Arabian Knights of Faith: The Road From Abu Dhabi, by Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Ten rabbis, ten imams and ten evangelical ministers board planes to Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the Government of the United Arab Emirates… Sounds more like an overwrought joke at a UN reception than an attempt at achieving world peace. But there we were, 30 American clergy from ten pilot cities, overcoming fears and prejudice where the rubber of faith meets the road of possibility. 

The goals were deceptively simple, though such illusions often mask the hard realities of the work of peace: To bring together those who often fail to hear, understand or even know one another on the other side of the earth in a place fairly foreign to all in the hopes of producing something outside of the box when we were outside of our daily lives.

Sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of the UAE, this ongoing process emerged from the efforts of Dallas Evangelical Megachurch Pastor Bob Roberts and the eminent Islamic sage Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah. For the pastor, it was his sometimes quixotic, but passionately authentic attempt to counter the pernicious Islamophobia stoked by most of his colleagues. For the sheik, it was a vaunted desire to convey a moderate approach to Islam from within, combatting the extremism, ignorance and intolerance that plagues so many of his coreligionists. And for the rabbis…well, let’s just say that if both groups can find accord with the Jews in light of our histories, achieving this utopian goal would be that much easier to attain.

We agreed to put aside the harder issues: the Mideast conflict, evangelical proselytizing, and the role of women to name just a few. Yet this was no mere avoidance of challenge, but rather a realization that nothing can be accomplished until we get back to the basics of knowing one another, learning to trust one another, and ultimately loving one another.

The hope was to leverage relationships through inverting the common approach to interfaith relations. First we would start with our hands, working together on key projects in our communities. Then we would create a basis for the heart, forging relationships of mutual respect and recognition of our essential humanity out of our shared efforts. And then, perhaps, we could discuss matters of the head, affirming common insights and conceding distinct matters of theology in the purified spirit of learning from each other without ulterior motives or hidden agendas.

Each city triad committed to:

  1. Breaking bread in one another’s homes.
  2. Bringing our congregations together toward shared work in our communities.
  3. Recreating our experience in Abu Dhabi with a widening circle of clergy.
  4. Standing by one another at times of crisis, attack or in response to other acts of intolerance.

I gleaned much from this experience, more than I could have imagined. But the biggest take-away for me, aside from a deepening of my regard for Islam and the majority of its peace-loving practitioners, was the dispelling of my stereotypes about Evangelical Christians. While my interfaith efforts have encompassed enriching, ongoing bonds with Mainstream Protestants and Catholics, I have neglected opportunities for outreach to Evangelicals, assuming the chasm dividing us on social and political issues rendered partnerships untenable.

Not only did I learn that Evangelicals are anything but monolithic in their views and priorities, but even those articles of faith that seem to divide us leave ample room for reciprocity of respect and abiding friendship. My newly discovered brother in faith, Pastor Dean Curry of the Tacoma Life Center, taught me much through his efforts and his example. I look forward to working with him and our friends in the Muslim community to extend the spirit of Abu Dhabi to the Puget Sound Region and beyond. With so many in the world exuding the toxicity of hate and the virus of religious violence, I am deeply appreciative for the immense hospitality and generosity of the UAE government, the gentle, incisive wisdom and vision of Sheik Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the openness of heart of all of my fellow participants. May the spirit of our few days together inspire our efforts and deepen our commitment, radiating a love for peace that will transcend our current moment and unfinished world. If you’d like to see more of my daily impressions and some accompanying photos, see my Facebook Blog:

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah & Other Religious Leaders
Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah & Other Religious Leaders
Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Pastor Dean Curry
Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Pastor Dean Curry

Parashat Acharei Mot - K’doshim • Leviticus 16:1−20:27

“You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.”

“You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”

“Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.”

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.”

“The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens.”

“You shall be holy to Me, for I the Eternal am holy.”

This week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, contains easily understood moral axioms that are somehow still not commonplace after so many years. May these words speak for themselves and inspire us to act as our highest selves.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Tazria - M'tzora • Leviticus 12:1-15:33

We are counting: one by one. 

The Jewish community this week continues to count the Omer, numbering the days between Passover and Shavuot. Counting the Omer might be thought of as counting down to reception of our moral responsibility and the core of our Jewish identity: the promise of freedom from slavery in Egypt, we are taught, is only realized through the performance of mitzvot presented in Torah.

Our ancestors brought a grain offering to the Temple to count the Omer. Not so applicable today! Our ritual now involves a blessing and recognition that each moment and each day that passes is important. As each day passes, we have the opportunity to think about how we are upholding our Jewish values. One by one, we number all of our days, hopefully emerging as better for our thoughtfulness and intentionality. 

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Sh'mini • Leviticus 9:1−11:47

Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner’s interpretation of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Sh’mini.

Chol HaMo-eid Pesach • Exodus 33:12−34:26

Straits of Possibility

In Hebrew, words often carry deeper, inter-connected meaning ripe for interpretation. The Hebrew word for Egypt, a nation much at issue in this season of our liberation and rebirth, is Mitzrayim. It is closely related to another Hebrew word: mitzrim, or straits, as in constraints or narrow places. Thus, our celebration of Pesach becomes an acknowledgment of our potential to overcome challenges both as a community and as individuals.

Culturally, historically and theologically, we as a Jewish people most fully celebrate our triumph over bondage, and thus express ultimate appreciation to God, by striving to attain the freedom for all who are currently shackled by recent forms of bondage: privation, racism, sexism, and all other pernicious “isms.”

And yet, this Festival of Afflicted Bread also compels us to address our individual bindings: obsessions and addictions; ignorance, apathy and negligence; the failure to realize our God-given opportunities. In many ways, Pesach is a mini-Yom Kippur for the Jewish individual, a mid-year check up of our progress in living out the teshuvah/repentance we vowed six months earlier. And so, we are doubly-commanded, doubly-compelled, and doubly-inspired to liberate all qualities, characteristics and experiences that prevent humanity from achieving that which God intends for us.

Chag Sameach

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parashat Tzav • Leviticus 6:1-8:36

With our Passover narrative so focused on the sacrifice of a lamb, it seems strange that the only kosher meat we are forbidden to eat on Passover is… lamb! The Shulchan Aruch, a Jewish legal code dating to the 1500s, forbids the consumption of lamb on Passover. As a more popular Jewish resource, the New York Times, reported in 1988: “The ancient custom of sacrificing lambs on the eve of Passover and eating the meat to begin the festival ended with the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. As a mark of respect for the memory of the temple sacrifices, the eating of a whole roasted lamb on Passover is forbidden by the code of Jewish law called Shulchan Aruch.”

While it is no longer custom to eat lamb on Passover, their importance to ancient Jewish practice cannot be overstated: we hear about them not only in this week’s reading of the Haggadah but also the Torah portion. Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36, offers instructions to the high priests about the sacrifices they were to offer on behalf of the community. In times gone by, we believed we did right by God by sacrificing and eating lamb. In modern time, we honor God by doing the exact opposite. May our Passover s’darim, their traditions and discussions, leave us open to new ways of honoring God and our peers as we internalize the lessons of the Exodus!

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Vayikra • Leviticus 1:1-5:26

A recent New York Times article ( posed the question, “are teenagers replacing drugs with smart phones?’ Citing a recent survey titled “Monitoring the Future,” an annual government-funded report measuring drug use by teenagers, the article stated that past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana was at the lowest level in the 40-year history of the project for eighth, tenth and twelfth graders. Further referencing an emerging field of research into the world of smart phones, the running theory is that mobile devices have become both a healthier distraction for teens and a device where usage can produce the same physiological response as drugs. 
The article itself raises some poignant questions about how today’s teenagers seek pleasure and stimulation. But a running commentary throughout the article pushes us toward a deeper question: how do we as a society – from children to seniors – connect and engage with one another? 
I am one to both bemoan and praise the cell phone. It is simultaneously a tool of distraction, a portal to not-quite-reality and a unique object that enables access and togetherness in a powerful way. As a parent of a toddler, to have the ability to FaceTime Avi’s grandparents, cousins and loved ones whenever we want – to literally see their faces and hear their voices with the touch of a button – is a modern miracle. (It also bears mentioning that our fifteen-month-old can – and does – FaceTime his grandparents whenever he gets ahold of an iPhone.) Yet the cell phone is absolutely a distraction and a danger – see any number of state laws preventing texting while driving as proof  and, moreover, has become a social liability in circles where human engagement and a back to basics approach is paramount. (Example A: the sign asking you to “power down and Shabbos up” on your way into Fourth Shabbat in Seattle.)
The sanctity of connection – of having instant access not only to people you care about, but an entire world of information – is not a new idea. In fact, in this week’s parsha, Vayikra, we begin to glimpse both the idea of connection as it existed for the ancient Israelites and their newfound access to a brand new world – one of holiness and grace, God and humans, sacrifice and sanctity. Vayikra changes the game for our ancestors, presenting them with formal rules and restrictions on the “dos and don’t’sof Jewish identity. It also presents new methods – in the form of sacrifice  for how to engage on a deeply spiritual level. In some ways, the laws of Leviticus form their own type of “spiritual substance,” providing an elevated form of connection not previously witnessed in Torah.
The essential takeaway in Vayikra – and in Leviticus as a whole – is that something must serve as a conduit between God and humanity; between the divine and the profane. That something, in this week’s parashah, is sacrifice. The aforementioned New York Times article focuses on teenagers seeking an elevated experience – to break the monotony and the drama of adolescence – by way of new avenues and methods. As we begin this new book of Torah may we moderns focus on the essential undercurrent of both these concepts: to connect and engage in a deep way is significant, no matter what era we find ourselves living in.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen 

Parashat Vayak’heil-P’kudei • Exodus 35:1−40:38

Teaching Torah – and making it relevant to all generations – isn’t always easy. Some parashiyot (portions) are laden with memorable narrative while others – like this week’s double portion, Vayak’heil-P’kudei– feel weighed down with myopic details about the seemingly basic structure of a dwelling. Indeed in this week’s parsha we circle back to directions seen previously in Exodus for how the holy Mishkan – our Tabernacle, our Sanctuary – must appear. We learn that a Mishkan is built by contributions from the community – rare gems, common items, and the generosity of heart and soul.

I often hear from b’nai mitzvah students and their families that they find this genre of Torah portions – ones that focus so much on the details – boring and colorless. How do you make meaning of something so … stale? I admit when I was younger there were times when I shared that sentiment. Knowing I would have to write a sermon on the ins and outs of a seemingly banal topic (animal sacrifice, for example) made me jumpy. Yet, as is the case for so many of us in our professional realms, in stepping back we see that the details are not, in fact, the whole picture. Rather, when we witness the intention behind the Torah portion – indeed, the intention of Exodus as a whole – we grasp a different message. One that penetrates our consciousness and pushes on our relationship with holy space.

As many of you already know, nearly two weeks ago the old Temple façade in Seattle was desecrated with anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying graffiti. The reactions were swift and immediate from within and far beyond our synagogue community. At the heart of the outrage, pain and fear – in addition to extraordinary messages of solidarity – was the realization that holy space matters. The spaces in which we Jews gather is significant and when they are tampered with, challenged, or made t’reif – desecrated by the hateful act of another – it means a great deal.

The question Vayak’heil-P’kudei strives to answer is, why? Why does it matter quite so much? To answer that I turn to my friend and colleague Rabbi Ana Bonnheim who writes the following on the parashah: “In the building of the Tabernacle, at first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the ‘service’ of the Tabernacle were integrated – all the boards, sockets, curtains and loops – fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each one of them had depended upon the other. So too, today, we each play an ongoing role in the building and maintaining of our own communities. That service never ends.”

Working together, piece by piece, we build and maintain dwelling spaces both physical and spiritual. We contribute to the overall health of our organizations. We experience delight in its victories and sadness in its heartbreak. Our spaces become a part of us. And working together, soul by soul, we make not only the physical space holy but what resides within, as well.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat T'tzaveh • Exodus 27:20−30:10

How are we supposed to lead?

There are many different types of leaders in the world. People have different styles and different motivations for their leadership.  The things I love about Judaism is that it doesn’t tell us that there is one right way. Some people like to lead from the front, and create a following. Some lead from the top and tell the people below the way to go. And then some lead from within the group.

In the book of Exodus we have these three different leadership models. Miriam who leads from the front and has the people follow her example. Moses who leads from the mountain and has the people listen, and Aaron who lives among the people and attempts to solve their disputes and appease them when they are upset.

When Aaron is appointed the high priest over all of Israel, Moses is told, “Draw near to you Aaron you brother and his sons with him from among the children of Israel that he may minister to me in the priests office” (Exodus 28:1). We learn something about the third type of leader from this text, the one who leads from within the people.

Why is Moses told to bring Aaron and his sons to become the priests from among the people of Israel?

According to Benei Yisachar, an eighteenth century Chasidic commentator, “the leader of a nation must not be above the people but close to them, within them”. In other words, unlike Moses and Miriam, Aaron was a leader not by standing in front of the people, or by standing above them, but rather his leadership style was to stand among the people. 

This leadership style, because it’s not flashy and in some ways requires more patience, work and individual attention, often is overlooked. According to another commentary, the Mei Otzar Ha Torah, “the priest needed to be from among the people, involved with them and know their weaknesses and faults.” When you lead like Miriam and you lead like Moses it becomes a lot tougher to know the faults and weaknesses of your followers. Because Aaron was chosen to lead among the people he was in a unique position as a leader because he was able to know who they were.

There are many ways to lead and our tradition shows us three great examples all in the book of Exodus. However, for me, I take something special from Aaron. While leading from the front or leading up front might get the job done in the short term, in order to create something sustainable, a great leader is most able to effect change and teach the people when they are among them and not above them or ahead of them.

Parashat T'rumah • Exodus 25:1−27:19

This week’s Torah portion, T’rumah, opens with the command to Moses: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.” Gifts of finery, for the construction of the tabernacle, were to be brought by everyone in the community through a then-unique system. As opposed to a uniform contribution requirement, placing an outsized burden upon the disadvantaged members of society, everyone was required to invest their heart as well as their “dollars.”

The tabernacle, the most sacred site in the early Israelite religion, demanded more than financial contribution. By asking individuals to invest to their hearts in the service of God, the construction of the tabernacle thus became a community building project in addition to a physical construction project.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer