Abortion is My First Amendment Right

“Abortion is My First Amendment Right”
Rabbi Renni Altman
Shabbat Emor
May 17, 2019

Our rights and liberties as Jews are under attack.
I’m not talking about the threat from the White supremacist movement, though that is very real. I’m talking about the anti-abortion legislation signed this week in Georgia and Alabama, and today in Missouri, joining states like Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi — with more to follow.

Back in January, after our New York State legislature courageously passed a law protecting reproductive rights as codified in the constitution under Roe V. Wade, with protections even surpassing that law, I spoke in support of that law and about Judaism’s views on abortion and when life begins. Given the events of this week and the grave danger these states’ actions pose to women’s health and lives, to constitutionally protected rights and to the separation of church and state in our country, I cannot remain silent – or speak about anything else this week — for this issue is so important to me that to not address it would feel like an abdication of my responsibilities as your rabbi. So, at the risk of repeating myself, I beg your indulgence.

The mages are frightening:

  • protestors dressed in costume from The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s frightening and powerful vision of a dystopian society where one class of women serve as the womb for another;
  • legislators who are making decisions impacting women’s lives but who cannot speak intelligently about reproduction;
  • laws being passed that will undoubtedly impact the poor who will not have the means to travel to get health care that those with financial means will be able to obtain, forced to bear a child that they did not intend to conceive and that may well have been a product of rape or of incest;
  • cases where the pregnancy may put the mother’s health at risk while not necessarily her life;
  • instances where the fetus is diagnosed with some terminal birth defect and enduring a pregnancy that will only end in the death of that fetus will cause unnecessary emotional pain that no one should be forced to endure;
  • or places where doctors will be limited from performing a medical procedure that they believe is in the best interests of their patients – at the risk of being sentenced to 99 years in prison!

I heard an interview from one of the organizers of the anti-choice movement in Alabama who was not at all bothered by the fact that under the new law the doctor who performs an abortion on a 15 year old who was raped could face a longer prison term than the rapist!

Intellectually, I do understand how those who believe that life begins at conception will, therefore, view abortion as murder and, consequently, will not allow an exception for rape or incest as such a termination would still be murder. I can appreciate how such people would be motivated to prevent what they understand to be murder from happening.

However, the notion of when life begins is not a scientifically proven fact; it is a matter of personal belief that, for many of us, is based on our faith.

In the second story of creation in Genesis, we read that God breathed into the first man the breath of life. When do we understand that happening today? When a baby is born and takes that breath? At conception? When a fetus is viable to survive? What is the status of a 6 week old fetus?

My faith guides me in this determination. It teaches quite clearly that a fetus is a life in potential, but that it is not yet a human life. When does life as a full life begin according to Judaism? The answer is codified in the Mishnah, the first of the law codes to follow the Bible, dating back to the year 200 CE: when the largest part of the fetus emerges in birth. Until that point, a fetus is a potential life, but the woman’s life ALWAYS takes precedence.

The basis for this determination is a case of damages recorded in the Book of Exodus. It presents the case of a pregnant woman who is injured accidentally when two men are fighting. If she miscarries, the man who caused the injury must pay the husband damages; if, however, that pregnancy loss would have been considered murder, the penalty would have been lex talions – life for life.

Throughout the development of Jewish law, the woman’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus. We do find differences in the interpretation of that principle as it applies to cases where the woman’s life is not literally at risk, but where the pregnancy or having a baby could lead to various difficulties. These are instances when the pregnancy would cause severe emotional distress to the woman or where that pregnancy would threaten the life of another child (in other words, another existing life).

The rabbis even understood different stages of pregnancy. Back in the 12th century, the great Biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rashi, taught “in the first forty days, it is mere fluid.”

NONETHELESS, the rabbis recognized that the fetus is a life in development. Thus, in the Talmud they taught that in the case of a pregnant woman who dies on Shabbat, one would violate Shabbat to save the fetus under the principle of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, even though the fetus is not yet a life. “Profane for his sake one Sabbath, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

My faith, my understanding of life, teaches me that ABORTION IS NOT MURDER. The life, health and emotional well-being of the pregnant woman must always take precedence. Yet, as a potential for life, as a human being in process, in development, a fetus is in a different category from an appendix or some other bodily part that can easily be removed. But regarding how the determination of when a pregnancy should be terminated and how the different factors impacting a woman’s life and well-being are to be considered, my faith teaches me that those decisions should be left up to the woman (based upon her faith or moral grounding and understanding of when life begins), in consultation with her medical provider and, if she so desires her religious leader, and, where appropriate, her sexual partner.

It is this right to make this most difficult and personal decision that is currently protected by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution as affirmed by the Supreme Court Decision of Roe V. Wade. These new anti-abortion laws are a clear violation of this right.

I also understand these laws to be a violation of my religious freedom as guaranteed by the establishment cause of the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Frankly, I’m surprised that this aspect of the abortion debate has not been given much attention in the media. Thus, I was pleased to read this morning in the now only digital version of the Forward a column by Jane Eisner that begins: “In enacting a law that would make performing virtually all abortions a crime, the state of Alabama is impinging on my religious freedom as a Jew.” (https://forward.com/opinion/424456/jews-need-to-stand-up-for-abortion/ )

It is the same principle by which we fight prayer in public schools. For many years now, we have witnessed the wall separating church and state begin to crumble. In the Hobby Lobby case in the Supreme Court, for example, employers were given the right to refuse to include contraception in health insurance coverage for their employees because it violates their religious beliefs, regardless of the beliefs of their employees.

A recent ruling by the Department of Health and Human Services gives health care workers and institutions (such as religiously funded hospitals) the leeway to refuse to provide services if they cite a religious or conscientious objection; that would include abortion, sterilization, and overriding a Do Not Resuscitate order!

The “fetal personhood” movement is another glaring violation of my religious freedom. Again, Judaism teaches that a fetus is not a separate being; it is understood that a fetus is part of the mother. As far back as the 12th century, Rashi said that fetus has no separate legal rights or identity. Thus, when a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.

The supporters of this movement would charge women with murder for having an abortion. In her column in today’s New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Already today, some states have legislated “fetal personhood” and women have been arrested on suspicion of harming or endangering their fetuses by using drugs, attempting suicide or delaying a caesarean section…. In 2014, a woman was arrested under Alabama’s “chemical endangerment of a child” statute for taking half a Valium while she was pregnant” (Post-Roe America won’t be like Pre-Roe America. It will be worse. Michelle Goldberg, NYT 5/16/19)

These laws and actions are steps that are tearing down the separation of church and state, a bedrock our democracy. This is not a Christian country! The United States of America is a nation founded on the principle of freedom of religion.

As a religious minority that now thrives in this country (despite rising anti-Semitism), it is incumbent upon us to speak up to protect this fundamental principle upon which our nation was founded – not only for ourselves but for all minorities.

So what can we do?

A week from Wednesday, I will be joining with members of Concerned Clergy for Choice in Albany to meet with our lawmakers.

First and foremost, I want to thank them for the swift action they took on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision to strengthen support for reproductive rights in our state and to protect the doctors and medical personnel who provide these medical services for women by moving these laws out of the penal code and into the health care laws where they belong. We don’t thank our legislators enough; they need to know that they have our support, especially in such controversial matters.

We will also be asking our legislators to support a renewed initiative to bring sex education to New York State. All sides on this debate can agree that we are in favor of minimizing the number of abortions in our country. One of the best ways to do that is to educate our children about reproduction and contraception. If the energy and funding that is going into the current anti-abortion debate would be directed towards such efforts, we would go a long way to preventing the abortions they are fighting against.

If you believe in supporting reproductive rights and protecting religious rights in our country, I would urge you to support organizations that are now taking on this battle in states where these rights are in danger. They need financial support to carry on the legal battles that will ensue.

For much of the past forty-six years since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, supporters of reproductive rights have breathed a sigh of relief and moved on while the anti-choice movement has never moved away from this cause and has been building up their efforts for a time such as this, with a President who supports them and has changed the balance in the Supreme Court.

For many years now, anti-abortion groups have taken intermediary steps to limit women’s access to abortion, often under the guise of protecting women’s health

Such steps have included

  • creating unnecessary requirements for clinics to be able to perform abortions that have resulted in the closing of clinics:
    o In 2017, in 25 states, more than half of the women lived in a county without an abortion provider
    o In 2014, some 44% of New York counties had no clinics that provided abortions,
    and 10% of New York women live in those counties (Guttmacher Institute)
  • Requiring an additional sonogram close to the date of the abortion that have required women to make additional trips to the clinics.
  • Mandated waiting periods, parental notification for minors, etc
  • Most recently, effective this month, President Trump reinstated the Gag rule withholding Title X funding from organizations (such as Planned Parenthood) that provide counseling or referrals about abortion. This ruling is currently in the courts.

Some of these laws have been struck down on the basis of the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey that ruled that abortion restrictions cannot place an undue burden on women.

These latest state rulings in states such as Alabama that effectively ban abortion and make the doctors liable for criminal action, have taken a more dramatic step in their very openly stated goal of overturning Roe. It is not yet clear if that will be achieved, but if these state laws make it to the Supreme Court, the future of Roe is anything but guaranteed. Analysts imagine that the rights guaranteed by Roe may be whittled away piece by piece, rather than overturned all at once.

Either way, the future may be more frightening for women than it was in the pre-Roe days. While medically induced abortions may replace the dark days of back alley abortions, women may be forced to get those medications online without professional guidance or support (or back up in case of any complications). Women who have or attempt abortions may be charged with murder or attempted murder.

The majority of Americans believe that abortion should be a matter of personal choice; we can no longer be a silent majority.

Rabbi Renni Altman


“After Pittsburgh” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman


“After Pittsburgh”

A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Vassar Temple

November 2, 2018   25 Cheshvan 5779

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od; v’haikay lo lifached klal.

“the whole world is a narrow bridge; the main point is not to be afraid.”

These words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav echoed in my head all afternoon last Saturday.  We sang them at the vigil Tuesday night; we want to believe them and hold onto them.

But how can we not be afraid?

We have seen such attacks elsewhere, but never here.

We hear echoes of the Jews of Germany on the eve of the Holocaust – it cannot happen here.

We should be safe in the synagogue – it is a place of sanctuary, after all.

How could this happen in Squirrel Hill – a vibrant Jewish neighborhood, one that demonstrates unity and not division?

Mr. Rodger’s neighborhood!


How can we not be afraid?

Since Pittsburgh, there have been a number of anti-Semitic incidents:

At another Reform congregation, Union Temple in Brooklyn – someone entered the building and defaced the wall with anti- Semitic slurs;

Anti-Semitic graffiti was found on the Upper West Side.


Well, one way that we can be less afraid is by coming to the synagogue, as we do on this night.

Many of us would have been drawn to the synagogue this Shabbat, even if we aren’t regular attendees, even if we don’t practice Judaism much, even if we aren’t Jewish!   We need to be with community at times such as this.

In response to the shooting and as a demonstration of solidarity and strength, the American Jewish Committee initiated campaign for this Shabbat: “Show up for Shabbat.”

This solidarity is as much for us as it is for the larger world – a reminder, that we are never alone:

Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh b’zehi (all Israel is responsible for one another).

And a statement to those who would attack us:

Am Yisrael Chai (the people Israel lives!)

We will not be defeated by this vicious act of a deranged man, filled with hatred who attacked Jews and Judaism:

In a House of Prayer on our sacred Shabbat

Because there, people were living out the values of Judaism, especially to welcome the stranger.

Our best response is to continue to come to the synagogue, to live proudly as Jews.


We can be less afraid because of the knowledge that so many stand with us.

Immediately after the attack, I started to receive emails from leaders of other faiths – people I haven’t even met yet, expressing their deep sorrow, their shock and their anger.  It was especially heartening to receive such notes from members of the Islamic community and those who participate in the Muslim-Jewish dialogue.  As we have supported them when they have been victims of such hateful attacks, so do they stand with us now.

We planned for 125 people at the vigil Tuesday night; the Poughkeepsie Journal estimated attendance to be 500.  It was “standing room only.”  That experience has been repeated at vigils and memorials throughout the country – and around the world.


I heard an interesting interview the other morning on a podcast.  They were interviewing people in Squirrel Hill and shared one particularly unusual story:

It involved a Frenchman who, seeing the rise of anti-Semitism there about ten years ago, came to the US, to NY, and lived there for some time with his wife and child.  Because of visa issues, they had to return to France.  After the 2015 terrorist attacks at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and then the kosher supermarket, this family no longer felt safe in France.  The man had a relative in Squirrel Hill, moved there and has been there since.

The interviewer asked him to reflect on his experience in France and now in Squirrel Hill—did he feel safe here?

Yes, he said. The big difference was the support of the larger community.  The world saw the big march in Paris; that was mostly for the journalists who were killed.  Here, he felt the support of the larger community who came out to support them and who spoke out against the anti-Semitism.


While this act was perpetrated against Jews, we know that it was not aimed only at us.  It was aimed at all Americans who value the basic principles of democracy upon which this great nation was founded, who respect the rights of all – people of different religious, ethnic, racial backgrounds — to live in peace and security.

In one horrible week:

  • 14 Pipe bombs were sent to democratic political leaders who have spoken out against President Trump – thank goodness they did not go off.
  • a man killed two African Americans in a supermarket in Kentucky, after unsuccessfully trying to enter a black church
  • 11 Jews were murdered in cold blood while praying in their synagogue on Shabbat morning.


It is not news to us that Anti-Semitism is here; it has ebbed and flowed over time, varied from community to community, but we have seen it rising in recent years.  According to the research of the Anti-Defamation League, “anti-Semitism is still the number one hate target in America…. To this day, [there are] more attacks, more assaults, against Jews than any other faith. And anti- Semitic incidents [which means harassment, vandalism and assaults] increased by 57% in 2017.  They are increasing most significantly in educational institutions:  For K-12 schools, this is a dramatic increase of 94% over the 235 incidents in 2016. Anti-Semitic incidents on college and university campuses also increased in 2017 to a total of 204, an 89% increase over the 108 incidents in 2016. [1]

Some of you are all too familiar with such incidents.

Just a month or so ago, someone (another lone actor), put up anti-Semitic posters on some of our local college campuses following the Kavanagh hearings implying some Jewish cabal was behind it.  They were immediately taken down, the person was arrested and the presidents of the colleges uniformly condemned the act.

The good news is that the FBI confirms that Bowers was acting alone; he was not part of some larger group planning other attacks.

I share this not to raise the fear level any higher than it already is, but Pittsburgh (and, really, all of these attacks) is a call for greater vigilance, even as we hold onto our principles and values of outreach and welcome.

I’m not an alarmist by my nature.   As I followed the unfolding events on Saturday, my immediate feelings – after overwhelming sadness – was anger.  Anger at the various factors that enabled this massacre to happen, anger at our seeming inability to do much about it, anger at the fear that these attacks are instilling not only in the Jewish community but in so much of our nation.


I’m angry

That we cannot pass gun control legislation that would limit a Robert Bowers from stockpiling weapons (legally) and maximizing his killing potential with an assault rifle.

After Newtown, we thought there would be some action;

A year after Las Vegas, and we are not yet at a national ban on bump stocks;

After Parkland, what has changed?


I’m angry

That social media, with all of its potential, is a breeding ground for loners such as Bowers and Sayoc to find a community of like-minded people spewing hatred and fanning the flames of their passions that can lead them to take action on their words.

“Social media companies have created, allowed and enabled extremists to move their message from the margins to the mainstream,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, “In the past, they couldn’t find audiences for their poison. Now, with a click or a post or a tweet, they can spread their ideas with a velocity we’ve never seen before.”[2]

Thankfully, GAB,the extremist website where Bowers posted, was shut down, though with great lament by white supremacists who are now seeking out other avenues for their postings – like weeds they keep popping up.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all announced plans to invest heavily in artificial intelligence and other technology aimed at finding and removing unwanted content from their sites, with Facebook and Youtube each hiring tens of thousands more people for security.  But they admit that it’s much easier to find sites with nudity and take them down than it is to find sites that encourage hate crimes.

As challenging as it is to find the balance between protecting freedom of speech and stopping hate speech in the world of flesh and blood interactions, how much the more so is it to try to contain it on the internet.  The genie is out of the bottle and it has a life of its own.  We have to call out to those responsible for these sites to use the brilliant minds that set this all up, to find a way to monitor and control what is posted – or they are also to be held responsible for enabling and inspiring killers.


I am angry because “words do matter”.  Yes, I’m quoting Joe Biden, but he did not originate this principle.  It is firmly part of Judaism.  After all, how did God create the world?  Vayomer Elohim y’hi or — and God said, Let there be light…”  We understand that words can create and words can also destroy. We learn in the book of Proverbs, “Death and Life are in the hand of the tongue.” (18:21)

Thus, we too, need to pay attention to the words that we speak and post, lest we contribute – even on a small scale – to the vilification of the other and the divisive, negative tone in our country.

Words do matter – and they matter most from those in leadership positions, most especially from the president of our country.

I found this perspective from Abe Foxman, immediate past director of the ADL, to be most insightful on this troubling matter.  NYTimes op-ed columnist, Brett Stephens, a self-proclaimed conservative, reflects on Foxman’s remarks from an interview that Foxman gave to the Times of Israel:

“Pittsburgh is not Trump,” Foxman says. “It’s also Trump.” Trump, he adds, is not an anti-Semite. But fanning one set of hatred against immigrants has a way of fanning others, as it did for Bowers when he attacked the synagogue because he was enraged by its support for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Turning to last year’s neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Foxman says of Trump, “He didn’t create them. He didn’t write their script. He didn’t give them the brown shirts. But he emboldened them. He gave them the chutzpah, that it’s O.K.

“And when he had an opportunity to put it down,” Foxman adds, “he didn’t.”[3]

228 years ago, the President of this nation, George Washington, calmed the fears of the Jewish community at the Hebrew congregation in Newport, RI, who were very tentative about their status in this new nation.  Would they enjoy the right of religious freedom under this new government?  Washington allayed their fears and guaranteed that right:

…happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it all occasions their effectual support.”[4]



When our president does not only not condemn the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville and chanted “Jews will not replace us” but says there are good people on both sides – that does not allay our fears; rather it exacerbates them.

When our president uses such loaded terms as Nationalist and Globalists and claims their neutrality, when to the Jewish ear they ring of anti-Semitic tropes of a Jewish cabal running the world – that does not allay our fears; rather it exacerbates them.

Yes, there is rhetoric in all of politics, some we know is worse than others.  And there are demagogues out there spewing all kinds of hatred.  But they are not in the White House, they are not President of this country who needs to be a president for all of the people, protecting all of its citizens.  We have the right to demand more.


So what do we do – with our fear and our anger and our anxiety, our sadness?

First we mourn –

In this week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, Abraham mourns Sarah and he cries for her.  It is the first mention of mourning in the Bible and of the emotions that go with it.  He cries, he mourns.

Vayakom Avraham m’al pinei meito, “then Abraham gets up from before his dead”

After he mourns, Vayakom —  Abraham gets up to take action:

first, he acquires a burial place for Sarah;

then he acts for the future, finding a wife for Isaac.


This week we mourn for the senseless deaths in Pittsburgh, 11 lives snuffed out in a moment because of hatred.   We weep for the families of those killed and the heartbreak of such a close-knit community.  We weep for innocence lost.

Almost immediately, Vayakom, we stood up.  We stood supported by hundreds in this community and thousands around the nation, to speak out against hatred and for love and decency and respect.

Vaykom – we stood up:  We opened our doors for religious school Sunday morning as normal.  And we come to synagogue to be together on this Shabbat, and we will continue to send our children to religious school, and we will gather Sunday night for our gala to celebrate Vassar Temple and stand proudly as Jews, and we will celebrate the wonderful efforts in this congregation that the shooter condemned – we will honor Andi Ciminello and her partners who worked on behalf of Syrian refugees who sought the safety of this country, and we will honor Ron Rosen for his efforts to protect our environment which is so endangered, and we will honor with them so many in this congregation who dedicate themselves to social action and repairing our very broken world.  And we will continue to do that sacred work because that is what it means to be Jewish.

Vayakom – As we get up and move forward…

We will take Mr. Rodgers’ advice into account:  we will look for the helpers.

We look to our partners.

The DCIC is a great organization of people of many faiths.  How can we continue to work together to combat ignorance and hatred?

We must take next steps together.

We have to begin with education to counter the hate –for children and adults alike.


We are grateful to the most important helpers in Pittsburgh a week ago – the first responders, four of whom were wounded.

We are grateful for our helpers, local law enforcement, and we have their reassurances that they will always do their best to protect us, along with all residents of Poughkeepsie.

They are working with us to help us ensure our security in our building.  How we can have an open door policy even if our door must locked much of the time?

The Tree of Life Synagogue followed security protocols, they had active shooter drills; authorities believe that it could have been much worse had they not done so.  The board will be meeting Sunday morning to review various security options; you will hear more in the future.

Tuesday is election day.   Right now, the most powerful tool in our hands to conquer hate is to act on our sacred rite as citizens and vote; to vote for candidates we believe will be most effective in combating this climate of hate.

While Jews can proudly claim a very strong voting record (studies show Jewish voter turnout averages around 85% in contrast to just 50% of the country overall), turnout is generally much lower in non-presidential years

According to estimates, only 50% of registered young voters actually voted in the 2016 presidential election.   Get your young people out to vote!

Make sure you vote and encourage others to as well.


Like Anne Frank who never gave up her ideals that people are really good at heart, I still believe that most people are.  I will never lose that faith or that optimism.

I take strength from the words of a young man, Josh Stepakoff now 25.   In 1999, when he was just six years old, Josh became a shooting victim in the attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.  In a radio interview last year, Josh reflected on that experience and his understanding of being targeted because he was a Jew.

“As I started to reflect on why I was shot,” he says, “I started to think of all of the good things that came from Judaism as opposed to this one terrible thing. I started to remember that it’s my view on life. It’s making sure that I treat everyone with compassion and that was more of what Judaism meant to me rather than a threat to who I was.” [5]

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od; v’haikay lo lifached klal.

The whole world is a narrow bridge; the main thing is not to be afraid.


May we draw strength from one another and from our faith, that we will fight hatred with love, bigotry with compassion and fear with faith.

[1] https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/2017-audit-of-anti-semitic-incidents


[2]On Instagram, 11,696 Examples of How Hate Thrives on Social Media; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/technology/hate-on-social-media.html


[3] Yes, the President Bears Blame for the Terror From the Right, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/opinion/trump-sayoc-bowers-attacks.html


[4] George Washington and his Letter to the Jews of Newport; http://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter


[5] NPR interview from 2017 replied on Morning Edition, Nov. 2, 2018


Torah Study Notes 9-29-18

September 29, 2018

The Hebrew Bible is made up of three parts – Torah, Prophets, and Readings. It is called the Tanakh.

Ecclesiastes is one of the Readings – Many authors, probably written around 300 BCE. Traditionally attributed to King Solomon – Song of Songs and some psalms are attributed to him as well. Ecclesiastes is the Greek word for congregation. It is a man looking back over his life and trying to find meaning. Note the different versions and translations. Life is fragile and cyclical. The futility of existence. Materialism. LL This is intelligent, refreshing and provocative. The Hebrew word “Rurah” is translated variously as “wind” or “spirit.”

Enjoyment is a gift of God. This is one of the positive notes. “Do what is good…” Part of the “wisdom literature.”  Like Psalms.

Seems to glorify pleasure. Compare Epicurus.  See Harold Kushner “When all You Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Kushner and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_All_You%27ve_Ever_Wanted_Isn%27t_Enough


Ecclesiastes is studied during Sukkot – part of the life cycle as is Pesach and Shavuot. We are about to enter a period of dormancy and death. The light is leaving. Withering. The booth is temporary to remind us of the transience of beauty – and life.  Accept impermanence.

Thomas Wolfe wrote:

“[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”[1]

For more see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiastes

“Hugging and Wrestling” A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5779 Rabbi Renni S. Altman


Forty-five years ago today, Israel was attacked and successfully defended itself in what became known as the Yom Kippur war.  Like many of you, I remember being in synagogue that day and first hearing the news announced from the pulpit.  The fear was palpable.  Our synagogue was hosting two Israeli high school exchange students for the semester.  Being with them that day brought home the very real fear in which they lived in a way that I had never experienced before.  Thankfully, Israel was victorious, but it was a pyrrhic victory and marked the beginning of the end of an era in Israel’s history.


I came of age in the glory of the post-67 war, a zenith of Jewish pride in Israel – David who slew Goliath.  We Jews, overcoming anti-Semitism and quotas in the US, could hold our heads up with pride.  Blue and white JNF boxes were ubiquitous and support for Israel – financial and political—was unquestioned.  Israel was the unifying factor in an increasingly diverse Jewish community.  We taught and imbibed the most idealistic images of Israel – the kibbutz, the great Israeli army where women were equal, the land of Chalutzim (pioneers).  In NFTY and Reform movement summer camps we sang Israeli songs with gusto and danced Israeli dances for hours.  I have vivid memories of being at Kutz camp when the success of Operation Entebbe was announced – the dining hall rocked with shouts of jubilation.


I was bitten by the Israel bug.   My first visit was on a NFTY college trip between my sophomore and junior years of college where we spent two of the six weeks on an archaeological dig.   I fell in love- not with a person, but with the country, with the very land of Israel.  I felt a deep spiritual connection with my past — not at the Wall, mind you but with the country as a whole – walking in the footsteps of my spiritual ancestors.  There was a big part of me that felt that I was “home.”


I returned to Israel after college as a volunteer on the newly established Reform Kibbutz in the Arava, Kibbutz Yahel.  There I experienced the fullness of Jewish life in this isolated community, planting roots for Reform Judaism.   I returned to the States but longed to go back to Israel.  I went back on a Jewish Agency sponsored year long program and ended up in living in Jerusalem, connected with the Reform movement and ultimately worked for two years in the NFTY in Israel office there.  Though I was in the process of making Aliyah, I decided to apply to the American rabbinical program as an opportunity to return home for a few years.  I had intended to move back to Israel, but life took a different turn and I chose to serve the Jewish community here in America.


Living in Israel I came to know the realities and complexities of the modern State of Israel, something quite different from the perspective I had as a teenager in America, enraptured by the idealistic vision to which we were exposed.  I experienced first hand the economic challenges of daily life and the stark divisions in Israeli society between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the latter who felt like and were then treated as second class citizens.  I was living there during Shalom HaGalil, when Israel invaded Lebanon to stop the katusha attacks on Israeli villages in the north and when the horrors of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila came to light (36 years ago this week). I remember watching on my second hand tv in Jerusalem the evacuation of Yamit, the last Israeli settlement in the Sinai, when it was returned to Egypt in exchange for the first peace treaty with an Arab nation.  What a painful moment it was for the country, but how high were the hopes for what it could lead to.  I was so proud of our small but growing Reform movement, but so frustrated by the almost daily incredulity of the average Israeli when I tried to explain that, yes, I was religious, but no I was not orthodox and by the uphill battle for equal rights for liberal Jews that continues to this day.  I marched in rallies with the very new movement for an end to the occupation, Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) as Israelis began to speak out against the actions of the government and the growing refugee crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


I returned to the States after my first year in the rabbinical program and sought ways to find my place with this new understanding of Israel.  I supported organizations and efforts that addressed directly the causes in which I believed.  The American Jewish establishment was still very monolithic on Israel:  we must support Israel, right or wrong was the very clear message.  As Diaspora Jews we have no right to speak critically about Israeli policies; unless we are living there and putting our lives on the line, we can have no voice of opposition.  We must defend Israel in public; any criticism is offered only in hush tones, only within “the family.”


This attitude has held sway within the Jewish establishment for decades, but not so among the Jews.  My own journey of coming to know the real Israel – with its strengths and its challenges – may have been more unusual because that awareness came from living there for four years, but that has been the journey of much of the non-Orthodox American Jewish community over the last 45 years.  As American Jews have become better acquainted with the realities within Israel and as the euphoria of the post -67 victory came into conflict with the on-going challenges of the occupation that resulted from it, Israel as the symbol began to unravel into the murky realities of nationhood and with it, the code of silence.


Despite fears that such criticism would lead Jews to abandon Israel, studies have proven that not to be the case.  It is the nature of the relationship that is changing.  As Dov Waxman writes, in his excellent analysis of these changes, Trouble in the Tribe, “Rather than growing more disconnected from Israel, as many have claimed, American Jews have actually become more actively involved with Israel over the past two decades.  More American Jews are reading about Israel, learning about Israel, and going to Israel than ever before.  They are more engaged with Israel than previous generations whose connection with Israel was largely limited to donating money every year to local Federations to pass on to Israel.  The big change that is taking place in the American Jewish relationship with Israel is not that American Jews are disengaging from it, but that they are critically engaging with Israel – they are, as many now put, “hugging and wrestling with Israel.”[1]


A high percentage of those huggers and wrestlers are young non-Orthodox Jews, ages 18-35.  They did not grow up with any of the romanticized notions about Israel that their parents and grandparents had nor any of memories of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.  They don’t know Israel as David, only as Goliath, with its soldiers standing grimly standing at military checkpoints throughout the West Bank.  Various surveys of young American Jews demonstrate that Israel is less important to their Jewish identity than it was to their parents.   Their support is not automatic but depends upon whether Israel acts in accordance with their beliefs and values.  A 2007 survey by sociologists Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman reported that 40% of young Jews believed that “Israel occupies land belonging to someone else” and more than 30% reported feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions at times.[2]


Young Jews seek an open environment and discourse where all sides of the issues can be discussed and debated freely.  This struggle came to light on college campuses with the Open Hillel Movement that began almost five years and the controversy surrounding students desires not to be limited by Hillel’s restrictions regarding the groups with whom they could engage.  As many will remember, the Vassar Jewish Union was the second group to sign on.  If young people who are struggling with Israel do not feel that their voice is acceptable in the Jewish community, they will abandon it and they will be lost to us – and potentially as supporters of Israel as well.


The struggles within the Jewish establishment over what it is means to be pro-Israel and who can claim ownership of the title Zionist came to a head in the summer of 2015 in the incredibly divisive and public battle about the Iranian nuclear Deal.  The vituperative attacks by each side against the other and the disgraceful claims against congressional leaders as being anti-Zionist and far worse, were absolutely appalling.  One good thing that came out of it was that it brought this core issue to the surface.  Some in the Jewish establishment, primarily those opposed to the deal, called for unity and decried the danger of disagreement as being confusing to American governmental leaders who were trying to figure out what it is the Jewish community wants and, therefore, would be detrimental to Israel.   Others, primarily those in support of the deal, saw this multiplicity of views as positive in that it made clear to our political leaders that there is no one Jewish spokesperson, no one Jewish representative, and no Jewish point of view when it comes to Israel and many other issues.


It is time to accept that there is no one group or viewpoint that has the monopoly on Zionism, that huggers and wrestlers are very much pro-Israel even if they are critical of policies of the Israeli government.   Enlarging the tent, welcoming a multiplicity of voices, even as we do need to establish some boundaries regarding those whose aim is the destruction of the State of Israel, is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people as a whole.   Ultimately, such healthy debate will strengthen the American Jewish community and its relationship with Israel and, perhaps, even improve perceptions of Israel around the world.


You will note here a common thread underlying my sermon today and that of Rosh Hashanah.  The polarization of American society in general is a factor for the increasing divide within the Jewish community, not only on matters related to Israel, but certainly impacting that debate.  We face similar challenges of not being able to listen across the divide because so much is at stake for each side.


I have a personal stake in this debate; I count myself among the huggers and wrestlers.  I have a deep love for the State of Israel, for my ancient homeland, and for what it can be.  I will defend its right to live in security and to defend itself from all who would attack it and I will defend Israel when, as is too often the case, Israel is treated unfairly by international organizations and other nations.


I take tremendous pride in the incredible accomplishments of this young, 70 year-old “start up nation” of worldwide leaders in science and technology responsible for, among other things, drip irrigation, the cherry tomato, and Pill Cam (capsule endoscopy that is now the gold standard for intestinal visualization).  I am among those who are completely reliant on WAZE to get around (did you know that it is an Israeli invention?).  Israel’s humanitarian efforts around the world save countless lives.  Who could not be in awe of their efforts this summer to save thousands of Syrian civilians, innocent victims of that country’s civil war, who were transported in and out of Israel in secrecy so their lives wouldn’t be at risk.


Yet, as a Reform Zionist I cannot be silent when I see my beloved homeland acting in ways that are counter to my understanding of Judaism, to the values that we hold dear and to the promises enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”  I share the view of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Reform movement who said, “My love for Israel is unconditional but not uncritical.”


We have good precedent for the obligation to offer such critique, from the book of Leviticus, in the portion we will read this afternoon known as the Holiness Code: “Rebuke your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.”  We have an obligation to rebuke those we love when we see them doing wrong.  Incur no guilt – Rashi teaches, “do not shame him in public, in which you case you would bear sin on account of him.”  Thus, we need to be careful how we offer that critique.  The Kli Yakar, 17th century Rabbi of Prague, taught, “if you do not rebuke him then his sin shall be upon you because ‘All Israel is responsible for one another.’”   We, Jews in America and Jews in Israel are responsible for one another and need to hold one another accountable for our actions.  We are partners in this enterprise of Jewish living as part of the Jewish people.  We are family and while we love one another, there are times when we will disagree; healthy families find ways to air those disagreements with love.


This summer was one such time for loving critique when the Knesset passed the morally repugnant Nation-State Law, calling into question the very democracy of the State as it favored Jews and Judaism over one-fifth of its inhabitants who are not Jewish, including its Druze citizens who are a very loyal minority, even serving in the IDF.   It does not even mention the word democracy at all!   The law demotes Arabic from a state language to one of special status and has the potential to limit freedom of expression in Israeli schools.  Immediately, numerous organizations in North America, including our Reform movement, issued statements of outrage.  We spoke out against the actions of the Israeli government, but we spoke in solidarity with the center of Israeli society who opposed the law and with the tens of thousands of Israeli Jews who stood in protests with Israeli Arabs and Israeli Druz.  This is not the end; law suits have been submitted to the Israeli high court and numerous Israeli organizations that work for the civil rights of minorities will continue to fight against it.  We can help by lending them our support.


The Nation-State Bill also has the potential to impact us as Reform Jews as it gives the state the right to “act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.”  This law will further empower the Orthodox hegemony in Israel when it comes to issues of personal status and religious identity.  This challenge to the legitimacy and rights of liberal Jews comes almost a year after the Israeli government reneged on the plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall, a sacred site for all of the Jewish people, not just those who live according to Orthodox Judaism.  For decades now, our movement has been taking root within Israeli society with its more than 50 congregations and communities throughout Israel and institutions such as the Israeli Religious Action Center.  The Progressive Movement in Israel offers an alternative for religious expression to both Orthodoxy and secularism.   We can add our voices to this struggle by supporting our sister institutions in Israel, especially by joining ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.  ARZA’s Campaign for Religious Equality, initiated after the unraveling of the plan for the Wall, is designed to strengthen the Reform Movement on the ground in Israel, to bolster the Israel Progressive movement as they fight for recognition and respect, and to build a Jewish Homeland welcoming of all Jews based on the core tenets of  Equality,  Democracy,  Pluralism and the vision of Israel as articulated by Israel’s founders and Declaration of Independence.    “ARZA is taking back the Z: unapologetic love for Israel, the land-people and the State is at the core of our beliefs,” it proclaims on its website.  “Zionism should not be devisive.  No one faction should be allowed to dictate “ownership” of the Z word.  ‘We are part of a people, of a nation, and we all have a stake in Israel’s future’” writes Rabbi Josh Weinberg, president of ARZA.[3]  I urge you to join me in becoming a member of ARZA and supporting these efforts for religious pluralism in our Jewish homeland.   Make your voice heard!  We make the process very easy for you; the option to join ARZA is on your temple membership bill.  Of course, you can always go to their website directly.


I cannot finish speaking about Israel without mentioning the elephant in the room, the 51 year- old occupation of the West Bank.  It continues to erode the moral fiber of Israel, creating a sense of hopelessness among Israelis and a self-perpetuating state of despair for the 4.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.  But the fires of hope have not yet been completely extinguished on both sides as there are small efforts and organizations that work to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.   They need our support and our commitment not to let go of the hope for a two-state solution that will free both sides of the chains of this occupation.

I would like to invite us as a congregation to get to know the real Israel, with all of its gifts and its challenges.  To engage together in conversation about our hopes and dreams for its future.  There is no better way to understand Israel, however, than by experiencing it in person.  I would love to explore the possibility of putting together a congregational trip, perhaps even for next year, and would invite anyone interested to speak with me about it.  I would love to share with you the Israel that I love, to meet those who are devoting their lives to building an Israel that can live up the promises it holds.

I conclude with the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, composed in honor of the Birth of the State of Israel 70 years ago, expresses the hopes and dreams still within our hearts.  May it be so.


Avinu ­ – You who are high above all nation-states and peoples –

Rock of Israel, the One who has saved us and preserved us in life,

Bless the State of Israel, first flowering or our redemption.

Be her loving shield, a shelter of lasting peace.
Guide her leaders and advisors by Your light of truth;

Instruct them with Your good counsel.

Strengthen the hands of those who build and protect our Holy Land.

Deliver them from danger; crown their efforts with success.

Grant peace to the land,

lasting joy to all of her people.

And together we say: Amen.[4]



[1] Dov Waxman, Trouble in the Tribe:  The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, p. 53

[2] Ibid., 50

[3] http://www.arza.org/homepage

[4] Mishkan Hanefesh, p 288.

“To Err is Human; to Forgive, Divine” A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5779 Rabbi Renni S. Altman

About twelve years ago, Chris Williams was taking his family for ice cream one evening, when his car was hit by an underage drunk driver. The crash killed Chris’ nine-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son, and his pregnant wife. Though Chris lost his family instantly, his immediate thought before he had even been rescued from his car was forgiveness. “Whoever has done this to us, I forgive them. I don’t care what the circumstances were, I forgive them,” remembers Chris.[1]


Three summers ago, a troubled young man named Dylan Roof, with the hope of igniting a race war, walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC and, after studying Bible with a small group of congregants, opened fire, killing nine people, including their pastor.


While we have become numb to such shootings, I still carry with me the responses of the families of the victims to this murderer.  Despite their shock and anger, they overcame any human desire for vengeance and, instead, offered words of forgiveness to Roof, just two days after the murders, at his bond hearing:


“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never ever hold her again,” said the daughter of one victim.  “You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you and I forgive you.”[2]


“Emanuel does not harbor hate in her heart,” said the sister of another victim.  “That’s not the God we serve. It’s important for us to know that the young man is a mother’s son, a father’s son. If he can earnestly repent, God will hear him.”[3]


I am awestruck by such words and thoughts of forgiveness, by the strength of these people whose very faith was at the core of their humanity, and by the comfort that this act of forgiveness brought to them.  These people who lost so much for no reason were able to forgive the one who took their loved ones away and leave the retribution in “God’s hands.”  I can only stand in humble, silent tribute to their grace and to bear witness to the very depths of their faith.  Who could offer forgiveness – without any offer of apology or expression of remorse on the part of Roof or the drunk driver?


To be sure, in both cases, their offers of forgiveness did not mean that they absolved either the driver or Roof of their crimes nor does it imply that they did not want them punished to the full extent of the law.  Rather, it means that they were able to open up some small space in their hearts, in the midst of their overwhelming pain, to offer the forgiveness that would enable them to take the first steps in their own healing.


The Rev. Norvel Goff, interim pastor succeeding the pastor who was murdered, said that “self-preservation was also a motive in the [families’] offer of forgiveness, that forgiving does more for the person who is hurting than the one who caused the pain.  ‘We’re not in control of those who may commit evil acts,’ he said, ‘but we are in control of how we respond to it.’”[4]
Ten years after the accident, Chris Williams is motivational speaker, sharing his story with others about the power of forgiveness.  He teaches a similar lesson as the pastor: “Forgive for your sake, not the other person’s. Forgive because if you don’t, your bitterness will consume you.”


This approach to forgiveness is challenging for me as a Jew; perhaps that is one reason why I found it so overwhelming and unfathomable.


Judaism teaches us that someone who commits a sin must go through a process of teshuvah, repentance, in order to be forgiven (hence the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).  The steps to true repentance include first regretting one’s actions, then immediately stopping that behavior, committing never to repeat it again, making restitution to the person wronged and, only then, asking for forgiveness.


We learn in the Mishnah that “For transgressions that are between a person and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement; but for transgressions that are between one person and another, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only after you have appeased the other person.”[5]


In this past year of “me too,” we have seen many public apologies.  Not that public admissions of guilt are easy, but unless they are accompanied by other acts of repentance and, most especially by a direct apology to the person who was wronged (which may well have happened) they are meaningless.  Public Mea Culpas without the rest cheapen the very meaning of an apology.


However, when a person comes to us in sincere repentance, meaning that they have at least taken steps to make up for the wrong, then the power rests with us. That person’s soul is in our hands.


Thus Maimonides taught in his Mishneh Torah:  When the person who wronged [you] asks for forgiveness, [you] should forgive him with a complete heart and willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged [you] severely, [you] should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.[6] Not only must we forgive, but according to Maimonides, we must be kind and generous of spirit about it.


We know that that is not so easy.  For victims of hateful, harmful acts like the families in Charleston or of the senseless loss of life like in the case of Chris, forgiveness, even following sincere repentance, takes great courage and compassion.  For most of us who have been hurt in ways far less significant, forgiveness is still a tremendous challenge.  At first glance it certainly seems as though forgiveness should be more natural.   Wouldn’t we all feel better putting whatever it is behind us?  Yet, the act of forgiving raises so many emotional issues and often brings up hurt and anger that may have even been buried for decades.  We run away from accepting that apology, rather than re-open those wounds and come to terms with that past.


And, sometimes, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we actually thrive on being the wronged party and we carry that sense of having been wronged like a badge of honor.  We are wounded:  our pride has been hurt and we are not able to let go of that and move on.


No wonder that Alexander Pope’s words, “To err is human; to forgive, divine” have struck such a chord within the human soul and continue to resound some two centuries after he uttered them.  Forgiving is hard; making mistakes is easy.  But is forgiveness really limited to the realm of the Divine and out of our reach?

Judaism teaches us that as beings created in the Divine image, we are, in fact, each a reflection of the Divine and have within us the potential to imitate the Divine.  Imitating the Divine is the basis for Jewish morality, as we learn in the Talmud:  As God clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe the naked; as God visited the sick, visiting Abraham after his circumcision, so should we visit the sick; as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death, so should we comfort mourners … [7] So, too, should we imitate God by acting with compassion and forgiving those who turn to us in teshuvah, as we now turn to God.

Perhaps you might it comforting to know that just as we struggle with forgiveness, so, too, did our sages.  Even more, they envisioned God struggling with forgiveness as well.  Thus, in the Talmudic debates about prayer, they imagined God praying daily, and this is the prayer they imagined God uttering:


“May it be My will that My mercy suppress my anger so that it may prevail over My attributes of justice and judgment; and that I may deal with My children according to the attribute of compassion, and that I may not act toward them according to the strict line of justice.”[8]


God seeks to overcome Divine anger by acting with Divine compassion.


The prophets envisioned a God who wants to forgive.  God offers us every opportunity to change and seek forgiveness.  The words of Isaiah still call out to us:


“Seek Adonai while God can be found.

Call to God while God is near.

Let the wicked give up his ways,

The sinful man his plans;

Let him turn back to Adonai,

And God will pardon him;

To our God,

For God freely forgives.  (Is. 55:6-7)


God’s offer of forgiveness is guaranteed.


Our worship this evening began with the stirring melody of Kol Nidrei.  Its origins are unclear.  Many attribute it to the Morranos who had to live their Judaism in secrecy, pledging their outer lives to the Church; others say it dates to a much earlier time.  Regardless of the timing of its development, Kol Nidrei has a firm place in the heart of the Jewish people, even as its placement in our worship this day has been heavily debated throughout the ages.


How can we make this public disclaimer to vows we might offer?  Wouldn’t that make them – and our word – meaningless?  One interpretive translation of Kol Nidrei in our mahzor addresses this question:  we declare our vows null and void, “should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them.”   In response, with words taken from the Book of Numbers when Moses, once again, pleads with God on the Israelites behalf – in this case, when they spurned the call of Joshua and Caleb to enter the Promised Land – God promises, “I have forgiven in response to your plea.”


Here we are, admitting our failings, and God promises forgiveness because we have asked.  Would that we could be that generous in our forgiveness of others!   How often do we find ourselves in situations where we are hesitant to apologize, so fearful that the person we wronged will not forgive us? We fear making ourselves vulnerable, lest our outreach be rejected.  But, if we could feel certain that if we do the work of teshuvah, we will be forgiven, wouldn’t we be far more likely to try?


God will accept our sincere efforts to change without demanding perfection.  God recognizes our humanity and is more concerned with our desire to change than with our ability to get all the way there.  In that way, God encourages us in this process; “Return unto Me, and I will return to you,” promised the prophet Malachi.  The sages expanded upon this teaching with a parable about a prince who goes far away from his father – a hundred days’ journey away.  His friends said to him: “Return to your father.” He replied, “I cannot; I have not the strength.”  Thereupon his father sent back the following message: “Come back as far as you can, according to your strength, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you.”[9]


In his book, How Good Do We have to be?, Rabbi Harold Kushner offers a very helpful perspective on guilt and forgiveness that is premised upon an acceptance of our human limitations which then allows us to take ownership of our mistakes.  At one point, Kushner talks about the number of people he encountered on his book tour who shared their positive experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous or other support groups.  Kushner reflects on his conversation with one man and how accepted that man felt in the program:


“The church-sponsored group was not offering forgiveness for his deeds.  It was offering acceptance, forgiveness for his being a flawed, incomplete, imperfect person.   It was offering what the synagogue offers its worshippers on the Day of Atonement:  the reassurance that if you drop your pretensions and excuses and stand before God naked and vulnerable, if you admit your failures as the first step toward doing something about them, God will not reject you as a flawed specimen.  You will still be acceptable in His [sic] site.” [10]


What a challenge that is for us. Can we learn to accept another person’s limitations and flaws so that we can then recognize their sincere attempts to change, appreciating whatever steps they take even when they may not make it all the way to where we think they need to be – or even where they may want to be?


Acting with compassion, letting go of anger; not demanding perfection, asking only sincere effort; meeting someone halfway.  If we can find it in our hearts to act in these ways, then “forgiveness will, indeed, be Divine,” because we will be emulating the Divine and through our actions inviting God’s presence into our lives and our world.  Moreover, such actions not only enable the wrong doer to move through the process of teshuva and make real change in her life, they also let the one who has been wronged move forward in her life by offering forgiveness and letting go of that past.


If we can act that way towards others, how much the more so should we strive to forgive the one who is often the most difficult for us to forgive:  ourselves.  Too often we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards of perfection and we blame ourselves for our failure to reach them.  When we set unrealistic goals for ourselves, we cannot hope to succeed and will most likely fail to reach the potential that we do have within.


One of my favorite lessons in this area comes from a Hassidic sage of the 18th century, Rabbi Zusya of Hannipol who taught:  In the world to come, they will not ask me “Why were you not Moses?”  They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya?”


As we consider the power of and potential for forgiveness, let us turn back to Chris and those gracious people of Charleston and ask, “Are there limits to forgiveness? “As we’ve seen, the Jewish understanding of forgiveness does not seem to be in concert with the gracious acts of these individuals.  The Jewish notion of forgiveness demands some level of repentance on the part of the sinner.   Even if we strive to be compassionate, understanding of limitations, and as open as we can, if the person makes no effort to take steps towards teshuvah, Judaism teaches that we have no obligation to forgive.


Having said that, where does that leave us?  This is where the example of the Charleston families is so powerful.   Their faith compelled them to forgive.  And, in doing so, their actions brought them a sense of comfort as well, a lifting of a heavy burden of hate and anger that might have held back their own process of healing.


In such cases, perhaps we can think of forgiveness in a different way.  Kushner offers us another view: “Forgiving happens inside us.  It represents a letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps most importantly a letting go of the role of victim.”[11]


In How Good Do We Have to Be?, Kushner recounts the story of a young woman who comes to see him, explaining that she just found out her father is dying.   He expects her to talk with him about the funeral; instead, she reveals that her father abandoned her and her mother when she was 9, had numerous affairs during the marriage and had virtually nothing to do with them.  She hadn’t spoken to him or heard from him in the past 10 years.  “Rabbi,” she asks, “can you give me any reason why I should mourn for a man like that, why I should go to the funeral or say kaddish for him?”  Kushner does encourage her to go to the funeral, but to see it as an opportunity to grieve for the father that she never had, to cry for the father that her father could not be and to mourn the loss of the father she certainly deserved to have. In the end, the young woman did attend the funeral, admittedly with very confused feelings, but she later told Rabbi Kushner that much to her surprise she did not feel angry. She attended services for a while to say Kaddish and then moved on.[12]


The ability to recognize the limitations of those who disappoint or hurt us, and to grieve the loss of that which couldn’t be, while not exactly forgiveness, may help us achieve the peace that forgiveness provides.


Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, of IM Wise Temple in Cincinnati, wrote one of the beautiful mediations that is at the beginning of our mahzor; his words express so beautifully the power of forgiveness:


What an extraordinary gift is is—what a blessing, what a miracle

To have been raised by imperfect parents who did their very best;

To share our life with a partner no more flawed than we are;

To count as a friend one who understands and accepts us most of the time.

How brave, how hard it is to be “good enough” in our ties to one another:

To give, even when we’re exhausted; to love faithfully;

To receive with grace the love imperfectly offered to us.


Can this night set us free from the tyranny of expectations?

Can this night release us from fantasies impossible to fulfill?


We resolve this night to embrace the practice of forgiveness:

To forgive others who fail to be all we hoped they would be;

To forgive ourselves when we fall short of what others hoped we would be.

We declare this night that we will cherish goodness wherever it is found,

And open ourselves to the gifts that are before us.[13]


Four months ago we celebrated the Festival of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Soon after hearing the Ten Commandments, the Israelites grew frightened during Moses absence and committed a grievous sin by building a Golden Calf to worship.  Moses came down the mountain bearing the two tablets with the commandments only to encounter the people dancing around the Golden Calf.  Embodying God’s anger, Moses smashed the tablets.  The people were punished and repented; Moses pleased for God to continue to lead this people to the Promised Land.  God agreed and commanded Moses to carve two new tablets and return to the mountain top.  The day on which Moses brought down the newly inscribed second set of tablets was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  This was the day on which God’s forgiveness was sealed with the tablets, the covenant affirmed and the relationship renewed.


So may this Yom Kippur be for us a day of forgiveness and renewal, a day of promise and hope for a new year of reconciliation and understanding.



[1] https://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/m_features/epic-stories-of-forgiveness

[2] New York Times, June 19, 2015

[3] Ibid.

[4] New York Times, July 4, 2015

[5] Mishna Yoma 8:9

[6] Mishnah Torah:  Hilchot Teshuvah 2:10

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a

[8] Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 7a

[9] Pesikta Rabbati 44:9

[10] Harold S. Kushner, How Good Do we Have to Be? P. 52-53

[11] Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, p. 176

[12] Kushner, p. 85-6

[13] Lewis Kamrass,  Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur (CCAR Press), p.6

Torah Study 9-22-18

Page 1400

Biblical poetry.

Jerry Slate joins the group.

Moses is about to die. The Hebrew here is very challenging. This is one of the two major poems in the Torah. Dating is also challenging. See commentary of Jeffery Tigay. Sometimes called the Torah’s lawsuit. There is a treaty and witnesses. This doesn’t mention many of the items covered in Deuteronomy. The focus here is not on exile – which is the focus of Deuteronomy. D was likely written considerably after the Babylonian exile and after the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom. This more likely 12th to 11th C, B.C.E.  . A copy of this poem was found at Kumaran and is mentioned by Josephus as part of ancient Jewish life.  Note the presence of merism – describing two extremes – and parallelism. LL Was this chanted? Consider the Rabbinic Voice. See NYT article.

“…The voice is the intricate product of a multi-pronged historical process.

According to this explanation, the voice is a side effect of a life of intense religious study. Because neither the Torah nor the Talmud is punctuated, students learn to add intonation with vocal emphasis. Which is why so many rabbis end sentences on a rise.

“Long ago, that phrasing was translated into everyday language by Ashkenazi Jews, then brought into English,” Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College, told me. “It’s so common that even newcomers to the community pick it up,” she added, presumably meaning mothers-in-law, converts, Hollywood agents, “sometimes intentionally, sometimes unknowingly.”

32:4 The imagery here is of parent and guardian. This describes the relationship between G and Israel.  See the Woman’s Commentary here. There is nurturing here. Possible woman author?

See line 8 which is “divisions of humanity” in a later edition of Plaut. This seems to be more reflective of modern Reform ideas – rather than divisions into race as in this translation. See Dr. Weiss commentary on this section – G allocates lesser deities to other peoples.  See “…no alien god alongside.” In the service there appears the phrase “there is no other god like you…” Monalatry is not pure monotheism as we think of it today.

32:15 We have just heard about the blessing of the land; the people grew fat and course – bloated and engorged. “You neglected the Rock who begot you.”  “I will hide my countenance from them.”

32:19  Gods reaction is punishment. Here are warrior images. Verse 20 – hiding God’s face. Because they have pushed God away. “Let God shine his countenance upon you..” is a phrase at the end of the service. The same word in Hebrew for “face” and “countenance” suggest and intense presence. The word is used by God when Moses ascends Mt. Sinai.

32:26 The other nations gain confidence by virtue of the peoples misconduct. There will be a terrible punishment but the people are not entirely wiped out. The punishment is not forever – it is a cleansing process. There will be redemption. Chastising with love is the traditional explanation.   LL This sounds retrospective. It is a description of what happened to the people and their survival. PC: How does this help us ethically? Rabbi – Not the intended lesson here by the writer at the time. If we were writing this today it would be different. PC: Can we come away that punishment in anger is morally wrong? Rabbi – that is not what it is saying. Anger can be a positive force. AS: There is a common notion that ours is a vengeful God. Christians argue that theirs is a loving God. CL later: Read Bart Ehrman’s  book The Triumph of Christianity – How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/books/review/bart-d-ehrman-the-triumph-of-christianity.html?login=smartlock&auth=login-smartlock and

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bart_D._Ehrman#Works  Ehrman points out that Christianity aggressively destroyed the other religions of Rome and there was considerable struggle, as well as anger and violence, within the faith itself as is evidenced by the letters of Paul.

LL: It is also worthwhile to note that a Freudian interpretation may be that the Torah is to some extent a discussion with ourselves and others. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/09/magazine/09wwln-lede-t.html

“…in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion.”

“He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.”


Torah Study 9-15-18

September 15, 2018

Page 1436

Haftarah readings. See references to Assyria – this has to do, in part, with the Northern Kingdom. It has been conquered but there is still hope of return.

14:02 Attributed to Hosea.

Very poetic. Images for an agrarian people. A promise to take the people back after they have turned away. This was delivered orally. LL: There is an unfortunate tendency to think that we are smarter than people in ancient times. Not so. This biblical poetry suggests a more erudite group who could use and understand metaphor. It is not entirely clear exactly what ‘iniquity” refers to here. Is it apostasy? Or is their an assumption of iniquity arising from the loss to the Assyraians?

7:18 Attributed to Micah. You will subdue our sins and cast them into the depths of the sea. Hence, the modern ceremony of casting away one’s sins.  This is a loving and forgiving G.   Is the sin cast out or subdued? The former is more of a Christian notion and the latter Jewish. Our tendency to sin is inherent – part of being a human being – and must be controlled. Note that the theology here is of omniscience. God is all powerful and is equally responsible for good and evil. Compare the Book of Job which is chronologically later. Some early rabbis say Job was among those who returned from the Babylonian exile in 538 BCE, which was about seven centuries after Moses supposed death. Others note that the book is written in a strange form of Hebrew, in archaic language, In any event it is a theological treatise or discussion. See: https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/MAGAZINE-who-really-wrote-the-book-of-job-1.5434183

21:15 Sound the shofar of Zion. Sanctify a fast day….I will remove the northerner far from you, and drive it to a land parched and desolate…never again to be put to shame. LL The word “shame” is problematic in its implication. Why should we care what other nations think? To be shamed suggests blaming the victim. Job is not shamed – he is steadfast. See Milton Steinberg and Harold Kushner on a more limited theism. God “withdrew” to create the universe. See: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_Bad_Things_Happen_to_Good_People

AF: What was the role of the prophets? Rabbi: They were often outsiders who challenged authority. Note that the rabbi’s developed the notion of an afterlife in response to the diaspora and martyrdom of leaders like Akiba. Remember that Judaism is more than monotheism – it is ethical monotheism. The rabbinic model is that love can make us better as a people.


“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”, Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Jack was an atheist, but he went to synagogue religiously, every Saturday morning.  His grandson watched this and knowing his grandfather’s strong feelings, was very confused.  Finally, one day he asked him, “Grandpa, I don’t understand it.  You say you are an atheist, but you go to synagogue every week.  How can you pray if you don’t believe in God?  Jack answered, “My boy, I don’t go to synagogue to talk to God; I go to synagogue to talk to Goldberg.”

Religion is really about relationships.  That is especially true in Judaism.  If one Hebrew word could capture the essence – and sometimes challenges – of being in real relationship, it is the word Hineini – one word that means “Here I am.”

Some of you may remember this word from Hebrew school as the answer when the teacher took attendance – Hineini – meaning simply, I’m here, I’m present. In the Bible, the term Hineini takes on much greater significance.  Altogether, Hineini appears fouorteen times in the Hebrew Bible.  Three of those instances are in the powerful Torah reading we read this morning, the

Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, including the very first time that this phrase is uttered.  Though Abraham appears on the scene much earlier, it is only here, when he is called to his last and most challenging of ten trials that his relationship with God is put to its greatest test.

With the first Hineini, Abraham responds to God’s call, without even knowing what he would be asked to do.  It is a statement of absolute readiness to act on behalf of another.

With the second Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of his son, “Avi – My father” as they walk up the mountain together.  It is the response of one who is present for another, even in times of great stress and difficulty.  Abraham does not reveal the potential horrors of what lies ahead, concerned here only for his son.

With the third Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of the angel stopping him from committing the unthinkable. So intent is Abraham on fulfilling his understanding of God’s word that the angel must call out to him twice, “Avraham, Avraham!” Here, Hineini is the response of one awakening to the reality of what he is about to do.  It is the response of one who is trying to be fully present in two roles:  Abraham, the believer, present to God, while at the same time to be Abraham, the father, present to his son, Isaac.

In his study of the meaning of Hineini, Dr. Norman Cohen, professor of midrash at HUC-JIR, concludes: “Hineini, in part, has to do with sacrificing for the other, and every time it appears it forces us to consider the nature of our relationships.”[1]  He posits three primary meanings to the response Hineini:  one; it indicates an ability to be present for and receptive to others; two, it indicates a readiness to act on behalf of others; and, three, it indicates a willingness to sacrifice for someone or something higher.

During these Yamim Noraim, as we reflect on our lives and consider where we have missed the mark, most of us, I’m sure, think first and foremost about the various relationships in our lives and where, too often, we feel that we may have fallen short of our best.  We strive to say Hineini, “I’m here for you” with full integrity in all of our relationships but we know how challenging that can be, even in the best of circumstances.  Life’s demands pull us in so many directions. What family with working parents doesn’t struggle to achieve that ever-elusive work life balance?  The normal ups and down of family dynamics test us at different points in our lives, in some painful cases to an extreme.  We want to be present but the other person isn’t ready or able to let us in; or, we don’t yet know how to be present in a way that they need.  We try to be there for our friends, but we can get so caught up in our lives, that we sometimes lose track of what is going on with others.

As a community, this congregation tries very hard to say Hineini to its members.  Through organized efforts such as the Reyut and Nachamu committees, we have set up structures to support one another through times of illness and loss.  Each Shabbat we share birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal simchas, creating an opportunity to connect and share in one another’s joys as well.  In the small gatherings that were held this summer and through numerous conversations I’ve had with people, I’ve heard very powerful stories from those for whom this community has truly become their “family” and about how this congregation has supported them through the most painful of times.  Of course, no one and no institution is perfect; surely, we have missed the mark at times and for this I would apologize to those who may have been hurt as we try to learn from past mistakes.  I would encourage those who remain on the periphery to become more engaged in the life of the congregation that you might benefit from the full sense of community that this congregation that strives to say Hineini to its members can offer to you.

This morning I want to focus on a particular challenge that we are facing in saying Hineini to one another that is impacting the nation as a whole, religious communities, our relationships at work and even our families.  I’m speaking of the ever-widening political divide in this country where people are less and less able to respond “hineini” – I can listen and be here for you – to those across the divide; in a growing number of cases, it seems, people cannot respond to one another at all.  This gap is eroding our society as a whole, leading to escalating negative attacks on one another, to dysfunctional government, and to divided communities, destroyed friendships and broken families.

An article in the New York Times from just a few weeks ago described some of these situations: “A couple in Georgia, married two decades, won’t speak when the husband leaves his unwashed mug supporting President Trump in the sink; his wife refuses to touch it. A teenager eating at a Texas fast food restaurant had his “Make America Great Again” hat ripped off his head and a drink thrown in his face. A mother in New England sought the help of professional conflict mediators during the holidays because her two daughters — one who was pro-Trump, the other anti-Trump — had stopped speaking to each other.”

We know that concerns about “the great American divide” are not new to this unique time period in American history.  Nonetheless, it feels as though we are at one of our lower points in national discourse and there doesn’t seem to be a way forward.

Studies by the Pew Research Center and others show a widening and toxic political gap.  A Pew Study from last summer noted that since the Trump presidency, the partisan gap has surpassed earlier record levels reached during the Obama presidency.  Partyism is now a bigger wedge between Americans than race, gender, religion or level of education. Today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party evokes feelings of not just frustration, but of fear and anger. Most politically engaged on either side see those in the other party as not just wrong, but “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” [2]

The pollster Frank Luntz recently commissioned a survey on the topic of political dialogue and division. In 1,000 interviews, he said, he found one result especially troubling: nearly a third of respondents said that they had stopped talking to a friend or a family member because of disagreements over politics and the 2016 election.

One organization on the front lines of trying to counter these trends is The National Institute for

Civil Discourse, a non-partisan center based at the University of Arizona’s School of Social and

Behavioral Sciences, founded in the aftermath of the 2011 assassination attempt on the former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  The Institute provides lawmakers, businesses and communities with strategies to solve disagreements with civility and respect.    Reflecting on the 2012 presidential election, Executive Director Carolyn Lukensmeyer noted “We got not a single message from anybody in the country about incivility in the campaign process… [t]hen 2016 rolls around … This is now deep in our homes, deep in our neighborhoods, deep in our places of worship and deep in our workplaces… It really is a virus.”[3]

Religious communities are not immune to this divide and these feelings.  Rare is the synagogue whose very identity is defined by being either left or right, blue or red.  Most of us are various shades of purple.  Certainly, Reform congregations such as ours have become more diverse politically over the years and while we accept diversity in religious practices, it is much more challenging when it comes to political points of view.

For some the answer is to avoid the challenging issues altogether, to keep the synagogue as a sanctuary, a safe space away from anything that might hint of controversy.  I agree that the synagogue should be a sanctuary and a safe space, but not as an escape from the outside world.  Judaism has taught us the opposite, as we learn in the Talmud: “A person may only pray in a house with windows…”[4] We pray with windows so that our gaze can be towards the heavens, but so, too, do windows bring the outside world in; we cannot avoid it.  In Judaism, we find the sacred not by escaping to some monastic life meditating in the mountains; rather, we find the sacred by dealing with the challenges of daily existence and bringing the obligation to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” to those challenges.  The Torah passage we will read on Yom Kippur known as the Holiness Code, Leviticus 19, reminds us that we strive for holiness in our relationships with one another by being fair in our business practices, through our obligation to care for the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan, by not dealing deceitfully with one another, by being responsible for one another, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves.  If we do not address how we can bring our values to bear on the challenges of our lives and in our world, in a way that invites everyone into the conversation, then the Torah, our ancient teachings and Judaism as a whole will become irrelevant.  Our faith provides our moorings, our moral grounding in a world that is more and more unmoored.  Judaism can help us to navigate these very rough waters.

We, too, have a long history of communal divisions.  You see, even as Judaism and Jewish law developed, it was never monolithic as we might imagine it to have been.  There were always multiple houses of study led by different rabbinic scholars who reached different conclusions regarding questions of Jewish practice.  Throughout the Mishnah and Talmud, we find records of debates between rabbis followed by the statement:  and the halakhah (the law) is according to Rabbi Ploni.  If the law is according to one interpretation, why record the minority opinions at all?  Because they still had a place within the Jewish community and, therefore, within the records.

Among the most famous pairs of rabbis in the time of the Mishnah was Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, each the head of a different school.  They disagreed about practically everything and rare was the time that a ruling was according to Shammai.  Still, they had respect for one another as is recorded in the Talmud:

…for three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, “the halachah is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “the halachah is in agreement with our views.” Then a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed,“both are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.”  Since, however, both are the words of the living God, what was it that entitled the School of Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings?  Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of the School of Shammai before theirs.[5]

Elsewhere in the Talmud we learn that even though they disagreed with each other’s rulings and had different interpretations for some Jewish practices:

The School of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of the School of Hillel, nor did the School of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the School of Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “you must love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19)[6]

Sadly, too many within the Jewish world today are not following these ancient practices!

The following teaching from Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, one of the most beloved and influential of the 18th century Chassidic masters, can be a guide for us today:

The essence of shalom is to unite two opposites. Therefore, do not be alarmed when you meet someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to yours, causing you to believe that it is absolutely impossible to live with him in peace. Similarly, when you see two people of extremely contrasting natures, do not say that it is impossible to make peace between them. On the contrary, the very essence of peace is to strive for harmony between opposites, just as God makes peace in the heavens between the contrasting elements of fire and water.[7]

It is my fervent prayer that as a nation we can find ways to achieve some harmony, to bridge the divide that is tearing us apart, so that we can bring out the best in one another as opposed to the worst.  So, too, do I pray that if you find yourself in a similar situation to the respondents in the survey who have lost friendships or who aren’t speaking to relatives because of this political divide, that you can find a way to reach out and rebuild those fractured relationships for the greater whole that is shalom.

My concern this morning is about us, Vassar Temple.  How do we as a congregation build upon the strong foundation of community that exists here to bridge some of that divide, lest we will either move closer to irrelevance, unable to discuss or act on many issues of concern, or we will create an atmosphere where some people may no longer feel welcome in their own spiritual home.   I know that these are stark choices and I’m not saying that this is where we are, but I fear that this is where we will be heading if we do not find a way to become a true sanctuary, a sacred space where we can say Hineini to one another, that we can talk about difficult issues even when we disagree, and that we can find common ground upon which we can act to live out the values and teachings of our faith.

First, we need to try to be able to talk to one another and to understand one another.  I have found the work of a social psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Haight, and a sociologist, Dr. Arlie Hochschield, most enlightening in trying to understand some of what is behind the current political divide.

In his groundbreaking research, Haight explores the processes by which we make moral judgments, fundamental decisions that shape our view of the world.   We actually use two different processes of cognition:  intuition and reasoning; and, while we might like to think that we use our powers of reason and intellect to make such decisions, Haight discovered that, in fact, it is our emotions that guide us in making quick, instinctive moral judgments.  Our powers of reason only come into play once we have already made our decision to justify them afterwards.  He uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe how the mind functions here.  The rider represents the controlled process, such as reasoning and intellect; the elephant represents

the automatic processes, such as emotion and intuition.  (Yes, I said an elephant.  Haight explains that he chose the elephant over the horse because elephants are bigger and smarter, a better representation of the strength of the automatic processes that run human minds.)  Though the name, rider, might imply other, the rider does not control the elephant; rather, it is the elephant who controls the rider.   The rider is really just the spokesperson for the elephant, finding justifications for what the elephant has done or will do next.  Haight gives an example from his own life of a time when his wife complained that he had left dirty dishes on the counter that morning, something she has asked him not to do numerous times before.   Haight, who believes that lying is wrong and often chastises his wife for exaggerating in her stories, finds himself coming up with a very reasonable explanation for having done so, except that it is all a lie.  He later realizes that because he doesn’t like to be criticized as soon as he heard the criticism coming, his inner elephant started to react by claiming innocence and then the rider jumped in with all kinds of justifications that sounded reasonable, though not true.

In his book, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haight applies this process of reasoning to the divisions we see in our society today.  If we are going to understand people across the political divide or have any hopes of changing someone’s mind on an issue, we need to better understand the forces behind their intuitive responses to reaching their decisions or in Haight’s terminology, “[we]’ve got to talk to their elephants.”[8]

Haight references Henry Ford who taught, “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.”[9]  So, too, does this apply to conversations on moral or political issues. We need to be able to see things from the other person’s angle as well as our own.  Haight concludes, “And if you do truly see it the other person’s way – deeply and intuitively – you might even find your own mind opening in response.  Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”[10]  Difficult, but not impossible.  “When does the elephant list to reason?” asks Haight, “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people.  We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs.  When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight…The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objection from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants… or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants…”[11]

In other words, we need to get out of our echo chambers, not only by reading other opinion pieces or seeking out news from other sources, but most productively by trying to get to know people who are across the divide – and not on the other side of an argument, but by getting to know them as people first, getting to know their elephants.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschield does just this in her book, Stranger in Their Own Land.

Hochschield, an admittedly political liberal from the very blue city of Berkeley, CA, had been watching the growing political divide for some years when she concluded that she could not understand those on the other side of the divide from a distance; she needed to get to know the people who were completely dumbfounding her.  She decided to focus on one issue, the environment, and in one area, in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana.  In the course of five years of research and ten trips to the area, Hochshield spent time in deep conversation in people’s homes and work places where they spoke openly and shared their stories.  “As a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right –that is, in the emotion that underlies politics.  To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their “deep story,” a narrative as felt.”[12]

Referring to one of the first women in Louisiana who opened her home and her life story to her, Hochshield wrote “…it occurred to me that the kind of connection she offered me was more precious than I’d first imagined.  It built the scaffolding of an empathy bridge.  We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”[13]

Hochshield’s book is a powerful one and one I highly recommend.  It certainly opened my mind to understanding some people who are across the political divide from me and how neglected and lost they had felt from the political leadership of our country for so many years.

If we can create opportunities for real dialogue here, not with the goal of changing people’s minds, but simply to begin to understand why they think the way they do, we, too, can build empathy bridges, as we may then open our minds to some of the concerns of the “other” in a new way.  We can say Hineini.  We can say I disagree with you, but I now understand you.  Such conversations will strengthen us as a community and may lead us to find Bratslav’s harmony between opposites.  In doing so, perhaps we will also discover more ways to join hands and take action on issues of common concern to better our community, our country and our world.  I invite you to join with me in envisioning what might be small group conversations where we really listen to one another in a safe environment where we can speak freely and openly, without critique.  If you would like to partner with me in this venture or participate in such conversations, please let me know.

Just over a week ago our nation paid homage to Sen. John McCain, an elder statesman who spoke the language of Hineini (even if he didn’t actually know the word!)    First and foremost, he lived Hineini through his life of sacrifice for this nation, through both his military service and his political leadership.  He lived Hineini by doing what he believed was right, even going against his own political party to do so.  He lived Hineini when he defended his political opponent against racist charges because it was the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t the most expedient for his campaign.   He lived Hineini when he admitted his mistakes.  Personally, I disagreed with John McCain on many issues, but I have the greatest respect for him as a man of integrity and decency who was willing to put aside differences and reach across the aisle for the sake of what he believed was better for our nation.  His choreography of his own funeral was his final testament that a different form of political discourse is possible and preferable for the wellbeing of our country.  May he inspire other leaders to pursue that better path.  May he inspire us to respond to opportunities for service, to be willing to sacrifice – – even on a much lesser scale – for the good of others, to act on behalf of causes we believe are important, to reach across the divide and say Hineini.

The final three Hineini’s in the Bible are not uttered by any person; they are words of promise from God spoken through the prophet Isaiah.  Hineini is God’s promise to the Israelites of the ultimate redemption that will come when they change their selfish and hypocritical ways.  We will read one such passage on Yom Kippur morning, where Isaiah reminds us of the nature of the fast that God desires  – that when we fast we will also share our bread with the hungry, that we will reach out to those in need, that we will be willing to sacrifice for others, that we will no longer act in ways that exile us from one another.  When we can truly say Hineini, I am here for you, then our redemption will be at hand and then the promise of Isaiah will be fulfilled and God will respond to us, Hineini, Here I am.

Rabbi Renni Altman


Cohen, Dr. Norman J., Hineini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003),

Haight, Jonathan The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage Books, 2017)

Hochshield, Arlie Russell Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016)

Peters, In a Divided Era, One Thing Seems to Unite:  Political Anger (New York Times, August 17, 2018)

Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16) http://www.peoplepress.org/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/

[1] Dr. Norman. J. Cohen, HIneini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003), p. 4

[2] Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16) http://www.peoplepress.org/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/

[3] Ibid

[4] BT Berakhot 34b

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14b

[7] Likkutei Etzot, Shalom, #10

[8] Jonathan Haight, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, p. 57

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 58

[11] Ibid., p. 80-81

[12] Arlie Russell Hochshield, Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right, p. ix

[13] Ibid., p. xi

“A Time for Turning”, Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018 sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“A Time for Turning”
Rosh Hashanah Eve 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to turn… It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy… It means starting all over again, and this is always painful. It means saying, “I am sorry.” It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped for ever in yesterday’s ways. Adonai, help us to turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, Adonai our God, and bring us back to You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other, Adonai our God, for in isolation there is no life.”

This prayer written by Rabbi Jack Reimer captures so beautifully the essence of these Days of Awe.  Indeed, this is the season of turning.  Each year at this time, Jews all over the world pause for ten days of self-examination, of Heshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of our souls to determine what it is that we need to change as part of our process of Teshuvah — return.  We seek to return towards our highest selves, to return towards one another and, in doing so, we return to God.   Turning implies making a change, moving away from a direction in which we were heading towards a more positive behavior and, with that, we hope, to fulfilling a better vision of ourselves and our world.

There is a Hassidic story about a rabbi who asked his teacher, Rabbi Mendel of Kossov, why the Messiah had not come and why the promises of redemption remained unfulfilled.   Rabbi Mendel answered: “It is written: “Why has the Messiah not come either today or yesterday?”  The answer lies in the question itself: “Why has he not come?”  Because we are today just as we were yesterday.  As Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner note in their commentary on this story “the hidden implication in Rabbi Mendel’s remarks [is] that change is vital, even though you may be uncertain as to where you are going.  Change shakes up old habits and routines and opens up new vistas… As long as there is change there is hope for transformation, and as long as there is transformation there is a possibility for the greatest transformation of all”[1] – through our actions we can transform the world and bring about the coming of the Messiah (or a Messianic age).

With all of the potential that lies within change why is it so difficult for us?   The idea of change is often so overwhelming that we remain paralyzed in unhealthy patterns, rather than take the steps necessary to improve our lives and our relationships.  Here we are again, back at Rosh Hashanah, talking, praying and thinking about teshvuah, promising ourselves that we will really, really try to change this year.   Perhaps we have tried before, but maybe we didn’t do it quite right and things backfired and now we feel like more of a failure than before.  Perhaps we tried, but others wouldn’t really let us change; or, perhaps, it was just too hard and it was taking too long to see a difference, so we gave up.  Now we can’t bear trying to climb that mountain again.

Dr. William Bridges, author and lecturer in the field of transitional management and change, offers an approach to change that might help us move forward and achieve greater success.    He draws a distinction between change and transition.  Change is the desired outcome; but it cannot happen without transition as the process we undergo to get us there.

“Change is situational,” he teaches. “Transition, on the other hand, is the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become. In between the letting go and the taking hold again, there is a chaotic but potentially creative ‘neutral zone’ when things aren’t the old way, but aren’t really a new way either.  This three-phase process – ending, neutral zone, beginning again – is transition.”[2]

Successful changes emerge out of an intentional process of transition.  The first step is recognizing, in Bridge’s words, that “every transition begins with an ending.”   That ending, even when desired and ultimately for the good, inevitably involves some sense of loss.

We can see this most clearly in changes that occur when we move from one stage of life to another:

A couple is about to become parents; it is the fulfillment of their dreams.  As excited as they are, they are surprised by feelings of sadness, as they will miss the freedoms and spontaneity that they have enjoyed until now.

At a dinner honoring him upon his retirement after 30 years of devoted and exemplary service and leadership as a teacher and later principal, instead of the joy he had anticipated when thinking about this next chapter in his life, a man feels an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss as he looks out at his teachers and former students.  What will his purpose be now, he wonders?

Proud to launch their youngest child off to college, a couple re-enters their home, now an empty nest.  They have successfully reached a major milestone in their role as parents; they had looked forward with great anticipation to this time of renewal in their marriage.  Still they will miss the regular presence of their children in their lives and the feeling of being needed on a daily basis.

We can also experience a sense of loss when we consciously choose to make a change in our lives that will ultimately be an improvement for ourselves and our loved ones:

A woman leaves a job she has outgrown for a position in a different company that offers greater leadership and responsibility.  She looks forward to the new challenges; it’s the next step in a professional path she had envisioned for herself.   Still, she will miss her former colleagues and the stability and safety of that routine.

A nicotine patch helps a young man move beyond the physical addiction of smoking and enables him to move forward in the healthy choice he has made of quitting, but it doesn’t address his longing for the way smoking cigarettes helped him relax during his hectic days.

A brother reaches out to his sister after not speaking for many years.  Their lives have taken different paths; they hardly know one another or their families.  A disagreement over inheritance separated them; now their parents have been gone for more than a decade.  He finally decides that too much time has passed and too much has already been lost; he looks forward to this opportunity to rebuild their broken relationship.  Still, he has to let go of his need to be right at all costs; not an easy thing for him to do.

Changing – whether it means moving from one stage of life to another, kicking a bad habit or just admitting that you were wrong, means letting go of some part of our past.

Too often we deny the reality of that loss and any emotional toll it may take upon us.  Without recognizing the sense of loss we may be experiencing, however, we will end up carrying that unfinished business with us, a burden that will hamper our ability to achieve the change we seek, perhaps fulfilling our deepest fears that we couldn’t really change anyway.

If, on the other hand, we allow ourselves the time and space to accept and grieve for those losses, we can see beyond those painful moments with hope towards the future, buoyed by the knowledge that “every transition is an ending that prepares the ground for new growth and new activities.”[3]  We can now enter what Bridges calls the most important element in the process of transition, the “neutral zone” -– the in between space between endings and new beginnings.  It’s the space where we still feel the loss of the old, but we haven’t yet experienced the benefits of the new; we’ve broken away from the past but haven’t quite settled into the new present.  All that we imagined with this great opportunity seems so far off.  We may even begin to question:  was this the right move?

“The neutral zone is… both a dangerous and an opportune place..,” teaches Bridges. “It is the time when repatterning takes place:  old and maladaptive habits are replaced with new ones … It is the winter in which the roots begin to prepare themselves for spring’s renewal.  It is the night during which we are disengaged from yesterday’s concerns and preparing for tomorrow’s.  It is the chaos into which the old form dissolves and from which the new form emerges.  It is the seedbed of the new beginnings that you seek.[4]

The neutral zone – it is both dark and frightening and bright with potential at the same time.  Our society, by and large, does not allow for time in the neutral zone.  Where time is money, there is little value placed on stopping to reflect, to consider, to dwell in one’s thoughts.

Our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, learned the hard way about the need for a neutral zone when making a significant change.  While the plagues and the parting of the Sea of Reeds provided a dramatic end to slavery in Egypt, those miracles could not transform the Israelites into a free people.  Moses learned this lesson all too quickly from the moment the Israelites crossed the sea and began complaining about the bitterness of the water, when they then lost faith in God and in Moses and turned to a Golden Calf right after the experience of Sinai, and, ultimately, when they preferred returning to Egypt rather than seize the opportunity and challenge of entering the Promised Land.  They needed the 40 years in the midbar, in the barren wilderness, to successfully transition from a generation of slaves to a generation ready to embrace freedom.

Wilderness is an apt metaphor for being in the midst of change.  Times of transition can be frightening, filled with uncertainty; but at the same time, if we choose to take advantage of the opportunities that this open space can provide, they have the potential for creativity, growth, and redefinition of self.    When we allow ourselves the time and space for real transformation to take place, we can then reach a new beginning and experience real change.

These Yamim Noraim are an annual taste of being in the neutral zone, entering the midbar, as we pause to reflect, take stock of our lives, and repurpose ourselves for the year ahead.   I encourage you to find ways to return to the midbar in the course of this year.  Seek out opportunities to reflect upon the transitions that you are in – some may find that space in prayer, others in long morning walks, or therapy, or taking a weekend away — by yourself.  Seek out any opportunity that will enable you to better recognize the losses you may have experienced with an ending, to reflect deeply about what you need to do to heal, and to find ways to move forward by setting goals for yourself and adjusting to the new ways of an anticipated change.

Endings, neutral zone, new beginnings — this understanding of transition that has the potential to be so helpful in addressing the changes we want to make in our lives, can also guide us through the most painful changes we encounter, those changes that happen to us that are out of our control.  We are reminded of such changes during these Days of the Awe through the haunting and powerful Unetonatokef prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be.

Who shall live and who shall die.

Who shall see ripe age and who shall not.

Who shall perish by fire and who by water.

Who by sword and who by beast.

 Why by hunger and who by thirst…  Who shall be secure and who shall be driven.

Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich.

Who shall be humbled and who exalted.

So many changes in our lives – for the good and the bad – can happen to us out of nowhere. An investment long ago forgotten suddenly brings in huge dividends and you find yourself with an unanticipated nest egg.  You take a trip on a whim and fall in love with the stranger you meet across the dinner table. A doctor’s visit leads to a diagnosis of cancer and your world is upended.  A loved one is in the wrong place at the wrong time and your life is changed forever.

While we do all that we can to make the best choices and plan our lives, the

Unetantokef reminds us that all is not in our control.  The actions of others, random acts of nature and chance, can bring upheaval and tremendous loss.  Change, welcome or not, does sometime happen to us.  We cannot prevent or control those changes; we can only mold their effect on our lives by how we respond to them.

U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezera
But repentance, prayer and acts of justice, temper the severity of the decree.

Repentance, prayer and tzedakah – while these actions cannot change the course of events, past or future, they can be the tools by which we alter our experience of those events and help us move through the transition process to find a new beginning.

A colleague of mine shared with me the following parable about twins in the womb.  The whole world, to these two siblings is the interior of the womb.  They can conceive of nothing else.  Somehow, they realize that life, as they know it, is coming to an end.  What will happen to them?  One of the twins is a true optimist, embracing change and seeing it as an exciting opportunity for growth and development.  “Just think of the new opportunities that will present themselves,” says the optimistic twin. “We will have the opportunity to try new things, to do things another way.  Sure, it may not always work out perfectly, and some things will certainly be different, but what a great time it can be!”

The second twin is far more skeptical.  He fears change; change upsets the apple cart, turning the world, as we know it, upside down, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction.  “How can you talk about opportunities?” says the skeptic.  “There is no future, and even if there is to be a new future, it will be so different that we won’t be able to survive.  Our world, as we know it, is finished.  The future is grim.”

Suddenly, the water inside the womb bursts, and the ever-optimistic sibling tears

himself away.  Startled, the skeptic shrieks, bemoaning the tragedy.  Sitting in his morose state, he hears cries from the other side of the black abyss.  “Just as I thought, all is lost.  There is no future.  What was, is no more.  It is time to just call it quits, rather than face the other side.”

But what the skeptic doesn’t realize is that as he is bemoaning the loss of the world as he knows it, his brother sits on the other side, taking a breath of fresh air, hearing sounds that he has never heard before, already feeling his limbs stretching out beyond their previous boundaries.5

Just as individuals go through periods of change and upheaval, and can respond in different ways, so, too, do institutions and organizations.  Vassar Temple is no exception.   I am so proud and excited to be the newest rabbi in Vassar Temple’s very proud 170 year old history.  The fact that I am the 30th rabbi in 170 years means that this congregation has been through rabbinic transition before.  Certainly in more recent history this congregation has been blessed by the stability of strong rabbinic leadership with your wonderful rabbis emeritus, Stephen Arnold and Paul Golomb.  One can hardly go through a day without a mention of their names and their presence being felt (and I say that in the most positive way).  What a blessing for this community!  I’m sure that for many of you, starting again with a new rabbi is a challenge, especially in what feels like a relatively short amount of time since your last rabbinic transition.  Yes, relationships take time to cultivate and nurture and I look forward to building them here with you.

I understand well the angst of transition for this time is one of great transition for my family and me as well.  I am transitioning back into the congregational rabbinate after a decade in organizational life.  I took Bridge’s teachings to heart and spent significant time and energy this past year addressing many of the issues around endings as I prepared to leave HUC-JIR.  My husband and I will be uprooting ourselves from the community in which we have lived for 25 years.  First, we will literally dwell in the neutral zone, between an apt in Poughkeepsie and our home in Great Neck as we settle in and get to know the area.

Arriving in Poughkeepsie just under two months ago, I am now fully in Bridge’s neutral zone at Vassar Temple as well, taking this time to learn about this congregation and you, its members.  My friends, I invite you to join me in this midbar; let us maximize our time in this transitional stage as we get to know one another this year; let us explore together just who Vassar Temple is today and formulate our vision for tomorrow.  Let us take this time to plant seeds of growth and creativity for the future.


5 Rabbi Jan Offel, “Changes,” Erev Rosh Hashanah 5767/2006,Temple Kol Tikvah, Tarzana, CA


We began one aspect of this transition process this summer in small group meetings, called “At home with Rabbi Altman” (my sincere thanks to the gracious hosts who have literally opened their homes for these gatherings).  There will be more such gatherings in the coming months and I urge everyone to attend one.  I also invite you to contact me for individual meetings whether to talk about more private things or just to get to know one another better.  I invite you to share your needs, your ideas, your dreams for this congregation and what you would hope for in this new chapter of rabbinic leadership.

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter…” So, too, may we come to see change as a positive part of the natural order of the universe.  May we learn to embrace the changes in our lives as opportunities for growth and renewal.  In that process may we experience teshvuah.   Help us, O God, as we strive to return to You.  Strengthen us, Adonai, as individuals and as part of this sacred congregation for a year of transformation that leads to change; a year of wholeness and peace.

Rabbi Renni Altman

[1] Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner, Everyday Miracles: The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories, pg. 366

[2] The Way of Transition, p. 2

[3] Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, p. 42

[4] Managing Transitions, p.9

Torah Study Notes 9-8-18

September 8, 2018

See Plaut page 1373

This is the last reading of the year. Rabbi’s frequently select a parsha that relates to the New Year. This week and next week are two of shortest parsha. See Nitzvaim page 1372.

29:9  A commitment to enter into the covenant for future generations. See Commentary at Deuteronomy 5:3.  “…even the stranger within your camp…”  Refers to the stranger who has chosen to dwell with them. Note: That there is no provision for conversion in the Torah. Note “…with its sanctions…” This focuses on Sinai as the source of the covenant rather than the Abrahamic covenant.  The former is people focused with laws. The later is tribal. Consider the story of Ruth – amid “ alien corn.” The Orthodox approach to conversion is very different than the Reform.

29:15 This is again a restatement of the previous recitals. “… a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood…” The Eternal will never forgive them

29:20 The devastation attendant to tribal apostasy. “The Eternal uprooted them from their soil in anger…”

29:28 Note the distinction between concealed and overt acts. What does this mean? The footnote re a later insertion is not really an explanation. “Concealed acts” are actions that no one sees but G. Will you be punished by G? See Rashi on this point. We are responsible for enforcing adherence by those who publicly flout the law. We are responsible for one another. Generally, the Torah does not dwell on internal thoughts, with some exceptions “You shall not covet” “You shall honor your father and mother…” This section does not address evil thoughts. Consider Woody Allans “Crimes and Misdemeanors” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimes_and_Misdemeanors  where he addresses the angst of conscience. God will exact the punishment. Noel: My thinking drives my behavior. How are we to separate our thoughts and our behavior. Consider when the thoughts are expressed and are covered by modern law as “free speech.”  See also 17…whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God. Rabbi: A thought must be associated with an overt act in order to be punishable by the community. We have previously discussed the distinction between intentional and unintentionally acts.

We start the new year with a sense of reflection as to our sins. The Hebrew for sin is “arrow” and refers to missing the mark.