My congregation has nicknamed me the “smiling rabbi.” I was lucky to be born with a happy disposition.
Yet, we all know life is never perfect. Authentic happiness demands we also grapple with the unhappy parts of our character. Perfection, as Jewish wisdom teaches us, is reserved for God.
How To Grapple With Them
I have found that great theater is one of the best ways to grapple with these uncomfortable parts of ourselves. When we do so honestly, we can grow into more loving, wiser human beings. But it can be very hard.
This week and next, 40 high school students from Israel and the Palestinian territories are gathering in Chicago for serious dialogue. I will be addressing the group this Friday evening. Here is the gist of my remarks.
As you gather here this evening, your homeland is engulfed in war. Your families live in fear. A rocket or bomb could fall at any time.
Yet here you are—talking with one another, building a community of true diversity. You are addressing, unpacking and learning about the differences that really matter.
You are having the kind of dialogue Martin Buber envisioned when he wrote his classic book I and Thou: conversation driven by a willingness to be changed, to shift points of views, to open up to the truths of another.
Does It Matter?
Can it work? Can we listen to each other? Does what we are doing here matter to what is happening over there? Absolutely.
I remember my first visit to Israel in 1994. The Oslo Accords had just been signed. Hope reigned. My group was greeted warmly in the Arab market in Jerusalem.
The opposite feelings prevail today. We witness bombings, indiscriminate hatred, vitriol. Dozens of my friends who are there now share words of sadness and despair.
Can we find any basis for hope?
I remember sitting one day with my three-year-old daughter. She had a book in her and was turning the pages and telling the story. This was her regular habit. She could not yet read the words, but she could tell the story based on the pictures.
I had one ear listening to her voice and the other, I am sorry to say, thinking about the coming week’s sermon. Suddenly I stopped thinking about the sermon. I turned my head toward her. Something was different.
I looked down at the book. I realized she was not telling the story in her own words. She was reading the words on the page.
I couldn’t believe it. Time stood still for a second. Then I looked at her, laughed, smiled and started to sing.
In the 1970s Alex Haley wrote the best-seller Roots. He sought to find the roots of his life as an African-American. Where did he come from? What experiences shaped who he was?
Pope Francis and one of his best friends, Rabbi Abraham Skorka
We all ask these questions. We seek not only geographic roots and ethnic roots. We look for spiritual roots. Where do we come from? Why do we believe what we believe?
For Christians much of the answer lies in Judaism. Pope Francis recently put it bluntly when he said, “I believe that inter-religious dialogue must investigate the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Christian flowering of Judaism… Inside every Christian is a Jew.”
Last year I attended the Irish Fest in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The music and ambience make it one of most unforgettable days of the year.
Listening to a concert, I struck up a conversation with someone standing next to me. I told him I was a rabbi, and once we got past the usual incredulity and discussion of why I don’t have a beard, he turned serious.
“I’m Irish,” he said, “And I love Irish music. I’m here celebrating being Irish. But I don’t plan to move to Ireland. I don’t talk about it all the time. Why do Jews care so much about Israel? It’s all I hear—Israel, Israel, Israel.”
A synagogue in my neighborhood recently announced it would close its doors. I reflected on the loss this closing represents for the entire community in an op-ed in the local paper, which is reproduced below. People of all faiths can, I think, identify with the experience.
Congregation Bnai Torah of Highland Park
Congregation Bnai Torah of Highland Park, an institution more than 60 years old, will close its doors on June 30th. It is one of several once prominent synagogues across the county facing declining memberships, overwhelming financial burdens and competition from secular institutions.
Every year I lead a session with my confirmation class on “hot topics.” Inevitably someone asks about tattoos. Specifically, they asked me whether it is a true that a Jewish person with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
A tattoo of the Hebrew word “Shalom,” which means “peace.”
The answer, as is the case with many such questions, is “it depends.” There is no blanket prohibition on tattoos. Such a prohibition would prevent any survivors of Nazi concentration camps—whose arms were branded with a number—from residing in a Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish view of tattoos is more nuanced. It reflects the purposes skin markings filled in ancient culture and the reverence with which we are to treat our bodies.
What is Wrong with Tattoos?
On Friday night 13 students at my synagogue were confirmed in their Jewish faith. I asked each of them to talk about their beliefs. Yet, I soon began to doubt whether this question was appropriate.
When do we know what we believe? Surely not at 13 or 16.
Mark Twain famously said, “When I was 14, my father knew nothing. I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
Twain is, of course, referring to himself. He grew immensely during those seven years.
Why, then, do most churches and synagogues have confirmation between ages 14 and 16? Surely, even though we may think we have all the answers, we do not know all we believe at age 16.
The reason is identity. During these mid-teenage years, we struggle to know who we are. We can always change and grow, but as adolescents we are discovering and building the foundation.
The point of confirmation is not to end our religious learning. It is to set it on a life-long direction. Faith is not something fossilized at age 16. It is a eternal wellspring of love, learning and transformation.