Do Jews Believe in Resurrection of the Dead?

The hardest chapter to write for my book on the Jewishness of Jesus was the one on resurrection. I tried to avoid it, but my editor insisted. Resurrection of the dead is not a topic we discuss much in synagogues.

In fact, many Jews and Christians today believe Jews have never believed in the resurrection of the dead. Yet, the Talmud says faith in resurrection is one of the three core ideas of Judaism. Look at chapter 37 of the Book of Ezekiel.

In it the Prophet Ezekiel envisions a valley full of dry bones. He speaks to the bones. He tells them God will breathe life into them. They will have skin and flesh and become a great army.

The bones symbolize the people of Israel, who will rise again and return to their land. The text is not purely a symbolic vision of rebirth. It is physical, with the spirit giving life to the bones of the dead. The text is traditionally read during the week of Passover. 

What Harry Potter Taught Me About Antisemitism

I have been reading the Harry Potter books alongside my seven-year-old daughter. By far the most intriguing character is Voldemort, otherwise known as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

When I first hear that description, I thought of the ways Jews reference God. When referring to God outside of prayer, many traditional Jews say “Hashem” which means “the name.” It is a way of calling upon God without saying God's name.

God's name is too mysterious and powerful for human beings to say. In other words, God is the one who must not be named.

Yet, following the tragedies unfolding in Europe and refusal of many in our political leadership and culture to confront it, I think a new understanding is necessary. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism–more specifically, the hatred of Jews and others driven by radical terrorists claiming the banner of Islam–has become the global force so many refuse to name. 

Discover the Secret to Live Long and Prosper on #GivingTuesday

The land of Israel has two main bodies of water: the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. They are both fed by the Jordan River. Yet, they differ significantly.

The Sea of Galilee is full of life. It has greenery, fish, and living creatures. The Dead Sea, as its name implies, has no life. What's the difference?

The Dead Sea, as Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, receives water, but does not give it. The Sea of Galilee both receives and gives. In other words, the Dead Sea is a reservoir. It keeps its water for itself.

The Sea of Galilee is a spring. It gives its water to others. In that giving, it becomes alive.

This geographic feature has a lesson for each us. Giving enhances living. The more we give, the more we live. How? 

Jewish Beliefs About Jesus

rabbi jesus

This article was originally on my blog at Beliefnet.

For every complex question, as H.L. Mencken once put, there is usually an answer that is “clear, simple and wrong.”

His observation rings true when it comes to a question I get at least once a week. What do Jews believe about Jesus?Jews as a group rarely agree on matters of Jewish belief. How could we agree on the essence of another?

Yet, we ignore the question at our own peril.

Learning About Jesus Means Learning About Judaism

Why Did I Become a Rabbi?

 

Whenever I tell people I'm a rabbi, the first question they ask is, “Where's your beard?” The next question is usually something like, “What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?”

Blessing a recent Bat Mitzah. A favorite part of what I do.

Blessing a recent Bat Mitzah.

 

This question reflects a number of different cultural forces. The first is the largely secular identity of the American Jewish community. Jews express belief in God in significantly less proportions than other religious groups. They attend houses of worship less than other groups. While charitable giving to Jewish causes, commitment to education and liberal voting patterns continue to distinguish Jews as a group, religious practice and affiliation are irrelevant to a significant percentage of them.

Why I Officiate At Interfaith Weddings

originally published on the Huffington Post

Chelsea Clinton Marries Marc Mezvinsky In Rhinebeck, New York

Nearly three years ago the world witnessed a seminal moment in American Jewish history. Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of an American President and a Secretary of State, married Jewish American Marc Mezvinsky, who was clad in atallis (Jewish prayer shawl) and yamakah (traditional headcovering). A rabbi officiated along with a minister. The wedding unabashedly embraced Jewish marriage symbols, and even some of the most traditional rabbis who strongly oppose interfaith marriage acknowledged the power of Marc's open display of Jewish ritual.

Few people outside of a small group of rabbis criticized the interfaith marriage ceremony. The American public and most of the Jewish community have overwhelmingly decided that intermarriage is not a shanda (Yiddish for a scandal or embarassment). Intermarriage is part of the fabric of American Jewish life.

Still, many rabbis resist officiating at interfaith weddings. Some see officiation as giving intermarriage a rabbinic stamp of approval. Others see it as not within their purview of responsibility. Others think it contributes to assimilation and the decline of Jewish life in America.

I see it differently. Part of my job as a rabbi is to embrace interfaith couples and help make Judaism a compelling and important part of their lives. That means being their rabbi at the most sacred moment of life. Here's why:

Intermarriage Is Not a Rejection of Judaism

For most of Jewish history, interfaith marriage was not only rare but effectively served as an exit visa from Jewish life. Prior to 1960, the rate of intermarriage among American Jews was less than 3 percent. This rate began to climb in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This new trend reflected the evolution of American society. Through the 1960s and 1970s, many of the barriers that had impeded Jewish advancement collapsed. University quotas ended and professional positions that had once been effectively closed to Jews became open. Indeed, by the 1990s many of the Ivy League universities that once had Jewish quotas now employed Jewish presidents.

As Jews became integrated into mainstream American culture, they began to meet and marry those from other faiths and backgrounds. This new generation of Jews did not see intermarriage as a rejection of Jewish life. Rather, they exemplified Rabbi Alexander Schindler's understanding of intermarriage as the inevitable result of American Jewish acculturation.

Should We Circle the Wagons?

Unfortunately, some responded to this new reality with a “circle the wagons” approach. Growing intermarriage, they reason, demands that synagogues and communities build stronger walls and promote greater resistance to the “dilution” of Judaism that intermarriage represents. To do anything otherwise would be to give tacit approval to a dangerous phenomenon.

On the other hand, many leaders have argued for a policy of outreach. Rather than reject the intermarried, they say, let us welcome and engage them.Significant differences exist, however, even among advocates of this more inclusive approach. These differences usually center on rabbinic officiation.

Many say that rabbis can welcome interfaith couples to Jewish life without officiating at their weddings. Such officiation, they contend, violates one's role as a rabbi and constitutes an endorsement of something that the Reform movement officially discourages. Furthermore, performing such a marriage limits the incentive for conversion. From this point of view, conversion is the strongest indicator of Jewish commitment and increases the likelihood of raising Jewish children.

Rabbinic Officiation Makes All the Difference

I understand this point of view and appreciate the way many have come to it.My faith and my reading of the evidence, however, suggest that a different approach is more effective.

A wedding is often a peak moment of life, and it is an opportunity to imprint a wonderful Jewish memory and help a couple begin life together with Jewish guidance and support. Rabbinic participation and counseling can help a couple appreciate the beauty and significance of Jewish rituals and values. It can also help them avoid the damaging feelings of abandonment and guilt frequently experienced by those who feel isolated from their religious community. Many devoted young Jews who fall in love with and seek to marry a non-Jew experience despair when unable to stand under the huppah at their synagogue with their rabbi.

This an enormous lost opportunity. Rabbinic officiation can serve as an invitation to Jewish life. It can convey the message that we want a couple and their future family to become part of the community, create a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family. It can demonstrate the potential for Judaism to be a source of joy and meaning in an interfaith family.

‘Go and See What the People Are Doing'

Reform Judaism is the only liberal religious movement to have grown numerically over the last quarter century. Its growth has benefitted enormously from interfaith couples and their extended families. Young adults who grew up in Conservative congregations and who are now intermarrying find the most welcoming home in Reform synagogues, and they are frequently joined later by their parents. This reality has led one of the country's most prominent Conservative rabbis (and a personal friend) to call for a rethinking of the movement's policy.

Judaism has survived for more than 4,000 years because we evolved and adapted to our time and place. The great first century sage, Rabbi Hillel, urged leaders of his generation to Puk Hazai Mai Amma Davar — “Go and see what the people are doing.

We should do no less. A great number of American Reform Jews are part of interfaith relationships, and few of them chose their partner in an effort to distance themselves from the Jewish community. Rather, many today are seeking a warm and welcoming rabbi and community. They are searching for a spiritual home and a place to educate their children. We can build those homes. We can exemplify the commandment of welcoming the stranger. And in so doing, we can create vibrant communities for American Jews and their families in the 21st century.

Why Americans Love Israel

obama aipac

A remarkable new survey was released just before President Obama's visit to Israel. According to the poll,Americans heavily favor the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64 percent vs. 12 percent. This is the highest percentage of support for Israel since the Gulf War in 1991. Israel retains support across age demographics and political affilation, though Republicans had a slighter higher positive view than Democrats.

What accounts for this enormous popularity? Cynics and anti-Semites will say the power of the Israel lobby. They will contend that politicans and the media are bought by what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel once called the “Jewish lobby.”

The real answer lies in the philosophy and ideals of the Jewish State. Israel is an outpost for democracy in a dangerous world. It is a place whose citizens fight for the freedom we cherish as Americans. As changes continue to transform the MIddle East, leaders in Egypt, Libya, Syria and perhaps, someday, Iran, need to visit Israel. The lessons would be about much more than voting and elected government. That's the easy part of democracy. The hard part is two-fold.

How Israel Embodies the Hard Parts of Democracy: Part I

First, assuring the protection of minorities. The philosopher and political scientist Lord Acton said, “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.” Israel has its own problems in meeting this text. Orthodox Jewry retain almost complete control over official religious life in Israel, making Reform and Conservative Jews a disenfranchised minority. Less money is spent on school and facilities in Arab neighborhoods, increasing their vulnerability as minorities.

Yet, metrics in each of these areas are improving. And in principle, if not yet in fact, Israel guarantees freedom of religion and equal rights for minorities. As its Declaration of Independence proclaims, “Israel will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

“Rabbi,” you might be saying, “this sounds nice and all, but its not happening.” Yet, we need to remember that Israel is only 64 years old. It took the United States almost 100 years and a bloody Civil War to begin to realize the ideals of our Declaration of Independence, and much work remains to be done.

How Israel Embodies the Hard Part of Democracy Part II

The second part of building democracy in the Middle East is harder still. Embracing meaningful cultural and intellectual dialogue with the West. We live in an interdependent world, and it is growing more so all the time. The emerging countries of the Arab world can learn so much from Israel. As Daniel Gordis put it, countries in the Arab world “will have to acknowledge that the very country that they had once hoped to destroy is the country whose qualities that they should be emulating.” These qualities include, for example, Israel's openness to the global marketplace of ideas. Israelis travel, learn and have complete access to books and Internet websites from around the world. They express different points of view with relish. In fact, the arguments within our American Jewish community pale in comparison to the disagreements played out every day in Israeli newspapers.

Yes, there are pockets of insularity in the ultra-Orthodox world. But Israel continues — every day — to evolve into an open, diverse and egalitarian culture. One of the members of my synagogue has been involved in supporting anetwork of schools that educate secular and religious students together. Other congregants members are involved with organizations that fund initiatives helping to bring together Arab and Israeli youth.

Democracy has not and will not be easy — not for Israel, for the United States, not for the Arab world. But it never has been. David Ben Gurion once said that in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles. The founders of our country were realists who believed in the miraculous power of democracy. Israel struggles every day to carry on that dream.