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

Friday, July 3, 2015

People Like You

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
July 3, 2015

The world lost a quiet hero this week. Sir Nicholas Winton, of England, was 106 years old when he died on Wednesday. Before WWII, Winton organized the escape of nearly 700 children, almost all of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia.

His story is riveting, and it only came to light years later when his wife found old records in the attic. (I recommend reading more about him.)
In December 1938…, on an impulse, he canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague at the behest of a friend who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany. “Don’t bother to bring your skis,” the friend…advised in a phone call.
England’s Kindertransport program was already underway. It rescued 10,000 German and Austrian children before the war, but there was no such plan for Czechoslovakia. 

At great cost and risk to himself, Winton organized one. He bribed the Gestapo, hired trains and boats, did mountains of paperwork, and fundraised and recruited foster families in England to get 900 children registered and ready to get out. In the end, 669 children escaped because only 7 of 8 trains made it out. The eighth train was scheduled to depart on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. When the borders closed that train, with its precious cargo of 250 children, disappeared.

Winton was a hero because he risked his own life to save others. I was moved near to tears reading his story, as I remember feeling similarly moved in the Righteous Gentiles room at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. His story, and others like his, move us because he stuck his neck out for Jews, for the marginalized Other. He could have sat comfortably behind his privilege, telling himself it wasn’t his problem, convincing himself it wasn’t his fight.

*   *   *

Our times are not as dark as Europe under Nazi occupation. But consider: seven churches in seven days. Nine black Americans murdered at Bible study, and then seven black churches burned to the ground. The media seems hard pressed to find time in their 24-hr news cycle for this horrifying story. It’s nothing less than racial terrorism in our midst. This is not the first time black churches have burned in this country. During the Civil Rights Movement, infamously, a church bombing killed four young girls. When a place of sanctuary becomes a place of devastation, it’s an especially cruel kind of terror.

Try this thought experiment. Imagine a week in which seven synagogues were burned down, on the heels of the massacre of a minyan of Jews during Torah study. Imagine the outrage, the fear, the criticism of the media for not reporting on it enough, the calls for decent people of all faiths and races to stand in solidarity with us Jews and speak out against hate.

Now consider: if we want others to stand up for us in our moments of crisis, don’t we need to stand up for them? If we want to honor and emulate Sir Winton’s example, shouldn’t we reach beyond our own group to be in solidarity with the marginalized other, even at risk to ourselves? Or should we hide behind our privilege, easing our conscience with the tragic misconception that it isn’t our fight?

So then, why don’t we speak up? Are we afraid of ruffling feathers? Of making our friends feel awkward?

Why don’t I speak up? Am I afraid of job security? Am I too concerned with being liked to say anything provocative?

Maybe we’re confused or ashamed about white privilege. We Jews today comprise a strange duality of identities and histories. All of us have immigrant ancestors, most of whom fled some kind of persecution, some of whom even survived the Holocaust. So of course we feel like persecuted victims. At the same time, and without diminishing that narrative, we benefit from white privilege. We don’t face the barriers or stigma of so many other minority groups in America. But it can be difficult to confront these questions. As Talia Cooper writes, “Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?”

The caveat here is that there are Jews who aren’t white — they are black, Arab, Asian, Hispanic — just to name a few. The sad irony is that our collective unwillingness to confront white privilege among Jews also blinds us to them, who are marginalized in multiple communities.

We’re not all going to be Sir Wintons, or Oskar Schindlers, or Raoul Wallenbergs. But let’s at least demand of ourselves and our leaders honesty about race relations and our role in improving them. Let’s not be afraid of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Let’s not be so quick to call protesters thugs. Let’s not be defensive about naming and negotiating our own privilege. Let’s not be threatened by calls for solidarity with those seeking equality, justice, peace. And for God’s sake, let’s not be scared of empathy. 

Liberation doesn’t come a la carte. It’s all of us, or none.

*   *   *

I’ll close with a story I heard from Ruth Messinger, director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which does anti-poverty work throughout the developing world. She often speaks about AJWS at synagogues. One such evening, during the Q&A, a man approached the mic and asked, “Why do you devote so many resources to helping non-Jews, when there are so many Jews in need? Why don’t you just focus on helping our own?” That kind of question being a common occurrence for her, Messinger had an answer ready — something along the lines of, “Fair enough, so what are you doing to help Jews in need?” 

But that night, before she could answer, a diminutive older woman marched up the aisle to the questioner. She addressed him directly, shaking her fist in his face: “I survived the Holocaust. But my entire family was murdered because of people who only cared to look after their own kind, people who told themselves it wasn’t their fight — people like you.”

Get Involved - Nationally
  • Donate to the fund to help the victims' families and church of Mother Emanuel AME Church: click here
  • Donate to efforts to rebuild the churches that have been burned down: click here

Get Involved - Locally
  • Join the Industrial Areas Foundation and Manaus Valley Project's effort to create a broad-based interfaith coalition in the Roaring Fork Valley that can act powerfully for justice: contact Rabbi Segal at 970-925-8245 x.1 or

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Grief and Gratitude

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
05 June 2015 • Parashat B'ha'alot'cha

Grief and Gratitude

Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…
(Zechariah 4:6)

This week brought the end of sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period, for David Goldberg, the late husband of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. He died suddenly a month ago, while on vacation. He was 47 years old, and he and Sheryl have two young children.

If you’re on Facebook or read the NYTimes, you may have seen the heart-wrenching and inspiring reflection that Ms. Sandberg posted online to mark the end of sheloshim.

I want to share with you a few highlights from it, and my reflections. While I imagine it was cathartic for her to write, it is also a case study in leadership, as she took her private pain and turned it into an opportunity to reach out to others. Anyone who has lost a loved one, or knows someone who has, will resonate with her words.

She wrote, in part:
I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning… I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.
Sandberg went on to share lessons she learned about empathy:
I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.
A phrase in this week’s Haftarah, from the prophet Zechariah, flashed through my mind when I read these words: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…” Our instinct when we encounter someone in pain is to fix it. To make it go away. That’s why we say things like, 
  • It’s going to be ok.
  • Time will heal all.
  • Don’t worry.
  • Don’t cry.
  • Smile. Cheer up.

One of my most powerful memories from hospital chaplaincy training was a lesson taught by my supervisor. He had met with a patient who was not only very ill, but also depressed, bent under the burden of seeing her body give out, and losing her independence. She said to him, “I want to die.”

Our natural reaction to those words — and the response from family, friends, and nursing staff in this case —is to say, “No, you don’t mean that!” Somehow we hear those words "I want to die" as a form of surrender, and we, the living, can’t countenance that. 

Really, it’s about our own fear of mortality. Our own avoidance mechanism. When you say to someone, “No, you don’t mean that!” – what you’re telling them is: I’m not really hearing you 
or acknowledging your pain. You’re saying, I’m uncomfortable with your honest outcry so I’m going to impose on you a superficial idea of cheer to make MYSELF feel better. Not you. Let’s just sweep that painful messy stuff under the rug and make it nice and tidy.

In Jewish tradition, Bikur Cholim — visiting the sick — and Nichum Aveilim — comforting mourners — are deeply important mitzvot, sacred commandments that define our responsibility to one another. I believe they are commanded because they are not always easy or intuitive. When we sit by a hospital bed or at a shiva, we confront our own insecurities about illness and death. Only by facing our fears honestly can we be truly present for those who need us. Only then can we witness *their* struggle, and acknowledge *their* pain.

These mitzvot — visiting the ill and comforting the bereaved — are also commanded because they should be blessings to those who perform them. Here, again, Sheryl Sandberg’s words:
I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by spirit.” Zechariah’s prophecy was about messianic times, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty to the land. But it means something for us, too.

When we truly show up for someone, when we let down our guard enough to really see and hear them, when we learn to cultivate gratitude in ourselves — then we bring redemption near. Each time we bear witness to another’s private pain, each small, honest kindness, is a taste of the world to come.

Shabbat Shalom. May we bring peace to one another.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bridging a Gap in Religious Life

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
20 February 2015 • Parashat Terumah

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.
(Exodus 25:2)

The verse that begins this week's parashah is popular among fundraisers: "bring gifts!" But at the same time, the second half of the verse reminds us that our heart has to be in it.

These two orientations are like two sides of a coin, two ways to approach Jewish life. The differences between these two approaches were articulated very well in a recent article by Kathy Elias, Chief Kehilla and Strategy Officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, entitled "Why Does Synagogue Change Miss the Mark? Think Structuralist vs Experientialist." She wrote:

Structuralists understand and value synagogue communities. They want to strengthen them. Their approach is to make changes to the existing structure of their community – changing Shabbat service customs, hiring different clergy and staff, tweaking their membership dues models, consolidating their school or merging with another congregation. This is not for the faint of heart. Structuralist leaders are often willing to risk their personal and familial time, peace of mind, and faith in the structures themselves, year after year, trying to find the recipe for a vibrant kehilla.
Experientialists want to strengthen their Jewish lives. They understand and value the myriad of options they have in and out of synagogues to accomplish this. Their approach to get what they need is to create it themselves, find solutions that work, and/or move through experiences until they get the right fit. This is not for the faint of heart, but experientialists see the world built this way in real time all around them – a connected, crowd-sourced, DIY world where technology, the economy and social structures change almost as quickly as an Amazon app on Google Play.
Structuralist leaders say things like, “Why don’t they want to join us?” and “If we only had better … (pick one) … marketing materials, programs, music, participatory services, clergy, ways to explain Conservative Judaism, relational strategies… it would bring in new people.”
Experientialists say, “I value being Jewish, but I don’t need to pay to feel Jewish,” and “Why should I work on a committee and wait for a group to decide what I can or can’t have? It can be created now, and I can find it myself if I need to.”
Structuralists get frustrated when people don't join, affiliate, attend.
Experientialists get frustrated when they feel ignored, not heard, undervalued, excluded, overcharged.

Structuralists ask, why not get involved?
Experientialists ask, why get involved?

Structuralists ask, what program or event can we run to attract people?
Experientialists ask, what interesting people are around that I can be in community with?

It is tempting to see this divide along generational lines, and there is some truth to that framing. Elias again:

The generations of baby boomers and their parents built our synagogue structures, and, in many kehillot, still tend to be the majority in the leadership. Experientialists are probably younger, and may or may not be members of kehillot.
But if you only think only in generational terms, you’ll miss the big picture. Structuralists and experientialists can cut across generational lines. It’s possible for a person to be both, depending on what part of their lives we’re talking about.
The good news is, there is good news. It is possible to bridge this gap. In fact, that task is a great opportunity to reinvigorate our communities, to build relationships and from them programming that speaks deeply to people's real lives, to invest in structures that serve us, rather than serving the structures we've inherited.

To do this, structuralists need to take a step back from what Judaism looks like now, and what it looked like a generation ago, to realize that the structures they hold onto were themselves new, once upon a time.

Experientialists could learn about tools for building sustainable communities of profound and lasting impact, about the value of showing up for others outside one's usual social circles.

All of us should consider the cherubim in this week's Torah portion, intricately described in the instructions for building the mishkan. On the cover of the ark, in gold, are to be two cherubim figures: "The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover" (Exod 25:20). In that space of confrontation, of face-to-face encounter – precisely in that space is where God's presence will be felt. "There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact — all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people" (Exod 25:22). Confrontation of opposing paradigms can be productive. In the meeting place of opposing ideas we can find our way toward progress.

In the end, we all want a congregation that recognizes and uses our gifts; we want a community that moves our hearts. The blueprint for this work isn't as clear as the Mishkan instructions, but we can realize this vision together.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Grandeur and Stillness

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
06 February 2015 • Parashat Yitro

On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for ADONAI had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. 
(Exodus 19:16-19)

This Shabbat we read the dramatic scene of the revelation at Sinai. It is full of thunder and lighting, smoke and fire, and a loud blast of the shofar. There's an earthquake, too – the mountain trembled. God causes upheaval in nature as a sign of God's awesome and awe-inspiring power. This image of divine grandeur is meant to make us feel small, humble, limited and finite in the face of such power.

That's one version of what revelation is like, of what it's like when God speaks to humans. But there's another type of revelation experience. The best example is Elijah's relationship with God, in the book of Kings. Elijah has fled for his life and finds refuge in a cave. God speaks to him in this time of distress:
“Come out,” [God] called, “and stand on the mountain before ADONAI.” And lo, ADONAI passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of ADONAI; but ADONAI was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but ADONAI was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but ADONAI was not in the fire. And after the fire — a soft murmuring sound. (I Kings 19:11-12)
God brings awesome displays of nature's fierceness, but each time, God is not in that display. Only in the quiet stillness of the final moment does Elijah meet God. That phrase "soft murmuring sound" is often translated "still small voice." It's a direct contrast to the blaring horns of the Sinai revelation. Consider the Hebrew:
קול שופר חזק / kol shofar chazak – a strong blast of the shofar (Exod. 19:16)
קול דממה דקה / kol d'mamah dakah – a still small voice (I Kings 19:12).
The first kol (voice, sound) is strong, loud, blaring. The second kol is small, thin, faint. These two scenes represent the range of experiences of God's presence, or spiritual connection, or transcendence – whichever term you prefer.

There was a time in Reform Judaism when grandeur was the norm. If you've ever been to Temple Emanu-El of New York City, you know what this looks like architecturally.

They wanted to evoke a feeling of awe, of human insignificance in the face of divine majesty, so they built cathedrals to that aesthetic. Adding to this feeling was the liturgy of "high church" music, with an invisible choir intoning celestially from above, along with the formal robes worn by the clergy.

Now, I would suggest, the "still small voice" type of spirituality is ascendant. We want intimacy and accessibility from our religious experience; we want clergy we can relate to. (I think we see this trend in the rise in popularity of meditation and yoga, too, by the way.) And I think a central reason people move here to the mountains is to find this kind of spiritual connection. We seek the beauty of nature, but we are looking for stillness, tranquility, serenity – not to be overwhelmed by God's awesome power in nature.

So my invitation to you is to figure out the way you connect spiritually. Are you a "still small voice" person or a "thunder, lighting, loud shofar blast" person? And then make room for that practice in your life. As the rabbis advise, make "a fixed time" for it – or it may not happen at all.

Shabbat shalom.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Deconstructing Adam (Bereishit)

Biblical literalism is on the rise. You can see it in the growth of Bible-based mega-churches where the "word of God" is preached as inerrant truth. But any serious reader of the Bible knows it contains contradictions, ellipses, and vague commands that require interpretation to be understood, let alone followed.
The most apparent challenge to biblical literalism occurs at the beginning of the Bible. The first two chapters of Genesis tell two starkly different stories of the Creation of the world and of humanity.
In the first story, humanity is created "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27), with no mention of the physical body's creation. In the second story, man is created from dust, and God breathes life into his nostrils (Genesis 2:7). Similarly, the first Creation story culminates with humans created together, "male and female" (Genesis 1:27). In the second, Adam is created first, followed by the fish, birds, and beasts; only then does God derive the woman from Adam's rib. While the first account mentions only the word Elohim to refer to God, the second uses the Tetragrammaton (the Hebrew letters, yud-hei-vav-hei) as well as Elohim.
Most dramatically, God commands the humans in the first story to "fill the earth and tame it" (Genesis 1:28). In contrast, in the second story God places the humans in the Garden of Eden and commands them to "work it and keep it" or, more poetically, "to till and tend it" (Genesis 2:15).
If you take a documentary approach to the Torah, these discrepancies are easy to explain away: different authors wrote these two stories at different times, and a later redactor preserved them both. Case closed. Such a reading, though historically competent, does a disservice to the reader by failing to reach for a deeper meaning within the contradictions.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the giant of Modern Orthodoxy, addressed this interpretive problem inThe Lonely Man of Faith. He argued:
It is, of course, true that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. This incongruity was not discovered by the Bible critics. Our sages of old were aware of it. However, the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man, not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions but in a real contradiction in the nature of man. (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997], p. 10)
Rather than writing off the contradiction as the by-product of an editorial process, Soloveitchik digs deeper. The contradiction itself is the truth, built into our psyche.
"Adam the First," as Soloveitchik names this archetype, responds to the mystery of existence like a scientist, engineer, or businessman. "He is not fascinated by the question, 'Why does the cosmos function at all?' nor is he interested in the question, 'What is its essence?' He is only curious to know how it works . . ." (Soloveitchik, p. 13). In his quest to master the earth, he seeks to understand its materials and processes so that he can control and replicate them himself. In this way, he proves himself to be created "in the image" of his Creator God.
"Adam the Second" thinks like a philosopher or artist. He ignores the functional question of Adam the First in favor of a metaphysical one: "Why did the world . . . come into existence?. . . . What is the purpose of all this? What is the message that is embedded in organic and inorganic matter?. . . . " (Soloveitchik, pp. 21–22). This Adam seeks not to imitate God like Adam the First, but rather to know his Creator, to relate to God.
What if Soloveitchik's idea of dual Adam also offers a window into how we read the Bible? What if the two Creation stories act as a sort of "author's note" to indicate to the reader of Scripture how to interpret the text? What might that look like?
Adam the First reads Torah to master the text. He seeks to know the intricacies of ancient Hebrew grammar and penetrate the original meaning of the text. The words are a code to be unlocked, revealing their singular meaning. He wants to convert the Torah into halachah, a precise system of circumscribed behavior that applies the Torah to everyday life. Thus he exerts his power over the text and imitates the God in whose image he is created by himself creating a system of ordered existence through law.
Adam the Second reads not to be commanded, but to be inspired. For him, the letter of the law matters less than its spirit. He seeks not to pin the text down to a single interpretation, but rather to breathe life into the inanimate letters. He wants the words to find new life in him, to jump off the page and into his soul, to give his life meaning and purpose. He, too, wants to know the author's intent—not as a source of legislative authority, but as a basis for understanding the profound mystery of his existence.
Let's be clear: one Adam is not better than the other, nor more real. Both exist within us, and both offer unique and essential insights into the fullness of our humanity. Indeed, each Adam is incomplete without the other, in life as in the act of interpretation. Adam the First, left unchecked, tends toward arrogance and rigidity. The second Adam, without the grounding influence of the first, will find himself lost with his head in the clouds of lofty ideas.
For a serious Jew, studying Torah is more than an intellectual act. Since its wisdom is meant to pervade our spiritual and ethical lives, how we read it matters. The two Creation stories act as a guide for integrated study, reaching toward integrated living. Not being content with either literalism or biblical criticism alone, we are to forge a middle path. Not only will this make us better readers of Torah, but it also holds the key to the text's redemptive power to make us better human beings.
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.
Our Moral Memory
Rabbi David Segal calls our attention to two ideas: (1) there are two quite divergent Creation narratives within the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis and (2) a deeper understanding of these stories may be found by having them speak to one another.
I'd like to suggest still another way of reading these two understandings of Creation.
Under the banner of a pseudoscience called "intelligent design," the first chapter of the Book of Genesis is proffered by some as a legitimate scientific alternative to the theory of evolution, which most Reform Jews appreciate, is the basis of all biological science.1
This explanation for life's origins employs an insidious logic that pits our propensity for "fair play" against the incontrovertible fact that religion and science address completely different realities. Indeed, proponents of "intelligent design" insist that intellectual honesty requires us to teach that the stories in Genesis are legitimate historical theories.
Nothing could be further from scientific or historical truth; the truths these biblical tales bespeak are of a mythic sort. This is not to suggest the Torah is less than meaningful. In fact, the accounts of the world's Creation, as recorded in Genesis's two tales, are among the most meaningful stories ever written!
However, the stories of a God who fashioned humanity in the divine image and according to a master plan are neither reliable nor plausible explanations of the world's origins. There is no way, given what we know of the scientific laws of the universe, that the world was created 5,775 years ago, nor for the world to have been created in six days, nor for all seven billion-plus people in the world to have descended from a single pair of parents.
Now, I am mindful that it is a comforting thought to believe there is a God who created the world for a purpose and I appreciate that the loving of a God who created the world for a purpose is a comforting belief.
In fact, I want so much for this to be true, that I deliberately choose to behave as if it is true. Yet, insofar as such a belief speaks to the spiritual and moral dimensions of our lives, the Torah's verses fall into the realm of religion and not into that of science.
Thus, when we study the origins of the universe, we turn to biology, chemistry, and the like. And when we ask the questions that speak to our sense of self, we return to our sacred Torah, which has guided, nourished, and sustained our people's spirit, lo, all these generations.
1. See "Science in Genesis," W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed.(New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 6
Rabbi Aaron B. Bisno holds the Frances F and David R Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34

Sunday, October 5, 2014

High Holiday Sermons & Rabbi's "office hours"

High Holiday Sermons & Rabbi's "Office Hours"

Erev Rosh Hashanah, September 24
"Getting in Touch with Your Inner Hypocrite"

Rosh Hashanah morning, September 25
"The Closing of the American Jewish Mind?"

Kol Nidrei, October 3
On Suicide and Mental Illness

Yom Kippur Morning, October 4
"Aliens and Islands"

Sermons are meant to be the beginning of a conversation, not the last word. They should be suggestive, not exhaustive (and certainly not exhausting!).

In that spirit, please join me at one of my Rabbi's Sermon "Office Hours" coming up in mid-October. Check the congregation calendar to confirm times and locations. Or, as always, contact me to set up another time to meet.

  • Tuesday, October 14, 12:30-3:00 pm
    Victoria's Cafe, Aspen (Durant & Galena)
  • Thursday, October 16, 12:30-3:00 pm
    Saxy's Cafe, Basalt (Midland Spur)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Aliens and Islands (Yom Kippur Morning 5775/2014)

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning 5775 • 04 October 2014

Aliens and Islands
The year is 2050, and an unidentified vessel lands in Washington, D.C. A humanoid figure emerges, who can only be described as what you’d expect an alien to look like. He’s taken to a secret bunker under the White House where they question him.
“What are you?” they say.
“A Martian, of course.”
“Do all Martians look like you?” they say.
“Of course.”
“Are you all green?”
“Yes we are.”
“Do you all have those antennae coming out of your heads? 
“And do you all have those little round hats?”
“Well, no, not the goyim.”
Like an onion, this joke has layers. On one level, there’s Jewish anxiety about fitting in: Jewish Martians are just like other Martians…almost. 

On another level, this joke also speaks to Jewish pluralism. It pokes fun at the idea that “wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish” (Rabbi Larry Milder). In reality, we know how few Jews there are and that there aren’t any on Mars. Unlike a missionizing faith that seeks to convert others, Jewish theology makes room for other faiths, other paths to God. We don’t believe that salvation awaits only the Jews, nor do we expect everyone to be Jewish. The practice of other religions is not an insult to ours. So if we discovered aliens, we wouldn’t need to throw out our tradition. We would likely be compelled to learn about their culture, and maybe ask if you can get a good bagel on Mars.

It’s ironic that we might be less threatened by aliens than we are sometimes by our fellow Jews who look, worship, or believe differently than we do. But we Jews have a history of getting in our own way. The rabbis explained the destruction of the Second Temple by way of a story involving two Jews who snub each other while the sages stand idly by (Talmud Gittin 55b-56a). The insulted Jew goes to the Roman authorities to rat out the offending Jew, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to Rome’s siege of Jerusalem. For the rabbis, this is a cautionary tale against the danger of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, among Jews.

On the lighter side, there’s the old joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island. When rescuers arrive, they find he’s built two synagogues, and they ask him why. “Well, this is the one where I daven,” he says, “and that’s the one I’d never set foot in.” ‘The synagogue I’d never set foot in’ has become a trope, a lens through which we process Jewish communal dysfunction. (As I said at our Three Rabbis Walk into a Bar event last February: In Aspen, the Jews have not one, but two synagogues we’d never set foot in — that’s how Jewish it is here!)

Joking aside, this morning I’d like to address some of the dynamics in the Jewish community of Aspen and the valley. 

I think it will help to begin with the past. Historically, the Aspen Jewish Congregation (or Aspen Jewish Center, as it was known) was the only Jewish game in town, so to speak. Since the mid-1970s, it was the destination for Jewish gathering here in the valley. A Hebrew School of more than 120 students at its peak offered a fun and engaging Jewish education. I myself remember attending Shabbat evening services led by Gideon Kaufman during the summers my family spent in Aspen in my childhood. It was and is a special community, and I never imagined I’d be blessed with the privilege of leading it and living here.

As the population of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley grew and demographics shifted, the demands changed. As in every Jewish community, the congregation didn’t please everyone — an impossible task, in any case. For the last decade and a half, Chabad and later Neshamah have offered other Jewish options. In most communities, that’s normal, even healthy. 

But the response of some, a minority, to be sure — and I confess that I include myself here — has been competitive and territorial. This way of thinking leads to anxiety about market share, “losing” kids to other Hebrew Schools, and big givers and big buildings that aren’t “ours.”

I think I get it. It’s hard to go from being the unified gathering place of the Jewish community to being one of three options. It is a loss, and it deserves to be mourned. If people in this community are still hurting from the fragmentation, let’s address it directly so there can be healing. 

I think I also get how I, a young rabbi right out of school, felt like I had to prove myself, stake my ground, assert authority and credibility and individuality within this community. It’s harder to cooperate and share when you’re insecure about who you are. I know that now, from experience. I regret any role I played in driving our communities apart, or not doing enough to bring us together.

The rabbis have warned us about the dangers of competition, especially among those with a spiritual calling. In the Talmud (Yoma 22a-23a), they tell the story of what happened when the priests on duty in the Temple vied for the privilege of removing the ashes from the altar. They would race up the ramp to the altar, and the first one there got to do the job. One time, two priests were running neck-and-neck up the ramp. One of them pushed the other, who fell and broke his leg. The High Court saw that rivalry between priests resulted in bodily harm, so they instituted a lottery system for the removal of ashes from the altar.

The authorities had to step in because the priests lost sight of their mission. They were supposed to devote themselves to the holy work of the Temple, where the Israelites met the presence of God. Instead, they sought their own personal victories, at the expense of their fellow priests and their holy purpose. As a result, people got hurt.

A common pitfall, for individuals and organizations, is to focus too much on whether we’re doing better than the next guy. We start to see our neighbors as rivals, a standard against which to measure ourselves. Synagogues are not immune. We ask: Are we raising as much money, getting as good attendance, feeling as much momentum? Is our marketing as sharp, our Hebrew School as much fun, our b’nei mitzvah program as engaging, our community as welcoming?

It is human nature to compare ourselves to our fellow Jews; to take a zero-sum approach to our Jewish community; to view one group’s success as necessarily tied to another’s failure; to fight over slices of a shrinking pie, rather than to try to grow the pie together. 

Of course, we want to be a thriving, successful congregation. Of course, we should hold ourselves to high standards, evaluate ourselves critically, and continue improving. Of course, we should continue to deepen relationships, reach out to the less connected, bring more meaning to more people’s lives. 

But the success of our neighbor congregations does not mean we’re failing at these goals. If a family chooses to send their kids to a different Hebrew School, or choose a different option for bar mitzvah or High Holidays or Shabbat, what if our first response were, “Thank God they’re choosing a Jewish life!”? Let’s not forget, the real challenge we face is not “losing” people to Chabad or Neshamah, but rather a shared reality confronting all of us: waning interest in living a Jewish life at all, and indifference to there being a Jewish community. In the service of addressing that challenge, we are allies, and never rivals.

In the final reckoning, we don’t win by elbowing others out of the way. A midrash (Talmud Sota 36b-37a) recounts a tale of Jewish rivalry that took place at the Red Sea. The tribes vied with one another saying, “I will be first to go down into the sea!” — “No, I will be first!” As they stood there wrangling, the Benjamin tribe jumped ahead of the others and raced down to the sea. Out of jealousy and anger, the tribe of Judah started throwing stones at them.

Needless to say, that’s not the kind of Jewish community we want. In their threshold moment of redemption, on the verge of the miraculous parting of the sea, the Israelites were consumed by competition. Rivalry blinded them to their miraculous role in history. So they sought to tear each other down.

We, too, stand at a threshold of redemption, every day. We have much work still to do in this community: simchas to celebrate, losses to mourn, care to provide, learning to do, justice to achieve. We stand today in a position of strength, ready to undertake this holy work. Craig Navias spoke so beautifully, so perfectly, already this morning about what the Aspen Jewish Congregation is, and what we strive to be. We don’t have the time or the need to keep looking over our shoulder. We “win” by being good at what we do. We “win” by staying true to our mission: building relationships and enriching lives, bringing Jewish tradition and learning to life. And the community wins when Chabad and Neshamah are good at what they do. We win when we all win.

Consider the Hasidic tale of the rabbi named Zusya who died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous, thinking that his life didn’t measure up. He worried that God would ask him, “Why weren't you Moses?” or “Why weren’t you Solomon?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren't you Zusya?”

Even as we shift our posture from rivals to neighbors, we needn’t shy away from discussing the beliefs and practices that delineate us. Pluralism means that our differences can enrich the greater whole, not that we pretend we’re all the same. We hold different views on theology, liturgy, halachah, egalitarianism — these are all real pillars of belief and worthy of mature engagement and study. But the lines that separate us needn’t be the whole substance of our interactions. With trust and respect, we can learn from our differences and be enriched together. We can, God willing, start seeing allies where we might have seen rivals. We can reframe how we think about our community, from fragmented to vibrant and thriving with choices. Pope Francis gave an interview this summer in which he offered 10 rules for finding happiness. He included the Roman saying, “Campa e lascia campà.” It means something like “live and let live,” or maybe better yet, “Move forward and let others move forward.” It’s good advice.

I want to close with the words of a local family, Lysa and Tim Reed, that appeared in the program for their daughter Taylor’s recent bat mitzvah. First, they thanked each of the three sets of Jewish leaders in the valley — Rabbi Mendel and Lieba Mintz, Cantor Rollin and me, and Rabbi Itzhak and Dalia Vardy — for being part of their family’s Jewish journey. Then they said, “We are so lucky to live in a Valley with so many fabulous Jewish organizations and feel so blessed to have been touched by all of them.”

What a beautiful vision for what our community can be, for what it already is in our best moments. This is not a naive call to ignore our differences; we should explore them and learn from each other. This is, rather, a reminder that no Jewish community is an island, and that our fellow Jews are not aliens. It’s an invitation to recognize what makes each of us unique as we all share in building a brighter Jewish future.

G’mar hatima tova, may our entire community be inscribed for a good year.

Special thanks to Rabbi Jennifer Gertman, whose senior sermon at HUC-JIR (NY) provided the inspiration and some of the source texts for this sermon.