Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada. He is the Executive
by Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark
(Reprinted with permission from The Beacon)
Choice—free will—doing good versus evil—all of these key words add up
to the dilemma and challenge of being human. How often do we say to ourselves:
“What’s the best way to go? Which choice should I make?”
Many people simply get stuck and refuse to take responsibility for their
actions. They delay and even deliberately forget to make their choice and thus
it is made for them. Not sending back a response to an invitation, for example,
because it is misplaced or whatever is really saying: “I can’t decide whether or
not to go!”
But when it comes to major moral and ethical decisions such as whether
or not to cheat or lie or steal—sometimes we forget they are part of the Ten
Commandments. We actually need a louder voice than the sounds from Mount Sinai.
And so I offer to you a formula to remember when a major or even minor decision
is to be made: “I am about to do such and such. Would my mother be ashamed of
me if she knew I did this?”
Yes, good ole Mom (dead or alive) can serve us well as our ultimate source
of choice behavior. I know when I visit my Mom’s grave I speak to her and hope
and pray that she is proud of me. God forbid, she should be ashamed of my actions.
Thus I constantly ask myself: “Is this what Mom would want me to do?”
Question: Rabbi Goldmark, will you please delineate the differences between Reform, Conservative
and Orthodox Judaism?
Rabbi Goldmark answers: "The simplest way to respond is the following: The
Orthodox Jew deals with one word particularly, and that is the term “authority.”
Who is the authority for what I’m supposed to do and what I’m not supposed to do?
The Orthodox Jew would say simply this: It’s God. God gave the Jewish people a
set of laws, commandments. God is the authority. Moses transmitted them from God
to us, but God is the authority. Therefore, how dare us dispute or change the laws
when they come from God?
Reform and Conservative: Let’s use another term – non-Orthodox Jews. What
then is the authority for the Reform and the Conservative Jew? The Orthodox says
it’s God; God gave us the stuff, the laws. We have no right to change them. The
Reform Jew took the radical step, when Reform Judaism essentially began, which
was in the middle of the 19th century, in the middle of the 1800s, and said, “Wait, it’s
up to us to determine whether those human beings who wrote these laws wrote them
for a specific time and for a specific place, and therefore, some of these laws may be
out of date. And therefore, the authority does not come from God, but rather, we
ourselves have to be the ultimate authorities, individually, as to whether we accept
certain laws and traditions. Now, that is really a major conflict, contrast, between God
and “Lisa,” God and “Larry.” But that is, in a nutshell, what the issue is. It’s up to me,
in a Reform, Conservative or Reconstructive setting to say, “You know what? What
was good for Judaism 2000 years ago may not be good for me.”
We can go on to several other examples. A classic one that’s happening now is the
attitude towards homosexuality. In the Bible, without any kind of confusion, it simply
says that a man who has sexual relations with a man as though he’d had it with a
woman…those two people are to be put to death. Period. End of discussion. Cause
that’s the way it was. And the Orthodox, even today, says, “It says so in the Bible.
That’s our authority. How dare us change it?” Non-Orthodox say, “That position was
based on 1) that homosexuality was a chosen lifestyle, and what we have found, not
100%, but what science has found, is that the majority of homosexuals…never use
the term ‘all’…that the majority of homosexuals are born that way and therefore have
no choice in the matter. Which Judaism of 2000 or 3000 years ago didn’t have. That’s
one example of where we find, “You know what? What the gay community is doing is
not evil, and is obviously not to be punished by death as you find in the Bible, and
which has influenced the Christian world as well…not only the Jewish world but the
Another example would be the commandment, “Observe the Sabbath Day.” Accord-
ing to the Orthodox, observing the Sabbath Day means do no manner of work. Well,
what we have found in the non-Orthodox world, is that we don’t have Synagogues
that close to the Jewish population where every Jew can actually walk to their
synagogue. In the good old days, when we weren’t as spread out and people lived
in small communities, shtetls, whatever the term is one wants to use, or ghettos, the
bottom line is, one didn’t have to drive. Today we essentially do.
So the major difference for the Orthodox Jew: the authority for what he or she
does is based on the commandments given by God. For the non-Orthodox Jew, the
authority is based on each individual, you or I, determine to be meaningful for our
Question: Do you believe then that God speaks to each individual or do we use our brain to
make that determination?
I don’t think people expect today that there’s a direct communication from God to
me as to what to do. They basically say, “What is going to give me meaning and
relevance and a greater spiritual life? So that as a Reform Jew, I may choose to keep
kosher but still drive on the Sabbath. I may choose to wear head covering but not
keep kosher. In other words, I have a choice. Whereas the Orthodox Jew is told,
“Here’s what you’re supposed to do. You do it. If you don’t do it, you have to realize
that you’re human, but you’ve sinned. Whereas a Reform Jew, and I know many of
them, may keep their head covered all the time. I don’t. I just keep my head covered
during prayer. I personally, for example, don’t eat shellfish, and don’t eat pork, but I
will go to your house, and as long as you don’t serve me shellfish or pork, I’m not
going to ask you if what you’re serving me is kosher. So there are nuances to this,
if you will. It’s not a black and white issue. But for the Orthodox it is.
Some Reform observe the Sabbath by not driving. But very few. Most Reform have
said, "Driving to the Synagogue on Friday night or Saturday is more important to me
than the commandment that says to do no work whatsoever."
JUST HOW PRECIOUS OUR CHILDREN ARE
Temple Beth Ohr,
marking the completion of the annual cycle of
weekly Torah readings.)
This past Simchat Torah I shared two short anecdotes with the congregation
on the subject of how important children are as compared to the value of the
The first story takes place in a nameless concentration camp sometime during
the Holocaust. Inmates in one barrack began to celebrate the holiday, though they
did not have a Torah scroll with which to dance. Yet they wanted to dance with a
Torah scroll. One of the inmates asked the only teenage boy that lived with the older
men how much he knew of the Torah. The boy answered that he already was
preparing himself for his Bar Mitzvah before being deported to the camp. “There’s
enough Torah in you” said the man. “You will be our Torah scroll” and he lifted up
the boy and held him tenderly over his shoulders as though he was a precious Torah
The second anecdote also connects children and Torah. The idea suggested
by the Moroccan custom of celebrating Simchat Torah is that our children are as
valuable to us as the Torah itself. Just as other Jews (in other communities) carry
the Torah, Moroccan Jews carry their children. Children are not more important that
the Torah but children are just as important as the Torah. For without our children,
the Torah cannot be passed on. Children and Torah must be equally valued.
And so, on Simchat Torah, as well as the rest of the year, we must show our
children the joy, happiness and celebration that comes with being Jewish, and
remember that it is they who will carry this joy to future generations.
(Spiritual leader of Temple Beth Ohr, La Mirada, CA)
Reprinted with permission from The BeaconExecutive Vice President of the Pacific
Association of Reform Rabbis
In addition to all you have heard and read about the life and recent passing of the famed
Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, I would like to share with you highlights of the day that Carol
and I spent with him in October of 1978. It was the day before he was scheduled to give a talk
at Wilshire Blvd. Temple, where I served as one of the rabbis.
Wiesenthal was a tall man. The first thing I said to myself was: what’s so special about
him? He doesn’t look angry. He doesn’t look like a detective. As a matter of fact, before
Hitler took him to the concentration camps, he was a very successful architect in Austria. It
was only after he got out of the camps that he decided to devote the rest of his life to bringing
the murderers to justice.
After we had dinner with Mr. Wiesenthal, several people joined us in our living room,
including his nephew and his nephew’s wife, and my parents. All of us, except Carol, were
fluent in Yiddish and so we spent at least 30 minutes telling Yiddish jokes and stories to each
other. It was a lovely time. But then we got serious and I asked Wiesenthal a question that I
have been asked hundreds of times: “Where was God during Auschwitz?” That is to say,
how could God allow such a thing happen to His chosen people? Why did he not intervene
and stop all of the horrors and atrocities? Now I fully expected Mr. Wiesenthal to answer that
it was humanity and not God that was absent during the Holocaust. I thought he would say
that God allows human beings to do good as well as evil. For we are all endowed with free
will and the ability to choose between right and wrong. I was therefore somewhat shocked
when Simon Wiesenthal told me that he felt God was on leave during the Second World War.
God had, so to speak, taken a vacation and left the world to fend for itself, and this
was the result.
A few days after our meeting I picked up Simon Wiesenthal’s latest book titled “The
Sunflower” and only 14 pages into the book I again came across the notion that God was
on leave. In the book, which is autobiographical for the most part, Wiesenthal is in a con-
centration camp and he tells us: “I once read somewhere that it is impossible to break a
man’s firm belief. If I ever thought that true, life in a concentration camp taught me differently.
It is impossible to believe anything in a world that has ceased to regard man as man, which
repeatedly ‘proves’ that one is no longer a man. So one begins to doubt, one begins to think
that God is on leave. Otherwise the present state of things wouldn’t be possible. God must
be away. And He has no deputy.” What Wiesenthal was saying is that during the Holocaust
there were no heroes—not even God. This was Wiesenthal’s answer to the question “Where
was God during Auschwitz?” It is a harsh answer, but the answer of a survivor.
I shall never forget when I sat with Simon Wiesenthal as he was autographing copies
of his book after giving his lecture. Suddenly a person would grab him, hug him and whisper
something into his ear--”Auschwitz 1942” or “Dachau 1940.” The person was telling Simon
Wiesenthal from which concentration camp he or she had (so to speak) been graduated.
Just as you and I might say to each other “USC 1980” or “UCLA 1964.” And when Simon
Wiesenthal would hear the words “Auschwitz” or “Dachau” or the name of another
concentration camp, tears would well up in his eyes. He would look up from the book he
was autographing. He would clasp the hands of the other person, grit his teeth and go back
to the task of signing his name.
The philosopher and former longshoreman, Eric Hoffer, wrote: “If you ask me, there is
not a single hero on this planet.” He may be right. He may be wrong. But I would rather look
to a man like Simon Wiesenthal. A man who had his faults, who had his frailties. But a man
who saw a task—who found a mission in life and set out to accomplish it. Simon Wiesenthal
probably never read Eric Hoffer, but rather instead knew the words of our Talmud: “In a place
where there are no men (meaning heroes or leaders) strive thou to be a man.” And that is
what he did. Simon Wiesenthal was truly a genuine Jewish hero—meaning a man striving to
be a man in the midst of all the difficulties and problems that confront him.
An Interview with Rabbi Goldmark:
Question: How did you wind up an Army Chaplain?
When I became a rabbi in 1969, I was given the option of becoming a chaplain, in my
case it turned out to be in Army, if I was not a conscientious objector. And I wasn’t…
so of my ordination class, a number of us went into the chaplaincy and served for
two years, because the Vietnam War was taking place.
By absolute chance, I was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia. I went initially to
Chaplain School, which was in Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York. After two
months or so, my wife and I…we’d been married a year at this point, drove to Fort
Benning. As it turns out, Fort Benning was, and is, one of the major headquarters
for the United States Infantry. At the time, so many young Jewish men were being
drafted and sent to Vietnam, to the point that I can say to you today, roughly 35 years
after I left Fort Benning, that during the two years that I served there, I counseled
more Jewish men than I have in the sum total of the 35 years since. They were lined
up at the door for me, day and night, because of their fear of death and their fear of
going to Vietnam. These were young men who were at Fort Benning for basic training
from major cities in the Northeast, such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston and so on.
And they were just but they had to be there because it was a time of war. They were
drafted. There was no volunteer army at that time.
I served my entire two years in the military at Fort Benning, with the threat hanging
over me that I would be deployed to Vietnam. But I was not deployed. So I was never
in an actual place of combat. Instead, I stayed at Fort Benning with the people who
were sent over.
Towards the end of my stay there, in 1970, I was told that the My Lai** court martial of
Lt. Calley would be taking place at Fort Benning. As it happens, Lt. William Calley, who
was in charge of this group who did the massacre at My Lai, was not Jewish, but
Calley’s Protestant chaplain was my best friend. And so my friend was able to get me
into the court proceedings anytime I wanted to be there. So I was there the day that
Lt. Calley was convicted. I was in the court room with the chaplain and Lt. Calley and
his family after the sentence was handed down. It was a rather major experience in
my young life, because I was only 26, 27 years old.
Question: What did you see that day when you looked at Lt. Calley's face?
I saw a young man. Remember, this was 35 years ago that the trial happened. I
remember a time in our history when young people such as Lt. Calley were thrust
with responsibilities of leadership that, in all honesty, they possibly weren't ready
for. (On the day of the massacre) captains and other ranking people were out of the
area…and what’s the saying, "If something bad can happen, it will”…In this case, he
thought he was going into a village that included only the enemy. And what he was
faced with were old men, women and children. But he was told that these were the
enemy and he did what he was told to do. At least, according to him. Others thought,
well, he should have known better and let the women and children go, but that’s not
And what we see happening today in Iraq in the news….soldiers accused of murder-
ing Iraqi civilians…because they get angry that one of their own has been murdered…
what’s the bottom line? For me, in thinking about this, it appears that sometimes
leadership, or responsibilities are thrust upon people who are the furthest from
having the ability to be leaders. I mean, just because these people in this day and age
volunteered to go to Iraq, that doesn’t make them always capable of making the right
decision at the right time. I don’t absolve them of any responsibility…Calley himself
was convicted, although his sentence was commuted by President Nixon...today I just
remember distinctly looking at Lt. Calley and the people who were part of this massacre
event, and saying to myself then that they were beyond their capabilities, yet they were
given the responsibility.
Coming soon: More on RABBI GOLDMARK'S time as an Army Chaplain
**For those too young to remember, the My Lai Massacre was an incident that took place in during the Vietnam War, in 1969.
Lt. Calley and his men had been given a mission to clear the Viet Cong from the small village of My Lai. U.S. Intelligence had
declared it a spot of enemy and weapons concentration. When the platoon arrived, they found virtually only old men, women
and children. However, in the guerrilla war that was Vietnam, women and children were sometimes part of the Viet Cong
and killed our soldiers. Whatever his reasons, Calley ordered his men to kill the villagers. They executed several hundred
before three other U.S. soldiers, who saw the slaughter from their helicopter, intervened and stopped the massacre. The
incident was photographed and exposed to a horrified American public.
"The One Holdout" by Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark
and Executive Vice President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis)
My friend Rabbi Joshua Berkowitz tells the story of the Jewish community in Eastern
Europe some years ago that needed a new rabbi. They put out the call and there were
several applicants. The town leaders settled on one candidate and they had a meeting
with him. The negotiations were about to end when the rabbi had one last demand. He
declared: “When the members of the community vote on me, the results must be
unanimous in my favor. If there is even one dissenting vote, I will not take the position.”
Both sides agreed to all of the conditions and the ballot on the
rabbi was sent out to the Jews of the village.
When the results were tabulated, to everyone’s surprise, the rabbi received every
vote in the town – except for one. When the rabbi was called in to receive the results,
the president of the congregation congratulated him on his election as the rabbi of their
community. The rabbi then asked the crucial question: “What were the actual results of
the vote?” The leader of the community revealed to him that everyone voted in his favor
– except for one man. The rabbi reminded the president and all members of the
leadership group that the prerequisite for his taking the position was a unanimous vote.
But the president protested that the one opposing vote came from a man who was poor,
old and not respected by anyone in the town. Nevertheless, the rabbi would not accept
However, the rabbi felt he had to find out why the one man voted against him. And
so he set out one morning to the poor section of the village to find his only detractor.
Finally, he happened upon a miserable rundown shack and knocked on the door. The old
man answered and the rabbi revealed who he was and then said: “I need to know why
you voted against me.”
The old man looked at the rabbi and replied: “Rabbi, if I had voted for you, would you
have come out to see me?”
And so, what is the moral of this story? Attention must be paid to all people, no
matter what their age or social status or any other seemingly negative factor. Or else.
Or else they may cast the one vote that will block the actions and desires of the majority.
Everyone is important. Everyone wants to be noticed or else.