Harsh Words Still Hurt

Recently our younger son Ben celebrated his 35th birthday. I am thrilled that he is at a very good place in life with a wonderful wife, two beautiful children and a fulfilling career.

Ben is my youngest child, and I was my father’s. I rejoice that I have lived to see my son celebrate his 35th birthday, and I don’t want to stop there. But my father died when I was 24.

He never saw me become a rabbi, and he never met Vickie nor, of course, our children and grandchildren.

I am grateful, though that my father saw me conduct one service and deliver one sermon the year before he died. It was in the summer after my first year in rabbinical school, and I was asked to fill in for vacationing Rabbi Charles Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, in my home congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ.

My dad was already very sick, but he arranged for special treatment including a blood transfusion that day just so that he could be there. It was a Herculean effort on his part, and I will always treasure the memory of that night.

The service went well, and my father was jubilant. When a friend asked him how he felt,  his reply still reverberates in my heart: “With medicine like that, how can I not feel wonderful?”

Later he shared with my mother, “Now I can die in peace because I know my son has the talent to succeed in the career he has chosen. What I worry about is how will he deal with the criticism both warranted and unwarranted that a rabbi must endure.”

Dad, you were right to worry!

I have learned so much over the years from constructive criticism that I have received from teachers, friends and even casual observers.

But to this day, unthinking, harsh personal comments cut into my soul like a sharp knife.

The fact that I have learned that such attacks “come with the territory” and are the “price of doing business” a rabbi pays for putting him or herself out there in a public or semi public way does not diminish the pain.

On a trip to Israel during the intifada our small group met Israel’s former Prime Minister and later President, the late Shimon Peres. After his talk to us, I asked him how he deals with the vicious criticism people have hurled at him during his long career.

He replied, “If I believe that what I am doing is right, it does not bother me.”

I wish I had his fortitude.

It is nearly fifty years since I began to prepare to become a rabbi. I am still working on dealing with gratuitous criticism. To be honest, I still have a long way to go.

The Choir

BB12FDAC-A524-4F2C-9AE1-3C1CFF66450EAlmost daily the beautiful choir of Ibis (above) visits our front lawn here in Sanibel. They are magnificent in their beauty, and I marvel at their stately grace as they high step through the neighborhood

The group consists of about eight white birds, and one of color. The bird of color is neither the leader of the group nor its servant . . . just one of them. He or she suffers no  discrimination.

The white birds completely accept the bird of color as a fellow Ibis.

When I was a small child my mother gave me a record called, Little Songs on Big Subjects. One of my favorite lyrics is,

”As the peach pit said to the Apple core, the color of the skin doesn’t matter any more …”

Clearly, our Ibis choir has learned this vital lesson.

When will we humans?


(I have learned, thanks to my wonderful friend and bird expert, Caren Schoen, that the Ibis of Color is really a baby that will look before long like the rest of the flock. I hope that in this case science does not diminish the message of the essay.)

A Trip I Had to Make

Thomaskirche photo

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Kristallnacht

Fall, 1968

I first found out what happened on this night in 1938 when I began my graduate studies to become a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. At the opening convocation the then dean and later President of the College, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, of blessed memory, told of how as an eight-year old child in the town of Oberwesel, he watched his grandfather wade into the river Rhine to save charred scraps of Torah scrolls thrown by the Nazis from his burning synagogue.

Summer, 1982

As my train pulled into Leipzig’s huge station, I realized that my first glimpse of the city was probably my father’s last as he traveled on a different kind of train to Dachau after his arrest on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.

I picked up a detailed city map at the information center to try to find the street and apartment where my father had grown up. I also sought the location of the city zoo.

The Zoo

Why the zoo? The eyewitness report on Kristallnacht by David H. Buffum, American consul in Leipzig, reveals: “Jewish dwellings were smashed into, and the contents looted… An eighteen year-old boy was hurled from a three-story window to land with both legs broken … Three synagogues were fired simultaneously by incendiary bombs, and many Jews were rounded up and thrown into the stream that flows through the city zoo. SS men commanded horrified spectators to spit, jeer, and defile them with mud.”

When I arrived at the entrance to the zoo, it was 6:45 p.m. The gatekeeper said I was too late. “The zoo closes at seven.”

“It is all right,” I answered, as I handed over the entrance fee. “I only need to go in for a few minutes.” The gatekeeper protested, but I persisted until she finally let me pass.

In a few minutes I was standing before the stream. Tears came to my eyes as I heard myself asking out loud, “Is this where they took you, Papa? Did those bastards spit on you… Did they throw mud on you?” Then, as if in retaliation, I spit into the water from a bridge that straddles the stream.

67 Jews in Leipzig **

The next morning I found the office of the Leipzig Jewish community. The elderly lady who answered the door explained that the head of the community was out but would be back later. I explained to her that my father grew up in Leipzig. She pulled down a dusty ledger and opened it to the F’s. I quickly found the family listing.

While we were talking, the leader of the community walked in. I explained who I was and why I was there.   He was warm, friendly, and clearly pleased that I had come.

I asked him, “How many Jews live in Leipzig?”

“67”, he answered.

“And how many lived here,” I continued, “when the Jewish population was at its peak?”

“In 1935,” he responded, “18,000 Jews lived in Leipzig.”

“How many perished during the Holocaust?” I asked.

“14,000,” he replied.

The twelve-hour train ride to Amsterdam gave me plenty of time to digest my experiences in Leipzig. I thought, of course, of my father. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis took him to Dachau where they shaved his head, interrogated him, and abused him.

But Leo Fuchs was one of the lucky ones. Because he had relatives already in the United States, and because his visas were complete and in order, the American consulate secured his release after only a few days.

He never spoke of any of this to me, but I know the trauma’s effect never left him. In the spring of 1969 my father fell gravely ill. I flew home to New Jersey from my rabbinical studies in Los Angeles to be with him. I shall never forget my feelings of helplessness when I entered the hospital room, and my father in a semi-comatose state did not recognize me.

I stood there and shuddered as he began shouting in German — which he never spoke at home — that the guards should stop beating him! He had repressed those memories for more than 30 years.

And they were—by and large—good years! In this country my father found love and raised a family. But I –perhaps irrationally—blame the Nazis for shortening his life and depriving me of sharing my greatest joys with him: My ordination as a rabbi, my marriage to Vickie, and our children and our grandchildren.

Our children! They are our people’s answer to Hitler’s madness. For us Jews each new life represents a young sapling planted not only to bring joy to a family but also to revitalize a once verdant forest ravaged by fire, by smoke, and by gas.

The word, “Genocide,” which we throw around so loosely today, came into our vocabulary so that we could attempt to define what Hitler tried to do: to extirpate the gene pool of our people.

And so we command ourselves: זכור  (Zachor)  Remember! But if we only remember to wallow in our sorrow, then we waste our time and our tears. We must remember what was so that we can make what will be better.

How could God allow the Holocaust?

People ask me all the time, “How could God allow the Holocaust?” I answer that God gave human beings free will and placed us in charge of and responsible for this world. Without free will life would have no meaning. We human beings would be mere puppets on a string or actors following a script from which we could not deviate.

God yearns for us to create a world of justice and compassion, but God does not do it for us. When we fail, it is our failure, not God’s. When we fail, I believe God weeps with us and for us.

A Miraculous Vision

As I walked away from the stream that flows through the Leipzig zoo, I wandered past a den of timber wolves in a natural enclosure and beheld a truly wondrous site. A mother wolf stood stark still, while two suckling cubs nursed blissfully at her breasts.

At first, I thought it so incongruous to see such an exquisite glimpse of nature’s harmony in a place that represented to me only discord and destruction. Yet, that is the image that lingered in my mind during the long train ride back to Amsterdam. My mind’s eye kept returning from the vision of violence, hatred, and pain to the peaceful, pastoral scene of wolf cubs drawing sustenance and strength from their mother.

The Leipzig zoo will always represent for me the horrible evil of which humanity is capable. The wolves, though, will always represent harmony God wants us to create in this world.

On Yom Kippur we read in our synagogue one of the Torah’s most important texts: “See I have set before you life and goodness, death and evil.” (Dt. 30:15). The choice is ours, but God exhorts us: “Choose life that you and your offspring may live (Dt. 30:19).

No, the question is not where was God during the Holocaust. The question is, “Where was humanity?”

We cannot change the past, but the future is ours to shape.

We know too well that we can choose death, but God hopes our past will strengthen us as we face the future.

Yes, we can choose death, but God hopes:

That the pain we relive this night will give us the courage

To clothe the naked,

Feed the hungry,

Teach the unlettered,

Foster understanding among all people,

And use the vast talents—with which God has blessed us—

To choose life, and

To forge a world of justice, caring, compassion and peace!




**Today, because of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, some 1300 Jews live in Leipzig.


Thank you, Rochelle!

November 5 is a special day in my life. It is the anniversary of the day in 1955 when my sister Rochelle became the second Bat Mitzvah in the history of Temple Sharey Tefilo, East Orange, NJ, which was founded in 1875.**

It was a struggle!

Our father did not see “why girls had to do that,” but my sister really wanted to, and our mother backed her up.

To his credit, Rabbi Avraham Soltes conducted the service in the same way he conducted Bar Mitzvah ceremonies for boys. Specifically, that meant Rochelle read from the Torah on Shabbat morning. She read the troubling story of Hagar and Ishmael being sent away by Abraham at Sarah’s insistence.

Dad was very proud!

Her service, I noted, was different than the Bat Mitzvah ceremonies experienced in subsequent years by our girl cousins who grew up in a Conservative congregation in a different city. Their services were held on a Friday night, and they did not read from the Torah scroll.

I did not realize it at the time, but Rochelle’s courage in standing up to Dad and doing something he would not have chosen for her to do changed the course of my life.

For me, as a boy, Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah studies were expectations. Frankly, Religious school became something I tried to think up excuses to avoid.

To her credit, my mother would have none of it. Her response to my latest sore throat, upset stomach or onset of pneumonia was always the same, “That’s too bad, dear. Get in the car.”

But something of Rochelle’s persistence began to play on my mind.

‘Chelle was and is rather shy. Unlike me she never craved the spotlight. She never to my knowledge starred in school plays or even desired to. She clearly did not want a Bat Mitzvah ceremony to show the world how well she could perform. She only wanted to affirm her pride in being considered a Jewish adult.

Slowly an impression formed. If Rochelle, who was the smartest person I knew, thought this “Judaism stuff” was so important that she would stand firm against Dad to affirm it, there must be something to it.

My transformation from disinterest in Jewish learning to loving embrace of it was not a sudden epiphany. It evolved over time. When people ask what made you decide to become a rabbi, I can point to several events in my life that contributed to the decision.

But as years have gone by I see that November 5, 1955, played a very important part in changing the direction of my life.

Rochelle never wanted to be a rabbi, but she wanted to marry a Jewish man and have a Jewish family. She and my brother-in-law Jack are proud parents of four daughters, each of whom celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and seven grandchildren. Six of the seven have read from the Torah as B’nai Mitzvah and the seventh is on our calendar for the fall of 2019. I am ever grateful for her example.



** Roseanne Platt, who became a well-known Jewish educator, and had it been possible then would have loved to be a rabbi, was the first. Roseanne, if you read this, I would be eager to connect with you.

What I Believe About God

“Rabbi,” someone recently asked me, “You speak and write about many topics, but what do you believe about God?”

This essay is my best answer to that question.


My Unanswered Prayer

God and I have always had a very personal relationship. So it seemed natural to me that when I was 18 years old and stepped onto the ice for my first hockey practice at Hamilton College I offered God a deal: “God, if you make me an all-American hockey player, then, I’ll become a rabbi.” As any witness to my Hamilton hockey career can attest, God categorically rejected that proposal.

Now, more than a half-century later, I think God must have laughed at my offer and said. “Miracles I can perform, didn’t I part the Red Sea? But, Steve, you are asking too much.

No, I have given you just enough athletic talent so that if you work really hard, you may achieve some limited success but you will learn important lessons that will help you for the rest of your life. As far as becoming a rabbi goes, I now perceive that God’s response was: “Don’t do me any favors! But, if that is what you really want, and –again—if you really work hard, I’ll grant you a meaningful pulpit career, opportunities to travel beyond your dreams, and the privilege of making a difference at times in people’s lives.”

If I could have discerned these answers when I was 18, I might have thought the Almighty was rejecting me, but today I bow my head in gratitude for the many ways God has blessed me.

I find great wisdom in Garth Brooks’ song: Unanswered Prayers (Link above).

It is about a youth who fervently prayed that the girl he loved more than life itself would return his love and marry him. It did not happen. Many years later, when he met that girl by chance at a football game, he realized that his life was much happier with the woman he did marry, than he would have been with his high school love. “Sometimes,” he concludes, “God’s greatest gift is unanswered prayers.”

God Is a Mystery

Even after all of my years of religious study, most of what God does remains a mystery to me. That sense of mystery and wonder move me to say: “There is a reason that we come to worship God and do not expect God to come and worship us.”

For many, though, questions they cannot answer about God squelch their belief. If there were a good God, they say, there could not have been a Holocaust. If there were a good God, there would be no hunger and poverty in the world, and there would be no floods, famines or natural disasters. If a good God were in control of the world, innocent children would not die. God would protect us from harm and disease.

In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote one of the most influential books ever about God: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. 

After the death of his son Aaron from a rare disease, progeria, that caused him to age prematurely and die at 14, Kushner decided he could no longer accept the idea of God who is both all good and all-powerful. And so he postulated that God’s goodness is infinite but that God’s power is not. There is, Kushner claimed, a realm of nature beyond God’s control. His book performed a great service by enabling many who once could not believe to believe once again.

Was Rabbi Kushner right? I am not sure.

Rather than claim that God’s power is limited, I believe our knowledge is limited. We can understand some of what God does, but there is so much about God that we do not know and can never know.

Too often, though, we create God in our image instead of the other way around.

We think our fine minds should apprehend everything there is to know about God. In our arrogance we think that if something happens that does not comport with our view of the way we believe God should act, then clearly there is no God.

We have all seen good people suffer. We have all watched helplessly while a righteous person writhed in pain or died young while a person with seemingly no regard for anything but his or her own selfish needs lived a long life in robust good health. There is much about God that we do not understand. And maybe there is nothing about God we can say backed by scientific proof!
Jewish thinking does not rest on a proof of God’s existence but on an assumption of God’s existence. That assumption proclaims itself in the very first words of the Torah: “In the beginning, God…

The Goal: A Better World

Why should we make that assumption? For me it comes down to one simple reason!
If we assume God exists and assume that God wants all of us to use our diverse talents to do good, then we shall create a better world for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. Though so much about God is way beyond my comprehension, this I believe with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might!



Manfred Embraces Selig’s Lamentable Legacy

In the tradition of “Gutless Bud” Selig (the most ridiculous Hall of Fame inductee in the history of baseball) Commissioner Rob Manfred refused to impose an immediate suspension on a player for a despicable act.

After hitting a home run off Los Angeles pitcher Yu Darvish, Houston first baseman Yuli Gurriel pulled up the corner of his eyes and uttered an anti Asian slur, an act insulting to everything for which baseball and the United States of America should stand.
But, while descrying the act, Manfred decided that the World Series was too important to sit a player down for an act of overt racism.

So he will have Gurriel serve an all but meaningless five-game suspension at the beginning of next season.
Give me a break!
But there was ample precedent for Manfred’s moral failure.
In September 1996, believe it or not Roberto Alomar actually spit on home plate umpire John Hirschbeck after Hirschbeck called him out on strikes in a crucial end of season game with a playoff berth at stake. If you didn’t see it you would find such an act hard to believe.
Nevertheless Gutless Bud, who (wink, wink) let steroids run rampant and counted the cash generated by balls flying out of the park while juiced players made a mockery of the game, did not sit Alomar down until (and once again it was a meaningless punishment) the beginning of the next season.
Baseball needs to follow the example of hockey and basketball. In those sports playoffs or no no playoffs, finals or no finals, you show blatant disrespect for the game that has made you wealthy beyond imagination, and you serve your suspension immediately.
When Manfred succeeded Selig, there was hope he would restore respect for what once was our national pastime. Manfred’s sorry response to the Gurriel racial slur shows me that hope is fading fast.

It All Begins with Abraham and Sarah, But It Comes Down to Us

What is the major difference between the one true God of the Torah and all the pagan gods people worshipped in ancient days?

It is not so much that they worshipped idols, and it is not so much that they had many gods and we have one.

The difference is God’s agenda!

Before the Torah people worshipped gods because they presumed these idols had power.  The whole purpose of religion was to appease these gods.They made offerings to bribe the gods not to use their presumed power to harm the worshippers or perhaps to induce them to use their power to help them.

Our God’s agenda was and is different.

The God of the Torah created the world with the hope that we human beings, who are charged with responsibility for the quality of life on earth, would create on this planet a just, caring, compassionate and peaceful society.

God’s first attempt in the Garden of Eden failed!

So did God’s second attempt that ended with the flood because the world was full of violence, corruption and immorality.

But God does not give up!

After the flood God tried a third time, with the promise that the Eternal One would never destroy the earth again.

Take note: God promised never to destroy the earth again, but there was never a guarantee that we humans will not.

But that third society, after the flood, worked out no better than the other two.

After the Tower of Babel God had a serious three-pronged dilemma:

  • God still cared and would not give up the hope that humans could create the society God wanted.
  • God was still dismayed by human failure to do so.
  • God had promised never to destroy the earth again.

God’s answer to this dilemma was to choose Abraham and Sarah and their descendants (that is all of us) to create the just, caring and compassionate society for which God has yearned since the time of creation.

God’s charge to Abraham, “Be a blessing,” is God’s charge to us today!

If each of us seeks to use our individual talents in ways that bring blessings to others and not just to ourselves, we can have—at last—the type of world God wants.


(For more detailed development of these ideas, please read, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. The book is now available in English, German, Russian and Spanish. Here is the Amazon link:)




Thank You, Vanderbilt


Vanderbilt Divinity School, where I studied for my D.Min. between 1988 and 1992 has named me its “Distinguished Alumnus of the year for 2017.  In the photo, Dean Emilie Townes is presenting the award.
Here are my thoughts on that recognition:

 When I was 15 I was walking to our synagogue in East Orange, NJ, for or annual outdoor lighting of the Chanukah, the Chanukah lamp. Walking up Main Street, I stopped in a gift shop to buy a present for my girlfriend at the time. I picked out a cute stuffed animal, and as I was approaching the owner of the store to pay at the cash register, a little girl walked in. She must have been about eleven. She was dressed very poorly and reminded me of the protagonist of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl.

She approached the counter and said to the owner, “I want to buy a Christmas present for my mother, but I don’t have much money.” The owner showed her several inexpensive items, and I saw her eyes light up at when she looked at one particular item.

“How much is this?” she asked.

When he told her, she carefully counted her money, and from her face it was clear that there was a gap between what she had and what the item cost.

To this day, I believe God put me in that store so that I could make up the difference for her. It was no great act of philanthropy, a couple of dollars at most. But the feeling was unmistakable!

That experience taught me to look for what I have come to call, “Esther Moments.”

In the Book of Esther Mordecai tells the courtier Hatach to give Queen Esther a message, that she must go to the King to plead with him to spare the lives of the Jews whom Haman, the King’s Prime Ministers, has vowed and planned to exterminate.

Esther responds that she cannot go to the King unless she is summoned. If she does—even though she is Queen—she risks death unless the King holds out his scepter to accept her.

Mordecai’s immortal response is:

“Who knows if you have become Queen for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

To her everlasting credit, Esther had the courage to seize her moment and do what she was in a unique position to do.

Another biblical example of such courage is Joseph. He was in Pharaoh’s dungeon on the trumped up charge of trying to seduce the wife of his master Potiphar. Because of his dream-interpreting talent, Joseph was whisked from the dungeon, given a shave and new clothes for what was intended to be a brief audience with Pharaoh to interpret the King’s dreams.

But Joseph had the chutzpah to not just interpret the dreams as requested but to actually offer Pharaoh advice as to what to do about them.

These biblical stories teach me that God gives each of us moments when we alone are in position to make a positive difference. The question we must ask ourselves is, “Will we recognize and seize our moments, or will we simply let them pass?”

The opportunity to study at Vanderbilt was such an “Esther Moment” for me.

I remember that shortly after I enrolled I had a conversation with Bill Jenkins, who was then Vanderbilt’s Vice Chancellor for Administration and a very good friend. “I am just doing this,” I said, “for my own enrichment. It’s not like I need this degree to get a job or advance my career.”

He looked at me incredulously and responded, “Steve, it’s certainly not going to hurt.”

He could not have been more correct.

I well remember my first meeting with Joseph Hough and the late Jack Forstman, then the Deans of Vanderbilt Divinity School. They emphasized that they never had a rabbi in the D.Min program; they wanted to be sure that I always felt welcome on campus. They then asked what I wished to study.

I responded that I did not wish to study Pastoral Counseling or synagogue organization, the curricula for many D.Min degrees. Instead I wanted to take every Ph.D. level course that I could in Hebrew Bible and write a curriculum aimed at tenth grad Confirmation students based on my studies.

With their blessing I plowed ahead for the next four years.

For my dissertation I wanted to explore—viewed through the lens of Midrashic and other traditional commentaries—the narratives from Creation to the Revelation at Sinai.

I shall never forget the day I submitted my project to Ms Aline Patte, the Registrar, who had always greeted me with warmth and encouragement. When I laid my pride and joy on her desk, she shocked me by immediately taking out a ruler to measure if the margins and page layout complied with the school’s guidelines. To my relief she smiled and said they were.

I treasure the day about a week later when I met with my wonderful Advisor, Professor Doug Knight (who I am thrilled was on hand to introduce me at the dinner) and Dean Forstman who smiled and told me, ”We really have a D.Min project to be proud of.”

I also treasure the fact that Professor Knight attended the Confirmation service at the temple based on my D. Min project.

For years I used a major chunk of that dissertation not only in Confirmation class at my synagogue but in courses that I taught at Hartford Seminary and St. Joseph College. I also used it when I conducting Elderhostel courses at my undergraduate alma mater, Hamilton College, and in several institutes that I have led over the years for non-Jewish clergy.

In 2014 I published a popular version—with several additions—of that dissertation as my first book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.

It has been my privilege, in my role as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and in my subsequent travels—to lecture on and teach the ideas in that book in more than 100 communities around the world, including the semester-opening lecture I delivered at University of Potsdam (Germany) School of Jewish Theology.

With deep gratitude to Pastor Ursula Sieg and mutual blessing edition, the Publishing Company she founded, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives has been translated into German, Russian and Spanish.

I will be ever thankful for the opportunity The Temple in Nashville gave me to study at Vanderbilt. The wisdom I gleaned from Doug Knight, Walter Harrelson, James Barr, Shemaryahu Talmon, Renita Weems, and my friend Amy Jill Levine, cross fertilized the wonderful foundation in Hebrew Bible that I received from Chanan Brichto, Samuel Sandmel, Sheldon Blank, Samson Levey, Alfred Gottschalk, and Arnold Band at Hebrew Union College as well as Nehama Leibowitz, Galit Hozen-Rokem, and Moshe Greenberg at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Fifty years after I took “Introduction to the Old Testament” and got a C minus at Hamilton College, the professor who taught the course, Jay Gomer Williams, honored me by attending the lecture I gave about my book in the college chapel. It touched me deeply when he shook my hand and said, “I may have given you a C minus then, but I give you an A plus today”

I love the Bible passionately, but I recognized early that it was neither my gift nor my destiny to expand the boundaries of biblical Knowledge. Rather, my goal, and I believe, one of the reasons God put me on earth, is to show every day people biblical stories are really our stories than can have a positive impact on our lives.

I am very grateful to VDS for this recognition and take it as affirmation that I have succeeded at least to a degree in what I believe God wants me to do.

When I enrolled at Vanderbilt, it was, as I indicated for my own enrichment with no practical advantage in mind. But Bill Jenkins was more correct than I could have ever imagined when he said, “Steve, it’s certainly not going to hurt.”