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.