Thank you for visiting my website. I set up this site for those who are interested in knowing more about my background, training and experience.
Over the course of my rabbinate, I have actively engaged in two major enterprises that reflect my professional passions:
Faith Leader of the Year 2013
"Hineini . . . I am here": Avraham responds to God's Call "Ayeka . . . Where are you?" A video Torah discussion with Shmuel Rosner of The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.
Re-Seeing Jerusalem With Friends
A Teaching on Preserving the Environment at the Kotel / the Western Wall / April 2013
The conclusion of the Green Pilgrimage Symposium coincided with the annual ceremony welcoming the swifts back to their spring nesting site in the crevices of the Western Wall / Kotel. Reverend Anderson, Imam Ansari and I were privileged to offer prayers and blessings at the April 2013 ceremony.
Three Faiths, One Vision for Peace: Our Response to the 2012 Israel/Gaza Conflict
Memorial Day Invocation
East Greenwich, Rhode Island
May 26, 2014
Every year, at Temple Torat Yisrael, I have shared with my congregation the names, ranks, and home states of the US troops who died in the course of their duty: some years the lists have been so long, that I could only name those who died in the month preceding Memorial Day, other years, I’ve listed the name of every one of our troops who have died during the course of the year.
Be it a month’s list or a year’s list it is a heartbreaking list . . . and it is a list that reminds us of who Americans are. The list of American troops who died while on duty in Afghanistan since last Memorial day, with last names, like: Ellis, Brown, Sanchez, Quinn, Zimmerman, Togi, Stoeckli, Poirier, Vasselian and Erickson reminds us that we are a diverse country, a country of recent and long-past immigrants, of people of all kinds of faith and no particular faith, a nation of innumerable ethnic backgrounds. We take pride in our diversity, it is our strength 95 men and women left their homes in 35 states to serve with their colleagues in Afghanistan this past year and lost their lives . . . including
Air Force Master Sergeant David L. Poirier of Rhode Island. We are here today, a humble and grateful community, honoring the sacrifice of thousands of troops in the United States army, air force, navy, marines and national guard for three centuries. We are here today, in a safe, secure, and flourishing 337 year old town, counting our blessings beholden to those who have fallen.
And we pray:
God, full of Mercy, grant infinite rest in Your sheltering presence among the holy and the pure to the souls of our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers who perished in service to our country. May their memory endure and inspire us to fulfill the greatest values of our country: mutual respect and charity, inclusivity and loyalty. May their souls be bound up in the bond of life. May they rest in peace; may we join You in everlasting remembrance of our nation’s fallen, and let us say: Amen.
Drop Anti-Semitism From Public Discourse
Op-Ed, The Providence Journal
April 9, 2014
The Vision of a Violence-Free Rhode Island
Testimony Before the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee
March 18, 2014
I am Rabbi Amy Levin, President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island and rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.
Our Board of Rabbis, twenty-six colleagues from a comprehensive spectrum of denominations of Judaism, unanimously moved to become early and active partners in the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island.
That's quite a vision, isn't it . . . A violence-free Rhode Island.
Our Religious Coalition's vision of a "violence-free Rhode Island" may seem like the pie in the sky day-dreaming of a bunch of clergy . . . for whom utopian envisioning is an occupational hazard . . . but I am here to tell you that we clergy don't work in ivory towers, we conduct the funerals of the men, women and children who lose their lives to violence, we sit at the hospital beds of those who suffer maiming physical and psychological wounds inflicted through violence. Were you to be present with us at the cemeteries and hospitals and houses of mourning you would share our sense of urgency about working towards a violence-free Rhode Island.
Were we to dedicate the time, and gather together many of the people in this room for a wider-ranging discussion, we would find that violence is a complex phenomenon and that firearms represent only one element in the chaotic morass that is violence. Indeed, our General Assembly legislators took a significant step on another violence-related front last year when you passed legislation funding educational efforts directed at domestic violence through marriage license fees.
But the pending legislation we are discussing today all focus on firearms. In the context of our acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of those who legally and safely own firearms for hunting and target practice and personal security are responsible and well-motivated individuals who also embrace the concept of a violence-free Rhode Island, we do urge you to vote on behalf of all the residents of our state.
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island turns to you: You have the capacity to save lives:
We urge you to prevent individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning firearms.
We urge you to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines from Rhode Island.
We urge you to ban firearms from school grounds.
We urge you to take these concrete steps bringing us that much closer to a violence-free Rhode Island.
The Values of Our Faiths in Public Discourse
Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, Bryant University
February 6, 2014
It is a privilege to address all of you this morning. There is a lot of collective life wisdom, profound faith leadership, intelligence and scholarship filling the room today. I hope that what I say during the next fifteen minutes, or so, will provide you with some food for thought.
When I accepted the university’s invitation to address you this morning, I was asked to prepare my remarks on the topic of strengthening society through the values of faith. I accepted with great pleasure because it is an honor to stand before you all even at 7:30 in the morning . . . and because the topic is important.
The programs before you characterize my comments as a “meditation.” I’m not sure, though, that what I am about to share with you is meditative, or is going to leave you with a sense of well-being. For, as I started to organize my thoughts around the relationship between a strong society and faith values, turmoil more than meditation came to mind.
I don’t know if there was a specific question behind our proposed topic . . . but several occur to me: What are the values of faith? Are the values of all faiths identical or identically desirable as underpinnings of society? What in society needs strengthening?
Now the Pew Research Institute is an admirable organization, and I value their work and appreciate their publications very much. . . . but I have to admit that as a rabbi they’ve been throwing some serious challenges my way in the last few months. No sooner have I and my colleagues in the Jewish world taken in the data on the Pew study on the American Jewish Community, then faith leaders of all traditions around the world have been served a bitter dose of reality in the form of data on the growing repression of and repression by people of faith, government discrimination against faith communities, acts of terrorism associated with specific faith communities and crimes of violence directed toward individuals and groups of specific faiths around the world. And then I received an invitation to attend a lecture this coming Monday at Northwestern University on the topic of Interfaith Leadership in an Age of Global Religious Conflict.
So, no, I don’t think that those of us who are people of faith can afford the luxury of being meditative right now. The theological constructs we ascribe to, our respective faiths, are being characterized as the sources and motivators for global conflict and local hostility, for bigotry and repression and violence. And as much as we would prefer to counter these charges with quotations establishing the love and generosity and compassion infusing our respective sacred texts, we know that for many those quotations would be greeted with skepticism because the opposite of love and the opposite of generosity and the opposite of compassion are being inflicted on, and by, people professing to represent “faith” every single day.
Who gets to define the values of faith? My problem is that I can’t just say that my friends and I know what the values of faith really are and that what we define as the values of faith will strengthen society and that others’ values of faith threaten society . . . but a prayer breakfast of some extreme religious fundamentalists would have no problem making such a declaration at all. Some of the values of faith they would posit as society-strengthening would be values I would embrace . . . but others would strengthen their particular society, but not society in general, and not a society in which I would want to live. It is in the nature of the fundamentalist to be supremely certain about who is right and who is wrong. As Malise Ruthven wrote, in his perceptive book Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction: “to identify any one thing or set of beliefs or practices as essential is to diminish other elements of what was once an organic whole.” It is the tunnel vision of religious fundamentalist which undermines the credibility of their faith values.
The other side of this coin is my contention that it behooves us to acknowledge that there are people of great ethical conviction and moral courage whose substantive efforts strengthen society . . . who are not people of faith. Some of my best friends, as we say, are atheists . . . So it would be disingenuous of us to propose that the only path to a strong society and an ethical life is the path of faith.
There seems to be a problem with giving blanket support to the proposition that values of faith strengthen society. And there is also a problem with proposing that I, and the faith leaders I like, should be left to “anoint” the values of faith that will strengthen society. Any other group of faith leaders could claim the same right. And there’s also a problem with abandoning society to secular discourse, because, relatively speaking, very few of us are really atheists and the overwhelming majority of us, according to Robert Putnam in American Grace, consider ourselves to be people of faith.
With apologies to any sociologists in the room, I’d like to over-simplistically posit that “society” is the very complex expression of human beings living with each other. There is a lot that goes into sustaining society . . . and I would like to share a talmudic story with you that teaches us a criterion for discerning the society-strengthening faith value from the society-weakening faith value. This is a story about two famous houses of study during the talmudic period . . . around the 4th or 5th century. The House of Shammai was an institution of Jewish learning and rabbinic practice based on the teachings of their founder, Shammai. the House of Hillel was a parallel institution based on the teachings of their founder, Hillel. These two Houses of Learning, or schools of thought never agreed with each other:
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Sh’mu’el: For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated [a matter of ritual purity]. These said, “The law is according to our position,” and these said, “The law is according to our position.” A divine voice came and said, “These and these are the words of the living God, and the law is according to the House of Hillel.” But if these and these are both the words of the living God, why was the law set according to the House of Hillel? Because they (the House of Hillel) were gentle and humble and they taught both their own words and the words of the House of Shammai. And not only this, but they taught the words of the House of Shammai before their own. (Talmud Eruvin 13b)
The House of Hillel was “gentle and humble.” In the midst of a prolonged dispute about an important point of Jewish law, the House of Hillel assumed that there was something of value they could learn from those on the other side of the debate, from the House of Shammai. Thus, the opinion of the House of Hillel held more credibility, more weight, because they held to their opinion even in light of their study of the arguments and reasoning of their opponents. They House of Hillel’s respect for the approach of the House of Shammai . . . whose approach was also “the word of the living God” . . . rendered an opinion that would contribute to a stronger and more just determination.
Gentleness and humility. How often do we see these words applied to faith leaders? faith communities? faith values? At a time when public discourse is focussed on global religious conflict, we, as faith leaders, must promote with vigor what we know of the gentleness and humility and wisdom of our faith traditions.
The enterprise of strengthening society through the values of faith needs to be approached with circumspection, humility and self-awareness. In the very complex expression of human beings living together which is society, we will find strength in the values of faith that meet the criteria of gentleness and humility. These and these are all words of the living God . . . so let us speak not of the values of faith, but the values of faiths: for each faith represented in this room, and each faith represented in our society, has its own unique voice. These and these are all words of the living God . . . so let us listen to and learn from each other as the House of Hillel has taught us.
In my blog, which I posted this past Friday, I wrote about my past as a folksinger during my college years . . . and my affinity for and respect for Pete Seeger. So I’m delighted to see that we will be paying tribute to this great man by singing a song he based on a passage from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
But I’d like to conclude with the words to a different Pete Seeger song which has long inspired me and which is infused with both gentleness and humility. In the face of all the society-weakening teachings laid at the door of faith, we must proactively respond with this message:
My Father's mansion's many rooms
Have room for all of His children
As long as we do share His love
And see that all are free
And see that all are free to grow
And see that all are free to know
And free to open or to close
The door of their own room
What is a room without a door
Which sometimes locks or stands ajar?
What is a room without a wall
To keep out sight and sound from all?
And dwellers in each room should have
The right to choose their own design
And color schemes to suit their own
Though differing from mine
Yes and each door has its own design
To suit the owners state of mind
And those who'd want them all the same
Don't understand the human game
My Father's mansion's many rooms
Have room for all of His children
If we do but share in His love
And see that all are free
The choice is ours to share this earth
With all its many joys abound
Or to continue as we have
And burn God's mansion down
Pete Seeger - My Father's Mansion's Many Rooms Lyrics | MetroLyrics
A Call to Action
Interfaith Coalition Against Poverty Conference
May 3, 2011 / Roger Williams Park Casino
As people of faith, we are engaged in an on-going experiment: the attempt to live engaged in the modern world while sustaining our deeply-rooted faith-based commitments.
Consider what we are attempting to do: We begin with one of the oldest facts of the human experience: that God, our unseen physically untouchable God is real, really cares about us and really wants to have a relationship with us. Truly, we are used to believing in, and relying on, things we cannot see . . . we know there is such a thing as an ego at work shaping our behavior even though we cannot touch it or draw it. We know there is such a thing as time although we're hard-pressed to define it or to see it. We know there is such a thing as a parent's love, and although we cannot see it, we can experience it and we have a natural inclination to respond to it. So, yes, God is real, really cares about us (God, after all, took the trouble to create us) and God wants to have a relationship with us.
We combine this foundational principle of our lives with another: that the world we live in is good. That our engagement in secular culture, as we educate ourselves and our children, as we make a living, as we enjoy friendships is also good. The experiment is to see if both of these "goods" can co-exist. Every one of our faith communities has a small group within it that will tell you that the secular world is a threat, that in order to sustain an authentic relationship with God we must throw up barriers between ourselves and the "outside" world . . . we must not eat in the same restaurants as others, we must dress differently enough so that we can identify each other, we must not engage in popular culture. They would tell us that having television and internet in one's home is tantamount to inviting Satan into one's home.
Our presence here today is an expression of our shared conviction that each of our faith traditions, in order to be authentic and responsive to God, can thrive, must thrive, through engagement in the "real" contemporary world. We are taking our faith out of the controlled environment of homogeneous community and mixing in a world of other influences. God needs us to prove that faith is strong enough, eternal enough, to thrive no matter where we live, no matter who our friends are, no matter what we do for a living. That is the hypothesis of our experiment.
The alchemists of the middle ages ran some experiments of their own, they believed they could take the simplest materials-- lead, tin, things like that--and turn them into gold. Their quest, we know, was doomed to failure, but there was a philosophy behind their experimentation that we Jews have been employing for longer than there ever was alchemy. Alchemy was known as the spagyric art after Greek words meaning to separate and to join together. We Jews have an alchemy of our own that works like a dream. We can take the simplest, most common actions and turn them into k'dushah, into holiness. How do we do this? We separate, we distinguish between the simplest action and the teachings of Torah . . . then we join them together. That joining together is a moment of mitzvah. And what does this Jewish alchemy produce? nothing less than k'dushah . . . we bring holiness to the simplest moments of the day.
Those of you who are baby boomers like me may remember the ads: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread.” Well, you don’t have to be Jewish to engage in this holiness producing alchemy . . . you just have to act in this world with the intention of bringing together simple acts with the teachings of your faith.
Our repetoire is varied . . . we can transform everything a snack, a stroll, a conversation, an act of charity. Our ingredients are as easily found as those of the alchemists . . . an apple, a rainbow, a lonely neighbor, or a single mom with a minimum wage job, mix any one of these with a short blessing, a sense of gratitude to God, a perception of the dignity of every human being . . . and voila! You’ve performed a mitzvah, we have transformed an everyday, dreary moment into a moment infused with the holy presence of God.
Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book, "God's To-Do List" writes an imagined conversation with his reader:
"God Needs You"
"Excuse me? Would you repeat that, please?"
"God needs you."
It's true that God is all-powerful, all-knowing--a real miracle worker.
Yet, even God realized that the world would need a very special
presence, human beings who are literally infused with the breath--
the spirit--of God to be frontline caretakers of creation.
God can't do it alone. That's why God created you. As
unbelievable as it may sound, you are God's agent on earth. You
are God's hands, feet, eyes, ears--and, most important, God's heart.
God needs you. And when you perform an act of kindness, no
matter how small, you bring God's presence into the world, into
God has a To-Do List--for you.
Dr. Wolfson is talking about that alchemy of holiness. As partners with God, it is our actions, our intentional application of the teachings of God to our actions in the every day world that bring k'dushah, God's presence, into the world.
Those of us who took part in the learning session earlier were introduced to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. After delivering a petition to the FBI protesting the treatment of protesters in Selma, Martin Luther King invited Rabbi Heschel to join him in the march in Selma in 1965 for voting rights for blacks. For both King and Heschel, the theological was intimately intertwined with the political and that conviction provided the basis of the spiritual affinity they felt for each other. Shortly after returning from the march, Heschel wrote to King: "The day we marched together out of Selma was a day of sanctification.
For Heschel, the march had spiritual significance. He wrote, "For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."
I am at this conference every year because of the power of the spiritual affinity I feel with each of you when we come together . . . that “day of sanctification” that Heschel and King shared was their experiment in alchemy. They brought together their faith and the compelling need of their day and they brought holiness to the world.
We, too, can take the words and values and ideas we share today and we can, through this alchemy of faith bring holiness to this suffering world through the use of our heads and hands and legs and backs.
Rabbi Heschel and Reverend King created k’dushah / holiness when they walked shoulder to shoulder through Selma. The prayer of their legs was praise to God for the creation of all humanity. The prayer of their legs was a petition to God for a cure for what Heschel called the “eye disease of racism.” The prayer of their legs was thanks to God for making them partners in the sacred task of bringing justice to this world.
Now it’s our turn.
Three Faiths: One Vision for Peace
December 3, 2012
Text of our Joint Statement
Three Faiths—One Vision for Peace
“They shall sit, every person under their grapevine and under their fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has so declared.” (Micah 4:4)
As Jews, Christians and Muslims, we followed with tremendous apprehension and compassion, the conflict which recently rocked Israel and Gaza. We are grateful that, to date, the cease fire holds and pray that it will serve as the starting point for a more permanent peace.
The common denominator of care for every human soul which binds our faith communities together compels us, as spiritual leaders, to cry out against the fear, the disruption of daily lives, the trauma to young and old, the injury and death raining down on Palestinian and Israeli civilian populations alike.
As faith leaders, we reject the possibility that an act of terror can ever be the legitimate expression of Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
We offer the wisdom of each of our Abrahamic faiths in the hope that our sacred texts will promote an atmosphere of mutual respect, humility and peace among us:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the Children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
Take not life, which Allah (God) has made sacred. (Holy Quran, chapter 6 Verse 151)
Text of My Press Conference Statement
Thank you all for coming . . . I am Rabbi Amy Levin. I am the rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich and I have the privilege of serving as president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island . . . and the further privilege of counting as colleagues the Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy who join me today. Today’s joint statement is a milestone in an ongoing journey in which we have been clearing an unprecedented path of dialogue and spiritual exploration, a journey in which we are building bridges of understanding and appreciation among all our faith communities. These are extraordinary faith leaders.
From Rhode Island . . . the state with the deepest, most explicit roots in mutual respect for all faiths, rabbis, ministers and imams stand before you in a coalition of faith and peace.
Whether we evoke Adonay, God or Allah . . . whether we trace our ancestry back to Avraham, Abraham or Ibrahim . . . we are bound by our faith in the same God and our roots in the same family.
We look east from this place to a land of spiritual significance to all three of our faiths and pray for the peace, security and well-being of all those just living in the middle east . . . parents raising children, simple people going to work, shopping, going to school, visiting grandchildren . . . all those every-day acts we engage in here can be threatening to life and limb if you live near the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
My colleagues and I, the members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, serving synagogues, educational institutions and communal institutions, representing Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities in Rhode Island and south-eastern Massachusetts are proud to stand with our Christian and Muslim colleagues and say to you: do not lay the blame for conflict at the doors of our faiths . . . our God, our prophets, the weight of our traditions compel us to seek peace. Do not confuse politics and territoriality and terror with the teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many have done so in the past, but we are united in our conviction that our respective faiths teach us to come together in mutual respect and peace. May we soon see the day when our Jewish, Christian and Muslim co-religionists in the Middle East will be able to stand together as we do today.
May it be Your will, our God . . . Adonay . . . Allah . . . the God of our ancestors, to remove war and the shedding of blood from the world, may You inspire us to embed peace throughout the world and bring to fruition the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” May all who dwell on earth acknowledge and know that we did not come into this world for contention and or hate or jealousy or bloodshed. We have only come into this world in order to acknowledge You, who is eternally blessed. Therefore, we ask that You have mercy on us and that You establish through us the words of the Torah in Leviticus: “…and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid.” (26:5-6)
Mourning Nelson Mandela
December 15, 2013 / West End Tabernacle Baptist Church, Providence, Rhode Island
I hope it is not a surprise to the African communities of Rhode Island that so many other faith and ethnic communities are here with you today. We certainly express our condolences on the loss of South Africa’s extraordinary leader, and it is easy to recall Nelson Mandela’s most admirable qualities. I am here this afternoon, representing the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, and the greater Rhode Island Jewish community, to tell you that we not only stand with you as your friends in your loss, but we, too, mourn the death of this great man.
As we move deeper into the 21st century, it is inevitable that we will be taking leave of the iconic leaders of the 20th century. Last week we lost Nelson Mandela, the 20th century embodiment of integrity, courage, focus and wisdom.
There have been many expressions of respect, mourning and identification with President Mandela from Jewish communities around the world, as well as the South African Jewish community itself. At this moment, no one would want to distance themselves from a leader that commands such universal respect. The rhetoric of admiration takes on greater meaning when those words refer to a man truly worthy of praise.
I'd like to suggest, though, that we can appreciate the unique strength and vision of President Mandela by spending a few moments examining a moment of contention in his leadership. For the relationship between the Jews, Israel and Nelson Mandela were not always the most amicable.
I want to share something hard with your this afternoon: Israel long supported, and sold arms to, the South African regime that oppressed and imprisoned Mr. Mandela and Israel was among the last nations of the world to join in isolating South Africa at the end of Apartheid. I was living in Israel during those years and I can tell you that for many of us in Israel, this policy was disturbing to say the least.
At the same time, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were publicly staunch supporters of Mr. Mandela and the ANC. The two liberation movements were drawn together by the parallels they perceived in their respective experiences.
Given this background, Mr. Mandela's attitude toward Israel and toward the conflicts in the Middle East are very impressive: rather than being drawn into a partisan relationship with the Palestinian people, Nelson Mandela assessed the parties involved through the lens of his own wisdom and experience.
Indeed, according to an article published last week in the newspaper The Times of Israel, Nelson Mandela had the clear vision and presence of mind to use the occasion of his own presidential inauguration to bring the conflicting parties of the Middle East together.
"In May that year , both Arafat and Israeli president Ezer Weizman were invited to Mandela’s inauguration ceremony. Since the two leaders had never met, Mandela decided soon afterward to invite them to participate in his first official working meeting as president. After a short discussion, he took them to a separate room and asked them to “sit here and talk until you finalize everything.”
In other contexts, President Mandela publicly expressed his support for a secure and stable Israel, acknowledged personal ties with South African Jews who had stood by his side in his youth, and had even commented, on the eve of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, that Yitzhak Rabin was more deserving of that prize than himself. The man whose passing we mourn today modeled for us the power of loyalty without partisan politics; courage married to independent and clear thought; and the indestructible presence of a man committed to the highest and purest values.
In our culture of growing polarization, in politics, in economics, in religion . . . a voice of balance and integrity like Mr. Mandela's should be exalted. And the loss of such a voice is most deeply mourned.
In Judaism we refer to those we have lost with the phrase: זכרונו לברכה: May his memory serve as a blessing. We are, at that moment, committing to live by the deceased’s most admirable qualities, committing to live the life lessons we have learned from the person we have lost…with the clear conviction that embodying those qualities will, indeed, bring blessing to our lives.
Nelson Mandela would grant to every people, every nation, the same right of self-determination, the same right to basic security and basic prosperity that he sought for all the people of South Africa, Palestine and Isarel. These are, indeed, blessings.
Nelson Mandela, זכרונו לברכה, May his memory serve as a blessing.
Rosh Hashanah 2007
We have two terms that describe the season of the Jewish year that is peaking in intensity in the next ten days or so . . . we call it: The High Holidays or we call it The Days of Awe. I much prefer the latter term:
The Days of Awe because, in Judaism, we don’t really have a concept of a holiday being high. I’m not even sure how I would explain what a High Holy Day is in Jewish terms beyond important.
Days of Awe, on the other hand, resonates deeply in the Jewish soul. Awe has been an element of Jewish existence from the outset. Indeed, in a quick review of the text of the, I found close to thirty verses containing one form or another of the word awe. want to explore with you the concept of awe aided by three sources: the Torah, the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and a one-woman show written for Lily Tomlin by her partner, Jane Wagner: these are the Days of Awe, and the insights of these three sources will, if all goes well, help us to infuse our experience together over the coming days. In common parlance, something that is awesome is something that stirs in us a feeling of wonder, leaving us speechless, perhaps, a bit overwhelmed.
Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that: Ultimate meaning and ultimate wisdom are not found within the world but in God, and the only way to wisdom . . . is through our relationship to God. That relationship is awe. The beginning of wisdom, says the psalmist, is awe of Adonay Awe is the perceptual equivalent of climbing to the top of a hill in order to acquire a bird’s eye view. Awe opens up to us the possibility of attaining the comprehensive perspective that would allow us to see the whole and not just the parts . . . the forest, and the trees. Thus Heschel and the author of the 111th psalm both contend that awe is the relationship with God that will lead us to ultimate meaning and ultimate wisdom. I wish we were sitting in a more intimate setting right now, because I would truly love to have you share with all of us the thoughts, images and associations that come to your mind when you contemplate awe:
I hope your thoughts turn to the breathtaking beauty, the incomprehensible complexity, the infinite variety, the brilliant and intricate interface of organic systems that comprise the world we experience as human beings. The mountains that have given you pause, the human beings you have most admired, the food that has nourished you, the music that has touched the core of your being.
I hope your thoughts turn to the enriching vocabulary of associations, the deeply wise values and practices, the perpetually and dynamically evolving community and the infinitely present God that comprise the world we experience as Jews. Dancing with joy with the Torah scroll in your arms, the feel of your grandmotherís matzah balls, whether fluffy or dense, under your spoon, the bittersweet memories stirred up by the words: the heart-lifting pride and hope evoked by the sight of a blue star and two blue stripes on a field of white.
The range of memories, emotions, associations, experiences, sensations that are all part of our existence are impossible to take in all at once . . . unless we climb up to the top of the mountain of awe, and attempt to comprehend through the wider perspective of our relationship with God.
It is through awe that we can attain ultimate understanding of both the trees and the forest:
In a number of verses in Leviticus the following phrase repeats: You will be in awe of your God, I am Adonay. Each of those phrases is preceded by a mitzvah establishing a standard of sensitivity to others: You will not curse the deaf and will not put a stumbling block before the blind.. . You will stand in the presence of the gray-haired and will see the face of the elderly as beautiful. One person will not deceive another.. . . and in each of these instances the next words: You will be in awe of your God, I am Adonay.
The connection between awe and respect for every human being is profound. It is awe, it is knowing the world through the high ground of the perspective of God, that gives us the awareness to cherish every individual human being we encounter. Heschel writes: The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in his essence. You will not curse the deaf and will not put a stumbling block before the blind. . . You will stand in the presence of the gray-haired and will ascribe beauty to the face of the elderly. One person will not deceive another.. . . You will be in awe of your God, I am Adonay.
With awe as the dynamic of our relationship with God, it is fascinating that the Torah uses the same term for our relationship with our parents: person will be in awe of their mother and their father . . As children, it is our parents who have the big picture whose perspective of life and the world we grow to rely on gives us a sense of security and a sense of belonging. As small children, we are thrilled to sit on our father’s shoulders and see the world from his towering perspective . . . As adults, our awe of God can do the same thing. In Deuteronomy (10:12) we read: And now, Israel, what does Adonay your God ask of you but to be in awe of Adonay your God, to walk in His ways and to love Him . . . As much as God commands awe of us, startlingly, God also asks it of us.
In other usages, the Hebrew word can mean fear. We see this in Psalm 27, the Psalm we began reciting on a daily basis a month ago: Adonay is my light and my salvation . . . who shall I fear? But Torah does not exhort us to fear God, for, as Heschel points out: Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it.
I had an incredible experience a few years ago sitting in the audience of a one-woman show of Lily Tomlin’s called The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe. Among the characters Tomlin brings to life is a shopping-cart bag lady on the streets of New York called Trudy. Trudy is either schizophrenic or prophetic, or both. Her memory often fails her and like all psychotics (if she is one) she lives in a world of her own design that overlaps what we would perceive as reality in telling ways. In Trudy’s world she plays hostess and tour guide to aliens who have come to earth to look for signs of intelligent life, she calls them her space chums. Every day, Trudy tries to show them some great experience that will help them to understand the human condition. We join her as she describes trying to explain certain human emotions to her space chums.
Just listen . . . amazing . . . in my head, I can still hear that violin concert.
What is it in our brains that lets us recall the music after it’s over? Why is it when we hear certain music we get a lump in our throat? My space chums wonder how come we don’t get the lump in our ear. They’re impressed with our ability to get lumps in the throat. Apparently, we’re unique in that respect. They wanted to know if it felt anything like goose bumps. I said, You never felt goose bumps, either? They said, No. They asked me to explain goose bumps-do they come from the heart?
Do they come from the soul? Do they come from the brain?
Or do they come from geese?
Heschel wrote: ìWhat we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.
But Trudy, trying to explain goose bumps to her space chums, explains it even better:
This set us waxing philosophic! All this searching. All these trances, all this data, and all we really know is how little we know about what it all means. Plus, there’s the added question of what it means to know something. Scientists say for every deep truth discovered, the opposite is also true. So when we get the feeling we’re going around in circles-no wonder, we are
They said, Trudy, we see now, intelligence is just the tip of the iceberg. The more you know, the less knowing the meaning of things means. So forget the meaning of life I didn’t tell them, of course, I had. See, it’s not so much what we know, but how we know, and what it is about us that needs to know. Even this feeling we get in the pit of our stomach when we contemplate how meaningless it all seems is part of the mystery. And the more meaningless,then the greater the mystery.
Next, they insisted I take them somewhere so they could get goose bumps. They were dying to see what it was like I decided maybe we should take in a play. I got goose bumps once that way.'So we headed back toward Shubert Alley. On the way to the play, we stopped to look at the stars.
And as usual, I felt in awe. And then I felt even deeper in awe at this capacity we have to be in awe about something.
Then I became even more awestruck at the thought that I was in some small way a part of that which I was in awe about. And this feeling went on and on and on . . . . My space chums got a word for it: awe infinitum. Because at the point you can comprehend how incomprehensible it all is you’re about as smart as you need to be. Suddenly I burst into song: Awe, sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found thee.
And I felt so good inside, and my heart felt so full, I decided I would set time aside each day to do awe-robics. Because at the moment you are most in awe of all there is about life that you don’t understand you are closer to understanding it all than at any other time I’m telling you, I sat in that theater and wondered when Jane Wagner, the author of this soliloquy on awe, had had an opportunity to study theology with Abraham Joshua Heschel. Here is her character, her bag lady Trude, understanding exactly what awe is for Because at the moment you are most in awe of all there is about life that you don’t understand you are closer to understanding it all than at any other time. I love Wagner’s term: awe-infinitum Heschel’s words echo through Trudy’s musings
Awe, wrote Heschel, ìis the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. . . . awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. And as Trudy gazes at the stars she muses Then I became even more awestruck at the thought that I was in some small way part of that which I was in awe about. And this feeling went on and on and on . . . . . My space chums got a word for it awe infinitum. Because at the point you can comprehend how incomprehensible it all is you’re about as smart as you need to be. Trudy, schizophrenic or prophetic, is magnificent in her ability to engage in awe. She is our role model, teaching us to avoid the narrowing of our horizons when we dispense with or pull away from awe. Heschel teachs us the same lesson: Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you. Awe is the key to wisdom and perspective. Awe is the key to helping us see the divine in each other. Awe is the key to understanding our world and our place in it. Awe is the key to our relationship with God. These are, indeed, our Days of Awe . . . we are, indeed, going to be practicing awe-robics together and, I pray, attain together wisdom and perspective, mutual regard and a sense of belonging . . . and most of all a deeper relationship with God.
Rosh Hashanah 2011
Whenever I visit Israel, my daughter Adina takes a day off of work and plans a “girls day out” for us somewhere in the greater Tel Aviv area where she lives and works.
This summer, Adina arranged an extraordinary experience for us: we went to Holon, a city just south of Tel Aviv, to the children’s museum. We were going to spend an hour and a quarter in total darkness and experience for that fleeting time what it is like to move through the world as a blind person. Our group of 8 ranges from a ten year old boy to a seventy-something grandmother. We are given a few moments of perfunctory instruction on using a cane and then our guide, Yehuda, calls us to join him in a very strong, deep, gravelly voice. He gives us a few guidelines, we will be walking through a number of every day settings, we can stay close to the wall most of the time but there will be times that we will move more freely around the space to explore. At the end of each "scene" we are to follow his voice through a door to the next scene. He will double back to make sure no one is left behind and then will close the door between the two scenes and we will explore the next area. Yehuda is blind. All the exhibit guides are blind.
I stepped through the doorway, stepped around a corner and suddenly it was pitch black, absolutely not a glimmer of light. I heard Yehuda calling us to enter just ahead. He asked for a sort of roll call, asking us each to tell him our names as we entered. I tell Yehuda my name and feel a very strong hand guide me past him to the right. Just standing still I can not tell if there is open space in front of me or a wall. I freeze. I know I am in a safe space and I know that there are people coming in behind me and for a moment I am at a complete loss. Then I remember my cane. I sweep it along the ground in front of me and find I can take a few hesitating steps. When my cane encounters a wall and my free hand finds a railing, I am able to move forward with much more confidence. It feel a little like I am cheating, but at least I can make room for the people in our group who are coming in behind me.
A few steps more and I hear birds chirping and water running. Through the cane, I can feel the difference between spongy grass and a gravelly path. My face is brushed with the leaves of a tree and then I feel the trunk with my cane. I find that my greatest concern is to hold on to the cane for dear life.
Yehuda herds us through the door and asks us to identify the objects we encounter. I hear people around me exclaiming over a kitchen counter, a table and chairs, a stove top, pot and kettle. There is something very reassuring about touching these familiar objects. In this kitchen scenario, though, the pots and kettles and plates are all glued to the surfaces that hold them. In a real kitchen, I am sure most of those objects would have wound up on the floor in no time. And so we move on to a short boat ride, a city street, an outdoor produce market and finally a snack bar.
We are still moving through pitch blackness, I’m cautiously moving forward, following Yehudah’s voice and directions and grasping onto hand rails whenever I can find one. All this time, I’ve got the loop at the end of my cane wrapped around my wrist and my fingers wrapped firmly around my cane. My dependence on my cane has developed very quickly. The snack bar is a real one. Neither Adina nor I are interested in the very familiar selection of Israeli chocolate bars and salty snacks on the menu but it is challenging just trying to track all the information as the girl behind the counter rattles off the names of items for sale and their prices. Yehuda guides us to seats and sits with us around a table. He tells us about his life (he was born with sight and went blind as a child). Then there is silence, the scrape of a chair, and then music. Yehuda is serenading us at a piano and singing with that great deep voice of his. He sings a ballad that included the words, in Hebrew, of course: "if only I could see you!"
When Adina told me what we were going to be doing, I thought, this could be the basis of a great High Holiday sermon . . . hmm . . . probably about trust. But it turns out that the quality that declared itself to me as the defining characteristic of the blind is courage. Surrounded by the sounds of buses and car horns, and the beep of backing up trucks, in that experience with Yehuda, I could barely make myself move forward . . . and I knew I was in a simulated environment and totally safe. How does someone who is completely blind even leave the house, I thought to myself. So this sermon inspired by my hour and a half as a blind person is about courage. About the courage it takes to move through the world when there is so much around us we cannot see.
Vision is a dynamic element throughout the Torah and Jewish tradition. The role of “seeing” in our sources reminds us that there is much more to be seen than just what can be perceived by a healthy functioning eye communicating with a healthy functioning brain.
I caught a McDonald’s commercial on television a while ago . . . cute kids are peering into the Happy Meals packages because, the voice over explains, there’s hope in those meals. “I don’t see any hope in here!” “Hope? Where’s the hope?” They say . . . and we viewers watch and say “aw, what cute innocent little kids not understanding that the hope is in the penny out of the purchase price that McDonald’s donates to their Ronald McDonald House program. At that age, kids might still be looking for hope at the bottom of a Happy Meal box and we may consider their search to be disarming and innocent and a symbol of their adorable cluelessness.
Actually, we adults are very adept at “seeing” things that are not visible to the physical eye: My Rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, talks about the conversation between the developmental psychologists watching one toddler grabbing a toy from another toddler: “Look at that ego!” One psychologist comments to the other. There are signals and behaviors that we interpret without even thinking too much about them by virtue of how, where and when we were raised. The psychologist’s remark is perfectly comprehensive to us even though there is no object “ego” in the room with the toddlers.
The gift of sight that God has given us has the potential to go far beyond the visible: A few weeks ago, we read in Deuteronomy:
ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה
See, I am placing before you today a blessing and a curse.
There were other verbs at God’s disposal at the moment of the revelation of the book of Deuteronomy: “sh’ma” . . . listen . . . might have made sense here. Which makes the choice of the verb “see” even more engaging.
But God urges us in this passage to see the blessing and the curse placed before us at any given moment. Blessing and curse are tucked away in the landscape around us at every single moment . . . and we are groping around holding onto the handrails and waving our canes. How do we step out into the world, make decisions, make alliances, align ourselves with or against personalities or causes or principles knowing that we might inadvertently bump up against a blessing or a curse before we know it. That is the courage we who are conventionally sighted must muster in order to engage in the world.
In today’s Torah reading, Abraham does some profound seeing . . . or not seeing: on hearing God’s instruction to journey Avraham gathers up all he needs for the sacrifice he thinks God is requiring of him, and travels with Isaac and two young servants for three days. And then, the Torah relates, Avraham raised up his eyes and saw the place. That place, tradition tells us, is Mount Moriah . . . the site where the Temple in Jerusalem will one day be built . . . but right now it’s a mountain in the wilderness covered with some scrub brushes. Father and son, walking toward that mountain. And the son, bright kid that he is, asks . . . I see you’ve brought along everything you need for a sacrifice except for the actual animal, Pops. And Avraham responds: It is God who will yeira’eh . . . make seen . . . the sheep, my son. And at the penultimate moment, with knife raised, Avraham is stopped by the angel, raises his eyes again, and . . . sees. Seeing the curse, seeing the blessing . . . if you took a look at the marginal notes during the Torah reading, you’ll have seen that there is a midrashic tradition that says that that ram had been caught in that bush since before creation . . . the blessing was tucked into the landscape the whole time, but Avraham was blind to it until God couldn’t stand it any more.
You’ve probably heard that, deprived of one sense, our other senses become sharper, trying to compensate for the loss. It’s not such a gradual process . . . the first piece of information I had that I was moving into an outdoor space back at the children’s museum was aroma . . . I smelled the freshness of green things, then I heard the stream of water and the birds. I very deliberately began to call each of my remaining senses to the task of gleaning as much information about my surroundings as possible. The mental picture of my surroundings that I was able to construct from my senses of hearing, touch and taste was pretty rich . . . but still inadequate. All I could account for were those things that were close enough to be smelled, heard or tasted . . . there was no way to perceive what was around the corner . . . or even where the corner was.
I was moving through that constructed world on blind faith . . . the faith of the blind. We all do it, you know, because God knows, our sense of wherein lies the blessing and the curse is fairly undeveloped. . . or atrophied . . . I’m not sure which.
In modern parlance blind faith gets a bad rap with its connotations of mindlessly and sightlessly and unquestioningly following another’s lead. Headlines are chock full of victims who followed the wrong person with blind faith.
But the faith of the blind is another matter: In my controlled, short experience as a blind person trying to navigate an unseen world, I was acutely aware of my inability to comprehend the landscape around me. I stuck my hand into a bin at the produce market and knew my fingers were wrapped around an orange . . . but I couldn’t know that the next bin held apples until my hand reached in there. I couldn’t know the ground was sloping down without sensing that slope with my cane, I couldn’t know I was about to literally hit a wall without the warning of my cane.
I put my faith in my cane, I trusted what it told me and accepted that my cane could reveal things to me that I could not perceive on my own. And I was deeply aware that I was mustering the courage to place that faith in my cane. It wasn’t natural and those first few steps I took by grasping that cane and perceiving the world through that cane were terrifying . . . I was stepping out into thin air for all I could see with my eyes.
Do you remember what I said yesterday about the eitzei hayyim of the Torah scroll? Those wooden dowels . . . rather cane-shaped . . . are referred to as “trees of life” and the verse we sing as we return our Torah scrolls to the ark is: eitz hayyim hi . . .
It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it, those who are supported by it are happy, its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”
If we were to muster the courage to grasp on to the Torah with blind faith we would acquire the ability to perceive, to see, the blessing and the curse so present at every moment and in every place around us. The faith is blind faith, not because we follow blindly, mindlessly . . . but because we are blind to so many profound truths without the aid of the Torah to make that blessing and curse perceptible and comprehensible.
I pray that we all are blessed with that kind of courage in this new year.
Be A Mentsch
Yom Kippur 2012
Over the last eight years or so, I’ve developed a deep affection and profound respect for one member of this congregation: please, I’m not saying that in over eight years I’ve only developed deep affection and profound respect for one of you . . . I’m just setting the stage for one particular vignette. I am not going to name names, but some of you may be able to guess: This is a person who has weathered years of grueling health challenges, I’ve visited this person in the hospital more times over the last few years than either of us would prefer to count. Through it all, this person has kept a smile on his face; maintained a realistic and yet positive attitude; and every once in while has shared with me some of the life wisdom he has acquired over the years. I am in awe of this person’s mentschlichkeit, his spirit, his inner strength.
A few months ago, during yet another hospital visit, this person said to me, “You know, Rabbi, my philosophy is you can decide to be a . . . well, something of an expletive . . . or you can decide to be a mentsch. It’s up to you. There’s nothing stopping you being either.”
In a few characteristically succinct words, our chaver, our TY member, summed up a great Jewish truth: there are so many things out of our control, so many outside forces that push us in one direction or another: illness and accident, economic forces, decisions made for us by bosses, parameters set for us by parents or spouses . . . that’s a short list . . . but there is one thing that is absolutely up to us: we can each decide to be a mentsch . . . or not to be a mentsch.
If you’re not exactly sure what a mentsch is, here’s a story that might help:
We’re in a little Jewish village in eastern Europe, a shtetl, and the village “shtinker” has just died. Yossl was a guy nobody liked. In his long life he had managed to alienate everybody in the village; he short-changed his customers, he kicked dogs, he never gave tzedakah, he’d walk into shul and start picking on everything and everybody . . . and then would walk out without helping, he yelled at kids playing too close to his front door, he’d shut the door in the face of anyone showing up with the temerity to ask him to come help make a minyan, he held grudges for so long he couldn’t even remember his sister’s name: Yossl was a shtinker.
The whole village showed up for his funeral.
Mostly because everybody was wondering what kind of hesped/eulogy the rabbi could possibly deliver about this guy. The rabbi was getting desperate and did some intense praying just before the funeral. And enlightenment did come. The hesped was short and sweet:
“Friends,” the rabbi said, “friends, Yossl was just like Yaakov, Jacob our patriarch!” Murmuring in the crowd . . . “Like Jacob? How can that be?”
“More than that, friends,” the rabbi continued, “our departed Yossl was the embodiment of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher.” The murmuring picked up intensity . . . “Like Moses!!! No, there’s something wrong here . . .”
“Actually, friends,” the rabbi concluded, “right here in our little village was Yossl, who was just like the Kadosh Baruch Hu, The Holy One!” Shouts of protest rose from the crowd. At which point the rabbi quickly moved into kaddish and made a quick exit to his study.
There was a crowd right outside the rabbi’s door, and a few of his closest students managed to get in before the door was locked. “Rebbe,” they pleaded. “You have to explain your hesped, your eulogy, to us. Everyone here knew Yossl and was hurt or insulted or embarrassed by him at least once. What can you mean by comparing that shtinker (zichrono livracha . . . may his memory be a blessing) to Jacob the patriarch, Moshe our teacher and then to God himself! People think you’ve lost your senses!”
The rabbi gazed serenely back at his students, and the president of the shul who had also managed to squeeze into the study, and replied. “I haven’t lost my senses and every word I uttered about Yossl (zichrono livrachah, may his memory be a blessing) was absolutely true:
Our patriarch Jacob was a cowardly, deceitful liar . . . so was Yossl.
Moshe rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, when God first approached him, had a stutter and didn’t know how to talk to people. Well, Yossl didn’t know how to talk to people, either.”
“But God!” protested the students.
“Yes, God,” insisted the rabbi. “God is no mentsch. Yossl was no mentsch, either.”
A mentsch: literally a mentsch is a person, a human being . . . but the rich, juicy Yiddish import of the word goes far beyond “a human being.” A “mentsch” is a person with a good heart; a “mentsch” is a person who tries to live by the Jewish values of humility and honesty, who strives to see the good in every person they meet; a “mentsch” is reliable and knows how to be a good friend.
There are lots of ways we wind up doing “unmentschlich” things: we treat cashiers like automated check out machines, we judge people by the quality of their clothes or haircuts, we expect the world to customize and adapt to meet our own particular tastes and preferences and carp when the fit isn’t exactly right, we blame the victim and we forget to call our mothers.
Yom Kippur is an extraordinary institution: an entire day set aside for introspection . . . where am I falling short? where am I doing better? have I hurt anyone? disappointed anyone? have I made anyone feel special, appreciated, valued? Am I a mentsch or a shtinker?
Odds are we’re mentsch’s some of the time and shtinkers some of the time. That’s the reality of our human characters: sometimes we get it right; sometimes we don’t get it right. Sometimes we try to get it right; sometimes we don’t even bother.
A traditional teaching from the rabbinic literature explains that all our actions are laid out on a balance scale. As we pause to decide at any given moment how we will act or react, we hold the entire balance of that scale in our power: a mentschlich act will tip the scale to the side of good, a selfish, self-serving act will tip the scale to the side of evil. Each moment, each decision, we once again have the power to tip the scale to one side or the other.
The power of this image is that it is never too late to make a change that will put us on a better track for the rest of our lives. No matter what we have done or what we have not done up until now, God is waiting for us to turn around, to return, to review our choices and to decide that we can make changes for the good.
No matter what we did, or did not do in the past, the doors of teshuvah are still open. The invitation is on the table. We may not be able to undo the past; we may not be able to repair all the damage we have caused, but we can become a better version of ourselves, going forward.
What is the essence of being a mentsch . . . the essence of humanity?
Christopher Hitchens, in his extraordinary memoir of dying entitled Mortality, wrote:
“We may not be, as we used to boast, the only animals capable of speech. But we are the only ones who can deploy vocal communications for sheer pleasure and recreation, combining it with our two other boasts of reason and humor.”
So the brilliant and yet confirmed atheist, Christopher Hitchens, would suggest that certain kinds of vocal communications, reason and humor are the elements that differentiate we humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Science, the human enterprise of pursuing knowledge through trial-and-error testing of theories, is often set up in a dichotomy with faith. All that is human, posits the non-believing scientist, can be pinned down, quantified, categorized, analyzed through physics and chemistry . . . or that’s the theory, anyway. Those delving into the science of the mind and the brain report that our minds are like computers but we just don’t know yet where the CPU of our mind is located. Much of the time we are given the impression that, if we knew all the mechanics of our minds, we would have everything figured out. And, the implication often is that, if that time would come, then we would not need religion any longer because if we knew more about how our minds and our bodies work, then everything about our life would be clear and we would be released from the murky superstitions of religion.
Science, we are told, can explain our behavior - even our desire to be ethical. We are told that it might have something to do with “survival of the fittest” or “survival of the species”. If we help one another, we have a better chance of survival.
I have no intention of entering into a “science vs religion” debate this evening (if you’re interested, we can look into that another time) but I was fascinated this summer to find that for years an international team of physicists had been collaborating on the search for the key to the universe, the extraordinarily elusive particle that makes matter possible. The official name of that particle is the Higgs boson . . . but those involved in the search for the last fifteen years or so have been calling it “the God particle.”
. . . can’t live with God . . . can’t live without God!
Truly, I would dismiss neither the erudite atheism of Hitchens nor the awe in the Creator generated by the deepest, most sophisticated explorations of our universe instilled in some world-class physicists.
They are all engaged in our question: what is a mentsch?
We are all capable of positing the question and proposing a myriad of responses precisely because we are human, we are mentschen.
We are self-aware.
Animals lovers, myself included, will contend knowingly, based on our experiences, that animals . . . well dogs, anyway . . . have souls: our dogs love us, don’t they? put their heads in our laps when we’re crying, right? But the brightest of dogs does not contemplate dogginess.
We alone, of all God’s vast, breathtaking, complex and varied creation, are self-aware.
I can take a dog that consistently pulls on a leash, and through more or less exhaustive repetition of a few motions, (depending largely on how food-motivated that dog is), I can train that dog to stop pulling. There is no doggy self-reflection: I can be a good dog or I can be a bad dog, which do I choose? The dog isn’t making a moral choice to start cooperating, the dog is learning a new pattern of behavior through a simple calculation: I don’t get a treat when I’m in front of her, I do get a treat when I’m next to her.
Our decision-making, on the other hand, is way more complex: confronted with the decision, say, to look that waitress in the eye and remember her name, or treat her like Rosie the robot from the Jetsons . . . a mechanism for food delivery . . . we can unthinkingly be stinkers, or we can deliberately activate our self-awareness, our mentschlichkeit, our best humanity, and look her in the eye, call her by her name, and thank her for her service. And leave a nice tip, too, please . . . wait staff are often paid minimum wage, which is not sufficient to cover the costs of rent, food, transportation and utilities.
Sitting in the doctor’s office next to a guy in black jeans, a black t-shirt and tattoos . . . we can unthinkingly be stinkers and shrink back into our seat, avoid eye contact and spend the next twenty minutes wishing that there had been another empty seat in the waiting room, or we can deliberately activate our self-awareness, our mentschlichkeit, our best humanity, and give the guy a friendly nod and smile as we sit down.
Walking into a synagogue event that has been planned and produced by volunteers and staff, we can unthinkingly be stinkers, cast a critical eye around the room and start carping about everything that’s wrong, get people riled up, or we can deliberately activate our self-awareness, our mentschlichkeit, our best humanity and express appreciation for all the hard work and effort that has been done for the good of our congregation. And then contribute to the good of our congregation by bringing some helpful suggestions to the table afterwards.
Receiving an appeal for food to fill the shelves of local food closets, we can be stinkers and blame the victims . . . if they weren’t so lazy, if they would be willing to do some hard work . . . or we can deliberately activate our self-awareness, our mentschlichkeit, our best humanity and respond to the appeal with a full to over-flowing shopping bag full of nourishing food.
Coming to the end of a long week, we can be stinkers, not call our mother . . . because we’re just not in the mood for her unsolicited advice or her probing questions about our weight, or the kids’ grades or whatever . . . or we can activate our self-awareness, our mentschlichkeit, our best humanity and wish her a Shabbat Shalom and let her know that out of sight is not out of mind.
We are given opportunities, not just once a day, but several times a day, to choose to be a mentsch. As our wise chaver, our wise TY member commented: You just have to decide if you want to be a mentsch or not.
Yom Kippur is all about our ability to confront our humanity; to own our decisions, and to take responsibility for our actions.
For us, as Jews, our Jewish heritage gives us a living framework within which we can hone our ability to make mentschlich choices; our brit, our covenant with God, constitutes a system that encourages us to think beyond our own selves – to care for those we love and to take care of those who are weak and struggling in our society.
Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to examine the choices we have been making and to tweak our plan for the coming year. And during the ten days of teshuvah, and most especially on Yom Kippur, God is waiting for us to do this precious spiritual work so that we come out of Yom Kippur with the inspiration to become a better version of ourselves this coming year.
God wants us to succeed.
A story is told about a Hebrew school child who was once asked by his teacher, “Can you tell me who made you?” The child answered, “God made me.” The teacher smiled and said, “Very good.” Then the child continued and said: “Yes, but God only made a part of me.” Puzzled by his answer, the teacher questioned him further, “What do you mean – that God only made a part of you?” The child replied proudly, “Well, you see, God made me real little and I just grew the rest myself.”
What a gift, to be able to “grow ourselves.” Especially if our goal is to grow ourselves into mentsches. Here is the day to make this resolution . . . to determine that we are very deliberately going to choose the mentschlich choice more often than not, to tip the balance of those scales over and over again to the good. To pursue humility and integrity, compassion and intellectual curiosity, to be a blessing to those around us and to ourselves.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote a prayer that embodies for me so much of this essential pursuit of being a better human being and a better Jew . . . along with the precious, spirit-reviving knowledge that every day will present new opportunities to grow the rest ourselves:
It Is Never Too Late
The last word has not been spoken,
the last sentence has not been written,
the final verdict is not in.
It is never too late
to change my mind,
to say no to the past
and yes to the future,
to offer remorse,
to ask and give forgiveness.
It is never too late
to start over again,
to feel again
to love again
to hope again . . . .
Rabbi Harold Schulweis
Supporting rabbis, lay leaders and synagogue professionals in envisioning and achieving aspirational goals; optimizing communications within and beyond congregational communities; offering Jewish learning that demonstrates the timeless wisdom of Jewish sources as we grapple with contemporary challenges; education and communication; optimizing my experience in Israel and the United States to bring these two Jewish communities closer.
Community and Interfaith
2012- 2014 President, The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island. Created the Board’s first website; guided the drafting and passage of two public statements (on gun control and marriage equality); testified before the Rhode Island State Senate Judiciary Committee in support of marriage equality legislation; built bridges between the Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy in our region.
2012 -14 Founding Member, Voices of Faith. Collaborating with interfaith clergy in establishing a new interfaith organization, Voices of Faith. www.voices-of-faith.org
November 2011 Convener: "The Genesis of Islam In America" travelling exhibit at Temple Torat Yisrael. With the support of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Reverend Don Anderson of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches and Imam Farid Ansari of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement and I brought a travelling exhibit on the history of Islam in the United States, mounted at my synagogue, the first synagogue to host this exhibit. We accompanied the exhibit with three evening of programs; a lecture by the curator of the exhibit, a film and discussion and a panel discussion.
2007-2012 Vice-President, Rhode Island Board of Rabbis. Represented the Board of Rabbis on the board of the area’s Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Voice and Herald, stood in for the president at speaking engagements, when needed.
2003-2004 Pastoral Services Director, Temple Beth Sholom, Las Vegas, Nevada. Chaplaincy in local hospitals and hospice for Jewish patients, supervision of rabbinic intern; pastoral counseling, and support for families; training members of the congregation in the mitzvah of bikur holim (visiting the sick); establishing a committee to develop other support services the congregation can provide for the ill and their families.
2001-2003 Alachua County Rabbinical Association representative to the board of the Jewish Council of North Central Florida (Federation).
1998-2000 Israel representative to Religion Counts at the UN. Addressed the UN Commission on Population and Development at The Hague and the UN General Assembly in New York providing perspective from Jewish sources and Israeli experience in conservation and comprehensive health and education services.
1994 - Founding Member, The Brenda Fund. Brenda Kaufman Berman z”l, the only other woman in my rabbinical school class, died under tragic circumstances at the age of 31. I helped her family conceptualize the establishment of the Brenda Fund which provides Masorti congregations in Israel with small grants to advance social action projects.
Teaching and Mentoring
2011-2012 Instructor, The Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem. I've designed and taught courses for the summer Conservative Yeshiva session on Kabbalat Shabbat and The Akedah/Binding of Isaac.
2008-2012 Mentor, JTS Legacy Heritage Rabbinic Fellowship Program. Coached senior rabbinical student fellows and lay leadership on all aspects of the students’ work in the congregations. Conducted on-site visits and evaluations.
1999-2000 Instructor of Talmud and Jewish Law, The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem. Courses for US rabbinical and cantorial students studying at the Schechter Institute.
1997-2000 Teacher of Talmud and Jewish Law, Hebrew Union College, the Liberal Yeshivah.
1978-1980 Vice-Principal, Academy for Jewish Studies High School, Essex County, New Jersey. From inception with 25 students to over 100 two years later.
Honors, Public Appearances
February 2015 Panelist Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges, Mid-Annual Meeting. Opening program: a response to the one act play "Anne and Emmett".
2014 Keynote Speaker, 18th Annual Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, Bryant University, Smithfield, Rhode Island.
2013 Faith Leader of the Year, The Rhode Island State Council of Churches
2012 Presenter, The First International Jerusalem Symposium on Green and Accessible Pilgrimage, convened by Naomi Tsur, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem. I travelled to Jerusalem with Imam Farid Ansari, president of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement and Reverend Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. You can see my presentation on this site.
2009 Scholar in Residence, Women's League International Convention.
2015-16 Interim Rabbi, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, Bridgeport, Connecticut: As this venerable congregation faced existential leadership challenges and examined the viability of the congregation itself, I supported two sets of lay leaders, stepped up communications within the congregation, helped craft a functional transition from one Executive Committee to a new EC, sustained a full educational program and provided pastoral support to a demographically older congregation.
2014 - 15 Interim Rabbi, Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: I was invited to serve this congregation in transition and apply my training in congregational consulting to the congregation's challenges. Our process involved identifying internal issues that needed to be addressed and creating a dynamic of congregational conversation leading to the discernment of this community's priorities and challenges. Our work together enabled the leadership and membership to feel optimistic about this (wonderful!) congregation's future. We successfully concluded a search for Beth Shalom's next Senior Rabbi, reconfigured the administrative staff and prepared optimal conditions for the new long-term rabbi's work.
2004 - 2014 Rabbi, Temple Torat Yisrael, East Greenwich, Rhode Island: During the interview process, I was told that the congregation was either going to move to East Greenwich from Cranston (where it had been for 60 years), fold, or merge. I guided the congregation through restoring the credibility of the lay leadership, rebuilding a sense of community, building a consensus to move, setting up and providing professional support for the capital campaign, reviving a flagging religious education system and ultimately moving to East Greenwich. I set up and maintained the synagogue website with a member of the congregation and developed effective communication through blast e-mail and a blog (also on the site.) We completed construction in May 2013 and celebrated the Hanukat Bayit/dedication of Torat Yisrael's new building in June 2013. Upon my decision not to renew my contract with the congregation, I advised the search committee and helped them identify a successor and prepared the way for his arrival in the congregation.
2000- 2003 Rabbi, Congregation B’nai Israel, Gainesville: developed a more “user-friendly” service; healed rifts between a number of different sub-groups; enhanced holiday celebrations; initiated outreach programming; established standards for the education offered by both the religious school and the congregation’s day school; expanded adult and family education programs; provided pastoral counseling services; advanced wider participation in services; promoted congregational fundraising efforts; active in interfaith and inter-denominational affairs; represented the Jewish community at municipal and county events; navigated a successful transition following a rabbi who had served the congregation for 21 years.
1998-2000 Rabbi, Kehillat Hafetz Hesed, Jerusalem. Lead congregation from inception in my living room to a move to public space and the establishment of a local presence.
1995-1998 Rabbi, The Masorti Family Congregation of Beit HaKerem, Jerusalem. Served as the congregation’s first rabbi: grew membership by 25%; established an adult education program; a bar/bat mitzvah workshop with a family education component; Improved “inreach” and outreach through development of a monthly newsletter and outreach programs.
Fall 1991-1994 High Holiday Rabbi positions: Beth Shalom Congregation, Teaneck, New Jersey (parallel minyan); Hillel House, Michigan State University, Lansing, Michigan.; the Tel Aviv Havurah, at Kibbutz Gezer; Shearith Israel Congregation, Columbus, Georgia; Congregation Shaarei Haim, Richmond Hill, Toronto.
1991-1993 Student Rabbi, Congregation N’tivei Shalom, Kiryat Tivon, Israel.
Rabbi Amy Levin, "From Slavery to Freedom: Pesah and Yom Hashoah," The Jewish Chronicle, Pittsburgh, February 2015.
Amy Levin and Avram Reisner, "A Teshuvah Permitting Ashkenazim to Eat Kitniyot on Pesah." November 2015 / Kislev 5776. Passed by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, December 2015.
Joshua Heller and Amy Levin, "The Dissonance of a Non-Jew Opening the Aron Kodesh/The Holy Ark." Passed by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, April 2016.
2012 - present Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, The Rabbinical Assembly.
1995-97 Coordinator of the Va’ani T’fillati siddur project, The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel. A prayer book that expresses both the values of Conservative Judaism and the religious significance of living in the Jewish State. Involved in all aspects of the production of this new prayer book including editing, shaping the liturgy and designing and supervising the printing.
2001-2002 The Rabbinical Assembly Taskforce on Women. Was responsible for the professional growth and development elements of Yishuvo Shel Olam, a conference for women rabbis held in November 2002, taught a workshop on practical leadership skills.
March 2008 Consulting for Vital Congregations, The Alban Institute.
1991-1995 (Ordination: 1997) The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies,
Jerusalem. I am the second woman to be
ordained by the Schechter Institute.
1994-1997 Fellow, The Hartman Institute Advanced Beit Midrash, Jerusalem.
1990-1991 Preparatory Year, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America
1971-1975 . BA in the Humanities/Art History, The Johns Hopkins University,