Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Posted at 09:20 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Elul, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Middot, Midrash, Prayer, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Speech Ethics, Spirituality, Synagogue, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Theology, Torah, Tov! Podcast, USA, Yamim Noraim | Permalink | Comments (0)
I testified at two committees of the New Hampshire legislature on bills to change or repeal our new "divisive concepts" law -- Senate Judiciary and House Education. I said essentially the same things at both hearings. Here it is, video and my written statement (they are the same).
Mr. Chairman and Honored Representatives: Thank you for your service and for this opportunity to address you. I am Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett. I live and work in Nashua, and I am the father of three children who are students and grads of our Nashua public schools. I myself have been a high school teacher of American history and literature, and I currently serve on our state’s Commission for Holocaust and Genocide Education. I come to speak to you in strong support of HB 1576.
This country saved the life of my family and my wife’s family, from the tyranny of the czar and the genocide of Hitler. I am a proud American and a religious person who says a blessing over freedom whenever I vote – and on voting days and occasions like today, I wear those commitments together on my body, above my head. I feel that my own group’s history obligates me in gratitude to be a civic leader in this country, and I carry responsibilities as a member of both a religious minority and the white majority.
Earlier in my career I had the opportunity to create from scratch a course for juniors about America in place of the usual AP history and literature out of that sense of obligation. I was working at a private Jewish high school, and together with a colleague, we set out to give our students interdisciplinary tools to look at American history and culture, and to look at themselves as critical citizens -- connected critics, to use the terminology of the political philosopher Michael Walzer. Perhaps this was natural for us as Jews, a group of whom so many have lived the “American Dream” and a group so often the targets of violence and discrimination even in this country. But what we did in that school was to prototype a concept with application far beyond our specific group and private school setting.
I am proud that the alums of that course have become those connected and critical citizens – doing work in everything from our national defense and intelligence, to representing the underrepresented before our Supreme Court. Facing all of our story as a nation, in an honest and questioning spirit, only fueled their engagement and their intense dedication to our country, their resilience to keep working on problems especially in times of crisis from 9/11 through now.
How will we motivate our public school students to locate themselves as creators of a more perfect union? How is it possible to draw lessons about the dynamics between one’s ideals and group pressure, if you don’t learn about three-fifths compromise and sit in shame and embarrassment, as well as understanding of political strategy? How is it possible for our students to learn about the inner challenges of actual leadership, what it’s like to sit where you sit where we hope they will one day -- unless they can probe Thomas Jefferson in both his idealism and his cowardice? Why bother reading Thoreau if we don’t allow students to take seriously his indictments of the nation and even of his own friends? How can we study Twain without asking whether he was lampooning the racism of his time or swept up in it?
Sometimes as teachers we have to make sure that a perspective that was or is in our history, that is so opposite of what a patriot teachr like me would ever want to entertain or say out loud, is made vivid and alive in class so students know what’s at stake – slaveholder, or Stalinist -- so it can be addressed in the safe and trusting container of our classrooms.
If the creators of divisive concepts laws such at the existing one are concerned about America lapsing into an unpatriotic socialism – well it is the hallmark of socialist dictatorships to write laws that hide their implications behind innocent sounding words, in order to sow doubt about whether you or someone else is breaking the law, and to create a situation where an official or another citizen can take legal action against you or just threaten to do so. Which is exactly what is happening in New Hampshire and elsewhere with such laws.
Members of my Jewish community have lived under such laws in our lifetimes in other lands, and that’s why they came here. I have had conversations with people running for school board or attending meetings – they are at my kid’s school, in my American neighborhood -- and there is never any actual incident of a teacher declaring that someone is “inherently racist” or that America is. There is only “I have heard of a few times”; “no, I can’t tell you the name of a school” and “I’m just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen here.” That is what the current law is, and it sure doesn’t sound like the American Constitution to me.
If that is not how you intended the current law, then consider my remarks to be teacher comments on an essay whose thesis was confusing and needs a rewrite. If you are serious about education for a proud and patriotic American citizenship, not just for diversity but for a difficult unity -- and I hope that you are, then show you are serious, by getting engaged with the fine work of our social studies leaders and our civic education thinkers. Pump more substantive standards into our system and invest in the resources and training for our educators around critical citizenship and a true patriotism. And in the meantime, get these words out of our current laws and pass HB 1576. Thank you for your time and I am happy to respond to any questions.
Posted at 09:19 AM in #integratingamerica, 9/11, Antisemitism, Books, Community Relations, Current Affairs, Education, Equality, Ethics, Freedom, History, Holocaust, Hope, Immigration, Inclusion, Interfaith Dialogue, Jewish Education, Justice, Leadership, Study, Taking Sides, Teacher-Student Relationship, Tikkun Olam, Tzedek, USA, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.
Posted at 08:45 AM in Calendar, Education, Elul, Ethics, Foregiveness, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Spirituality, Study, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Torah, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
A Facebook post by a congregant highlighted a controversy around an initiative called #DisruptTexts, and my response to it was going to be much longer than a typical FB comment. #DisruptTexts as a specific project isn't something I had heard of, but as I skimmed the website the other day it certainly doesn't seem brand new. This is an initiative for literature education in schools that aims to "challenge the traditional canon" both by bringing in more representative texts and by putting new texts and perspectives into dialogue with "traditional" ones. I'm posting partly because the congregant said she wanted all her child's teachers to be involved in this kind of pedagogy, and I am/hope to be one of those teachers.
I don't know why this approach would be controversial at all. I mean I do, of course. But I would think even people with suspicion ought to be cheered by the idea of critical thinking about texts and literature, and by the idea of pairings and conversations centered around both traditional and new literary texts.
Anyway my mind went immediately to an experience I had as a first-year rabbinical student in just this kind of pedagogy at an adult level. As a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I had access to the Protestant institution across the street, Union Theological Seminary. I enrolled there in a course about the book of Hosea taught by Professor Phyllis Trible, one of the pioneering feminist critics of the Hebrew Bible. I had read from a couple of Professor Trible's books. One of them was called Texts of Terror, to give you a sense of her work. Her scholarship there was about women such as Hagar, Tamar, and the brutalized concubine of Gibeah in the book of Judges. Professor Trible was looking both to document the treatment of women by the (male) authors and editors of the Bible and to listen for women's voices somehow in the same texts.
I had studied the opening chapters of Hosea in religious school during high school with my terrific teacher Earl Schwartz. Hosea takes to heart the prophetic metaphor that images Israel's straying from God as an unfaithful wife. So he marries a prostitute and his book opens with a graphic revenge fantasy put in God's mouth/mind, leading to reconciliation. It's pretty horrifying.
That's where Professor Trible opened the course. I figured, based on what I knew of her, that the course would critique Hosea and unearth all the factors behind taking an already-problematic metaphor too far back in his time. Instead, she opened by saying even so, she wanted to see whether there was a way to reclaim Hosea and to have his book in the canon. It was a generous and tentative opening -- Professor Trible presented this as an open question. We would work through the text of the book and see.
The students were paired off and each group had to prepare a particular section in depth to present to the class -- to translate, analyze, and suggest issues and interpretations. I asked for or ended up with a passage that is read traditionally in the synagogue as a haftarah, a section of the prophets paired with the week's Torah reading. My partner was a Southern female Protestant seminarian who was also lesbian and married (this was the first half of 1991).
I am sure we compared Hosea to other places in the Torah and prophets that talk about Israel's unfaithfulness or betrayals, straight up or in metaphor. Hosea was also an innovator in the idea of teshuvah or "repentance"/personal change in Jewish thought. How do we hold both sets of his words?
My engagement with Hosea continued. A number of years ago, I was in the synagogue and listening to the chanting of the first couple chapters of Hosea by a thirteen-year-old girl on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah. I was horrified. How had I let that happen? Somewhere in between that moment and Professor Trible, I had sat in horror while the students in the Jewish day high school I worked at presented "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" as the school play. So much leering at women in the play, being staged by young girls being watched by young guys, and we the faculty had somehow let that happen. Here it was again, and just as bad even though I'm sure relatively few people were paying close attention to the English translation of Hosea in front of us in the synagogue.
I resolved that one way or another, no girl would chant this passage in the synagogue again. I thought about this for a few months and learned that the haftarah readings were not as fixed as our Bibles in the pews would lead us to think. Then I remembered too a section of the Mishnah, the early code of Jewish law that is the foundation of the Talmud, that lays out a series of texts that are not to be publicly read and/or not to be publicly translated in the synagogue, even though they can be encountered in a process of Torah study. (Before print, during services biblical readings were in some places translated out loud into the vernacular.)
I proposed not just that young girls would not read this for Bat Mitzvah, but that no one should hear this passage read out loud in the synagogue. We would substitute another reading for the opening of Hosea. The first year, I took time the week before to explain what I was doing and why. I taught a bit about Hosea, and both Earl Schwartz and Professor Trible. The next week I gave out xeroxes of an alternative text. In succeeding years, I make note of what we are doing and why. This is how I keep Hosea in the canon. He's there, not as loud as he once was, and always now framed by and along with other voices including new ones, including my own.
This is hardly the only example of its kind in my own life of texts and canons and teaching literatures. A whole section of my very first education course at the Seminary was about "difficult texts." But I describe all of this about Hosea to say that there are many dimensions to encountering texts, and all kinds of ways of staging or framing those encounters. We read privately or with others; we listen or we debate; we study intimately or we share ritually. There is more than canon-or-cancel. #DisruptTexts is about the classroom, the place where students and teachers read together and learn how to read. It's part of what we should be doing as teachers and parents, sharing stories and literature with our students and children.
Posted at 12:09 PM in Abuse, Books, Current Affairs, Education, Ethics, Feminism, Foregiveness, Jewish Education, Justice, Leadership, Numbers, Parashat Hashavua, Prophets, Ritual, Study, Teacher-Student Relationship, Teens, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
25 years ago today we received our degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and became rabbis and cantors for the Jewish people. Some reminiscences and reflections, I am sure I will have more, maybe a sermon this Saturday...
The best part of the week was that Laurie also got her MBA from Columbia. We had come to New York not married yet but wanting to be in the same place, and we had no idea then that our timelines would line up this way. Laurie's mom and my parents were all there for all our celebrations.
At JTS, we had our siyyum earlier in the week -- a study-completion ceremony that we helped create, less formal-academic than the commencement. We had not been, truthfully, the most cohesive class in the history of the Rabbinical School. Part of that was having started in about five different ways and times and places. We didn't all have the same experience. Toward the end, we needed an intervention -- I remember Adina Lewittes from the administration getting involved. From somewhere came the idea that the cantorial and rabbinical graduates should come together by learning a song as a choir. Singing together -- how I miss the group singing today -- was magical. We chose or someone chose Debbie Friedman z"l's Kaddish D'Rabbanan/Prayer for Teachers. This is how we sang it, courtesy of a cassette tape recorder Laurie must have had in the audience: https://tinyurl.com/jts1995siyyum
Commencement Day: There were sharpshooters on the roof. That's because of our speaker, who you can see in one of the photos. Sitting Vice President of the United States Al Gore.
For me a sweet moment at the graduation ceremony was right after I received my diploma and stepped down from the stage. Dr. Stephen Geller stood up to shake my end. He was one of my favorite professors. In our class were a number of Geller groupies. We took many of his courses on Bible, because of his fascinating erudition about ancient history, Near Eastern Languages, and literary analysis. And his dry sharp wit. We rabbinical students would sometimes sit in the back and watch him take apart the graduate students in the Bible Department, from a safe distance. I don't think I believed he knew who I was, and I was touched that he did.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker was the first of my three deans. Gordon took me into the program even though I was grappling with the ideology of Conservative Judaism and the Seminary itself (some things do not change). I really don't think any of his successors would have taken me in. I owe him this rabbinate.
Rabbi Joe Lukinsky z"l was our first year seminar leader. He was something of a throwback to an era when the JTS Education Department was a major, creative think tank. He was an ex-baseball player who almost got into pro ball. We would talk baseball and ideas. A few years after graduating I took Joe to Yankee Stadium - the one time I think I ever gave Steinbrenner my money! -- so I could experience a game with Joe, from batting practice all the way.
Along the way we lost our classmate Rabbi Cyndie Culpeper z"l. Cyndie had been a nurse before rabbinical school and continued to work during breaks. Not long after we graduated, she found out that she had contracted HIV from her nursing work. Cyndie became the first congregational rabbi to announce having AIDS. She bravely stepped forward and led and taught not only her own congregation but all of us. She would have been celebrating with us today. May her memory be for a blessing.
25 years... I think today as often of Naomi Shemer's song Od Lo Ahavti Dai -- "I have not yet loved enough, I have not yet said enough, and if not now when?" For today I am grateful for the privilege of being called Rabbi, and I celebrate with and for my fellow classmates, and our teachers.
Feel free to repost and forward this widely. I have a version of the exact same thing in a Word doc here as well.
With Thanksgiving just behind us, the Christmas season seems already in full swing. Did you know that in New Hampshire, only 60% of adults identify as Christian? About 5-10% identify specifically with a non-Christian religion. Of course, many people celebrate Christmas in some way whether or not they are religious, or even whether or not they are Christian. Still, in your classroom or in your school there may well be students for whom Christmas is not a part of their lives or their home. Or for whom there is a parent who does celebrate Christmas and a parent who does not, or who celebrate from each other.
I am a religious Jew, a parent of children in the public schools, and the rabbi of a synagogue. I can tell you that Jewish students, whether they are particularly religious or not, often feel uncomfortable at this time of year. Often they don’t express that until they are at home or in a Jewish group. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real.
So how should public educators approach Christmas?
Here are some ideas from my own point of view. I believe in public education as a proud graduate myself. I write from my own experience as a Jew and an educator,
The Big Picture
The simplest big picture: Sometimes, being in the minority feels good, because you are unique. Sometimes, being in the minority feels terrible, because you are left out. It can be the same student who has both feelings – at different times, or even the same time.
America is a majority Christian society in which many people are not Christian. This is one of any number of majority-minority dynamics that students experience in public school. Religion, culture, personality, political beliefs, talents, academic profiles – these are all differences can become salient at one time or another. Sometimes, a student feels like part of the majority some of the time and a minority at other times. Some students feel like part of a minority all of the time, or part of a majority all of the time.
Public schools exist to help every student learn how to navigate the different dynamics of majority-minority, in order to become the citizens who create and sustain a pluralistic and democratic society. Public school is where you learn how to be part of a group, how to be unique, and how to be an equal citizen with everyone else.
At your best, the schools that you run or teach in do this in a number of ways:
Keep this big picture in mind, as you think about decorations you create, music you sing, movies you show, stories you read, and assignments in every discipline.
Tip #1: Know Your Students and Draw on Their Families
Do you know who celebrates Christmas and who doesn’t? If you intend to do anything related to Christmas and the winter holidays, find out who your students are.
Are you planning to read stories related to the season? Do you have art or music projects in mind? Are you planning a party? The parents of your students who have other winter holidays can be a great resource. Maybe they can recommend or bring in a story, or a special food. They might be able to recommend someone from the community who can do that if they themselves aren’t available.
It’s not about strict proportionality; there isn’t a formula for how to balance Chrismas and other holidays. If you are devoting some time to Christmas-themed learning, and you know that’s not part of the background of even a single student, make sure to devote time to learning about other religious cultures.
When in doubt, reach out. If one of your students looks uncomfortable, or just seems confused about something you assume everyone knows, ask the child and contact a parent. Everyone will appreciate that you care.
Tip #2: Make Sure Your Christmas Content Has a Purpose
As a Jew, I want my children to know things about Christmas. I want them to know that it is an important part of the religion of many of the people around them. While I don’t want them to feel bad or be put in an uncomfortable in school because of religious beliefs, I want them to know and appreciate the deep meaning that others get from Christmas and Christianity. I chose after all to live in a place where Jews are a small minority.
At the same time, I don’t want my children or any children to feel that for a whole month everything in school is about Christmas. So, by all means read stories that have interesting messages or convey history. Explain symbols that are common around us.
Do not reward children for good behavior with notes from Santa’s elves. There are plenty of other ways that are just as good.
Don’t make them color or draw Christmas images, unless that is crucial to something you are teaching and you are also including something from another religious culture.
Don’t make a math assignment out of reindeer delivering Christmas gifts -- whether it’s a bar graph, an exercise about ratios, a word problem about speed and distance.
Tip #3: Look for Content That Models America Amid Difference
I wish I could recommend the perfect book or story for every level specifically about this time of year. One of my own favorite examples of this kind of approach is a book about Thankgiving called Molly’s Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen. Molly is a third-grade student whose family recently emigrated from Russia, and she is the only Jewish child in her class. An assignment to make a Pilgrim doll at home leads first to embarrassment for Molly on a few levels, but eventually she and her classmates see that the Pilgrim story encompasses Molly’s own.
Depending on the grade and the group, you might look up material about 1992-1994 in Billings, Montana, when an outbreak of violent anti-Semitism was met by churches and the local newspaper encouraging everyone in town to cut out Chanukkah menorahs (the traditional festival candle-holder) and put them in their windows.
Ask your school librarian, or Social Studies or Literature curriculum directors, what resources they know about!
Tip #4: Respect the Student Who Wants to Opt Out
There may be an assignment or project that because of Christmas, a particular student does not want to do. There may be a song for the chorus or the band that is too Christian for a particular student’s comfort.
Respect this. It’s a teachable moment, probably an issue of religious liberty, and for sure a chance to get to know your student.
Ask the student what she is thinking about. Find out what he is feeling. Applaud their willingness to stand up in a difficult situation that risks calling forth unwelcoming attention or negative consequences.
If there is an easy, non-punitive workaround or alternative, that’s great. But if there is not, no student should be penalized in the gradebook or the group for not being willing to do something that violates a boundary of right and wrong in the student’s eyes.
Tip #5: Pay Attention to What Happens Among Students
Listen in during group time, during unstructured time, during lunch and recess times. Look for teachable moments. If you hear someone say something insulting to another student about what that family does or does not do at this time of year, step in.
If you hear someone ask a curious question of another student, find a way to praise that later on. If you hear a lot of talk around any particular theme – from “What are you getting for presents?” to “What is Chanukkah anyway?” – find a way to plan a learning activity about generosity and giving, or about another culture’s winter festival.
Tip #6: If You Are Trying, Don’t Worry About Making a Mistake
There are no formulas here. Do your best! If say “Merry Christmas” to the Jewish student on the last day before vacation, don’t beat yourself up.
* * * * *
This season can be one of the most important for the mission of public schools. Feel free to reach out to me personally or any other local rabbi or synagogue if you are looking for a speaker or a story, or the answer to a question, or if you want to bounce something off of me. I can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], or by phone at (603) 883-8184 ext. 104.
Feel free to forward and share this around in all of your networks.
n.b. For some explanations about Chanukkah (including why it’s spelled so many different ways!), go to https://www.rabbijon.net/rabbijon/chanukkah.html.
This was my Dvar Torah on May 26, for Parashat Naso.
I know one person, and maybe only one, who would have loved the beginning of this Torah reading – Philip Roth, the great American Jewish author who died this week at the age of 85. He was not really a Torah person, but the scenario about a jealous husband suspicious of his wife would have been right up his alley. And the best part for Roth might have been where the Kohen writes down a curse with the name of God and dissolves it into bitter water. The one time that we are actually commanded to erase God’s name, which is one of the blasphemies of the Torah! Philip Roth, may his memory be for a blessing, was insistently anti-religious and was called blasphemous plenty of times, from plenty of pulpits. His characters were often Jewish but he fought against being called a Jewish writer. He might have just loved that opening passage -- and I’m just as sure he would hate the idea that rabbis would make him the subject of a sermon in the synagogue.
In recent years a lot of Jews like us reclaimed Philip Roth, or felt he had come back to us, after his novel The Plot Against America in 2004, in which he imagined the anti-Semite Charles Lindberg becoming president at the time of World War II. But I’d like to go back to the beginning of his career, to story from 1958. When Roth was 25 years old, he published a wicked funny and wickedly funny short story in the Paris Review called “The Conversion of the Jews.” The following year it was published with a few others at the end of his first novel, Goodbye Columbus.
It’s set in a fifth- or sixth-grade yeshivah class, where one of the boys, Ozzie Freedman, loves to pester Rabbi Marvin Binder with questions. All the other boys, like his good friend Itzie Lieberman, just want to keep quiet and laugh and make faces and obscene gestures behind the rabbi’s back. But Ozzie asks questions. Like why the rabbi can call the Jews “The Chosen People” if the Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal. And why, when a plane crashed at LaGuardia and 58 people died, the fact that eight of them were Jewish made it a tragedy. Mrs. Freedman had already been called in to speak to Rabbi Binder because of those two questions. The rabbi had answers, but Ozzie kept saying, “I’m asking something different.”
Now for a third time Mrs. Freedman has to come in, and this is why. For some reason Rabbi Binder was talking about Jesus in class – the rabbi brought it up, Ozzie says -- and how Jesus was a historical person and not God. And Ozzie tells Itzie how he asked, after a very dramatic introduction about God’s powers of creation: “Anyway, I asked Binder if He could make all that in six days, and He could pick the six days He wanted right out of nowhere” -- why God couldn’t make a woman have a baby without a human father.
Itzie, his friend, is more interested in the sex part of the question. Maybe Rabbi Binder is upset about both. Anyway, Rabbi Binder reiterated that Jesus is not God, and Ozzie explains to his friend, “I understood that. What I wanted to know was different.”
It happens on a Friday, and Ozzie is going to tell his mother about what happened and why she was going to be summoned again. It’s just the two of them, his father is no longer living, and first Mrs. Freedman lights the Shabbat candles. I just love Roth’s description of how she appeared to Ozzie: “When his mother lit candles she would move her arms slowly towards her, dragging them through the air, as though persuading people whose minds were half made up. And her eyes would get glassy with tears… Even when she was dressed up she didn’t look like a chosen person. But when she lit candles she looked like something better; like a woman who knew momentarily that God could do anything.”
But when Ozzie finally fesses up, his mother smacks him in the face, the first time she’s ever done that.
The following Wednesday arrives, the day of the meeting with the rabbi and Ozzie’s mother. There is some time at the end of the class day, so Rabbi Binder says there will be open discussion on any question. No one has any questions, and Ozzie doesn’t want to say another word. But Rabbi Binder makes him stand up and ask a question. Ozzie finally screams out another version of his question about God. The rabbi flips out, so does Ozzie, and eventually Ozzie runs out of the classroom and onto the roof and he locks the door behind him.
All the kids run outside the building, the firemen are called, and Ozzie’s mother too. Ozzie threatens to jump, and makes the firemen with their net chase as he trots from one side of the roof to another. One of my favorite characters in the story is the custodian or caretaker, Yokov Blotnik, who is capable of only two ways of evaluating any situation – good-for-the-Jews and no-good-for-the-Jews. That’s with hyphens – good-for-the-Jews, no-good-for-the-Jews. Ozzie’s mother pleads with him to come down from the roof: “Don’t be a martyr.” But his friend Itzie yells up to the roof, “Gawhead, be a Martin!” And all the boys begin to chant, “Be a Martin! Be a Martin!”
Eventually, Ozzie says that he will come down safely if Rabbi Binder says in front of everyone that God can make anything. And then he has to say that God could have made Jesus, and then he makes everyone bow on the ground and say it. He makes his mother promise that she will never hit anybody about God – probably the truest thing anyone in the whole story says -- and everyone repeats that too. And he jumps down – safely, we think, “right into the center of the yellow net that glowed…like an overgrown halo.”
I think everyone who teaches Hebrew School should have to read this story every year.
Anyway, what kind of a story is “The Conversion of the Jews”? Maybe it’s just plain satire; maybe it’s just a great example of in a Jewish tradition making fun of cheders and befuddled rabbis. Maybe Ozzie Freedman is just an annoying pisher, a nudnik who happens to be clever. Maybe Philip Roth wasn’t yet one of the greatest authors in America, but a 25-year-old kid with an audience, horsing around.
But one of Philip Roth’s themes was about writing itself, and how authors were constantly facing audiences who came up with their own sometimes-crazy theories of what the author had in mind. That was one of his favorite subjects.
So Philip Roth said he wasn’t a Jewish writer, not interested in Jewish questions… well, bigshot author, may your memory be for a blessing, I’m bringing you to shul, and this is why.
Because this one short story has all the characters we are still grappling with six decades on:
The one who can only think in terms of good-for-the-Jews or no-good-for-the-Jews.
The one, the poor rabbi, who is trying to wrap his head around America and the Christian majority, and who is smart and wants to be relevant, but just can’t keep up with these kids who are more American than he is.
The kids in the story represent two incredibly important types of American Jews. The one who has all the right questions about being Jewish in America, and thinks there must be a good answer, a good Jewish answer, but can’t find anyone who knows how give it to him.
The group, who are probably the most classic Philip Roth-y, who are just living in the moment and in the physical, in the body.
That’s four sons, Seder style, and Roth does it for laughs. (I’m not sure what to do with the mother – a feminist writer, he was not.)
There is no chacham in the story, no upstanding and coherent wise man in sight. Roth’s critique of religion was summed up by my friend and critic Stephen Hazzan Arnoff: “Roth desires to shove traditional answers about ethereal questions aside because of their perceived attachments to religious absurdity, oppression, or boredom.”
That’s what the kids in the story hate – absurdity, oppression, and boredom. Ozzie thinks his rabbi is absurd and oppressive. Itzie and the others think he is oppressive and boring. And we know that for a whole generation or two of Jews in America, when Philip Roth was becoming a great writer, that was the problem with our synagogues and with our neighbors’ churches. And by the time we religious leaders got wise to it, by the time we were trying to respond, a lot of people were…. asking something different.
Roth is important in the synagogue because he represents both the wicked child of the Seder, and a new one, the one who has no interest anymore in asking. So religious Jews and rabbis hated him, or ignored him back, for a long time.
But I think we should honor Philip Roth in shul during his shiva, and give him his due for holding up a mirror to us shul people. For laughing at us and making us laugh at ourselves, if we’re smart enough to do that. In one hand, we need to be carrying Heschel, who was writing at the exact same time and scolding us for the exact same reasons and lecturing us to change before it’s too late. In the other, Philip Roth, laughing at us.
We should honor Philip Roth for reminding us that hearing his questions is not the same as giving a satisfying answer.
And as we remember Philip Roth, we have to give him his due as a Jewish artist of American individuality. He didn’t claim to be anyone’s leader, to give an answer to anything. He was a writer, accountable only to his individual voice. We ought to remember -- we who want people to come to synagogues -- that each Jew out there is an individual, observing and writing and creative about their lives. And we won’t know anything until we read all their stories the way they write them, in their own distinctive and beautiful way. Even when they make fun of us. Even when they point out what seems absurd, oppressive, or boring. If we’re going to offer an answer, we’re going to have to do it at Philip Roth’s level -- just as beautiful, just as interesting, and just as funny.
My D'var Torah on March 24, 2018, the day of the national "March for Our Lives" after the Parkland school shooting.
Somewhere in America, for fifteen years a fifth-grade teacher used to conclude the week on Friday the same way. She would ask her students to write down the names of four children they’d like to sit with the following week, and to nominate one student as an “exceptional classroom citizen” for the week.
The point of this exercise was not to make the next week’s seating chart. Nor was it to decide who was that week’s exceptional classroom citizen. Instead, this teacher would go home on Friday afternoon and read all the slips of paper. She would ask herself:
The fifteen years of this practice for this teacher began on Friday, April 23, 1999. The Friday following the murders at Columbine High School.
I know about this teacher because someone surfaced an article about her a few weeks ago, after Parkland. The article is entitled, “This Brilliant Math Teacher Has a Formula to Save Kids’ Lives”, and I believe it.
The article was written by a parent of one of the students in that class, a writer named Glennon Doyle Melton with a blog called “Momastery.” She’s the author of books like Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed. So she’s the kind of writer who can totally say that this teacher is a “Love Ninja.... It’s like taking an X-ray of the classroom.”
Her child’s teacher was looking for who is connected and who is not, who is suffering from suddenly being disconnected -- who is bullying others and who is being bullied. She created her Friday practice to save lives. The lives of those potentially killed by school shooters, the lives of those potential shooters, and of course the lives of all those who might be in danger of depression, suicide, turning to substances.
Today a lot of people aren’t at shul because of the March for Our Lives. In the words of the organizers, it’s “kids and families...demand[ing] that their lives and safety become a priority and that we end gun violence and mass shootings in our schools today.”
The weeks since the Parkland shooting have surfaced those feelings and perceptions -- that teens, and not just teens but a lot of younger kids, and parents, are not being heard when they talk about not feeling safe, not having their lives valued or the lives of their children valued. I think this is about gun violence and more. Whether it’s these March marches or #metoo, 5778 has been a year when people are working on both the obvious and concrete level -- about guns and law enforcement -- and the deeper levels, about isolation and about relationships going awry. Lives are at stake, because of guns but a lot more as well.
Here are three things I know:
*In high schools in Greater Nashua and all over New Hampshire, in 2015 more than 1 in 4 kids reported feeling helpless for at least two straight weeks in the past year. Which is, believe it or not, below the national average of 30%.
*In high schools in Greater Nashua and all over New Hampshire, in 2015 4 out of 5 kids said they would not talk to their parents about negative emotions. (Note -- these two facts are from the 2017 Greater Nashua Community Health Assessment)
* If there is a common thread among school shooters in particular, it is that they tend to talk to friends and sometimes teachers and tell them that they are depressed, thinking about suicide, thinking about killing other people. (Cited here on fivethirtyeight.com)
Those three things are in the data. Which means that there are so many opportunities not just to find the person so late in the process, thinking about committing an act of violence, but also those who are vulnerable in other ways, or just starting to be vulnerable.
According to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:14), Rabbi Akiva used to say: Beloved is every human being, who was created in the image of God -- chaviv adam she-nivra b’tzelem. It is an even greater love that it was made known to her, to him, that she was created, that he was created, in the image of God -- chibbah y’teirah noda’at lo she-nivra b’tzelem.
That’s the brilliance of the fifth grade teacher with her Friday slips of paper. We all know, we all say, that every child is precious. But does every child know that someone thinks that about her, about him? Does every child -- or for that matter, every person -- know that someone is thinking about him, interested in her, concerned?
I have been thinking about how to be that teacher. I have here a list I printed of all the teenagers in our community, who have passed through here, currently ages 12-19. How many do you think there are? .... It’s about 150.
I know things about a lot of them. But they don’t all know that I do, or that I bothered to make this list.
I know that some are happy and some are not; some are connected and some are not. Some are doing well in school, some are not in school. Some are working and some are in college and some are doing neither. Some are lonely and some are popular, and some are both.
I don’t what kind of week more than a few of them have had. My fantasy is to call all of them, or all their parents. But of course that’s not possible.
But what is possible is for us, collectively, to see these 150 as the image of God, and to let them know that they are. And I don’t mean just to value them to the extent they have accomplishments, whether it’s on the bimah or on sports fields or on performance stages. To value them for why they care about what they care about, even if it seems quirky or random. To value them for the mystery each one presents. To enjoy them, even when they are quiet.
It’s possible, especially for someone who is not your child -- to help them know that you know they are the image of God.
I say all the time that what we do here, in the synagogue on Shabbat, makes a difference out in the world, an ethical difference and even a civic difference. This is one of those things where it’s true in a very concrete sense. Do you want to reduce youth violence or bullying or suicide in America? Value a child or a teen in this community.
Because it’s been shown that, in the words of one study on development, “The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”
Imagine if our community was a big version of that one fifth grade teacher. Imagine if that’s what this list meant to us, collectively, every week on Friday before Shabbat.
When the marchers talk about about kids’ and families’ lives and safety, we should understand that they are talking about more than heading off the shooter who might harm someone. They mean, even if they don’t know it, that we should care about their lives and safety all the time in all kinds of ways.
We will never do this well enough, and even with all the fifth-grade teachers and model communities, there is the who-knows reality of the world -- which is why we also have to do everything possible to keep dangerous weapons out of anyone’s hands. We have to make it easier and more standard for teachers or counselors or law enforcement to share information and do something when they learn of a potentially violent person. They are understaffed and overworked, and probably undertrained. We citizens have to let them know that we regard this aspect of their work as not just din but also rachamim -- not just enforcing and following rules, but an aspect of compassion for each person they flag and each person they protect.
Beloved is every human being, who was created in the image of God. It is an even greater love that it was made known to her, to him, that she was created, that he was created, in the image of God.
That’s what it means to be a caring and nurturing community. That’s what it means to be like blogger Glennon Melton, a warrior living unarmed. May we make all our children know what we know, that they are created in the image of God.
On Sunday, Am Yisrael lost a true a gadol, a great man and teacher: Rabbi David Hartman. Rabbi Hartman, originally from Canada, made his home in Jerusalem, and created the Shalom Hartman Institute. SHI is a modern Orthodox, progressive think tank that generates unbelievable work on moral and political thought, the meaning of Zionism, and theology. SHI convenes Jewish scholars from all streams of Judaism and beyond Judaism, thinkers in all fields of humanities and social science, from around the world. They bring Talmud and Midrash alive, as probing texts for the existential dilemmas of modern life and modern Israel.
Rabbi Hartman's books are academic but pulsing. He was an outspoken, sometimes solitary voice for Klal Yisrael, the whole of the Jewish people within Orthodox Judaism and Religious Zionism. I myself saw him as an Orthodox rabbi take an aliya in an egalitarian Shabbat service on a college campus. He embraced and taught rabbis of all denominations; he was a conscience for the State of Israel. He believed in the role of women in modern Jewish religious life. He was a dynamic speaker and teacher, erudite and funny, and he believed in the transformative power of Talmud Torah, the study of Torah.
You may not have ever heard of him, or perhaps you did hear his voice through the Israel-related columns of Tom Friedman in the New York Times. Here are some words of remembrance from my friend and colleague, and Hartman Institute faculty member, Rabbi Rachel Sabath-Halachmi in The Times of Israel:
David Hartman was a powerful, brilliant, restless, demanding, inspiring, impatient and loving giant. There was nothing not fierce about David Hartman, one of the most – if not the most – influential thought-leaders of our time. His embrace of Jewish tradition, the State of Israel, the Jewish people, Christians, Muslims, and every human being was both fiercely loving and incessantly demanding. Impatiently he engaged every text and every person with an urgent question which must be answered now – as though all of Judaism and the future of the Jewish people and humanity itself depended on the unknowable answers. But no one could possibly embrace other human beings and wisdom itself as fiercely and as passionately as he did.
Every year, for more than 30 years, hundreds – and now tens of thousands – of academics, rabbis, lay leaders, Christian and Muslim scholars, Israeli educators, high school students and IDF officers came to sit at his feet at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Through them, millions of people have been influenced and challenged by his mind and his redemptive vision for religious pluralism, the State of Israel, and the Jewish People.
It was nearly 25 years ago when I first studied Talmud with David Hartman at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He picked up a piece of Talmud, held it to his nose, and screamed at us: “Can’t you smell it?? Can’t you smell the inconsistencies and ambivalences of the sages about women??” And then he would slam the big book of Talmud down on the table and read and reread the same lines over and over again. Exhausted, he would then call on a student to read it another ten times, until he thought we began to hear the cacophony of the voices of the sages arguing over the centuries, understand the logic and illogic of their arguments, and the interpretive task at hand.
It took another 10 years of study, rabbinic ordination, and numerous courses with other Hartman scholars of Talmud and philosophy before I moved to Israel and dared to enter into his Beit Midrash – study hall – at the Hartman Institute. The rules of engagement demanded a total willingness to learn, struggle, critique, love, and think seriously about every text and every aspect of human existence. He hated it when we agreed with him. If we couldn’t challenge him he couldn’t respect us. His Beit Midrash was a culture of constant debate, mutual respect, searing critique and big embraces. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the brilliant scholar and iconoclast, and Krister Stendahl, the radical Christian Harvard Divinity School dean, were there too, not only in text but in person. David taught and argued with all of them in the same impatient, demanding, loving way. Being in his Beit Midrash was all-consuming, terrifying, and wildly inspiring all at the same time.
He was a indefatigable warrior for the State of Israel and its significance for the Jewish people and the world and demanded that it live up to the ethical standards set out for it both by the revelation of Sinai and the crematoria of Auschwitz. He was a warrior for the status of women in traditional Judaism, he was a warrior demanding higher standards of knowledge and Zionist and spiritual commitment from liberal rabbis, he built an institution with the highest standards of intellectual excellence. He invested in and believed in people and their capacity to rise to their potential. He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, except how he would be judged by God and by history.
He screamed and laughed and cried – sometimes simultaneously in the middle of a lecture, or a meeting, or even just in a daily encounter about the news or a new book. He would walk into my office nearly every day to argue about something. When missiles were falling on Israel and suicide terrorists were blowing up buses and cafes in the neighborhood, more than once he walked in and screamed at me, “Why do they hate us so much?” Or in quieter times he would walk in and pick up some recent work of theology lying on my desk and say, “Why can’t they do theology more seriously?!” But he also listened carefully as I offered a tentative response. And then, disgusted or quieted by whatever answers I gave, he would shoot off another litany of questions – this time asking after my husband and children by name, how our little Reform shul was doing, and why wasn’t I writing more academic stuff and how was I feeling. Being with, studying with and working for David Hartman was a unique experience of being simultaneously constantly challenged, rebuked, and loved. Nothing could have been more inspiring.
While most of us – his hundreds of thousands of students – may have failed to fulfill his demands, we may yet fulfill the dreams that he inspired in us. And in this way, his Torah and the loving power of his embrace will continue to pour forth from Jerusalem.