The Compassionate Doubled Verb – Mishpatim 5777

There are a lot of Hebrew speakers in the room today, so I am going to focus on a particular feature of biblical Hebrew which is not found in English.  For that matter, it is not found in modern Hebrew either: doubled verbs.

Here is an example from this morning’s Torah portion:  u-makeh aviv v’imo mot yumat.  One who strikes his father or his mother…” and now here comes the doubled verb:  mot yumat.  (Exodus 21:15)

This presents a conundrum for the translator.  What is meant by the duplication of the verb, which means “die,” and how do I convey it in English?”

Our own Etz Hayim Chumash translates mot yumat as “shall be put to death,” while the Stone Chumash kicks it up a notch with “shall surely be put to death.”  Robert Alter embraces melodrama with, “is doomed to die.”  A hyper-literal translation would be something like that by Everett Fox, “is to be put-to-death, yes, death.”

Generally speaking, doubling a verb like this is one technique that Biblical Hebrew uses to create emphasis.  Each of the translations we just heard are trying, in their respective ways, to convey the seriousness of the command, even though just one of them actually translates the word “die” twice.

The bottom line is, for those kids who are listening right now, you better not hit your parents.

Over the course of the many laws listed in Parashat Mishpatim, there are numerous doubled verbs.  Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, from the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, points out a particular verse which contains no less than three of them.  It follows the instruction “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan”  (Exodus 22:21)  And then it continues

אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתוֹ:

Im aneh t’aneh oto ki im tza-ok yitz’ak elai shamo-a eshma tza’akato.

Here is Everett Fox’s hyper-literal translation:

Oh, if you afflict, afflict them . . . !

For (then) they will cry, cry out to me,

and I will hearken, hearken to their cry  (Exodus 22:22)

This seems a little excessive, does it not?

Rabbi Goldfarb points out that the purpose of the doubled verbs is not necessarily to enhance.  In fact, there is a rabbinic disagreement about the meaning of אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה, “Oh, if you afflict, afflict them.”  The Rabbis generally assume that the Torah does not waste any words.  So if a verb appears twice, each must have its own distinct meaning.

One opinion states that the first mention of afflict refers to serious afflictions and the second refers to minor afflictions.  Thus, God is going to hold us accountable for even minor mistreatments of the widow and the orphan.  The doubled verb intensifies the message.

The second opinion states that a person is not liable until the second time that he or she mistreats an orphan or widow.  In other words, the doubled verb diminishes the message.  (Mekhilta, Mishpatim 18)

This is a pretty significant difference.  Should we have a zero-tolerance policy for repression of the unfortunate or should we give ourselves second chances after messing up the first time?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk was a Chassidic Rebbe in the first half of the nineteenth century.  He was known as the Kotzker Rebbe.  He also notices this unusual sentence, with its threefold doubled verbs, and offers a creative explanation.

The Torah is trying to emphasize something specific.  The suffering of the orphan and the widow is not like typical human suffering.  When a widow or orphan experiences mistreatment, physical harm, or financial loss, it weighs especially heavily on that person’s heart.  That is why the Torah doubles the verbs.

“If you afflict, afflict him” – he experiences double suffering.  This leads him to “cry, cry out” to God.  And God, in turn will “hearken, hearken to their cry.”  In other words, God will bring twice as much compassion, as well as inflict twice the punishment on the perpetrators of injustice.

In the Torah’s day, the widow and the orphan, along with the stranger, occupied the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder.  They had the least power and were the most vulnerable.

The Kotzker Rebbe is pointing out a timeless truth.  Those with the fewest resources tend to be the ones who are most vulnerable to misfortune.  We see this in the world today, as the poorest people are the one’s who suffer the greatest consequences from natural disasters.  Those with fewer resources do worse when the economy takes a downturn.

One of the Torah’s central messages to us is that we have a moral obligation to care for those with the least resources.  The Torah’s law codes introduce principles of social and economic equity which were unprecedented in the world at the time.

This theme underscores so many of the commandments that appear in this morning’s portion, such as: giving tzedakah, enforcing justice equally, not showing deference to the rich, making sure that punishments are proportional to the crime.

Yet the Torah also recognizes that, as much as we may try to legislate proper behavior, we are human after all.  We will mistreat each other.  And some of us will be more vulnerable than others.

The very language of the Hebrew that the Torah uses emphasizes the importance of compassion, and reminds us that even when we fail to live by the Torah’s standard, God still keeps an ear open for the cries of the least fortunate – and listens twice as closely for it.

Invocation of the San Jose City Council Meeting – January 24, 2017

Thank you Councilmember Jones for your warm introduction, and for inviting me to deliver the invocation for this meeting of the San Jose City Council.  Mayor Liccardo, Councilmembers, Friends.  It is an honor to be here.

In our annual cycle of reading the Torah, Jews around the world began the Book of Exodus this past Sabbath.  Exodus opens with ominous parallels to our current situation.  “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.  And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”  (Exodus 1:8-10)

Pharaoh plays on fear.  He identifies a foreign element, an ‘other,’ and stokes an atmosphere of distrust among the Egyptians.  When he assigns taskmasters to enslave the Israelites, the Egyptian people do not rise up in protest.

The Egyptian authorities gradually increase the labor and the suffering of the Israelites, and nobody objects.

When Pharaoh orders the midwives who deliver the Israelite babies to murder any male child who is born, finally someone does something.  Shifra and Puah, in the first recorded act of civil disobedience, refuse to commit infanticide.  They stand up to Pharaoh and reject his immoral order.

But this does not deter him.  Pharaoh doubles down, commanding the Egyptian people to throw all Israelite male children into the Nile River to drown.

Again, nobody stands against him.

It is a pattern that has been repeated all too many times over the past three and a half thousand years.  And we Jews, a people who remember, know this all too well.

The United Nations resolution which created International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005 “condemn[ed] without reserve all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, wherever they occur.”

While International Holocaust Remembrance Day is devoted to a particular act of genocide, the moral declaration is one that could apply just as well to the situation of the Israelites in Egypt, and to so many other tragedies throughout history.

Like so many, I am deeply troubled and fearful by the tone that our new President has set.  It is shocking to witness, in 2017, the normalization of hatred based on religion, skin color, country of origin, and sexual orientation.

We ought to know better.  Because we ought to know our history.

If we do not actively oppose hate in our day, then today’s speeches and proclamation are all just a waste of our time.

I was inspired to see millions of women and supportive men come out this weekend to declare our rejection of hate and discrimination, including 25,000 people who gathered in the plaza outside on Saturday.

But it will take more than rallies in the streets to move our society in the direction of justice and righteousness.  Let us find strength in the bold actions of Shifra and Puah.

You, our elected city officials, must be courageous.

We are blessed to live in a state, and a city, which holds great influence.  San Jose is the capital of Silicon Valley.  We are leaders in innovation and creativity.

Why is San Jose the most innovative place in the world?

It is in no small part because we are the most ethnically diverse large city in the county.  Immigrants, who bring different experiences and ways of thinking, contribute to making us great.

Rather than building walls, creating registries, and deporting those who are “other,” we ought to be doing the opposite.

I urge you to resist, with all the powers at your disposal, any efforts to stoke fear and hatred; all forms of discrimination; all efforts to build walls, both literally and figuratively, between us.  May God give you strength to further the causes of justice and righteousness in our city, in our nation, and in our world.  Amen

Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness – Yom Kippur 5777

There is a town in Belgium called Geel (Hyale), with a remarkable 700 year old custom of compassion.

Its origin lies in a legend about a seventh century Irish princess named Dymphna.  When Dymphna’s mother died, her father went mad, insisting on marrying her.  Dymphna fled to the continent.  When he caught up to her in Geel, he beheaded her.  Dymphna was sainted, and pilgrims began visiting the site of her martyrdom in search of miraculous cures, especially for mental illness.

A church was built in 1349, and later, an annex to house the visitors.  Eventually, the townspeople began to welcome the mentally ill relatives of pilgrims into their homes as “boarders.”  For the townspeople, it was an act of charity to open up their homes.  “Boarders” stay with their hosts for long periods of time, as many as fifty, or even 80 years, becoming part of the family.

At its peak in the 1930’s, there were 4,000 boarders living amongst a local population of 16,000.

The residents do not use terms like “mentally ill,” “psychiatric,” or “patient.”  Behavior that in any other part of the world would be considered odd or crazy, like people talking to themselves on the streets, is normalized in Geel.

This system does not take the place of medical treatment.  There is a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of town.  What it does is treat people with dignity who would in any other community likely be hidden away or abandoned on the street.

Since the 19th century, Geel has been held up in psychiatric circles as the best way to address mental illness.  It is an ideal model for integration and normalization within a supportive community.

Sadly, as the world has changed, Geel is changing along with it.  As the result of the pressures of modern life, and the increasing medicalization of mental illness, there are today only 250-300 boarders left.  But for the residents of Geel, this custom of compassion is an important part of their heritage.

Let’s try to imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if our community was so accepting and welcoming to those who do not conform to what we typically think of as normal behavior.

Psychiatric care in the United States used to center on institutionalization in asylums.  People who were “crazy” were sent away to facilities that often had terrible conditions, where they received treatments that were often tantamount to torture.  In 1972, the psychiatric hospitals began to close.  This was supposed to be accompanied by investment of resources into community-based treatment centers.  But the investment did not happen.  As a result, many of those living with mental illness became homeless.  This is a tragedy that persists to this day.

Unlike the example of Geel, there has been no normalization of mental illness.  The mass shootings that we have seen over the past few years has prompted discussions of the need to invest more money and resources in mental health screening and treatment, but little has been done.

There is still so much fear and stigmatization.  The truth is, members of our community live every day with mental illness, whether it affects them personally, or someone close to them.

But we don’t talk about it openly.  We are scared of “strange” behavior.  When someone exhibits signs of mental illness, we tend to back away.

Think about language that we toss around casually: crazy, cuckoo, nuts.

Mental illness is so much more widespread than we typically acknowledge.  One out of every five adults in America experiences mental illness.  One in twenty five live with a serious chronic condition.

1.1% of the adult population has a diagnosis of schizophrenia.  2.6% has bipolar disorder.  6.9% suffer from major depression.  And 18.1% have an anxiety disorder.

Most signs of mental illness present themselves when we are young, with half of all chronic mental illness beginning by age fourteen.

We do not adequately treat mental illness.  60% of adults and 50% of youth aged 8-15 with mental illness did not receive mental health services in the last year.

There is a terrible price that we pay.

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.  It is estimated that serious mental illness costs America over 190 billion dollars per year in lost wages.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America overall, and the second leading cause among those aged 15-34.  It is estimated that 90% of those who die by suicide suffer from depression.  As much attention as there has been to the mass killings, twice as many people die in America by suicide than by murder.

Rabbis give lots of sermons this time of year about teshuvah, repentance.  It is a wonderful concept – truly one of Judaism’s most insightful principles.  Every year, we engage in cheshbon hanefesh―self-reflection―examining our lives, and identifying ways we can be better.  We reach out to those we have wronged and seek to make amends.  We turn to God, confess our sins, and ask for forgiveness.

But what if there is no getting better?

Many of us live with mental health conditions for which there is no “cure.”  No amount of cheshbon hanefesh is going to enable us to “fix” ourselves.

But that does not make us failures.  “Depression is a flaw of chemistry, not character,” reads a Manhattan billboard.6fe75f9ff1353866f3da9ebdcc988d8c

The field of human psychology is just over a century old.  Our understanding of mental illness, and our ability to treat it, ha experienced a sea change in that time.  But that does not mean that our ancestors did not have any appreciation or compassion for those whose behaviors did not conform to social norms.

In the Bible, the best depiction of a major character suffering from mental illness is King Saul.  Listen to how the Bible describes the onset of his condition:  “Now the spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and a ruach ra’ah – an evil spirit – from the Lord began to terrify him.”  (I Sam 17:14)  Saul’s courtiers do not know how to address their king’s new state of mind, so they suggest searching for a musician to soothe him whenever the ruach ra’ah manifests itself.  A search leads to David, who, among other talents, is a skilled lyre player.

Saul’s ruach ra’ah comes and goes.  He has episodes of paranoia and mania interspersed with periods of normal function.  Some modern readers have suggested that he might have suffered from a bipolar disorder, although we should be cautious about making a diagnosis based on a three thousand year old text.

Some time later, David kills the Philistine Goliath and then has to flee from Saul’s wrath.  He winds up in the court of King Achish of Gat, Goliath’s home town.  To avoid arrest, David pretends to be insane, scratching marks on the doors and letting his saliva run down his beard.  Achish, afraid of this behavior, scolds his attendants.  “You see the man is raving; why bring him to me?  Do I lack madmen that you have brought this fellow to rave for me?  Should this fellow enter my house?”  (I Sam. 21:15-16)

Many of the Psalms, traditionally attributed to King David and his court, express the anguish of a troubled mind.

My soul is in anguish, and You, O Lord―how long?

Turn, Lord, set my soul free; save me for the sake of Your love…

I am weary with my sighing.

Every night I drench my bed, I soak my couch with my tears.

My eye grows dim from grief, worn out because of all my foes…  (Psalm 6)

These sound like the words of a person living with severe depression.

In Rabbinic texts, there is much discussion about mental illness.  The term that is used to describe such a person is shoteh.  The shoteh, along with the deaf-mute, is generally not granted much legal status, as they are assumed to not understand what is happening around them.

But what constitutes a shoteh?

A single talmudic passage offers an inconclusive definition.  “Who is a shoteh?  A person who goes out alone at night; sleeps in a cemetery; and tears one’s clothing.”  (BT Chagigah 3b)  One Rabbi explains that all three behaviors need to be exhibited, while another Rabbi argues that just one is needed.  Then, the Talmud suggests that there could be rational reasons for a person would go out alone at night, sleep in a cemetery, or tear clothing.  The question is left unresolved.

Nearly one thousand years later, Maimonides is discussing laws pertaining to who may serve as a witness in court.  A shoteh, someone who is mentally or emotionally unstable, is not considered to be obligated in the mitzvot, and thus cannot serve as a witness, he says.  But who is a shoteh?  As a legal scholar, a physician, and a community judge and leader, Maimonides offers a more nuanced, and I would suggest compassionate, way of looking at the shoteh.

First he describes someone who is unable to understand basic matters or recognize simple contradictions.  He is describing what we might call someone with an intellectual disability, or low IQ.

Maimonides then writes about emotional instability.  He says that is is not merely someone who “goes around naked, destroys utensils, and throws stones.  Instead, it applies to anyone whose mind is disturbed and continually confused when it comes to certain matters, although he can speak and ask questions to the point regarding other matters.”

But his final comment is the most poignant.  “This matter is dependent on the judgment of the judge. It is impossible to describe the mental and emotional states of people in a text.”  (Edut 9:9-10)

Every person is unique.  Someone might be capable and functional in some aspects of his or her life, but troubled in other aspects.  Emotional instability might come and go.  We cannot make categorical assumptions without even getting to know a person.  We have to take the time to listen.

Pretty progressive for the twelfth century.

Today, we know that mental illness is not a punishment from God, and it is not something that can be cured with sacrifice or prayer.  Whereas it was once attributed to possession by a ruach ra’ah, we now understand mental illness as being caused by chemical and/or physical processes in the brain.

And, there is often treatment that can reduce symptoms of mental instability and make it possible for someone living with a mental illness to flourish in ways that would have been unimaginable in previous eras.  Someone who once would have been considered a shoteh, and not held accountable for his or her actions, can now have a family and a successful career.

While not perfect, we do a pretty good job of accommodating the needs of people who live with physical disabilities.  The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, “prevents discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.”

It has changed such basic things as how we design buildings.  When our synagogue was built ten years ago, for example, we included a ramp to enable someone who uses a wheelchair or walker to come up to the bimah.  Earlier this year, we installed railings to make it easier to walk up the steps to the bimah.

We do a reasonably good job of ensuring that our synagogue is a welcoming home for anyone with a physical disability.

But what about for someone suffering from a psychiatric illness?

One of the most meaningful parts of our weekly Shabbat services is the Mi Sheberach L’cholim, the prayer for the sick.  Our practice is to invite anyone who would like to include the name of someone who seeks healing to form a line.  Each person has an opportunity to recite the names of those who are ill.  It is one of the most personal parts of the service for many of us, including me.

I recognize many of the names that are recited, and I am familiar with the illnesses that many of them face: cancer, chronic conditions, acute sickness, dementia.  But have we created a culture in which we would think to include someone struggling with mental illness in our prayers for healing?

Would someone who is him or herself experiencing depression feel welcome to include his or her own name?

It would certainly be appropriate to do so.  The language of the prayer acknowledges that there are physical and spiritual dimensions to healing.  We pray for r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf―healing of spirit and healing of body―in that order.

Prayer is not a treatment for mental illness.  It is not a substitute for medications that address chemical imbalances in a person’s brain.  But religion, and a religious community, ought to be an important component in healing.  Where better for someone living with depression to turn for support and acceptance than a house of worship?

We need to do better.  Congregation Sinai needs to be a community in which those suffering with a mental illness can be open about their struggles.  We need to break the stigma that leads so many of us to keep our struggles inside.

If you feel comfortable sharing your struggles with someone else, please take the courageous step and do so.  For someone who feels embarrassed or self-conscious about opening up, knowing that there are others who have shared similar experiences can make a huge difference.  It sends the message that “you are not alone.”

I have an anxiety disorder and Adult ADHD, for which I take psychiatric medications.

Over the past ten years or so, I have experienced occasional panic attacks.  I get dizzy.  The world starts to spin.  The edges of my eyesight get blurry, and I worry that I am going to pass out.  On some particularly bad occasions, I feel like I am having a heart attack, or at least, what I imagine a heart attack would feel like.

Scariest of all is when I have a panic attack while behind the wheel of a car.  One of my triggers is driving over tall bridges.  A few years ago, I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge with my brother-in-law in the passenger seat and our kids in the back.  Halfway across the bridge, I could feel an attack coming on.  “Keep an eye on me,” I told my brother-in-law.  As soon as we got to the other side, I pulled over to the shoulder and gave him the wheel.

A couple of years ago, I had a panic attack in the middle of the night.  I thought I was having a heart attack.  I woke Dana up, and asked her to keep an eye on me.  I was upset with myself.  “What is wrong with me?  I should be able to just get myself under control.  After all, this is all just in my head.”

Dana, in her wisdom, responded, “Your brain is the most complex organ in your body.  What makes you think that you can just get it under control?”

Looking back, I realize that I had succumbed to the stigma of mental illness.  I felt guilty for not being able to control something “that was just in my head.”

It is not “just in my head.”  It is “in my head,” and that is not something to take lightly.

While real to me, my struggles are minor inconveniences compared to the serious mental afflictions that impact some peoples’ lives.  I do not know what it is like to live with schizophrenia or a bipolar disorder.

But I can hold someone’s hand and listen.

This year, I ask that we make it a priority that our synagogue become a place in which those living with mental illness can find compassion, acceptance, and healing.  I will speak of it more explicitly from the bimah.  From now on, when I lead the prayer for healing, I will change the way that I introduce it to something like the following:

I am now going to recite the Mi Sheberach L’cholim, the prayer for healing for those with physical and mental illness.  If you would like to include someone, or if you yourself are in need of healing, please come up and form a line to my right.

I ask that we commit to being there for each other with open minds and open hearts.

We all bring our tzarot, our troubles, to shul.  Especially on a day like Yom Kippur, with its focus on sin, repentance, atonement, and mortality.

Yom Kippur is really a day for spiritual healing.  In the Temple, it was the day when the High Priest conducted the rituals that restored the spiritual relationship between God and the Jewish people.  Today, our prayers and our fasting accomplish the same.

Let this day, this synagogue, and this community, offer healing and comfort to all those who have brought their tzarot with them.

I would like to close with this prayer composed by Rabbi Elliott Kukla, of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

May the One who blessed our ancestors bless all who live with mental illness, our care-givers, families, and friends.  May we walk in the footsteps of Jacob, King Saul, Miriam, Hannah, and Naomi, who struggled with dark moods, hopelessness, isolation, and terrors, but survived and led our people.  Just as our father, Jacob, spent the night wrestling with an angel and prevailed, may all who live with mental illness be granted the endurance to wrestle with pain and prevail night upon night.  Grace us with the faith to know that though, like Jacob, we may be wounded, shaped and renamed by this struggle, still we will live on to continue an ever unfolding, unpredictable path toward healing.  May we not be alone on this path but accompanied by our families, friends, care-givers, ancestors, and the Divine presence. Surround us with loving-kindness, grace and companionship and spread over us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace and wholeness. And let us say: Amen.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.  May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of blessing and healing.

Shabbat HaGadol 5774 – Becoming Elijah

Eliyahu Ha-navi

Eliyahu Ha-Tishbi

Eliyahu, Eliyahu, Eliyahu ha-Gil’adi

Bimheira b’yameinu, yavo eileinu

Im mashiach ben David, im mashiach ben David.


Elijah the Prophet.

Elijah the Tishbite.

Elijah the Gileadite.

Speedily, in our days, may he come to us

with the Messiah, son of David.


We’ll be singing these words at the end of our meals in just a couple of days as we invite the biblical prophet Elijah to join us at our Seder for a drink.

When we actually read the stories about Elijah in the Bible, though, he seems like an unlikely drinking buddy.

Elijah lived in the ninth century, b.c.e., during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  Jezebel is a Pheonician princess who brings her worship of Baal with her.  Her devoted husband Ahab even builds a Temple where Israelites can worship the God of Israel and Baal side-by-side.

Elijah is not happy.  He challenges the four hundred fifty prophets of a Baal to a showdown on Mount Carmel, and invites all of Israel to watch.  It’s a great scene, one that always reminds me of a professional wrestling match.  In bombastic language, Elijah challenges the audience:  “How long will you keep hopping between two opnions?  If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him.”  (I Kings 18:21)

The silence is deafening.

The four hundred fifty prophets set out their sacrifices and pray to their god to send fire down to consume them… and nothing happens.  Elijah taunts them:  “C’mon you guys.  Baal can’t hear you.  Maybe he’s asleep, or on a journey.  Shout louder.”  So they scream and shout, and gash themselves with knives.  Nothing happens.

Now it’s Elijah’s turn.  He sets out his sacrifices, and then turns on the fire hose.  He douses everything with water until it’s streaming in rivulets down the mountain.  Elijah then prays to God, and fire shoots down from heaven, consume the burnt offering in an instant.  The crowd goes wild.  At Elijah’s command, they slaughter the prophets of Baal.

Jezebel is not happy, so she puts a bounty on Elijah’s head.  Elijah flees to the South, arriving at Mount Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, where he stays for forty days and forty nights and encounters God in the midst of a storm.  Sound familiar?

Elijah eventually returns to Israel, where he continues his prophesizing and miracle-working.  He takes on an apprentice named Elisha.  Before he leaves with his new master, Elisha wants to gives his mother and father a hug and say goodbye.  Elijah does not approve.

Elijah grows old, but he does not die.  Instead, a fiery chariot with flaming horses scoops him up and carries him off into the sky.  It’s the ninth century b.c.e. version of a Harley Davidson.

That’s Elijah.  He is not a patient prophet.  He is zealous for God, but does not relate well to people.  He sees the world in black and white.  You are either for God, or for Baal.  Elijah does not seem to understand that life is full of gray zones.

After his fiery exit into the heavens, legends about Elijah begin to emerge.

We hear of Elijah later on in the Bible from the prophet Malachi, in a passage that we read today in the conclusion of the Haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol.

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.  (Malachi 3:23-24)

Elijah is said to not have died (one of only two biblical figures, the other being Enoch).  Instead, he is wandering the earth, waiting for the time when he can announce the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world.

Elijah is invoked at particular moments in Jewish life: at the Passover Seder; during Havdallah at the end of Shabbat; and at a brit milah.

The speech I give at a bris goes like this:  It is said that in every generation there is a potential messiah in hiding.  It could be this new baby, who holds in him the potential to redeem the world.  That is why we set aside a special chair for Elijah and invite him to the bris.  We want them to meet each other, just in case.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers a slightly darker interpretation.  Eliyahu’s presence at a brit milah is in fact a punishment.  Elijah in the Bible demonstrates little understanding of the relationship between parents and children.  He constantly complains to God that the people Israel have abandoned the covenant and turned to idol worship – every single person except for him.  And so, because of his excessive zeal, Elijah will have to stick around through the millenia.  Telushkin writes:

He who sees himself as the last Jews is fated to bear constant witness to the eternity of Israel, to be present when every male Jewish child enteres the covenant, and when every family celebrates the Seder… Elijah stands in a long line of despairing Jews who erroneously have prophesied the end of the Jewish people.  (Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy, pp. 257-258)

His eternal life is a kind of curse.  He has to wander the earth and wait, watching, always watching, bearing witness to humanity’s imperfections, to the inability of people to get along, to the ever-present divisions between parents and children.

This helps us understand Malachi’s prediction, that Elijah will be the one who brings about reconciliation between parents and children.  The prophet who would not allow his disciple and successor, Elisha, to say goodbye to his parents, will have to correct the misunderstanding and act with compassion to save humanity.  For the world to be redeemed, it is Elijah himself who must also be redeemed.

He is sentenced to be the great reconciler.  He is cursed, but it is a hopeful curse.

There is more to the legend of Elijah.  More folktales of Elijah exist than any other biblical figure.

He usually appears in disguise, his identity revealed only at the end.  He is often a beggar, dressed in rags, or else a kind and wise old man.  He tends to play one of several different roles.  He visits a downtrodden person or family whom he helps out through gifts, treasure, the granting of a child, and so on.  He often performs miracles.

Other times, he comes to teach a lesson of compassion by punishing the unjust, often a wealthy person, or a supposedly-wise Torah scholar.

There are also stories in which a particular Rabbi knows Elijah’s secret identity, and consults him on some matter relating to the readiness of humanity for redemption.  The answer is always the same.  We’re not ready yet.

Finally, there are times when Elijah shows up in shul on Yom Kippur to be the tenth person, the one to make the minyan.

In this way, Elijah is “the Jewish alter-ego, the symbol for the whole people; exiled and tortured, but alive and hopeful.”  (Gerson D. Cohen, Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures, p. 35)

So why does Elijah visit us during Passover?  We take it for granted that opening the door for Elijah is one of the central components of the Seder, but doesn’t it seem kind of odd?  Elijah does not play any role in the Passover story.  In fact, he was born about 300 years after it took place.  If we were going to pick somebody to visit us, I can think of better candidates:  Moses, Aaron, Miriam.

A midrash from the tenth century predicts that Elijah will appear on the eve of Passover.  (Exodus Rabbah 18:12)  It makes a certain sense.  The Exodus from Egypt is the prototype for every subsequent act of redemption.  It is not farfetched to imagine that the final redemption will occur on Passover.

The tradition of opening our doors and reciting the biblical verses beginning with Sh’fokh chamat’kha – “Pour out Your wrath,” most likely began in the Middle Ages, in the wake of the Crusades.  This is how the tradition goes:  After we have finished eating, we open the door and recite several biblical passages.  Here’s the first one:

Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.  (Psalms 79:6-7)

Some of us are a little uncomfortable with the violence of these words, and yet it is important to consider the context.  The Jews who first introduced this tradition into the Seder had experienced wave after wave of anti-Semitic pogroms and faced the constant threat of the blood libel.  Every year, around this time, there was a very real fear that a dead Christian baby would be planted on the doorstep of a Jewish home to incite the mob against the community.

For Jews to pray for God to punish their tormentors in times like these is understandable.  Even today, let’s acknowledge that there is terrible evil in the world.  Is it so unreasonable to recite these words asking God (not human beings mind you, but God) to bring the perpetrators of evil to justice?

Opening our doors is a symbolic act of faith.  To open the door is to trust that God will protect us, even though we expose the safety of our homes to the danger and uncertainty of an unpredicable world.  It is also a statement of faith in the ultimate redemption.

It is not surprising that traditions about Elijah came together with traditions of opening our doors and praying for redemption.  Folktales are told of Elijah as something of a Medieval superhero, coming to defend Jewish communities under attack by the blood libel.

Elijah’s Cup is the fifth cup of wine, the cup of future redemption that we do not drink, because the world, and we, are not yet ready.  By inviting Elijah to join our Seder to partake in that fifth cup, we express our hopes for the coming of the Messiah and the final redemption of the world.  When Elijah finally comes to drink that cup, we will be able to join him.  Then he will make a great drinking buddy.

On the other hand. perhaps we ought not take our invitation for Elijah to join us quite so literally.

Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, the great Hassidic Rebbe of the early 19th century, warned that “we err if we believe that Elijah the Prophet comes through the door.  Rather, he must enter through our hearts and souls.”  (Yitzhak Sender, The Commentator’s Pesach, p. 220)

There is a nice custom that has developed in recent years.  Just before we open the door for Elijah, we pass around his empty cup.  Each person at the table then pours a little bit of wine (or grape juice) from his or her own cup.  It symbolizes that we all have a role to play.  To fill up the fifth cup, the cup of future redemption, will require the combined contributions of every one of us.

To illustrate this, I’ll end with a story of Elijah told in Hassidic circles.  (from Aharon Wiener, The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism, p. 139)

A pious and wealthy Jew asked his rabbi, “For about forty years I have opened the door for Elijah every Seder night waiting for him to come, but he never does.  What is the reason?”

The rabbi answered, “In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children.  Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate the next Passover in his house, and for this purpose provide him and his whole family with everything necessary for the eight Passover days.  Then on the Seder night Elijah will certainly come.”

The man did as the rabbi told him, but after Passover he came to the rabbi and claimed that again he had waited in vain for Elijah.

The rabbi answered: “I know very well that Elijah came on the Seder night to the house of your poor neighbor.  But of course you could not see him.”

And the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”

When we open our doors to invite Elijah to our Seders this year to herald our redemption, may we merit to see his face reflected in ourselves.


(Many of the ideas and sources for this D’var Torah are from David Arnow’s Creating Lively Passover Seders, pp. 301-315.)

25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall – Toldot 5774

There are not many heroines in the Torah, so we must pay special attention to those we do have.

In Parshat Toldot, Isaac is the passive figure.  Rebecca is the one who takes charge – from the very beginning.  When her pregnancy is more than she can bear, God reveals to her that she is carrying twins, and that the older will serve the younger.

God entrusts her with the prophetic knowledge of who would recieve the blessing, placing her in a position of having to act in a bold and urgent manner

She sees what her husband does not – that Esau’s personality is not compatible with the blessing from God that Abraham has passed down to Isaac.  Esau, the hunter, is impulsive, and not much of a thinker.

It is Jacob, the thoughtful, intellectual, crafty son who will make a better person through whom to transfer the promise of blessing.

Later, after she has orchestrated Jacob’s theft of the blessing that Isaac meant from Esau, it is Rebecca who identifies the danger that her younger son now faces.  She counsels him to flee from Esau’s wrath by leaving home.  To achieve that end, she concocts a ruse to convince Isaac to send Jacob away.  She complains that there are no good women in the land of Canaan for Jacob to marry, and so Isaac sends him away to Rebecca’s family in Haran.

Once again, Rebecca’s clear perception of reality, her confident recognition of what needs to happen, and her quick response save the day, and quite possibly her son’s life.

It should not come as a surprise to us that the midrash identifies Rebecca as a Prophetess.

I have spoken about Women of the Wall before.  Last Spring, we held a Living Room Torah dedicated to learning about the history and struggles of this movement.  Rosh Chodesh Kislev, which will occur tomorrow, marks the twenty fifth anniversary of the founding of Women of the Wall, or N’shot Ha’Kotel in Hebrew.  Not only is it a significant anniversary, but it is also a time of great change and tremendous promise, not only for Women of the Wall, but for any Jew who believes that women should be able to play a public role in religiuos life.

Women of the Wall got started in 1988 during an international conference on women’s issues held in Jerusalem.  Rivka Haut, an Orthodox Jew from New York, presented an idea to borrow a Torah from a progressive synagogue and have a prayer service in the women’s section at the Western Wall.  She persuaded some of the conference participants to join her.  It was a diverse group made up of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and even secular Jews – mostly from America.

People at the Kotel were shocked.  Some event reacted by throwing chairs.  The police allowed the women’s service to take place for a while, then they arrested a few of the women for disturbing the peace.  In fact, what they had disturbed was the status quo.

And thus, Women of the Wall was born.

They have spent most of the past twenty five years arguing in the Israeli judicial system for access to pray at Judaism’s holiest site.  More than two decades ago, the courts issued a regulation prohibiting any prayer that is not in keeping with minhag hamakom (the custom of the place).

What is minhag hamakom?

It is difficult to say.  The Western Wall never functioned as a synagogue until after 1967.  In a de facto arrangement, Israeli secular law supported the Orthodox establishment’s total control over the site.  The ultra-Orthodox Rabbi of the Wall gets to define the minhag hamakom.

In 2003, courts designated the Robinson’s Arch area, which is in an archaeological park next to and below the Western Wall plaza, as a place where men and women could pray together with a Torah.  While egalitarian prayers could take place there, there were a lot of problems with the location.  People had to pay admission fees to get into the park.  They had to make reservations.  They didn’t get government funding.  It was not really a solution.

Plus, Women of the Wall did not want to have egalitarian services.  They wanted to have women’s only services.

Things have escalated over the past five years.  Until recently, the Israeli police followed the directives of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi of the Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, an Israeli government employee.

There have been arrests nearly every month during Rosh Chodesh services.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed to public women’s prayer would come out specifically to disturb them – shouting, spitting, and throwing chairs.

Women were forbidden from wearing tallitot, tefillin, reading from the Torah, and participating in public prayer in the women’s section at the kotel.  Women who violated this would often get arrested.

Over the last year, things have changed at an even more accelerated pace.  With increasing tension in Israel between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of Israeli society over a host of issues, the government has begun to take on some of the sacred cows that it has left alone in the past.

For the first time, none of the ultra-Orthodox parties are in the ruling coalition in the Israeli government.  A few months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu instructed Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, to come up with a compromise solution.  He developed a plan with three sections: men’s, women’s, and mixed.

Shortly afterwards, on April 14 this past Spring, five women were arrested for “disturbing the peace” during services for Rosh Chodesh Iyar.

The Jerusalem Magistrate Court wanted to release them immediately, but the police petitioned against it.  So it went to Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who happens to be Orthodox.

He ruled that women wearing tallit and tefillin, and reading from Torah in the women’s section did not constitute “disturbing the peace” –  and were not breaking the law.  Women praying out loud as a minyan did not contradict what the law defines as “local custom.”  In fact, it was those who tried to stop them who were disturbing the peace.

Since then, Women of the Wall has continued to hold its monthly services, now with police protection.

There are still many ultra-Orthodox Jews who come to disturb them, including, in a recent development this summer, bussing in yeshiva girls to fill up the women’s section at the Kotel and hiss when members of Women of the Wall try to pray.

Despite Judge Sobel’s ruling, Women of the Wall is still not allowed to bring a Torah into the Women’s Section

Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit has been appointed to find a resolution – it is expected that they will adopt Natan Sharansky’s recommendations from last Spring to create a third, egalitarian section that is of equal status to the men’s and women’s sections

This solution has been very controversial for Women of the Wall.  Many members feel that they should stick to their goals of having full, equal access for women in the women’s section.

The leadership voted several weeks ago to compromise on some of their positions.  They realized that they were uniquely positioned to play a leadership role on behalf of Jewish groups and denominations that represent a majority of Jews around the world, including the Conservative and Reform movements.

Their compromise comes with conditions.  On Monday, they issued their demands.  Here are some of them:

• The new egalitarian space will need to accommodate at least 500 women and provide for direct physical contact with the Western Wall. It should be at the same level as the existing women’s prayer section and a natural extension of it.

• The new space should be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entrance should be free of charge without the need to book the area in advance.

• The new space will be renamed to include the word “Kotel” in it. Instead of being called “Ezrat Yisrael,” it will be called “the Kotel – Ezrat Yisrael.”

• Half of the members of the authority administering the new space will be women, including members of Women of the Wall.

• The authority administering the new space will receive at least the same level of government funding as the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which today administers the entire area of the Kotel.

• The government will take active measures to refer visitors from abroad, school children, soldiers and visiting dignitaries to the new space. It will also hold official ceremonies there.

• Women of the Wall will participate in designing the new space to ensure that those women who wish to pray together, and not as part of a mixed service, have the means to do so, and that individuals with disabilities are provided with convenient access to the area.

• A sign will be displayed at the Western Wall commemorating its conquest by Israeli army paratroopers in 1967 (something that does not currently appear, anywhere, by the way).

• The authorities administering the different prayer spaces at the Western Wall will hold joint meetings six times a year.

• Control over the upper plaza of the Kotel (the area just above the segregated prayer spaces) be wrested from the hands of the Western Wall rabbi and be transferred to a new authority that will also administer the egalitarian space.  This would restrict the authority of the Kotel rabbi to the men’s and women’s sections only.

Until the demands are met, Women of the Wall will continue to hold their services in the women’s section, once a month on Rosh Hodesh.

They also demanded that the Mandelblit Committee address and prevent the actions of the Rabbi of the Kotel and ultra-Orthodox leaders who are organizing the monthly demonstrations against the Women of the Wall.

Women of the Wall’s plan would transform the overall Kotel area into a space that truly belongs to all of the Jewish people, giving control over the particular areas directly to the people who most need to use them.  It would give equal status and access to all expressions of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and more.

As of a week ago, over 450 women had already registered to participate in Rosh Hodesh services on Monday morning at 8 am, Jerusalem time.  They will be streaming it live if anyone wants to watch from San Jose

As a Conservative Jew, I am grateful that Women of the Wall has taken the lead in the struggle for equal access to Judaism’s holiest and most symbolically significant site, even if I, as a man, cannot participate in their services.

I am reminded of Rebecca, who did not keep silent when she saw the urgent need and opportunity that was before her.

She knew, through prophetic encounter with God, and perhaps through the wisdom that only a mother can have, that blessing needed to flow to someone who would not otherwise be in a position to receive it.  And that person was Jacob.

Where would we be if Rebecca’s voice had been silenced?  Without her courage, and her unwillingness to be placed into the subservient position that she would otherwise have occupied, Jacob would never have fulfilled his destiny, and the Jewish people would never have come into being.

We are witnessing a remarkable event unfolding.  If the trajectory of the last year continues, if Women of the Wall continue to lead this struggle, and if the Netanyahu government continues to try to broker a fair compromise, we will see public recognition of feminist and egalitarian expressions of Judaism in the near future.

And that would truly be a continuation of God’s blessing.

Serving Humanity and Its Challenges

On October 20, 2013, Congregation Sinai hosted an Abrahamic Religions Trialogue, hosting members of Lincoln Glen Church, the Baitul Basir Mosque, Abrahamic Alliance International, and SiVIC in a conversation entitled “Serving Humanity and Its Challenges.”  These were my opening remarks:


Welcome.  I want to thank my colleagues: Imam Mubasher Ahmad, and Pastor Larry Albright, for sitting on this trialogue panel with myself, and Reverend Andy Killie from SiVIC for serving as our moderator.  Also, thank you Rod Cardoza, from Abrahamic Alliance International, for helping to bring us together.

I think it is always important to remind ourselves of something whenever we are dealing with a tradition that is based upon an ancient Sacred Scripture.  And I think that applies to all three of us up here.  Whenever we apply ancient words to contemporary life, we make choices about which words we want to emphasize, and which words we want to de-emphasize, reinterpret, or even ignore,

I’ll speak from my own tradition.  The Hebrew Bible is filled with horrifying passages that command holy war, genocide, hatred of women, and so on.  It is also filled with passages that appeal to the best of human behavior, that inspire us to work for justice for all people, and to live lives filled with compassion.  The true moral question for a person who claims to live by Sacred Scripture is which passages he or she chooses to live by, and which ones he or she ignores.

As Jews, we don’t just pick up the Torah and read it to find the Truth.  We are inheritors of three thousand years of tradition of interpreting how to live by these sacred words.  Our ancestors struggled to apply the Torah’s principles in their times.  They passed on their conclusions to the next generation, which received their parents’ wisdom, struggled, and passed down their own conclusions again, and again, and again, until that rich accumulated tradition has reached us in the twenty-first century.  As Jews, we have inherited a particular way of understanding our Holy text that is not at all literal.  If you want to know what Jews do and believe, you cannot simply open the Torah to find out.

That said, Judaism has a long history of concern for the other, going back to our formation as a people.  This is one of our central narratives:

  1. We began as slaves in Egypt.
  2. God brought us out from slavery to freedom.
  3. And never let us forget it.

The Torah instructs us to care for and not mistreat the widow, orphan and stranger 36 times, far more than any other law.  Who are these people, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger?  They are the most marginal members of society, with the least power.  They are the ones that the Torah is most concerned about.  It emphasizes the reason why we should care for them – because you were “strangers in a strange land.”  You know what it is like to have been a stranger, to have had little to zero control over your own lives.  Therefore, you must protect the rights of the least powerful among you.  The Torah, and subsequent Jewish tradition, does not let us forget our humble origins.

This is a lesson that the biblical prophets return to over and over.  On Yom Kippur, when we spend all day long fasting and praying for atonement, we read a passage from Isaiah in which the Prophet berates the people for ignoring the plight of the poor, even while they are fasting and performing all of the rituals correctly.  Ritual is meaningless if it does not inspire us to serve others.

There are so many passages in the Bible that I could point to that emphasize social justice.  Passages that instruct ancient Israelites to have a single set of laws for citizens and strangers alike. Instructions to build communities that are governed justly, with the rich and the poor treated equally.  Requirements for employers to treat their employees properly.  Obligations for feeding and clothing the poor.  I can’t go into all of those details this evening.

But I do want to mention one post-biblical teaching that speaks greatly to the Jewish people’s engagement with the rest of the world.  The Talmud teaches that the righteous of all the nations have a share in the world to come.  Judaism has never sought the conversion of all humanity.  As long as a person is following the ethical principles of his/her religion, that person will “go to heaven.”  Judaism celebrates goodness wherever it is found.

So practically speaking, where has this led?

I’ll speak just to the American experience of the past two centuries, during which time Jews have been at the forefront of many social justice causes.  Jews were among the leaders of the labor movement at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the movement fighting for women’s right to vote.  Jews were heavily active in the civil rights movement.  Today, you’ll find Jews involved in just about any cause that is working towards improving our world: protecting the environment, fighting human trafficking, improving health in the developing world, combatting illiteracy, and so on.

Of course, it is not totally one-sided.  There have always been disagreements within the Jewish community.  While some were working to end segregation in the south, there were others at the time who did not want to rock the boat, and wanted the system to continue.  Some activists saw themselves as getting away from a Jewish tradition that they had experienced as insular, and narrowly focused.

But attitudes have continued to shift.  Today, most American Jews see a close connection between Jewish values and practices and the need to serve humanity.  In 2001, a study explored the attitudes of American Jews towards involvement in social justice causes.  It found that around ninety percent of American Jews agreed to the following statements:

• “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and minority groups”

• “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of Jews who are needy or oppressed”

• “When Jewish organizations engage in social justice work, it makes me feel proud to be a Jew.”

• “Jews’ involvement in social justice causes is one good way to strengthen ties with other groups in society.”

But of course, there are challenges.

The Talmudic argument that Mike presented earlier captures it well.  Rabbi Akiva says that the foundational principle of the entire Torah is “Love your neighbor like yourself.”  Sounds great.

But who, exactly, is your neighbor?  This is not a clear-cut issue.

Jews have answered this question differently, at different times in history.  The answer changed as the result of both internal and external pressures.

As a people that has lived as a minority for most of the past 2,000 years, it has been a constant challenge to figure out how closely to engage with the outside world

To preserve Jewish ways of life, it is necessary to separate ourselves to some degree, to be inward-focused.  Especially during times of persecution, we have done exactly that.  Who is “your neighbor?”  Your fellow Jew.

At other times, “your neighbor” has been understood to refer to all human beings.  Jews could never ignore the other living next to us.

That is the strength of Ben Azzai’s preferred verse.  “This is the book of the generations of Adam.”  All human beings are descended from the first, primordial human being, who was created, male and female, in the image of God.  All human beings, regardless of their religion, skin color, ethnicity, or gender, are fundamentally equal, and contain a Divine spark.  To harm another person is to harm God.  Likewise, we honor God by honoring others.

Finding the right balance between inward and outward focus is a struggle.  Today in America, there are some Jews who would separate themselves from the wider culture as much as possible.  Certainly, the values of charity and compassion are strong, but the focus is entirely inward, within the community.

On the other hand, Jews have made it, perhaps “too well” in America.  We have become so assimilated that our ties to Jewish tradition have weakened.  We see this in  increasingly low affiliation rates among American Jews.  The ratio of Jewish charity that goes to Jewish causes compared to non-Jewish causes has decreased dramatically in recent decades.  When the ties between Jews have weakened to such a degree, it becomes very difficult to preserve Jewish practices, and to root our service to humanity in Jewish values.

As Conservative Jews, we seek to find that balance.  We focus inward, on our religious community, building connections between each other, supporting and encouraging each other to embrace Jewish ways of living.  And if we do it well, we inspire ourselves to take action in the wider world, and serve humanity – as Jews.

The Talmud, nearly two thousand years ago, lists a number of basic, community building obligations that Jews are obligated to perform on behalf of both Jews and non-Jews.  Activities like feeding the poor, visiting the sick, honoring and burying the dead.  The reason it gives?  mipnei darkhei shalom, because of the ways of peace.

I love this teaching, because it emphasizes that peace in the world will depend on our willingness to support human beings who are different than us.  And support them face to face, and during our times of greatest need.

May our communities’ coming together tonight bring us one step closer to a world of peace.

I love you, but I hate the way you think – Chayei Sarah 5773

On the morning of Dec. 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts and opened fire with a rifle.  He seriously wounded three people and killed the receptionist, Shannon Lowney, as she spoke on the phone.  He then ran to his car and drove two miles down Beacon Street to Preterm Health Services, where he began shooting again, injuring two and killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols.

Several months later, a group of six leaders, three each from the pro-choice and pro-life movements, started meeting in secret with each other. At first, they were nervous about the project.  One of the pro-life participants was worried that if word got out that he was in dialogue with pro-choice leaders, it could generate ”a scandal if people thought [he] was treating abortion merely as a matter of opinion on which reasonable people could differ.”  One of the pro-choice leaders ”wondered if the talks would divert [her] energies from coordinating [her] organization’s response to the shootings and from assisting in the healing of [her] employees and their families.”

The two facilitators were worried that the “‘talks might do more harm than good.”

But, they stuck with it.  There were many challenges in their conversations, including over basic things like terminology.  Prochoice members would become inflamed when referred to as ”murderers” or when abortions were likened to the Holocaust or to ”genocide.”  Prolife participants became incensed by dehumanizing phrases such as ”products of conception” and ”termination of pregnancy” that obscured their belief that abortion was killing.

Nevertheless, they grew close to one another.  They learned to distinguish between the way that an opponent thought, and the person sitting across the room.  They learned to have a conversation in which they were not trying to change the other person’s mind.

They were forced to dig deep to learn to define exactly what they believed and where those beliefs came from, and to admit those things about which they still experienced uncertainty.

The dialogue did not bring them closer together politically.  It revealed deep differences between their respective positions.

But, the growing sensitivity to one another started to have an impact on the public statements that they were making, in which the media noticed a decrease in inflammatory rhetoric.  And that resulted in reaching people whom they never would have reached before.

Five and a half years later, on January 28, 2001, after the group had spent more than 150 hours together, they co-authored an article that appeared in the Boston Globe in which they described their experiences.  (“Talking with the Enemy,” published in The Boston Globe, Sunday, 28 January 2001, Focus section.)  They concluded the article by explaining why they had chosen to continue to meet together for all these years.  They felt that they had been stretched spiritually and intellectually, that they had become wiser and more effective leaders, having become more knowledgeable about their opponents.  They learned to not be overreactive and to not disparage the other side.  This is how they concluded the article:

Since that first fear-filled meeting, we have experienced a paradox.  While learning to treat each other with dignity and respect, we have all become firmer in our views about abortion.

In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.

Wouldn’t that be nice?  If we could have conversations about deeply polarizing issues, in which those conversations help us clarify for ourselves what we believe, while at the same time bringing us closer to those who think differently.

Which brings us to the recent election.  Thank God it is over.  Regardless of who you were rooting for, I think we can all agree that this election cycle has been awful, and it is a relief now that it is over.

The irony is, of course, that after all of the money that has been spent, we are basically where we were before.  Barack Obama is still President.  The Democrats still control the Senate, and the Republicans still control the House.

The political rhetoric in our country is so divisive, so polarizing.

Why is it like that?  Why can’t people with different views about the direction our country should be moving speak to and about each other with respect?  Especially when we consider that most people in America are probably closer to the center.  There is something about our political system, or about the media, that seems to drive people to the extremes, and leads to disparaging, and even dehumanizing, anyone who thinks differently.

The most recent episode of the NPR radio program This American Life dealt with this issue.  One segment was all about people who ended friendships because of political differences.  And just to be clear, people on both the right and the left were depicted.  Why do we allow ourselves to make our opinions so personal.

The truth is, the fault is not with our politics, or with the media.  It is with our brains.  This is simply how humans behave.  That, combined with the instant communication possibilities that our technology now offers, has increased the polarization in society.

People who are like-minded tend to talk only to each other, and rarely to people with opposing viewpoints.

Why is it so hard to talk about our differences?

Our brains associate what we think with who we are.  My thoughts are me.  So when I hear someone say something that challenges what I think, my brain takes it as a challenge to my identity.

My brain perceives it as a threat and releases hormones that cause me to misread or misunderstand the nature of the attack.  This leads us to respond in one of three ways:  Flight, fight, or freeze.

I might run away from the person who is expressing a different opinion.  Shelter myself from challenging ways of thinking.  By avoiding exposure to other viewpoints, my identity is secure.

The second response, fight, causes me to respond to the threat by arguing back.  And often, by escalating the argument.  That is why political disagreements often turn into accusations and name calling.

The third response is to freeze like a deer in the headlights.  To just shut down, and not engage.

Human beings are hard-wired to mirror one another’s behavior.  That is why when we experience attack and defense, we tend to respond in kind.  This creates a feedback loop, as feelings of danger and threat escalate.  Pretty soon, we have lost the ability to have intelligent conversations.

Think for a moment about how you view those who hold different values than you, or about how others perceive you.

It does not matter what the issue is, or which side of it you are on.  Take abortion, or same sex marriage, taxes, the proper role of government.

Now, in your mind, complete the following sentence:  As a ____, others view me as ______.

As someone who is pro-choice, others view me as supporting murder.

Now do the opposite.  As a ______, I view others as ______.

As someone who is pro-choice, I view others as ________.  someone who hates women, a religious fundamentalist…

We tend to speak in generalities of the other side, leading us to characterize them as the enemy, or evil, or unintelligent, or uneducated.  If the other person does not think the way I do, there must be something wrong with him or her.  We recognize the crassness of the other side before we recognize it on our own.  We tend to see ourselves as open-minded, and the other as closed.

So we end up dividing into camps of the like-minded.  Curiosity, openness, and goodwill towards the other are discouraged.  Extreme positions are enhanced.

Our political rhetoric has gone through the feedback loop and descended to name-calling.  President Obama is a socialist.  Republicans hate women.

As soon as an issue gets a slogan that portrays a side, real dialogue becomes very difficult.  Nuanced positions cannot be expressed in binary labels like pro-choice and pro-life.  It is scary to give in anything from your own position when involved in a binary political fight.  We have to get away from the labels.

We need to find a way to have real dialogue with each other.  Dialogue that helps us understand other positions better, and through that openness, our own positions better.  Our nation needs it.  I hope our newly elected leaders can do this, although I have my doubts.

But it is not just in the political arena that respectful dialogue is needed.

It is needed in the Jewish community as well.  It is needed in our shul.  Members have shared with me that they have felt uncomfortable expressing their views publicly because of what they perceive as negative reactions from other members of the community.

It is possible to break the feedback loop.

At the end of this morning’s Parshah, Abraham dies, as the Torah describes, “in a good old age, an old man, and full of years…”  The Torah then tells us that “Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah.”  Noticing that Isaac’s name is mentioned before his older brother’s, Rashi comments that “Ishmael repented and placed Isaac before himself.  This act of reconciliation constitutes the ‘good old age’ that is attributed to Abraham.”

These half-brothers certainly had their differences.  We have no record in the Torah of them interacting with each other for decades.  They clearly have different personalities, and have chosen different paths in life.  Yet, Ishmael found a way to set aside those differences and see the humanity in Isaac.  According to Rashi, this occurred prior to Abraham’s death, for the knowledge of his sons’ reconciliation enabled him to die contented, in “good, old age.”

We can only imagine how the reunion might have gone.  But for two brothers who were so different, it must have involved learning to listen to each other, and recognize the humanity in the other, despite the differences.

Having a dialogue with the other needs rules.

There are groups out there that specialize in mediating difficult, polarizing issues.  Issues like abortion, same sex marriage, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  And they have sophisticated models for leading groups of people with differing viewpoints through a productive dialogue.  I am not going to go into a detailed analysis.  Instead, I would like to suggest an approach that we might take, as individuals, the next time we are in a conversation about a polarizing topic, perhaps during kiddush today.

The first thing we have to be clear about is the purpose of the dialogue.  What do I hope to accomplish when I have a discussion with someone who disagrees with me about health care, for example?

My goal cannot be to win the argument, or convince the other person that my way is correct.  If I go into a conversation thinking that I am going to change the other person’s mind, I will fail.

The goal, for this and any other issue, is simply to understand the other person.  And that means that I have to listen, and listen closely.

And then, when it is my turn to talk, there are a couple of self-reflective questions that will be very helpful:

Why do I care so passionately about this issue?  What in my own experience has led me to this passion?

And then, equally important, is to find those areas where I am uncertain.  What is it in my own position that troubles me?  What is it in the other’s position that I find attractive?

These are the kinds of questions that the six pro-choice and pro-life leaders in Boston asked themselves.  Those are the kinds of questions we ought to ask ourselves as well.

After a Christian group had gone through a mediated dialogue over some issue that was controversial for their community, one of the participants described how he felt after it was over.  His opinion was not changed.  If anything, he felt even stronger about his position than he had beforehand.  But his feelings about his opponents had made a 180 degree shift.  This is what he said:  “I love you, but I hate the way you think.”

May we find the courage to say the same.