Zoom Wonders

This week, I was touched directly for the first time by Covid-19 when Jay Nevins passed away at the age of 59. Jay was the brother of Karen, a very beloved friend of mine. While coronavirus was the direct cause of his death, he had been playing fast and loose with his health for many years. At the time he passed away, he was stubbornly ignoring his uncontrolled type 2 diabetes and undergoing dialysis for failed kidneys.

Jay died in upper New York state, while Karen and her husband Brian live in central New Jersey. They watched on Zoom while a Chabad rabbi who had been a friend of her father’s conducted the funeral alone except for the funeral director. That evening New Jersey time they held a Zoom minyan. The rabbi who conducted the service was in Florida, Brian’s brother was in Texas, his sister was in Virginia, and I joined them from Australia. The call brought with it some of the limitations I’ve come to associate with such online gatherings: the rabbi Goldie Milgram shared a meditative song at the beginning and end of the service, and the sound quality was pretty terrible. We couldn’t sing together, because of how much lag there was among all of our connections. Some participants struggled a bit with the technology–for example the older couple whose camera was directed on the lower part of their faces throughout the call. This did not change the fact that this group of twelve or so people, scattered across the United States and on the other side of the world, were able to come together to support Karen in her grief.

There have been many many downsides to the Covid-19 pandemic. More appear each day. Australia appears to have made it through this first stage pretty well, but we have no idea what the future holds. Our success does not make life any easier for the billions of people suffering in just about every corner of the world. Our lives are far less predictable, far less comfortable, and quite a bit scarier than they were two months ago.

And yet in the midst of catastrophe there have been shining moments. I still remember the wonder of that very first Friday night Zoom service—only the second Zoom call I’d ever attempted. I watched as faces magically appeared on my computer screen, coming together from disparate corners of the Adelaide area to celebrate Shabbat. The service followed several days of furious debate about whether Zoom was preferable or whether I should attempt to livestream from the bimah so as to replicate a normal Friday night service. The synagogue’s internet was far too slow to support such an attempt, and from the moment that I saw our community come together on my screen, I knew that a shared prayer experience was the way to go.

The next day, my sister and her family showed up at our Shabbat morning service from their couch in Iowa. Since then, our services have included participants joining us from the United States, Spain, Israel, New Zealand and, this last Shabbat morning, Indonesia. The world beyond Australia’s borders is currently unattainable, but at the same time, the world has been showing up to services at Beit Shalom.

The word “unprecedented” has been used and overused in recent months. Things are very bad in an unprecedented way, but I also think they are very good. A few weeks ago, I participated in a Multifaith prayer service with clergy from three continents. A Buddhist priest in Tokyo chanted sutras. A Muslim imam in Detroit read inspirational words from the Qur’an. A Jain priest, drowsy in Edmonton at 5:00 am, offered prayers from his own tradition for healing. I sang Debbie Friedman’s setting of the mishebeyrach prayer for healing which has become a part of our services during this time. I know that in pandemics past, prayers have been offered in many languages and from many traditions. But when have we seen the whole world literally come together to pray for healing? Unprecedented good.

In the weeks to come, I don’t want to lose that sense of closeness. Some people have already called for at least one monthly Zoom service. They appreciate the intimacy and yes, the convenience of joining in from their own homes. Others will eagerly anticipate the time when they can sit in our beloved sanctuary with others. Personally, I want to make sure we figure out what has been special in these last weeks and hold on to it. It has brought so much shalom into this fraught time. Shabbat shalom!

COVID-19 BUILDING CLOSURE

THE BEIT SHALOM SYNAGOGUE
BUILDING IS CLOSED FOR SERVICES, GROUP, MEETINGS & CHEDER UNTIL
FURTHER NOTICE.

ALL SERVICES & ACTIVITIES ARE CURRENTLY BEING DELIVERED ONLINE

PLEASE CONTACT THE OFFICE OR THE RABBI FOR FURTHER INFORMATION

Purim Carnival 2020

 

This years Purim Carnival poster is now out !

 

The festivities begin at 2.30pm

Admission is $5 for a single and $10 for a family.

3.30 pm  Purim Puppet Show

4pm  Youth Spiel

6pm PurimSpiel

Bring a plate to share, drinks available for purchase.

Free Transport for JCS clients.

Email: contact@jcssa.asn.au
Phone: 08 8363 5400

Hard-wired for Hope in the Midst of Despair

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide South Australia

A few weeks ago, just around the time that parts of Queensland and New South Wales burst into flame, the ABC reported that not a single drop of rain had fallen on Queensland in the last 24 hours. Not in the parched south, not in the tropical north, not over the Great Barrier Reef. No one could recall when this had last happened. Queensland is so vast, so varied in its climates, that rain is always falling in at least one little corner. But not on that day. To use biblical language, the heavens had closed up tight.

Nobody likes to think about climate change. By nobody, I mean me. I have studied my own behaviour enough to identify a trusty two step approach in how I tackle the many news articles on the topic that pop up on my computer screen. Step one is to read the headline. Step two is to move on to a different news story. Every once and a while, I’ve come upon an article that is compelling enough that I am persuaded to read one or even two paragraphs before I look away. It’s not that I’m in any way a climate change denialist. But I definitely spend most of my time in denial. The news on the climate is so unrelentingly grim that if I spend more than a minute thinking about it, I feel myself start to go ever-so-slightly insane. And just when it seems the news can’t get any worse, it does.

Over the last several years, I’ve done a great deal to reduce my carbon footprint. I almost never eat red meat, and at least half the meals I eat in any week are either vegetarian or vegan. Last year I was pleased to be able to buy a small home close to public transport and within easy walking distance of shopping. I ride my bicycle to the synagogue at least once each week and often use the bicycle to travel within the CBD of Adelaide. At the same time, I appreciate that absolutely nothing that I as an individual do will have any meaningful impact on reducing the galloping rate of climate change. Even if I and my one hundred closest friends were to do everything we could to reduce our impact on our environment, it would still be meaningless. Climate change is threatening our future, and I feel as if I have no ability to slow it. So I change the subject instead.

I’m confident that I am not alone in adopting what is essentially an attitude of denial towards our most pressing problem. I note that whenever I post anything climate change related on my Facebook page, nobody seems to notice. I looked at the history of several Facebook friends who often post climate change articles. No likes at all, while a family photo might draw 50 or more votes of approval. To me that indicates that the people seeing those articles are doing just what I routinely do—they’re skipping over them to look at puppy videos.

None of this is making an impact on climate change or, significantly, letting our elected officials and industrial leaders know that this issue is crucial to us. And yes, this is the most critical issue of our time. We know it, and our children really, really know it. I grew up 10 miles away from the White House, which we all knew would be Ground Zero in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The air raid siren test on the second Wednesday of each month served as a regular reminder of just how vulnerable we were, how quickly we might just blink out of existence. I wonder now about the inner life of our children and young people, who are growing into a world that they know will grow increasingly inhospitable and unpredictable. I see how frustrated and infuriated they are when adults speak condescendingly to them, telling them their fears are exaggerated. We know from the data that is coming out that they are not exaggerating in the least. I am sure one thing young people need is to talk about their worries and fears, and I can only hope that we are available to listen to them.

Over the course of the last several years, I have concluded that one reason why it is so hard for any of us to engage with this subject is because we don’t have the spiritual language to do so. We can analyse the crisis from all perspectives, lay out the facts in intricate detail, provide modelling that is increasingly accurate. What we have not yet figured out is how to speak about climate change in a way that brings in our hearts and souls. I believe part of the problem is that we have unconsciously embraced a world view in which we expect to move from darkness to light, from despair to salvation.  Either we are moving towards an increasingly perfect world, or all is lost. This is true most of all of our religious language.

We will shortly reach the Eileh Ezkerah service. This service, known in English as the martyrology service, emerged in its original form during the Middle Ages, a time of great danger and tragedy for the Jewish people. European Jews were often presented with an impossible choice by the Christian Crusaders: convert to Christianity or die. Many chose death, and many more were never even given an opportunity to choose. Poets of the time found comfort in the legend of ten rabbis, martyred by the Roman empire for their failure to abandon the teaching of Torah. The tale of their executions was retold in vivid detail and thus connected the unwilling martyrs in medieval Europe with their ancient ancestors.

The liturgical poem or piyyut that tells this story formed the core of today’s martyrology story. Sadly, there are so many more episodes in our history, so many times when Jews became victims simply because they were Jews. Our service climaxes in some way with the stirring song of the Partisans–a defiant statement in the face of the overwhelming force of the Nazis.

But of course the service does not end on that note. It ends on a note of hope. Within our Jewish tradition, all roads lead to hope. Jews had the ability to hold on to hope even when hope seemed far away. Of course, our ultimate hope was to return to our own land–a hope of 2000 years. If we could see a Jewish state brought back to life, perhaps nothing was impossible.

Judaism speaks of hope not only as a community value but as an individual aspiration. Today, Yom Kippur, is the ultimate day of hope. Many of you will know that I treasure Yom Kippur above all other days of the year. On this day, we affirm our conviction that each of us has the potential to become our best possible selves. Despite or perhaps because of all of the disappointments and failures that lie behind us, we embrace the possibility for a better future for ourselves and for the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are essentially hard-wired for hope.

Climate change has made me feel hopeless, but in recent weeks I’ve gotten back just a little bit of my hope. I participated in the climate strike on September 21. I know this demonstration was controversial; not everyone thought it was appropriate for students to miss classes a few weeks away from the end of the term. For me, our local event—which was small in comparison with other capitals around the word—was incredibly inspiring. The rally in Adelaide was by far the largest I’ve attended in my 13 years in the country. But what was really striking to me was the variety of people who showed up, brought signs, shouted slogans and marched jauntily up King William Street to Parliament House. There were lots of students—some in school uniforms, and a few even lugging their school backpacks. There were children in prams and pushers, teens participating enthusiastically, but also grandparents and great-grandparents. There were people of every imaginable ethnic background, people with a diversity of political views, people in three-piece suits, people in platform heels, people with wild hair colour, and people in hijabs. One memory that has stayed with me is of two girls in Pembroke uniforms, yelling themselves hoarse as they led the crowd in rallying cries. Another memory is of the signs, homemade by children and teens, exhorting those in charge to listen to them, to save the world before it was too late. Our time together felt like a bit of a watershed—it was that moment when disparate people who have felt isolated in their views join together to act. By the end of the rally, nothing had actually changed in the world. But something momentous had happened: we had begun to move together towards hope.

It would be a great error to mistake the hope that I felt on that day for a solution to the global challenge that is Climate Change. But as I’ve seen in recent years, an absence of hope is paralyzing. We can only move forward if we hold on to hope while remaining realistic at the same time.

I take inspiration in this work from the prophet we know by the name Deutero-Isaiah, whom I’m now going to call DI. DI is the mystery author of the last 26 chapters of the book of Isaiah, including the thunderous exhortation we heard earlier. That passionate call to righteousness is actually uncharacteristic of DI. Much of his message is focused on a single idea: hope in a time of darkness.

DI addresses a Jewish people who have survived a horrific trauma: they’ve seen their beloved Temple, built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonian army, and the beautiful city of Jerusalem lying in ruins. The Jewish leadership has been exiled to Babylon, where they now sit in their hopelessness. In the midst of this darkness, DI brings them light. Among his most famous words are those found at the start of his prophecy in Isaiah chapter 40, words that we heard just a short time ago as part of this service: Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God. Here is another passage from chapter 60: “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; For the Adonai shall be your light everlasting, Your God shall be your glory. Your sun shall set no more, Your moon no more withdraw; For  Adonaishall be a light to you forever, And your days of mourning shall be ended.”

DI has no ability to change anything tangible in the people’s lives. He has no more actual power than any of the other exiled Jews. But he shows us the amazing impact that words have to kindle hope where hope had been lost.

For several months, I asked colleagues both Jewish and Christian the same question: how do we find a spiritual language for climate change? Some people fled from the question, others pondered it deeply. No one felt that they had the perfect answer. Ultimately, I believe our challenge is to hold tight on to hope and to let that hope drive us to action. We cannot have one without the other.

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about some of the ways we find meaning and purpose in our lives. At this point in our history, I believe there can be no higher purpose than making sure we preserve this beautiful world for our children and for all the generations after them. Each of us will need to find our own paths to action, whether it be acting in our own lives to reduce our climate footprint or joining in larger political movements to try to bring about change. All the while, let us hold on to our great Jewish gift—the gift of hope. Our Torah reading calls us to choose life–let us choose life for us and for those who come after us. May this new year be one of joy for us and all the world, and may hope inspire all we do. Shana tova!

A Special Request to the Jewish Community of Adelaide from the Adelaide Holocaust Museum and Steiner Education Centre (AHMSEC)

The AHMSEC museum would like to invite the South Australian Jewish community to contribute artefacts and personal documents from Holocaust survivors and historical family photos showing pre-war Jewish life and culture in Europe as part of the development of the museum’s resource archive. Please see PDF attached.

A Special Request to the Jewish Community of Adelaide 

Yizkor Memorial Book 2018

There are stars up above, so far away we only see their light
long, long after the star itself is gone.
And so it is with people that we loved–
their memories keep shining ever brightly thought their time with us is done.
–Hannah Szenes

This year, Beit Shalom will be publishing a Yizkor memorial booklet to honour our loved ones as part of the Yom Kippur Yizkor service. We will also continue our tradition of reading out the names of our loved ones as part of the Yizkor service.
We welcome your contributions to this booklet. If you choose to remember loved ones with 1/4 page or larger, you are invited to submit a photo to include. Also please do send along readings, songs, or other reminders of this person’s part in your life for larger listings. May the memories of those we have loved and lost be a blessing and a source of comfort for us.

Please open the PDF below, fill in and send to the office at bshalom@bshalomadel.com

Yizkor-Book-Order-Form-fillable-2019

The Power of Multifaith Connections

Early in the week, I was fascinated to see on Facebook a link to an article honouring the legacy of Rev. Clark Lobenstine, who had died a few months earlier. For more than 35 years, Rev. Lobenstine was the director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. This was an organisation that began by building bridges among Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities and ultimately ended up incorporating eleven religious traditions from around the world. In a celebration of his work, a former deputy Mike Coggin noted that previous interfaith organisations had been Christian in focus, tentatively reaching out from the comfort of their faith to extend a hand in friendship to others. The IFC was different. The religious faiths that were a part of this endeavour, and their affiliated congregations, were all seen as equals. Nor, as Coggin noted, was there any effort to simplify or whitewash the significant differences among faith traditions. Multifaith work was and is messy, and the only way that meaningful dialogue can happen is to acknowledge that truth.

This article was a source of particular joy to me because my late mother Naomi Kaminsky served as the first administrative assistant of the IFC. She went to work for the organisation when I was in year 9 and stayed on for four fascinating, sometimes challenging or even infuriating years. Working with religious leaders, some of whom were treated as royalty by their own congregations, was seldom easy, but my mother found the work tremendously rewarding. She was encouraged in her efforts by her rabbi Eugene Lipman, who himself was committed to the work of building multifaith relationships.

You will be surprised to learn that I was a bit of a nerd in high school. Following my bat mitzvah, I joined the Temple Sinai volunteer choir, where I became the youngest member by about twenty years. We sang mostly at the high holy days, but in the second year after I joined, we took on an additional project: we agreed to prepare two songs to sing at the inaugural Interfaith Thanksgiving concert a few days before that beloved American festival. The concert took place in a massive church in downtown Washington, DC, with at least a dozen choirs participating. We were the non-Christians, but the Christian diversity was astonishing, including some very straight-laced white church choirs, and just as many black gospel choirs. All these years later, and I still remember how the choir of Sts. Paul and Augustine African American Catholic church absolutely rocked my world. I’ve been longing to sing Jewish gospel music ever since.

These experiences of my teenage years forged me into a lifelong enthusiast for multifaith dialogue, in all its exhilarating, occasionally messy glory. I was able to find another outlet for this affection in seminary, where for two years I was part of a program run by the Council of Christians and Jews called Seminarians Interacting. Sadly, this program was limited only to Christians and Jews, but once again the diversity within these two groups was impressive. We rabbinical students from several denominations chatted, argued, and occasionally butted heads with students from Christian seminaries including Catholic, Greek Orthodox, evangelical, and eclectic African American. The program caught all of us at that point in our lives when we were most open to one another, and the relationships were transformative. I have never learned as much about myself as a Jew as I did in my dialogues with Christians.

It’s 25 years later. The world has moved on to a certain extent, but I have not. Attendance at meetings of the Council of Christians and Jews has been low. My efforts over the years to bring together people from different faiths have generally been unsuccessful. For many years, I have been dismayed to discover that very few people out there are prepared to take the risks to their own faith that true religious dialogue demands. I attended the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne in 2009, an enormous gathering of people from every corner of the world and every faith tradition imaginable. It was deeply discouraging to see that the vast majority of the sessions consisted of people congratulating one another on sitting down together and celebrating their similarities. It was a lovely, warm environment, but there were none of the breakthroughs to true understanding that I’d seen emerge out of a place of courageous confrontation.

It is indeed a frightening thing to leave one’s comfort zone and interact honestly with the other. It happens less and less, and, not surprisingly, misunderstandings around the world seem to be increasing. My own experiences have convinced me that true peace comes only when we peacemakers are prepared to be changed by the experience. We need to be willing to let go of what we have believed to be unswerving truths. Clark Lobenstine did that, but in today’s world, such multifaith coalitions are becoming increasingly rare. I’m proud to be a part of the work of the Abraham Institute, which through its Pursuing Peace program in high schools, begins the lifelong process of teaching people to be open to the extraordinary possibilities that come when we truly encounter one another. Let’s hope this work flourishes in the future. Shabbat shalom!

 

Here is the original article about Clark Lobenstine: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2018/12/07/clark-lobenstine-had-pioneering-concept-interfaith-can-it-survive/?fbclid=IwAR31g9jjViJMjLZkqOcVmhkWfsU9Huwi4l8BHrY7pg2PCCKz5kCQtoivY9E&noredirect=on&utm_term=.f09672887b1c

Tikkun Olam–Yom Kippur morning

Over these High Holy Days, I’ve spoken about a number of the values that are a part of Beit Shalom’s mission. Today I want to talk about Tikkun Olam—repair of the world. We understand Tikkun Olam to be an imperative for us human beings to bring about the healing of a broken world. Although there are contemporary Jews who are impatiently waiting for the Messiah to come and fix all that is in need of fixing, Progressive Jews from very early in our history have rejected the idea of a personal Messiah. Instead, we have taught for several hundred years that redemption is up to us. It is an inspiring and timely message.

I recently received an application from a student interested in converting to Judaism who named the value of tikkun olam as one of the principle reasons why she was drawn to Progressive Judaism. And I feel the same way. Except that from an academic perspective, it is disingenuous to say that our current understanding of the term tikkun olam has any kind of grounding in ancient Jewish tradition.

The term tikkun olam first appears in the third paragraph of the Aleynu, when it speaks of a future time when God will l’taken olam bamalchut Shaddai—repair the world through the sovereignty of God. Our prayerbook Mishkan T’filah briefly traces the history of the term tikkun olam through the hundreds of years that have passed since the Aleynu was written: “Tikkun olam…originally (2–3 century) referred to rabbinic legislation to remedy social ills or legal injustices. In the Aleinu, composed about the same time, it represents acts by God to replace this imperfect world with the legal and moral perfection of divine rule. Sixteenth-century kabbalistic thought applied the term to human action, shifting the responsibility for perfecting the world onto us.”

My understanding of tikkun olam was shaken out of me four years ago at the Limmud Oz conference in Melbourne. One of the presenters was Rabbi Danny Schiff, an affable trouble maker whom I’ve known since my Pittsburgh days. Rabbi Schiff—whom everyone calls Danny—is a Melbourne native who delights in slaying sacred cows. On that particular day, the cow he intended to slay was tikkun olam.

Danny began by pointing out that the last thing on the minds of the 16th century kabbalists was social activism. For a brief, brilliant two year period, Rabbi Isaac Luria was the head of the Tsfat school of kabbalah, and during that time he developed what is now known as Lurianic kabbalah. It was he who conceived of a completely new creation myth: the idea that God intended to construct a perfect universe, formed of vessels which held divine light. But the vessels proved unable to withstand the power of God and so shattered into an almost unimaginably large number of shards. Those shards became embedded in the world we know today. They yearn to be reunited with their Creator. The way to redeem those shards is through the performance of ritual mitzvot, such as focusing intently while reciting prayers so as to do so with the proper intention. As is the case for much of kabbalah, the exercise of tikkun olam can only be carried out by strictly Orthodox Jewish men who also have an understanding of these obscure and esoteric teachings.

So how did tikkun olam—a mystical concept—come to be transformed to mean healing the injustices of our contemporary world? It seems entirely possible that Progressive Judaism basically made up a whole new definition. Rabbi Schiff is frustrated that our contemporary understanding of tikkun olam is so broad and ill-defined that basically any cause can be brought under its umbrella. So, for example, one person might argue that eliminating the use of coal is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than saving the environment? And someone else might argue that preserving the coal industry is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than preserving jobs and the dignity for those workers who otherwise would be left with no means of support?

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform rabbi for whom I have enormous admiration, agrees with Rabbi Schiff’s concerns that the concept of tikkun olam is far too wishy washy, and most certainly too malleable to be truly useful. In an article for Commentary magazine, Rabbi Salkin complained that, as someone who considers himself a political centrist, he often feels shut out by others within the Jewish world who use traditional Jewish language to make it appear that only left-wing approaches are Jewishly acceptable. One particular example he cites is one that happens to be particularly close to my heart: the idea of welcoming the stranger: “Who was the biblical stranger (ger)? Quite simply, a non-Israelite who lived within a Jewish polity, i.e., the land of Israel. Jews had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, often an impoverished laborer or artisan, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Israelites probably needed this cajoling. In the words of the late biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz: “A history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you.”

Let us assume the righteousness, and even the sanctity, of this idea. Let us also remember that, in the postbiblical world, the sages applied the notion of loving the stranger (ahavat ha-ger) not to resident aliens within a Jewish polity—which was the biblical emphasis—but to converts to Judaism.

But let us also acknowledge that, as it stands, “loving the stranger” fails to offer the concrete policy prescriptions that we might want from it. That hasn’t stopped some from using the quote as a basis for immigration policy…“Loving the stranger” says nothing about the proper disposition toward those who are neither residents in a Jewish polity nor converts to Judaism.”

I am quoting from Rabbi Salkin the morning after giving a sermon last night in which I suggested that welcoming both legal migrants and refugees could be considered forms of welcoming the guests. Most of you will also know that I was arrested in a civil disobedience action a number of years ago in which I used explicitly Jewish language to protest against Australia’s practice of keeping children in offshore detention. I’m pretty sure I talked an awful lot about our responsibility for loving the stranger. Should I now abandon this approach because the biblical understanding differs from our contemporary situation?

The larger question is whether we should discard the concept of tikkun olam because our understanding of it represents a departure from the traditional definition. What the Progressive movement has inadvertently done is what is called a chiddush—an innovation. We have transformed a concept that began life as a legalistic term and then much later grew into a spiritual idea. Now, in this age of urgent social and environmental needs, we may choose to claim tikkun olam as a call for each of us to do what we can to remake the world as a more just and hopeful place. In case you cannot guess, that is what I am advocating.

Just because tikkun olam has not previously been understood as healing the world doesn’t mean that this concept is entirely absent from Jewish tradition. Far from it. Each year, I celebrate the rabbis’ radical choice of haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning. Rather than providing a soothing text about how good we are and how praiseworthy our fasting efforts, the rabbis instead chose a prophetic call to justice from Deutero-Isaiah: “Is this the fast I look for? A day of self affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Adonai? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share you bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The prophet here calls for individual acts of modest assistance—clothing the naked and sharing our bread with the hungry. But there is also an overarching call for a more just society—one in which the shackles of injustice are unlocked and the oppressed go free. He does not use the language of tikkun olam, but the message is the same: to live fully and completely as a Jew means to work for a more fair and equal society. This makes the rabbis’ decision to choose this as the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning all the more significant. There are plenty of readings about the detailed fulfillment of ritual commandments, but that’s not we are to remember on Yom Kippur. Rather we are to keep our eyes on a larger vision, entirely separate from the ritual realm.

Deutero-Isaiah, whose actual identity is unknown to us, spoke to a Jewish community in exile in Babylon. This was not a people who have any kind of power over their own lives, nor did they have the authority to bring about institutional change. The prophet exhorts them to transform the world around them despite their powerlessness to do so. If that is the case for them, then how much for so for us living as free people in this land?!

A number of years ago, I stumbled upon an article that someone had written about me for an online Orthodox website. The author excoriated me for standing up for asylum seekers from Muslim backgrounds. He insisted that my primary, in fact my only responsibility should be to work on behalf of the Jewish people. If I wasn’t doing solely that, I had no right to call myself a rabbi.

On the other side of the world, dozens of my colleagues, including the rabbis of prominent American synagogues, have been arrested in recent months. They have been protesting the American government’s intention to deport illegal aliens who have lived in the US since infancy and have never known another home. They have proudly employed the language of loving the stranger in their actions and believe deep in their souls that what they are doing is a legitimate expression of Jewish values. I’d like to think Deutero-Isaiah would agree with them. We have so much work ahead of us, but if we all join together, by this time next year we can celebrate the extent to which our world is a little less broken because of our work of Tikkun Olam. I wish you well over the fast, and may our hands bring about a world closer to Deutero-Isaiah’s vision. Shana tova!

Tikkun Olam–Yom Kippur morning sermon

Over these High Holy Days, I’ve spoken about a number of the values that are a part of Beit Shalom’s mission. Today I want to talk about Tikkun Olam—repair of the world. We understand Tikkun Olam to be an imperative for us human beings to bring about the healing of a broken world. Although there are contemporary Jews who are impatiently waiting for the Messiah to come and fix all that is in need of fixing, Progressive Jews from very early in our history have rejected the idea of a personal Messiah. Instead, we have taught for several hundred years that redemption is up to us. It is an inspiring and timely message.

I recently received an application from a student interested in converting to Judaism who named the value of tikkun olam as one of the principle reasons why she was drawn to Progressive Judaism. And I feel the same way. Except that from an academic perspective, it is disingenuous to say that our current understanding of the term tikkun olam has any kind of grounding in ancient Jewish tradition.

The term tikkun olam first appears in the third paragraph of the Aleynu, when it speaks of a future time when God will l’taken olam bamalchut Shaddai—repair the world through the sovereignty of God. Our prayerbook Mishkan T’filah briefly traces the history of the term tikkun olam through the hundreds of years that have passed since the Aleynu was written: “Tikkun olam…originally (2–3 century) referred to rabbinic legislation to remedy social ills or legal injustices. In the Aleinu, composed about the same time, it represents acts by God to replace this imperfect world with the legal and moral perfection of divine rule. Sixteenth-century kabbalistic thought applied the term to human action, shifting the responsibility for perfecting the world onto us.”

My understanding of tikkun olam was shaken out of me four years ago at the Limmud Oz conference in Melbourne. One of the presenters was Rabbi Danny Schiff, an affable trouble maker whom I’ve known since my Pittsburgh days. Rabbi Schiff—whom everyone calls Danny—is a Melbourne native who delights in slaying sacred cows. On that particular day, the cow he intended to slay was tikkun olam.

Danny began by pointing out that the last thing on the minds of the 16th century kabbalists was social activism. For a brief, brilliant two year period, Rabbi Isaac Luria was the head of the Tsfat school of kabbalah, and during that time he developed what is now known as Lurianic kabbalah. It was he who conceived of a completely new creation myth: the idea that God intended to construct a perfect universe, formed of vessels which held divine light. But the vessels proved unable to withstand the power of God and so shattered into an almost unimaginably large number of shards. Those shards became embedded in the world we know today. They yearn to be reunited with their Creator. The way to redeem those shards is through the performance of ritual mitzvot, such as focusing intently while reciting prayers so as to do so with the proper intention. As is the case for much of kabbalah, the exercise of tikkun olam can only be carried out by strictly Orthodox Jewish men who also have an understanding of these obscure and esoteric teachings.

So how did tikkun olam—a mystical concept—come to be transformed to mean healing the injustices of our contemporary world? It seems entirely possible that Progressive Judaism basically made up a whole new definition. Rabbi Schiff is frustrated that our contemporary understanding of tikkun olam is so broad and ill-defined that basically any cause can be brought under its umbrella. So, for example, one person might argue that eliminating the use of coal is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than saving the environment? And someone else might argue that preserving the coal industry is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than preserving jobs and the dignity for those workers who otherwise would be left with no means of support?

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform rabbi for whom I have enormous admiration, agrees with Rabbi Schiff’s concerns that the concept of tikkun olam is far too wishy washy, and most certainly too malleable to be truly useful. In an article for Commentary magazine, Rabbi Salkin complained that, as someone who considers himself a political centrist, he often feels shut out by others within the Jewish world who use traditional Jewish language to make it appear that only left-wing approaches are Jewishly acceptable. One particular example he cites is one that happens to be particularly close to my heart: the idea of welcoming the stranger: “Who was the biblical stranger (ger)? Quite simply, a non-Israelite who lived within a Jewish polity, i.e., the land of Israel. Jews had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, often an impoverished laborer or artisan, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Israelites probably needed this cajoling. In the words of the late biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz: “A history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you.”

Let us assume the righteousness, and even the sanctity, of this idea. Let us also remember that, in the postbiblical world, the sages applied the notion of loving the stranger (ahavat ha-ger) not to resident aliens within a Jewish polity—which was the biblical emphasis—but to converts to Judaism.

But let us also acknowledge that, as it stands, “loving the stranger” fails to offer the concrete policy prescriptions that we might want from it. That hasn’t stopped some from using the quote as a basis for immigration policy…“Loving the stranger” says nothing about the proper disposition toward those who are neither residents in a Jewish polity nor converts to Judaism.”

I am quoting from Rabbi Salkin the morning after giving a sermon last night in which I suggested that welcoming both legal migrants and refugees could be considered forms of welcoming the guests. Most of you will also know that I was arrested in a civil disobedience action a number of years ago in which I used explicitly Jewish language to protest against Australia’s practice of keeping children in offshore detention. I’m pretty sure I talked an awful lot about our responsibility for loving the stranger. Should I now abandon this approach because the biblical understanding differs from our contemporary situation?

The larger question is whether we should discard the concept of tikkun olam because our understanding of it represents a departure from the traditional definition. What the Progressive movement has inadvertently done is what is called a chiddush—an innovation. We have transformed a concept that began life as a legalistic term and then much later grew into a spiritual idea. Now, in this age of urgent social and environmental needs, we may choose to claim tikkun olam as a call for each of us to do what we can to remake the world as a more just and hopeful place. In case you cannot guess, that is what I am advocating.

Just because tikkun olam has not previously been understood as healing the world doesn’t mean that this concept is entirely absent from Jewish tradition. Far from it. Each year, I celebrate the rabbis’ radical choice of haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning. Rather than providing a soothing text about how good we are and how praiseworthy our fasting efforts, the rabbis instead chose a prophetic call to justice from Deutero-Isaiah: “Is this the fast I look for? A day of self affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Adonai? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share you bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The prophet here calls for individual acts of modest assistance—clothing the naked and sharing our bread with the hungry. But there is also an overarching call for a more just society—one in which the shackles of injustice are unlocked and the oppressed go free. He does not use the language of tikkun olam, but the message is the same: to live fully and completely as a Jew means to work for a more fair and equal society. This makes the rabbis’ decision to choose this as the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning all the more significant. There are plenty of readings about the detailed fulfillment of ritual commandments, but that’s not we are to remember on Yom Kippur. Rather we are to keep our eyes on a larger vision, entirely separate from the ritual realm.

Deutero-Isaiah, whose actual identity is unknown to us, spoke to a Jewish community in exile in Babylon. This was not a people who have any kind of power over their own lives, nor did they have the authority to bring about institutional change. The prophet exhorts them to transform the world around them despite their powerlessness to do so. If that is the case for them, then how much for so for us living as free people in this land?!

A number of years ago, I stumbled upon an article that someone had written about me for an online Orthodox website. The author excoriated me for standing up for asylum seekers from Muslim backgrounds. He insisted that my primary, in fact my only responsibility should be to work on behalf of the Jewish people. If I wasn’t doing solely that, I had no right to call myself a rabbi.

On the other side of the world, dozens of my colleagues, including the rabbis of prominent American synagogues, have been arrested in recent months. They have been protesting the American government’s intention to deport illegal aliens who have lived in the US since infancy and have never known another home. They have proudly employed the language of loving the stranger in their actions and believe deep in their souls that what they are doing is a legitimate expression of Jewish values. I’d like to think Deutero-Isaiah would agree with them. We have so much work ahead of us, but if we all join together, by this time next year we can celebrate the extent to which our world is a little less broken because of our work of Tikkun Olam. I wish you well over the fast, and may our hands bring about a world closer to Deutero-Isaiah’s vision. Shana tova!