Month: August 2015

Parshat Shoftim • Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

We have, at last, entered the Hebrew month of Elul. It is a sacred period in which we consciously mark the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of a new Jewish year. Traditional Jewish communities sound the shofar every day throughout the month, inspiring all who hear its call to teshuvah (repentance) t’filah (prayer and reflection) and tzedakah (righteous giving). The shoresh (root) of tzedakah is tzedek – justice. And in this week’s parsha, Shoftim, we find the battle cry of our social justice movement, one that captures the ethos of our modern Reform sensibilities and inspires our working toward a more just, whole world.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof” – justice, justice you must pursue … that you may live and inherit the land which Adonai your God has given you.”(Deuteronomy 16:20) With these words, every person of Israel – no matter their age, gender, or status – is charged to actively work for tzedek, justice, for shalem, wholeness, and for shalom, peace. In biblical times that charge was directed towards the land God promised to our ancestors. In modern times, that message is one that transcends our people, our traditions, and our Jewish communities.

At this very moment, hundreds of our Reform Movement colleagues are marching from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC – an 860-mile trek – as part of “America’s Journey for Justice” in partnership with the NAACP. The goal of this march is to powerfully convey to our nation’s leadership that “Americans of all faiths and backgrounds share a commitment to racial justice, and that it is past time for passage of legislation that will help bring the United States closer to its founding ideals of equality for all…” writes Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. There is such power in this journey, and in its message. Harkening back to our biblical ancestors’ mandate to pursue justice so that we may live, our contemporaries are presently pursuing justice so that all might live with dignity, opportunity, and freedom.

Read more about America’s Journey to Justice here: http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2015/07/24/praying-feet-americas-journey-justice/

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen


Parshat R'eih: Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17

In this week’s Torah portion — R’eih from chapter 14 in the Book of Deuteronomy — we are given the foundational rules for keeping kosher.  In these verses, the Israelites are commanded  about which animals they may and may not consume.  These animals are divided into three categories: land animals, sea animals, and birds.  For land animals, they must have a cloven hoof and chew their cud in order to be kosher.  For sea animals they must have fins and scales to be kosher.  As for birds, there is not as clear a general category as much as a list of birds which may and may not be eaten.  This all begs the question: why?  Why these animals and not the opposite?  Why separate at all?

One answer is that the animals that are forbidden are seen as scavengers or dirty.  In order for us to be holy, which according to the text is God’s goal for the Israelites, we must eat animals which act in what could be perceived as holy way of being.  Cows eat grass.  They are peaceful.  Chickens give eggs that we can eat to help sustain life.  The animals Judaism says we can eat are all life-affirming to a certain degree.  The pig eats what it wants but does not give anything back.  Here our tradition teaches that to be eating itself is an act of holiness and that what we eat is a reflection of who we are and what we put out in the world.

As for the second question, Jeffery Tigay, in the JPS Torah Commentary on page 137 states,  “The command [in this case of Kashrut] itself made humanity aware that it may not satisfy every desire, that there are prohibited as well as permitted actions.  Distinguishing between these is God’s first requirement of [humans]”.  Many people use the term “I am not kosher” when speaking of keeping kosher.  This is true enough.  Human beings are not kosher.  However, an individual keeps kosher, they are not kosher.  In other words, keeping kosher, like everything else, is a choice.  That is not to say you have to keep kosher to be holy and pure, but rather that holiness and purity are a result of choice, that they are not simply conferred upon us.  Therefore, the laws of kashrut teach us, not merely about which animals our ancient ancestors could and could not eat, but really teachers us about the sacrifice and personal agency trying to become holy requires.

Rabbi Micah Ellenson


Shiva for the Dead

As the echoes of the last encore caress Sandberg’s big-shouldered host, and the gathered tribe of tapers, technicolor-adorned septuagenarians and youthful strivers for a handful of history return to the monochrome world of gainful responsibility and uncomprehending kin, embracing a moment of reflection seems apt before the haze of fading memory levels experience into nostalgia more quickly than the ardent, Buddy Holly-inspired love professed at the final show’s denouement. Aside from the prodigious legacy of the band itself, more was revealed, affirmed, and even sanctified by the show’s themselves than in what they represented.

Much has been made of the religious dynamics inherent in the Grateful Dead and their faithful family. Its bearded prophets, liturgical set-lists and myriad concert rituals are de facto religion, especially for spiritual skeptics of institutional ecclesia. But there is a facet of Jewish ritual, in particular its mourning rites, which emerge as salient parallels to this wistful moment of closure and uncertainty for the now unmoored legions of Deadheads.

Shiva is the most immediate and visceral period of Jewish mourning following death and burial. A seven-day period of reflection on the departed encouraged by a disconnect from the daily grind, it provides as much comfort to the grieving as it does direction for a future made frightening by the void. In critical ways, the Fare Thee Well shows shared much with this period and its practice.

Shiva is kind of reunion, bringing far-flung friends and family together for an intense, sometimes awkward, but eminently necessary chance to bond in the face of anxious transition. Think of The Big Chill without the Baby Boom neurotic narcissism. Stories are shared, memories challenged, corrected or affirmed as apocryphal, and perspective is gleaned to assuage confrontations with mortality and existential inquiry. For many, these shows marked more than the conclusion of a band’s career. It was an end of an era in ways far more genuine than the cliché conveys, both for stages in individual lives and for the cultural currency of 60’s idealism and exploration. It’s not quite the dramatic cresting of the wave prophesied by Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, but there is a sense of finality, an inexorable passing from one epoch to another. This shiva of shows celebrated an ending as much as it lamented change for a community that traverses time.

Shiva lays the groundwork for a different but hopeful future. Though mired in the sadness and absence of loss, the shiva process evolves into a forward-looking embrace of what’s to come. For Jews, there is little pride or value in endless mourning as reflection of love for what’s lost. But there is much striving for what’s next as fitting tribute to the life and legacy of the dead…and The Dead. Mickey Hart’s final, benedictory paean to take the power of presence at these shows into the world, distilled into the compassionate imperative to “Be Kind,” was as much a redirection of faith and hope as it was a securing of immortality for the values undergirding the band and its acolytes.

And finally, shiva provides structure and meaning through established ritual, transcending generations and applied universally, even for, or perhaps especially for, those unaccustomed to strictures, obligations and responsibilities. And while the Grateful Dead as archetype of 60’s liberation and boundary-crossing attracted many to its inherent inclusiveness of self-identified “misfits,” most remained committed out of fidelity to distinct and anticipated ritual: the renowned framework of 2 sets, encompassing Drums/Space and encore; the well-established pairings of tunes and scripted song cycles that emerged mystically from diffuse, amorphous jams; the post-show sharing of set lists and cacophonous commentary on and comparison of song iterations; and the unflinching, even sacred promise that each show will be singular, unprecedented and, in many ways, ephemeral, despite the obsessive “taping” community that produces recordings that only hint at the actual experience.

And so, as this period of shiva concludes for a seminal band of merry pranksters, we are mindful of the origins of the name itself. Garcia is said to have found it in Lesh’s copy of a medieval dictionary, a description of a folktale in which the spirit of an impecunious corpse expresses appreciation to the stranger who secured its burial. The Grateful Dead have far exceeded this eponymous mandate, showering us with a treasury of evocative sound and indelible moments, melding hearts as they altered consciousness in ways that have transformed our world forever. Fare Thee Well and Zichrono livracha—May its memory be for an ongoing blessing.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner