Shavuot: The Power of Community

Originally published as a guest blog post at Religion Transcends.

Tonight begins the festival of Shavuot, the holiday in which the Jewish people celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Perhaps, the questions about the revelation of the Torah (when, what, how, if, and to whom) are the questions that divide the Jewish people today more than any other questions. The divisions among the modern denominations of Judaism all stem from the question of how the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people. The way in which individuals in the Jewish community consider the event that occurred at Mt. Sinai several millennia ago has vast implications for their approach to the Jewish faith. The sheer magnitude of that event, however, should force us all to transcend denominational differences and feel the power of community – whichever community we choose.

Never has the spiritual force of revelation affected me more than it did on the early morning of May 31, 1998. I had recently graduated college and was spending Shavuot at a local synagogue, where I served as the youth director. The assistant rabbi decided that the congregation would offer an all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot (study session) and then a dawn service just before 5:00 in the morning.

It was a memorable night with many opportunities for Torah study with several wonderful teachers including three eighth-grade day school students. With delicious snacks and caffeinated beverages, about thirty of us managed to stay up the entire night. We decided to hold the minyan outdoors in the courtyard so we could enjoy the sunrise while we prayed.

The Torah service that morning took on new meaning for me. The Torah was paraded around and I had the sense that we really were at Sinai claiming what God had lovingly gifted to us. As I stood at the Torah for my aliyah, the sky began to get dark again. The Torah reader pronounced, “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning…” As the words “thunder” and “lightning” were uttered, a huge thunderstorm ensued. The Torah reader managed to get out a few more words, chanting “…and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.”

At that point, the sky opened up and the heavy rains began. We grabbed the Torah and ran inside where the Torah reading was completed. As I wiped the raindrops from my glasses, I remember thinking that this must be divine revelation. This was the epitome of holiness. This existential experience was full of awe and majesty, thunderclaps, and lightning bolts. Best of all, it was shared with community.

This was a liminal moment in my life. That experience has had a lasting effect on my life in the decade since. Being shaken by the thunder, seeing the lightning, and hearing the words of our Torah convinced me that I really did stand at Sinai. We were all there together. As a community.

That was my revelation. What was revealed to me? The power of community. Was I really at Mt. Sinai several thousand years ago? Maybe not physically there, but with this community, during that early morning storm it was as if I were there. And that is the message of Sinai. A community gathered to receive a gift from God. How that gift is interpreted thousands of years later should not take away from the magic of that moment.

At a time when some segments of the global Jewish community do not recognize other segments as Jewish, let us put aside our denominational differences and hearken back to Sinai. One Torah was given to the entire community. Let us stand again at Sinai with our brothers and sisters, and feel the power of community.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Conservative Movement in DC

The Reform Movement, under the sage guidance of Rabbi David Saperstein, has always taken the lead in domestic politics. Saperstein, voted Newsweek Magazine’s most influential rabbi, heads the Reform Movement’s Religion Action Committee (RAC). The RAC’s website states that it “has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in the nation’s capital for more than 40 years. The RAC educates and mobilizes the American Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on issues from economic justice to civil rights to religious liberty to Israel.” Similarly, the Orthodox Union has the OU Institute for Public Affairs.

The Conservative Movement has never had a Washington Office or a “man in D.C.” Until now. Recently, the Rabbinical Assembly tapped Rabbi Jack Moline (right) to be its first director of public policy. Moline says the position will be an extension of the political advocacy and activist work he’s been doing as an individual rabbi for the last 25 years, and he’s anxious to use the connections cultivated in Washington to advance the agenda of Conservative rabbis.

I ran into Jack Moline when I was in Washington recently for the AIPAC Policy Conference. I was headed to dinner at the Kosher restaurant “Eli’s” with two other Conservative rabbis from Detroit. Jack offered to drive us from the Washington Convention Center to the restuarant which gave us an opportunity to both congratulate him on his new appointment and to ask him some questions. The bottom line is that it is too bad the Conservative Movement waited this long to create a director of public policy in Washington, but it is wonderful that Jack Moline will serve in this position. He’s the perfect choice. In his initial statement on public policy, Jack wrote:

The goal is to bring as much added value to public policy discussions as possible, especially by the inclusion of perspectives that reflect the Jewish values that flow from the ethos of Conservative Judaism. Of necessity, I will rely on colleagues from the OU and the RAC, JCPA and UJC, but our advocacy will not be an automatic echo of either one. Effective advocacy is a matter of finding common ground – in a sense, p’sharah – not merely proclaiming ideals. As such, we will sometimes find ourselves in coalition with groups with whom we will other times disagree: Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Muslims, atheists and a host of Protestant denominational groups.

Already, one notices the Rabbinical Assembly finding its voice when it comes to matters in Washington. Only days before the AIPAC Policy Conference, it was announced that Michael Oren was being considered for the position of Israeli Ambassador to the United States. The Rabbinical Assembly wasted no time in issuing a press release to commend the appointment.

The RA noted in its statement that Oren is the product of a Conservative Jewish upbringing in New Jersey. Further, Dr. Oren spoke at the RA convention in 2004, following the publication of his book, Six Days of War.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the incoming executive vice president of the RA terms Michael Oren an “iconic figure whose intellect and communication abilities are without peer in contemporary political life. No one today can argue the case for Israel in quite the way that he can,” she reiterated. “Whether in his IDF uniform in front of CNN’s cameras or on the pages of the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, Michael Oren has been acting as a de facto ambassador for Israel for quite some time.”

At the AIPAC conference, Dr. Oren spoke at a luncheon for rabbis. The RA also noted in the press release that “the overwhelming majority of rabbis who were in attendance [at the luncheon] are Conservative.” To be fair, Oren explained that his Judaism has roots in many movements. In fact, he explained that he was raised in Conservative Judaism but dropped out of his Conservative synagogue’s Hebrew School. He’s also had religoius experiences with Chabad and was a member in the Reform “Kol Haneshama” in his Jerusalem neighborhood.

Oren is a great choice for the ambassador position. I’ve heard him speak several times and I’ve been impressed on each occasion. He will certainly have company in Washington with other political and economic leaders who have roots in Conservative Judaism, including Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Pope in Israel

My first exposure to Catholicism was as a teenager. I was the assistant to a photographer who photographed several Catholic weddings. I found it fascinating to be in these beautiful churches and watch the religious rites of the Catholic tradition. I joked that, at the time, I had been to more Catholic weddings than Jewish weddings. That quickly changed.

My next experience with anything Catholic was in rabbinical school when I was selected to participate in an interfaith dialogue program called Seminarians Interacting. The now defunct program brought Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theological students (future priests, rabbis, and imams) together in a setting of mutual engagement and exchange. It was sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews). The program was hosted at a large, beautiful Catholic seminary in Baltimore. Again, I learned a great deal about Catholics and noted several similarities between their religion and Judaism.

The summer following Seminarians Interacting, I served a chaplaincy internship at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. The Clinical Pastoral Education program was made up of two rabbinical students, three future Catholic priests, and about a half-dozen other future religious leaders. My interactions with the three Catholic seminary students led to wonderful friendships. The program was geared toward pastoral education, but our informal conversations during lunch and in the hospital corridors were about our respective religious tradition. We spoke of personal faith, our families, and the stress of our future positions. These coreligionists responded candidly to me about their individual decisions to join the priesthood and live a life of chastity. They explained the hierarchy of the priesthood to me, helped me understand the importance of Vatican II (Pope Paul’s 1965 proclamation of Nostar Aetate), and taught me the symbolism behind the Eucharist (Holy Communion). Of course, their curiosity about Judaism led to many enjoyable Q&A sessions as well. I remember driving to the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit with one of the future priests to play racquetball (racquetball courts in the Seminary dorms — I was jealous!). On the way, he played a CD for me with the most beautiful Mass service.

Recently, with the Pope’s visit to Israel, I have been thinking much about Catholic-Jewish relations and my own interfaith relationships. This past March, as news of the Israel visit by Pope Benedict XVI was growing, an article in the Jerusalem Post explained that the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, said that it is not proper for him to come to the Kotel wearing a cross. He said, “My position is that it is not fitting to enter the Western Wall area with religious symbols, including a cross.” He said he feels the same way about a Jewish man walking into a church wearing a tallit and t’fillin. Not that it matters since he would never set foot in a church. It’s also a silly analogy because tallit and t’fillin are religious articles used during prayer. Wearing a cross around ones neck is akin to wearing a Star of David or a Chai. While several rabbis responded to Rabbi Rabinovitch, I thought my colleague Rabbi Andrew Sacks put it best. In the JPost blog, he told the following story:

It seems that back in the 18th century, a Christian asked Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn “how can your religion be correct if my religion is correct?” His response was that there is one pasture, but many gates. Or as your scripture puts it, “In my father’s house there are many rooms.” Let the many “gates” to the Kotel, the “gates of righteousness,” be open to all.

This week’s Time Magazine has an interesting article on Catholic-Jewish relations, “Pope Benedict and the Question of Judaism”. It addresses the Pope’s first visit to Israel, but underscores the tension he has caused due to several missteps in his relationship with the Jewish community. In reversing the 1988 excommunication of four bishops of an ultra-traditionalist Catholic group called the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), he included the Holocaust denying Bishop Richard Williamson who believes the Nazi gas chambers never existed. Further, in a 2006 speech at Auschwitz, he failed to mention anti-Semitism, instead contending that “ultimately the Nazis’ motive in killing Jews was to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith.” He also reintroduced a prayer in the Mass calling for Jews to convert.

Last month, I joined several local Detroit-area rabbis for a luncheon with the new Archbishop of Detroit, the Most Reverend Allen Vigneron (right). He spoke openly about which aspects of Judaism have influenced his Catholic beliefs. Perhaps, most impressive, he did not hesitate to speak about the recent controversies of the pope with regard to the Jewish people. Rather than seek to defend the pontiff, Archbishop Vigneron, who is likely to named a Cardinal, expressed his deep desire to further dialogue with the Jewish community. I was very impressed of his knowledge of Judaism and his making Catholic-Jewish relations a priority.

It should be no surprise that the Pope’s arrival in Jerusalem yesterday has already caused a fuss. News is circulating around the Web that Pope Benedict walked out on a sheikh delivering an anti-Israel diatribe yesterday in a meeting of interfaith leaders. Rabbi Barry Leff was there and wrote on his blog about his take on what happened. He wrote:

Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, delivered a rant at the gathering at the Notre Dame center in Jerusalem. I don’t speak Arabic — and I presume the Pope doesn’t either — so at the time all I could tell was that the Sheikh was very animated. At one point whatever he said received some modest applause from the Arabic-speaking crowd. According to the Jerusalem Post report, here’s what he was saying: ‘In an impromptu speech, delivered in Arabic at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, launched a 10-minute tirade against the State of Israel for confiscating Palestinians’ land and carrying out war crimes against the residents of Gaza.” He also called for the immediate return of all Palestinian refugees, and called on Christians and Muslims to unite against Israel.

The entire text of the Pope’s speech is available here.

Rabbi Leff adds that the Pope quoted from the Torah portion Lech Lecha, saying: “God said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a land I shall show you.”

No matter what the current Pope does or says, the relationship between Catholics and Jews is an important one. All interfaith relations are fragile in nature. I believe we should look positively on the Pope’s visit to Israel and use it as a springboard toward making dialogue between Jewish leaders and Catholic leaders a priority.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller