The Main thing and the Details – Yom Kippur Sermon for String of Pearls Congregation 2021/5782

Kol Nidrei sermon 2021 / 5782 – Rabbi Maurice Harris

In the Talmud there’s a well-known story. It’s one of countless Talmudic stories about two great early rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, who debated hundreds of legal, ethical, and spiritual questions. Hillel was known for his flexibility, compassion, and humanity. Shammai was an engineer and a rigid thinker, and he was known for his insistence on detail and his strictness. In the Talmud, the rabbis as a whole almost always side with Hillel, though Shammai’s views win out in debate from time to time. 

This parable, which you may have heard before, goes like this: Once there was a non-Jewish person who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” 

Elsewhere, the Talmud has another passage, not as well-known, that teaches, in brief simplicity, this: “In essence, God desires the heart.” In the original Aramic, it’s expressed in three short words: rachmana liba ba’ey. The Compassionate One wants the heart. 

That passage became one of the guiding spiritual principles of a charismatic 18th century rabbi who lived near the Ukranian-Polish border. He became known by his nickname, the Baal Shem Tov, which in Hebrew means “the master of the good name,” and he moved thousands of people with his simple folktales that offered spiritual insight and a subtle critique of other factions within the Jewish community that focused all of their energy on Talmud study and its endless details. The Baal Shem Tov founded the Jewish religious movement known as Hasidism, which emphasized the importance of simplicity, sincerity, and earnest devotion over and above great knowledge of all the intricacies of the Talmud. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s most famous parables goes like this:

“One year, on the holiest and most solemn day in the Jewish calendar – Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – a poor Jewish boy, an illiterate shepherd, entered the synagogue where he was praying. Now on Yom Kippur the entire Jewish community adhered to a detailed set of practices with great rigor – including fasting and offering an incredibly lengthy set of prescribed liturgical prayers and rituals. The poor illiterate boy was deeply moved by the service, but frustrated that he could not read the prayers. Spontaneously, he started to whistle. It was the one thing he knew he could do beautifully; he wanted to offer his whistling as a gift to God. The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out. The Ba’al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. “Until now,” he said, “I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd’s whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to God.”  

 The Hillel/Shammai story and the Ba’al Shem Tov parable both seem to be saying: remember to keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t let the details – the many prescribed rules and procedures, the advanced precision and minutia – obscure the main intention, the big picture. 

Hillel and the Ba’al Shem Tov both became renowned for pushing back against the impulse many other rabbis tended to have to make Judaism ever more detailed and complicated. In the Mishnah, the earliest known collection of rabbinic writing, a famous passage instructs us to “make a fence around the Torah,” which was understood to mean that rabbis should create many rules designed to steer the masses far away from sin. If the Torah commands that we not work on Shabbat and that Shabbat starts at sundown, the rabbis built a fence by saying that people have to stop working X number of minutes before sundown. If the Torah says don’t do business on Shabbat, the rabbis build a fence by saying don’t even physically touch or handle any kind of money on Shabbat.

And in this manner, Judaism – in particular rabbinic Judaism – became famous for having many, many rules. Instead of 613 commandments, it was like the rabbis decided to add a zero onto the end of that number, just to make sure the core 613 were never at risk of being violated. Judaism didn’t only become famous for developing such a complex and detail-oreinted pattern of observance – it also became ridiculed and criticized for it. Some of that critique came from within Judaism – from sages like Hillel and the Ba’al Shem Tov, and quite a few others as well. Some of it came from our sibling religions, Christianity and Islam, both of which include scriptrual stories that describe Jews as being so obsessed with following endless details and ritual minutiae that they often end up missing the main idea that God was trying to impart to them. It’s not an unreasonable critique, and in fact it would be wrong to say that Judaism is a religion that only cares about the details of law and ritual practice. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible are the first to push back against going too far in that direction, including Isaiah, whose words we read on Yom Kippur. Several of the great prophets of our tradition warn against ritual without love, against piety without working for social justice, and they sometimes go so far as to say that God would prefer it if people would transgress the detailed practices if they would simply get the big picture mitzvot right – you know, the love your neighbor one and the don’t trample on the poor and the stranger one. 

Continue reading “The Main thing and the Details – Yom Kippur Sermon for String of Pearls Congregation 2021/5782”

Abraham, Isaac, and Bob

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – Sermon 2021 / 5782 – String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)

Rabbi Maurice Harris                           

Shana Tova to one and all. I’d like to talk about midrash this morning. Midrash and Bob Dylan. And then invite us to have a chance to break into small groups for a bit of discussion. I’m not sure where the inspiration for this came from, so I hope you’ll indulge me and see what we discover together. 

First, a word about midrash. I know many of us are already familiar with what midrash is, but because we are all bringing different kinds of knowledge to this moment, let me start with a definition. 

Midrash, and I’m quoting someone here, “…can be described as a form of storytelling that explores ethics and values in biblical texts.” Midrash adds to, expands upon, or even challenges the plain meaning of the biblical texts it works with. It is a method and a form of biblical interpretation that is open to multiple interpretations of biblical texts. In many ways it is creative and almost free form, yet it does follow certain rules and traditions. There is no one set of books called “The Midrash” – midrash is a disorganized collection of writings scattered across many different anthologies.

Midrashim – the plural of the word in Hebrew – often take the form of stories elaborating on incidents in the Bible, to derive a principle of Jewish law or provide a moral lesson. The ancient rabbis would create midrashim in response to something puzzling, interesting, disturbing, or confusing in a biblical text. Any number of bumps or oddities in the Hebrew of a biblical passage could trigger the sages to develop a midrash – an explanation or fanciful story that would provide an explanation for the unusual or perplexing feature in the text.

The tradition of developing midrash took hold in early rabbinic communities up and down the land of Ancient Israel during the time when the Second Temple – the one that the Romans destroyed about 2000 years ago – still stood in Jerusalem. After the Roman destruction and the beginning of the great exile of the Jews, midrash became one of the ancient rabbis’ primary tools for reinterpreting the Bible to make it speak to their time and situation. 

Let me offer an example. In the Book of Genesis, chapter 13, we find this passage in which God says to Abraham: 

“Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust (!) of the earth; only if a person could count all the dust of the earth could they actually count the number of your future descendants. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Genesis 13:14-17

In the aftermath of the great Roman destruction, the surviving rabbis were struck by something curious in this text. They wondered why God tells Abraham that God will make his offspring like the dust of the earth, when God could have used a different metaphor that might be a little less, well, dusty and, well, dirt-like. In fact, two chapters later in Genesis 15:5, God repeats the promise to Abraham of uncountably large numbers of descendants, but in that text God says to Abraham, ““Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” Why not just stick with stars – why also dust? This question led to the development of the following midrash

Why in the Torah does God say to Abraham, I WILL MAKE YOUR OFFSPRING LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH? Why dust?… Here is what God was trying to say to Abraham: just as the dust of the earth extends from one end of the earth to the other, so too your children will be scattered from one end of the world to the other. … And as dust is made to be trampled on, so your children too will be made for kingdoms to trample on. Also, as dust wears vessels of metal away, but itself endures forever, so with the people Israel: all the idolatrous nations shall disappear, but the Jewish people will endure.

Genesis Rabbah 41.9

What a poignant glimpse this midrash offers us – not so much of what the actual meaning of the verse in Genesis is – but of how a newly scattered and exiled people saw their own predicament woven into the words of the Torah itself. And that brings me to the main idea I’d like to explore with you: that midrash is often a mirror, a mirror that allows us to look at an ancient bit of the Bible, bring in our imagination and our literary creativity, and discover something of our own situation refracted through the prism of the original text. 

Continue reading “Abraham, Isaac, and Bob”

Surrender, Chutzpah, and Being in It Together

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021 / 5782 for String of Pearls – Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shana Tovah to everyone. 

One of the most wondrous names of God in the Torah is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This is the divine name that means, “I Am Who I Am.” You may remember the scene when God introduces Godself by this name. It’s from Moses’s encounter at the Burning Bush, that scraggly thornbush on the slopes of Mount Sinai that Moses approached because it strangely appeared to be on fire, but not burning up. That’s where God first spoke to Moses. And where God told Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Hebrews that the God of their ancestors has sent him to be the instrument of their liberation. Here’s how the scene plays out from there in the text:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I am who I am.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.’” 

Genesis 3:14

Can you imagine being Moses in that moment? First off, you might be thinking “this is a profound, mind-blowing experience. This must really be the Living God and Creator because It just told me that Its name is all-encompassing, inscrutable, fluid, beautiful, immense, abstract, and intimate all at the same time.” But if you were Moses you might also be thinking, “Hang on a moment. How am I not going to be run out of town on a rail by the Hebrews if I show up – a runaway fugitive from justice in Egypt and a former member of the royal family now claiming to be Jewish – and I tell them their God has sent me back to Egypt to liberate them, and then – when they ask for God’s name – I tell them it’s something like the riddle of existence, and that they should trust me?” 

Moses’s predicament is even worse than that, because grammatically it’s not clear whether what God tells Moses is that God’s name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In Biblical Hebrew, the verb tense is unclear – it could be present or future. (If you want to get really nerdy about it, it can also be causative – “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” If you open up a typical English translation of the Bible – Jewish or Christian – there’s a good chance you’ll see a little footnote tagged to this phrase, which will take you to an editor’s note that states some of the other possible translations. 

I think there’s a lesson here about both God’s nature and ours, one that’s connected to this time of year in the Jewish calendar – this time of self-reflection, of personal moral accounting, of seeking forgiveness and of working to try to become better versions of ourselves in the coming year. God reveals a crucial aspect of Godself to Moses with this famous declaration – and it’s a really intimate thing God shares. God says “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be” in the same breath. Both are simultaneously true. And both leave us with a lot of questions. When God says “I am who I am,” does God mean to say that God also doesn’t fully understand Godself, but on some level simply accepts who God is? When God says “I will be who I will be,” does that mean God doesn’t know what God’s future being will be like – is God becoming at all times and developing in ways that the God of the moment can’t predict?

Continue reading “Surrender, Chutzpah, and Being in It Together”

Give Rabbi Mira Wasserman 20 minutes & she’ll give you a solid introduction to Reconstructionist Judaism

Rabbi Mira Wasserman currently serves as director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. LINDA JIMÉNEZ of RadioSefarad.com interviewed her recently, and Rabbi Wasserman offered a concise and clear portrait of the movement of Judaism that trained me as a rabbi and that is my spiritual home base.

You can find the interview at this link.

Discovering Fred Halliday

Blogger’s note: I’m using this space to place a number of quotes from the late international relations professor, Fred Halliday, on a bulletin board of sorts. My plan is to add my own thoughts and comments, as well as other quotes from him and those in dialogue with his ideas, as I continue to process these ideas. By placing this content here I am not implying agreement or endorsement of these views – only a strong interest in learning more.

Selected Quotes I am studying:

One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own. At the extreme end you have the PKK, the Shining Path, the Khmer Rouge and so forth. They may often be involved in inter-ethnic conflicts where they use a progressivist language to conceal what is in fact chauvinism towards another community. It goes for both Israelis and Palestinians. It goes for the IRA in Northern Ireland. It goes for the Armenians and the Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh, and other cases. So solidarity should not be taken at face value. Solidarity should be critical of what people say and do, while also being guided by the longer-term evaluation of people’s interests and rights and material social progress.

One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own.

Prof. Fred Halliday

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

You got away from the stuff about which one was there first, or who was massacred most, or what their holy books say, or who were collaborators with imperialism—all such questions were secondary. The key question is, you have two communities which meet minimal criteria of self-determining peoples. And on that basis, you accord them equal rights. And secondly, you critique the chauvinism and the fake justifications and the violations of the rules of war of both sides.

The level and tone of polemic in the U.S. and in Europe on the Palestine question has degenerated enormously since the collapse of Camp David and the rise of the second Intifada. I find that much of the stuff put out in the name of Palestine is so irresponsible and sometimes racist. I also find the degree of anger and the one-sidedness of Israelis, and from pro-Israel people in the West, very disturbing.

Source: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/who-is-responsible-interview-with-fred-halliday/

What the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968 were to the cause of international communism, the US enterprise in Iraq in 2003 was to the ideals and legality of humanitarian intervention.

The war over Lebanon of July-August 2006 offers an example. The crimes of the Israelis (in wantonly attacking the infrastructure of Lebanon, and denying Palestinians their national rights) and those of Hizbollah and Hamas (in killing civilians, placing the lives and security of their peoples recklessly at risk, hurling thousands of missiles at civilian targets in Israel and fomenting religious and ethnic hatred) do not require particularist denunciation: that the one killed Arabs or Muslims, and that the other spilt Jewish blood. They are crimes on the basis of universal principles – of law, decency, and humanity; and should be identified as such. Particularism undermines the very basis of the denunciation, which presupposes universal principles.

Continue reading “Discovering Fred Halliday”

Letter from Jerusalem

My friend Rabbi Amita Jarmon posted this message to some of her colleagues a few days ago, and she gave me permission to re-post it here…

It’s 2 AM here.  Lots of sirens and booms in Jerusalem until about 1 AM.  It’s quieter now but still an occasional siren. I was at an Omdim B’Yachad demonstration tonight.  There were similar demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Haifa.  The J’lem one was small — I estimate about 250 of us.  We chant, accompanied and punctuated by a circle of drummers — the same as at the Sheikh Jarrah demos:  

“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”  

“In Gaza and Sderot, boys and girls want to live.”  

“The rule of the right doesn’t want security.”  

“Stop the Escalation, we don’t want war.”

We marched from the Old Mashbir down King George and Yafo to Kikar Tzion (Zion Square). There, a large number of right wing youth gathered around and started shouting with bull horns and ripping our posters out of our hands and shredding them. The police intervened. They brought dogs and horses and we were forced to disperse.  One friend told me that the police have a legal obligation to protect peaceful demonstrators, and should have made the youth who were disturbing us back off.  

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What I learned reading an essay by Andre Henry

Andre Henry is program manager for the Racial Justice Institute at Christians for Social Action.

Stumbled upon this column by Andre Henry on Religion News Service, and I learned a lot: From the Capitol to critical race theory, white Christians grieve declining hegemony. I just am using this space to jot down a couple things I want to remember going forward.

First, I learned an important use of the term “common sense” and about the term “pillars of support” as it is used in non-violence studies. Here’s the paragraph that lit these terms up for me:

“…it’s helpful to understand an essential concept of nonviolent struggle known as “the pillars of support.”

Basically, the idea is that the structure of any social injustice can be imagined as something like an ancient Greek temple, with large columns supporting its roof. The roof represents the injustice — in this case, white supremacy — and the columns represent the social institutions that uphold it. Organized religion, media and the educational system are useful institutions to legitimate a regime by shaping the public’s common sense. White Christianity, more specifically, has always been an essential pillar of support to American white supremacy.”

Henry also writes about racial caste in American society in this essay, and offers a 1967 quote from MLK that absolutely speaks to this moment 53 years later:

“The enterprise of racial caste has in this sense always been at war with democracy. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this when he wrote in 1967 that some white Americans seem to have ‘declared that democracy is not worth having if it involves equality. The segregationist goal is the total reversal of all reforms, with the reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native form of fascism.'”

In the aftermath of the Jan 6 2021 attempted insurrection, I am appreciating Henry’s clarity, and appreciating the chance to learn concepts and language that I wish I had learned years ago.

In God’s Image; Working for Justice

A short invocation I gave on November 8, 2020, in Norristown, PA at the invitation of People 1st PA and other progressive organizations.

Good afternoon!

My name is Rabbi Maurice Harris, I live in Montgomery County, and I’m honored to start us off with a few words. I’ve been asked to speak for a few minutes and to offer a prayer. In my tradition learning is itself a kind of prayer, so I’d like to share some of my recent learning with you, and close with the kind of prayer that can be summed up in two words: “Help us.”

First, the learning part. You’ve probably heard before that all of the major monotheistic religions teach that every human being is created in God’s image. The first place we find this idea in the Hebrew Bible is in the very first chapter of Genesis. There we read:

And God said, “Let us make the human being in our image, patterned after our design. And God created humankind in God’s image; in the image of the Divine, God created the first human; male and female, God created them.”

Some of you might be asking, “Wait, what about the Adam and Eve in the garden story?” That story is in the Bible too, but there are two accounts of the creation in the Bible, and the one that speaks to this moment, and to the work of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, is the one I’ve just quoted from. The one in which the first human created by God has no specific gender, is the ancestor of all humans to come, and is created in God’s image. All people – you, me, our neighbors, our ancestors, our allies and our oppressors – all of us bear the seal and imprint of the Creative Consciousness at the heart of Reality.

Continue reading “In God’s Image; Working for Justice”

“Trust, Release, Ask” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 / 2020 Sermon

Rabbi Maurice Harris

String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation

Shana Tova. It’s an honor to be with the String of Pearls community this year for the High Holidays. Though we are connecting online and not in person, we are connected by many invisible lines extending across distance and time. 

Tonight I’d like to talk a little bit about coping. Coping with fear, with uncertainty, with loss, and with the stresses of living in some of the hardest times we’ve shared as a society. I’d like to offer up an exercise, especially for when the craziness of life feels like it’s just too hard. It’s a practice that I call “Trust, Release, Ask.”  

Trust. A lot of what goes on in the world of religion attempts to instill fear in people. Fear that God is going to judge them and punish them. Fear that people will be hurt or tortured, if not in this life, than in an afterlife. We don’t have as much of this kind of thinking and teaching in modern Judaism as in some other religions, but we have our versions of it. The everyday world we live in also gives us plenty of opportunities to be fearful – I don’t think I need to list out what the past months have brought all of us in terms of shock, anxiety, disillusionment, outrage, and despair. It’s been rough.

It was already rough for so many people who tend to get overlooked or diminished in this world, no doubt, and at the same time there’s no question that the past year has been intense in its particular combination of terrible things. Our fears are understandable, and yet at the same time, our tradition teaches that fear is not a foundation to build a life upon. We ultimately have to decide whether we want to fear the Universe we are a part of, or whether we want to try our best to trust it – trust that whatever suffering may come and go as part of life and death, that the Universe holds us and that we belong to it.  

What I wish all of us would do, whether as part of our religious teachings or our general social values – is to help children from the youngest age develop a deep, abiding sense of inner trust that they are part of something greater – something creative, wonderful, and alive. That they are part of the Life of the Universe itself, which many of us call God – and that even though this life includes joy and pain, birth and death, it is something eternal and good that they are a part of that they can fully and entirely trust with all their being. Imagine if you had been told this every day of your life from the moment you could first understand the words, and others around you over and over again reinforced the message that you are part of something greater, the mysterious force of Life itself, and that you are loved and held by that power in a way that will never end. 

Continue reading ““Trust, Release, Ask” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 / 2020 Sermon”

Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020

I shared this talk with String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation on September 27, 2020.

Good Yontiff. For those of you who joined us for Rosh Hashanah, welcome back. And for those just joining us for the first time, it’s good to be connected with you tonight.

Tonight I’d like to talk about what Valerie Kaur calls “Revolutionary Love.” If you haven’t had the chance to read or listen to Valerie Kaur, you are in for a wonderful discovery should you decide to look her up. She is a civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, and is the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which I’ll say more about in a moment. She is also a Sikh-American – a member of the Sikh religion. If you’ve ridden a subway or gone to the grocery store and seen people wearing cloth turbans, there’s a good chance they are Sikhs. 

Valerie Kaur

Sikhism is a 500 year old religion that was founded in the Punjab region of what is now part of India and Pakistan. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was a witness to terrible violence between Hindus and Muslims, and he founded a new monothesitic religion based on core beliefs that are similar to those of many of the world’s religions and prophets. Sikhism teaches that all are equal before God – a teaching that we emphasize in Judaism through our practice of burying our dead in a simple cloth shroud in a modest coffin. Sikhism also stresses the obligation to treat everyone equally, to be generous with all in need, and to be brave and stand up to defend those who are being oppressed. 

It’s that last part that may distinguish Sikhism a bit from the other monotheistic religions. What I mean by that is this: all of the monotheistic religions share the same core values. We know this. One God. Do unto others. Justice, justice shall you pursue. But there are different insights, emphases, and commitments that jump out from different religions, in the same way that all doughnuts are made of dough and taste good, but they have different fillings and icings that distinguish one kind from another. I know: did the rabbi really just make a food analogy when we have only just begun fasting? And did he mention doughnuts, no less? 

Guilty as charged. I ask for your forgiveness.

Continue reading “Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020”