Tuesday, May 22, 2018


All Jewish prayers end with a prayer for peace. The rabbis thus kept God’s chief blessing—peace—before us at all times. It is one thing to pray for peace, another to talk of it, and still another to achieve it. The Jewish world is adept at the first two, but the actual goal, achieving peace, eludes us. Israel and its Palestinian neighbors continue to be in conflict and there seems to be no end in sight. But if we hope to transform words into reality, it would be good to reflect on just how peace materializes in situations of prolonged and intractable conflict.

The most recent skirmish on the Israeli-Gaza border has left some 62 Palestinians dead. The tragedy unfolded on May 14, 2018, a day that should otherwise have been one of celebration, the moving of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem. But the move was no joy fest for Palestinians, who understood the move as the United States eliminating Jerusalem from the agenda of any future negotiations. And so an otherwise happy day turned tragic as Palestinian rage clashed with Israeli military resolve.

In truth, there had been relatively quiet demonstrations at the Gaza-Israeli border for weeks. This demonstration turned deadly when demonstrators attempted to cross the border and support the border violations with throwing of rocks, makeshift bombs, and sending kites loaded with explosives over to the Israeli soldiers. This was not a peaceful protest. There were sufficient militants present intent on deliberately provoking the military, and the military responded. Among the dead, 52 were Hamas operatives and three were jihadits—none friends of Israel or the USA.

Was the Israeli response proportional to the apparent threat? That is a question worth pursuing, but as anyone reading much of the media will know, even before the smoke had cleared and any dispassionate investigation begun, Israel was already condemned in the court of world opinion. And that is because the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been cast as an oppressive regime versus an underdog, and the underdog, in all such stories, is always an innocent victim. The preordained narrative insists that Israel opened fire for no justifiable reason; that the force used must have been disproportionate; and without any examination, it was clear who must be condemned and who championed. The narrative requires no further inquiry, which makes the narrative, and all such narratives, the very opposite of justice.

Much of the western world is sick of this conflict. Why can’t it be brought to a close? Why can’t people of good faith sit down, work out borders, and finally resolve this chronic pathology? I actually believe that the Palestinians hold the answer to these questions. The answer is that in order for resolution to take place, one party to the conflict must fold. It will only be the loser who is prepared to make the concessions necessary in order for peace to be achieved. That is how peace was achieved with the South after the Civil War, and with Germany and Japan after World War II. War ends only with winners and losers. The only problem with this theory is that the Palestinians believe that Israel must come to the table as the loser. And that, at least in the near future, is unlikely.

Given its neighbors’ stated goals, Israel’s response to Gaza is almost always restrained. Its periodic infiltrations into Gaza are characterized by limited strategic goals—taking out rocket launchers, Hamas offices, collapsing caves used for armament transfers, etc.—which result in far fewer deaths than an actual all-out war. After each such operation, Israel walks away satisfied at having achieved its limited goals, and the Palestinians walk away without having been crushed, which in their estimation constitutes a victory. And perhaps it is. But as long as there is no defeat, there is no reason to show up at a negotiating table. Ironically, Israeli military strategy may be the most effective generator of hope for a Palestine free of Jews. Were Israel to fight the Palestinians the way, for example, Churchill battled another hostile regime, the Third Reich, the entire Israeli Knesset would be sanctioned for war crimes. And yet, we know how World War II ended. Most importantly, it ended. And then there was peace. And then America invested billions of dollars into Europe and rebuilt it under the Marshall Plan.

But here’s the good news: World War II blood-shed would not be necessary in the case of Israel versus Palestine. The international community, out of its compassion, pours Euros and dollars into the West Bank and Gaza which support some humanitarian projects but also allows for the acquisition of munitions and the exercise of military-type of activities. In addition, though much has been written about how Israel limits access to electricity and water in Gaza, it is never so much as to force Palestinians to the negotiating table. No one allows the Palestinians to taste failure, not even the Israelis. Western compassion serves as life support for a Palestinian dictatorship that lost militarily, financially and morally, long ago. Western and Israeli compassion keep this pointless conflict hot and unending.

I garner no joy in forcing anyone to do anything. Coercion is not how God meant us to live on this beautiful earth. Nor did God want us to live in a constant state of war. But praying for peace and talking about peace is not going to achieve peace. This is an intransigent war and wars like this don’t end until one side loses. We should never stop praying for peace, but we may just start hoping more for defeat. It may be the only path to peace in realpolitik.

Thursday, February 22, 2018


As we prepare for Pesah 5758/2018, some families may already be anticipating the family argument that might erupt between you know who.  I actually don’t know who, but you do, because each year, the two of them (or three or four of them?) go at it with each other.  Anytime the family gathers, the potential for the unwarranted comment or the sarcastic sideswipe increases, and depending on the cast of characters, may increase exponentially. That kind of toxicity adds a bitter herb to the seder plate that doesn’t belong.   Ideally, the seder should be a catalyst for conversation and dialogue.  Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, is a story that has inspired and galvanized thousands of generations, and remains a tale eternally relevant, as we assess our own Egypts and the steps involved in securing redemption.  That kind of exercise is most successful in an atmosphere of mutual respect, not one of mutual verbal destruction.

I had a funny vision of a seder that transpires in accordance with quasi-courtroom procedures such that if anyone gets out of line, an objection may be raised.  Each family would appoint a judge (every family has a few lawyers that might play the part, provided they are not under indictment) who could either sustain or overrule the objection depending on the nature of the objection.  What follows are statements that another participant may object to, and the reason for the objection.

Objection: Inflammatory statement.  It could be that there are some Republicans who are trying to kill us as there is no law prohibiting psychopaths from identifying with a political party.  That said, there may be some Democrats trying to kill us as psychopathology seems to be bi-partisan.  At least something in this county is bi-partisan—Barukh HaShem. It’s not a terrible thing to bring politics to the seder table.  It could enliven conversation and is almost always relevant.  But inflammatory statements are counterproductive.  What we say should add light, not heat, to a conversation.

Objection: Asked and Answered.  Some people, no matter what the subject, manage to bring it back to Hitler and the Holocaust.  It’s not that Hitler and the Holocaust are unimportant, but not every moral failing needs to be viewed through the most egregious example of human depravity in all of human history. Haroset has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Whenever someone seeks to hijack a conversation given their own particular agenda, it is within the rights of the other participants to raise an objection and move back to the topic at hand.

Objection: Hearsay.  Where did your Cousin Shmuly, who is an outstanding CPA, get his information?  Does he know first-hand, or did he hear from someone who knows from someone who is a neighbor to the husband of the camp director’s second cousin once removed?  Sexual harassment is certainly a form of slavery and given the right crowd, could generate a lot of positive exchanges.  But the potential for false assertions that unjustly damn innocents is out-of-bounds. Objection sustained!

Objection: Incompetence.  Unless the speaker is a board-certified therapist, and unless this board-certified therapist has met and directly diagnosed Chuck Schumer and all of his cronies, the speaker is unqualified to pass psychological judgment on any of these people.  And if the speaker has met and diagnosed these people, the speaker has just egregiously violated the confidentiality of his or her patients.  The statement is inadmissible and must be stricken from the record of the evening’s conversation. There are many people who feel trapped by a government that does not seem to be working.  That’s a conversation worth having within the context of an America requiring redemption. As for the psychological wellbeing of politicians, that’s for Sigmund Freud and his cronies to discuss, in private. 

Objection: Speculation.  Whenever someone claims to know what Israel thinks, they clearly have no understanding how Israel thinks.  Israel is a country large enough to support many divergent and conflicting opinions.  One might legitimately assert what this politician said or that minister wrote, and given the appropriate citation, substantiate its accuracy.  Speculations, however, are just that—guesses that may or may not be correct.  And to speculate about how Israel thinks on any one given issue, is just silly.

Objection: Argumentative.  The seder is not the time to resolve long-standing personal disputes.  When these conflicts erupt publicly, and a seder is a relatively public event, it’s cause for extraordinary discomfort and embarrassment.  The family needs to act with maturity, which may be hard for those family members who just happen to be immature, even as they enter their third or fourth decade of life. It may be prudent to quietly speak to that relative prior to the seder.  Something along the lines of—And let’s think about those topics we won’t bring up this year…  That discussion itself may be awkward, but not half as awkward as the public explosion of a private conflict.

Full disclosure: My sense is that no one in your family will willingly play the judge. Who wants to slap the hand of the relative with a wayward mouth?  It’s possible that you find an unemployed lawyer or judge who would do it for pay (plus dinner with the rest of the family), but you may not want to do that having already spent $2,500 on Kosher for Passover food.  So, here’s a novel idea: self-control.  Everyone has to behave and if you think someone invited to your seder table may be the sort who, under other circumstances, would raise a host of objections in a court of law, send him/her this article as a courtesy and blame me (just delete this final paragraph).  You could say—Would you look what my rabbi wrote?  The hutzpah!  Though he does raise a few good points…  What do you think?

Hag Kasher v’Same’ah—a Very Happy and Kosher Pesah, and dignified sedarim (plural of seder) to all!

Sunday, October 1, 2017


                Gut Yontiff, everyone.  I want to wish you all not only a Tzom Kal, an Easy Fast, but also a Tzom Ya’il, a fast experience that will bring us new insights into ourselves and our communities, and our purpose or purposes on earth, and reconciliation with all those whom we need to be closer to.

I recently stood at the grave of a good man, a man who had been taken from us too soon and whose end was characterized by a long and protracted battle which he fought valiantly but ultimately lost.  It was an end he did not deserve because in his lifetime, he had given much to his family and to his community.  And as I stood there, a relative of the man approached me and said, and now I paraphrase: “I probably should not be saying this to a rabbi, but I just want you to know—I’m done with God.  My father died a few months ago, my mother is ill and hospitalized, and now this.  No more prayers, no more mitzvahs, no more acts of obedience.  I am done.”

                As you might expect, this was not the first time that someone has told me this.  I have heard a confession of this sort many times before.  I did say to this man, as I would typically to anyone who had just confessed similarly that there is another way of looking at the world and if he’d like, I’d be happy to sit down with him and talk about it.  Standing at an open grave at Mt. Hebron Cemetery with jets roaring overhead is not the best place for a philosophical discussion.  But he never called and I’m not surprised.  His confession was not an invitation to dialogue.  He had written an essay of anger and disappointment in his head, and what he relayed to me was simply the concluding paragraph.  He wasn’t going to rewrite any part of that essay.  He needed only to vent, and knowing whom I represent for better or for worse, I provided this man with an opportunity, and he took it.

                The prayers of our mahzor admit that the world is one heck of a tough place.  In the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, we ask God to protect us from “war, hunger, captivity, and destruction.”  We ask God to “nullify the designs of our foes,” to ignore our sins and transgressions, and to heal the sick.  In the moving Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we ponder the fate of humanity and wonder who will die by fire, by water, by stoning, by suffocation, by sword, by beast and so forth.  It’s all a very dystopian vision of the world into which we have been thrust. 

                Beginning in the first and second centuries of the common era, there developed groups of spiritual seekers who acknowledging the harshness of the world, came up with an interesting theory.  They decided that this world was so flawed, so imperfect, that it could not possibly have been created by a good god.  To the contrary, our world was a mistake and the god of the Jewish Bible, with whom they were very familiar, was not the one and true God of the universe, but a lesser god, perhaps even a demonic god who operated with evil intent.  It was for this reason that there is war, disease, theft, murder and so forth.  There were other gods who were far better than the Creator of the Universe, and there was also one Supreme God, ruler of All, pure goodness and perfection, but as for the world that you and I know so well, its design and execution was done by a Reject divinity. 

These people came to be known as the Gnostics which is simply a Greek word referring to a special knowledge or knowing.  Our ancestors were pretty unhappy with these people.  The God of Genesis—not the real God?  A lesser god?  An evil god?  Are they kidding?  Our ancestors saw the Gnostics as blasphemous and denying the oneness of God.

                Unlike the Gnostics, people in the modern age are less likely to come up with a theory of multiple gods to explain the world’s deficiencies and excesses.  People today are more likely to go in the opposite direction and conclude that there simply is no God.  In this case, it’s not that a good God has created a flawed universe, but rather there was no God designing anything and therefore what we have is what we have, which is another way of saying—it is what it is.  There may be design in the universe, but it’s far from intelligent.  This world is godless.  For those of us who have been wounded by the circumstances of life, we know how debilitating the apparent absence of God can feel.

                Answering the question as to why the world is so flawed is worth several years of reflection, and that would only be scratching the surface of the problem.  But knowing how flawed the world is, how do we choose to make our way through it all—through the hardships, the anxieties, the disappointments?

                Whenever I’ve had occasion to attend a Christian service, especially a funeral, I am always struck in hearing the hymn Amazing Grace.  It’s a very stirring melody, recorded numerous times by a variety of popular artists—Judy Collins, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson—but the lyrics leave me a bit in a quandary, probably because they reflect a christological approach to understanding the world.  Do I sing with the congregation?  I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I shouldn’t be singing a Christian hymn.  The first two stanzas read:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
The words themselves were penned by John Newton (1725-1807), a slave trader, substantially depraved—foul-mouthed and irreverent—but one who cheated death on several occasions, went through a personal conversion and ended up an Anglican cleric.  The poem reflects a specifically Protestant idea that it really doesn’t matter what you do in life, it doesn’t matter how good or kind you are, and as far as that goes, it doesn’t matter how corrupt or unethical you are, whether or not you will have any sort of relationship with God rests with God and God alone.  You have nothing to do with it.  Note that this is distinct from Catholic theology which does regard deeds as impacting on grace.  It should be further noted that this in no way implies that Protestants have no reason to be moral.  Morality is the domain of all decent and spiritual people, but the question is whether good deeds can rigger God's grace, and the Protestants will essentially claim that it cannot.  Jews essentially don’t think that way.  
We see it all differently.  God takes all our good deeds and puts them onto one plate of the scale and then God takes all our bad deeds and puts them onto the other plate of the scale and our fate, our relationship with God, our future depends on the weight of one versus the other.  That is to say, we are in control of our fate and it depends on the kind of person we have chosen to be during the past year.  Our Protestant neighbors would simply counter with a Latin phrase, Sola Gratia—Grace Alone.  Our deeds are irrelevant.  The only thing that can save us is God’s grace, and God’s grace is totally in God’s hands, not ours.  When a singer sings that it was “grace that saved a wretch like me,” you can be sure those words reflect a Protestant notion, and however beautiful a hymn Amazing Grace may be, Jewish it is not.
                But here’s the thing about Christian doctrine.  It’s almost always some spin on a Jewish doctrine which was not granted the ascendancy in Judaism that it did in Christianity or, just the converse, Christianity de-emphasized something that Judaism regarded as fundamental.  For that reason, it’s interesting to examine the role God’s grace does play in our tradition.  And we need look no further than the mahzor for evidence of just how important grace is:
Avinu Malkeinu   Our Father, our King…
Honeinu va’aneinu   Be gracious to us and answer us!
 That is the final Avinu Malkeinu in the Avinu Malekeinu litany.  So we do not talk about God’s grace per se but we make reference to God’s graciousness.  What does it mean to be gracious?  We all know what graciousness is—it’s generosity, kindness, high-mindedness, magnanimity.  We know what ungraciousness is as well—selfishness, resentment, pettiness, mean-spiritedness.  But it’s God’s graciousness that we need at this time because as the Avinu Malkeinu hymn reminds us:
Ein banu ma’asim   We really have no deeds to defend ourselves…
Wait—we have no deeds?  That almost sounds like the Protestant doctrine of Sola Gratia—Grace Alone.  Of course we have deeds.  That’s what we’ve been talking about for the last ten days—good deeds versus bad deeds.  Especially during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, when we are urged to do as many positive acts as possible to influence a decision of the Heavenly Court that may be leaning a little more in a direction that makes us uncomfortable.  We want our good deeds to speak for themselves, to overpower and outweigh the not-so-good deeds, and influence the Kadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy One, in a direction more favorable to us.  But the Avinu Malkeinu prayer reminds us that the whole heavenly court system creates a terrible dilemma.  And here it is:  Without arguing our case before God, will God really know how good we are?  We do need to defend ourselves.  But in arguing our goodness before God, don’t we come off as a bit arrogant, smug, holier than Thou?  And if you ever want to be holier than Thou, it’s a good idea to not target the Master of the Universe as the Thou with whom you’re trying to be holier than.  What to do?  What to do is to be honest and take to heart the words of Avinu Malkeinu…
Ki ein banu ma’asim   
Because it is impossible to argue how good we are…That would be a huge strategic error!
Honeinu va’aneinu   
Just be gracious to us and answer us!
Avinu Malkeinu   You are our Father, our King…
God, You  know us better than we know ourselves.  
We are at Your mercy.  We are in need of Your grace.

                For the rabbis, God was the Source, the supreme Source of grace, love and compassion.  Those words in the English may sound like a new-agish expression, but you might recognize this dynamic trio from the Sim Shalom prayer when we sing about God’s hen vahesed v’rahamim, God’s grace, love and compassion.  We acknowledge this holy combination daily if not more frequently and it is because faith would have us recognize the presence of God’s grace and love and compassion with us at all times.  And we are all witness to it.  We are witness to it whenever someone overcomes an illness, or starts a new business, or perseveres in spite of the loss of someone close, or who finds an expression of creativity they never knew they had.  To have faith means that we are never at an end.  And for those who have very deep faith, even one’s ultimate end, is not the end.  God’s grace and love remains steadfast with us beyond the grave.

                I am done with God—some will say.  They aren’t feeling the love.  I totally understand that and one’s feelings do not lie.  But the rabbis had answer for that too.  And so it is that we have in the midrash, the words of the sage, Rabi Shmuel ben Nahmani, who said:

Matzinu shehakol bara Hakadosh Barukh Hu b’olamo
We find that the Holy One has created everything in this world

Hutz mimidat sheker umidat shav
Except for falsehood and deception

Ela, habriyot badu otan miliban
Rather, these were created from the hearts of humanity (Pesikta Rabbati, 24)

And there you have it.  A lot of sin in this world is man-made.  The lying, the cheating, that’s all made by human hands, or human tongues, as the case may be.  And if we accept this as true, it makes human beings among the most dangerous of species.  We are the ones who take an otherwise beautiful creation and mar it with our own lies and deceptions, jealousy and greed.  War, terrorism, hatred, bigotry, poverty, so many of the ills of the world are the products of human stupidity and pettiness, some of it innocent but probably most of it deliberate.  Yes—there are problems in the world which we cannot blame human beings for—the hurricanes and the earthquakes, the floods, etc., But you know, even when it comes to disease and possibly the environment, time has made us increasingly sensitive to the role man-made pollution and unhealthy habits play in our own pathologies.  It underscores just how problematic asking God to look at our deeds is.  Between now and the day the messiah arrives, which I suspect is going to be a very long time, we will do our best, but we had better have a firm belief in God’s grace,
Ki ein banu ma’asim   Our own deeds may not be enough to save us…

                Faith is hard for us in the 21st century.  We have discarded faith so often in order to understand the world in its own terms and not as an authority figure might have us believe.  But to discard faith completely is also to deny ourselves a certain kind of vision that is critical to our own vitality.

So Moshe stands in the wilderness before this burning bush and somehow determines that the presence of God inheres in the flames of this conflagration.  Anyone else might have viewed the whole burning bush episode as just that, a burning bush.  What is that?  It’s a bush, and it’s burning.  Period.  It’s an instance of spontaneous combustion which happens in the wilderness when sustained levels of elevated temperature react with dried vegetation.  As for the fire, it is what fire is—a chemical process releasing heat and light and depending on the fuel burning, other products some of which may be noxious.  The whole thing could have been viewed as a natural phenomenon.   But Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, ish Elohim, a man of faith, sees beyond the science.  He was given the Godly-gift of insight.  He had the ability to see beyond the “what is.”  And all human beings have this capacity.  You and I have this capacity to see, in every aspect of our lives, the miracles that lie beyond the “what is.”

It’s this kind of vision that moved Moshe to redeem the Israelites from Egypt; it is this kind of vision that allowed Martin Luther King to have a dream; it is this kind of vision that allows humanity to break through the heavens and walk on the moon; it is this kind of vision that allows each and everyone of us to rebound after some failure or death or humiliation has laid us low.  It is God’s grace operating within the world.  And it is as constant and all-pervasive as the oxygen we breathe.

Whenever someone approaches me with news that their faith has lapsed, they never do so with excitement.  No one approaches me and says, “Rabbi—you won’t believe this, I’m an atheist.  There is no god.  And I call attention to this fact only because when people have what is commonly known as an aha moment, it’s usually an instance of great excitement or happiness.  But coming to the conclusion that there is no God is never an Ah-ha moment;  it more of an Oy-Vey moment.  No one jumps for joy when they conclude—there is no god, there are no Absolutes, and we are all alone in this vast and inexplicable universe.  That is, at least for many of us, the scariest and saddest thought of all.  But I’m here to tell you that it ain’t necessarily so, and that when we feel the absence of God, it’s because we have chosen to shut God out of our lives.

The world is a very tough place and all our attempts to redesign it, have proven it to be a resistant subject.  There are no guarantees.  There are no promises that will assure us long life, material gain, or physical well-being.  Our faith in God does protect us on some level as such faith usually guides us to a more cautious use of our time and resources.  But our faith in God cannot totally shield us from life’s surprises, upsets, or detours.  And that’s the reason to believe in God with even greater faith, because it is the hen, the hesed and the rahamim, God’s grace, love and compassion that is forever with us.  When we choose to see beyond the “what is” and be courageous enough to envision the “who we can be,” we don’t necessarily get rid of all the life’s negatives, but we are able to navigate them so much better. 

After all this, I must tell you that we skip every Avinu Malkeinu in the mahzor (except for the last one) because it is Shabbat.   It’s Shabbat, a day when we try to minimize references to the harshness within the world and focus on all the positives.  It’s our small way of creating our own reality, one free of any mention of life’s difficulties.  But even when we omit the Avinu Malkeinu from this sacred day, there is something that is impossible to omit:  God’s grace, love, and compassion.  It is a theological impossibility.

The sun shines, the earth spins, the galaxies expand, and God’s love radiates forever.  You may find yourself at one time or another giving up on God.  I totally understand that.  But I’m telling you right now, God will never give up on you.  That’s what makes God’s grace and love so amazing.  

May we all be sealed into the Book of Life for a year when we effectively navigate all of Life’s challenges.  G’mar hatimah Tovah—

Sunday, September 24, 2017


Shanah Tovah, everyone.  Great to see you all in this Rosh Hashanah 5778, and I want to wish you all a very healthy and fulfilling and peaceful year to come for you, for your family, and let’s pray for the world at large as well. 

A young lady attends the grand opening of a new store.  Her friend started a boutique some years ago, she did well, and was now able to relocate the store to a wealthier neighborhood where business would be better than ever.  The young lady walks into the boutique and sees the congratulatory floral arrangement she had ordered, but the message on the arrangement read:  Rest in Peace.  She’s a bit embarrassed by the whole thing as this was not the message she had ordered so she quickly leaves the premise, runs two blocks down to the florist and complains to the manager.  The manager gets on the computer, shakes his head, and apologizes—"I’m really sorry.  We made the wrong delivery.”  The young lady responds—Fine, let’s make the right delivery and get the right floral arrangement to the boutique.  The manager says—I dunno, the arrangement you ordered is on the van and may have already been delivered.  And the young lady asks—You mean, to the boutique?  And the manager says, No, to the Kaplan funeral and the message reads—Good luck in your new location. 

Communication is key to our creating and maintaining positive relationships with one another and when the message comes out wrong, there’s a price to be paid.  So much of life is about communication:  What was written versus what was meant; what was said versus what was heard; what was intended as communicated versus what was ultimately understood.  All these questions come into play when two people are trying to communicate with each other, and it doesn’t matter whether the parties involved are parent and child, boss and employee, teacher and student, siblings or friends.  The challenges are always the same.

The complexity of communication is compounded by the means of communication that are not always appropriate vehicles for an exchange.  Social media is no place to voice dissatisfaction with a relative, unless the goal is to terminate the relationship.  Writing an angry email may be cathartic on some level, but it’s also an email that is best deleted than sent.  We tap out messages on the screen that are far more difficult to say when we must speak them face to face, which is the reason why the regret potential is far greater with email than other forms of communication.

Nonetheless, the truth is that difficult conversations are always difficult no matter the medium.  And the question is how to have a difficult conversation without it disintegrating into a curse-laced screaming match?  How do we tell our kids that we are not too pleased with the friends they are hanging around with, the ones whom we know are using drugs?  How do we tell our spouses that they have over time grown distant, or unloving, and that we are feeling like the marriage is over?  How do we tell our co-workers that their voice is too loud, their bagged lunches too smelly, their job performance too sloppy?  How do you have a difficult conversation and emerge unscathed?  If we are in any way serious about restoring damaged relationships at this time of year, then we must be prepared to have difficult conversations that work

A mother of a teenaged daughter once told me that whenever she needs to have a difficult conversation, she does so in the middle of Nordstrom’s.  It’s a way of minimizing the possibility of either of them losing control.  It’s not a bad idea.  If enough people did this, it could revive retail in malls.  But I don’t think you have to run to the mall each time and a private setting has its advantages.  In fact, criticism or difficult exchanges should unfold in private in order to minimize embarrassment. 

In the Torah, we learn hokheiah tokhiakh et amitekha / Reprove your kinsman (Lev. 19:17), that is to say, we are under a special mitzvah to call to the attention of our kinsmen a behavior, a sentiment, an activity which is either physically dangerous or morally suspect.  Why?  Because they are our kinsmen—our relatives—and we might interpret this more broadly as our neighbors, our associates.  You don’t enter into difficult conversations with the people you don’t know, but with the people you do.  That said, when we begin a difficult conversation, the overall tone must be predominated by a concern for the love that is, for the relationship that exists, for the mutual desire (assuming there is a mutual desire) to preserve or strengthen the relationship.  Speak angrily, and the anger is heard, the message lost.  Speak slowly, speak calmly, speak without any “You did this” or “You did that,” but with more emphasis on “I felt hurt when this happened,” or “I was disappointed when that happened” and the message is more likely to be heard.  Accuse someone and they will almost naturally choose to defend themselves.  But if we talk about how a statement or an action made us feel—well, it’s difficult to deny a personal feeling.  In that case, our concern and our intent will most likely be conveyed.

And since difficult conversations are not monologues but dialogues, we must also be prepared to hear something about ourselves that we may find unpleasant.  What role have we played in bringing about the very situation we now find objectionable?  We should strive not to act the defense attorney.  In a difficult conversation, we must be prepared to take some responsibility—not necessarily all—but some responsibility for the ugliness that we must now address.

What is worse than a difficult conversation?  I’ll tell you: no conversation.  No conversation is worse.  When I hear of a couple that is having some difficulties in their relationship, I ask—have you considered a therapist?  Seeking the input of a third party is never a sign of weakness.  To the contrary, it is a sign of strength because it’s evidence that the couple wants to repair that which is broken.  When counselling or therapy is refused, then the possibility of repair plummets dramatically.  Relationships of whatever kind survive and thrive because people are investing in them.  Where there is no investment, particularly of time, then the fate of that relationship is rather bleak.  And maybe that’s for the better.  Resignation from a job, dissolution of a marriage, alienation from family—sometimes those are the only solutions.  But the point is this: difficult conversations are evidence of hope; refusing conversation is typically the precursor to a relationship that will soon die.

You know who’s having the worse marriage right now?  Conservatives and Liberals.  There is a minimum of conversation, which is hopeful, but the conversation is toxic.  One side is condemned as heartless and the other side as bleeding hearts.  One side is fascist and the other side are anti-border globalists.  One side is racist and the other side is an amalgam of God knows what but whatever it is, it’s going to take down the nation.  The volume of the screaming is so high it’s difficult to hear much of anything else.  But the worse part of this faltering marriage is this:  Here they are, living in the same house, screaming at each other just about every day, but not really talking.  There is no real exchange going on and it’s easy to understand why.  Each side has been able to condemn the other as disgusting.  And if each side is truly disgusting, why would they want to stay married in the first place?

Over the past few months, I’ve been exploring this issue with a few members using as a starting point Jonathan Haidt’s work, The Righteous Mind.  Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and a professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business.  His studies of moral decision-making are not prescriptive, in other words, he doesn’t tell us what a moral decision is and but rather, descriptive—he tells us how people go about making their moral and ethical decisions.  His focus is not merely on how we do it here in America, but how people the world over do it. He has essentially identified six moral foundations at play when making an ethical decision or judging the morality of a given incident.  Haidt sees us all as members of tribes.  Just as early humanity formed tribes to create social structures that could hunt and cook, and defend against attacks more efficiently than any one individual, so too these tribal associations have evolved today into competing corporations, fans of sports teams, and yes—political parties.  And we make snap judgments about people based on their associations with their particular tribe.  As far as that goes, we are always making snap judgments about people.  We think we know who that white shirt, black pants, conservative hair cut New Testament-holding young man ringing a door bell really is.  We’ve never spoken to that young man—but we think we know who he is and we probably know his politics as well.  We think we know who that body-tattooed, rain-bow colored muscle-shirted, androgynous person is, even though we have never spoken to him or her. We make snap judgments about people having never met them.  We think we know them, but we don’t.  We just file them away in their tribal category and judge them on that basis.

Remember the series West Wing?  Some of those episodes, particularly those written by Aaron Sorkin, were so good, and even though the Bartlett White House is a Democratic White House, Sorkin was gifted in presenting two sides of an issue without condescension or sarcasm.  In the second season, there’s a great story line about this Democratic White House hiring a young, blonde, petite southern Republican lawyer because the president thinks of her as being bright, sharp and it would be good to have some contrary opinions floating around and sharpening everyone else’s thinking.  She consents to work for the White House in spite of her holding opinions at sharp variance with those of her boss, the president.  At one point, she has an exchange with Josh and Sam, two advisors to the president, about gun control.  And it takes place not long after an attack on the president’s entourage in which a number were wounded, some seriously so.  Ainsley, the Repulbican lawyer, accuses the president’s team of loving the Bill of Rights except for that second one, the people’s right to bear arms.  Sam points out that the would-be assassins who just attacked the president’s team bought guns, travelled between state lines, loaded them and until they actually fired them, had not committed a crime and he’s sick about listening to people who think this issue is about personal freedom and public safety.  He says—what this is really all about is that some people in this country just like guns.  Ainsely, the Republican lawyer counters and agrees that there are people who like guns.  And then she continues to say this—“But your position is not about public safety or personal freedom either…  It’s just that you don’t like people who like guns.  You don’t like the people.  Think about that the next time you make a joke about the South.”

It’s a cutting line, and an insightful line, not because it necessarily conveys a reality—advocates of gun control are clearly serious about public safety--but it conveys a perception that I think is very real.  When all the arguments for or against gun control are laid out on the table, when everyone has argued their positions cogently and forcefully, there remains an unsettled issue that no one has addressed:  whether the parties to this argument respect each other or whether one views the other as stupid, foolish, and ignorant.  And if that is the perception, and I suspect it is, the so-called stupid people are going to dig their heels into the ground even deeper.  The arguments for or against become irrelevant.  No party to a difficult conversation wants to feel disrespected.  It’s no way to have a difficult conversation.  It is no way to have a conversation at all.

I don’t know about you but I’m a big fan of free speech.  The freer the speech and the more divergent the opinions the better off we all are in being exposed to and possibly considering different views than the ones we presently hold fast to.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  There is something wrong, however, with how that free speech gets spoken.  The kind of disregard for facts, name-calling, and baseless charges that have become the bread and butter of shock jocks, talk show hosts, political pundits, some unscrupulous politicians, this is the sort of thing that eats away at the dignity of a society.  It’s the equivalent of an irrational, emotional, screaming match.  It’s not conversation. 

The inability of the country to speak to each other is being played out most tragically on college campuses, many colleges instituting safe spaces where students can go to, to protect themselves from ideas they might find disturbing or challenging of their own lifestyle.  Speakers of controversial subjects may be shouted down or dis-invited for fear that the campus would be unable to protect them.  The idea that a university can no longer bring people with differing opinions to the campus for fear of disrupting campus life is so sad.  It is the antithesis of what a university should be, exposing young people to a host of new and different ideas.  A few days ago, the New York Times reported that the Berkeley College Republicans hosted the controversial Conservative pundit, Ben Shapiro, which cost the University of California $600,000 in security fees.   This is, of course, an unusual instance but the point is that it would be difficult for any college campus, public or private, to absorb costs of that nature were it to sponsor a sustained level of divergent views and opinions.  Some people fear listening to opinions other than their own.  And some people fear speaking opinions that may trigger hostility.  In that environment, conversation grinds to a halt.

What has happened is that we have sent the wrong message to the people with whom we have a relationship—our neighbors.  We are telling the people who have a Grand Opening to Rest in Peace and the people who died to “Enjoy Your New Location.”  We send terrible messages to each other, messages that are fueled by talk radio, shock jocks, media outlets, and loud mouth politicians.  We have satirized, demonized, and vilified the very people who are supposed to be our neighbors.  Forget about v’ahavta l’rei-akha kamokha—Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).  We may not realize it consciously, but the way we speak is as if we hate our neighbors, which is the very antithesis of what the Torah is teaching.  Our nation is quickly turning into a national neighborhood of people who hate each other’s guts.  And we rat on Congress for their lack of bi-partisanship when they are, in very large part, a reflection of us.  

We have now lived through several generations of a social environment that has placed a premium on protest and demonstration.  Fight the good fight.  Stand up for your rights.  And those attitudes have changed the country in many ways, many times for the good.  But there has been something missing, something terribly absent from all this.  That very important face to face exchange, not on the op-ed pages of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, not while grandstanding in Congress, not while shouting slogans at some rally, certainly not while tweeting, but by taking out the other side to lunch, and having an actual conversation based on mutual repsect.  There is no need to shell out security fees in excess of half a million dollars when you could have a serious conversation, perhaps a difficult conversation, with someone for about $29.95 plus a tip, the cost of a tuna fish sandwich and a cup of coffee for two and the Celebrity Diner.

You know what you might find in that conversation?  You might find out that the other side are also parents, that they worry about their kids, that they may have jobs and worry about keeping them, that the world is a place that seems to be changing very quickly, and that change is scary, and that some of them have had serious medical problems, and that they have lost people near to them, and many worry about their own health as well.  You will find that the other side is not identical to you—who is?—but you will find that you share more in common than you think.  After lunch, you may just find out that whatever the other side might be, they are not the enemy.

People have said to me—I no longer talk about politics, because when I do, people become irrational and combative and objectionable and it ends badly.  And I believe them.  I’ve experienced this myself.  But you know what’s worse than a difficult conversation?  No conversation.  Difficult conversations are evidence of hope; refusing conversation is typically the precursor to a relationship that will soon die.  If we cannot speak to each other about issues that matter most, we will not be able to live with each other in a home—that is, our nation—forever forcing difficult issues upon us.  Look—everyone in this room loves this country.  America, with all its flaws and blemishes, has been very good to us.  We love this country.  But there are a lot of people making money off getting us all crazy with extreme and polarizing views.  Cooler heads must prevail.  I know that I’m speaking to the cooler heads right now, and we all have work to do, God’s work, to initiate some healing.  So, this is how it’s done—

Think of someone who has really different views from your own.  It’s a co-worker who loves to show off his gun collection to guests.  It’s a neighbor who wants as many bathrooms in public buildings as there are genders.  Whoever it is, it has to be someone who is substantially different from yourself.  You go up to them and say, Listen, I’d like to take some time and have lunch with you or go out to Starbucks with you.  They will ask you, why?  You will say, My rabbi told me I had to.  They will look puzzled.  You will say—lunch is on me and they will say—okay, because everyone loves a free lunch or a free coffee and nosh. 

Now remember, it has to be a positive experience.  You have to talk about your kids, your hobbies, your interests and you can touch on some political stuff too, but you can’t get emotional and you have to listen respectfully.  And then you have to write a short synopsis, 50 words or less, and send it in to me—I want to know how it went. 

I’m willing to bet that this will be an eye-opening experience for you.  And at the end of the conversation, your neighbor will still be confused about the whole exercise and still question you.  And you will say—There is this rule in the Torah about Loving your neighbor, and my rabbi says that when we spout pious slogans without acting on them, we are engaged in fake religion.  And nobody likes fake religion.  Good luck, Shanah Tovah, and don’t forget to write.

Friday, July 14, 2017


Heather was a girl raised in an observant Jewish family that belonged to my synagogue.  She was deeply into the congregation’s youth groups, enjoyed socializing and went off to college with hopes of securing a bachelor’s degree and perhaps an available Jewish bachelor as well.  During her years at college, she came to me on several occasions disillusioned with her social life on campus.  There were plenty of Jewish boys at the university she attended and she was close on a couple of occasions to settling into a long-term relationship, but in the end, something always got in the way.  It was her religious observance.  She liked to go to services on Shabbat—not every Shabbat, but periodically.  She spoke about belonging to a synagogue someday.  She kept kosher, not of the “I can’t eat in a non-kosher restaurant” variety, but she was careful with what she ordered outside her dorm room, yet for some reason, her observance was a turn-off for the boys she dated.  The tears would slowly make their way down her cheeks when reflecting on her frustrations. 
Years later, now in her early thirties, Heather contacts me with good news—she was engaged.  “Mazal Tov,” I said, to which she replied, “But he’s not Jewish.  Rabbi—he’s the first guy I’ve ever dated who hasn’t made fun of my keeping kosher.”  She wasn’t a young lady to exaggerate or beg for sympathy.  She was truthfully telling me her experience, and from a purely liberal Jewish sociological perspective, it was a deeply sad tale.  To make matters worse, I was about to make matters worse.  She asked if I would officiate at her wedding, and I responded, as do all rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, “I’m so sorry, but no, I cannot.”
Heather (with the exception of her name) was a real person with whom I had a very positive relationship.  She was unique.  She actually went off to school and eventually entered a white-collar work force, living on her own terms, with the intent of marrying a Jewish man.  Many of her contemporaries, and I dare say an increasing number of young Jewish people today, do not share her biases.  To the contrary, they leave home to mix and socialize with many different people of varied ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds where they are accepted as equals.  And these young people are, within the context of the American Jewish experience, what we would call success stories.
What makes them success stories are the ways in which they have so thoroughly integrated into their personal lives, the values that predominate the liberal world of western democracies, values that the liberal Jewish world have promoted to varying degrees.  These values include a respect for all people regardless of their ethnic, religious, or racial background; a distancing if not a total rejection of any notion that Jewishness is a superior tradition or that Jews are in some way chosen; and a suspicion that seriously religious people are in some way simple-minded or foolish.  These values are the very values that predominate the universities that young Jewish people compete to enter.  Jeffrey K. Salkin, author and a Reform Rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, writes:
I was a college freshman, and I was in a psychology class. The subject of religion came up, and I publicly admitted that I believed in God and was a committed Jew.
The professor grew pale. I will never forget what he said to me. “This makes me very sad. I am hoping that as you become more educated, you will, at the very least, question your faith.”
I had not thought of that professor (who was Jewish) and that experience for several decades—until this week with the release of a Pew study on the correlation between religious attachment and educational levels.
More than half of Jews who have not completed college say they believe in God with absolute certainty.  But, only about thirty percent Jewish college graduates would say the same.
39% of Jews who have not completed college say religion is very important in their lives.  Only 25% of Jewish college graduates say religion is very important to them.
--Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, “Are Jews Too Cool for Shul?” http://religionnews.com/2017/04/28/jews-pew-education-religious/  April 28, 2017
In addition to the highly secularized liberal messages transmitted to young Jewish people, there is one other very non-western message that parents and rabbis sometimes throw into the mixture: “Non-Jews are fine, but don’t marry one.”  It’s a message that for all intents and purposes, given all the other messages, is a glorious non-sequitur.  It simply doesn’t follow.  How can one embrace a philosophical diet of—all people are equal; respect everyone regardless of background; do not regard yourself as superior; don’t get too religious…and “DON’T MARRY A NON-JEW”?  At another period in Jewish history, when Jews may have regarded themselves as chosen, and their Judaism as superior to other traditions, the “Don’t marry a non-Jew” message followed logically.  But the liberal Jewish world has changed the way it views itself and others, and suddenly, the message of endogamy, that is of marrying within the group, is a heavy message hanging by a cord of diminishing threads of justification!  Given all this, has the time come for Conservative rabbis to acknowledge our altered perspective on ourselves and the world, abandon the tradition of endogamy, and begin to officiate at interfaith marriages?  Has the time come for someone like me to accommodate someone like Heather?
This question is hardly a new one.  It seems as if it has been hotly debated for at least half a century if not longer.  And having dealt with the matter periodically over the years, I can tell you that the issue is one that raises the passions and emotions of the Jewish people, whether one is for or against.  In 2000, an American Jewish Committee survey found that 50% of Jews interviewed agreed with the statement: “It is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages.”  But that left 50% of the community believing that it was not racist.  That’s about as divided as a community can get.  Any rabbi thrown into that divide is either going to disappoint one half of the congregation or the other, or be able to speak at length about nothing thus keeping everyone in suspense.  Which, on occasion, is not a terrible tactic.  But it does seem as if the issue has come to a head so as pleasant as sitting on a fence may be, it’s time to get off, and the question is, on which side should the rabbi disembark.
The fence metaphor is here by design for it should be clear that the issue at hand is one of where to draw the line.  And this, in and of itself, is a very interesting question because we are presently caught in a world in which lines themselves are under attack.  The sentiment here seems to be that there is something ghastly unholy about the lines drawn in the world, even those imposed by nature, or perhaps it should be said—especially those imposed by nature.  For example, most of the world grows up thinking that there are essentially two genders, male and female, and that these genders are based on unique anatomies which are typically easily identifiable.  In contrast, contemporary gender studies would have us believe that gender is a social construct separate and apart from one’s biology.  That is to say, a person who is biologically a man may think of himself as a woman, in which case, he is really a she.  Or the opposite, a person who is biologically a woman may think of herself as a he, in which case she is really a he.  This is not to say that such people are lying or engaged in a grandiose hoax, but it is a radical departure from how thousands of generations of humankind have identified male and female.  The academic world, the world of so many liberal universities, are lobbying for such identifications to be based on personal choice.  Silly as this may sound, the boundary issue here has practical ramifications in how we determine who is permitted in the Men’s Room as opposed to the Women’s Room.  And for those whose gender identification remains ambiguous, there is a movement afoot for public institutions to offer a third alternative, a restroom for gender neutral.  The point of this observation is not to be critical of those who are engaged in gender reassessments, but only to offer an example of how boundaries that were once solidly in place are now either questioned or done away with altogether.
This resistance to nature’s boundaries manifests itself in serious and expensive surgeries to physically alter one’s genital anatomy, or in the far more innocuous act of dying the hair in completely unnatural colors or in physical piercings that distort the shape of the body.  Such alterations seem to be coming increasingly commonplace. In one particularly egregious example of how boundaries are challenged, a president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was forced to resign after it was discovered that this heretofore black female president was actually born white.  Rachel Dolezal has since stated that racial fluidity is just like transgenderism—race is how a person chooses to identify oneself regardless of biology.  Apparently, the NAACP leadership didn’t buy it.  In their view, race is biological, not philosophical.
It is no wonder that one of the hottest items on the political agenda these days is the security of national borders.  This is not an issue debated solely by Americans.  The wars and conflicts around the world that have ignited an explosion of refugees fleeing for their lives has forced otherwise liberal countries to question the effectiveness of its own borders.  Is there a border in place that allows for the controlled entry of foreigners or not?  And should that boundary be as thick as the armor on a tank or as giving as the curtains on one’s windows?  Do we or do we not need borders?  That discomfort with boundaries is writ into the social consciousness of good people who want to help the world as in such organizations as Doctors Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders, Teachers Without Borders, etc.
              The liberal Jewish world has also struggled with the issue of borders or boundaries, most notably that border between Jew and non-Jew.  For example, many synagogues have had to debate the merits of allowing a non-Jew onto the bimah.  There was never a question of allowing a non-Jew into the synagogue.  But the bimah somehow seemed different and till this day, there are synagogues that permit non-Jews onto that bimah while others do not.
The seriousness of boundary-ambivalence should not be underestimated for the Jewish community, as Jewish communal life for years has been based on sacred, and in most cases inviolable, boundaries.  At the end of Sabbath, the last blessing in Havdalah, the ceremony of bringing the Sabbath to an end, reads as follows:
Praised are You, YHVH, our God who leads us through the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the Seventh Day and the six days of creation.  Praised are You, YHVH, for having distinguished between the sacred and the profane.
Actually, the term for sacred in Hebrew is “kadosh,” which carries with it the sense of being separate or apart.  This understanding of the term flows naturally from an inventory of those items or concepts listed in the Torah as kadosh.  So, for example, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem is kadosh because it is the exclusive home of God; offerings to the Temple are kadosh because once so designated, they cannot be used for anything other than what the priests do with them; Shabbat or the Sabbath day is Kadosh because it is a day during which we create a unique environment, sui generis as compared with all the other days of the week;  and  additionally, the Jewish people are kadosh, because as the Chosen ones of God, they are to act in a way that is different from all the other nations, presumably in a way that distinguishes them as completely moral in their decisions and mindful of the godliness with which the world is imbued.  As Rabbi Martin S. Cohen, the spiritual leader of Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, NY, once put it, “The essence of Jewishness is the quest for kedushah.”  In other words, the Jew lives to create holiness, and that is done by observing and maintaining the boundaries that elevate and spiritualize life over and above that which would otherwise be regarded as mundane or profane, vulgar or meaningless.
One of the scariest metaphors for traditional Jews is the one that defines America as a melting pot.  It is, on the one hand, a loving image of a place where people of diverse backgrounds come together and become one.  But the function of the melting pot is to dissipate boundaries, and for a traditional community whose understanding of sanctity is the guarding of such boundaries, the metaphor itself is an attack on Jewish self-definition.
Then again, this was true only for the Jews who held fast to traditionalism.  As for the tens of thousands of Jews who immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were only too eager to blend into America, and do whatever necessary to achieve that objective.  Those rituals that may have distinguished Jews from the community at large—resting on Shabbat, maintaining the dietary laws, daily prayer, clothing codes and so forth—were increasingly abandoned in favor of an assimilation that made Jews look and behave more American.   And as Jews became increasingly assimilated, they were also increasingly welcomed into clubs and institutions that in an earlier era were restricted to them.  For a people locked out of the mainstream for so long, every opened door was like manna from Heaven.  The melting pot was steaming; the boundaries were finally evaporating.  In the last few decades of the twentieth century, it was becoming abundantly clear that not only were Jews and non-Jews socializing together, but they were marrying one another.  The most guarded and sacred boundary of all, that boundary between Jews and everyone else, was melting away.  And ever since then, this new and disruptive reality inspired a communal debate that continues to rage:  Do we accept the new reality and abandon a boundary that is so widely ignored, or do we embrace the boundary even against all odds?  There should be no mistake about the broader message to the Jewish community should rabbis agree to officiate at interfaith marriages.  The broader message will be: the boundary no longer exists.  There is simply no way for a community to value in-marriage while its communal leadership officially sanctions interfaith marriage.  That is a paradox that no community can sustain.
If a Judaism for a contemporary world is to be at all appealing, it must first and foremost be honest.  It is therefore important to begin with an admission that a message which conceives of all people as equal, worthy, and precious in the eyes of God regardless of ethnicity, religion or race, coupled with the caveat “Please don’t marry them,” sounds contradictory.  It is no wonder that the American Jewish Committee survey of 2000 found 50% of Jews understanding the opposition to interfaith marriage as racist.  So many of the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews had been dismantled, what remained was some vague notion of gentiles being in some way deficient, inferior, or unworthy.  And that is racist.  So if in-marriage is to remain a sacred Jewish value, and if the Jewish community continues to view all God’s children as equal, what exactly would the rationale be for promoting in-marriage, Jew marrying Jew alone?     
Membership in Jewish peoplehood requires very little.  But Jewish peoplehood is only one aspect of Jewishness.  There is a spiritual dimension to Jewishness that exists and is real.  Some Jews embrace it fully, others reject it in toto, but most Jews are somewhere in between.  That dimension of Jewish spirituality, summarized in 25 words or less, would run something like this—Jews partner with God, God acting as the ultimate source of hope and inspiration and Jews acting as God’s emissaries on earth of all that is moral, just, and sacred.  That was 30 words but the partnership demands flexibility and compassion so the definition stands.  Because this covenant between the Jewish people and God passes from generation to generation, some people are born into it.  Jews by Birth may reject it all at some point—it is after all a free world—but the idea here is that Jews are born into a spiritual chain that began with Abraham and continues on to this day.  That’s a powerful spiritual heritage.  Jewish children, the day of their birth, are already 3500 years old.
The succession of Jewishness through the generations is not, however, based on genetics.  And this is clear because if it were, conversion into Judaism would be impossible.  But conversion is possible, and the community should welcome such transformations.  Anyone may choose to enter Jewish peoplehood via protocols that have existed for centuries.  And when people choose to do so, it is reason for celebration.  And when people choose not to, that is a decision that deserves our respect.  Judaism is a profound and inspirational path to God, but only one of many.  And for some, finding a relationship with God may not be an issue at all.  In our day, for so many, that is the predominant reality—a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless.
The Jewish wedding ceremony is known in Hebrew by a word that ought to sound familiar by now: kiddushin.  Kiddushin is a term from the same root as kadosh or holiness and as such, carries with it implications of separateness and apartness.  When a couple enters kiddushin, the two are establishing a relationship that is unique.  They are vowing to be faithful to one another, that is, to establish a relationship that is exclusive, a relationship that is separate and in that way special.  By the same token, they are vowing to establish a relationship that is exclusive in another way.  The kiddushin blessing begins with a formula familiar to all Jews—asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu—[God], You have distinguished us via your mitzvot and have directed us to…  That is a blessing that applies to Jews, but to no others—not to Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus.  It is a blessing that acknowledges Jews as part of this sacred covenant, the partnership that commits us to a special kind of life.  There is a boundary in that blessing as clear as the boundary established when the bride circles seven times around the groom.
The fifth blessing of the Sheva Berakhot, the traditional seven blessings of the Jewish wedding ceremony reads as follows:  “May Israel, once bereft of her children, now delight as they gather together in joy.  Praised are You, God, who lets Zion rejoice with her children.”  One might legitimately ask why it is necessary to drag Zion into the Jewish wedding ceremony.  What does Zion have to do with two young people choosing to marry?  The answer lies again in kiddushin, this idea that the marriage begins as a call to the couple to shape their lives and their relationship in line with 3500 years of Jewish tradition, values and continuity.  It is a blessing that is designed for Jews, and not for Chris or Christine, and not for Mohammed or Fatima. 
As far as that goes, it may not even be a blessing for Josh and Deborah.  They may no longer feel the call to Zion, to a God that is in covenant with Jews, to a morality that emanates from Torah, or to a narrative that stretches back 3500 years.  And it should come as no surprise that there have been plenty of Jewish couples who have chosen a Justice of the Peace or a mayor of a town, or just a friend to officiate at their wedding precisely because they no longer want to identify with values that for them have become provincial or passé.  We do not live in a world favorably disposed to serious religious belief.  But the point is this:  the Jewish wedding creates a partnership of two people who are committed to the covenant, either by virtue of birth of by virtue of choice.  When the family unit no longer needs to be bound by the covenant, when that boundary dissipates, the spiritual dimension of Judaism takes a serious hit, and may just be a hit from which it cannot recover.  When rabbis grant their seal of approval to marriages in which covenant no longer figures, they are undermining the very Judaism they are supposed to promote. 
Clearly, it wouldn’t be the first time that Jews in leadership chose to so alter Judaism as to make it more palatable to a larger audience.  Our people did this some 2000 years ago.  At that time, the argument was we could get more people to be Jews if we didn’t require brit milah, or kashrut, or sabbath observance.   These efforts evolved into something that turned out to be enormously successful, the culmination of which we are very familiar with today: it’s called Christianity.  But Christianity, for all its glory and magnificence, is no longer Judaism. 
Some time ago, a man approached me to unburden himself of an issue that had bothered him for years.  He had been married twice.  His first marriage ended in divorce, a bitterly contested and ugly divorce, but in the very least a separation that brought to an end 15 years of misery.  That was his Jewish marriage.  His second marriage, to an Italian Catholic, was a loving, mutually respectful and beautiful marriage.  This man was, for all intents and purposes, a devoted Jew, a member of the congregation, a man who could lead prayer if so asked, and one who was forever stymied with the fact that his marriage to the “right woman” could have ended so badly while his marriage to the “wrong woman” could be so loving and fulfilling.  How was he to reconcile that?
It should have been obvious, but it simply wasn’t to him or to most Jews, that the issue of in-marriage deals with a Jewish communal existential issue.  Can a Jew and non-Jew share a very loving and mutually respectful relationship together?  Absolutely!  And when that happens, it’s a blessing of a deeply personal nature.  But that is not the issue.   The issue of in-marriage is about communal viability and continuity.  Even where children are to be raised as Jews, the integration with family of other religious backgrounds, celebrating with them non-Jewish rituals, an erasure of the boundaries, as it were, creates too great a potential for a child to see another way of religious life as viable.  In truth, there are far worse things in the world than a Jew converting to another religious tradition.  But the role of Jewish leadership should be, in large part, the creation or maintenance of those standards designed to minimize that potential.  To look a blind eye at that potential is communal suicide.
Religion in our day has sadly become extra-curricular, an activity like hockey or ballet.  The argument that rabbis ought to refrain from interfaith marriages grants religiosity or spirituality a dimension of importance that many contemporary Jews and non-Jews may find puzzling.  What’s the big deal?  Does it matter that much?  That sentiment must be understood within the context of a liberal western world that has beat up on the Judeo-Christian ethic for centuries, leaving it fairly wounded and bloodied by now.  Modernity would be more honest were it to equally reject its infatuation with non-European cultures which it claims the white male patriarchal society has ignored for too long.  The liberal university, having raised the profile of non-European cultures at the expense of its own European Judeo-Christian roots, exposes its disdain for its own roots.  The result has been an erosion of religious passion and commitment reflected in the number of college-educated people who have distanced themselves from religion.  There are parents who fear for their children falling into religious behaviors with the same suspicion or fear as when speaking of alcohol or drugs.  But in the end, disregard of religion has made us stupid, for it is impossible to understand ourselves without understanding and appreciating our roots, and it is utterly impossible to understand America without understanding its European Judeo-Christian history.  Is Jewish religiosity a bigger deal than most would care to acknowledge?  Yes—it’s a very big deal.
It isn’t easy saying “No.”  Ask any parent of the twenty-first century and they will admit that “No” is the hardest word to speak.  And that, too, is an affliction which emanates from the erosion of boundaries.  It’s an affliction which manifests itself in unacceptable dress, inappropriate language, and disrespect for figures of authority—teachers, police, clergy, and even political figures.  “Yes” does not identify a boundary, but “no” does.  Rabbis, too, suffer from this affliction.  They love to say “Yes” and hate to say “No.”  But rabbis have an obligation to preserve long-standing traditions, and when it comes to interfaith marriage, it is the “No” that is said today which will best preserve the Judaism of tomorrow. 
One more point: because I am a Conservative Jew, I acknowledge that I am completely uncertain about the rightness of my decision.  I may be 1000% wrong in all this, and my colleagues, some of whom will choose to officiate at interfaith marriages, may be 1000% correct.  But I am emboldened by the fact that they, too, however committed they may be to the rightness of their decision, cannot be certain either.  In a few generations, there will be greater clarity as to which side chose the wiser.  And when that day comes, whatever the verdict, I hope later generations will understand that my decision was made with the best interests of the Jewish community at heart.