28 February 2010

When Trees Fall

I am not claiming to be naive.

For instance, I remember watching Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F. Kennedy's funerals on television when I was five years old. I remember following Vietnam War protests as a kid, wearing POW bracelets, and observing the bitter political battles of 1968 and 1972. I remember watching Richard Nixon resign the Presidency in 1974 and feeling a cloud of cynicism envelope my developing political consciousness, alongside a strong desire to grow up and serve, to make sure that things were better than what I had seen as a young person.

President Clinton, the first Democrat I ever voted for who won the White House and Barack Obama won last year, offered that kind of promise of redemption for me, especially with his early call for health care reform and a national service program--both of which I was eager to see finally enacted in our country. I always felt that ending the draft was a strategy for ending the war in Vietnam but would be potentially detrimental to definitions of service and citizenship, which I understood to be essential in building a strong, ethical nation. My father was asked to serve so he did; I expected my country to ask the same of me.

But that never came to pass for reasons that have been rehashed over and over and when President Obama came to power, he did so with a great hope, a practically unrestrained hope, for a whole new political world. And there are days when that seems to be unraveling as well, the culture so impatient, so deeply riven, so unwilling, it seems to me, to make long-term sacrifice to truly build a better nation.

I guess you could say I rejected politics in the mid-1980s for service in the Jewish community, believing that my contributions would be strictly local, one soul at a time. And I have to admit, there are frustrations with that as well. No change movement--whether national, state, local or community-based, is ever easy.

But while walking around the neighborhood, the seat of such community work, during Thursday's and Friday's snowstorm, I was deeply moved by the number of trees that seemed to be falling. The frozen rain and snow of the storm had weighed down on these self-less servants of God, these producers of oxygen, these makers-of-shade. And one by one, they seemed to be falling. One at 8th and Berkeley; another at 7th and St. John's. And then another. Friday's paper carried the tragic news of a tree in Central Park that killed someone and as residents slowly took in the view of the fallen trees, a general fear seemed to take hold of people.

Of course, this all took place against the backdrop of Governor Patterson's decision not to seek re-election; against a state budget that is showing enormous strain; and with a national political environment in which it seems every way we turn there is scandal, crisis, lost faith in the power or mission of government.

I was moved by what Frank Rich wrote today, particularly his insistence on shedding light upon the Andrew Joseph Stack III, the IRS plane bomber and in particular, the shocking ways in which he was not resoundingly condemned by Republican leaders--not to mention the Tea Party leaders. There is something so sinister about the killing at the IRS because though the presumption is that "no one likes to pay taxes," I pride myself in that civic duty. Roads, garbage collection, and even fighting the wars that the Right often wants to fight are all paid for by taxes. It goes all the way back to my own understanding of the American Revolution and the twisted understanding of that revolution among the Tea Party stalwarts. It's not the Americans didn't want to pay taxes--it was that they no longer wanted to support the King of England in that enterprise.

So what does it mean when the population rebels against the core institution that pays for the people to govern themselves? And what does it mean, when, like trees in heavy snow and rain, our political leaders seem to be failing and falling all around us?

What happened to standing strong, making tough decisions, bending but not breaking in the wind, in order to provide the oxygen and shade of existence for the citizenry?

I ask these questions as a Jew and as an American and I wonder aloud at what role religious and ethical institutions ought to play in planting new trees among us so that future generations may flourish.

25 February 2010

"I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound"

"When I hear that trumpet sound, I'm gonna rise right out of the ground."

Johnny Cash is one of my favorite Pharisees. One of my favorites because he's constantly resurrected. His new record, "Ain't No Grave," posthumously released by his producer Rick Rubin, is a deeply inspiring call from the other side of the curtain of eternity.

The record starts with the words "There ain't no grave, can hold my body down." And as soon as he utters the next sentence, "When I hear that trumpet sound, I'm gonna rise right out of the ground," a set of chains in a box, rhythmically keeps the beat of the song and one can imagine the chains breaking away and Johnny's body rising up from the cold dark ground to be with his God.

This is a Jewish idea, though for Johnny he finds his God in Jesus. But I hear him singing like a Biblical prophet, resurrected, which is what the Sages had in mind when they codified the notion as a Pharisaic idea that there is eternal life beyond the grave. Maimonides reiterated this idea as well in his thirteen principles of faith which we find articulated in poetic form in the Yigdal prayer.

So deeply American in his faith, Johnny Cash makes me wonder if one day we'll ever see an American Jewish song-writer who writes of life and death, so much at the very edge of life and death, in the English language, that will be music which will be as eternal as the sound and voice of this great artist.

In the meanwhile, Johnny Cash will be one of my favorite Pharisees.

24 February 2010

In Light and In Darkness

Here are my two memories of driving up Flatbush Avenue at around 4 am.

1. After our daughter Minna was born, I stayed late at the hospital and in a state of slow-motion reverie, drove home, on Shabbat, to the unrestrained pride of being a father of a daughter for the third time.

2. A bit tipsy, in the back of cab, on the way home from a show in Hoboken (Mekons, at Maxwells, New Year's Eve, 1994) where the cab started to move too quickly until we, his passengers, said, "Slow down. There's no rush. We all want to be safe." And miraculously, he listened to us.

As a father of daughters that we allow to cross Flatbush Avenue on certain occasions, I have to admit to my heart being crushed, beaten and torn to shreds over the brain death of Erinn Phelan, killed in a hit and run on Sunday morning. I feel like I met Erinn--I keeping trying to remember--at some city event in the past year where she may have been working, on behalf of the Mayor and her dedication to community service. Hearing the news as someone who lives at one of the corners of Flatbush Avenue whose daughters cross that street, I looked at Erinn's Facebook page, trying to fathom the instantaneous end to a life of promise and service.

To the question, "Can you imagine bringing a child into the world to serve the common good?" I answer: "Yes."

To the question, "Can you imagine her losing her life, senselessly, by someone's need to drive from one point on the globe to another in so much haste that another life is lost?" I answer, "No."

Like I said, my heart is crushed, beaten and torn to shreds. My daughters cross this street--not yet at 4.30 in morning, but soon enough.

I walked Nathan the Dog at midnight tonight and crossing Flatbush, I was haunted by death. And as I brought the car around so I could drive one of my kids to school early in the morning, I was haunted to death. Crossing Flatbush Avenue at a few minutes past midnight, a young musician crossed Park Place against the light, in the dark, hidden by his dark clothing, I was haunted by death. But so haunted, I was vigilant. And so was waiting, and watching, for life. My car slowed, I let him pass, I didn't use my horn because he was a musician, with a guitar, crossing Park Place, at a few minutes past midnight. And wherever I was going could surely wait the split second it took for me to have the patience to let a man with a guitar cross a street.

Oh Erinn Phelan and your dreams for a better city!
For the sunrise of your aspirations that your home
would be made better by your devotion!
May your dreams be realized by us,
mourning and honoring you,
and remaining ever-vigilant
for all the daughters and sons who cross streets
in light and in darkness.
Peace, Erinn Phelan, peace.

23 February 2010

Gun Control Now

From the broken record archives of my Jewish soul.

What is with the insane attachment to guns in our country?

What is so great about America--with its lack of health care, its diminishing educational achievements in math and science, its increasing gaps between rich and poor, its millions of homeless people and its pornographic obsession with burning fossil fuels in ever-larger four-wheeled monstrosities--that we have to go around saying it's our Constitutional Right to "bear arms" with assault weapons, unlicensed weapons, semi-automatic weapons?

What? What is so great about what we have achieved that we literally have nothing better to do other than think of ways to carry around machines that kill people?

In no particular order:

1. The New York Times Tuesday evening story about the Obama Administration NOT pushing for more gun control. This has opened the window for states to loosen controls, which will increase guns, which will increase death. Leave the rhetoric at the door, please. Statistics support gun control.

2. These characters from Sussex, Wisconsin, my home state, who gathered to celebrate their allegiance to their killing tools. Now, when we played baseball and basketball in that part of the state in high school, that was always the time of year we could expect to hear the words "kike" and "nigger" hurled at our players. The passionate connection between a love of violence and a hatred of others often goes hand in hand. I'm not necessarily drawing the connection but I am *implying* a connection. There's a slight difference that will require some intensely subtle intellectual maneuvers--try, people, try.

3. In Queens, a husband and father killed his wife and daughters before killing himself. The Daily News covers it HERE and in the Times reporting, we have the added detail that this man didn't have a permit for the gun and a history of mental illness. This is nothing less than total insanity. How does our Constitution protect such behavior? Why does devotion to a debatable principle--the *right to bear arms* trump the *right to life*?

We need stronger gun control laws. Period. Our devotion to violence is a sin.

22 February 2010

Awfully Hopeful

I figured out today that I've been going to Poly Prep High School, once a year, for the past 17 years, to visit a friend's world religion class and be the Jewish representative to attempt to answer any all questions about Jewish life and civilization. For seventeen years in a row, I always get asked the following questions:

1. Did man write the Bible?

2. How can we think of God as all-loving when there is so much suffering in this world?

3. How did the Holocaust effect the Jewish faith?

4. What is the Jewish understanding of a Messiah?

5. How should we as an individual and as a society respond to anti-Semitism?

6. What matters of faith would you say are key to the dogma of the Jewish faith?

7. How can the State of Israel justify using repressive measures against the vast number of Palestinians who have committed no crime?

8. Can you explain the idea of the ‘Chosen People’?

I had 45 minutes. Talk about speed dating.

I usually make the same strategic decisions each year. One--answer a few questions directly--because that's all you really have time for. Two--keep the smart kids wanting more--and this you do by treating them intelligently, respecting the depth of their questions, and try to convey that Judaism is not as much about answers as it is about approaches to wisdom.

This year I found myself telling a story I had never told the Poly Prep kids but have definitely told other high school kids: that in 1980, when I was a junior in high school, I was convinced that the world was going to end because the United States and the USSR were going to blow each other up with nuclear weapons. This got me started on reading seriously as a young man, which got me on a path of seeking a like of wisdom and meaning, which got me into the classrooms of great professors in Madison and at Hebrew University, which made me a rabbi. One can actually trace these things. And so I tried to demonstrate to the students today that on one level the questions they were asking were the questions they were asking but that the answers they were seeking was another matter altogether.

One question that always makes the list--it's rarely written but is spoken, about fifteen minutes into the presentation. "What is the Jewish view on pre-marital sex?" Or, "Can rabbis have sex?" Given the uncertain terms of future health care in this country, I counsel a moderately prudent view. "Procreative, monogamous, generally in the context of marriage which should take place after high school," I say--getting a laugh and solidifying my invitation for next year--while adding that of all the couples I've married over the years, the gay marriages have no divorces while a few heterosexual couples have broken up. "Go figure." I'm pro-gay marriage and I think most high school kids appreciate the openness.

This year I ended up on a tangent defining the Jewish view of the messiah--a pathway of thinking that is intellectually entertaining but damn it all, beside the point when one considers all the work we have to do ourselves to make this world a better place.

Still, it's useful.

I rushed back down Fort Hamilton Parkway for more meetings at shul--a meeting with an artist/educator; a family in mourning; some staff and phone calls; and then with the 6th grade to discuss their impressions of their study of the Holocaust. I found the 6th graders to be deeply immersed in the material; capable of tremendous nuance; and very sensitive to the many complexities of a study of the Shoah. Initially mixed about when might be the proper age to begin a discussion about the Holocaust and its dimensions, I have come around to the view that if handled correctly and sensitively, 6th grade is an acceptable time to begin the study. I mean their world is so brutal and with varieties of forms of entertainment so close at hand, they also run the risk of being gravely desensitized to human suffering precisely because their digital reality makes the visceral so abstract.

I have to say, these kids were thinking on a very deep level. I was so proud to be their rabbi and to be their parents' rabbi. And so between them and their older cohort out in Bay Ridge, I'd say with some more wisdom, this next generation, at least here in Brooklyn, has a firm grasp of reality.

And in this world as we know it, that's an awfully hopeful thing to say.

21 February 2010

Rests On Us

One of the things I immediately noticed upon returning to New York on Friday is how utterly filthy much of the neighborhood is. Seriously--it's disgusting. Melting snow, colored by the oily black grease of car exhaust, oil, and filth; dog crap left to decompose the "natural way" in the last storm's diminishing monuments to winter; and garbage, heaps and heaps of garbage, left on the street as an ongoing statement of the basic neglect that my hometown, Brooklyn, seems to contend with too often.

I don't like it.

Now, bear with me as I make the leap toward some seemingly disjointed statements, which, in my mind, make total sense. (Already therefore suspect.)

Living in New York since 1990, this is the first time in my twenty years here that the city, the state, and the nation have fallen on such difficult economic times. Well into the second year of a terrible economic crisis, this morning's paper reported the alarming statistic that several million people may never in fact return to the work they once knew as work and will be chronically unemployed for the remainder of their careers. Besides the drain on the social safety net and additional strain on varieties of non-governmental social services, there is the human devastation to consider: the loss of dignity and the challenges faced by families, spouses, children and friends in watching others struggle with the basic human need for work. The role of the synagogue in this context will be critical.

And our community continues to thrive and grow, I remain convinced, particularly because our membership is committed broadly to being a beacon of hope and light in a sea of darkness for our city, state and country. When God called to Abraham and Sarah several thousand years ago, demanding that they "be a blessing," it was precisely to represent hope in the darkness. And so it shall be.

But I have to tell you, I was really disheartened to read a couple of stories today. One was the story about the official launch to Governor Patterson's campaign for re-election. Despite dismal poll ratings, a lack of serious fundraising, and no serious political analysis suggesting he has a chance to win, the Governor will run for re-election. He will raise literally millions of dollars and spend it--on what we all know will be a futile effort. And I really have to wonder, why? Why spend the money on what we know won't succeed when there are so many profound needs to fill? The sheer ego of it all really bothers me. Especially when challenges are beginning to arise so that basic needs can be met and budget cuts are already beginning to be keenly felt here in the city and across the state. Now is not the time for the ego to lead but for the soul to understand the suffering that looms for us as a nation.

Why could we not have seen a speech by the Governor that began, "I am not running for re-election but will allocate the several million I have already raised to the following organizations that have withstood terrible cuts to their budget..." That would have been political heroism.

Speaking of a distinct lack of heroism. One of the reasons I still insist on subscribing to the print version of the news is so that I can throw it across the room when I get really mad reading it. That's what I did with Senator Evan Bayh's op-ed today, trying to comprehend the reasons that he gave for retiring from the United States Senate at a critical stage in United States history with critical issues facing the nation. Senator Bayh's reasons for leaving the political pantheon were, if I read it correctly, that government and political process are broken. So he's leaving. Because he doesn't want to fix it.

Come on.

He's 54! He's got a good twenty-five years of work ahead of him! My mom is 76 and she still trudges off to work when she can--between cancer treatments--precisely because she knows one thing about her life and this world--it's not done being fixed!

Ah, well, see--I told you it would all seem kind of disjointed. Or not.

Because in fact, the key here is that precisely because we can work, we should. It's a privilege. And a responsibility. And sometimes it requires great sacrifice. Which means giving up something of ourselves for a good greater than ourselves.

A governor and a senator disappointed me today. People get elected to solve problems: from campaign finance to health care to war and peace to picking up garbage. Do it or get out. Don't waste our time or money with your silly excuses. Of course, it only strengthens our resolve, re-affirming that the world's fate, the nation's fate, the state and the city's fate, really rests on us.

18 February 2010

Just to See

The Persian women at minyan raise their open hands toward the Torah as its removed from the Ark, when it's raised above the heads of worshippers after it's read, and again when the Ark is opened and its returned to its place at the close of the Torah reading service.

I love these moments of expression, not "required" per se but regional and ethnic practices that belong to particular Jewish communities throughout the world and then, when those communities in-gather--to Israel or the United States or elsewhere--one sees them scattered among a variety of particular practices inside one prayer service or another. I watched the women do this with their hands on Sunday morning, when we read Torah for Rosh Hodesh, and again today, for the Thursday morning Torah reading, and today was reminded of the midrash related to Jacob's ladder where the angels who are ascending and descending the ladder are imagined to be ascending the ladder to see the Throne of Glory, God's Big Chair, which in the majestic metaphors from the prophetic literature (this is a big theme in Ezekiel's visions) is a very Divine place to be. Ezekiel himself appears to be quite comfortable with the anthropomorphized God, sitting in a chair, an image borrowed from Moses, who also beholds this vision on Mount Sinai. God's footstool, of pure sapphire, is as close as we seem to get to "seeing" the Divine.

I spoke to a friend back in Brooklyn today and told him how beautiful I thought LA was. He said he hated it. When I asked why, he said there was too much sky. He preferred the density of buildings and the feeling of being in the bowels of civilization to the open air. I'm the opposite.

And in particular, being exposed to the sky these past several evenings and during all times of the daytime, one is obviously aware of their place, on an earth, a planet, being hurdled through space and time. I really like that.

Of course, one could get lost in such thoughts and experiences and wind up meditating on a mountain top, communing with the divine, and, I would fear, losing touch with the messy humanness of reality. So the tradition gives us for seeing beautiful things in nature (beautiful trees, beautiful plants, stars, deserts, mountains and the sunrise) which connect us consciously to the Divine while also bring us back to earth with one word, Amen, which etymologically has the force of "something to lean on." Stable.

Like the Foot of a Throne. Which brings me back to the Persian women in shul, holding up their open hands toward the Torah and Ark, as if they were at the very Throne of Glory. This morning, while the Torah was being led around the room and the worshippers sang the Rommemu, the words in the prayerbook in translation read, "Exalt the Lord and worship Him, for He is holy. Exalt and worship Him at His holy mountain." But the Hebrew reads, "Exalt and worship Him at His footstool for He is holy," which the editors of the prayerbook chose not to even translate, figuring, I suppose that the problematics of the anthropomorphism would be too complicated to deal with.

But the Persian women knew what was going on. I believe they saw the bright sapphire stone, where God's feet rest, on a footstool that is like the sky, lit up on bright morning. So luminescent that they needed to raise their hands to block its intensity. And then the Torah passed, was put away in its Ark, and their hands went down to their side.

These are the quiet moments of revelation that occur each day. Worth getting up early for shul--just to see.

17 February 2010

Schemes v. Discipline

"The Eternal knows human schemes, how futile they are. Blessed the one whom He disciplines and teaches Torah." from Psalm 94, recited on Wednesdays

I don't you but I need coffee to function in the morning. I'm neither proud of that nor ashamed, merely stating a fact of life. I also enjoy it at night, which has its effects, of course, like a more restless sleep. But if it buys an extra hour of study or conversation, then it's worth it. So last night I went to meet a friend at the Starbucks in Westwood and then realized, laying down for the night, that I was in for the old toss and turn. Alas, 6.00 am came around too soon and I barely made it to the 7.30 minyan. But then I popped out of bed at 7.25 realizing that the discipline of being at minyan--short lived as it is on this family trip to LA--was in danger of being broken. So I quickly armed my mind with caffeine, hopped in the car, and headed up to shul. I missed some of the morning blessings but arrived in time for Ashrei, Psalm 145, which actually opens with a quote from Psalm 84.5: "Blessed are they who dwell in your house; they shall praise you forever." Or at least as long as there's coffee.

This is the discipline. Where one gets out of bed against one's tiredness; where one triumphs over one's instincts; where one places oneself in a place where one ought to be--a place of aspiration and effort. We all experience this in varieties of ways--staying up late for exams in college; working late to reach deadline on a project; setting goals in physical fitness to achieve a desired result.

But spiritual discipline? This is a touchy subject for liberal Jews, who want to be able to "choose" what to do themselves, who "believe" as much or more in their own autonomy as they do in a Source of Life greater than themselves. My own faith collides, sometimes violently, with the idea of autonomy. I know I have it; I want to keep it; but I do not believe that our particular historical age affords that autonomy any greater sense of right than varieties of autonomy have in ages past. While it's true that we are continually learning more about the scientific and historical nature of truth and existence (including the scientific nature of faith, what with the ability to map it on the brain) it is nonetheless *faith* and functions accordingly, serving as the Voice of voices to offer direction, correction, and discipline for how one lives one's life. The human has struggled with autonomy since the Garden of Eden. One need not believe that story to have actually taken place in order to grasp the full-force of its metaphoric power. What we want to do versus what we ought to do is a tropal tension in the span of all existence.

So enthusiastically I throw back a coffee and head off to shul just in the nick of time, proud of my spiritual achievement, when I instantly discovered that preceding me there in time and preparedness were several others--the guards minding the garage and sidewalks; the educators readying the day for the arrival of children; and the other prayers, already dressed, be-tallised, and wrapped in their tefilin. I was the last to arrive.

"The Eternal knows human schemes, how futile they are.
Blessed the one whom He disciplines and teaches Torah."

The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo offers a great teaching about Jacob's dream at the ladder. Philo says that the rungs on the ladder are varied in height and length to demonstrate the uneven and unpredictable nature of a person's journey through life in this world. There are steps on the ladder of existence that are steady and effortless; and there are steps on the ladder of existence that are treacherous and filled with danger. Sometimes we feel we could walk our way through life in our sleep; at other times, we are paralyzed in wakeful fright at making one move. And most of the time, we are somewhere in the middle, navigating the generally mundane, mildly unpredictable, and mostly uneven nature of it all.

It's actually not so easy to live life on an even keel if it's not in one's nature. Philo's metaphor is a powerful one because it's rooted in the image of an ancient ladder. Not a perfectly symmetrical aluminum cast perfection that one buys at the hardware store but a hand-crafted tool of perfectly elemental imperfection. Where in reality, one can't predict what the next step is because despite our many perceived powers and our autonomy in this world, we actually cannot control what's next.

So we may as well be prepared as best we can be. Which takes practice. And discipline.

"The Eternal knows human schemes, how futile they are.
Blessed the one whom He disciplines and teaches Torah."

16 February 2010

Ten or More in the Morning

After a brief 24 hour trip down to Del Mar, near San Diego, we're back in LA.

Yesterday's davenning was in the backyard at my friend Steve's house, where the kids swam in the pool in the early morning sun and one of my daughters and his daughter helped me put the tefilin on and take it off, counting out the number of stripes on the arm, spelling out God's name--Shin, Dalet, Yud--along with me. "You know, I heard that was one of God's names--cool," said one, rather conversationally. Yeah, I heard that too, I said.

Part of the day's prayer seemed to extend to a morning hike we took in the Torrey Pines State Park, an uncommonly beautiful segment of Pacific seashore, with countless trails and people of all shapes, colors and sizes huffing and puffing their way throughout the sandy trails and cliffs. We made our way down to the shore, hung out on Flat Rock, and then headed off to Roberto's for burritos. What made the experience "prayerful" if you will was the mindfulness of it all, the quiet and efficiently warm intent of every encounter. A courteous state park ranger at the parking lot entrance; individuals and families hiking and biking their way up and down the hillside with a sense of purpose; even the experience of ordering at lunch was focused, hospitable, and generous. Was it the sun? The ocean air? The varieties of sage brush providing a kind of aromatherapy?

Oh dear God: Was I having a California moment?

I was brought back to earth by overhearing a conversation about breast implants, which in turn reminded me, ironically or not, of the story of the Golden Calf. Meaning: what's better than direct communication from God on a mountain, replete with thunder and lightning, fire and smoke--that you gotta go ahead an build an idol of gold? Thank God for Torah--I'll tell you, it can root you in all sorts of pleasant and unexpected ways.

After an amazing dinner with my cousins last night, it was back up early this morning for minyan at Temple Sinai. After years of daily morning davenning in solitary spiritual practice, I have found the minyans during my time here in LA to be of great comfort, even, to a degree, exhilarating. Fifteen years ago, during my last year of rabbinical school, I gave a "Senior Sermon" about Rebecca's encounter of Isaac out in the field, "meditating" as the Torah describes it, which the Sages say was Isaac davenning Minchah. The poetic and solitary nature of Isaac's conversation with God was very attractive to me at the time and in my sermon I tried to articulate a spirituality of aloneness, of the existential need for individual prayer and communion with the Divine. Afterward, one of my professors, in a private exchange, said, "I get what you are trying to say--it's just that I fear the erosion of the commitment to the minyan, which is how Jews have prayed for two thousand years."

Respect. Reform Judaism, outside the rabbinical schools, does not generally *demand* of its people daily prayer practice in a minyan. We're either not interested, don't make the time, or there simply aren't enough of us in most Reform communities to make it happen. And so for the better part of the past 15 years, I've made daily prayer a private practice, except on Shabbat, where I don't really pray as much as lead prayer, which is a distinctively different mode of spiritual engagement.

In minyan, however, at Ikar and now at Temple Sinai, I am conscious of what the other lives around may be about. Today, again I focused on the fact that most in attendance at the minyan were present to say Kaddish. These individuals were in mourning and their community knew it.

As I sat watching others, I wondered about their lives, their prayers, their disappointments and aspirations. Were they praying for health for themselves and others? For success in business? For a lifting of depression? For a long life? One man seemed to be simply enjoying the Hebrew--singing the words, providing his own emphasis here and there to punctuate a point. I was even cognizant of the varieties of teshuvah present--who was seeking forgiveness for anger? For gluttony? For infidelity? Who among us, in their own prayers to God, was willing to even admit his or her own pathologies? It's not easy work.

And this was my epiphany: The minyan, standing at Sinai with others, facing Jerusalem, really made room for both the individual ("And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide"--Gen 24.63) and the people ("and all the people answered with one voice, and said: 'All the words which the Eternal has spoken will we do.'"--Exodus 24.3)

The shared connectiveness and the sense of communal obligation are too important to be relegated to once a week singing and praying.

We need the minyan--the daily minyan--in Reform practice. If we can't pull it off, it means we risk severing ourselves from a more than two thousand year practice of mindfully assembling in community on a daily basis to be reminded of our own distinct relationship to a Being greater than and beyond us (the necessary humbling) as well as a simultaneous obligation to others (the necessary exalting.)

The necessary exalting? How? In a whole new way I understood why it is that we stand for the Daily Miracles section of our morning prayers:

Praised are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe
Who enables His creatures to distinguish between night and day;
Who made me in His image;
Who made me a Jew;
Who made me free;
Who gives sight to the blind;
Who clothes the naked;
Who releases the bound;
Who raises the downtrodden;
Who creates the heavens and the earth;
Who provides for all my needs;
Who guides us on our path;
Who strengthens the people Israel with courage;
Who crowns the people Israel with glory;
Who restores vigor to the weary.

"All the words which the Eternal has spoken we will do."

Not in solitude but in community, one for the other. Ten or more in the morning, for minyan, we are exalted by the fulfillment of our obligations to others, which is what happens when your eyes are opened. It's a revelatory thought worth standing for.

15 February 2010


Sunday morning I went to Sinai Temple, the illustrious beacon of Conservative Judaism on Wilshire Blvd, for an 8.30 am Rosh Hodesh minyan. It was a great experience. Run like an incredibly well-oiled machine, I encountered a cheerful underground parking lot attendant (that's right--underground parking); a cheerful set of guards at both front and side doors, and a great gabbai, who greeted me warmly, asked where I was from, and immediately handed out an honor for me (hagbah--the guy who holds up the Torah after it's been read.)

I played it anonymously--that is, I introduced myself without the title of Rabbi, mostly because I prefer the quiet anonymity of davenning in a new space. One fellow, in his early seventies I'll guess, heard I was from Brooklyn and said, "I used to be from Bensonhurst," and when I asked if he missed it, a wistful, distant look arose in his eyes and he said quietly, "You know, there are things about Brooklyn that I do really miss." It was a sweet moment. To sweet, in fact to say, "Yeah--like the Dodgers!"

Just as Sinai Temple's website indicated, most of the attendees at this morning minyan were mourners. In *not* standing for Kaddish, I was in the distinct minority--if not the only one--among the 35 or so people present. And by far the youngest--most were 60 and older and a very large number of the men and women present were Persian Jews, found in relatively large numbers in this section of Los Angeles--nicknamed Tehran-gales.

I was telling Rachel during our drive down to Del Mar to visit old friends that the style of davenning could not have been more straightforward--and I loved it. No niggunim, just the straight nusach, a steady sense of navigation from the gabbai and a nice little Dvar Torah on why the Jewish calendar is structured the way it is. It was egalitarian, warm, and deeply efficient. Shacharit, Hallel, Torah reading, Dvar Torah--all done in 70 minutes. By 9.40 am I had my tefillin wrapped, I dropped some money in a tzedakah box, and was out the door to prepare the family for a day at the Skirball Center for a display on Noah's Ark, an archaeological dig, and a stunning exhibit on photography of the Civil Rights movement.

The Skirball Center was really quite impressive, though the dizzying preponderance of naming plaques brought to mind Larry David's brilliant spoof on his "anonymous giving" battle with Ted Danson. Among the many visions that the Talmud lays out for what the world will look like when the Messiah comes, I'll add to it the following: "When the Messiah comes, all naming plaques will disappear from Jewish institutions."

It's true, when you start your day unknown under a tallis, you're a bit inclined to anonymity. Still.

14 February 2010

A Visit to IKAR

We were finally able to attend Shabbat morning services at IKAR on our trip to LA, a luxury that the work of a pulpit rabbi living 3000 miles in the other direction does not often get to experience. Rabbi Sharon Brous and I have been friends for about 8 years now and this is actually the first time I've gotten to simply pray with her, as opposed to be a conference, sit on a panel, or get cited as a community organizing co-conspirator for the "young generation of American Jews."

Ikar started along the same lines as Brooklyn Jews and whereas I went to Beth Elohim in 2006 with the Brooklyn Jews programming model to help grow the synagogue, Sharon started from scratch with Ikar and has steadily built it into a community in its own right, clearly fed by the burning engine of her own vision and spirituality along with a deeply committed collection of Los Angeles Jews who believe deeply in IKAR's commitment to Torah, Prayer and Social Justice.

Labels don't really apply here. I was going to suggest a few adjectives for describing the services--liberal conservative; revivalist spiritual; renewal with Carlebach; traditional and egalitarian. But the labels don't apply. They are mere approximations of one aspect or another when what people in attendance were really looking for was a genuine whole. I saw faculty members from HUC and AJU; day school teachers from across the denominational spectrum; and participants from all walks of Jewish life. Each cohered to the commitment of the genuine whole. And I think this is where American Judaism, without a doubt, is headed.

I increasingly find in my own work, serving as "Senior Rabbi of a Reform synagogue," that that particular label does not adequately describe what it is that I do but rather serves as a template that is more restrictive of the work than we think. I wonder what we would learn, for instance, if we surveyed every pulpit rabbi in America, categorized them by age and denomination, and then asked them what their top five list of motivations are for serving the Jewish community as rabbis. I think the denominational lens would be very low on that list of five (if it made it there at all) and I think the results of that survey would be very liberating for American Judaism.

(Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, get on it!)

In the traditional pulpits, we are set up to do what we are expected to do: be there in the community for people to identify communally as Jews; train children for bar and bat mitzvah; serve others in times of need--at birth, marriage, illness and death; and serve as a bridge between Jews and non-Jews, an essential part of synagogue work these past hundred years that often gets lost in the "New Jew" debates: synagogues have served a vital role in the process of Americanization and citizenship development.

The denominations have helped assimilate more than anything else--that is to say, mediating between the universal values of American culture and the particular values of Jewish culture and civilization. How much Hebrew? How much allegiance to Jewish law? How ought one to dress? What foods ought one to eat? And how allied with Israel (raising, heaven forbid, questions of 'dual-loyalty') ought one to be? And for the better part of the prior century, American Jewish intellectual debates hinged on those denominational distinctions. But as we now begin to look back, we see that with Israel more than 60 years old as a nation and the complete acceptance of Jewish studies into nearly every major American university, a different paradigm is beginning to emerge where the organizing questions are not denominational but rather more broadly defined--how Jewish; how spiritual; how intellectual; how deeply committed to social justice; how allied with Israel; how observant? And, I dare say, one may even add a few other qualitative distinctions like: How close is it to where I live? And, how cool is it?

In any case, what made yesterday's experience at IKAR so great was the utter genuineness of it all. In a room that was comprised of three generations of Jews, from all backgrounds, seeking fellowship in Torah, Spirituality and Social Justice, an authentic Jewish community is being made each day. And what is central to its integrity is that its spiritual leader represents no particular trend or denomination but rather the three-fold credo of a 1st century sage, Rabbi Shimon HaTzadik in Pirke Avot--that the world stands on three things, Learning, Prayer and Deeds of Lovingkindness.

13 February 2010

A Poke and an Idea

We haven't traveled on a traditional vacation schedule in a long, long time, so while yesterday's lines at the JFK terminal and the car rental stop in LAX. It was a bit overwhelming. At LAX, waiting for a car felt a bit like being churned through a pasta machine and when we made it out of the gate and headed toward 405 to go visit family, we were one in an inventory of human macaroni, tumbling toward our fate.

On the plane I marveled at the beauty of our country, how little of it one gets a chance to see and the view from 30,000 of the Middle Plains, the Rockies, and the Utah and Nevada deserts was a humbling reminder that wherever you live, you never really see enough of what you need to see to grasp how varied and complex our world is.

While the kids slept or zoned out in front of the seat-back televisions on JetBlue (a blessing and a curse) I studied from a new favorite Torah commentary, the Da'at Hamiqra, which combines traditional and historical commentary, complete with maps, drawings and pictures.

Somewhere over the Rockies I felt a poke on my back, so I moved briefly, and then again felt another poke. It seemed intentional so I turned around to see what was what and found myself facing an Israeli businessman in his sixties who engaged me in a conversation in Hebrew. He asked what I was studying, and where in Israel I was from ("a small town called Milwaukee," I said, "heard of it?") He showed me what he was studying--the Shulchan Aruch--which he's learning with a Chabad rabbi in Long Island where he lives.

The conversation was a warm one and it got me thinking about the ways in which liberal synagogues do or do not engage the many tens of thousands of Israelis who live in New York City. A cursory view would indicate that we're quite good at hiring Israelis to teach in our Hebrew schools but we don't do such a great job of engaging Israelis as Israelis--programmatic, intellectual, social engagement--and I would like to do better.

I think the greatest barrier tends to be the Hebrew language--Israelis often enjoy being engaged when the community creates a context for Hebrew to be spoken comfortably and most liberal communities don't engage the Hebrew language in that way. Second, a Chabad rabbi "looks like" an Israeli rabbi, and that won't change, I suppose, until another generation or so when more and more non-orthodox rabbis and synagogues take root in Israel.

Anyway, it's a thought. What might we do to engage Israelis more in the fabric of our communities? Given that Israelis comprise half of the world's Jewish population, a more regular engagement in synagogue communities is critical for a more complete representation of Jewish life.

11 February 2010

I love this story.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin going to Israel to build a pluralistic community in the Negev.

It's a powerful idea and I hope we see more of it coming from American rabbis in the years ahead.

10 February 2010

Build That Bridge

The guilty pleasures of a Jewish nerd.

For many years, I have picked up Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances (The Soncino Press) from the shelf of this Jewish bookstore or that and for this reason or that have never pulled the trigger. Until recently. And so today, in a quiet moment between mediating conflict among siblings, I sat down to take in a few of its pages. Since the kids were fighting about a topic that is already forgotten, I chose to see what Rabbi Hirsch had to say about Hatred.

Quoting Leviticus 19, the Rabbi writes, "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart." Good start!

He goes on to write: "Hatred is the feeling that the existence of any being is a hindrance to our own existence, and that the destruction of that being would make our own existence more complete. In other words, it means that we do not feel ourselves whole so long as this or that is still existing. This feeling is the death, nay, the complete inversion, of the human heart, which God has created for the comprehensive embrace of all beings, but which instead excludes one or all beings to the extent of desiring their non-existence, and embraces only itself--in fact, becomes a stone. As soon, therefore, as you perceive hatred springing up in your heart against any being, know for certain that you have failed to attain your proper moral level."

We know this is true. The destructive and corrosive force of hatred, unleashed, prevents us from aiming higher in our aspirations.

But unlike a book, this is the guilty pleasure of hatred. The endorphin rush; the manic rant; they feel so good but what do they really get you? In war it leaves a scarred landscape, literally littered with corpses; in homes, psychological and, God forbid, physical scars; in our own hearts and minds, a limiting capacity to grow which in turn plants deeper roots and bears more bitter fruit.

It's such a terrible dilemma. But the Torah is here speaking a language of truth that is one of its most profound warnings to us:

"Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart."

A heart that only embraces itself becomes a stone.

What a notion! For the chambers of the heart to beat a regenerative rhythm, there must be another to share the effort of its requisite regeneration. The partnership itself is the antithesis of hate.

Many of us have had that heart of stone and have known its loneliness. The journey forward is with God or another. A simple equation that for some is like an abyss to bridge.

But oh how we need to build that bridge. Always.

09 February 2010


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


Grant peace, goodness, blessing, grace, lovingkindness and mercy to us and to all Israel your people. Bless us, our Father, one and all, with the light of your countenance; for by the light of your countenance you have given us, Eternal our God, a Torah of life, lovingkindness and salvation, blessing, mercy, life and peace. May it please you to bless your people Israel at all times and in every hour with your peace. Blessed are you, Eternal, who blesses his people Israel with peace.

In a world of diminishing expectations, this remains a big one.

This is a prayer that is, without a doubt, aspirational.

Here the words we pray are about what ought to be, certainly not what is.

When it comes to what we think of as "peace."

On the other hand, Torah learning and lovingkindness do possess "saving" qualities, for the mind and the heart satisfied are forces that can produce much goodness in our world.

Still on the other hand, mercy, life and shalom--here, wholeness--represent affirmations of behavior that one seeks when one is cognizant of one's seeking.

But, oh, the way this prayer ends. "May it please you to bless your people Israel at all times and in every hour with your peace." That is to say, 'give the brother some.' We need it. And that we have to ask means we don't have it. Yet.

Here the Amidah ends. Sort of. As we learn in the Mishnah and elsewhere, the Sages had a tradition of adding individual prayers and meditations at this point, one of them so profoundly meaningful that it became "codified" as an additional meditation, taken from the Talmud:

My God, keep my tongue and my lips from speaking deceit, and to them that curse me let my soul be silent, and like dust to all. Open my heart in Your Torah, and let me run after Your commandments. As for those that think evil of me, speedily thwart their counsel and destroy their plots. Do this for Your name's sake, do this for Your right hand's sake, do this for the sake of Your holiness, do this for the sake of Your Torah. That Your beloved ones may rejoice, let Your right hand bring on salvation and answer me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, Eternal, my rock and my redeemer. May the One who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us, for all Israel, and to this we say, Amen.

The radical humility with which we end is a complex expression of the radical humility with which we began. We bowed at our opening blessing in deference to our own sublimation to those who came before us. As we leave the sacred space of prayer, we do so with the meditation that ultimately, the very words we spoke to God are words that contain the key to redemption for all humankind. Let our words never lie. Let those of others never conspire against. In so far as we seek God through words, let words always be dedicated to divine service, to kindness and to love.

That we so often fail at the simple logic of that request, in part, explains, why the Sages instructed us to do this prayer three times a day.

Because in life, the more we do things, the better we get at it.

For better or worse.

In this case, hopefully, for better.

08 February 2010


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


We give thanks to you that you are the Eternal our God and the God of our ancestors forever and ever. Through every generation you have been the rock of our lives, the shield of our salvation. We will give you thanks and declare your praise for our lives that are committed into your hands, for our souls that are entrusted to you, for your miracles that are daily with us, and for your wonders and your benefits that are with us at all times, evening, morning and noon. Beneficent one, your mercies never fail; merciful one, your lovingkindnesses never cease. We have always put our hope in you. For all these acts may your name be blessed and exalted continually, our Sovereign, forever and ever. Let every living thing give thanks to you and praise your name in truth, God, our salvation and our help. Selah. Blessed are you, Eternal, whose Name is the Beneficent One, and to whom it is fitting to give thanks.

Every word of this blessing is devoted to thanksgiving, to being cognizant that we all are part of something greater, at all times, not when the spirit moves us or we have an amazing experience or personal revelation but now, when now is always, and all times.

If we were angels, I suppose we'd be saying a blessing like this all the time. But we're not. We have to live life, after all. And that means making a mess and cleaning it up. It means losing our temper and making up. It means screwing up at work and seeking to do better next time. But this blessing--especially in its employment of the term "Selah" which means rock or boulder or clod of earth--is meant to be a symbol of eternity, of timeless support, of the endless regeneration of an idea few of us can live and practice and consistency: perspective.

Perspective of thanksgiving. Being grateful. Living a life of gratitude, three times a day, means periodically pausing to shift our glance "heavenward" and be reminded of what truly matters.

Some people are naturally appreciative. I am always amazed by people like that. Others need to be reminded, to learn the discipline of thanks and appreciation. Like anything--exercise, work, love--it takes practice.

It takes practice to be mindful of how good life can actually be, to be aware of "your wonders and your benefits that are with us at all times, evening, morning and noon."

Fitting that here with this blessing, we bow twice. Once at the beginning of the blessing and once at the end, engaging our bodies in the act of thanksgiving, as a physical reminder that true gratitude is expressed by engaging the world with bodies, our hearts and souls.

The first bow occurs at "we give thanks." And the second bow occurs with the words "Whose Name is the Beneficent One."

Thank Goodness.

Thank God.

07 February 2010


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


Be pleased, Eternal our God, with your people Israel and with their prayers. Restore the service to the inner sanctuary of your Temple, and receive in love and with favor both the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayers. May the worship of your people Israel always be acceptable to you. And let our eyes behold your return in mercy to Zion. Blessed are you, Eternal, who restores his divine presence to Zion.

This whole notion of restoring God's service to the inner sanctuary of God's Temple represents for me, as a daily prayer, THE moment when I hold the siddur in my hands with great love and promise myself that often what I say is in the language of metaphor. Reality intervenes with this prayer. "The inner sanctuary of God's Temple?" You mean, where the Dome of the Rock now stands? Am I praying for World War Three?

One time, in 1985, I rented a car with some friends and drove from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then on to Hebron. We stopped at Rachel's Tomb on the way as well. Touring the holy spots of ancient Judaism, I remember being struck by a shocking amount of anger and hatred coming from the Jews of Hebron and a painfully difficult amount of silence and hatred coming from the Muslims as well. It felt like a bad place where no one was fated to be happy. We toured the Tomb of the Patriarchs, walked in and out of the mosque, and then were asked, by a Settler with a gun strapped over shoulder, to help make a minyan for someone who need to say Kaddish at the afternoon prayers.

We didn't hesitate to say "yes" to perform the mitzvah. And as we faced toward Jerusalem, I knew that for some of them with their rifles (and not too long into the future Baruch Goldstein, on Purim, would use his rifle to murder praying Muslims) taking the Temple Mount violently to "restore" it to Jewish religious hands, was what they prayed for when they asked God to "restore the service to the inner sanctuary of your Temple." But for me, that restoration was metaphorical. It was about believing that there was something "original" that needed to be put back into place, a purity of service, a clear-eyed motivation, an unadulterated expression of connection to God that was clearly in line with God's call to Abraham, God's struggled with Jacob, God's redemption from Egypt, and God's fulfilled redemption of bringing his children into the Land of Israel.

That I knew we shared and it seemed--and still seems--to be an essential idea of Judaism, without which, all is lost. So I prayed with them because one mourner remembering his dead, and therefore his link back across the generations to the very promise we've cited, was far more important to the God I believed in than whether or not that God was going to be worshiped in a Temple "restored." Gained in blood so that sacrifices of blood could be offered? No. If we have evolved through the forces of history to learn to pray and serve God without a Temple, that was, in the final analysis, a good thing. And our God led us there. Wants us to be there.

Inner sanctuary. Temple. Fire-offerings. This was not an easy argument to win. Metaphor was battling, and continues to battle, literalism.

I believe in God. I believe in history. I believe in metaphor.

May the fire of animal sacrifice never return. May the fire of the Jewish heart and soul and imagination always burn.

06 February 2010


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


Hear our voice, Eternal our God; spare us and have pity on us. Accept our prayer in mercy and with favor, for you are a God who hears prayers and supplications. Sovereign, do not turn us away from your presence empty-handed, for you hear the prayers of your people Israel with compassion. Blessed are you, Eternal, who hears prayer.

This is a smart prayer because it's honest and hedges its bets. God hears our prayer, it posits, but we don't read that God answers our prayers directly, in a one-to-one relationship. Rather, the prayer asks that God hears our prayers with compassion.

There are many ways to look at this. An angry person is often best dealt with using compassionate listening. Wanting and needing to be heard. A dying patient knows that miracles are scarce and so they seek a compassionate last chapter of life before being eased into eternity. A child may ask something specific of God (I remember one of my kids crying on her first trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem because she thought that when she put the note in the Wall asking God for a puppy, the animal would emerge like a gumball from a machine) and the teaching moment here is not that God didn't listen; it's the developmental step toward a deeper understanding of who and what God is.

"Do not turn us away from your presence empty-handed." As we grow and mature along life's spectrum, in theory, we seek less materially. In exchange for our physical wants, we seek friendship, comfort, meaning, and community. And though these words are materially ephemeral, when held up to the introspective heart and mind, they fill our hands with the fullness of a life well lived.

You may ask, what does "God" have to do with it? Fair question. Here we rely on Moses' experience of God at the Burning Bush. Inquiring into the meaning of God's name, Moses hears God define himself. "I am that I am."

Being and Essence. The deepest expression and acknowledgment of All of Existence. This prayer places us there and in asking to be heard, prays for the connections to be made that allow us to live lives of meaning.

05 February 2010

Jerusalem Post Fires Naomi Chazan

Wow. This situation with the campaign of hatred against advocates for an Israeli civil society takes a really weird turn with Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz's decision to fire Naomi Chazan, who has been writing a column in the Post for quite some time.

Here is coverage from Ha'aretz.

The first shot across the bow in the diaspora world is reported here, where the Melbourne Jewish community decided to cancel a talk by Chazan
, presumably at the urging of right wing activists. It's really shocking.

Despite the Post's rightward turn in the last twenty years, to their credit they still printed columns from the left, a strong indication that debate and the value of opposing views was strong.

But joining the campaign to de-legitimate the work of the New Israel Fund is simply something that I'd imagine Horovitz will have to answer in his community in Jerusalem, where a number of people will be stopping him on the street asking the simple question: "What are you thinking?"

David spoke at the Bronfman Center when I was director there from 1998-2004 and his appearance came in the midst of some of the worst bombings of the Second Intifada. Like many writers and thinkers, he was questioning assumptions on Palestinian leaders' true desire for peace, a totally fair and warranted exercise. But this move strikes me as deeply irrational and like many people, I await an explanation.

In the meantime, one must conclude that the silencing of voices in an essential debate about Israeli society is not good for Israeli democracy and is certainly contrary to the Zionist values that built the state.


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


Speedily cause the offspring of your servant David to flourish, and let him be exalted by your saving power, for we wait all day long for your salvation. Blessed are you, Eternal, who causes salvation to flourish.

Of interest here is that toward the end of the Amidah, another heroic figure is cited. In the opening of our prayer, we remembered the God of Patriarchs and Matriarchs. And now here at the end we recall King David. Notably absent from this listing is Moses. But when one considers one of the essential structures of the Amidah to be about a metaphoric and literal restoration of Jewish peoplehood to the Land of Israel, it makes more sense that here David is mentioned and not Moses, of whom Torah says, "but no one knows of his burial place to this day." The mystery shrouding Moses' death--and arguably, the Torah's concern that we ought NOT to know, lest we worship at the grave of a mortal figure--are here contrasted with the all-too-mortal qualities of King David, who, ironically, one might say, merits the honor of the messianic line. The very anointed one of God is said to come from King David. David the warrior; David with the adulterer; David with the blood of Uriah, husband to Bathsheba, on his hands; David the poet, the Psalmist, the musician, the philosopher, the leader of Jewish nationhood in its earliest iterations who, because of his sinful behavior did NOT however earn the honor to build the Temple in Jerusalem.

And yet it is David through whom the hope for restoration is channeled.

This is an expression of Judaism's extraordinary design. Precisely because we are not perfect; precisely because we fail, day after day; precisely because those who promise redemption are those whose very lives are immersed in the glorious imperfections of life--where else should the hope for redemption come from "one of our own" or, more succinctly, ourselves.

Ruth, a convert to Judaism, is King David's great-grandmother. For the Amidah to remind us of this, now deep into our prayers when we may at this point be impressed by our own piety, is to be humbled by the devotion of others, not born Jewish, to their embrace of the ideas and values of Judaism, so much so that the very "seed of redemption" comes from them.

As for the rest of us: we have our work cut out for us. We have our imperfections to repair. For looking the other way when people die; for cheating and cutting corners with our generosity; for exercising power where compassion and understanding are warranted. We don't want to hear this but David reminds us that we must face it, pray it, work it through, in an effort to 'cause salvation to flourish.'

The history of religion--and certainly Judaism--is a history of messianic figures who have come and gone, each promising the Final Redemption. I long ago concluded that the false construct of messianic movements was the over-emphasis on the messianic figure that led to worship--precisely the reason that Moses is not found here in the Amidah, is effectively absent from the Hagadah.

David's appeal, if he were running for office today, would be his radically imperfect nature.

"Let him (us!) be exalted by Your saving power." To be more thoughtful. More generous. More honest. More decent. More forgiving.

The notion of redemption, of a final resurrection into eternal life that Judaism promises in doctrinal form, to my mind, is best expressed in the words of the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

A Letter of Recommendation

On summer nights I sleep naked
in Jerusalem. My bed
stands on the brink of a deep valley
without rolling down into it.

In the daytime I walk around with the Ten
Commandments on my lips
like an old tune someone hums to himself.

Oh touch me, touch me, good woman!
That’s not a scar you feel under my shirt, that’s
a letter of recommendation, folded up tight,
from my father:
“All the same, he’s a good boy, and full of love.”

I remember my father waking me for early prayers.
He would do it by gently stroking my forehead, not
by tearing away the blanket.

Since then I love him even more.
And as his reward, may he be wakened
gently and with love
on the Day of the Resurrection.

I like to think that David learned, late in life, that the point was goodness and love. We'd do well to learn the same and practice it, as much as possible.

Thus will salvation flourish.

04 February 2010


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


Return in mercy to Jerusalem your city, and dwell in it as you have promised. Rebuild it soon in our day as an eternal structure, and quickly set up in it the throne of David. Blessed are you, Eternal, who rebuilds Jerusalem.

Jerusalem of warm stone, shining from the feet of pilgrims and tourists and residents, walking, running, working. Jerusalem of garbage and beggars' hands, asking of us justice and assistance. Jerusalem of fresh hummus, an Arab spice market, churches and mosques. Jerusalem of grilled meat, bus exhaust, garrulous taxi drivers, know-it-all tour guides, charismatics, judges, visionaries and weirdos--and just a whole lot of dead people. Jerusalem of really good wine. Lots and lots of eggplant. And the sun. And moon.

Jerusalem of universe-creating love and earth-shattering hatred. Jerusalem of language, of song, of poetry, of music, of art. Jerusalem of theater and symphony. Jerusalem of corruption and hypocrisy. Jerusalem of jasmine, of rosemary, of birds. Jerusalem of stone walls and walls of books. Hills. Pine.

Jerusalem of new loves and ancient memories. Jerusalem of embrace and Jerusalem of threat. Jerusalem at sunset, quieted by diminishing light and noise, in the painful heat of the day, in the torrential wind and rain of winter, in the glory of autumn, in the blessing of spring, in tortured dreams in the middle of the night and in the ease of dawn, the steady brightening of forever waking to possibility, to wholeness, to peace.

And warm stone. Warm hearts. Warm hands. Warm souls.

My Jerusalem.

Your Jerusalem.

Our Jerusalem.



In Defense of the New Israel Fund

I have supported the New Israel Fund my entire career, primarily because the work they do supporting the ongoing development of an Israeli civil society for all its citizens is a value deeply imbedded in Israel's Declaration of Independence. Even as the War of Independence was beginning, the Declaration stated:

"We appeal - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions."

That always made me very, very proud.

What is happening today, however, in an effort to totally delegitimate the Goldstone Report on last winter's war in Gaza, is radically misquided. An effort led by several members of the Knesset and funded by, among others, right wing Christian minister Rev John Hagee, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center, and the New Israel Fund, are under attack--and being blamed for funding groups that gave information critical of Israel to the Goldstone Report.

What a perverse irony that "Diaspora" money is being used to undermine the work of civil rights in Israel because those civil rights are being defended in part from "Diaspora" money. What a perverse irony that Israel, a beacon of democracy and hope in the Middle East, is now eating its young by attacking those institutions which insist on holding Israel to its highest values, as encoded in its foundation document. What a perverse irony that Israel, established so all Jews could be free, is allowing its state apparatus to be used to harass, intimidate and arrest those who are exercising their rights as free citizens.

(The newsblog Coteret has offered great coverage of this whole debacle.)

I applaud Daniel Sokatch, the NIF CEO, along with Naomi Chazan and several others for bravely facing this onslaught and call upon Jewish leaders in the United States to condemn these deeply misguided attacks.

The NIF website has some ideas for ACTION HERE.

Israel without its vision of an open democracy is just another state--political prose that I refuse to read. Israel's values are vital to the very foundation of its existence and especially in tough times, those values see us through to the essence of who we are as a people.

I'm on the side of the NIF and the signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Im Tirzu and the various Knesset members who are using McCarthy-like tactics are the ones destroying Israeli democracy and I expect American Jewish leaders to fearlessly say so.


JJ Goldberg of the Forward weighs in with a solid OP-ED right HERE.

03 February 2010


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


May your compassion be stirred, Eternal our God, towards the righteous, the pious, the elders of your people the house of Israel, the remnant of their scholars, towards converts to Judaism, and towards us also. Grant a good reward to all who truly trust in your name. Set our lot with them forever so that we may never be put to shame, for we have put our trust in you. Blessed are you, Eternal, the support and stay of the righteous.

The prayer of humility. There is none like it among the 19. Everyone else is ahead of us in line, here, in our prayers to God for compassion, reward and blessing. The righteous--there is always someone who does it better than us; toward the pious--there is always someone whose pure spirit exceeds our own; toward the elders--ah, well, youth is wasted on the young, as they say; toward the scholars--how we struggle to know a fraction of what our teachers know; toward those not born Jewish who *choose* to be counted among us--seeing the covenant come alive, knowing the pain and fear of rejection they often shoulder as a burden, and coming to honor the sacrifices they make in leaving a faith (and sometimes another life, behind); and, then, finally, us.

Humble, nondescript, us.

Arguably, the most counter-intuitive of our 19 blessings when one considers the context of the immediacy and narcissism of the American every day. Me, me, me. myTunes. myPhone. myPad. myLife.

The ego-inverse. Them. And more of them. And more of them. And then us. Only us. The *I* here sublimated, humbled in one's acts and learning and essential affiliation with God and people.

This prayer a way out--the beginning of the Amidah's conceptual winding down toward a close. The next prayer, our eternal center, Jerusalem; the next, the hope for redemption; and finally, a last call for God to hear us and accept our offering. That there be a partner in our pursuits for inner wholeness and external repair. Concluding with thanksgiving--a severely under-valued expression--and the prayer for peace. Always useful.

A way out of the woods--of the dark and entangling trees of I-I-I. The tools of extrication: Them. Us.


02 February 2010


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


Let there be no hope for slanderers, and let all wickedness perish in an instant. May all your enemies quickly be cut down, and may you soon in our day uproot, crush, cast down and humble the dominion of arrogance. Blessed are you, Eternal, who smashes enemies and humbles the arrogant.

When hatred rears its hatred, it stirs dangerous passions in the object and the objectifier. Its great danger is that once unleashed, there is the risk of an endless cycle of hatred. This prayer allows us to acknowledge the anger we feel when hatred arises, it gives life to the feeling--not through physical manifestation but through words of prayer, like rocks cast into the ocean, asking God to absorb the desire for own efforts to eradicate evil by transferring that impulse onto the Source of Life.

On one hand, the language of this prayer is alarming--how could it possibly be a prayer? How could we call upon God to express such anger?

On the other hand, why not? Better God than us, no? Especially given what often happens when humans unleash anger. Our goal is to express but not cut down, or crush, or cast down. That as this prayer aspires is for God. When religious fanatics act in hatred, seemingly on behalf of God, they do so mistakenly. This blessing doesn't sanction human acts of revenge. To the contrary--it reminds us that "revenge is the Lord's" not ours.

Yesterday afternoon, I stood in our Chapel at CBE along with City Councilman Brad Lander, City Councilman Steve Levin, Boro President Marty Markowitz, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and several religious leaders including Rev Daniel Meeter, Rabbi Ellen Lippman, Rabbi Bob Kaplan, Rabbi Carie Carter and Mo Ravzi, a Muslim leader in the city as well as activist educator Debbie Almontasser. We were joined by representatives of the Mayor's office and the NYPD.
We stood together to denounce the recent finding throughout Brooklyn of small sheets of paper saying, "KILL JEWS."

We were unified in our friendship and united in our stand against hate
. But no words of hate were spoken. Only words of encouragement, promise, and hope that our work together as leaders will prevail over the work of a few to sow dissent, bigotry, trouble and even violence.

It's a challenging stance but one which must be modeled. And of interest, is that from a psychological perspective, we are invited to unleash or off-load the anger toward God while we ourselves re-commit to living lives of peace.

01 February 2010


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


Restore our judges as in former times, and our counselors as at the beginning; and remove from us sorrow and sighing. Reign over us, you alone, Eternal, with lovingkindness and compassion, and clear us in judgment. Blessed are you, Eternal, the Ruler who loves righteousness and justice.

The spiritual yearning for better leaders from earlier times--an aspiration that especially today is particularly relevant. We must be cautious in our reading of this prayer not to rely solely on the call for God to intervene but for us to do the work ourselves. One is reminded of the Children of Israel complaining to God in the desert immediately following their redemption, Moses asking God to intervene, and God chastising Moses, saying, "What are you crying at me for? Get to work!" The work of redemption is ours, not God's. The obligation to bring righteousness and justice is ours, not God's.

Some say that in difficult times, people retreat to religion and faith, rejecting the "secular" institutions of daily life which are seen as failures in tough times. With this prayer we must say, "Especially in bad times, there are even greater reasons for re-awakening the fundamental values of our nation and bringing them back to life, restoring them, as it were. Selflessness and sacrifice; civility and humility; hard-work, common cause, and common sense."

And patience. Our faith need not be an escape but a bedrock from which to re-build a nation of values. Faith in God or faith in humanity. Faith in the synagogue or faith in government. But faith nonetheless. Our diffused digital age threatens this solidity and that's a problem at times. "Did you see my live Twittering during the State of the Union?" I heard someone say last week.

No, I thought. I didn't. And I'm not interested in your live Twittering. I'm interested in the accumulation of material; in the steady carving of legislation; in the patient sculpting of the monument to shared causes. But the immediate meanderings of a pundit at every laptop? "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."

But righteousness and justice? There one can hang a hat. It requires a steady hand, a hammer, some nails, and some wood.

Wood. From a tree long ago planted, cultivated, grown to full maturity. Roots of restoration. Branches reaching toward better days.