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Updates from Rabbi Jeff Pivo (updated 2/5/2021)


To our EBJC members:

During the worldwide health crisis, this page will be where I offer sources for learning and inspiration. See my messages below for words of Torah and updates on services.


Sermon for Parshat Tetzaveh, 5781This week the Torah continues its lengthy description of the Mishkan/Tabernacle, with a description of the distinctive clothing worn by the officiating kohanim/priests, as well as the special garb worn only by the Koh

Sermon for Parshat Beshallakh 5781

     Why do favorite songs stick with us throughout our lives? Is it their melodies, their harmonies, or their lyrics that endear them to us? Did we first hear them at a moment when we were particularly open to them? Developmental science has shown that we are especially apt to recall the music of our youth, and this week we remember, and sing, the first great song of the Jewish people, Shirat haYam, the Song of the Sea. We first heard it in the youthful years of our people’s history, as we escaped the tyranny of Mitzrayim and went out into the world as a free people.
     This is Shabbat Shirah, so called because it is the Shabbat on which we chant the Song of the Sea; it is one of the liturgical and religious highlights of the year. The Torah reading is written differently in the scroll, and chanted differently, and we stand for its reading, all because of the importance of the moment when our ancestors definitively escaped Mitzrayim.          The first verse we read today in parshat Beshalach describes God commanding Moses to hold his arm over the Sea of Reeds to initiate the splitting of the waters, the safe passage of the Israelites through the sea, and ultimately the drowning of the pursuing Egyptian army. This is the crucial moment in our sacred history, when our ancestors and the future God has promised them will either live or die. Through God’s might and Moses’ leadership, the sea does open, the people do miraculously march in its midst on dry ground, and the sea does revert to its normal state with the Egyptian chariots in its midst. This is the moment when slavery is truly and finally left behind, when the redemption from Mitzrayim is complete.               Yet the story does not end there, and I’m not referring to the next events in the Israelites’ journey to Sinai and ultimately to the Promised Land. The story of this moment, of how exactly the waters of the sea split, is an opportunity for multiple retellings in the midrash, the body of explanatory literature that grew up around the Torah. There we find numerous tales about the tribes actually vying with one another for the honor of crossing the Sea of Reeds first, and the account of members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin leaping into the water even before it split. And that is where things get interesting on a theological level.
     What made the waters recede? Moses’ signal starts the process but God, of course, does the actual work. But what moment precipitated God’s command to Moses and set the whole thing in motion? One answer is that a single Israelite, Nachshon ben Aminadav, walked into the water until it reached his nose; at that moment, his faith in God’s redemption triggered the waters’ division. From him, we learn that redemption is not simply the people waiting passively for God to redeem them. In other accounts, the people as a whole cannot wait for redemption; they are so enthused, and simultaneously frightened by the approaching chariots, that they instigate the redemption by jumping into the roiling waters. That suggests that what started the splitting of the sea was not an independent decision by God, but instead the inspiration to God provided by the entire people. When they jumped in, so did God, so to speak. Seeing their actions, God took action. God saved them, but they showed that they were ready to do their part in the redemption.
     The lesson from both of these midrashim is that we must not wait passively for God to save us. Whether the redemption we long for from war, from the damage we have done to the environment, or from any difficulty we can imagine, it is not enough to put our faith in God’s wonders. God is waiting to be inspired by us to take action. It is therefore not only theologically permitted, but required for us to step up and jump into life’s turbulent waters. We have to make that leap, even into the cold, into the dark, into the unknown. They didn’t know at that moment exactly how God would save them, but they did not wait to find out. Their courage and faith were rewarded, and we tell that story every day in morning services year round as we sing the song of the sea. Of all the words in the Torah, we repeat these words on a daily basis, giving them the sort of primacy reserved for just a few texts, such as the three paragraphs that make up the Shema. Why are these words so important? Because we are meant to see ourselves as eternally redeemed by God and, the midrash would have it, as eternally responsible for initiating our own redemption. It was not only their story and their experience; it is meant to be eternally our story and our experience.
     We also say the words each day because every day holds before us new potential to invest ourselves in our own redemption. Some days we are too busy, too tired, even too lazy to do so, but the Sea of Reeds opens up anew every morning in shacharit services. Every day of the week, we reassert the potential for our salvation by reciting the Shirat haYam, in recognition of our potential redemption, and of our agency in that redemption.
Shabbat shalom.

Sermon for Parshat Bo 5781
     In my weekly parsha class, we use different translations and commentaries to better understand the Hebrew text of the Torah. Examining a verse, a phrase, or even a single word, we bring to the text multiple modes of interpretation: the plain, contextual meaning. We might read the text in light of source criticism, which assumes that the Torah is composed of different sources which were brought together into what we now know as Torah. Some of the most fruitful conversation comes from applying a midrashic lens, imbuing the words of Torah with values suggested, yet not stated outright, by the text.
In parshat Bo we read of the last three plagues to afflict Egypt: locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt. The rising cost of the plagues has not yet convinced Pharaoh of God’s power, even as those plagues begin to affect him personally: the locusts swarm even Pharaoh’s palace. Then comes the most dramatic and frightening plague yet: chosekh, darkness. The Torah describes the darkness as being palpable, dark so thick you could touch it. Our sages have asked: could not the Egyptians simply light lamps or candles? No. This darkness was so all-consuming that nothing was visible. All of Egypt came to a standstill, as no one could see anyone or anything. Using the midrashic approach today, I want to explore a bit of what the plague of darkness might mean for us.
     The symbolism of chosekh has been explored by many commentators. One approach is to compare the Egyptians’ inability to move in the darkness to the effects of depression: those afflicted with depression often describe immobility as an effect of their condition. Others argue that darkness was especially paralyzing to the Egyptians because their main god, Ra, was embodied by the sun; God’s suppression of sunlight was the means of displaying God’s might over even Ra. But we can also understand this darkness, lasting three days, as a symbol of how people treated each other in Egypt, especially how the average Egyptian treated the Israelites among them. They saw the Israelites not only as servants, but as property, as slaves. A slave is not a person, but a beast in human form. They are not people; they are things. In an act of measure for measure, God imposes upon them a physical affliction that represents their blindness toward other people. This is the same darkness that enabled enemies of the Jewish people to attack us so many times since the Exodus. Dehumanization must precede violence, because it justifies violence. By the time an actual pogrom took place, or a death camp was erected, our foes had already convinced themselves of our foreignness, of the danger of what they saw as our inhuman attributes, even our demonic nature, not only excused violence against us, but practically demanded it. When other people are no longer people, when their very existence is a threat, the only possible way forward is to get rid of them. Over the last few weeks we have seen how dehumanization works even in America, whose foundational creed is one of the dignity and equality of every human being. These days it seems, to quote George Orwell, that some Americans are more equal than others. The darkness of hatred for other people, for no other reason than political difference, or the hunger for political power, has descended upon America. It has become impossible for some of us to even recognize differing views as worthy of consideration. Disagreement has been transformed into the demonic. And once we view other Americans as demons, it is only a matter of time before we feel compelled to destroy those demons. More than most, Jews should understand that violent rhetoric always leads to actual violence. Just as the death of the firstborn in Egypt was the inevitable successor to darkness. When we no longer see each other as citizens, but enemies; when those who hold different views are not merely mistaken but an existential danger, we are the victims of the plague of darkness. And as in Egypt, the inevitable next step is death. These are not just theories, a symbolic flight of fancy; people died in the January 6th insurrection at the capitol. Those deaths would not have happened had not the darkness already engulfed us. And unless we can turn back the darkness of hatred in this country, the tenth plague teaches us, every household in the land will be touched by death. The path out of darkness is long; the search for light, for recognition of one another, will not be a quick fix. That journey requires each of us to engage in teshuvah, now, and not in the fall. We have to first recognize the darkness within each of us, how we understand other people, and expunge our own inner darkness, before turning inner illumination into a light to others and, indeed a light unto the nations. That process can begin by putting a name and a face on views we disagree with. Think about something you deem hateful, then attach the name of someone you know personally who believes or endorses that thing. Is that acquaintance, friend, or family member a demon? Do their political beliefs warrant violence against them? The answer should always be “no,” but by concretizing a potential enemy into someone we know, we begin to step back from the brink of verbal or physical violence. It requires us to see clearly, to chase away the plague of darkness we have brought upon ourselves. Whether our politics are left or right, we must affirm the right of every American to think and voice their views, just as we wish to think and say what we wish. We need to move the boundaries of discussion back to just before dark thoughts. Wishing violence on others, no less perpetrating it, is beyond the pale. Violence is not an acceptable path to peace. When we talk to one another, face to face, even if that is only in our own minds, let's give our opponents the benefit of the doubt until we are proved wrong: they are Americans, they are good people, difference is not a threat. As we personalize other points of view, we engage in the very Jewish process of dialogue with one another. It is only through the respectful airing of differences that we can understand one another, and can accept when our own point of view does not win the day. There is always another day to talk, and to argue, with others who share the value of peaceful argumentation. The whole of Torah is the search for peace; we conclude every Amidah with a blessing for peace; and we call upon the God of peace to show us the way out of the darkness, and back toward peace.
Shabbat shalom.

Sermon for Kol Nidrei, 5781


Pandemic Judaism


            For the last two months, my Wednesday Lunch and Learn class has been studying Rabbi Joshua Heller’s teshuvah on the permissibility of online services on Shabbat and holidays. After twenty nine pages of painstaking examination of the question from every angle, Rabbi Heller adds a single page sample letter to the congregation, which synagogues might use to explain their practices. At its conclusion the best advice of the season reads: “When we rise as a congregation, please keep in mind that when you stand up, your camera may be pointing at a different part of your body than it was when you were sitting down.” Such is Judaism in a pandemic.

            This is not the first time that public safety during Yamim Nora’im services was in question. On September 8, 1939, one week after the German invasion of Poland and just six days before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Joseph Hertz, Chief Rabbi of Britain, published a message to British Jews. That year, and for the duration of the war, evening Rosh Hashanah services were to conclude a half hour before official blackout times; morning services would be from 8:30-10:30 a.m., shortened by the omission of piyyutim and by chanting without cantorial embellishment; no Kol Nidrei services would be held; Yom Kippur morning services were held from 11:30-1, and ne’ilah services from 5:15-6:30; blowing of the shofar would be deferred until after the end of the fast, over an hour later. Rabbi Hertz also included air raid instructions, and concludes by saying that the elderly and children should pray at home, for obvious reasons. (My thanks to Rabbi Rachel Salston for providing me with this source.)

            For the duration of a war that engulfed the whole world, Jews did what they could to maintain traditional practices. Like every other aspect of life during wartime, religious life had to respond to the needs of the time. Ritual activities had to be weighed against any conflicts with the war effort, or against the dangers the war posed. For six years, Britain’s Jews made do. When the war ended, normal life, including normal Jewish life, returned.

            We too face a challenge to tradition in our time, though one vastly different in nature. It is not the attack of foreign nations that has crippled our economy, sickened 7 million Americans and killed 200,000, but disease. Our task, our challenge, is to maintain our Jewish lives as much as circumstances permit, for the duration of this pandemic. The uncertainties of how and when it will be safe to return to our normal rituals parallel the wartime difficulties of Britain’s Jews: we know things must change for now; we can only guess for how long. What are the short and long term implications, and what must we do to respond to this challenge in ways that protect Jews, while also engaging them with tradition, during and after the pandemic?

            We are already seeing some of the advantages of online gatherings, and I expect those will continue and expand, even after it is safe to gather together again. Online meetings and classes may become standard practice. From what I have seen, meetings run with a strict agenda can be more efficient than in-person ones. Adult education classes are working well online. In fact, taking courses remotely seems to suit many more people than gathering together. It benefits those who wish to remain physically apart, those who are too distant to attend another way, and those with disabilities which make travel so difficult. We also save money on Lunch and Learn, because the participants feed themselves at home. Immediately after Yom Kippur we will announce the Adult education courses for the year, both continuing classes and new ones. Pandemic or not, we will uphold serious learning as the inheritance of the past two thousand years.

            Our Sisterhood, Men’s Club and Membership committees remain active, scheduling events in socially safe ways such as the recent Road Rally, as well as online with a number of upcoming events. These groups are the social glue of the shul; they have already learned how to run successful events during a pandemic, maintaining our ties to one another even in challenging circumstances. Pandemic or not, we will continue to cultivate our connections to other Jews. 

            Educating our children has been more challenging. Our preschool and religious school both utilize a combination of in-class and online instruction; like other childhood educational settings, the jury is still out about its effectiveness. Even if this turns out to be a year of different expectations for our kids, we have committed ourselves to the continuity of these experiences, so that the students’ educations remain on track. Pandemic or not, we will continue to pass Jewish knowledge and practice down to the next generation. 

            Religious services have been the most challenging aspect of all of this. We are all grateful for the ability to attend Shabbat and holiday services in person or remotely. But we must admit there is something missing when we cannot come together in large groups in prayer, in song, and at Kiddush. People are social by nature, and we look forward to the time when we are not forced to utilize electronics on these sacred days. The shared experience Even here, though, some advantages have emerged. Several of our members have reported feeling relief at not hearing other people talking during the service, though a few have said the opposite. Several members have remarked how much easier it is to hear the sermons; none have said how easy it is to go for a nosh at that time, at least directly to me. But we all agree that we look forward to being together again, as we were. Pandemic or not, we will continue to sing and pray to the God who gives us life and the strength to face illness with courage, until we can return to the life we knew.

            That time will come. As at the beginning of the Second World War, we don’t know how long the current emergency will last, but we know that it will end. And when it does we will evaluate our pandemic practices, keeping what has shown to be worthwhile, and disposing of that which is inessential. My plea to all who are with us tonight is to stay the course. We are in this together, and can only succeed in our mission to serve the Jewish community by riding out this pandemic together. We are not naive; there will continue to be challenges to face. But we will not allow those challenges to undermine the values, or the behaviors, which are the foundation of Jewish culture and tradition. We are Jews, and we rededicate ourselves this night to a year of more religiosity, more learning, and more social events, pandemic or not.

            On Yom Kippur, God judges us for our deeds in the year just past. If we dedicate ourselves, bravely, to Jewish texts, words, rituals, and behaviors, the consequences for the year to come will be very positive ones indeed. We must all use any extra time this pandemic has created to reach out to the lonely, learn something new, teach something new, and to reinvigorate our neshamas as we look forward to an end to the pandemic. With hearts and words dedicated to the eternality of God and of the Jewish people, our prayers this Yom Kippur will help us transcend today's trials to live another year through teshuvah/repentance, tefillah/prayer, and tzedakah/righteous support of those in need.

            G’mar chatimah tovah; may you all be sealed in the Book of Life.


Sermon for Yizkor, 5781


What We Remember/What Will Endure


            Yizkor means “May He remember.” Four times a year, at the conclusion of each major festival, we gather to pray on behalf of, in memory of, in honor of, those we have lost. We pray that God remembers them, as if God forgets. Like most prayers, we direct our thoughts and our words to heaven, but it is not God who must remember, but us. Uttering sacred words over the souls of those who have gone the way of all life, we call up the memories that define those souls. Who were they? What did they do? What did they say? How would we describe them to someone who did not know them? Through what details and stories do we give them life in memory this day, as we mention them? Each of our dead had their own, individual personalities, likes and dislikes, quirks that made them who they were. Those are the aspects of their character which come to mind easily. But on a deeper level, we need to attach meaning to those characteristics. The best way to remember someone is to recall their values, for it is values that will endure.

            This week America lost a Supreme Court justice whose achievements are both remarkable and influential. Ruth Bader Ginsberg the first woman to be a tenured law professor at Columbia, a position that did not easily, due to the assumptions about the roles men and women could and should play in society. It was those assumptions that professor and, later, justice Ginsberg, worked many years to reshape. Though her jurisprudence ranged broadly over many areas of law, her commitment to overturning laws that barred women, and men, from suffering discrimination due to gender. Regardless of our political views, all Americans should be grateful to her for those efforts, which have resulted in countless benefits to our society.

            But the strength that she showed over decades of legal work was complemented by her respect for, and friendship with, those whose legal views ran directly contrary to her own. I have mentioned before Justice Ginsberg’s deep friendship with her colleague Justice Antonin Scalia. Could there be two justices whose legal approaches differed more? Yet the two of them, with their spouses, attended the opera together, celebrated holidays together, and even vacationed together. I enjoyed a laugh this week when one news outlet published a photograph with the two Supreme Court Justices riding on the back of an elephant together. I don’t know much about how Ruth Ginsberg saw herself as a Jew, but seeing her obvious affection and respect for Antonin Scalia reminds me of the foundational Jewish value of civil disagreement, of accepting the view of the majority, and of separating our feelings about a legal ruling from our feelings about individual people. When we remember Ruth Bader Ginsberg, what will endure is her undying commitment to the rights of all Americans under the Constitution.

            It is not often that we can say with certainty that we have met a tzadik. Not only someone who we admire, or works on behalf of others, as many people do those things. A tzadik is someone whose whole soul is committed to doing right, even when it may upset others, or bring that person harm. It was my good fortune to have met a tzadik when I arrived here, and to work with him for the last three years. His name is Raymond Sason. Although Raymond and I came from two very different backgrounds and generations, and despite the fact that he sometimes must have thought some of the things I did as rabbi were questionable, or outright wrong, Raymond never withheld from me the respect that he knew was due to a rabbi. If he disagreed with me, he did not mention it. Raymond was a tzadik because of his many years devoted to this synagogue, day and night for decades, even when that meant forgoing time with his own family. It is difficult for me to understand how someone could maintain that kind of commitment to a synagogue over such a long period of time, when I know from experience how stiff necked the Jewish people can be. Raymond’s death this year is a cause for sorrow for us all, but his life is a model of service. When we remember Raymond Sason, what will endure is his undying commitment to his family, to EBJC, and to God.

            And so too with all our dead, in ways great and small. Not everyone rises to become a Supreme Court Justice, or earns the name tzadik. But everyone whose life impacted others positively is worthy of remembrance. When we remember them, what will endure is the love, the values, and the care they showed. These are their bequests to us, our inheritance. Our responsibility is to remember them through every facet of their lives, and to ensure that their influences for good continue to reverberate down the ages. We remember them, and in remembering, obligate ourselves to the perpetuation of the good their lives represented. We remember in order that that good endures.


Sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5781


We will never forget 2020. Twenty years hence, we will look back at this moment as either the year when everything drastically changed for good, or as the year when we thought it would. It is not only the horror of a global pandemic, which has already sickened 30 million people worldwide, and killed close to a million, which will linger in memory. America is verging on the kind of upheaval we have not seen in fifty years. There are many expressions of that upheaval: Protests on the left and right, violence committed by police, and against police, athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, the status of Confederate monuments and military bases named after Confederate leaders, and even the design of Mississippi’s state flag.

What connects every one of these issues, the thread that weaves them together into a tapestry of despair, is race. Even the pandemic, which knows only human hosts, not their ethnicity, impacts black and brown Americans more harshly than white ones. More than two hundred and fifty years after the founders wrote slavery into the foundation of the republic, and over a hundred and fifty years after the conclusion of a Civil War that ended slavery, we are still struggling to undo the damage of racism.

            When race and civil rights are the singular issue of the day, it is only proper that we consider our place in all of this as American Jews. Jewish historians agree: there has been no better place to be Jewish than in America since the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in the first century. As a group, Jews have succeeded far beyond what our numbers would suggest, in every field of endeavor and, despite the recent increase in antisemitic acts, it is still easier and safer to be a Jew in America than almost any other place in the world. (Tomorrow's talk will address Israel and Jewishness.) And yet, on the issue of race, we have not succeeded in grappling with the issue of race any more successfully than other Americans.

Recently, 600 Jewish synagogues, federations, and other Jewish institutions from around the country signed onto a large advertisement in the New York Times in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Among the signatories was Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the CEO of both United Synagogue, representing our movement’s shuls, and the Rabbinical Assembly, representing its rabbis. That ad and the reaction to it around the Jewish world, have been...interesting. On the one hand, no Jew should take issue with the cause of fighting for civil rights for black Americans, for equal treatment under the law, for the rehabilitation of underserved minorities in America. Jews are the very definition of a minority, and so we have common cause with those issues, as well as a long religious tradition of fighting for the oppressed. On the other hand, Black Lives Matters, as an organization, has made statements, specifically in its 2016 charter, which run directly counter to some Jewish interests, specifically language directed against Israel.

In a group as large and varied as the Conservative movement, it is unsurprising that the reactions to the movement’s leadership supporting Black Lives Matter have varied. Some congregations and rabbis are supportive, some are opposed, and some like me, conflicted. But the issue of race in America is too important an issue to ignore. For American Jews, these High Holidays are an opportunity to think and talk about Jewish responses to racism, rooted in Jewish values and texts, and through the particular lens of Conservative Judaism. On these days, we are meant to reflect on the past in order to live more righteously in the future, and that obligation very much includes consideration of our beliefs and behaviors toward other people.

To put it starkly, the question we should be asking this year is: What is the proper Jewish response to issues related to race? We begin by looking to our past, to the texts that defined what it means to be a Jew. I’ve been wracking my brain this week to recall a single biblical or rabbinic teaching related to race; so far, I have failed to find even one. The distinctions Judaism makes between Jews and other people are not found in skin tone, but rather between those who attach themselves to God, to the Torah and its many subsidiary texts, and those who do not. Judaism, it hardly needs to be said, includes people of every ethnicity. There is a poster just outside the synagogue office displaying the many kinds of Jews to be found all over the world, people of every color and background. In that sense, Jews stand both inside and outside the problem of racism: as a group, some 6-10% of American Jews self-identify as Jews of Color. Their religion and race treats them to the double blessing of antisemitism and racism. Having said that, the other 90-94% of American Jews are white, and their (our) stance on racial issues varies according to region, country of origin, life experience and so on. So I restate the question: What Jewish values should guide white Jews in America? And now I’ll give you three.

The first value is a biblical one: Every human being is created in the image of God. We learn that from our shared descent from Adam and Eve in Bereshit, as well as from the rabbinic commentaries which teach us the reason for that shared genealogy: So that no one can claim that their lineage is greater than another’s. Pre-biblical codes ranked punishments for crimes which were inversely dependent on class: the lower your social standing, the higher the penalty. If we learn anything from the transition to monotheism in the Torah, it is that all individuals are judged by their actions, not by their race or wealth. Engaging in self-reflection, how many of us grew up in households that used a term for blacks no longer acceptable in polite conversation. It doesn’t begin with an ‘N’; it begins with a Shin. Do I have to say it?  That word was never value-neutral. Like other racial epithets it was certainly used to indicate people who were defined by their skin, and found to be lacking the same kind of humanity we claimed for ourselves. This year, we engage in racial teshuvah by relearning the Jewish value that every human being is created in God’s image, and that our responsibility as Jews is to treat every human being as our equal.

The second Jewish value that informs our approach to race in America is justice. Saying that black Americans have an equal right to education, jobs, and the choice of where to live - even in the suburbs! - is necessary but not sufficient. The Torah teaches us: Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue… Not give lip service to justice, not to compliment ourselves on our own righteousness, but to actively pursue it, even when the path is difficult and the opposition fierce. Giving our money, our time and our voice to the cause of equality is basic to any definition of what a Jew is. This year, we engage in racial teshuvah by committing ourselves to those causes, and organizations that work toward the goal of equality. This brings us back to Black Lives Matters, and our movement’s support of it, and will also lead us to a third primary Jewish value.

The vast majority of individuals who march in protest under the banner of Black Lives Matter do so out of a conviction for the cause of equal rights. Jewish or not, they are taking to the streets in dissent of practices which devalue lives on account of race. Most neither know or would even care that some of the leaders of that movement are also Marxists, antisemites or anti-Israel, because those facts are, for them, totally irrelevant to the fight in which they have taken a stand. For the Jews that support Black Lives Matter, the cause of racial justice is more important than any individual’s view about Jews. We should not sweepingly paint hundreds of thousands of protesters, in dozens of cities around the country, as antisemitic or supportive of anti-Jewish causes because they march under that banner,. At the same time, those Jews who are attuned to the antisemitic or anti-Israel thread of that organization can equally claim to fight for racial justice, without supporting the organization itself. This year, we will engage in racial teshuvah by acknowledging a shared Jewish opposition to unequal racial treatment, while also admitting that there are different paths to that end. Those who wish to do so through an organization like Black Lives Matter should do so, and those who share the goal but find that organization a flawed or offensive vehicle for the cause should find other ways, without judgement in either direction. That is pluralism in action.

Does that formula sound familiar? It should. I am very proud to say that EBJC is a model for how to identify shared goals, with tolerance for those who approach the goals from different perspectives. It has been part of my High Holiday sermons each of the last three years, but tolerance for difference has driven my rabbinate since I came here. We have lived out a program of expanding egalitarian access to the bimah, and for women being counted in a minyan, for those who wish to behave like the other 99% of Conservative congregations in America. But we have not done so at the expense of those who remain committed to more traditional definitions of Jewish obligations and prayer. We have introduced a new, 45 year old mahzor, yet we also encourage those who prefer a different one to use it.

This has been a personal journey for me, in the opposite direction. I have always claimed to be a pluralist, to be tolerant of forms of Judaism not my own. The main minyan at the Seminary is egalitarian, but if the small traditional minyan needed help, I and others would show up to help. But being here has tested the parameters of my pluralism. I had to learn, to grow, to do teshuvah, in order to expand my pluralism to include a more traditional form of worship. Now that we have gone through that experience together, we know that it is a challenge; we also know that by emphasizing shared goals: the continuing existence of the shul, a shared presence in this building, an opportunity for different expressions of the same devotion to God and community, we have succeeded.

That is the model we will now apply as we, as a congregation, think and talk about race. We will not be distracted by arguments over which organization is best equipped to wage the battle. We will not be thwarted by those who would rather engage in character assassination than address real issues. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: we will engage each other this year in an extended conversation about race in America from a Jewish perspective, as I now announce a series of discussions among our members that I will moderate on this very topic. As with our other adult classes, we will begin after Simhat Torah, and invite all points of view to be heard and rebutted. I look forward to continuing this conversation with all of you, founded on affection for one another, and understood through the Jewish values of being created in the image of God, equal justice under the law, and tolerance for views not our own. This should be fun.

Revisiting our past year, we seek honesty with ourselves in order to live righteous lives. That is why we’re here...or at home viewing this on a screen. As we begin these Yamim Nora’im, these ten days of repentance together, let’s use them to realize our potential for changing ourselves in order to change the world.

L’Shanah tovah tikateivu; may you be written in the Book of Life.

Rabbi Pivo

Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5781


Israel and the New Middle East


            For many years now I have avoided in-depth discussions about Israel and our relationship to it, for the simple reason that no matter what I might say, I know I would offend half my audience. It has been so long since Jews have had unambiguously good news about the Middle East and Israel’s place in it that I have stuck to only the most bland public statements, those certain to please everybody: buy Israel Bonds, visit Israel as often as you can, put a coin in the blue box. But, as with so many other things in 2020, this year is different, and I want to share some thoughts about Israel.

            In just the last few weeks, two Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have taken the first steps in formally recognizing Israel and establishing normal diplomatic relations. Establishing direct commercial flights, leaders shaking hands at the White House, turning their former quiet cooperation into a proud new alliance, this was a big deal. It should surprise no one if other Arab states soon follow. The time has finally come when the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will no longer veto the foreign policy of the Arab nations toward Israel, when each of them will act according to its national and regional interests. For Israel, the Emirates, and Bahrain, this is nothing but positive. Added to the earlier relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, this has been a very good year for signposts of normalcy in the Middle East.

            The larger question is what it all means. The Emirates and Bahrain, we should admit, are small states that in no way threaten Israel. The new agreements do not end a war, and it is far from clear what impact they will have on Israel’s most pressing conflict, that with the Palestinians. In some respects this looks more like an arms deal than a peace deal. What the agreements certainly suggest is a welcome shift in Arab thinking on Israel. With one major exception, the Arab world is moving away from belligerent talk of Israel as an interloper, a foreign presence in the Middle East. Like most foreign policy decisions, this one emerges from the national interests of all the parties: International recognition and normalization for Israel; access to Israeli science, arms, and markets for the others. With the world’s slow pivot away from oil, Arab countries know it is in their interests to diversify, to provide their people with modern educations and jobs, and to ally themselves with Israel’s military might in common defense against that one exception I mentioned: Iran.

            The simple fact of the matter is that several Arab countries are far more concerned with Iran than they are with Israel. Iran’s long history of destabilizing its neighbors in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, as well as its demonizing of Israel, have been consistent over decades. Iran sponsors almost all the terrorism in the region. And so now a new regional alliance is emerging: Israel and Iran’s Arab foes look to become an alliance, one that will share business, intelligence and military interests.

The Emirates and Bahrain are welcome partners with Israel. But it is likely that they are only a trial run for the truly historic possibility of normalizing the Israeli-Saudi relationship. Like the others, the Saudis have long had a quiet, supportive relationship with Israel, even during the days when all Arab states were officially denouncing it. If the Saudis join this emerging coalition, Israel’s future in the region will be one of national mutual security, increased business, and increased peace. For Jews the world over, this historic shift should be welcomed and applauded. We are witnessing a new chapter in the history of the modern Middle East, one in which Israel will be a welcomed partner, with new Arab allies against its most pernicious foe, Iran.

What all this means for Israel’s closest Arab neighbors, the Palestinians, is less clear. These recent agreements, and those which will certainly follow, break the grip of Palestinians in determining regional issues. No longer will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be the first step to any other agreement. After years in which the fate of the Palestinians’ national aspirations have slipped to the back burner, then off the stove entirely for the Arab states, other issues, and a more pragmatic approach, have changed the context. Whether through strategic brilliance or dumb luck, Israel’s decades long approach to the Palestinian conflict has borne fruit.

But political and historical analysis isn’t a sermon. My purpose today is to help us frame these positive developments for Israel in Jewish terms. Israel’s founding was meant to create a homeland for any Jew who wanted or needed it. For many American Jews, pride in the Jewish state and support for it has been diminished by its government’s treatment of non-violent Palestinians, by the rabbinate’s control over what kind of Judaism is permitted in Israel, as well as a stranglehold on all rites related to Jewish marriage, divorce, adoption, and burial, and the corruption that inevitably follows religious parties’ inclusion in an otherwise secular government. These are the sins that Jews in both Israel and America have long decried, not because they are anti-Israel or antisemitic, but because they want the Jewish state to be infused with the Jewish values of human dignity and religious freedom. As the new Middle East takes form, those pushing for change within Israel may now have opportunities to demand that Israel live up to its founding ideals of freedom and equality for all its inhabitants, regardless of religion, race, or sex. As existential threats diminish, matters of injustice within Israel might gain a higher profile.

But Israel will never reach its full potential until it ends its conflict with the Palestinians. I do not blame Israel for the failure to end it; but the issue now is not responsibility for past failures, but rather how to move forward in the new Middle East. The Jewish approach, of which we are most cognizant on these High Holidays, must include an honest accounting of past errors, and a determination to end conflict for the good of all. That requires Israel to engage in national teshuvah. We may be rapidly approaching an era of normalization between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors; it is in Israel’s interest to find a peaceful outcome with the Palestinians as Israel’s pool of allies grows. Four million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot forever be a stateless people with limited control over their own lives. If Israel can make peace with its neighbors, it can certainly do so with the Palestinians. The High Holidays are a chance to look at the world as it is today, not as it was even a year ago. As circumstances change, we adjust our expectations of what is possible. In order for Israel to be fully at peace, fully embraced by its neighbors, and fully live up to its own best hopes, it must solve the Palestinian conflict. Ironically, it may be the loss of their veto over Arab states that also moves the Palestinians to do some teshuvah of their own, to find a way to yes before the neighborhood, and the world leaves them behind.

Finally, by normalizing their relationship with former adversaries, Israel can extinguish the wrongheaded, misguided, and hateful BDS movement. Opening a new chapter in the region’s history, Israel can finally be the light to the nations which our prophets foresaw. Free and powerful in its land, a leader in its region, and an exemplar for how a pluralistic, democratic nation behaves in the modern world. Our prayer these High Holidays is that Israel continues to thrive, continues to expand and formalize its circle of friends, and finds the path to a true and lasting peace. I also note how quickly Jews will now have to delete from our vocabulary “The Arabs.” Our teshuvah should excise this bit stereotyping from our own lexicon. After seventy plus years of war, terror, and diplomacy, the Middle East has begun a rapid transformation. We should all celebrate this new chapter in Israel’s history, looking forward with hope for the future. This year, it is not too much to pray that the long Arab-Israeli conflict begins to resolve, so that the children of Abraham, Yishmael and Yitzhak, can once again come together, as brothers.

L’Shanah tovah tikateivu.


        Rabbi Pivo


Havdalah Services


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Mon, June 14 2021 4 Tammuz 5781