When Darkness Taints the Festival of Lights

Hanukkiah at Ein Hod

Thursday I pulled into the CKA driveway for the first time since returning from our splendid and inspiring congregational trip to Israel. I came bearing joy, having witnessed the continuing growth and prosperity of our fellow Jews in our homeland, Eretz Yisrael, but also facing the darkness of what has happened here, in our home, while we were gone. Two events cast a shadow over the light of the holiday: a series of violence occurring and reoccurring throughout Hannukah directed at Jewish traditional communities of New York, culminating in the brutal machete attack in Monsey, as well as the horrific shootout in a house of worship here in Texas. Worrisome.

Yet, as I pulled in, I looked at our new lawn menorah and dreidel by the entrance (thanks Steve!). They were, as I expected, unmolested…except for the two hyperactive squirrels running up and down the hannukiyah. Its new counterpart displayed on Morriss Rd (thanks Michael!) was likewise intact, glittering in full glory.

I made my first task to bring them into the building, now the holiday was over. As I hauled in these sizable displays, I was comforted by the mundanity of these tasks. Though we hear and see frightening things from afar, our reality up close, as Americans and as Jews, is still remarkably prosaic and secure. For the vast majority of us, blessed light burns undiminished, every day.

Yes, there is a disturbing and inexplicable (even the experts seemed baffled) uptick in violence directed at Jews in places around the country. And yes, we are painfully aware that places we once thought to be truly safe can become subject to sudden violence, but the fact remains that we are continuously blessed. To be an American Jew at the second decade of the 21st Century is still to have one foot already firmly planted in the messianic era. We are more likely to die of obesity than of famine. Pestilence is no longer regularly taking the lives of our loved ones prematurely. And even violence, thankfully, is mostly seen only from afar.

These events frighten us, but they also remind us of the two-fold nature of Hanuukah and what it teaches. The first is about resistance – fighting back against an unjust and cruel present. This we are doing at CKA, through enhanced security, preparation, and vigilance. But the other, the second dimension, is about creating what we want for the future. Promoting light to roll back the dark, extending constructiveness, love, and compassion when a brutal few are fixated on destruction, hate, and cruelty. Let’s rejoice in the overwhelming ordinariness and the everyday security of our lives, but let us also carry forward God’s light; in fact, let us be the light, shining with the confidence, faith, and hope that our tradition represents.

Happy new year, my fellow Jews!

From Gay Pride to Jewish Pride

Jewish Pride Flag

It was some time back, perhaps on my last trip to Israel, that I first saw a rainbow pattern kippah (Jewish ritual skullcap). I don’t know if it was meant to be a “Pride” kippah, but that’s how I interpreted it, and I bought it. My brother is gay. I performed his wedding to an Israeli man (a doctor! Sigh of Jewish pride).

So, when Pride Month rolled around this year, given the amount of push back people in the LGBTQ community have endured in the last couple of years, I felt like I had to represent. I could have pulled out my “Proud of my Gay Brother” T-shirt, but it was old, and now so am I, so I opted for the kippah, instead.

Now this is a little out of character for me. I am a Reform rabbi, and one of the reforms of Reform Judaism 200 years ago was the community decision a Jew need not wear Jewish-distinctive garb anymore. Being invited into modern life, Reform Judaism encouraged Jews to dress as modern people. Thus, few Reform Jews wear kippahs or tzitzit (ritual fringes, as commanded in Numbers 15:38) outside the synagogue anymore. This was true of me also. Thus, wearing my queer Pride kippah all the time was a departure.

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The Goring Details of an Epidemic

Vaccination

I was floored. Not by the news that over 500 children in Brooklyn had developed measles. I have seen the anti-vaccine movement gain steam over the past two decades. No, I was floored that most of these children were Hasidic Jews, an insular branch of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. Why should that surprise? 

It surprised me because, while I am not an Orthodox rabbi, I am fairly conversant in Jewish medical law (Halacha) as expounded and practiced in Orthodox circles, and I know that their religious authorities are ferociously pro-medicine. The great scholars uniformly say, in the name of biblical law and the principle of pikuach nefesh, preserving life and health, it is mandatory to make full use of any and all medicine, includes vaccination.

But, of course, you might say, “Well, the Bible never mentions vaccines. In fact, the Bible rarely even alludes to medical treatment in any form.” Absolutely true, but in the quest to keep the teachings of Scripture relevant in different ages, rabbis have shown considerable creativity in applying biblical law, composed in the Iron Age, to changing and novel developments of the past 3000 years. Vaccines are a case in point. How do we know the Bible mandates vaccination? Stick with me.

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