On May 11, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, will be feted for his two decades of service to the synagogue. He talks in this edited version of an interview about changes in synagogue life, his theology and what he prays for.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the podium at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 5, it became clear why more than 13,000 Americans...
One evening last February, 1,500 people poured into the vast sanctuary of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, filling every inch.
We've come to expect that anything authentically Jewish must be hard, painful, difficult. No chrain, no gain.
Each morning and each evening, the people of the daily minyan gather to recite the obligatory prayers. It isn't exciting. The melodies aren't particularly uplifting. Sometimes there is a word of learning, but no sermon; none of the flourishes, trappings and trimmings of professional homiletics.
It is the Torah's most exciting, most cinematic story. The Israelites, newly freed from slavery, were camped at the shores of the sea when suddenly the sounds Pharaoh's approaching chariots filled the air. Realizing they were trapped, the ex-slaves cried bitterly to Moses, "Were there too few graves in Egypt, that you brought us to die here?" (Exodus 14:11) Moses prayed for deliverance, and was commanded: "Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up the rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it." (Exodus 14:15-16)
The conflict over Valley secession reflects the growing gap between rabbis and the actual reality their flocks experience.
He awoke from the nightmare with a scream, as he had every night for almost 40 years. His heart
raced, his body drenched in sweat, his mind filled with vivid images of fiery destruction. He saw rivulets of blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple ground into ashes, the lifeless bodies of the priests scattered about the Temple Mount.
Surfing the TV one night, two powerful images caught my eye: On one station were Afghan women draped from head to toe in the traditional black burka. On another, Britney Spears, very much undraped, projected live across the world in a televised concert.
There once was a man who could provide only potatoes for his family's subsistence. As the monotony and the poverty wore on, he prayed, and his prayers were answered. There fell into his hands a mysterious map to a magical Island of Diamonds.
How the Grinch Stole Shabbat
God created the animals and brought them, one by one, before man to see what he would name them. Man examined the essence of each creature and assigned its name. So teaches Genesis.
Sixteen strangers are left on a wilderness island to fend for themselves. They endure starvation, infestation, exposure to the elements. Each night they gather in council to vote one of their company off the island. Finally, only two are left. The castoffs are brought back as jury to choose the sole survivor. Conniving, manipulation, betrayal, deceit - that's entertainment! And 48 million Americans stopped to watch. A media sensation, "Survivor" made the covers of Newsweek and Time and the headlines in every newspaper.
Exiled from Paradise, Adam and Eve lived together east of Eden, struggling to raise children, to scratch a living out of the hard earth, to stay alive.
The first time I saw a beggar on the streets of Los Angeles I was shocked. The man, disheveled and filthy, stood on the freeway offramp with a tattered sign: "Will Work for Food." Sure, there are beggars in Calcutta and panhandlers in New York, but not here! I stared at him for a long time until my children began to question: "Why is that man standing there? Why is he so dirty? Why does he look so sad?" That was some years ago. Now, we don't notice. Now, we cruise down the offramp and don't see. The beggars and bag ladies have become part of our urban landscape: There's the tree, the traffic light, the indigent. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the kids don't notice any more. They've grown accustomed to the presence of poverty and degradation in their midst. It no longer shakes them up. And should they notice, they feel no connection, no compassion, no obligation. The poor are another species, citizens of another dimension. They have no claim on us. They are invisible.
When we arrive in heaven, the Talmudic sages wondered, what will God ask of us?
Enter a cathedral, and what do you feel? Thesoaring vaulted ceiling, the giant columns, the colossal statues ofsaints and martyrs, the luminous stained-glass images of scripturalheroes -- the architecture articulates a spirituality of contrast. Weare small, insignificant, ephemeral creatures, no better than insectson the floor. We are impure, corrupt, stained with sin. Who are we toapproach God? God is magnificent, distant and fearsome in judgment.In the cathedral, it is only the figure of Christ that mediatesbetween my miserable condition as human being and God's majesty.Holiness, argued the scholar Rudolf Otto, lies in the contrastbetween our "utter creatureliness" and God's frightening "tremendum."Holiness is the shiver of vulnerability in the face of theinfinite.
The Nazis took my uncle Henry at the beginning ofthe war. He survived more than five years as a slave. Young andstrong, he was a carpenter, and they needed carpenters. At first,they moved him from camp to camp, including a stay at Pleshow, whereSchindler's people were kept. And, finally, Auschwitz. A slavelaborer, he built parts of the camp. When the Allies advanced, he wastaken on the infamous Death March from Poland into Germany. He wasliberated from Buchenwald by the U.S. Army in 1945.
Pity Esau. One moment of weakness, one moment ofimpulse, and his birthright is gone. He goes out to fulfill hisfather's dying wish for a savory meal of game, and while he's outhunting, his mother and brother conspire and rob him of his blessing.Returning to his father with the feast, expecting at last to gain hisdue position as head of the clan, he is met with his father's emptyexcuses. And so Esau cries: "Have you but one blessing, Father? Blessme too, Father!" And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:38). Tears ofbetrayal, of pain, of rage, of broken dreams.
Who was the first Jew? All of us learned in Sunday School that thefirst Jew was Abraham. It was our father, Abraham, who detected thepresence of the one true God and championed monotheism in a paganworld. It was with Abraham that God established the Covenant,defining our identity, our mission, our destiny. That's true. But thefirst Jew wasn't Abraham. The first Jew was his son Isaac.
A Letter to Sarah
You know me, Rabbi. You know how important thesynagogue is to me, how much I enjoy services; you see me at yourTorah classes. You know what kind of Jew I am: I am the only one atthe family seder table who can read the Hebrew side of the Haggadah,but they won't accept me, because I wasn't born Jewish!"
Every rabbi has heard these painfultestimonies.
Before God created the human being, according to alegend of the Midrash, He consulted the angels of heaven. The angelof peace argued, "Let him not be created; he will bring contentioninto the world." But the angel of compassion countered, "Let him becreated; he will bring lovingkindness into the world." The angel oftruth argued, "Let him not be created; he will be deceitful and fillthe world with lies." And the angel of justice countered, "Let him becreated; he will attach himself to righteousness." What did God do?He threw truth into the Earth and proceeded to create the humanbeing.
A professor in seminary once asked us to find themost important section in all the Torah. We offered Creation, theShma, the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai. No, he argued, it'ski teze l'milchama (Deuteronomy 21): "When you go out to war against yourenemies, and the Lord God delivers them into your power and you takesome of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautifulwoman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bringher into your house, and she shall cut her hair and her nails, anddiscard her captive's garb. She shall spend a month's time in yourhouse, mourning her father and mother...and then you may come to her,and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you mustrelease her."
"So, tell me, what are you looking for in awoman?" I ask.
"Someone kind and gentle, intelligent, educated,cultured, witty, fun, a professional, independent, but interested intraditional things, Jewish, haimish, warm, family-oriented...andthin, tall, attractive, blond, well-dressed." He continues, but Irealize already that I know him. He's my 3-year old. The open mouthof the infant: "I want, I want, I want."
I know what he wants: a Playboy playmate who willadore him, cook like his mother but make no demands on hissoul.
He isn't alone. He belongs to a whole culture ofchildishness.
Love answering children's questions. I'll visit a classroom and face an eager chorus of "DidGod create dinosaurs?" and "Where do people go when they die?" Then,at the end, there's always one wise guy, who smirks and asks, "What'sthe meaning of life?" I love that kid. I admire his chutzpah, and Ilove the question.
Once, I was a revolutionary. I belonged to the generation of long hair and crazy ideas. We did more than invent rock music and protest an unjust war. We believed that we could create a new society, populated by new people -- people freed of the prejudices and life-choking rigidities of the past. We believed that we could change the world, and bring greening to America.
America did change. But our dream went unfulfilled.
One afternoon, as I wheeled my shopping cart down an aisle of the local market, a 3-year-old riding in his mother's cart came up along the other side. He was one of the students in the nursery school, and when he recognized me, his mouth dropped open, he pointed, and he shouted, "Mom, look, it's God!" My young friend's comment is instructive. We imagine God in the image of those who teach us about God. And we perceive the world of religion in the image of those experiences that introduce us to spirituality, ritual and faith.
A yeshiva outgrew its downtown quarters and moved to the former site of an upstate boys' academy. Finding a boathouse on the property, the Rosh Yeshiva called in one of the rabbis and ordered him to organize a rowing team.
My neighbors completed an around-the-world trip. It was their dream, the trip of a lifetime. When we gathered to welcome them home, they eagerly described the journey's highlights -- the Sheraton in Bangkok, the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing, a Clint Eastwood film in a Calcutta theater, Budweiser in Holland and Kellogg's Corn Flakes in Great Britain.