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

Monday, March 25, 2013

New Pope, Renewed Hope

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
March 22, 2013 • Parshat Tzav

I had every intention of speaking tonight about President Obama's speech and tour in Israel this week. But the more I read, the more I realized I needed to read to be able to comment thoroughly and responsibly about it. So stay tuned for that topic another time... (In the meantime, I do highly recommend reading the speech in full.)

So I will share a few thoughts instead about another historic speech, given last Tuesday, as a new pope was inaugurated. This pope represents a number of firsts, including of course the first non-European pope in about 13 centuries. That in itself speaks to a new era for the Catholic Church

But this pope represents another 1st, and not just the first Francis (named, by the way, after St. Francis of Assisi, who was known for his care for the weak, the defenseless, the less fortunate of the world).

The other major milestone: Francis is the first Jesuit Pope. Why is this interesting? And is it, as we obsessively ask, good for the Jews? Answering those questions requires some background.

In the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish Knight, founded the Society of Jesus, whose members were known as Jesuits. They were, in the main, more liberal toward Jews than the mainstream of the Catholic establishment. They even got themselves into trouble with the Church because of their openness.

After the Spanish expulsion in 1492, there remained New Christians -- Jews who converted to Christianity in order to remain in Spain. But soon suspicion grew that many of them were engaged in “Judaizing,” being Jews in secret and spreading their Judaism. Limpieza de sangre became the new standard of acceptance -- "purity of blood." Conversion was no longer good enough. Jewish blood -- Jewish ancestry -- was enough to condemn you. (This represents a haunting precursor to the Nazis’ genocidal policies, four centuries later.)

But as the Church moved in this racist direction, the Jesuits resisted, for a time. Only in 1593,  years after other Catholic groups had banned so-called “New Christians,” only then did the Jesuits. 

Part of their ban was their own fear of persecution: Apparently, the Jesuits, since they had welcomed Jewish-born converts, had many members of Jewish descent, including some high-ranking. This led King Phillip II of Spain to refer to the Jesuits as “a synagogue of Hebrews.” At any rate, despite early resistance, the Jesuits did ban Jewish blood from their membership, and in 1608 defined that as within 5 generations. This ban was officially lifted in -- brace yourself -- 1946! But one scholar points out that it probably wasn't enforced for some time before that.

Fast forward to 1965, and a landmark decree by the Catholic Church, called Nostra Aetate. It defined a new relationship with Jews, people of an everlasting covenant with God. And it rejected anti-Semitism and the old theology of Jews' bearing the guilt for the death of Jesus. It was a German Jesuit, Augustin Bea, who played a crucial role in advancing Nostra Aetate.

And today, we can say with confidence, that Jesuits are at the forefront of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. There is so much cooperation that, as one scholar notes, an internet search shows, among contemporary anti-Catholic voices, there is disproportionate focus on Jesuits; they are sometimes even accused of being controlled by Jews!

Look also at Jesuit universities, where Jewish Studies are an important component. Many Chairs of Jewish or Holocaust Studies at Jesuit or otherwise Catholic colleges are funded by Jews. And there is a certain similarity in the ethos of Jesuits and Jews: ours is a faith shorn up by serious scholarship and study. We embrace critical thinking and social justice in our religious lives.

Pope Francis I seems to embody this best of Jesuit attitudes toward Jews. His only published book, a dialogue of faiths, was co-authored with an Argentine rabbi. As Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he responded firmly in 1994 when terrorists bombed the city’s JCC, killing 85 people. He worked publicly  to combat terrorism throughout his career. He has also stated that the Vatican’s WWII and Holocaust archives should be made public, and has been critical of the Church’s role with Nazi Germany.

Jewish groups throughout the world are hailing this new pope with optimism that he will continue the advances of Pope John Paul II of deepening ties with world Jewry and with Israel.

And the new pope, in his inaugural speech, did not disappoint. In the first moments, as he officially recognized visiting guests, he said:
I offer a warm greeting to my brother cardinals and bishops, the priests, deacons, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful. I thank the representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence.
Not only had he invited this Jewish delegation, but he met with them the next day. And in accord with recent custom, after his election he offered an official greeting to the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo di Segni.

For another time, I’ll leave the conversation about how much influence the Catholic Church, and therefore the Pope, even has today. Mired in scandals and misconduct, the Church is losing ground, at least in the USA. Not to mention as part of the larger trend away from organized religion, across the board. But in the meantime, I give thanks for the optimism of this moment. That perhaps this new leadership may bring the Church to a place of being a more powerful force for good in the world. 

I’ll close with Pope Francis I’s own words from his inaugural mass:
Saint Paul speaks of Abraham, who, “hoping against hope, believed” (Rom 4:18). Hoping against hope! Today too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope! 
Sounds like the Jewish mission in the world, too.

Shabbat shalom, and Chag Pesach Sameach

P.S. There are still other questions to explore regarding Pope Francis I's background, in particular during Argentina's "Dirty War" (See, for example, this article), as well as his attitudes toward women and homosexuality.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Locusts: to eat or not to eat?

Jessica Slosberg, Director of Education
Aspen Jewish Congregation
March 15, 2013 • Parshat Vayikra

We are now in the book of Vayikra or Leviticus, which consists of about three months of rules. There are rules about pretty much anything and everything you can imagine. Sometimes when I have a question I like to go through Vayikra and see if it is addressed directly or indirectly (it is a Hebrew school teacher thing). There are rules for sacrificing, building, clothing, slaves; the list goes on. And, of course, there are rules about food. What we can eat – what we can’t eat – how we can eat what - who can eat what when.  Educators, rabbis and parents go to great lengths to make this book interesting, which is no small task– there is even an iPhone app (see me later for details). 

Now as an educator, I am always gleeful when there is a real-life application (beyond the iPad) and this year we have one. As we approach Pesach there is incredibly large swarm of locusts in Egypt and moving to Israel. Now the locust swarm happens every year; but this is one of the biggest and being so near Passover is chuckle worthy in itself. However, there is a ferocious debate in Israel and that is: Are they the kosher kind of locust? Are they kosher for everyone? Who can serve them? And, of course, who is the correct person to say they whether they are kosher or not.

We are going to skip ahead a few chapters. In Vayikra 11:22-23 it says: “These you are allowed to eat: any kind of locust, and any kind of bald locust, any kind of cricket, and any kind of grasshopper. But all [other] winged swarming things, which have four feet, are a detestable thing unto you [and should not be eaten.”

The problem is, by the time the Talmud was codified most communities had lost the mesorah, the knowledge and tradition of eating locusts – as in which are kosher and which aren’t – except in Northern Africa and Yemen. These communities have continued to eat locusts all the way through. Now one rabbi already has said these locusts should be considered not kosher by all Israelis. A different rabbi said that he needs to examine them first before he can make a determination; he works for Institute for the Study of Agricultural Torah Commandments in Israel.

A similar locust event happened in 2005, and rabbis determined that they were the kosher kind of locust. It was even determined that Ashkenazi Jews, who traditionally side on the most stringent interpretations of the law, could eat them if they were served by a Jew from North Africa and Yemen.
This got me thinking about the value of experience. It also seems that in this day and age we all want to be experts – on everything. Having so much information at our fingertips makes it easy to forget that we are not actually experts on everything. Sometimes we need to be willing to defer to the real expert – the one with experience. Not only does this not make us weak it but in fact we become stronger and it shows that we are willing to grow. As Albert Einstein said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”  I know this is something that I struggle with, wanting to be THE expert – sometimes I am and sometimes I am not. But every time I know I don’t have to be the expert and can ask for help I consider that a victory. It is not always easy but I am making baby steps.

Hopefully we all can recognize in our lives when we are the experts and when we should just eat the locusts. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Searching for truth(s)

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
08 March 2013 • Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei

When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. 
(Exodus 40:36-38)

This scene from our week's parshah describes one of many miracles God wrought for the Israelites, along with the redemption itself, the plagues, and the parting of the sea -- which we’re all diligently preparing to retell in a few weeks at our Pesach seders.

As we think again about the Exodus, the Spring 2013 issue of Reform Judaism magazine raises a provocative question about it, among other issues (which are all worth reading):
The author of this article is Rabbi Dr. David Sperling, professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-New York, and my teacher. In our 2nd-year bible class, when he told us that the Exodus didn’t really happen, he made several of my classmates cry. I hope that isn’t the outcome of my d’var torah tonight... and I give you full permission to reject everything I say here (not that that differs from any other week, but I'm making it explicit this week!).

Let me break down Sperling's argument for you: There’s no archaeological record of millions of Israelites ever being slaves in Egypt, or marching through the desert to Canaan. Period. It probably didn’t happen, at least not as described in the Torah.

I have a feeling that’s not terribly shocking for most of us, who probably don’t take the Bible as literal history, but instead as a human document -- divinely inspired, though couched in the context of its authors’ times and places.

So why is that story there? Why would a people keep telling a myth about ourselves as former slaves, and as immigrants and foreigners in our land?

Before I answer that, let’s get help from another voice.

Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in this week’s Tablet Magazine about being a Jewish atheist, and searching for a synagogue suitable for him intellectually. (Based on unofficial polling a few weeks ago, during my sermon on what Americans believe, I know that some significant number of Jewish atheists call this synagogue their spiritual home. And this is good...)

Zimmerman talks about growing up very involved in Conservative Judaism, from Hebrew school, to services and holidays, to Camp Ramah. And he even went on to Brandeis. He reflects that, during his childhood, no one ever imposed on him a singular concept or image of God, and he was able to jump in his imagination between various possibilities (including the old man in the cloud, the booming voice in the Ten Commandments, and, amusingly, Ariel’s father Triton in The Little Mermaid!).

When he grew to be a teenager, he began to think of God as a “fictitious character full of symbolic importance.” He had begun to study literature and placed God among the great characters of Western culture. He always felt, I think rightly, that Judaism is “a remarkably easy religion to engage with skeptically.”

But then something happened, especially when he found himself among many non-Jews, who have a different relationship to God belief, God language, and doubt. He realized he needed to resolve this unresolved issue from childhood. So he started studying it more, reading the so-called “new atheists" (e.g. Hitchens and Dawkins), and thereby fully realized his atheism. He never rejected Judaism, though, as he still found it valuable. But he searched in vain for a Jewish institution that felt like an intellectual home.

Finally, when he moved to NYC, he decided to explore the humanistic Judaism that he had read about, and so he attended a service at the City Congregation for Jewish Humanism, which meets at the Lower East Side Y. 

But something unexpected happened. When they got to the Shema, this is what the prayer book and the congregation sang (to the usual melody): Shema Yisrael, echad ameinu, adam echad. “Hear O Israel, Our People is One, Humanity is One.” And here is Zimmerman describing his reaction: “Hearing God replaced by 'humanity' in this version of the Shema ... felt something akin to hearing Christian heavy-metal: The words and the music were so incongruous, it was impossible not to giggle.”

He went on to reflect that, here, finally, he had found the one prayer book, maybe in the world, where he could agree with every word. And yet, "the prayers rang false." He concluded,
Who really wants to pray from a book that has nothing disagreeable in it? Who wants to follow only rituals that make intellectual sense? It seemed so shortsighted to me. If I hadn’t been given a God to wrestle with growing up, I wouldn’t be half the cynical, pestering, relentlessly questioning nudnik I am today. In other words, I wouldn’t be Jewish. [!]
And that brings us back to Dr. Sperling and his tearing down of the traditional belief in the Exodus as described in the Torah and Haggadah. Just because it’s not literally or historically true doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain truth.

Sperling teaches that the Exodus story is an allegory for what the Israelites were facing in their political and social reality. It was “invented deliberately to obscure the fact that the Israelites were native to Canaan.” Since in fact they had many values and teachings in common with the neighboring tribes, they had to work hard to assert their distinctiveness. This, they hoped, would ensure solidarity among the people, and enhance their commitment to the Torah’s calls to be wary of the practices of their neighbors, the Canaanites, Egyptians, and others.

But why a slavery story, of all things? Why Egyptian bondage? Again, it's allegory: Egypt had an ancient empire that stretched past Israel into what we now know as Syria. The Egyptian overlords controlled much of the economy of those areas, often forcing the local populations to harvest their imperial fields rather than the inhabitants’ own land. So the Israelites had been subjected to forced labor at the hands of Egyptian taskmasters, just not in Egypt -- in their native land!

The story seems invented, again, to shore up the exclusive worship of God. After all, if God could free a people from slavery, with miracles such as that story, then surely He is worthy of exclusive, special worship -- instead of the various gods of neighboring tribes. 

After we tear down and reconstruct this narrative, we learn: distinctiveness and independence, along with loyalty to God, are elevated as supreme values.

This leads Rabbi David Wolpe to say that the myth, if you want to call it that, of the Exodus makes him feel enormous gratitude: for freedom, for security, for Jewish continuity. He writes, “Despite unimaginable opposition, the Jewish people have seen nation after nation buried under the debris of history while our nation lives. Truth should not frighten one whose faith is firm. And faith ought not to rest on splitting seas.”

Zimmerman reaches a related conclusion after his Jewish atheist searching:
I needed my experience with Humanistic Judaism to relearn what I intuitively understood from a young age: There is inherent value in saying words I do not mean, praying to a God I do not believe in, and kissing a Torah I do not believe was written by him. There is a poetic richness as a non-believer participating in this tradition, in being an “Israelite” named for a mythological story about wrestling with a fictional deity that birthed a very real people.
Although I am still unsure how, I know at least that I will continue to act out this fiction. And if that associates me with a God and superstitions I do not believe in, I accept that, because I know that within the fiction of Judaism lie more profound truths than could ever be attained outside of it.
And we reached a related conclusion yesterday in my adult ed class. We are studying Modern Jewish Thought, and this week's topic was Post-Holocaust Theology.

If the Enlightenment led us to reject the traditional God of Israel, it also taught us to put in His place -- on God’s throne -- humanity, instead. With reason as our guide, we were supposed to advance social and political progress for the good of all humankind, a real messianic age, at our fingertips, made by man for man.

But the Holocaust unseated us from that throne. After that horror, how could we ever put humanity on a pedestal again? Our collective faith, not in God, but in the human species, was shattered.

So we had given up traditional faith in God, and now we had lost classical faith in man. So the question is: what replaces them?

This is a question that can be answered adequately only with a lifetime of lived experience. But this much I know: the answer involves moments of holiness, glimpses of the transcendent, even amidst our deeply secular lives; it invites a sense of the miraculous, even against our rational brains; it demands a humble belief in our ability -- and indeed, responsibility -- to do some good, while understanding our limitations and leaving room for the existence of something greater than ourselves (call it God or something else, but don't let that debate distract from doing something).

Underneath it all, it involves a fundamental affirmation of the value of community and relationship, and that, though we may spend our whole lives searching, our lives have meaning and purpose; we matter to someone, not only here and now, but even when we’ve left this mystery for the next one.