The Whole Story

Pastor Steve and Rabbi Barbara  Photo by Ronald Hartsell
Pastor Steve and Rabbi Barbara
Photo by Ronald Hartsell

I don’t really know if anyone knows the whole story.

The whole story is painful. It is beautiful.

When my little congregation formed in January, 2004 as a havurah, our first meetings were held at a local church in Concord, North Carolina. One of our interfaith couples suggested that church; one of the two spouses was an active and happy member at that church.

So we met in their fellowship hall once a month or so for about a year.

None of us knew that there was a deep division in the community about our presence. None of us knew that the minister (who has long since moved away) was being visited each week by church members who believed Jews worshipping in the church was a real danger to the community.  She told me later what they had said.

“The Jews will destroy the church.”

I had a few other minister friends in Concord. One was Pastor Steve Ayers, of McGill Baptist Church. Wounded and shocked, I told him what had happened.

He said, “Come to McGill, Barbara.”

So we moved to a Baptist church in Concord.

We knew that some Jews would automatically assume that we were messianic and would not dare to come and find out otherwise. We knew that some people would call McGill and ask if Jews met there. We knew both congregations might take a hit for their conviction that they could worship in the same space with love, tenderness, and respect.

In the very first year we were at McGill we learned we would have to raise thousands of dollars to restore our first Torah. For twelve families, that was a daunting challenge. Steve told me that McGill Baptist would refuse to take any rent; whatever money we had should go to the restoration.

To this day, I remind congregants that some of the letters on our first Torah were put there by Baptist generosity.

Sometimes, despite all our busy schedules, we managed to do congregational things together – a joint Hanukkah-Christmas party, a trip to see the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit when it came to Charlotte. I visited the McGill Baptist Adult Education class every year and spoke on a range of different topics to a community of enthusiastic and loving learners.

I stood before the congregation yesterday to thank them. I cried through each word. I thought of the things that had happened to me in that sanctuary.

Before we made the move to McGill, the congregation had invited me to deliver a talk on Judaism. After a long and wonderfully enthusiastic conversation with congregants at a program that was supposed to last an hour and turned into almost three hours, I turned to my husband, Ralf, and said, “I think I better apply to rabbinical school – I need to know a lot more than I do to answer questions like those.”

Later, I joked that I got the “call” in a Baptist sanctuary.

I have sung Avinu Malkeynu with passion and power in that room. I have prostrated onto its floor. I have felt the souls of my ancestors attending to our prayers.

I have heard birds chirping at the window while we sang Elohai neshama, “my God, the soul you have given me is pure.”

I have seen my congregants dance across the sanctuary floor. Children have sung prayers and chanted from our Torahs. We have celebrated, and celebrated, and celebrated again.

God has flowed right through my bones.

How could I manage to tell those generous people at McGill that I became a better rabbi in their sanctuary, that I learned how to serve the Holy One there?

At yesterday’s service, Pastor Steve gave Temple Or Olam a blessing. He wished us well as we move closer to the university area, to another location and a different part of the way on our path. He reminded his congregation (and us) that living the love of God is our task. We are the face of the divine, he said. Sometimes we are the only messenger to others for that love.

He spoke about what it means to love others who are not always like you, who speak or look or act differently, but who need your outstretched arms, your heart and soul extended.

B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God were we created. Each of us is a face of the Divine.

To all of you at McGill Baptist Church: For your grace, your generosity, your open-heartedness, and your love, I say again, “thank you.”

God knows the whole story.


Late Reflections on Parsha Korach

Freedom Summer 1964I had just turned five that spring.

It was a murderous summer. That June 21 in 1964, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were investigating the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, which had been a site for a CORE Freedom School. Schwerner and Chaney had held voter registration rallies at the church. For that, the parishioners were punished by a number of white men – led, apparently, by Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Price. Their deacons were pulled out of their cars, placed before the headlights, and beaten with rifle butts. Their church was set afire.

Price found a way to arrest the three men. They were released into a trap: Members of the KKK – also policemen – shot and killed Schwerner, then Goodman, and then Chaney, after chain-whipping him. It took forty-four days to find their bodies. It took forty-one years to convict just one of the men responsible for their deaths.

Last Saturday, it was exactly 50 years since the murders. Two of the men – Michael and Andrew were white, and Jewish. James Chaney was an African American.

Men. Human beings who fought for a heroic cause.

The night before that anniversary I asked my congregation: How could any of us respond to this horror but with silence? These are scenes of brutality and beating, of fear and fire, of terror and murder.

The darkness they elicit is complete. We can respond by going numb, to be sure, but we know it: What happened that day was an example of the human capacity to act evilly. There is hell in the world.

Last Shabbat we read Parsha Korach. There are scenes of fire and death in that parsha, scenes of terror. Our Torah does not make it easy for us; it presents us, repeatedly, with devastating scenes. Humanity goes aground, again and again. God hopes for better and doesn’t get it; Moses and Aaron alternately plead for humanity and find themselves appalled, angry, and depressed. Moses even asks God at one point to end his life; he can’t bear the weight of the responsibility he has shouldered.

And despite the many writers at work, the different time periods the Torah reflects, there is often a strangely linear sense to it all. God commands the Israelites to make tassels, to put these tzitzit on their clothing as a reminder to observe God’s commandments and so, be holy.

Immediately after this command is given at the end of one week’s reading, the next begins with Korach’s challenge: Together with Datan and Aviram and two hundred and fifty leaders of the Israelites, he confronts Moses and Aaron: “Too much is yours! The entirety of the community is holy; why do you exalt yourselves over them?”

Have Moses and Aaron presumed, controlled, become despotic?

Certainly, Moses responds with a test and invokes a cruel judgment for those who fail it. Korach and his followers will make an offering together with Aaron. May the earth swallow those who have rebelled without cause.

But perhaps Moses has second thoughts – he asks Datan and Aviram to come to speak with him, to forestall the conflict? They are intransigent. They refuse, launching yet more accusations. The contest is on.

And the conflagration is near. God is enraged by yet one more example of an ungrateful, recalcitrant people. But Moses and Aaron ask: “If one man sins, will you be furious with all?” Moses begs his community to separate themselves from the rebels – is he sensing that the glove he threw down will lead to utter destruction? Datan and Aviram are surrounded by their wives and children; Korach’s family, it seems, is with him. And just as Moses announced, the earth itself opens up and swallows the rebels. All Israel flees at the sound of their screaming and as they flee, fire comes from before God’s presence and consumes the two-hundred and fifty leaders who had stood with Korach.

The next day, in a state of shock, the people accuse Moses and Aaron of causing the deaths they witnessed. Moses can predict the outcome: A wrathful force will literally plague the people. Again, remorseful, aware that his own pride is part of what has led to this disaster, he says to Aaron, go, go quickly. Make expiation.

And Aaron does so. He stands, the Hebrew reads, between the living and the dead.

How on earth do we reconcile a rebellion with the aftermath endured and witnessed by the innocent? Children die in this rebellion. A plague descends on an entire people.

The three men who died a half century ago were not only innocent of any wrongdoing, but heroes. Their cause was just, righteous, moral in every respect. Their killers acted with a brutality that cannot be gainsaid.

In Korach’s story, there is no hero. Torah will not give us an easy answer. Everyone perpetrates; there are victims of pride, of selfishness, of mean-spiritedness.

Korach insists that all Israel is holy just after the Israelites have been told that becoming holy is a constant challenge, just after God insists that they must dress themselves, each and every day, in reminders of their tasks, their responsibilities, the things they must do in an effort to become holy human beings. Holiness is an aspiration; a call, a hope. Korach is no hero: He has forgotten humility, and that makes him willing to claim prerogative. Just wondering: Have we, as a nation, really earned our right to what we possess? Really?

Moses, embattled and exhausted, asks for doom and gets it: “If these men are guilty,” he says, “let the earth open its mouth and swallow them; let the earth itself speak judgment.” We judge harshly, we invoke punishment. Our words have power. In the movie Chocolat, the mayor remarks: “Someone ought to do something about those gypsies in town.” That night, someone sets their barges afire.

I imagine Aaron in the midst of the living and the dead. Where was our beloved peacemaker? He did not stop his younger brother from invoking judgment. He did not go to Korach and the others. He did not speak on behalf of peace; thus, he was left to stand in the midst of a war zone. The smell of fire must have been everywhere. The sounds of screaming must still have hung in the air. He stood between the living and the dead.

And God? God who read Moses’ judgment script and acted it out? God who threatens to destroy (again) the people he saved? God can be appeased by human beings, but God cannot be excused.

It is a story of hell in the world.

A few weeks ago, I was present when a colleague of mine asked her congregation: There is hell in the world: What does liberal theology have to say in response?

Hell has a spectrum – from the rebellions and discontents that build tension and anger and frustration in families, in communities, in church and synagogue. There is hell in our easy judgments.  We call for more time in prison for the murderer or even his death, and one day we read about an attempted execution so brutal that the victim suffers agonies for forty five minutes and dies later of a heart attack.

Our nation goes to war in faraway lands and the children who survive go to work clearing mines and losing limbs.

The spectrum is wide and deep. We have only our tassels. Most of us are not heroes.

But our tassels are signs of hope and commitment. We must strive for holiness in the world. This is how we can, as my colleague said, “love the hell out of the world.” We can create a spectrum of kindness of love, of generosity, of understanding. We can look for opportunities to wear our tassels, to make heaven on earth.

So we must.


Services Lived (And Lively)

Kids dancingIt’s been sitting on my desk for weeks – months, actually. The headline reads: “My Little Darling Goes to Church.”

The article is a first-person account . Most of the piece consisted of motherly anxiety: Would the child be able to sit still? Could he be quiet for an hour? What would she do if her child failed the church test?

I read parts of it out loud to my husband, Ralf, over breakfast. There were helpful tips in the sidebar for keeping small children quiet.

Bring snacks and water to keep “little mouths occupied.” Have books at the ready to distract the child. Make sure you sit in the aisle so you can make a getaway if a tantrum starts.

“I guess that’s what you learn at church,” Ralf said. “To be silent.”

Let’s confess, now. That’s what children are taught at a good many synagogues, too.

Not at mine.

Last Friday was an all-night extravaganza at Temple Or Olam. We began with dinner, announcements, and awarding certificates to two of my teens, who had spent six months studying cantillation with me. (Their long-term goal: Becoming conversant enough to function as gabbais. Why not prove that a bar/bat mitzvah is not a terminal degree?)

Our Annual Meeting followed dinner. New board members were voted in, policies, amendments, and the budget were approved. Our new twenty-something group, Derech Yisrael, was introduced to the congregation.

Then, it was almost Shabbat. Time for leading services.

Who did the leading? The rabbi (me) accompanied by her electric guitar, TOO’s amazing percussionist (Ralf), and the congregation’s kids. Ranging from four to fifteen, they sing everything with me. Everything.

Kids younger than four mostly dance.

We chanted the Shema to a sweet, slow melody. After a few minutes, I asked five-year-old Colin to sing alone.

“Shema Yisrael,” he sang, soft and high, his Ashkenazi accent full-on, “Adonoi Eloheynu, Adonoi-oi E-echad.”

Everyone breathed in the revelation of our time – of all time: Unity. All and everything one.

“Moses and Miriam,” sings John, a thirteen-year-old who has Asperger’s Syndrome. “They stood by the sea…”

But John is singing a different melody than I’ve planned on, so I break in.

“John,” I sing back, “they were singing a different me-lo-dy.”

“Stealing the show is not my special-ty!” he sings.

I turn to the congregation, and sing happily, “Well, you could have fooled me!”

Then I turn to Harrison, a red-headed ball of energy.

“Harr-i-son,” I sing, and point to the page number for Mi Chamocha.

He doesn’t miss a beat: “Page one-sixty-two,” he warbles beautifully.

Several of the kids begin dancing during the first verse. When our prayer of exaltation and revelation is done, I ask: “Now who really felt like dancing, but was afraid to do it? Raise your hands.”

About fifteen adult hands inch toward the ceiling.

“Now’s your chance,” I grin, and we start singing again. In the end, more than half the congregation is on their feet, wending their way all around the sanctuary.

None of this was planned. Neither was the moment when Colin said, after a rousing Adon Olam, “Let’s do it again!”

We did. Of course.

I long for these children to know Shabbat services in their fullness. Their Kabbalat Shabbat needs to be the spontaneous expression of gratitude, thankfulness, joy. Yes, they talk and ask questions I cannot prepare for. Sometimes a toddler will cry or make unexpected noises. One of them will hit a note that will squeak its way through the doors as it leaves the room. Then it will hang out in the lobby for another five minutes.

Anything can happen, really.

But this is lived prayer, for toddlers and twenty-somethings, for those entering middle age to those who have long since left it behind.

“Mission accomplished,” wrote the mother who so worried about her child interrupting services. He had behaved in church. He had stayed still.

Too bad.


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