A community of communities

April 2016

Thu, 04/28/2016 - 1:54pm -- Rabbi

 

 
According to the Zohar, when the Israelites were in Egypt, things were so tough within us and around us that we fell to the forty-ninth level of impurity. We hit our rock bottom and just before the point of no return, the Holy One took us out of Egypt, out of subservience to all of the negative powers that had laid us low, and led us to the forty-ninth level of wisdom so that we could receive Torah.

As we count the omer for forty-nine days, we are reminded of God's great kindness in leading us step-by-step out of the stuckness and straits of Egypt toward a life of expansiveness and possibility. This period between Pesach and Shavuot is a season of recovery that unfolds one day at a time. As we learn from the wisdom of those who struggle with addiction and from the philosophy of 12 step programs, recovery is an ongoing journey, counted one day at a time, and sometimes one minute at a time.

As we count the omer, let's hold in our hearts all those in our lives and in our communities who are struggling with addiction and all those who are on a path of recovery, of any kind. For all of us who yearn for healing of body, heart and spirit, may the Holy One walk with us on our journey out of Mitzrayim, step by step, one day at a time.

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Thu, 04/21/2016 - 4:33pm -- Rabbi

 

"I want to heal you, heal you. I want to heal you, heal you. I want to heal you, heal you. Deep down in my soul. . ." We gather around the magnolia tree and sing these words. We are Black and White and Brown women from all across the United States. We pause from our work in our home cities to come here to Eastern North Carolina to pray in our different faith traditions and to imagine together what redemption might look like and how women organizing can bring about a vision of justice for our country. We stand on land that was once a plantation, where human beings from Africa were brutalized and dehumanized, torn from their families and stripped of their names. We stand on land that was later purchased by a woman named Julia Bricks, who created one of the first accredited schools in the South where African American children could study. We stand on land that is now a retreat center operated by the United Church of Christ, a space open to all who are working for a better world. We take time to honor the memory of the ancestors who stood and lived and suffered and resisted and died and survived on this very land; whose bodies were tortured at this very magnolia tree. We sing out, "I want to heal you, heal you. . .. Deep down in my soul. . ." We sing out for healing of the land and for healing of souls. We read aloud the names of women enslaved in this place (at least those names that are known), and we read the names of women of color who have been killed this past year by race-based violence. We recite Mourner's Kaddish. We recite our own names, and the names of our parents and grandparents - feeling the presence of all of the generations beside us, giving us courage to work for the healing of our hearts and our country. "I see you," we respond to one another. "I see you."

Last week, I had the blessing of participating in a gathering of "Women's Theology of Liberation" in Whitakers, North Carolina, representing POWER along with organizers, lay leaders and clergy from PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) affiliates throughout the country. It felt particularly fitting to be there in this season of liberation, reflecting on our country's legacy of slavery and racism, and of memory and movement, as we prepare for Pesach.

 

We are getting ready to go out of Mitzrayim. Each year, we are called to see ourselves and our world in the story, to imagine ourselves as going out of the narrow places, to remember and to walk beside all those who are longing to be free.

Beyond our rituals of remembrance, our matzah and maror, our songs and seder tables, our prophets insist that we take action. In the Haftarah from this past Shabbat, the prophet Malachi tells us that if we want God to bring about redemption, we have to partner with God in caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger and in sharing the resources of the earth.

This Pesach, I want to offer a question - one of many big questions that we will raise during this Passover holiday and beyond. This Pesach, how might our memories move us to action? How might the memories and stories we carry lead us to act for liberation in our world?

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Fri, 04/15/2016 - 9:20am -- Rabbi

 

Refraining from eating kitniyot (legumes) on Pesah has always been an Ashkenazi minhag - that's minhag (custom), not halachah (law).  As you may know, Sefardi Jews (and most Israelis) never adopted this custom and have always eaten peas, beans, and their derivatives on Pesah, and no one would say that they are not following Jewish law. They simply have a different custom.

Over the years people have often raised the question with me of whether they might eat kitniyot on Pesah for health reasons, because it makes observing the holiday easier for vegetarians, because they have celiac disease and can't eat gluten, and so on.  I have always told them that they will not be violating halachah by eating kitniyot, nor will their Pesah dishes be made not kosher if they eat kitniyot on them.  It is a matter of custom, and custom can be set aside for a good reason.  And again, customs differ.

Recently, there seems to be a desire among some to assert not only that eating kitniyot is acceptable as a matter of halachah but also that the custom of refraining from kitniyot is a minhag shtut - a foolish practice - and should be abandoned even by the Ashkenazi Jews who wish to follow it.  We have seen this opinion reflected in some recent teshuvot (legal rulings) of the Conservative movement that have made the news.  Although I have great respect for the rabbis who have written these teshuvot, I do not follow their logic.  Although it may be true that the original reasons for the ban on kitniyot no longer apply (e.g., there is no longer a great chance of mixing up legumes with wheat or other grains because they are no longer stored in the same locations), the same is true for many matters of Jewish law and custom that have become meaningful to Jews in and of themselves.  I still find the minhag of not eating kitniyot meaningful because it forces me to really change my diet on Pesah, not just to refrain from eating bread; otherwise, as a vegetarian, my diet could change very little.  I see no reason to abandon a minhag I (and others) find meaningful simply because someone has decided that it does not make sense for them.

Unfortunately, I see in these opinions sad evidence of a growing problem in the Jewish world, which is an inability to acknowledge that someone else's practice, while different from one's own, is nonetheless legitimate and valid.  This attitude of tolerance was a commonplace of the Jewish world for centuries, in which many different customs flourished among different Jewish communities and no one felt the need to insist that their custom and theirs alone should be adopted by all Jews. It seems that some Jews can no longer accept the diversity of Jewish practice and find it threatening in some way; "if my way is right then your way must be wrong."  By contrast, at GJC we are always striving to come to grips with our diversity and to acknowledge that our many different ways of praying, practicing, and living a Jewish life are all equally valid expressions of Jewish tradition.  Our perspective is rare and may be growing rarer, and that is a loss for Jews and Jewish life.

Those who wish to hold by these new teshuvot and eat kitniyot will certainly be observing Pesah in a way that is consistent with Jewish law, as will those who hold to the custom of refraining from eating kitniyot.  As it is taught about the opposing schools of Hillel and Shammai:  "Eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim hayim - These and these are both the words of the living God."  I pray that we all stretch ourselves to hear those ancient voices of tolerance across diversity as we celebrate this season of liberation.

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Tue, 04/12/2016 - 1:18pm -- Rabbi

 

Justice scaleRecently we have seen several states pass laws legalizing discrimination against the LGBT community and others in the name of "religious freedom."  This is a terrible development, and it is all the more shocking that these discriminatory laws are being justified in the name of religion.  We have just begun looking forward to celebrating Pesah, the Festival of Freedom, and we learn from the Passover story what freedom is really about.  The Israelites suffer oppression under Egyptian bondage.  Again and again, they ask Pharaoh for their freedom, not for themselves, but so that they can serve God.  Pharaoh, of course, refuses, and only God's metaphorical hand allows the Israelites to go free.  God is immediately concerned lest the Israelites use their new-found freedom to turn around and oppress others.  So God leads them to Mt. Sinai and gives them instruction - Torah - to teach them what their freedom really requires of them.  Chief among those requirements is the mitzvah to treat all humans as precious beings created in God's image.  The Torah does not qualify this statement.  It does not limit its applicability to people with whom we agree or people we like, and it doesn't even exclude those who may not like or agree with us.  We are not required to agree with our fellow human beings, and indeed, the cause of freedom often requires that we call out oppression when we see it.  But we are required to treat all human beings with respect.  Using the idea of religious freedom to justify discriminating against others perverts the meaning of freedom and the very idea of religion.  In the name of our history and our highest ideals, this is something we must struggle against.

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Fri, 04/01/2016 - 12:38pm -- Rabbi

This Shabbat we begin to turn our thoughts to the approaching holiday of Pesach, with its rigorous focus on eliminating leavening from our households and from our plates. Pesach requires preparation, and we see that in our work to clean our houses after the winter and make them ready for a different sort of diet than our usual bready fare. But we have to keep in mind that our physical preparations are intended to prompt inner, spiritual transformation as well, and we can't focus on one to the exclusion of the other.  Where have we become disconnected from the powerful ancient story of oppression and freedom?  In what places have our hearts, like Pharaoh's, become hardened to the suffering of others?  How can we prepare our souls to think differently about seeking justice for those who are oppressed in our own time?  The Haggadah teaches us that "In every generation, each person should consider themselves as if they came out of Egypt."  May we take time in these weeks of preparation to consider how our past can and should shape our actions in the present.

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