The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Proclaim "liberty" throughout the land...

Rabbi David Segal
Guest Sermon
Aspen Community United Methodist Church
Sunday, 11 May 2014

“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10)

For all you American history buffs, this verse should ring a bell (sorry…). It was inscribed on the Liberty Bell in 1751, based on the King James translation of Leviticus. The Liberty Bell wasn’t known by that name until a group of abolitionists named it in the 1830s. The bell’s symbolism resonated with their mission to abolish slavery and thus “proclaim liberty throughout the land.”

It’s a beautiful message and a powerful symbol of our nation’s values. Only one problem: it’s not a very good translation of the verse in Leviticus. It is rather an example of something we are all probably guilty of in one way or another: taking a Bible verse out of context to express an idea we care about, with little sensitivity to the original intent of the text.

The verse appears in Leviticus in this past week’s Torah portion (B’har), which we just read in my congregation on Shabbat. It’s part of the description of the Jubilee year. 

First we hear the rule about the farming Sabbath: just as we must rest on the seventh day, so too shall our fields rest in the seventh year. It’s a Shabbat for the land, known as Shmita. No reaping allowed, although whatever grows naturally may be eaten by us, our servants, our laborers, and our animals. It feels like letting the land return to a state of nature, living for a year as gatherers who depend on the land rather than as farmers who dominate it. Perhaps it’s a way of expressing gratitude to the land for its sustenance, and to God.

One commentator I came across finds another message in this Shabbat for the farmland: “Sometimes the wealthy don’t believe that poor people are actually suffering, suspecting that they are just too lazy to provide for themselves. Let the wealthy undergo the experience of not knowing whether there will be enough to eat, and their attitudes will change.”

This economic justice context frames the appearance of the Liberty Bell verse. Moving from the Sabbatical year to the Jubilee year, the text tells us to count off seven weeks of years –seven times seven, or 49 years. Then in the 50th year, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), sound the shofar and observe the Jubilee. (The word Yovel, Jubilee, comes from the word meaning ram’s horn.) In that special year, not only is there no sowing or reaping, but there is also to be d’ror proclaimed throughout the land. The King James and Liberty Bell translate it as “liberty,” but that’s not exactly right. More accurate would be, “release.” The text continues: “Proclaim release throughout the land… and each of you shall return to his holding and to his family” (Leviticus 25:10).

So what is this “release” and “returning to holdings”? It refers to people “evicted from their homes and farms due to foreclosure” (Etz Hayim, p. 740, note on Leviticus 25:10). In other words, every 50 years there is to be a radical release from debt, a systematic loan forgiveness program, and an undoubtedly inconvenient process of people moving back to their original homes.

Jewish tradition has a complicated relationship with this law, because it presents a hardship for farmers, not to mention landlords and lenders. It throws real estate into confusion every 50 years – can you imagine instituting that rule here in Aspen! To make it simpler, the law has been interpreted as applying only in the Land of Israel. The rabbis found other ways around the hardship, for example by permitting Jews to sell their farmland to non-Jews during the seventh year so it could continue to be plowed, and then to buy it back after the shmita year ends.

These laws and loopholes got me thinking about the conversation going on in our country now about the economic challenges we face. In particular, there is a hardening of opposing views in an increasingly divisive political arena. On one extreme we have liberty being defined as getting the government out of our lives and out of the economy; on the other extreme, there’s a call for radical redistribution by government intervention. Not only do we disagree on how to alleviate poverty, but it seems like we can’t agree on whether it’s even our responsibility to address it.

On this question – if you’re a religious Christian or Jew, if you take the Bible seriously – then there’s not much room for argument. Our traditions and our God demand that we care for the poor and address economic injustice. I know we are gathered here in a Methodist Church being addressed by a rabbi, but Pope Francis has much to teach us in this regard. He has been a godsend by refocusing the Catholic Church back on the authentic biblical legacy of care for the poor. He even tweeted last month, in Latin, Inequitas radix malorum – “inequality is the root of evils.” Since his election, he has been pushing an anti-poverty agenda and criticizing capitalism to a surprising degree. The point is, you can disagree with his proposed solutions, and even with his diagnosis, but not with his emphasis. We should be talking about this problem, of the great disparities in poverty and wealth, of systemic inequity and economic injustice. These are global problems, moral challenges that confront us as Christians, as Jews, as Americans, as citizens of the world.

It is possible to rise above the partisan bickering, hard as that is to imagine. For one example, let us turn to Israel, and new Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party. Calderon is a Talmudic scholar and founder of a groundbreaking “secular yeshiva” – a place for Israelis of all religious backgrounds and beliefs to come study Torah, to learn the tradition, to benefit from its wisdom. Calderon is applying the spirit of the law of shmita and jubilee, of letting the land rest and releasing debts, to contemporary Israeli society. She has called on other Members of Knesset to make the Shmita year 5775 (starting September 2014) a year of meaningful activism, awareness, and responsibility.

She is advancing an economic recovery program, in which Israeli families in dire financial need are selected for help. Then, through a public-private partnership, the families will get debt forgiveness and help with loan restructuring and repayment. Banks will cut interest rates, government subsidies will provide some aid, and the families will be required to pay off part of the remaining debt themselves. It’s a practical and compassionate solution, rooted in biblical values, and transcending the usual mire of left vs. right politics. I started to do a thought experiment about the US Congress undertaking a similar initiative… but it got so depressing I had to stop. Still, I believe there is hope, as far off as it may seem at times. 

A few verses after the jubilee, we read God’s words: “the Land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me”(Leviticus 25:23). What would our politics, our business, our everyday lives look like if we lived as if we were merely sojourners here? If we saw ourselves as stewards of this place, responsible to an eternal presence much greater than ourselves? 

This perspective doesn’t dictate any one political solution but rather an attitude, a spirit in which we should approach our neighbor, and our social problems. In the end, the Bible doesn’t call us to be a Republican or a Democrat, or to support the nuts and bolts of one economic policy over another. It charges us to be responsible, humble, and grateful. It demands that we care, and that we act.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Cowboy's Prayer" by Badger Clark

I heard this a few weeks ago at a local funeral and was very moved. Thought I'd share it.

A Cowboy's Prayer
Badger Clark (Written for Mother)

Oh Lord, I've never lived where churches grow.
I love creation better as it stood
That day You finished it so long ago
And looked upon Your work and called it good.
I know that others find You in the light
That's sifted down through tinted window panes,
And yet I seem to feel You near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.

I thank You, Lord, that I am placed so well,
That You have made my freedom so complete;
That I'm no slave of whistle, clock or bell,
Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.
Just let me live my life as I've begun
And give me work that's open to the sky;
Make me a pardner of the wind and sun,
And I won't ask a life that's soft or high.

Let me be easy on the man that's down;
Let me be square and generous with all.
I'm careless sometimes, Lord, when I'm in town,
But never let 'em say I'm mean or small!
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the hawse between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.
You know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.
Just keep an eye on all that's done and said
And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,
And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Purim: On Bending the Rules

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parshat Tzav • Purim • 14 March 2014

Consider the following two statements: 
• “That new rabbi is really assertive.” 
• “That new rabbi is really bossy.” 

In your mind’s eye, was there a gender difference between the two, assertive and bossy? If Sheryl Sandberg is right, there was: women are called bossy; men are assertive. 

Sandberg’s view has gone viral with the success of Lean In, her book on women, the workplace, and leadership. She is on a mission to strike “bossy” from our vocabulary. As a word, it is used not merely to describe, but to deride and marginalize women.

Writing today in Tablet Magazine, Rachel Shukert offers a tongue-in-cheek counterproposal to Sandberg’s anti-“bossy” crusade. We will still need, she asserts, a word to describe people like that – people who look over our shoulder and dictate how we should be doing things – you know, backseat drivers. Let’s follow Sandberg’s lead, she says, and choose a word that doesn’t have all the anti-feminist baggage of “bossy”, but rather “merely” some anti-Semitic resonance: how about “pushy”?

She explains, 
It’s a word mainly applied to things like jostling for bar mitzvah dates and looking for loopholes in medical-school applications, and you know what? I say we give it back to the world. True, it’s not a perfect synonym for “bossy,” but it’s close enough, and once it’s everyone’s, it’s no one’s. Maybe this time next year [since we’ll have reappropriated “pushy”], we’ll be debating a new term for the person cutting in line at Bloomingdale’s –for example, “Jewish.”
Every year, Purim confronts us with a story of gender and power, of blurred identities, of leadership that is either bossy and pushy or bold and assertive, depending on your perspective.

This year, as Batya Ungar-Sargon reports, two viral Purim videos from Orthodox corners of the Jewish world made their own gendered statements about this holiday. One, a parody of “What does the fox say?” entitled “What does Haman say?” casts the Haman-Mordechai conflict as the central narrative of the story. Esther has barely a bit part and doesn't speak at all. 

Another, entitled The Story of Lester, removes Esther entirely. In this hour-long computer-animated tale, a young yeshiva boy who is responsible for producing his shul's Purim spiel hits his head and time travels back to ancient Shushan, on the eve of the Purim events. Knowing the ending, he warns Vashti what will happen to her if she doesn’t obey the King – so she isn’t banished, and Esther never appears. It’s Lester’s job to save the day.

In both stories, anxiety about a female heroine – for whom, lest we forget, the biblical book and the ritual fast are named – prompted the substitution of male characters (in Lester’s case, quite literally) for Esther’s queenly leadership. But as the article points out:
...any child who understands the bare minimum of the holiday’s text—the Megillah—will be forced to confront the gloriously discomforting fact that a woman with power was given her own holiday. And not just any woman; a woman with what can only be called sexual power becomes a leader of her people by using said power to save the Jews. So while we might (please, let’s!) debate whether the text is a feminist text or not, there is no question that the text is not only about female power, but about...canonizing it.
She goes on to warn readers that if they are deeply concerned about exposing their children to this discomforting, gender-role-bending, provocative story – then they definitely shouldn't go to shul on Purim.

And especially not to OUR shul, where we’ll be taking the gender-bending theme to a whole new level… It’s not just for the cheap thrill of seeing a man in a dress or a woman in a mullet wig (although that may be worth the price of admission). There’s something deeper going on that gets to the heart of what the holiday of Purim is all about.

When we talk about gender-bending, we are talking about bending the rules. In this case, rules about gendered clothing. Tomorrow, when you see men in skirts, and women with mustaches, you may be both amused and somewhat uncomfortable. That’s because of how deeply we have internalized our culture’s rules about gender identity and presentation.

This is true any time we bend the rules. It is destabilizing, even threatening. It invites chaos, anarchy. It might just feel wrong. But when we dwell in that discomfort, we can begin to learn the powerful lesson of Purim. 

Jews are a people of rules. We have a tradition of halakhah. We have 613 mitzvoth. This week’s parashah, Tzav, contains detailed rules upon rules about making sacrifices. Mitzvoth pervade our tradition – and mitzvoth are good! They define our relationships to God and others, they teach us our obligations to the world and ourselves, they allow us to maintain a functioning society and enforce justice, they train us to walk in the ways of righteousness. Mitzvoth and halakhah are paths to goodness.

Except when they aren’t. As with most things in our world, even mitzvoth, even rules, can become idols. They can become ends in themselves, disembodied from the real lives and situations they affect. When we become too fixated on rules, too obsessed with the letter of the law, we risk losing its spirit. We compromise our humanity. Rather than paths to righteousness, rules can become obstacles to what really matters. They cause us to forget that every human being is a unique soul, created in God’s image, who often doesn’t fit the neat categories that the law or social convention lays out for us.

And so on this day of Purim, we bend and suspend the rules. We dress up (and perhaps cross-dress). We get rowdy (and perhaps tipsy). It’s like Thomas Jefferson said (although he wasn't talking about Purim): “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical” (letter to James Madison, 1787). Well, it’s necessary in the religious and spiritual world as well. For one thing, a night of irreverence helps us celebrate and laugh as a community, and that’s a holy thing. Everyone’s soul has wounds and dark places that welcome the soothing light of laughter.

But it’s not that alone. Purim’s suspension of rules, its blurring of lines, should shake us out of complacently following rules without minding their purpose. It should ease our fear that the sky will fall if things aren’t always “by the book.” No one’s going to get struck by lightning because a man wears a dress and heels, or a woman puts on a fake mustache. 

Of course, it’s not just about breaking down traditional gender roles. It’s about seeing all people for who they are beneath all the layers of stereotype and artifice that culture and religion and good manners impose. Purim is trying to teach us to see past disability, language, faith, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political party, age, intelligence, net worth – all the ways we let ourselves be defined and define others – too look past those things and really see each other as a neshamah kedoshah, a sacred soul with its own God-given dignity.

Don’t worry though, the only stripping we’ll be doing tomorrow during the spiel is the stripping away of preconceived notions, of judgment, of insecurity. In Purim’s perfect irony, we dress up in costume to dress down our shortcomings. We put on masks in order to really see each other. And in light of the very serious and difficult work we have to do, as individuals and as a community, to walk in God’s ways, we can’t help but laugh.

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Purim Sameach.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Three Rabbis Walk into a Bar...

Our 40th Anniversary Comedy night fundraiser is now online, thanks to GrassrootsTV!

Three Rabbis Walk into a Bar...

The Aspen Jewish Congregation's 40th Anniversary FUNdraiser at the Belly Up bar in Aspen, CO. Featuring Rabbis Matt Soffer, Molly G. Kane, and David Segal. Doug Weiser as MC. Sunday, February 23, 2014, at the Belly Up Aspen.

Order of the evening:
Doug Weiser opens (FYI, this segment contains some profanity)
6:05. Rabbi Matt Soffer performs stand-up and songs
25:05. Doug Weiser
26:50. Rabbi Molly G. Kane performs stand-up
42:55. Doug Weiser
45:03. Rabbi Soffer and Rabbi Kane perform original duet "A Rabbi in Aspen"
49:46. Rabbi David Segal performs stand-up
1:06:42. Finale: Three Rabbis sing "They Ain't Makin' Jews" by Kinky Friedman (modified lyrics)

This event was generously sponsored by:
EKS Events, Bruce Etkin & Tania Dibbs, Daryl & Henry Gelender, Marian & Leonard Lansburgh, Sandy & Mark Rothman, Shereen & Jordan Sarick, Nina & Joshua Saslove, Mary & Patrick Scanlan, Julie & Steve Schlafer, Michelle & Ken Stiller, Lynda & Doug Weiser.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Master-Disciple (Exodus 24:9-11)

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
24 January 2014
Parshat Mishpatim

CLICK HERE for the audio of last Shabbat's sermon, based on this passage from the weekly parashah:

9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; 10 and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. 11 Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sermon Recordings

I'm finally getting around to posting audio of some recent sermons. I typically speak from outlines and notes; I haven't been writing the sermons out fully, so there's no text to post. I've started recording them on my iPhone, and I'll try to get them up online in the week that I deliver them (from now on!).

12/27/2013: Boycotting the Boycotters?

12/20/2013: Reflecting on the URJ Biennial Conference

12/06/2013: Mandela's Legacy

11/22/2013: 50th Anniversary of JFK's Assassination, 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg Address

11/08/2013: 75th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

10/25/2013: "Kippah Walk": Confronting Anti-Semitism in Sweden

Happy 2014!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Notes from Biennial 2013, San Diego

Rabbi David Segal
13 December, 2013
Dear friends,

Greetings from San Diego, where I’m deep into the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial conference. I wanted to check in before Shabbat with a few notes on what I’ve experienced and learned here.

I attended a session led by Makom, a department of the Jewish Agency that supports deeper engagement between the Diaspora and Israel. It began with a 30-minute dramatic presentation about a rabbi having a “bad day”: an encounter with a congregant running an Israeli film festival at the shul, who has chosen all pro-Palestinian films; an encounter with his secretary, who has some surprising beliefs about Israel; and an encounter with a major donor who is so turned off by the film festival choices that she pulls her donation. The audience was then invited to offer suggestions about how the conversations could have been different and better, and the actors replayed the scenes based on the feedback. At the end, Makom’s Yonatan Ariel brought it to a close with some advice on having productive Israel conversations within a congregation. He said we need to learn to be better at both hugging AND wrestling with Israel, because neither approach alone is true to the complex, vibrant reality of the Jewish state.

This session dovetailed with a goal I have of bringing the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Israel curriculum to our community. Its mission is to elevate our relationship with Israel beyond one of crisis to a deeper, sustainable connection based on Jewish values and covenant. Stay tuned for more details about that.

I also went to a session about “public space Judaism” by Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute. He outlined guidelines for doing Jewish outreach in public spaces where people can “stumble over them” – grocery stores, parks, etc. Of course, we already do this in important ways with our mountain minyans, Sukkot at Rock Bottom Ranch, coffee with the Rabbi in town, etc. But there are exciting ways to expand this, e.g. teaching about Pesach in the matzah aisle at Whole Foods, teaching a regular Torah study at a local library or coffee shop, and more. I hope to incorporate some of these ideas right away. In the end, the goal with this kind of program is to engage people who don’t step into the synagogue, for a whole slew of reasons. And we know from the numbers that that’s 70% of Jews – only 30% actually make synagogue a part of their Jewish life. If we are willing to make the commitment, we can reach people where they are and expand our spiritual reach, bringing more people closer to the spiritual core of Judaism.

I attended a fantastic panel about religious pluralism in Israel with Rabbi Donniel Hartman and Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon. It was a dynamic and inspiring session about the exciting political and educational developments in Israel leading toward more pluralism, better inclusion of non-Orthodox Jews in governance and public funding, and challenges to the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on certain aspects of Jewish life. Hartman spoke beautifully about reminding ourselves that democracy IS a Jewish value, and that being deeply Jewish today means assimilating the healthy, modern concept of democracy. In the end, they both encouraged us, American (Reform) Jews, not to give up our fight for these values in Israel, even as we continue to be concerned for Israel’s security.

On Thursday night we heard from URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who spoke about where we’ve come from, especially since the 2011 biennial, and laid out a vision for the future. He named several major areas of challenge and inspiration, all based on episodes of the narratives of our ancestors in Genesis (the reading of which we complete this Shabbat):

1. Audacious Hospitality, like Abraham and Sarah

Can we get better at welcoming? Not just the specific moment of someone walking into Shabbat and being greeted, but in everything we do? In reaching out past our walls, past our usual demographics, past our typical programs? Outreach needs to become a core of what we do. Can we redouble our efforts to be maximally inclusive? Of interfaith families, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities (visible and invisible), of anyone who may be marginalized and searching? How about the “nones”, those who identify as not religious and not affiliated? So many of them are spiritual searchers – can we make our tent big enough to include them as well, not only to get them in the door, but to learn from them about reinvigorating our own spirituality?

Intermarriage, he said, is not a disease. Rather it is the natural byproduct of the open society in which we live – and which none of us wants to close. What would we prefer to more intermarriage – more anti-Semitism? We are and can be even more the denomination that brings interfaith families into Jewish life, changing them, yes, but also changing for the better who we are by adding their voices and experiences to our own.

2. Social Justice
, like Abraham's calling out God to act justly
One of the hallmarks of Reform Judaism continues to be our commitment to tikkun olam. We are at the forefront of curbing gun violence, promoting equal marriage and ending workplace discrimination, seeking comprehensive immigration reform, and others. Even as we pursue these goals, we must remember that not everyone in our communities shares a progressive political approach, and that while we must share a commitment to a just society, to caring for the poor and marginalized, we need not all share liberal or conservative policy answers to these pressing moral and political issues of our day – and yet we must work harder to remain in sacred community, even as we disagree. Ultimately, we know that Jewish social justice is a key way of engaging the younger generation of Jews. In that spirit, we are hoping to start a post-b’nai mitzvah service learning program in February of 2014, in which 8-12th graders will volunteer in the valley community on a regular basis and learn about the Jewish values that undergird the mitzvot they’re embracing.

3. Bound to the Land of Israel

Through programming initiatives and partnerships with various organizations, the URJ and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ, our Israeli counterpart) continue working to grow the Reform presence in Israel, and to connect more Reform Jews, particularly our youth, with the land and people of Israel. There are more options than ever to spend days, weeks, a year in Israel, learning and connecting with its history and culture. We continue to forge relationships with Israel’s leaders, both political and cultural (indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu will address this biennial gathering on Sunday morning). I would like to explore, with our AJC community, the possibility of a trip to Israel, as well as, perhaps, a partnership with a sister (Reform) synagogue somewhere in Israel.

Rabbi Jacobs began and concluded with a surfing metaphor: there are big waves of social and spiritual change crashing all around us. We will need talent and skill to ride them, but the rewards are great if we step up to the challenge. Surf’s up!

I also attended a panel discussion about the Pew Survey of Jewish Americans, with Rabbi Elka Abrahamson (President of the Wexner Foundation), Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, Dr. Sarah Benor (HUC-LA), and Mark Pelavin (URJ). Toward the end, they were asked to offer an "audacious idea" for the Reform Movement that could be a game-changer. Elka said synagogues should close their doors on Sundays, i.e. no Hebrew school. Let the Jewish day of Shabbat be the day of Jewish gathering. "I would take one hour of my child experiencing Shabbat over three hours of Hebrew school on a Sunday morning," she said. Of course, we are ahead of the curve on this one! Sarah said that every congregation should hire a Chief Relationship Officer, tasked with getting to know every member and newcomer, and connecting him/her with others of similar interest. Ideally that could be my role as the rabbi, if we could rethink some of the usual tasks and duties assumed to be the rabbi's responsibility. Some exciting possibilities... Rabbi Kolin said we need to create spaces where everyone can be him/herself and truly feel welcome. She challenged us to create sacred places where no one feels the pain of isolation or not belonging. Much food for thought.

Soon we'll head to the Shabbat evening service, led by the clergy team at Temple Beth Elohim Wellesley, which includes Noah Aronson, who has been a regular guest at our summer concerts in Aspen. Shabbat worship in the San Diego Convention Center with 5,000 of our closest friends!

I hope everyone has a sweet and inspiring Shabbat. Special thanks to Shereen Sarick and David Joseph for being our sh'lichei tzibur (service leaders) tonight.

To learn more about the biennial and to live-stream or watch recordings of some of the speeches, visit

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi David Segal