Posts Tagged ‘Reform Judaism’

Parshat Eikev

August 10, 2020

For the past couple of years, I’ve been taking part in my synagogue’s weekly Torah study group. We read the weekly parshah—portion of Torah—and discuss it. After the group discussion, one person delivers a short talk on the week’s portion. This past week it was my turn to speak about the portion called Eikev, which covers Deuteronomy 7:12 to 11:25.

(The book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Torah, consists of Moses’ instructions to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land without him, after 40 years in the desert.)

After writing and sharing my Eikev comments, it occurred to me that they might also be of interest to some of my blog followers. If that’s you, here you go! And if you’re not interested, please skip this. Either way, have a good week, stay masked, and stay healthy.


This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, along with last week’s portion, are the source of much of the language of the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism. But while we in Reform Judaism include the language from last week’s portion in our recitation of the shma, our prayerbooks don’t include the language from Eikev.

Because I’m always interested in the source and evolution of our rituals, I’m going to talk about the origins of the Shema, what the different sections of the­ Shema say, why Reform Judaism dropped the wording that came from Eikev, and what Eikev tells us about divine reward and punishment. 

I suspect the history of the shema may be old hat to some of you, but it will be new to others of us, so please bear with me if some of this feels familiar.

You all probably know the first two lines of the shema by heart: Shema Yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad. Baruch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed. 

We say these lines every Shabbat when we take the Torah from the ark, as well as at the climax of Yom Kippur services; if we were Orthodox Jews, we would say them twice daily in morning and evening prayers. They are supposed to be the last words we speak before death, and throughout history Jewish martyrs have died with the shema on their lips.

The first line comes from last week’s Torah portion, Deuteronomy 6:4. It is often translated as Hear, o Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. But it can also be translated as Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. How you choose to translate it makes for a subtle but meaningful difference – one of them emphasizes the unified nature of God, while the other emphasizes that we worship only one God. Take a moment and think about which translate resonates and is more meaningful for you – or perhaps a combination of both of them: Adonai is my God, Adonai is one. Or: Adonai is my God, Adonai alone.

That line was recited by the priests in the days of the Temple, and the assembled worshippers answered back with the second line: Baruch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed. Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. That line is the only one in the shema that doesn’t come from Torah, which may be why we recite it quietly. 

Since it’s not from the Torah, it’s not clear where that second line came from. The Talmud makes up a story about Jacob and his sons to explain its origins: On his deathbed, Jacob was worried that his sons might stray and worship other gods, so he asked them about their beliefs, and they said Shma Yisrael adonai eloheinu, adonai echad. And Jacob was relieved and responded, Baruch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed.

Jacob and his sons

That second line evolved historically, though. At one point in ancient times, it was simply Baruch shem kvod olam, Blessed be his glorious name forever, which was the response whenever the name of God was mentioned. The phrase malchutohis kingdom, was added during Roman times to emphasize that God, not Rome, was the true ruler. The phrase va’ed, emphasizing eternity, was added during the Second Temple period to counter the view of some Jews that there was no life after death. So that second line evolved to meet the political and cultural challenges of the day – changing from Blessed be his glorious name forever to Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.

But back to our Torah portion, Eikev, and its role in the shema. So far we’ve talked about the opening two lines, which is what we commonly think of as the shema.  But the full shema actually includes an additional three long paragraphs, two from Deuteronomy and one from Numbers.

The first paragraph is what we recite as the Ve’ahavta. It comes from last week’s Torah portion, Deuteronomy 6:5-9. 

And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thy house, and upon thy gates. 

The second paragraph is from Eikev, and we Reform Jews don’t recite it. It’s Deuteronomy 11:13-21, if any of you want to follow along. I’ll read it. 

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil— I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For God’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that God is assigning to you. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates— to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that God swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.

This second section of the shema repeats some elements of the first paragraph, such as the injunction to take God’s words into our hearts, and teach our children, and recite them when we get up and when we lie down, and inscribe them on the doorposts of our house and on the gates.

But what it also has – which makes up a central part of the Eikev portion – is a system of material rewards and punishments for our religious behavior. If we are good, then God will make it rain for our crops and give us enough food. If we are bad, God will cause drought and we will be killed or exiled. 

Worship idols, suffer from drought? / Photo by CSIRO

The 19th century Reform movement was uncomfortable with this, for reasons that make a lot of sense to me. We live in an era of science, where we understand that droughts and crop failures are due to weather patterns like El Nino, not whether we have been worshipping idols. In addition, we have seen enough injustice – the Holocaust is only the most obvious example – to know that bad things happen to even the most pious and virtuous people. 

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin wrote, “We Reform Jews have trouble praying what we do not believe. And our experience tells us not to believe in Deuteronomic theology.”

So the Reform movement kept the commandments in the shema but removed the promises of material bliss for the virtuous and the threats of death and destruction for sinners.

Our Reform predecessors may have updated the shema, but we still face this dilemma when reading Eikev and Deuteronomy.

Moses tells us that if we obey the rules, God will multiply us, bless the issue from our wombs and the produce of our grain and wine and oil, our calves and lambs. God will ward off sickness and infertility, and will inflict diseases on our enemies. But if we follow other gods or intermarry with other peoples, God will wipe us out. 

What are we to make of this? I can’t believe that God rewards the virtuous with material wealth and health. There are so many instances of mass injustice that wiped out both the pious and impious, from the Holocaust to American slavery to the genocide of native American peoples. On an individual level, all of us know good people who have died untimely deaths or faced terrible traumas or financial reversals. My mother would have died of ovarian cancer at age 54 even if she were the most devout Lubavitcher. 

I also can’t respect any religion that in today’s world relies on supernatural threats to get people to comply with moral teachings. Preschoolers may need the threat of a time-out to learn to share their toys, but I believe adults should do the right thing because it is right, not because God will give us bountiful herds of cattle or a FedEx box full of bitcoins.

It is possible to step back from the actual words and take these kinds of rewards and punishments on a symbolic level. We can interpret it as, “A society that treats people morally and ethically will flourish.” Or on an environmental level, “If we aren’t careful stewards of the land, the land will cease to be fruitful.” 

Another way to look at these rewards and threats is to consider whether they are coming from God or from Moses. Here is Moses, nearing the end of his life, knowing the Israelites will continue into the promised land without him, wanting them to succeed but also knowing how easily they backslide into idolatry and nostalgia for Egypt. Maybe he doesn’t know how they will manage without him. Maybe he’s worried that they will fail. He’s wracking his brain trying to figure out what he can say that will persuade them – over a future of years, decades, centuries – to fulfill the commandments he delivered from God. Desperate, he turns to wild promises – follow the commandments and you’ll never get sick! You’ll be rich! Your enemies will perish! as well as threats of destruction. In that case, the warnings of material reward and punishment are Moses’s, not God’s.

But those are rationalizations – my effort as a liberal, science-based 21st century Jew to find a way to live with yet another part of the Torah that I can’t accept on its face value.

I don’t have an answer here, so I’m going to leave you with some open-ended questions. 

How do you feel about a theology of material rewards and punishments by God? 

Do you think God materially punishes those who don’t obey the commandments, and rewards those who do? 

Do you think rewards and punishments are good reasons to follow the commandments? 

And if not – and say you were in Moses’s shoes, delivering a farewell address to a stiff-necked people who have backslid over and over — what arguments would you make to convince them to follow the moral and ethical commandments laid out by a distant God?

Shabbat shalom. Have a good week. Stay masked, stay safe, stay hopeful.


In Conversation: Rabbi Yoni Regev

December 28, 2014

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the fifth in an occasional series of interviews with the clergy of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev

Rabbi Yoni Regev started serving as Interim Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai in summer 2014, his first pulpit after ordination.

At age 31, Rabbi Regev is older than many new rabbis since he is Israeli and served in the Israeli army before enrolling in college and rabbinical school. His wife, Lara Pullan Regev, is also studying to become a rabbi and serves as Director of Jewish Living and Learning at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. It’s unusual to have an Israeli-born rabbi serving an American congregation, so I asked a lot of questions about that!

Q: How did you decide to become a rabbi? Your father is a rabbi in Israel. How did that influence your decision?

A: My father was a rabbi and we were overtly Reform, which was unusual in Israel. I grew up going to the Reform movement’s kindergarten and then the early TALI schools as they were developing. (TALI is a Hebrew acronym for public schools that have Jewish enrichment, which were run by the Reform and Conservative movements.) My mom was a teacher in one of them, so it was an all-encompassing experience for us.

A lot of my parents’ friends were also rabbis and professionals in the Jewish community. In a lot of ways, it was all I knew. We had guests every Friday night. I remember the lively discussions around the table – politics of the day, politics of the Jewish world. My mom is a great cook and has kept a book since before my parents were married of every person they’ve hosted in our house, cross-indexed with what she prepared and what they like to eat and what they don’t like to eat.

Q: It sounds like she is not just a great cook, she is an obsessive-compulsive cook!

A: No, she is a hostess who takes things seriously. She cares about people feeling welcome. She would know that if someone last came to dinner in 1999, and enjoyed a particular rice dish, they might enjoy that rice dish again.

Q: Did your dad lead a congregation?

A: When I was first growing up, he was on the faculty at at Hebrew Union College [the Reform rabbinical school]. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, he was raised completely secular and first became exposed to Judaism through the Reform movement as part of a U.S.-Israel student exchange.

He was selected by his high school principal for an exchange program that involved going to Camp Swig in 1968, which was a transformative time for him. He became very involved with the nascent Reform movement in Israel when he came back. He became a youth group leader, and later decided to follow that up with rabbinical school.

I always enjoyed going to services with him. He would sometimes lead services at HUC. In 1989, he founded the Israel Religious Action Center, which is the Israeli counterpart of the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C., and which served as the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel and in many ways its social advocacy arm as well. He served as its founding director through my years in high school and then was appointed as president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism in 2001.

Q: Quite a pedigree! It’s like being the son of a Chasidic rebbe.

A: It was all very natural for me. That said, my sister – who grew up in the very same house – couldn’t care less and was never excited about attending services. She’s a musician and now a pastry chef professionally. So that did not rub off at all on her.

Q: What was it that appealed to you?

A: It wasn’t just my father. The issues he was involved in – battles over “who is a Jew,” battles for conversion recognition, battles for freedom of religion in Israel – were things that were in the press and were hot topics all the time.

At the end of the day, I realized that being a rabbi combines all the things I feel passionate about – work with a community, daily study, and bending your mind in new directions. And I always loved the stage and being in front of people.

What I was drawn to as I was ending my army service was music. I had imagined I would follow the path to cantorial school. But almost as soon as I came to the States [for university] and started being involved in the Reform movement, I realized I loved singing but it wasn’t what I wanted to do full time.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Rabbi Yoni Regev considered becoming a cantor before he became a rabbi.

Q: I was surprised to hear your dad is a sabra, because you have no Israeli accent. You have an American accent.

A: I always had that. My mom is American. She made aliyah in 1978. My sister and I were raised bilingual at home, speaking Hebrew with my father and English with my mom. My sister speaks English fluently but doesn’t sound American. So you could attribute it to my singer’s ear, but I have a suspicion it was influenced more by watching a lot of TV, because I don’t have my mom’s accent.

Q: In one of your high holiday sermons, you mentioned your decision to become a Reform rabbi in America rather than Israel. There is such a need in Israel for for an alternative to the poles of completely secular or completely Orthodox. It seems like it would be a very attractive place to be a Reform rabbi. What made you come to the U.S. to work?

A: As someone who related in the American vernacular, I felt I could explain the realities of life in Israel in a way that people could hear them. Also, I always felt I would do better working in a team and being part of an established institution. In Israel, it’s still very much a start-up kind of approach [in the Reform movement].

One interesting thing is that since I started school, the interest within Israel in becoming a Reform rabbi has spiked incredibly. Ordination classes of one or two were common in the 1990s, and four was considered a big class. Now they are ordaining much bigger classes. This is coinciding with a deep need within Israel for rediscovering authentic Jewish roots. For a long time, the notion was that … religion was really reserved for the Orthodox. If you weren’t Orthodox, you shouldn’t touch it. But we’ve started seeing people in Israel coming to the Reform movement for b’nei mitzvah and wedding services. Even though there is no legal recognition for [non-Orthodox] weddings, people are yearning for egalitarian, meaningful services.

The other part of [how I chose to work in the Untied States] was that I ended up meeting my wife Lara. She’s from L.A. and she was also applying to rabbinical school. At that point we decided our path would have us here.

Q: What’s it like to experience our liturgy in a language that you understand fluently? I know enough Hebrew to recognize most of the words, but it’s still not comfortable for me. I have to puzzle out the words.

A: For me as a Hebrew speaker, on the one hand, it’s so much clearer. But as I learn about the history of the liturgy, I realize how much I’ve glossed over because it’s so easy to understand. I’ve sometimes failed to see the liturgical work that went into structuring it. Reading it in English, I rediscover some of what the Hebrew means.

Q: Is it less mystical when you understand it and it seems part of daily conversation?

A: So much of popular culture and music in Israel comes from liturgy. Part of it is an earlier generation of people trying to reclaim ownership of the traditional Jewish sources by popularizing them, like psalms that made it on the pop charts.

Think about the Shma that we sing anytime we’re not using the organ. Tzvika Pik, who is sort of a Bob Dylan in Israel, wrote that melody for a festival. He also wrote the melody for Adon Olam that we use today, which was played on the radio in Israel.

So what’s it like to understand it? In some ways, it may breed a little bit of contempt or lack of attention. But I always try when I pray to find at least one thing that I haven’t noticed before.

Q: One question I ask all the rabbis I interview: What is your personal view of God?

A: The easiest answer is that I believe in a God that is the source of creation and the source of everything we see around us in the world. At the same time, I struggle with the God of the Bible, who doesn’t pay very good attention, who gets angry too easily, who seems to have created us with all kinds of faults.

The great challenge is that so much of our faith is built around prayer and a kind of immediate personal relationship with God. Our prayers are deeply personal and invoke a centuries-old covenant, which is continually rededicated between us and God. It’s a reciprocal kind of covenant.

If we don’t buy into that kind of relationship, then in some ways prayer becomes an act devoid of meaning. Yet I’m a big believer in prayer – not just because of the kind of transformational power it has on people, but because I believe it does have an effect on God.

Q: So you think there’s a God who listens and responds to prayer?

A: I didn’t say that. I don’t think that’s how it works. And I very much like the framework of Reform theology, which says that waiting around for God to act and for the Messiah to redeem this world is not what God expects of us.

Rather, prayer is in many ways an internal call to action — an understanding that the work of creation is in many ways done, but caring for this world is an imperative left to us.

In some ways it would be so much better if like most Ultra-Orthodox Jews, we could just say “It’s in God’s hands, I’m not in charge, God put down a rule book and I’m just going to follow the rules, and anything that happens is God’s will.” That’s very freeing. But then so much of the exploration and responsibility for what we see in the world around us is taken out of the picture.

I can say with some confidence that there is a God that set the universe in motion. And that in order for life to have meaning, God set the universe in motion with the intent to care for what happened after that. Our work is to reach back and find the connection between us and the God who set it in motion.

In times where people find comfort in another image of God, I don’t deny it. I don’t pretend to have a definitive image of God. When I’m called upon to provide comfort in the name of God, I bring God as close as I can and allow that to mean whatever it means to the individual who needs God. I don’t see a paradox or dishonesty in that, because we don’t have an answer one way or the other.

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Rabbi Regev (right) leads a program for the Temple Sinai preschool / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Q: How about the other big question. What do you think happens after death?

A: If nothing else, we are at peace. We are relieved of the weight of being alive.

There’s a lot of comfort in the traditional view that we are gathered up with our ancestors, and I try not to make that too literal or embodied. The idea that we are connected to this chain of people who came before us is meaningful. Those who have passed live in our hearts and minds, and thus live in our midst. Honoring our dead and celebrating their lives is one of the things that gives our own lives meaning. We pass that on to the next generation, and thereby matter in some deep and lasting way.

That’s one of the reasons I decided to focus very strongly on re-examining our approach to Jewish burial as part of my senior work [in rabbinical school]. I recently published an article discussing the need to re-examine burial and death — specifically how we have lost touch with the generational connection meant to take place as part of the burial process.

Q: What are we not doing that we used to do?

A: The roots of of Jewish burial have almost nothing to do with how we practice today, which derives from Europe in the middle ages.

At its root [in Biblical times], burial was a family affair. You had a family or clan burial plot – usually a cave. When you died, you were laid to rest in this burial cave for a year. At the end of a year, the family would return for what was the original yahrtzeit and perform the final act of unreturned mercy – gathering up your bones and placing them in an ossuary with your ancestors’ bones, so you would be physically gathered up with them.

As a living person, you had a deep understanding of where you came from and where you were going. Your relationship to the deceased did not end with their death.

Today, my grandparents on one side are buried in Israel and I don’t get to visit them as often as I’d like. My grandparents on the other side are still living, but their parents are buried in Rochester N.Y. and Providence R.I. I’ve been there once or twice. When I have children, I doubt they’ll ever go.

In major metropolitan areas, the ability to bury within an hour of the city has almost completely disappeared. So you are not able to visit, to interact, to be connected with the deceased. Cremation is not any better. It’s much worse for that purpose.

This is a broader question that society is going to have to face. Societies have changed and there are so many more people alive now. There are more people who are going to die in the next century than have died up until now in all of modern history…. The earth can sustain that amount of burial, but not in cities.

Q: Are you suggesting we go back to ossuaries?

A: We have to reimagine what it means to be gathered up to your ancestors. The family unit has become so fluid and so fractured that saying you are going to have a connection with your family burial place is simply unrealistic. But it’s a kind of responsibility that communities can take upon themselves in a way that families cannot.

There are different ways to do that. Temple Beth-El in Boca Raton has a mausoleum on the synagogue premises. They have found that people enjoy making a visit to their loved ones a part of visiting the synagogue. Unlike the rare visits to the cemetery, connecting death with the ongoing cycle of life demystifies it and engenders a better connection through the generations.

Q: I would ask this question of any rabbi. But particularly as an Israeli rabbi working in America, how do you feel American Jews should relate to Israel?

A: That is a question I feel very strongly about. American Jews have been given short shrift as far as their relationship with Israel. For a long time, the paradigm has been that we derive part of our authenticity from Israel, and since we live comfortably here, we owe some sort of tax on our comforts to support our beleaguered brothers in Israel.

Unfortunately, this means we have ceded the kind of responsibility and investment in the fabric of Jewish life that was envisioned in founding the state of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.

One of the great truisms of the Israeli political psyche is, “You don’t live here, you’re not exposed to the terror that we live with, your kids don’t go in the army – so butt out. We know better. This is our life.”

I don’t think that’s extraordinarily wrong. There are security realities that simply can’t be judged from the outside. At the same time, I do believe that Israel is the project of the Jewish people. For us to feel a sense of ownership over that project, we have to be given a bigger stake in the game than being cheerleaders on the sidelines.

Q: Should American Jews be allowed to criticize Israeli policy, particularly around the settlements and the peace process?

A: Up to a point, absolutely. The notion that any criticism from within exposes us to a weakened position facing the outside world is a form of self-delusion. If your positions are so weak that they can’t withstand a real critical debate, then you’re obviously not standing on a very strong foothold. Any political system that rejects dissent out of hand is one that is deeply uncertain of itself.

That said, there is truth to the reality that American Jews – as well as Americans and Europeans in general – do treat Israel with a different set of standards. They apply a standard that is far, far stricter and disproportionate relative to other democracies.

Look at what’s happening right now on border of Turkey and Syria, in Kubani. Thousands of ethnic Palestinians are being put to the sword, but I don’t see demonstrations in San Francisco. I don’t see people in the Port of Oakland blocking Turkish or Syrian ships from coming to port. There have been 160,000 civilians killed in the civil war in Syria, and no one is marching down the street over that.

At the U.N. Human Rights Council, nearly half of all condemnations are against Israel. Is Israel perfect? No. But does it commit half of all human rights violations in the world? No. Is it worse than Sudan? Than Darfur? No. Would I even put it in the same sentence as those countries? No.

Q: I believe that Israel as an issue is going to be increasingly challenging for American synagogues, because Israeli politics keep moving further and further to the right. There will be a schism between Israel and many U.S. Jews if we don’t get any kind of peace settlement and end up with de facto annexation.

A: That’s a true and very challenging perspective. The collapse of the ‘90s peace movement left a vacuum of political aspiration for peace in Israel that has been very hard to replace. The disillusionment has been crippling. When I was growing up, parents would always say, “By the time you grow up, peace will have come and you won’t need to go in the army.” I don’t think anyone says that anymore.

The ingredients [for a peaceful settlement] are there. Everyone knows the basic premises for peace. But it has to become more costly for both sides to go on fighting than to make the sacrifices for peace. So far, it’s been too costly to make the sacrifices for peace.

Any actual peace will require both sides losing significant standing. And since both sides still want to win, we don’t have peace.

Q: As American Jews, what can we do? Do we just have to wait for Israel and the Palestinians to bloody each other enough?

A: Partly, we need to have that conversation – that it’s too costly to not make peace. We need to say, “We believe that peace is necessary, justice is necessary, equality is necessary.”

Carte blanche for the established political system in Israel has not proven successful. But do I think boycotts or divestment are right? No. The solution is not withholding funds but giving funds, in a more directed way. Voting with your pocketbook rather than using it to slap someone down.

Q: So we should fund the institutions of civil society there?

A: Yes, in a non-apologetic way. In a Jewish way. We’re pretty smart people. All we need to do is change the equation a little bit.

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, Rabbi Andrew StrausRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester

In Conversation: Rabbi Andrew Straus

July 27, 2011

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the fourth in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Andrew Straus may be 50 and a veteran of three congregations, but he’s the new kid on theTemple Sinai block, having taken over as senior rabbi on July 1st after the retirement of Rabbi Steven Chester. Still, less than a month into his rabbinate here, it’s already clear to me that he is a wonderful addition to the Sinai community.

Rabbi Andrew Straus

Rabbi Straus — whose wife Karen and three children accompanied him from his previous pulpit in Tempe, Arizona — brings warmth, humor, energy and intellectual vigor. During his first Shabbat service at Sinai, he turned the d’var Torah into a room-wide back-and-forth on that week’s Torah portion.

He seemed to already know the names of half the attendees, and the other half he learned by asking them to introduce themselves as they made comments. I suspect that two decades from now, people will be saying the same thing about Rabbi Straus that they said about Rabbi Chester: I can’t imagine Temple Sinai without him. 


Q: Tell me about why you became a rabbi.

A: I was entering my senior year at Brandeis, about to graduate with a history degree. I didn’t want to go to law school, and I didn’t want to pursue a PhD. So I said, ‘Let me find the longest graduate program that will put off the real world longer than anything else.’ And rabbinic school was another five years of graduate study.

That’s the joke answer, although there’s some truth to it. But more seriously,  I was looking at what I wanted to do with my life. I loved working in the Jewish community, so I started looking at getting a master’s in Jewish education or possibly in Jewish social work. At that time they would teach you education, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. Or they would teach you social work, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. The major focus was on the professional degree, not the Jewish studies.

What I wanted was to study Judaism in a more serious way – and then figure out what to do with it afterwards.

What I’ve since come to realize is that the rabbinate allows me to dabble in all of those areas. I get to do the social work stuff and the counseling; I get to be involved in education; I get to be involved in community organizing and community issues. Sometimes I think I’ve become a jack of all trades, though I’m not sure I’ve mastered any of them.

Q: What kind of Jewish upbringing did you have?

A: I grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where my parents were very involved in the Jewish community.  They don’t use the term ‘refugees’ to define themselves, since they left Germany right after Kristallnacht and didn’t go through the camps. But that experience certainly shaped them and how they were involved in the Jewish community.

I very clearly remember going down to New York for Israel Day parades or for Free Soviet Jewry day marches. I remember the Yom Kippur War, just before my Bar Mitzvah, sitting with my father at the J.C.C. and making calls about who was going to donate what to support Israel. I remember some of the doctors in the community leaving to go to Israel for the Yom Kippur War.

For my parents, it was very important we have Shabbat dinner together. And more often than not, we went to Friday night services together too.

Q: Was your family Reform or Conservative? 

A: It was a Conservative congregation, a very liberal Conservative congregation. The first Shabbat that Conservative synagogues were allowed to count women in a minyan, our congregation was doing it, and at the first Shabbat where the Conservative movement gave permission for women to read from the Torah, we called women to the Torah.

Choosing Reform Judaism

Q: What drew you to become a Reform rabbi rather than Conservative? 

A: At the time, the Conservative seminary was not accepting women, and that didn’t make any sense to me. And at the time, it was understood that you would be shomer Shabbat — traditionally observant of Shabbat and kashrut and the mitzvot. If you didn’t do those things, it could be grounds for expulsion.

I didn’t want someone forcing me to do those things. I might choose to do them – but I didn’t want someone forcing me.

I realized that, if that’s where I was, it was really more of a Reform Jewish attitude than a Conservative one. So maybe I belonged at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Q: Are there parts of Reform Judaism that remain uncomfortable for you?

A: Growing up as a kid, I remember going to my aunt and uncle’s Reform congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts, and walking in and hearing the organ and the big choir and thinking, ‘God, I’ve walked into church!’

I’m not sure I could be in a fully classical Reform congregation – one that was still using the Union Prayer Book with services largely in English, where the cantor is hidden and there’s a pipe organ with a large professional choir. But the (Reform) movement has become much more traditional over the past 30 to 40 years. This embrace of tradition made it much easier for me. And I think I’ve become more liberal.

Rabbi Straus leads an interfaith program at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, Arizona / Photo by Temple Emanuel

Q: What are your favorite aspects of being a rabbi? There are so many different components of this job – the pastoral counseling, the Jewish scholarship, the social action, the interfaith work. 

A: Of the things you mentioned, I certainly enjoy the social action, the Jewish education, the pastoral counseling. If I could eliminate all the administrative pieces, that would be great. But that comes with the territory. I love teaching, I love counseling, and the social justice stuff often gets me jazzed, especially when you can see where it makes an impact on the community.

Broadening the meaning of Kashrut

Q: Do you personally feel more of an affinity for the spiritual/reflective aspect of Judaism or the tikkun olam/community-building aspect of Judaism? 

A: I’m not sure I see the two as separate. I understand Judaism as asking us to be God’s partners in healing this world. My understanding of the mitzvot is they are designed to help me live a conscious life – to help me think about these issues both interally for myself and the Jewish community, and for the external community. If I can use kashrut as an example, I think kashrut is about conscious eating. What am I about to eat? How was this animal slaughtered? Am I eating dairy or am I eating meat?

It takes an instinctive part of who I am – as an animal, I have to eat – and brings it to the head and heart. My pet dog doesn’t use his brain when he eats. I’m a human being, and I have to use my brain and my soul when I sit down to eat.

Q: I feel that kashrut often emphasizes the letter of the law rather than the meaning. I can understand putting attention into buying local, or into how food is produced. But that’s totally different from separating milk and meat and using margarine rather than butter at a meal. 

A: What I find really interesting is this whole new movement called eco-kashrut. The Conservative movement has taken the lead with a new certification called Hechsher Tzedek or Magen Tzedek.  Traditional kashrut only looks at the last ten seconds of an animal’s life – how is it slaughtered? The Conservative movement is saying that’s not enough. We have to look at how that animal is treated through its entire life, how the workers in the slaughterhouse are being treated, how the farmers are being treated. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.

In my own home, we eat very little meat. But when we do, we don’t look at whether it has been properly shechita’ed (slaughtered), because most meat in America today is slaughtered with relatively little pain — which is what kashrut is really about — but we do look for natural or organic or free-range. We expand the definition.

This doesn’t fit my Orthodox brothers’ categories. But it fits my categories, and it fits what you were saying about looking at the broader picture.

A God constrained by the laws of nature

Q: Let’s take a leap into the abstract and talk about God. What is your conception of God? 

A: It’s very much an evolving conception. I often joke — but am also serious — that the day I think I know with absolute certainty who and what God is, that’s the day I’ve stopped growing as a human being and a Jew. That’s certainly the day I should get out of the rabbinate, and probably the day I should die.

I am very much influenced in my thinking about God by writers like Mordechai Kaplan, Harold Schulweis, and Harold Kushner. They teach that God is not a supernatural God who can come down and fiddle in the laws of nature.

Kushner has written that we ultimately have to choose between a God who is all-just and a God who is all-powerful. And given that choice, I choose a God who is all-just. This means that God has created the world in such a way that the world operates by certain laws – the laws of genetics, physics, chemistry, all those laws that scientists are discovering on a regular basis.

It’s not that God chooses not to interfere with those laws, but that God cannot intefere with those laws. So when someone gets cancer, I can’t blame God for that cancer. At the same time, it means God doesn’t pick and choose and say, ‘Mrs. Schwartz, you’re going to be cured from your cancer but Mr. Cohen, you’re going to die from your cancer.’ That’s got to do with all the other scientific laws.

Where is God in all that? God is with the scientists and doctors inspiring them to discover cures or provide the best possible care that they can. God is with the community saying, ‘How do we support Mr. Cohen and Mrs. Schwartz through their healing process, and how can we be God’s partners in doing that?’

Q: If God is with the doctors studying cancer, is God also with the vandals who come and break into Mrs. Schwartz’s house while she is in the hospital? 

A: No. I would argue that the vandals – or the terrorists, or whoever you want to substitute into that sentence – are people who have chosen not to listen to the will of God.

Q: But people who do horrible things often believe they are hearing God. Think of all those popes who carried out crusades and pogroms in the name of God. 

A: That’s not the God that I believe in. The God I believe in couldn’t possibly condone actions like that. And that goes for the jihadists, crusaders, or whomever you want to substitute there, who says ‘I’m acting in the will of God.’ No God that I believe in could condone that.

Q: But they’re as confident as you are in their view of God. Why should I put greater credence in one, rather than conclude it’s all subjective and everyone is making things up to justify what they want to believe? 

A: There is admittedly an element of subjectivity. That’s why I can do the interfaith work I do. Because I believe that ultimately there is not just one path to God. I don’t believe there is ultimately just one ‘true religion.’

Judaism is the best way for me to understand my role in the world and my relationship with God. Committed Christians find that Christianity is their way, and committed Muslims would say the same thing. But to me, any religion that teaches hate and violence in the name of God goes beyond the realm.

Baseball as a metaphor for spirituality

Q: In your own life, do you feel that you have ever communicated with God or experienced the presence of God?

A: I’m not sure I would use the word ‘presence.’ I might use the word ‘ force.’ But yes. There are moments when we sense that force. As Danny Syme once taught me, when we think about love, we can’t see it, touch it, smell it, or feel it with any of our five senses. But we all know when we’ve been in the presence of love and when we’ve felt loved.

It’s the same thing with God. We can’t experience God with any of our five senses. But we know when we’ve been in the presence of God. Although often we don’t know it till after the fact.

Q: Have those moments for you been in prayer, or in nature, or in driving the carpool? 

A: Rarely in driving the carpool! But there are times when a kid will make a comment, or I’ll see a beautiful sunset while driving. There are moments while teaching. There have also been moments when I’ve been with families in a hospital room, saying a prayer, and something happens.

Each time it’s different. But there’s a sense: God was present in this moment.

I often use an analogy of baseball. The greatest baseball players right now are batting 350, which means they only get a hit 35 percent of the time at bat. They go right back to the dugout 65 percent of the time. But they know – to get that hit, they’ve got to work on their batting 350 days a year. And they’ve got to be willing to fail time after time after time.

The same thing is true for us in our experience of God. Too many of us walk into the sanctuary and think that every time we’re going to get a home run.  If you think hitting a baseball at 90 miles per hour is hard, true experiences of God are harder yet. So as a community we have to learn to say: When I open myself up to those possibilities, more often than not, nothing will happen. I’ll go right back to the dugout. There will be those times I get a single. Very rarely will I get a home run.

As my father would say: If I go to services, the odds of having a deeply spiritual experience are pretty slim. But if that doesn’t happen,  hopefully there’s been some beautiful music. And if there wasn’t beautiful music, maybe the rabbi said something that was intellectually stimulating. Or maybe I saw a friend and it was a great social experience. And if worse comes to worst, maybe there was something good to eat at the oneg.  There’s lot of different reasons to come to services.

“It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover”

Q: You did a lot of interfaith work in Arizona. What is one thing you wish more non-Jews understood about Judaism? 

A: That Judaism is not monolithic. And that Judaism today is not Biblical Judaism. That what they read about in the Hebrew Bible — what they call the Old Testament — is not how any Jews worship or practice today.

Q: What do you wish more Jews knew about Judaism? 

A: I wish they would get the sense that Judaism is a way of life, with something to teach us about almost every aspect of our lives. While we might not always agree with it, we have an obligation to study and learn from it. Judaism can help us make our daily lives richer and more meaningful. That’s part of what I think Orthodoxy gets. It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover, but about how to see the world through Jewish eyes.

The other piece I wish more Jews would pick up on is Shabbat. When I work with people for conversion, I hear time and time again ‘Ahh! My life is so much richer now that I’ve embraced Shabbat.’

I don’t necessarily mean an Orthodox understanding of Shabbat, but an understanding that  ‘I can take a seventh day. I can take Shabbat and make it holy, in whatever way that word means for me – make it special. I don’t have to do chores and I don’t have to go to work.  I can make this a special day for me and my family.’


This is the fourth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-MuchinRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester

In Conversation: Rabbi Steven Chester

May 31, 2011

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the third in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

Rabbi Steven Chester

Rabbi Steven Chester, our senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, is retiring after 22 years at Sinai and 40 years in the rabbinate. Seventeen years ago, he conducted our daughter’s baby naming ceremony. Earlier this spring he officiated at my adult Bat Mitzvah. We’ve known he was retiring for a long time — this is actually his second attempt at retirement, since his first got derailed by the recession — and I felt lucky to have the chance to study with him for my Bat Mitzvah.

Rabbi Chester was in fact the reason Sam and I joined Temple Sinai. We had just moved back to Oakland from Sacramento and were “congregation shopping.” We walked into his office, saw the United Farm Workers poster on the wall and felt his personal warmth, and we were hooked.

Rabbi Chester combines that personal warmth with a commitment to social justice, powerful public speaking skills, a “big tent” approach to Israel that welcomes both AIPAC hawks and J Street doves, an intellect that moves easily from ancient Jewish history to contemporary novels, and a humanistic theology in the tradition of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

And let’s not forget a sense of humor that, every Purim, gave us our rabbi in drag as Esther Chester.


Q: You’ve spent 40 years in the rabbinate. Do you view Judaism differently now than when you entered? 

A: I don’t view Judaism differently, but the ways that people manifest their Judaism have changed. People are much more inward today.  If you want to hang a word on it, they’re more spiritual, whatever that word means.

Reform Judaism of the ’60s, when I was in rabbinical school, was completely social-action oriented. Rabbis spoke about social issues and how Judaism connected to those issues, but they did not speak about prayer or God. The movement’s emphasis was 80 percent on the social action side of Judaism and 20 percent on the inward side – on self-fulfillment, prayer, and God. That’s been the major change.

In Jewish life and especially in liberal Jewish life, we’ve always balanced on two tightropes. One tightrope is the tension between particularism and universalism, or between Jewish issues and universal issues. The other is between individuality and community. It’s not that the values have changed, but the weight put on one or the other has changed.

Q: Is that change for the better or the worse? 

A: Ten years ago, I definitely thought it was for the worse. One would go to conventions and there was a preponderance of workshops on turning inward and self-searching rather than the outward and community action. Now social action is coming back and there’s more of a balance. That’s positive. There has to be both.

Rabbi Chester leads Becca's naming ceremony in January 1994 / Copyright by Ilana DeBare

Q: How about you personally? Has your relationship to Judaism changed over these 40 years? 

A: My relationship to tradition has changed. I’m not speaking theologically; I’m speaking ritually. I’ve become more traditional in the service, where davening or body movement has become more significant, and where there’s much more Hebrew in the service.

I look much more to text than I did in my early rabbinate. Very little text was dealt with in the ’60s and ’70s. Now the emphasis is that when you do something, you base it on text. You’re looking at text and examining text.

In terms of Jewish values, I haven’t changed. My emphasis remains the parallel relationships (with people) and not the vertical relationship (with God).

I’m much more concerned with what Judaism says and with what I do — the Jewish values by which I live my life — than with prayer. My main connection is still to the social, and to social justice.

“I still see people as basically decent”

Q: You’ve spent 40 years dealing with people in moments of intimacy, trauma, and joy. Do you view human beings differently now? 

A: No. I view people as basically good. I try as hard as I can to not be judgmental. There are some people who have difficulties – family problems, psychological problems and so on — that prevent them from reaching their true potential as a person. But I still see people as basically decent.

One thing I’ve learned in my rabbinate is: Don’t react immediately, and don’t overreact. Listen to what someone is saying and then try to figure out why he or she is angry. I’ve learned that if someone comes in very angry about something in the congregation, generally there is something going on in his or her personal life – illness, divorce, conflict in the home.

The congregation may be the one place where this person feels a sense of ownership, and so takes out his or her frustration on the congregation.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in being a rabbi?

A: What they didn’t teach in rabbinical school that surprised me was the practical aspect – from budgets to how boards work. That was probably the most difficult thing to understand.

The second thing that surprised me, and still angers me, is what I call the “gas station” approach. People bring their kids in for a bar or bat mitzvah, and when the last one is done, they leave the congregation. What angers me isn’t that they don’t have an interest in Jewish life, but chant the phrase, “We don’t use it any more.”

If everyone thought like that, where would the next generation of children go to be educated? It’s a very selfish way of looking at things. If the majority of people did that, we would have no synagogues.

Another thing that surprised me — and that I now understand — is that you can’t play the numbers game. If x number of people come to services or take a class, then your job is to make it a meaningful experience for them. You can’t say something is not a success if it only has 10 people and not 40.

I’ve served three different sizes of congregations, and you’re essentially going to have the same percentage of people actively participating. I no longer judge in the way I did when I was young. My first high holiday sermons were, “You all should be coming to services more!” Well, that doesn’t do any good. As a matter of fact, all it does is take away from the importance of the other points you want to make in the sermon.

You want to be creative and try to bring people in. But you can’t lament that not everyone is going to be doing everything. That approach will destroy you. You’ll be emphasizing the negative as opposed to the positive.

Rabbi Chester and me before my Bat Mitzvah service

God as a part of us, not as a puppeteer

Q: I liked your phrase about being more “horizontally” focused than “vertically” focused. Let’s talk about the vertical. What’s your conception of God? 

A: Someone once said about Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The ineffable name of God was mensch (man). That belief is the touchstone of so much of what Heschel wrote and did.”

I don’t believe that God is in control of my life like a puppeteer. I go back to some of the Chasidic rebbes who said that when we are born, a piece of God is placed in each and every one of us. And when we bring out our potential, then God is present. God is acting through us. When there is evil in the world, it’s not that God isn’t there – it’s that God has not been activated. That part of the human being, godliness, has not been activated.

Do I believe God can heal people, as it states in the mishaberach? No. But I do believe that when I reach the end of my rope, when I feel helpless and hopeless, there is something inside that gives me extra strength. That, to me, is God.

But there are also times when I hear the cantor sing and all of a sudden, my mind goes back to the traditional belief that God can heal or answer prayers. Because there are emotional moments when things happen in our lives, and we sometimes need something more concrete to rely on.

One doesn’t have to believe in one way. One can be eclectic. We are human beings, and we are not consistent. Those of us who are parents are not consistent in parenting; most of us don’t have only one kind of art in our house; we eat different types of foods. Why do we always have to be consistent about our belief in God?

In the old temple building, three or four times a week I would go sit in the Harpham Chapel and look at the colors of the stained glass windows. I knew the times of day when the colors would bounce off the white of the walls, with the colors mixing. Did I say a formal prayer? No. I would just look at that, the awe and the wonder of it, and God would be touching my life.

It comes back to Heschel, and that every facet of life is a miracle or godly. Heschel said that when we say blessings for everything, it isn’t because God needs the blessings. It’s that we need the blessings to realize the miracle of everything God has given us.

Rabbi Chester and adult b'not mitzvah (from left) Ilana DeBare, Karen Tanner, Jane Simon and Sydney Firestone, May 2011

A personal story behind decades of grief counseling

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time over the years working with people in moments of grief and mourning. What drew you to this? 

A: It’s not that I really l dwell on doing grief counseling. It’s something I became qualified to do. But the reason why may be a little bit deeper.

I had a girlfriend my first semester in college — a brilliant young woman, a year ahead of me at UCLA, second violinist in the L.A. Philharmonic, a talented, bright, sweet young lady. She was probably my first love. I was home in Pomona for winter vacation and I received a call from her mother, saying she had fallen off a horse and was in the hospital and probably wouldn’t be able to go out New Year’s Eve.

Then, before I had a chance to go in and visit her, I received a call that she had died.

I went to the funeral – it was the first funeral I had been to, ever. I was a pallbearer. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor and as we walked to the grave, I vividly remember her mother yelling, “Why did I ever survive the Holocaust? Why did I ever survive?”

We did the burial, and I didn’t go back to the house afterwards. And because I didn’t know what to do or how to act, I never visited her parents or contacted them again. I always felt tremendous guilt about that.

I think that may be one of the reasons, subliminally, that I started taking classes in grief and death counseling and became pretty well qualified to do this. In Stockton, I was one of the co-founders of a hospice and became the grief counselor for the hospice.

I know somewhere down deep it had to do with my own failure as a human being and as a young man – I was 18 years old – and not knowing how to handle that particular situation.

That’s also why in Stockton, and sometimes here in Oakland, I used to do a death and dying class for 10th graders. I wanted them to know how to act when they went into a house of mourning – not to be afraid, and to know what to expect if someone died in their family.

Creative chaos and the outlook for Judaism

Q: When you think about what Judaism will be like in 10 or 20 years, are you optimistic or pessimistic? 

A: I’m optimistic.  I don’t think Judaism is going to die out in the United States. More people are interested in it. How it’s going to look is another question.

The only other time in Jewish history that’s comparable to the Jewish American world today was 2000 years ago – only today you don’t have the oppression that existed in Roman times.

Back then you had the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Zealots, and the secularists who wanted to become like the Greeks and Romans.

Today you have Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, secular, Modern Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, Chasidic Ultra Orthodox, non-Chasidic Ultra-Orthodox, Renewal – all these things.

I call it creative chaos. It’s all very positive. The question is, where is it all going to go? Not just Reform Judaism – but what will all of non-Ultra-Orthodox Judaism look like 20 years from now? I have no idea.

Jewish values aren’t going to change. But how are they going to be manifest? And with all these developments in technology, how are we going to retain a sense of community? Do we want to become Facebook congregations?

One of the beauties of Judaism has been that we have been able to adapt. Mishnah was an adaptation, Talmud was an adaptation, Chasidism was an adaptation, Reform Judaism was an adaptation.

They were all responses to what was happening in the society, both internally and externally. That’s why we survive.

The heart of being a rabbi 

Q: What is the secret to being a good rabbi? What would you tell a young rabbi entering the rabbinate today? 

A: That’s a difficult question. Because I’ve loved what I’ve done. I’d do it all over again, mostly in the same way.

But the specific answer would be – love Judaism. Love being Jewish, teaching Judaism, love other Jews. Love the Jewish people, even with all our mishegas (craziness). That would basically be it.

You have to love what you’re trying to give to people. Also, you have to have respect for people — faith that they will try to further what you as a rabbi feel is significant in Jewish teachings and life.

Q: Is there anything you would change about your rabbinate? 

A: I am thrilled this congregation grew the way it did, almost doubling in size. However, it’s difficult to have a large congregation when you’re the type of rabbi I want to be. Essentially I’m a pastoral rabbi. I believe in seeing people as soon as possible. I fit in other things between appointments or at night. So I end up working many hours a week.

My first congregation, 100 families, was very intimate and I knew everyone. My second congregation was 325 families and I knew almost everyone.

Then, as I came here, to a larger congregation, both the congregation and I lost some of that intimacy.

I ended up not doing every bar and bat mitzvah, not interacting with the families in the same way as in a smaller congregation. If this congregation had stayed at 500 or 550 families, that probably would have been more fitting to the type of rabbi that I am.

To see the growth here is very thrilling and gratifying. But you become more of a CEO-type, and sometimes why you became a rabbi falls a little bit to the wayside.

About a month ago I had a day all filled with what I would call “real” rabbinic duties. I counseled a person who was going through tremendous difficulty, then had a bat mitzvah rehearsal, then I taught a class at night that was really thrilling.

That night I came home and said, “Today was a day that I really felt that I did what I went into the rabbinate to do.”


This is the third in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. You can read the first interview with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin here and the second interview with Rabbi Andrea Berlin here


In Conversation: Rabbi Andrea Berlin

April 21, 2011
One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the second in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

Rabbi Andrea Berlin

Rabbi Andrea Berlin came to Temple Sinai in 1998 and recently moved to a regional position with the Union of Reform Judaism. She exudes an infectious delight in Jewish learning, and inspired near-groupie enthusiasm among both adults and teens taking a class in medieval Jewish thought with her.

Rabbi Berlin, 40, has two children with her husband Jon. She was the rabbi for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, but I had never asked about her own beliefs until we did this interview.

Here Rabbi Berlin talks about her hybrid socialist/Orthodox upbringing, her personal connection to (and anger at) God, the challenges of navigating Middle East politics as a congregational rabbi, and the trend toward “cyber-Judaism.”


A “socialist Reformadox” upbringing

Q: Tell me about your Jewish upbringing. Were you raised Reform?

A: I was raised as a socialist Reformadox.

Q: That’s a great label! But what does it mean?

A: We’d have to start with my dad, who during World War 2 spent half his time in the United States and half his time in England. His birth father was an Orthodox factory owner who made women’s coats in England. The man who raised him here was an atheist socialist and one of the major movers behind the Ladies Garment Workers Union.

My dad came into the marriage with my mom being non-practicing, but having both socialism and Orthodoxy as very strong passions, with socialism the most predominant. My mom grew up in New York Orthodox family…not Orthodox herself but very involved in Judaism. Passover showed all the variety of my family.

Q: So tell me about Passover in your family.

A: We worked out of the regular Maxwell House Orthodox haggadah, with supplements from the union haggadah – not the Union of Reform Judaism, but union as in AFL-CIO  It had a lot of pro-labor, pro-union, freedom-for-the-working-class type poems and songs. Then as we got more and more involved in the Reform movement, we would bring home the Reform liturgy. It was all over the place.

I grew up having bacon and eggs, but God forbid you ever put milk on the table with the bacon because that was just not kosher. As I’ve become more religious, I’ve dragged my parents along in the process.

I went to Reform religious school in third grade. It took a while to get there. We started Orthodox, and then went humanist. When I came home and explained that God was the opiate of the masses, my parents decided to try Reform.

Q: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

A: I don’t know. I was very, very young. When I was nine, I was tall for my age so when we would play house, I would always have to be the mom. I would have to do the dishes, which I didn’t like. So the bargain I struck with my non-Jewish neighbors was that if we could play temple first and I could be the rabbi, then we could play house and I would be the mom. That’s one of my earliest memories.

Communicating with God

Q: Let’s jump straight to the serious stuff, like I did with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. What’s your conception of God?

A: It changes every day. I have both an immanent [personal] and a transcendent conception of God.

The immanent one is probably the more difficult to articulate. It’s instinctual, a gut relationship. I very much feel God’s presence. I feel I can communicate with God and, if I am quiet and open and humble enough, I can get a sense of God and of direction.

Then there’s a transcendent belief where God is the force behind Creation. It was a conscious, decisive force with the intent of creating the world. I believe that God is ever present, but God’s relationship to the world has vastly changed over the history of humanity.

Q: Focusing on the transcendent — God as a force behind Creation. Is there something you would call a mind?

A: I think there’s a consciousness. It’s something so vastly different from anything we can comprehend that to call it a mind would be giving it attributes that are probably inappropriate. We can probably perceive .009 percent of what makes this thing.

Rabbis Andrea Berlin and Steven Chester at a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sinai

Q: Did this consciousness communicate with our forefathers and the prophets? Was Abraham actually talking to some one or some thing? 

A: The reason I’m hesitating is that I have a foot in both doors.

If I were answering from my religious instinct, I’d say that Abraham certainly received communication from God. I’m not sure it would have been in words, but the medieval Jewish philosophers talk about God placing thoughts and images in the minds of the prophets.

On the other hand, looking at it from my academic view, Abraham didn’t exist. But the Torah still contains divinity even if Abraham didn’t exist. It was a way of giving us very important information that we needed to have through the voice of this Biblical character.

Torah as holy, but not to be taken literally

Q: When instructions like the Ten Commandments were conveyed to the Jewish people, were those actually the words of God, or of a prophet, or of a writer of the Torah?

A: I think there’s a divine spark in all of it. I would make a very sharp distinction between the written and the oral Torah [rabbinic commentaries].

To me, the oral Torah is an example of human beings struggling with written words. This is where I would break from Orthodox theology – I don’t believe in the infallible tradition, that somehow the oral Torah, everything a rabbi would come up with, was handed down by God at Sinai. I do believe that our brains are holy, our seichel [wisdom]  is incredibly holy, so that must come from God. But we invent it in each era.

Q: What do people mean by “written Torah” and “oral Torah?”

A: The written Torah ends at the end of Deuteronomy. The oral Torah is Talmud and Mishnah and the codes and everything that comes after. With written Torah, I feel it’s irrelevant where it came from – the fact is it’s holy, and we’ve treated it as holy. Whether written by God or human beings, it was designed to be studied in concert with our human instinct. Therefore it is a living, ever-evolving book. The mistake we make is to take it literally. As long as we don’t do that, it can have a holy influence in our world today.

Q: Let’s take some of the stuff that you wouldn’t follow today, like stoning people. 

A: Not only shouldn’t we take it literally, but we’re meant to struggle with it. I also think it’s possible that God has evolved. God’s relationship with humanity has changed – not only because we’ve changed, but why couldn’t it also be that God has changed as well?

Even though God exists out of time, God is learning about human beings as we’re growing. So I don’t necessarily think that God today would repeat that you take a child outside the gates and stone him if he curses his father.

Q: But do you think God actually had anything to do with that rule or was it just what people did at that time?

A: I teach Torah from a historical perspective, where we look at the Near Eastern codes. So when the authors wrote that, they were borrowing from what they knew of society. At the time, it was the only way you could maintain order and control.

But talking about me personally? I think it’s irrelevant. Even the words that cause me pain are holy and I have to treat them as such – that doesn’t mean follow them, but argue with them and change them. The rabbinic tradition I share is called pilpul, where you change the words so much that you come out with the opposite conclusion. The unholy thing would be to ignore them.

Q: And those words are holy because they’re our tradition? Or because they were inspired by God?

A: Because they exist in a holy book, inside the Torah. Even the words I believe are wrong are holy.

Different holy books for different people

Q: Would the words in any holy book be equally holy? Are the words of the Quran or Hindu scriptures equally holy?

A: To Muslims and Hindus, yes. But Torah is mine. It’s holy for me.

Q: So is there an objective God or truth? An imam says “the Quran is holy,” and a priest says “the Gospels are holy” —

A: Judaism teaches that I am bound to Torah because my people accepted it. I chose to accept it; it’s a covenant I have with God and the Torah. It does not apply to someone who does not want to join that covenant. It’s not the same theology as saying, “This is a holy book, everyone needs to adhere to it.” Only the people who are part of the covenant need to adhere to it.

Q: But if there was a God powerful enough to create the entire world, wouldn’t that God have created one set of moral rules for the whole world? 

A: No, I don’t think so. I return to the text. When the Ten Commandments were given, it says that “God spoke all these words, saying….”

The question is why those two words [said and saying], why the redundancy?  God spoke the Ten Commandments to one community so we’d all hear them together, and also said them individually in everybody’s ears because we all learn and hear differently.

While that was true for the Ten Commandments for the Jewish people, I feel it was also true for the greater objective truth of the world. There can be this one God but because we’re all different, we’re going to understand God differently. And what’s nice is that the fundamental principles that thread through all these books are the same. You can’t murder. You can’t commit theft. There are things you can’t do, and they’re pretty consistent across the board.

Walking with God while climbing Half Dome

Q: Let’s talk about your immanent or personal sense of God. Is this  something you’ve always had? 

A: As long as I can remember. It’s not consistent with any sort of intellectual attempt to articulate or understand it.

Q: Does it come to you at particular moments, like through praying or being in nature?

A: It’s like any relationship. I always have it, but there are times when I access it more often. It ebbs and flows. There are times I feel more distant from it, usually when I’m angry.

But it’s also something I talk very little about. My job as a congregational rabbi is to help people articulate their own views of God. So I don’t bring mine into that, since it would disrupt that process. It’s very rare that I actually talk about my relationship with God.

Q: Well, now you get to talk about it! It’s interesting to me because it’s completely alien from my experience. I have never experienced anything remotely Godlike on a personal level except a sense of being part of the universe when I’m in nature.

A: It might be the same thing, only we have different labels for it.

Q: I’d still say on my end, it’s pretty minimal. So… what is it you actually feel?

A: It’s hard to define. A closeness to an entity. It’s different from a human being, but I assume the feeling of being in relationship is similar. I feel I am “in relationship” to something else.

When you were talking, I remembered when I climbed Half Dome and there was this moment when I was exhausted. I had my pack on, it was hot, I couldn’t get enough oxygen – I was done. I ate a fruit bar and found my second wind. But from that time until we got to our stopping point, a couple of hours, I was walking with God. It was suddenly crystal clear to me. The mountains around me still had snow on them, and I felt like an artist was standing next to me showing me his work. It was an incredibly powerful experience.

On a more mundane scale, this morning I led minyan [prayers]. When I’m davening, I don’t always pay great attention to the words, but when I do, it’s almost like reading a diary given to me by someone else. Then in the moment when we’re quiet, I really do feel like someone is listening to me.

And often during the day, if something comes up, I can communicate to God and I feel like I’m being heard.

Q: Does God respond in terms of giving you answers?

A: Not answers. Sometimes I get a sense that I’m being cared for. Or there are coincidences that couldn’t possibly be coincidences. It feels like what Rabbi Larry Kushner calls “the invisible lines of connection.” It feels like there’s something bigger there than just a coincidence. That will often give me confidence about what my next step should be.

Q: When you pray, are you praying FOR things? Are you praying that your new job goes well? That God will be there for you? Are you talking to God?  

A: When I teach Torah study, I always pray that I’m accurate and that the class is exciting! So basically, I pray that I’m not going to make stuff up.

I pray for strength. Usually it’s not about getting something; it’s about what aspect of myself I need. I do always pray that Jon and I can raise our children to be happy and healthy mensches. We’ve gone through some very frightening health crises with them, and I’ve prayed very hard at those times.

Q: But during a typical morning minyan? 

A: There are prayers of supplication and prayers of benediction — benediction meaning “gratitude.” So most of my prayers are prayers of gratitude where I think about the kids, about Jon, my sister or friends. Sometimes on a Friday night I’m looking around the congregation and thinking about the work I get to do and am grateful for that. I always close with a “happy healthy mensch” prayer for the kids.

Q: Your sense of being cared for by God — is it fleeting or does it stay with you? 

A: Again, I would compare it with a human relationship. My sister lives in Boston. When I talk to her, she’s right there. But when I’m giving the kids a bath, she’s not in the front of my mind. The same thing is true with God.

Rabbi on the (relative) right

Q: How would you describe your Jewish practices compared to the majority of Reform rabbis? You are the most traditional of our three rabbis at Sinai.

A: I am to the right of most of my colleagues on everything — politics and ritual. With maturity, I’ve become a lot more relaxed. I used to be very uptight about what I thought Jews should and shouldn’t do, but age changes things.

For example, I keep less strictly kosher now than we used to. I don’t mix milk and meat when we’re at home, although I’m willing to do it when I’m out if I can’t avoid it.

Q: Given your preference for tradition when it comes to ritual, why are you a Reform Jew rather than Conservative?

A: The philosophy. I might choose to practice this way [traditionally], but I absolutely believe in Reform’s intent of combining Torah with seichel — our common sense and ability to interpret.

I love that we don’t lose the forest for the trees, that we don’t allow the letter of the law to corrupt the intent. I love the way we do holidays. I love the way we mobilize around social action. That’s a huge reason why I’m a Reform Jew. I believe the Torah’s basic mission is to bring light to the world, and how else are you going to do that if you’re not out in the street actually doing it? I love the way we do education. I love the way we allow modernity to enhance our Jewish experience.

Q: Have there been challenges as a congregational rabbi who is on the more traditional side?

A: Being politically right has been more of a problem. It’s mostly around Israel. I was raised with the understanding that Jews supported Israel, period.

Q: And Jews shouldn’t ever criticize Israel? 

A: If I’m not living there, I’m hesitant to do so. There’s plenty of criticism of Israel, but you still need to stand behind her and her survival.

Q: How does that come out in congregational life?

A: People take umbrage with our curriculum in preschool and religious school, or with the sermons. Rabbi Chester usually gives the pro-Israel high holiday sermon. People talk to me about it afterward, complaining, and don’t realize I’m actually to the right of where he is. Or they’re uncomfortable with the word  “Israel” itself – forgetting that’s our name, who we are, having nothing to do with the country. But people react to it in our prayers and that’s hard for me to navigate.

I can listen to people say whatever they want about God and there’s no personal response from me. But Israel’s a different story.

Q: Well, God’s a little more powerful than Israel! 

A: I believe in the two-state solution. I don’t want to sound like Meir Kahane. And thinking about people in the world, the Palestinians are probably in the most precarious situation. We need to take that into account.

But what I have trouble with are people who start the conversation with the premise that Israel’s existence is not a foregone conclusion. I find that here [in the Bay Area]. And I don’t know how to be a caring professional rabbi around that discussion.

The coming of cyber-Judaism

Q: Off of politics and back on ritual…  where do you see Reform Judaism going with ritual? The movement as a whole is more traditional than it was 20 years ago.

A: I believe we are heading toward post-denominational Judaism, where the lines between the movements are much more fluid. How that will look, I have no idea.

Cyber-Judaism is going to have a huge influence on brick-and-mortar Judaism, and I don’t think cyber-Judaism is delineated by denominations. Rather than Reform ritual, we’ll be looking at “modern ritual” that encompasses Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, Conservative, Modern Orthodox — ritual that will bring the movements into a more intimate working and sharing relationship.

Q: What do you mean by cyber-Judaism?

A: Communities will evolve from people knowing each other in person into the cyber-world, or from meeting in the cyber-world into knowing each other in person. Even right now, I can think of several colleagues who have become very close in the cyber-world and they see each other at conferences. I can see the same thing happening with congregants.

Q: Would it replace going to services?

A: I’d see it as a supplement. I know we have live Web streaming, but I don’t think people will find it sustainable in terms of getting what they get from bricks and mortar. But socially, that’s how we’re going to network, and synagogues will do a lot of their business in the cyber world.

Q: What is your hope and fear for the next generation? 

A: My fear is like this old rabbinic story. A man goes to his rabbi and says,  “I can’t get to services so much – I live far away, and it’s so cold and there’s snow, so I daven at home and that’ll have to be okay.” And they’re sitting there and the rabbi moves one ember out of the fire and they sit in silence and watch the ember die.

That’s my fear – that being together in ritual and prayer cannot be recreated in the cyber world. It’s like a spark of flame. You have to be present to be ignited with that flame.

My hope is that we will figure out a way to use cyber-Judaism to underscore and enhance the values of Judaism. To use it as a mobilizing force around political issues, or the needy or literacy. If we can use it to keep people in touch when not physically together, that would be fantastic.

Anger at God

Q: Anything you’d like to talk about that I haven’t covered?  

A: The one thing I’d like to follow up on are the times that I get really, really angry at God. Mostly it’s when we bury kids. I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven God for the times we’ve had to do that.

But what’s important for people to know is that I’ve never found any reason in Judaism to feel threatened by expressing that emotion to God.

Q: Meaning you’ve never felt like a bad person for being angry at God? 

A: Yeah, or that God’s going to take vengeance. My tradition gives me the right to be very angry at God.

Q: Have you ever gotten an answer? 

A: No. And that’s probably why I can’t forgive God. If God expects me as a woman to bring children in this world, and as a rabbi to help people go through that kind of loss, I deserve an explanation. And it’s one I’m never, ever going to get. So it makes me mad.

Q: A lot of people would simply say, “I don’t believe in God.” 

A: I wish I could. Then I wouldn’t be so angry.

Q: Well, do you ever step outside yourself and say, “My connection with God could just be a neurochemical reaction?” 

A: Of course! But it’s irrelevant if that’s what it is.  You could also say that falling in love is a neurochemical reaction, but I‘m not going to divorce Jon.


This is the second in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. You can read the first interview with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin here.

Invasion of the Jewish Undead

January 9, 2010

If adding a few zombies can put Pride and Prejudice on the bestseller lists, why not this blog? 

Sad to say, though, I’m not really writing about zombies today. Nor even about vampires or werewolves. Instead, let’s talk about Jewish conceptions of an afterlife! 

(Clunk. That’s the sound of my readership plummeting to rock bottom as all the zombie fans realize this is not their kind of undead discussion.) 

As part of my ongoing meetings with my rabbi, I recently read two books about Jewish ideas of an afterlife – What Happens After I Die: Jewish Views of Life After Death, by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, and The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, by Neil Gillman. 

What Happens After I Die is a short, easy-to-read summary of how various Jewish thinkers have approached this issue. (Like Sonsino and Syme’s other book on Finding God, it’s kind of a Cliff’s Notes for Jewish theology.) Gillman is a little weightier. 

A lot of this was new to me, since I’ve never paid much attention to what Judaism says about death. Here’s my 30-second summary: 

  • The Torah barely makes mention of the idea of an afterlife. It often talks about death as a return to dust. (“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19)  
  • Sometimes the Torah refers to a shadowy underground place called Sheol to which all dead people go. This isn’t a place of punishment like later descriptions of Hell, just a dark silent  place. For instance, Job says, “As a cloud fades away, so whoever goes down to Sheol does not come up.”
  • By the time the Talmud was compiled around 400 C.E., Judaism had developed a doctrine of physical resurrection – that someday when the Messiah comes, the dead will rise up and God will restore them to their bodies.
  • There are various historical theories about why the resurrection doctrine developed – for instance, during an era of massive oppression and killings of Jews by the Romans, it filled a psychological need for justice. Bodily resurrection as a doctrine had its opponents (the Pharisees were pro-resurrection, while the Sadducees believed that once dead, you stayed dead). But whatever its genesis, resurrection of the dead ultimately became a key point in Orthodox Judaism.
  • Meanwhile, the Greek concept of an immortal soul that is distinct from the body was also incorporated into Judaism. Maimonides included resurrection of the dead among his Thirteen Principles of Jewish Belief, but  gave much more of his attention to immortality of the soul:

“In the World to Come, there is nothing corporeal, and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies…. The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body.”

  • There are lots of inconsistent, sometimes conflicting, ideas about afterlife running through the past 2,000 years of Jewish thought. There’s even a Jewish version of reincarnation in the Kabbalah  – gilgul neshamot, or “revolving of souls”!
  • When Reform Judaism arose in the 1800s as an effort to bring a modern, scientific world view to Judaism, it renounced the doctrine of bodily resurrection. The Reform liturgy removed the traditional wording praising God for giving life to the dead (mechayei hametim), and instead praised God for giving life to everything (mechayei hakol).

Rather than bodily resurrection, Reform Judaism followed Maimonides’ lead and focused on the immortality of the soul. Some Reform thinkers went even further and treated immortality as an abstraction – i.e., we live on after death through our good deeds or through people’s memories of us.

Recently, though, Reform has stepped back from its historical antipathy to the language of bodily resurrection. In a bow to tradition, the latest version of the Reform prayerbook gives congregants the option of saying mechayei hametim instead of mechayei hakol.

Yow! Maybe we’ll get some zombies into this blog post after all.

 Zombies in the synagogue social hall! Zombies in the sisterhood gift shop! Zombies on the JCC basketball court!

(Although I do need to add that the Reform movement doesn’t intend for people to take the revived mechayei hametim language at face value. “Most Reform rabbis don’t accept bodily resurrection literally,” my rabbi said. “Instead, they’re talking about things that are inside all of us — parts of us that may feel dead but we want to resurrect.”)

In any case, this is all historically interesting. But what does it mean for me personally? Not much.

I can’t even begin to take the idea of dead bodies rising up from their graves seriously. I don’t buy into ideas of heaven (Gan Eden) and hell (Gehinnom). Nor do I believe that I have a soul that will live on after I’m gone, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong. And the abstractions about living eternally through good deeds or others’ memories? That always feels like empty rationalization to me – no one short of a Shakespeare or a Lincoln is really remembered beyond their children and grandchildren. And in any event, I don’t want to be remembered: I want to be alive!

Ironically, the Jewish description of death that most speaks to me is the oldest and least sophisticated one – the Biblical one.

We return to dust.

To me, that is eloquent in its stark honesty. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything or succumb to wishful fantasy. It forces us to face the painful fact of our mortality.

And as a corollary, it challenges us to live a meaningful life since it is the only life we have. That’s kind of existentialist. It’s also very Jewish – do good, be just, be kind, not to win rewards in some future heaven but because it is the right way to live life here on Earth.

It also reminds me of the song When I’m Gone, by the brilliant, under-appreciated late folk singer Phil Ochs (download it! download it!):

Phil Ochs' I Ain't Marching Anymore (1964)

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
You won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I’m gone
My pen won’t pour out a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone
Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here
And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Since posting this blog entry, I learned from my old college friend Eliot that Ochs was half Jewish on his father’s side! (See the comment section for this entry.) He was not actively Jewish, and I suspect he looked at all organized religion with a jaundiced, crap-detecting eye. But that song (I’ve included  just a partial excerpt) is one of the most moving and spiritual statements I’ve heard. It belongs in a siddur.