Creating a Progressive, Inclusive, Egalitarian Jewish People: My Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association Presidential Address

On March 28, 2017, I was honored to be elected President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association at our biennial convention in Portland, OR. These are the remarks I delivered that evening at our Presidential Dinner.

Thank you. I will admit that when I agreed to accept this position, I only did so because I thought I would be able to score an invitation to President Hillary Clinton’s White House Hanukkah party.

I’m honored to be here standing in front of you tonight, and so I would like to offer a few acknowledgements, and then some remarks.

First to Yohanna, thank you for that beautiful and moving introduction and for being such a partner and support to me in life, in love and in this endeavor we are on together. I fully recommend to all of you to have a rabbi as a partner.

My kids, Ozi and Erez, who are here. Those who were with us at RRC remember Ozi as a little baby, not as a high school sophomore, now embarrassed I’m sure. He was born while we were students at RRC. To him and Erez who joined us later, I owe my gratitude for letting me do what I do, for I know it is not easy, and their lives are not normal. They get dragged around places, left alone a lot, and it is hard to find time for all four of us to have time together.

Thank you to my parents, Alan and Karen Goldstein, who are here today, who have been very supportive of me throughout these years and travel across the country every year on Rosh Hashanah to attend my congregation, though part of me believes they are still hoping that I will announce from the bimah that I am leaving the rabbinate to go to law school.

There are my classmates and colleagues, and specifically those colleagues I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with over these past six years I have served this association, first as co-chair of the Ishut Task Force, then as a board member, from whom I have learned so much. But really to all of you, those in this room and those who were not able to join us, for I know that each one of you has something to teach me, and I look forward to serving you.

To Nina [Mandel], my predecessor, my friend and classmate, who brought us to a place of strength and healing as an association, dealing with such difficult issues with grace and wisdom. For that I am personally grateful and look forward to continuing your work.

I want to recognize Elyse [Wechterman] who has done tremendous things with this association, and I was fortunate to be in leadership when she was brought on. An Executive Director of vision, insight and tremendous energy, who has already moved this association in positive ways that will only benefit our membership and the Jewish people. I very much look forward to working with her.

And I would be remiss if I did not personally acknowledge Richard Hirsh, who is not here tonight, to whom I owe much of my rabbinate. Who served as a personal and intellectual mentor while I was a student, who published my work in the Reconstructionist, who is the one who invited me to serve as co-chair of the Ishut Task Force. When I was first asked to be on the Board, I accepted in large part for the opportunity to work with Richard. I admire his commitment to act on principle and count him as one who will always be my teacher.

This is hard, talking in front of colleagues, and as my remarks are coming now toward the end of this convention, during which we have wrestled with so many issues, perhaps some of these thoughts will be like Deuteronomy, a retelling.

So here we are, and I accept this presidency with all the honor and trepidation that it entails. A bit of trepidation because of the times we live in. For we are living in challenging times, this year specifically. We are living in a time in which Jewish life is in flux, traditional institutions are being challenged, the Jewish community is organizing—or de-organizing, or re-organizing—differently.

We are living in a time in which tensions of anti-Semitism have been brought to the surface, license has been given to those who espouse hate and exploit difference, and a government is in place that trends towards oligarchy and neglects the obligation to protect the most vulnerable. And this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 War, which began an occupation that today I believe is one of our great moral challenges as a Jewish people.

Indeed, challenging times. And I am sure that all of us are asking the question of where we belong, what our response is, how do we orient ourselves in this new reality. And as individuals, so to as an association. And I think that we, as the RRA, and Reconstructionism as it has since the beginning, continues to offer an answer to the times in which we live.

The RRA itself has been in some transition. We are the rabbinical association associated with the Reconstructionist movement, working alongside the other institutions of the movement to advance common goals and interests. And we will continue to navigate and negotiate what that relationship looks like as the College—now with the congregational arm under the same roof—under Deborah [Waxman]’s wise leadership sets its direction and makes its decisions, and we as an association make ours.

Ultimately, we are an association of Reconstructionist Rabbis. An association of Rabbis who share a common outlook and purpose, orientation and vision. An association whose membership comes from across the Jewish landscape, who find common cause with the aims and goals of the association, who find value in the ethical integrity of our professional standards, who find an intellectual and spiritual home here.

So what is it that we have to offer as Reconstructionist rabbis?

For me it keeps coming back to the theme of this convention, that of Jewish peoplehood. And I know we have been wrestling with what this means. For me, when I think of serving the Jewish people, it means that we as Reconstructionist rabbis embrace: an unapologetic progressivism, total inclusivity and a radical egalitarianism.

With a commitment to the Jewish people, we can state that we are committed to progressive values—actively evolving and not just waiting for outside forces to necessitate an adaptation. That we are committed to a level of equality and justice that necessitates taking a progressive political stance in the face of political forces that would preach difference and otherness. That we fully embrace and emphasize as core to our identity an active engagement in social justice efforts and cultivating interfaith relationships. And we unapologetically committed to a progressive theology that recognizes the fundamental human need for spiritual inquiry, flourishing and transformation, and being able to cultivate the forms and language necessary to meet people where they are.

With a commitment to the Jewish people, we must embrace inclusivity in all its forms, and recognize the dynamic nature of the Jewish people, celebrating diversity in race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, and lineality. In the communities we serve we must approach from a place of non-judgment those who seek to participate in our congregations or be counted among the Jewish people, regardless of their background or personal Jewish history. And we embrace those with multiple identities.

And with a commitment to the Jewish people, we embrace a radical egalitarianism that must transcend basic notions of betzelem Elohim and equal participation, to what I believe to be a fundamental and necessary reorientation and realignment of the American Jewish community, to advocate for the guarantee, through means and not just words, that each and every member of the Jewish people has the same access, the same opportunities, the same learning as everyone else.

And if you will allow me to get on my most recent personal soapbox, and address an issue I have been thinking a lot about lately. Because as it stands now, we, as an American Jewish community, do not guarantee the same access to resources for all Jews. While we are quick to point out the wealth gap within our larger society, we are less willing to point it out when it comes to our own community. And I do not mean this about among Jews, but among Jewish institutions.

I’m going to mention synagogues because that is the world I know, knowing that most of our members don’t serve congregations, so while the specific example may not resonate, maybe the idea will. We, within the organized Jewish community, have fully embraced market capitalism. Synagogues are independent entities whose primary sources of funding are our members, and therefore those congregations with members able to give more will have more and those less, less. We are in competition, we measure success by size and growth, and we seek upward mobility. We strive for more dollars because the synagogues with more resources will thus have more to offer and the members of those congregations will thus have more and better Jewish knowledge and experiences than those that do not. The synagogue income gap leads to the Jewish knowledge and experience gap.

In addition, synagogues outside the geographic centers of institutionalized Jewry have less access to resources, and to access those resources—speakers, classes, musicians, etc.—to them requires additional expenditures. And size doesn’t matter, for two 150 member congregation can be comprised of two different population bases with different giving abilities.

The Jewish community loves to fund innovation. But what we fail to realize is that innovation is a relative term—one congregation’s normal is another congregation’s innovation. The true innovation I suggest is not to fund some fancy new project, but to fundamentally think about how we organize and fund the American Jewish community through a system of redistributing wealth so that we are sure that we are raising up all Jews. This to me is radical egalitarianism.

A progressive, inclusive, egalitarian Jewish people. That is what Reconstructionism means to me. What the RRA can continue to create. This is what brings me to this point of service to the association.

And while we as an association of rabbis have this tremendous role to shape the Jewish future, we as an association must also care for those who are doing that shaping. For the success of the RRA will depend on how best we can care for our members, both personally and professionally.

This is the thirteenth year of my rabbinate, all served in the same congregation. I am a bar mitzvah rabbi. And the analogy is apt, because it is after this time that I feel I have grown into a level of maturity and understanding. In my rabbinate now I have officiated at the bar and bat mitzvahs of children I brought into the covenant, married young adults whose bat mitzvah I officiated, and I have buried people I have come to know and love.

My time in the rabbinate has been one of tremendous personal growth, and as I look back, I realize the reasons that brought me into the rabbinate are different than the ones that sustain me now. Ironically, it was only in the rabbinate that I became committed to social justice and the power, the promise and the potential to societal change, to raise up moral voice to issues of common concern.

And ironically, it was only in the rabbinate that I became a spiritual seeker, embracing the kavannah and not just the keva, embracing the traditional matbeah, the forms, the rituals and at the same time rejecting them outright as hindrances and obstacles. My seeking has allowed me to open myself up to wisdom, truth and inspiration from all places, whatever the source.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Throughout these 13 years I have been held by my community, felt the warm embrace of their love and support and also struggled with the profound loneliness that comes from being one of, yet other than.

I’ve learned that as rabbis we must know what we don’t know, and at the same time desire new growth and opportunity. The combination, as Parker Palmer puts it, of “humility and chutzpah.” We need to take care of our physical and emotional selves, and we recognize that some days what we do is a calling, and some days it is just a job. We as an association form this web of mutual support to ensure the continued growth and development of us as rabbis, to advocate for the continued professionalism of the rabbinate, to raise up our voices as the intellectual inheritors of our Reconstructionist ancestors, and to nurture our individual selves.

These have been interesting years of transition and challenge for our association. Aside from leadership change we have faced tensions within our association specifically around the issues of intermarriage among rabbis and what positions we should embrace regarding Israel. These are potent conversations that we are continuing to have. But we can not do so without recognizing that at the heart of both of those conversations is the same feeling: a deep anxiety about the Jewish future because of our love and commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. And while it has pushed against the boundaries of our association and created tension among our membership, underneath it all we must remember that we all share the same hopes and fears for our collective whole, and the same desires and needs as individual selves.

I will end with a bit of Torah.

In my shul we have a monthly Talmud study group, and we are studying Berachot, essentially reading through the entire masechet, and we just came to that famous story in which Rabban Gamliel was deposed as head of the academy for bad behavior. After he was deposed, the text describes, the guard at the door was removed, anyone who wanted to enter was allowed to enter, hundreds of benches were added, and tremendous advances in learning and halakhah were made.

This story in and of itself is worth remembering because of its echoes of progressivism, inclusivity and egalitarianism. But just prior to this in the story, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariyah was approached to be the head of the academy. And he first went to ask his wife what she thought. And she was wary, and suggested that perhaps just as they were quick to depose Rabban Gamliel, they will depose him as well.

And his reply? He cited a folk saying: lishtamesh eynash yoma chada b’khasa d’mokra, ulmachar litvar. “Let a person use an expensive goblet one day, and let it break tomorrow.” In other words, just because we do not know what tomorrow will bring, should not stop us from doing what we need to do right now.

None of us does know what the future holds, or the eventual impact of the decisions we make today. So we make most of the expensive goblets we have been given today to teach our Torah, to serve our people, to transmit tradition and to exercise our creativity. And simply to do the best we can.

And I know, that as long as there are rabbis who identify with Reconstructionism, who desire a professional association committed to the highest standards and the highest ideals, there will be a need for the RRA.

I look forward to this opportunity to do what I can to continue strengthen our association, to learn and grow from the experience, to help make the RRA what you need it to be so you can continue do the awesome work that you do. I humbly thank you for the trust you have given to me, and I will do my best to live up to it.

Thank you.

Pray, But Light the Candles Too

With Hanukkah beginning this Sunday night, it is time to retell the traditional story of Hanukkah, how a small band of Jewish rebels rose up against the oppressive regime of King Antiochus, the Greek ruler who imposed severe restrictions on the Jewish community and Jewish practice, even desecrating the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Once the rebellion was successful, the rebels, known as the Maccabees, went about rededicating the Temple and restoring Jewish worship.

As part of that rededication, the story goes, the Maccabees went to light the lamp that was meant to be continually lit. They found only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day, but it burned for eight. This, the ancient Jewish sages say in the Talmud, was the miracle of Hanukkah, and why the holiday is celebrated for eight days.

But this is only one tradition for the source of the length of the holiday. When we read the historical accounts of the Hanukkah story in the apocryphal biblical books I and II Maccabees, the reason is different. There is no mention of a small vial of oil burning for an extended period of time. Rather, upon rededicating the Temple, the Jews celebrated Sukkot, which they were unable to mark due the ongoing battles. Once the war was over and the Temple restored, the Jews were able to celebrate Sukkot, a seven-day holiday, and Shimini Atzeret, the separate festival which immediately follows Sukkot, and thus make an eight-day-long celebration. The Maccabees instituted the celebration of Hanukkah to remember the events, and the holiday lasts eight days to parallel the eight day celebration of the late Sukkot the Maccabees observed.

The two sources tell different stories, perhaps for different reasons. The historical sources want to glorify and highlight the military victory. The rabbinic sources want to put the focus on a divine miracle. In other words, the historical sources want to put the emphasis on human action and the rabbis want to put the emphasis on divine action.

While seemingly contradictory, the two can be harmonized. Narratively we can tell both stories together, how after the Maccabees were successful in their revolt, they went into the Temple and found the oil and their success was sealed by the miracle of the lamp. Thus the human acts and the divine act can be told seamlessly in one narrative. It can be both/and, and not either/or.

Harmonize these stories we must, for we need to tell them together, we can not choose one narrative over the other. We need both divine inspiration and human action.

It is by relying on both that we are able to navigate our lives. We are taught in our Jewish tradition that we are partners with God; in the beginning stories of Genesis, the stories of the Garden of Eden, God creates the world and then creates humans to take care of it. This, from the beginning of our sacred text, teaches us an important value. We look to God as a source of vision, but we must act ourselves to make that vision a reality.

I’m writing this in the wake of another major mass shooting in America, something that happens unfortunately on an all too regular basis. And in all the reaction, I was struck by the front page of the New York Daily News, and its sensationalist headline:

daily news

Irrespective of the specific political bent of the headlines, the editors are sending a strong message: platitudes about “thoughts and prayers” aren’t going to cut it when there are real steps we can take to abate the constant gun violence in our country.

So yes we must pray. Prayer is the means by which we can give voice to our ideals and articulate our hope and dreams. Prayers for peace, prayers for justice, prayers for healing are important in that they remind us that peace, justice and healing are values we hold in high importance.

And at the same time, we commit to do what we can to bring about peace, justice and healing.

Like the rabbis of the Talmud, we must see the miracle that is redemption, that is light out of darkness, that is the ability to overcome oppression. And like the authors of the Book of Maccabees, we must see the role we need to play to bring that to fruition.

The task is daunting. It is tempting at times to see the enormity of the task and resign ourselves to the fact that that human agency will never accomplish our greatest ideals. Or to rely solely on prayer without doing what is necessary. Will gun violence ever completely be wiped away from the face of the earth? Probably not. Will evil continue to exist? Will sickness and disaster continue to plague us? Probably yes. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to bring about the better world we so desire.

In harmonizing the stories of Hanukkah, and in rebelling against our contemporary challenges, we would do well to remember another teaching from the ancient rabbis, from Pirke Avot: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21) For perhaps the miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasted for eight days, but that the Maccabees lit it at all, knowing that it wasn’t enough.

With each night of Hanukkah, with each new candle we light, we remember an ancient story of redemption at the same time we remind ourselves that we have the power to increase the light. The darkness may return when the candles burn out, but we say our prayers and light them anyway.

Sharing a Playbook? Rabbis and the Seahawks

Well, we know how things turned out last Sunday, don’t we.

In a spectacular display of prowess, the Seattle Seahawks dominated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, winning the championship by a score of 43 to 8. Just like for the NFC championship, I was out of Washington at a conference during the game. Unlike the NFC championship, this time I had the opportunity to watch. There I was in a retreat center outside Baltimore with a gathering of rabbis, cheering on the Seahawks to victory.

The conference was the annual alumni gathering of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. I participated in the fellowship—a program of CLAL—two years ago as a member of the third rabbinic cohort. Then 20+ rabbis gathered several times a year in New York to discuss issues affecting contemporary culture and Judaism, and how we can be responsive change agents. Since completing the fellowship I have “graduated” to the alumni group, which meets annually to continue and deepen these conversations and connections. It is at Rabbis Without Borders where I have had some of the most compelling conversations about Judaism, the rabbinate and contemporary society.

OK, back to the Seahawks. Following the game, I have read analysis about the meaning of the win for Seattle, the power of sports to draw together communities and, most interesting, the on-field strategy of how the Seahawks won. I say this last one is most interesting because for me, I would normally and naturally gravitate to the first two (cultural) explorations. Looking more deeply at football statistics and strategies is new to me.

Going into the game, one of the well known statistics is that the Seahawks had the best defenses in the league. This was measured by the number of yards allowed over the course of the season. The Broncos on the other hand had the best offense in the league, measured by yards gained. It was the first time that such a match up occurred with the largest discrepancy between yards allowed by one team and yards gained by another. As the results showed, the Seahawks defense overwhelmed the Broncos offense.sherman

Interestingly enough, however, a major Super Bowl record was set during the game. Peyton Manning, the celebrated quarterback of the Broncos who already had a Superbowl win under his belt, set a record for most pass completions in a championship game. In other words, despite losing and not scoring beyond one touchdown and two-point conversion, Manning was able to successfully pass the ball downfield 33 times, the most in Superbowl history.

How can these two facts co-exist? The answer is in how the Seattle defense played. The defense didn’t put out an all out assault on Manning, but applied enough pressure that he resorted to short passes. And when those passes were made, a Seahawks defender (or two) was on hand to tackle him. The Seahawks defense was there, ready and waiting to make the play needed. On some plays it seemed that it was barely a second between the time a Broncos receiver caught a ball that he was hit and on the ground, resulting in little to no yard gain.

Back to Rabbis Without Borders. One of the overall themes to think about that I took away from the gathering was the overall role that we play as rabbis in the work that we do in light of a constantly shifting Jewish community. Demographics shift, sure, but also in reaction to the general culture shift we are experiencing. Identities we learn don’t exist on binaries anymore (i.e., you are either this or that), and how one constructs one’s identity is fluid and dynamic. The up and coming generations view things differently than the generations before. The questions these conversations raised for me are: Are we leading the way? Or just responding to facts on the ground? Or, is there even a sharp distinction between the two? (remember, watch those binaries!) And how do we serve everyone, with their own needs, interests, opinions and self-identification?

How do we do this work in light of these changing circumstances? Maybe we should be taking a cue from the Seahawks defense: We can exert the pressure and influence that we can, yet still allow people the space they need to move forward. And just be ready to meet them where they are on their journey.

If we do this, then unlike in football, those we meet are sure to win, not lose.