Friday, December 10, 2010

We Must Help Save Israel from Itself

We Must Help Save Israel from Itself

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

December 10th, 2010


If I was a Rabbi in town in Israel this past week and not in Richmond, Virginia, I would have had the opportunity to sign a manifest ordering a halachic ban on selling or renting land and apartments to non-Jews. I am not sure which issue is potentially more catastrophic for Israel: the Carmel Forest fire and the breakdown/inadequacy of Israeli firefighting capacity; the breakdown of the United States instigated peace talks; the renewed international attack on the legitimacy of Israel; or this attack on Israeli democracy by employees of the State. It is hard to sit here in Richmond, Virginia and dismiss this as something being done far away that doesn't concern us. It must. The world does not separate between Jews and Israelis. When this issue shows up in the international column in the Times-Dispatch, when people will read it on the internet, when Wikileaks leaks the names of the Rabbis who signed it and their cities, people can turn to us, our neighbors, our co-workers, and say to us: "What kind of people are you!?"  We need to answer.


I don't know why this began in Tzfat, Safed, with a local Rabbi's call not to rent apartments to Arab students in the city. Then a yeshiva student in Netanya collected signatures from municipal chief Rabbis in support. It has spread to more than 300 hundred signatures. The statement quotes a variety of halachic passages referring to the issue and notes that in some cases persons renting apartments to non-Jews could be ostracized. "The neighbors and acquaintances of the seller or renter must warn him personally first and later they are allowed to make this matter public, distance themselves from him, avoid commercial ties and so on." The Rabbi presented various justifications of the ban, including fears of intermarriage and blasphemy. The statement added that sellers bear responsibility for the physical and spiritual outcomes of their actions. [,7340,L-3995724,00.html].


For many reasons, we, the Jews of klal Yisrael, the totality of the Jewish people must condemn, denounce and repudiate this letter, action and ideology. It does not represent us or our Judaism. It violates the democratic charter of the State of Israel. It undermines the rule of law. It is racist. It propagates a distorted vision of Jews verses the world and the purpose of a Jewish state.


Let me begin by citing the core issue in the Torah portions that we have been reading, the stories of Joseph. Besides his own dream and those of the butler and baker, Joseph interprets Pharaoh's double dream of cows and stalks of wheat to mean that there will be a famine in Egypt that will obviously terribly affect the entire region. When Joseph will later tell his brothers that it was God's plan for him to be in Egypt in order that there should be food to save the family we must understand that he obviously couldn't save his family if he couldn't and wouldn't save all the Egyptians too! Not only were Egyptians saved, but also any other people who came to Egypt for food.  Therefore our God is the God who cares for everybody! We are not racist! We do not look upon ourselves as the "ubermentshen – the superior race!" When the Rabbis created our Seder ritual, we pour out wine/grape juice for the Egyptians that died!


When the BILU and other Zionist groups came to the Turkish province of Palestine they sought to be good neighbors with the few Arabs already there and the Arabs who would move there as the region was increasingly more conducive and productive due to the Zionist initiatives. Despite the history of the ensuing decades, Israel's Declaration of Independence – issued while under murderous attack - stressed, that even as Israel was to be a Jewish state, it would protect the civil rights, religious rights and human rights of all its citizens. Arabs were implored not to run away, as their leaders were demanding, but to stay and be part of the State. Israel was not to be a theocratic state, but rather a democratic secular state,  a state that lived with the aura of Judaism and Jewish history as its dominant characteristic, Hebrew as its national language, while also using Arabic and English, and respecting the heritage and validity of all people of the State. What is common between a Christian, a Muslim and me? We probably all wouldn't feel comfortable nor desirous to live in a fervent ultra Orthodox enclave, but should have the legal right to do so. The purpose of this destructive initiative is to undermine the very foundations of the State of Israel. Every Jew in the world has a moral obligation to object in the most strenuous manner. I have signed every letter possible in vigorous opposition.


If anything has been the hallmark of the Jewish literature for two thousand years, is its corpus of law codes. While the Talmud isn't quite a code, it is thoroughly replete with laws and their discussion. The ensuing centuries will see a vast literature culminating in the Tur, Shulchan Aruch, and Aruch HaShulchan – all integrally connected, and Maimonides' magnus opum of the Mishneh Torah. The legal system of the State of Israel is a compendium of many sources of law compiled into one. This calamity undermines and contradicts the law of the State. It is being done by people who are employed by the State. They, who supposedly represent the respect of law, halacha, are perverting the laws of the State and the respect of law in the name of Judaism. It is intolerable!


Lastly, the prophets demand that the Jewish people be an "Or LaGoyim," "A light to the nations." What light are we supposed to cast? From Torah and Prophets, Rabbinics and codes it is clear to me that that light should reflect respect of the other, tolerance of others, k'vod habriyot. I teach that the key concept operative in our prayers is Ahavah, love, love of God, love of the world, love of people. It is our proclamation to the world: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." We have nothing to say to Richmond as its faces its soul in remember the Civil War and its issues in its 150th anniversary. We have nothing to say to the United States in the issues of illegal immigration and the building of mosques. We have nothing to say to ourselves if we can't have tolerance in our own home, the place that can and must illuminate the best of Jewish values, the State of Israel.


With our group going in a little more than two weeks, we will have the opportunity to say that personally. With the dissemination of this brief piece, I lift my voice into the public domain. My following this issue online and finding the appropriate places, you make your voice heard, too.


                                    Let it never be said that we were silent.     


Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti  || 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  || 
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jacob and Esau: Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell

Jacob and Esau: Don't Ask. Don't Tell
November 20th, 2010
Rabbi Gary Creditor
Richmond, Virginia
In tomorrow morning's Torah portion we read of the very powerful encounter of Esau and Jacob. They have been separated for a very long time. The last time they were in proximity Esau swore to kill his brother because not only had Jacob gotten Esau to give him the birthright, Jacob had tricked their father to give him the blessing of the first born, thus ratifying the earlier transfer. The second born, Jacob, had in both instances, gotten that which should have gone to the first born, Esau. Many chapters ago, Esau hated his brother. Now they will finally meet. There are many questions demanding to be answered. We sit on the edge of our chairs waiting to see what will happen.
If I was Jacob I have at least two questions on the tip of my tongue: Do you still hate me? Do you still want to kill me? And: How is our father? Is he still alive? Can I see him?
If I was Esau I have at least two questions on the tip of my tongue: Why did you do it – why did you rob me, why did you con me, not just once but twice? And: Why did you run away? Why didn't you have the guts to meet me face to face?
Being the reader of the narrative, looking at the Biblical personages from the outside I have even more questions: How did Isaac let this happen? How did Rebecca let this happen?
When Jacob and Esau meet, not one of these questions are asked. Not one of these questions are answered. The questions are real. In the Torah, when it says that they embraced, the word "And they kissed" is doted. This is very odd and rare. The Rabbis explain the reason for the dots is because we don't really know what each brother was truly feeling at that moment.  It is the greatest example in the Torah of: Don't Ask. Don't Tell. DADT.
In the Torah we never get these questions asked or answered because the Torah has a different focus. But in real life, hard, critical, core, existential questions can't be ignored and left unanswered. The questions always exist. The answers always exist. They are just hidden, even while active, just below the surface. Waiting. Waiting.
The idea of DADT has been active in all our lives in different and varying circumstances. There were times that I was very happy that my parents did not ask me what score I got on a test or homework assignment and I was surely not going to tell them of my own volition. In that case "silence was golden." But this example isn't really a good one, because it was about something external to me, a score on a test. It wasn't about me. That is very different.
Everyone here knows that "Don't Ask. Don't Tell" refers to the rule in the United States military that homosexual men and women can serve in the military if they keep their sexual identity hidden. The military won't ask so that these people won't have to tell. They do have to live a lie.
I have been following the Jewish conversation about this policy and the proposal to revoke it, namely to allow people who are LBGTQ to serve in the army and not have to lie about their sexuality. There have been many insightful comments that have prodded my thinking. I have also followed the conversation of those who do not want the policy changed and those who would dishonorably discharge all homosexual people serving in the military. A few thoughts:
1. For Judaism, the best quotation comes from the Muppets: People is people. A person is defined by the totality of the self, not one isolated component. Is there only one thing about me that defines me? Is it my age? Hair color? Sports inability? IQ? Religion? Why label a person by one trait/characterstic/component? Judaism would rather we look at the whole person.
2. Following that line of thought, in Judaism we don't call people by their transgression. There is no term in Judaism for 'homosexual.' At most you can refer to a passage in Leviticus that indicates that homosexual behavior is proscribed, not the individual. If you were in combat, what do you care about? I want someone who can shoot straight; who will have my back; that I can rely on. I would want a person, tried and true. What else counts?
3. Why can Israel make it work smoothly and the United States military fears that we can't? I will just leave that sit there.
4. Above the ark, the Aron HaKodesh, we have in symbolic relief the Ten Commandments. Number 9 states you should not be a lying witness against someone else. I believe that if I shouldn't lie about someone else, I shouldn't lie about myself.
5. In the same Ten Commandments, it includes robbery, murder, adultery, coveting as highest ranking sins. It doesn't list homosexual behavior. Who would you rather have in your building? Who would you rather have as second pilot or in the foxhole? Who would you not?
6. Labels are put on people usually to degrade them, disgrace them, and demean them. African-Americans, Catholics, Italians, Irish, and we, too, have had labels stuck on us, not for praise, but for ridicule and control. But times have changed. Nobody has called me a 'kike' in a long time. No one has looked for horns on my head. We have purged our language, my mother used to say that "she would wash my mouth out with soap," of words that demean, disgrace and degrade. Not because we are being PC but because we have a clearer picture of right and wrong; because we see all people being reflectors of God's holiness, because we take to heart the Rabbinic teaching that no person is higher, intrinsically or inherently better, than another. Our language shows what we think of "the other." We embody Hillel's dictum: "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
My list could extend much further, but I think that I have established sufficient foundation to say that from the perspective of Conservative Judaism, DADT should be repealed. Furthermore, I believe that Judaism would substantiate the position that men and women of the LBGTQ identification should be able to serve openly and honestly in the armed forces of the United States of America.
I want to close by referring to one of my greatest heroes. When I was as young as Mara, or maybe Kaleigh, I had many heroes, especially Roy Rogers and Dale Evens, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry. These shows were morality plays. Every episode was about the struggle between good and bad, and they were the good guys – defending the weak, the widow, the disadvantaged, and the loner out on the prairie.  Here is Gene Autry's Cowboy Code.
1. The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress.
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.
10. The cowboy is a patriot.
Jacob and Esau lied. They lied to each other. They lied to themselves. They lied to their parents. In doing so they lied to their children. In Jacob's case the Torah relates how his children lied to him. "Don't Ask. Don't Tell" is a lie. It destroys everyone and saves no one. Maybe Gene Autry's Cowboy Code should be posted in every barracks. The Lone Ranger rides Silver. Roy Rogers rides Trigger. Hopalong Cassidy rides Topper. And Gene Autry rides Campion, sings "Back in the Saddle Again," and bequeaths us a very special code. I always wanted to be a cowboy.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

To Whom Should Our Children Turn to In Times of Trouble?

To Whom Should Our Children Turn to In Times of Trouble?

October 22nd, 2010

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


Though it was long ago, I remember fairly well being a teen-ager. I remember high school, USY, continuing Jewish studies locally and in New York, and playing various ball games on the street in front of our homes. In high school I remember derogatory comments made to classmates who were Italian and Polish. I was the token Jew so they left me alone. There were very few African Americans to attract attention. There were derogatory comments made about sex. Gender was only a word that appeared in English grammar books. Many of us thought that our lives should mirror "Leave It to Beaver," a later group would think about "Happy Days," or other television shows that made everyone appear perfect, everything was neat, and everyone had the exactly correct word for every scenario. There was a reality gap between our lives and those shows. There were tensions in school between groups of students, parental expectations and what we could realistically achieve, with teachers, and with classmates. Life had its ups and downs. We didn't have the electronic connections of today to bridge the distances. While this language was not used, there were many things hidden in the closet that didn't dare come out. With the distance of decades and much reflection, I can say that I didn't have as challenging a life as I thought I did then. With all that being said and true, I also knew that I was blessed in two exceptional ways: I always had at least one teacher with whom I felt confident to talk; I always knew that I could turn to my Rabbi.


About twenty-five years ago, when I was a Rabbi on Long Island, a group of teen agers in Northern New Jersey committed suicide. I remember that vividly. As a young father with children I was terribly distraught. That Shabbat I preached a sermon lamenting their deaths, but I also asked a question: Besides their parents firstly, to whom should they and could they have turned? Was there no one out there with a sympathetic ear and open heart that would not be judgmental but offer them love and a safe haven for their feelings, pains, and troubles and help them somehow, some way? They were not Jewish, so I asked: did they turn to their ministers, priests or other religious figures?


In that sermon I declared, and in light of recent events such as the suicide of the student from Rutgers University and particularly the suicides of a large number of gay youths who were bullied, and even if not connected to that issue, I issue these words:


Every child of any age, teenager in high school, collegiate wherever they are, especially with our technological communications should never feel alone, should never think that there is no one to turn to. They can turn to me as their Rabbi. Not that I have every answer for them. I don't. Not that I know everything there is to know. I don't. But as I stood with most of them for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation, as I stand this Shabbat with Eli, and even if I didn't, as their Rabbi, representing our faith that is a source of strength, insight and comfort, I stand ready and willing to help them. None of our children, regardless of age, is ever alone. Of course as their parents we are their first line of love, defense and guidance. But for whatever reason they can't or won't, they never should even imagine doing anything terrible to themselves, or to others. I want every one of our children, wherever they are in the world to know, that especially through the power of email, I am there for them, in whatever capacity I can help them. Give them this message of love. Give them your message of love. Give them my email: And if the phone better serves them, then call me at shul. Call me at home. Regardless of hour. There have been those who have taken me up on this.


Across the years of my Rabbinate there have been youth besides adults who have turned to me for their personal needs. Sometimes it was help in writing a college paper. That was a challenge. Other times it was more personal questions. I always assured them that they and I were in confidential communication so that they felt able to share whatever it was. It was my mitzvah to assist them. It was terribly important to me that they knew that there was a place and person, who represented their core values and who cared about them, that they knew that it was safe to turn. This continues even in this electronic age. My ear and heart was and is always open to them. I pray for their and our happiness, success, fulfillment and contentment. I pray for their peace of heart, mind and soul. I kvell in seeing them grow up and stand with their spouses under chuppah, name their babies and attend the brit milahs. I stand with them always. At any time. For any reason. Their Judaism is theirs for all times, far beyond their 13th birthday. I dare say that their Judaism can be, should be and must be more important to them after their b'nai mitzvah, after their Confirmations, as they will inhabit a much more difficult world, much more challenging life, after they leave home, than while they live in it. It is then, when they experience the existential challenges of life, when they confront the highest issues, when they confront their sexuality, that our faith – Judaism and its values - can inform them, support them and strengthen them. As their Rabbi it is critically important for me to be accessible to them, for them to feel comfortable and capable of turning then, and never feel alone, never feel rejected, never feel abandoned. We walk together in the sunlight of bright, easy and happy days such as this, and in the valleys among the dark shadows. We walk with love. We walk with them always.

                                                                                                            Shabbat Shalom.


Monday, October 11, 2010

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Snyder vs. Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church)

"Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me."

Snyder vs. Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church)

Richmond, Virginia

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

October 8th, 2010


Yesterday (Thursday) I read in the Times-Dispatch the article concerning the case before the Supreme Court filed by Albert Snyder, the father of a dead Marine, Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Afghanistan, against the Westboro Baptist Church. They came to the funeral of his son and carried signs with slogans such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Thank God for IED's," "God Hates You," "You are going to hell," and "God Hates the USA," among others. While reading the article I remembered the phrase we all learned as children:

"Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you."

I really didn't think about that when this same loathsome group came to Richmond in the spring and we joined hands with hundreds others at the Holocaust Museum hearing their disgusting, even blood curdling tirades. I have been in the proximity of some really ugly stuff, but that "took the cake." My mother quoted me this maxim. Many questions sprung into my head as I read the article and thought about this maxim.


Was my mother wrong? Why did she say this to me? Where did it come from?

Can anybody say any thing at any time in any place and get away with it?

Is that what the First Amendment really means?

Don't words truly hurt?


In the initial suit by Albert Snyder he was awarded damages of $11 million. Another judge reduced it to $5 million. The Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the award entirely. And so it is now before the Supreme Court.


These thoughts intersected in my mind with my teaching last Shabbat about being created in God's image as I connected that with the issue of bullying, also seeming to be ever more prevalent. Can we really say anything we want to anyone we want to, any time we want to say it, no matter how vile, how disgusting, how upsetting?

A few thoughts:


We certainly want the freedom to say whatever we want. We want to tell governing officials that we like them or we don't; we endorse their policies or not; that we disagree or agree with the government's policies on the war in Afghanistan, health care, illegal immigration and anything else that comes to mind. We want to be able to put up signs for whichever candidate we endorse, and the right not to put up any at all. We can take out ads to support and reject. We want the freedom to print our Bibles and prayer books without censorship and our religious books proclaiming our faith, even as, especially as a distinct minority and nobody can stop us. Particularly as Jews, a tiny minority in an overwhelming majority Christian country, understanding despotism and tyranny from our history, this right is crucial for our freedom, for everyone's freedom. We can build our sukkot, put up our menorot, light our nayrot and wear our kippot! Thank God for America!



There are some limits on what you can say and when you can say it: but not much more. You can't cry "Fire" falsely in a crowded theatre. You can't threaten to kill the President. You can't threaten to blow up a van in the middle of mid-town New York with impunity. After that, "all bets are off." It seems to me that our society rejects the notion of boundaries, limitations, and restrictions on what we can say or do, regardless of the next person's feelings and/or beliefs. Our personal right to do whatever we want to do trumps everything else: common decency, modesty, privacy, even morals and ethics. The slogan "Have it your way" extends to every realm beyond food: how to dress, how loud we can play our car radios, and how high we can fly the flag. The unfettered freedom we desire on one hand fashions an atmosphere, an ambience, and aura that can create an ugly, mean and horrible world to live in. We don't live in isolation. We live in context. The words spoken and waved, printed hard-copy or electronic streaming on You-Tube, Facebook and Twitter, are impossible to deny or escape.



I was curious to see if there was an origin of the oft-repeated phrase. While appearing in slightly differing versions, there is no known author, nor time or place. Especially as I have had to use words, countless words, in sermons, speeches, articles, teaching and counseling, I came to the conclusion that my mother was right and that my mother was wrong.


Of course she was right! She is my mother! Even with out saying it specifically, she was saying that I had to have inner strength to stand up and not be broken by harsh and mean statements. I would hear anti-Semitic canards and need to have a back-bone. I would feel the pain of then Soviet Jewry and use words against the then USSR to free them. I would hear unpleasantries and need not become unpleasant myself. My mother was right! My body could be broken physically by sticks, stones and baseball bats. But my spirit needed to be stronger when bad or ill-meaning people would say nasty things at me. And I needed to learn not to speak badly at, to, or concerning others.



But my mother was also wrong. In researching for this sermon I found exactly the words I wanted in a site called, in an article entitled "Relationship & Family: Friends & Peers: Sticks and stones may break my bones – and words hurt, too!" by Lonnette Harrell. I could footnote every part from our Jewish sources.

"There's an old children's saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." If only that were true, but it's a fable that needs to be laid to rest. Words can hurt a lot more than sticks and stones. They may not break bones, but they can surely break hearts. Words can devastate. Words can wound; words can kill. Words can ruin reputations and destroy relationships. There's just no doubt about it-words hurt.

"Judging, cruel, venomous, and hateful words are verbal abuse at its worst. They leave long lasting emotional cuts and bruises. When someone hurts us, we play the tape over and over. No matter how many times we try to dismiss the hurtful tirade, sometimes those words are with us forever. There may be words from your childhood that you still can't escape. Stupid. Fatso. Ugly. Lazy. Crybaby. Dummy. Loser. Moron. Sissy. Chicken. And on and on. It starts with one word when we're young, but as we grow, the hurtful sentiments become phrases and even paragraphs. If we don't find a way to heal, they can cause lasting, permanent damage.

"Some people are so angry and bitter that they are ready to strike out at everyone. Their words are a reflection of their souls. The tongue only speaks what comes from the heart. Often they are angry, bitter, resentful people who want everyone to be as miserable as they are. They need healing and deliverance. And they need to understand that so called "honesty" is never an excuse for rudeness or cruelty.

"I have felt my heart physically ache from the pain of hurtful words. I have cried myself to sleep when words have wounded me deeply. A broken spirit is much harder to heal than a broken bone. So many of us carry these invisible scars that bring us untold pain.

"Even strong people will often collapse under the continual verbal attack of someone who really wants to wound them. Proverbs 11:9 says, "The hypocrite with his mouth destroys a neighbor." Proverbs 12:18 reminds us, "Reckless words pierce like a sword..." Put-downs are designed to gain control over someone else. (Hence, a lot of the "bullying" that children face in school and elsewhere.) When the person is confronted for their inappropriate actions, and not allowed to remain in control, they get even nastier.

"If someone continues to treat us with cruelty and disrespect, it is time to consider distancing ourselves from them. They are detrimental to our self-esteem, and quite frankly, we just don't need those kind of people in our lives. It's important to have boundaries, and to know your limits as to what you will allow.

"Those closest to us have an extra advantage when it comes to wounding, because they know our vulnerabilities, and we care what they think of us. A few well chosen words can annihilate. When they use intimate knowledge of our weaknesses, it is the worst kind of betrayal.

"Words are responsible for wars, and the end of friendships. Even the tone of the words can determine the meaning.

"It may be one remark, thoughtlessly tossed our way, but it impacts our future happiness, because we just can't get it out of our head. It becomes an inner dialogue with no "off" button.

"Verbal abuse is more than an occasional raised voice. It can include intimidation, making fun of someone, threats, embarrassment, or an attempt to control, manipulate, or demean another. When these things occur, it is not okay; it is verbal abuse. Verbal abusers will try to put the blame on you, and make you feel like you did something to deserve their cruelty, when in fact, you did not. They need to take responsibility for their actions. No one has a right to verbally abuse you because you don't agree with them. They intentionally use the words they do, because they know they cause pain.

"The Harvard Mental Health Letter (April, 2007) suggests that when abuse is continual and harsh, post-traumatic stress syndrome can occur. This is the same stress-oriented disorder that combat troops may experience. Verbal abuse can also lead to depression and disassociation disorders, including multiple personalities, hallucinations, increased physical symptoms, and being unable to recall parts of the past.

"I have been hurt, not only by words that were said, but also by words that weren't said. When we see an injustice, we have a responsibility to stand up for what is right. So your silence can bring great sorrow as well.

"Remember, words can be weapons. Words can destroy. The scars they leave can be more painful than a physical assault."

[Sources: zette/2007/04.26/05-abuse.html]


I would wish the members of the Supreme Court to read this article and consider it carefully in their deliberations as they balance our desire First Amendment freedom of speech and pain and cruelty inflicted by the Westover Baptist Church members. There has to be some balance.


But I would also challenge ourselves to contemplate how we speak to others and about others. What do we say and how do we say it? What is our tone and our demeanor? What kind of world are we living in? What kind of world do we want? And as parents and grandparents, what we are modeling for our children and grandchildren? Do we give them a backbone and make them sensitive to others at the same time? Do we teach them the words of the Psalmist (34):


"Keep your tongue from speaking evil, and your lips from speaking guile"


We might not influence the Supreme Court, but we can make a better world.

Shabbat Shalom.





Sunday, September 26, 2010

Yizkor of Three Parts: Privacy, Heirloom and “I Still Can’t Say Goodbye”

Yizkor Yom Kippur 5771 September 18th, 2010

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia


This Yizkor sermon is a "Sermon in Three Parts."  The first is to address a request made of me. The second is poem that I just ran across in my incessant reading in preparation for this season and these sermons. And the last is a song that I stumbled upon last spring and had an "Aha Moment" and said: "I know when I'm using that!" The poem and the song fit together. I just add a parenthetical statement. During my Rabbinate my writing has evolved from the theoretical, philosophical and abstract, to the more personal, reflecting on Judaism and our heritage through the prism of my life. The longer I live, the more facets to the prism. I hope that through this style of writing the words really reflect the issues and realities of all our lives. Maybe not everyone each time, but for many, often. It is the authentic "I" with which I speak.


Part 1


The time leading up to a person's death is the most difficult time in life. It is or can be difficult for the person dying. It is certainly difficult and stressful for that person's family. Lastly, it is trying for the person's friends. In this web of relationships each person is in a very singular and complex place. The person dying is at the center of a series of concentric circles. The inner most are those of family, each uniquely arranged. The outer are friends and community. Sometimes there will be friends closer than family and family more distant than friends. No doubt. There just those who are in a more intimate position and others who are more removed.


One truly never understands something until you experience it yourself. I had been the Rabbi to hundreds of families before my father died. My existential experience of his death taught me more than any book or course. In particular I refer to the following: It was more than being a public persona. It happened from every quarter of my life that everyone wanted to know the details of what was happening to my father and our family. It wasn't from bad or mean people. It came from loving, people. People close to me. Perhaps they thought that it would help me if I 'got it out.' In truth, as time proceeded, the only person I wanted to talk to was Ruby and even then we sometimes just shared the silence and tears. We talked to the children, my mother, my brother and my aunt. I didn't want to give an extended litany to friend and stranger, to the well-intentioned and those with prurient interest. It wasn't right. What did I need? What did I want?


There is a concept in Judaism called 'tzinut,' usually translated as "modesty." It applies to  language, attire, and behavior. Essentially one whose life is guided by this value respects their own privacy and the privacy of others as well. Especially during the closing days of my father's life and the immediate days afterwards, I needed privacy, not to be trapped in uncomfortable conversations that forced me to reveal details that were essentially private. Even when I knew that these people loved me, I was discomforted by the intrusion, even invasion of my family's life and death. It was unseemingly. I needed respect of privacy, respect of boundaries, that not every detail is proper and worthy of public knowledge and conversation.


What did I want? There is a powerful story in the Talmud of a Rabbi lamenting. His friends and colleagues come to help him. One by one they offer their advice. No matter how well-meaning, informed, philosophically correct they were, instead of helping they hurt him more and more. He did not want their scholarship, their theology about God and life, their explanations. It would not help the pain. Until the last colleague asked him: "Does it pain you?" And he answered: "Yes." Then the colleague offered him his hand and lifted him up. What I wanted was just the hug that was potent with meaning: I was still alive; I was loved; the world was still in place no matter how much it spun; I wasn't alone. I didn't want words. I wanted a hug. There is a halacha that when we visit an avel, a mourner, we are not supposed to initiate the conversation. They are. Until they do, we sit in pregnant silence. There could be much to say. It has to wait for the proper moment and with tzniut. Then we as friends can help raise a person, physically and spiritually.


I know that these words describe the experiences of at least one person who shall remain anonymous, and asked me to address these thoughts in this Yizkor sermon. I don't compose them theoretically or philosophically. I portray that from my life and allow you to reflect from yours. Perhaps you have felt this way. Perhaps you did and couldn't describe what bothered you. For all of us, when we encounter our family and friends in these places of the journey, maybe these words will help those of both sides of the equation. May we fulfill the mitzvah of zokaf kefufeem, straightening the bent, elevating the broken, with love, with modesty and with respect. May we set aside our perceived needs and only attend to theirs and bring shalom to their hearts.


Part 2

A.M. Klein was a prolific Jewish poet who was born in the Ukraine and emigrated shortly thereafter to Canada. He was a devoted Zionist and wrote a great of poetry and other literature. Intermittently I would discover some of his works. Particularly the last line in the following piece entitled "Heirloom" grabbed me. In these days Ruby and I spend considerable time in my aunt's apartment in New York City assisting her to continue to enjoy life in the safety, security and warmth of the place she has known for forty-five years. She is 96. She and my uncle, who died in 1988, have a wonderful library. I have opened up different books, on art, religion, and stand in amazement of things I found inside. I then think of my library. My mind wanders and speculates. It is my nature. So this poem caught me. And in these moments of Yizkor I share it with you.


Heirloom – by A. M. Klein

My father bequeathed to me no wide estates;

No keys and ledgers were my heritage;

Only some holy books with yahrzeit dates

Writ mournfully upon a blank front page—


Books of the Baal Shem Tov, and of  his wonders;

Pamphlets upon the devil and his crew;

Prayers against road demons, witches, thunders;

And sundry other tomes for a good Jew.


Beautiful: though no pictures on them, save

The Scorpion crawling on a printed track;

The Virgin floating on a scriptural wave,

Square letters twinkling in the Zodiac.


The snuff left on this title page, now brown and old,

The tallow stains of midnight liturgy—

These are my coat of arms, and these unfold

My noble lineage, my proud ancestry!


And my tears, too, have stained this heirloomed ground,

When reading in these treatises some weird

Miracle, I turned a leaf and found

A white hair fallen from my father's beard.


Part 3

I have often turned to country and folk music to reflect values and thoughts that resonate in Judaism and in my life. I wasn't searching for this song. It just popped up on one of those side-bars. In a song by Clint Black called "Ode to Chet" he refers to Chet Atkins as CGP.  So I followed this piece, learned that those were the initials for Certified Guitar Player and that led me to this song. When I listened to him I knew it was for this moment. When I found A.M. Klein's poem, I knew they fit together.


I Still Can't Say Goodbye – by Chet Atkins


You know every time I look in the mirror I see my Dad.

I think that's why this song means so much to me.


When I was young

My dad would say

"C'mon son let's go out and play"

Sometimes it seems like yesterday.


And I'd climb up the closet shelf

When I was all by myself

Grab his hat and fix the brim

Pretending I was him.


No matter how hard I try

No matter how many tears I cry

No matter how many years go by

I still can't say goodbye.


He always took care

Of Mom and me

We all cut down a Christmas tree

He always had some time for me.


Wind blows through the trees

Street lights they still shine bright

Most things are the same

But I miss my dad tonight.


I walked by a Salvation Army store

Saw a hat like my daddy wore

Tried it on when I walked in

Still trying to  be like him.


No matter how hard I try

No matter how many years go by

No matter how many tears I cry

I still can't say goodbye.


Perhaps this the magnetic pull of the cemetery that Judaism has implanted within us through the mitzvah of kever avot,  cyclically visiting the graves of family and friends, of standing there and speaking with or without words but often with tears. Perhaps it is the attraction of driving past places we once lived, or visiting them in our minds, or of objects exactly or nearly similar to the hat in Chet Atkins' song that ignites memories of long ago and return us to yesteryear when we were young. Perhaps it is the words of the Yizkor service, in which paragraph by separate paragraph we recite for each of our relatives in their personal relationships. I insert each Hebrew name individually for my father, mother-in-law, uncle and grandparents, Ruby's and mine. We stay in constant dialogue with the generations. I can't say goodbye and don't want to either. Will our children and grandchildren pause when they see a slanted black hat or my summer straw one? Will it provoke memory like this song did to me? I leave it to them.


Likewise I have lots of books. Lots and lots of books. I haven't read them all, by no means, but I have read many parts of many of them. I haven't used snuff, so they won't find any of that. But I have left little sticky notes, unmarked. I want to leave them a puzzle. What was I looking for on that page? Sometimes when I go back into a book and find one, I can't remember myself! Yet like the poem, they most certainly will find hairs from this white beard. I leave this for their memories and hopefully many smiles. I will never say goodbye.


So let us continue in dialogue with the generations. Let us remember sweet times, semi-sweet times, and even difficult ones too. Let us be part of a continuum that gave us our past and will secure us a future. We never say goodbye. We just say Yizkor.



Repentance, Reconciliation – Personal and Public: Judaism & the Consequences of the Civil War

Kol Nidre 5771 – September 17, 2010

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia 23221


On November 6th, 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the soon to be divided United States. On April 12th, 1861 the Civil War erupted with the firing upon Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina. The sesquicentennial, one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of these events is soon upon us. The wounds from the War Between the States are not healed. They can be seen in the dispute whether or not VCU should pave the parking lot near Main Street Station because there might be graves of slaves in that location; in the bus lines that don't run to the counties; the fight over the location of the Diamond; the separation of school systems; of responsibility for crime, poverty and the homeless. It is political agenda to which religion must also speak.  I was invited to co-develop a special seminar for the Osher Institute at the University of Richmond. My task was to glean from the wisdom of Judaism and our history to reflect on the issues of retribution, revenge and forgiveness. We have a compelling and unique message to our immediate community of Richmond, to the larger society and to ourselves on these subjects. They are present in both the macro and microcosms of existence. We cannot undo the most terrible conflict ever fought on this soil. We do have to deal with its consequences. On the personal level, we have all been in the position of causing hurt or being hurt. The human heart in its basest level can simply want revenge. The message of Judaism leads to forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the heart of our observances of Yom Kippur, our purpose for being here tonight. Perhaps this sharing will be helpful to our individual lives, perhaps for our wider community.


In redacting my material for tonight, I focus only on the following questions:

1. What are the core Jewish values that undergird society, both community and family?

2. What is the mechanism of Teshuva?

3. What is the relationship between forgiving and forgetting?

 Who has the obligation to ask for forgiveness?  Is there an obligation to forgive?

 Who can forgive whom, especially when it spans 150 years?

4. I want to talk about Alex Lebenstein, zichrono livracha.


Our Core Values:

When asked for the most important verses in the Torah, the Rabbis picked two, one from Leviticus, the famous "Love thy neighbor as thyself' and one from Genesis (5:1) "This is the record of humanity when God created humanity in the image of God, He made them." The Rabbinical tradition stresses these because they elevate the humanity, the dignity, the honor, the holiness of the human being, as primary in God's sight, and thus in ours. In Hebrew: K'vot Haberiyot. How beautiful is the Torah. It commands us to be proactive on behalf of those with disabilities and not to capitalize on them. The Rabbis strongly expressed the idea that no one's blood is redder than someone else's, that the honor of the other person should be as precious to us as our own. For God, from the Genesis quote, humanity is undifferentiated. Being white, black, or any color of the rainbow, being young or old, firm or infirm, of one gender or another does not elevate nor subordinate us before each other or before God. Judaism teaches the equality of humanity as its core value. Each human being is holy. Our holiness comes from God. No one else can give it. No one else can take it away. Judaism could not have countenanced slavery. Our Torah and Prophets are clear. The Rabbinical literature is unequivocal. On the personal level, whether it is abuse of ourselves through substances, spousal abuse, abuse of the elderly, ignoring poverty and homelessness, lying and cheating, these diminish God's image in us. We have no right to diminish others. We must not diminish ourselves.


Woven through the Machzor and Siddur are the core values of rachamim, chemlah and gemilut chasadim, mercy, compassion and deeds of loving-kindness. Judaism presents these as Godly values for they describe His attitude towards us. In return, we are commanded to imitate God in our daily life, in our relationships between each other, in our families, at work, in the extended society.  Judaism teaches that all life is precious and should be handled with care. Through the enactment of these values in our lives we preserve and enhance the dignity of all people. I think of this, and then I think of the movie Roots. How disparate?! How demanding, how humane are the dictates of our tradition!


God's covenant with Israel, our gift to the world, is enunciated in the verse in Genesis explaining why God chose Abraham to proclaim His message to the world. (18:19) "I know Abraham, for he will command his children and household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justicetzedakah v'mishpat." In Leviticus we are commanded to pursue justice. One of the core pieces of this season's liturgy is to balance the two values together and to base society on both of them. In that way we observe and protect each one's honor and holiness.


In the famous story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), Hillel summed up the entire Torah by saying that you should not do unto others what is hateful to you. Sinah – hatred and sinat chinam, baseless hatred, are the most destructive dynamics of the human heart. Despite the harshness of Egyptian bondage, there is no echo of hatred towards them in our tradition. Instead, at Seder we remove a drop of wine from the cup at the mention of the ten plagues and their abbreviations.  The true Jewish hero is the one who can turn his enemy into a friend (Avot DeRabbi Natan 23). Whether in society or in our families, the Jewish way is not to hate another. There is no fixing, no mending, and no repairing through hatred.


When composing this sermon and reaching this point my mind wandered away from Richmond and the Civil War, away from our families and wondered if any of this is shared across the borders of Middle East. I wondered if someone might create parallel texts from the different traditions that echo the same teachings and preach it from every mosque and synagogue. I wonder if anyone is listening. Maybe. Just maybe. I hope. I pray.





To deal with the world and our wounds, our pain and anger, to repair the world and ourselves, Judaism proclaims the process of teshuvah. Uusually it is translated as repentance but I would like to translate it as either turning or returning to our pristine, pure innocent childlike origin. There are five steps: (1)hakarat ha-cheit – recognition of sin, (2)charatah – remorse for having done it, (3)azivat ha-cheit – stop doing it, (4) peirar'on –restitution when possible, and( 5) viduiy – confession. The list is simple. The process is not. It takes guts to admit what we have done and turn to another, to confess and ask forgiveness. I watch Menachem instructing Ariel, Moshe and Raya to ask each other when they have hurt the other when playing or taking the toy from the other. Even children for simple things realize its difficulty.  The highest form of teshuvah is that done from ahavah – from love and not from yirah, from fear. We should fix things and mend relationships because we love each other not because we are afraid of each other. We should heal broken hearts because we are motivated by love.  We need to fix our society by turning to each other, sincerely and openly, in love. According to Jewish law, the person to whom one has turned is obliged to forgive, to give mechilah and selichah, renounce the debt owed and forgive from the heart.

Judaism teaches that the process of teshuvah needs to be done face to face. Only the person wronged can forgive the person who wronged him. That works between us here in this room or in our families for those alive. But how do we ask the dead for forgiveness? I have stood by my father's grave and asked him. How does he forgive me? The answer lies in the faith that even from olam habah, the world to come, there is a metaphysical bridge and if my sentiments cross it in purity and sincerity, completeness of heart and soul, then forgiveness crosses back to me. This is a leap of faith but it is worthy of making.

A cardinal Jewish belief and law is that we cannot forgive on behalf of others. Only the person hurt can forgive. There are many eloquent statements made about the Holocaust that we do not have the right on behalf of the dead to forgive all those who killed Jews. Only the dead can forgive. We can't. I know that we will never forget the Holocaust nor forgive Hitler and all the accomplices. We haven't forgotten the destruction of Solomon's Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, nor the Second Temple by the Romans. Yet I don't hate the Iraqis, descendants of the former, or the Italians, for the latter. They have no true connection to the events of 2500 and 2000 years ago, respectively. Time and generations have intervened. Maybe that is the way it will be with Germany and the Jews, and generations far after us. Not forgiving. Not our right. Not forgetting. History is our inner fabric. Each society receives the consequence for the sins of earlier generations, even if they are not guilty for sin perpetrated. But we can change the relationship. We can turning to each other.

To transition, who asks, who is asked, who can forgive those involved in the slave trade and slavery in this country? How can teshuvah be done? What did you and I have to do with slavery? My family came long afterwards. What can I be guilty of? Of what do I need atone? My answer to the seminar was that there is no one alive who can ask to be forgiven and there is no one alive who can forgive. Time has removed them all. Yet we are here, all citizens of Richmond, of this country, of the world, indelibly intertwined with each other. That chord cannot be severed. We have received the consequences of what earlier generations have done. We have to deal with it. We can turn with the values I enumerated  with open ears and hearts and work to change our city and region, work to understand the historical record that each community carries on its back. We can work to change our world. The sesquicentennial must be a time of turning of communities and people in reconciliation with each other.


Alex Lebenstein:

I knew Alex when we both lived on Long Island. I was his Rabbi. We were both surprised to find each other here in Richmond. I hope that all of you know his life story. He survived the Holocaust and came to America, the only survivor of 19 Jewish families in Haltern am See, Germany. He throbbed with pain and anger. He ceased speaking and reading German.  In 1994 two girls from the middle school in Haltern contacted Alex to come and speak to them about the Holocaust because they knew that their parents were not telling them the whole story. Alex was bitterly torn. He had fantasies of bombing the place. He decided to go. In the last days of his life when I was sitting with him in the hospital, he needed to speak of these events. He said to me: "How could I hate these innocent children? They hadn't done anything to me!" His trip there was transformational. While he would struggle to his dying day, the joy that animated him, the reconciliation that occurred in his heart was miraculous. It was more than that they named the school after him. It was the relationship with the new generation, the openness and honesty, the sharing, the physical contact with a generation twice removed, that created a metamorphosis with him.


Not everyone can be an Alex Lebenstein, but all that I have said above came true in him. I think that Alex and his life is a great paradigm for our society and individually. He didn't forgive those that murdered his family. They were dead and didn't ask for it. He didn't forget. The Holocaust defined his existence. He relinquished he desire for revenge. In seeing Haltern face to face Alex and they were transformed, elevated to a higher, holier plane of existence. They saw his humanity and he saw theirs. They turned to each other with respect and dignity, and were reconciled. That knowledge accompanied Alex to heaven. I have faith that there he knows true peace. That is the goal for us all, a true and complete peace.



This is the paradigm that Judaism and our history offer Richmond 150 years after the onset of the Civil War whose consequences still afflict us. This the paradigm that Judaism offers our individual lives on how to heal broken hearts and bind up wounds that otherwise would fester and destroy us. The process of change is difficult. Everyone arrives at their own place. It takes time, courage, patience and sincerity. Yet Judaism holds before us the promise of kapparah, a true cleansing and atonement from God for our souls and peace in our hearts.


L'shanah tovah tekatayvu and vtaychataymu.

So may we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for life.                    Amen.