Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Meaning of Marriage

On occasion, on long walks with our dog or on long drives, I imagine situations which might arise in my work as a Rabbi and consider how I would respond. One of the situations which I envision goes like this. A man and a woman come into my office to talk about their upcoming marriage and to request that I officiate. They fulfill all of the Jewish legal requirements for a marriage and appear to be very much in love and ready to take this step in their lives. But, just before we set the date, they tell me something that they feel I should know. They tell me that they plan to have an “open marriage” in which they can engage in extra marital sexual relationships with each other’s permission and blessing.

My dilemma: Do I agree to officiate?

As I have played this scenario out in my mind, I keep coming back to the same answer: No. I would not agree to officiate at a wedding ceremony for a couple who had decided, in advance, that marriage did not mean exclusivity in sexual relationships. The entire concept of marriage within Judaism is based upon the idea of “kiddushin” sanctification, which means to set someone or something aside as unique and special. When the groom gives the bride a ring during the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, he says; Haray at mikudeshet le, behold you are consecrated unto me as my wife. Consecrated means sanctified, set aside as holy and is defined by the exclusivity of the sexual relationship.

Since the year 1000 Ashkenazi Jews (later to be joined by all Jewish communities) have rejected polygamy and therefore, the kiddushin now works in both directions. That is why I prefer that the bride make a similar statement during the ceremony to the husband: Haray atah mikudash li, behold you are consecrated unto me.

Exclusivity of sexual relationships, is, of course, not the only important aspect to a marriage but it is the explicit promise made by the bride and the groom and an overt, purposeful intention to not have exclusivity undermines the entire principle of marriage.

Of course, no marriage is perfect and, again, there are many more challenges to a relationship than this one. But, this is the essence of marriage: that intimacy, both physical and emotional, defines the relationship and when that promise is broken, the relationship is damaged. Going into such a relationship without this promise invalidates the kiddushin in my opinion.

So, when two Jewish men or two Jewish women walk in to my office to talk about their love, having promised each other that they will treat each other with kedusha, with holiness and sanctification, that they will love and provide for each other’s physical and emotional needs to the exclusion of all others and that they want to be married under the huppah, I will be honored to officiate at their marriage. When two people are in love and promise to love each other exclusively, physically and emotionally, they should expect no less from their Rabbi.

I believe that they should expect no less from this country.

And, the Supreme Court took a huge step in this direction on Wednesday by allowing federal benefits to same sex couples. There is much further to go but I believe it is a step in very much the right direction.

The first time I signed a marriage license for a couple, my hand was shaking as I realized what I was about to do. While my hand has stopped shaking over the years, I still realize the statement that that license is making and feel honored and priviliged that I can do this as part of my job.

I look forward to standing under the huppah with a same sex couple, and I sincerely hope that when I do, I will be able to sign a Michigan marriage license as well. I anticipate the first time that happens, my hand will shake again realizing how far we have come.

There is a tradition within Judaism that every time a couple gets married and pledges their commitment to each other, the world is improved, a piece of the “tikkun”, repair, necessary in the world is accomplished. I believe that that applies to all couples.

To me, it  is as simple as that.

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In Memory of a Beloved Character

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation, Ann Arbor, Michigan on Shabbat Parashat Hukkat, June 15, 2013. It was our annual t-shirt Shabbat, a time of relaxation and informality. It is a “quirky” tradition and I thought it deserved a “quirky” but very serious sermon.

This morning, my sermon will be in the form of a eulogy. But, this eulogy is different. It is a eulogy for a fictional character. In one sense, the eulogy should have been given at the time of the character’s death in 1980. But, I wasn’t a Rabbi at the time and I doubt that I could have spoken as passionately and as emotionally then. With age comes maturity and historical perspective, and so, when the individual who portrayed this character died just a couple of weeks ago, I decided that it was my opportunity to eulogize the woman who was arguably the most universally beloved character in television situation comedy history.

         And with that in mind, let me share words this morning in memory of our beloved teacher, Edith Bunker, zichronah livracha, may her memory be for a blessing.

         The 31st chapter of the book of Proverbs includes the section known as the Eshet Hayil, the woman of valor. While we all have known real life women of valor and while fictional television characters are not nearly as important in our lives, they still can be teachers and they merit our respect, admiration and emulation.

Eshet Hayil Mi Yimtza, “a Woman of valor, who can find?” Her worth is far above rubies. No one could argue that Edith was not a woman of strength. She put up with the constant abuse that her husband Archie heaped upon her, faced and then either tolerated or fully embraced the changes her daughter and son in law brought into her world, and fulfilled her chosen role as a housewife and a mother and grandmother with joy, enthusiasm and such love.

         Eshet Hayil continues: Batach Lev Baalah v’shalal lo echsar, The heart of her husband trusts in her and nothing shall he lack.

         Through thick and through thin, through good times and bad, Edith stood by her husband. She was uncomfortable with his bigotry but she stood by him nonetheless. She packed his lunch every day, including of course, a Twinkie, brought him his can of beer when he demanded it and made sure his white shirt was clean for work.

         But, that was only part of the story and there was so much more. When Archie was burdened with worries and concerns, she held him tight at night and stroked his hair and told him things would be all right. She often tried to sing to him but that was always a bad idea.

         And, when Gloria or Mike complained too much about Archie or spoke of him behind his back with anger or disgust, Edith pleaded with them to be a bit more patient, to be a bit more tolerant, to be a bit more compassionate and understanding.

         But, not only did others trust in her, she trusted in others and that trust was clear in so many aspects of her life as she treated everyone, as Pirke Avot instructs us to do, l’chaf z’chut, with the benefit of the doubt.

And when that trust was shattered, in two separate situations, she had the courage to confront those who disappointed her. She looked Archie in the eye when she discovered that he had been tempted to be unfaithful and uttered words which broke our hearts when we first heard them: “You were the only one I could always trust but now I can’t trust you no more”. After his eventual somewhat half hearted apology, she came back to him with love and dedication, although a bit more demanding that trust be returned.

         And, she also was a deeply religious person who found such comfort in going to church and clearly trusted in God. But, her faith was shattered when her good friend, Beverly Lasalle, was killed in a mugging, and she refused at first to go back to church. Still, she persevered asking the difficult questions, confronting the collapse of her theology and, after a struggle she returned to church, less naïve, but realizing that, like so many of us in times do in times of sadness that she was desperately in need of the spiritual support that religion and a religious community gave her.

         One of the most beautiful lines in Eshet Hayil is piha patcha bichamcha vitorat hesed al lshonah. “She opens her mouth with wisdom and her tongue is guided by kindness”. These words so beautifully describe our dear Edith.

         It goes without saying that Edith was kind. Archie called her Edith the Good and he meant it. She rarely said a bad word to anyone, opened her home to everyone regardless of race, sexual orientation, political viewpoint. She embraced every friend of Archie or the children, loved her grandson with an unlimited affection and was the epitome of fairness and justice.

         But, was she wise? Absolutely she was. You see, Edith understood people. She listened with sincerity and compassion. She never went to college but had more common sense than her graduate student son in law. In fact, one of the most brilliant scenes in the entire run of All in the Family was when Edith took Mike aside and told him that the reason Archie insulted him so often was because he was jealous of Mike. She told him that he envied the choices that Mike had in life when Archie would never be more than he was. It was a brilliant observation and the truth is that one of the underlying themes of the entire show was how much wiser Edith was than her son in law who was so busy studying for his master’s degree.

         Yes, she was prone to statements which defied common sense. Who else but Edith would suggest playing a game of twenty questions to try to figure out what famous person Archie had driven in his cab that morning and then begin the game by saying, in her characteristic voice: “Living or Dead?”

         And who else but Edith would conclude her long story about the can of cling peaches- or shall we say hmmm hmmmms- in heavy syrup-that jumped out of her carriage at the market and dented a car by saying to Archie as he sat there staring at her long convoluted story: “It was a freak accident”.

         And yet, it was Edith the good who left the note on the car with her phone number. It was “Edith the good” who offered to pay the owner of the car, Father John Majeski, for the damages. And so wise was she that two minutes after he had walked into the house, Father Majeski was confessing to Edith, a life long protestant, his deep frustration with the job he had to do every day as a priest. And Edith gave him advice. And Father Majeski listened intently.

         Edith saved a man’s life by CPR, successfully fought off a would be rapist, stood firm as the only juror to vote for acquittal of a man who was eventually exonerated of murder and, in one memorable episode, convinced Archie to perform an act of what we refer to as hesed shel emet, true sincere kindness, by having a proper funeral for his freeloading uncle who had died in the Bunker home. To top it all off, when she was bored at home, she dared to defy Archie, leave the house and embrace her volunteer work at the Sunshine Home with love and dedication.

         She appeared to be simple. Her shrill voice, off key singing and awkward gait around the house which reminded one of a servant afraid of being punished if she didn’t walk quickly enough made you think she was a nothing. But, as Gloria said very clearly after insulting her once: “Ma, I’m sorry I called you a nothing. You’re really something”.

         Some of you don’t own a TV. Some of you don’t remember All in the Family. Some of you remember it and dislike it. But, most of us who remember All in the Family, loved it. And, love it still.

         All in the Family was without a question the most influential example of American popular culture in the 1970s. And, to those who question what role Edith had to play in this, look at it this way. There were many, many American women and men in 1970, the year of the show’s debut, who were not ready either to be Gloria Stivic or to be in a marriage like Gloria and Mike’s. But, as the decade moved along, and as we all watched Edith take small but critical steps to become more of an equal partner in her marriage and to impact the world outside her home as she did inside, more and more women and men warmed up to the idea that this idea of women’s demand for equality in marriage and in the world wasn’t so bad and so dangerous after all. Many learned this from those who were passionately fighting in the public arena for more respect for women. Many learned it from the simple, daring steps that Edith Bunker took as her character changed and grew through the years thanks to the superb acting of Jean Stapleton, zichronah  livracha.

         We have all known women whom we would call eshet hayil and obviously those we know in real life are more important That goes without saying. But, turning to tv, there is, I believe, one woman who stands miles above the rest for her loyalty, her love, her generosity, her cheerful attitude, her compassion and yes, her wisdom.

         May the memory of Jean Stapleton and Edith Bunker be for a blessing and an inspiration to all of us.

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Controversies “for the sake of heaven”

I lead a study group on the Torah portion of the week on a bi-weekly  basis at Beth Israel. This morning, I had the opportunity to teach an interpretation on a text which I have been thinking about for years.

The text is found in Pirke Avot and presents the idea that a machloket, a disagreement, which is “lishem shamayim”, “for the sake of heaven” would have lasting significance while one which is not for the sake of heaven will not have lasting significance. An example of each is then given. The example of the disagreement which is not “for the sake of heaven” is that of Korach and his band while the example of the disagreement for the sake of heaven is that of Hillel and Shammai.

Korach, the main character in this morning’s Torah portion, is a Levite who, along with Datan and Aviram and 250 others complain to Moses and Aaron that they have taken power inappropriately. The entire community is holy says Korach so “why do you elevate yourselves about the community of God”? While the rebellion itself leads to many interesting questions, I want to return to the text of Pirke Avot and note, as do many of the commentaries, that it is odd that the argument is referred to as the disagreement of “Korach and his band” as opposed to Korach and his band against Moses and Aaron. This is especially noteworthy because in the other phrase, Pirke Avot notes that the example of the disagreement “for the sake of heaven” is that of Hillel and Shammai, the two Talmudic Rabbis who disagreed with each other on matters of Jewish law. So, in one part of the teaching, we have Korach and his band (listing only one of the parties of the disagreement) while in the other, we have Hillel and Shammai (giving the opposing parties). This is unsettling because mishnaic texts, such as Pirke Avot, are generally taught in very precise ways and this text is not precise because of the lack of parallelism in the language.

The dominant Rabbinic interpretation of this text is that in fact Korach and his band were constantly disagreeing with each other and in fact, while they were rebelling against Moses and Aaron, they were not unified but rather were constantly fighting with each other for their own personal gain. So, in this case, the text in Pirke Avot is in fact parallel. There is a disagreement between Korach and his band and there is disagreement between Hillel and Shammai.

But, I prefer another explanation.

I start from the perspective that Korach and his band represent only one side of the argument. They might not have been unified but their disagreement at its core was against Moses and Aaron. But, then, what about Hillel and Shammai and the lack of parallelism in the text?  I would argue that Hillel and Shammai also represent only one side of the disagreement. I would argue that Hillel and Shammai, like Korach and his band are “on the same team”. Hillel and Shammai may disagree on the specifics but they agree on the general principle that Jewish law is important, that we must seek to understand Torah and that we must seek to understand what God wants from us. They may disagree on the specifics but they are, in the long run, on the same side of the argument between those who care about Jewish tradition and those who do not.

Hillel and Shammai did not “hate” each other, they didn’t call each other names, they didn’t ignore each other. They taught what they taught and, I like to think, at the end of the day, shook hands and studied and prayed together. They were clearly approaching the “big questions” in the same way, disagreeing only about details and how to achieve the goals God set for us. The fact that both of their opinions are stated in the Talmud (and similarly opinions of other disagreeing Rabbis are stated) clearly points out that both opinions are to be respected even as one is considered the favored interpretation by later generations.

As I taught this class this morning, I referred to something I had heard many years ago. Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the house (and, by the way, my congressman when I lived in Boston), paid tribute to President Gerald Ford’s time in congress by noting that at the end of the day in congress, Democrats and Republicans would leave behind their animosity and act as friends and colleagues. But, O’Neill noted when Ford was a congressman, “there was no time clock”, in other words, he always acted colleagially even with those with whom he disagreed.

We don’t see much of that in congress today for sure and we are all less fortunate because of it. And in  our Jewish communities, we don’t see it as often as we should. Understanding that we have the same ultimate goals and are trying, each in our own way, to achieve those goals is one of the most important principles we need to remember as Jews. We are all on the same team. Let us recognize that our differences of opinion as long as they are for constructive reasons will have lasting and positive significance.

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