Letter from the Rabbi
Renaissance and Renewal
The most moving moment at the Renaissance Institute – a five day long “weekend” in Charleston, SC, that our family has attended annually for two decades – came when former Rep. Gabby Giffords slowly walked into the ballroom for dinner. Accompanied by her incredibly devoted and loving husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and helper dog Nelson, she made a quiet and unpretentious entrance, but, once people saw her, they jumped to their feet and a thunderous wave of applause began. The applause was certainly for her courage and tenacity, but also because Gabby has always been a Renaissance favorite and all of us have continued to be in shock since the moment, over two years ago, when Gabby almost died from an assassin’s bullet in an Arizona parking lot.
Gabby, a moderate Democrat, sweet human being and proud Jew, has always had friends on both sides of the aisle in Congress and hundreds of friends and admirers at Renaissance. When I spoke with her and Mark, it seemed like she understood what I was saying, but she also had to struggle so hard to respond and that was heartbreaking.
When Gabby was shot more than two years ago, a group of us gathered by phone each Sunday night to hear the latest news of her recovery and to comfort each other. We spoke about her medical issues and how she and Mark were coping, but very little about the necessity for tougher gun control laws.
But, now, after the tragedy in Newton, CT, Gabby and Mark and all of their friends realize that, if people don’t speak up and act, these tragedies – a combination of all too limited mental health services and the all too easy availability of weapons – will continue and possibly increase. Hopefully, the American people will soon wake up, smell the blood and act.
On a happier note, Renaissance lived up to its name with hundreds of lectures, panels and cultural offerings. Valerie Plame showed her film, “Countdown To Zero” about the dangers of nuclear weapons, Dr. Ruth talked about sex, sex and more sex, and musicians performed in violin concerts and piano master classes.
I attended sessions on astronomy (“What If The Moon Didn’t Exist?”), economics (with Alan Blinder, former Vice Chair of the Fed), leadership, law (because my son, Adam, spoke), comedy (because my son, Mike, spoke and he was very funny), politics (“when all is said and done, more will be said than done”), Judaism (two Judaica professors – one from Harvard and one from Brandeis – a rarity) and so many more. I had the pleasure of sitting with fascinating people at meals like former UN Assistant Secretary General Gillian Sorensen, widow of JFK confidante and speechwriter Ted Sorensen, as well as CEOs of major corporations, diplomats, academicians, inventors, winemakers, journalists and authors.
Among the half-dozen clergy of various faiths at Renaissance, one of my favorites was a Catholic priest who told the story of meeting the Dalai Lama and being so nervous that he didn’t know what to say. He planned various opening lines to prove his erudition and spiritual sensitivity, but when the Dalai Lama approached him in a receiving line and he noticed the Dalai Lama’s inability to walk without a cane, all that this priest could utter, spontaneously, in that moment, was: “It sucks to get old!” So much for spiritual wisdom! Actually, in describing his own life’s journey, this priest spoke about his high school years, playing football and dating frequently, and how becoming a priest was not a decision made out of his anxiety in dealing with the modern world, not a retreat from temptation, but an embrace of a life of service. Describing pedophilia in the Church and hierarchical cover-ups, he warned: “Never trust a priest who never dated!”
Ruti and I, as usual, led Shabbat services in the oldest Reform synagogue building in the country, which Congregation Beth Elohim graciously allows us to use each year, since it’s across the street from the Charleston Place Hotel where Renaissance is held. We hold services early, before its own congregation gathers, and, every year, the Jewish service is the largest Renaissance religious gathering, attended by many non-Jews, as well, who seem to prefer Shabbat services on Friday night to their own Catholic and Protestant services on Sunday morning. Of course, many of the Jews who go to Shabbat services aren’t regular daveners at home, but want to gather with other Jews and affirm their heritage. While the Shabbat service is always huge, what was fascinating, this time, was that the Havdalah service was larger than ever before. I asked a Muslim convert to Christianity to hold the spice box, a recent Bar Mitzvah boy to hold the candle and a professor who rarely attends shul to hold the kiddush cup. A symphony violinist and composer accompanied Ruti on the guitar and more than a hundred people sang (or hummed) along. Quite a night!
I’m also honored each year to lead the interfaith service in which attendees are all deeply committed to their various religions and where the intensity of reading, singing and speaking is palpable.
In my responsibilities on various panels, I spoke first about Ethical Wills (almost no one had heard of them, but a few people – Jews and others – seemed interested in writing them). In “Religious Values and The Economy,” I described how it’s clear, in both the Hebrew Bible and The New Testament, that dignity must be given to the poor. I referred to the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, mentioned in the Torah, where property and wealth had to be restored and re-distributed, and I pointed to the meaning of holiness in Leviticus 19 where piety isn’t a sign of spirituality, but rather economic justice. Jews weren’t allowed, historically, to live in a town without a soup kitchen because it was considered to be a community without a heart, and the rabbis taxed celebrations, like weddings, to feed the poor. That idea continues, of course, through modern organizations like MAZON: A Jewish Response To Hunger. Even the concept of the coming of the Messiah declares that life will be the same except for two incredible changes – economic justice and peace!
In “What Is A Soul?,” I spoke about the terms “nefesh,” “ruach” and “neshama” which connote life and breath as soul in Judaism, not literal immortality. We breathe in the universe and then breathe ourselves into it in a reciprocal relationship of oneness and responsibility – that’s what “soul” means. Before the Talmudic rabbis created the idea of an afterlife as a response to the harsh Roman persecution of the Jews, the soul was more of a this worldly phenomenon. The rabbis always declared: “Don’t be like a servant who serves his/her master for a reward; do good deeds for their own sake, for the reward of a good deed is that it leads to other good deeds.
For most liberal Jews today, immortality is through genetics, influence, mentoring, love and naming, and the soul is perhaps better defined as consciousness and transcendence, a potential to be evoked, rather than a tangible substance. (Although most of the Christians on the panel disagreed with me, an Episcopal professor from Yale Divinity School went even further in saying: “I don’t really believe in a soul, and that belief has cost Christianity a lot in intellectual credibility over the years.”)
In “Faith In Turbulent Times,” I spoke about wisdom as more important than (blind) faith and how Pirke Avot tells us “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor” – it’s not up to us to fulfill every important responsibility in life, but neither may we desist from it. We need a sense of obligation and urgency so that we do the work of Tikkun Olam –repairing the world – but also the humility to accept that we can’t improve everything. Balancing “carpe diem” and patience is one of the secrets of life, and the knowledge that it takes a village, over time and space, to see things through. We have to be sure that we’re not lazy, passive or on the wrong side of history, but we also have to be able to differentiate between fad and substance. Every religious tradition knows that the rivalry between priest (the status quo) and prophet (dynamically changing reality) is an eternal struggle.
As you can see, as always, Renaissance is an experience of rebirth, recreation and re-creation. I feel very fortunate to be invited each year in order to learn and teach, as well as to meet fascinating people and bring many of them to University Synagogue as speakers. From my first memory of Renaissance, when my kids played football on the beach in Hilton Head with President Clinton to my latest experiences with fascinating people and provocative ideas, I feel truly blessed.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis