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Bringing Sense to the Senseless

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

On Sunday – taking advantage of the long-awaited spring weather – I got on the subway at Finch Station with my three kids and my parents, and we travelled downtown to the Royal Ontario Museum. Riding the Yonge line, I was aware (as I always am) of the incredible diversity around me – so many people of so many backgrounds, and places of origin, and languages, sharing a subway car. Sharing a city.

Monday midday, Torontonians received devastating news: a van attack had killed ten people and injured fifteen along the stretch of Yonge between Finch and Sheppard. The incident occurred just steps from where my family and I had boarded the train 24 hours earlier. All afternoon I received messages: from friends and family making sure we were OK. From members of my congregation whose loved ones had been nearby. From fellow Torontonians in disbelief.

What do you say at a moment like this? What do you do? These kinds of events have become almost commonplace around the world – you seem to hear almost every day about some kind of shooting or bombing or pedestrian attack somewhere in the world. But here? In Toronto? This is a different kind of city; these things aren’t supposed to happen here.

Well, it’s happened here. And yet, Toronto is a different kind of city. The response to yesterday’s tragedy has reflected that. Much has been made, for example, of the lone police officer who calmly apprehended the suspect without firing a shot. Was it a reflection of training? Of a uniquely Canadian way of thinking? In the coming days, we will know more about his identity and what enabled him to handle the situation in such a heroic manner.

But I was struck most of all by the memorial wall. Just south of Finch, a makeshift memorial has sprung up along Yonge Street, with flowers, candles, posters reading “Love For All, Hatred For None,” and notes – hundreds and hundreds of notes of condolence, remembrance, and sadness, in a variety of languages. There are notes in English and French, in Persian and Korean. I even noticed one in Hebrew. This is Toronto: a city where people who look different, believe differently, and speak different can come together to support one another. Where tragedy leads not to calls for revenge, but to pleas for “love for all.” Where our diversity is seen as an indicator of our strength, even in the most tragic of times. On a sad day like today, that makes me proud and gives me hope.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People that:

…we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing a meaning on them. The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me?” A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”

It is hard to know why things like this happen. We can scour the evidence, try to understand the perpetrator’s motivations and emotional state. But in the end, there is no grand plan that makes it all OK. Rather, meaning is made in how we respond to tragedy: Do we reach out to one another in support? Do we try to learn from what has happened and create changes that can prevent it from happening again? Do we affirm our values and respond in ways that make us proud?

These are the ways that we bring sense to the senseless, and in so doing, honour the memory of the dead.

“Not Very Religious” – A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5777

October 13, 2016 Leave a comment

It is told that once, just before the start of Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov went up to a Jew in the back of the synagogue and asked him to lead the Kol Nidre service.

The man looked up at the Baal Shem and did what any of us might do in the situation: he tried to get out of it. He said, “Rebbe, I’m not a very religious man” But the Rebbe insisted.

So the man said, ““Rebbe, I’m sorry, I don’t know the prayers very well.” But still the Baal Shem Tov insisted.”

So finally, the poor man didn’t know what else say and he blurted out, “Rebbe, I’m afraid!”

And to this the Baal Shem Tov replied, “When you can say what you are, you can lead the people.” And the man ascended the bima and led the Kol Nidrei prayers.[1]


It sounds like every Jew’s worst nightmare, right? That the rabbi will jump off the bima, hand you a prayerbook, and tell you to go sing Avinu Malkeinu. It’s like the Jewish equivalent of that dream where it’s opening night of a play and you don’t know any of your lines. Or the one where you show up to school in your underwear.

We’ve all had these dreams. We can all relate to that feeling of being inauthentic. We know it in our secular lives; we know it from our bad dreams; and we know it very well in our religious life.

The Kelemer Maggid, another Chassidic master, used to teach that Yom Kippur is actually Yom K-Purim – a day that is like Purim. How is Yom Kippur like Purim, he taught: On both days we wear masks. On Purim we masquerade as Esther and Mordecai. On Yom Kippur, we masquerade as the pious and religious Jews we are not.[2]

I very often have conversations that sound an awful lot like the one in the story, where people say to me apologetically, “Rabbi I’m not very religious.”

That’s our way of explaining why we don’t come to services enough, or we don’t keep kosher enough, or we don’t know enough: We’re not very religious.

And it usually comes with some kind of disclaimer:

  • Rabbi, I’m not very religious, but I’m looking for a community.
  • I’m not very religious, but I want my children to be Jewish.
  • I’m not very religious, but I’m spiritual. I meditate every day.
  • I’m not very religious, but I believe in Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.

I have to tell you, as a rabbi I don’t know any way to define “religious” other than to say that it involves seeking community, and building a spiritual life, and passing traditions on to our children, and working to repair the world. For people who are “not very religious,” we sure do a lot of religious things!

And yet too often we go through life feeling like we are dressed up as something we are not.


Two weeks ago, we held a Shabbat morning talk for Religious School parents about God. We started off by defining our own beliefs and experiences of God. People said amazing things – they talked about finding God in nature, in relationships, in their children, in their learning. And then we compared that to what we believe “Judaism says about God.” And we found a huge disconnect. Where our God was found in nature and relationships, the “Jewish God,” we believed, was found in supernatural miracles and ritual commandments.

I think that for far too many of us, there is Judaism on the one hand, and then there is us – our beliefs and our practices – on the other hand. We’ll say things like:

  • “Judaism says God created the world in 7 days, but I believe in the Big Bang.”
  • “Judaism says that Moses parted the Red Sea. But I think it was probably just low tide.”
  • “Judaism says we are supposed to keep kosher, but I only keep kosher style, and only inside the house, and not on vacation.”

We constantly we set ourselves up as outside of Judaism. As something less than the real thing. Somewhere in the back of our minds we still believe that there is an authentic way to be Jewish – that it looks like Orthodoxy, or it looks like our grandparents. Either way it doesn’t look like us. No wonder we feel like showed up at play practice without learning our lines.

We are not the first Jews to contend with this kind of inferiority complex. You can see that from the Kelemer Maggid’s little teaching about Yom Kippur and Purim. But even earlier than that, Judaism has always struggled with an idea called Yeridat Hadorot – the decline of the generations. This is the notion that each successive generation, as it moves further and further from Sinai, becomes a little weaker, a little more corrupted, a little less authentic.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Zera is quoted as saying: “If the earlier scholars were like angels, then we are mere human beings. And if the earlier scholars were human beings, then we are like donkeys.”[3]

And that was 1500 years ago. Imagine what that makes us!

This is a truly self-defeating way to look at the world. And it doesn’t actually represent how we feel about ourselves – at least not in the secular sphere. In 21st century Canada, we believe that we are living in the most diverse, most progressive society ever to exist. We believe that, far from declining with each generation, we get to make life more fulfilling as time marches forward, by learning about the world around us and applying that learning to our laws and our customs. That’s how we evolve as a society. So why can’t we also apply that kind of thinking to Judaism?

It turns out that in fact, the Rabbis already did. In fact, Judaism as we know it is built on just that kind of thinking. When the Temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, the Rabbis of the time began to meet to debate and discuss how Judaism would move forward in this new era. The Talmud records one of these debates in the form of a story:

It tells that that once, the great sages were gathered in the Beit Midrash arguing over a certain point of Jewish law. The specific point doesn’t matter, but what matters is that all of the Rabbis believed one way, and only Rabbi Eliezer disagreed.

Rabbi Eliezer declared: “If I am right, then let this carob tree prove it!” And the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed a hundred cubits away.

And then Rabbi Eliezer said: “If I am right, then let the stream of water prove it.” And the stream of water flowed backwards.

And so on and so forth with all kinds of miracles until finally, Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, “If the law agrees with me, then let it be proved by heaven.” And a heavenly voice cried out: “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? His rulings are always right!”

But the other rabbis weren’t impressed. And the great Rabbi Joshua stood and said words from the Torah portion that we will read tomorrow morning: “Lo bashamayim hi. Torah is not in Heaven.”

At that moment, the sages say, God started laughing and said, “Nitzachuni banai, Nitzachuni banai – My children have overruled me! My children have overruled me!” (Baba Metzia 59a)


My teacher Dr. Mark Washofky used to call this story the “Declaration of Independence of Rabbinic Judaism.” This is the ancient Rabbis declaring independence from the orthodoxies of their time. Declaring independence from the idea that there was only ONE right way to be Jewish, and that we could never measure up. Instead, they declare that we Jews have the right – and the responsibility – to reinterpret Judaism in every generation.

And there are about a thousand examples of this. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the rabbis decided that you could pray in a synagogue anywhere in the world. When you could no longer bring a Passover sacrifice, they created the Pesach Seder based on Roman practices. The Jewish calendar, the wedding ketubah, the rituals of Chanukah, the medieval philosophical writings – all of these are examples of innovations and that made their way into Judaism because of the needs of the moment and because of the cultural context in which Jews were living.

Judaism has always been Reform Judaism. Judaism has always been aware of the world around it; has always offered multiple paths to fulfillment; has always been about making real meaning in the real world.

Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who was one of the giants of early Reform Judaism, wrote about 100 years ago that “the very spirit of Reform that empowered [the early Rabbis] to declare the sanctuary of learning to be as holy as the Temple at Jerusalem, ought by all means to empower us to assign our temples the same divine holiness.”[4]

In other words, it is our sacred responsibility not only to follow the traditions, but to be ongoing interpreters of Jewish traditions.

It turns out that we are not at play practice without a script. The script is right here in our hands; and Judaism even gives us a pencil – to make edits and interpretations along the way. That’s also what the ancient rabbis did. It is the original, and the most authentic approach to Jewish life. It is the very definition of being a religious Jew.

I think that as Reform Jews, we need to work to reclaim words like “religious” and “kosher.” To define them based not on Orthodoxy or on our grandparents’ lives, but on what they mean in our context.

To be “religious” doesn’t just mean to observe a bunch of rituals; it means to thoughtfully learn about Judaism and about the world around us and to make meaningful choices based on that learning.

To be Shomer Shabbat – to be Sabbath observant – doesn’t only mean not to turn on lights on Saturday. It might also mean making the choice to drive to the synagogue or to friends’ houses, or gathering our families for movies or meals, or doing the gardening while refraining from paying the bills.

To keep kosher doesn’t only mean eating a certain hechsher or keeping 2 sets of dishes. It might also mean paying attention to the ethical impact of our food we’re eating – choosing local, or free range, or any of the other mindful choices that our Jewish values drive us to make.

These are real and authentic definitions of Jewish words. They are real and authentic ways to live as a Jew. And they place a real and authentic responsibility on us – to be active learners and to be active agents in building our own Jewish lives. Liberal Judaism is a religion of process, not product. It matters less exactly how you keep a given mitzvah and more how you came to that decision. In the principles of Reform Judaism it says:

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.

That is not at all easy to do. Being a Reform Jew involves learning and choosing, and then when our beliefs or our circumstances shift, it involves learning and choosing all over again.

The danger of liberal Judaism is that when we don’t do that kind of work, it is easy to slip into something complacent. And then we become the fulfillment of our own insecurities about not being authentic enough, not being “religious enough.” When we say that, it’s not about whether somebody else approves of our standard of kashrut – it’s about whether we approve of our own choices.

And that means that those questions of the High Holy Days – questions about living our lives authentically, about whether our actions match our values – these are questions that we need to be asking ourselves every day of our lives.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the process of teshuvah – of repentence – “must energize an ever-ascending spiral in [our] spiritual state.”[5] In other words, that the process of teshuvah can be a kind of springboard for the growth and authenticity we are seeking.

When our Jewish lives reflect honest reflection and real learning and mindful decision making, we become the most authentic versions of ourselves and the most authentic Jews we can be.

So that is the challenge of the new year, and really the challenge of every day. To pick up a new book. To learn something new about our Judaism and about ourselves. To ask ourselves hard questions: Does my Shabbat practice really reflect my what I believe about the importance of family and self-care and emotional health? Do my eating habits reflect my own ethical ideas? Am I putting effort into building the community that I need? Would I honestly define myself – not according to someone else’s definition but according to my own – as living the Jewish life that I choose?


Rabbi Akiva once said to his students: “God showed us love by creating us in the Divine Image, but God showed us even greater love by making us conscious that we are created in the Divine Image.”[6]

We are blessed with the consciousness of God – with the ability to come to know ourselves through learning and reflection. To build the life and the self that we wish to build, and in so doing to make the world a better place. There is no act more religious than this. There is no path more authentic.

In the coming year, may we challenge ourselves and our assumptions.

May we celebrate our choices and our values.

And may we work to see ourselves as the recipients and the embodiment of an ancient tradition, as guardians of an eternal and ever-evolving way of life.




[1] Based on The Yom Kippur Anthology p. 120.

[2] Ibid 123.

[3] B. Shabbat 112b.

[4] “Blowing of the Shofar on the Sabbath.” American Reform Responsa XXIII, pp. 182-3)

[5] Soloveichik, Joseph. “The Jewish Concept of Teshuvah.”The Yom Kippur Anthology. P 143.

[6] Mishnah., Qtd in Gates of Repentence p. 4.

Stranger in a Strange Land

November 26, 2015 1 comment

“I have been a stranger in a strange land.” (Exodus 2:22)

I am an American living in Canada.

It’s not a major culture shock. Sure, there are differences – social, cultural, linguistic, political – between my country of origin and my country of residence. There are things that take getting used to; cultural assumptions that surprised me. But the two countries are deeply aligned in their values and ways of life. (In fact, when we moved here five years ago, my then-seven year old son confided in me how disappointed he was that it wasn’t “more different.” He thought moving to a new country would entail the wholesale adoption of a new way of life!)

And yet, Thanksgiving Day has always been hard for me. In Canada, of course, today is an ordinary day. I dropped my children at their school buses, and I sit at my desk in my office. And I am aware that “back home,” people are sleeping in, preparing meals, watching football, celebrating a holiday. It is a day on which I feel separated from friends and family, on which I feel far from home. So it’s a small reminder to me that it is not always easy to make a new life in a new country. And that I have been very, very lucky.

Thanksgiving is, at its core, about immigration. It is a celebration of the experience of coming to a new country, being welcomed, and making a life.

That is a message that we need today, perhaps more than ever. Right now, millions of refugees around the world are seeking new countries and new homes. They are seeking to start over, to rebuild their lives in a place of safety and security. Just as the Pilgrims did nearly 400 years ago. Just as my Jewish ancestors did 3 generations ago.

Jewish tradition knows well the experience of the refugee. The Torah tells us that we were slaves in Egypt and sought a new life in the Promised Land. The Passover Seder reminds us that “Arami oveid avi – Our father was (literally!) an Aramean/Syrian refugee.” And it was less than 100 years ago that our own people were the asylum seekers, desperate to escape the dangers of their countries, too often labeled as subversives or security threats.

And so, I am proud of this Jewish community’s response to the current refugee crisis. My congregation has raised thousands of dollars toward resettlement. Some local congregations are actively “adopting” refugees. Some close friends here in Toronto are literally preparing to welcome a refugee family into their own home if necessary. These are our Jewish values at work.

I don’t begin to answer the political questions. I know there are potential security risks. But I also know that there are real people – real families – “yearning to breathe free.” And I know that if there’s anything my country of origin and my country of residence have in common, it is that they are societies of immigrants – great, diverse communities made stronger because they are composed of people whose parents or grandparents or great-grandparents came from somewhere else. We North Americans know what it is to be a stranger. We know what it is to wander, and we know what it is to build a life in a new home.

On Thanksgiving Day, of all days, we ought to remember that.

Let My People Go (For a Run)

April 2, 2015 Leave a comment

This post is both Jewish and running-oriented, so I’m reblogging it here from my running blog. -MS

Running On Empty

“Freedom means the opportunity to be what we never thought we would be.”
– Daniel J Boorstin

This weekend we’ll celebrate Passover. As a rabbi, the themes of the Jewish holidays never far from the top of my mind. This one is a festival of freedom, celebrating the ancient Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. I’ve always thought that the themes of this holiday – slavery and freedom – speak deeply to modern life. Even though we are mostly free, we are rarely masters of our own time. The hours of our day are owned by work, by family obligations, by our cellphones and communication.

None of this is a bad thing. I feel lucky to have a job that I enjoy and a family that I love. But I’ve also been really bad about doing things for me. Running has helped change that a little bit.

As it has…

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Categories: Uncategorized

The Courage to Reconcile – A Sermon for Vayigash 5774 (A Tribute to Nelson Mandela)

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

He is a symbol of hope. Born as a son of a tribal head, he was imprisoned and left to languish. But through the sheer force of hope, through charisma and intelligence and shrewd political manoeuvring, he rose to prominence, he saved his people, and he transformed a nation.

It may not be who you think. This week’s Torah portion tells the story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his family. After being sold into slavery, after sitting in prison, after using his own skills to ultimately become second in command over all Egypt, Joseph meets up again with the brothers who wronged him so long ago. But this time, he is the one in charge.

We know the story. He plays some mind games with them; accuses Benjamin of stealing a royal goblet. But ultimately, he reveals himself tearfully to them in a scene that is unlike anything else in the Torah.

Joseph is an extraordinary character – not only for his brilliance, for his powers of persuasion, but also for his ability to grow and change and accept others. This is the same Joseph who we met 2 weeks ago as an arrogant shepherd boy. The same Joseph who lorded over his brothers, and tattled on them, and must have hated them after what they did to him. And he finds it in himself to forgive them, for the sake of his family and his future.

And even more extraordinary, he is not the only one that does that. The parashah begins not with Joseph, but with his brother Judah.  It says וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה – Judah approached Joseph (who he didn’t know was Joseph) to plead for his brother Benjamin. He says:

“Please, my lord…. ‘The boy [Benjamin] cannot leave his father. One [of his sons] is gone from [him]… when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die….Therefore, please let [me] remain as a slave instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers” (Genesis 44:18-34).

Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, writes that “Judah – more than anyone else in the Torah – changes. The man we see all these years later is not what he was then. Then he was prepared to see his brother sold into slavery. Now he is prepared to suffer that fate himself rather than see Benjamin held as a slave.” (Quoted from

So the reunion of Jacob’s family is made possible because both Joseph and Judah have grown. Both Joseph and Judah are willing to compromise, to put aside anger and personal hurt in order to achieve reconciliation.

It’s a rare combination: the vision to see a better world; the stubborn refusal to let go of dreams and hopes for a better life; and the humility, the pragmatic willingness to work with others to see those dreams to fruition. It’s a rare combination that we see perhaps only once in a generation: Joseph; Abraham Lincoln; Winston Churchill; Mahatma Ghandi; Nelson Mandela.

Born as a son of a tribal head, he was imprisoned and left to languish. But through the sheer force of hope, through charisma and intelligence and shrewd political manoeuvring, he rose to prominence, he saved his people, and he transformed a nation.

The Globe and Mail wrote yesterday morning that “It is hard to imagine that anyone alive today would be more widely mourned than Nelson Mandela.”

He is mourned, of course, for the role he played in transforming South Africa.

And he is mourned for the enormous skill with which he manoeuvred not only a transition in government, not only an implementing of rights and freedoms for all citizens, but also a reconciliation between neighbours who had previously seen themselves as enemies.

A member of our congregation told me that growing up white in South Africa, “you weren’t always cognizant of the struggle of the other.” It was Mandela who brought that struggle to the fore, because he was willing to be imprisoned to change it, and because he was so committed to a nonviolent, that non-polarizing transition – both during the years of struggle and once he was actually in power. Mandela was once asked about prosecuting the power brokers of the apartheid regime, and he replied, “Prosecution? I’m not interested in prosecution. I’m interested in building a nation.”

This is a theme of his career and of his life. Just as Joseph had to leave behind his anger, his resentment toward his brothers in order to build a future, so did Nelson Mandela teach us, in his own words, “that resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

He spoke often about the choice to abandon anger and work for reconciliation. He said famously:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

And, we might add to that statement, South Africa might still be imprisoned by hatred, racism, and divisiveness.

Most of us never have to fight against oppression. Most of us never go to jail for 27 years for standing up for our own rights and freedoms. But we can learn from someone who did that there is little to be gained by harbouring old grudges and seeking revenge for old wrongs; and there much to be gained by working together – even with those that we don’t agree with. That’s what we hope for Israel and the Palestinians. It is what we hope for ourselves and our own families. It’s what we can learn from Joseph and Judah and from Nelson Mandela, zichrono livracha – may his memory be for a blessing.


Opening Our Doors – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5774

September 5, 2013 3 comments

Two thousand years ago, there were two great rabbis – Shammai and Hillel.

A man once came to Shammai with a religious challenge. He said to the rabbi: “I will become a Jew if you can teach me the whole Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Well, of course you can’t possibly learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. So Shammai  – who was not known for his people skills – picked up a stick and chased the man out of the room.

Next that same man went to Hillel and said the same thing: “I will become a Jew if you can teach me the whole Torah while I am standing on one foot.” And Hillel didn’t chase him away. Instead, he answered with a single sentence: “What is hateful to you do not do to anyone else. That is the whole Torah. Now go and learn it.”[1]

Usually, when we tell this story, the lesson is about Hillel’s quote: the idea that Judaism is based around the golden rule. But this time, I’d like to invite us to look at the story differently. I’d like us to think not about what Hillel said, but about what he did. When an outsider showed up at his doorstep looking for knowledge and looking for acceptance, it would have been easy for him to turn the man away, to slam the door in his face.) After all, that’s exactly what Shammai had done.) But Hillel didn’t. Hillel welcomed him in; Hillel taught him; Hillel opened the door wide.

Our tradition tells us that we come  from a long line of door openers, stretching all the way back to the very first Jews. Abraham and Sarah are said in the midrash to have kept their tent open on all sides so that they could “go out and bring wayfarers into their home,” welcome them, feed them, and share with them.[2]

Judaism was born out of Hachnasat Orchim – the value of welcoming the stranger. Judaism grew up under slavery in Egypt, which taught us what it is to be a stranger. And in every age in history, Judaism has been strongest when we have opened the doors of participation and inclusion to all of those who want to be part of us. We have learned over the centuries that an inclusive Judaism is a healthy Judaism.

Now the truth is that while Abraham and Sarah may have kept their tent open 3000 years ago, it has really taken until the modern era for the doors to open for some in our community. The Reform movement has been a leader when it comes to breaking down barriers, especially with regard to the role of women in Judaism.

On this Rosh Hashanah morning, the haftarah is the story of Channah, the mother of Samuel.  We read about how she longs for a son, how she travels to the shrine at Shiloh to pray, how she becomes the mother of a great prophet. She sings:

         Alatz libi B’Adonai, ramah karni B’Adonai.
        My heart exults in God. My pride has been exalted through God.

Channah sings: for herself and her family; and she sings for the generations of women whose voices are hidden in the texts. Traditionally, she is one of seven Biblical women who had the power of prophecy. Among them are Miriam and Debora: prophets and judges, teaches and leaders, who cry out to us from the text that the voices of woman deserve to be heard in Judaism. And now, finally, after more than two millennia, we have started to listen.

In 1987, I was a camper at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the URJ camp in Mississippi, the sister of our Camp George. That was the summer when our counselors introduced the chanting of the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in the amidah. Effectively, they transformed the “Avot” into the “Avot V’imahot” that we know today. And at the time, many of you may remember, the Jewish world went up in arms:

“It’s changing tradition!” we said.
“What’s next, rewriting the Torah?”

And for a decade afterward, there was discussion and debate in our congregations about whether to include the matriarchs in our most central prayer.

But in 2013, nobody is debating anymore.

Last year, the Jewish world celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the rabbinical ordination of Sally Priesand – the world’s first woman rabbi. In 1972, her ordination was really controversial; it was trend setting; it was head turning.

But in 2013, more women than men were ordained as Reform rabbis. And nobody is turning their heads anymore.

It is hard to believe that only 40 years ago there were no women rabbis. It’s hard to believe that only 25 years ago, our movement was deeply divided over “Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah.” It’s hard to believe that only a generation ago it was not clear to us that girls should read Torah, that Bat Mitzvah was equal to Bar Mitzvah, that women should stand on the bima and wear a tallit. But it is clear to us now.

Our member Karen Paikin recently told me a funny story about her son Jesse who is in rabbinical school now. Jesse grew up at Kol Ami in the 90s, and so of course his picture of a Rabbi looked like Nancy Wexler.  And so, when 8-year-old Jesse visited another synagogue for a family bar mitzvah, he was really confused by what he saw there. He turned to his mother and said, “You mean, men can be rabbis too?”

As it always is, the new generation knows little of the controversy, little of the turmoil of change. What was once a spark in a tinder box has become a non-issue. What was once a debate has become a consensus. Today, it is universally recognized that Reform Judaism is stronger, and more diverse, and has a brighter future because of the many female voices that can be heard both from the bima and from the board room.

To paraphrase an old commercial: “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

Our movement has embraced the voices of women, and the Conservative and even modern Orthodox have followed suit! Oh, there is still work to be done: the recent rabbinic salary survey showed that women rabbis don’t have the respect or the compensation of male rabbis. And the Women of the Wall have shown that the struggle to let women’s voices be heard has moved across the ocean to the Jewish state.

But at the same time, the women’s movement has become an inspiration and a model to other communities that are working toward inclusion within Judaism. One of them is the Gay and Lesbian community. And while this year’s news in that arena is coming out of the Russian Olympics and the US Supreme Court, as far as Reform Judaism is concerned, Canada set the tone for this discussion a long time ago.

Many of you saw the cover story in last month’s issue of Reform Judaism magazine. It was written by Judge Harvey Brownstone, who is Canada’s first openly gay judge, and a Reform Jew. He talked about the experience of growing up gay and Jewish:

My adolescent years…were very difficult times, as there were no “out” role models. I was also very mindful of the admonishments in Leviticus…. So I kept my feelings to myself….[3]

In the 60s and 70s, synagogues were not friendly places for gay and lesbian people. A whole generation of young people grew up feeling ostracized and separated from the houses of worship that should have brought them comfort and community.  But the last 40 years have seen the doors slowly begin to open. In the mid 80s, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College ordained the first openly gay rabbis, and our seminary quickly followed suit. In 1990, our Movement passed a resolution declaring that lesbian and gay Jews were full and equal members of our congregations. Next year, our Rabbinical Association will inaugurate its first lesbian President.  Guided by the principle of B’tzelem Elohim – that all people are created in God’s image, Reform Judaism has been increasingly enriched as it has helped to shepherd a creative and influential community toward the mainstream of religious life.

I say toward because, here as well, there is still work to be done. It is the case that our congregations have opened their doors to gay and lesbian Jews. And it is the case that here in Ontario, same-sex marriage has been legal for a decade. But as a movement, we have not yet fully officially addressed the question of Jewish same-sex marriage in a halakhic context. In fact, the last time our Reform Responsa committee weighed-in on that issue was, believe it or not, 1995. At that time, the movement was so deeply divided, that the committee couldn’t create a unified statement. Instead, it produced a majority opinion opposed to rabbinic officiation, and a minority opinion that granted autonomy to the individual rabbi, but cautioned against calling same sex marriages Kiddushin – the Hebrew word for marriage. In other words, it created an automatic differentiation between gay marriage and Jewish marriage.

So what’s changed in 18 years? Leviticus hasn’t changed. But as liberal Jews, we know that Torah must be read on the one hand with the knowledge that it was written in a specific time and place, and on the other hand with the conviction that it must speak to our time and place.  And as public opinion about same-sex marriage has evolved, so has our understanding of what Torah has to say about it. And here I turn to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of the great halakhic minds of the Conservative movement. He points out that while Torah does have something to say about certain types of relationships, but it also says “יהי כבוד חברך חביב עליך כשלך – Let your neighbour’s dignity be as precious to you as your own.”[4] The value of human dignity has long guided the Jewish approach to human rights and it should guide our approach to the gay and lesbian community as well.

And Rabbi Dorff even goes a bit further, to show that in a modern context, Torah could conceivably give its blessing to a marriage between two men or two women.

“The verses in Leviticus,” he writes, “should be understood to prohibit only those… relationships that offer no possibility of marriage [as in ancient times]. In an age when gay marriage is permitted by some jurisdictions…the Torah’s ban is no longer universal.[5]

So in a place like Ontario, where same-sex marriage is legally recognized, the possibility of Jewish same-sex marriage is very real, and some rabbis are already performing them. And while the Conservative movement has not yet taken the next step of formally tackling the issue of Jewish same-sex marriage, our Responsa committee is in the process of doing so right now. And it’s very likely that this new statement will grant rabbis the autonomy to perform these marriages, and also create grounds for calling them Kiddushin, calling them Jewish marriage.

This is excellent timing for me, because last month, I performed my first Jewish same-sex wedding. I have to tell you what an honour it was to stand under the chuppah with two partners who so deeply love each other. What a pleasure to live in a place where it is legally possible for me to give my rabbinical blessing to their union. It allowed me to finally formulate in my mind – and this is my own opinion – that I believe a marriage is a marriage. That Kiddushin – that Hebrew word for wedding which is related to the word Kadosh/Holy – should apply to all Jewish marriages.

On this issue as well, there is a bit of a generational divide. I don’t have another good Jesse Paikin story, but I did have the opportunity to talk this summer with a group of teens at Camp George, and with our own Confirmation class last year. Their reaction can be summed up along the lines of, “What the big deal?” For our young people, our 40-year struggle with the question of Jewish same-sex marriage is already essentially in the past. And they are looking to Judaism to lead the way into the future. As Reform Jews, as recipients of the prophets’ vision of a better world, we should do everything possible to open the doors of inclusion and acceptance to all Jews who want to practice Judaism and who want to be part of Kehilah – of a Jewish community.

Kehilah – community – is the core of who we are.  And as we talk about opening doors, it is important to recognize that there is a third group who are part of our community and who are seeking acceptance within the Jewish world. They are our interfaith families.

It wasn’t long ago that families broke apart over marriage between Jews and non-Jews. When Tevya tears his clothes and sits shiva for his daughter, he represents what was the norm for our not-too-distant ancestors.

Of course, things are different today, and things are very different within these walls. Here at Kol Ami, interfaith families are an important part of the community. Their children attend our religious school. They sit on our committees and help plan our programs. They are a part of us.

One of our members recently sang praises of inclusiveness to me about Kol Ami:

As an interfaith family, we did a lot of searching, and we didn’t always feel comfortable at other synagogues. But at Kol Ami, it feels warm and inclusive. The shul has made a huge difference in my kids’ life.

Now, there’s no question that we are not perfectly inclusive, but we should be glad to know that this has been the experience of many of the interfaith families within our midst. It should dismay, however, us that this is not in any way the universal synagogue experience – particularly here in Toronto.

A few weeks ago, I had a call from a father who was interested in Religious School for his children.  He said to me timidly: “There’s a little problem. My wife isn’t Jewish. Can my kids even come to school here?”

Well, of course the answer is: Yes! The answer is that Jewish families come in all shaped and sizes and from all backgrounds. But that was news to him.

And it is news to many of the interfaith couples who call this place each year practically expecting to be rejected. It should make us wonder how many families out there don’t even bother calling us.

What makes Reform Judaism unique is the willingness to meet people where they are. We are a Jewish community that is prepared to embrace people for who they are.  And we know just how much we have been enriched by the diversity within our ranks.

I wonder if the interfaith families who are members of Kol Ami realize just how much they strengthen and invigorate our congregation. Our non-Jewish spouses and parents bring their children to Religious School and stand alongside them as they become Bar and Bat Mitzvah on our bima. You participate in our Torah study discussions and Shabbat services. You sing the songs and prayers. You bring talent and passion and caring to Kol Ami.

And this is nothing new – the Jewish community has been enriched by interfaith families ever since the original interfaith family – Moses and his Midianite wife Tzipporah. (By the way, have you ever noticed that she was the one who made sure their kids had a bris?)

We should honour those individuals who have chosen to lend their voices to our people’s song. Whether they enter the mikveh or not, they are building the Jewish future and strengthening the Jewish present.

It is time for our Jewish community to find a way, without diminishing the integrity of our religious traditions, to let interfaith families know that we value them as Jewish families. That they are not only accepted or tolerated, but welcomed and appreciated here. That their children are as Jewish as any other, and that this is a place where they, too, can be part of Kehilah Kedoshah – holy Jewish community.

As it says in the book of Isaish, “Ki Beiti beit t’fillah yikara l’chol ha-amim – My house [says God] shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”[6]

So, Mr. Goldstein from Montreal was visiting China, when he stumbled onto an old synagogue. A synagogue in China, he thought? But since there was a service going on, he put on a tallit and sat down to pray. He noticed, though, that the people there seemed confused by his presence. After the service, an elderly Chinese man came up to Mr. Goldstein to welcome him. “We are so happy to have you here,” said the man. “But tell me, how to you know the words of the Jewish prayers?”
“Well,” answered Goldstein, “I also grew up with these prayers. I chanted them at my Bar Mitzvah.”
The old Chinese man peered at Goldstein for a moment. Then with a shrug of his shoulders, he replied, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”

In the 21st century, the very face of the Jewish people is changing. In the 21st century, we must move beyond bagels & lox and beyond stereotypes of Bubbe and Zayde, and see Judaism for what it is: an ancient and complex tradition that is enriched by people and ideas of all kinds.

Let us be the Hillels and Abrahams of today, opening wide the doors of inclusion to those who are interested in learning with us, or praying with us, or raising their children with us, no matter who they are or where they come from or whom they love. To those who are interested in throwing in their lot with the Jewish people, let us say, in the words of the Passover Seder:

Kol dichpin yitei v’yeichul:
Let all who are hungry, all who are searching, come here and here find sustenance.
Let those who are in need, who have been rejected or oppressed, come here, and here find acceptance and celebration.

 In the new year, may we continue to work to build a Jewish community that is a worthy descendant of the tent of Abraham and Sarah.

May our congregation welcome the stranger and embrace the searching; may our tent be open on all sides while at its centre, the fire of tradition burns brightly.

May we recognize just how much we are enriched by our diversity, and may we listen closely to hear Kol Ami –the many voices of our people.


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

[2] Avot D’Rabbi Natan 7:1.

[3] Brownstone, Harvey, “I Now Pronounce You Wife and Wife,” Reform Judaism , Fall 2013, p. 20.

[4] Avot 2:10.

[5] Consvervative Movement Responsum: Dorff, Reisner, and Nevins. “Homosexuality, Human Dignity, & Halakhah,”  p. 5.

[6] Isaiah 56:7.

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Finding God: A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5773

September 28, 2012 Leave a comment

There was a cartoon going around Facebook last week that I really related to. It showed Bart Simpson writing lines on a blackboard. But instead of writing “I will not pull my sister’s hair” or “I will not eat my homework,” this time, Bart had a little kippah on his head, and he was writing: “I will not count the pages left in the machzor.”

I loved it because it reminded me of my childhood – flipping through the book, counting how many pages were left. (Then starting my stopwatch as the sermon began so that I knew precisely how many seconds of my life I lost to the rabbi.) I suspect those practices hasn’t disappeared, although I’m not asking for a show of hands….

This is the time of year when we get up close and personal with the prayerbook. Never more than during the High Holy Days do we hold a siddur or a machzor in our hands. Never more than during the High Holy Days do we read from it, pray from it, sing from. And never more than during the High Holy Days do we struggle with the ideas behind its words.

Yom Kippur is hard for us – not only because we’re hungry and services are long – but because so many of us are uneasy with what the prayerbook has to say about God. We struggle with God as creator of the world. We struggle with Torah as divine word. We certainly struggle with the book of life and the idea of God rewarding and punishing for sins. And so we are left counting the pages of the machzor.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, “Where does God live.” He answered, “God lives wherever we let God in.”

And as nice as those words sound, the truth is that in today’s world, more than ever, we struggle with God. We are, after all, the children and grandchildren of the Holocaust and of the Enlightenment, and those event which have forever changed our ability to believe in what traditional Judaism tells. And because we struggle with God, we struggle with the prayerbook and with the act of prayer itself.


Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme write:

 Today, there are large numbers of Jews who avoid speaking about God altogether. Unable to accept the notions that have been presented to them as authoritative, they read themselves out of their religion in a theological sense.


But struggling with God doesn’t have to mean rejecting God. The beauty of Judaism is that it has always given us the freedom to form our own beliefs.

According to tradition, there was one moment in history when God appeared to all of our people. At Sinai, our ancestors are said to have heard God speaking. But the Midrash doesn’t tell us what they saw and heard. In fact, what it tells us is that the 600,000 people present that day had 600,000 different experiences of God. No two people saw or heard the same thing.

Elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim. Two differing opinions can be reflections of the same God.

Earlier this year, a group of our congregants learned a similar lesson, as we undertook to study what are termed “radical” Jewish views on God. We learned about God as found in nature; about God who is accessed through morality and through relationships. What we discovered was that the radical wasn’t so radical. We discovered that the God that we sometimes have trouble grasping is not the only Jewish possibility. We discovered that we struggle because, to paraphrase an old song, we’ve been “looking for God in all the wrong places.”

Today I want to share with you the ideas of three of those thinkers that we studied. I do so in the hopes that we modern Jews can begin to view our own beliefs as authoritative and authentical. I do so in the hopes that perhaps we can stop counting pages and start seeking new meaning in the act of prayer.

There is a story of a man who was told that he would find God at the top of the highest mountain. He climbed to the top and began to wait. After what seemed like a long time, he noticed a sunset: reds and purples and blues filling the sky. But the man raged at the sunset, “Stop distracting me! I am waiting to see God.” And the colors were silenced by the night.

Sometime later, a flock of birds flew directly overhead. Their sound filled the earth like the music of an enormous orchestra. But again the man raged, “With all of this noise, I will never hear God.” And he scared the birds away, and continued to wait.”

And again time passed, until the man felt a tap on his back. He turned around to see that his family and friends had come to be with him. But he was angry – “You cannot be here. I am waiting to encounter God.” And his family left. And the man continued to wait.

After much, it was time to descend the mountain. Disappointed, the man returned home and lived out his life – but he never found God.

The tragedy of the story is that the man looked God in the face and didn’t know it. He didn’t find God because God is not to be found in some high up and far away place. As this morning’s Torah portion says, Lo Bashamayim Hi – Not in the heavens, but inside of you, inside your heart.

Mordecai Kaplan was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the middle 20th century. He is best known for being the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. And whether you know what that is or not, odds are that what he had to say about God has probably influenced your own beliefs.

He taught that God is to be found in nature. But not only in the way that we might think – in the beautiful sunsets and the vastness of the universe, but specifically in the human ability to make sense and to make meaning out of that universe.

God, he said, is “the sum of everything in the world that renders life significant and worthwhile.” God is “the Power that makes for the fulfillment of valid ideals.” God is “the Power that impels man to become fully human.”

For this great thinker, and for many of us, God is not an all-powerful creator and enforcer, but a power in the universe that gives meaning to our lives.

What, then, is prayer? Prayer is our attempt to acknowledge that there is meaning in this seemingly chaotic universe, even if we have to make it ourselves. Prayer is a source of strength in difficult times, and an expression of our thankfulness in good times. It is an act of looking inward.

Believe it or not, the Talmud actually expresses a similar idea. It teaches us that not only do people pray; but God also prays – for mercy and fairness. To whom does God pray? To Godself, of course. Who else is there?

For us as well, prayer can be an act of self-training and self-discovery, an act of finding meaning in our own lives and our own choices. This is a particularly powerful message during the High Holy Days. What is it we hope for by the end of Yom Kippur? Not some vague sense of forgiveness from on high, but rather the strength to better ourselves and our lives.

It has been said: “Those who rise from prayer better people, their prayers have been answered.”


But it would be selfish to say that prayer is all about us. And would be self-serving to assume that God is only inside of ourselves. In fact, for many of us, it is in relationships with other people that the divine is to be found.

As a teenager, I once heard a rabbi tell a story about his own life that stays with me to this day. He told about being in a terrible car accident. He told about being in pain, about the deep sense of fear as the paramedics lifted him off the ground into a brightly lit ambulance. And he told about a man – probably one of the paramedics – who accompanied him into the ambulance. Who held his hand and stroked his head and whispered “It will be OK.”

“That man,” he said, “got me through the terrible ordeal. I don’t know who he was, and I never saw him again. But as far as I am concerned, I met an angel of God that day.”


It has been said that God is not in you and not in me, but in the space between us.

It was Martin Buber who taught that God is what we encounter when we enter into true relationship with others. That there are two types of relationships, he said. One is the type in which we see other people as “It,” as serving some function in our lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We need people to bag our groceries and deliver our mail and fix our cars. But every once in a while we enter into a relationship in which we see the other person not as “It” but as “Thou” or “You,” not as a function but as a human being. And every Thou, he says, “is a glimpse of the Eternal Thou,” that is God.

Rabbi Larry Kushner puts it a different way:

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Everyone carries with them many pieces to [others’] puzzle[s].

And when you present your piece

To another, whether you know it or not,

Whether they know it or not,

You are a messenger from the Most High


The Hebrew word for messenger is malach, or angel. So in truth, Judaism tells us that we are all angels, all messengers of God. When my rabbi told me that an angel spoke to him in that ambulance, I believe he meant it quite literally. Think of how many people have touched your life in different ways. How many people have taught you something or given you something or sacrificed something for you?

Every person is a reflection of the divine. And it is by gathering together in community, by praying together, by striving to see people as people, and by working together that we bring God into the world.

We bring God into the world.


The Bible tells of another Jew on a spiritual quest, much like the one in our original story.

In the book of Kings, the prophet Elijah is told to stand on a mountain and to find God.

 There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks; but God was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake — fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12 )


Elijah found God not in the great and the loud and the terrible, but in the still small voice that told him what was right and what was wrong. For us as Jews, God has often been in the still small voice. The still, small voice that told Abraham to leave his home and set out for the land of Canaan. The still small voice that told the prophet Micah that we needed to do a better job doing justly and loving mercy. The still small voice that told Herzl that “If you will it, it is no dream.” The still small voice that told Rabbi Heschel to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a voice inside each of us telling us wrong from right. Where is God if not in that voice?

It was the great philosopher Hermann Cohen – one of the fathers of Reform Judaism – who wrote about God as the “ground of the moral universe.” Within each person, he says, there is is an innate knowledge of morality, an unlearned and un-learnable ability to tell right from wrong. That, he said, is where God resides.

And if God is found in the difference between wrong and right, in the difference between this world and the world as it should be, then prayer exists to motivate us to go out and repair the world.

When we say “Sim Shalom – Give us Peace,” we are really saying, “Give us the strength to make peace ourselves.

When we say, “Kol Nidrei Ve’esari – may my unfinished promises be forgiven,” we really mean, “Give me the ability to complete the work that I have begun.”

Page after page after page in the prayerbook we beseech God to do things that are really our job. Visiting the sick, consoling the bereaved, feeding the hungry, repairing the world. God is found in the actions of those people whose actions make the world a better place.

Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields,

Nor mend a broken bridge,

Nor rebuild a ruined city;

But prayer can water an arid soul,

Mend a broken heart,

And rebuild a weakened will.


The Talmud tells that the great Rabbi Joshua once met the Messiah. He asked him, “When are you coming to redeem the world.”

The Messiah said, “Hayom – today.”

So Rabbi Joshua returned to his yeshivah and he told his students to stop studying, stop praying, stop working, because the Messiah is coming! But the Messiah didn’t come that day. And so Rabbi Joshua returned to ask him why not.

And he answered: “You didn’t let me finish. If you had, you would have heard me quoting Psalms – ‘Hayom im b’kolo tishma’u’ When will the world be redeemed? “Today, if only you can listen for God’s voice.”

It is in our hands to bring God into this world. God is not on top of a mountain, or in the depths of the sea…. but rather in each moment, in each person, in each day… if only we can listen closely enough.

Where is God? Wherever we let God in.


May we hear God’s voice in the wonders of this world, and in the command to build a better world.

May we see God’s face in the people we love and in the mirrors that reflect our true selves.

May we do God’s work through our loving relationships and our acts of Tikkun Olam.

And may the pages of this prayerbook be for us a wellspring of tradition, a source of inspiration, spurring to spend the new year building, and seeking, and loving, and dreaming, and searching for God in the moments of our lives.


Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.


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