Monday, November 28, 2011
From The Heart
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Last night Hallmark produced the movie edition of Mitch Albom's latest book, "Have A Little Faith." I sincerely recommend that every one of all ages, children with their parents and grandparents, watch this movie. Its message resounds with a clarion call across every divide. The plot involves a reformed drug addict and a Rabbi, Rabbi Albert Lewis, a colleague whom I knew, visited his synagogue, and whose son is also a colleague. There were many themes that riveted me to my seat.
Religion was treated seriously. Judaism was treated seriously. Too often the media make a mockery of religion. Too often media hold up a caricature of Judaism. Here a Conservative Rabbi was revealed in a most positive light, Conservative Judaism was depicted as the mainstream presentation of Judaism, modern, vibrant and meaningful. Martin Landau gave an exquisite portrayal of the intimate work that Rabbis do with people, as they bring their existential questions to us, out of the fanfare of the public light. Through this script the wisdom of non-fundamentalist Judaism was held up for all the world to see, through the transmission of Rabbi Lewis. This script showed the inherent humility that both age and the pulpit bestow upon those who represent religion, faith, to people of all faiths. I was very much taken by the depiction of the minister, in his ministry to his woe-begotten flock. For whatever reason, synagogues are usually not populated with the same demographics. I learn by watching others. We all need to see the faces of "the others."
This movie bored in on the most important religious question: With all the bad, evil, inequity that surrounds us, can we still believe in God? This movie says: Yes! Even though it might be difficult. It reveals the quest by Mitch Albom as he struggles to see God's hand in the world. He learns how he needs to be God's instrument.
There is so much more in this movie than this column can contain. I will return to it as the sermon for next Rosh HaShanah. By then I hope that all of you will have viewed the movie. For me the core piece connected to the book that Rabbi Lewis gave me long ago, which I quickly read cover-to-cover: "What is Your Glory?" By the title he means to ask us: Wherein do find the most important piece of ourselves? What precisely defines us? What exemplifies us best? To what should we aspire? It is a slim book that you probably never noticed sitting on the shelf directly behind me among thicker volumes. It wasn't as much a book about answers as it is about the questions that we need to ask ourselves and find within ourselves.
As the age old juxtaposition of Hanukkah and Christmas is soon upon us, let me phrase the question for the season: "What is our Glory?" Is it in the menorah in ultra modern presentation, or the simple metal unadorned ones whose light was undiminished? Is it in the imitation of gifts (we have done that too) or the replication of Macaabean spirit for the sake of the faith of Judaism? Is it in the quest to imitate others, or the life-long, year-long living of a vital, informed, uplifting life of Judaism? "Have a Little Faith" is an exquisite answer. I urge you to watch it. I pray that its message will resound and rebound in our lives.
From our far-flung family to yours, wherever they may be, Ruby and the children and grandchildren wish you a very happy and light-filled Hanukkah. Chag Sameach.
Friday, November 18, 2011
Teachers of Children Are Always Warned
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
November 18th, 2011
When I was in Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Gershon Cohen, zichrono l'vracha, was our Chancellor. Every fall we had a breakfast with him. On one of those occasions he told us that he wanted to know what we were doing. At that time I was creating a booklet for the instruction of Hebrew language in Religious School. I submitted a copy to him. He notated in red my mistakes. On one hand, I was totally embarrassed. And on the other hand, I was deeply impressed, that the Chancellor of the Seminary had taken the time to read through the entire twenty, thirty page booklet and read every page, because he marked them all, including the last.
For a long time I wondered why Dr. Cohen did that. I don't think he ever put my face, name and that document together. He never mentioned it to me. He clearly had invested enough time from his very busy life and schedule. I wonder what I did with it? Though he didn't write me a note, there was clearly a message embedded in this. What was it?
Only later did I learn a piece of Talmud, that I need to do a global word search to find the exact citation, which said that "makrei dardekei" – "teachers of children" stand perpetually warned about making mistakes in their instruction and do not need any warning before being fired! The Gemara, in my recollection, does not comment on this statement, but a commentator, maybe Rashi (from France) did. He used language that refers to twigs making lines in the earth that can never be made clear again. So, too, when teachers teach errors, the students' minds assimilate the error. Like erasing a blackboard, the mind remains clouded by the first, incorrect information, which it needs to remove in order to learn the new, correct information. But it is learned on a clouded background and is never as good when done on a fresh, clean surface. According to the Talmud, teachers must know the tremendous impression they make through their teaching. They can really "mess up." While I cannot say that I have never made a mistake since Dr. Gershon Cohen corrected my booklet, when I learned that Gemara, I immediately remembered him and that episode. I have never forgotten it. It speaks to me always.
In my lifetime, before I was a Rabbi I taught sixth and seventh grades in Religious School, worked as a youth advisor and youth director, and taught in several Ramah Camps. From then and through my Rabbinate, I have stood in juxtaposition to hundred and maybe thousands of students, youth and adults. It is an awesome responsibility. What I say, how I say it, what I impart can make a tremendous difference in people's lives, attitudes and understanding. I remember once getting a message from members of this congregation who attended a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at a Reform congregation elsewhere. When mentioning my name as their Rabbi, he responded that I was the reason he had become a Rabbi. I never knew. It had been decades and many miles since I taught him in 6th grade. I was flabbergasted. One just doesn't ever know the effect of being a teacher.
I learned the power of the position of teacher, a hidden, unarticulated power. The student posits a certain faith, a certain trust in a figure of authority, of knowledge, that can influence the future. The Rabbis understood this dynamic when they elevated the position of teacher to be on par with that of parent. It was more than stressing the importance of learning. It clearly inferred the inherent control and influence of the position. Along with that came utmost and ultimate responsibility and accountability.
I felt that many years ago, in a community far away. I wore many kippot: Rabbi, religious school principle, Bar/Bat Mitzvah teacher, and high school teacher. We rented two public school buildings, one for tefilot and one for school. It was confidentially shared with me that two children in our Religious School were being physically, not sexually, abused. I was a very young and newly minted Rabbi. I was very scared of this information. No one had ever discussed this situation with me. I was unprepared. The children were students in the public school we rented for our Religious School. I made an appointment with the Principal. I told this person what was told to me. The public school had as much a vested interest as the Religious School, but they were more trained and more protected from false accusation, if it was such, that I was. I had no training and no protection. I did my duty. I handed it off. I had fulfilled my obligation as a teacher and supervisor of teachers. And every day that I came to that public school I went in to that principal to ask what was being done. I never let it rest until the process was completed. My conscience would not rest. How could it?
I cannot, for the life of me, fathom how any teacher of any subject and of sports, for that is what a coach is, can sleep at night while knowing that alleged behavior has occurred without staying with it, following it up, and protecting the students that are in his charge. This is exactly what the Gemara was saying about the position, the authority and the responsibility of the teacher. How could Joe Paterno assuage himself by just "passing it up the line?" How could the President of the University, ultimately responsible for the welfare of all the students, not demand immediate investigation and a thorough examination of the matter? Is this subject new? Have we not had enough cases and exposés? Are lives so cheap? Are they not fathers of their own sons? I cannot understand. I will not understand.
The accused are deemed innocent until proven guilty. Their day in court will come. But for those who remained silent, for those who just "sent it up the line" without further ado, for the lack of culpability, the lack of conscience, they have sinned and should be rightly punished. The lives of the students who were abused cannot be rewritten. The perpetrators, when proven guilty have grievously sinned. All the students currently at the universities have had their lives significantly impacted: all of this continued because no one blew the whistle loudly, shrilly and ceaselessly. Their silence is a sin. How can they atone? Who can forgive them? I don't know.
Judaism teaches us that teachers are perpetually warned for the power of their position. It is more than Joe Paterno and all the others need to learn a little Gemara. Every person in every teaching position needs to feel in the marrow of their bones the responsibility, the duty, the moral obligation for the welfare of their students that they carry on their shoulders, that is embedded in their title: teacher, coach, instructor. It is more than just the material. It is life itself.
May God heal the broken hearted and bind up their wounds.
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
3330 Grove Avenue
Richmond, VA 23221