a slighter higher positive view than Democrats. What accounts for this enormous popularity? Cynics and anti-Semites will say the power of the Israel lobby. They will contend that politicans and the media are bought by what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel once called the “Jewish lobby.” The real answer lies in the philosophy and ideals of the Jewish State. Israel is an outpost for democracy in a dangerous world. It is a place whose citizens fight for the freedom we cherish as Americans. As changes continue to transform the MIddle East, leaders in Egypt, Libya, Syria and perhaps, someday, Iran, need to visit Israel. The lessons would be about much more than voting and elected government. That’s the easy part of democracy. The hard part is two-fold. How Israel Embodies the Hard Parts of Democracy: Part I First, assuring the protection of minorities. The philosopher and political scientist Lord Acton said, “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.” Israel has its own problems in meeting this text. Orthodox Jewry retain almost complete control over official religious life in Israel, making Reform and Conservative Jews a disenfranchised minority. Less money is spent on school and facilities in Arab neighborhoods, increasing their vulnerability as minorities. Yet, metrics in each of these areas are improving. And in principle, if not yet in fact, Israel guarantees freedom of religion and equal rights for minorities. As its Declaration of Independence proclaims, “Israel will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” “Rabbi,” you might be saying, “this sounds nice and all, but its not happening.” Yet, we need to remember that Israel is only 64 years old. It took the United States almost 100 years and a bloody Civil War to begin to realize the ideals of our Declaration of Independence, and much work remains to be done. How Israel Embodies the Hard Part of Democracy Part II The second part of building democracy in the Middle East is harder still. Embracing meaningful cultural and intellectual dialogue with the West. We live in an interdependent world, and it is growing more so all the time. The emerging countries of the Arab world can learn so much from Israel. As Daniel Gordis put it, countries in the Arab world “will have to acknowledge that the very country that they had once hoped to destroy is the country whose qualities that they should be emulating.” These qualities include, for example, Israel’s openness to the global marketplace of ideas. Israelis travel, learn and have complete access to books and Internet websites from around the world. They express different points of view with relish. In fact, the arguments within our American Jewish community pale in comparison to the disagreements played out every day in Israeli newspapers. Yes, there are pockets of insularity in the ultra-Orthodox world. But Israel continues — every day — to evolve into an open, diverse and egalitarian culture. One of the members of my synagogue has been involved in supporting anetwork of schools that educate secular and religious students together. Other congregants members are involved with organizations that fund initiatives helping to bring together Arab and Israeli youth. Democracy has not and will not be easy — not for Israel, for the United States, not for the Arab world. But it never has been. David Ben Gurion once said that in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles. The founders of our country were realists who believed in the miraculous power of democracy. Israel struggles every day to carry on that dream.
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