Transitions

Time has flown by!

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It is hard for me to believe, but as I write these words I am preparing for my last Shabbat at Bat Yam until September!

As I look back over this season, the passage in Genesis about Jacob’s first seven years with Laban come to mind:  “They (the seven years) seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her (Rachel).” (Genesis 29:20)

It seems to me that “but a few days” ago Vickie and I arrived on Sanibel in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.  The warm embrace of both of us by the Bat Yam Temple of the Islands family  made the past eight months fly by quickly.

The days between now and when we return a few days before Selichot (September 1) will be busy.

Mr. Adams

On May 5, I will speak (will have spoken) at the Memorial service for my beloved 94-year-old HS hockey coach and mentor Gilbert F. Adams. The service, most fittingly will be in the Hamilton College Chapel. It is so fitting that the service be there because I never met anyone who loved his alma mater as much as Mr. Adams loved Hamilton. He recruited me for the school and personally drove me there for my interview and campus tour. We have been in close contact ever since.

The next day I will speak and lead a study session at St. John’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford. The church is across the street from our synagogue, and many years ago—long before my time there—Congregation Beth Israel invited St. John’s to worship in our sanctuary when a fire gutted theirs.

Return to Germany

On May 13, Vickie and I leave for Germany where we shall spend five weeks teaching together about the Shoo-in high schools and where I will speak in synagogues, churches and offer a seminar to rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin. One of the highlights will be to celebrate Shavuot, the festival commemorating the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai, in Friedrichsstadt, the city where in 2015, I had the privilege of conducting the first Jewish service in that city since Kristallnachtin 1938.

In mid June we return to West Hartford. There we shall immerse ourselves in the innumerable details of transitioning to temporary residents of West Hartford and primary residents of Sanibel.

We already have our Florida drivers’ licenses, and we are very proud of our “Save the Manatee” license plate!

 

As My Daughter Marries

Today our daughter is marrying — for the second time. She has found the love of her life in Clive Downie. I pray they will always be as happy and so obviously in love with one another as they are today.
The amber light for me as a father is the fact that Clive has been to the altar three times before. But lots of hard self analysis convinces him, and more importantly, my beloved Sarah Jenny, that this time is different.
Sarah is one if the most astute judges of character I know. If she’s convinced that, “this time is completely different,” then I desperately want to be too. I am.
Clive is wicked smart, very successful, a loving father to his two boys, and most importantly to me, loving, kind and considerate to Sarah.
Does it bother me that Clive is not Jewish? Much less than I would have thought. He is so very supportive of and interested in Sarah’s Jewishness and her determination that theirs will be a warm, loving Jewish home, and I am most impressed by that.
Sarah’s first husband is a Jew by birth, but the practices and traditions were not hallmarks in his life. So from a Jewish perspective, her marriage to Clive is a net gain
One thing is sure. I love my daughter with all my heart and soul. I hope she knows that whatever happens in her life I will always be there for her.
I also know nothing in life is certain or perfect. We each make the best deal with Life that we can based on knowledge available to us at the moment.
It is clear to me that Sarah is doing that, and she is not rushing rashly forward without hours, indeed years, of thoughtful process.
So on this, my daughter’s wedding day I embrace Clive wholeheartedly and trust that he and Sarah will cherish, love, support and protect one another— with all of their being— for the rest of their days.
As a father who so deeply loves his daughter, I cannot ask for more.

 

www.rabbifuchs.com

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What Does Created in God’s Image Mean?

In memory of Gilbert Flagler Adams, (December 23, 1923 – April 15, 2018) 

 

The first chapter of Genesis teaches that God creates human beings, “in the image of God” (verse 26). People often ask, “What does that mean”

It certainly does not mean that we look like God.  It means that of all the creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers.  It means that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for life on this planet.  It is an awesome responsibility with which God has entrusted us.

God charges us:  (Genesis 1:28):

Be fruitful and multiply fill up the earth and take responsibility for it. And rule compassionately over the fish of the sea the birds of the air and all the living things that creep on the earth.”

Jewish tradition teaches that we human beings stand midway between God and all the other animals on earth.    Like the animals we eat, drink, sleep, eliminate our waster, procreate and die. But in a God-like way, we have the power to think, analyze, communicate and shape our environment in a manner far beyond other creatures.

In our Holy Day prayerbook, Gates of Repentance (p. 415) we find a magnificent liturgical expression of what it means to be created in the “Divine image:”

We were unlike other creatures–

         Not for us the tiger’s claws,

         The elephant’s thick hide,

         Or the crocodile’s scaly armor.

         To the gazelle we were slow of foot,

         To the lioness a weakling,

         And the eagle thought us bound to earth.

         But You gave us powers they could not comprehend:

         A skillful hand,

         A probing mind…

         A soul aspiring to know and fulfill its destiny

 Being created in the Divine image means that we humans are the only creatures on earth who can mine ore from the side of a mountain, turn the ore into iron and the iron into steel and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human brain or an open heart.  But we are also the only creatures on earth that can go to that same mountain, mine the same ore turn it into iron and steel to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or maim.

Being created in God’s image means we have awesome, earth enhancing or earth shattering power. 

God’s hope is that we use our power to help create on this planet a more just, caring and compassionate society than exists today.  But we – not God – will decide if we choose to do so or not.

 

 

Happy 70th Birthday, Israel!

Israel is not perfect! Israel is not Utopia! Israel is not the Garden of Eden.

Israel has a Prime Minister under investigation, a government that treats religious but non-orthodox Jews with disdain, a black eye over African refuges seeking asylum, and of course issues with the Palestinian population, which from ten thousand miles away, it seems to me Israel could do a better job of handling.

Why then, do I get goose bumps when I attend an Israel@70 celebration, and we sing Ha-Tikvah, (“The Hope”), Israel’s national anthem?

I get goose bumps because Israel –its very real flaws not withstanding—represents the end of 2000 years of Jewish exile and homelessness.

Israel represents the destroyed Jewish communities of Germany, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Iraq, Iran, France, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen and Spain. Israel represents the hope rising from the despair of two thousand years of exiles from these and other places around the globe.

When the Ottoman Empire dissolved after World War I, some twenty Arab/Islamic nation states forged identities on land that had been controlled by Turkey. No one questions their legitimacy.  Jews also lived in the Ottoman Empire. Jews also had national aspirations.  Israel represents a tiny sliver of Jewish real estate on the immense landmass on which those Arab-Islamic nations appeared.

Yet from the time Jews – many years before Israel became a state—began to return to their ancestral home, the Arab world swore they would not permit it.

They tried to drive Israel into the sea when the United Nations proclaimed it a sovereign state on November 29, 1947, but somehow, though surrounded by hostile enemies, the fledgling country survived.  The Arab world again mobilized to destroy Israel in 1967, but somehow the tiny country thwarted and repulsed the threat.

Now Israel is, thank God, strong militarily, and, lo and behold, all those people who never wanted Israel to exist in the first place, call her the oppressor.

They—inexplicably–lay at Israel’s doorstep the blame for defending herself against those who try to infiltrate her borders. They blame Israel because the Arab world keeps its refugees in squalid refugee camps instead of following Israel’s example of teaching the many Jewish refugees whom it welcomed a language, job skills and providing housing for them.

They blame Israel for the fact that from the cradle through nursery school and into adolescence Palestinian children are taught to glorify “martyrs.” They lionize those who die in the act of killing Israelis or Jews. They name roads and schools after terrorists, and they build monuments to them.

How does one make peace with people like that?

Then they blame Israel for building a security barrier to protect its citizens from vicious acts of infiltration and terror. Hardly a week goes by that Israeli intelligence does not discover another series of tunnels under construction so that terrorists can cross Israel’s border in order to take Israeli lives.

No, Israel is far from perfect, but Palestinians who live there agree that life is better for them there than in any of the Arab countries.

It gives me pride that Israel has a vigorous free press where citizens are welcome to attack the government and its officials at will. I am glad that Israel does not suppress the voices of even its harshest critics. It gives me pride that in Israel Arabs serve on the supreme court and as heads of universities, as members of Parliament and in other high positions.

In what Arab country do Jews serve in similar positions?

So, in spite of Israel’s flaws, I still get goose bumps at “The Hope” Ha-Tikvah expresses: “To be a free people in our own land.”

Happy 70thbirthday, Israel!

In spite of everything, I pray that 71 will find you and your neighbors living in peace and harmony.

Yes, like everyone I wish there would be peace. But until there is peace, I am glad that Israel is strong enough to defend itself against those who wish to destroy her.

Like so many I ask, when will there be peace? The words attributed to Golda Meir say it best:

 “We will have peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us!

Those words are still true today.

“So, Who Created God?”

My fifth book, Who Created God? And Other Essays, compiled and edited by Susan Marie Shuman, is just off the press and available at AMAZON.comhttps://tinyurl.com/y9tawrln.

The subject is one I have pondered my entire life.

The title emanates from an incident that occurred back in 1968 at the very beginning of my rabbinical studies. As the years have gone by, I have questioned what God is and what God is not with increasing intensity.

As a first-year student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles campus, I conducted Friday night worship at the Flora Terrace Convalescent Home on Pico Boulevard. I led Shabbat Eve worship and then visited patients in their rooms. I earned $10.00 for each visit.

Considering my preparation and the time I spent at Flora Terrace each week, I might have earned $2.00 and hour. I did not care. I would have paid them for the experience

One Friday night, not long after I began leading worship there, the attendant greeted me with, “Rabbi, you have a new congregant. Rabbi Rosenfeld, an 85- year-old Orthodox rabbi is with us, and he will a end your service.”

“What?!” I thought to myself. “An Orthodox rabbi is coming to my service! Many Orthodox rabbis hold Reform Judaism in disdain. What will he think? How will he react?”

These thoughts played on my mind during the service. Rabbi Rosenfeld sat there, alert but impassive. There was a large black kipah on his head and the Union Prayer Bookfrom which we prayed sat tightly shut in his hands the whole time.

After the service I made my rounds and approached his room with trepidation.

He was most gracious. He said the service was nice (I breathed a deep sigh of relief), and he suggested that when I make a blessing like the Kiddushover the wine or the motzi over the challah, I should have everyone join me.

The he told me a story.

“I am 85-years-old,” he said, “and I have been studying Torah my whole life. And yet I still feel like I am at the beginning of my studies.”

“How is that?” I asked.

“When I was six-years-old, my teacher handed me a Chumash (text of the Five books of the Torah in book form) and said, ‘Read!’

So I read (in Hebrew) the first words of the Torah, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’

Then, I looked up and asked, ‘If in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, so who created God?’

And WHAM! I got such a slap across the face that I still feel it, so I always feel I am at the beginning of my studies.”

In studying Torah, “Who created God?” is as appropriate a question as, “What was the (unnamed, and nowhere does it say ‘apple’) fruit that led to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden?”

In traditional Jewish life, one who has strayed from religious observance but returns to the fold is considered one who, “hozer b’tshuvah, one who returns in repentance.” Literally translated the phrase means, “one who returns with answers.”

The late renowned Rabbi Harold Schulweis taught he felt greater admiration for one “sheh hozer b’she’elah, one who returns with questions.”

Questions are the lifeblood of learning.

In the study of Torah, no questions should be out of bounds, so, “Who created God?”

I pray I never stop asking the question.

 

I would love to see you at the book launch for Who Created God? And Other Essays. It will take place at the pot luck supper ($10.00) of Sanibel Congregational UCC, 2050 Periwinkle Way on Thursday, April 12 at 5:30 PM. Please call the church office at (239) 472-0497 to make reservations.

 

The Found Passover

 

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Above: 19 staples in my left thigh

 

Two years ago I described this sacred Jewish season as “The Lost Passover!”

It was the first time in my entire life that did not attend a Passover Seder. Instead I was fighting for my life at the Hospital of Central Connecticut. A strep infection of unknown origin centered itself in my left rear thigh and was poisoning my body.

“Come home today!”

My doctor called Vickie who was tending to her mother in San Francisco at the time and said, “You had better come home today.”

It required surgery to drain, nineteen steel staples to close the wound and massive doses of antibiotics administered intravenously for six weeks after my surgery.

The only acknowledgment I was able to give Passover was to attend Yizkor services at the Hebrew Home and Hospital Rehab Center of Greater Hartford, where I spent a week after my release from the hospital. At Passover’s close, my son Ben smuggled in a pizza, so I could end the festival-long period of not eating leavened products in style.

Then I endured months of physical therapy to learn how to walk again and gradually return to normal activities.

By the end of summer, thankfully, I felt fine.

The following Passover I signed on to be the Rabbi on a cruise from the Port of Bayonne, NJ to the Bahamas and back. The sea did not part as it did for our ancestors, but as I conducted the Seder, our ship sailed comfortably atop its waves.

Now, another year later, I only remember this life-threatening incident when something or someone reminds me of it. Those days in the hospital and in the rehab center, the weeks being tethered to an IV antibiotics dispenser, and the sometimes-arduous PT routine are a blur.

This year, we are blessed to be in Sanibel where I am rabbi of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands. My health is restored to the point where I just completed a 13-1 season as part of the number one duo on the Beachview Tennis Club Blue tennis team.

More importantly it was my privilege to conduct a Seder for 176 people on the first night of the Passover Festival.

My two-year journey from “The Lost Passover” to the one I found awaiting me in Sanibel now seems like a dream. But the photo at the top of this essay will always remind me that it was not. That photo reminds me that every day is special. Every day is a sacred opportunity to try to make some small difference in some small way in somebody’s life.

Turning a communal dinner into a journey participants make from slavery to freedom, from degradation to dignity is a privilege I no longer take for granted.

The privilege is not just in leading the rituals. The privilege is helping people understand that during the Seder we re-experience slavery and our journey to redemption in order to help–in whatever way we can—others make the same journey.

Slavery abounds in our world:

Human trafficking, addiction, thoughtless greed, sweatshop conditions in many countries, homelessness, disease, lack of affordable health care, gun violence and abject poverty, are just some of the forms of bondage that afflict so many even today.

We shall not all cure cancer or make peace between warring nations, but if we put our mind to it, each of us will find something we can do.

To that let me add: If there is something you are thinking of doing to help another person in any way, do it today. My lost Passover taught me that tomorrow may be too late.

My latest book, Who Created God? And Other Essays (compiled and edited by Susan Marie Shuman) is now available on AMAZON https://tinyurl.com/y9tawrln and through my website, http://www.rabbifuchs.com

The Meaning of Passover

To understand the Exodus narrative, and the festival of Passover which begins Friday evening, March 30, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will–between gods.

Pharaoh

In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see the First Chapter of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

The One True God

In the other corner, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished. The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

A Showdown

Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.

Because God intervenes in history so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay.

Imagine for a moment that you are watching your small toddler. Something distracts you, and in a split second, your child has wandered into the middle of the street. You look up, see a large truck bearing down on him, and realize with terror that there is no way you can save him! In the nick of time a woman dashes into the street, grabs the child, and pulls him to safety. There is no way, of course, that you can adequately repay that woman saving your child!

In the same way God saved us. Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.

Yet, we try!

We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society. Our Passover celebrations have meaning only if they inspire us to do whatever we can to repay our debt to the Eternal One by working to make the world a better place.

 

(I hope you will purchase, read and recommend that your friends read my new book, Who Created God? and Other Essays, available on AMAZON and through my website http://www.rabbifuchs.com)

 https://tinyurl.com/y9tawrln

 

 

A Jew Looks At Jesus

As children, my sister and I often argued over what we would watch on television at 8 o’clock on Friday nights. While our parents were usually at services, we were home trying to decide between Our Miss Brooks, a situation comedy about the trials and tribulations of a high school English teacher, which she preferred, and Crossroads, a series of dramas about the experience of clergymen, which I preferred. Interestingly, my sister became a teacher, and I became a rabbi.
She was older and usually got her way, but I prevailed one night, and Crossroads it was.

I remember a scene where a young boy in a baseball cap asked his priest: “Father, what’s the difference between you and Rabbi Silver?” The priest gave the boy a sympathetic look and said, “Think of it this way, son. We are both in the same league; it’s just that we play for different teams.”

Since that night I have wondered: did the priest mean that he and the rabbi both pursued the same objective in different ways? Or did he mean that they were in competition with one another? The question remains with me and lies at the heart of my inquiry into the role of the Christian Messiah.
A famous author wrote, “…One need only read the lives of Jesus written since the sixties and notice what they have made of the great imperious sayings of the Lord, how they have weakened down His imperative world-condemning demands upon individuals, that He might not come into conflict with our ethical ideals … “
How correct the author seems! We have seen since the nineteen sixties Jesus made into a jeans-wearing modern, very much like us in many ways, yet with a message and a mission which set him apart. We have seen since the sixties Jesus Christ popularized with music and visual effects designed to capture both the imagination and the entertainment dollar.
The author’s statement about what has been done with Jesus since the sixties is not surprising until we realize that the author is Albert Schweitzer, his statement published in 1906 in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and his reference is to the 1860s, not the sixties of the last century.
In his famous study, Schweitzer concluded that the historical Jesus is largely beyond discovery. More than a century later Geza Vermes’ 25-year study of the life and times of Jesus yielded a similar conclusion. He wrote: “Certainly unless by some fortunate chance new evidence is unfolded in the future, not a great deal can be said of Jesus at this distance of time that can be historically authenticated.”
To this day “the Quest” remains fraught with uncertainty. One of the reasons the historical Jesus is so elusive is that the Gospels (even the similar accounts of the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke) disagree on many details. Vermes contended that the Gospel do not “provide more than a skeletal outline of Jesus as he really was.”
To this Samuel Sandmel added: “We cannot be precise about Jesus. We can know what the Gospels say, but we cannot know Jesus.” Though the historical Jesus is largely unknowable, we can and must deal with the image of the personality, teachings, and influence of Jesus which has come down to us. As Schweitzer wrote, “Jesus as a concrete historical personality remains a stranger to our time, but his spirit, which lies hidden in his words, is known in simplicity, and its influence is direct.”
Of course, Schweitzer wrote as a Christian. We Jews too, though, must deal with the influence of Jesus more than the elusive historical figure whom centuries of dedicated research have failed to fully reveal.
Without denigrating in any way the figure who inspires the Christian religious experience, we acknowledge frankly that we Jews do not see Jesus as Christians do.
Simply stated, the basic Christian concepts which Jews do not accept are:
  • That Jesus was God’s anointed, the Messiah whose coming many   Jews longed for both at the     time Jesus lived and during other periods of Jewish history.
  •  That the martyr’s death of Jesus in any way effects atonement for the collective sins of humanity or for the sins of an individual.
  •  That God became or is likely to become incarnate in any human form, making any human being a suitable object for worship.
  •  That, as Paul contends in his Epistles, the life and death of Jesus rendered the elaborate system of Jewish law functionally useless.
 These are the main claims Christians make for Jesus which Jews do not accept. Jesus was not the Messiah for Jews because he did not fulfill the clearly understood Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would do. As Samuel Sandmel wrote, “In a word, the people who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah rejected the claims because the expectations did not materialize. The power of Rome was not broken, the Davidic line was not restored, the scattered were not miraculously restored to Palestine; day to day life went on as before.”
The basis of the Jewish rejection of the Messianic claims made for Jesus are offered without apology and without rancor. These are matters of faith and feeling. Beliefs such as these are not matters of right and wrong.

In interfaith relations, our goal should be to go beyond mere tolerance to an acceptance of one another’s feelings. Without trying to convince or convert, we should open our minds and our hearts to an understanding and an appreciation of what we each hold dear.

Unfortunately, for the bulk of the 2000 years since Jesus lived, Jews and Christians have been at loggerheads over the issue of the “status of Jesus.” Christians have persecuted Jews for their lack of belief, and Jews have responded with resentment and furtively written anti-Christian polemics.
Many years ago, Rabbi Samuel Goldensohn described the roots of the Jewish-Christian conflict this way: “Temperamentally, the Children of Israel were profoundly earnest. No one who reads the Scriptures can escape the conviction that the people who could face the issues of life with such courage, who could lay bare their shortcomings, failures, and convictions with such frankness… no one can deny that this people was exceedingly earnest.”
As for the early Christians, Rabbi Goldensohn pointed out that the converts to the new doctrine “championed it with equal zeal.” It is important to understand, he concluded, “that there is no zeal so strong as that felt by those who are responsible for a doctrine or are recent converts to it.”
Fervent belief, zeal, mutual earnestness, to use Goldensohn’s terms, fostered the antipathy which existed between Christians and Jews for so many centuries. Hopefully, that mutual antipathy will continue to wane. Hopefully, in this time and in this place, we are able to gracefully and graciously accept the legitimate religious differences which exist. Hopefully, we are at a point where Christians need not proselytize Jews in a forceful or unbecoming manner, and where, therefore, Jews need not regard Christians with mistrust and disdain.
As I relate the reasons why Jews do not believe in Jesus, I do not suggest these are reasons why Christians should not believe in him.

But it is wrong for a Jew to believe in Jesus. It is one of the few notions that is totally alien to the Jewish religion as it has historically developed. Belief in Jesus may be ineluctably right for Christians, but it is outside the pale of Jewish belief.

That, is why I harbor such great resentment of so-called “Jews for Jesus.” I do not mind if Christians try to convince others of the merits of their faith. I reject, however, the notion that one can be both Jew and Christian at the same time. If a Jew wishes to become a Christian, let him do so in good conscience. At that same time, though, let him not delude himself into thinking that he is still in essence a Jew.

A Jew for Jesus is no more a Jew than a Catholic or Protestant who denies Christ is a Christian.

But what of Jesus himself? It would be most interesting to see what place he would hold in Jewish thought were his life and career not encumbered with the enmity they have spawned. Had Jews never been branded as Christ-killers. had we never suffered as we have in Jesus’ name, what place would this teacher from Galilee have held in our religious tradition?
On this one can only speculate, for Jews have been blinded to Jesus’ merits because of the suffering his followers have caused us. If Christians are to understand Jews, they must understand that the issue of Jesus is so fraught with emotion that some of us are incapable of discussing it objectively.
Why? Our conditioning is such that when we hear the merits of Jesus extolled, we instinctively expect that soon to follow will be an attempt to convert us to the faith of Christ, or to condemn us for rejecting that faith. Christians must realize that, because of the past 2000 years, Jews recoil instinctively at the name of Jesus. We somehow feel that, following the pattern of Martin Luther, kindness will be followed by condemnation if we fail to “see the light” as Christians see it.
Through the early 1520s, Martin Luther often condemned the persecution of Jews by Christians and recommended tolerance and understanding toward us. As Jews continued to resist the message of Christianity, though, Luther grew increasingly hostile. In the 1540s he wrote, “On the Jews and Their Lies” and “Admonition Against the Jews.” In these works, he called us “thieves and brigands” and “disgusting vermin” who ought to be banished from society or subjected to forced labor.
We Jews must make Christians aware of the emotional process which makes us automatically wary when we hear Jesus exalted. The reflex has been bred into us through centuries of experience with pogroms, expulsions, and worse. My prayer is that the same reflex can be bred out of us, not by forgetting the past but by overcoming it, not through ignorance or denial of our history, but through subsequent centuries of mutual acceptance and friendship.
Perhaps  the reflex is no longer appropriate. The last decades give us cause to hope for a lessening of suspicion in interfaith relations. Much of this lessening of tension has been due to active effort on the part of the Christian community. Our hope is that such efforts continue to grow and that we in the Jewish community continue to warmly receive and reciprocate them.
Jesus is not to blame for our inbred wariness. Some of his followers are. With this in mind, let me try to speculate on how we, were we able to transcend history, might regard Jesus himself.
Certainly his conflicts with the religious authorities of his time would not have left Jesus unalterably condemned. Acceptance in their own time was certainly not one of the ingredients always found in viable Jewish heroes. Moses, the greatest of our leaders, was often discredited and defied by significant numbers of people. Great prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos were despised and rejected by the establishment of their day. Even Elijah, for whom we open the door every Passover, was so discouraged by the treatment the people accorded him that he complained. to God, “I have been very jealous for the Lord…but the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword; and I, only I, am left.” (I Kings 19:10)
No, the fact that these individuals were often in conflict with the people they confronted has not damaged their ultimate reputations. Neither would that fact cast Jesus from the ranks of Jewish luminaries.
Personally, I see in Jesus a loyal Jew despite his alleged differences with the Jewish establishment of his time. The controversies he raised seem to have been “for the sake of heaven”, that is, positive-minded controversies. Whether Jesus’ notions were right or wrong, they aimed to deepen the people’s understanding of the essence of religious practice.
In addition, I see Jesus as a gifted leader and teacher with an exceptional flair for the use of parable. I see parallels, as Geza Vermes has indicated, to the accounts of his miracles and healings in Biblical figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and in contemporary Galilean sages, Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa.
Yes, the concept of God’s love which Jesus presented did add a new dimension to Jewish religious life. For those of us who remain Jews, though, Jesus’ idea of a God whose love and forgiveness are unconditional is less attractive than a God whose primary interest is in a moral world of respect and justice, tempered by mercy and compassion. In short, we find ourselves more drawn to the God of the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature than to the God Jesus portrays.
Here, too, we accept and respect that others feel differently. We ask in return that the followers of Jesus respect the tradition from which Jesus sprang and which he affirmed throughout his life.
We ask that Christians discontinue and discourage efforts to set up Pharisaic Judaism, which is indeed our Judaism, as an arid and floundering legalism into which Jesus breathed the reviving breath of love. It is simply unfair and untrue to deem the laws and outlooks of the Pharisees as void of love and compassion. We ask that Christians study the writings of their own enlightened scholars, like R. Travers Herford, George Foot Moore, and Morton Scott Enslin, to gain a true appreciation of the Pharisaic legacy.
Indeed, if Christians treat our faith with the respect it deserves, then we must respect their kindness as representative of the master of their faith. It may not be fair to him, but since the historical Jesus is beyond recovery, our assessment of Jesus will necessarily hinge on the actions perpetrated in his name.
Jesus is not, nor will be ever be, to Jews what he is to Christians. If modem Protestants can continue to accept this fact with equanimity, then the virulent anti-Semitism which infected Martin Luther in his later years will be of only historical interest. If modem Catholics can continue to graciously accept us as we are, then we can safely consign the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the expulsions and edicts directed against us to the increasingly distant past.
 No, Jesus is not our Messiah. We looked for things from the Jewish Messiah which Jesus never brought. Claims were made for Jesus which we can never accept. It is not just a matter of time until we “see the light”.

For our Christian friends, though, Jesus is both the hope and the inspiration for “peace on earth and true good will among humanity.” If Jesus fosters these ideals in his followers, and if his teachings help create a better world for all of us, then we as Jews, rather than recoil at the mention of his name, should acknowledge Jesus’ positive impact and be grateful for it. Our view of Jesus from now on will depend less of what he was than on what his followers make of him.

What Does It Mean to Be Created in God’s Image?  

It certainly does not mean that we look like God.

It means that of all the creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers. It means that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for life on this planet. It is an awesome responsibility with which God has entrusted us.

God charges us: (Genesis 1:28)

פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ וכבשה

ורדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים

ובכל-חיה הרמשת על-הארץ

My rendering of this passage is:

“Be fruitful and multiply fill up the earth and take responsibility for it. And rule compassionately over the fish of the sea the birds of the air and all the living things that creep on the earth.”

My translation reflects the midrashic teaching (Bereshit Rabbah 8:11) that we human beings stand midway between God and all the other animals on earth.   Like the animals we eat, drink, sleep, eliminate our waster, procreate and die. But in a godlike way, we have the power to think, analyze, communicate and shape our environment in a manner far beyond other creatures.

In Gates of Repentance afternoon service for Yom Kippur (p. 415) we find a magnificent liturgical expression of what it means to be created in the divine Image:

We were unlike other creatures.

Not for us the tiger’s claws,

the elephant’s thick hide,

or the crocodile’s scaly armor.

To the gazelle we were slow of foot,

To the lioness a weakling,

And the eagle thought us bound to earth.

But You gave us powers they could not comprehend:

a skillful hand,

a probing mind…

a soul aspiring to know and fulfill its destiny

Being created in the divine image means that we humans are the only creatures on earth who can mine ore from the side of a mountain, turn the ore into iron and the iron into steel and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human brain or an open heart. But we are also the only creatures on earth that can go to that same mountain, mine the same ore turn it into iron and steel to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or maim. Being created in God’s image means we have awesome, earth enhancing or earth shattering power.

God’s hope in creating us in the divine image is that we use our power to help create on this planet a more just, caring and compassionate society than exists today. But we – not God – will decide if we choose to do so or not.

 

Once Again I Felt Alone

My 72nd birthday that I celebrate today is a stark reminder that my 50th Hamilton College reunion quickly approaches. On that weekend Vickie and I shall be in Germany where we will teach about the Holocaust in schools, and I will speak in several churches and synagogues. I am sorry to miss it.

That said, I wish I could reflect more lovingly on my Hamilton years. I learned so much, but I often felt alone and lonely at our then men’s college in the middle of nowhere.

As a Hamilton student I was closer to academic probation than Phi Beta Kappa. It was not for lack of trying. I studied hard, but the knowledge the professors wanted me to demonstrate on exams did not seem to penetrate my brain.

My only real success on the Hill came on the tennis courts where I treasure my 50-3 varsity record and the ECAC and NCAA (regional, college division) tournaments that I won. Perhaps the most touching compliment I have ever received was when (our Coach) Mox Weber told me as he presented me the MVP award for the ’68 tennis team: “Steve, you’re the best team captain I’ve ever had, and that’s not just in tennis. That’s in all sports.”

Looking back, I see the total absence of Jewish life on campus in those days as one of the factors that led me to become a rabbi. I missed what had been a significant part of my childhood and high school years.

In my rearview mirror I also see a significant measure of what I call “academic anti-Semitism” on campus then. There were no Jewish studies courses and no Hillel or other outlet for Jewish religious or cultural expression.

I am thankful that the Hamilton of today is a very different place.

I thought of that academic anti-Semitism this past Wednesday when I attended a lecture by the Swedish Political Scientist, Johan Norberg at Sanibel’s Big Arts’ Forum. He spoke about all the advances that in learning and technology that make the times we live in the best era in human history. He lauded the contributions of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Africans and Asians all of which propelled human progress forward in important ways.

As I sat there I thought, “What about the Jews?

What about a people who comprise less than 1/3 of one per cent of the human population but who somehow has won 30% of the Nobel prizes given since the awards’ inception. Have we done nothing noteworthy enough to advance human progress?

I am convinced Professor Norberg’s omission was not accidental. His notes were in the open computer in front of him.

As his lecture progressed he spoke of the perils of extreme nationalism that creates barriers among people and place some in superior positions to others.

Without mentioning Israel by name, I heard behind his words all of the bromides and slogans of the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) movement against Israel pushed so hard in many academic circles.

There was nothing overtly “wrong” with Johan Norberg’s lecture. He was urbane, witty, and entertaining. The audience seemed to enjoy the presentation although some commented that it lacked the substance and depth they hoped for.

But as I listened to Professor Norberg, I felt transported back to the Hamilton College I attended in the 60 ‘s. I felt isolated and alone. I felt part of “a people לבדד (l’vadad)) alone among the nations”, as Balaam in the Bible described the ancient Israelites. (Numbers 23:9).

We well remember when not enough people stood up for us when other marginalized us. Professor Norberg reminded me of those times.

It was not his intent, but he also reminded me that I must stand up for others who feel marginalized and alone even in this, the best of all eras to live in human history.