Friday, September 21, 2012

Interpreting Isaiah

On Yom Kippur we read Isaiah 57:14- 58:14 a call to action and a call to do right not look right.  Rabbi Shefa Gold, a great teacher and visionary has interpreted this section of the Yom Kippur service with a modern twist.  It is stunning and tough a few years old it clearly gives us the vision of what we can be if we rethought the liturgy and found meaning in the words of the ancients.  May your Yom Kippur be meaningful and complete.  May your fast give you just the right about of self-awareness as to motivate you but not so much that you feel hurt, lost or ill.  Yom Kippur is about renewal.  May you be renewed in both body and spirit for the new year.  

Isaiah Haftorah for Yom Kippur
by Rabbi Shefa Gold

(5764, 2003)


Out of my way, out of my way!

Clear away these damn obstacles from the way of my people!

This is what the High and Holy One says,

She says, Yes, I dwell in the High and Holy Places,

Yet you will find me with the lowly ones, the poor and humble,

I am with them to revive their spirits, to lift their hearts,

Sometimes a fighting spirit is necessary to wake you up,

But I won’t be angry forever,

After all, everything is made of my Divine spirit,

Wrapped in the garb of this world,

All is of my making.

But your greediness made me so angry,

I hid myself... so that your hearts might lead you back to me

And then I will heal you, and comfort your mourners,

Peace will come to those who feel far from me,

And to those who are near,

For all will be healed and all will be well.

But those greedy corporate warmongers!

They are like the troubled sea,

Whose waters stir up filth that pollutes the land,

For them there is no safety, there will be no peace.

Cry out! Make a stink for God's sake!

Let the people of this country of yours know

that they're making a big mistake,

They’re your people!

Oh sure, I hear their prayers every day,

They say they want to learn my ways. Hah!

As if you were a people doing righteousness,

Who has not abandoned decency and compassion!

You hold their ears against my voice,

And close your eyes to suffering,

While you ask to learn my way,

All the while saying you want be near me.

They say, "Don't you see we're fasting?

Don't you see how holy we have become?"

But on your fast day you wear clothes

that were made by Chinese prisoners,

And shoes that were cried over

by terrified children in loathsome sweatshops,

And the books you hold in your hands,

are filthy with the tears of dying forests...

And your investments fatten the rich,

who are destroying this land.

You think this is the kind of fast I want?

A day that will feed your self-righteousness?

You call this a fast?!

A day that will please your high and holy God?

Well, I'll tell you what kind of fast I would desire from you...

Unlock the chains of your greed and habit,

Free you from slavery of being blind consumers,

Let the oppressed worker go free

by raising the minimum wage.

It's a disgrace I tell you!

The fast I want is one that will inspire you

to share your food with the hungry,

To redistribute the wealth of this land fairly,

To build affordable housing for the homeless,

And to welcome back the people you have thrown out of your hearts,

Even the ones in your own family.

Then your radiance will burst through like the dawn,

And the miracle of healing will happen suddenly,

And true righteousness will be revealed in your faces,

As God shines through you again.

Then when you call, God will answer gladly,

And when you cry, she will reach out with her presence,

In each moment whispering, Hineni, Here I am!

If you banish corruption, hatred and apathy

from the innermost places of your heart,

If you stop blaming everyone else,

And instead extend your hand to the hungry,

And lift up the ones who have been beaten down

by this unjust system,

Then your light will shine forth, even in the darkness.

The presence of God will guide you always,

That Divine presence will slake your thirst when life seems too dry,

And give strength to your bones when you are weary of the work.

You shall be like a watered garden,

Like a spring whose waters never fail,

From your inspiration people will reestablish

the values that have been desecrated,

And restore the foundations of decency

that have been laid by your ancestors,

And you shall be called "Repairer of Brokenness,"

"Restorer of the Way,"

If only you would truly celebrate Shabbat,

And put down your business, your buying and selling and bargaining and scheming with the resources that were never yours to begin with,
If you would delight in the restful sanity of Pure Being,

Then you are delighting in Me,

Participating in the holiness of God.

Then I will set you on the high places,

So you can get some perspective,

So you can truly enjoy the precious inheritance

of the life I have given you.

This is what God tells me

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Shana Tova

Tomorrow night is Rosh Hashanah.  The Talmud teaches that during the 10 days between the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur God judges us for our actions in the last year.  This is the home stretch to redeem one’s self for if one is judged to not have found favor with God, death awaits them.  The liturgy and ancient writing clearly sees this as God holding the people in jeopardy, deciding their fate.  We actually ask “who will live and who will die?”  The image of God is troubling.  On the one hand God is a loving parent, ready to forgive if we truly make repentance, but the other side is a vindictive God that will rain down pain and sorrow for not living up to a standard.  

Most of us don't believe this anymore. The words do not ring true.  Death and Life are not the results of how well we live up to the mitzvot, the commandments. But that does not mean we can't learn something from this metaphor.   The Torah is designed to guide us to build a just community.  The yearly reminder to take stock of what we have done over the last year is a worthy audit to do.  Perhaps over the next 10 days we can find one way that we can make the world a nicer place for our family, friends, and community.  Who knows?  Perhaps that is more what the ancients were hoping for, not frightened people acting good for fear of wrath of God, but that we would find a window of time to truly think about whom we are and how we walk in this world.  And isn’t that a better way to spend your time?  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Religious based hate has no place in our society.  But it lives here, thrives here and sometimes its ugly face makes us all wonder where we are in the story.  When I was young, some of my well spent youth was being into a punk scene listen to music that some found offensive.  There rang a stream of hard truth through much of the lyrics of bands like The Offs.  Everyone’s a Bigot was a song that promoted the notion that we all have a dark place where we demonize some group.  Those harsh words screamed at shows are echoed in more contemporary ways.  At the Democratic National Convention, The Daily Show sought out and found people willing to demonize gun owners and the religious right in the Republican Party.  The worst was a Jewish delegate who went off on Evangelical Zionist Christians saying all manner of stereotypical things about how they see Jews as a means to an end.  While this may be true for some, it certainly isn’t true for all.  What is true is that we are comfortable with our own biases while condemning the actions of others whose biases are different in detail but not in process.  This brings me to this morning.
I woke with a real sense of hope; I was attending two meetings today focused on education, one here in Indianapolis and the other in Kenya.  In both cases, the groups were purposefully diverse in religion and other ways.   But as my TV popped on the dominate image was the US consulate in Benghazi burning and the report that our Ambassador and members of his staff were killed in an attack.  A bad moment was made worse by the news that the embassy in Cairo was also attacked.   The question of why rattled in my head until I learned that the rioting that led to the murders was due to an internet movie, rumored to be released in wide distribution, degrading the Prophet Mohammad and Islam.  A 14 minute trailer had been posted on an Islamist website with Arabic sub-titles meant to enflame young Muslims in the two countries still trying to build a new world after the toppling of their former dictators. 
The film, whose production currently is in question, is being promoted by a man who is known for his anti-Islamic rhetoric, a Pastor named Terry Jones.  Jones is infamous for wanting to publically burn a Qur’an and for staging protests outside of mosques.  His hate, fed by political hacks using anti-Islam sentiment as a tool to gin up their base, almost feels like parody.  Yet there he was promoting a film that incited violence that took the life of a patriot working to make a better world.  Christopher Stevens, the Ambassador to Libya, was described by a friend of mine who knew him as a thoughtful and compassionate man.  His work on behalf of our countries interests in the chaotic post-Gadaffi Libya was not celebrated in the media but truly showed him to be a patriot of the highest order.  He died a victim of an unnecessary war fueled by ignorance. 
Let me be clear.  The movie maker and Terry Jones are not responsible for the deaths but they are not blameless.  I am tired of the stupid meme that they were just expressing their first amendment rights.  Of course they were and if someone tried to outlaw attacks on religion I would stand up for their right.  But that does not free them of understanding there may be consequences to exercising their freedom.  The first amendment does not protect you from being called out for your stupidity and hate.  They committed no crime but they acted immorally.   The film, or at least the small part I have seen, is riddled with lies about Mohammad and Islam.  The only point I see for this video to exist is to cause people to rise up against an entire faith tradition.  The movie is a dog whistle to those who thrive on hate and it fed an Islamist strain of thinking that leads to this kind of violence. 
Ignorance and hate are weapons of mass destruction.   This morning we saw more victims of these weapons.  But as the day closes I still have hope.  I have hope because I know there are more people who believe in a God that is too big for a single path of seeking than one that demands followers to attack all other paths.  That is the best defense against these WMD.     

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Jewish Women are Doing it For Themselves

The event was called a “Jewish BLT:  Bagel, Lox and Tefillin.”  I stood there holding the newly purchased and never used tefillin in my hand as I unfolded the instructions ready to tackle this ancient ritual.  It turned out the instructions looked as though they had been written after an office party.  Baffled, I held the leather straps, looking for shock and awe more than for Shacharit. A hand touched my shoulder, and my friend Sharona offered to walk me through the process.  At each step she slowly, deliberately, and patiently helped me understand not only the how but the why of tefillin.  She made sure I could recite the prayers, and in the end I was impressed by the perfect Shin the straps made across my hand. 

When the service was over and the bagel and lox came out, a man in the congregation leaned over to me and said, “I still find it weird that women are putting on tefillin.” For this man, it was an uncertain change in the practice of our people. 

I was reminded of this experience while using the lesson on Tefillin Barbie on the Jewish Women's Archive website. What would that guy think of her or the woman who created her, Jen Taylor Friedman, a Soferet ( ritual scribe), who had challenged the age-old male tradition of that profession?  Friedman is among the latest in a line of women who are embracing Jewish values and traditions and re-creating them for a new age so that women can fully engage in Jewish life.   

For young people, it is easy to forget that the first woman rabbi was ordained in the United States only 40 years ago. ( celebrating-the-first-lights-of-women-rabbis) Today women are at the helm of a revolution that is helping make ritual, theology, and everyday Judaism more relevant to our contemporary world.  Of course, there are also men doing the same thing, but I find myself learning more from the women who are challenging long-held ideas and traditions to create a thriving 21st century Judaism. 

I suspect that women have always had something to say about Jewish life, but that only recently has our community allowed the influence of women to be publically acknowledged.  I imagine, for example, that the women in the lives of the great rabbinic sages probably influenced their writing.  Today, however, women do not have to hide behind a man to get their voices heard but rather can bring their wisdom into the open. 

There are so many examples of women shaping Judaism today. I’m thinking of women like Marcia Falk   and the writers and editors at , who have called on us to reclaim a rich and evolving prayer tradition to find new ways to approach prayer and ritual, giving us options and freedom to find our own words and thoughts.  These writers are also creating and sharing new rituals for today’s changing Jewish family, providing a starting place more suited to our contemporary values and ideals. 

I’m also thinking of rabbis like my own, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso,   the first Rabbi to be a mother, who has written a series of children’s books bringing “God talk” to young children in a way that doesn’t insult the readers’ theology.  Her writing gives us a new way to look at childhood spirituality. Another teacher and friend of mine, Rabbi Janie Grackin, explores how the traditions of Judaism can be made fun using socio-dramatic play and shared family events.  Her work has enabled many to step outside of their comfort zone and experience Jewish ritual in exciting and lively ways. 

There are women like Rabbi Jill Jacobs of Rabbis for Human Rights   and Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service, / who challenge us to think about our responsibility to love our neighbor and do righteousness.  They teach us that Mitzvah Day is not enough, calling on Jews to do tzedakah and tikkun olam in a meaningful and impactful way.  They remind us to focus not only on our own experiences of community service but on what we are actually accomplishing for the people we are trying to serve.

At a recent meeting of Jewish educators, I heard an old axiom about the roles of men and women:  “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck; she points the head where she wants it to go.” The Jewish women leaders I see around me demonstrate that women are no longer relegated to being the neck, to peeking through the curtain of the mechitza, to looking down from the balcony, to scrawling notes in the margins of the prayerbook.   Women have carved out their place of leadership in American Judaism and are shepherding it into the future.   

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