Friday, April 23, 2010

Prologue to "Opportunities for Intermarried Families"

Prologue to  "Opportunities for Intermarried Families

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

April, 2010

Richmond, Virginia


This piece is written to serve as a prologue to the document that I composed on the inclusion of intermarried families in Jewish rituals that documents my stance and its application. There is an introduction to that document. This is an additional composition to support and amplify that presentation.


The word most associated with us is "Jew," but that is really a misnomer. It is a geopolitical term, not a religious one. The word "Jew" comes from the word Judah to indicate that the members of the group descended from the tribe of Judah, the last remaining tribe after the disappearance of the northern ten tribes in 722 B.C.E. and the absorption of the tribe of Simeon into Judah. The Jews lived in Judea. They were Judeans and thus we are Jews. In our context the issue is not our geopolitical identification. We are Americans, even, Virginians. The issue which is the heart of the matter is our religious identification. The appropriate word in this context is Israel. This is our real name for it speaks to the essence and the question of our identity. From Jacob on, the nomenclature that creates us and binds us, the name of our identity is "The Children of Israel," which will be shortened to just Israel. It is with the people bearing that name that God makes and renews the covenant. That is the term used by all the prophets when speaking about us and God in faithfulness and its lack. It is under that name that the Maccabbees will fight for the faith.


If I was to set up parallel columns between the three dominant faiths in the Western World, one would be labeled Christianity and another would be labeled Islam. It is clear that the former is used to identify its adherents as believers that the Messiah has come. The latter term indicates that its believers must submit completely to the deity. Our keyword is Israel for it indicates that we are "straight," righteous," "upright," – "Yashar"- with God – "El." Only with Israel did God make a covenant. Only this name reflects standing in a "Jewish" covenantal position.


For Christianity its devotee is called a Christian and for Islam its devotee is called a Muslim. Both terms clearly derivative from its core name. To be in parallel context, our name has to be Israel.


In continuing the parallel, the nexus of Christianity for the Christian is Jesus on the Cross; for the Muslim it is Mecca and the Ka'aba; for Israel it is Sinai (wherever it is located, and not the Kotel).  These are the core 'locations' of the faith and thus of the identity. For the Christian in their Christianity the expression of faith is the New Testament because it proclaims a new covenant (to replace ours!). For the Muslim in their Islam it is the Koran, to be read as the correct reading of all which Christianity and Israel have distorted, which is their covenantal book. For Israel in our "Israel" it is the Torah, which is the document of our covenant.


I am always mystified why everyone but Jews understand this very clearly. Perhaps it is due to the complications of our history which weaves many strands. (But living in America most of those strands are no longer operative.) Surely there are many people who stand outside of any religious covenant regardless of their families' religious origin. For some this has been for several generations. But for those who operate inside any religious orientation, these distinctions are clear and unquestionable.  For the sake of its religious integrity, the church does not invite nor desire neither Israel nor the Muslim to participate in its rituals. Similarly, the mosque does not invite neither Christian nor Israel to participate in its rituals.


We have our religious integrity as well.

My name, Israel is my being.

My being is to stand in my particular covenant.

Without my name and without my covenant, I do not exist.


All this might seem obscure and pedantic, but I assure you otherwise. The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore was conducting sessions here in Richmond to which I was invited to participate. The theme of their study was The Scandal – meaning trap - of Particularity, namely, can we find all the parts that are in common between us in order to make a better and deeper relationship, or "fudge" the differences between us. An admirable task. Then at one session a Christian participant asked this question: Would the "Jews" mind if the Christians used the term Israel to identify themselves?  I had the unenviable position to be the first "Jew" to respond. I said that it would be completely and unequivocally objectionable and unacceptable. I said: that was my name and they couldn't have it for I wouldn't relinquish it. You could feel the air go out of the room. Though I was just an invited guest I threw the biggest monkey wrench into their deliberations. I left it to my co-religionists to figure out their subsequent responses. One by one, they could not deny my answer. In this very deep and probing study of the relationship of Christians and "Jews," of Christianity and "Judaism," there finally was a bottom line that defined us and could not be used to define them, for its was the gateway to the entirety of our entity, of the purpose of our existence on earth. Later, my candidness, honesty and forthrightness were appreciated for it refocused the conversations in a productive and truthful direction.


I don't know who thinks about any of this when they enter into the synagogue. I do. As I study the evolution of our group in America, as I live and work in the synagogue world, particularly that of Conservative Judaism, I have grappled with the seeming invisibility of the Covenant of Israel which others eagerly claim, and we are equally eager to give up. It is simply played out in the orchestration of who can or not, should or not, do what in synagogue ritual. If the concept of covenant is irrelevant, inapplicable, then anyone can do anything any time. If it is relevant, if we have self-definition and believe in it, then there are some things that are clearly "out of bounds" for others, for they are expressions of our covenant. Every other faith does this. Why can't, why shouldn't we?


My document is my attempt to find the illusive and imaginary golden mean of recognizing and preserving ourselves as Israel, a people covenanted in faith, while at the same time respecting and including Christians who are connected in bonds of marriage or friendship. I have refined the details to the extent that my personal philosophy and theology allow. Some are amazed at things that I do. Others are appalled. I am quieted, for I believe that I have done the best to honor both sides of an equation, that I am not sure are quite equal. I rest peacefully in myself and leave judgment to the God of Israel.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Three Days That Changed Jewish History April 16, 2010

Three Days That Changed Jewish History

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

April 16th, 2010


In the post Pesach season, there are three special commemorative days on the Jewish calendar for events in recent Jewish history. Two are for sadness and one for joy. They have changed the course of Jewish history. Last Monday, 28 Nisan was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. This coming Monday, 5 Iyar, is Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Remembrance Day and Tuesday, 6 Iyar is Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. Usually, Yom HaZikaron is on 4 Iyar and Yom Ha'Atzmaut is on 5 Iyar, but both observances are deferred one day so that Yom HaZikaron would not start at the end of Shabbat, leading into Sunday.


Living in the Diaspora, these three days have a diminished presence in our lives.

That is a great tragedy!

These three days encompass the sweep of Jewish history.

They are the culmination of two thousand years of homelessness and helplessness.

They embody the depth of the dilemma of our powerlessness and the height of our salvation and reemergence onto the stage of history as a nation.


I don't know Jewish life without the Holocaust. I don't know Jewish existence without Medinat Yisrael. It is impossible for me to imagine "my" Jewish history without both events. They are as real to me as Thanksgiving and Independence Day here in the land of my birth. We cannot be oblivious to these three days! These days are crucial!


The Jewish people as a faith community has a history of being the bearers of the faith.

What has happened to us in history is precisely because we have carried the unique Jewish faith to the world.

We have been witness to the faith in an incorporeal God who demands through law universal morality and the recognition of the holiness of every man, woman and child.

We have born every burden in our trek because we believed in our God, believed in our mission and believed in ourselves.

If God did not want us here, I doubt that we could have survived.

If we did not want to be here, we certainly would not have survived and been reborn.

There is no faith without a history.   There is no history without a faith.

These three days are living proof!


One thousand, nine hundred and forty years ago ended the Second Commonwealth of the Jewish people with the destruction of the second Temple and of the city of Jerusalem, our capitol, by the Romans. The worst and longest dispersal of the Jewish people had begun. It became worse after the bloody end of the Bar Kochba revolt sixty five years later in 135. While Jewish communities would continue to exist in the land of Israel they would be fragmented. In the grand sweep of Jewish history one great center of Jewish life and learning will develop after another, only to be destroyed in turn. Israel will be followed by Babylon, which in turn will be followed by North Africa. That will be followed by Spain which will be followed by Western and then Central Europe, which will be followed by Eastern Europe. And then it will all be destroyed - but for us and a very small presence in the British Mandate of Palestine. While Yom HaShoah focuses on the destruction of European Jewry, the true Jewish eye must look at the events spanning our entire existence, Pharaoh and Egypt, Assyria denuding us of ten tribes, the Babylonian destruction of the First Commonwealth and Solomon's Temple, the confrontation with the pagan Greco-Roman world and its ethos, and then the termination of our independence and immense loss of life by the Romans. In Israel they do not call the day just Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Day, they append the term v'hagevurahand of heroism.


In the first instance Israel added this term because of the expanded focus upon those who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as the uprisings in other ghettos, not as well documented nor publicized, but utterly heroic in each instance. Israel wanted to include the acknowledgement of the Jews who fought against the Nazis as partisans by themselves and with other partisan groups. After the initial focus on the death and destruction of the Jews, Judaism and Jewish life of Europe in the Shoah, the wider vision included numerous heroic chapters such as the singular and young Anne Frank. Yet Jewish heroism has been evident in every chapter and in each location in the entire span of our history. Our Jewish history, our Jewish identity – we are defined by the tragedies and the triumphs, the catastrophes and the courageousness of all the generations. We might be third, fourth and even fifth generation Americans. We are always first generation Jews.


When you come to Israel, fly over the coastline, you see the magnificent city of Tel Aviv. Come to Jerusalem you will soon be able to ride the light railway system throughout the city. Soon there will be fleets of electric cars who can swap out batteries faster than we can fill our tanks with gas, plugging them into to charge over night. Yet when you ascend to Jerusalem, don't miss the rusting tanks in Sha'ar HaGai; walk Israel's Burma Road that saved the city from siege; go to Yad Mordechai who held back the Egyptian advance on Tel Aviv; climb to Golan Heights and see the Galilee laid out before the Syrian advance. Israel never takes its existence for granted. Jews the world over can never take Israel's existence for granted. We pay homage to those Jews who laid down their lives, veterans of the kibbutzim, immigrants out of the DP camps, new olim from Russia who stopped the waves of Egyptians at the Canal on Yom Kippur, those who made bullets in secret underground, those who clawed their way up the Golan Heights twice to stop the bombardment of the Galilee, and those who fought now in Gaza to stop the reign of terror upon the Negev, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Sderot. The saga of their heroism and of their deaths is observed in Israel with a long minute of silence as the country halts. Buses stop. Taxis stop. Classes stop. For without these heroes, Jewish history in the holy land, the core of our Jewish history would have stopped. I shudder when I think that; when I say it. Their stories are our story. We can have our pride in Israel because they died for us to have it.


The synagogue was never the place for flags. There is the Aaron HaKodesh, holy Ark, the Ner Tamid, eternal light, lecterns and chairs. In older synagogues there is a place to wash hands and bookcases for books to study. I am not sure when the creation of memorial boards for the dead began to appear. But the modern synagogue has added memorials for the Shoah in the special candelabra and a Torah saved from the Holocaust. Since the creation of Medinat Yisrael we have added its flag, and therefore the flag of the United States as well. We do recognize and give thanks for the security and safety that America has given to the Jewish people. It is like no other place in human history. Yet we specifically place the flag of Medinat Yisrael for it is more than just a flag.


It embodies our national reclamation, the eternal reconstitution and the everlasting existence of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel.

It validates all the sacrifices and all our deaths along our long and ancient road.

It blue stripes it represents the Talit, symbol of the Torah and its mitzvot. The Magen David, legendary attached to King David, roots us our ancient history. The white is the purity of our faith and purpose in history. But when I see the Magen David flying proudly in the stiff breeze of Israel I see its triumph over all those who burnt our books, who burnt our bodies. Our flag waves. Our people lives. Our faith is unflagging.  Our flag is unfurled for all to see, just as they see us in every country upon the earth.

Medinat Yisrael Chai V'Kayam.

Am Yisrael Chai V'Kayam.

Israel lives.

The Jewish peoples lives.

Forever.                                                           Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Down in the Land of Cotton, April 9, 2010

Down In the Land of Cotton

April 9th, 2010

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


Being Brooklyn born and bred, birthplace of my parents and brother, the ultimate destination of my immigrant grandparents, and thus my being a die-hard fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, I am nevertheless a Yankee. My orientation is north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I learned history from the northern perspective. Moving to Richmond was much more than a geographical change. I also learned what my history books and the Life Magazine series of the 1960's called "The Civil War" was referred to here as "The War of Northern Aggression," – "which was none too civil." On first blush it sounded humorous, but I quickly realized how serious this was to those born in the south.


While I have not been interested in the battlefields in the greater Richmond vicinity, the history of that era is clearly inescapable. Whether it is the White House of the Confederacy, the Tredegar Iron Works, the monuments of Stuart, Lee, Jefferson, Jackson, and Maury in a row and others that dot the landscape, the very name "Richmond" is enough to evoke the great conflagration that nearly devoured this nation. One doesn't need a month dedicated to it to know where we live and the history of our area.


There is much that every American throughout every corner of this country needs to learn about The Civil War. It is a crucial element in our history. There was clearly a different conception of this country's nature, some that still echo very strongly today. Is power inherent in the separate parts of the corporate body, namely the states, or is it located in a strong central body, the national legislature, the Congress? It influences the debate on health care, on abortion, labor issues, environment, taxes and transportation. There was a different culture and temperament in this country, between a still agrarian society and more mechanized work place. In an era before mass migrations, except towards the west, societies maintained their inherent structure, and it was very different north and south.


When I think of the Civil War I am in awe of the passion evinced on both sides of the fight. I am amazed at the numbers of men who died and were maimed fighting for what they believed in. I visited the hospital at Chimborazo on Church Hill and saw the implements of the medical trade in that time. Some of the Life Magazine articles focused on the hardships of being a soldier in either army. I shake my head in admiration of their courage. I think of the great battles of Gettysburg and Petersburg, and the nickname "Stonewall" for General Jackson. Later generations of American soldiers would emulate that title in the wars of the 20th century. There was great military skill by Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, the men who created the CSS Virginia out of the Merrimack and those who invented the Monitor and went to their deaths when it sank off of the Carolinas. They would be the inspiration of the men and women in the army, air force, navy and marines that still fight to defend us and democracy. One must never forget this chapter of American history, never trivialize it, denigrate it, or belittle it. As long as this country exists, it will be part of the fiber of the American soul. It should not be seen as only Confederate history. It is American history. Whether we are born north, south, east or west, whether we are with long ancestry or are "just" the third or forth generation, this is our history.  But there is another indisputable component of this history. That of slavery.


We have just concluded Pesach. Reading the Hagaddah at Seder night, the shortest version of the story, or reading the extended narrative in the Book of Exodus, I have often commented that these are "the sanitized versions." In neither edition do we see the blood and gore, we don't hear the screams, we don't feel the lash of the whip, we don't cringe with fear, we don't pant in thirst and hunger, and we don't shiver in the cold of night nor sweat in the heat of an Egyptian sun. Our male children are not ripped from arms, we don't hide them in the reeds, and we don't despair of life itself. But we do repeat, generation after generation, that we are supposed to see ourselves as if we were there. So we dip greens and eat salt water. Twice we are supposed to eat bitter herbs and not in the dainty quantity to avoid the pain. The traditional minimum far exceeds our usual dosage. It is supposed to burn. It is supposed to hurt. That way we have some inkling, some faint imagination, of what it was to be a slave to Pharaoh in Egypt.


For that reason Torah forbids slavery. The language of the Torah is misused. The laws of Torah never permit us to do to others as was done to us. From the enslavement in Egypt we learned compassion, humility, humanity and dignity. The evil of Egypt, the salvation by our God, the resistance of the Israelites, the courage of the women, the stamina of the men are invoked daily in our liturgy and is the cornerstone of Shabbat observance. Shabbat is the perpetual and eternal memorial.


When I think of the Civil War, I think of Egypt. I think of the worst of man. Everything I think of the Egyptian slavery of the Israelites, every allusion to pain, horror and suffering that I read between the words of the Torah and of the Haggadah, I infer, I inter, I posit to be the slavery in America of the 1800's predominantly in the South. I can't understand how one human being whips another, how women and children are treated like chattel, how people are 'owned,' bought and sold like cattle. With family such an elemental component in Judaism, I can't fathom how children and parents are separated never to know their ultimate disposition nor see each other ever again.

It is not an issue of my naïveté. It is an issue of my humanity.

It is the contrast of what my Judaism teaches me to be,

As I watch humanity betraying its name.


And further: If any religion was to be born of Judaism, they needed to learn the lesson of love from our Book of Leviticus, "love they neighbor as thyself." I cannot comprehend how "The City of Churches" – Richmond, could be the home of Lumpkin's Jail. They are the diametric opposites. There is an eternal inconsistency between the two. How can you quote from Genesis that "Man" – it doesn't state the color – maybe they were transparent – "Is created in the image of God" upon on the Hill and then treat "Man" as less than an animal in "The Bottom?"  That is part of the story, too.


I don't seek to answer any of these questions nor answer any of my quandaries. Maybe there are no answers. Just like to the Holocaust. We put together words, but they are still not answers.


I cite all this because how wrong and terrible it was for the governor's proclamation, far beyond the omission of reference to slavery. That is just "the straw that breaks the camel's back." True justice to the heroes and the heroines, the victors and the vanquished, true homage to the gallant and the glorious is only to be achieved through a deep, perceptive, embracing, honest, and complete learning by adult and youth of the American story. It is equally to clear to the simplest of eyes, that there is still much to be learned from the Civil War. We are not yet the best that we can be. The promise of America is for many, only a promise and far from being fulfilled.


Shame on the governor for whatever reason, haste, dispatch or inattentiveness to detail! From the House on the Hill, we demand better. Rescind the proclamation. Don't just emend it. Let it embody complete learning of the historical record; the yearning for real equality; the desire for America to fulfill its ultimate destiny. Let it show respect and honor to everyone, Confederate and Union, black and white.  We will be made stronger by its truth.                                              

Shabbat Shalom.