Why Can’t We have Just One Religion? Here’s Why!

 I am moved by the story of the Tower of Babel because it answers the question non-Jews ask me most frequently (second only to “Why do Jews not believe in Jesus?”). That question is: “Why do we have to have all these different religions? Wouldn’t the world be better if there was one religion instead of all the problems caused by religious differences?”

My response to the question if the asker is a Christian is, “Whose religion would it be? Would it be yours, where the life, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to heaven of Jesus are the guiding beliefs and set of religious principles? Or would it be mine, in which the life and death of Jesus plays no role whatsoever?”

I am very proud to be a Reform Jew. I wold never want to be anything else. But that does not mean for a moment that I think everyone should be like me or believe as I do. Our world is enriched, not diminished, by religious diversity. The problems come when people are not able to accept that thinking people can differ on how God wants them to believe. The Tower of Babel story teaches that God is the force that created religious and cultural diversity. If diversity is God’s creation, then it is blasphemy to try to proclaim that one and only one religion is right!

No. Religious unity should not be our goal. Rather, respect for, and appreciation of honest religious differences is what will lead us to a better world.

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The Jewish Marriage Ceremony

My rabbinical colleagues have been having an animated exchange about merits of traditional elements in the Jewish Marriage Ceremony. I offer the following essay to couples to help them decide how they wish to structure their ceremony.

“It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting partner for him.” (Genesis 2:18) In this verse one finds the initial expression of what became the classical Jewish view of marriage. The ancient Rabbis considered marriage both the norm and the ideal. They frowned upon celibacy and viewed marriage as a necessity for complete human fulfillment.

Because the Rabbis viewed marriage as God’s desire for humanity, they carefully examined scripture for insights into this divinely ordained relationship. In pondering the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, the Rabbis asked, ‘Why does scripture portray Eve as evolving from Adam’s rib?” They answered their own question by asserting, “She was not taken from his head to be superior to him, or from his foot to be beneath him. Rather, she was taken from his side to be equal to him and from near his heart to be loved.”

The Hebrew word for marriage is kiddushin, which literally translated means “holiness”. Through the marriage ceremony a man and a woman consecrate themselves (i.e., make themselves holy) to one another. The Hebrew concept of holiness contains the notion of uniqueness. In the marriage ceremony the partners set one another apart from the rest of the world and enter into a uniquely holy partnership.

Often, on the day of their wedding, a bride and groom will fast until the ceremony. Jews ordinarily fast on the Day of Atonement, the solemn holy day on which the Jew seeks forgiveness for his/her wrongdoings of the past year.

Jewish tradition emphasized the unique holiness of a couple’s wedding day by considering it, like the Day of Atonement, a day when their past misdeeds are forgiven. When a couple affirms this traditional outlook, they begin married life with their hearts and minds focused on the future they will build together, not on past errors.

The Jewish marriage ceremony takes place under a chupah, a wedding canopy which symbolizes the home the couple will establish. Whether the chupah is simple or ornate, its purpose is to remind the bride and groom of the important role each must play in the creation of a meaningful Jewish home life.

In traditional Jewish weddings, the bride will walk around the groom seven times when she joins him at the chupah. By encircling him seven times, the bride symbolically enters into the seven spheres of the husband’s soul referred to in Jewish mystical tradition. The act of circling represents the intimate unity, understanding, and mutual concern which the couple will, hopefully, strive for in their married life. She also symbolically presents herself as a wall of protection for her husband.

An important feature of the wedding ceremony is the couple’s sharing of the cup of wine sanctified by the appropriate blessing. Wine is a religious symbol of joy and a prominent ritual feature at all Jewish festive occasions. By sharing the wine cup under the chupah, their symbolic home, the couple sets a pattern for observing holidays and festivals according to Jewish custom in the real home they will establish. Also, by sharing from the same cup at their wedding, the bride and groom affirm that they will share together whatever joy or sadness the cup of life offers them.

In addition to the traditional blessing over the wine, the ceremony contains six other benedictions, making a total of seven wedding blessings appropriate to the occasion. Because of its prominence in Jewish biblical, rabbinic and mystical tradition, seven is considered an extremely fortuitous number.

In the period of the Talmud (from 200 BCE to 500 CE) there were two formal ceremonies leading to marriage. The first was a ceremony of betrothal which could be dissolved only through divorce proceedings. A year later, in most cases, the actual wedding occurred. In time, it became the custom to combine the two ceremonies. At traditional Jewish weddings today, the couple will share the goblet of wine at two points in the ceremony to symbolize the once—distinct rites of betrothal and marriage which are now celebrated together.

A vital feature of traditional Jewish weddings is the reading of the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. The ketubah, which delineates the conditions under which a marriage occurs, was originally designed to carefully protect the rights of women in married life. The Rabbis considered Jewish marriage as a legal covenant in which both partners have dearly defined rights and obligations. At the same time, the Rabbis viewed marriage as the quintessence of personal relationships characterized by love, growth and mutual sharing.

Often, the ketubah, which is a legal document under Jewish law, is beautifully hand-lettered and ornately decorated. Such artistic ketubot (plural of ketubah) symbolize both the legal guarantees and romantic ideals of the marital relationship.

The repetition of the Jewish marriage formula by the groom is an essential feature of any Jewish wedding ceremony. As he places the wedding ring on his wife’s right forefinger (where it can be most clearly seen), the man repeats the Hebrew formula which means “Be consecrated to me as my wife with this ring according to the religion of Moses and Israel.”

In every ceremony that I conduct the bride also places a wedding ring on her husband’s finger and (changing “wife” to “husband”, of course) will repeat the exact same formula as the groom. This act symbolizes that not only does the husband acquire a wife, but the wife acquires a husband as well. Jewish law stipulates that wedding rings be of plain metal, containing no gems or stones. The metal of the ring, it is felt, should be unbroken by gems just as the harmony of the couple should be undisturbed by outside influences.

The ceremony concludes with the groom crushing with his right foot a glass which has been carefully wrapped to prevent shattering. Although the origins of this custom are shrouded in mystery, several explanations have been offered for its familiar place in the wedding ceremony. One of them is that the breaking of the glass symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a sorrow which the Jews should remember even during happy times. For many modern couples, the breaking of the glass is significant as a reminder that even in moments of supreme joy, we remember that there are many in the world whose lives are broken by sadness and pain.

The groom’s act of forcefully breaking a glass also provides a reciprocal response to the wife’s circling him at the outset of the ceremony. Just as her act is a sign of her vow to protect him, his breaking of the glass serves as a warning to any who might intrude on the sanctity of the marriage.

Immediately following the ceremony, the couple repairs to a private room to break their fast with a brief meal and spend their first precious moments as a married couple alone together. After a few brief minutes of privacy, the couple emerges to greet their guests.

Not all Jewish weddings contain all of the features mentioned here, because couples vary in their desires for traditional elements in their ceremony. No matter what practices it includes, though, a Jewish marriage ceremony endeavors to give warm expression to meaningful religious symbolism. A ceremony, no matter how rich or warm, cannot insure a successful marriage. Hopefully, though, the Jewish couple who are aware of the meaning behind the ritual will emerge from their chupah with greater appreciation of the rabbinic ideal of mutual affirmation and protection in marriage and the hope that the Eternal One will bless their union.

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My Grandfathers: Vividly Alive on Simchat Torah

One of my fondest childhood memories is of my mother’s father being in synagogue on Simchat Torah. The rabbi always ordered the hakafot (processions around the synagogue with people carrying Torah scrolls) by age, and my grandfather, Benjamin Goldstein, was in the first one. I don’t remember him as a particularly religious man (he died when I was 10), but I will never forget the joy on his face when he carried the Torah.

Simchat Torah was (as it still is in many places) the occasion for the Consecration ceremony for students beginning their religious school studies. The rabbi called us up to the bimah for a blessing with a huge tallit spread above our heads, and then we each received a miniature Torah from the pile on the steps to the bima of small gold boxes containing the scrolls .

When I was six, I must confess, I came back into the empty sanctuary after the service was over and helped myself to as many of the remaining miniature Torahs as I could carry. I cannot remember how I hid this larcenous deed from my parents, but I stashed the contraband in the bottom draw of my bedroom night table where they remained for many years.

When I pilfered those scrolls, Torah study was not what I had in mind as a professional pursuit (I planned to be the catcher for the New York Yankees), but I hope the Almighty will consider my rabbinical career to be suitable penance.

The scrolls certainly came in handy in later years. During the meal at the first communal Passover Seder I conducted at my congregation in Columbia, MD, I remembered to my horror that I had forgotten (and no one on the committee had thought of it either) to buy a prize for the young person who found the afikomen (the piece of matzah hidden and looked for after the meal by the children present). While everyone ate, I quickly drove to our house and grabbed a miniature scroll to give to the winner. I don’t think I have ever revealed that I was making a young boy or girl party to my trafficking in stolen goods.

On Simchat Torah we read the last verses of the book of Deuteronomy and then immediately begin again to read the opening lines of Genesis. Even when I was six the message came through: the study of Torah never ends. As years have gone by I consider it increasingly remarkable that we have a special celebration just to honor study!

This year, as I prepare to celebrate Simchat Torah in Kiel, Germany, another memory rushes into my consciousness. Just before I went up to the bima for my blessing as a child, my father told me to ask the rabbi if Kaddish (our prayer for the dead) would be part of the ceremony because the Yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of his father was Simchat Torah. I remember being terrified by my father’s request. “Me,” I thought, “speak to the Rabbi! I could never do that!” But I did, and the rabbi said he would include the Kaddish in the service.

My father never really knew his father because German soldiers shot him during World War I when my father was 18 months old. My grandfather was in Belgium on business when soldiers asked for his papers. When he reached into his pocket, they thought he was reaching for a gun and killed him.

For all the years of my childhood, Hirsch Wolf Fuchs was only a photograph that sat atop my father’s highboy. Now that I am in Germany I will tell my grandfather’s story before I lead Kaddish at our Simchat Torah service here. I will think of my own father lovingly, with a new awareness of how difficult it must have been for him to be a father because he grew up without one.

I will also be grateful for the love of Torah that he and my mother planted in me, and I will pray that the way that love continues to sprout will always be worthy of their efforts.

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UNVARNISHED

 

UNVARNISHED.

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The Parsonage Has A Sukkah!

The Parsonage Has A Sukkah!.

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The Parsonage Has A Sukkah!

The Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot begins five days after Yom Kippur. We celebrate by building a sukkah, a small hut outside our homes to symbolize the temporary homes of our ancestors while they traveled through the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt.

“A child who has the experience of building a sukkah,” my Theology/Liturgy Professor, Jakob J. Petuchowski, of blessed memory, used to tell us, “has a Jewish experience worth six months of Sunday school.”

The outstanding American writer, Noah Gordon, in his 1964 best-selling novel The Rabbi, captured the essence of just how important a sukkah can be for a child: “The bond between Michael and his zaydeh (grandfathergrew stronger during the early fall, when the days began to shorten and the autumn feast of Sukkot drew near. Each autumn during his four-year stay with the Rivkins Zaydeh built in their postage-stamp back yard a sukkah, or ceremonial hut. The sukkah was a small house of wooden planks covered with boughs and sheaves. It was hard work for an old man to build it, especially since hayfields, corn shocks and trees were not plentiful in Brooklyn. Sometimes he had to go deep into Jersey for raw materials, and he badgered Abe for weeks until he was driven to the country in the family Chevrolet.

‘Why do you bother?’ Dorothy asked him once when she brought a glass of tea to where he strained and perspired to raise the hut. ‘Why do you work so hard?’

‘To celebrate the harvest.’

‘What harvest, for God’s sake? We’re not farmers. You sell canned goods. Your son makes corsets for ladies with big behinds. Who has a harvest?’

He looked pityingly at this female his son had made his daughter. ‘For thousands of years, since the Jews emerged from the Wilderness, in ghettos and in palaces they have observed Sukkot. You don’t have to raise cabbages to have a harvest.’ His big hand grasped Michael behind the neck and pushed him toward his mother. ‘Here is your harvest.’ She didn’t understand, and by then Zaydeh had been living with them long enough not to expect understanding from her.”

Our family sukkah to which we invited congregants every year was a very precious part of our family’s Jewish identity over the years. Our children were fascinated by it as babies, loved decorating it as children, and helped set it up when they were older. They loved inviting their non-Jewish friends over to help decorate. Now they have children of their own, and celebrate Sukkot with them.

Each year we looked forward to having our congregants join us for a reception in the sukkah. As much as our sukkah meant to our children, it meant at least as much to us. 

In addition to the huts our ancestors lived in when they wandered through the desert for 40 years, the sukkah today symbolizes that too many have homes to live in all year around that offer no more protection against the elements than these fragile huts. The Sukkah teaches us that the less fortunate are our responsibility. We cannot in good conscience turn away.

Yes, Rabbi Petuchowski was right about the sukkah and six months of Sunday school. In fact I think he might have  understated the case.

This year in Bad Segeberg, Germany, our hosts Pastorin Ursula Sieg and Pastor Martin Pommerening got wind of how important the custom was to us back home and took it on themselves to erect a sukkah in their backyard. This gesture means so much to us. This sukkah more than any other we have ever enjoyed symbolizes our hope for inter religious cooperation and reconciliation that inspired us to spend these ten weeks in Germany.

Eternal God, spread סוכת שלום “the Sukkah of Peace” over us, over all Israel and over all humanity! May we may dwell in it together in harmony!

Amen

Sukkah photo

Pastorin Ursula Sieg (l) Pastor Martin Pommerening and my wife Vickie sitting in the magnificent sukkah Martin and Ursula erected for us to honor the festival of sukkot in their backyard.

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UNVARNISHED

Yom Kippur is almost here: It is the Day of Awe. It is the culmination of a 40-day period of reflection and repentance, which (if and only if we take it seriously and personally) can leave us feeling cleansed and renewed. But it takes work, hard work.

All year long we puff ourselves up in an attempt to impress our bosses, dates, prospective employers, those with whom we communicate on Facebook, and everyone else. Yom Kippur demands that for one day we strip away this puffery.

And so I look deep into my soul and ask: Why did I do the things I did? What was I really hoping to accomplish? Did I want to help others? Or did I want to aggrandize myself? Can the two desires be congruent?  God commands me to struggle with tough questions. There is no place for pretense on Yom Kippur.

And so, I ask: Why does it mean so much to me to be introduced with the words: “This is the first time a rabbi has ever given the sermon in the history of this church?” I guess I want to matter. I want my words and my presence to be important.

But who cares, really? I give a sermon, people react nicely, and I am gratified. But so what? Does anything really change? I hope I leave a lasting impact, but I also look for approval. I feel good when I finish, but the good feelings fly away quickly, and like an addict I look for more approval.

I struggle: Will I ever truly rejoice in others accomplishments instead of feeling jealous of them? There will always be those better known and, in conventional terms, more successful. Why can’t I, as Rabbi Simeon ben Zoma advised nearly two millennia ago, rejoice in the abundance of blessings life has showered upon me.

Yom Kippur urges us to imagine our death, and to tailor our actions accordingly. Time is short for all of us. The Day bids me to ask: Am I spending my precious time and energy as I should? Does my life really matter? What can I change to insure that it does?  Will anything but my death stop my yearning for approval?

These questions are especially acute and probing for me as I prepare for Yom Kippur in the midst of our ten-week stay in northern Germany. Yes it is an exciting adventure, but what are my motives for coming? Are they really just the opportunity to teach in the place that symbolizes our people’s greatest tragedy about the tradition I love?

Here is my hardest confession this Yom Kippur. Yes, I want to give, but I also want to receive. I want to be better recognized. I want my presence here to help me sell more books because I believe passionately in the value of the book that has been in my soul for forty years. But to some extent—even though I know I shouldn’t–I will measure my sense of self worth by how many copies of What’s in It for Me? I sell.

There! I admitted it. I wrote the damning words for anyone interested to see the unvarnished truth. I resist the impulse to take them back by pushing delete before it is too late.

One of the most important books I read last year was the late Susan Ford’s, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. She taught me to embrace, “the gold hidden in my darkness.” I believe, as she wrote, “it is my job to take my most human self” as I am and “transform him into my most extraordinary self.”

And so I confess. I embrace that part of me which is self centered and egotistical. I do not ask God  to uproot what is part of my nature.  I pray to use those impulses for good. Help me, Eternal One, please, to care more about what I am doing for others than what I am doing for myself.

Amen

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Jake, Hank, Sandy and Me

This essay was originally published in, Judith Zabarenko Abrams and Marc Lee Raphael, eds., What is Jewish about America’s Favorite Pastime? (The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA), 2006.

 For me, my consciousness of my special identity as a Jew as it relates to athletics began back in the 1950s, when, on a Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I heard the mellifluous voice of the great Red Barber say, “The old familiar number 31 of Brooklyn first base coach Jake Pitler will be missing today as he is observing the Jewish New Year and is not in the ball park.”

My consciousness of Jews in American sports developed further during Oneg Shabbat (reception following service) at Sabbath Eve services at my congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, New Jersey. My parents were regular Sabbath eve attendees, and as I look back on my childhood, I realize that one of the most precious gifts they gave me was to bring me with them. I wanted to be with them although I often counted ahead to see how many pages were left in the service. At the Oneg Shabbat, while they socialized with friends, I drifted into the Temple’s combination museum and library and browsed through the exhibits and the books.

Invariably, as a young boy who loved athletics, my hands picked out The Jew in American Sports, by Harold U. Ribalow. The book was published in 1952 and contained sketches of Jewish athletes most of whom I had never heard of. Their stories fascinated me. I became familiar with such names as Morrie Arnovich, Al Singer, Moe Berg, and, of course, Hank Greenberg. Sandy Koufax came of age as a baseball and Jewish icon as I moved through high school and college.

Greenberg and Koufax were not just Jews who happened to play sports. They were Jews who, through circumstances of time, location, and the game of baseball, became symbols of Jewish pride as our people searched for the elusive balance in their identities as Jews and Americans. They – perhaps unwittingly – helped us in our struggle to gain full acceptance in a gentile world while maintaining (to differing degrees) our identity as Jews.

Hank Greenberg

American antisemitism reached its peak in the 1930s. The Great Depression proved the well-known axiom that the comfort level of Jews is in a direct relationship with the health of the economy. With Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent still popular and his book, The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem, and the rantings of Father Charles Coughlin leading the way, the 30s were not a comfortable decade for American Jews especially in the Detroit area, where Greenberg played.

Hank Greenberg’s story is well-known to us. According to The Baseball Page.com, “Amid the rising antisemitism of the 1930s, Hank Greenberg’s baseball heroics took on symbolic meaning for many Jewish Americans. He was the first baseball star to enter the military in World War II, doing so voluntarily.”1

As a player, Greenberg ranks among the all-time greats. He is the first and only one of only three players in all of history to win Most Valuable Player awards at two different positions (he played first base and left field). He played in four World Series in his war-shortened career, and he led the Detroit Tigers to two world championships in 1935 and 1945.

In 1934, Hank batted .339 with 63 doubles, and he hit .328 with 170 RBIs in 1935. Injuries hampered him in 1936, but in 1937, he drove in 183 runs (one short of Lou Gehrig’s all-time record) with 103 extra-base hits and a batting average of .337.   In 1939, he hit 41 home runs and had 150 RBIs, with a batting average of .340.

His greatest year, though, was 1938, when he hit 58 home runs with 146 RBIs. His 119 walks might well have prevented him from eclipsing Babe Ruth’s home run record, and it was frequently heard that he received so many passes because of a reluctance of many in baseball to have a Jew equal or tie Babe Ruth’s record.

The reluctance of Tiger Manager Bucky Harris to play Greenberg regularly as a young player, and the Tiger’s curious sale of a still productive and very popular Greenberg after the 1946 season, suggests to many that antisemitism was still a factor in Major League Baseball decisions during the years of Greenberg’s career.

My interest in Greenberg, though, is as the role model he became for American Jews. He was by no means a religious man – although his parents were Orthodox-–but he did sit out on Yom Kippur and actually consulted a Reform rabbi who gave him (incredulously, to me) his okay to play on Rosh Hashanah during a tight 1934 pennant race. In that Rosh Hashanah contest, Greenberg hit two home runs in a 2-1 victory. When he sat out on Yom Kippur, though, he inspired the following poem by Edgar A. Guest, which appeared in The Detroit Free Press:2

The Irish didn’t like it when they heard of Greenberg’s fame

For they thought a good first baseman should possess an Irish name;

And the Murphy’s and Mulrooney’s said they never dreamed they’d see

A Jewish boy from Bronxville out where Casey used to be.

In the early days of April not a Dugan tipped his hat

Or prayed to see a “double” when Hank Greenberg came to bat.

In July the Irish wondered where he’d ever learned to play.

“He makes me think of Casey!” Old Man Murphy dared to say;

And with fifty-seven doubles and a score of homers made

The respect they had for Greenberg was being openly displayed.

But on the Jewish New Year when Hank Greenberg came to bat

And made two home runs off pitcher Rhodes they cheered like mad for that.

Came Yom Kippur holy fast day world wide over to the Jew

And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true

Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.

Said Murphy to Mulrooney, “We shall lose the game today!

We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat,

But he’s true to his religion and I honor him for that!”

Did the antisemitic feelings of the times that were often magnified by slurs and comments from opposing players and fans bother Greenberg? Of course they did. He once noted candidly: “How the hell could you get up to home plate every day and have some son-of-a-bitch call you a Jew bastard and a kike and a sheenie and get on your ass without feeling the pressure? If the ballplayers weren’t doing it, the fans were. I used to get frustrated as hell. Sometimes I wanted to go into the stands and beat the shit out of them.”3

What Henry Benjamin Greenberg did, though, was much more effective and much more satisfying. He provided Jews across the land a symbol of strength, power, and success. He was a fine athlete, a war hero, and a mensch, with a marvelous work ethic that made him one of the greatest ballplayers ever. When he entered the synagogue on Yom Kippur in 1934, he received a standing ovation from the congregation. He made us proud to be Jews.

 Sandy Koufax

 In the five or so years before arm trouble ended his career at 31, Sandy Koufax may well have been the greatest pitcher who ever lived. Although he last pitched nearly 40 years ago, my memories of him are vivid. My most prominent one is the first inning of his perfect game — when he struck out the side in the first inning on nine pitches. I have never seen anyone do that before or since. I remember saying as he walked off the mound after those nine pitches, “I can’t imagine anyone getting a bat on his pitches today.”

In 1961, when Koufax was in his first outstanding season, the famed Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: “Sandy’s fastball was so fast some batters would start to swing as he was on his way to the mound. His curveball disappeared like a long putt going in a hole.”4

The web page of the National Baseball Hall of Fame sums up Koufax’s career succinctly: “After Sandy Koufax finally tamed his blazing fastball, he enjoyed a five-year stretch as perhaps the most dominating pitcher in the game’s history. He won 25 games three times, won five straight ERA titles, and set a new standard with 382 strikeouts in 1965. His fastball and devastating curve enabled him to pitch no-hitters in four consecutive seasons, culminating with a perfect game in 1965. He posted a 0.95 ERA in four career Word Series, helping the Dodgers to three championships.”5

In addition Koufax was an All-Star six times, the National League MVP in 1963 and the Cy Young Award three times as well. He was also World Series MVP in ’63 and ’65. One of his most memorable games was his three-hit shutout of the Minnesota Twins in Game Seven of the 1965 World Series. He also shut out the Twins in Game Five of that series, on four hits.

Of course, for all his feats on the field, his most memorable act as a Jew was refusing to pitch in the first game of the ’65 Series, on October 6, because that day was Yom Kippur. Like Greenberg, Sandy Koufax was not a religious man, but he demonstrated his pride in his heritage publicly. From that day to this, he has been an inspiration to me.

Me

In 1966 I won the Eastern College Athletic Conference College Division Draw II tennis tournament at Rider College in Trenton, New Jersey. I played five of the best matches of my life at that tournament. I still cherish that victory and seeing my name in the National Tennis Magazines and the New York Times. I was excited at the prospect of returning the next year–-my senior year-–to compete as Hamilton College’s number one player in the Draw I Division.

When I learned, however, that the dates of that tournament coincided with Yom Kippur, I made without hesitation-–but with much trepidation-–the longer-than-it-usually-seemed walk to the gym to tell my coach that I would not compete and why. From that day to this, I still love to play tennis.

On the local level, when I lived in Maryland and Tennessee, I won a number of tournaments of which I am proud and. I even managed to win the Hartford Tennis Club 60 and over Men’s Singles Championship in 2006. But my proudest moment as an athlete is the tournament in which I did not play. It allowed me to realize that compared with others over the centuries, I was paying a piddling price to express my pride in being a Jew. It also allowed me to feel that, in my own small way, I was following in the footsteps of men like Jake Pitler, Hank Greenberg, and Sandy Koufax. I am grateful to be in their company and grateful for the example they set for me and for so many others as Jews in American sports.

Endnotes:

  1. The BaseballPage.com, Hank Greenberg, web page.
  2. Edgar A. Guest, Detroit Free Press, 1934 (date uncertain).
  3. Barry Burston, The Diamond Trade: Baseball and Judaism, web page.
  4. Jim Murray, “Sandy Rare Specimen”, column, August 31, 1961, quoted in, The Great Ones, Los Angeles Times Books, 1999, 27.
  5. National Baseball Hall of Fame, web page, Sandy Koufax.

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My First Swastika

It was supposed to be just a pleasant walk through the woods by the picturesque River Trave in Bad Segeberg. The moss at river’s bottom gave the water a green hue I had never seen before. Tree branches with leaves still green despite the beginning of fall drooped over the bank. We rounded a bend and there it was: a crudely painted swastika scarring the trunk of a tree to our right.

I shuddered! I whirled around as for a fleeting second imagined Nazi soldiers hiding behind the trees waiting to drag me away. But the fear vanished as quickly as it came.

Our host, Pastor Martin Pommerening apologized profusely that we had to see this sight. “But Martin,” I responded, “You have nothing to apologize for! You are the antithesis of this swastika. We bask in the warmth and love of your hospitality.” “Moreover,“ I continued speaking silently to myself. “You and Ursula (his wife Pastorin Ursula Sieg) work tirelessly to learn about Judaism and to educate Germans about Jews. You both have spent countless hours over many months preparing every detail of our ten-week visit. We are partners in a sacred enterprise, and I will not let a random reminder that there are a few who wish to return to the past do anything but strengthen my resolve to work with you toward the goals we both cherish.”

Often people tell me, why don’t you just forget the past and look to a brighter future? There are two answers to that question.

First my walk in the woods proved once again as Dionne Warwick and others sang several years ago, “There Is Always Something There To Remind Me!” Even if I wanted to forget, I cannot.

More importantly, though, remembering the past is crucial if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Several people including George Santayana and Winston Churchill, have said, “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it!”

No, forgetting the past is not desirable! Forgiveness without remembering is meaningless. Creating a better future is impossible if we fail to recall the things about the past we are trying to improve.

After we saw the swastika in the woods of Bad Segeberg, Pastor Pommerening immediately called the mayor of the town to tell him what we saw. I am very confident the swastika has already been painted over or will be soon. But I would not the tree chopped down and its stump uprooted in order to pretend that it never happened.

Germany’s efforts to atone for the Holocaust and prevent its recurrence are more than admirable. They definitely deserve our forgiveness. But never, ever ever should we forget!

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A Day of Hope

IMG_2015

In the photo above I am proudly holding up the newspaper account  of the activities on World Peace Day in Bad Segeberg. I must admit I am unaccustomed to (but gratified by) a review of my sermon in the secular press

It would be hard for me to imagine a more meaningful way to spend the last weekend of 5774 than to participate with the synagogue, churches and the mosque here in Bad Segeberg in World Peace Day.

The Shabbat was very special as Vickie and I saw for the first time the splendor of Mishkan Hazafon (Tabernacle of the North), the synagogue dedicated in Bad Segeberg in 2012. The synagogue sits on a piece of land no one wanted and was built almost completely with volunteer labor. It is a structure of real beauty and spiritual depth. We enjoyed a lovely Shabbat dinner there Friday night and a lively Torah study on Shabbat morning.

Late on Shabbat afternoon we traveled to Kiel to participate in and speak at the Selichot service at the Juedische Gemeinde (Reform synagogue) there on Saturday night. I will also be delivering sermons and offering commentary on the worship in Kiel on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As in Bad Segeberg Kiel’s Reform synagogue was built almost completely by the volunteer labor of the community. In both cities the heart, soul, blood sweat and tears of the members who fashioned these structures adds greatly to the sense of sanctity one feels in each place.

The respective leaders of the Bad Segeberg and Kiel communities, Walter Blinder and Walter Joshua Pannbacker, are inspiring examples of commitment, enthusiasm and dedication to the task of rebuilding Progressive Jewish life in northern Germany. It is a privilege to know them.

After we returned to Bad Segeberg, our Sunday began with a service at the majestic Marien Lutheran Cathedral in the center of the city. It sent chills up my spine when the Dean of the Cathedral introduced my address to the congregation by saying, “This is the first time in the 800-year history of the church that a rabbi has delivered the sermon.” The response of the congregation to the thoughts I shared was most gratifying.

After the service a wonderful group of Christians, Jews and Muslims traveled in succession to the Roman Catholic church, the Muslim Mosque and the synagogue. We learned a bit about the history of each congregation and enjoyed wonderful informal conversations at the meals each community graciously provided. By the end of the day we were stuffed not only with delicious food, but with an inspiring sense of goodwill and mutual affirmation that Vickie and I will always cherish.

Over the years I have heard many people blame the ills of the world on “organized religion.” My response to that idea is and will remain: “It is not religion that causes problems. It is the inability of people to accept that others have religious views that are different from theirs and to affirm the validity of those beliefs.” Hopefully we can progress toward an era in which we accept, affirm and embrace religious differences! I see great value in learning about how our neighbors’ faiths are both similar to and different from my own.

World Peace Day helped participants in Bad Segeberg to take small steps toward harmony and understanding. May our New Jewish Year that begins tonight see events like World Peace Day multiply around the world, and may they prove small but effective steps in creating a more just, caring and compassionate society for all of  God’s children to enjoy!

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