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There is a lot happening in the world these days and I haven't posted for a while.... I think some of you may be here after hearing me on the West Wing Weekly podcast, and if so, welcome! If you're Jewish, you'll find that I had a couple more things to say about the episode in a Jewish context in my sermon last Shabbat.
If you're just landing here, I would encourage you to poke around. The navigation will show you toward things about politics, Torah readings, sermons for High Holy Days and Shabbatot, Israel (including some daily papers), Jewish holidays, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z"l, and a few podcasts of my own about Jewish ethics.
Our synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham, is definitely worth a look if you are from New Hampshire or any of the nearby areas in northern Massachusetts.
With so much happening, I am committing to becoming much more regular on this blog. As a down payment on that, here are a couple of things. One is my sermon after the recent murders in Tel Aviv, Orlando, and other places. The other is a really helpful article by Carly Pildis about how to think about the intersection of concern about racism and other bigotries, and anti-Semitism. She captures something I have been thinking about a lot in this week after the death of Elie Wiesel.
On February 3, I had the honor of participating in a nationally-televised town hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I was selected to ask Secretary Clinton a question.
Here is the exchange, in video and in transcript:
RABBI JONATHAN SPIRA-SAVETT: Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.
And I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can't be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?
CLINTON: Another absolutely wonderful question.
Thank you, Rabbi.
I think about this a lot. Um, I feel very fortunate that I am a person of faith, that I was raised in my church and that I have had to deal and struggle with a lot of these issues about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification, all of the human questions that all of us deal with, but when you put yourself out into the public arena, I think it's incumbent upon you to be as self-conscious as possible.
This is hard for me. You know, I never thought I'd be standing on a stage here asking people to vote for me for president. I always wanted to be of service. I met my husband, who was such a natural, knew exactly what he wanted to do. I was happy to support him while I worked in the Children's Defense Fund and legal services and taught law, and, you know, had our daughter.
I never thought I would do this. And so I have had to come to grips with how much more difficult it often is for me to talk about myself than to talk about what I want to do for other people, or to tell stories about, you know, the man I met in Rochester who -- whose AIDS medicine is no longer affordable. And that -- that can grip me and make me feel like there's something I can do about that.
So I'm constantly trying to balance how do I assume the mantle of a position as essentially august as president of the United States not lose track of who I am, what I believe in and what I want to do to serve?
I have that dialogue at least, you know, once a day in some setting or another. And I don't know that there is any ever absolute answer, like, OK, universe, here I am, watch me roar or oh, my gosh, I can't do it, it's just overwhelming, I have to retreat.
It's that balance that I keep to try to find in my life that I want to see back in our country. And it will be something that I continue to talk about with a -- you know, with a group of faith advisers who are close to me.
I get a scripture lesson every morning from a minister that I have a really close personal relationship with. And, you know, it just gets me grounded. He gets up really early to send it to me. So, you know, there it is in my in box at 5:00 a.m..
I have friends who are rabbis who send me notes, give me readings that are going to be discussed in services. So I really appreciate all that incoming.
And the final thing I would say, because again, it's not anything I've ever talked about this much publicly, everybody knows I -- I have lived a very public life for the last 25 or so years. And so I've had to be in public dealing with some very difficult issues and personal issues, political, public issues. And I read a, um, a treatment of the prodigal son parable by the Jesuit Henri Nouwen, who I think is a magnificent writer of spiritual and theological concerns. And I -- I read that parable and there was a line in it that became just a lifeline for me. And it basically is practice the discipline of gratitude.
So regardless of how hard the days are, how difficult the decisions are, be grateful. Be grateful for being a human being, being part of the universe. Be grateful for your limitations. Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you, listen to your critics, answer the questions.
But at the end, be grateful. Practice the discipline of gratitude. And that has helped me enormously. [END OF TRANSCRIPT]
* * * * *
A lot of people have been asking me for my interpretation of her answer, and whether I have decided to vote for her now. But really the whole point is that she is the candidate, she responded, and you can assess her response. So you can stop reading here if you like.
I do have a few broader thoughts. Which I'll share, not least because I too have an ego!
It was amazing to me that the candidate took about five minutes to respond, in what might have been the longest answer of the evening. I chose my words carefully -- I want you to take a moment… the ego that we all know you must have -- I wanted to make it a bit harder for Secretary Clinton to take shelter behind the concept of "a president", to retreat to platitudes of "humble servant." You can judge. She said much more than I expected. I think it was amazing that she owned up to issues "about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification." You don't hear politicians talk about their own ambition and self-gratification.
All I did was to catalyze that, and if that leads to good deliberation about Secretary Clinton or stays with her if she wins, then I did something worthwhile.
And a lot of the credit goes to Kerry Rubin, the CNN producer for Anderson Cooper who read my op-ed in the Union Leader and called me. She and her staff curated the evening. I gave Ms. Rubin a couple of ideas questions, and it was she who picked this theme – and that made all the difference. She said immediately that it was different from any other kind of question that's been asked or that had been submitted for the evening. Darren Garnick, our congregant, suggested I introduce my question with a rabbinic quote; and that's when the quote from Reb Simcha Bunim came to me!
It seemed as though I helped release something that Secretary Clinton really wanted to talk about. And I bet that a lot of the other candidates, Republican and Democratic, do too. I hope that my day as an Internet meme connected to one candidate doesn't take away from my hope that we would be engaging all the candidates this way. That's what six other Nashua clergy and I were hoping to do. The Forward has a great interview with me and I talk about that. (Good interview by JTA too.)
This afternoon, we gathered the kids of our Religious School, grades 3-7. For about twenty minutes they were in rapt attention. I started off by talking about Jews and freedom. That we are the Jewish people because we were freed from Pharaoh, and that our Jewish families were all living under oppressive rule very recently before America. I talked to them about how important it is for our Jewish community to be known through our involvement in choosing who will make decisions about our society and the world. How proud we should be, if the world got to see that that's who we are as Jews because I was on TV. I showed them the video, and the kids from every grade asked me all kinds of questions. I closed with my signature teaching, about how I say the traditional morning blessing each time I enter the voting booth – she'asani ben chorin, thanking God for making me free. They sang it with me.
If my moment in the spotlight helps inspire them to care about society and world, then that's what makes it worthwhile.
Secretary Clinton did in fact say, “I want to meet the rabbi.” She said this to State Sen. Bette Lasky and her husband Elliot, Beth Abraham members who are big Clinton supporters and friends. So after the program was done, they beckoned me over and Secretary Clinton came up to talk to me. We spoke for another few minutes.
I got to tell her how much we as voters want to hear her and other candidates talk to us in this way. I said she should look for opportunities to do that. She said to me, I think perceptively, that it's hard to do unless an occasion arises like my question. Otherwise, she said, the media or others spin it as someone trying to use their faith or their introspection in a manipulative or self-serving way.
From 1996-1999, I taught eleventh grade American Studies at the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island with Leslie Bazer. We created our own course, about being a citizen and an individual, a “connected critic”, a Jew and an American. So gratifying are all the Facebook shout-outs from my students in that class, most of whom I haven't heard from in years. To know they learned something and bring it with them today is unbelievable.
I invite your comments. Most of all -- if you're in New Hampshire, learn everything you can still about the candidates and vote next Tuesday. And for the rest of you, the relay now is yours.
This post is based on my bulletin column of April 2014. At Temple Beth Abraham, the Sisterhood's book club is discussing this book on Wednesday, Nov. 5 at 8:00 PM.
The most important new book about Israel this year is called My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. If you read only one nonfiction Jewish book, this is the one you have to have.
My Promised Land is a history of Israel and of Zionism, told through a loving and critical lens. Shavit is one of the Israel's most probing commentators. He writes for Haaretz, one of Israel's three main daily newspapers.
Shavit begins the book with the story of his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, a British Jew who came see Palestine in 1897. Shavit talks about what his great-grandfather saw and experienced, and also what he didn't see or chose not to see, namely the Arabs in the villages all around the new Zionist towns.
For each decade he profiles, Shavit zeroes in on an emblematic storyline. He chooses “tragedies” in the ancient Greek sense. Moral dilemmas with no obvious right or wrong answer, dilemmas that could not be avoided in real time.
The Israelis of 1948 sent away Arabs from their homes in parts of the land. There wasn't time to figure out how to integrate Arabs into every part of Israel, with Arab armies bearing down. In order to take in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in the 1950s and 1960s, Israel created standardized housing and a single dominant culture. There wasn't time, with military and economic challenges, to make room for differences, or to deal with communal traumas in the open.
Shavit criticizes something about each layer of Israel's history. But he is emphatic that the ideal path is only available in hindsight. He is equally hard on those who believe in sheer military power, and those who believe in a perfect peace with all the Arabs.
For me, one of the strongest impressions from the book is just how many social challenges Israel has had to face in less than sixty-five years. Without civil war, Israel has absorbed Jews who survived the Holocaust, those who become unwelcome in Arab countries, and those who were suddenly liberated when the Soviet Union collapsed. Israel's largely secular culture has had to face a powerful religious revival.
After the near-defeat in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, suddenly Israel's army was no longer an invincible force and an automatic source of pride. As the peace process of the 1990s collapsed, the idea of coexisting with Arabs in mutual understanding was exposed.
Through all of this, Shavit keeps his faith in the necessity of Israel. He considers whether all the mistakes mean that it would be better for Jews to live only in the diaspora, or in a binational state with the Palestinians. Shavit is emphatic: There is no future for Jews in the world without Israel. The moral responsibility for the past is real. Recognizing and taking responsibility for past mistakes is what it means to be a modern nation.
My Promised Land is not an easy book to read. Shavit does not point the way out of Israel's current struggles – not with the Arabs or internally. I kept reading because despite all his research and reflection, despite all the moral questions, Shavit is never disillusioned with Israel.
It is a tribute to the American Jewish community, and to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, that Shavit has been invited across the country to speak as a Zionist and defender of Israel. He represents the notion that Jews are strong when we are honest and self-critical, and avoiding the honest look can only weaken Israel and the Jewish people.
We'll need some way to talk about this book. It's more than one discussion. I'll have the book in our library, but there should be a line out the door. Get a copy, and start reading.
For most of my life, I spent Rosh Hashanah in small congregations. Sometimes about thirty people, other times maybe one hundred. These past few years at Beth Abraham, I am inspired when I look out and see several hundred people, together in the middle of the week.
In a world that pushes us so often to value superficial things – you take the time for the High Holy Days. In an era when people often skimp on the time it takes to reflect on our lives and our relationships – you take time on a workday to be at the synagogue.
Our High Holy Day services are much more than a script in a book and traditional melodies. Each of us – the rabbi, the cantors, each individual, and the community – has to bring something.
For me, the most important thing I bring is a conviction that these holy days matter. I couldn't lead us if I didn't believe that these days can transform us. I guide our services from the idea that everyone is ready for something. To be supported in a decision or direction, or to think hard about one. To be challenged about an aspect of life, or to learn an idea or a tool to heal a relationship.
From those beliefs flow a number of things. One is what in Hebrew is called kavvanah – a focus on the service and on all of you, no matter where you are sitting. Then there are the words I add to what is written in the book. There are printed materials, with explanations and questions. I pause the service periodically for a brief centering thought. I deliver a talk each morning on a theme I believe is important to our lives and our community.
You have to bring something as well. The most important thing is your own seriousness about the meaning of these days. Even though the cantors and I lead from the front, we don't alone carry the service. When people are not just going through the motions, it is palpable in our Sanctuary. You can feel it, you can hear it sometimes in our blended voices.
The energy of a group, all committed to reflection and growth, gives each of us more encouragement. None of us can learn or probe our lives on our own. We help each other when we are individually committed to the purpose of the High Holy Days. And I urge you, as well, to take some time to bring your attention outside yourself. Think about people near you, and far from you in our space. Offer a prayer of some kind that others, too, may find healing, comfort, and direction in the new year.
It helps to come to services prepared. The cantors and I prepare, both by going over the service and by thinking about our own lives. So too, you should prepare. The days and weeks leading to the Rosh Hashanah are times for cheshbon ha-nefesh, which means “soul-accounting” or self-reflection.
And you can prepare by orienting yourself to the prayer service. Further in the bulletin and also on our website is a brief explanatory outline of the flow of the service. Our synagogue's more detailed printed booklet is available online at rabbijon.com/high-holidays.html. It contains my explanations of each part of the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The booklet also has some thoughts on prayer and theology, which I wrote especially for those who struggle with belief in God or the purpose of prayer.
People assume that I am very busy getting ready for the High Holy Days. While I devote time to preparing for services, my time is always first and foremost for you. Call me or come by, to ask questions or for a conversation about the things on your mind this time of year. I will never be too busy for you.
wish you all a Shana
Tova U'metuka, a
good and sweet year,
Kudos to the Southern New Hampshire Jewish Mens' Club for this morning's forum with candidates for New Hampshire's open Senate seat, 2nd District Congressional seat, and governorship. Great turnout, great questions, nicely run all around. It's a tribute to the Jewish community to be able to host such an event.
It was good to see the candidates up close, to hear their voices and read their body language.
I'm going to start having something to say about the election in the coming days -- not who to vote for, but how to approach an election "spiritually." I have two first reactions to what I heard -- and I only got to hear Kelly Ayotte, Paul Hodes, and Charlie Bass, so that's a caveat. First, it was a lot of canned speeches in response to thoughtful questions, and I was disappointed about that. Nuanced questions from insightful citizens deserve better -- this goes for D's and R's alike.
Second, there seems to be such a consensus at least in New Hampshire about the importance of renewable energy for jobs and the economic future. It's a shame and a shonda that this Congress couldn't get a bill to the president.
More to come about how Jews and Torah might frame the issues and approach the vote, beyond "liberal" and "conservative."
Visit my High Holidays page for some good resources, including my Guide to High Holiday Prayers, in either .doc or .pdf format. It includes my overall perspective on Jewish prayer, a glossary of Hebrew words related to the High Holidays, a description of some of the "choreography" of services (bowing, stepping, etc.), and an overview of each section of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
If you're in our area, please join us at Temple Beth Abraham for Rosh Hashanah services. Just come! Click here for the schedule.
May it be for you a Shana Tova Um'tukah, a good and sweet New Year.
Two items for the local readers:
First, this Shabbat is the kickoff of the new version of Temple Beth Abraham's Synaplex. Read all the details here. Our goal is to make sure that there is some way for everybody to experience the joy of Shabbat, for yourself and in community. I've described that vision in my most recent bulletin article. Whether it's the traditional service and the whole morning, an hour of yoga, a learners' service and discussion, or just my sermon and singing at the end before lunch. Something for you individually, and a way to experience the power of community.
Second, on Sunday, October 25 is the CROP Walk (Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty), the Nashua area interfaith walk to raise money and awareness to eradicate hunger overseas and in our community. It's important for the money it raises, it's important to join our voices and power with those of many other local faith communities. It's who we are as a congregation named for Avraham and Sarah. It will motivate us and inspire us to do more to fight hunger and poverty throughout the year. You can walk or help with arrangements at the synagogue. I'm aiming for 100 pairs of feet, which would about double our participation from last year. If you have any questions write me and I can put you in touch with Carol Gorelick or Becky Green, our organizers.