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Right is Might

Parashat Vayeshev – Human Rights Shabbat  Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 
Right is Might 
For all the timeless wisdom the Torah shares with us, I think the warning that the Torah gives us to beware of the idea that somehow ‘might makes right’ is one of the most powerful. In fact, one could argue that the entire Hebrew Bible (not just the Torah) resists this Machiavellian maxim. Kings are brought down low, the poor are risen up. Prophets speak truth to power and the foundational narratives of Genesis and Exodus tell us of how smallness – not power – makes great. It is not the firstborn, nor the great nations that impact the moral destiny of civilization. It is God’s covenant with our tiny nation that would echo across the ages. 
This resistance or perhaps even abhorrence of‘might is right’ extends into the rabbinic tradition as well. Many Talmudic cases of tort law protect the vulnerable: the slave, the labourer, the widow, the poor. And even our most boastful, tribal and nationalistic festival…

Doing God

Parashat Vayera  Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 
Doing God 
“Proof to me that God exists.” Many a militant atheist has tried to bait me with this enticing polemical proposition. And yet, I always disappoint them by replying that I have neither ability (empirical, philosophical or otherwise) nor desire to test and proof the existence of a Supreme Being. In fact, I’d wager to say that even if, in some far-fetched future, we could find empirical evidence to proof God’s existence, religion would lose its value. Faith, or trust if we go with the Hebrew ‘emunah’, is not about hard facts. What’s the fun in religion – in the existential quest for connection and meaning – if it’s reduced to a trite attempt to proof, catch, contain and dissect God? So then we know God exists – snuffed out is our curiosity, critical thinking and creativity. 
Thanks but no thanks. 
What is more interesting to the experience of contemporary religion is showing godliness in the world: making God appear (or manifest) in the …

How to Make a Jew

Parashat Lech Lecha  Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 
How to Make a Jew 
How do you make a Jew? This is a tried-and-true recipe that has worked fabulously well throughout the centuries, starting with Rikvah and Yitzchak. You get a Nice Jewish Boy to meet a Nice Jewish Girl under favourable circumstances and with a bit of luck and a bit of coaxing, you hope that they will fall in love, have a chuppah and produce some Nice Jewish Babies that we can all kvell over. Bonus points if you can get this Nice Jewish Couple to sign up to join your congregation and enroll their kinderlach in your cheder or religion school. Of course, the recipe can be updated a little in case a Nice Jewish Boy meets another Nice Jewish Boy. Or Nice Jewish Girl meets another Nice Jewish Girl. 
Then there’s another, though less common recipe, that has worked nicely since the days of Ruth the Moabite. Nice Non-Jewish Boy or Girl might wander into your synagogue. They might be in relationship with a Jew, be friends with Jew…

Land of Confusion

Parashat Noach  Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 
The Land of Confusion 
Over a decade ago, I had a bit of a fight about Torah. It’s normal to have a discussion about a piece of text or an interpretation, but this got slightly more heated. A friend and I were reading Parashat Noach and we got to the story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel. 
I read the story with fresh eyes, taking the text at its face-value. My ‘psh’at’ (literal) interpretation was that humanity was still unified. There was no war, no bloodshed, no racism and no national distinctions. (After all, humanity got a fresh start after the Flood just a few verses prior). It sounds like a model United Nations, avant-la-lettre. They settled and wanted to build a city with a citadel to prevent them from being scattered across the earth and to establish an honourable reputation for themselves as a united human community. 
I argued that the text betrayed God’s pettiness and judgment. Why decry that people are united and living in peace?…

The Season of Our Joy

Sukkot Sermon 2014 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 
The Season of our Joy 
There’s a bit of an urban legend floating around that the Inuit community have over 20 different words for ‘snow’. Of course, peoples are shaped by their historical and geographical experience and whether or not this platitude is true, it does speak to a truism: Arctic peoples must be deeply familiar with the subtleties of ice and snow. 
There is a similar urban legend floating around about the Jewish community. Shaped by our historical experience, often fraught with difficulty and sadness, we have come to place a premium on ‘joy’. 
And so, we have many words indicating shades of happiness. We have ‘asher’, which means happy in a blessed or fortunate way: ‘Ashrey ha’ish’ – happy – or fortunate – is the man. We see this a lot in psalms, in particular in psalm 145, the so-called ‘Ashrey’, which has the same root: ‘ashrey yoshvei beteicha…’ – ‘happy are the dwellers in Your house’. We also have ‘rinah’, to ‘shout for …

Yom Kippur Sermon: A Tale of Two Futures

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Rosh haShanah Sermon: The Good News and the Bad News

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Rosh haShanah Sermon 2014 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

The Good News and the Bad News

As is fitting for this time of year, there’s some good news and bad news. Which would you like first? 
The bad news is that religion is a transformative power in the world.
Whether we are personally religious or not, there’s no denying that despite Richard Dawkins’ better hopes, religion is alive and kicking. And it’s especially the ‘kicking’ part that is troubling. This world, this young century, this year, these last few months have seen no shortage in how religion can ‘transform’ our world. The new millennium was dragged in kicking and screaming by the attack on the Twin Towers of 9/11, already an unbelievable 13 years ago. To say that this caused a cascade of disastrous political events would be an understatement. 
Violent religious fundamentalism – be it Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and yes, even Jewish – has a lot to answer for. The reasons why people follow fundamentalism are too complex to…

Movement for Reform Judaism Elul Thoughts

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Movement for Reform Judaism Elul Thoughts 2014
There is the tried-and-true Chassidic story of the notorious gossip sent out by his rabbi to empty out a down pillow case in the village square. As the tiny feathers dance in the wind beyond his grasp, the rabbi remarks that these represent the consequences of his thoughtless words.
It is a compelling story and as we move through Elul, we may resolve to be more careful with our speech. Intentions, however, still need to be grounded in practice. How to go about that in our fast-paced world where an inflammatory opinion is just one click away?
We have to reverse-engineer the scattering of our words. Can we find ways to make our voice meaningful, measured and compassionate? How can we control our reactions when a cauldron of emotions and opinions is poured over us daily in the media (social and traditional), in our communities and among our friends and family?
It is traditional to recite Psalm 27 during the month of Elul and reflect on its w…