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.



Four Times Chai Reflection

I am 72 years old today. 4 X chai. And I am overjoyed.

Seventy-two, you might think. Big Deal. In Sanibel, 72 barely qualifies you to run for president of the Youth Group!

But to me it is a very big deal. You see, neither my father nor either of my two grandfathers lived to this age. With that history and two major open heart operations and a life threatening strep-infection in my medical history, I feared I would not make it to this four-times-Chai milestone!

This is not the first time I have shared a birthday reflection with my community. The first was when I gave a sermon in Columbia, Maryland titled, “From the Top of the Hill Looking Down: Thoughts on Reaching Thirty.”

On my thirtieth birthday, I joined a group of rabbis at the wonderful Tio Pepe restaurant in Baltimore for a tribute dinner marking the retirement of the venerable rabbi Abraham Shaw, of blessed memory.

On that night through the haze of a glass of sangria, I imagined that the gathering was to celebrate my birthday, and I tried to peer into the future to imagine my own retirement dinner. It seemed so far away.

I looked around at the estimable collection of colleagues in the room, and I saw different types.

  • There was the scholar-rabbi whose books and lectures were brilliant but unintelligible to the vast majority of people.
  • There was the businessman rabbi who was a whiz at administration and fundraising. He really ran a tight ship.
  • There was the glad-hander rabbi, who always had a smile and a pat on the back for everyone he encountered.

Yes, on my thirtieth birthday I looked around the room—in which I was the youngest person present — and saw rabbis I did not want to emulate. But I also saw those I admired greatly. I saw those who were learned, sincere, cared about people and cared about the Jewish future. They were my role models.

The years have flown quickly since that day 42 years ago, and now I am the retiree looking back on my career. I hope I have been the type of rabbi I set my sights on so long ago. I hope I am still evolving and will continue to work on it.

In the meantime, I count every day as blessing, and pray with full heart when I wake up: Modeh ani lifanecha, melech chai v’kayam… I thank you, living and eternal Ruler that you have returned my soul to me. Great is your faithfulness,” and may I use this day to make a small difference for good for someone, somewhere.




Remembering Matthew Shepard as We Confront Homophobia Today

My 50th college reunion approaches, and it makes me aware of how much things have changed.

When I graduated from Hamilton College in 1968, it was an all men’s school, and none of my classmates was openly gay. By the time we celebrated our 25th reunion a good number had come out.

For much of my career, I was silent on the issue. I regret that silence because there are events, which force us to confront who we are and how we think. There are events, which motivate us to change.

For me such an event was the tragic death of Matthew Wayne Shepard. Murderous thugs savagely beat Matthew Shepard, and then hung him on a fence post like a scarecrow to die for only one reason in Laramie, Wyoming on October 6, 1998. He was a homosexual.

His horrible death taught me I could no long stand idly by the issues of rights for gay and transgender individuals. His death taught me that we are all either part of the problem or part of the solution.

Matthew Shepard could have been anyone’s brother, son cousin or friend. His horrible death evoked appropriate outrage across the country.

But his death also unleashed acts of homophobia and hatred too despicable for adequate description. A TIME Magazine article by Steve Lopez noted, “While his family prepared for his burial and spoke of Shepard’s gentleness and tolerant ways, a Kansas minister with a website called godhatesfags.com made plans, “to do a grave dance at the funeral.”

In Fort Collins, Colorado, some members of Colorado State University fraternities and sororities rode atop a homecoming float with a scarecrow figure, which resembled the body of Matthew Shepard, tied to a fence post.   The float makers attached a sign to the Shepard like figure, which read, “I’m gay.”

Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network noted, “People would like to think that what happened to Matthew was an exception to the rule, but it was an extreme version of what happens in our schools on a daily basis.”

For too long religious teaching has been part of the problem. To my sadness homosexual hatred finds its greatest support in the words of our Hebrew Scriptures

“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” (Leviticus 18:22) And, “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death — their bloodguilt is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13).

I have no cute exegetical tricks to re-interpret these passages.   Like many other biblical verses to which I could point they have no validity and make no sense in our times.

As Rabbi, Jerome Davidson, of Great Neck, NY, noted in reference to homosexual acts, “The Bible (only) knew of these acts in the context of war, coercion and idolatry– not in the context of loving, caring relationships.”

For me here is a prior, more enduring passage that supersedes those I quoted earlier: It is the Torah’s first story that teaches that God created human beings in God’s image, in the very image of God.

I believe homosexual men and women are the way they are because God made them that way. If God made people a certain way, how dare we judge them inferior to the way God made others?

When it comes to our LGBT neighbors, every day each of us must choose: Are we part of the problem or part of the solution?




Peacemaking on Periwinkle Way

Steve Fuchs & John Danner

Guest Blog by Rev. Dr. John H. Danner

This past weekend my congregation shared a pulpit exchange with our sisters and brothers who are part of Bat Yam–Temple of the Islands.

I preached at the Friday night service held by Bat Yam, and their rabbi, my friend Stephen Fuchs, preached at our nine and eleven o’clock services on Sunday morning. Such an exchange between Jewish and Christian rabbis and pastors is not unusual, but what makes this exchange somewhat unique is the simple fact that we don’t actually exchange pulpits, at least not pieces of furniture.

For you see, Bat Yam shares our building, shares our sanctuary, shares much of our life. We engage in joint outreach efforts, joint educational programs and joint fellowship activities.

I began my tenure here on Sanibel exactly eight years ago, and frankly, one of the key reasons I accepted this call was knowing of the unusual partnership that our two congregations had formed over the years. Twenty-seven years ago, Bat Yam was formed, and then took up residence here–and they’ve never left! We have lived together without benefit of marriage, so to speak.

And over that time we have grown evermore close in our work and our ministries, while still retaining our distinctly different ways of approaching the Divine.

Indeed, we celebrate the reality that we have serious differences, for that reminds us again and again that the Holy is beyond mere human capability to explain or define. And our individual understandings are enriched by sharing those of others. Indeed, being together as we are, helps us move past seeing one another as “the other” so that we might embrace one another as sisters and brothers, as children of the one same God.

These days I feel even more strongly that what we are doing, simply by sharing life together, is bearing witness in a world that needs to know people of faith, people of different faiths, can get along, can work together, can help repair the world, tikkun olom.

For while we are of different faiths, we share a common faith, a common trust, in the Maker of the Universe. And while we who are in the United Church of Christ, do not routinely begin any of our prayers with the words baruch atah Adonai eloheinu . . . we too join in praising the Lord, the Eternal One.

A wise Jewish teacher with whom I have more than a passing familiarity, once said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.” It is my constant prayer that we are empowered to continue in our efforts at peacemaking right here on Periwinkle Way.

Dr. Danner is our “Landlord Pastor” at Sanibel Congregational UCC Church that is also home to Bat Yam Temple of the Islands.
For me Dr. Danner embodies everything a spiritual leader should be.  


Spiritual Darkness Has Descended

Martin Luther King Day should be a celebration of freedom, equality, and advances in Civil Rights. It should be a day of light and hope.

Last year it was

On MLK Day, 2017, I had the great privilege of addressing the community-wide celebration of MLK in Albuquerque. I aimed my remarks at the predominantly Hispanic students, seniors of area high schools who were recipients of MLK College scholarships. I saw the light in their eyes as they spoke of their hopes and dreams.

But this year, MLK Day was a day of spiritual darkness.

It was a day when Cindy Garcia watched her husband, Jorge, of 15 years, who had lived in the USA for 30 years, escorted through the security gate of Detroit Int’l Airport and deported to Mexico. Cindy and their two adolescent children stood weeping at the gate.

Is this really America?

Is this the land built by immigrants? Is this the land where the Statue of Liberty stands sentry at New York Harbor, proclaiming Emma Lazarus’ immortal words, “Give Me your tired your poor your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”

In last week’s Torah portion, God sends the penultimate plague upon the land of Egypt: Darkness! It was darkness so thick you could feel it. It was a spiritual darkness — the same darkness that threatens to extinguish the light in the Statue of Liberty in the United States today.

Darkness envelops us when children born in this country see their parents deported. Darkness envelops us when we see hard-working laborers treated like slaves.

Last week a number of us from Bat Yam Temple of the Islands stood up for dignity and respect at the Wendy’s on Highway 41 in Fort Myers.

Thousands of people passing by on the highway saw the demonstration, and hopefully our plea will reach the hearts of those who can bring about change.

The Chairman of the Board of Wendy’s, Nelson Peltz, is Jewish. I have tweeted and written him on Face Book to request a meeting asking him to subscribe to the Fair Food Practices program that would insure a living wage and safe working conditions for the Farm Workers of Immokalee, Florida, where 90% of the tomatoes consumed in the United States are grown. I want to tell him that it would cost Wendy’s one penny more per pound to buy Fair Food Program tomatoes harvested by the hard workers of Immokalee than it does to buy them from sweatshop farms in Mexico. That would come to $4,000,000 a year, not insignificant but as manageable for Wendy’s as it is for McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Taco Bell and all the other food outlets that have subscribed to Fair Food Practices. Four million dollars should not be a daunting amount to Mr. Peltz, whose net worth exceeds 1.6 billion.

Until such time as Wendy’s complies, the demonstrators will take our business elsewhere, and urge everyone to do the same.

Although, the Torah teaches, darkness enveloped the land of Egypt; there was light in the habitations of the Hebrews (Exodus 10:23). Today as darkness descends on our country, let us continue to shine the light of unflagging pursuit of justice and righteousness!

And if it seems like our efforts amount to little and that we are spitting into the wind, let us remember the words of the second century Sage, Rabbi Tarfon, a very rich man who was a champion of the poor and disenfranchised. In response to the frustration we all feel in struggling against injustice, Rabbi Tarfon gave us a motto that sings out across the millennia:

“It is not incumbent on you to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:16)

That is why the Torah tells us no less than 36 times, more than any other commandment, to stand up for the dignity of the stranger, the poor, the widow, and the orphan.

They cry out to us today with a sense of desperation more intense than any I have heard in my lifetime. We may not complete the sacred work of their redemption, but we must never stop trying.




Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

“For I have hardened his (Pharaoh’s) heart and the hearts of his servants … “ (Exodus 10:1)

On my list of most frequently asked questions is: Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why did God not simply “soften” Pharaoh’s heart, show him the error of his ways, and bring about the emancipation of the Hebrews in a peaceful and loving way?

Without question, Pharaoh’s arteriosclerosis is a complex subject. Traditional Jewish commentators point out that early in the encounters between Moses and Pharaoh, the text states: “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened,” (Exodus 7:22; 8:15) or “Pharaoh became stubborn” (Exodus 8:10; 8:28). Later, (beginning with Exodus 9:12) the text begins to say, “The Eternal One stiffened Pharaoh’s heart.”

This shift, according to the commentators, reflects the view that inertia—the unchecked hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (his stubbornness)—took the matter out of Pharaoh’s hands, and evil took on a life of its own.

In Studies…

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Etched Into My Heart

IMG_0754Cantor Simon and Rabbi Fuchs

Cantor Murray Simon, pictured with me in the photo above, composed a beautiful arrangement of one of my favorite prayers for our joint installation this past Shabbat Eve as clergy of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, Sanibel, Florida. It is a great honor to work with him.

The joint installation ceremony for Cantor Murray Simon and me as clergy of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands on Shabbat Eve, January 5, 2018, is an evening I shall never forget.

Rabbi Paul Citrin, career-long friend of both Murray and me delivered a stirring keynote sermon.

Sanibel City Manager, Judy Zimomra, Jeanne Tobin, with whom I have shared so many significant life moments for more than 40 years, and Pastor John Danner of Sanibel Congregational UCC, which hosts our congregation, all added unique eloquence and flavor to the occasion in their remarks.

And then Cantor Simon touched my heart in a very special way.

He introduced the musical setting he composed to one of my favorite prayers. Its English translation is:

We praise You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us with Commandments and commands us to engage in the study of Torah.

To have the privilege to teach is why I became a rabbi, and before each lesson I lead, I offer this prayer.

In those few words we find a major reasons we Jews have survived and continue to thrive after all that we have endued these past 2000 years.

For Jews study is not just a desirable thing to do; it is a commandment for everyone.

Without question every religion has its scholars, and Jewish sages are by no means superior to them, but to my knowledge, Judaism is the only religion that looks upon study as a form of worship.

This commandment is the reason that in Dark Ages–when overall human literacy was less than ten per cent–literacy among Jews was nearly universal.

In Jewish Communal life the scholar was the most revered figure, and Jewish legends about the primacy of learning abound.

Hillel, our tradition teaches, was too poor to afford the minimal admission fee to the academy, so he climbed up on the roof in the dead of winter to listen to the lesson through the chimney. Snow fell, but he was so engrossed in the lesson that he paid it no heed. The next morning people found him half frozen on the roof. He became on of our greatest Sages (B. Yoma 35b).

Another great scholar, Akiba, was an illiterate shepherd until age 40. His wealthy employer’s daughter, Rachel, fell in love with him and saw his potential. She married him on condition that he go away to study.

Her father disowned her and she lived in poverty. Meanwhile Akiba studied for years and became a great Sage. When he returned to his village a famous man, his disciples tried to shoo the poor woman away amidst the throng that greeted the great scholar. But Akiba embraced his long-suffering wife and declared, “She is responsible for all my learning“ (Ketubot 62b-63a).

In times of persecution Jews have risked their life to study. When authorities outlawed Jewish learning. Akiba himself suffered unspeakable torture and a martyr’s death for continuing to teach his disciples in defiance of the Roman decree proscribing such activity (B. Berachot 61b).

Because of the courage of those who risked everything to study our people are alive today and contribute to the benefit of society in measure that belies the fact that Jews comprise less than 1/2 of one per cent of the world’s population.

I thank God that we live in a time and place where I can study and teach Torah and all it represents freely. That is why the prayer commanding us to study is always on my mind. Now I am for very grateful that through his beautiful composition, Cantor Murray Simon has etched that prayer into my heart.