Dear members of the Etz Chayim family,
Leslie and I were delighted to meet you during the weekend of May 15-17. You are a lovely community! I was especially impressed with your vibrant participation in singing and davening.
Try to guess how many Talmud study groups took place in the entire state of Alabama in the early 2000’s. In Yiddish! With the study partners dressed in prison fatigues!! I don’t know how many, but I participated in one of them. (I hasten to explain that I was wearing civilian clothes.)
When I was rabbi at the Conservative synagogue in Montgomery, I received a call from the chaplain at the federal prison there. He’s a Baptist, and he asked me if I could help him because he was serving a growing number of Jewish prisoners. How many Jewish prisoners? More than you’d think. So I became the Jewish chaplain at FPC (Federal Prison Camp, Montgomery), visiting our kinsmen every other week in order to study, pray and bring them good cheer. Among my flock were quite a few chasidim from Brooklyn. These fellows were intensely serious about their religion — heads always covered and tzitzit hanging out from their prison uniforms — and a couple of the men were the ones I studied Talmud with in the prison courtyard. That was for me a tableau not to be forgotten!
Whenever I talk about my happy years in Alabama of leading a congregation and pastoring the Jews in prison, the question always arises as to how such pious people could be so dishonest. FPC is for white- collar crimes; the inmates were not violent. But still, how could people practice sacred ritual to the most exacting degree and nonetheless lie and cheat and steal?
I’m here to tell you that I don’t know the answer. Akav halev mikol — “The human heart is the most complex thing,” says the prophet Jeremiah. What I can say is that there are many ways to ignore or misuse or pervert religion.The faithful and fervent can be unethical and for that matter the scoffers and skeptics can be unethical. Our task is to be ethical.
To me the most important Jewish statement is lo nitnu hamitzvot elah le-tzaref bahen et ha-briyot — “The whole purpose of the mitzvot is to make us more ethical and more sensitive.” As one rebbe said, “If you go to synagogue, and a few hours later you leave the synagogue, and you’re the same person going out as you were coming in — then why did you go to synagogue?”
Jewish teaching, Jewish living, Jewish observance; the Jewish temple and the Jewish community — all exist in order to help us become better people. Now, we should always be humble about how good we are and how much better we are becoming. But ethical living is absolutely the core of our religious teaching. To be Jewish is to strive to be kind, to be thoughtful, to be helpful, to be honest; to “do justice and love mercy” (Micah 6:8). Etz Chayim is, from what I’ve seen, a wonderful community. Let us keep striving to keep becoming even better.
Best wishes from Leslie and me,
Stephen Listfield, Rabbi