31 May 2010

Chamfered Extravaganza

Congregation Beth Elohim (synagogue) landmark district, NE cor.  Eighth Ave. and Garfield Place. 1908-1910.  Simon Eisendrath & B. Horowitz.  Temple House, 1928.  Mortimer Freehof & David Levy.   A domed Beaux Arts limestone extravaganza, its corner chamfered to receive the two resident Composite columns.
So says the AIA Guide to New York City, by Norval White and Elliot Willensky, the Classic Guide to New York's Architecture.  The words are brief.  Extravaganza has a bit of sting, no?

And then there's chamfered.  Chamfered!  (Def:  to dull, or cut off the edge of, say, a rectangular column.)

On one hand, being in Shul is good for cutting off the edges of life, right?  Focus on what matters, soften the hardness of this nutty urban existence.  On the other hand, Torah really should be sharpening our souls at all times, so the metaphor cuts both ways.

And as to the landmark question.  We're not landmarked, mind you, but in a landmark district.  It reminds me, somehow, of Richard Pryor--"This is no neighborhood--it's a residential district!"  Don't ask.  It sometimes summarizes how our neighbors feel about the busy-ness of our Shul.  Oh well.

28 May 2010

A Few Dead Bees

The greatest summers of my life were those I spent growing up and working on lawns.  My sister had a boyfriend who started a summer lawn cutting business and for two summers I worked for him.  The summer before I got my driver's license, I'd get picked up early in the morning with two mowers in the back of his car and then dropped at my first job by about 7.45 am and cut grass until the sun went down.  On a good day, I could knock off 5 or 6 lawns.  The sister's boyfriend would generally cover lunch as part of the pay and we'd often take breaks in the middle of the day for something cool to drink and some hoops, each of which were small but appreciated benefits to go along with the hard earned pay.  His cousin often cut grass with me, and I still regale my kids with one of my favorite stories of finding my work partner asleep beneath a tree in the back yard of a job, the motor on the mower running to serve as decoy to anyone suspecting that he wasn't working.  The innocence of such goofiness warms my heart, it really does.

The second summer of work I had my license, so would often ride my bike to the bosses houses, eat some quick breakfast, grab his car, and head out on the job.  I can't fully describe how much I loved the sense of responsibility.  There were a set number of tasks one had to be mindful of--clean mower blades, a fresh supply of gasoline and oil, some edgers in case a customer wanted some extra care around the walkways or driveways--and we were off to the races.

If I'd finish a job early, I'd ogle cars.  Usually ones I knew we could never afford--Porsches, Fararis, MGs, Alfa Romeos.  The North Shore suburbs of Milwaukee where I cut lawns in the late 1970s had great mid-century architecture, perfect driveways and alot of really nice cars.  Once, a customer let me drive his 911 Porsche.  "Take it for a spin," he said.  "I trust you."  I had just learned to drive stick and I was eager to test my mettle.  I don't even remember the guys name but I suppose it doesn't matter.  The trust was the thing.

I have another memory of punching bees to death.  One particular lawn and yard--I can bring it up into my mind along with its prairie garden--was absolutely fat with bees and they were in business on this particular day.  More annoying, oddly enough, than the usual gnats or mosquitoes that often haunted those parts of the Lake Michigan shore.  But I was intrepid, or so I imagined, and as the bees swarmed around my head, I jabbed quick jabs, cutting through the air, knocking them down and then stepping on them to kill them.  In true teen spirit, I then ran them over with the mower.  It was very satisfying.

When I'm alone at home, I mess around with my collection of plants that I have accumulated over the years.  I water and feed; I fertilize and re-plant; I clip and prune.  Occasionally I bike over to the Botanic Garden shop and acquire a few more.  It mildly scratches an itch.

But nothing--I tell you, nothing--will ever be as satisfying as those two summers. 

What a time:  Work.  Sun.  Air.  Some really nice cars.  And a few dead bees.


Taffy Brodesser-Akner has an interesting article over at Tablet on the dynamic of being married to someone who converts to Judaism and demands a new standard for Jewish living.  It's a familiar trope and one that dovetails nicely with our discussion earlier in the week when Talking About Faith.

Check it out HERE.

27 May 2010

birthright next: all the *rage*

Michael Steinhardt defends birthright next in a new op-ed in the Jewish Week that essentially rehearses all the old arguments about why birthright next is succeeding despite what the critics say.  His answer:  Because we say it is. 

My own experience is otherwise.  And even the statistical analysis done by his own Jewish civil servants indicates that the numbers are merely duplicating efforts already in place.  birthright next's Rabbi Daniel Brenner will tout numbers quotients like 12,000 & 30,00 and 100,000, leading his bosses and funders to believe that great successes are being made with a return on their investment.  But really, this is just like selling a mortgage twice.  If alumni lists were actually shared and actual data collected, we'd see that young Jews are being reached in all sorts of ways, well beyond the specific brand of birthright next. 

As an example:  Since Brooklyn Jews was founded in 2005, we have hosted a free high holy days service for young people.  Each year the average attendance is 400-500 people.  Let's do the math.  That's topping out at 2500 people in five years in Park Slope.  Is that number impressive?  I don't know.  Of those who attended, about 15% give money to help support the free service.  Is that impressive?  I don't know.  Of those 2500, about 150-300 attend various Brooklyn Jews Shabbat programming and classes each year.  Is that impressive?  I don't know. 

But you know what else I don't know?  Who among those people are birthright alumni.  We don't know because birthright next won't let us know who lives in the Brooklyn zip codes.  It's not like birthright next regularly does Brooklyn programming--Michael Steinhardt's free trip to see the Batsheva Dance Company at the BAM notwithstanding--so what gives?

In his article, Steinhardt cites his partnerships:
We have worked creatively with Jewish communal organizations of all stripes: from the Council of Young Jewish Presidents, to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces; from the Jewish Book Council and the Israeli Consulate, to Dorot and Artists 4 Israel. Indeed, our list of partners is long.
All worthy organizations, to be sure, but really--this is the list you choose to use for publication?  This is your coordinated attack on saving the Jewish future?  What even IS the Council of Young Jewish Presidents?  Is there a Council of Old Jewish Presidents?

Part of this whole thing has to do with the general pathology of money and what it does to people.  In certain sectors of the Jewish community, money is spent as the result of a tug-of-war between experts and philanthropists, who dance around their barely veiled disdain for one another.  In Michael Steinhardt's case, that disdain is not even contained.  He regularly rants against sociologists, academics, and non-Orthodox rabbis, while continually trumpeting his "secular" sensibilities and generosity as an expression of his desire to make "Jewish Joy."  (What is that, kosher dishwashing liquid?)  Everyone nods and smiles kindly while rolling their eyes behind his back at how he continually rants against anyone who gets in his way.

Michael's deep seated hatred for much of Jewish life that he keeps trying to improve by "overcoming Brooklyn" (his birthright) is made manifest by his insistence that birthright next do things his way.  This radical independence is held up as "what the Jewish community needs" because the "old institutions" are all wrong for the "Jewish future" and is one of the most bankrupt rhetorical devices used today.  And it's generally enabled by those of often stand in line, holding their noses, while hoping to get a few table scraps of investment in what we're doing to bring more Torah (broadly speaking) to the world.   And that, in psychological terms (yes, I'm going psychological here) leads to a cycle of abuse which is happily exploited by the raging abuser.

I dare anyone to successfully argue that a single quotable Jewish Sage from the last two thousand years would tolerate this kind of behavior. 

What I find particularly galling about this whole ridiculous debate is how pretentious and unrealistic it is.  This year alone I have converted about ten people to Judaism.  The amount of time it takes to make a Jew is incalculable.  There is not a quotient (unlike hedge-fundology) which indicates how many hours make a Jew.  Nor is there a quotient which can predict, based on investment, when a young Jew who has been on a trip to Israel will finally decide to truly take responsibility for his or her birthright on their own terms--not because someone is paying for it.

Thank God that I can partner with certain generous people in the Jewish community who understand that Jews are made one person at a time; that Hebrew is learned one letter at a time; that Torah is learned one word at a time; and that the world is redeemed through one act of lovingkindness after another.

25 May 2010

Talking About Faith

Talking about faith is something I do much more with those converting to Judaism than with those born Jewish who are active in the life of the synagogue.  This is a fact of life for alot of rabbis, I think, though I have never formally surveyed the crowd.  But anecdotally, I'd say it's a pattern that we see.  Especially among liberal Jews, the connection to the synagogue is a matter of affiliation--where belonging in and of itself is a sign of Jewishness; the deeply felt urge to raise one's kids as Jews (with the crowning achievement of the Bar/Bat mitzvah; and then it's the sense of community in times of joy and sorrow (in fact, often, more sorrow than joy.  A 25th wedding anniversary will generally be celebrated at a nice restaurant; but when someone dies or is sick, we call the synagogue.)  Absent from this equation is the faith dynamic, which generally surfaces amidst a crisis.  Why do we suffer?  Why has someone died?  Where do the dead go?  But again, in general, this stuff makes us uncomfortable.

Former Christians seeking to become Jews, on the other, come from a place of faith and prayer.  Their religious traditions took it for granted that faith was the very language of religion (as opposed to the Jewish experience which could be land, language, food, music, literature, morals, ethics and then faith.)

In my conversations with numbers of people these last few years, I'm continually amazed at how the conversion experience into Judaism is a journey of faith more than a journey into a nation, though for some, that transition into peoplehood is equally compelling.  Converts come to Judaism having had the practice of speaking to God; of engaging with the sacred through prayer; and of struggling to understand their relationship to a tradition as an engagement using the language of faith.  For many, interestingly enough, their decision to become Jews is rooted in the idea that the particular Jewish language of faith--a formless, non-anthropomorphic God and a Torah with an infinite interpretative dimension--is exactly the expression of faith they were looking for.  Their homecoming is as real as those born Jewish--it's just in the part of the house where it's presumed that when we talk to God, God actually listens.

This particular paradoxical structure--a formless, non-anthropomorphic God who listens--is one of the foundations of the Jewish home they build.

This morning, while running in the Park, I had this thought that in the year ahead, this is a worthy conversation to be had in our community.  A dialogue among the faithful and the faithless and those who don't yet know.  While it's a cliche to say there is much for people to learn from one another, I think that in Jewish community's we often don't fully get the equation down right when it comes to conversion.  Meaning:  we presume that (and it's not necessarily wrong) as Larry David once sagely put it, "you come over to our side." But what about looking at the dynamic from the other direction--what might those born Jewish learn and understand about the faith journey of those not born into the Tradition.  What informs their souls in relationship with the God of our Ancestors.  Converts, when joining up, acquire a Hebrew name for themselves and immediately become a son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah.  They acquire lineage.  The lineage of the first Jew, who wasn't born a Jew, but who listened and responded when God spoke.

So next fall I'll be interested in putting together a series of conversations on the faith journey in the life of those in our community.  Let me know if you're interested.

Martin Short as Jerry Lewis Singing Bob Dylan


24 May 2010

Bring Back Life

I had the honor of providing the closing blessing this morning at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel's convening on issues related to "The Final Chapter:  End of Life Decisions--How Families Navigate Life's Toughest Choices."  It was a great morning with some very powerful teaching by Rabbi David Wolpe and Dr. Diane Meier, Director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care at Mt. Sinai Medical Center here in New York.  Among Dr. Meier's many awards was the 2008 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship--her genius shows.  Plaza's Stephanie Garry chaired the event and she is such a great professional to work with--I so admire Plaza for its integrity and am proud to be a Board member there.

In my closing blessing I spoke about Psalm 23 as a guide not to the funeral/death experience but as a guide to palliative care, using the commentary on Psalm 23 by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.  In examining the opening lines of the Psalm--"The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures"--Hirsch reminds us that God as the Eternal Source of Life can't possibly want or lack; therefore, one can understand by inference that at every stage of life, even those where there is great pain and suffering in the face of imminent death, one can engage with the Eternal Source of Life and be "shepherded along a path of palliative care."  Those green pastures of which the Psalmist speaks are places of comfort, even pleasure, Hirsch argues.  "Wherever He allows me to lie down, there a pleasant pasture shall bloom for me.  If He summons me to rise up and depart then it is only to reach a more abundant, wholesome peace and rest than my erstwhile camp could have afforded me."  Robert Alter chooses to translate it as "In grass meadows He makes me lie down," staying in the pastoral theme, but certainly making another case for the command to provide comfort, or palliative care.  Rashi hints that the greenery is watered with dew from the World to Come.

In other words, our engagement with offering care to those who are dying--and as Dr. Meier pointed out, that process of dying can be instantaneous for some or in fact a seemingly miraculous accumulation of years after a terminal diagnosis--is a sacred opportunity to engage the Divine Source of Eternal Life.  And our understanding of this Psalm shifts from one we recite or hear in funereal tones but rather becomes a rallying cry for offering support and love to those in need while yet alive.

"God restores my soul," the Psalmist writes.  Alter translates "My life He brings back" and Hirsch says, "Over and over again."  Each day we experience life renewed.  Especially with the lovingkindness we receive and the lovingkindness we give. 

"Only goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the House of the Eternal forever."  Hirsch reads this dwelling as a return into, not toward, God.  He writes, "Once the days of my wanderings on earth shall be at an end, dying to me will be nothing more than a return home." 

For us to have the responsibility and the privilege of helping others on that journey will perhaps one day allow us to merit such care and lovingkindness ourselves.

Of the many ironic lessons we learn from such convenings is the truth that when we face death and allow others to die with dignity and with love, even in the face of death, "we bring back life."

21 May 2010

Sign the Petition for B71

I know alot of people in the community and members of our synagogue who use the B71 Busline that has been targeted by the City of New York in its budget cuts.

Please sign THIS ONLINE PETITION to let the Elected Officials know about your opposition to this vital link in Brooklyn!

20 May 2010

Let's Buy A Cemetery!

In a conversation with a congregant some weeks ago, the topic arose about burial of non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries.  For several hundred years, the general practice has been for Jewish law to oppose such instances of eternal co-habitation, even though several texts and rulings can be brought to bear that would allow such a practice.

In general, the issue revolves around public perception--and the Talmud is quite clear on this matter, writing, "We bury non-Jewish dead and comfort their mourners so that we follow the ways of peace."  One encounters this idea often in the rabbinic literature--that barriers of separation can be lowered at times in order to keep the peace, but when possible, separations should be maintained in order to preserve the sacred and ancient ways of our people.  For the Sages--even those that would allow for the burial of non-Jews in a Jewish cemetery--the issue is about preserving Jewish culture.  So for instance, in cases where a non-Jewish spouse, married to a Jew, participating in the life of a community, raising his or her children as Jews--can be buried in a Jewish cemetery by the most liberal reading of Jewish law if only he or she is not a member of another faith tradition and provided the gravestone bears no mark of the cross or symbol of another faith.  And when it happens, there is meant to be a kind of separation, whether it be a fence, a hedge, or a pathway.

As the topic of conversation evolved that day, we began talking about how the Jewish cemeteries in the greater New York area actually don't allow it and being one who is interested in what I'd call the 'lost art of Jewish burial,' I shared my general concern that as the generation which intermarried at a higher rate than prior generations of American Jews begins to die, we face a very, very difficult set of challenges around Jewish burial for these families.  The final nail in the coffin, as it were, for Jewish burial for liberal Jews may very well be the refusal of the Jewish community to come up with a way to accommodate these families.  Otherwise, we're looking at non-sectarian cemeteries with a general feel for the broader culture (which would comport with where most American Jews are at, I suppose) or cremation.  People will simply opt out.  And gone will be a whole landscape of Jewish death that I for one and am not ready to say kaddish over.  There is simply too much history in our Jewish cemeteries, too many layers of life to be learned about, to consign it perpetual care for an interested few who like to wonder the grounds and read the names and consider the meaning of the lives that came before us.

Anyway, this member met a young journalist who is now working on a story about the issue and in his background research, he sent me a recent ruling of the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which convened to consider this burial issue of non-Jews.  They have essentially ruled, based on their reading of Jewish law, that the burial of non-Jews should be allowed in Jewish cemeteries, recommending "'mixed burial' sections in Jewish cemeteries, where non-Jewish spouses and children may be buried alongside Jews.  The mixed section should be separated from the rest of the cemetery by a path, a road or a sidewalk."  It remains a source of particular pride that the Bach (which stands for Bait Chadash--New House") no relation, provides a very liberal halachic ruling from his pulpit in late 16th-early 17th century Poland.  Rabbi Yoel Sirkes--the Bach--lived from 1561-1640 and provided one of the most definitive commentaries on the Jewish legal treatise the Shulchan Aruch.  He wrote, "Just as we support the non-Jewish poor by themselves even when there are no Jewish poor, we can bury the non-Jewish dead by themselves wherever they are found even when there are no Jewish dead.  And just as we support the non-Jewish poor together with the Jewish poor, we can bury the dead together with the Jewish dead."

You will find the ruling HERE.

It's a step forward but not good enough for me, truth be told, since it seems to consign to eternal rest the both real and perceived separate status of intermarried families in the community--even when an unconverted spouse embraces a Jewish life, joins a synagogue with his or her family, and helps raise the children as Jews.  Separate seating in this case is offensive.  And though the ruling is a progressive move in the right direction, it is nonetheless a disappointment.

One could say, "What does it matter to you?  You're a Reform rabbi."  And that would be a fair question.  But I don't own a cemetery, and so one has to sift through arcane and deeply complicated New York and New Jersey State Cemetery Law, as well as the individual policies of each cemetery which rules in accordance with its own wishes and those of the halachic authorities it consults.

But it did have me thinking yesterday while reading the article, "Hey, let's buy a cemetery!"  At the very least I could obtain one manifestation of my own wish fulfillment to be a landscape architect.

19 May 2010

Two Who Light the Way

I am exhausted from talking to people about God.  I am constantly trying to convey how God is so immanent right in front of us, even within us, in our thoughts and our actions.  God fills our entire outer and inner worlds, our deepest recesses and all our life experiences.
But all people see is the earthly world, and they bury their heads in it with their entire beings.  If only they would listen to my cries, "Follow the voice of God in all your physical and spiritual actions--your entire life is in His presence."  But they have blinded themselves with their physical perceptions, and their hearts sense nothing beyond their physical senses.
My throat is hoarse.  Fresh ideas about how to convey these truths are not forthcoming.  The sharp insights I've had in the past are dimming--I feel about to fall into depression, God help me.
When I had left the Friday night Shabbat table I gave up--no one had been listening anyway.  So I began to talk to the universe.  I opened my window and I saw an entire world just waiting for someone to acknowledge its beauty.  I was then about to recite the bedtime Shma, so I spoke to the world and cried out to it, "Shma Yisrael...God is one!"
The entire Creation seemed to be taking in each holy word and thought as I expressed it.  I became greatly encouraged and all my insights and feelings returned to me.
Now, whether by myself or with people, whether or not anyone is listening, I speak instead to the world, to God's world, rather than to people.
And when the world itself will reveal its holiness, perhaps then also its inhabitants will become hallowed with it.  Then, from the far corners of the earth, songs to God will they all be singing.
This extraordinarily honest diary entry from Kalonymus Kalman Shapira summarizes a reality that I often feel but would never be able to express so explicitly.  I don't think my language of faith could ever be stated so clearly, for one thing.  And another thing:  I'd worry about stating my disappointment that faith doesn't come as easily for those I teach.  I think we believing clergy members of all stripes face this dilemma and sublimate our frustrations in varieties of ways.  Some run, meditate, read, write, or exercise.  Others drink, smoke or simply stew, waiting to explode.  Still, for others, the sublimation is so intense that their frustration rears its head as transgressive behavior--usually embarrassing at best, humiliating or even illegal at worst.  In a category by themselves are those who achieve a kind of generous enlightenment.  I wonder if I'll ever get there (truth be told, I am not sure I'm the "enlightenment" type).  Here they serve with a kind of bliss and satisfaction, admittedly feelings or states of being that feel far from my grasp.

And so I hold fast to the Piasetzner Rebbe's words, if only because I've done it myself and it actually works.  I've walked to the window in a crowded room and addressed the sky and air and trees outside and irrational anthropomorphisms aside, felt heard by them.  These were not quite Buberian "I consider a tree" moments; rather, they were raw expressions of the shared language of existence that was more affirming of the reality of God than what I felt in the room, at that particular moment.

Earlier in my life I found a verbal resonance for this idea with the words of Yehuda Amichai:
Of three or four in a room
there is always one who stands beside the window.
He must see the evil among thorns
and the fires on the hill.
And how people who went out of their houses whole
are given back in the evening like small change.

Of three or four in a room
there is always one who stands beside the window,
his dark hair above his thoughts.
Behind him, words.
And in front of him, voices wandering without a knapsack,
hearts without provisions, prophecies without water,
large stones that have been returned
and stay sealed, like letters that have no
address and no one to receive them.
I still find resonance with these words, actually.  Amazing isn't it?  A dark, diary keeping Hasidic Rebbe who dies in Warsaw during the Shoah and the German Jewish Zionist refugee poet, who arrives in Palestine as a child, lived a full life and died in Jerusalem, having left his Tradition behind and praying the secular language of verse.  Both writings convey an essence--with Shapira anticipating despite his despair a day in the future when songs to God will be sung.  For Amichai, that moment will likely never come--"like letters that have no address and no one to receive them."

But I'm reading your poem, Yehuda!  I'm reading it now!  Out loud!

So goes my Yizkor on this Shavuot for two who continue to light the way.

18 May 2010

Omer 49: Ends and Beginnings

Omer Day Forty-Nine

When you arrive at the end you come to the realization that you are merely back at the beginning.  It's not too dissimilar to a recurring theme that the Sages articulate regarding the Study of Torah:  that its highest form of expression is lishma--Torah Study for its Own Sake. 

The counting out of 49 days of the Omer, in order to arrive at the 50th day, in fulfillment of the mitzvah as articulated in Leviticus, was an end in and of itself.  I didn't have a goal, per se, at the beginning of the process, but now that I have arrived at the then distant shore of 7 weeks of counting, I can admit to a couple.

One:  I chose not to pray each morning, a practice I had been exercising for the last several years.  I will admit to a decidedly disturbing but oddly rejuvenating refusal to pray daily while increasing, quite consciously, my Torah study.  I wanted the experience of not wearing my tallis in the morning; of not putting on the tefillin; of not greeting God in the I usually do each day because something felt wrong about that relationship that needed repair.  And the explicit refusal to engage the language of prayer at times drove me deep into a kind of spiritual depression at the same time that it allowed me to explore that darkness of no-dialogue which reminded me of a kind of emptiness I used to feel before taking Judaism seriously as a college student back in Madison in the early 1980s.  That darkness felt both familiar yet distant, which was instructive in and of itself--particularly important, I believe, when one is exploring the thesis that our souls do evolve, that we do change continually in our relationships with God.  Prior to the counting of the Omer, my prayer felt caught up in the idea of prayer--it was set on fire over the last several years by an increased excavation of the solitude of my daily practice but Los Angeles in February, before Passover, changed all that.  The special privilege of praying in a minyan each day during that very week shook me from my habitual solitariness; it also led me down a dark path of remorse and self-pity that I didn't have a good daily minyan to attend here in Brooklyn.  And left me despairing over *yet another thing* that since it isn't there I'll have to help build.  I wanted it there, without the work of making it.  Oh, L.A. and your seductive ways!  You make it all seem so pleasant and sunny and easy.  Alas--Sinai on Shavuot will demand action.  Shammai's voice joins forces with the Bat Kol--"say little, do much."  Stop kvetching.  Build the daily minyan.

Two:  I am too angry too much of the time.  I admit it.  It's a pain for me and a pain for others.  Who needs it?  It's an idol, too.  I mean very serious avodah zarah.  So quietly and slowly but surely I needed to use the 49 days to face this fact.  It's not painful so much as it's squirmful, as in, I don't really want to face or deal with it because the anger is like a drug, a habit, a way of life that is so routinized in one's day to day as to make it practically imperceptible and impossible to stop.

But have you ever mindfully, devotedly, counted out 7 weeks of 49 days of a bad habit?  Damn that's rough.  I now have a slightly better idea of what re-hab or AA must be like:  To face your worst instinct, your wretched habit, daily.  Brought out into the open, exposed by the light of day.  You can run but you can't hide.  Pick your cliche, people.  Deal.

When you arrive at the end you come to the realization that you are merely back at the beginning.  Where I knew I'd be and where I needed to be.  And now it's up to me to apply the lessons. 

Begin again, in jubilation, on the day after the 50th day.  Because ends, and beginnings, are worth the celebration.

17 May 2010

Omer 48: Grateful

Omer Day Forty-Eight

Blessed be the Name.  This Shabbat I was in hiding.  Israel's acceptance of the Torah took place in the desert.  This fact may suggest, among other things, a teaching found in the holy book, Bet Aharon, which states, "Don't say that in this place it's possible to serve God, but in that place it's impossible for me.  Rather, one must serve God in all places."  Had Israel accepted the Torah in their land, the Land of Israel, they would have thought that it is only possible to fulfill it in their own place, in their own home, but not when they are in exile, disturbed.  Therefore, God gave them the Torah in the desert, on the road, in transit, so that they must fulfill it everywhere--from Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro's Esh Kodesh.

Sunday morning I did a wedding and there was so much gratitude being expressed it was really rather remarkable.  There were people happy for the couple; there were people happy for the parents; there were people happy for the weather; there were people literally kvelling over the fish (it really was extraordinarily good.)

I came home from the wedding soaring like a kite and was brought back to earth by a variety of urgencies--most of them having to do with drivers and Brooklyn street fairs and the generally impatient cast of characters who inhabit this city.

I decided I needed a holy book.  So I got on my bike, rode through the Park, used the helpful green pathways around the Park Circle and headed down Coney Island Avenue to Eichler's where I went in search of Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro in the original Hebrew.  They didn't have exactly what I was looking for but promised to order it and when I go back to get I think I'll take my bike again.  Because I had a very pleasant time of it--it certainly beats driving on Coney Island Avenue on a Sunday, let me tell you.

I took Westminster to Avenue H and only then took my life into a whole new level of risk and headed up the Avenue but first stopped at the Golan grocery, purveyors of fine Israeli products.  I was in need of chocolates and Bamba and pickles and shampoo and Turkish coffee with cardamon.  You need to understand:  this Omer has made me nuts for Israel.  I am counting and counting and counting and counting the days until I can get back.  Go figure.  Like I want to personally wave a sheaf offering somewhere, anywhere in Jerusalem.  Well, not anywhere.  It's always struck me as a city big enough for us and them.  But that's a topic for another time.  Seems everyone these days has an opinion about moving forward or backward.

About this stuff I tend to be an optimist.  We'll work it out.  Too much good is at stake.  Too much beauty.  There's too much to be grateful for.

At least this is what I thought when I rode back down Coney Island Avenue on my bike, with my book and my chocolate and my other stuff, happy to have been once; thrilled to live at a time to be able to go again.  I thought of Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro, and the noose around his neck, writing his sermons and placing them in milk cans in the Warsaw Ghetto, only to be found after he died.  As I dodged cars on Coney Island Avenue in 2010 I thought of a Sage, long gone but very much alive, a reality for which I am quite grateful.

16 May 2010

Omer 47: Meld

Omer Day Forty-Seven

I did two bat mitzvahs on Shabbat--one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  Each was, of course, beautiful in its own way.  Before all such celebrations began, I taught my Rambam class and had prepared the famous text from the midrash about Moses' expressed fear of dying, wanting to see Torah taught into the future, and God showing him Akiba teaching in Moses' name and then being tortured by the Romans.  "This too is Torah's reward?" asks Moses, aghast.  "Be silenced," God warns.  The search for the reward is not ours to seek.

I am convinced that this is what the Omer is all about.  It becomes abundantly clear to me--the offerings of Omer swell with each day; the accumulation of an offering over and over again is a reminder that the goal is to give, not to get; to seek but not to find; to be obligated, not owned.

From slavery to freedom is about this realization; and when the heavens thunder and the earth and mountains move, the shift taking place is a shift of perspective.  Egypt is about possession; the Wilderness is about its opposite.  And getting to Sinai with Torah is about a total re-orientation of our communal aspirations.

I meld into a greater whole.

15 May 2010

Omer 46: More Work

Omer Day Forty-Six

I wish I could write more today but can't.  Time seems to slip away with work, thank God.  But I am troubled by the desire to read and write and think.  It appears that this is a collection of luxuries for another day.  More Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro.  His trials in Warsaw during the War humble me.  Who am I to complain?

14 May 2010

Omer 45: Work

Omer Forty-Five

Today was work and then rest.  I was sustained spiritually by readings from Kalonymos Kalman Shapiro, yet again. 

13 May 2010

Omer 44: Good Game

Omer Day Forty-Four

Three men went to the mikveh today, each of them joining their fate with our people, new links in the chain of Tradition that goes back more than 3500 years.  Each of them participated in at least one course of study for more than a year; two of the three guys have been studying Judaism for more than three years.  Each is highly educated, considers himself a deep believer in God, and rather than Christianity, where they began (two Protestants, one Catholic) they found the most familiar and meaningful iteration of their reality of God in the language and rites of Judaism. 

One of the three was not born circumcised and so in an act of great valor and bravery, elected to have surgery a month ago with a urological surgeon who has also been certified by the Reform movement's training program for physicians to perform the rite of circumcision in the Jewish tradition.  No jokes about two for one deals, here, people.  Please.  The other two were circumcised in the hospital at birth and so they required, according to Tradition, "hatafat dam brit," meaning, a drop of blood taken from just below the head of the penis, where the original cut of the circumcision had been made.  As he usually does, the Mohel complimented the work of the surgeon from 30 odd years ago.  "He did a very good job," said the Mohel.  We all smiled politely.

The drop of blood was followed by immersion in the mikveh with the requisite blessings--again, what the structure of Tradition asks of us, though, as is well known, not accepted as a valid conversion by Orthodox authorities here and in Israel. 

But I'm telling you.  These guys are serious Jews.

Because of the relatively unusual nature of working with three young men in their thirties at around the same time and finding myself thinking alot about the fellowship of men and Jewish life and how often, the fellowship of men around Torah, Prayer, and Ritual are, to a degree, not expressed as they fully could be in many Reform communities, I elected to have their interviews be shared.  Ordinarily, three rabbis would assemble to interview each convert one-at-a-time before formally accepting them into the Covenant and then having them immerse in the Mikveh.  But today, I asked all three men to share their stories together and along with two other rabbis, we listened and talked about the commitments they made.  And at the end, we were practically a minyan.  It was powerful and though it "deprived" them of the chance to speak as individuals, it ended up having a very moving result of being communally covenantal, which from a Jewish perspective, is what the covenant is all about.

American Judaism too often stretches its internal integrity to the point of the unrecognizable by tailoring everything to the individual.  Today I saw a horizon before me as a rabbi that called upon us to approach the reality of God's covenant with Abraham and Sarah as a group, as a collective--as a People. 

I was thinking about the 44th day on the train on the way to the mikveh this morning and I kept thinking of the number 44 and which athletes wore it on the fronts and backs of their uniforms and then I thought about their uniforms and how they convey not the individual  but the team they play for.  It all seemed to come together.

Good game, men.


12 May 2010

Omer 43: Jerusalem

Omer Day Forty-Three

To my mind, Jerusalem is the most beautiful city in the world.  And besides the enormous pull of my Wisconsin roots, it is the place where I feel most at home.  Whereas Wisconsin's land under my feet is the prairie, rich and fertile, Jerusalem is dry and rocky, its hills the horizon against which my soul seeks greater visions.

Today, 43 years ago, Jerusalem was unified after battle with the Jordanians and Palestinian forces in the Six Day War and as a result, Jews have more freedom now in the entire city than we have had in our entire history as a nation.  Sovereignty is a sacred privilege--this we know from our sacred sources.

I always appreciated the freedom I had to walk wherever I wanted in Jerusalem.  In 1985 while at Hebrew University, I sometimes slept late on a Saturday, walked down Mt Scopus into East Jerusalem for a hummus lunch and then wound up at friends in West Jerusalem for a Shabbat nap and then out for beers on Saturday night.  I found the ability to traverse the landscape, its communities, its languages, its nations, to be a holy walk.

For people who love to walk cities, I am in heaven there and I don't mean the heavenly but the earthly Jerusalem.

For Jerusalem to be negotiated in any political sense is an absurdity--I believe that.  Of course, a look at what passes for Jerusalem today--with its borders extending beyond any reasonable definition of what Jerusalem is or ever was, makes that absurd premise all the more necessary.  That there is no compromise even in this negotiation is a negotiation--I believe that, too.

Jerusalem makes you believe at least two things about your self.  One of the many tricks it plays on you and one of the many reasons it keeps you coming back.

One of Jerusalem's greatest walkers was the late poet Yehuda Amichai.  Just a few months after the capital was unified in 1967, 43 years ago, Amichai wrote the following poem which today remains for us, a prayer for peace:
On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned
Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem’s Old City.
I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,
Not far from Damascus Gate, a shop
full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread
Of every color; and snaps and buckles.
Brightly lit and many colored like the open Holy Ark.
I said to him in my heart that my father too
Owned a shop just like this of buttons and thread.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now
While my father’s shop burned there and he is buried here.
When I concluded it was the hour of N’eilah (“locking the gates”).
He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate
As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.

11 May 2010

Omer 42: Bic, Stic...Ick

Omer Day Forty-Two

Cave Drawing
Hammer and Chisel
Wax Tablet and Stylus
Digital Mind Meld

I was staring at a pen yesterday--a transparent pen.  It's of a cheap, Japanese variety that I have bought for the last few years.  Like any good, cheap pen, I like the way it writes and feels.  As I sat there admiring it, I looked at the table where I was sitting and saw several Bic Round Stic pens laid out before me and they were transparent, too.  And then I realized that transparency in pens is *in.*


In our deconstructed age, transparency is the conceptual tool we use for taking things apart:  seeing what's inside liberates our will from the discomfiting notion that we may not be in control of our destiny.   Cave painting is at the opposite end of this spectrum.  Done in darkness lit by fire and conveying the superstitious, the magical, the elemental, and the religious, there is ancient mystery, calling for interpretation, on cold cave walls.

Someone in marketing at Bic decided that the pen should be called Round Stic.  "Drop the *K*" became the theme of the presentation that day--it mirrors Bic.  The man who started the company in 1945, Marcel Bich, dropped the *H* from his name in naming his organization, so a pattern emerges.  It seems that when we reveal, through writing, something of our own singular experience of life's mystery, we experience a loss.

Still staring at these transparent pens on the table and now thinking of loss, I was reminded of the ritual in Jewish life when the Torah is lifted above the prayers and some raise their pinkies or slightly cover their eyes in order to shade pure revelation.  Direct communication with the word needs to be mediated, veiled, even hidden to a degree.

Too much exposure leads to plastic, transparent *stics* on a table.  You could rub two of those together all day long and you'd never really get to fire.

10 May 2010

Omer 41: Low to High

Omer Forty One

I had a realization recently while talking to a friend.

When he decided to be a rabbi, he went into a yeshiva in Jerusalem and after earning his rabbinic degree, worked there for more than a decade.  In those seventeen years, he felt he finally had the authority to speak on behalf the Jewish tradition.  And speak with authority he does.  He's a really brilliant teacher.

I was in "yeshiva" for five years and worked full-time during three of those years and have been working ever since.  I spend more time each day for the past twenty years working, not studying, though with a fair degree of consistency, I make time to study each day.  It's a slow, steady drip of water, which, as Rabbi Akiva taught, will eventually penetrate this hard skull of mine.  But with each paragraph of learning, I am acutely aware of how much I don't know.  It is both a humbling and frustrating experience.

Awareness of one's ignorance can be a great motivator for increased learning, as long as one doesn't give up in the face of this humbling reality.  Ironically (or not) with Torah, where the Sages teach one may, during study, experience the Divine Presence, that humbling can be a sacred experience.  And so in lowering ourselves, we have the potential to achieve new heights. 

A fear of heights that starts low.

09 May 2010

08 May 2010

Omer 39: Work

Omer Day Thirty Nine


07 May 2010

Omer 38: Gifts of the Heart

Omer Day Thirty-Eight

Last night we had an historic celebration at CBE, taking the first in a series of serious steps to raise the money we need to rebuild and renew our sacred spaces.

Thanks to the generosity of so many people in the Congregation, in Brooklyn, and Beyond, we raised more than $200,000 for "This Old House."

The sense of shared destiny was really evident as several generations made the journey together to set a new bar for coming together as one, celebrating our history and looking toward a promising future of providing Torah, Worship and Acts of Lovingkindness to our community. 

We are humbled and honored by the generosity of so many people and will continue to look forward to future acts of community, generosity and friendship in the months and years ahead.

Shabbat Shalom!

06 May 2010

Omer 37: This Old House!

Omer Day Thirty-Seven

One of the great achievements in our community during the Omer period has been the extraordinarily focused work of a group of leaders who have organized our benefit dinner for tonight--the SOLD-OUT "This Old House," which pushes us forward in significant new ways to coordinate our communal efforts toward the rebuilding and renewal of our two aged sacred spaces.  

This evening more than 350 people will fill our Temple House for a celebration of this historic community and our shared, multi-generational effort to reimagine sacred spaces for the 21st century as well as honor the cherished history of CBE.  It will be our most successful one-time fundraising effort in the history of the community.

In addition to several members there will be community leaders, politicians, and beneficiaries of our open door policy--families and individuals from initiatives like Shir l'Shabbat or Altshul who are "not yet" official members but really consider CBE to be their spiritual home and so take part in the shared effort to support our infrastructures.

Special thanks in celebration of their efforts to the following individuals:

Amy Bender
Leslie Frishberg
Stacey Frisch
Wesley Weissberg
Erica Heisman
Jamie Principe
Janice Cimberg
Leah Rosen
Bev Silver &
Judy Antell

Our office and maintenance staff as well as the entire administrative structure of CBE have pulled together to make tonight a great success.

Here's to This Old House!

05 May 2010

Omer 36: Landscape

Omer Day Thirty-Six

I had a dream that I had back surgery, based, I suppose, on a terrible "incident" I've been dealing with since Sunday--a lot of lower back pain.

In the dream, I am lying on the floor and watching myself get therapy for my back.  The therapy is an iPad, being surgically attached to my lower back.  There is a hushed tone of quiet, careful, medical talk in the room.  The iPad is glowing blue and humming away at my muscular-skeletal structure, and one of those iconic, white Apple cords is attached to some mysterious source.  In the dream, my subject body is eerily still; but the observer me is deeply agitated.

"It's not the back, it's the nerve center," I say, trying to remain calm, to no one in particular.  I want to speak to people in the dream about what, without a doubt, is happening to our bodies, our musculature, as a result of our eyes, heads, necks and backs bending this way and that in obeisance to our miniature, hand-held, glowing gods.  How we think we own but how in fact we're being owned--by the companies that make them and the advertising and marketing networks that drive these engines of human re-engineering.

I emerge from the dream feeling very unresolved but deeply interested in landscape architecture (weird, eh?)  Landscape.  To stand tall, unbent, and envision a horizon with its own colors, aglow with an older, truer truth.  The Israelites, former slaves, marched for 40 years to straighten the spine, to rebuild their broken backs of pain and begin anew.

Davka--instead of looking for a class on line, I think I'll walk over to the Botanic Garden on Friday afternoon and look for a class.  And sign up for it in pen and paper.  Standing tall.  And then walk through the landscape, singing of horizons, toward home.

04 May 2010

Omer 35: Terminal

Omer Day Thirty-Five

Airports are really much noisier than they ought to be.  The constant din of Muzak, in atonal symphonic disharmony with the live feed of CNN and other cable news outlets always puts me on edge, precisely when I am trying to remain calm about being propelled through the air inside of a flammable metal tube.  Given the fact virtually everyone is wired these days and airline terminals are populated by typing, talking, texting travelers, there's enough to do without having to filter out both the inexplicably awful music as well as the incessant buzz of the televisions that no one in particular seems to be watching.

If I were running an airport, I'd keep the shops but make the waiting areas like public library reading rooms, encouraging a small form of social engagement and learning as a form of dealing with the anxiety of propulsion and lift.  Encouraging people to rise to the level of human is a good thing; rubbing our brains into submission with canned junk is not.  Given the easy access to information, why not larger screens with the local newspaper sites open in each of the waiting areas for particular cities of destination.  Encourage people to think along narrative structural lines before boarding a plane to a particular place.

Traveling to New York today?  Grand Rapids?  Phoenix?  Dallas?  What's going on in those places?  What are they talking about in headlines of the dailies?  I'm in the Milwaukee airport right now, waiting for a flight back to Laguardia.  In front of me is a woman trying to sell people a Frontier Airline credit card (free round trip ticket.)  In more than 45 minutes, no one has stopped.  She literally can't give away a free ticket.  But what if there was someone there to lead a conversation about the oil spill off the Louisiana coast?  Or immigration policy in Arizona?  Or unemployment in Grand Rapids?  Having just visited Mom and checked in her therapy, I have a few thoughts about the remarkable cancer care in the Milwaukee Metropolitan area.  And the health care system in general.  Obesity workshops suddenly come to mind--how's Mrs. Obama doing on that? 

That sort of thing.

I maintain travel would be more enjoyable.

Gotta go--they're boarding.  To be rescued from this terminal has come to an end.

03 May 2010

Omer 34: One!

Omer Day Thirty-Four

This day got counted on an airplane last night, somewhere in the sky between Queens and Milwaukee, where I came to visit Mom and celebrate her birthday with her today.  Happy Birthday, Ma!  We're planning a drive up to Madison for lunch and then back in Milwaukee for dinner tonight.  The day is beautiful, lots of sunshine, and Lake Michigan looks glorious.  I love this city.

So as I counted out the 34th day of the Omer last night, just after my daily re-read of a chapter of Pirke Avot (we're in the fifth week, for those folks engaging in this practice) I realized how NOT into numbers and gematria I am.  Chapter five of Pirke Avot is a collection of the Sages' lists--tens, sevens, fours, threes--and while there certainly is an order to the material, there's just no meat on those bones for yours truly.  And it had me reflecting on the process of counting in general, what it's meant to me this year, when, for a variety of reasons, I am so cognizant of what it means to count our days.

There's family members' health; there's the steady number of cancer diagnoses inside our community; with 50% growth in our membership the last four years, there's actually a similar increase in the number of burials I'm doing (I figured this out without Google analytics, by the way).  On the bright side, there are more bnai mitzvahs, more baby namings, more brises, more weddings and anniversaries--all sources of tremendous meaning and joy.  But the numbers don't mean anything to me.  In fact, the numbers, to a degree, feel like a guilty pleasure at best or an odd neurosis at worst.

I remember once sitting at a conference of leaders in the revitalization of the synagogue in North America and one young man was talking about his innovative techniques in reaching the holy grail of Jewish life--Jews in their twenties and thirties.  "We've seen an increase in participation in our Friday night services of 12% the first year and then 15% the second year.  The growth is very exciting."  When I asked him how many people that represents he said, "Three."

That IS exciting!

Three are the Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Four are the Mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. And?

Someone recently suggested that I install Google Analytics to see how many people read this blog, what browsers they come from, how long they stay, and what continents they're sitting in when they decide to read my words.  I found out some very interesting information.  Most of my daily readers of 90-100 people are from North America and stay for an average of 1:04 minutes.  This month my readership increased by 5.26%.  Canada, the UK, South America, the Netherlands, Germany.  A few read me from Israel.  I have a couple readers in Finland, apparently.  When there's an argument about Israel in the blog, there are more readers.  Some days 40 people read me.  Other days it's 136.

Every month a new study comes out in the Jewish community, hopelessly obsessed with numbers, the new idol of Jewish life that I'd like to encourage the aspiring Abrahams out there to wield a moral hammer against and take some pleasure in breaking.  To the best of my knowledge, we are obsessed with numbers for three reasons.

One:  Some of the philanthropists who support Jewish life come from a business background and they're used to using numbers as a tool for charting investment, accountability, success and failure.  No problem there--it's their money.  I'm not convinced, however, that human progress (and certainly Jewish progress) can be charted statistically.  We're more than three thousand years and running at not yet perfecting our observance of the TEN commandments.  So before we get all statistically nutty, let's just count to TEN without tripping all over ourselves.

Two:  It's the digital age.  Everything can be reduced to its numerical essence.  Really?   Have sex, make a baby, change a diaper.  Then get back to me on that.  Rosa Parks represented a 100% increase in the number of Black women willing to be arrested for riding the front of the bus.  I'm sure she was aware of that when she looked in the mirror that morning to fix her gaze on the moral choice she was making.

Three:  Numbers lie, even when they're telling the truth.  They create illusions--illusions of failure and illusions of success.  If I need to explain this to you, then you need to go outside, lay in the grass, stare at the sky for one hour, and report back to me.  And God willing, you'll lose track of time when you go do that.

I gotta go--it's Mom's birthday.  I lost track of how old she is but that's not what we're celebrating.  It's that she's here that's the source of joy.

02 May 2010

Omer 33: What Comes Next

Omer Day Thirty-Three

It's Lag B'Omer and the heavens didn't open.

Nathan and I had a long walk this morning, though to celebrate the 33rd day of the Omer, he took from me a few hundred yards from the Picnic House and when I finally caught up with him ten minutes later, he was happily immersed in the dog pond with three tennis balls in his mouth.  In a lame attempt at mysticism to celebrate the day, I calculated 3 into 33 and then came up with 11 (impressive, I know) which is a number I've always enjoyed, though not in a mystical sense.

I came back home before everyone was yet awake, tuned in Israeli radio to see what the musical mood was in the Land for the big day and got lots of American hits from the seventies and then a whole Bowie-Aviv Gefen tangent, which, truth be told, I appreciated.

No success in getting a haircut at my barbershop--the observant Jews from abutting neighborhoods had filled my barber's calendar, so I proceeded through the day untrimmed, which had me feeling generally unfulfilled, since I had this neighborhood Lag B'Omer idea that I got too busy to make happen this year but I hope to make happen next year.  It was inspired by an event our students at NYU did one year--hired a few West Village hair stylists to offer their time to cut people's hair on Lag B'Omer in Washington Square Park for "Locks of Love."  It was a an admirable way to teach people about this minor festival which comes with the tradition of a child's first haircut and the easing of certain mourning practices for adults so that they can hear live music and cut their hair as well--and perform this deed of lovingkindness by having those with enough hair to donate to, well, donate their hair for the production of wigs for cancer patients.

I imagined an event in Prospect Park, a couple bands, good food, and the neighborhoods top stylists donating their time for the day in an effort to provide some comfort for those with cancer. 

Next year.

I traded the would-be haircut for a run in the park with one of my kids, tried a daring maneuver of imprudent acrobatic intent, and earned a first-rate back spasm.  To ease the pain in the car ride on the way to the airport, I focused on news of the Times Square bomb attempt, a conversation with my Venezuelan driver on the merits of being an immigrant in New York over Arizona, and took it on the chin like a man when I had to hear it on 1010 WINS that the Bucks had their heads handed to them by the Hawks today in Atlanta. 

Nothing a spicy tomato juice and bag of chips for $7 at Laguardia Airport couldn't solve.  (At least the wireless could be free.)

To ease things here in the waiting area, a debate has broken out among 8 teenagers sitting across from me attempting to determine whether or not the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is "worth it," which included the classic question, "Why the hell would I want to spend all that time studying the Hebrew language?"  You can guess what answer she received.  After the tried and true description of a kick-ass party and lots of money, the previously reluctant student of the ancient tongue of our people announced, "Maybe I'll reconsider."

The future of the Jewish people hangs in the balance.

I'm ready for the 34th day.

01 May 2010

Omer 32: Earthy Earth

Omer Day Thirty-Two

We are moving into a fairly earthy section of the Rambam's Book of Love, a Saturday morning ritual in the Rabbi's Study at CBE for the last 18 months.  It's slow going, a few paragraphs each week, but it has turned into a far-ranging study session and conversation among several members of our community who, I believe, have really enjoyed being immersed in one particular text over an extended period of time.

The Book of Love is Maimonides collection of laws related to the ritualized spiritual practice of Judaism--recitation of the Shma and its blessings; the Amidah; teffilin, mezuzahs, talis and Torah scrolls; with the priestly blessing and circumcision thrown in for good measure.  One here encounters the Rambam's measured reasoning; his decisive personality; and, a very medieval sensibility about the ways human behaves and the sometimes contrasting ways that the Rambam believed a Jew should behave.

Hence the earthy nature of things.  For the second week in a row, we have immersed ourselves--in a very mature way I might add--in what happens when one is engaged in the mitzvah of wearing teffilin at precisely the time when one may burp, fart, urinate, defecate, have sex or (and I think this is radically out of order) take a nap.  In a richly detailed exposition that brings our human reality down to earth in a spiritual way, the Rambam faces what it is that our bodies do even when we are engaged in the sublime acts of worshipping God.  Understandably, this discussion makes some people uncomfortable, disgusted, or turned off--but today we crossed abarrier which I think is part of the Rambam's agenda. 

Without an immersion in ritual, the discussion is meaningless.  But when engaged in ritual ourselves, the relevance comes into focus.  And brings the observance of ritual down to earth, away from the conceptual distance of "those who observe" and closer to anyone engaged in its reality. 

I used an analogy to make this point:  Many people have hired teams to renovate their homes--carpenters, contractors, painters, plumbers, electricians.  And during the process, we occasionally drop in to check on its progress but don't engage in the work of building the structure ourselves.  Our relationship to the structures is that we  inhabit them.  But what is the nature of our habitation if we haven't "built the nest" as it were?  We have to dirty ourselves in the habitation, roll up our sleeves and mix the mortar, roll on the paint, hammer the nails, wire the lights--in order to truly be in relationship with the Tradition. 

Taken in this context, Maimonides discussion of what the body does when we are observing mitzvot makes perfect sense.  Liberal Jews sometime suffer from being too caught up in the conceptual so that some discussions of the complexities of observance appear like distant mirages of a past that we no longer observe.   But Judaism doesn't exclusively exist on a linear progression of time; it exists in eternal time, where what one's body does is but a temporary distraction from an attempt to connect to the Eternal.  In that context, the filth and the muck are, well, flushed away with ease while the more sublime expressions remain the focus of our time on earth.

The earthy earth.