Becoming the Rebbe, Becoming the Light

zss-celebratory-prayerOne doesn’t mourn the death yesterday of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one becomes him. Let the Holy Ones dance! Reb Zalman has been one of those great wisdom leaders whose spark has kept ours alive without most of us even knowing it. As one of the most influential “change-makers” of his generation, he gave birth to a worldwide Jewish renewal movement, that often overflowed beyond the cup of Judaism. Communities of commitment and joy sprung up in his footsteps, rooted in the mystical experience of God so rich in the Hassidic tradition.

The ALEPH wrote in their obituary for the Rebbe:

“He was visionary in creating fully-inclusive community, making Jewish mysticism and joyful observance available to several generations of American Jews, and engaging in deep ecumenical relationships with leaders of the world’s religions. …

Reb Zalman was also committed to interfaith “deep ecumenism.” He explored “spiritual technologies” and sustained friendships with many significant leaders, including Ram Dass, Fr. Matthew Fox, Fr. Thomas Keating, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, Br. Thomas Merton, Br. David Steindl-Rast, and Ken Wilbur, among others. Where others saw walls, he saw doors. …

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Tali Lowenthal: ‘Can Sin Be Forgiven?’

Dr. Tali Loewenthal was born in Haifa and directs the Chabad Research Unit, lectures in the University College on Jewish Spirituality, and he has authored “Communicating the Infinite, the emergence of the Habad School” and many scholarly and popular articles. Here’s his reflection on Moses in the cleft of the rock, titled “At The Highest Level.” I found in it deep wisdom for Lent.

“Can sin be forgiven? Can it be erased? Can it even be transformed into good? In the book of Exodus we read about the events relating to the making of the Golden Calf. This was an unfortunate transgression in which large numbers of Jews took part, combining idolatry, immorality and murder. Wisely, the women in the community kept away and so did the Levites.

After this mass betrayal of G-d and His teachings, Moses had to plead with G-d in order to prevent the Jewish people from being destroyed. For forty days he pleaded, alone on Mount Sinai, and was finally successful. G-d would bring the Jewish people to the Promised Land, and the broken Tablets of the Law would be replaced.

The interesting thing about this revelation, is that it comes in the form of a prayer At this moment we are introduced to another aspect of Moses: the person who seeks the deepest level of contact with G-d. He asks: “Show me Your Glory.” Moses wanted to reach the closest intimation of G-dliness possible for a human being.

G-d answered that He will put Moses in the crevice of the rock and grant him a vision of something of the Divine Glory. However, not everything can be revealed, for “man cannot see Me and live.”

Then comes the promised revelation. This is one of the most remarkable moments in the life of Moses and in the entire Torah. The interesting thing about this revelation of G-d, is that it comes in the form of a prayer. G-d teaches a prayer to Moses, a prayer which we recite in the synagogue. It is called the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy”:

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Sacred Solidarity, Radical Hospitality: Women Priests & a Woman Rabbi

Rabbi Susan Talve

Rabbi Susan Talve is founding Rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, MO. She shares her story of the decision by her congregation to open their doors to the Roman Catholic Womenpriests for their ordination ceremony. Thanks to Rabbi Waskow and The Shalom Center for sharing this story:

Standing with the Sisters

When the line between the personal and the political dissolves, it is usually due to religion.

In the summer of 2007, two women came to our synagogue to tour the sanctuary. Someone had told them that the sanctuary is a welcoming space used for many different interfaith activities. Indeed, a fundamental value of CRC is that our sanctuary provides a safe space for change, that we always practice radical hospitality. Afterwards, the women came to me in my office and said, “We would love to have our ordination here.”

Our response was gratitude for the gift they were giving us. Here is why:

When we began our congregation 28 years ago, it was with a core value never to own a building. This was so that we would never have to put more resources into bricks than people. We also have a strong commitment to serving the city of St Louis where there seemed to be plenty of buildings that we could recycle and reuse.

But our growth rate made it challenging to stay in the church that originally housed us, and our commitment to being ‘”green” made it difficult to move into an older, inefficient building. So, we built a building after all, promising that we would practice radical hospitality and that it would be a disabled-accessible resource for the entire community. The request from these women to house their ordination offered us another way of fulfilling our promise.

But this act of “radical hospitality” was radical indeed. For the women who sought to use our sanctuary for their ordination were Roman Catholics, and they planned to be ordained as Roman Catholic priests.

The risk involved in ordaining these two women was that they – and therefore we – were challenging the Roman Catholic hierarchy in St Louis.

Our synagogue is the only one in the “parish” of the Archdiocese. Our city’s namesake is Louis IX, sainted for his role in the Crusades and for burning thousands of Talmudic commentaries and other valuable Jewish books in 1242. But in this generation, we and the Archdiocese have often stood together — for immigration reform, for access to health care, and for other causes that champion the rights of the most vulnerable. I had also been invited to be in the front rows at the Cathedral when the former Pope John Paul visited.

The board of our congregation decided that we should host the ordination in spite of the tremendous controversy it might bring. We then received pressure from the Jewish and Catholic leadership to revoke our invitation. Leaders in both the Jewish and Catholic communities warned that we were setting back Catholic-Jewish relations two hundred years. I personally received death threats from anonymous sources.

The day of the ordination, the Archbishop at the time sent a videographer to the service who secretly taped the crowd. Many of the Catholic leaders who dared to come that day lost their jobs. Some were even excommunicated, a terrible threat to those who believe in the essential nature of the sacraments to one’s life.

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Gay Rabbis: A Conservative Decision

For the first time gay and lesbian rabbinical students will be ordained as Conservative rabbis in Israel. The Board of Trustees of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary voted on April 19 to accept gay and lesbian students for ordination beginning with the 2012-13 academic year. Out of the 18 rabbis that attended, all voted to admit homosexual students, with one rabbi abstaining.

“The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary views the serious process leading to this decision as an example of confronting social dilemmas within the framework of tradition and halacha,” or Jewish law, Hanan Alexander, chair of the seminary’s Board of Trustees, said in seminary’s statement. “This decision highlights the institution’s commitment to uphold halacha in a pluralist and changing world.”

Rabbi Mauricio Balter, President of the Israeli Conservative Movement Rabbinical Assembly expressed his support of the move. “I see it as a very important development in Jewish law,” Rabbi Balter told Haaretz, adding: “It is the right thing to do. We were all made in the image of god, and as such we are all made equal. For me this is a very important value. I always said we should admit gay and lesbians into our ranks.”

“I’m glad we had the vote and that it went the way it did,” Rabbi Balter continued. “The decision to hold a vote was correct as can be seen by the fact that there wasn’t a single dissenting vote,” he said.

Shmuel Rosner interviewed Professor Hanan Alexander, chair of the board of trustees of the Conservative Movement’s Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Israel, on the vote.

Shmuel Rosner: You told the Associated Press that the decision to ordain gay rabbis will allow Conservatives “to uphold Jewish religious law in a pluralist and changing world.” Can you briefly explain the halakhic considerations that make such decision compatible with “religious Jewish law”?

Hanan Alexander: Jewish law has always allowed for the possibility that more than one interpretation is correct. It has similarly adapted over time to changing circumstances and social concerns. In response to changing social mores around the year 1000, for example, Rabbeinu Gershom of Mainz decreed that a Jewish man is forbidden to marry more than one woman, a practice that is permitted by the Torah. Although binding on Ashkenazi Jews, it was not accepted by Sephardim until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

This idea of halakhic pluralism in response to changing historical and social circumstances is especially important to Masorti/Conservative jurisprudence. When leading opinion makers and researchers in the field of human sexuality subjected traditional beliefs about homosexuality to hard criticism, a number of rabbis and laypeople within the Masorti/Conservative movement became uncomfortable with the exclusion of gays and lesbians from all levels of participation in Jewish life. A lengthy discussion ensued over a number of years within the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards concerning the permissibility of ordaining openly gay and lesbian individuals as rabbis.

Following the pluralistic principle, in 2006 two decisions among a number of others were approved by the committee. Rabbi Joel Roth took the view that gays and lesbians should not be ordained based on a traditional reading of the prohibition for a man to lie with a man as if with a woman found in Leviticus 20.  Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avraham Reisner, on the other hand, offered an alternative interpretation of that verse as referring only to male-male anal intercourse, thereby permitting other forms of monogamous homosexual intimacy. They further argued that respect for human dignity requires admitting openly gay and lesbian students to the rabbinate.”

Read the rest of this fascinating interview.

“Walling” and the Divine Image

theodosius_i_roman_coinRabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia recently posted a Jewish response (Torturing the Image of God) to the Pew Study on  White Evangelical and Catholic Christians justifying torture that I blogged about earlier.

I appreciate his provocative teaching. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the central teachings of Torah is that all human beings are made in the Image of God. That teaching and what flows from it are at the heart of Jewish prohibitions on the use of torture — and perhaps at the heart of Christian opposition to torture as well.

Indeed, the Rabbis – living under the Roman Empire – enriched that teaching about the Image as a direct challenge to the power of Rome, the Imperial fount of torture. One of them asked, “What does this mean, ‘In God’s image?’” And another answered, “When Caesar puts his image on a coin, all the coins come out identical. When that One who is beyond all rulers puts the divine image on a ‘coin,’ all the coins [that is, human beings] come out unique.”

Take into account the Rabbinic teaching that Caesar puts his rigid uniformity upon his coins, whereas the Infinite God puts uniqueness into God’s coins: that is, every human being. Surely Jesus, the radical rabbi from the Galilee, knew this teaching.

So I believe there is a missing line in the Gospel story. Either Jesus didn’t need to say it because his first question would reawaken the knowledge in those who were trying to trouble him, or it was later censored out because it was so radical:

“Whose image is on that coin?” he said, and they answered: “Caesar’s.”

And then I think he said, “And whose Image is on this coin?” as he put his hands on the shoulders of the troublemakers.

Only then did he say, “So give to Caesar what is Caesar’s — and give to God what is God’s!”

And of course, as the Gospels say, the troublemakers themselves went away deeply troubled — not because they had failed to trick him, but because he had forced them to think and feel and act anew as they opened themselves to experience the Image of God in themselves. And to understand that the Divine Image stood in radical contradiction to Caesar’s image, so that the world could not be neatly and comfortably divided into two different realms, one “spiritual” and one “political.”

This teaching needs to be renewed in every generation.

Read Rabbi Waskow’s full text here.