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December 2005

Peg Duthie on miracles

We don't do sermons at my shul; High Holidays aside, we opt for Torah study instead. But I do enjoy a good sermon, and this morning I had the pleasure of reading What is Believed, and What is Received, a sermon delivered by Peg Duthie at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville, TN a few days ago.

She begins by talking about sports fandom, and its relation to religious involvement and faith. (I'll bet that got a laugh from the sports fans in the room. If you doubt that sports fandom can engender nigh-religious fervor, you probably aren't a Sox fan, of either stripe.) From there -- appropriately enough, for Thanksgiving Sunday and the first Sunday of Advent, the start of the winter holiday season by many reckonings -- she moves into talking about the season to come:

One of the challenges of December is that its major holidays force many of us to grapple with who or what we call God, and what our obligations are to him, her, or it, and to those who see God in a different light or incarnation.

Those of us living in a mainstream-Christian culture necessarily wrestle at this time of year with the ubiquity of Christmas. For some Jews, that's difficult, maybe because it reinforces our awareness of ourselves as outsiders. For some Christians, it's difficult, maybe because the consumerism splashed across catalogues and television screens doesn't match the holiday they want to be celebrating. Chanukah, too, can be tricky -- it's not a major Jewish holiday, but it's hard to relinquish the impulse to bulk it up in order that it might match Christmas' splendor, even though that flies in the face of the holiday's anti-assimilationist narrative.

In the midst of all of this pomp and circumstance, the piles of tangled ribbons and conflicted feelings, it's easy to lose sight of the important questions Peg asks: what are our obligations to God at this time of year? What are our obligations to each other -- to those who relish the first Christmas carols, and those who want to hide under the bed until January? Those who lovingly polish the chanukiyyah waiting for the chance to kindle its lights, and those who wish the whole month of December would just go away?

I'm a non-Christian, non-Jewish theist, and what this means in plain English is none of the upcoming holidays feel like they quite belong to me. I do sing Christmas carols, and I also light Hanukkah candles, but as I write cards and wrap presents and reread Charles Dickens, I usually find myself composing a couple of mental apologies to God --something along the lines of "I am thinking of you, but probably not as much or as reverently as I should."

Though I don't share Peg's sense that neither of the upcoming holidays is mine, her mental apology to God resonates for me. Even when I'm trying my hardest to invest the season with meaning, to see God in both the darkness and the lights, my attention wanders and my kavvanah flags. Real religious practice, for me, is about noticing when my attention drifts and gently but firmly tugging it back to where it needs to be.

Peg speaks eloquently about miracles -- and about their apparent inverse, the times when things go wrong, when tragedies happen, when our suffering weighs us down:

[W]hen we are confronted with suffering and grief, many of us instinctively agonize over the wouldas, couldas, and shouldas, no matter which belief system we subscribe to. For some people, not being able to make sense of their unhappiness leads to anger and even hatred toward God. It's not a pretty concept, God being unfair, and the season that's now upon us has a way of emphasizing the distance between prayers uttered and prayers granted that can be hard to take if the gap is wide.

This put me immediately in mind of the pastoral care work I'm doing at Albany Medical Center, and of the challenges all pastoral caregivers and chaplains face in manifesting the presence of God to people who are suffering in ways we may not be able to imagine. But Peg doesn't stop there; she draws on Rabbi Harold Kushner in articulating a different way of understanding what it means for a prayer to be answered, and that takes her to the real heart of the sermon, a revisioning of the December holiday season:

Framed another way, the spiritual core of our holidays ultimately resides in what we bring to them, not what happened in a Bethlehem inn or a temple in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago. The celebration is not only of miracles then, but of possibilities now. The gift from God is that we are alive and able to celebrate the here and now.

The full sermon is here, and it's worth a read. Thanks for sharing it with us, Peg.

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Pumpkin challah

A few of you have asked for the recipe for the pumpkin challah that I baked at Thanksgiving. It's from A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking from Around the World, a terrific cookbook by Maggie Glazer, which I recommend highly -- the directions are clear and usable, the photographs are beautiful, and the recipes range from flatbreads to challahs to everything in between.

Glazer tells us that this is a Sephardic Rosh Hashanah recipe, and that the pumpkin in the recipe has symbolic meaning. This bread is an embodied prayer that in the coming year God will protect us, just as the pumpkin's hard shell protects its insides.

One way or another, I think it's entered our regular Thanksgiving roster --  it's an easy bread to make (and, unlike my usual challah recipe, is non-dairy) and I love the gentle pumpkin flavor and the challah's pretty orange crumb. B'teavon -- enjoy!

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Vicarious anticipation

Though the autumn Jewish holiday season is long over now, the Christian holiday calendar is just getting going -- today's the first Sunday of Advent, the four weeks of expectation leading up to Christmas. In honor of the occasion Karen of Kinesis has posted a beautiful poem by Thomas Merton, and Real Live Preacher is talking about a new Advent devotional authored by godbloggers.

Though Advent marks time on a liturgical calendar I don't share, I enjoy it in a kind of vicarious way. It's not hard to relate to the incremental increase of light represented by the candles of the Advent wreath, and the contemplative in me thrills at the prospect of any holiday that's preceded by weeks of spiritual preparation. I like the anticipation of it, even though the incarnation it's anticipating doesn't fit my theology.

I had a long blog post in mind about this -- and then I re-read last year's post on the subject, and realized the post I had in mind is one I've already written. So I'll just point you there: Advent.

(And yes, I'll be off this afternoon for the community Messiah-sing again. I haven't been able to sing with a chorus this year, so I'm especially excited about the chance to lend my voice to a communal song...)

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Chayyei Sarah: the meaning of ownership

Tomorrow morning at shul we'll be reading and discussing Chayyei Sarah -- not the blog, the Torah portion. The title of the portion means "the life of Sarah;" ironically enough, the portion begins with Sarah's death. As one of the texts for our Torah study, I'll be presenting excerpts from an essay  by Rabbi Arthur Waskow called The Tomb and the Well: Owning and Sitting:

Avraham began his bargaining by making clear that he is a ger v'toshav imakhem, a "sojourner-settler with you." He is not normally entitled to own land as a permanent holding for generations to come. He needs a special dispensation in order to acquire this property.

This is exactly the same formula with which YHWH explained in Leviticus 25: 23 that the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the Israelites are "gerim v'toshavim...imadi" -- "sojourners-settlers with Me."

So Abraham was the model sojourner-settler, and his offspring were to learn that in this very land they are not to be owners but sojourners-settlers. Yet he acquired this particular piece of land, beyond reclaim. He did with this piece of land exactly what the God of Torah says must not be done -- and yet the Torah approves his acquisition.

How come? What is this "acquisition" for?

A grave. As if only the dead can "own" land; the living simply sojourn on God's land. Owning rigidifies what had been fluid. Death rigidifies what had been fluid.

The title of the essay plays on a more literal translation of toshav -- the word's root is the one that means both "dwell" and "sit." In contemporary English parlance, "sit" can mean Zen meditation; while that's surely not a connotation the text originally held, it's an interesting one nonetheless. What does it mean to be a sojourner who "sits" rather than a permanent resident of a land? Is it possible that the fundamental sign of our impermanence on this earth (the inevitability of death) is the one thing that gives us permanence?

Later in the piece, Reb Waskow talks about the custom which prevented the Israelites from setting foot in the holy Temple, which (according to traditional understanding) was built on the spot where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac in the story immediately preceding Chayyei Sarah. "We taught ourselves that our most sacred place is one we do not 'own' and cannot even put our foot on," he writes, and then, "Our non-ownership was holy. This was a radical critique of idolatry. It teaches about space –- don't try to own it! -- what Shabbat teaches about time."

In this week's Torah portion, Abraham buys a plot of land, the cave of Machpelah, in which to bury his dead. As we reflect on what that story means to us today, I think Reb Waskow's reflections on the nature of ownership are worth reading. Find his essay here, and let me (or him) know what you think. And now the sun is setting over the mountains; Shabbat Shalom to you all!

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A happy American Thanksgiving to one and all! I love Thanksgiving because it's a chance to cook a lot (I was especially happy with the Sephardic pumpkin challah recipe I tried this year, which came from A Blessing of Bread); a chance to gather loved ones for feasting, togetherness, and conversation; and a chance to be mindful of the blessings that enrich our lives. It's a day to celebrate sustenance of every kind.

I have so many things to be thankful for. The amazing feast we assembled --

-- and the earth from which it arose, and the hands which brought it forth and cultivated it and shaped it;

The family and friends we gathered around our table --

-- especially those who came from afar (like my Texan niece, spending this year in New England and encountering some pretty wild winter weather already);

And most of all, I'm thankful for the ability to be thankful; to see in this life an infinity of blessings, even when, say, the cooking doesn't entirely go as planned. Thanksgiving is like a whole day for modah ani, and it always leaves me gladdened and satisfied.

This blog, and the community of conversations that's arisen around it, is something I'm thankful for, too. I think offering thanks completes a kind of cycle: when we offer thanks for the blessings in our lives, we keep those blessings flowing. May the coming year bring us an infinity of blessings, and the abundance of gratitude to match.

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After Midnight

Through this Brass Crescent Links Roundup post at City of Brass (which gives a kind mention to Velveteen Rabbi; thank you!) I found an amazing new blog: After Midnight in the ICU, which brings the sounds, smells, dreams, and dramas of a hospital intensive care unit to life in evocative language. The author, Hujefa, is a medical doctor who lives in Dallas, and he's also a terrific writer.

Around midnight in the ICU, your head starts to spin. The sound of ventilators pushing stale air in and out of stale bodies begins to soothe you to sleep. There is the incessant rhythmic beeping of the heart monitors. The lights have been dimmed so that the sleepless beings can have a moment to pretend it is indeed night. Occasionally, the footsteps of a nurse or a patient's family echoes across the cold tile. As they pass each other, these steps resonate in questions which show no reply....

(That's from his inaugural post.)

A while back, Preston of Life of a Baby Priest asked if I knew of other CPE bloggers -- bloggers writing about Clinical Pastoral Education -- besides him and myself. I said I did not (though Karen of Kinesis posted some powerful CPE stuff last year.) Though Hujefa is writing about the ICU from a medical perspective, not a chaplaincy one, I can't help thinking that his blog is one that chaplains should read. Certainly it offers me, as a chaplaincy intern, insight into what the intensive care unit feels like to a medical professional, which can only help me as I seek to perform my pastoral care duties.

I came back from Texas with a cold, so I'm trying to take it easy on call tonight. (What that means for me is, when calls come in I will take them, and I'll make my two required sets of rounds, but I won't wander the halls seeking people to chat with or pray with...and I'll hope that this is a night without any 3am codes or pages, so I can get some sleep.) Even so, as I walk the halls of my now-familiar hospital, I have Hujefa's words and images in mind. I look forward to reading what he has to offer, and to letting it permeate my sense of our common goal. As Wendell Berry has often noted, the word healthy shares a root with words like hale, hearty, hallow, holy. May we all bask in the holiness of health, of wholeness, here and everywhere.

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URJ Biennial Wrap-Up

The 2005 URJ Biennial was a fascinating, overwhelming, and all-in-all good experience for me. Over the course of five days I attended panels and lectures and workshops; voted on issues of importance to the Reform movement; met a lot of new people; reconnected with a few old friends; had interesting and thought-provoking conversations about liturgy, peoplehood, the rabbinate, and more; worshipped in a few different ways; learned new melodies and savored old ones; bought a bunch of books.

I also blogged thousands of words about the experience. If you were there and want to relive the convention through my eyes, or if you weren't there and would like to read all about it, you're in luck: this post offers a convenient list of links to my seventeen previous Biennial posts. (This one is number eighteen, an auspicious place to stop...)

(You can also see my handful of Biennial photos here at flickr, if that interests you.) By the end of my Biennial experience I was pretty exhausted, definitely short on sleep, and glad that I chose to attend -- I learned a lot, I met some great people, and now my brain is chock-full of fascinating things to continue thinking about in the weeks and months to come.

Thanks for coming along for the ride. If you have thoughts or questions about any of these posts, please don't hesitate to respond, either here or via email!

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[URJBiennial] Shabbat; Sermon; Kamenetz on dreams

Morning worship today went from feeling like Shabbat: The Musical! to Shabbat: The Choral Concert. I really liked some of the choral arrangements that the Biennial Festival Chorus performed; I'm hoping that Liz, my fellow congregant who was in the choir, will save her music so I can peek at it when I get home. I love good choral music, and I've often found that singing it feels worshipful to me...but listening to it usually doesn't, and today was no exception. The Torah reading was neat, though -- there were six Torahs around the room where people could gather for aliyot, and a camera helpfully enlarged one of the scrolls onscreen so we could follow along...

Rabbi Eric Yoffie's Presidential Sermon -- a kind of State of the Union address, where the "union" in question is the Union of Reform Judaism -- lasted for about an hour and contained several interesting points, and I hope they'll publish it online at some point. He got wild applause when he spoke about the need to care for our gay and lesbian teens, and about the Reform movement's struggle to convince the Israeli Supreme Court to treat an Israeli Reform rabbi (who happens to be female) like they treat her Orthodox (and male) counterparts.

After services there were a series of study luncheons; I went to Dream Interpretation from Genesis through the Rabbis, a talk by Rodger Kamenetz (author of eight books, among them my perennial favorite The Jew in the Lotus). I didn't have my computer with me, so I wasn't able to transcribe it, but I jotted a few notes down on paper. It's simplistic, he said, to assert that Judaism is purely a religion of the word; instead, "Judaism is a religion of the struggle between the word and the image, between the interpretation and the dream."

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[URJBiennial] Shabbat

Shabbat shalom! Tonight involved two huge Shabbat experiences, one of which I loved and one of which I...didn't, though it was definitely interesting.

Services came first, at 6pm. We gathered in an enormous room we hadn't seen before, which felt like a rock concert stadium, complete with big lights overhead and several Jumbotron screens which, when we arrived, were cascading through a slideshow of Reform sanctuaries around the country. (That was pretty neat, actually.) The service was led by four sh'lichei tzibbur, rabbis and cantors together, along with a full band (in an orchestra pit), and the screens switched from camera to camera to give even those of us near the rear a clear view of the faces of the prayer leaders.

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[URJBiennial] Rabbi Marmur on Heschel

Rabbi Michael Marmer, from HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, presented a session on Gordon Tucker's new translation of Abraham Joshua Heschel's Heavenly Torah, which presents Heschel's understanding of how the Sages of the Talmud set the agenda for Jewish life (an agenda which has not changed in essence since their day).

Heschel lived 1907-1972; born in Poland, and left his Hasidic family (though he never left Orthopraxy) and moved as a teenager to Vilna, where he received a secular education and wrote poetry in Yiddish; then went to Berlin, studied for a doctorate at the University of Berlin, and studied and taught at the Hofschuler for the Wissenchaft des Judentums (the precursor to liberal rabbinic seminaries around the world). He came to North America, spent the years of WWII at HUC; he was uncomfortable both at HUC and, later, at JTS, where he taught from 1945 until his death.

"His literary output...was extremely varied. He was a generalist," said Rabbi Marmer. He wrote significant works on the Biblical period, on the Sages (rabbis of the late Second Temple period, early centuries of the Common Era), the great figures of medieval philosophy (among them Maimonides, Saadia Gaon), the Hasidic movement into which he was born, and independent works of theology and liturgy -- not to mention that little book on the Sabbath. (This broadness made him unpopular with specialists, who resented the fact that he had something to say about all of those eras.)

He wrote in Yiddish, German, Hebrew, and English. To some extent the difference in language had to do with periods of his life -- e.g. he wrote his dissertation in German because he was in Berlin. But sometimes, after coming to America, he chose to write not in English, and that was deeply significant. In 1962, he wrote a huge, monumental work in Hebrew called Torah Min HaShamayim, v'aspaklaria shel ha-dorot -- Heavenly Torah, As Refracted Through the Generations, in translation.

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[URJBiennial] Voting

In Friday afternoon's plenary session we voted on several resolutions. None were close enough to require paper votes; they were all voice votes, and all of them passed. The list included resolutions on Global Poverty and the Polticization of Science in the United States (we're against both of those) and Jewish Military Chaplains and Jewish Military Personnel and their Families (we support them).

My favorite comment was on the resolution to support Voting Rights in the District of Columbia:  "The resolution was endorsed by the Dalai Lama. Can we do less?" That was the whole comment, right there. Ahh, the pleasure of a pithy comment during a long plenary!

The resolution which engendered the greatest discussion was the Resolution on the War in Iraq. Most of the comments were in favor of the resolution (which, writ large, condemns the war and asks the Bush administration for greater transparency and for a clear exit strategy); a few folks clearly felt it didn't go far enough. Here are a couple of representative comments on that one:

"As a Vietnam Veteran I find it difficult to speak dispassionately about this resolution...Forty years ago...I asked myself, 'Why in God's name are we here?' I couldn't justify the carnage and death...There are just wars and there are unjust wars. You can hate war, as I do, and yet honor the bravery of those who serve, as I do....This is not a just war."

"I am voting for this resolution to support our troops, who put themselves in harm's way and who we as a nation are failing so miserably. Yet I am saddened that this resolution speaks not with moral clarity...but to the war's popularity and lack thereof, and success and lack thereof. I ask, when will we have an opportunity as a Union to speak about the justice of this war? To speak unambiguously about how wrong this war was in the beginning and continues to be?"

Since I'm leaving early on Sunday, I won't be present to vote on the resolutions relating to international human rights, torture, and the Confederate flag. It's interesting being a delegate, even though our votes haven't been close and I've been largely aligned with the prevailing mindset; I like feeling a part of the decision-making process, even though I know these resolutions are largely formalities.

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[URJBiennial] The Crisis in Darfur

I was late to my first morning workshop because I was in the exhibit hall buying a whole set of JPS Torah and Bible Commentaries, all nine beautiful hardbound volumes, on my rabbi's strong recommendation. (I got a great deal on them, though this credit card bill is going to pain me when it arrives...) Anyway, I slipped in the back door of the panel I'd wanted to attend, already in session:

The Crisis in Darfur

"It is clear that we need to raise a holy ruckus." When I entered, Rabbi Richard Jacobs was showing slides from a humanitarian visit to the Sudanese refugee camps in Chad, and was talking about why the United States hasn't taken action: "Because the phones aren't ringing." He asserted that China is buying Sudanese oil and is therefore in bed with the Sudanese government, and that the UN is therefore a difficult group to convince to take action on this.

"Al chet, for the sin we've committed before You, of indifference -- every time we pray for forgiveness, for repentance, we should be considering our failure to take action on this....How are we going to answer our grandchildren? How will we answer the question,'Grandpa, what did you know about the situation in Darfur? What did you do?' I am kept awake at night worrying about having to tell my grandchildren, 'I was very busy. And the situation was very complicated. So I didn't do anything.'"

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[URJBiennial] Madeline Albright

Right after shacharit (I went to the all-Hebrew one again; not remarkable, but pleasant enough) I followed everyone else into the George Bush Grand Ballroom for the morning's first big talk, by Madeline Albright. Before she came on stage, Helen Waranch, president of Women of Reform Judaism, opened by speaking briefly about the WRJ Biennial that's been happening concurrently with ours in the Hyatt hotel nearby.

(There are three sub-conventions or mini-conventions happening this week besides the big one: one held by Kesher, the Reform analog to Hillel, e.g. the association for college-age Reform Jews; one held by the National Federation of Temple Youth, for high-school students; and one held by WRJ, the organization formerly known as the Association of Temple Sisterhoods.)

Anyway. The president of WRJ welcomed us, and Rabbi Jerome Davidson introduced the speaker, and then both of them ceded the stage to the former secretary of state.

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[URJBiennial] Innocence Project and Rabbi Eugene Borowitz

Once again I was late to the evening plenary, this time because I went out for barbecue with the North Adams delegation and the Madison, WI delegation. Cantor Diane Krasnick, who lives in Wisconsin year-round but celebrates the Days of Awe with us, invited us to join them. (I hope it was fun for her to have folks from her two congregations together!)

Anyway, I got to the plenary just in time to see the presentation of Eisendrath "Bearer of Light" Award for Service to the World Community to the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate those who are wrongfully imprisoned; an Eisendrath Award for Service to Reform Judaism was also given to Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a major Reform teacher and theologian.

I didn't catch the name of the former prisoner who spoke when the award was presented to the Innocence Project, but here's what he said:

I'm the 113th person exonerated through our program. I hope for the day when we have a justice system that doesn't make mistakes...For years, I sat on death row, and it was like I was all alone out there. I would pray and pray for the truth to come out. Eventually God did bless me...but I just want to say that the Innocence Project has been working to save lives. Not only does it save lives of people like myself, but it also gives the victims who were victimized justice also. Because if the wrong person's in prison for a crime, then there's no justice... It's really great that we have the Innocence Project. There's a lot of people in prison waiting to be discovered, in this flawed system, and we really appreciate it.

Texas state senator Rodney Ellis accepted the award and welcomed us to Houston. "As you know, we're in the heart of the religious right here; we're glad to have visitors from the religious middle and the religious left!" He accepted the award on behalf of his colleagues, staff, and the 163 people who have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit.

He said, "I want to stress how important religion has been for all of our clients, and anyone who has been wronged by a criminal justice system. It has been the primary reason they can survive and go on with their lives. This award from you matters; it shows you think our work is important, and that's how we can go on doing what we do. Thank you; this shows that justice really does flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."


The whole room rose to standing when Rabbi Borowitz came onstage. Having transcribed his speech (which follows) I can see why he's such an influential thinker and teacher...

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[URJBiennial] Worship

During the first 36 hours of the Biennial, I experienced three very different styles of worship/davvening. Two out of the three prayer experiences made me pretty happy; all three were interesting and instructive.

In this post I'll speak briefly about each experience -- one led by two people, and one by twenty; one all in Hebrew, one in Hebrew and English, and one in Hebrew, Spanish, and Ladino -- and will close with some musings on performance and participation, language, and the range of Reform worship.

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[URJBiennial] How Can Reform Jews Encounter God?

This session was led by Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the school of rabbinic studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He began by talking about the statement of principles passed by the CCAR in 1999, which assert that Reform Jews are engaged in a dialogue with God, with Torah, and with the Jewish people. This is different language from the language of autonomy or informed choice, which was used in 1976. "Of course we are independent individuals, but we are not alone, and the religious decisions that we make are made in conversation with other people, with the Torah as we encounter it weekly and during the seasons, and at all times with God."

"If you have any sense at all that there are connections in the world, even on the level of atoms and molecules or people with each other, between you and the mountains and lakes and heavens -- if you believe that there are connections -- I think it's not a big jump to feel that there is a sum of all of those connections, even a Source behind all of those connections. And that's not a bad definition of God. And so the religious life is... trying to experience what those connections are."

He asked us to look at the people sitting beside us, and to remember that that person is made b'tzelem Elohim, bears the image of God. What might we learn of God from that person? Even the annoying person tailgating you on the freeway is in the image of God, and if you look in the rearview mirror long enough, you'll meet God there.

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[URJBiennial] Plenary: Robert Reich

[Excerpts -- almost a full transcript, but I missed a few sentences here and there -- from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's speech during the Thursday afternoon plenary session.]

"Politics comes from the Latin. 'Poli,' meaning many, and 'tics,' small blood-sucking insects." [laughter]

"The economy...depends on choices that we make. I want to talk about the economy in the context of choice, and in the context of morality. Public discourse these days is controlled by people who have a very constrained vision of morality. They're concerned with the morality of what people do in their bedrooms, but not in our boardrooms! or in the coatrooms of Congress. Public morality is where we need to center the public discourse."

"We're living in an economy in which the richest one percent owns as much as the bottom ninety percent put together. We have not seen this degree of inequality of income and wealth and opportunity since the 1920s. By some measures, it was the last decades of the 19th century, the era of the robber barons. I have nothing against people who own so much; but we also have a huge number of people who are poor, or near poverty, or holding on barely to the working class, and are in very grave danger...last year a million more Americans fell into poverty than the year before."

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[URJBiennial] Plenary: Robert Heller and Rabbi Michael Melchior


I had a delightful lunch with two new friends, a rabbi and a Jewish educator, which I promised not to blog, though we had some excellent conversations. (One metaphor I couldn't resist writing down: that the Reform trend toward reclaiming once-abandoned observances is like the second-wave feminist philosophy which makes it possible to choose lipstick. Expect a post expanding on that notion sometime after the conference.) Meanwhile, here's a partial transcript of the afternoon plenary session, which featured Robert Heller, chairman of the board of trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi and member of the Israeli Knesset.

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[URJBiennial] Integrating Social Justice Throughout the Congregation

"It has been said, don't just build a congregation -- build a just congregation!" This panel aimed to help us figure out how to integrate social justice throughout synagogue life. It was led by Rabbi Marla Feldman of New York, NY (the URJ's director of Social Action), Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland, CA, and Sharon Polansky of Toronto, ON. They began by handing out a veritable library of papers, including two little bound booklets, Speak Truth to Power: A Guide for Congregations Taking Public Policy Positions and K'hilat Tzedek: Creating a Community of Justice.

I arrived slightly late to this one, having spent a while standing in line at Starbucks for a truly enormous mocha (a scant five hours of sleep + lots of intellectual stimulation = Rachel In Need Of Coffee) so I walked in as they were beginning a text study session looking at Jeremiah 22:13-16, a passage which begins, "Woe to one who buildings a house by unrighteousness, and chambers by injustice, who uses a neighbor's service without wages..."

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[URJBiennial] What Does It Mean to Be Good?

The first session I attended this morning was a talk by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of many books (among them The Book of Jewish Values and Jewish Literacy). "More than simply an issue of behavior, for Jews being good is about living a life that reflects the values and ethics of our tradition; about living a life that matters. How do we live such a life?" Rabbi Telushkin spoke beautifully in response to this question, and at the end of the panel Rabbi Jan Katzew gave a brief response.

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