Friday, December 21, 2012

Theology and Action: Reflections from Rabbi Robert Levine

I wanted to share with you the words of my mentor, the senior rabbi of my congregation, Rabbi Robert Levine. These went out to the congregation earlier this week:


Prior to my coming to Congregation Rodeph Sholom in 1990, I was rabbi in Danbury, CT., which is adjacent to Newtown. Some of my members came from that lovely town. I have driven to Newtown and Sandy Hook countless times and I am familiar with the location of the school, the firehouse, the churches that filled our TV screens after this unspeakable tragedy.

Newtown is as quiet and bucolic as depicted. Obviously their peace and holiday preparations were utterly shattered by a perpetrator armed with weaponry no individual should have access to, harboring enormous magazines filled with bullets spewing out death and destruction that he had no business being able to possess.

We are justifiably outraged at this unspeakable assault and at him, but we also need to turn our pain and anger to positive use by doing everything we can to enact federal legislation to help curb the NRA’s stranglehold on gun discussions in this country. Personally I would want as much gun control as we can get, together with real penalties for those who possess such deadly firearms. Get these instruments of destruction out of the hands of all but law-enforcement personnel. Period.

The political landscape thankfully, appears to be changing on this issue, but the window for meaningful action may close quickly. The President will have to lead, Congress will have to have a backbone, we, the people, must demand.

Over the past days the President has been an eloquent comforter-in-chief. He was genuinely anguished and seemed quite resolved. Yet, I must firmly disagree with one theological reflection he offered the nation, that “God has called them home.”

No, Mr. President, God has nothing to do with this unspeakable act. God wanted these precious children and their educators to enjoy full, happy lives. The God I have a relationship with cannot swoop down to stay the hand of the depraved and the ill. God does give us the inspiration to learn from our actions and do better next time. God does implant within us the strength to go on, the hope that as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will one day see the light. God does expect us to do something meaningful about gun violence.

As we always do at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, we will add our voice and influence whenever and wherever we can....

We’ll hug our kids tighter and resolve not to fail them in the months ahead.

The prophet Isaiah envisioned a time when nation shall not lift up a sword against nation. Never could he imagine that individuals would one day lift up assault weapons and end the dreams of children. The stakes are so much greater today, and the penalty for failure all the more grave.

May God comfort these grief-stricken families.

May we resolve to reduce their numbers and finally protect our children.

We wish you a safe and blessed New Year.

Rabbi Robert N. Levine

So, it's just a few hours until Shabbat. Here are some ways you can, right now, resolve to "turn our pain and anger to positive use":

1) President Obama has promised to send proposals for gun control legislation to Congress no later than January. Click here to write to your legislators and urge them to support a reenactment of the federal ban on assault weapons and other sensible gun control.

3) Noah Pozner, one of the victims of the shooting, loved tacos. Tacos for Noah lets you make virtual tacos in Noah Pozner's memory. If you are so moved, you can also send real tacos in his memory to people are still struggling without their stoves and ovens in the Rockaways.

Looking for more ideas? See this piece from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for more ideas of what you can do.

Wishing us all a Shabbat Shalom, if that's possible.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Be a Lamplighter: A Reflection on #Newtown and Darkness

I have a bunch of blog posts brewing in my head, but felt like I couldn't write anything until I wrote about Newtown. But, what could I say? What can I say? I've been almost wordless all week, focusing intensely on the lights of Chanukah last week, and trying to imagine how we can continue to shine light into the darkness. What can I say?

I was struck by a story I heard on NPR, about St. Rose of Lima, the Catholic church in Newtown, which--like many houses of worship--was overflowing on Sunday following the shootings. In its pews were students, friends of those children; in its pews were parents, looking for comfort and consolation; in its pews were mourners, one of their own children-scheduled to play an angel in the Nativity Play--had been killed. Her parents were sitting in those pews. 

That poor priest, I thought to myself. What words can he offer? How can he possibly preach?

In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church, last Sunday was Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, the Christmas season. Gaudete Sunday gets its name from the Latin word "gaudete," meaning rejoice; it is the first word of a certain part of the ceremony. The theme of Gaudete Sunday, then, is joy. And so, he preached on joy. On the need to find it, to celebrate it, to still be able to feel it. What an awesome task; what a sacred responsibility!

One of the educators at my synagogue shared a story last week, in the midst of Chanukah and before the massacre in Connecticut. I think it's an even more important story this week, after the lights of Chanukah have faded and as we struggle to move forward after a national tragedy:

Students come to their rebbe, wondering "What is a Jew? What is our mission in the world." Unsatisfied by his answers about God's commandments and Jewish law, they ask again: "What is a Jew? What is our mission in the world." Finally, the rebbe answers: 

Many years ago, before electricity, there was a person in every town who would light the street-lamps with a light he carried at the end of a long pole. The tall lamps stood there ready on the street-corners, waiting to be lit; sometimes, however, the lamps are not as easily accessible. There are some lamps that stand in far forsaken places, in deserts, or at sea. We need someone dedicated and caring to go out of his way to light even those lamps, so that they may fulfill their purpose and illuminate the paths and walkways. We, each of us, he went on to say, must be a lamplighter--illuminating the world, and helping others find their light.

I'll leave the politics for another post and just say that the world is dark today, my friends. How can you be a lamplighter?

Monday, December 10, 2012

No dilemma here: #Christmas on the UWS

Just before Chanukah began, I had a hugely unpleasant encounter at a neighborhood coffee shop, reminding me that--indeed--anti-Semitism is alive and well, even on the Upper West Side.

So, imagine my delight in seeing a Facebook friend post this:

From the NYT Metropolitan Diary (which is great sermon fodder in general!):

Dear Diary:

Around this time of year, many Jewish parents of young children find themselves saying something like: “We do not celebrate Christmas! We are Jewish. We celebrate Hanukkah. And, no, you cannot have a Christmas tree.”

So it tickled my New York soul to hear the following as I entered the subway station at West 86th Street and Broadway: “We do not celebrate Hanukkah. We are Christian. We celebrate Christmas. And, no, you cannot have a dreidel.”

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Miracle of Miracles: #PopCultureChanukah

Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, began last night. Here are some thoughts that I shared in our congregational bulletin.

Happy Chanukah!

A colleague of mine has started a bit of a Twitter tradition. Before each holiday, she rounds up a bunch of us Jewish professional types, and we create a “pop culture holiday.” Each of us posts song lyrics appropriate to the theme of the holiday. Perhaps Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” for #PopCulturePassover or the Grateful Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” for #PopCultureShavuot. You all might guess that this year, one of my submissions for #PopCultureElul was “Once In a Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads (see why by reading or listening to my Rosh HaShanah sermon on our website!). As a music lover, pop culture consumer, and Jewish learner—I enjoy seeing these things intersect, and I do think it helps me think differently about the real themes and meanings behind our holiday celebrations.

As I write this, I am getting myself geared up for #PopCultureChanukah. Here’s one to get you started—a classic from the band REO Speedwagon:

And even as I wander, 
I'm keeping you in sight. You're a candle in the window, On a cold, dark winter's night...

I’ve been fortunate to spend several Chanukahs in Israel, including two with Congregation Rodeph Sholom families. Whenever I am there, one of my favorite things to do—in addition to the delicious dulce de leche sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) which I ingest with much gusto—is to simply walk through the streets, particularly of Jerusalem. There is something magical about it; in just about every window—or in front of the house in a specially designed display case—there is a chanukiah shining brightly. There is, indeed, a candle in the window on a cold, dark winter’s night.

There is real significance in where we place the Chanukah lights. The rabbis of the Talmud, in discussing lighting the Chanukah candles, introduce the notion of this very public display. The lights should be lit where others can see, our tradition teaches, because we are supposed to publicize the miracle. This commandment, known in Hebrew/Aramaic as pirsumei nisa, is only commanded on two holidays. We are asked to publicize the miracle on Chanukah, and on Purim.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an 18th century Hasidic teacher, ask a radical question. He says: Why is Chanukah, even more than Passover, the holiday of miracles? Wouldn’t we, who celebrate the Exodus from Egypt each and every day in our prayer service, think that Passover is the holiday, that the splitting of the sea is the ultimate miracle, the ultimate sign of God’s power? His answer is even more radical than his question, though. He teaches that the reason Chanukah is miraculous is that we did not wait for God. On Chanukah and on Purim, we were agents of our own change.

The dictionary definition of a miracle is “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” Noam Zion, an Israeli educator, suggests that there are four ways that we can understand miracles, four ways that contain both Divine power and human experience.

  1. Public miracles usually violate the laws of nature, in order to teach us to look beyond the physical to a higher realm of reality.
  2. Private miracles are the hidden coincidences that sometimes change the direction of our lives because of amazing timing, which we might understand as Divine destiny.
  3. The laws of nature are themselves a miracle created by God and worthy of wonder.
  4. The Biblical miracles are always associated with historical redemption because they point not to the violation of natural order which is seen as Divinely beautiful, but to the violation of human order which is so often corrupt and oppressive.

The story of Chanukah offers us any number of miracles to celebrate: the miracle of the oil, the miracle of a small group of passionate fighters victorious over a more powerful foe, the miracle of Jewish survival and Jewish identity. And while we may find God’s presence in any one of these miracles, we also know that these were human hands and hearts which prevailed. Later, there is a debate amongst our sages: is the expectation of publicizing the miracle an internal one, meant to strengthen our own faith and commitment? Or is it meant to be external, showing the world who we are and what we believe? Perhaps, in classic Jewish tradition, it needs to be both.

This year, as we prepare to celebrate Chanukah, take a moment to think about the miracles in your life. Join us on December 14 for a joyous celebration of the miracle of community. Think about ways that you, as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak suggest, can be agents of miracle-making, making a difference in the world. Still recovering from Sandy, our city needs us to be miracle-makers!

And, if you have any other song lyrics to suggest, Tweet me @rabbilaufer!  I wish you a joyous Chanukah, filled with light and miracles, and candles in the window on a cold, dark winter’s night.