Archive for March, 2005

Shemini and Schiavo

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

Dear Friends:

As I write this, it’s been a few hours since Terry Schiavo has entered the World
to Come- may her passage be easy and her memory be a blessing for her friends and family.

I’ve said very little about the controversy over her right to die- or right to
life, depending on how you see it- though many rabbis and spiritual leaders have used
the media frenzy as a chance to discuss important issues with their
congregations.  This week, however, not only is the Torah portion directly relevant to these
issues of literally life-and-death, but my own anger and frustration as a religious leader
has reached the point where I want to speak out. Not against Congress or the
judiciary or the doctors or the family, but against my colleagues, the so-called spiritual
leaders and advisors who have done so much to irresponsibly inflame passions on all
sides of this debate.

First, let’s put things in the context of this week’s parsha. The most famous
part of Shemini is the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons, after they offer
“strange fire” in the Mishkan. Moshe tries to console his brother, but Aharon is silent;
thenMoshe tells Aharon and his other sons to continue with the work of the Mishkan,
and not to adopt the rituals of excessive mourning. All of this is in Vayikra/
Leviticus chapter 10, which you can find here, in the middle of the page:

Now, returning to the topic at hand: what I find fascinating in the story of
Nadav and Avihu is not so much the topic of “why did this happen?” (although that’s a
timeless question for further Torah study) but in the reactions of their family. Moshe,
after all, is their uncle, yet he first tries to offer consoling words of explanation, and
then urges his other nephews to continue with the work of the priesthood- in modern
language, we’d say he was telling them to “move on with their lives.”

To me, both of these reactions are natural and common, born of a basic human
desire to lessen the pain of those we love. Yet sometimes when we try to
console, we end up sounding like the loss shouldn’t be so painful, or we try to minimize
the grief, which is often a well intentioned but ineffective gesture. The very idea
of “pastoral care” (not limited to official pastors, of course) is not so much to
find the right words to take away the pain but to be present with the one who is
suffering. In the parsha, Moshe is talking, but Aharon is silent- and sometimes silence is all
we can truthfully manage while going through times of loss and sorrow.

Silence, of course, is the one thing that’s been missing in the United States
these past few weeks, as everybody from newspaper columnists to radio pundits to
television preachers have discussed the Schiavo case in all of its details. The
legal and moral issues are complex, and I make no pretense of special insight, yet one
aspect of recent events bothers me greatly. The Schindlers- Terry Schiavo’s
parents- have often appeared with both Catholic and Protestant religious leadership-
everybody from Randall Terry, the anti-abortion crusader, to Jesse Jackson, if
you can imagine it. Prayer services have been held outside the hospice, and even the
Vatican has issued clarifications of its teachings about the “right to life.”
But where in any of this has been the pastoral care of grieving parents? How is it possible
that intelligent religious leaders have held out hope for a medical miracle against
all the advice of modern neurology, and nowhere is there evidence of that any spiritual
counselor has ever helped this poor family deal with its pain, its grief and

We’ve heard the talking- and the posturing, and the politics, and the preaching-
but where is the silence in the face of tragedy, that silence which is the truest
companionship when life becomes unbearable? I accept that different people have
different views of the Schiavo case- as I said, the issues raised are not
simple- but I cannot accept that religious commitment means only commitment to faith beyond
facts, as opposed to a humane commitment that life can be renewed for the living
after the death of a loved one. Sometimes helping people hold on tight when life
is ending is not mercy, but an abdication of responsibility on the part of the
“spiritual advisors” who are precisely the people who are supposed to have the “big
picture” of life and death, in its ebb and flow, over generations, in the sight of God, with
Whom we are ultimately reconciled.

Like Moshe trying to tell his brother that Nadav and Avihu were glorified in
their deaths, I can well understand how a religious leader wants to offer hope and
comfort in a time of tragedy, yet I cannot help but feel that once again, religion has
debased itself through the grandstanding of its most public “defenders.” Offering the
remote possibility of medical miracles, as opposed to the comfort of faithful presence,
to grieving parents facing bitter truths is to my mind a travesty of spiritual
leadership and pastoral care. Faith in life can be faith in the possibility of life to
renew itself.  Death is precisely when such faith is tested, and it’s the job of all members of
a religious community help each other find that faith when it is most needed. This
is done not by living in a world of impossible hopes, but by offering one’s
presence with a full heart- and that’s the kind of orientation towards life in which all
Americans could find agreement.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS – Here’s a well-balanced discussion of different Jewish views on end-of-life
issues relevant to the Schiavo controversy:

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The Poetry of Purim

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Purim

Dear Friends: With the holiday of Purim almost upon us, I
thought it would be a good time to do something a little more-
aahh, cultural, shall we say?

As many of you know, Purim is a fun and happy holiday, in which
we read the story of Esther and her bravery, which saved the
Jews from destruction in ancient Persia. What many of you may
not know is that not only does Purim typically involve funny hats,
a bit of shnapps, and yummy hamentaschen, but there is a more
serious and creative aspect of traditional Purim observance as

Of course, the Jewishly educated among you realize that I’m
referring to the revered and holy art of Purim haiku, which is
rapidly regaining its prominence as one of the most spiritually
satisfying of Jewish religious practices. Many of you probably
learned in school that a haiku is a short poem, with lines of five,
seven, and five syllables, often evoking nature, which originated
in Japan. Well, that’s only partially right- recent linguistic
research has shown that the history of the word involve a hard,
gutteral -kh- sound, making the Hebraic origins obvious: it’s a
chai-ku, a poem of life.

Many Purim haikus illustrate the way Jews celebrate the holiday
in their places of worship, with the guidance of their spiritual and
lay leaders. For example:

cantor in costume
much Jewish frivolity
rabbi wearing drag

joyful children smile
songs, laughter, festive feasting
board members tipsy

Or perhaps you might have a haiku which is a paean to the
distinctive foods of the season:

delicate pastry
golden star, heart of sweet prune
soon, only matzah

It’s also important to understand that Purim haiku, in particular,
is something that helps Jews connect the timeless story of
Esther and Mordecai with their local circumstances and modes
of cultural expression. For example, these two haikus only work if
you pronounce the key phrases of local idiom with a heavy
Boston accent:

Queen Esther, so brave
Risked life, saved the Jews
She was – wicked smahhht*

Mordecai wise, strong
Gave Haman and sons what fer **
spring breeze, they sway high

Then again, Purim haiku can have an implicit political message
in it:

King of Persia
nefarious advisor
like “W” and Rove

Sometimes Jews write Purim haiku in order to give local or
historical figures the symbolic seriousness which derives from
being compared to the epic and paradigmatic figures of the Book
of Esther:

hero of legend
appeared when life was dark
Mordecai? Ortiz!

all times hatch evil
then, Haman plotted bad schemes
today- Steinbrenner

As our final example, here’s a Purim haiku which is fascinating
for its linking of local events- in this case, the merger of two
neighborhood synagogues- with the release from the
oppressions of bureaucracy which the Jewish holy day provides:

Bereshit process
Xanax prescriptions arise
aaah! Purim, no vote !!!

As you can see, Purim haiku continues to be a living art form,
putting into poetry the spirituality of the season.

happy Purim, y’all,


*[smart, for those outside New England]

**[a term meaning vengeance]

PS- for those who want some serious learning this week, here
are two links: the first is teachings on Parshat Tzav, the next is on
the holiday of Purim itself.

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Shabbat Zachor: Arrogance and Authority

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Zachor

This week is both the beginning of the book of Leviticus and also a special
Shabbat called Shabbat Zachor [Remember], which gets its name from a
short additional reading during the Torah service. The reading is from the
book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy, and describes the commandment to
remember Amalek, the evil people who attacked Israel’s stragglers along their
journey through the wilderness. Amalek is associated with Haman, the villain
of the Purim story, and so Shabbat Zachor always comes right before Purim is

Shabbat Zachor also has a special haftarah, or prophetic reading, and it’s a
very difficult text. Shaul [Saul], the first king of Israel, is told by the
Shmuel [Samuel] to attack the Amalekites and destroy them utterly, killing all
the people and even the animals. Shaul goes out to war, but doesn’t follow
Shmuel’s instructions: instead, he captures the king alive and takes the best of
the livestock as booty.

This disobedience to the letter of the commandment earns Shaul a rebuke
from Shmuel, who not only executes the captured king in cold blood but takes
the kingship from Shaul. Shmuel castigates Shaul harshly for not obeying the
instructions given to him:

“And Shmuel said, ‘You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the
tribes of Israel. The Lord anointed you king over Israel, and the Lord sent you
on a mission, saying, ‘Go and proscribe the sinful Amalekites; make war on
them until you have exterminated them.’ ‘ Why did you disobey the Lord and
swoop down on the spoil in defiance of the Lord’s will?” (1 Samuel 15:17-19)

This text is problematic on quite a few levels, defying our basic sense of
mercy and offending our moral commitment to avoid unnecessary bloodshed
and collective punishment (and never mind that the original command itself
comes close to our definition of genocide.) We will not solve all those sticky
issues today- a full study of the moral and theological issues in this week’s
haftarah would take up quite a bit of bandwidth. However, neither can I
dismiss the text as the product of a brutal age. The ancient rabbis gave us the
practice of reading this story once a year, and trusting as I do in their
collective wisdom, I think we need to “turn it and turn it again” until I can
Torah even in the middle of a bloody and cruel narrative.

One way to redeem texts which we find offensive is to place them in a larger
context. In this case, the Israelite nation is making the transition from tribal
chiefs to a single king – which they themselves wanted, in order to be be like
the other nations. Shaul, the first king of Israel, earns himself an
“impeachment” from Shmuel because he substituted his own judgment for the
Divine law which he was pledged to uphold. Rather than seeing himself as
subject to Torah law, as interpreted by the acknowledged prophet of the era
(Shmuel), Shaul overreached his authority, thus showing himself to be unfit to
wield the powers of state.

Now, let me be clear: in no way am I advocating total warfare as a normative
Jewish value, nor am I suggesting that religious law should be the basis for
the political structure of the Jewish or American communities.

However, having said that, I do see in this story a classic case of leadership
hubris: the king saw himself as the source of law, rather than the implementer
of it. In contemporary political language, it’s a cliché to distinguish between
“nation of laws” and a “nation of men,” but I think that’s a big part of the
point in
this story, and a very relevant issue in a world where political authorities
routinely, even brazenly attempt to place themselves above national and
international norms and well-defined laws.

We can struggle with the issues of warfare and bloodshed as presented in
this week’s haftarah while at the same time seeing in it a cautionary tale about
the moral and spiritual dangers inherent in assuming positions of great
authority. Shaul- like countless other kings, prime ministers, presidents,
CEO’s, and other powerful people- fell victim to the solipsistic arrogance of
office, forgetting that he was there only to serve the community and safeguard
its laws. Pick up any newspaper, and you’ll see that this arrogance persists;
contemporary religion, with its fundamental ethical commitments, must serve
as a counterweight to those who would commit the idolatry of
unaccountability, forgetting that the nature of leadership is to be servant of
wider community and its rightful institutions.

So why read this story now, right before Purim? Well, who was the most
despotic figure in our traditional texts? Probably Haman, whose utterly
narcissistic sense of self-importance led him to devise a plot to exterminate an
entire people based on a perceived slight to his honor. I don’t think anybody
ever meant to directly compare Shaul- whose mistake may have been mercy!
– to Haman, but if this haftarah is seen as a commentary on abusing the
powers of office (among other things), then at least we can see a theme
running through the Purim season. Curbing the abuses of arrogance, of
course, should be a basic mission of religion- one that we must never forget,
and not just on Shabbat Zachor.

PS- the full text of this week’s haftarah can be found here:

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Pekudei: Beauty and Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei

Shabbat Shalom!

This week we conclude the book of Shmot/Exodus: the Mishkan
(Portable Sanctuary) is finished, under Moshe’s supervision, and
when the final pieces are put together, the Presence of God
rests on the Mishkan in the form of a cloud. (Cf. Shmot 40:34)
When the cloud lifts, the people would follow it, and when it
rested, there they would camp.

There is much to be said about the final few verses of Exodus,
but for today I’m interested in the idea that the Mishkan was not
complete, as it were, until it incorporated elements of both
human design and images of nature. Even if we accept at face
value the idea that the Mishkan was built according to a precise
Divine plan, it was not made “operational”- according to these
verses- until it also bore the form of a cloud. Sockets and planks
and weavings are almost paradigmatic of what humans create;
clouds, just as clearly, are something purely natural, beyond the
capacity of humans to create or disperse.

To me, the teaching here is that a sacred space built by human
hands- with attention paid to its beauty and capacity to take us
out of our ordinary experience- must also include reminders that
the natural world is wondrous and extraordinary and holy,
existing for its own purposes and not merely as means to our
ends. In this way, a sacred space can be both beautiful and
humbling; beautiful for its artistry, and humbling in the way that
being the vast beauty of nature is awesome and overwhelming.

Perhaps in the Mishkan, the beauty came from the
craftsmanship and the precious materials, while humility was
evoked when people experienced God’s Presence as a cloud,
something from the greater world which transcends society,
something beyond our ability to control or contain.

Last week, as part of the COEJL conference, I had the pleasure
of visiting two synagogues in Maryland which have made their
worship spaces both artistically beautifully and also deeply
evocative of the natural world. Not only that, but as part of their
commitment to include values of environmental stewardship as
part of synagogue life, these buildings were built and are
maintained with “green” principles, even at slight extra cost in the
short run.

First, Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue, has instituted a
“Green Shalom” ethic into the everyday workings of synagogue
life. Not only that, but the central worship space of the synagogue
has been crafted to evoke a tree from the land of Israel, thus
linking the idea of the Torah as a “Tree of Life” to the trees of the
land, which are in a very real way the source of our life. Go to: < > and look for the links on the
left hand side. Find the links for “Pictures,” where you’ll see the
sanctuary, and “Green Shalom” for ideas on how this synagogue
has incorporated reverence for nature into its operating

Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue, has a somewhat
different approach to linking worship with the experience of
nature. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find good pictures on their web
site, but what they’ve done (among other things), both to save
energy and evoke the Cloud of Glory in the Mishkan, is to hang
white fabric- almost like giant sails- around the inside of their
sanctuary, diffusing the natural light from the large windows
while at the same time making the sanctuary feel light and open.
Go to: < > . Look for the
link to “history/ blg” at the top of the left hand column to read
more about the principles of both spiritual and environmental
design which went into their building project. You have to scroll
down about halfway into the column to get to the part about
design, but the first part is interesting too.

Finally, to read about the COEJL conference, you can follow this
link to a nice story in the Washington Jewish Week:

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayekhel: Stewardship of Money and Mission

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayekhel

Greetings from snowy Swampscott!

I just got back from the joint conference of COEJL (Coalition on
the Environment and Jewish Life) and JCPA (Jewish Council for
Public Affairs); I’ll have some thoughts on what I learned as part
of next week’s parsha study. What follows is an idea I presented
as part of a d’var Torah to the national board of COEJL at its
meeting after the conference.

In the Torah portion Vayekhel, we learn about the building of the
Mishkan by skilled artisans. Even though we’ve been reading
about the Mishkan for weeks now, before this portion it’s all been
instructions- now the plans are implemented and reviewed. The
entire people participate in the building of the Mishkan, by
bringing materials to be used in its construction: precious
metals, gems, fabrics, wood, skins, etc. In fact, the people bring
so much that Moshe has to call off the collection efforts:

“And they spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘The people are bringing very
much, more than is enough for the labor of the articles which the
Lord had commanded to do.’ So Moshe commanded, and they
announced in the camp, saying: ‘Let no man or woman do any
more work for the offering for the Holy.’ So the people stopped
bringing.” (Exodus/Shmot 36:5-6)

Now, clearly, this is a problem many organizations would love to
have! Most synagogues- and churches and schools and other
non-profit organizations- are constantly struggling to balance the
budget while doing the work they’re called to do. Salaries,
insurance, utilities, and overhead all have to be paid every
month, and fund-raising is hard and often thankless work. Not
only that, but few people want to give money to pay the lease on
the photocopy machine- people often want to give for more high-
profile programs or building projects .

In fact, almost any non-profit executive or board member could
instantly recite a whole list of great things they’d be able to do
with more money, so the thought of telling the people to stop
bringing donations- as Moshe does- seems silly, even farcical.
At best, we might use these verses to inspire people to give
more generously; certainly it’s appropriate to be inspired by the
first-ever Capital Campaign in the history of the Jewish people!

Yet even though as a rabbi and board member I can hardly
imagine telling people to stop giving so much, I think this story is
much more about leadership than donorship (if that’s a word.) I
think Moshe was acting out of the highest ethics in keeping his
trust with the people, and in doing so, setting an example for
everybody who ever asked for a shekel in the years to come.
Moshe wanted all the people to participate in building the
Mishkan, and in doing so, laid out his vision, inspired by
revelation, of a beautiful, but finite, worship space, which would
unite the people in the center of their camp.

The people brought what Moshe asked for, in accordance with
the plans and needs. Had he taken even one board more than
necessary, the building of the Mishkan would have become an
end in itself, tied to the egos of the builders, rather than a means
of worship and spirituality. By stopping the donations, Moshe
communicated something crucial: that building the Mishkan was
something done by the people, through their gifts; for the people,
to deepen their relationship with God; in accountability to the
people, who gave willingly to build it.

When Moshe stopped the donations, and thus showed that he
respected the act of giving, he also stopped (or at least
curtailed) the potential for scandals, rumors, resentment, angry
confrontations, and questions about “where is my donation
actually going?” After all, Moshe got what he asked for, which
demonstrated that the people trusted him to ask for that which
was truly needed; to ask and then take more than what was
needed to build the Mishkan would have abused that trust.

Think about all the solicitation letters you probably get every
week- personally, I probably get about 15-20. They’re all pretty
good at making the case that my dollar is needed for some
important purpose; most are not so good at making the case
that the organization asking for my donation is a careful steward
of both money and mission. Moshe understood that effective
leadership creates a covenant of trust with the community, and
that’s the kind of leadership needed in the many organizations
which serve the Jewish community and wider society.

Not only that, but look at the other side of Moshe’s example: by
being clear about what he needed to build the Mishkan, and by
showing through his deeds that he was a careful steward of the
community’s resources, he also earned the right to ask the
community to give, and give generously. All of us who serve in
communal leadership would love to have fund-raising problems
like Moshe had, but to get there, we’re going to have to build trust
like Moshe did, which is truly the foundation of of our sacred
work, every day.

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