Rabbi Liebowitz was a speaker at the Martin Luther King celebration at Spartanburg memorial Auditorium on January 20. The Cap & Collar will perform Friday, February 7 at SMC.
My brother, sister, and I would wait patiently as dad would eventually drive up at the end of a long hot summer’s day in his cab. Exhausted, dehydrated, and hanging on for a few more hours, dad would nevertheless summon the energy to share some of his more colorful tales from the day’s work. On occasion someone famous would hop into his cab – Sean Connery, Vincent Price, just to mention a few. Dad had made a science out of teasing. With chutzpah he would engage whichever celebrity entered into his yellow cab. Once, Joe DiMaggio “Joltin’ Joe” ambled in. Pretending not to recognize him, Dad started to make some uncouth remarks about how lousy the Yanks were doing that summer. “They’re goin’ nowhere this year,” he would intone with no small measure of chutzpah. “They’ll be fine!” DiMaggio retorted. “What the heck do you know?” said dear old dad. “Well,” said the famed Yankee clipper of years gone by (this was 1966 and he was making Mr. Coffee commercials) “I played baseball.” “Really?” said Dad, “who are you!”
“Joe DiMaggio,” came the expected response. “Not possible,” teased my father. “DiMaggio was a skinny good looking kid; you’re a fat old man!” When asked what DiMaggio then did my dad said: “He laughed heartily and then I got his autograph.” Which brings me to the other story of Paul Simon who had annoyed Joe DiMaggio with his lyric from the film “The Graduate, “Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio? A nation leans its tired eyes to you!….What’s that you say Mrs. Robinson, Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away!” DiMaggio thought the song was an insult, believing that Simon had declared him dead. He actually wanted to sue him for libel until it was explained that Joltin’ Joe was a lost figure, a celebrity that all admired, whether they were a Yankees’ fan or a Dodgers’ fan. It did not matter.
As we enter 2020, I can’t help but think about the heroes we have lost, the people we admired who transcended normal discourse. People who made us proud to be Americans! How our country longs for statesmen and stateswomen! Where have they gone? People who put principles over politics. Love of country over party. I am not much for celebrity. “A celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous.” It was not always that way! I grew up reading “Profiles in Courage” and I now wonder when those days will return. When will our political tribalism be checked by a devotion to right and justice? When will decent verbal discourse and eloquence return to the American conversation? In my youth I favored William Buckley’s TV show“Firing line!” It was a thoughtful engagement of issues. While I agreed with perhaps 10 percent of his comments, I never felt anything but appreciation for his thinking, his eloquence and his deportment. On occasion, George Will will resurrect in me similar admiration. In my work on addiction at the Betty Ford center as a 5th step counselor; they would say of some alcoholics that they had “to get sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I pray that the coming year will have us recover from the vitriol and anger that so often masquerades as genuine discourse. As the psalmist declared; “from the depths I call unto Thee!’
Happy New Year
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, D.D.
“We saw the great spirits work in almost everything; sun, moon, trees, wind, and mountains. Sometimes, we approached him through these things. Was that so bad? I think we have a true belief in the Supreme Being, a stronger faith than that of most whites who have called us pagans… Indians living close to nature and nature’s ruler are not living in darkness.” Walking Buffalo Stony
Of late I have become interested in Native American spirituality and culture. At the annual Rotary Thanksgiving meeting, I was honored to address the gathering with a message about that holiday. The history of the Pilgrims and the Indians is far more complicated than Grammar school version. I recommend the following you tube summary called The Real Story of Thanksgiving:
One of the cogent points revealed is that the holiday was actually a day of fasting, not the more gluttonous celebration that characterizes our observances. Additionally, it records the political intrigue that led to a peace which was only sustainable for less than a half century. Our holiday of thanksgiving is also relatively new having been originated with Lincoln’s proclamation. There is a cynical Israeli saying; “A nation is founded when a group of men get together and lie about their origins.”
It is said that slavery is the first sin of America. Given the racism that continues to this day, that is not hard to assert. Another assertion is that the treatment of the American Indian could easily contest that view. It is sad to say that the plight and suffering of Native Americans, First Nations etc. continues unabated. Mortality is very high, along with alcoholism and other afflictions that mark the condition of these peoples. In my charitable efforts I support a Catholic orphanage that sustains Native American culture and helps “lost children.” (St Joseph’s Indian School, see page
It strikes me as a far cry from the obscene practice of taking young children in the 19th and 20th centuries from the homes in order to convert them, westernize them and “civilize them.” It is a dark history.
I also tend to focus on the gift of Native American spirituality. Called by one scholar “Religions of place,” their faith is centered on feeling a part of Nature, not over it or beneath it. In our climate challenged times we would do well to celebrate such attitudes summed up by statements like “My brother the river!” Here is one sensitize Native American review:
“Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the clouds, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? “ Tecumseh (shooting star) Shawnee
As there are no punctuation marks in the Hebrew Bible we are allowed to creatively insert them, altering the meaning of a verse here and a paragraph there. This has its advantages. I was quite troubled years ago in reciting the last lines of the Birkat HaMazon. “I have been old and I have been young, I have never seen a righteous man forsaken or his children begging bread!”
Is that affirmation at all true? Who has not seen the innocent hurt and evil folk prosper? How often has this moved us to question God and His/Her justice! My Rabbi Michael Roth of blessed memory solved this dilemma by simply adding a question mark to the statement, thus turning the assertion into a prayer protest, a statement of amazement. “I have been old and I have been young, I have never seen a righteous man forsaken or his children begging bread?”
Reasonably, the sentence that follows makes for a fitting invitation to God to correct worldly injustices: “The Eternal will give strength to His/Her people. The Eternal will bless all peoples with peace!”
In that spirit I have re-punctuated the quote from the psalmist as a query regarding how pleased are we that all our brothers and sisters don’t measure up. I have given many a triumphant sermon celebrating our Jewish accomplishments; disproportionate Jewish Nobel prize awards, contributions to science, literature and more. Yet, with the demise of Jeffrey Epstein, the alleged crimes of Weinstein and a myriad number of Jewish scoundrels I have been forced to confront the fact that my triumphalism is not always balanced.
I remember vividly that many Jews hearing of the assassination of JFK followed their expressions of profound sorrow with the prayer, “Please God, I hope the assassin was not Jewish?” When days later Oswald was murdered by Jack Ruby, a Jew, our apprehension once more returned.
Some time back, one Jewish writer tackled this issue head on, noting our reflexive posture that does not always serve us well psychologically. Her words merit repeating! Shayn McCallum, I am Jewish Feb 20, 2018.
We have a bit of a reflex. It means we do get ashamed when a member of the tribe does something reprehensible.
But, you know, isn’t that strange? Everyone should be mature enough to realize that people are individuals and every people on earth has its embarrassing “black sheep”. Why do we tend to feel so mortified every time we get a Harvey Weinstein, Jared Fogle, or Bernard Madoff? I mean, when was the last time you saw a bunch of WASPs agonizing over what the world will think of them because of something disgraceful done by a white protestant? Why do we feel horror as though our disgraces will be paraded in front of us as a taunt? Perhaps because this is what has always happened to us throughout history. One Jew commits a crime and there’s a pogrom or an expulsion. We do worry about it, even if such a reaction is no longer on the cards.
Jews tend to be held to collective moral standards quite a lot- not just by Non-Jewish society but in our own communities. It makes us anxious to make sure our scandals stay inside the community. Even though, statistically, it is only to be expected that a certain percentage of any population will tend to be not nice people, we feel terrible shame when someone identifiably Jewish is publicly disgraced.
Actually, we need to get over this. Weinstein is a sexual predator and he is a Jew, there is absolutely no connection between these two things. Yet, medieval terrors and traumas die hard, especially when anti- semitism has not gone away.
I invite you to write in your thoughts which will appear (with or without attribution) in our next Temple Topics.
Wishing you a wonderful 5780
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz D.D.
Trying out the Rabbit Swamp Trail on my new bicycle, I noticed that many of the cyclists wore only hats, but a few sported helmets. Thinking this was a “safe road” I asked one cyclist if it was necessary to wear a helmet. He responded, “Only when you fall!” I think about religion and how it is used only when you fall. A cousin to this perception is the old saying; “There are no atheists in foxholes!” I wouldn’t entirely dismiss occasional usage of faith in dire circumstances, but like the person who exercises at the gym just once a year, you won’t get religion’s full effect. Prayer and observance is a discipline whose vitality depends on a measured involvement with some degree of frequency.
On occasion new members will find that it takes several visits to our services to get the ritual and the tunes, as they may be unaccustomed to our ways. With rare exception they will be able to join in, sing and stand etc. feeling quite at home within a month.
I recently came across this poem written by a colleague on the occasion of the Jewish month of Tammuz which we now celebrate. It speaks to our need to pulsate to all the seasons of our lives religiously, not only in difficult times, but in times that invite joy.
Life can break us sometimes,
But repair is real,
Healing is in our hands,
And new beginnings,
Like a full moon in a darkened sky Rising to greet us
Full of possibility
And whispers of good things to come!
Wishing you sweet blessings of healing and hope -this full moon of Tammuz. Amen
Rabbi Yossi J. Liebowitz D.D.
“It is the doom of men that they forget!” (from the Arthurian legend as recorded in the film Excalibur).
The song “As time goes by!” from the film Casablanca is well known by my generation. It also sums up the dynamic of memory with its imperative “you must remember this!”
At times I take note of the familiarity that all of us have as it relates to celebrities. For example, I grew up with the late-night King Johnny Carson, while my father remembered Jack Parr and Steven Allen who preceded him. Within a span of years Jay Leno will be unknown to the next generation. As I age, I find myself groaning at the television when a simple jeopardy question goes unanswered which for me is quite obvious. It is the way of things, but not of the Jewish faith.
When reading any Talmudic passages, one is immediately struck by the constant references to sages who preceded one another. As in, Rabbi so and so said in the name of Rabbi so and so the son of… well you get the idea.
For professional Jews, rabbi, cantors, and educators who live and breathe Judaism 7 – 24, we are puzzled by the unfamiliarity with basic Jewish heritage.
A rather decent antidote to this is the book by Joseph Teluskin called Jewish Literacy. It is filled with quick read essays designed to acquaint one with the essence of our heritage. As American Jews, we have fostered a part time Judaism that inhibits a fuller grasp of our traditions. I do not despair all that much, for in a recent poll Jews rated more aware of Religion than most, ironically falling behind atheists who can boast greater knowledge. I am still trying to figure that out. One telling statistic reported that more than half of American Jews knew who Maimonides, the famed philosopher rabbi, doctor court advisor was. That’s not bad!
As time goes by this summer, I try personally to deepen my own familiarity with our heritage. In our weekly study on Saturday I was recently flattered by one attendee who thought much of my eclectic recall of Judaism. I humbly indicated that compared to some of my teachers with whom I study yearly I wonder at what they wonder about. No doubt they, in turn, are humbled by their own teachers.
Judaism with its deep and abiding heritage can be intimidating, but I prefer to see, as the Talmudic metaphor would have it, the heritage as an ocean to which we can fish a great deal of wisdom and history. For all of us who want to pass this heritage forward to the next generation there is no better way than setting an example by learning and exploring.
An old anecdote: A beatnik (boy does that date me!) was once asked by a visiting Englishman, “I say, old man how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without missing a beat, the beatnik answered “Practice baby! Practice!” Without that commitment, goals for our children to have a Bar or Bat mitzvah becomes an empty ritual, more Bar (i.e. celebra- tion) than Mitzvah (tradition). They might as well be taught Pig Latin once a week, if that is the relevance for them. (Forgive the treif comparison!) I came to prize my heritage for many reasons, not the least of which was seeing my grandfather davening (each morning with tallit and tefillin). He stood by my side in prayer. It made all the difference. In the center of the Talmud are passages called Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). An essential teaching of the sage Ben Bag-Bag was “turn it over and over for everything is in it!” (5:22)
May this summertime be one of relaxation and one of enrichment. “As time goes by!”
Rabbi Yossi J. Liebowitz D.D.
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?”
My summer reading list includes an Israeli book called “From gods to God! ” Scholarly in nature, yet readily readable, this offering chronicles the theological move from polytheism to monotheism. Or as we recite at each service (the Aleinu) “On that day God will be One and God’s Name will One!”
The authors reveal how disguised within our sacred writings are hints of Jewish worship of many deities. Take for example the proclamation in the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) “you will have no other gods before me!” which on the surface seems to imply there are other deities. Or following the escape from Egypt at the sea of reeds, Miriam recited “Who is like You among the gods,” again suggesting an earlier belief in polytheism with the added caveat that there is a chief deity over others.
Our prayer book itself disguises this reality when it cleverly offers the English version “Who is like You among the gods that are worshipped,” thus tamping down the ancient theology.
These authors offer examples of editing doing what amounts to an intellectual archaeology, digging about here and there in order to uncover hidden truths. On the positive side, it reflects Judaism’s vitality in as much as we were willing to grow and change. On the less happy side it does conflict with more romanticized view that the Hebraic tradition was always uniform and consistent. I prefer the former as it captures the sense of all of us being on a learning curve.
Polytheism is quite inviting. Anyone who has studied Hinduism can clearly discern how lovely it is to access a deity which comports with your needs and aspirations. A few of my Hindu students are somewhat surprised when I rightly surmise that they must favor the elephant god Ganesh, the god that removes obstacles. Certainly, such a deity is helpful to young people who are trying to figure out how they can make their way in the world. True enough!
Judaism provides very different ways of naming the divine, from the feminine word Shechinah (the divine presence) to the Tetragrammaton YHWH that is best understood to mean “The Eternal One!” Beyond such accommodations, psychologically and spiritually is the social need for all of us to be on the same page. The belief in one deity favors the posture that many Jewish philosophers have called the “Unity Principle!”
Shema Yisraeil “Listen Israel (you who wrestle with the spiritual) the Eternal is our common focus, the Eternal is uniquely indivisible.”
Wishing one and all a summer filled with spirit and joy!
Yossi Liebowitz, Rabbi
24 Adar I—24 Adar II March 2019
I recently had occasion to recall to one of our members memorial service. I had officiated at this service some years ago. A relatively young man’s father had passed on. He was an officer in the Second World War. As he had been a fighter pilot in the Army Air corps (the predecessor of the AIR FORCE), he wanted to conclude the service with the Air Force Song “Off we go into the wild blue yonder….at a boy give them the gun.” I remember feeling quite awkward thinking this martial tune was contrary to the solemnity of the occasion. Even so, there was something in the grieving young man’s face that convinced me, although reluctantly to allow it. At the end of the service, it was sung and to my surprise not in an uproarious way, but in a funereal and appropriate manner. Quite touching actually! I later learned that the mournful son had vigorously opposed the
Viet Nam war, having avoided the draft by migrating to Canada. This had caused more than a breach between father and son, for his father experienced such as a sense of betrayal to the country he loved. Singing the song had become a spiritual salute to his dad, acknowledging what his father stood for. He not merely buried his dad but his angst. Both were at long last at peace
From that experience there came a realization that rituals need not be static. Moreover, they can actually be in fact, an encumbrance to the spirit. Reform Judaism with its innovative posture has long understood this. Many who imagine that Moses sang Adon Olam on Mt. Sinai are unfamiliar with the fact that the most popular tunes were based on Prussian martial marches. The same is our rendering of the Shema to the strains of an Italian symphony in the 19th century. This is not to say that some innovations fail and go too far; like one colleague placing a screen on the pulpit for members to text their thoughts willy-nilly during the service. The need to encourage individual expression often comes at the expense of group social cohesion.
In an Oscar nominated film called “The Tribe,” it notes that the current generation wants more discussion and less sermonizing. And so, it is that twice a month our pre-Oneg is followed by a Kabbalat Shabbat which features a conversation instead of a sermon. The more traditional format occurs once a month as does a dinner with Shabbat prayers. So far so good, as attendance has improved, and this cafeteria approach seems to be working for our members. I appreciate the innovation, though my latent guilt imagines my traditional grandfather would say in Yiddish from the beyond, Vos teets ach du? “Whatever are you doing?” I can tell you even a casual review of more traditional services once contained some real innovative approaches. Moses never sang the more recent L’cha Dodi (written centuries ago) welcoming the Sabbath bride, It mystically and metaphorically turned the Sabbath into an imaginary bride whom we welcome into the synagogue. Other examples abound. What is traditional now
was quite revolutionary then. There are many ways to reach out “to the wild blue yonder!”
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, D.D.
“Seek His/Her presences!” Psalm 104:5
The mystical Jewish tradition favors a feminine word for the Divine –
Shechinah, meaning the divine presence. In both the biblical and rabbinical tradition, the notion of God as transcendent, unknowable and far off is pervasive. Unlike the immanent deities who have a physical manifestation on earth walking and talking with mortals, our tradition preferred to see the divine as indefinable. Such is reflected in another mystical expression Ein Sof, the “One who is beyond definition.” For those who want to know the “face of God,” such a view is frustrating. A tradition that abides by God being present physically may find that kind of belief inviting, but from the Jewish point of view it is unacceptable because God is not to be limited physically. In fact, many of our forebears condemned it as idolatrous. In some ways I find our posture, though frustrating as well it does comport with my Jewish sensibility to seek and grow and discover. The following anecdote by Rabbi Dov Baer, a Hasid of great merit gives voice to this view, but in addition compassionately provides a touching idea that God can have hurt feelings.
“Once as the Rabbi was walking on the street he saw a little girl hiding in the alcove, weeping: “Why are you crying, little girl?” asked the learned sage. “I was playing Hide and Seek with my friends, but no one came to look for me!” The Rabbi sighed and said to his students later that day, “In the answer and the tears of that little girl, I heard the weeping of the Shechinah, ‘and I will surely hide My face’ (Deuteronomy 31:18). I, God, have hidden Myself too, as it were, but no one comes to look for Me!”
(Dov Baer of Mezritch , Maggid Derav Le-Yaakov, ed. Rivka ShatzUfenheimer (Jersusalem: Magness Press, 1976). (P198 -199)
In our post Holocaust age and in an era in which secularism prevails, we tend to strongly favor culture over faith; not that culture cannot contain spiritual elements. As I find myself getting closer (hopefully not too soon) to “meeting my Maker,” the idea of God makes more and more sense. In our tradition which is characterized by the Mitzvah System (613 commandments) that draws us closer to the divine, the reasons that are celebrated seem to be more sentimental than spiritual. Over my forty years as a Rabbi, I have heard a fair number of parents say to their children over the years “Just have the Bar or Bat Mitzvah and then you don’t have to go to Temple anymore!” What should be an entry passport to Judaism becomes an exit, hypocritically so. Just call it a Bar and jettison the Mitzvah part! In leading up to the same, some parents who seldom set an example by going to services and showing the reason for Hebrew school confuse their children. They would no sooner force them to learn Swahili for no purpose whatsoever.
In our tradition, a word in Hebrew sums up what could and should be our sense of spirituality – Metsuveh, a feeling of being commanded, of ending the despair of God who has felt abandoned.
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz D.D.
“Turn it over and over again.” Ecclesiastes
As I was flipping through My Farmer’s Almanac (a gift from the Boy’s Club and Boys Town, a most worthy charity I support personally), I was pleased that among the many worldwide New Year traditions was included Apples dipped in Honey. Yes, slipped in among other foods that promised prosperity in the coming secular New Year were others: India – rice, Switzerland – dollops of whipped cream, Holland – fritters called olie bollen, and last but not least below the Mason Dixon line are black eyed peas and pork, the latter one of which we have boycotted for some 3000 years.
As a student of religion and culture, I am interested in all the different ways of celebrating the New Year, be it Moslem, Persian, Thai, Hindu, or Chinese, this last culture for which we can give thanks for firecrackers. I am of course biased for our fall observances which are now more than 9 months away. Ours is a more sobering effort to ward off bad fortunes in the year to come. The citizens of Thailand who shoot off guns do so, it is argued, to ward off demons. As for me I am, knock on wood, not superstitious. I work hard to add to my knowledge of other traditions in an effort to walk a mile in their moccasins.
Still, one hurdle I on occasion fail to surmount is superstitions. I find myself in sympathy with Bill Maher, (but only on occasion) who disses religion at every turn. He never misses an opportunity to paint a wide brush noting how there are immoral excesses championed by almost every faith community; from abuse of children, to hedonistic conspicuous consumption of Lamborghini’s by one minister in the midst of poverty, from ultra-religious Jews who trafficked in body parts, oh the list goes on. In truth every endeavor of human kind can disappoint. I love science, but many a scientist is responsible for the hideous effects of napalm. Art, as Hitler proved, can be misused in degenerative ways to champion the idea of Aryanism.
Yet, religion is particularly prone to charges of hypocrisy for it does as the Hebrew national commercial celebrates “hold us to a higher standard.” In one of Chaucer’s acclaimed works, The Priory, one corrupt cleric is reprimanded by a denizen for his greed: “If gold rusts, what ought iron to do?” This of course brings me to Israel, a flawed state as is any state. Ben-Gurion once quipped somewhat crudely, “We will have state when a Jewish Judge sentences a lady of the evening (He was more descriptive) who was arrested by a Jewish policeman.” Well we certainly attained that with news of corruption, fanaticism, and more than that which comes from the Promised Land. Still, I am mindful of all that Israel is; building a thriving city by a hundred daring pioneers on a sandy beach 100 plus years ago, now called Tel Aviv where millions of Jews reside, an economic powerhouse fueled by great innovation in medicine and chemistry and more, and not to minimize a sanctuary for Jews when none existed is the 1930’s. All this while fighting some 7 existential wars in its defense.
There is a site I favor Israel 21C on the web. Get it! It balances some of the dire concerns that many rightly have. Just a week ago came this jewel of information: Israel ranks as world’s third most educated country Israel outranks US and South Korea for percentage of citizens aged 25 higher education, whether academic or vocational .64 holding a degree in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) calculated the percentage of each country ’ and 64 who have completed a twoor fours population between the ages of 25 year degree beyond high school including both academic and vocational programs. 50.9 percent of Israelis in the target age bracket have a higher education degree.
The United States came in at No. 5, with only 46.4 percent (Ouch!). The most educated country in the world is Canada at 56.7 percent.I am buoyed by such news. It levels the negativity that mostly gets the attention of the press. (No, I am not saying such is fake news.) On the good front as well statistics reveal (Pew report) that the most educated group about religions of America are Jews, with atheists, believe it or not coming in a close second. (I guess they wish to “ know their enemy! ”) This of course leads to my closing New Year wish. Cultural Judaism is fine. But after 3,000 years of achievement and struggle I hate to think that we are best known for Bagels and Lox, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Let ’ s make the New Year a more informed one. We have a wonderful library. Use it! Read a Jewish book from time to time!
Happy New Year!
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz