Author: Rabbi Greg Harris

I am a rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, MD. This recurring blog will touch on issues of the day - large and small. I will also host other bloggers with compelling ideas.

Article II Section 1 Clause 8

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Mr. Wadleigh was my high school government teacher.  I loved his class, his enthusiasm for the mechanisms of government and his conviction that citizen activism was the most powerful lever in our system.  I recall Mr. Wadleigh dressing up in Colonial costume just to bring the lectures alive.

These ideals were reinforced for me by watching my mom become engaged in the democratic process with our congressman, Representative Tom Lantos.  As a teenager, Congressman Lantos had survived Nazi forced labor camps in his native Hungary and was ultimately saved by Raoul Wallenberg.  Lantos’ life and activism were inspirations for me.

As I earned a degree in Political Science years later, my understanding of the nuances of our government system deepened as did my appreciation for the dedication of individuals who were dismissively called ‘bureaucrats.’  To me, our government and the people working in it were the instruments of bringing our national values into reality.  Though often imprecise, our trajectory towards inclusion, aiding those in need, protecting minority citizens and opinions, caring for our infrastructure, expanding our knowledge and defending the homeland always seemed like the clear goals of our nation.  Debating differences on policies was the crucible of our system. It helped define terms, clarify ideas and agendas and strengthened decisions.

Today, President Trump swore “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” as he assumed our highest office.  My hope is that President Trump continue our trajectory towards inclusion but I continue to believe Mr. Wadleigh’s lessons.

Tomorrow thousands will meet in downtown Washington, D.C. and embrace Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, “When I marched… I felt my feet were praying.” Others will gather in synagogues and offer prayers including the Prayer for Country.

Prayer is only one part of our responsibility to our country.  Citizen activism is also essential.  Whether you are Republican, Democrat or Independent, this is not a time for complacency.  We each must renew our efforts to get involved in local causes which we are passionate about.  Whether it is through upcoming events of Tikkun Olam at Beth El (ToBE) or other avenues, pick one area to make a difference.

I have not met anyone who is indifferent about this moment… so get involved.  It is time to be an activist and inspire each other to become the crucible of democracy.

One Week Later

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It has been one week since the election but ‘We the People’ has felt more like them and those people.

And it has only been one week.

Psychologists have told me about deep anxiety patients are expressing.  People have told me of friendships which have been strained or broken.  Fellow clergy have shared they feel their years of building bridges and preaching tolerance was wasted.

I have asked Trump voters within our synagogue to describe what they found compelling about Donald Trump.  Their answers focused on his ‘change agenda’, anti-Clinton feelings, and ‘pro-Israel’ policies including moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and expanding settlements.

President Trump’s election is different than past elections though.  We previously had close elections (Bush v Gore).  We had significant policy differences between candidates (Bush v Dukakis).

People’s despondency though seems to stem from a profound disappointment in our country allowing intolerance to win.

The Founding Fathers codified in the preamble of our Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To me, this week did not feel like we made the nation more perfect or established justice or promoted the welfare for all.

As we move forward, we cannot demonize or generalize about each other though.

For Republicans, be the important moderating voice within your party.  For others, become more engaged in causes essential to you.  No matter who you voted for, we must assure the policies of our next President and Congress reflect our highest values and push away hatred, bigotry and intolerance.

In our daily routines and circles of influence, we must make sure intolerance is not acceptable.  Speak up if you see something.  Talk with your friends, family and children about doing the same.

Our sage Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirkei Avot 2:4)

So, join the broader community at a unity vigil against hate at Westland Middle School, Thursday night at 7pm. 

It has only been one week… but we can already feel the tectonic shifts.

 

The Sun Rose Today… So Roll Up Your Sleeves

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An Israeli headline proclaims “President Trump”

Walking along Ben Gurion Street in Tel Aviv yesterday, a stranger walked up to me and said ‘Mazel Tov.’  I asked why mazel tov?  He said ‘we have a new President!’

The English news tv channels at my hotel were BBC, Sky and Fox.  It was fascinating to see the different tones of the coverage and the responses from around the world.  At home though, social media posts, texts and emails told me how deeply Trump’s win disappointed many, but not all, in the Jewish community.  (Initial reports are that 25% of Jewish voters cast their ballot for Donald Trump.)

People wrote, “How do I tell my kids that a bully won?”; “Where is the light in this darkness?”; “We elected hate.”  Many churches and synagogues held impromptu healing services for those feeling broken.  Countless letters were immediately penned by colleagues bemoaning the election.  One wrote about, “the despair like never before.”

And yet the sun rose anew today.

In the months leading up to the election, I focused attention Shabbat mornings on the Prayer for Country:

Our God and  God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country- for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority.  Teach them insights from Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.

Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit.  May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.

May this land, under Your providence, be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom- helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

And let us say, Amen.

I repeatedly spoke of finding candidates, from President to County Council members, who moved us towards these values.  And many rolled up their sleeves to phone bank, canvas neighborhoods, donate money and volunteer at polling locations.  At Beth El, people supported Clinton, Stein, Johnson and Trump as their preferred candidate.

But today, people have been asking me ‘what do we do now?’

The vision I laid out for Beth El over the past year and a half is more important now than ever.  In our own community, we must energetically:

  • strengthen our ties with other houses of worship – Jewish, Christian, Muslim and others
  • build stronger bridges with other ethnic communities – African American, Hispanic and others and
  • think more strategically about our robust Tikkun Olam efforts

To get involved with Beth El’s efforts, send me an email at gharris@bethelmc.org.

The sun will rise again tomorrow and each day after so we must roll up our sleeves anew.   We must ask for God’s blessing “for our country- for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. ” Simultaneously, we must work to bring those blessings to reality.

 

 

Victims and Villains Towards Peace

 

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This peace dove wearing a bullet proof vest is street art on a barrier entering Bethlehem

 

 

This was my first visit to the Palestinian towns of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Rawabi and the Jewish town of Gush Etzion in the West Bank.  It required special clearances and security measures.  I came away with the feeling that any signs of hope for peace are complicated and fleeting.

Throughout our visits, Israelis (Jews, Christians and Muslims) and Palestinians (Muslims and Christians) each spoke about their deep sense of a victim / villain dynamic.  Israelis spoke of bus bombings, wars, and terror.  Palestinians spoke of occupation and check points. While the Israeli story is most familiar to me, I now realize the battle of competing narratives cannot be won.  For each people, their sense of being the victim and the other being the villain is real and deep.

The Palestinian diplomat who suggested the Israelis are European colonialists and should not be in the Land is not going to be convinced of the Jewish historical ties to the region.  His comments were offensive to me and many in the group.

The Israeli who discounted the conditions of the Palestinians today because they had chances for a State of Palestine in 1948 and again in 2000 with the Camp David proposal with Palestinians controlling 91% of the West Bank is not sympathetic to their slogans of ending the occupation when he feels they don’t really want peace or coexistence.

While these narratives are not equal in my eyes, they are deeply true for each of them – Israelis and Palestinians.  The sense of victimization by each is palpable.

There are a few efforts underway to build new ways forward and move beyond the victim / villain claims.

Just two of these initiatives are Kids4Peace and Roots.   Both are Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Muslim efforts to build connections and relationships across physical and metaphoric barriers.

I met with both of these incredible organizations and will let them describe their own work:  “For the past 13 years, Kids4Peace has provided life-changing interfaith peace education programs for Israeli, Palestinian and American youth.  More than 1,800 youth, parents and volunteers have participated in summer camps and year-round programs.”  Their staff and work are really inspiring.

Shorashim or Roots in English,  “offers a paradigm shift, changing people and transforming the relationship between the sides. We provide a space for understanding, where hates and suspicions are challenged and enemy is transformed into neighbor and partner. At Roots, despair and fear experience hope and collaboration.  We are a unique network of local Palestinians and Israelis who have come to see each other as the partners we both need to make changes to end our conflict. Based on a mutual recognition of each People’s connection to the Land, we are developing understanding and solidarity despite our ideological differences.”  While these are grand aspirations, my experience at Roots of meeting with an Israeli settler and a Palestinian ‘liberator’ and hearing how they came to see each other in new ways was very powerful.

The victim / villain narrative will not lead to peace or justice for Israelis or Palestinians.  Until each can move beyond that though, the ground will not be ready for whatever agreements politicians craft.  The hardest work remains ahead – to prepare both Israeli and Palestinian societies to shape new ways of seeing each other and themselves.

Until a new paradigm emerges though, peace will remain the greatest victim.

Three for Three

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The wheels touched the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport this past Monday and people started to applaud. On El Al, they often play Israeli folk music too but not this time.  The guy in seat 37B asked me why people were clapping.  Since he had already learned I was a rabbi during the 11 hour flight and I was in 37A, I must have seemed like an obvious person to query.  I told him it was because we had arrived ‘home.’  He thought about that and smiled.

This visit is different than past trips because I am joined by my friend Pastor Roy Howard from St Mark Presbyterian Church.  We are participating in an interfaith clergy mission with Jewish and Christian clergy from around the country.  We are exploring Jewish and Christian sites as well as the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Because we did not sit together on the plane, we had a lot to catch up on at the luggage carousel.  We remarked about the men pacing the aisles wearing their tallit and tefillin as the morning sun hit the window shades.  Roy and I talked about how there is a commandment to pray in the morning and if people waited till we landed, it would be too late in the day.  He and I often talk about prayer, our individual sense of being commanded and how our communities respond to these ideas.

We were met at the airport and driven to our hotel in Jerusalem to meet the other participants in this 8 day program sponsored by the Israel Action Network of the Jewish Federations of North America. The program is Interfaith Partners for Peace.  We had a wonderful driver who must have recently retired from the Indianapolis 500 by the way he drove.  As we got near Jerusalem, the driver cut across parts of East Jerusalem and we heard the afternoon Muslim call to prayer.  The sound of the Arabic invitation lifted over the neighborhood we drove through.  Roy and I turned to each other and laughed as we said we now had 2 out of 3 faiths covered that day.

In a little bit, we would be 3 for 3 – Jewish, Muslim and Christian prayer.

At the hotel, we learned the other participants had significant flight delays so we had free time until dinner.  Not wanting to waste a minute, we cleaned up from the flight and walked towards the Old City.  While our hotel is closer to the Damascus Gate, we continued to the Jaffa Gate.  We stopped along the way to look at things, shared memories of past trips (this is Roy’s 6th trip and my 13th), and enjoyed walking through the Holy City together as friends and people of faiths.

We entered the Old City and navigated our way through the streets.  At the plaza outside the Hurva Synagogue, we sat for a fresh mint lemonade and wrote notes for the Kotel.  Roy shared with me the beautiful prayer he composed.  It was about the importance of seeing beyond differences and affirming the unity and oneness of God.

We approached the Kotel with the weight of what this place means for each of us.  We have different histories here and yet those pasts are intertwined.  The Kotel is a complex place of spiritual uplift and conflict.  Yet, standing there together brought a new richness for me.

I know these next days will push and challenge me in wonderful ways.  Those pushes are the essence of spiritual growth.  So on our first day in Israel, Roy and I were 3 for 3 with Abrahamic prayers.  I can only image what the next days will bring and I plan on sharing many of them with you.

 

Faith’s Orbit

thFaith has its own momentum. I was never good at high school physics, but the power of centripetal and centrifugal forces intrigue me. To define these terms in the crudest of ways: centripetal force is exerted on an object pulling it towards a center point – inward. For example, the Earth’s gravity tugs on the Moon to draw it closer. Countering this, centrifugal force directs the Moon’s rotational inertia away from the Earth. These inward and outward forces must remain in balance for the Moon to orbit our planet.

If I say any more, I will be guaranteed to bore you and outstrip my basic knowledge of this science. Yet, I have experienced these same inward and outward forces of faith.

Inward (centripetal): Faith draws me to create communities which are, in part, inward focused. Through sharing ritual and philosophic commonalities like keeping kosher, praying, and studying, we knit ourselves together. These rituals increase our mindfulness of our actions and thoughts and create a framework for faith. When Rebekah and I lived at the Jewish Theological Seminary, we felt the embrace of the community as people explored living an intense life of faith – ritually and spiritually. Shabbat shaped our time, people became more reflective of their interactions, and forthcoming with their spiritual questions. It was an environment for tremendous personal growth. It became an incubator for our faith.

The caution of faith’s inward force is that it can lead us to overly narrow our community. Untempered, centripetal faith may lead to cloistering ourselves from the larger community. I have seen people separate themselves from friends and family in the name of faith.

This powerful religious inward focus must be countered by the equally strong outward force of faith.

Outward (centrifugal): Energized and grounded by faith, I am propelled into the world.
Aware of Judaism’s nexus of ritual discipline and prophetic action, faith drives me outward.
Isaiah’s words inspire me to act beyond myself – “share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, clothe them” (Is 58:7). Jews commonly call the centrifugal force of faith tikkun olam. The caution with faith’s outward force is when in the name of ‘doing good,’ we becomes untethered from its source.

These intertwined forces, centripetal and centrifugal, must exist in balance. If faith only draws us inward then we will live in myopic isolation. If faith only pushes us outward, we become increasingly distant from our core – Judaism. How are you negotiating these forces in your life?

Balancing the centripetal (inward) and centrifugal (outward) forces of faith puts me in a solid orbit.

The whole truth and nothing but the truth

prayer-closeFive years ago, I raised my right hand in a Montgomery County court room and told the sheriff that I would “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”  I had been called as a character witness.  I answered the lawyers’ questions while sitting next to the judge.  A microphone recorded my every utterance.  I was intimidated but confident about offering the whole truth to the judge.

In contrast, the whole truth in prayer often feels elusive.

Genuine prayer is more than the formulaic recitation of words.  It requires that we see ourselves as we really are – faults and talents. Yet such introspection is difficult amidst the internal noises which befuddle us.  We are distracted by our own self-aggrandizement and sense of entitlement.  We are distracted by our fear of our shortcomings.  We are distracted by the distress that a moment of candid truth will be painful. When we move beyond these barriers, however sincere moments of prayer are possible.

In the Book of Samuel, Hannah struggled with infertility for years, enduring fresh waves of disappointment each month. She grew jealous of other womens pregnancies and was fearful of her own potential barrenness.  Hannah was drowning in her own internal noise.  When her bitterness threatened to consume her, she sought solace at her local temple.  There, she quieted her fears.  She dismissed the traditional prayers and found her own words to talk to God.

Hannah described this moment, I have poured out my soul before the Lord.  Afterwards, her face was no longer downcast. (I Samuel 1:15, 18)  Jewish tradition cites Hannahs prayer as the most sincere appeal to God in the entire Bible.

We model Hannahs openness, vulnerability, and sincerity in our recitation of the Amidah today.  Like Hannah who spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard (I Samuel 1:13), we silently move our lips as we say the Amidah blessings.

Hannah teaches us that prayer requires us to cut through our personal din so we can hear our unguarded selves.  Prayer reveals itself when we peer into our hearts.  When we are bitter, heartfelt prayer can help us expand ourselves and transcend our circumstances.

We should follow Hannah’s lead and know that we can look beyond prayer books for our own words to God.

So, what are the noises that are drowning out your deepest prayers?   What are the words that you would whisper to God?  Clear your schedule; clear your head of the distractions; open your heart.

Be ruthlessly honest with yourself because the Divine judge is asking for “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Pulling Up A Chair

thI did not expect to find God as I was sitting around a folding table at the Interfaith Works Women’s Shelter*.

The volunteers had pushed two tables together. The refrigerators and freezers stood at attention around the room, and the pantry closet in the corner held dry goods.  The room was clean but well used.  A dozen women filed into the dining area to eat dinner from the make shift buffet of homemade mashed potatoes, meat loaf, vegetables, and desserts.  The volunteers politely served the meals.

Some of the clients laughed with one another and bantered back and forth about the day.  Other women quietly ate their meals and left to do laundry or other personal chores.  After I finished my serving duties, I removed my industrial latex gloves and asked the remaining women if I could join them at the table.

The women were intrigued to learn that I was a rabbi and the volunteers were from a synagogue.  They turned the conversation into a Judaism 101 session and compared their faith traditions to my own.  “Do Jews believe in Jesus?”  “What is this about not eating cheeseburgers?” “How do Jews pray?” We were a Jew, two Christians, a Mormon, a “Messianic Jew” and an atheist gathered around the tables.  We were Africans and Latinas, Midwesterners, West and East Coasters, and Southerners.  Not even the Neilson Rating company could have brought together a more diverse group of people.

We explored each other’s faiths, our respective rituals, and even how religion had shaped our childhood homes.  We listened to each other describe how as children we prayed.  They prayed kneeling at the bedside and sitting in pews. Prayers were recited from books and crafted from the day’s events.  Even though these women are now living in the shelter, they maintain a strong vision of the homes they will create as they re-establish themselves.

I was a participant, not the leader in the conversation.  The longer we listened to each other, the feeling grew that something more profound was emerging.  We were people of faith engaging each other with an openness that invited God into that room.  We sat together without judgment – informally in communion with one another.

Like Jacob waking and declaring “God was in this place and I did not know it.” (Gen 28:16), I realized that something sacred was occurring.  God’s presence was revealed through the humanity shared between these people of faith.

I could not resist quietly saying to myself “shehechiyanu vakiamanu vahigiyanu lazman haze” thank you God for sustaining us and bringing us to this moment.

My faith is the outcome of experiences, not the mere result of the intellectual hunt for God.

My earliest memory of volunteering at a shelter was not an act of faith but of necessity.  I needed a community service project.  My mom drove me from our affluent suburb to the shelter at Glide Memorial Church in the tough Tenderloin district of San Francisco.  This house of worship embraced people stricken by poverty, addiction, and disease.  Fulfilling the basic need for food became a vehicle for uplifting someone’s spirit – for valuing their humanity.  Those acts of compassion are sacred.    My actions helped me understand faith more deeply.  Three decades later, I am still inspired by my experiences at Glide and the work of Rev. Cecil Williams.

What are you doing that will help you experience the Divine?  Today, God is experienced in more subtle shades than in the luminous times of Abraham or Moses.  If you are waiting for the clarity of a Mt. Sinai experience for God, you may need to be very patient.

I felt God’s presence at the women’s shelter.  All I had to do was walk over to the table and pull up a chair.

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* To learn more about this shelter and how to help, click here.

Talking About God Off The Bimah

thTalking about God is not easy.  The subject is difficult to grasp. Some of us are afraid that our own personal conception of God – often developed in our youth – will be rejected or viewed as inappropriate by others.  From coffee shops and breweries to classrooms and hospitals, I know that Jews want to talk about God – but they cannot find the right time or place.  Too often, they decide to give up.

Ironically, for many Jews, talking candidly about God in the ‘obvious’ places – like a synagogue – is difficult.  Some find the formal architecture and formality of a synagogue stilts the conversation.  In shul, it feels like we are supposed to connect with God through the set rituals – Hebrew prayers, stylized choreography of sitting and standing, and reading ancient texts from the Torah and haftarah.  Performing these detailed rituals is supposed to inspire a connection with the Divine, but it does not always inspire plain conversations about the Divine.

It is not that Jews find it difficult to discuss controversial issues in the community – the rise or decline of the Jewish population, synagogue affiliation, the meaning of b’nai mitzvah, the minutia of halachic rulings, and the openness of the community to non-Jews, LGBT, single parents, adults without kids, and people with developmental differences.

Sharing personal feelings about God seems harder.  This multi-faceted discussion is full of possible contradictions.  Ultimately, our questions about God cannot be reduced to simple or logical equations.  Critical thinking alone cannot resolve our ‘God’ questions.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “God is not a scientific problem, and scientific methods are not capable of solving it….  The moment we utter the name of God we leave the level of scientific thinking and enter the realm of the ineffable.” (God in Search of Man, p102)

Intuiting this dilemma, modern Jews have developed an identity independent of the complexities of God.  Today it is possible to live a full and satisfying Jewish life without examining our relationship with God.  Over time, we have become detached from a sense of God and more energized by the general goal of forming community.  Building a sense of community has been the goal of innovative Jewish organizations and programs over many decades.  Our programmatic successes have nurtured a feeling of belonging.  In fact, to help foster a sense of inclusion in the community, we have set aside the nuances of talking about God and the potential disagreements that might cause.  There is a concern that too much ‘God Talk’ will turn people off from engaging in the community.

On this, I disagree.  Our inability to find a comfort zone in talking about God has moved us away from an important aspect of our Judaism – in fact Judaism’s greatest contribution to world thought – a monotheistic concept of God.

Community is necessary, but community alone is not sufficient for everyone, especially when we reach a lifecycle crisis.  Fortunately (thank God some might say), these crises occur infrequently.  People can see Jewish themed movies, travel to Israel and even celebrate Jewish holidays without being pushed to formulate or even think about their own belief in God.   Despite how easy it is not to think about God, people often tell me that they feel a sense of connection with God or spirituality is missing from their lives. The time to begin the journey toward a relationship with God is during our calm times when we can reflect, not at the moment of crisis.

In committee meetings, counseling sessions, playground chats and coffee shop conversations, I hear over and over that people want to talk about God but they do not know how.  We look at the world and wonder:  If God is all powerful, why does God let terrible things happen?  If God is everywhere, where is God’s compassion for those in need?  If God is not a ‘man on a cloud’, what is God?  But how and where do we find answers to these immutable questions?  Where do we even begin?

Now is a good time to expand on our exploration of these questions.

For the past two years, I have hosted informal gatherings for a rotating group of college students, retirees, and professionals at La Madeleine in Bethesda.  We gathered around the finished wood farm table, drank our morning coffee, and talked openly about God.  Like the biblical story of Jacob struggling with the angel, we struggled with God in many ways.  It has been an enriching experience for everyone.  I invite you to join me in this conversation – the first of many topics we will explore together in this blog – so pour a cup of coffee and let’s start some ‘God talk.’