Fred Guttman is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he served as rabbi from 1995 to 2021.
1. What story, verse or passage from your faith tradition’s sacred texts has significantly influenced / shaped your life?
“Hear Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
This is an incredibly important verse for us as Jews. There are at least three words in Hebrew which could be translated as “hearing or listening.” The word used here, SHMA, connotes a deep sense of listening and hearing, a listening with all one’s soul.
The second word, “Israel,” is first used in context with Jacob who wrestled not only with God, but also with humans (Genesis 32:28). Rabbinical tradition states that the “humans” mentioned here could refer to Jacob himself and the angel of his brother, Esau. Jews, therefore, are meant to be wrestlers, with God, with ourselves and with others when necessary.
The third word is usually translated as “Lord.” But the word in Hebrew is actually an onomatopoeia of the following four letters, YHVH. When one tries to pronounce these four letters together, one gets the sound of a breath. Indeed, is God not the breath which keeps us all alive?! Without breath, we cannot live!
The fourth word, Elohaynu, is actually in the plural. For me, it means that part of God is to be found in each of us. This is the “image of God” from Genesis 1:27.
The verse returns to the word YHVH or “breath” and ends with the word echad or one. This is what I call spiritual mathematics. If five of us are sitting around the table, we should not think of the number five, but of the number one. 1+1+1+1+1 = 1, not 5!
Just think of the world that could be if we all affirmed that because a spark of the divine is to be found in each person, we are all one! That truly would be a monumental shift from the world as it is to the world as it ought to be!
Thus, my translation of the verse would be: “Listen you God wrestlers! The breath of the universe is to be found within every living being and that breath is one!”
2. Who are three people (other than your family) who have shaped your life and worldview? And why?
Rabbi Morris Kipper who taught me that the study of Jewish history was important because it could become part of my identity, not only based upon the past, but also based upon the present and who we can become in the future.
Rabbi David Saperstein, the director emeritus of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who taught me that the fight against oppression and poverty and the struggle for justice must be ongoing. He encouraged me to try and become what his teacher Al Vorspan described as a “Nudnik for Justice!”
Congressman John Lewis with whom I was privileged to join on a pilgrimage in 2014 to Jackson, Mississippi, where we visited the home of Medgar Evers, speaking with Myrlie Evers and then to Selma to walk with him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On the way, I interviewed him on the bus. That interview is to be found here. In 2020, Lewis stated, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.” I would add, not only America, but also the entire world! Lewis made this statement on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 1, 2020, his last pilgrimage in commemoration of “Bloody Sunday.”
3. List three of your “desert island” books, movies or TV shows.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi and I-Thou by Martin Buber.
4. What is one of the most critical issues people are facing today?
“Systems breakdown.” Examples of this would be climate change; the serious threat to the future of American democracy; and the perception of United States weakness on the world stage which seems to have given bad actors in Russia, Iran and China more latitude to disrupt world peace.
Finally, we in the Jewish community are resolute in our determination to educate ourselves, our youth and others in our area about the terrible consequences of all types of bias, bigotry, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and antisemitism.
In the history of the Jewish people, we have seen and experienced the terrible consequences of hate and have learned well the lessons of these horrible occurrences. The main lesson is that hatred must be fought wherever it raises its ugly head.
5. What are a few of your hobbies?
Playing piano and guitar, exercising, reading and writing; being with family.
6. If you could freeze your life into an already-lived 10 seconds, what would they be?
The moment in 1975 that Nancy said to me, “Let’s get married and share our lives together.”
7. Our tagline at Good Faith Media is, “There’s more to tell.” What’s your “more to tell”?
I am both an Israeli and an American. I am a passionate supporter of Israel as the only place in the world wherein Jews are truly free to determine their own destiny. I believe that a strong relationship between Israel and the United States is based upon shared values and is mutually beneficial to both countries. I am a firm believer that Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorism.
That being said, I do not support every decision of any government of Israel, any more than I could support every decision of any U.S. government. I am a firm believer in what is called the “Two State Solution” and long for the day when there will be peace between Israel, the Palestinians and all of those who live in the Middle East.
I hope to live long enough to see such a day, a day which truly would be the fulfillment of the dream of Isaiah, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
Finally, having just turned 70, I am so grateful to God for blessing me with an incredible family and an amazing career as a rabbi. At this point in my life, I have decided that I have five years left to live. Next year at this time God willing, I will still have five years left to live!
The point is that as I have recently retired, I feel that whatever I want to do in my life, I need to do it soon, especially as I continue to be blessed with good health.
I do know exactly how long I will live and that is one day less today than it was yesterday. I pray, especially during these difficult times, that God will continue to bless my family and me with good health!
Reflection and resources at the intersection of faith and culture through an inclusive Christian lens.