31 January 2010


The tenth of 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise the banner to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are you, Eternal, who gathers the dispersed of his people Israel.

This blessing reminds us that danger is ever-present. Just this week, the Brooklyn Paper reported that our neighborhood was hit with a call to "Kill Jews," a sick expression of anti-Semitism that demonstrates the continued existence of a well-developed and long-standing hatred of the Jew. It brings to mind the idea that we actually are in exile--geographic or virtual--when one's home neighborhood can be the seat of expression of such hatred. But Brooklyn, thank God, is not Tehran, or Ethiopia, are parts of Russia--where a real, palpable danger still lurks for those who are Jews. This blessing reminds us daily that in our dispersion there is risk and that despite our distance from one another, all Jews are connected to one another.

But this blessing also reminds us more generally that all of humanity is dispersed; that the measure of our character as human beings is the degree to which we acknowledge, as Judaism also teaches, that the human is made in the Divine Image. That is to say, we are all connected: regardless of where we are born, of the color of our skin, and of the God we do or do not worship.

This morning I read with great horror Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times about rape as a weapon of war in the Congo region. We are challenged in reading such stories to re-dedicate ourselves to the absolute understanding that hatred and oppression and war connect us all to one another. That when one is not free, we all are not free.

"Raise the banner to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth."

An earth where we are all at home in the place we choose to call home. Israel. America. The Congo. Iran.

Raise the banner. Over and over again. Sound the Great Shofar. Over and over again.

30 January 2010


The ninth of 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


Bless this year for us, Eternal our God, together with all the varieties of its produce, for our welfare. Bring dew and rain for a blessing upon the face of the earth. Satisfy us with your goodness, and bless our year like the best of years. Blessed are you, Eternal, who blesses the years.

It's freezing cold right now in New York, which feels good. Because it's supposed to be cold in winter. And warm in summer. And rain and snow are supposed to fall when they're supposed to fall. There is a cycle of life that is meant to be by design and our current generation is all too aware that the human responsibility on earth has likely overturned that cycle. We only seem to disagree by by a matter of degrees.

"The years" in Hebrew might also be translated as "those periods of time that repeat," in a cyclical way, and thereby connoting a sense of repetition of time that calls upon us to live lives of sacred discipline. A relationship with the elemental that recognizes its inherent goodness is what this prayer expresses. Earth. Water. Sky. Produce. Welfare. Time. How we "use" each of these is not only for our own edification but is in the context of relationship with others and the Other. We inherent Earth, Water, Sky and Produce, Welfare, Time from a prior generation and bestow those upon the generation that follows us.

"Who blesses the years." Not this year. Or last year, or next. But "the years." Good and bad blur as specific distinctions in the context of years. As a whole, there is goodness. And that's the point. It requires a faith of perspective, of seeing far into the past and aiming far into the future. It sees "this year" as not one but a variety of years, an accumulation of blessings, a shared welfare of time and life.

29 January 2010


The eighth of 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


Heal us, Eternal, and we will be healed; save us and we will be saved, for you are our praise. grant a perfect healing to all our ailments, for you, almighty Sovereign, are a faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are you, Eternal, the healer of the sick of the people Israel.

I don't know why people get sick. I don't know why they sometimes get better and sometimes don't. In other words, there are rational explanations, scientific explanations, but I'm not a rabbi who trades in answers of this variety. I had a teacher who liked to say of himself, living into old age, "only the good die young." I once asked, "What do you mean?" He said, "I feel lucky and that I don't deserve it. Better people have preceded me to the grave." On the other hand, I have had the blessing of burying some very saintly people. When we get sick and when we heal; or, when we survive and when we die usually defies explanation. Sometimes the facts are accurate but they lack the poetry of meaning.

But I do know this: I have seen people healed by lovingkindness even in the face of death. One time, while watching a person die, I saw his wife swab his mouth with a cool, water-soaked sponge. His eyes glanced my way in what was the look desperation and humiliation. I wondered what was on his mind. And then he said, "I was once a very handsome and dignified man when I met my wife. I love her so much and this is why." And then he looked in her direction and she, saying nothing, stroked his forehead with a tenderness and love that was romantic. And within twenty-four hours he was gone.

"Heal us, Eternal, and we will be healed; save us and we will be saved." I think of these words and I conclude, over and over again, that healing and redemption come from us, outsourcing, as it were, our understanding that we are a part of Everything That Was, Everything That Is, and Everything That Will Be. The Eternal.

What is healing? What does it mean to be saved? Sometimes there is healing and someone recovers. Sometimes there is saving but someone dies. An uncomfortable, a seemingly incongruous reality that we are meant to face as one of life's many paradoxes.

Families volunteer to deliver food to the sick; or transport cancer patients to a hospital for treatment; or sit beside the bed of a dying patient; or, the sick will often choose to do for others.

One time, early in my rabbinic training, a went to visit a dying patient in her 90s. She had asked me to find a prayer of thanksgiving for those who provide healing--she wanted beside her bed, in case she lapsed into unconsciousness, a way to offer a written prayer of thanksgiving for those who had provided her with the care and comfort she needed before dying. In submission to her body's finitude, she discovered a healing for herself and a healing for others.

In her dying, she healed and saved.

The mystery of this prayer invokes fear which we are challenged to turn into awe--for the Source of Life, the Source of Faith, the Source of Mercy.

28 January 2010


The seventh of 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


Look upon our affliction and plead our cause,and redeem us speedily for your name's sake, for you are a mighty redeemer. Blessed are you, Eternal, the redeemer of Israel.

This blessing raises questions of Theodicy. Theodicy is the human attempt to come to terms with notions of a God of justice and love in the light of suffering and evil. It's a Greek term--containing in it words for "God" and "Justice." Look upon our affliction is a plea of recognition, a fervent demand to be seen, to be counted, to be known. It is our call for relationship, Buber might have said. Of interest to us here is that we root relationship in God's name, the same name for God that Moses faced at the Burning Bush in the Sinai desert. "I am that I am," God told Moses. When people ask what My name is, tell them "I am."

This is Torah's most radical definition of Divine Presence and in this prayer, we are reminded, perhaps, that we humans are called upon to mirror the Divine Presence by being present ourselves in the suffering of others. As beings made in the Divine image, it makes sense that we would "look upon affliction" and testify on behalf of its alleviation, and work toward an imminent redemption.

In a hospital room of a suffering patient; in the quiet, dark room of a depressed mind; in the tortured, personal pain of one in mourning, going through divorce, or job loss; in the outstretched arm of the hungry and the homeless; and in the traumatized look of a victim of war or natural disaster.

Look upon our affliction. You, me and God. Plead our cause. Heal the pain. Bring the Redemption. No one alone. Everyone together.

27 January 2010


The sixth of 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


Forgive us, Source of Life, for we have missed the mark; pardon us, our Sovereign, for we have sinned; for you pardon and forgive. Blessed are you, Eternal, who is merciful and always ready to forgive.

Bryan Stevenson, who runs the Equal Justice Initiative, defending death row inmates in Montgomery, Alabama, once said in a speech, "Each of us is better than the worst thing we've ever done."

Are we whole or are we the sum of our parts? And what happens when one equation in the sum of our parts has the potential to tip the balance toward not good, or less good, or even evil, away from good?

This is the most important of all the prayers we offer in our 19 blessings, quietly emerging a third the way through to demonstrate that the Sages, in their construction of the Amidah as a prayer recited three times daily, understood that our imperfection as human beings can be met with the consistent response required: presence and understanding.

Presence: we ask forgiveness three times a day. At every interval of time--morning, noon and night--we accept that our fallibility will dog us, challenge us, but that perfection is not the goal. Understanding is. And correction. Another attempt. Not scarred or indelibly marked by an original or permanent condition; rather, whole in our imperfection. A whole sum of forward and backward steps that from the perspective of one blessing, offers forgiveness as a window of light on the darkened soul of genuine and honest introspection.

26 January 2010

A Serious Flaw

Let me begin by stating a happy fact: I love the Coen Brothers. And I think their greatest work of epic genius was "O Brother Where Art Thou?" Their gift for capturing the broad strokes of American history through the lens of Homer showed an understanding of cultural trope that was deeply impressive. And sadly missing from "A Serious Man," their most "Jewish" film, which, as is typical for most Hollywood writers and directors, makes up for its shallow understanding of Jewish history and ideas with mockish caricature of the self-referential.

I place Jewish in "quotes" because I would argue that "O Brother Where Art Thou" was more "Jewish" in its inherent willingness to inhabit a myth, explode it out in new ways and retell a familiar story, yielding new insights. That is what the Torah did with ancient Near Eastern myth and what the Mishnah and the Talmud did with Greco-Roman thought. But "A Serious Man" simply does to American suburban Judaism of the 1960s what "Good Times" did for black culture in the 1970s--create a cartoonish depiction of a complex culture with a few serious flaws along the way.

Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik is meant to be Job--suffering horribly for seemingly inexplicable reasons, possibly tracing back to an equally inexplicable curse or exorcism that may or may not have taken place in the Shtetl two generations earlier. There is a ghost that occupies the film--less like a real ghost, which would have been interesting, and more like an annoying guest who won't leave. And the ghost's name is, "Did we kill religion back there in Europe before we moved to America or not?"

That ghost rears its goofy head in Larry's supposed tortured moral dilemmas: the childish bribe of a moderately racist depiction of a Korean graduate student; the murky sexual meanderings of a weird, lovable but possibly perverted uncle; shallow, corporate synagogue rabbis; and a two dimensional swinging neighbor with weed, who seduces Larry into some flower-power themed sex in her dimly lit lair with the mezuzah affixed (cos Jewish ed manuals would have said "affixed" in the Sixties) on the wrong side of the door.

Oh, and don't let me forget the big kahuna: after much predictable build-up (like, the entire movie) Larry's son Danny is finally called to the Torah on his bar mitzvah day stoned! (Oh, you Boomers and your pot! So transgressive!) And he's called with the wrong Torah blessing (he approaches the Torah with someone else--weird in its own right--calling him according to the closing blessing, not the opening blessing, a rendering that is either dumb or passive aggressive.) It's so glaring a pairing of oversights--the mezuzah on the wrong side of the door and the wrong blessing for the Torah--that it actually proves the greater point, that when it comes to Jewish questions, sadly, these Jewish geniuses are functionally illiterate. They ought to stick to Homer. Or do their homework.

I went to bed after watching this film and woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this film and then woke up the next morning thinking about this film--and concluded that this film was the cause of the headache I had all day.

Such a rich canvas to play with: theodicy and the role of God in human suffering; the endless and mysterious connection between ancient generations and practices and our own tortured ways of navigating those challenges in the world; the tension between fulfilling the promise of our ancestors and charting a new course in a new world; and finally, the pain and suffering of the every day--dilemmas of work and home and family that call into question our values as individuals and representatives of deep, familial rivers. There was so much to work with. But at each stop along the way I felt from them an empty disdain for it all, which is honest, I guess, but nonetheless, had the feeling of a vast scheme or an intellectual cop-out.

It may be, I thought, that the joke is on us. That what the Coen Brothers were "trying to say" was that we American Jews invest so much in our own self-referential depictions on the screen that we are bound to leave ourselves feeling bereft in a universe of comic-book drawings of real-life questions and dilemmas. In America there is no text except that which is projected for our own viewing.

If only.

That prize, in my opinion, goes to the real Larry, Larry David, who originally and obnoxiously, has used no filtered lens, no veneer of the Sixties or faux philosophical cinema, to put a Jewish soul front and center during the last several years on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and explored race (the Blacks!), charity (anonymous giving!), Shabbos (edible underwear on a ski-lift), goyim (eating Jesus, the botched baptism), and just plain old Jewish character (fill in the blank.)

It pains me, actually, how much Jews are talking about "A Serious Man." It says more about this nutty solipsism -- "Look, it's us, in the suburbs, in the Sixties! It was like that, I swear!"--than it does about the actual questions it purports to raise.

And like a mezuzah on the wrong side of the door or a botched bar mitzvah blessing, that's a serious flaw.


The fifth of 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


Bring us back, our father, to your Torah; draw us near, our Sovereign, to your service; and cause us to return to you in perfect repentance. Blessed are you, Eternal, who desires repentance.

After understanding our connection to God through the Ancestors, as a Source of Life and Death, and as the Source of Uniqueness in the universe, the language shifts in the fourth blessing to God as Teacher and now here in the fifth blessing to God as Parent. The rhyming words, "hashiveinu avinu," (cause us to return to your Torah, our father) sounds mildly awkward in English but has a concise sound and meaning in the Hebrew that is the essence of this blessing.

The ethical and the moral foundations of Torah is the place to which we continually return to organize our existence. And the intent of God in relationship with us in the world is to set into motion that dynamic--that through our knowledge we are cognizant of the foundational reality of life, a moral and ethical law, to which we continually return to day after day after day.

We are reminded, in the call to daily return, of our fallibility. Of our humbling imperfection. But rather than be chided we are encouraged, as a parent loves a child, to try again and again. To start over from where we left off. But to do so with the understanding that the beginning, the return to the base of what we know, happens every day.

It's a call to moral mindfulness. Think of it this way: every time you ride a bike, it's an opportunity to be reminded of the application of knowledge and laws of gravity to the joy of moving through space and time on wheels. Every time you read a book, it's an opportunity to be reminded of the application of knowledge and the rules of grammar and language to the unmitigated joy of the Idea. And every time your heart cries out in pain for human suffering, it's an opportunity to be reminded of the application of the knowledge and yes, the obligation, to care for others with compassion and lovingkindness.

This level of daily mindfulness insists upon the rule that there is a Rule. That there is a Structure. Or, as the Midrash imagines, an Architectural Plan for Existence. And this Plan, or Map, is a way back, each day, to the moral and ethical center of life.

25 January 2010


The fourth of 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


You favor the human with knowledge, and teach mortals understanding. Favor us with the knowledge, the understanding and the insight that come from you. Blessed are you, Eternal, the gracious giver of knowledge.

I awoke from a dream once searching inside my brain for an etymology of a particular word. I wondered if one day I'd have a chip of some kind inserted there, which, triggered by curiosity, could have provided me with an entire history of the word I was seeking. And I wondered: could this be some science fiction dream vision of a God planted in each of our brains?

But then I realized it was the dream-state that triggered the question. It was the raw human striving for knowledge that set in motion a learning process that would use whatever tools were at my disposal to seek the answers I needed. "You favor the human with knowledge, and teach mortals understanding." And like the Teacher of Teachers ought to do, we emerge from the lesson more well-suited to pursue knowledge on our own as well, and in turn, to teach others. In Judaism learning is constant. It is a life-long pursuit. It never ends. Even after we die--for we are "mortal," as this prayer claims--the text of our lives continues to unfold and develop at new depths and levels of understanding.

My father died when I was twenty. And what I did with that experience, how I integrated that knowledge, had its uses up to a point. And now, as a man of 46, I am ever-aware of how the very shape and dimension of that loss brings new meaning, especially when I reflect upon the fact that I have lived more years on earth "without" him than with him. And the text that IS his life continues to teach great insights.

Those words: knowledge, understanding, insight. And that they come with grace or favor, as the Hebrew suggests, is the true gift of learning. It's the ephemeral moment--a moment we've all had at least once--of a "light going on" upon realizing something for the first time. That moment can even bring a rush of adrenaline, a physical manifestation of the joy and enlightenment of learning that, in its favor, brings us back for more.

From the weightlessness and unbound imagination of dreams come insight, understanding and knowledge. And for this we give thanks to the Source of Light and Life.

24 January 2010


The third of 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


We will distinguish your name in this world just as it is distinguished in the highest heavens, as it is written by your prophet: "And they call out to one another and say: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Eternal of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.' [Isaiah. 6:3] Those facing them praise God saying: 'Blessed be the Presence of the Eternal in his place.' [Ezekiel. 3:12] And in your Sacred Words it is written, saying, 'The Eternal reigns forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah.' [Psalms 146:10] Throughout all generations we will declare your greatness, and to all eternity we will proclaim your holiness. Your praise, our God, shall never depart from our mouth, for you are a great and holy God and Sovereign. Blessed are you, Eternal, the holy God. You are holy, and your name is holy, and holy beings praise you daily. Selah. Blessed are you, Eternal, the holy God.

The problem is the word "holy." Who has the time to be holy? Who has the patience? Who has the hubris? Better to say "unique" or "distinct" and even, in the right context, "separate." For though it's true that the quoted Biblical texts in this prayer evoke ancient Judaism's understanding of the role played by angels or heavenly hosts, the Sages imagined that the angels were in fact jealous of the fallible and imperfect existence of we humans and as much as they floated around God's heavenly throne, secretly conspired to live, mortally, on earth. Wim Wenders "Wings of Desire" captured this quite well on film.

Not holy, but good. Not holy, but just. Not holy, but compassionate. Such actions create a life of distinction, a life unlike other lives, separate, if you will, in its insistence on performing acts of lovingkindness that make the world a more habitable place.

Shabbat Kodesh is holy only when we observe it and in so doing elevate rest and our appreciation for creation. Reciting the Kaddish elevates the memory of those who have died. The marriage ceremony, kiddushin, creates a sense of distinction in relationship, elevating the human aspiration for companionship from beyond the physical to the moral and ethical. Each is as much about uniqueness and a willingness to create separation, distinction, as it is about "holiness."

Holy is not first, it's last. It can only come when we distinguish ourselves in our actions, when we build a world foundation of goodness, justice and compassion.

23 January 2010


The second of 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


You, Eternal, are mighty forever, you revive the dead, you have the power to save. [From the end of Sukkot until the eve of Passover, insert: You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.] You sustain the living with lovingkindness, you revive the dead with great mercy, you support the falling, heal the sick, set free the bound and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. Who is like you, Author of mighty acts? Who resembles you, a Sovereign Who is the Source of death and restorer to life, and Who causes salvation to flourish? And you are certain to revive the dead. Blessed are you, Eternal, who revives the dead.

Death is with us from the moment of our birth. As a mother's body gives life, she loses the blood and fluid that gave life in the womb and once the child has emerged into the world, the natural transformation from life to life includes a recognition, in giving a name to the child, of the dead who preceded them in the world.

Death is with us at an early age, in the anal stage and during toilet training, where Freud is correct in asserting that a great fear overwhelms us as we confront our own mortality and the developing reality that waste represents a kind of death. Less scatalogical, death is with us at an early age the first time we are conscious of the seasons changing, the ripening of fruit and leaves on a tree, their falling and their decomposition on the ground.

Robert Frost could even make it all sound beautiful:

There sure enough was an appletree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady's fan.

And death is even with us at an early age when we see, for the first time, that those we love can die. For all ages but for children especially, the trauma of experiencing death shatters reality and demands, therefore, a rebuilding.

The second blessing of the Amidah prayer is the material for rebuilding. Embedded in its words are the promises of continuity, on the unrestrainable power of life to continue no matter what, when we are it can't or we can't--but it never stops. And its fuel is love, mercy, kindness, faith and restoration.

Love, mercy, kindness, faith and restoration: they cannot stop death. But they provide for the ability to survive it, even when we are no longer here.

Again, Frost:

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

22 January 2010


Here begins 19 brief meditations on the 19 blessings of the Amidah.


Blessed are you, Eternal our God and God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel and the God of Leah, the great, mighty and revered God, the Most High God who bestows lovingkindness, the creator of all things, who remembers the good deeds of the ancestors and in love will bring a redeemer to their children's children for his name's sake. Sovereign, helper, savior and shield. Blessed are you, Eternal, the Shield of Abraham and the Helper to Sarah.

So reads the first paragraph of the Amidah, or central prayer, recited three times daily, in the Jewish tradition. It is the innermost prayer of our people, and as the first of 19 blessings comprising the Amidah, it represents an introductory moment that is choreographed in a manner similar to what it is when one approaches a king or queen for an audience.

The petitioner steps backward in humility three times, then forward with permission having been granted, bows upon introducing the blessing and bows again at the close of the blessing.

In this way, the conversation begins.

This is a moment of deep humility from the outset. To address the Source of Life by not naming oneself but by claiming the privilege or the right to address God in the name of those who came before--the Ancestors--one acknowledges in the opening statement that we approach our understanding of God through the agency of others who have come before us.

We are not prophets when we speak to God in prayer. We are the inheritors of a wisdom tradition that was formed in Land of Israel and in Exile, a wisdom developed by those Ancestors whose most significant contribution to history was their willingness to stand alone among the many and assert the reality of a God who could not be seen but heard through the mind, soul and heart.

Hirsch points out that while we bow in acknowledging that God revealed the Divine Self to the Ancestors, we apprehend God through various manifestations of what Arthur Hertzberg used to call "Godliness" in the world: lovingkindness, remembrance, help. The Amidah challenges us here: what we experience as good is not exclusively for us but is a gift we receive because those who came before us earned it. (I thought of this recently on a walk through Prospect Park, which I care for in my use of it but do so having received this gift from those who built the Park long before I came into the world.) There is truth in this hierarchical reality for some; for others, the notion of an evolving definition or nature of God speaks to our own sense of the progressive form of revelation in the world. Most important, Hirsch notes, is that once we apprehend this idea, we are able to declare our own presence before God.

And as to the clear reference to a savior--"and in love will bring a redeemer to their children's children for his name's sake"--we must state clearly, especially given the world we live in where messianic and apocalyptic movements stake a claim on their own triumphalist aspirations, Judaism here asserts that if anyone is going to come save the day, it's going to be out of love, not hate or war.

Fundamentally, wisdom being dynamic in nature, the bows we make to open and close this prayer are meant to slow our movements, humble our own insights, and grasp the elemental gifts of those who long ago preceded us in history and time.

21 January 2010

From Time to Time: A Tefilin Story

this post was written this morning before the news about the grounded plane with the Jewish teen wearing tefilin--an extraordinary coincidence that's left me scratching my head all day.


"I guess because it's so old and sacred, it's cool...but I don't connect stuff like that with Judaism," wrote one seventh grader about putting on tefilin. "For me, the most sacred thing is studying and rethinking and debate and discussion...But meticulous conventions and rules really don't have anything to do with me."

Another wrote, "I feel like I am carrying something very important and I feel special that I am young and doing this before I even become Bat Mitzvah!" This expression was mirrored by someone who wrote, "I liked the feeling of having something really important on me. I felt more connected to Judaism."

Her friend wrote, "Even though it wasn't my first time--I liked experiencing it in a room with others my age trying it as well." (The empathic response of what happens in a "minyan" as opposed to individual prayer and spiritual expression.)

Look at this one: "It makes me feel like I have something sacred in me and on me. And I think that it's an interesting design of the object." Aesthetics of course play a large role in our relationship to ritual. I love how attuned to that these kids are.

Descriptions like "silly" and "cool" and even one who loved it but it made her "nauseous I wanted to puke but it was spiritual, too" speaks to the fascinating and conflicting feelings that arise when trying an ancient ritual for the first time. And hammers home the point for me about how critical it is in non-orthodox communities that we expose kids to as much ritual as possible, if only because as people age, they often tend to get "set in their ways" and can demonstrate less, not more, openness to all that Judaism has to offer. In childhood and in an educational context, trying things is what it's all about, hence these lessons for Bar and Bat Mitzvah age kids on Jewish ritual objects.

The following week, we mirrored what we are doing these Shabbat mornings with the Maimonides Study Group--studying his laws of Tefilin from his Book of Love. The text themselves that one finds in the boxes are evocative of both the Exodus from Egypt as well as our Covenantal Relationship with God, which is heavy stuff regardless of age. The adults are plowing deep into the language of covenant and God's reality in history; the kids couldn't stop arguing about what kind of God would require the sacrifice of animals for any sense of worship at all. It leads to a conversation about the evolutionary nature of God's relationship to human beings, how our perception of and understanding of God changes over time.

"Like my parents," said one kid, realizing something. "They were once TOTALLY powerful to me, now, not so much."

That hubris of youth--God bless them--is an opportunity to engage with the idea that relationships and understanding of certain assumed hierarchies do evolve with time--both parental and Divine. And it had me thinking all week about the ways in which liberal Jews have "rebelled" against the image of God the Father over the past century and a half by walking away all together as opposed to staying in an ever-evolving relationship, where wisdom is mined from sources more defused than vertical power structures.

Horizontal encounters yield more--think of it visually.

That first seventh graders quote, "For me, the most sacred thing is studying and rethinking and debate and discussion...But meticulous conventions and rules really don't have anything to do with me" is another way of saying, sure, I'll try anything, as long as I can study, think, debate and discuss it so that it means something to me.

That's an approach that one can hang one's hat on--assuming of course one chooses to cover one's head from time to time.

20 January 2010

Eco Movement in Israel at Lotan

Kibbutz Lotan, one of my favorite places in Israel, offers three paths to practical ecology.

Check it out HERE.

19 January 2010


I'm fairly certain that people don't read rabbis' blogs for political insights but I am so NOT surprised that Martha Coakley lost in Massachusetts tonight. Frankly, I was pulling for Alan Khazei, the co-founder of City Year, who lost in the primary. Improbably by some measures, the man who opposes cap and trade on greenhouse emissions, has a 100% rating from the NRA, opposes amnesty for illegal immigration and never met a waterboard he didn't like, beat a liberal Democrat in a liberal state with the legacy of health care legislation on the line once supported by the late Lion of the Democratic Party of Massachusetts--oh, it's too much to bear!

Unless you look reality in the eye and see an enormous amount of anger in the country about economic dislocation and a clear perception that Democrats have too quickly fallen into the trap that they themselves fought against for the last two years: that leadership in Washington, DC was out of touch with common working people.

I say over and over to those who will listen: David Axelrod was a genius at electing President Obama and Rahm Emanuel has constructed a fragile but earth-shatteringly profound coalition to pass major health-care legislation but THAT'S IT. Without getting out of the bubble once a week, every week, for the past six months, this disaster in Massachusetts was their own making. President Obama SHOULD have been in a different city in a different state with a different group of troubled and struggling Americans EVERY WEEK, demonstrating that he cared, that he felt people's pain and that he was willing to "bash heads" in the dysfunctional halls of Congress to get legislation passed that would help people.

Instead, he hung back in DC, traveled to Oslo to get a prize for world peace, and successfully alienated more and more people who had fleeting faith that something powerful was happening in this country to set it on track.

That Ted Kennedy's seat went to the Tea Party should humble all of us not to any compelling message of the Tea Party but to the incredible amount of anger and discontent that is in the land and if not met head on, in a deeply meaningful way NOW, will gave way to a one-term President and Sarah Palin, or worse, in 2012.

One wonders what's in store for Senator Gillibrand's special election seat. Don't roll your eyes. NO ONE anticipated losing a Kennedy seat in the U.S. Senate. Why is New York state immune?

NOW, MR. PRESIDENT! NOW! A new city once a week. Where the poor are poor; where the middle class are scared; where the jobs are scarce; where the people are angry. You wanted to be President. That's what you wrote those books for. Now is the time for a re-kindling of your "audacity of hope" and the "dreams of your fathers (and mothers and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors and enemies and, and, and..." To hell with the Oval Office philosophizing! Ride the wave that put you into office in 2008. The Republic is hungry for a leader with vision and a backbone to articulate a powerful response to the mess we've made for ourselves.

And one more thing, speaking respectfully as a peer. Stop surrounding yourself with sycophants. This whole cult of personality thing has only gotten you so far. If you were a Jew I'd wrap you in the language of the tefilin and remind you daily that we are bound to serve precisely because we were once not free. Which means our work is never done which I know you understand but you are not living that understanding in the way you are leading.

So get out there and show it! Before another seat is lost! Ted Kennedy's seat went to the Tea Party! On your watch!

Which means that time starts over.

So I ask: if you were running a campaign for President TODAY--what would you do to win? SO DO IT!

14 January 2010

Tolerance Museum Intolerable: Gehry

Great news courtesy of Tablet--Frank Gehry has come to his senses and withdrawn as the architect of the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance, built, not ironically, on a Muslim cemetery.

I originally complained about this more than a year ago--you can read that HERE.

This is a long time coming and thank God Frank Gehry came around to how wrong this project is.

13 January 2010

Help for Haiti

The devastation in Haiti is enormous.

You can help immediately by sending a check or donating online to the American Jewish World Service, who has a number of humanitarian projects ongoing there and has an excellent track record of support there.

Haitians here in Brooklyn are a big part of our lives in the Jewish community. We are friends and neighbors and co-workers; many are caregivers for our children; and many more help take care of our synagogues and facilities.

We must do all we can to help.

For online donations to the American Jewish World Service CLICK HERE.

Send a check to:

Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund, American Jewish World Service
45 West 36th Street, 11th floor
New York, NY 10018-7904

Thanks for your support.

11 January 2010

Nava Tehila at CBE This Thursday

One of the most enjoyable experiences I've had in Jerusalem these past couple years has been experiencing Nava Tehila.

Nava Tehila will be here at CBE on Thursday night at 7.30 pm in our Rotunda.

Please come!

08 January 2010

Popper to LA Times

Nathaniel Popper, who has done an extraordinary job reporting on Jewish matters for the Forward, moves over to the LA Times this week, covering business and Wall Street.

Nathaniel is a great reporter and we congratulate him on this next step. A well-deserved, bigger stage for a star writer.

And the best part for all his fans is that he gets to stay in Brooklyn.

Here's some of his work from the Forward.

07 January 2010

Anat Hoffman, Reform Leader in Israel, Interrogated by Jerusalem Police

Anat Hoffman, a veteran activist for women's rights in Israel and a leader of the Reform movement in Israel, has been interrogated by the Jerusalem police in what appears to be a blatant political move to silence the activists.

We don't have all the facts about what happened but having spent some time this summer with Anat Hoffman, I can testify to her ethics, her decency and bravery in the battle for equal rights. This is potentially one of the most irresponsible things the government could have allowed and could cause a huge rift with the Reform movement in America and Israel. How can the Western Wall not belong to all of the Jewish people?

Here is Ben Harris's video of Anat which I strong urge you to look at.

birthright nezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

It's deja vu all over again!

Another article complaining about birthright follow-up, this time from Haviv Retteg Gur in the Jerusalem Post and a riposte from Rabbi Daniel Brenner explaining that there is follow-up. Daniel is quite right--there is follow-up. I think we all understand that it's just not enough.

This tired boxing match can come to a happy end when the simple request that many of us having been making for nearly a decade is met: share the lists of participants with organizations out there in the Jewish community that you trust to follow-up in a meaningful way with birthright participants.

Or, have the courage of your convictions to put in writing why you won't share those lists with say, me and my synagogue. Now THAT would be fun reading!

But in the meantime, this recycled old tale is a snoozer.

Have a nice day!

06 January 2010

The Law Will Set Us Free

Say what you will about we liberals and our desire to have it our way and choose to do what we want to do all night and day but from where I sit, I am hearing over and over again from people across the spectrum of life, who are interested in Judaism, who are engaged, with great interest, in the commanding and obligating voice of the Jewish tradition.

This is, arguably, an unanticipated development, born, perhaps, of a society in which there is simply too much choice. Or too much individuality, which leads, dreadfully, to just too much self-absorption and narcissism.

As I listen to adults describe what draws them to Jewish questions, it's almost always a sense of wanting to root oneself in a narrative beyond the self. A paradox of sorts--that one intuits that personal happiness can be found beyond the personal.

Inspired by this idea, I chose to teach tonight the narrative leap from Genesis to Exodus where the individuals tales and stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the opening Book of Torah give way, in Exodus, to the notion of an עדה or community in obligation. Moses and Aaron and Miriam *lead* but they are not the focus of the narrative any longer in the way that Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebecca and Jacob/Rachel/Leah and Joseph were. They are those who deliver the Law and in so doing release the Jewish people not only from the physical bondage of slavery to Pharaoh but from the existential bondage from the narrative of self. Moses, with his impairment of speech, is exalted because his task is not to deliver golden words of poetry but the strict and challenging prose of obligation.

There is much to think about in this construct.

And so as we approach the week of Torah readings when we open a new book of Torah, ספר שמות--the Book of Exodus--we do so with a humility of sublimation to a narrative greater than ourselves, the narrative of radical obligation to the other and the Other.


In an aside that I feel inspired to share I want to say that *if* I were advising the President as he continues the enormous task of repairing our nation, I'd strongly encourage him to use the Office of the President to speak the language of national and civic obligation. What is true in faith communities must be true in our greater polity as well--the People (if we can any longer adhere to such designations) are hungry for an organizing narrative of civic engagement. President Obama's election and inauguration of a year ago ignited that sense of purpose that has been lost in the miasma of the last year's economic crisis. It was from the position of the degradation of slavery that the Community of the Children of Israel forged a narrative of obligation and redemption; what's to say we can't create a similar narrative for ourselves as Americans today.

Release the Preacher in POTUS. Speak from the gut of what we OUGHT to do, Mr. President. Your citizens await your lead! The reluctant prophet is a motif, for sure; but don't let it define you. The Law, like once at Sinai, is what will set this nation free.

05 January 2010


Yesterday a congregant popped his head in my study to make a lunch date and shared with me a wonderful experience he had saying Kaddish for his dad on his father's second yahrzeit, which fell on Sunday. We were closed for the holiday weekend and don't ordinarily have a daily minyan and he described the experience of stepping into an orthodox shul in the neighborhood where he was welcomed and though there were not ten men available, in 20 minutes time several phone calls were made and 13 people showed up to make it possible for our congregant (and one another mourner) to say Kaddish.

"I also wrapped tefilin for the first time in my life," he said. "It's something I had only seen from a distance at Camp Ramah as a kid." He laughed. "It was really cool."

We caught up, picked a date for lunch, and as he was leaving he said, "Now, I want to make a contribution to the shul. How do I do that? Do I just write the check and say it's in my dad's honor?" And we had an impromptu conversation about the mitzvah of giving tzedakah to honor the dead and I began to wonder how many others out there vaguely know of this custom but because of unfamiliarity or a small amount of reticence, hold themselves back from "jumping in" and doing it? Quite a few, I'd gather.

So from a practical perspective, it sounds like a quick but worthy project to take on and write up for our next Bulletin. I think there is an important lesson here that we ought not to miss.

Back to the idea of the minyan.

Later that day, I saw a friend's name pop up on G-Chat and so checked into see what was what with her grandfather who was dying. She told me, yes, he had died, and she had shared her eulogy, sat shiva at home, and came back to New York to the lonely encounter of finishing her mourning here. Does Beth Elohim have a daily minyan? she asked. And with a heavy heart I said, "No." I really want one day to be able to say "Yes." Not yet.

Among the liberal shuls of Brownstone Brooklyn, we sort of have the week covered with a minyan most mornings but the lack of consistency does speak to the general attitude of ambivalence toward prayer which exists among us. Crunch, on the other hand, and a number of yoga studios, get pretty crowded between 6-9 am most mornings. So it does paint a picture of where our priorities lie. Which is not meant as a judgment--I enjoy my exercise as much as anyone else. But sometimes I really worry about the atrophied muscle of Jewish prayer. And what it might take to bring it back.

I circle back to two things related to this post, namely, Jewish literacy and Jewish presence--the lack of which contributes mightily to said atrophic condition.

The more we know, the more we do, the more we do and the more we know.

While sitting with two bar mitzvah students yesterday, I opened a letter from a the mother of a couple I recently married. Neither the mother nor the couple are members of our shul but the mother offered words of kindness and a contribution to my rabbi's fund, which I use to give tzedakah in the community. Two curious seventh graders were then held hostage to my impromptu lesson from the early Sages: "The reward for the performance of a mitzvah is the performance of another mitzvah."

The joy of marrying a couple was rewarded with the obligation to use my fund to help those in need.

They survived the pedagogic moment. A small price to pay to the fight for a literate Jewish future.

04 January 2010

Hate In Uganda

NY Times weighs in TUESDAY 1,5,10 with an editorial.
To express outrage about this is so obvious as to be laughable except it's not satire but real--the announcement in Uganda of a bill to execute homosexuals introduced on the heels of a series recent visits by American Evangelicals. Despite such laughable lines from Rev Donald Schmierer, like, "That’s horrible, absolutely horrible, some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people," there needs to be a far greater sense of responsibility taken by these ministers who have been preaching their ludicrous theology of conditioning gays away from their sexuality. What did they really think would come from their preaching religious homophobia in a notoriously homophobic and violent culture?

To the credit of Judaism, we banned capital punishment more than two thousand years ago--a court that administered the death penalty even "once every seventy years" was a destructive institution. In modern Israel the death penalty is abolished as well--having been used only once for the execution of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann.

In any case, let's just put this out there today: We need to hear total and unequivocal denunciation of this grotesque bill making its way through the Ugandan political system and a serious sense of repentance for helping to stir hate in a region these evangelists purport to care for.

You can certainly start by contacting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and let her know that the U.S. should withhold any foreign aid from Uganda until this kind of legislation is withdrawn.

You can also contact the three ministers cited in the Times article:

1. Caleb Lee Brundidge at cbrundidge@xpmedia.com.
2. Don Schmierer
3. Scott Lively, who as you can see from his website, has an odd way of expressing remorse while continuing to accuse the "international gay lobby" of "recruiting" people to homosexuality and lesbianism. Check out this gem: "During the past decade or so, Uganda has been one of the few countries of the world that has firmly resisted the enormous power and relentless pressure of the international “gay” lobby, while other developing nations such as South Africa and Brazil have been systematically homosexualized." This is really nuts.

Write them all and tell them what you think.

People talk about religion getting a bad name. Here's how. So whether you're Jewish or not, atheist or not, gay or not, let these people know what you think about this kind of hatred.

03 January 2010

Losing Ourselves to Something Greater

I'll get to the point.

While running in the freezing cold air in Prospect Park this morning, I kept thinking about the totally unambiguous nature of the experience.

I was freezing.
I was weighted down with extra layers of running gear.
The wind was unpredictable and strong.
Oh, and the sight of frozen manure and rocks on the horse path brought Andy Goldsworthy to mind.

For some inexplicable reason, in attempting to integrate these impressions, I thought to myself, "The politics of synagogue life suffer from too much passive aggression."

I've had that thought before. It's not like God decided in the roar of wind at the treetops to instill this insight into me at this particular moment during an attempted "escape from it all" (which is what these runs often are.) Rather, I think that the visceral plowing through the obstacles of nature's force with sheer will on this mornings five miles had me reflecting on the opposite experience: the small comment, the clipped tone, the oblique reference to things--often couched in ambiguity when, I believe, direct communication would be best.

It's not quite a talmudic attention to detail that drives these reactions--in other words, sometimes I feel "less" is at stake. Or, at best, the snippy comments masks a deeper idea that one is hesitant to explore. I believe this tension lies in the discomforting ambiguity of faith and identity that many Jews live with. A feeling of uncertainty in the face of it all; an avoidant stance with the profoundness of Judaism's radical message of Torah and Service and Humility. America, in all its great gifts of freedom, allows us to call ourselves whatever we want, to be whomever we want. Judaism, demands something of us, essentially arguing against our nature that within that very nature of our human essentialness is an obligated person yearning to be free.

At the recommendation of my friend Alana Newhouse, I am reading Chaim Grade's brilliant Rabbis and Wives. Following Grade's very Jewish prose about Polish rabbinical court intrigue before the war, I am enjoying the bitter exchanges, the outrageous competition, the directness of it all. For these Jews, anything but free like we in America, everything was at stake. And the unabashed exhilaration of that is a pleasure to read.

Yes, yes, I am aware of the propensity to romanticize this lost world. So I introduce it to make a broader point about different kinds of Jewish dialogue (at least for me in synagogue life) and a certain pattern I have come to see. Namely, the more one is steeped in the naturally humbling experience of learning, the more direct one is in one's Jewish encounters. And you know, it's not even learning per se--it's whatever one does in one's life to live humbly and thereby, perhaps ironically, liberating oneself to a more direct encounter with others. In other words, the least threatened are the least passive aggressive. It's ironic and maybe counter-intuitive but I find it to be true. And it reflects an aspect of Jewish spirituality that is often, tragically, ignored by Liberal Jews: doing something לשם שמים--for the Sake of Heaven, and not for yourself. It's the ultimate expression of service to God. And requires activity not passivity.

For a good bourgeois like myself, finishing a run represents a sense of physical accomplishment that is satisfyingly non-intellectual. And profoundly, spiritually humbling all the same. The only things I can compare it to are breaking my head against a text, the occasional high from prayer, performing an act of kindness for another person. I think it means that God is present when we are capable of losing ourselves to something greater.

01 January 2010


ויחי: Genesis 47.28-50.26

For the longest time I was stuck on the trickery of Jacob and often saw his decision to confer blessing on Ephraim and Menashe as yet another example of his clever ways. Teaching Joseph a crucial lesson about the new Jewish tradition of subverting the rights of the first-born was resonant enough for me.

But as I watch families and friends inside the shul and beyond--especially those who are intermarried--make decisions about raising their children (or grandchildren) as Jewish, the Jacob story at the end of his life comes into some new and revealing light.

The Sages make alot of the symmetry of Jacob residing in Egypt for 17 years--the exact number of years that Joseph was when he began to dream--and open this week's parsha talking about Jacob's 17 years in Egypt as relatively peaceful compared to the tumultuous and epic dimensions of his life prior to this last chapter. Samson Raphael Hirsch points out this distinction, arguing that the years prior to Jacob's years in Egypt were ones in which he earned his honors, as it were, with the struggles and sufferings of those days. Egypt, though an exilic existence, came to symbolize the quietude of his life's concluding chapter. The notion of not being in the fight after a lifetime of conflict must have been enormously appealing. It likely gave him great perspective as well.

He reveals this perspective to Joseph, his second youngest son but the first born to his beloved Rachel, moments before he applies one more trick--that of giving Ephraim, younger than Menashe, the preferred blessing. "I had not thought it possible that I would see your face and now God has let me see even your seed." The Hebrew term used here to denote possibility is לא פללתי and echoes for us the root word used to denote prayer:תפילה

פלל we understand to mean self-judgement, but many point out that the term is really about what Hirsch says is "to inject a spiritual element into thoughts or conditions, infuse them with an idea, a truth, a principle, and thereby integrate and unify them."

Joseph does this when he reveals himself to his brothers in last week's parsha--"do not be troubled nor let it be disturbing in your sight that you sold me here, for God sent me ahead of you to preserve life." Joseph is able to sublimate his own ego to the larger narrative of the family and that sublimation is his service to God. There is a beautiful symmetry to the father's admission to the son with Jacob's words before blessing Ephraim and Menashe, "I had not thought it possible that I would see your face and now God has let me see even your seed." Both father and son, it seems to me, are admitting their own humbling gestures toward one another for the sake of the family.

It is what makes Jacob's blessing of Ephraim and Menashe a very poignant one. Less a trick than an ability to see character, Jacob reverses the order, yes, in part, to continue the Jewish tradition of subverting primogeniture; but ultimately as a statement of what must be for the family. If one were to contemporize this episode, Jacob would be a proud patriarchal grandfather conferring blessing on his patrilineally descended grandsons who are not halachically Jewish. He conveys Jewish tradition by not only blessing but through a kind of gesture of continuity--"this is how we do it, son. This is how we bless the kids. And this is what that blessing means." One can imagine that Joseph had never blessed his own children as Jews before--afterall, they were as Egyptian as their father. But with the grandfather now in Egypt with them, preparing the final moments of his life and just having conveyed the promise from his son to bury him not in Egypt but back in the Land of Canaan, Jacob could adapt his definition of family to embrace his son and his grandchildren with one blessing.

The promise of a proper burial likely earned that trust between Jacob the father and Joseph the son. A sense, I believe, that Jacob felt once he was guaranteed a burial in the family plot and an open admission from his most assimilated of children that Joseph himself would not only see to the burial but would ensure that generations after each of them, future seed would remember that burial place.

It never ceases to amaze me how well Jews utilize death for the sake of the promise and regeneration of our peoplehood.

Being back in Wisconsin last week reminded me of a critical moment in my own identity development, when I was in fourth grade, and my grandfather died. I can recall nearly every aspect of that day--seeing my father cry for the first time at the funeral home, the trip to the cemetery, the burial, and shiva back at their apartment. I remember the voices, the food, even my great-aunt's glasses. And the following autumn, accompanying my dad and grandma to shul so she could say kaddish, I remember following my dad's finger along the page of the siddur as he showed me the letters that formed the words that made the prayer. It would be some time before I'd teach myself those letters and learn the language of our people (a journey of learning initiated in large part by my father's subsequent death) but the blessing of covenant had already been conveyed.

Hirsch's language here about the linguistic root of the Hebrew word, פלל bears repeating: "To inject a spiritual element into thoughts or conditions, infuse them with an idea, a truth, a principle, and thereby integrate and unify them."

This integration bears its own fruit.

When Jacob asks Joseph to bury him in the Land of Canaan, he says, "Deal with me in lovingkindness and truth--חסד ואמת.

Essentialist integration of ideas.

"All the paths of the Eternal are lovingkindness and truth to such as keep His covenant and testimonies," wrote the Psalmist. Who then continued, "His soul shall abide in prosperity during the night of the grave, and his seed shall inherit the earth."

Works for me.