Friday, May 28, 2010

The True Meaning of this Hour (June, 2010)

The True Meaning of this Hour!

From the Heart

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


We – all of us in any way connected to Temple Beth-El – have lived through a storm. It brought discomfort, upset, dissension and contention. I hope that that is now over. While voices were raised at the Annual meeting for me to speak publicly, except for my D'var Torah, I intentionally refrained. Despite how much I really had to say, first and foremost, this was a decision about the synagogue. In vivid retrospect, this has been a forty year journey for the synagogue. It began in 1970. Many things have been delayed, others ignored, because the future was so insecure. Over the years I have tried mightily, but it is awfully difficult to implement any plan, any vision, with such instability which then engendered financial insecurity. Like the Israelites of the wilderness after Mt. Sinai, the camp was always perched to move, even when it didn't. It was hard for them. It was hard for us. I hope and pray that a healthier, stronger, more vital congregation will now be able to emerge.

Many things have been said about our current condition. The only thing that was certain was the financial data. The discussions were terribly uninformed of the dynamics that are buffeting the entire American Jewish community. While the Conservative Movement has been significantly affected, which means our synagogue, too, these are trends and forces created by the course of our history and affect us coast to coast and beyond. They are greater than us and will not yield to a simple change of address or page number. In the microcosm, here in Richmond we are part of an epic struggle, different in detail but not in scope. We are challenged to preserve, enhance and sustain Judaism and the Jewish people!! This is the true meaning of this hour!

I summon the members of this congregation to rise to the occasion, engage in the true existential test: to create, to have the desire, to manifest the will, to be a dynamic, participating meaningful synagogue community, a true kehillah!! Not just names on a computer generated mailing list for dues statements or a disembodied listserv of binary digits, but a living, breathing, interacting religious community that is meaningful to ourselves and which we then exhibit, model and endear to our children.

The vote at the annual meeting will have no meaning if you sit on the sidelines! No matter where you live in the greater Richmond area, everyone seems to travel the necessary distance if it is important enough. The true meaning of this hour is that history is looking at us, Jewish and non-Jewish, to be actively participatory with our Jewish tradition, our people Am Yisrael, our language Hebrew, and our entire culture. From the past we have received our history. Let us unite in the enterprise to insure our destiny. Join me in having the courage to have the strength to go forward in our journey!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Reflections on Adlolf Eichmann Fifty Years Later May 21, 2010

Reflections on Adolf Eichmann Fifty Years Later

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia

May 21, 2010


With little public notice will pass this Sunday the fiftieth anniversary of a very historic moment. It was on May 23rd, 1960 that Prime Minister David Ben Gurion arose in the Knesset, the parliament of Israel to announce the capture and extradition to Israel of Adolf Eichmann.  As a twelve year old, in an age that little was taught about the Holocaust, his was not a well known name. Most people would not have recognized it. In time we would. My Bar Mitzvah preparations and its celebration were framed by his capture and his execution. I remember watching segments of his trial on our black and white TV, the Hebrew unintelligible to me, in a place that I would eventually visit, but then was so very far away, about the most terrible chapter of Jewish and human history, that was yet to be revealed. When I saw a little blurb noting that it was fifty years ago, I was instantly transported back to that time, sitting on the floor of the den in my parents' house and looking at this man behind a glass cage.  I made a note in my diary to talk about it tonight.


What can be said fifty years later, after the unmasking of the man singly responsible for the extermination of the Jews of Europe?


I remember looking at him, suit and glasses and not believing that that man could have had so much power to do it. While the face of evil is quite clear in the appearance of an Adolf Hitler or Stalin, would we have noticed Haman walking down the street, or a Pharaoh, if dressed ordinary? Probably not. It is hard to recognize evildoers. That was one of the lessons from Eichmann – evil doesn't have to look macabre. It can look ordinary. The terrorists of 9/11 looked ordinary otherwise they wouldn't have been able to get on the planes. So, too, the man who parked the SUV in Times Square. Evil can look ordinary.


As I looked at Eichmann on television, as a naïve youth, I wondered: "Why did he hate us so much?" I was the only Jew on my block, for many blocks. We played box-ball in the concrete squares of the street and touch football between the telephone poles. We nailed vegetable baskets to scrap wood, cut out the bottom and nailed it to the telephone pole to play basketball. Did these kids secretly hate me? Did their parents? How did this happen, all of a sudden? Through this trial I would learn that the answers to my question(s) were immense. It was like peeling off layers of a gigantic onion, or trying to put together a billion piece jig saw puzzle, each layer, each piece just splicing off to many more unending pieces. Fifty years ago, looking at Eichmann on the television, was a very disturbing, upsetting experience. I did not know what to make of it. It was the beginning of an essential and indispensible piece of my education.


We would come to learn that Eichmann was a tremendous tactician. He created an intricate, extensive, exhaustive plan to exterminate eleven to twelve million people, the Jewish population of Europe. From his trial we would come to understand that without the assistance and complicity and complacency of millions of "ordinary" people, those who conducted the trains, those who saw the trains, those who saw the round-ups and empty apartments, who took over vacant homes, businesses and belongings, those who made up the train-schedules, and those who brought food –such as it was – and raw materials to the camps and took away finished products, the Holocaust couldn't have happened. Eichmann's diabolical scheme relied on the "common man." Furthermore, it depended on Christian Europe to kill the Jews of Europe. When I graduated high school four years later, they still had not revised the history books. That is why we bore witness at the hearings here in Virginia when they instituted SOL's. Can the "man on the street" be corrupted to acquiesce to evil, to enable evil, to assist evil? Eichmann's trial taught that the answer is "Yes." While the Holocaust is awfully complicated and complex, the truth is that good can never be taken for granted. We have to work hard to make the world a good place. We have to join hands with good people to do good things and make a good world. Eichmann's trial was a shock to me because I didn't know if the world I was looking at was true or just a veneer. Sometimes I still wonder.


From my public school history I learned nothing about the Holocaust, but I did learn that World War II ended in 1945. I wondered: "Where was he for fifteen years?" "How did he get out of Germany, out of Europe and into Argentina and manage to live there all these years?" I learned that that was a very big question with even a bigger answer. While the Nazis lost the war, it didn't mean that Nazism was dead. Nor were all those responsible for it captured. Growing up in the 1950's my sense of morality was shaped by such quintessential television shows such as the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The good guys win and the bad guys lose and are punished. Like my TV, the world was portrayed in black and white. The Nazis – all the Nazis – should have been punished and punished severely. It was a shock to me that Eichmann and others had escaped and to live comfortable lives. His discovery forced me, us, to re-evaluate the world in terms of its myths of good and bad, and perhaps give us critical tools to analyze it today. Eichmann's very existence was an eye-opener to me. It boggled my mind. It called into question the structure of my world. That truth stays with me. I am always questioning my/our world.


Yesterday the Commonwealth put to death another criminal. I don't know how many have been put to death in whatever timeframe, not can I compare our Commonwealth to other states. But I can say with modesty, humility and pride, that despite the severest provocations of the intifadas, fedayeen, suicide bombers, and the murders of children at Ma'alot – I wonder how many remember that name – the only person executed by the State of Israel is Adolf Eichmann. In an environment where "life is cheap," where individuals are just numbers on arms, lines on page in unending books, the Jewish DNA embedded in Medinat Yisrael does NOT exact an "eye for an eye" except for the one person who would have exterminated us all. That is also a lesson to learn.


So when you get the newspaper this Sunday and it says "May 23rd," pause for a moment. Reflect back fifty years and think of the great irony, the vindication and the great justice of a little, old, white wisped haired Polish born Jew, announcing in the Knesset of the Third Jewish Commonwealth that Adolf Eichmann, mastermind of the Final Solution, was captured and would be brought to justice, brought to answer for his sins in the court of the people whom he intended destroy.


Shabbat Shalom

Monday, May 17, 2010

A House Without Heirlooms -- May 16, 2010

"A House Without Heirlooms"

D'var Torah

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El Annual Meeting

May 16th, 2010


Dear Congregation:

Dr. Ismar Schorsch, past chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a d'var Torah in December, 2001 on the Torah portion of Vayeshev, talking about patriarch Jacob's moving and reflecting on the moves in his own life. Born in Germany, he arrived in America in March, 1940. As his father was a pulpit Rabbi, they moved to different congregations. Being a renowned historian, Dr. Schorsch reflected on the American Jewish scene. He wrote: "We American Jews are forever relocating…Yet frequent moving puts Jewish identity at risk…The price of our celebrated mobility is a house without heirlooms."

I found his d'var Torah when I was preparing for Torah class and set it aside to write this one. What are heirlooms? Do you really need them? What do you do with them? What happens when you don't have them or discard them?

Heirlooms are physical tangible objects that have history. The dictionary definition is "a possession handed down from generation to generation." Of course an heirloom was created some time, but was added to collection which grows slowly over time. Heirlooms have meaning beyond their immediate usage. Heirlooms don't necessarily sit in a corner or on a shelf. They are used, but in their moment of usage speak by their existence of past times, past people, past moments of usage. I have many heirlooms. Sometimes they compete for my usage. I always use Ruby's grandfather's Kiddush, engraved with the town from which he came. My first Shabbat dinner at her grandmother's table, Grandma gave me that cup and said "You make Kiddush." I have used it ever after. I am still at her table. Though deceased 31 years, she lives. She lives in the Shabbat Yom Tov licht that Ruby lights, her licht that she gave Ruby when we were married. I sit in the chair that was in my maternal grandmother's tenement apartment, in which I sat as a little boy. I sit in that chair and remember her and my life then, even as I do it in here. There is an indelible, invisible, unbreakable, unending connection from Boro Park, Brooklyn, N.Y. to Richmond, Virginia.

Do I need them? My life would be empty without them. Not that they don't make pretty things now, but these objects, and many more, give depth, meaning, connection, history, purpose and illumination to me, to my life, to the deeds that I do. They add levels that would otherwise be missing and thus my life shallower, emptier. We have already handed down heirlooms to our children and grandchildren and are thrilled to see them in their places and in their usages. There is such great joy to retell the stories and passages of an heirloom to Ariel, Moshe and Raya, time after time. It is a rich weave, a luxurious tapestry.

And when you don't have them? My maternal grandmother told me a very long time ago that she brought from Europe her own Shabbat and Yom Tov Licht. I naively asked her where they where? She proudly said that she gave them away for the scrap metal drive of World War I. I never told her how disappointed I was not to have seen them, touched them, watched her light them, see my mother light them and the next generation. It was and is a void of which I am perpetually cognizant.

Heirlooms root us in being, in meaning, in purpose, in history, in relationships, in connectedness. Heirlooms are not museum pieces. Heirlooms do not sit to gather dust and be forgotten from whence and from whom they came. They are meant to be used and lived, held and kissed, cherished and hugged. We bask in their presence and they bless us.

On Friday morning I shared with our son Menachem this quote "a house without heirlooms." In the dialectic of our conversation he asked, Abbah, what about the reverse, "heirlooms without a house." I acknowledged to him to that the words written in both directions have the same implications. As Dr. Schorsch noted, particularly American Jews are very transitory. Look at our congregation. Many are from elsewhere. Many are only one generation here. We can surely take our heirlooms. But when we moved, did they have their places or did they stay in boxes, some for a long time, maybe some are still in them now? There very surely can be heirlooms without a house. Heirlooms without a house.

The synagogue is a house. A house with heirlooms.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Israel (The People) Has A Responibility for Israel (The State) --- May 14, 2010

Israel (The People) Has A Responsibility for Israel (The State)

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia

May 14th, 2010


As many as will hear these words at our Shabbat services, I am thankful that many more will receive them on our synagogue's listserv. I write this to call your attention and as a call to action. I really need much more time that allotted for this evening. I truly wish that it was Yom Kippur and I was speaking to the whole congregation face to face.


Two weeks ago I issued a rhetorical challenge: If Israel did not exist, who would follow a Theodor Herzl - a pied piper with a pipe dream - to create it? One hundred and twenty-five years ago we had nothing. Pogroms were raging in Eastern Europe. The Holocaust was on the distant horizon. Today we have a State. Sixty-two years ago the United Nations called it into being. Can anybody here imagine living as a Jew today without having the State of Israel? How precious an entity! How fragile an existence! But that existence is threatened from within and from without, from nearby and from far away, by those who hate it, despise it and actively seek to destroy it, and by those who seek to do good, but could also lead to Israel's destruction. It is hard to tell the players without a scorecard! We don't live in Israel. We won't serve in Tzahal. We won't pay their taxes. We won't elect their government.  We don't have to agree with any specific Israeli policy, and there are many with which I vehemently disagree. But as Jews, as Am Yisrael, as Goy Echad – one people, we have a vested interest, we have an existential consequence, we have an obligation, we have a sacred duty to do our part as part of world Jewry to protect and defend Medinat Yisrael. It is not my intention to whitewash anything. Sometimes Israel needs to be saved from itself, from illegal settlements, and as the current tussle over a proposed Conversion Law in the Knesset. Sometimes it is from others, Iran, Hamas, boycotts of Israeli professors. Tonight I specifically focus on the actions of the Presbyterian Church USA.


You will not currently find this on the front page of any newspaper; but it will get there.

You might discount its importance. That will be lying to ourselves.

You might ignore it.

But at the peril of having sinned against all our forbearers and all our history,

                                                                                                and against our destiny.


Background: Presbyterian Church USA created a special committee (MESC) – the Middle East Study Commission because they believe that they have a religiously driven necessity to fix the world, and specifically, peace between Israel and the Palestinians. They have issued a 179 page report that I have read and reread which will be placed for adoption in their July convention.

            I don't know the size of the Presbyterian Church.

            I have no personal interest in or knowledge of their particular theology.

            I can't say for sure that this document will be adopted. I pray not.

            I can't say for sure that this document will absolutely change American policy and detrimentally affect Medinat Yisrael.

            But, I am absolutely sure that it is an enormous threat and has inherent power to destabilize American support for Israel and delegitimize Israel as a constituent country among the nations of the world.

            I do not know who here in synagogue understands the issue of divestment, but this far exceeds that. [Divestment in this context means that organizations/companies should not invest in a company, remove their investment funds in companies that invest in Israeli companies, not do business with a company that trades, does business or in any way contributes to the economic activity of the State of Israel. Thus because of its potential harm to the economic fabric it is a lever to use concerning its political policies.]


To distill this extensive document down to its essence, in one language or another – you have to read carefully, this is what it says:


1. That Israel is a delegitimate entity that neither the League of Nations nor the United Nations had the right to create.

2.  That Israel was only created because of the Holocaust and the Arab Palestinians are paying for it.

3. That tracing our roots to the land throughout the Bible and the course of Jewish history is worthless. We have no claim to any part of the land of Israel.

4. Nevertheless, with a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, Israel should behave according to it. No one else has to act that way!

5. That the true and rightful inhabitants of Palestine are the Arabs.

6. That it is the fault of the Jews for all the violence that has occurred.

7. That the occupation of the all areas since the Six Day War is a sin against God.

8. That the United States should completely reverse its support for the State of Israel by withholding financial and political aid until Israel complies with resolutions from the United Nations, no matter how one-sided, anti-Semitic, racist and suicidal they will be.

9. That companies should follow BDS – boycott, divest and sanctions against Israel.

10. That the conditions in Gaza are all Israel's fault.

11. That terrorism against Israeli civilians is legitimate.

12. That the problems of Christian Arabs, of which there are many, are Israel's fault.


I will admit that I have reduced their report to very evocative language. I fully intended to do so. I need to get your attention! Even if they don't use this exact language, do not delude yourselves: this is what they are saying. This did not begin with the Presbyterian Church. This has been going on for a long time. There is along history against the creation of the State of Israel, against support of the State of Israel, and most recently the humiliation of the leader of the State of Israel. It most recently played itself out as USC Berkeley where Menachem our son waded into a room, one of the few defenders of Medinat Yisrael in a hostile environment. The PCUSA document is entitled "Breaking Down the Walls," a term taken from the New Testament book of Ephesians 2:14 which refers to the breaking down of Judaism. Who knows why they took this title? This document follows from one placed on the website of the World Council of Churches entitled "The Kairos Palestine Document" of 2009 which used the name of a 1985 document written against the then South African government and its apartheid government, which eventually world pressure brought down. They seek the same against Israel.  This is no laughing, no passing, no glancing matter.


The purpose of these remarks is to make those present and those on the listserv aware of these matters and shake your complacency and make you aware of the unfolding scenario. In the printed edition of this sermon are embedded links to the USCJ, CCAR and PCUSA for you to read materials first hand.


 We are informed that on the local level many members of Presbyterian churches do not share these positions.

We need to reinforce them in their true support of Medinat Yisrael and have them vocalize that in their churches.

We need to indicate how strongly we support the existence of Medinat Yisrael, even when we are advocates of change of policies.

We need to say clearly that the adoption of this report as policy would be thoroughly disruptive to Jewish – Christian relations, as least with the Presbyterian Church, which we do not desire, but rather to be partners in improving the world.


We proclaim for all to hear that from the essence of our souls we are most committed that the third Jewish Commonwealth, Medinat Yisrael, standing proudly and forthrightly among the family of nations, is the national liberation of the Jewish people, is the natural and proper fulfillment of our 3,500 years of history rooted in the soil in which it was born, in which it lived, whose footprints appear under every rock and stone.


Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Christians and Jews have been partners in suffering.

If all so will it, they can be partners in peace.

This document, this approach, this attitude is not the way.


Am Yisrael Chai. Medinat Yisrael Chai, and as Helen Zimm always adds after an aliyah, "forever and ever."                                                      

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Levitical Reflections on the Health Care Bill: What Was Missing in the Debate?

Levitical Reflections on the Health Care Bill: What Was Missing in the Debate?

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

May 8th, 2010


I am not sure whether my maternal grandmother ever read the last two sedras of the book of Leviticus but she certainly lived her life according to its ideals. During the Depression, when the evictors came to throw you and your  belongings out of the apartment and onto the street for non-payment of rent, my diminutive grandmother would schlepp on her back the furniture back into it. It certainly must have made quite a scene on the streets of Boro Park section of Brooklyn, New York. In my lifetime I remember that the outer of the two shopping bags was always that of the ILGWU - International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In her earliest life my grandmother worked in the sweat shops rolling cigars and making umbrellas. With a grandmother like that, two grandfathers and a father who were factory workers all their lives, I grew up with the issues of Leviticus, social justice, workers' rights, unions, and health care as my daily fare, as much as the real food that my mother served at the kitchen table. Listening to passionate Yiddish conversation - of which I understood little but loved its cadence and intonations, and the Workman's Circle Arbiter Ring are as part of me as the air I breathe.


It is with those eyes, ears and heart that I ruminate on the Health Care Debate recently paused - not concluded - in the reflection of the sedras of Behar and Behukotai. While the debate focused on costs, cuts and coverages, there was something essential missing in the argumentation. Exactly in this point Judaism has a great deal to say and add to the conversation. The piece that disturbs me most and that is missing is the following:


The belief that: Everyone is equal. Everyone is holy. Everyone's well-being is sacred. Thus, everyone's health should be equally cared for. A just society takes care of everyone. A society were some are and some are not, some are  cared for more and some are cared for less, is rotten in its core. Why is there a debate at all? Is not the cardinal value enshrined in America's holiest document that we are "entitled to the pursuit of life"? How do you have life without health? Why didn't the debate focus on being a just and moral society? That was not in evidence.


I can put my finger on the one detail that makes everything clear to me. Why is it, how can it be that a person elected to Congress and serves only one term will received the best medical care in the land for life, yet the person who will break his or her back in the most laborious trades, sweating in the summer and freezing in the winter, without whose labor we could not live, can have no health care at all? It is not a question of cost. It is an issue of the view of the collective society. Are some of us more holy than others? Are others less holy than the rest of us? It is an issue of justice. This is what was missing in the health care debate. Even worse, the underlying assumption is not everybody should have health care.  The haves have it, and the have-nots do not. This attitude Judaism most strenuously rejects with all its might.


These two Torah portions have a great deal to teach America and contribute to the debate that is far from over. I will indicate just a few pieces.


1. No body owns the world. No body owns health care. God owns the world. We are temporary custodians of all that is in it. We read that God says: "Kee Lee Kol HaAretz" - "Because the world world in Mine."  We are recipients of God's gifts and stewards of it, once received. We are transient and what we have is impermanent. We don't own others. We barely own ourselves. How dare we keep health care from others, minimize and restrict, while others "have it all"? Health care is God's gift to humanity.


2. When society acts unethically and immorally it will ultimately be destroyed. This week I paused to wonder: Which is more dangerous to the existence of the United States? The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? The SUV that nearly blew up in Times Square? [I have been there for a number of New Years Eves.] Or sick people that can't see a doctor and get medicine? Which threatens our society most? The Torah says: sick people. The chastisements - the Tochecha - in Behuckottai indicate that the people lose the right to the land and will be destroyed not because of idolatry but because of immorality, specifically, the breaking the laws that protect individuals, workers rights, taking care of the poor and ruling with justice. These laws, the Torah says, came from Sinai, just like the "big ten" to indicate how central, critical and core they are to have a proper society.


3. It is too bad that when they etched the words on the Liberty Bell that they didn't do it in Hebrew. It says: "And proclaim d'ror - translated as liberty - throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof." What does d'ror mean? Rashi explains that the word comes from "dar" meaning "to dwell" and indicates that a person can live wherever they want; they are unfettered; they have true freedom of movement. Ibn Ezra has it refer to the freedom of a little bird that can fly wherever it desires. Nachmanides also connects it to living wherever we want but refers to "b'nai chorin" - a term that should echo from Pesach seder - namely - that we are not enslaved, not to a Pharaoh, not to anyone. The context for all these comments is the release of indentured servants in the Jubilee year and the resetting of the economic clock to the pristine moment when all were equal. No matter how distant from reality, it is a dream to which to aspire, a vision of society that elevates all, but none to high above others; a healthy society, where the public policty about health care for all is a matter of justice and righteousness.


4. I close with reference to one further commentator, called Ba'al HaTurim. He plays gematria and counts the value of the letters of the word d'ror as 410 [ daled is 4, vov is 6 and resh is 200 twice = 410]. He notes that the duration of Solomon's Temple was 410 years from its construction to its destruction. Regardless of historical truth, the point is well taken: Their world was destroyed because human beings were destroyed; because society became unjust; because the poor and the defenseless were trampled; because of the inequality of wealth and privilege. Soon America will celebrate its 234th year of independence. May this grand experiment in human governance long exist and its flag proudly wave. May it truly proclaim d'ror throughout the land, for all its inhabitants.                                                                                             Shabbat Shalom.