Friday, November 22, 2013
This week’s O-Gram is sponsored by Jill and Mark Teich in honor of Mara’s becoming Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat morning
Mazal tov to the Teich family! Join us for services tonight at 7:30 (if you haven’t sat in the comfy new sisterhood chairs and participated in our services lately with Beth Styles joining us up front, you’ve simply GOT to come!
November 22: America’s National Yahrzeit
Fifty years ago, JFK was killed in Dallas. I was very young at the time - it is one of my first news-related memories. I recall my father picking up the phone and crying out, “Turn on the TV!” I remember the flashing word “Bulletin” on the screen - and in this case, the lack of picture was worth a thousand words. My home synagogue was just down the street from JFK’s birthplace and a memorial service and march took place there on the day of the funeral. You can read about it here and see vintage video of that march, including my father, z’l, in his cantorial garb.
November 22 has become America's National Yahrzeit, really the only one that Americans observe. Once a person has died, Jews typically observe the anniversary of a death and not the birthday; but other Americans continue to focus on birthdays, even long after someone has died. This is really the only exception. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12) is far better known than his “yahrzeit” (April 15). But for JFK (born May 29), November 22 will always be the date that we remember.
There is a fascinating conversation in the Midrash about why, as Ecclesiastes 7:1 puts it, the day of death is better than the day of birth. A story is told of rabbis walking along a pier and noticing that a ship on its maiden journey is sent out with great fanfare, while one returning from its final voyage at sea is greeted in silence. Rabbi Levi suggests that the opposite would be more appropriate. When a child is born, all that we have is potential; there are plenty of unknowns. But when a person dies, we have a whole life to celebrate, all the achievements, the full impact of that person's deeds, which will continue to resonate to eternity.
When a person is born, the life of his family changes dramatically. But when that person dies - and not just a president but anyone - the ripple effect can be felt globally, and beyond. A yahrzeit can be celebrated, but the celebration is always tinged with sadness. We say Kaddish on the yahrzeit because that prayer recognizes that even God has been diminished, that the universe has a spiritual black hole in it, that the garment of sanctity has been torn.
Today we will say Kaddish for President Kennedy, because a nation was torn that day in November, fifty years ago. And even as the jubilee year usually marks a time of release, we’ve not yet been released from the trauma of this event. The wound to our national psyche has not yet fully healed. But we can still celebrate the hope and promise that was that moment in time that we called Camelot.
This week’s memorials have been cathartic. But many more yahrzeits will pass before we will be able to say, with no reservations, that America has truly moved on.
Eisen’s “L’Chayim” to Conservative Judaism
Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has just posted on the Jewish Week site a spirited defense of Conservative Judaism in the face of those predicting its’ imminent demise. I must admit, the vultures are circling gleefully. I experienced one of them in the form of Jerusalem Post columnist Isy Liebler in the “L’Chayim” roundtable last week on Shalom TV. He held court for the show’s final seven minutes, denying me the chance to respond properly. But the response really does not need to come on a televised talk show. The response needs to be seen in our deeds - in a community that plays out its vision every day, as I believe we do, in all that we do. And what is that vision? Eisen described it well in his article:
“If I had to chart a future for Jewish life in North America, and guess what path is most likely to secure that future, I would put my money on a model of Judaism that sees the world through an egalitarian lens, accepts the best that modernity has to offer; appreciates science and the arts; respects other faith communities and other Jews; and understands that, while good fences make for good neighbors, it relies for its survival upon low walls and high regard for others. I would bet upon Jews to learn by study and practice - albeit in ways that are new or evolving as I write - what is distinctive in their heritage so that they always have something Jewishly serious to offer the world, resources with which to resist the many temptations of modern life, something to root them and infuse them with ultimate meaning in the face of fashion and ephemera.”
Yep, that’s it. Call it Conservative or anything you want. Throw in some passionate, warm and welcoming prayer experiences (as you will see tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow morning too), and that’s the response. That’s who we are.
Another Jewish Week op ed has been getting lots of play this week, this one written by an Orthodox rabbi who has decided to eschew denominational labels altogether. The article, “I am Not Orthodox,” makes the persuasive case that movements more often divide Jews than unite us. That’s true, but only when one washes out every ounce of vision from them - leaving us with just affiliation or blind loyalty. In truth, whenever we hear someone say “I accept all Jews, no matter what their affiliation," we need also to hear what is implied: “...as long as they eventually come around to my way of thinking.”
I wonder, for instance, whether or not that Rabbi Teldon would accept an interfaith family where the non Jewish parent refuses to convert. I can state unequivocally that we would. Would he accept someone who has left the Orthodox fold? No doubt he would try to love that person, but with the goal of luring him back. Is acceptance merely the means to and end, as it is among missionaries of all faiths, or an end in itself? To be truly accepting, one must be fully committed to the notion that each of us is on a distinct spiritual journey, and we must respect the integrity of that journey, even as we try to model for them what we feel is the best that Judaism can offer.
True, as Rabbi Teldon insists, we are all one family. We are all "Just Jews."
And a rainbow is all "just colors." But red and blue are equally lovely - despite and because of their differences. And together they make something even more incredible: purple. I would gladly pray in either red's synagogue or yellow's. And I would see in each a shading of the truth. Would Rabbi Teldon pray at my shul? Would he accept as Jewish a child converted by a rabbi not of his movement? I would eat in green's house and blue's. Would he?
Rabbi Teldon states that denominations are "artificial lines dividing Jews into classes and sub-classes ignoring the most important thing about us all. We share one and the same Torah given by the One and same God." I agree. Labels divide. Same Torah. Same God. But very different ways of understanding that Torah and struggling with that God.
Let's offer the possibility that even conflicting Judaisms can each possess aspects of truth. If we all could truly do that, what a remarkable world this would be. We would not have labels. But the colors would be so incredibly vivid, and united.
So much has been written already about next week’s harmonic convergence of holidays. We know that it’s the last time this will happen for a gazillion years. We know that this day will break all time records for cholesterol consumption. Is there anything new to add? Well, try this out: the song “Oils” (a takeoff on the song “Royals” has been cleaning up on YouTube - here’s the link to the edited, “clean” version. Here’s another one, from Jewcy. Only 2 million to go before next Thursday. Then it will be gone forever.
So has it been overblown? Sure, like everything else. But for a good cause.
For this one day, the last chance for another 79,000 years, we will get to revel, simultaneously, in our Americanness and our Jewishness. While it can be argued that neither holiday is the most important holiday in either culture (though Thanksgiving comes close to July 4), this is still a huge deal. Imagine a chance to light Hanukkah candles without having to run out for an evening meeting, an opportunity to give thanks on a holiday that celebrates miracles. The only thing that does not fit perfectly into this match is mashed potatoes, which must be trumped off the plate by latkes.
Thanksgivukkah is one holiday definitely worth going over the river and through the woods to celebrate. Enjoy it!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgivukkah!