Archive by Author | Rabbi Craig Scheff

Ecclesiastes, a Sukkot love story

Hevel: vanity, futility, meaninglessness, pointless striving. We may acquire wisdom; we may amass physical comforts and playthings. We may seek pleasure in food and drink; we may build palaces and establish monuments to our accomplishments. It’s all hevel, however, because ultimately everything has its season, and every person has his or her own time. This is the message of the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the megillah (scroll) that we read in conjunction with Sukkot, our festival of joy.


Huh? Why yuck my yum? How does this sobering message enhance the joy I am commanded to experience on this festival? Well, I guess it all depends on how one defines joy.

What if we read Kohelet as a treatise on love? After all, the megillot that we read on our other two major festivals are love stories! On Passover, the corresponding megillah we read is the Song of Songs, a story about unrequited love. On Shavuot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ruth, a story about consummated love. Moreover, Passover celebrates God’s courtship of the Jewish People; Shavuot celebrates the wedding of God and the Jewish People. I see this parallel progression from courtship to consummation as intentional. If so, what can we deduce about Sukkot and its relationship to Kohelet? How can we read hevel into the next stage of this relationship, into our attainment of joy?


Perhaps Kohelet’s conclusion–that life “under the sun” is meaningless–refers to the temporal, fleeting, finite pieces of ourselves and our relationships. The purest joy, however, is not connected to pleasures of food or wine, acquisitions or edifices. As exemplified by our experience of the sukkah, our greatest joy is found despite—if not in—our vulnerability, our authenticity, our simplicity. On Sukkot, we build a sukkah aware of its fragility, porousness, and temporary nature; we embrace it, love it and live in it anyway.

On Sukkot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ecclesiastes, a story about enduring love. Sukkot celebrates the journey the Jewish People took through a desert, with God as their ultimate shelter. We remember that the love at the heart of God’s relationship with the Jewish People is not sustained by the fireworks of courtship or by the pageantry of a wedding night. It is the love that emanates from a relationship that is resilient, that withstands the highs and the lows, that survives the wilderness wanderings, that thrives without necessarily reaching a promised land.


This season of our joy is rooted in a deep, enduring and timeless love that transcends what we build or acquire. It is the kind of joy that brings us peace and tranquility, and provides us the resilience and strength to go on dwelling in the midst of a tumultuous world.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Gratitude then, gratitude now

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God has given you, and have possessed and settled it….” These words serve as the Torah’s introduction–in this past week’s portion Ki Tavo— to the thanksgiving ritual of bikkurim, or first fruits. Upon arrival in the Promised Land, the Israelite is to appear in the presence of the kohen, bearing his basket of produce, and offer a scripted monologue detailing the history, context and expression of gratitude for the bounties bestowed.

The timing of this ceremony is a subject of debate among the rabbis. Specifically, does the language of the verse quoted above indicate that  the ceremony is performed upon entry into the land, or only after the land has been settled? How this question is answered informs our Jewish understanding of the concept of gratitude. If thanksgiving is to be offered immediately upon entry, the gratitude expressed is in appreciation of God’s goodness, a promise kept, a gift given, even though the gift received has not been opened yet! On the other hand, if thanksgiving is to be offered only after the land has been settled (and it would take years before the land would be entirely settled!), the gratitude expressed in the first fruits ceremony would be accompanied by a very different intention. The gift’s recipient would have had the chance to unwrap the gift, open the box, and make use of the gift. Gratitude would be accompanied by a rational appreciation for the thing itself.

I am certainly not suggesting that we write two thank-you cards for every gift we receive. The trait of gratitude we cultivate, however, should be informed by both perspectives. We should appreciate the generosity of others for the consideration they show us, regardless of the gift itself. And we should recognize and acknowledge the gift itself as we come to recognize its unfolding impact on us.

On this sixteenth anniversary of the life-shattering events of 9/11/01, I remain deeply saddened by the stories of suffering, especially those of individuals who have recently lost their lives as a result of 9/11-related illnesses.

But I also feel gratitude. In the initial aftermath of the tragedy, I was grateful to those who showed supreme heroism, selflessness and compassion in the darkest hours, many of whom gave the gift of life at the cost of their own.


With the passage of time, I have also come to appreciate how these self-sacrificing individuals and their communities of volunteer and professional servants have shaped our neighborhoods and communities. “We are one family” is a refrain I heard repeatedly this morning, and a theme I saw play out in our broader community. As our OJC community joined together in commemoration with our neighbors and volunteers in Tappan, and as we joined in learning with the faith community of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, a true sense of brotherhood and sisterhood prevailed.

I am grateful for the care we show one another in the wake of tragic events, and for the human and institutional actions we have witnessed in response to natural disasters Harvey and Irma. Today, I express my gratitude–with a basketful of intentions–to those who serve us each day and to those who work toward creating the kind of community we aspire to be.

In peace,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

The call for moral leadership

As this Hebrew month of Av draws to a close in the week ahead, leading us into the reflective month of Elul, I am reminded of a teaching by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel: “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred – sinat chinam, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324). The destruction to which Rav Kook refers is that of the Holy Temple; but his teaching is as equally valid today as we experience again and again the destructive force of baseless hatred all around us.

Flowers and a photo of car ramming victim Heather Heyer lie at a makeshift memorial in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 13, 2017. 

These times demand moral leadership. The actions of neo-Nazis and white supremacy groups in Charlottesville–marching with torches, toting guns, chanting hate-filled slogans, intimidating Shabbat worshippers, and ultimately inciting deaths and injuries—or anywhere else, for that matter, cannot be countenanced without a response. In the moment, we cannot afford to be bystanders, though we are not required to put ourselves in harm’s way; in the aftermath, we call for moral leadership. We demand swift and unequivocal condemnation from those elected or appointed to positions of power. Over the past few days, we have read many such statements from organizations and individuals representing our communities. Frankly, I am underwhelmed by all of them.

Statements are important; but they are nothing compared to actions. Of course, we should call out—or expect our leaders to call out—that which we find despicable, abhorrent and unacceptable. But how have we truly changed our world in relying on someone else to speak what we are feeling?

Moral leadership must indeed be demanded; Judaism, however, dictates that we demand it of ourselves. We must be the moral leaders of our day; others may speak for us, but only you and I, individually, can change the landscape. And Judaism tells us how in this week’s reading of R’eih: “Do what is right and good in the eyes of God.” Feed the poor, care for the stranger, let the land regenerate, show gratitude for what you have, don’t take time for granted. Love (the verb).

Love. We’ve been reading all about love in the Torah weekly throughout this month of Av. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your essence.” “Love the stranger.” In response, I commonly hear expressed the struggle with the notion of being “commanded” to love. How can love be commanded?

If I had to define “love” in the context of what the Torah tells us, it would be the feeling we experience when we give to another at our own expense. The Torah wants us to serve the Other–and others–through our choices and with a generous spirit. (A moral leader is defined typically as a leader whose purpose is to serve, as opposed to be followed.) But we aren’t born with that desire to love. We are taught how to give love by being loved and by loving. Love may be an emotion, but it is also learned by experiences and actions.

But hate is stronger than love,” I hear. My response: Hate is taught, just as love is taught. Perhaps hate is taught more easily, because hate appeals to our base instinct of self-preservation. Teaching love through our actions demands self-sacrifice, vulnerability and risk-taking. Teaching love means overcoming our reticence, our fear of the stranger, our complacency.

Moral leadership means accepting these challenges for ourselves, and not giving in to insecurity, fear and despair. Moral leadership means embracing and living by the notion that there is a shared code of conduct or set of values, that calls upon us to serve one another and “do what is right and good.” Moral leadership is the constant and intentional endeavor to behave morally and to love.

Some of you struggle with the idea that, as Jews, it is our mission (calling? obligation? command? responsibility? — call it what you wish!) to pursue love in the world, just as we are taught to pursue justice or peace. Love needs to be practiced, exercised and cultivated, just like any other discipline, muscle or character trait. And the more we love, the easier it gets. Trite? Perhaps. But when was the last time you went about your day consciously choosing to give love beyond your friends and family circle? To your neighbor? To a stranger? Try it, and you will soon discover that love is stronger than hate.

What does God/Judaism want of us? To live with a consciousness of our connection to others that guides our choices and our behavior. This is what God hopes will shape the kind of love we experience and bring into the world, the kind of moral leadership you and I provide for the world of tomorrow.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

 

House and Home

Mah tovu–How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5, from this week’s parasha, Balak).


The Bible’s poetry often appears as a parallelism, where elements of a sentence are identical in construction and meaning. On a first reading, we might understand the quote above, spoken by the prophet Balaam, as an example of this technique. Traditional rabbinic commentaries, however, attempt to show that this verse is more than simple repetition of an idea for the sake of poetry, that “Jacob” and “Israel” are not parallels, that “tents” and “dwelling places” carry different connotations.

According to the Sefat Emet, a nineteenth century Hasidic commentary by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, “Jacob” is the Jew who wanders (in tents) outside the Land of Israel (in Poland, in his case); “Israel” is the Jewish People in the Land, connected to the home of the Temple (the dwelling place). “Beauty” (or holiness), he argues, attaches to both.

We can also draw a distinction in the blessing between the temporary (tents) and the permanent (dwelling place), the fleeting and the fixed. Whether we are on the move or settled at home, out in public or in the privacy of our space, we have the ability to evoke a sense of holiness by virtue of the ways in which we interact with the people and the world around us.


One more distinction that I derive from this blessing, which we are meant to recite every time we enter a place of prayer, is that between body and soul.

For me, the tent represents the physical and tangible things with which we surround ourselves–our homes, our clothing, our financial resources–even as we struggle like Jacob to discover our true identities. These things may be impermanent, but they are necessary, and they can be put to use in a way that garners appreciation and evokes a sense of holiness.

The dwelling place, in contrast, is where the soul resides. It represents the intangibles of our lives–our values, character traits and relationships–that lie at the heart of what it means to be connected with one another as the People of Israel. These things are always part of us, no matter where we find ourselves, no matter where we wander. We welcome beauty and holiness into our lives when we learn to access this dwelling place, this internal sanctuary.

Can we live in two places at once? Can we create for ourselves both a house and a home? Can we open to others both our doors and our hearts? When we are finally able to do so, no matter where we find ourselves in life or in the world, we will find the blessing of God’s presence.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Interfaith Weddings: Responding to the Questions


My daughter called from Israel yesterday at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. “Mom, where have you been? Our family has been texting for hours about all of the social media regarding Conservative rabbis and interfaith weddings. We haven’t heard from you at all.”

It was one of those days, trying to get everything done before leaving for a week of vacation. I had not checked into our family text group or Facebook all day. When I finally opened the texts, there they were – my kids waiting for their mom, the family Rabbi, to offer an opinion.

The family discussion was mostly a furious-paced posting and re-posting of various statements that had been published by my colleagues throughout the day. So I read many of the opinions all at the same time. The idea that struck me first was how proud I am to be a rabbi. As I read the comments and opinions, I observed that rabbis ask more questions than offer absolute answers. For the most part, rabbis advocating officiating at interfaith weddings and those opposed wrote with thoughtful consideration and respect for each other. In the modern day pages of Talmud that we call Facebook, I did not see very much disparagement or lack of respect (though I did certainly read some of that). The same cannot be said about the pages of our esteemed Talmud!

I was not available for the family conversation yesterday, but today I am ready to answer my children and their questions. (Full disclosure: They are all in unanimous agreement that Conservative rabbis should not officiate at interfaith weddings.)

Dear Drill kids,

Dad and I are grateful for and proud of the people you have chosen, and are choosing, to spend your lives with. You have fallen in love with good people whose core values match your own. And you have all chosen Jewish people as your partners. We do not take these facts for granted.

I do not say that I am grateful for your choosing Jewish partners out of prejudice or closed mindedness. I do not say that I am proud as if somehow your parents did all the right things that led you to choosing these people. Many people raise their children just as we raised you and not all of them choose to marry or partner with Jewish people. Falling in love is a very personal matter. I could never take credit. The four of you have taken the foundation we provided and moved forward in your own ways.

Still I am grateful and proud. Judaism is a particularistic religion in a world that seems to prefer universal open-mindedness. Being counter-cultural is not easy. It leaves one open to criticism of backwardness, naïveté or bigotry. But as you, my children, have heard me say since you were very young: Judaism is a very long chain and I do not want to be the one to break it.

I love my children more than anything in the world. If you had chosen (or choose one day in the future) a non-Jewish partner, neither I nor your Rabbi, Craig Scheff, will officiate under a chuppah with you. The blessings recited and the ritual enacted there contain holiness when they are completed by two people who share the same covenant with God. It is my obligation as a rabbi and also as a Jewish mother to draw the lines of distinction even when they are painful.

And yet I think you know, that if you chose a non-Jewish spouse, I would welcome that person into our family circle and teach him or her to love and respect Judaism. I would hope that with family and community influence, your future home would be a Jewish one. I know that is not easy, but I have seen many examples in my synagogue of non-Jewish partners supporting a Jewish family.

As the texts were buzzing yesterday on my unattended phone, one of the many things I was busy with was taking photographs with a bat mitzvah and her family – her Jewish mom and her non-Jewish dad. I have been attached to this family since the bat mizvah girl’s naming, seeing them through her older brother’s bar mitzvah, the funeral of her grandfather and her own bat mitzvah studies. Her non-Jewish father calls me his rabbi and I consider him my congregant.

In between the snapping of photos on the bimah, I shared with them the conversation that was going on in social media and with my family. My bat mitzvah’s mother said to me: “I know that as a rabbi you could not have married my husband and me, but as a person, you would have wanted to.”
She said that because she knows how much I respect and cherish her family. But as I thought about it last night, she was not actually correct. As a person and as a rabbi,  I cannot officiate at a Jewish wedding ceremony if both people are not Jewish.

I do not think that I will change my mind even if some rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly move toward officiating at some kind of interfaith wedding ceremony.

My job as a rabbi is to build relationship. It is also to protect a sacred obligation to the holiness of my particular religion. I know that it is possible to be a rabbi to interfaith families, to welcome interfaith couples and to raise their children as Jewish in my synagogue community. I am willing to continue asking questions and hearing the stories of real people. That is my calling.

A wedding is a sacred moment in time, but a marriage is for a lifetime. As a rabbi, in relationships where one partner is not Jewish, I won’t be under the chuppah, but I will be there for the marriage.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Spiritual fathers

Rabbi Henry Sosland came to the New City Jewish Center in 1958 straight out of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 2005, after 47 years serving the community, Rabbi Sosland retired to emeritus status. Visiting him this past week with my father, I was reminded of his gentle manner, his amazing recall for names, and the subtle ways in which he empowered, encouraged, inspired and taught me. People tend to mention his name softly, with deep veneration, respect and fondness. I am blessed to call him my rabbi and teacher, and I hope my chosen path has brought him a measure of pride and nachas.


When I entered rabbinical school in 1992, one of my main personal and professional goals was to find the kind of community upon ordination in which I would want to settle down, raise a family, build a career, and retire after 40 years of service. What I could not anticipate then was the great contentment, satisfaction and perspective that would come with sharing with families the cycles of life, from births to death, with so many celebrations in between; the great anticipation of standing under a chuppah for a bride I named when she was a baby; the sadness that would accompany the many losses I have felt so personally yet often carried so privately; the deep familiarity and connection I would enjoy with individuals and families; the pride I would derive from a community that strives to learn, grow, raise the bar for itself and others, and constantly take on new initiatives and challenges while preserving the tradition at our core; the joy upon hearing that one of my students had chosen for himself a career in the rabbinate (thanks, Ben!).


Last night, our OJC community approved the terms of a new contract that will extend my tenure here to 2030. I am so grateful to this community for its professional and personal trust and support, for the mutual respect and love we share. God willing, we’ll reach that year as a community in good health; I’ll be 65, I’ll have served the synagogue 35 years, with my goal of 40 years in the same pulpit in sight.


Our Talmud teaches that one who has taught Torah to another is credited with having given them life. That renders the teacher a spiritual parent. So as Father’s Day approaches, I thank all my teachers–my “spiritual parents”–but especially Rabbi Sosland, for sharing his Torah, for inspiring me to follow in his path. And I pray that I will have the privilege to be considered spiritual parent to many students of Torah in my lifetime.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

In pursuit of mental health

When it comes to comforting the mourners or caring for the sick, the Jewish tradition provides ample wise guidance. The one in need of comfort and the one offering, the one in need of healing and the one giving care, the community with which both connect–all benefit from the ritual that the tradition provides in order to manage expectations, overcome insecurities and fears, and offer structure and control where uncertainty and chaos often reign.

In the event of death, broken bones or illnesses that present in noticeable ways, the tradition serves us well. In the case of hidden illnesses, however, the traditional responses are far less effective. After all, if the person suffering illness chooses to remain silent about the affliction, so must the caregiver; and if neither is willing to share publicly that they are in need, the community is rendered ineffective. The resulting failure in connectedness is to the detriment of all three parties in multiple ways.


For a long time, cancer was greeted with this kind of ineffective response, probably because it was viewed as a death sentence. The diagnosis was whispered, family privately grieved, friends had no words. Today, cancer is shouted out and proactively battled with the support of practitioners, caregivers, support networks and public advocacy.

Sadly, mental illness remains a source of shame for those afflicted, isolation and sadness for their caregivers, and helplessness for communities. In general, people still fail to grasp the true nature of mental illness. Those suffering keep their stories and needs to themselves to avoid stigmatization. Victims are often expected to fix themselves, to get over it. All too often, we greet news of suicide with responses–“Why did they do it? They had so much to live for?”–that reflect our own refusal to acknowledge the perniciousness of the disease and that perpetuate the stigma attached to mental illness. Families protect their loved ones’ privacy, so they suffer quietly. Communities passively watch as affiliates recede to the margins.


On the Shabbat of Tazria-Metzora, a reading that offers a ritual through which the priest ministers to those afflicted of a skin disease and thereby keeps them connected to the community despite their temporary quarantine, I chose to address the topic of connecting with those who experience, or care for those who experience, mental illness. I offered that our pursuit of mental wellness must begin by removing the stigma attached to mental illness and to those who seek therapy for their own mental care. After sharing that I have sought therapy for my own mental well-being at various times over the years, and that I recommend therapy as an important part of self care to all the rabbinical students I teach, I invited anyone who has received or is currently receiving therapy to rise in their places. When half of those in the room–scores of people–rose to their feet, there was an audible release, and then tears. People found comfort, validation and relief in discovering that they were not alone. For a moment, any shame or isolation was gone.


I hope that this moment marks a new beginning: when those in crisis know that they need not hide in shame; when their families have permission to speak openly with their clergy and community about the challenges they face; when the community can reach out in care to offer support and to pull into the center those who may otherwise feel marginalized.

Share your story. Offer to be part of the network of support. Join us on June 4 at 5:30pm, whether you are a professional wanting to facilitate or someone seeking to offer or receive support, as we commence this initiative to show that OJC supports you. With your help and participation, we hope to have various support groups and referral services in place by the fall.


Email us at ojccares4u@gmail.com with your intention to attend our opening meeting. If you are interested in having a particular support group, please note that as well.

It’s time to bring this topic out of the shadows. And it starts with you and me stepping into the light, together.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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