At our annual meeting, we discussed the importance of investing in our space to make it more welcoming. I’d like to provide an update on where we are and the spiritual significance of making updates to our space. As always I’m happy to discuss or answer any questions.
When we see the beauty of nature, when we hear the sounds of birdsong, of children’s laughter, when we catch the scent of the ocean, we are transported to a deep appreciation of creation. And we know that our sensory world is constantly reminding us of where and when we live, for better or worse.
In this same way, when we read the detailed, exacting instructions for the interior design of the Mishkan, the Temple, we are reminded that our senses are a vital place of emotional connection to the Divine.
This is why creating an intentional sensory experience in our House of Prayer matters.
We have many practical matters to address in our building, to keep it safe and comfortable. We have been working on cleaning and organizing to begin making our spaces as useful and inviting as possible.
In our sanctuary, the focus of our community is directed to the Torah. For that reason, we are making an effort to simplify and declutter the space, and to focus on design that leaves space for our inner experience.
You will notice that we are moving a few things, and changing a few decorative items. It’s going to be a process. The dream is that our house will be even more useful and meaningful for the community we are always building at Beth Hatikvah.
Our synagogue leadership has recently had multiple conversations about COVID protocols, and you will have noticed that only vaccinated people have been invited to join us for in-person HHD services. I’d like to explain why this is important. As always I’m happy to meet and talk with anyone who has questions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is, in fact, a plague, no less than the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. In 1918, with no respirators, no antiviral drugs nor steroids nor antibiotics, 675,000 Americans died.
In the current COVID-19 pandemic, with modern technology, respirators, ICU care, steroids, antivirals, and antibiotics, 611,791 Americans have died so far.
The Jewish response to health care has always, from time immemorial, been focused on the best medical expertise available at the time. We do not ever sit and wait for miracles. We thank the Holy One regularly for the gift of human knowledge, that we might make the world better for all people. Our earliest laws tell us that the well-being of our entire community is a core value of Judaism.
Every major Jewish denomination has made a clear statement on vaccines. They are required ethically for Jews. There is extensive Halacha on this topic, as well as important thinking by our great modern scholars.
Here are the most important Rabbinical statements, issued by the Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements, on vaccines and vaccine requirements:
“Agudath Israel of America” submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1996, arguing that: “Society has the right to compel citizens to submit to vaccination… [and] to insist that a child receive life-sustaining treatment even over the religiously motivated opposition of his parents” (Prouser, p. 15).
The Conservative posek, Rabbi Elliott Dorf (U.S., born 1943) wrote in his book on Judaism’s approach to medical ethics in 1998 (Dorf, p. 253) that “it would be a violation of Jewish law… for a Jew to refuse to be inoculated against a disease, at least where the inoculation has a proven track record of effectiveness. Jews, on the contrary, have a positive duty to have themselves and their children inoculated against all diseases where that preventive measure is effective and available”.
The Reform posek Rabbi Mark Washofsky (U.S., born 1952) ruled in an official ruling of the Responsa Committee of the CCAR in 1999 that immunization is “proven” medicine [in the words of Rabbi Ya’akov Emden quoted above], and is, therefore “part and parcel of the traditional obligation to practice and to avail ourselves of medical treatment”; Jewish tradition would not object to compulsory immunization; and “a congregation is entitled… to adopt a rule that requires immunization of students before their admission to religious school” (Washofsky, p. 115).
All of these rulings apply to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is not different.
So many of our Jewish ethical views on vaccines originate with the introduction of the smallpox vaccine. People had never heard of such a thing and were terrified. But one in thirteen people died of smallpox before the vaccine. We knew that our tradition taught that medicine and science were how the knowledge of the universe was brought into the world by human intelligence. And so, our communities knew that vaccination was the right thing to do, the Jewish thing to do.
We must protect our most vulnerable people, small children, and the immunocompromised. How can any of us think of their perilous position and refuse to be vaccinated? It is selfishness, pure and simple.
When we gather together, we must always hold as most holy the lives of humans. Because of this we will mask and distance, and follow up to date building protocol, even if it feels annoying or silly. Even if we don’t feel like it. And every one of us who is physically able should be fully vaccinated, l’ma’an haShamayim, for the sake of heaven.
When can I run and play with the real rabbits?
This is the question of the Velveteen Rabbit, from the children’s story of the same name. It’s such a heartbreaking story, I can’t read it without crying, and I know that’s true for many of us.
The story of loss, pain and longing, from the point of view of the child and the toy, is so sad. But it also, in the sadness, teaches about the realness of the soul, and love which is stronger than death.
This is a story which we tell in different ways, over and over, because all of us are at one time or another, are behind a window, filled with an aching longing to be “real,” authentic, for the deepest truth of ourselves to be manifest in the world without shame or fear.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, a wonderful rabbi from the Renewal movement, titled her blog “Velveteen Rabbi,” when she first began it during Rabbinical school. She wondered when she would ever feel “real,” like a “real Rabbi.” And even after she received her s’michah, ordination, she left the title as it was, to reflect that ongoing, deep desire for authenticity that is endemic to all of us.
We say in our Ahavah Raba prayer in the Shacharit service:
Light up our eyes with your Torah, and let our hearts cling to your Mitzvot, and unite our hearts to love and revere your name, that we shall never depart from it. We shall not be ashamed, and we shall not be embarrassed.
These words remind us that we all feel our inadequacies, over and over, and that this most certainly extends to our experience of Jewish worship and learning. We never ever know as much as we need. We don’t read Hebrew or we aren’t familiar with the prayer book or we don’t know the melody.
We are all learning, all the time. We are all growing, constantly drawing near to our truest, most holy selves. We are all on the journey. When we realize this, we can start to forgive ourselves for not meeting an impossible standard, and to stop “gatekeeping” ourselves about access to Jewish life and prayer. We are all walking in the wilderness, b’midbar, together. Rabbis and students, young and old, post grad and kindergarten. Together. You come too.
May the Holy One of Blessing be the shelter we all share, may we lift each other up in all the ways we need, and may we never be ashamed of where and who we are.