World Zionist Congress Election
Rabbi Aaron Weininger
What can I do?
As many of you know, my brother Dan made aliyah almost nine years ago. He lives in Jerusalem, where he is studying to be a Conservative rabbi. I got to see him a few weeks ago while I was leading Honeymoon Israel with the 21 couples from our community. Not long before I left for Israel, Dan posted a new Facebook profile picture. It was a picture of him, beaming, under a huppah, officiating at the wedding of his dear friends in Beit Hanan. When my dad saw the photo on Facebook, he asked me if Dan expressed concern about any consequences. Frankly it took me a minute to understand why my dad was asking.
But then I understood.
You see, it is both invalid and illegal for a Reform, Conservative, or Modern Orthodox rabbi to officiate at a wedding between two Jewish people in Israel. For a Jewish couple to be recognized by the State of Israel, their union must be performed by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel or performed outside of Israel in a civil ceremony. Today Ultra-Orthodox synagogues, youth groups and rabbis in Israel receive at least $1 billion dollars annually from the state, which originates from an agreement made in 1948 when founding Prime Minister Ben Gurion empowered a then-shrinking Orthodox community. He gave them control over all religious affairs in Israel. My brother is among the 64% of Israelis who want separation of religion and state and the 64% who do not want any religious body to have governmental authority in Israel, and the 62% who want Israel to recognize a range of Jewish conversion ceremonies. He is among the 800,000 Israelis seeking an alternative to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, that simply want to enjoy on Israeli soil the spirit of egalitarian, intellectually and spiritually open Judaism that we enjoy right here on snowy ground. As a rabbinic intern, my brother is helping build one of the 87 Conservative congregations across Israel. His congregation is right in the heart of Jerusalem, at Kehilat Zion, where Ashkenazi and Sephardi, adults of all genders and life experiences dance and sing in an overflowing basement of a rec center while kids run around, swinging from window bars like a makeshift playground.
What can I do?
My colleague Rabbi Gordon Tucker writes the following, “Zionism was about allowing Jewish culture to flourish without the constraint of foreign domination, so that Jewish political life, intellectual life, moral development and its religious expression could reflect the full range of what the Jewish people believe and aspire. Alas, the last in this list—religious expression—has been hamstrung by invidious funding decisions that cut us out, and by offensive rules and insulting rhetoric besmirch our reputation.”
You may be asking, why I keep posing the question what can I do?
Why am I talking about my brother (aside from being proud) and reflecting on a definition of Zionism?
Because we find ourselves often wondering, in a world that seems complex and beyond our control with the flurry of daily events, how I might do something and draw from my spiritual life as a force for good? Is it possible to do anything but lift our hands in despair and lurch from crisis to crisis? So much of our relationship to current events in our country and abroad is dictated in such a way. Tragedy strikes, and community mobilizes. Can we do something with our hands to shape the world, or at the very least shape Zionism as Rabbi Tucker imagines, so that it remains strong and in consonance with the majority of Israelis who are counting on us to act? I believe we can. And we must.
Approximately every five years the World Zionist Congress convenes, the very same World Zionist Congress that Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, convened in Basil, Switzerland in 1897. It is meeting again in October 2020. Who gets to show up at the Congress? Well that depends on you. As Rabbi Tucker explains, “The more delegates we elect, the more seats we have at the table of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund, and other organizations. Since they are not formally government organizations, through them we can obtain precious funding to nurture the religious culture that we offer daily to an Israeli population that wants it and needs it. 2-3 million dollars can flow to our movement in Israel and throughout the world if we are represented well there.”
What can I do?
After Shabbat ends tonight, each of us has the choice to move from the reflection of the day to the action of the week. Take five minutes. If you are 18 years of age or older, go online and register to vote in the World Zionist Congress. There is $7.50 registration fee. After you vote, send the link to three friends and ask them to vote. If you’ve voted already, thank you. And please also spread the word. Our numbers in Minnesota stand at a low 156 voters. In the land of 10,000 lakes and 10,000 reasons we take pride in our state, we must do better for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who are counting on us. We have until March 11th, when voting closes.
Our own Rabbi Kravitz, Hazzan Dulkin and Heidi Schneider are represented on Slate 6, the Mercaz slate of candidates, that stands for the kind of wedding canopy, huppah, my brother created for his friends. Mercaz, which means center, supports the Israeli Conservative movement, known as Masorti, which secures the rights of anyone who has converted by a Reform, Conservative or Modern Orthodox rabbi to be recognized as a Jewish person in the Jewish state. Voting Mercaz advances all of the rituals and practices we take for granted as egalitarian American Jews. Voting Mercaz also supports hundreds of Israeli kids with special needs who celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies with Masorti communities, in partnership with the ADRABA Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities. 1,600 youth across Israel take part in the Conservative movement’s dynamic youth program, called NOAM. I visited many of these kids at summer camp in northern Israel, as rockets were falling on southern Israel in the summer of 2014. Voting Mercaz supports a Judaism that is welcoming, a Judaism that we are practicing this very morning, a Judaism that Nate is stepping into with pride.
Hopefully by now you realize this sermon is not just about asking each of us to vote, which is essential. But I am asking each of us whether we are able to look at our hands and find the capacity to DO SOMETHING with them, to do something to stand up for Zionism, to support our brothers like my own in Israel, to realize that we are not powerless when we look at a chaotic world. That we have something to add to that world— not just when people are trashing Israel or attacking Jews— but when we have the opportunity to vote, dream, and build toward a vibrant, pluralistic, and democratic Israel. We have that opportunity to heed the words of the Psalmist who warns, “Should I forget you O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. Let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not elevate Jerusalem above all my joy.” In A New Psalm, his commentary on that selection from Psalm 137, Rabbi Benjamin Segal writes, “Reflecting a world turned upside down, the poet used “not remember” and “forget” to pledge remembering and not forgetting. The withered hand and the frozen palate might reflect the act of pledging…”
What can I do?
Let us pledge. For Jerusalem. For the State of Israel. For hope.
I think of my brother performing his first wedding in Israel, an illegal and invalid act. A ceremony his brother thousands of miles away and a few degrees colder does in this very sanctuary without fear of detainment.
At the end of the Jewish wedding, we break a glass. It is meant to symbolize the destruction of Jerusalem, an historic pain that cuts through an otherwise miraculous moment. We might imagine many such moments in our own lives. Pain punctuating joy.
We are so fortunate to have witnessed the rebirth of the modern State of Israel in these last nearly 72 years. And we have work to do to keep in mind Israelis who feel a sense of brokenness, but choose hope. Who choose to pick up the pieces. Israelis who get to work every day building with optimism. Israelis who rely on us to use our hands too, to not let them wither in disinterest or despair.
On this Shabbat I ask you to commit with me to helping pick up the pieces. To pick up the shards in the new week through our commitment to do something. To recognize we are not powerless when the world around us seems to be breaking in parts. That we have the strength, even in shaky hands, to register, to pull the lever online, and stand up for Zionism. To do so proudly, to encourage our friends, and to vote in the elections for the World Zionist Congress.
May our broken world, may our beloved Israel, may our lives find wholeness. And let us say: Amen.
Click here to Vote MERCAZ
Hazzan Joanna Dulkin
Spiritual Fitness (author unknown)
If you can start the day without caffeine or pep pills,
If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches & pains,
If you can resist complaining & boring people with your troubles,
If you can understand when loved ones are too busy to give you time,
If you can overlook when people take things out on you when, through no fault of yours, something goes wrong,
If you can take criticism & blame without resentment,
If you can face the world without lies & deceit,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
If you can relax without liquor,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs…
Then you are probably a dog.
Today, I want to speak about how the act of sacred singing, as a spiritual practice – in other words, singing in spiritual community can improve your “spiritual fitness.”
The act of singing is both creative and cathartic, and it’s GOOD FOR YOU.
Yehuda haLevi, the medieval poet and thinker wrote: Prayer is for one’s soul what nourishment is for one’s body. The blessing of one’s prayer lasts until the time of the next, just as the strength derived from one meal lasts until another.... During the time of prayer, one cleanses the soul of all that has passed over it and prepares it for the future.
Think about that: prayer is nourishment for your soul: it is what the soul needs to stay “fit.” As with any fitness program, you don’t start out by running 26.2 miles or schvitzing for 90 minutes at an advanced Zumba class. Maybe you take the stairs instead of the elevator. You park farther away from the entrance to work or the store. You buy a fitness tracker and set small, meetable goals. Same with nurturing your prayer life, and here is my prescription: start small, perhaps with a niggun.
A niggun is a prayer that has been distilled to a wordless melody. A niggun is an invitation to travel inward, to shake you out of “auto pilot.” As one begins a niggun, they become less and less self-conscious of what is immediately around them, even of the tune itself. A person begins to experience a deeper and more personal form of prayer, and to tune into the prayerful energy of those around them.
The Piaceztner Rebbe, otherwise known as Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira was a 20th century Polish Rabbi whose life was brutally cut short in the Shoah. He left behind a stunning body of writing, including instructions for spiritual practice around meditation.
Taking a part of a niggun you know, turn yourself to face the wall, or just close your eyes, and think that you are standing before the Throne of Glory on which God sits, and with your heart broken you have come to pour out your soul to God with song and melody which come from the innermost part of your heart. Then you will certainly feel that your soul is coming out as you sing. If at first you were singing slowly before your soul in order to arouse it from its sleep, slowly, slowly you will feel that your soul has begun to sing on its own.
It will happen sometimes that was you sing, without intending it, you will spontaneously begin to speak words of prayer to God. … your soul comes out of its sheath to fly upwards…and from the depths of your heart you will cry out in pure prayer to God. And lest you think that such prayers are somehow less important that those written down the Siddur, you should know that prayers such as these come from the very same quarry from the soul itself is hewn.
Your soul comes out of its sheath, flying upwards. Song and melody from the innermost part of your heart. Pure prayer to God. I’ll take it!
The Zohar, a seminal mystical text, tells us that “In the highest heavens, there is a certain temple with gates that can be opened only by the power of niggun.” As Hasidism developed and flourished in Eastern Europe during the 18th century, the act of spiritual singing as a congregation was elevated to an essential element of the movement. The power of singing in devotional community was part and parcel of the Hasidic desire to cleave to God at all times. Practically speaking, if folks didn’t know Hebrew, or the prayers, or even how to read, it was the niggun, with its simple syllables of “oy yoy” “bam bam” or “lai lai” that became the universal accessible instrument of prayer; a way of transcending earthly concerns and connecting to the Divine. And also, practically speaking, the singing of melodies together, whether niggun or congregational melody, helps each community create a shared musical vocabulary and identity.
The next musical layer, after NIGGUN, is CHANT, probably the oldest form of Jewish music. We chant the Torah, megillot and Haftarah (i.e. we don’t sing them) because chanting is based on the language (insert fancy word: logogenic – language centered!) We also chant in a more contemporary context, through simple repetition of a small selection of words to a melody, such as “el na refa na la” that we sing for healing on Shabbat Mornings. The chant itself can be musically simple or complicated but the form is easy: sing, sing, sing, and repeat.
Rabbi Shefa Gold, a master composer and chant leader, wrote an entire book about how Hebrew chanting heals the spirit, transforms the mind and deepens love. She is the author of hundreds of Hebrew chants, and teaches that “chant is an embodied practice (YOU FEEL IT IN THE BODY): we can’t stay in our heads, merely thinking ABOUT or contemplating ideas, no matter how sublime. When I chant, every molecule of my body is vibrating, jarring loose the power of stored memories and making that force available to me as I build the power of intention.” Her book teaches a new-old approach to song leadership, and details how to facilitate chanting circles, which have become quite popular.
Another phenomenon growing in popularity is singing circles, which we will have the opportunity to experience later tonight. Singing circles employ niggun, chant, song and sometimes short teachings that flow together to create a fully immersive experience. If you have ever sung around a campfire, or experienced an Israeli Shira b’Tzibur (community song session), a Quaker song session or even a Bluegrass Hootenany, you have tasted the magic of a singing circle. One of the people responsible for the many Jewish singing circles that have popped up all over the world is Joey Weisenberg, a visionary composer and founder of the Rising Song Institute (part of Hadar). Weisenberg wrote a book called Building Singing Communities and muses in his introduction: “In the last few decades, Jews around the US and elsewhere have begun to re-explore their collective singing heritage……..Just think how far we could come if we treated the songs sung in our day to day [lay] synagogue community as seriously as we do the music created by professional stage musicians. We could create an atmosphere of both great beauty and drama in our spaces of prayer – we would value each and every individual in our community as a creative musician, and encourage their efforts in an attitude of musical collaboration….this reality is possible, if only we educate ourselves about and hold ourselves to aesthetic standards, if we raise the bar just a bit higher on what we can achieve together in beautiful conscientious song.”
So, how do we achieve this? Weisenberg’s answer: just reframe the goals. What if the point of singing together was about Process and not Product? What if the main purpose of gathering people together in song were to “create communal musical energy” – rather than musical perfection? How would this feel?
Part of the answer is in today’s Torah reading: the Song of the Sea – a piece of Torah so important that the rabbis added it to our daily and Shabbat liturgy. And part of the answer is in our own experience. We can study it, or read about it, or hear today’s Torah reading, but I encourage you to live it, this evening, and make a move to improve your spiritual fitness.
I will close with a teaching from the Slonimer Rebbe, a Hassidic master known as the Netivot Shalom, that appears in our Siddur alongside the Song of the Sea.
I Will Sing
Sometimes we sing to ourselves—no one else hears the sound, yet our minds are singing.
Sometimes we sing—our vocal chords voice a tune, and all can hear it and recognize it.
And sometimes we sing and every cell of our bodies contains the song. Such songs transform both the singer and the listener.
That is the way that the people Israel sang as they were saved, in crossing the Sea.
Song is a part of being alive. It begins in the breath, then a melody, then grows into song, and singing together, the music becomes part of a larger group energy. What will happen tonight when regular people get together and sing? You should come find out! Shabbat Shalom.
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