Divre Harav – September 2015

Food sustains our physical selves and plays an important role in keeping us emotionally and spiritually healthy. Food can connect us with one another. The preparation of food binds parents to children or binds a group of people preparing a meal together. The act of eating food with other people is perhaps the most important social bonding experience.

Jewish practice makes the act of eating into a holy act by means of a combination of the elements of mindful eating, food blessings, and kashrut. We eat mindfully when we pay attention to the quality and quantity of food that we put into our bodies. We cultivate gratitude when we say blessings to God for the food that we consume. Kashrut is a complicated system, combining elements of awareness of the sacred nature of all things, sensitivity toward animal life, reverence for human life, and a way to bind Jews together.

In an ideal Conservative Synagogue, every member would have a kosher home. We live in the real world in which this is not the case, but the Synagogue ought to be a consistent and gentle reminder of the ideal. One such reminder happens every time we eat together as a Synagogue community and notice the kind of food which is served. In order to have the option of a new kind of community-building program involving food, the Religious Life Committee created some guidelines to permit experimentation with potluck meals in the Synagogue. A potluck meal experience in which we encourage everyone to contribute something that would meet a kosher standard, even from a non-kosher home, can bring our community together in a new way. The committee created three simple rules regarding food prepared without recognized kashrut supervision (such as in people’s homes) that are easy to understand and follow, and added two additional suggestions that would increase the likelihood that those who are more traditionally observant will be able to eat as well:

  1. 1. All food must be dairy, kosher fish, or vegetarian (no poultry or meat).
  2. 2. All service and eating utensils will be disposable and tables will be covered.
  3. 3. Food may not be brought into either of the Synagogue’s kitchens.
  4. 4.

In addition, we suggest, although we do not require, that those bringing food from non-kosher homes use kosher-supervised ingredients and cook in disposable pans as much as possible. We also suggest that the committee in charge of the potluck be sensitive to the variety of kashrut and other dietary restrictions of our members and make a reasonable effort to ensure that all who want to participate will find something that they are able to eat.

As much as food is about community-building, it is also about trust. In order to eat someone else’s food, we need to trust that the ingredients and method of preparation are consistent with our dietary requirements. If we have food allergies, the trust we place in the food we eat literally may mean life or death. The Religious Life committee, the Board of Trustees, and I, believe that we, as a community, can trust each other to feed each other properly while preserving the integrity and the kashrut of the Synagogue.

At the same time as we are open for potluck sharing of food, we also want to enable more people to prepare food in the Synagogue. Ahavas Israel holds a fairly strict standard of Kashrut for our kitchens, but even for those who do not keep kosher in their own homes, it is not hard to learn. Paula Miller will be leading a “kitchen orientation” at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 14. Please contact Paula Miller with any questions.

The Iran Deal: To Support or Not to Support?

For the past several weeks, I have been following rabbinic discussion on the Iran Deal. Most of the voices have been firmly against the deal, and many of my colleagues have been preaching against it from the pulpit. This is my first Shabbat back from vacation, but I am reticent to devote a d’var Torah on the subject because I’m not sure that the Torah has a definite and conclusive opinion on such a complex political issue.

For me to express a rabbinic opinion on the Iran Deal would be to say that the Torah can definitively solve a complex political issues such as whether Iran is less likely to get – and use – a nuclear weapon with this deal or without it. Although many people and organizations have strong opinions, I don’t know that anyone can predict the future with certainty.

However, I do have a personal take on the issue, and I wanted to share it with you. Many of you will agree with me; some of you will not. Those of you who support the deal have significant support both in this country and in Israel among people who understand security issues far better than I do. Those of you who are opposed to the deal can find a copy of a sample letter that you might send to our senators to encourage them to vote against the deal.

My personal opinion is that it is a bad deal. For years I’ve been hearing that Iran is only a few years from getting nuclear weapon technology. It hasn’t happened yet, which just proves to me that the experts are all just guessing based on the best data at hand. One of these days, though, they are going to be right, and I don’t think this deal is the best way to prevent that from happening.

To the question, “What do you propose instead?”, I say the following:

I’d rather see the sanctions kept in place until an agreement is reached ensuring a non-nuclear Iran, but I’m not thrilled with using the threat of long term, regime changing, war because I don’t think that the current Iranian government could be replaced with anything much better. However, I’d love to see a few precisely targeted massive bunker-busting ground-penetrating bombs dropped on the nuclear sites to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability, as Israel did to Iraq years ago, even though I freely admit that I don’t know if it is technologically possible to destroy the reactors that way.

There is also is the issue of the release of somewhere between $50 and $150 billion after sanctions are lifted. It greatly concerns me that think about how much mischief Iran will sow throughout the Middle East (and beyond) with that kind of money. A more gradual release of the money as Iran shows itself to be a responsible world citizen seems a more prudent course of action.

As responsible citizens of this country and as Jews concerned both about the security of the United States and Israel, it is a mitzvah to contact our elected representatives and share our thoughts with them.

The most important action you can take right now is to contact our Michigan Senators, both of whom have not yet taken positions on the deal. I will be urging them to reject it. Below are five points that I incorporated into my letters (from standwithus.com):

Senator Debbie Stabenow
3280 E. Beltline Court NE, Suite 400
Grand Rapids, MI 49525
Phone: (616) 975-0052

Senator Gary Peters
124 West Allegan Street, Suite 1810
Lansing, MI 48933
Phone: (517) 377-1508

Here are five points that will strengthen the agreement, and we urge you to require these points in a new agreement:

  1. Demand the dismantling of centrifuges in all Iranian nuclear facilities. The proposed deal would disconnect and store centrifuges in an easily reversible manner, but it requires no dismantlement of centrifuges or any Iranian nuclear facility.
  2. Include anywhere, anytime, short-notice inspections. The current agreement gives Iran up to 24 days to deceive, delay, and hide.
  3. Release sanctions gradually as Iran demonstrates full cooperation, satisfying International Atomic Energy Agency concerns over the possible military dimensions of Tehran’s program. The current agreement gives $150 billion and lifts sanctions as soon as the agreement commences, rather than gradually in phases as Iran demonstrates sustained adherence to the agreement.
  4. Block Iran’s nuclear weapons quest for generations. The current agreement permits Iran to legally acquire nuclear weapons in 15 years. A child born today would live in a world where the greatest terror sponsors, who want to annihilate the United States, also have the most powerful weapons and delivery systems to achieve their goals.
  5. Prevent Iran from obtaining ballistic missiles and do not lift the arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council, which will allow Iran to provide additional arms for terrorism and proxy wars, which inflame the region and threaten our allies.

Don’t let Iran become a nuclear threat on your watch!


JFGR Statement on Iran Deal

In response to the recent agreement between the United States and Iran regarding nuclear proliferation the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids joins numerous other Federations throughout the country in expressing significant concerns regarding its content, and encourages the Administration, which worked admirably and tirelessly in pursuit of this deal, to negotiate a deal that requires Iran to dismantle its nuclear program before obtaining sanctions relief.  While we are not nuclear experts, we must recognize that a sizable and diverse number of authorities have stated that, for a variety of reasons, this deal fails to meet the most basic objectives originally set forth to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

History has taught us that the safety and self-determination of the Jewish people cannot be left up to the goodwill and false promises of rogue nations.  This agreement does not allow for “anytime” or “anywhere” inspections of nuclear facilities, and it does not require Iran to reveal its prior illicit nuclear program-a program that violated countless UN Security Council resolutions.  It allows Iran to gain access to intercontinental ballistic missile technology, which equally threatens New York and Tel Aviv, as well as $150 billion of frozen assets before it even takes minimal steps towards compliance.  Iran, which has repeatedly lied about its nuclear activities in the past, will now have time to disguise non-compliant activity before allowing international inspectors into nuclear sites.

The safety of Americans, Israelis, and our Middle Eastern allies would be threatened under this agreement, as Iran’s neighbors seek their own nuclear weapons and unleash a nuclear arms race in the worlds most volatile region.  History has shown us that regimes that sponsor terror throughout the world and call for the destruction of the United States and Israel simply cannot be taken at face value to comply with any agreement. Iran must earn the world’s trust before the international community rewards them with economic relief and legitimacy on the world’s diplomatic stage.

Proponents of this deal claim that our choice is this deal or war.  We feel that the alternative is a better deal that would not legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear state nor accept temporary constraints.  Nothing short of an outright dismantling of the nuclear infrastructure should be acceptable to the global community

We also note that not only do Iran’s neighbors oppose the deal but a broad spectrum of elected Israeli leaders as well, including both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Opposition leader Herzog.  We look to these leaders as examples of rising above partisan politics on such a monumental issue.  We recognize that there are diverse views within our community, but ultimately this issue must remain about policy, not politics, and allow us to demonstrate moral clarity, unity, and resolve when advocating for Israel, the United States, and Peace.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April, 2015

I have a picture of spring in my mind, although as I’m writing this article, looking at the snow and ice covering the ground, the memory feels like an old, faded sepia-tone print of spring. In my distant memory, the temperature is in the mid 60’s, the same as it was back last fall, but whereas the fall air felt chilly, the spring air feels warm. Fall smelled of moldy leaves, but spring smells of sweet blossoms. Fall reminds me of the heavy labor of putting away the bicycles, building and tearing down the Sukkah, and stowing the grill and deck furniture against the winter. Spring is the time to get on my bicycle, sit out on the deck with a beer and a burger, and celebrate Passover (although not with a beer and a burger!).

All my life, even during the times that my Jewish behavior was less serious, I looked forward to Passover. The story of the exodus, the lessons that flow from the Hagaddah, and the way that the

subjugation to redemption narrative infuses Torah, to me at least, form a compelling argument for Jewish engagement. I know that there are Jews who do not have a Seder or celebrate Passover by putting away the bread and cereal and other leavened grain products for eight days in favor of matza. No matter what you do for Passover, I encourage you to take the holiday experience, especially the Seder, seriously.

The critical element of the Passover Experience is not the elaborate food eaten for dinner at the Seder, but rather the thought that goes into preparing food without leavening and the symbolism behind it. One common take on hametz, leavening, is that it symbolizes the ego. The opposite of hametz, matza, symbolizes humility. Passover can be seen as an exercise in reducing the ego and developing a humble attitude towards caring for others.

The critical element of the Seder is not the brisket or the matza ball soup, but rather the retelling of the story of the Exodus, with the focus on how that story moves us to see and address oppression in the world around us.

I regularly speak to people of other faith traditions who envy the rich holiday life that Judaism offers, giving us times not only to connect with family and friends but also points in the year to reinforce our basic human values that reaffirm our covenant with God. We have chosen to embrace a 3500 year old religious tradition, some on our own and some because that’s what our parents or grandparents taught us what to do. Let’s all do our best to celebrate with joy and pass along our love for Jewish practices to others in our family and community.

Divre Harav – Words from the Rabbi – November, 2014

Beginning this month, I will be on Sabbatical for three months. It is a common practice of rabbis and other clergy to be given a periodic Sabbatical from their regular duties for reflection, for rekindling the spirit and the sense of calling by God, for reconnecting more deeply with the tradition (Scripture, theology, liturgy), and for deepening one’s own spiritual life. My last Sabbatical was five years ago. While on Sabbatical, I will not be available for my normal Rabbinic duties. I will not be coming into the office, attending meetings, or scheduling appointments. I will not be taking phone calls or responding to email for routine questions. I will not be teaching, leading study groups, leading services, or giving Divre Torah. The office will refer calls or email either to the president or to the appropriate committee.

What will I be doing? Clergy organizations suggest that a Sabbatical should not be heavily structured. The idea is to have free time for unexpected projects and learning. I will be spending a great deal of time time reading and studying. I will be out of town for part of the time, but most of the time will be spent in Grand Rapids. I do have two structured projects to focus on during my Sabbatical time. The first is something I have done several times in the past (my third time – I do it every time I have a Sabbatical). I am serving as a Graduate Assistant teacher of a 12 week Dale Carnegie course, giving example talks, leading small group exercises and discussions, and helping the instructors keep organized. In searching for a second project, I considered that my first Sabbatical focused on visiting other small congregations, and my second focused on studying the art of preaching. It occurred to me that I do a fair amount of writing for the synagogue, and I have had several projects on the back burner (including a booklet that would be a guide to funeral and mourning customs). I decided to join a weekly writing group, in which people bring a piece of whatever they are working on, share it with the group, and receive feedback.

During my Sabbatical, a number of people and committees will be picking up some of my responsibilities.  Of course, services will be led by Stuart Rapaport, but the Religious Life committee will be coordinating service gabbai’im, to help announce pages and lead selected readings. I have  invited a number of people to share Divre Torah – as of the beginning of October, November 29, December 13 and 27, and all of January are open. Please call the office if you would like to do one.

The one exception I will make in a normal Sabbatical practice will involve officiating at funerals, if I am in town. However,  the initial phone call regarding a funeral should go the office. After office hours (7:00 am – 10:00 am and 3:30 pm – 10:00 pm), please call Stuart Rapaport. After the basic funeral arrangements (include date and time) have been set, I will be contacted. If I am available, I will contact the family to speak about the funeral service.  Otherwise, Stuart will handle the funeral service.

This will be my fourth three month Sabbatical (one every five years). I understand that the many people in the congregation really stretch themselves to cover for me while I’m away, and I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. Todah Rabbah!

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2014

I was thinking one morning about why we do the things that we do, and it occurred to me that we can classify three different kinds of motivations:

Some things, we do purely because we want to do them. We might go on a bike ride, go to the beach, go out to dinner with our spouse, or go to a movie simply because such activities give us enjoyment.

Other things, we do only because we have been compelled to do them. Into this category we might put actions like paying taxes, driving the speed limit at all times, and paying for each and every item we put into our shopping cart at the grocery store. We might also add to this category things that we are compelled to do by our biology, like aging, getting sick, or dying.

In between, there are the things that we do because we feel a sense of obligation or duty; we don’t want to do them, but neither is anyone specifically forcing us to do them. This is where we live most of our lives. No one is forcing us to work, but we feel a sense of obligation to provide for our family. Exercise or proper eating, for many people, falls into this category. It’s when you go on the bike ride or the walk or eat your vegetables even when you don’t want to, because you know it’s good for you. No one can force us to make charitable contributions or volunteer our time – we do so because we feel a sense of obligation.

These three categories overlap. There are things we do, such as the act of giving or exercising, that make us feel good while or after doing them.

The number of actions that we are actually forced to do is actually very low – there may be some authority that issues a threat if we take a particular action (speeding), but most of the time we know that we can break the law and not get caught, so it is only our sense of civic responsibility that slows us down.

Where does contemporary Jewish observance fall? I am grateful that it is not in the first category. There are no effective or desirable means to compel Jewish life today, nor should their be. Even our model of synagogue affiliation and dues has moved from the coercive to the voluntary.

What is your motivation for Jewish behavior? What kinds of things do you do purely because they give you enjoyment (Synagogue on Shabbat morning, building a Sukkah)?

What kinds of things do you do our of a sense of obligation (or perhaps guilt)?

If you agree that the pure motivation of desire is a higher level of behavior than the level of obligation; what might you do to elevate your Jewish practices? Can you imagine embracing a fuller Jewish life out of the sheer joy of it? How might you achieve this?