Saturday, December 28, 1996

L'Shanah Tovah?
Reflections on the January New Year

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach,
Temple Anshe Hesed
Erie, Pennsylvania

Well, now, keep the corks in the champagne bottles for just a minute, will you? Let's think about what we're doing here. The first of January is upon us. Parties should be fully planned already. But, really, where does this holiday come from? And should we be celebrating it as well?

As Jews, our tradition has many different new years. Rosh Hashanah is not the only one -- it is the new year for the calender year, yes, but there are many others as well. There is the new year for the counting the reign of kings, in Nisan (usually early April). There is the new year for trees, coming to us this month with the holiday of Tu B'Shevat. (What this really meant is that produce grown before Tu B'Shevat would be taxed at the previous year's rates, and after Tu B'Shevat would be counted towards the following year's tally.)

And we are used to different new years in the flow of our own lives -- the school year, the fiscal year, etc. But what is the origin of the January new year? And -- to ask our perenniel, obsessive question -- is it good for the Jews?

According to Adolf Adam's book, The Liturgical Year, the celebration of January 1st as a new year in the Western world has both Roman and Christian roots. Since the beginning of the second century BCE, Roman consuls and other officials began their terms of office on the first of January. The Roman new year had always been celebrated on March 1st, but eventually, in 46 BCE, Roman officials reorganized their calendar to have the new year coincide with the beginning of their terms. A pagan festival was celebrated at this time, to honor the god Janus (hence, the month "January,") a festival which was marked by gluttony and orgies and the like.

But the seeds of a more serious side to the festival were already present: art associated with the festival pictured Janus as a two-faced god... looking backward and looking ahead at the same time. It is not a far step from that picture to the idea of new year's resolutions, to reviewing our past actions, and planning for our future.

Into this picture come the early Christians, and a lively debate over the proper date of their holiday of Christmas. The original date of Christmas (still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox churches) was January 6th. In the second century CE, the Western church set December 25th as the date for Christmas... moving it up from January 6th in order to coincide with the Winter Solstice, which was known in Rome as the "Return of the Unconquered Sun." (That was "sun" not "son.") And... it was the custom in the ancient church (borrowed, no doubt, from our Jewish tradition of Sukkot and Passover) to celebrate major holidays for eight days. The eighth day of the celebration thus coincided with the beginning of the civil year in Rome.

Originally, to offset the raucous nature of the pagan celebration and to wean the people away from it, the early church tried to change the holiday from a feast to a fast, with pennance and a liturgy called "Protection Against Idolatry." But January 1st took on other meanings in Christianity as well. With the end of the Roman empire, and the fading fear of idolatry, the Roman Catholic church borrowed a rite from the Eastern Catholic Church called the Natale, a ceremony honoring the mother who bore the child. While the Eastern Catholic church celebrated this rite on the day after Christmas, the Roman Catholic tradition celebrated it on New Year's day, on January 1st.

Because this celebration was on the eighth day after Catholic tradition says a birth took place, it was inevitable that someone would eventually make a connection with Jewish customs. In 6th century Spain, a tradition developed to commemorate the circumsicion of Jesus on the first of January. This custom came to Rome rather late, probably in the 13th century, and was practiced by Catholics around the world... until 1969! Today, in Catholic tradition, January 1st remains a religious holiday, a Christian holiday. The Catholic liturgy for January 1st both honors the mother... and prays for peace. And today, the very year we count, the calender we turn, is Christian in content. What, after all, happens this January 1st. It becomes 1994... since what?

So what does all this mean for us as Jews? Should the fact that January 1st is a Christian religious holiday lead us to change our plans for the day in any way? Not at all. For even the Christian observance of this day is based upon an earlier tradition. And that tradition, while it might have been celebrated in pagan ways, was civil in content.

And our own tradition is clear on the following point. Dina d'malchuta dina, we are told, "the law of the land is the law." Civil law, secular law... is binding upon us as Jews, wherever we live.

Unlike December 25th, January 1st is an American holiday. January 1st remains the secular new year, the American new year. And we are Americans, bound by Jewish tradition to observe the laws and participate in the secular life of the land we call our home. So uncork the champagne, or walk the alcohol-free streets at First Night Erie, and let's celebrate (although we should probably leave the orgies well buried in the past.) As Jews, we do celebrate the coming of 1997 -- we just call it the Common Era (CE) instead of Anno Domini (which means the "Year of our Lord.") Besides -- bad tax planning as it may have been -- January 1st is my birthday. So I plan on celebrating. As will the vast majority of American Jews, along with all other Americans.

So to all of you, l'shanah tovah, er, um, I mean... Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 10, 1996

Whose Bible Is It, Anway?
Or: Should Christianity Really Be Called Paulianity?

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed
Erie, Pennsylvania

As a Jew in America in December, 'tis the season to ask questions. Such as: how much do we have in common with our Christian neighbors? What's a Judeo-Christian? And if Christians have the same Bible we do, why do they eat shrimp?

The answer to many of the questions about our common roots and divergent paths has to do with the question of the Scripture we seem to share in common, what Christians call the Old Testament. Educated Christians will know enough to refer to our Bible as "the Hebrew Scriptures," not "the Old Testament," but it would almost take a scholar to know why, and what the implications of the differences are.

Jews do not refer to the "Old Testament," but, rather, to the TaNaKh, or Hebrew Scriptures. When I say the word Bible, that is what I mean. It may seem like a purely linguistic distinction, but it is not. The reasons for the distinction are not just semantic (that is "old" implies a replacement, a "new" testament which is NOT part of Jewish tradition), but substantive. There are three main reasons why this is the case.

First: there are language issues: an Old Testament will translate a passage in Isaiah as saying a "virgin" will give birth. But that word is an interpretation. The Hebrew word is "alma," and there are examples elsewhere in the TaNaKh of "alma"s having sex. The word means "young woman." This word does not rule out the Christian reading. But it does not REQUIRE it. SO when a Christian can't understand what objection a Jew might have to citing this as a prediction of Mary and Jesus, the Christian does not know that the Jew is working with a different (and correct) translation: "a young woman" shall give birth.

Second: the books are in a different order in an Old Testament and a TaNaKh. The Hebrew word TaNaKh (which I would translate as "the Bible") is actually an abbreviation: it stands for the three parts of a Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the Neviim (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (the Writings), taking the first letter of the Hebrew word in each case, TNK, and adding the vowels to turn it into a pronounceable word. The Christian Bible is divided into two parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and so the "Old Testament" completely ignores the difference between the three sections of the TaNaKh. The three sections have different levels of authority in Judaism, Torah being the highest, and Writings being the lowest. But in Christianity, there is no distinction made between Deuteronomy (in the Torah) and Psalms (in the Writings), it is all just the OT. And, more seriously, the books are not only not in a three part division, they are in a different order altogether. A Tanakh and an OT send different messages just by placing the same books in a different order. (Think about interior design: if you have ten pieces of furniture, you can arrange them in a single room in very different ways, creating a different feeling with the very same raw material.)

ORDER MATTERS!! To go into some detail on this point: if you look at the very last line of the Old Testament, it comes from the book of Malachi, and refers to the coming of the prophet Elijah, who will turn the hearts of the children towards their parents, lest a ban be put on the land to destroy it. By making Malachi the LAST book in the OT (which it is NOT in the Jewish Bible), someone knew what they were doing. For they knew that Elijah is supposed to be the one who, in Jewish tradition, will come to predict the coming of the Messiah. So, although this line exists in the Jewish Bible, it is not the last one and the effect is not the same. As the last line it says: Messiah... OR DESTRUCTION. Turn the page... and get to the New Testament. This is a DELIBERATE message. But the last line in the Jewish Bible comes from Chronicles, the last book in our Bible. IT talks about King Cyrus, who defeated the Babylonians, who had defeated Judea and destroyed the First Temple. Cyrus says to the Jews -- you can go home, and rebuild your Temple... thus initiating the Second Temple. Now, if you are a Jew living after the time when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70, and you read this as the LAST LINE of your Bible, it sends a tremendous message of reassurance. Look. Things look bad now. But remember. We've been there before. But we came back once. And like General McArther, WE SHALL RETURN. SO, even the books that Jews and Christians share in common are arranged differently in order to send out very different messages.)

Third: not only are the words not the same (because translation involves interpretation), and not only are the books not in the same order (in order to send a different message). The very way we look at the Bible differs in Judaism and Christianity. It has to do with scissors. And it explains why Christians eat shrimp.

While Jesus may have said he did not intend to change the law, while Jesus kept kosher, while the religion that Jesus practiced was Judaism (and, so, if you think about it, Christianity is NOT the religion of Jesus, but the religion ABOUT Jesus) by the time PAUL came along, Paul said that Jesus had "fulfilled" the "laws" of the "Old Testament," and that followers of Jesus therefore no longer needed to follow the laws and traditions and holidays and customs of Judaism.

His motive for saying this was quite clear. It wasn't philisophical. It was practical. It was even... political. And it had to do with scissors. For there were two different groups of early Christians, those who had Jewish roots, and those who did not (gentiles). Paul was trying to spread the word of this new religion among the gentiles. BUT. The Jewish Bible (which Paul was still using) said quite clearly that in order to join this group men must be circumcized. At any age. Even as adults. AND, in the days before pain killers, well, let's just say that this was something of a disincentive to join. So to make it easier, Paul said: alright, you don't have to be circumcized to follow Jesus.

But how could he do that? After all, it was written quite clearly. How could he change ONE LAW of the Bible? What authority did he have to do so. The answer is: none. So he did not change one law. He changed ALL the laws, by changing the way the new group looked at Scripture. By saying that Jesus had come to "fulfill" ALL the laws of the Bible, by saying that neither those with Jewish roots nor gentiles had to follow any of those ritual rules specified in the Jewish scripture, Paul FOREVER changed the way the new group looked at Bible. While the Tanakh was a way of life (LAW) to Jews, it became only a collection of predictions for the coming of the Messiah (LORE) to Christians. (If you are from New Yorkl, "law" and "lore" may SOUND the same, but they are still quite different things.) And that is why Christians can eat bacon cheeseburgers. And that is also why I sometimes think the religion of our neighbors is misnamed. It should really be called "Paulianity."

For Jews, the TaNaKh (especially the Torah) is the story of our people, of God working WITHIN history with our people, which leads to a particular and specific way of life. It does contain predictions about a Messiah, but they are not the main point of the work, they do not specify the details of a particular story (as Christians claim they do), and they refer to a HUMAN political leader who will lead the Jews back to political power in our own land. Only later, and only in hints, are there indications that this figure might solve some of the whole world's other problems as well.

To Christians, the Old Testament is not an entree but an appetizer. It is a collection of stories whose main point is to point ahead, to a story yet to come, to a different stage of history.

Misunderstandings don't often occur when people expect differences, and are cautious, and looking out for them. Or, at least, such misunderstandings do not catch us by surprise. The worst misunderstandings occur most frequently when we think we have something in common, that we are using a word in the same way, that we have the same "Bible," even in part. When we think we share a common set of assumptions, when we think we are communicating, and we are not.

There are times, even, when Christians and Jews who speak about "religion" mean very different things by the word. But that is a story for another time. For now I will try to carefully word a sentence with which most of us might agree, as I wish all who celelbrate holidays at this season a spirit appropriate to the occasion, and those who use January 1st as a change in calendars a very happy new year.

Friday, November 15, 1996

A Question of Character

A Question of Character
(In a Place Where No One Behaves Like a Human Being)

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach

Item: You are a photographer for a major news service.
Your job is to get the picture, to put a face on the news.
Item: A major presidential candidate is speaking at a rally.
He leans forward the railing gives out he falls on top of you.
Question: Do you a) help him to his feet,
 Or b) leave him on the ground while you get up to snatch a picture?

In October, in the height of the presidential campaign, in Chico, California, this sudden ethical question faced three photographers as Republican Candidate Bob Dole fell on top of them. Two snapped the picture. One helped the man to his feet. Different decisions in the same situation.

The spiritual dilemma is not as distant as it may seem. It is a question which confronts us all. For who are we first and foremost? Are we defined by the jobs we do, the tasks we perform? Or are we human beings above all, capable of responding to others, to lending a helping hand? Usually the two are compatible. But not always. And what then? What do we choose? Who are we?

Here, the character question so consistently raised by Bob Dole at the end of the campaign struck those around him, if in a sudden and relatively minor way. By several weeks after his fall, however, a similar kind of character question could be raised ... not by the Republican candidate ...but about him.

In very recent days, Bob Dole appeared on Letterman and on Saturday Night Live. His appearances reveal the grace, the wit, the charm that those who know him well claim was there all along. They are the qualities that has earned Bob Dole loyal friends, and a devoted following. They are qualities that, for whatever reason (I'm not a political analyst, and I try not to play one on the pulpit ...but there is a Jewish angle here which I will arrive eventually) barely came across during the election. Except, we did get glimpses of this side of Bob Dole in his humor during the first debate. In his restraint, for a time, in issuing personal attacks.

But then the test came. It came late in October. Because, frankly, and with apologies to all those who cited Dewey, by then, the election was over. Not for Congress. But the presidential race was done and finished. And this placed a character question squarely ...on Bob Dole’s plate.

He spoke of one last mission. Let me tell you what that mission could have been. He could have ridden out on a losing cause with grace and dignity. He could have accepted that he was not going to win, and set about the task of restoring the people’s faith in the political process by sticking to the high ground. He could have convinced someone, somewhere, that he believed in something by actually sticking to a theme as if it was a conviction , rather than jumping for whatever would work, and grasping , in the end, the biter, personal , negative attacks of which are effective , and repugnant, and immoral, all at the same time .
It would have been a blow against cynicism (not a fatal one, and with far more battles to fight on that front before it will be safe to be idealistic about public service again). It would have been, in the midst of a political battle, the ... "menschlik” thing to do.
Hillel said: "In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human."      What better place where no one seems to be behaving like a human being than in a nasty political campaign. So much talk about being religious. So little demonstration of it.

And I'm pretty sure  that the subject of so much attention, the Sovereign of Existence and Master of the Universe, God neither a Democrat nor a Republican. (Nor Likkudnik nor Laborite).

Politics and religion are both, in their own ways, about the use of power. Politics is about particular policies. Religion is a reminder to sanctify the moment, the relationships, and the human face on the coin of whatever policies we pursue. It is a constant call, telling us that power, too, is an expression of holiness we never know when the moment will come, when we will be asked to make a choice between what we do and who we are. But it will come. And then: may each of us choose well.

A sad salute to a candidate who could have carried himself differently. And, on the other hand, cheers to the man who helped the candidate back to his feet. Even if there had been no one else there at all to take the picture.

Tuesday, October 15, 1996

Buckaroo Banzai versus Abraham Avinu: Life Comes with Directions

Buckaroo Banzai vs. Avraham Avinu:
Life comes with directions

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed, Erie, Pennsylvania

The following story is attributed to Rabbi Jacob Kranz, the Dubner Maggid, also known as “the Jewish Aesop.”

Many years ago, a nobleman‘s son was a student at a military academy, and one of the sports in which he was an expert was shooting bull‘s eyes. In fact, he had won many gold medals for his marksmanship. After he was awarded his diploma, the young officer rode home on his horse. Passing through a tiny village, he saw a hundred circles drawn on the side of a barn -- and in the center of each circle was a bullet hole. The officer was so amazed he stopped his horse and yelled out: "Who is this expert shot? A hundred perfect bull‘s eyes! That’s incredible! Why, even I could not do that." Just then, a young boy walking by looked up at the officer on his tall horse and snickered: "Oh, that’s Nar, our town fool." "I don‘t care what he is," interrupted the officer. "Whoever can shoot a hundred perfect bull‘s eyes must have won every gold medal in the world! I must meet him and shake his hand! "

"Oh, no, no," the boy laughed. "You don‘t understand. "Nar doesn’t draw the circle, and then shoot at it. He shoots first, and then he draws the circle!"

(From Peninnah Schram Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another)

The great (albeit fictional) philosopher/scientist/rock -star/time traveler Buckaroo Banzai noted, in a monumental tribute to acceptance as a state of being, that "wherever you’re going -- there you are!" As if... as if we were meant to shoot first, and draw the circles later to leave on a trip but not to pack to leap, and only then to look.

Perhaps it is not this way with every one of us. But many of us jump feet first into something so often in our lives that we justify our actions with an appeal to existential complacency: wherever we are, whatever mess we got ourselves into, whatever faults we may have, well, that’s just ‘‘who we are." The tone implies that to accept another person, one must take the complete package. Something you don’t like? Well, that’s just the way he is. Or: she’s just like that. And often, that is true. Trying to change another person is
not the easiest thing in the world. It is not always even the right thing to try to do. It is good to be reminded that sometimes we need to accept other people as they are Cromwell-like -- warts and all. Sometimes we need to learn more about loving each other, and less about criticizing each other.

And yet... it is one thing to accept the circles that someone else has drawn around the shots they called. It is another to get away with the same thing... in ourselves.

And the time is near -- the time is now -- for us to step back, and to look at ourselves... without illusion. As Jews, we are called upon to make sure -- at least once a year -- which we draw the circles in our lives first. That we think about what we are doing, that we think about where we are going that we set our goals first, and then aim to meet them.

Many years before Buckaroo Banzai, a different man heard very different words. Not "wherever you’re going, there you are," but "lech lecha!" Go, you. Go forward, yourself. Go forward -- into yourself. And with these two words,

Abraham set forth on a journey that would wind its way into history. He did not always know exactly where his journey would take him. But he had a guide. And that guide meant that he had a goal. And it was the goal he chose, more than any physical compass, which set the direction of his life. Life comes with directions. Or, more to the point, it implores us; it empowers us, to choose directions for ourselves. And that is the central challenge of this season and all seasons: to lift up our eyes, to look up, to look ahead, to choose our path, to set our goal and to follow. To live, not just wherever we are blown by the winds of chance, but somehow with a modicum of control over at least our inner fate, over the kind of person we choose to be. To reach a star, first we must choose the star. Then, and only then, does all our reaching have a chance.

Sunday, September 01, 1996

Introduction and Holiday Greeting

Introduction and Holiday Greeting

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed, Erie, Pennsylvania

It is a campaign year, and Bob Dole offers himself as a bridge to the past. President Clinton counters that he is a bridge to the future. My friends, I want to add a nomination to the process - not for president, but in this sudden search for the best bridges.

I nominate my religion , my spiritual tradition of Judaism , as a bridge to both the past and future, whose span begins at one end at a lonely mountain long ago, and whose other ends stretches farther than any eye can see, unfolding , being built even now. And I want to share with you my own take on that bridge , one spire among the many that stretch out across the horizon.

My name is Michael Feshbach. I am a Reform rabbi, spiritual leader of the 240-family Temple Anshe Hesed of Erie, Pennsylvania, (which is halfway in between Cleveland and Buffalo for those who haven’t heard of it). I approach Judaism from a progressive, non-fundamentalist point of view. I believe, clearly, that G-d speaks to us as human beings...

My difference with the fundamentalists is that they believe that G-d speaks clearly. But I believe that all of our lives as are struggle to figure out what the voice we heard at Sinai still wants of us today. In our own time; our own place; our own lives…..

And I believe that the Torah, indeed, our entire tradition that bridges so many centuries and spans so many civilizations, is a mosaic even more than it is Mosaic , a beautiful patchwork quilt of our people 's ongoing effort to respond to the voice of the living G-d.

I look forward to sharing that search with you, to offer insights and hear your responses, to turn questions into quest and uncover the wholeness... and holiness... at the heart of our lives.

We begin our stroll on that bridge together next week. For now, I include below my wishes for all of us as the new year of 5757 begins.

  *    *    *   *    *   *    *

My congregation in Erie will soon be rolling up its sleeves... and working on building a house. Not our own for someone else.

It is an appropriate thing, to be working on houses, as the High Holy Days come.      For as we hammer and nail, as we sweat and serve, as we, in other words , with care and spirit work on the building of a physical house at this time of year, so, too, should we devote care and spirit to our inner houses. Our own spiritual journeys and our own spiritual home…..

The words on the outer wall of our synagogue are based on, but an expansion of, the words of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah saw a vision of when our spiritual home would be "a house of prayer," open to all. But we add more. For our goal as a synagogue is, indeed, to be "a house of prayer, a house of study, a house of fellowship for all peoples."

All synagogues, all centers of Jewish spiritual life are called upon to be a house of fellowship, a community. May our efforts this coming year wherever we live serve to bring people together, to emphasize the care for one another that can, if we let it, transcend all argument.

May it be, for us, at our simchas and our celebrations , and in sadness and sorrow diminished by being shared, may it be at a Bar Mitzvah and not a bar... where everybody knows your name.

We are called upon to be a house of study, an academy. This coming year, may we make the time for study, may we be able to take advantage of all the opportunities around us, in congregations, in community centers, in cyberspace, in the arena of lifelong learning. May our opportunities for study both serious and fun, both intellectual and spiritual, reading       Maimonides and making Matzah balls. May each one of us respond to the timeless call of Torah.

We are called upon to be a house of prayer, a place of spiritual transformation. In a sermon in early August, I spoke of that scene from the old Milton Berle show, in which a woman in love with Berle put her arms around him and said: "Oh, Milton. It’s bigger than both of us."

Coming together in prayer is more than a chore; it can, if we let it, rise to the level of profound opportunity.  For each service, we come together but once, a unique assemblage of particular people at that particular service. But in coming together we embrace a chance... that our lives may touch each other’s, that our journeys may, for a moment, overlap, which we can each find a place where we can look beyond ourselves. And, in so doing, find ourselves anew.

This coming year, may each of us stand on the stage in each of these arenas of Jewish religious life. May our spiritual homes be a place where we come together to break bread , to expand the mind , to grow in spirit and in soul.

This year may we find our noblest ideals realized, our highest hopes fulfilled, and our lives linked with one another in fulfillment of our ancient and ever-unfolding mission as a holy community.