Tuesday, December 24, 2013

42 U.S. university and college presidents have publicly rejected the boycott of #Israel. Not one has endorsed it.

Click here for the running list:


Thursday, December 19, 2013

To The Virginia General Assembly: What Will You Do In January?

To The Virginia General Assembly: What Will You Do In January?
From the Heart
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Somewhere around the end of December/the beginning of January we complete reading Sefer Bereshit and begin reading Sefer Sh’mot. We move from the story of the patriarchs to that of the enslavement. In the very first parsha/sedra we read about Moses, the person who will dominate four books of the Torah. His life is threatened by Pharaoh twice, first anonymously in the original edict to kill all the Hebrew boys and secondly after he defended a Hebrew slave and killed the taskmaster. Either Moses ran away or was certainly put to death.

He flees to the wilderness of Sinai where he marries Tzipporah, works as a shepherd for her father Jethro. While doing so he has the transformational experience of meeting God at the burning bush. God commands Moses to return to Egypt and be His agent in freeing the children of Israel. This is a compelling, forceful and driving narrative. We read it every single year without fail. Every year we hear God’s command to Moses to set the people free.

Is it just coincidental that we read this section of the Torah when the General Assembly meets and has days set aside for lobbying by the people of the Commonwealth? I don’t. You and I are not Moses and the General Assembly is not Pharaoh. Yet there are many people crying to be free. There compelling issues that cannot be ignored if we want to make a better, healthier and freer society. In January God says: “Go down Moses…” In January I hear God’s voice: “Go to the General Assembly…”

What shall we say to our representatives?
I want to ask them one and only one question:
Who is more hard-hearted: Them or Pharaoh?
Answering that question will answer everything.

Pharaoh wanted to kill all the Hebrew boys and let the girls live. Today it seems that they don’t care if its boys or girls. How many times will a young person obtain a gun and kill – in schools, in hospitals, and in the streets of Richmond? Do the names Sandy Hook and Newtown not resonate and cause trembling, the same as Moses felt before God and the Burning Bush? Did Bonnie Marrow and all her brothers and sisters in death die in vain?
So I will go to our representatives in the General Assembly and lobby for more extensive back ground checks on gun buyers, reduction of available fire power and other means of reducing the bloodshed that stains our streets and breaks our hearts.

In the reverse of the Israelites’ predicament of wanting to get out of Egypt, we have a population who want to stay in America. For them, this is the Promised Land. Remember, the Israelites did not have visas to get into Canaan. Our ancestors were truly illegal immigrants. These people, here, are our neighbors, workers in the grocery stores, tending to our lawns, picking the vegetables and fruits and raising their children to be honorable and dignified Americans. How shabbily we treat them. I am not aloof from the complexity of the matter. But I believe that the Senate passed a bill that is the best approach. In Sefer Sh’mot we are commanded to care for the stranger because we were them.
So I will go to the General Assembly to lobby for laws that, at least locally, will improve their lives, include a measure of justice, and reflect the attitude that we sought for our ancestors.

I have really one question for the General Assembly:
Who is more hard-hearted: Them or Pharaoh?
Answering that question will answer everything.
In January I will ask that of the General Assembly.
What Will You Be Doing This January?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Intersecting Holidays

Intersecting Holidays
From the Heart
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Normally Hanukkah and Christmas are juxtaposed by the secular and Jewish calendars. Christmas is a central holiday for Christianity and Hanukkah is considered of the minor Jewish holidays, not recorded in the Bible and only minimally mentioned in the Talmud. These two holidays are theological opposites, one celebrating the birth of the central figure of the faith and the other commemorating the fight to preserve Judaism. Why is this year different from every other year?

The answer is found in the intricacy of the Jewish calendar being a hybrid of a lunar calendar adjusted to the solar calendar. The holidays must occur in their proper seasons. Just imagine Passover in December and Rosh HaShanah in July! Can’t happen! The Jewish calendar is designed to keep order. Yet this year we celebrated the extraordinary event of Hanukkah juxtaposed to Thanksgiving. It won’t occur again for many millennia.

Long discourses could be written on the origin of Thanksgiving, debunking some of its myths. We know that the early settlers to this continent, illegal aliens to the Native Americans, would shortly dispossess those who had helped save their lives. We have created self-serving mythology. Yet the need to be thankful and express it is rooted in the Torah with the holy day of Sukkot and the bringing of the First Fruits to the Temple. More important than the sales and football games is the need to acknowledge that we have been blessed to have what we have. Furthermore, if we are really truthful with ourselves, we need to act upon the knowledge that not all people have been blessed like we have been. We need to be a blessing to others. Our sacred liturgy compels us to assist all others in need, the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, in Biblical language, to rise from their poverty and enjoy the same level of blessings that we do. I am glad that our Biblical teachings are the foundation of the thoroughly American holiday. Our Judaism and our American heritage are complementary one to another.

Hanukkah must be understood accurately to have its authentic power. It was not a fight for “religious freedom.” It was war by the Jews against the onslaught of Hellenism, culture and religion, to be Jews faithful to God and Torah. In the beginning it was civil war among the Jews themselves, those who would be faithful and those who abandon it. The struggle began with a small number, a faint light in the Judean mountains and would last for decades. The liberation of Jerusalem and the rededication of its Temple were temporary. Yet because of the Maccabees Judaism would survive, thrive and triumph while the Greek and Roman empires would crumble. Hanukkah is a distinctive holiday for the Jewish people. It is a specific narrative of the Jews would who fight even to the death to preserve the faith. It is a very different holiday than Thanksgiving.

I am proud to observe both holidays, as a Jew and as an American. Their juxtaposition gives me pause to realize how blessed I am, we are, to have such a personal richness. But I do not combine the two. One expresses a general thanks for what we have. The other celebrates our existence and our purpose as Jews. I hope that you enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving. From our far-flung family to yours we wish a happy and meaningful Hanukkah.

Chag Sameach!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Admat Kodesh – Holy Ground – Sinai and Richmond

Admat Kodesh – Holy Ground – Sinai and Richmond
November 15th, 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

While Moses is tending his father-in-law’s, Jethro’s, flock, he sees a strange sight in the distance and goes towards the bush that is burning yet not consumed.  From that bush God speaks to Moses and says: “Remove your shoes from upon your feet because the ground you are standing on is ‘admat kodesh’ – holy ground.”

What makes ordinary soil ‘holy’?
To answer that question I really need to define the word holy.
Then we need to deal with the implications of that definition.

Clearly in the Torah God specifies that the precise soil where He and Moses meet has transcendent meaning because it is the meeting place between man and God. The planet has inherent kedoshah, holiness, because it is God’s creation and thus we have certain obligations to take care of it. Yet this exact spot is holy because here Moses meets God, the ultimate human experience. But it was not just a tête-à-tête. Moses will leave this meeting under Divine command to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery to freedom and into national existence.” Holiness indicates something that is ultimate, above and beyond all else has happened here. Indeed, Moses was standing on admat kodesh, holy ground.

As best as I can discern, everywhere else in the Bible, human beings declare ‘holy ground.’ When Jacob sleeps at the place he will call Beth El, he proclaims that God was in that place and makes it special by pouring oil on its stones. After the Tabernacle is built in the wilderness of Sinai, every time and every place it is erected, the specific place for the Ark with the Ten Commandments is chosen by Moses and Aaron. Solomon will build the First Temple on the mountain top and this meeting place for God and Israel becomes holy forever. Each of these places has transcendent meaning. It never loses its holiness. It is holy, sacred, sanctified – forever and ever.

This is a critical concept:  transcendent meaning  caused by a transcendent event can change the status of otherwise mundane soil.

Death does this too.

A cemetery is admat kodesh, holy ground. It obtains this status because our human body, created in God’s image is, after God Himself, the holiest thing in existence. Our body is holier than the Torah. When buried in ordinary soil, it changes its status to admat kodesh, holy ground, and imbues that status to the entire area, even where no one is buried. That changes our behavior. We don’t eat on a cemetery. We don’t play music – except for military honors – on a cemetery. And we are not supposed to walk on graves, a difficult task in cemeteries without distinct demarcations.  Death, as well as birth, is a transcendent event for us and for God. It is the ultimate event in human existence, for, in traditional Jewish belief, it marks the transition of the soul’s existence from this world to the-world-to-come and life everlasting.

Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor and all the named and unnamed places of the genocide of our people is holy ground. I say that not because of the horrors that occurred there but rather because death has ultimate meaning and thus ultimate power. Death sanctifies the soil. Besides all else that can be rightfully said, the death of our people in those places was testimony to the eternality of the Jewish people to triumph over that evil. Those places are admat kodesh because our people there maintained their dignity, their Jewishness, their honor, their humanity and in death triumphed over evil. Their suffering and their humanity made ordinary blood-soaked and blood-stained soil admat kodesh, holy ground.

And you don’t play baseball on admat kodesh.

We do not have proprietary rights over suffering because of the Holocaust.
We do have a deeper empathy and sensitivity to suffering because of the Holocaust.
We do not own the word “slavery” because of Egyptian bondage.
We gave the world the belief in “equality” - that no person will be a master and none a slave.

Admat kodesh, holy ground is not just on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or wherever was the Burning Bush.
Admat kodesh, holy ground is not just where our dead our buried, but wherever anyone is buried.
Admat kodesh, holy ground is not just where our people have suffered, but wherever other people have suffered, too.

If God could hear the groans of the Israelites in Egypt, then He could hear those of the African-Americans in Richmond, Virginia.

You don’t play baseball at Arlington National Cemetery.
You don’t play baseball at Auschwitz.

And maybe they shouldn’t play baseball at Shockoe Bottom either.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Symbolic Statement for Equality by Richmond City Council

The Symbolic Statement for Equality by Richmond City Council
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
November 1st, 2013
Richmond, Virginia

This past Monday night I listened to language that was laced with hatred, venom and vituperation.  It could have been used at many early junctures in American history. It was fortified with theological certitude over what God wants. And it was spiked with threats of eternal damnation. If I was somewhere else other than the chambers of the City Council of Richmond I might have feared for my life. Personally, I have not heard such language in a very long time. The issue that attracted such diatribes was the proposed ordinance that, at such time that the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia permits, partners in same-sex marriages of employees of the City of Richmond would receive equal benefits as all others.  The ordinance had three sponsors on the City Council. It needed two more votes to pass.

Sometimes it is hard to imagine that we live in the year 2013 or even better, 5774.
I wonder whether fellow citizens have paid attention to the development of society.

            The arguments voiced harkened back to the denial of civil rights for African-Americans.
            The positions espoused could be used to subjugate any segment of society that was
different than the speaker's.

I was stunned but not really surprised. I did want to shout “Oy veys meir!” But I didn’t.
The vote of five to four by which it ultimately passed was partial vindication for the experience of the evening.

I am proud that a colleague in the ministry, when his turn to speak came, publicly noticed me in the audience in support of the ordinance. There were too many speakers to fit into the thirty minute allotment. But with my appearance and the whitest kipah I own on my head, I was easily identified. It was important personally and for our religious community to be present so that my position could be acknowledged.

If I had the podium and more than three minutes to speak, these are the points I would have made to the City Council.

1. God has not spoken to me recently, so I don’t know what God wants. It is vital to come with humility and not with certitude. We have a holy text that has historical narrative, specific laws that surely reflect an earlier time and place, and a theology about humanity. One speaker cited the Book of Leviticus and would have been very pleased if, based on that text, LBGTQ population would all be put to death. I would have asked the gentleman: What about unruly children? What about Sabbath desecrators – regardless of Saturday or Sunday? What about adulterers? If you are going to cite the Bible for killing one group, then at least be consistent and kill them all!? I wish the absurdity of that statement to be apparent. I don’t deny the verse in Leviticus. I just don’t apply it, and I certainly can’t imagine that this is God’s absolute last word on the matter and that He - or She – [that would have caused the speaker an apoplexy] wants me to commit murder. I have to work very hard to believe that I know what God wants.

2. I would have asked the Council members: what are the two most important verses in the Five Books of Moses? And I would have referred them to the same Book of Leviticus where it states that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. On a previous Shabbat I have explained that the Hebrew word usually translated as neighbor really means ‘the other.’ And The Torah doesn’t restrict this verse just to men and not women, young and not old, Israelite and not foreigner. The second most important verse comes from Genesis where it says that “these are the generations of Adam.” It refers to all  humanity, implying that the Divine design is to have a varieted humanity that looks different, sounds different, talks different, is different and yet are all related to each other. Those who are LBGTQ are just as much related. And if Leviticus commands us to love each other, meaning to take care of each other, be considerate of each other, see to the welfare of each other, then it means that we should love them too.

3. Judaism expounds the view that our understanding of anything and everything evolves, even as a core bedrock values are eternal. So I would have asked the Council: What is the most important value of all? Is it democracy? Capitalism? Conservativism? I would recommend to the Council that the most important value of all is that of holiness, the holiness of each and every person, of the air, of the land, of life itself. Holiness is the reflection of the Divine in all of creation. It adheres to all that is with no distinction. There are no restrictions to holiness. It can be found in all. It can be found in everyone that stands in relationship to something other than themselves, and even in the relationship of one to one’s own self. It can be found in all segments of society, the straight and the LGBTQ alike.

From all of this it is preeminently clear to me that the granting of spousal benefits to gay employees of the City of Richmond, at such time as we change the constitution of the Commonwealth, was and is the just and righteous thing to do. This is what I believe God wants of us. I commend my Council member, Mr. John Baliles for voting in the affirmative. I wish the other members had made it unanimous.

Yet I have one further comment. Several Council members said that this was “only” symbolic, and as such, was inappropriate for the Council to do. I would suggest that they consider the inherent power of symbolic statements. What is the difference between a sign and a symbol? The answer is that a sign points only to itself or a limited action or moment. A stop sign does nothing more than indicate that a car at that place stops before proceeding. It has no greater message. A flag is a symbol for it indicates history, evokes devotion, galvanizes action, stirs emotions, and points to the past and to the future. Symbols, symbolic actions, symbolic statements have great power and meaning. It was and is worthy of the City of Richmond to make symbolic statements for they reveal what we think of ourselves and what we dream for the future.

With its particular history, it is right and dutiful that the City of Richmond to have stepped forward in the extension of rights and benefits for the partners of all of its employees. Now all we have to do is change the Constitution.

Shabbat Shalom.

What’s In a Name?

What’s In a Name?
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
October 25th, 2013

One of my favorite songs is by Johnny Cash and is entitled “A Boy Named Sue.” In the song, Sue wants to meet the person who gave him that name and ultimately will meet his father and they will have a big fight yet wind up embracing. Yet at the end he swears that if he ever has a son, he will give him any name other than Sue.

What is such a big deal? There are boys names that are used by girls, so what is it that made this song so popular in its time, other than Johnny Cash is singing it?

The issue is that in a mysterious way we come to identify with the name we are given. We respond when called by that name and by no other. Some people use an initial for their first name and use their middle name as the given one. Our name identifies me to myself and to everyone else. Some names are rare, like my first name, and it even sounds a bit odd when you meet someone else who also has it.

Names give power. When my mother or father called my name, the tone and tenor of how it was pronounced and where they put the accent, and how loud or soft, was all that I needed to know. They gave it to me. They labeled me. At least until a certain age, they had the power. As they were my parents, they had the inherent right to give me my name and call my name.

That is why God names Adam and Eve, with the meaning inherent in each name, his meaning ‘earth’ and hers relating to ‘life.’ God created the earth and put them on it, and they will be the progenitors of all human beings. Similarly the first thing that God had Adam and Eve do in the Garden of Eden was to give names to all the animals. It indicated that there is a hierarchy in the world and that human beings are at the epitome of the ladder of existence. Human beings are ultimately permitted to slaughter animals for food, but an animal that kills a human being is put to death. Giving a name to another has many implications about their relationships and even their destiny. That is why God changed Avram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, by adding the letter “Hey” referring to God to each of their names.

The Ashkenazic Jewish tradition is to name our children after the deceased, so as to perpetuate their memory in the family. I know that I am named after my two maternal grandfathers. Ruby and I named Menachem, Yonina and Tzeira after family members and made sure that they knew who their namesakes were. Through names we can tie the generations together and keep some cognizance of from where we come. It is a powerful dynamic. With Moshe Tzvi’s second name, Tzvi, and Raya’s name, though deceased, my father and my uncle are kept ever present in the family by the mention of their names.

What’s in a name? Everything.

Those following something besides the World Series and Wall Street might have guessed where I am leading, but before getting there I want to inject one other issue.

Judaism has core values and one of them is entitled “K’vod HaBeriyot,” – “The Honor of living beings.” It isn’t relegated just to one sphere of existence. It is applicable to animals and human beings alike.  It is fundamental in Judaism that everything in existence must be respected. Religiously we say that everything traces its origin back to God who is the supreme Creator. The insertion of Va’yachulu in our tefilot tonight stresses that religious belief. Thus everything inherently has, inherently reflects God’s holiness. Even the earth, an inanimate object, is God’s creation and thus requires our respect. The earth is holy, too.

It is easy to connect my two subjects, names and respect. How we name someone, how we call someone, indicates what we think of them, how we relate to them, what is our relationship with them. Does it indicate power or honor? Does it show respect to ancestry or diminishment of the past? How we feel about ourselves is reflected in the names we call ourselves and the names we reject when used against us. I am proud to be called a Jew, when someone says “You’re Jewish.” I have to correct them we they call me a “Hebrew,” usually used out of ignorance. It has been a long time since any derogatory term has been used against me. I bristled and called them out when they did. I want to be respected for, with and by my name. I give respect in using others’ names.

So what should we do about the National League Football team in Washington, D.C., currently called “The Redskins.” Only slightly distant are the Atlanta Braves and the tomahawk chop, the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Chiefs. All other major league teams in baseball, football and basketball have benign names. Yes, these nicknames have a long history with their teams. I also confess to not knowing how they were chosen.

But should they keep them?

The Cleveland team is currently asking their fans about using their name. The Atlanta team is already under demands to reevaluate theirs. I haven’t heard anything from Kansas City. But the term “Redskins” is certainly derogatory. It reflects an attitude to the only group that is native to this continent or surely antedates us by millennia. It is pejorative no less than the Yiddish word used for African-Americans. For those who remember television in black-and-white era, let us recall how Native Americans were portrayed. How did they speak? What were they called? [Answer – savages.] How did they dress? How were the women and children portrayed?
Did this show respect?
Did is show insight into their culture?
Did is reflect the honor and holiness that they showed to the earth?
Did is reveal their spirituality?
Did it present the values of their cultures?
                                                                                    Hardly if ever.
How would we as Jews feel if the period of sojourn in Eastern Europe or in the Middle Eastern countries (besides Israel) was held up to satire, lampoon and ridicule? I think that this could be done to everyone. It should be done to no one.

So let’s find another name for the National League Football team in Washington, D.C.

Given their location I could suggest a few: the nudnicks; the do-nothings; the empty tea-cups; the disgrace; the ruinations. They don’t sound good in a cadence, but they are more befitting than the current appellation. Of course these suggestions are just a little satire. But if we can have the “Flying Squirrels” I am sure that they come up with something useful for Washington.

What’s in a name?
Self respect.

I am proud to be called a Jew. Let’s join our voices to show honor and respect to others.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Washington, D.C. and Sodom & Gomorrah

Washington, D.C. and Sodom & Gomorrah
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
October 18, 2013

In this week’s Torah portion the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by God because of their evilness. Lot, Abraham’s nephew chose to live there because of the external beauty of the area. He clearly never heard the maxim: “don’t choose a book by its cover.” The Torah describes it as something akin to a cross between the Garden of Eden and well-wateredness and fertility of the land of Egypt. Certainly there had to be plenty for everybody.

And yet the Torah indicates that amidst this land of plenty there was an embedded evilness that warranted its destruction. It is so bad that God Himself must go down to inspect and see if it is true. What did God find? Jewish commentators indicate an endless number of sins, even as the text will center on the episode of the strangers that come to visit Lot. They are more than unwelcome in Sodom and Gomorrah. There is an abject hatred of these strangers, so much so that the city descends on Lot’s home and demands that they be handed over for whatever malicious evil will be done upon them.

There are many questions for this complex story, but I will pose just two.

1. Why amidst the plush lushness of the valley, so much so that it is the object for takeover by several neighboring kings, that there is clearly more than enough for everyone, that the people didn’t want to share the wealth?

2. Why did God turn to Abraham and not Lot to save the city? God reveals His design to Abraham and affords Abraham the opportunity to enter into negotiations for the future of the city, all the way down to ten righteous people, which since God can’t even find that many, He destroys the place. Why didn’t God engage Lot, who was already living there instead of Abraham who was far off and didn’t even know the kind of people that were there?

Both questions and answers have immediate applicability to today. While I am loathe calling Washington, D.C. the modern day incarnation of Sodom and Gomorrah, as the old adage goes, “if the shoe fits….”

1. The answer to the first question – for some people, no matter how much they have for themselves, it is never enough. And not only that, because they do have so much, they care even less about anyone else. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah had an innate jealousy that their abundance could be shared and thus an equally innate hatred of the other. I am really mystified how they could accept Lot to live there and then turn on three measly strangers that come to visit. Nevertheless it is clear that even though Lot welcomed them into his home and he tried to bribe off the mob, he was not prepared to go any further. They overstuffed society had no ‘golden rule’ of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ They had no consideration for anyone else who might have been poor or injured or incapable. They were self-center, concerned with self-aggrandizement and self fulfillment that they could not bring themselves to share the wealth.
2. Why not Lot? Didn’t he grow up in Abraham’s home; listen to his uncle’s teaching about justice and righteousness? While Lot is certainly a good person who welcomed in the strangers, that was about as far as he could go. He did not go outside his home to argue with the mob. He did not proclaim a vision of society. Lot did not share the ideals of loving others, sharing and caring, of chesed and mishpat, righteousness and justice. He was good enough to practice it himself, but he was not good enough to fight for it in the public space. Abraham was different. He didn’t give lip service. He walked enough of the walk to earn the right to do the talk with God.

What we have witnessed and endured this past period of time is surely a modern day incarnation of these issues.

While there might significant issues in the details of the Affordable Care Act, can anybody say with any sense of dignity and self respect that they deserve health insurance and others don’t?

Can anybody say that the richest country on the face of the earth cannot take care of each other, while Israel, which has a much larger per capita cost to defend itself, can have universal health coverage and we can’t?

Can anybody justify hurting millions of people, from veterans who have defended us in the past to those in the military who defend us now, from those validly counting on their weekly SNAP and social security to those hardworking men and women in other arms of the government which then extends like a spider’s web throughout our society with untold damage and harm, financially, psychologically and spiritually?

If that’s not Sodom and Gomorrah, I don’t know what is!

While debt is a serious issue and American financial health is very important, like Lot, where is the vision? Where is the wisdom to implement responsible government that addresses all the issues and all the needs of this country? Maybe all of them are no better than Lot in the Torah, a good man, but no better. A moral person in an immoral world, but no better. A likeable guy in an evil place, but no better. His best answer was “take my girls and leave me alone.” “Where there is no vision, the people perish” said Solomon in Proverbs. How close have we come?

That is why we are called the children of Abraham, because he had a vision of justice and mercy, kindness and consideration and was prepared to enunciate in the highest public place, before God, and Lot did not. When Abraham had no children, in the custom of the ancient world, Lot his nephew could have become the inheritor of the line of the family, and his descendants become the leaders. Oy for a world filled with people like Lot!

The need to be the children of Abraham is needed now more than ever before. “For I have known (Abraham), that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep God’s ways, doing righteousness and justice.” [Genesis 18.19] The battle has just begun.

        Shabbat Shalom

What is wrong with this picture?

What is wrong with this picture?
From the Heart
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

From the dawn of my religious awakening in fourth grade when I began “Hebrew” school, I have lived my life inside Conservative synagogues. I grew up in USY and the short lived college program ATID, worked in Camp Ramah at different locations on the east coast, served as a USY advisor and youth director at Conservative synagogues. My education was centered at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Since 1974 I have been a Rabbi of six United Synagogue affiliated synagogues. I have spent a lifetime dedicated to facing the dynamics that confront us in the open society and to strengthening Jewish identity qualitatively and quantitatively.

There is nothing in the recent Pew report about the American Jewish community that surprises me.

There has been the long-running mantra that “being” “Jewish” is more than just being “religious.” Some offered “culture” referring to cuisine, arts, music, literature that are “Jewish” but not “religious.” Others turned to campaigns to create or fulfill their definition of “being” “Jewish,” such as the campaign to free Soviet Jewry and then the resettlement programs. The Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 made Israel a major focus of “Jewish” “identity” and activity. And certainly philanthropy for Jewish/Israel causes filled the “Jewish” “identity” quota by the amount of activity enjoined and the sense of doing good (which it certainly is). These were and are good and worthy endeavors for and the Jewish people.

And certainly there were and are many Jews, however self-identified, who are not attracted to Judaism or any of the above. To some degree, that could be the easiest to expect and anticipate.

So what is wrong with this picture?
The answer is that, while valuable, unto themselves these are not sustainable, transmittable nor transformable. They have no internal compelling force. In a world of infinite possibilities, many have answered: “Who cares?”

These are really just derivatives of the eternal, nuclear core which is Judaism: is a faith that believes in a God who chose Abraham and his descendants to be His representatives and exemplars in the world for all time, standing in a covenantal relationship with God expressed through rituals and prayers that refer to our sacred history; lead to holy living; and, creates a community of those who share the faith.

After all is said and done, adults need to determine:                         do they have the faith?
                                          Adults need to determine:            will they transmit the faith?
                                          Adults need to determine:            will they live the faith?
                                          Adults need to determine:            will they make communities of faith?

This is not a question about children, the old Yiddish quote: “Alle fun de kinder”-“everything for the children.” Faith is an adult issue. One has to look inside themselves for that answer. The future of Judaism rests on the answer to these questions. That is what the Pew report tells us.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Do You Love me? Yom Kippur Yizkor 2013

Do You Love me?
Yom Kippur Yizkor  5774 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Richmond, Virginia

I normally write the Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon first. It breaks the log jam in my writing. Yet this time I left it for last. The reason will be self-evident, as this has been the one most difficult to compose.

In the musical “Fiddler On The Roof,” after deciding to permit Hodel to marry Perchik, Tevye turns to his wife Golde and asks her: “Do you love me?”  I am sure that everyone, hopefully, remembers this scene. In a shrill voice Golde responds: “Do I what?” Tevye repeats the question and Golde responds. He asks again a second time and she responds and then Tevye asks Golde one more time and she responds:
                        “Do I love him?
                        For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him
                        Fought with him, starved with him
                        Twenty-five years my bed is his
                        If that’s not love, what is?
And Tevye, finally responds: “Then you love me?” Golde answers: “I suppose I do.” And he rejoins: “And I suppose I love you to.”
In a final duet they sing together:
                        “It doesn’t change a thing
                        But even so
                        After twenty-five years
                        It’s nice to know.”

And when we are laying in a hospital bed, or in a nursing home, or perhaps in our own bed at home unable to speak for any number of reasons;
Or perhaps we are the ones standing at the bedside of a loved one, a parent, a spouse, a friend, for me it has been congregants, and we can only see their eyes but cannot communicate;
As the doctor or nurse is asking: “What do you want us to do?” I imagine that the one laying there is asking: “Do you love me?” And we are standing there responding: “Do I love you?”
The supreme question of life and death is contained in that question: “Do you love me?”
Perhaps we say under our breath: “God! What should we do?”
Though I am neither God nor His surrogate, too many times in my Rabbinate families have turned to me and said: “Rabbi! What should we do?”

It is a question that must have an answer.
And the answers should have been given a long time ago.
If we love them and if they love us, as hard as it is, we must ask them and we must answer them, when we are still able and in full control of our thoughts and speech. If we love them, we won’t make them answer these questions. They will know ours.

Perhaps when you were admitted to a hospital they asked you questions pertaining to Advance Medical Directives which included documents for a Living Will and Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. These are important documents but do not allow for us to give specific directions or express our wishes. The document Five Wishes to which I will refer later goes a few steps further. Fortunately the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, through its sub-committee on Biomedical Ethics has created an excellent instrument for these purposes. At this location in the electronic edition of this sermon I am inserting the link to the page on the web. http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/publications/medical%20directives.pdf I recommend this document most highly because not only does it provide the detailed questions that are necessary to address, but it does through the prism of Conservative Judaism and allows us put our faith into action while we live for when we are dying. It helps us face our decisions. I wish to share a section from its introduction, Jewish Teachings about Health Care.

“Jewish tradition as understood by Conservative Judaism teaches that life is a blessing and a gift from God. Each human being is valued as created b’tselem elohim, in God’s image. Whatever the level of our physical and mental abilities, whatever the extend of our dependence on others, each person has intrinsic dignity and value in God’s eyes. Judaism values life and respects our bodies as the creation of God. We have the responsibility to care for ourselves and seek medical treatment needed for our recovery – we owe that to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to God. In accordance with our tradition’s respect for the life God has given us and its consequent bans on murder and suicide, Judaism rejects any form of active euthanasia (“mercy killing”) or assisted suicide. Within these broad guidelines, decisions may be required about which treatment would best promote recovery and would offer the greatest benefit. Accordingly, each patient may face important choices concerning what mode of treatment he or she feels would be both beneficial and tolerable.

“The breadth of the Conservative movement and its intellectual vitality have produced two differing positions put forward by Rabbis Avram Reisner and Elliot N. Dorff both approved by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. I am pasting the web connection to both these documents into this sermon at this location so that you can read them in their entirety.

“Both positions agree on a large area of autonomy in which a patient can make decisions about treatment when risk or uncertainty are involved. Both would allow terminally ill patients to rule out certain treatment option, to forgo mechanical life support, and to choose hospice care as a treatment option.

“Nevertheless, important differences between the two positions may be found regarding both theoretical commitments and practical applications. Rabbi Reisner affirms the supreme value of protecting all life. Even the most difficult life and that of the shortest duration is yet God given, purposeful, and ours to nurture and protect.….Rabbi Dorff finds basis in Jewish law to grant greater latitude to the patient who wishes to reject life-sustaining measures…In such circumstance, a patient might be justified in deciding that a treatment that extends life without hope for cure would not benefit him or her, and may be forgone.”

The Rabbinical Assembly document Jewish Medical Directives for Health Care which you can download and print or purchase, guides us through the questions of goals, knowledge, treatment, health care agent, Rabbinic consultation and the detailed questions for irreversible terminal illness with options to follow either Rabbi Reisner’s posture or Rabbi Dorff’s. I must stay that the former is a personal friend and the latter has been my teacher. Both opinions are heartfelt, sensitive, thorough and compelling. It is a matter of personal choice and vision.

At the very end, above the place for our signature it says:
“As God is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, so may God be my refuge, my shield and my salvation forever.”

So may He be.

The organization “Aging With Dignity” [www.agingwithdignity.org] created a booklet entitled “Five Wishes.” The fifth wish is entitled: “My Wish For What I Want My Loved Ones to Know.” In looking through many documents, I found this section to be most special and moving.

*I wish to have my family and friends know that I love them.
*I wish to be forgiven for the times I have hurt my family, friends and others.
*I wish to have my family, friends and others know that I forgive them for when they may have hurt me in my life.
*I wish for my family and friends to know that I do not fear death itself. I think it is not the end, but a new beginning for me.
*I wish for all of my family members to make peace with each other before my death, if they can.
*I wish for my family and friends to think about what I was like before I became seriously ill. I want them to remember me in this way after my death.
*I wish for family and friends and caregivers to respect my wishes even if they don’t agree with them.
*I wish for my family and friends to look at my dying as a time of personal growth for everyone, including me. This will help me live a meaningful life in my final days.
*I wish for my family and friends to get counseling if they have trouble with my death. I want memories of my life to give them joy and not sorrow.

It concludes with the following, allowing space to write in the answer: If anyone asks how I want to be remembered, please say the following about me….

I would like my family and friends, my congregants and colleagues to know that these are my wishes and I will include them there for all to know. Could you echo these sentiments? Would like to make statements similar to these to family and friends? Maybe you have personal ones to compose? Don’t wait.

When this sermon is distributed electronically, the web site for this document will be included.
I close this section with a famous quote that has been alternatively attributed to Professor Reinhold Niebuhr or to Admiral Halsey:

“God give us grace to accept serenity in the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”


For over forty years I have been writing four yizkor sermons each year, talking about death, the meaning of life, relationships, what might be life-after-death, rituals and rites. I have written hundreds of eulogies for all the funerals at which I have officiated. In the beginning it was quite difficult and I was happy to have material shared across the non-electric Rabbinic network. It was very difficult when I was young because I had to face my own mortality as I looked at my young children and wife and couldn’t deal with thinking about life for them without me. Buying life insurance the first time was spiritually very traumatic. I have grown accustomed to these sermons, eulogies and introspection. My children are all adults on their own two feet, and the three young ones have their parents. With the passage of time and the changes in medical technology, life has focused me on dying more than death.

I am comfortable and at peace in my faith that there is an “other side,” that there is another realm of existence after this one. I embrace the classical Jewish belief that in its incorporeality I will be near God, held close in His non-physical warmth and light. I hope that the Rabbis were correct in saying that God holds class on high for all eternity. I might even, metaphorically, “sit” in the back of the room.

At this time in my life I am more concerned on “how to die,” even as I work hard at “how to live.” I have the same fears that most of us have.
            I must add – pooh-pooh-pooh! – that -
            I want to live out the maximum years of my life.
I want to grow old with Ruby.
I want to see the continuing episodes of our children’s exciting lives.
I dream about being at our grandchildren’s life-cycle celebrations.
And I won’t push God too hard to ask for more.
 But I want my family and doctors to know:
what I want,
what I don’t want,
what to do,
what not to do,
when to wait,
and, when not to.
I need to tell them while yet I can and not wait for when it is too late. So I this summer I sat down and answered all the questions. Now you know why I wrote this sermon last. I procrastinated quite a bit and needed the time to do so. So I wrote all the others and got them out of the way.

I most strongly encourage everyone who hears these words or who reads them to take the time and do the same. Get it done. Put it in the right places. And may they not be needed for many years.

But when the moment comes, as surely it must, when we lie there in bed looking or sensing the presence of our loved ones, we will ask them: “Do you love me?” And they must surely respond: “Do I love you?” Or, perhaps we are the ones standing by the bedside and our loved ones are in the bed and we sense them saying to us: “Do you love me?” And we must surely respond: “Do I love you?” And then we will have all the answers to all the questions.
        And there will be peace.

May God bless us all with many years.
May God bless us with those who love us.
May God bless us with peace.

“And I suppose I love you, too.”                                                                                  Amen.

What does God want from us? Peace.

What does God want from us?  Peace.
Kol Nidrei 5774 – 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Richmond, Virginia

Forty years ago tonight Ruby and I went to sleep in our room in the Seminary building of Neve Schechter in Jerusalem contemplating our Kol Nidrei prayers. Little could we have known that the next day would change the course of Jewish history. The Bar Lev line on the Suez was pierced, Israeli jets fell from the skies, and Medinat Yisrael’s very existence was in grave jeopardy, as were our lives. As communications with the outside world were severed, as windows were blacked out and food rationed, we sensed the danger even as the battles were being fought at a distance from the city. You knew more here than we knew there.

Once there was a war that we thought would be our last.
Once there was a war which we prayed would be a harbinger of peace.
Once there was a Yom Kippur whose silence was shredded by sirens and by bombs.
Once we hid in a make-shift bomb shelter, and implored God that we should emerge in safety.
Once there was a war on Yom Kippur.

I never looked at life again the same way after that Yom Kippur.
I never looked at Israel the same way again.
            I thought of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Babylonian exile.
            I thought of the destruction of the Second Temple and the Roman exile.
            I thought of the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion and the end of Jewish life in Judea.
I could not bear, abide the thought of life, of Jewish history, of being a Jew, without Israel.

Sometime afterwards a song was written by Dov Seltzer and sung by Yehoram Gaon that encapsulated all the tumultuous emotions. It was written and sung as an oath, that that war would be the last. A poetic translation of “Ha-Milchamah Ha-Achronah” – “The Last War”:

“In the name of all the farm boys who let fruit spoil on the vines
To die, themselves unripe, on shrapnel-spitting mines;
In the name of all the pilots who streaked out with somber aims,
Who fused with missiles and were purified in flames.”

Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot tihyeh ha-milchamah ha-achronah
I swear my little girl, I swear to you once more,
I swear that this will be the last of all the wars;
I swear, I swear to thee,
I swear on all that’s free,
I swear that this war will be the last you’ll ever see.

“In the name of gentle teachers who went out to take their stand
And left their marks on blood-red blackboards in the sand;
In the name of children forced to sleep in sandbag sheltered holes,
Or front line doctors who pumped blood back into souls.

Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot tihyeh ha-milchamah ha-achronah
I swear that this war will be the last you’ll ever see.

In the name of men of vision who came out with blinded eyes,
Of grief –struck mothers who saw sons burst into skies;
In the name of fathers bandaged white – but still in place,
Who dream each night of going home to kiss your face.

Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot tihyeh ha-milchamah ha-achronah
I swear my little girl, I swear to you once more,
I swear that this will be the last of all the wars;
I swear, I swear to thee,
I swear on all that’s free,
I swear that this war will be the last you’ll ever see.

Yom Kippur comes every year, but it has been forty years, a number fraught with Biblical meaning and power, since “Yom Kippur.” And times does not erase the memories nor remove the ache as I recall embracing friends who exchanged talit for khalki green, and machzor for an M-16. The synagogue was so empty at Mincha on Yom Kippur. In place of confronting God, they were now on their way to the front.

Left behind in their absence, we sat and contemplated more seriously than ever before the words of our prayers. On Yom Kippur 1973 we wept as we chanted the U’ne’ta’neh Tokef:

“B’rosh Hashanah yiy-katay-vun, u’v’yom Tzom Kippur yay-cha-taymun.”
“On Rosh HaShanah we are inscribed, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed:
Mi yichyeh                  - who will live
U’Mi yamut                 - and who will die
Mi b’kitzo                    - whose life will end in its appointed time
U’Mi lo b’kitzo             - and whose life will be cut short
Mi ba-aysh                  - who by fire – of tanks, artillery and napalm
U’Mi ba-mayim           - who by water – in the Bar Lev line on the banks of the Suez
Mi ba-cherev              - who by sword
Mi  ba-ra’av                - who by hunger – after days of unending battle on the Golan Heights
U’Mi ba-tzamah          - and who by thirst in the Sinai sands
Mi Yishaket                 - who will be tranquil, in the still after the battle
U’Mi yitaref                - and who will be torn apart – by mortar and mine, grenade and bullet.
B’rosh Hashanah yiy-katay-vun, u’v’yom Tzom Kippur yay-cha-taymun.
On Rosh HaShanah we are inscribed, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

“Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot tihyeh ha-milchamah ha-achronah
I swear that this war will be the last you’ll ever see.”

When Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of negations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority you may well imagine every thought and emotion that flooded through me, every shred of optimism and pessimism, every wisp of skepticism and cynicism, every memory of Camp David and of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin z”l on the White House lawn. I had an instantaneous flash of Jewish history from the Dreyfus Affair and Russian pogroms to the Holocaust, of Israel’s four major wars – 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, two in Lebanon, those with Gaza and the Intifadas, of buses blown up and of the school Ma’alot, a name hardly recognized or remembered. I can, but not here, make every case for every position, for two states, one state, confederation or domination. I can explicate the Palestinian views even as I reject them yet acknowledge them. Everyone is right. And everyone must be somewhat wrong. I do not care about the shape of the table or who sits around it. I do not plead nor pray for a particular plan or line of border, settlements here or there.
I plead and pray for sanity,
   for reason,
   for humanity,
   for the end of pain and death and destruction.
I plead for peace.
   A real peace.
   A true peace.
  A peace for everyone.
  A peace that will last forever.
            And I plead to hear an echo to my plea from every church and mosque.

Embedded in Yom Kippur is the expectation of the coming of the Messiah. The purpose of Yom Kippur rituals of the Temple and of Judaism ever afterwards is the cleansing of our souls, represented by the color white. In removing our sins we are able to unite with all other human beings and with God is pristine purity. And  thus when the Messiah finally comes, after the millennia of our tears and prayers, our belief is that there will be perfect peace. But that peace is not just for Israel and for the Jewish people. We are not self-centered. Judaism has a universalistic vision for all humanity. So, we believe in peace for all peoples in every place on earth. It is for Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Moslems and Christians, Egyptians and Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians, Libyans, Afghanistanis, and on the streets of Richmond too. I don’t know how he or she will arrive, what language they will speak, or how they will look. As Danny Siegel once wrote, we don’t have to worry if we will recognize the Messiah. The question is: will the Messiah recognize us? We believe that when the Messiah really does come, there will be peace for all and forever, and borders will not matter.

What Israel needs from us, what God wants from us, is our love, our unmitigated support as it navigates treacherous and unknown paths, our public voice of encouragement, and as Americans, to our government to continue to be Israel’s undying partner for its existence which is beyond any particular issue. We live in a dangerous world and Israel lives in a most dangerous neighborhood. Perhaps God has directed us to be a strong community in this country so that we can advocate for our people who have rebuilt and populate our homeland, who in blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice created the Third Commonwealth in our history, gathered in the exiles, saved those in distress, rescued the saving remnant of the Holocaust, and redeemed our honor and dignity. And God, by His very name, wants peace, for them, for all, for the world.

So I want to share with you tonight, and share with the world, with all those who say “I can’t,” “I won’t” or any other negative, contrary and adversarial verbiage, the following story. I read it in the publication “Teaching Tolerance” published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is entitled: “Rabbit Foot: A Story of the Peacemaker,” told by Joseph Bruchac.

Many hundreds of years ago
before the Europeans came
the Five Nations of the Iroquois,
Mohawk and Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca,
were always at war with one another.

Although they had a common culture
and languages that were much the same
no longer did they remember
they had been taught to live
as sisters and brothers.

Once they had shared the beautiful land
from Niagara to the eastern mountains,
but now only revenge was in their hearts
and blood feuds had made every trail
a path leading to war.

So it was that the Great Creator
sent once again a messenger,
a man who became known
to all of the Five Nations
by the name of the Peacemaker.

To help the people once again
make their minds straight
he told them stories
about peace and war.
This is one of his tales.

Once there was a boy named Rabbit Foot.
He was always looking and listening.
He knew how to talk to animals
so the animals would talk to him.

One day as he walked out in the woods
he heard the sound of a great struggle
coming from a clearing just over the hill.
So he climbed that hilltop to look down.

What he saw surprised him.
There was a great snake
coiled in a circle.
It had caught a huge frog
and although the frog struggled
the snake was slowly swallowing its legs.

Rabbit Foot came closer
and spoke to the frog.
“He has really got you, my friend.”
The frog looked up at Rabbit Foot.
“Wa’he! That is so,” the frog said.

Rabbit Foot nodded, then said to the frog,
“Do you see the snake’s tail there,
just in front of your mouth?
Why not do to him what he’s doing to you?”

Then the huge frog reached out
and grabbed the snake’s tail.
He began to stuff it into his mouth
as Rabbit Foot watched them both.

The snake swallowed more of the frog
the frog swallowed more of the snake
and the circle got smaller and smaller
until both of them swallowed one last time
and just like that, they both were gone.

They had eaten each other,
the Peacemaker said.
And in much the same way,
unless you give up war
and learn to live together in peace,
that also will happen to you.

I would like to dream that in whatever number of years from now, perhaps a Sabbah, a grandfather, or a Sabbah Rabbah, a great-grandfather, will sit his grandchildren or great grandchildren on his lap and will tell them about Yom Kippur, 1973, where he were and what he did, what he saw, and how he lived.

And then he will sing to them in slight variation:
Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot hayitah ha-milchamah ha-achronah (2x)
I swear my little girl, I swear to you once more,
I swear that this was the last of all the wars;
I swear, I swear to thee,
I swear on all that’s free,
I swear that this war was the last war there’ll ever be.

I pray that we will live to see the coming of the Messiah.
I pray that tears, and cries, and pain and anguish for all will end.
I plead and pray for peace.
On this night of Yom Kippur, this is my only prayer to God.                                                  Amen.