Pirkei d’Rabbi Jonathan

On Sunday, May 5 the Woodstock Jewish Congregation held a celebration in honor of my 25 years with the congregation. I wanted to offer a teaching, but I had too much to say! So I decided to boil down my teachings into aphorism, a la Pirkei Avot. Here they are:


Why be Jewish? Why NOT be Jewish?

It is good to be Jewish. And you are a good enough Jew.

We are a traumatized people – do your best not to take it out on one another.

We are all screw-ups. Everybody is struggling with something, even if we can’t see it at first. Be brave in facing your own struggles, and have compassion for others as they face theirs.

The purpose of a spiritual community is to grow in love and awareness.

Doing mitzvahs is the Jewish way to grow in love and awareness, while making the world a better place.

Our synagogue is a place to heal our Jewish selves.

My bumper sticker idea: “The Woodstock Jewish Congregation: we have the questions, not the answer – come seek with us.”

The purpose of prayer is to open up your heart.

As a Reconstructionist, I like to say that I pray “to whom it may concern” – but I still pray, because it opens up my heart.

Crying and laughing and sighing in shul are all good – it means your heart just opened.

Remember that the unpronounceable Hebrew name for God, YHVH, is not a noun – it is a verb. We Jews worship a verb, Being, that cannot be captured in any static image, and that requires us to always be flexible and discerning. I like to render YHVH into English as “Life Unfolding”.

Jewish humor and irony, love of learning and literacy, arguing with God, passion for ethics, food as prayer, contentious, smothering, relentless love – these are a few of my favorite things!

I especially like Jewish humor. As the Yiddish translation of Hamlet says: “To be or not to be – that’s a question?!”

Boy, do I love Israel! I know it’s a mess, but I just do!

As my beloved teacher Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, who founded the Reconstructionist Movement, taught: In Judaism, belonging is more important than believing.

I’m not here to convince you to believe anything – I just really want you to feel life flowing through you and to give thanks.

As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the creator of the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism, and Ira Eisenstein’s father-in-law, taught: Judaism is the evolving life and culture of the Jewish People – it is ours to shape – and it won’t be the same without you.

As Rabbi Kurt Vonnegut taught: “What the world needs is a little less love, and a little more common decency.” Be thoughtful and civil and kind, even to people whom you don’t love.

Ethics – how we treat one another – is the primary concern of Judaism. That is where holiness dwells and that is where we find God. If we are not concerned with constantly improving the way we treat one another, then we are not really practicing Judaism.

For Jews, the real Torah is not a book – the real Torah is our ongoing 3,000-year conversation with that book. In every generation we must decide which parts of Torah to emphasize and to live by. Here are my current favorite Torah verses:


10. And God created the human beings in the Divine image; male and female God created them. –Genesis 1:27

9. And if there is a needy person among you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand. Rather, you must open your hand and lend them sufficient for their need. –Deuteronomy 15:7-8

8. Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. –Exodus 23:9

7. And God said to Cain: Sin crouches at your door, and urges you, but you can master it! –Genesis 4:7

6. Jacob awoke from his sleep and said: God is surely in this place, and I was not aware of it!…How awesome is this place! –Genesis 30:16-17

5. And Moses said to God, When I come to the Children of Israel and say to them, the God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me What is this God’s name, what shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I am Becoming What I Am Becoming…This is My name for eternity. –Exodus 3:13-14

4.And God looked at everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good! –Genesis 1:31

3. Justice, justice you shall pursue. –Deuteronomy 16:20

2. Love your fellow human being as yourself. –Leviticus 19:18

1. Choose life! –Deuteronomy 30:19