Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Thursday, June 7, 2012


There are some theological questions that are just unfair to ask a Jew:  Do you believe in heaven and hell?  “Meh…not really….but sorta...but not really.”  Do you believe in Satan? “Um…no, but yes, well, kinda.”

There’s no easy answer to these questions.  If you want to make an attempt, though, the first step is to ask someone their definition of the term at play. Do Jews believe in the fire and brimstone of an eternal damnation place called “hell”? No. Do we believe in Satan – aka the Devil – a powerful, supernatural entity that is the personification of evil and the enemy of God?  No.

But that name – Satan, or rather sa-tahn  – does come right out of our sacred scriptures.  We see it particularly in this week’s Haftarah portion from Zechariah.  So let’s try to understand it. First thing to know: except for perhaps one place in Chronicles, the word satan is not a proper name in the Bible.  Satan simply means “adversary.”  The Bible characterizes haSatan (the satan) as an accuser; a prosecutor in God’s celestial court.  HaSatan is a trickster figure, one that encourages God to test humans and their loyalty to Adonai.  In this role, haSatan is relatively powerless and cannot speak or take action without God’s permission.

The satan of Jewish tradition is not the ruler of some dark underworld, nor an adversary of God.  Rather, haSatan drums up trouble.  HaSatan sets obstacles in our way and tries to push us from the Divine path.

But how does it do this?  To say that haSatan acts directly in our lives would give this figure body and power. Instead, the rabbis explain, haSatan is the adversarial urge within us.  HaSatan is our evil inclination – that imperfect side of ourselves that strays us from doing good. It is that very human voice that harasses us and seduces us down the wrong path. 
There’s a Talmudic tale (Gittin 52a) that illustrates this more nuanced understanding of the satan character: “There were two people whom Satan incited so that every Friday afternoon they fought with one another.  Rabbi Meir visited there and restrained them for three Friday afternoons until he made peace between them.  R. Meir subsequently heard haSatan say: ‘Woe that Rabbi Meir has removed that man (meaning himself) from his house.’”

Two important things to highlight in this story:

1) HaSatan calls himself a man who has been expelled from the home.  This tips us off to something significant: haSatan is associated with human urges and weakness.

2) Friday afternoon.  Timing is everything.  The story says that haSatan would surface in the home just before Shabbat.  Shabbat is supposed to be the time of wholeness and peace, but with this strife emerging just before, neither peace nor wholeness was possible.

HaSatan therefore represents the conflict and disunity that pervade our human lives. HaSatan is the evil inclination that keeps us from a perfected world.  If we could only expel it from our lives, as it was expelled from that home, we could live to see a better world.  Notice, Rabbi Meir does not offer an enchantment or a prayer – he makes peace between the two people.  That act purges the home of haSatan.

If we are to “overcome haSatan” it will not be in some apocalyptic war between God and the Devil. Our tradition presents this figure of “haSatan” as a metaphor for our human struggle to make peace with each other. HaSatan represents a personal, human obstacle we must overcome. It is the constant struggle to forgive one another.  It is our struggle to be patient. It is our struggle to just sit and listen.
Just as Rabbi Meir had to return three times to the house, we too have to revisit that nest of wickedness that resides inside all of us.  It is not who we are completely, but it is a part of us. It is an inclination our tradition stresses we can control and overcome.
Mishebeirach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu, May the one who blessed our ancestors, the One who tested them, but loved them too, bestow on us the same kindness and the same faith that we too can push aside the adversary of self-doubt and pettiness to see a more united world and a better self.  Ken yhi ratzon.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Miri, Nachshon, WoodSY

 this drash was delivered at a service in which our WoodSY leaders were being honored.

Rabbi Miri Gold serves Kehilat Birkat Shalom in central Israel.  You can find her on a given Shabbat leading services in the beautiful outdoor sanctuary the kehillah calls home on Kibbutz Gezer.  Miri joined the liberally-leaning kibbutz in 1977 and established a home there. Over the years, her leadership role on the kibbutz increased. Hearing the call to join the clergy, she studied at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and has served as the spiritual leader of Gezer’s kehillah ever since.

As beautiful as it is, Miri Gold’s story is almost unremarkable here in the US. We’ve got plenty of female rabbis, as well as plenty of congregations and rabbis that fall for one another and serve one another.

But in Israel, this is all newsworthy. First, she’s a female rabbi.  This makes her a member of an extreme minority and a source of puzzlement to many in Israeli society. Second, she’s a Reform rabbi, making her a part of yet another minority group.  Liberal Judaism is still a difficult concept for Israelis, who, on the whole, consider someone either secular or religious.  The beautiful blend of the two that we enjoy here in America has not yet taken hold in the Holy Land.

So for years Miri Gold has championed her position and the role that liberal Judaism can play in Israeli society.  In an interview with the Religious Action Center back in 2006, she explained the cause: “For us to reach out, to get to Israelis who are searching for something, but they don’t know what it is.”

This mission is groundbreaking enough.  But Miri Gold, her community, and her Reform friends around the world, decided to kick it up a notch.  Miri would not just be an ambassador for liberal Judaism in Israel, but she would also be the one to break ground for all liberal rabbis – fighting for equal recognition by the state.

Orthodox rabbis in Israel have official “rabbi’ status.  This means they receive some funding from the state to work in their communities.  In order to get this funding, though, you must be recognized as a rabbi.  Liberal rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements have not, historically, been recognized as such.

So for years now, Miri Gold’s name has lived the hallways of Israel’s highest court. Using Miri Gold as the “poster woman,” the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been championing her cause – demanding equal recognition for rabbis of all streams of Jewish life and thought.

And this week, it happened. In a massive, landmark decision, Israel’s attorney general ordered that Rabbi Miri Gold and other Reform and Conservative rabbis receive the same benefits that their Orthodox colleagues enjoy.

This is about more than the money.  This historic decision opens Israel up to being the truly pluralistic, welcoming state it was always meant to be.  As Rabbi Danny Allen of ARZA said, “Israel’s Declaration of Independence guaranteed religious freedom, it has to be that this freedom is for all Israeli’s, Jewish as well as Christian and Muslim. This decision brings us closer to the day where this will be the reality in Israel rather than the ideal.”

By calling Miri Gold a state-approved rabbi, the state has also approved religious diversity.

And to add to the encouragement, this comes only two weeks after Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, another female Reform rabbi, was welcomed into the religious council of the Jerusalem suburb, Mevasseret Zion.  By joining the council, she was declared a partner in the town’s spiritual life.

Something wonderful is afoot in Israel.  These two triumphs bring a wave of optimism that’s splashing through the Jewish world.  We have always declared that pluralism and cooperation were possible in the Holy Land, and now we are steps closer to that reality.  This proves that the Diaspora’s engagement with Israel and persistent advocacy on the governmental level works.

These are watershed moments. Nachson moments, if you well.  Remember Nachshon? The man the midrash says was the first to dive into the Red Sea, thereby causing it to part? He’s the man, who despite the odds being against him, understood that the risk of diving forward into the sea was better than the slavery that stood behind him.  God recognized that passion and therefore parted the sea in his honor.

This midrash connects to this week’s Torah portion, Naso.  Behold, here we find Nachshon. We learn that once the priests and the altar were ready to take offerings, guess who was the very first to bring something? Yup, Nachshon.  The instigator, the initiator, the one, who despite the risks, offers himself up first.

Rabbi Miri Gold is the Nachshon of our day.  She did not take on this cause for the fame or for the money.  She did it in the name of equality and in the name of an Israel we Jews can be proud of.  While discouraging setbacks did occur along the way, she and her team plowed forward anyway.  As a result, we can see the seas parting.  Indeed, there is a Promise Land well in the future – we can catch a little glimpse of it now.

I bring this up tonight not only so we can celebrate the changing tide (which we should) but also as a charge to our WoodSY leaders – both outgoing and incoming.  First, realize you can make change.  Second, understand that change is not always quick. We get sidetracked, we get snubbed, we go unheard. Yet, discouragement does us no good.  Despite a setback, despite fear, our Torah teaches that you must trudge forward.  There is too much at stake not to.  Gather a team, work together.  You, the WoodSY board, are like the Levites in this week’s Torah portion.  You have been appointed the leaders.  There is a whole population of WoodSYites whose cause you have been elected to champion.  Your job is to seek those special individuals out, draw them to your ranks, do what is in their best interest.  That requires a lot of listening and a lot of open-mindedness, but it is your job nonetheless.

I’m thrilled to say that the Jewish State has taught us this lesson this week.  Israel is slowly growing into the “light unto the nations” we always knew it could be. Tonight we wish a hearty yesher koach to our Reform friends in the Holy Land.  We thank Miri and her comrades for their vision and bravery and we celebrate their victory, which we pray will lead to a more just and equal Israel, one we can continue to be proud of.