Rabbi Rossoff’s Top Ten List of Torah Truths (Part I) Rosh Hashanah 5755

I’m standing in an amazing place. Powerful things happen right here.   I can attest to that personally and so can many of you. You see, for many of us, one of the most important moments in our lives has happened right here on this bimah, on the day our child or children stood here as a Bat or Bar Mitzvah.  And within that day, the most powerful, most tearful and most transformative moment comes when parents stand here and pass the Torah down to their child. I frame that moment as a return to the first giving of Torah. I see the ark as Mt. Sinai, which means that when I take the Torah from the ark, I get to be Moses for a moment. Before the Torah is passed to the youngster, the parents address him or her, speaking what is in their hearts. In preparation for that speech, I often tell the parents that their address should describe what they are doing as they are passing the Torah down. I ask them, “What is YOUR Torah? What is it that is important to you that you want your child to know and remember, especially about what it means to you that you are passing your wisdom and heritage on to him or her?” What, I ask, is YOUR Torah? Continue reading

Do You Speak the Language of Love? (Yom Kippur, 11 Tishrei 5773 / September 27, 2012)

I want to tell you something which is very important that you know. Our relationship, our happiness, indeed our future together depends on your understanding this. Please know that it comes from my heart when I say to you:

A-fek-ri-sha le-hou

No? How about

Nu’ umi-un- angwa’ta

Naku panda everyone

Hmmm, I’m not saying this very well, am I?

Try this: Kakh-moosh-kHah

OK, let me say it a different way.

Ani ohev etchem! Hmm… some lights just went on.

How about this: Ich liebe dich.

It seems that some of you understand now, but many don’t. I must not be saying it well enough. Perhaps if I say it this way, then you will perhaps understand what I have been trying to say in so many different languages: I love you.

That wasn’t so difficult now was it? Actually, it was kind of difficult, and had I not been persistent, had I not found the language you understand, you might never have known what I was trying to say.

There are so many ways to say the words, I love you. I first tried Amharic, then Hopi, Swahili, and Klingon, which was not easy, since there is no verb in Klingon “to love,” so you have to say, “I dis-hate you.”  When I gave Hebrew and Yiddish a try, some of you understood.  And of course, when I finally used English, a language which both I can speak and you can understand, the message got through.

Language is the main way we human beings communicate and are there any three words that are more important to say and more important to hear and understand than “I love you?”  So imagine, if you can, the people you love not knowing or feeling that you love them, or what it would feel like if you thought that the people you loved did not love you.  I know that most of us have been there at some points in our lives, some, most painfully and irreversibly so. Unloved and alone – or unloved in a crowd– there may be no greater pain, no greater emptiness.

For most of us, Descartes’ affirmation, “I think, therefore, I am,” is simply not enough. We affirm our own existence by the love we receive and the love we give. I am loved, therefore I am. I love; therefore, I will continue to be. Even love in the past tense, I loved, I was loved, affirms our essential selves. Knowing you are loved – letting other people know and feel that you love them, is as precious as the sun which warms us and the air which gives us life.

Too often we do what I just did – we communicate our love in a language that the one we address does not understand as love. Sounds strange, but it happens to us more than we know.

A few years ago, I was drawn to psychologist / minister Gary D. Chapman’s best selling book, The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts. In it, Rev. Chapman explains how there are in fact different language of love which we speak and understand. And he is not talking about English versus French versus Swahili. He is talking about different modes of communication through which we express our love to others and ways we get the message – or don’t – when someone is expressing their love for us. And the fact that we don’t always speak the same love language as those we love means that too often, our love is not known or felt.

Chapman says that there are essentially five love languages. We, too, often assume that the love languages we speak and understand are the same as those we love. That’s not a good assumption at all. Each of us may speak and understand different love languages, some of us more than one. Each expression of love that is understood as love helps to fill what Chapman calls our love tank.  So think of each expression of love in whatever love language the other understands as a drop, an important drop but just a drop, in their love tanks. And we are not just talking about spouses, this is about parents and children, brothers and sisters, and friends.

What are the 5 Love Languages?

Love Language #1 is the most obvious. It is “Words of Affirmation.” This is the love language through which we communicate our love with words.  If someone understands this love language, every word of kindness, of love and appreciation is a drop into their love tank.

Obviously, saying “I love you” is big. Many of us make the assumption, “Of course he knows I love him.” But if words are his primary love language and he does not hear it, he probably won’t feel it.  

And it is not just “I love you.” It is all those other words of affirmation and appreciation, words of kindness and complements, like:

Wow, that was great, thanks!

You know, you are the best driver I know.

I love that outfit – you look great

Wow, honey, that picture you drew for me in class really made me feel good!

Wow, that was a great goal you just scored!

I’m so proud of you!

Thank you for doing the laundry or taking out the garbage or paying the bills. I just want you to know I notice and appreciate what you do.

The Bible is filled with words of affirmation, none more beautiful than what the lover says to his beloved in the Song of Songs  “Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are like doves.”

Words of affirmation are also like what Ruth said to Naomi: “Whither thou goest, I shall go.”

If you think it or feel it, don’t assume it. Say it. If you don’t think or feel anything is worthy of an affirmation, a compliment or a thanks, keep looking until you do.

Love Language #2 is “Quality Time.”

Quality time is time taken to be together and do things together, tuning off the TV to talk about things that are of interest, taking a walk, going for a drive, playing catch, enjoying music. Quality time does not just mean time being physically together in the same room, it means being present when you are together, attention undivided. As used to multitasking as we all are, and as good as it as we all are, you can’t multitask and be truly present.

The quality of quality time diminishes when it is shared with watching the game, or cooking the stew, or texting, or reading the paper, or doodling on your smart phone.

Quality time can be doing something that is important to all or it could be important to just one. When we do what is important to our loved one because what we are doing is less important than with whom we are doing it, the message for someone who understands love language #2  is, “Right now, you are most important in my life!” 

Quality time is what Ecclesiastes recommends, knowing how little time any of us have: “Enjoy life with the one you love all the fleeting days of life you have been granted.”

For some people, it is the quality time that fills the tank.

Love Language #3 is “Receiving Gifts.”

The giving and receiving of gifts seems to be a universal aspect of human societies and interpersonal relationships. And for some people, the giving and receiving of gifts is the love language they speak and understand the most.  It might sound materialistic, and I imagine for some people it is. But for those who speak and understand the love language of receiving, it’s not about the value of the gift; it’s about the fact that, wherever you were and whatever you were doing, you took time to think of him, her, or them.  

Sometime the gift we give is not a present, it is our presence – being there when we know our presence is important. It is Jonathan being there to support his friend David, even as David is fleeing from Jonathan’s father, King Saul.

To give from yourself or of yourself, for some, is a real tank filler.

Love Language #4 is “Acts of Service.”

We express love through acts of service when we do things which we know our loved one would like us to do. It is Esau bringing game to his father because he had a taste for it. It is about serving the needs and the desires of the other – what we do for each other or with each other in pursuit of a common goal. The seven years that Jacob worked for Rachel seemed like days, because he was serving for the one he loved.

It’s the big things. It’s the little things like what needs to be done around the house – all those other things which give me a headache when I try to think how much there is to be done – helping with homework or a project, doing things which support the other’s interests or activities, efforts which make life better, fuller or at least easier. Acts of service is the language in which you express your love by doing something that you know is important to your beloved.

Not to be terribly gender stereotyping – just a little – some of us guys would do anything for our wives, even go to the ends of the earth, as long as it does not entail picking up a sock. Just remember guys, for some, every sock you pick up is a love note, a drop in her love tank.

I know of a couple who had been married for 25 years and in all that time, had never said they loved each other.  But luckily, “Words of Affirmation” were not their love language. What made each secure in the love of the other were what they did for each other, and with each other in pursuit of their common goals of raising a family and keeping tradition. You may just know them too. Her name was Golde. His name was Tevya.

Acts of Service – if that’s not love, what is?

Finally, Love language #5 is “Physical Touch.”

I think we all know how important physical touch is as an expression of love. We know what happens to children who are held, hugged, and kissed from early on. And we know about what happens to children who are not. But many of us don’t leave that need behind after we leave childhood. Physical touch is a most powerful communicator of love, whether it is holding hands, a kiss or hug on leaving and coming home, anything from a brief touch on the shoulder to you know what, physical touch can be a most powerful expression of love. Touch is the hug of reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, perhaps the first time they had touched since sharing Rebecca’s womb. It is the prophet Elisha’s touch which brought the dead boy back to life.

Chapman writes: “Whatever there is of me resides in my body. To touch my body is to touch me. To withdraw from my body is to distance yourself from me emotionally.” For those whose primary love language is touch, being untouched for too long is like being in the desert with an oasis near by but fenced off. It is torture.

Unwanted touch might be a violation – but touch that is desired, for some, is all the affirmation that some need to feel loved 

And those are the five languages of love. speech, presence with a “c,” presents with a “t,” service and touch.

Long before Chapman, my teacher, Dr. Leo Buscaglia, wrote something which seems to have said it all. Leo wrote, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

How do you figure out your love language and that of those you want to feel your love?

Well, that would probably take another sermon or extended discussion. Let’s just say, if you want to know what a meaningful expression of love from another might be, just open your eyes and open your ears. They have probably told you in a 100 different ways – you just did not understand it for what it was – a dictionary to their love language.  On the other hand, you learn a lot of what is asked for by thinking about what hurts the most when it is absent.

OK, you have probably thought at some point in the last few minutes, why is he talking about this on Yom Kippur? Is it because this afternoon we are going to read one of the central pillars of Judaism, “Love your neighbor as yourself;” and I want to show how many different ways you can do that? Is it because we just read in Deuteronomy that we are called to “Choose life!” and then taught that choosing life entails loving God, listening to what God has to say, and staying close? Is it because I think it will be helpful in our relationships this coming year so that next year there will be less to ask forgiveness for? Or is it because I like the subject and you just happen to be here? The answer, of course, is yes. All of the above.

But on this day of at-one-ment and reconciliation with each other and with God, I do think it helpful to think about God’s love language – to appreciate and feel the love that is coming from God in languages we might not have understood before as love, and to understand how it is we can speak a language of love to God that reaches God’s heart, at least as God has been experienced by our ancestors who felt God’s love and wrote it in a book we call the Bible.

So what are the languages in which God expresses love for us, as best as we can grasp them? I’ll give you my sense, knowing I am just scratching the surface and that you might have different ways of looking at this.

#1. Does God express love through “Words of Affirmation?”

That was certainly the way the Biblical writers felt God’s love. The Bible is full of words of affirmation, divine loyalty, and love.  We are, it says, “the apple of God’s eye.” God called Abraham “my beloved.” And one of the most beautiful expressions of God’s unconditional love was formulated by Isaiah: “Though the mountains may depart or the hills be removed, neither will my love for you ever die or my covenant of friendship ever be broken.” And even those sexy words of the lover to his beloved in the Song of Songs, were seen by the Rabbis as the words of God to God’s beloved Israel. 

#2. Does God speak the love language of “Quality Time?” In my opinion, all the time. Heck, God invented time! God offers presence , but too often we don’t make the effort to notice.  Only when Moses stopped and turned did he encounter God’s presence in the burning bush. Sometimes we just need to stop and turn to find the time God is offering us.

#3 Does God speak to us in the “Language of Giving?” A lot!

Just for perspective, for me, God is not the Old Guy in the sky who talks, thinks, and feels like us – only more so. God is in the processes which give reality to existence and existence to reality. God is in the power that calls life into being and growth, who embeds within creation and the human spirit a moral matrix, the One in whose oneness are we all one.

So I think that the gifts of existence, of life itself and all of its blessings, come down to a radical Source, a power and a process, without which, nothing could be. Rabbi Adin Steinsalz in his classic book on Jewish mysticism sees all of existence as an expression of God’s love. Thanks, God, for that amazing gift of existence. It’s great to be here!

We are blessed with so many gifts. And today we are grateful for the gift of forgiveness, a gift given in grace, ki ayn banu maasim – for we have not earned it.

#4 Does God give us “Gifts of Service?” I need to work a bit more on that concept. Much of human prayer is a shopping list of what the person wants the deity to do that is important to them. Many believe that if you pray hard enough and sincerely enough, that God will be moved to do for you what you want. I don’t think it really works that way, except of course, for when it does. Like I said, I am still working that one out.

#5. Does God speak the love language of “Physical touch?”

Again, not sure. I know that in some religions God has a physical thing going – but not ours.

So when you figure out your love language, be open to the possibility that God, or existence, or life might have been sending a message that you did not understand before as love.

And if those are the love languages God speaks, what are the love languages God understands? 

Does God need words of affirmation and praise to know and feel human love? A lot of religions think so – including ours. The Psalms, the prayerbook, the medieval piyutim (religious poems), are filled with words of affirmation, praise and love from us to God. The Rabbis say that we should each say 100 baruchs every day – 100 blessings of thanks and praise.

But really, if we do that, are we really speaking God’s love language? Do all these words matter to God? Does God need to hear our praise to feel loved? Or is the sincere heart behind the prayer most affirmative to God? Don’t know.  What I do know is that more than God has a need to receive our thanks and praise, we have a need to express them. We need to engender the attitude of gratitude and acknowledge the many gifts which ultimately come by reason of our being here in a world in which love and blessings can be found.

What about quality time? Does the quality time we dedicate, the presence we bring important to the Almighty? It appears so.  First of all, you are here, spending what I hope God would appreciate as quality time. (Except for the person in the back reading the newspaper.)

Another example of that is Shabbat. God Gave us Shabbat b’ahavah uvratzon, in love, and delight. And our accepting that gift means dedicating quality time – sacred time each week – to remember and think about the important stuff. Quality Shabbat time calls us to stop multitasking, to rest,  to join with community to celebrate the divinity behind creation and the dignity of being human.  I sense also that our quality time spent in Torah study also fills God’s love tank.

Does God need gifts in order to feel our love? Certainly, the ancients believed so. That is part of the motivation which went into the practice of sacrifice. But our prophets had a different view, like Isaiah whose God complains to Israel, “I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of male goats…  Bring no more vain offerings..  I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn assembly. Hosea’s God said it plainer, “For I desired loyal love, and not sacrifice.”

So gifts, no, service, yes. God feels our love when it is expressed in the form of the service we offer to God’s creation and created ones. When we feed the hungry, God feels our love. When we house the homeless, God knows we care. When we work for justice and pursue peace, when we make the world a better, fairer, more compassionate place, we send a message of love back to its ultimate source.

And does God share love through physical touch? Again, not sure how that would work. I just know that any love that we give or receive in any form is ultimately an extension of the love which motivated God to light the fuse to the Big Bang. You could say that our physical existence is a hug from God, as is the hug of anyone who sincerely loves.

You know, the prophet Micah in my bar mitzvah portion says it all, “Man has told you what is good, but what does God want of you? Only to do justly, to love acts of kindness, and to walk in humility with your God.”  

You know, I could not have said it better myself.


Intermarriage Redux (sermon)

Yom Kippur – 5771 / September 17, 2010
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff
Temple B’nai Or, Morristown, NJ

OK – a quick show of hands: How many of you were invited to the wedding this summer?

How many of you knew what wedding I was referring to?

Yes – I am referring to the wedding of Marc and Chelsea. It was clearly the wedding of the summer. CNN called it the wedding of the century. And since we are only ten years into the century, we could even say it was the marriage of the millennium.  And for those of us who see the world through Jewish eyes, it was also the intermarriage of the millennium.

The wedding of Chelsea Clinton from a mixed Baptist/Methodist background and Marc Mezvinsky from a Conservative Jewish background on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in July brought the topic of Jewish/Christian intermarriage into our national public discourse.

For most of us, the marriage of a Jewish person to a person of another faith background is a family fact of life. Were I to ask for another show of hands, which I am not going to DO, I would imagine that the vast majority of us have family members, nuclear or extended, who are intermarried. Perhaps you yourself, or your parents, are married to a person of another faith. Or perhaps it is your child or grandchild, a niece, nephew, uncle, aunt, cousin.

Intermarriage is commonplace in our world. In that there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that the high rate of intermarriage reflects an acceptance of Jews in American society, on the college campus, and in the workplace. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism is still crawling around in dark places under the rocks, we have found a true and open welcome on these American shores, where most everyone has internalized Dr. King’s dream that we judge each other solely by the content of our character.

That is the good news. The bad news is that, due to a number of factors, intermarriage being the highest on the list, there are now fewer Jews in our goldena medinah, this golden land. Our teacher and friend Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis says “the reasons [for the decline] are many: a… Jewish birth rate, below replacement level…; fewer Jewish immigrants…; a flattening of conversions to Judaism; and, of course, the burgeoning effects of non-marriage, late marriage, and intermarriage.”

Approximately half the weddings in America involving Jews are intermarriages. That means that for every three Jews getting married, two will marry each other and one will marry “out.”  Among the families with two Jewish parents, nearly all of the children are raised Jewishly, in some way. Within intermarried families, that figure drops to about 38%.  Most troublesome of all, the chance of an interfaith couple having Jewish grandchildren is somewhere between 4% and 8%, although I would venture to say that the intermarried grandparents here at Temple have a somewhat higher percentage. Dr. Sarna notes with astonishment that2,345,000 Americans reported having Jewish grandparents but not being Jewish themselves.”

There are those who blame Reform Judaism for the problems of assimilation and intermarriage. They are perhaps a little right, but on the whole, they are essentially and historically wrong. Reform Judaism was officially founded by Mr. Israel Jacobson, exactly 200 years this past July – so, happy anniversary to us! According to the “uninformed narrative,” before Reform Judaism came on the scene, everyone was Orthodox and there was no assimilation. And then came some who did not want to be as Jewish, so they invented Conservative Judaism. And then there were Jews who did not want to be Jewish at all but imitate their Christian neighbors, so they started Reform Judaism.

Sorry, but that is not the way it happened. In truth, Napoleon had already brought down the ghetto walls and enabled the civil emancipation of the Jews. Thousands of European Jews, young Jews, were already assimilating into the larger society, having no option but to leave their Judaism behind. For the most part, Reform Judaism arose to give them Jewish options.  Reform Judaism did not create assimilation; it was a response to assimilation. The intention of most of the Reformers was not to lure traditional Jews away from Judaism, but to bring back to Judaism a generation of Jews whose entrance into the modern world left them with little or no accesses into Jewish life.

They did this by forming home prayer groups and later Temples with prayers in Hebrew and German, organ accompaniment, and sermons delivered in German. Of course, the traditionalist rabbis (they were not called Orthodox back then) had a fit. They declared Reform to be off limits, claiming that their innovations violated Jewish law. (It was actually at that time that they declared that any innovation is a violation of Jewish law — chadash asur min hatorah — and that is when the term “Orthodoxy” came into use.)

But the Reformers knew their Talmud and codes and gave as well as, if not better, than they got, supporting their Reforms from within traditional Jewish law. There was one legal principle that was used at one point to justify their departure from the tradition. It is known in Talmudic discourse as Eit Laasot, which means literally, “It is a time to act.”[i] The principle is derived from a word-play in rabbinic literature from a verse in the Bible (Psalm 119:126). “Eit la-asot ladonai — it is time to act for the Lord – hay-firu toratecha – for they have annulled your Torah.” But the Torah text has no vowels and the ancient Rabbis played around with the vowels, and changed the word for “they have annulled” into a command “You must annul!”  Thus they read into it this principle: There are times when you have to act for the Lord and protect Judaism; and if that means annulling less important aspects of Jewish law, then you do what you have to do.[ii] It was the Rabbis’ way of saying that if something in Judaism is broken, you do what you must do to fix it.

What was broken for our Reform forebears was Judaism itself. What was broken was the fact that a generation of newly emancipated Jews had only two options before them: stay Jewish, but in the darkness of the middle ages, or leave Judaism and bask in the in the light of modernity; and young Jews were leaving in droves. There had to be a way for the Jew to be Jewish and modern at the same time, or else Judaism itself might be lost. For the Reformers, it was eit laasot — a time to act. Eventually they stopped trying to win arguments with the traditionalists. They maintained what they felt was essential, reformed other aspects of liturgy, theology and practice, and discarded that which they felt could or should be left behind.

In this inclusive spirit of our founders and with the vision of the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, Reform Judaism has since opened the doors to Jewish life to literally thousands to whom they had been previously shut, including gays, lesbians, the transgendered, and, with the greatest impact of all, Jews by Choice and Jews who had married persons from different faith backgrounds.

Which brings us back to today’s topic.

Today marks another anniversary of sorts, a chai anniversary. It was 18 years ago Yom Kippur that I addressed the topic of intermarriage from this pulpit. I acknowledged how many interfaith couples had made difficult decisions to be part of synagogue life and to establish Jewish homes. I thanked them then, just as we did earlier, especially the non-Jewish parents raising Jewish children, for the incredible gift they had given and continued to give.

To teens and young adults, I encouraged honesty and respect, for themselves and for others whom they might date. And to parents who hoped their children would marry other Jews, I urged them to give their children warm Jewish family memories and to encourage them to be Jewishly involved, especially after Bar/Bat mitzvah.   To Jewish parents of the intermarried, I urged them to be great Jewish role models for their grandchildren. There is one other thing I would add if I were rewriting that sermon today: I would throw in a suggestion to young intermarrieds and inter-engaged to get a particular four-letter “F” word out of their vocabulary, the word “fair.” I would tell them – as I do all the time – parents should care less about what is fair between themselves and more about what is in the best interest of the children, regardless of how “fair” it is to one parent or the other. If he prefers chocolate milk and she lemonade, then it is only fair that they fill up a glass half with chocolate milk and half with lemonade and tell their child, “Drink!”

Frankly, there was nothing I said in 1992 that I would not say now  In many ways, things are today as they were back then, only more so, quantitatively speaking.  But for me, more important than the quantitative changes have been the qualitative changes: changes within Jewish identity, changes in the consciousness of many who intermarry, and finally, changes within me.

As many of you read in my congregational letter in July, in my 30th years in the rabbinate, I will now begin to perform some intermarriage ceremonies.  As many of your sensed, this decision was one with which I have been wrestling for years.

Here’s why: One of the things that has changed through the years is the nature of Jewish identities. Younger people today have multiple identities. Their Jewish identity, as strong as it may be, is but one of many portals through which they see themselves. Many, like Mr. Mezvinsky, see no contradiction between feeling strongly Jewish and marrying someone who is not. They don’t see themselves as marrying “out,” they are just marrying. Also, people are getting married later – at a time in life when they are looking for a deeper spiritual connection. More and more want a Jewish wedding, not for their parents but for themselves.

Most compelling for me has been the sincerity and commitment of so many non-Jewish spouses — so many of you — who are raising Jewish children, I mean totally, unambiguous, committed Jewish children. Our movement’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, refers to you as heroes of Jewish life… and you are. The thanks and blessing you received this morning here on this bimah are thanks and blessings you earned.

Ultimately, it was you, it was watching your families’ Jewish lives that led me to change my position regarding officiating at intermarriage ceremonies. It was not about the statistics. For me, Jewish life is not about counting heads, it is about looking into faces.  It’s not about how many bodies we can gather, but what kind of souls we can engage and nurture, what kinds of Jewish homes we can construct and sanctify.

And the more I looked into the faces of those who have truly consecrated their family’s religious identity as Jewish, I began to see that my place could and should be there with them from the beginning, to name and bless the holiness of the commitment they were making to each other and to having a Jewish home. I also hope to be able to talk with more couples about something much more important than the wedding, which is the marriage and the home they will create together. What I am doing is not going to save the Jewish people. But as Dr. Sarna says, “Whether assimilation or revitalization ultimately predominates will be determined day by day, community by community, Jew by Jew.”

So as I wrote to the congregation back in July, Consistent with my understanding of a Jewish wedding as the sanctification of a Jewish household, I will marry those couples who make an informed, mutual and public commitment to establish a Jewish home. If blessed with children, the couple commits to raise and educate them as Jews with a positive and unambiguous Jewish identity. For couples who do not envision having children together, commitment to the continuity of Judaism is affirmed through study and synagogue affiliation.

I will officiate at intermarriage ceremonies, not in the hopes that it might someday lead to Jewish choices, but as a recognition that informed Jewish commitments have already been made and deserve to be honored and embraced.

Seeing it in this way, my position is not a theological compromise that would have me perform weddings with less than a whole heart. Neither is it a practical compromise made in the hopes that people would feel good (or at least not feel badly) about Judaism and/or Temple and/or me. Rather, this position allows me to do what I think is consistent with my understanding of Reform Judaism and is in the best interest of Judaism, the Jewish People, and these specific Jewish persons; and I wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to be so involved.

I don’t think I was wrong before and now I am right, just as I don’t think rabbis who do not officiate are wrong.  Where I am now is the result of a very long and personal journey that I have taken and, in many ways, we have taken together. To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. This is my season – my particular time for this particular purpose. This is my eit laasot – a time to act – to set aside what had been long cherished for the sake of something valued even more. There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. And when couples come forward to embrace Jewish familyhood, it is a time to embrace them.

And as we embrace these couples, I will continue to urge Jews to marry Jews, not because intermarriage is morally wrong, which it is not, and not because Christians and Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus are not wonderful people – they are no more or less wonderful than Jews. I won’t encourage inmarriage because intermarriage is eating away at our numbers, which it is, but frankly, that concern is not really high on the agenda of most young people these days.  I will encourage inmarriage because, as many of you have told me, it is easier. If you hope to have a Jewish home and raise a family in the Jewish heritage, it is simply easier when you marry someone who shares that same heritage and those same hopes.

As I am sure many of our families here will testify, it is easier and less tense not to have to negotiate every venture into anything that smacks of religion. As Jim Keen, author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family, writes, “The interfaith couple cannot afford to leave the details to chance.” And still there are those, however, who avoid the issue totally rather than doing the hard work of negotiating and choosing, while the children get little of lasting identity or substance.

You see, friends, I love Judaism and think that living as a Jew as part of an historic covenant community is an incredibly meaningful, significant, and beautiful thing. I also believe that Judaism has something to give to the world. And in order for there to be Judaism, there must be Jews. That is why I am deeply committed to the meaningful continuance of the Jewish people. I want for us to have Jewish children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And that is most likely to happen when Jews marry other Jews. Those of our intermarried families who are raising Jewish children are in the minority, which is another reason why they are so precious to us.

So even as we sincerely embrace the intermarried, how can we encourage inmarriage? There are no guarantees, but there are ways to stack the deck. We encourage inmarriage by urging our children to be Jewishly engaged, especially into their teen years. We do that by showing our children that being Jewish and living Jewishly is more than a hobby or an after-school activity. We do that by getting them to Israel, through Birthright or whatever.  We do that by learning ourselves and engaging in Judaism as adults for ourselves, so it is not just something for the kids.  For if Judaism is a childhood thing, then there will be no reason not to leave it behind with other childish things.

We encourage inmarriage by keeping Jewish singles connected to the Jewish community and to each other, something that here at Temple and in the greater Jewish community we don’t do very well. I wish we had the time and resources here at Temple to do more in that regard, but there are a couple of things we are going to do this year.

I imagine you have heard of J-Date, the very successful Jewish online dating service. I would say that a quarter to a third of the weddings I am performing these days were created on J-Date.com, including many of the couples sitting amongst you. It does not work out for everyone, but it has for literally thousands.  So taking a cue from my friend and colleague in Marlboro, Rabbi Donald Webber (or as we call him up here, the other Rabbi Don), we are happy to offer the children of our members a free subscription to J-Date. Just have them get in touch with either Rabbi Zamore or me. Let them try it. After all, it couldn’t hoit!

We are also in contact with a new group called Jersey Tribe, a self-started group of mostly Jewish, mostly single adults in their 20’s and 30’s who are looking for meaningful connection.  The purpose of the group is not to make couples out of singles – that will happen or it won’t – but it will be to give them a community that will engage them and pull them closer to Jewish learning, living, and social action. And when such groups appear for folks in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and up, our doors will be open to them as well.

Dear friends, Reform Judaism has taken many turns in the past 200 years, and who knows what Reform will look like in another 200 years? That is why we call it “Reform” and not “reformed.” That is the nature of a movement that is Reform and reforming, not just reformed.

But this we know: Reform Judaism today is alive and well. There are many challenges before us and we are far from the hoped-for messianic era. But we are blessed by Jews of varying beliefs, or none, who support the life of the synagogue, the central communal institution of Jewish life. We are blessed by the women and men from different faith traditions who have enthusiastically thrown their lot in with the Jewish people, they and their families. We are ten-fold blessed with an approach to Jewish life that is modern, dynamic, creative, adaptive, inclusive, and, yes, innovative.

Later this afternoon, we will be hearing from a panel of four of our members, all of whom are in some way involved in intermarriage: the child of intermarriage, a non-Jewish father in a Jewish family, a mom whose daughter is engaged to someone not of our faith and someone who became a Jew by Choice after marriage. Before the afternoon service, I will be here in the sanctuary for an open discussion on intermarriage.

In a moment we are going to end the service with these prayerful words:

Hayom t’amtzeynu. Strengthen us this day.

Hayom t’varcheynu. Bless us this day.

Strengthen us, O God, and bless us this day.

Strengthen us with the pride of belonging to the family of Reform Judaism. Bless us with the warmth, the wisdom, and the personal affirmation it brings.

Strengthen all those who, through no little sacrifice, give us the priceless gift of raising their children in a faith not their own.

And bless all those who dedicate and sanctify their homes in Your Name and join us on this great Jewish journey.

Strengthen them and bless them all this day, for it is they who strengthen and bless us, this and every day.


[i] Rashi on Berachot, 54a

[ii] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah: as Refracted through the Generations translated by Gordon Tucker, p. 737

©2010 Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff


Why are Jews liberal? Another view.

Lots of people are talking about the new book, Why Jews are Liberal by Norman Podhoretz. I have not read the book and probably won’t. My exposure so far are two well-written pieces which I would recommend. One is by classmate Rabbi Rami Shapiro, while the other is the NY Times review written by Leon Wieseltier.

Here is another modest offering into that conversation, what I have concluded as to the reason why Jews tend to be liberal. More specifically, to why Jews are attracted by the general liberal sense that government should take on the responsibility of caring for the poor, protecting the downtrodden, and generally providing a social safety net.

It is a sweeping generality, but is not all of this?

Why do Jews tend to lean liberal? I don’t think that it is because we (liberals) are smart and they (conservatives) are dumb, or that we are caring and they are indifferent.  Liberals believe in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing the homeless, and so do conservatives.  Jewish liberals and conservative Christians derive – directly or indirectly – the values of loving your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc., etc., etc., from the same sources, Sacred Scriptures, whether they see them as sacred obligations mandated by God or simply as compelling human values. (For me, those are the same.)  While liberals and conservatives may agree on the mandate, what they disagree on is the appropriate delivery system for the “services” Scriptures call us to provide. And in this regard, IN GENERAL, Jews and Christians may differ on this because of the essential natures of our respective religious experiences, and the different societal structures they historically built for themselves.

Simply put, we Jews heard the divine imperative calling to our people as a collective, covenanted, sovereign nation. Therefore, we tend to understand the prophetic mission as belonging to the community as a whole.  Even when we lived in non-sovereign, mostly self-contained, polities, we created communities which, as a whole, bore the responsibility of caring for all its members. There was no realm set apart as the “religious” realm as opposed to the “social” realm. We were all responsible for each other, and that responsibility was fulfilled by the community and the various institutions assigned to deal with this need or that.  Thus, in the Jewish world-view, society as a whole is supposed to provide the social safety net, and society acts as a whole throuugh government. 

Many Christians feel this way as well, which is why there are liberal Christians. But in Christianity, in many ways more than Judaism, the locus of the religious experience is not the community but the individual, and not as a citizen of a particular polity but as a member of a faith community. Therefore it seems natural and appropriate that God’s word be fulfilled by the individual working through his/her faith community.

In this light, it may be fair to say that the idea of faith based initiatives was meant not merely to blur the line between church and state (which it was), or to funnel federal funds through churches, thereby supporting their religious missions (which it does). I think that many people support faith based initiatives because in their heart of hearts, they believe this is the way it should be. Churches (etc.) are supposed to help poor people (etc.); that is not the government’s job.

It is an interesting twist as to the roll of “church and state,” in which Jews who are liberals want to live out so-called religious values through the vehicle of the state, whereas conservatives tend to feel that these “religious” obligations should be fulfilled by religious institutions, not the government, (although money from the government is more than welcomed to pay for it).

From my Jewish/liberal point of view, the laws about helping the poor, housing the homeless, etc., were/are addressed to society as a whole and therefore are incumbent upon me and the society as a whole. Even though we should and do perform these mitzvot through our synagogue communities, the ultimate responsibility falls, not on religious institutions, but rather on the instrument which the society as a collective has empowered, i.e., government. And it is the job of liberal religion to keep reminding people of that.