This coming week, many of us will stand together. We will stand for prayers. We will stand in memory. We will form a community. For the past two years, congregating was fraught. After Covid, we no longer take it for granted that gathering is the way we start the New Year.

Crowds in synagogue used to be a Rabbi’s best dream.  Judaism is a religion best experienced as a community. We learn from Torah that our connection with the Holy One is best achieved as a collective. In the Torah reading for this week, the people gather to reenter into a covenant with God. The reading starts with the words “you standing here, all of you.”  When we are together, we are most able to access the Divine.

During these upcoming High Holidays, if you can gather in a community, I urge you to do so. Zoom services and live streaming is certainly available to us all. They can be entertaining and even engaging. Yet, you may have forgotten the power of a community experience. Listen to the voices joined in prayer. Greet your neighbors and wish them a good year. Even criticizing the Rabbi’s sermon is better with friends.

As we emerge from the Covid era, I wish you more time in community, more time to gather with friends, and opportunities to share your best self with others. And I hope to see you soon, hopefully joining us at a prayer service.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

What is the key to happiness? Teddy Roosevelt said that the key to happiness is having low expectations!  Buddha said: that happiness doesn’t depend on what you have or who you are. It solely relies on what you think. The Capitalist path to happiness may be just having friends poorer than yourself. But I believe Judaism offers the best guide to happiness.

Among all the positive psychology books on happiness I own, I only needed one. Our Torah. This week Torah instructs us on the delivery of the first fruit offerings. Upon completion of the task,

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכׇל־הַטּ֗וֹב אֲשֶׁ֧ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֛ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּלְבֵיתֶ֑ךָ אַתָּה֙ וְהַלֵּוִ֔י וְהַגֵּ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃

“you shall enjoy, together with the [family of the] Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that your God has bestowed upon you and your household.”

Dissecting Deuteronomy 26:11, you could create a TED Talk on happiness. The elements of happiness are these.

1. Have the right attitude. As Winnie the Pooh said, “the most important decision I will make today is to be in a good mood.” Unless you are open to enjoyment you won’t feel happiness. The text offers a divine urgency to being happy. If God wants you to be happy, who are you to do otherwise!

2.  Come together with others. Spend time with varieties of people. People who you respect and people you don’t yet know. Some people who are richer, some poorer, some more powerful, and some less so. Happiness increases through companionship.

3.  Share what you have.  Be generous and be kind.  However much or little you own, sharing creates happiness.

4.  Whatever you have, be grateful. You have been blessed with opportunities. Each day offers something new, and the possibility of something wonderful. If you are blessed with much, appreciate the bounty. If you are blessed with health, be supremely thankful. If you are blessed with friends and family, treasure them.

With the New Year approaching, I am focusing on gratitude. I am grateful even for the opportunity to reflect on mistakes I’ve made and opportunities I’ve missed. I’m grateful for my community with whom I will pray and eat and sing and laugh.

Thank you for reading my blogs all year long and for your feedback which has been so thoughtful and encouraging. And I thank God for new opportunities for us to enjoy life together.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

I remember when children had utter respect for their parents. It was also a time when spanking was acceptable. Some parents even used the strap. Did “wait ‘til your father gets home” scar(e) us into submission or make us better children?

Jewish parents might have used Torah to threaten their children for millennia. Torah says that parents may have a rebellious child stoned to death. Yes, it says that in Deuteronomy 21:21. It wasn’t until the last century, that Dr. Spock’s baby book taught that children are complex little humans and parents should follow protocols in raising them. Until then violence was an acceptable part of child-rearing.

Barbaric you say? Today, the paddling of school children is legal in 19 states. A school superintendent in Missouri said the parents thanked the school for paddling their child. Of children who were subjected to corporal punishment in this country, 37% were African American, and 21% had disabilities, reported the New York Times in August 2022. Many dark undercurrents of society accompany the acceptance of violence,

The Cassville School District in Missouri now solicits the parents’ prior consent to paddling the child as a policy. “When it becomes necessary to use corporal punishment, it shall be administered so that there can be no chance of bodily injury or harm,” the policy says. “Striking a student on the head or face is not permitted.”

Even debating a policy on corporal punishment in schools reflects the dark currents in our society. If insurrection at the U.S. Capitol can be a tourist visit, then paddling a child is just an educational experience. The acceptance of violence as discourse or as an educational tool is endemic.

The murder rate in major cities continues to rise. Some say it relates to the Covid pandemic. I think it connects to the deterioration of morality as political shifts harden into confrontation.

The murder rate in major cities continues to rise. Some say it relates to the Covid pandemic. I think it connects to the deterioration of morality as political shifts hardened into confrontation. U.S. Senators predict “violence in the streets” regarding Presidential politics. If politics is fair game for violence then what segments of society are immune?

I understand Torah to be written for a less evolved society than our own. The threat of violence might have been necessary to overcome people’s worst nature thousands of years ago. But as modern people, in the age of science and technology, our society should be moving toward peacefulness and nonviolence. Hitting children or storming a Government building, are both utterly unacceptable. That is a truth that should be self-evident.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

I substituted reading for my Saturday afternoon nap. I selected another book about the transformation of American Jewish life. Whether warning of an apocalyptic end to Judaism or touting the innovations in Jewish life, these books are all searching for a core truth. Is there Judaism without an enforced Jewish legal system? Is there more to Judaism than its laws?

In Torah, Moses plainly lays out these choices for the Hebrews as they enter the Promised Land. God has set before them blessings and curses. How they behave will result in one or the other. Modern and progressive-leaning Jews are unlikely to believe that each decision we make will be answered by God with either a blessing or a curse.

In order to receive blessings is to obey the laws and rules set out by Moses. He cautions the people in Deuteronomy, Chapter 13, “You shall not act at all as we now act here, each of us as we please.” Torah speaks to the importance of adherence to rules. Subservience to Jewish law tracks to the establishment of a responsible and civil society.

The founding fathers built American democracy upon the advancement of individual rights and freedoms. This is where Judaism and American-ism differ. Judaism is a religion of responsibility to others. When we obey the laws, we give full effect to that responsibility. Reflecting on those ancient constructs from our modern perspective, we might be inclined to be dismissive of many mitzvoth. Outside of Orthodoxy, Jews have afforded themselves the freedom to select which, if any, of the laws to observe.

We are not afraid that our poor choices will be countered with curses from God. We are not feeling bound to those of the 613 laws which often have little relevance to our lives. And yet I know that anyone reading this will have a strong Jewish identity and is a proponent of Jewish values.

Clearly, Judaism endures despite the threat of curses or the rejection of its legal code. At its core, Judaism represents values that still speak to us today. Torah teaches us to care for each other. Dozens of times we are reminded to take care of the widow and the orphan and the stranger among us. Judaism has enough vitality to transform its practices. Jewish identity is strong even among those who don’t engage in Jewish rituals. American Jews are activists and philanthropic because of their Jewish identity. Stripped of the threat of curses or the strict observance of 613 mitzvoth, Judaism endures because Jewish identity has goodness at its core.

In America, we explore new ways to construct Judaism with modern sensibilities. What we need most is people willing to engage with each other in a process of reimagining how good Judaism can be.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

My rabbinic studies included deep dives into emotional states. The rabbi responsible for my studies had one profound caution for me, unrelated to my intellectual abilities – watch out for your anger. At the time, I was confused by the comment. I didn’t see myself as an angry person. But the warning was as important as commenting on my text studies because anger is hazardous.

Having begun my professional life as an attorney, I reflected on how anger is often a tool. The appearance of being angry can be a used for persuasion or change. Anger also antagonizes and can impede compromise. Even indignation, wrapped in righteousness, can deter progress. Anger is not a solution to any challenge or conflict.

Throughout most of the Torah, Moses was steady and focused. Toward the end of his life, Moses was worn down. After Miriam’s death, the miraculous water source that followed her dried up. God directed Moses to speak to a rock to draw out water. Instead, Moses was uncharacteristically angry.  Moses hit the rock and scolded the people. As a result, he was banned from entering the promised land. Moses’ inability to control his outrage was his undoing.

Jewish wisdom teaches that we should control our anger. The Talmud sage Reish Lakish said, “when a person becomes angry, wisdom departs . . .” Anger causes us to lose control, as our rational thinking is defeated. The consequences can be grave.

As a corrective, Deuteronomy offers a divine prescription to refocus our irritation and animosity. Moses remained angry with the Hebrew people who were often stubborn and faithless through forty years of wandering. Yet, in the last days of his life, Moses refocused his energy and suppressed his anger at them. At first, Moses rebuked the people. Then he refocused his rhetoric toward a more positive message. Setting aside acrimony, Moses proposed an oratorical guidebook to a better life: love your neighbors, observe the God-inspired rules, and don’t believe you are the master of all you have received. These are pillars of living Jewishly, relationship, responsibility, reverence, and reserve. With these Middot in mind, we can better mitigate feelings of anger.

I needed this reminder as I lost my temper this past week. I could have self-soothed if I had just remembered Moses’ guidance. Love is more important than discord. Stay disciplined and focused. Don’t let your ego overpower your intellect. There is a higher authority that demands deference. As my teacher had warned me, I needed to be mindful of my anger.

Even if I believe my displeasure to be justified, Torah demands calm. There is no “middle way” when it comes to anger. Otherwise, we may irreparably damage relationships that we should value. Ire and enmity are a negation of our responsibilities. Anger leaves little room for God-liness. And, as Moses’ life teaches us, anger is hazardous.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

 

The Jewish people have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Our fixation on remembering renews the trauma of an oft-attacked people. The Jewish calendar cycles us through a history of slavery, exile, and annihilation. We read through Torah, year after year, with all of its tales of flood, famine, and warfare. As a result, modern Judaism needs therapy.

The association of memory and emotion is key to understanding Judaism today. Scientifically speaking, negative emotions are more easily affixed to memory. As Bob Dylan might say, Judaism is tangled up in blue.

On the Jewish calendar, we are rounding the corner past Tisha B’av. On that fast day, we recall when the Holy Temple was twice destroyed. Later in the calendar, we celebrate Passover by revisiting slavery in Egypt. Our tradition demands that we recall these tragedies in every generation. Engagement with our history of victimhood reconnects us with emotions of anxiety, stress, and fear. Yet, our PTSD battle cry is “never forget!”

Moreover, the connection of our emotional states to memory alters how we recall the past. When trauma is associated with memory, our brain tries to cope with the distress. As a result, our memory is compromised and our narrative gets distorted.

Here’s an example from Torah. In Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the events of forty years in the desert. Yet, the narrative is revised from the prior books of the Torah. Moses recites previously unknown and unlikely conversations with God. Moses blames the people for his own disappointments. This leader’s emotions colored his memory and created new narratives. Moses’ speeches in Deuteronomy set out a template for the Jewish future, based on his emotion-distorted memory.

Jewish responses to the Shoah present another example. After the Holocaust, Judaism was reimagined. Yeshivas taught that Hitler’s goal was to eradicate Torah. Orthodoxy doubled down on Halachah to exceed past adherence to Jewish law. Ultra-Orthodoxy today attempts to compensate or overcompensate for the six million lives lost. “To the Yeshivish world, true defiance and triumph came from total subservience to God’s commandments and an unquestioning acceptance of His will, regardless of the circumstances,” wrote Andrew Altman in the Forward in 2018.

Others in the post-Shoah era formed Jewish identity as a shield from anti-Semitism. Jewish life was defined for many with activism spanning from the Anti-Defamation League to the Jewish Defense League. Another response to the Shoah is an ebullient Zionism that promotes and protects Israel, the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Shoah. These shifts were the consequence of memories linked to trauma. Beginning with a three thousand-year history of suffering stored in Jewish memory the trajectory of Jewish life was again redirected post-shoah.

Judaism, as a religious experience, continues to be shaped by trauma. My fear is that future generations will distance themselves from a Jewish life that operates either under the heavy yoke of Jewish law or the crushing weight of Jewish victimhood.

I believe we need to carve out a version of Judaism that allows us to be free from the baggage of both trauma and the orthodox overemphasis on halacha. Our task is to put Judaism into therapy so a healthier and emotionally uplifting Judaism can emerge. I believe we need to carve out a version of Judaism that allows us to be free from the baggage of both trauma and the overemphasis on Halacha. Let’s make an appointment to explore that thought!

Rabbi Evan Krame

 

The Washington Senators decamped to Minnesota in 1961 and became the Twins. Perhaps in return, two judges originally from Minnesota were soon nominated to the Supreme Court, Warren Berger, and Harry Blackmun. The Nixon administration selected them precisely because they were conservative-leaning jurists. The two were also known to be dear friends. The press referred to them as the Minnesota Twins. Their legacy reminds us of the primacy of justice in a democracy.

By 1970, Richard Nixon put his imprimatur on the Supreme Court. Hoping for judges in the moderate to the conservative range, he selected Berger to be chief judge and Blackmun as associate justice. In 1973, Berger selected Blackmun to write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.

Commentators today explain that the decision was based on uncovering a right to privacy, not explicitly granted in the Constitution. I prefer to understand the Court’s decision to acknowledge the primacy of justice. Then, as now, the American legal system is flawed and marred by injustices. I believe that Blackmun wrote based upon a moral obligation to elevate individual rights over any system of laws or over any individual law.

The focus on justice over law can be found in Torah. As the fifth book, Deuteronomy opens, Moses begins by recalling the need to establish a judicial system shortly after the people reached Sinai. Before receiving Torah, and without a legal code, seventy elders from the tribes were selected for judicial roles. Their decisions could not be based on statutory law. Therefore, there must have been an understanding of justice that was common to all people.

On the last day of his life, Moses recalls the story of his leadership beginning with the establishment of a judicial system. He does not begin with the miracles or the Mishkan (tabernacle) the people made. Justice is more critical than any miracle performed or any tangible item. Moreover, people ensure justice. We do not rely upon God to bring moral certainty on a daily basis. Our role is to preserve humanity by virtue of our willingness to submit to a legal system rooted in universal concepts of morality.

The Supreme Court’s Minnesota Twins set aside political affiliation and strict legal interpretation for a higher purpose: the primacy of justice. Their approach is as old as Torah. Judaism teaches that a system of justice cannot be detached from morality. Justices who are partial to a legal philosophy fail to account for the true purpose of the judicial system. The protection of individual rights and civil liberties is more deeply rooted than any partisanship. Yet, in every generation, we need Minnesotan sensibility to recall the primacy of justice.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

Talking heads on television refer to breaking news as unprecedented. Their use of language belies history. The United States was founded in an insurrection. Both inspired and immoral revolts recurred in the years after. More uprisings will certainly follow. What is uncertain is how good people respond.

Insurrections are as old as Torah. Do you remember the revolt of Korach? After years of miracles and desert travels, Korach leads a revolt against Moses. In Parshat Pinchas, God ordered a census of the Hebrews. During the detailed count, Torah notes that the descendants of Korach did not die. Korach’s legacy is that his inheritors of rebellion will rise again.

The breaking news on cable television will report the next revolt. “History shows that both those who do not learn history and those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it,” wrote Nicholas Claremont. The question posed is how we minimize the threat of future violent, anti-democratic insurrections.

Good people forget these lessons. We share in the responsibility when we stand idly by. Recall these words written about the Shoah. “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander,” wrote Yehuda Bauer. “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing,” wrote Simon Wiesenthal.

The Congressional hearings on January 6, 2021, are only the beginning of the necessary process of quelling the latest insurrection. Public truth-telling is the beginning of recovering this nation’s balance. Recording testimony is a start. It must be combined with our response – at the ballot box, in the halls of government, and by teaching our children.

The descendants of Korach did not die. They will not die until good people pay greater attention. Otherwise, the history of insurgency will repeat. The need for moral outrage and the demand for justice never ends.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

The Old Synagogue stood on Rosenstrasse, at the edge of the oldest part of Berlin. A small park and quaint buildings form a typical Berlin thoroughfare. Here, on February 28, 1943, an unprecedented demonstration began. The Aryan wives of Jewish husbands protested to prevent the deportation of their husbands.

Such protests were not only illegal but quite dangerous. Dozens of Jewish men were detained in a final Nazi attempt to clear Berlin of all Jews. After a week of protests, dozens were released from custody before being sent to certain death at Auschwitz.

These women are remembered in a 2003 movie for their heroism. There is a memorial on Rosenstrasse dedicated to these protestors. But I wonder if the world should celebrate these women. By definition, speaking truth to power is not merely calling out a government for a slight or setback. Speaking truth to power implies a moral or ethical motivation to benefit a greater good. The women of Rosenstrasse were brave, perhaps courageous, but their efforts were limited to their own self-interests. Never had there been any such demonstrations for the other 55,000 Jews deported from Berlin by the Nazis.

In Torah, we learn about speaking back to those who are powerful. Balak, King of the Moabites, summoned the prophet Balaam to come from Mesopotamia to curse the Hebrews. Three noteworthy conversations take place. In the first, Balaam seeks God’s approval but misunderstands the reply.  In the second, Balaam is embarrassed by his talking donkey, who calls out his master for being an “ass.” In the third conversation, Balaam is forced to confront Balak’s frustration and wrath. Balaam tries to explain that he is only able to speak the words fashioned in his mouth by God. Instead of curses, Balaam blesses the people.

Each of these conversations is a way of addressing authority – between a prophet and God, between a donkey and its rider, and between a servant and his royal master. Only when Balaam reveals God’s honest truth to Balaak is he speaking truth to power. His words honor God.

Speaking truth to power became a fashionable phrase among progressive groups in America. With moral certainty, protesters object to war, injustice, and discrimination. The history of free speech reaches far beyond these holy pursuits. Americans have a certain enthusiasm for degrading those in power. Today many people delight in the upstart or firebrand who speaks as a victim but is really a bully. Ultimately, we may have lost the distinction between the holy act of speaking truth to power and merely speaking out.

In the most recent hearings of the January 6 Committee, administration insiders have come forward to speak of their last-ditch efforts to curtail a violent overthrow of the United States. We applaud their willingness to speak out. Yet, I worry that we give them too much credit. These newly designated heroes waited far too long before standing up for our nation. Perhaps their last-ditch efforts were as much for their own self-interests as it was for our nation.

It takes courage to speak out publicly. The act of protesting to the leader or president is what makes a person seem heroic. As Jews, it is not sufficient to be heroic. Rather our tradition asks that we be ongoing spokespeople for what is moral and ethical. Pursuing our self-interests is not sufficient. The perilous times we live in demand that call out injustice as a practice or prayer, for the sake of peace, for the sake of our democracy.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

The current United States Supreme Court again ruled in ways antagonistic to universal rights. The Court curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set standards on climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions for existing power plants. After the horrifying decision endangering women’s health, the Court has moved on to jeopardizing our well-being and our planet. Choices on protecting the planet and expanding individual rights are as old as the Torah. With Torah there is hope.

Some countries are leaders in protecting rights and the environment. Germany is one such country. While on vacation in Berlin, I saw a homeless man lying on the street. Our guide told us that the man was homeless by choice. The German government guarantees shelter for anyone in need. Their social welfare system works well – free childcare, excellent health care, and a dynamic social security system. Environmental advocacy is ubiquitous. When buying a bottle of water at a kiosk the vendor made certain that I would return the bottle for a refund.

As I read Parshat Chukat in Torah this week, I found cautionary tales for our times. After Miriam died, the miraculous water source that sustained the Hebrews dried up. God instructed Moses to speak to a rock and draw water. Instead, a curmudgeonly Moses hit the rock and chastised his people. Water gushed from the rock. Poor Moses was denied entry into the promised land for his faithlessness.

An environmental advocate might offer a modern understanding of this story. As the planet warms, extreme droughts are underway. To save the planet, thoughtful and sustained water management will be essential. Striking out will not suffice.

A few chapters later, Moses is instructed to gather the people. Where they gathered, the leaders of various tribes together dug wells. With a spirit of cooperation, a source of water was released. Everyone benefitted from the joint efforts.

Economic cooperation and environmental collaboration are hallmarks of Germany’s successes today. These values mimic the arc of the Torah’s description of how to move from a water crisis to coordinated environmental management. Moreover, Germany is committed to equal participation by all people in social, political, and economic life – regardless of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, disability, or other traits.

This year, even as we celebrate America’s birthday we grumble about America’s turn toward extremism. I suggest that we look to both Torah and Germany for inspiration on how to resuscitate our Democracy. Germany’s take on Torah is expanding freedom and preserving our planet. It may strike you as odd that the words Torah and Germany are used for the same proposition. Yet, it gives me hope that any desperate situation can be turned toward the good.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame