Monthly Archives: January 2015

To Wear or Not To Wear

For the sake of completeness, I will leave this post up but I have to say that my thoughts have changed on this issue in the last couple of days. I am now inclined to believe that this entire issue was overblown (sorry!) and to believe the statements that Bill Belichick made on Saturday. While I still am open to the possibility that the Patriots purposefully altered the footballs illegally, I refer you to my latest Facebook posts which are much more supportive of the Pats and critical of the farce this entire issue has become. RD

It arrived in the mail today. But, somehow it doesn’t look like it did when I ordered it.

Last Sunday evening, in the wake of the New England Patriots’ crushing victory over the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, I ordered a wool, winter hat with the Patriots’ logo on it. Actually, it isn’t the current logo, it’s the old logo which I grew up with: a minuteman type character centering a football. I always loved that logo and preferred it to buying an “AFC Champions” shirt because I wanted to hold out for buying a “Super Bowl Champions” shirt if the opportunity arose. I went to bed that night very happy and was only mildly amused on Monday morning to hear that there was some issue with the footballs used by the Patriots during the game.

Of course, it turned out that this seemingly trivial issue has turned into a scandal which has hit all the front pages, all the nightly newscasts and keeps getting more and more bizarre as accusations and denials fly though the air.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, it seems that the footballs used by the Patriots when they were on offense (each time provides its own footballs when it is on offense- I didn’t know that before this week) were under inflated below the standard that the league provides. Clearly, this gave the Patriots some kind of an advantage as their quarterback, Tom Brady, has often stated that he likes the balls to be lighter while other quarterbacks prefer heavier footballs. He feels they give him a better grip. But, these were tested after a question was raised and found to be significantly below the required minimum weight.

So, there we are. If this is true and no other explanation can be found for why the balls turned out to be underweight, then the assumption has to be that the Patriots cheated their way into the Super Bowl. And that hurts. It hurts badly. It hurts me because as much as I like my teams to win, it seems that this would be a blatant, arrogant action which would make a mockery of the league and its rules. For someone who likes sports as I do and who sees my Boston and New England teams as a way to connect with my childhood home, I feel like I have been cheated. I’ve watched and cheered for this team and would be deeply disappointed and angry if these allegations are in fact true.

But, before I burn the hat and find something else to do next Sunday, I want to wait to make sure, and it hasn’t been ascertained for sure yet, that the story is as the accusers say. We are in our tradition supposed to judge someone “lichaf zichut”, with the benefit of the doubt and even in a situation like this one, in which the Patriots had previously been caught doing something illegal several years ago, one should still lean on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt.

So, I’m willing to wait to hear more information. In the meantime, let me mention two issues that are being raised to try to argue on the Patriots’ behalf. One makes a difference to me, one does not. The one that does not matter to me is the fact that the Pats would have won this game one way or the other. They completely crushed the Colts and they beat them on defense (using the Colts’ footballs) and beat them with a running game which presumably is not helped significantly by the weight of the football. So, according to this theory: no harm done. But, I can’t accept that. It’s wrong one way or the other and it has no bearing on whether the course of the game was changed because of the weight of the ball.

However, the other issue is more critical. The other issue is the point  now being made  that many, many quarterbacks do something to the balls to make them more to their liking and that often these go beyond actions permitted by the league. Whether it is scuffing up a football or making it heavier or lighter, some claim this is common to the league. That perhaps might explain why the officials didn’t stop the game when they picked up the noticeably lighter footballs: they were used to it, they’d seen it often before and knew that if they called attention to it, they would be being inconsistent. Now, the fact that others do it doesn’t make it right but it does raise the question as to why this issue is being raised now and why the Patriots should be singled out for criticism. If the league has been “letting things go”, to suddenly become strict doesn’t seem fair.

But, in the end, if we were to hear without question after the NFL investigation results are made public, that the Patriots did in fact willingly and knowingly break the rules in a way giving them a distinct advantage, it will take a lot of fun out of what could be one of the greatest Super Bowls ever with the Seahawks’ tremendous defense against a Patriots offense which seems at times unstoppable. If the results show purposeful cheating, I’ll  probably still watch the game but I have to be honest, my heart won’t really be in it and I won’t wear the hat. Bending the rules in sports is a common practice and I’m willing to concede that a lot of what we’re hearing comes from “Patriot Haters” of which there are many. But, it wouldn’t change the fact that the team I have been proud to cheer for will have let me down. Worse things have happened in my life, of course, but should it all be true, it hurts and hurts bad.

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This Week’s Sermon- Parashat Shmot: Am I Charlie?

I delivered the following sermon this morning at Beth Israel. Please note, as I explained to the Congregation, that I wrote this sermon on Thursday evening before the horrendous attack at the kosher supermarket in Paris. On two occasions this morning, we expressed solidarity, concern and hope for the Jews of Paris and all who are in danger. This sermon was a reaction to the attack in Paris on Thursday.

SERMON FOR PARASHAT SHMOT 2015  AM I CHARLIE?

The terrorist attack in Paris this week was a horrendous, uncivilized, evil act. And, the fact that it was done in the name of a religious faith makes it even more of a hillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

But, there is another side to this story that I want to explore this morning. For the past few days I have been thinking seriously about the issue of satirizing religious leaders or religions. I certainly am not in favor of censorship nor do I think religions or religious leaders are above reproach or should be given a free pass to escape the critical spotlight shown upon other institutions. But, it still bothers me deeply to see such caricatures of religious faiths that the French newspaper Charlie Hedbo published.

To feel that one’s religious faith has been demeaned or insulted is an experience that most of us who consider ourselves religious have experienced in one way or another during the course of our lives. It is a heartbreaking experience to have one’s faith tradition or one’s religious leaders or teachers mocked. Of course, it is horrendous and completely unjustifiable to respond to such mockery with murder or acts of violence but it is painful nonetheless.

What bothers me most deeply about the caricatures is that while religious leaders and thinkers who preach violence or hatred deserve to be publicly condemned and I have no hesitation doing that or seeing it done, there are many religious leaders and thinkers who reject violence and hatred and are trying desperately to bring our world closer to redemption. They tend not to get as much attention and I despise and refute the idea that religion only brings pain to the world. I feel that caricatures or any type of “art” which paint with a broad brush hurt all of us.

So, amidst the legitimate concern about censorship and free speech and the horrible example of hatred and violence demonstrated by the extremist Muslims who perpetrated these acts, let us take a moment to look at some positive religious examples around us. Let me refer to two local organizations and three individuals who epitomize a different, constructive approach to what religion can and should be.

I have spoken on several occasions at programs sponsored by the Niagara Foundation, a group dedicated to bringing understanding between the Abrahamic faiths. Those programs have highlighted Jewish, Christian and Moslem leaders who have reached out in concern and love and clearly, publicly and forcefully condemned all acts of violence. Gathered in a room with people who truly seek mutual respect for religious faiths is refreshing indeed.

While I obviously don’t endorse some of the philosophical positions of the Catholic Church, I continue to be so deeply impressed by the kindness, the sincerity, sensitivity and the humility of Pope Francis. He represents in so many ways what religion can be for the world and stands as a shining example for all of us.

And, when I think of our own faith, I think of leaders and teachers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel whose 42nd yahrzeit was observed yesterday. He was a man who personified what religious faith can be: teaching us to be humble, to never accept violence or hatred as “the way it should be” but to be truly surprised and dismayed at every act of violence. He stood for civil rights, for an end to war, even for environmental justice before it was popular to do so and begged us to make our lives a work of art.

And, a few weeks ago, we learned of the death of one of the most honored teachers of our movement, Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Rabbi Schulweis built a vibrant and visionary synagogue in Los Angeles. He founded organizations to bring recognition to non-Jews who performed acts of courage and heroism to save Jews during the Shoah and joined with Leonard Fein, Zichrono livracha, to form MAZON: a Jewish response to Hunger.

But to me Rabbi Schulweis will always be known first and foremost as the author of one my favorite books: For Those Who Can’t Believe. This book is a gem, helping to show how Jewish faith can be fulfilling even for those who think critically and don’t buy pat answers. It is a marvelous book and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

One of the points Rabbi Schulweis makes in this book is that many people make assumptions about what religions teach and assume therefore they can’t believe in the faith in which they were raised. Regarding a young man who is cynical about Judaism, Schulweis writes; “Paradoxically, the only religious notions he considers authentic are those he cannot believe; the only ones he can believe are those he thinks to be inauthentic.” This is similar to that old line they used to say, and maybe still do, about secular Israelis who would object to non-Orthodox synagogues because “the shul I don’t go to is Orthodox”. Offering alternatives which challenge assumptions and preconceived notions about faith often fail because it is easier to reject religion based on what you think religions teach than to engage in serious spiritual consideration of what a faith has to offer.

So, while those who demonize religious faiths have unfortunately some very legitimate grounds to criticize and extremist terror is certainly the most blatant, painting with a broad brush is insulting.There are just too many who still do good work in the name of religions and I believe in the power of religious faith to bring this world to a better place. I haven’t given up yet despite what I read in the papers.

I am pleased and honored to once again welcome Reverend George Lambrides, co-director of the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County to Beth Israel today. The Round Table seeks to educate, to bring people together and to demonstrate that learning about each other’s faith will help us to understand each other and to encourage us to work together to improve our community and our world.

Tomorrow, at Zion Lutheran Church, the Round Table will present this year’s Faces of Faith program in which members of different religious community from Washtenaw County will introduce their faith to others in a fascinating and inspiring format of small group discussions. The program takes place from 2-4 Sunday afternoon and I encourage all of you to attend.

There are many who are using the expression: “Je Suis Charlie” to make a stand in favor of free expression of ideas. In terms of standing against censorship, courageously standing against those who seek to silence others and standing in solidarity with those who have been victimized by terror, I also say: Je Suis Charlie.

But, that doesn’t mean I admire the way the newspaper has characterized Jews, Christians and Moslems. I don’t. I find these cartoons to be offensive to all.

So, in addition to standing for freedom of expression, those of us who believe religious faith can be a constructive aspect of our world and deserves respect must be willing to say- and I’ll say it in English because my French is not good enough- “I am a religious individual and I work for good in the world”. In that way we will be following in the tradition of our teachers whom we remember today and honoring those throughout the world who continue to truly do God’s work.

They are the ones who deserve to be on the front pages.

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The Concept of Marit Ayin

As most of you probably know, I am a loyal fan of the New England Patriots. After so many decades of suffering with the Pats, the last 13 years have been so much fun and the team has rewarded their fans with 3 Super Bowl Championships and we certainly have hopes this year.

While I haven’t quite become a Detroit Lions’ fan over the past 26 years I’ve lived in Michigan, I have a soft spot in my heart for them and hope that someday, sometime, they will reward their fans with a championship although even one post season win would be a good place to start.

I watched most of yesterday’s Lions-Cowboys game and really thought that the Lions were going to pull it out somehow but it wasn’t to be. But, of course, everyone who watched the game today is talking about the very unusual event which took place in the 4th quarter when the Cowboys were called for defensive pass interference on a key play. The penalty would have given the Lions, who were ahead at the time, a first down in Cowboys territory with 6 minutes left in the game. After the call was announced on the field and the TV announcers and their “expert on NFL rules” all agreed that the call was correct, the referees reversed their ruling said it was not a penalty without giving any explanation as to why the “flag was picked up”. Of course, the Cowboys went on to win the game.

The game took place in Dallas, the home of the Cowboys who have in recent years been a disappointment . This is the team that was once called “America’s team” and some wonder whether the NFL would have a reason to want to see the Cowboys succeed. So, immediately people began to speculate as to whether the reversal of the call might have had something to do with the desire on the part of the league that the Cowboys win the game.

But, things really got interesting when it was reported in several media outlets that the head of officiating for the NFL had been on a Dallas Cowboys “party bus” during  the summer smiling with the owners of the team. Apparently, a video shows him looking in the words on one site “chummy” with team executives and the owner’s son.

Now, let me be very clear right here. I have no idea whether that means anything or not. And, I certainly don’t want to appear to be claiming that the reversal of the penalty call had anything to do with some kind of a desire that the Cowboys win or was a kind of a payback to a “friend” of the boss of the referees. I have no idea whether that’s the case and can’t be the judge.

So, why bring it all up? Because it is the ideal way to teach a concept of Jewish law called “Marit Ayin”, literally: “How it looks to the eye”.

According to Jewish legal tradition, one must avoid something that appears to be illegal or improper even if it is not. One must be very careful not to give the impression of impropriety even if no such impropriety exists. Thus, it would seem to me that the director of officials should not have been on “the party bus” with Dallas Cowboys’ officials even if it was completely harmless and had no effect whatsoever on the ruling on the field yesterday or at any other game.

Let me give you a couple of quick examples of “marit ayin”. According to Jewish law, if one is serving something that looks like it is not kosher (think almond milk at a meat meal or artificial bacon bits made of soy), one should have the packaging on the table so it is clear to everyone what is being served. There is no reason why eating either of these should be prohibited but one must be careful not to give the appearance that real milk at a meat meal or real bacon would be kosher.

Another example: if a couple comes to me to officiate at their wedding and want to have a more contemporary ketuba, wedding document, I will tell them they must also sign a “traditional” Conservative ketuba. But, if they want the contemporary ketuba signed and displayed publicly at the wedding, I will agree to that but will be very careful to say publicly that the couple also signed a traditional ketuba which is required according to Jewish law. This is done so as not to give the impression that the non-traditional ketuba is acceptable in and of itself.

And, finally a story: when I was working at Camp Ramah, we used to have small single serving boxes of cereal at breakfast. There was a rule that the kids could not take the boxes out of the hadar ochel, the dining room, and eat them either  in the bunks because of a fear of bugs and other animals (and to prevent waste). The kids were all aware of this rule and one morning I saw one of my campers with a box of cereal on the road back to the bunk. I reminded him of the rule and took it away from him. A minute later, while I was still holding the cereal, a bunch of campers from another bunk saw me and started complaining about how the rules were only for the kids and not for the staff and making fun of me for breaking the rule. I explained it patiently to them but they refused to believe my story. That is clearly marit ayin.

So, who knows if there was anything behind this non-penalty in the Lions game. What is important is that a person in a position of responsibility should not give any impression of impropriety because one can never tell the assumptions it leaves people with.

Good luck to the Lions next year. And, of course, Go Patriots!

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