26 February 2011

Nadler on Prinz in Tablet

Allan Nadler's great piece on Rabbi Joachim Prinz in Tablet is a must read.  Some stirring and humorous stories are there, along with a great moral message about one leader's bravery.  Really inspiring.  The sound file of Prinz's speech at the March on Washington is an audio example of Jewish preaching we'll never hear again.

Take a look.

24 February 2011

Jewish Week Removes Jonathan Mark's Piece

According to one person at the Jewish Week, Jonathan Mark's piece about Reform Judaism and radical Islam has been removed from the site. 

That's a good decision.

Doing Our Work Unimpeded by Ignorance

In the ever satisfying thrill-a-click world of digital media, we are forever tempted to pop off temperamental judgments of political or ideological opponents.  It's a whole new form of passive aggressive behavior, this hiding behind keyboards, issuing opinions, but effectively doing nothing.

In the Jewish community where I work, there is no shortage of opinions and they get aired with more regularity than a consistent weekly washing.  We do our laundry every day.  But there are some basic rules of engagement that we value--like even if you disagree with someone, don't impugn a whole group along the way.  It seems there are always exceptions to any rhetorical rule one may follow and if my own life experience bears proof of this, it's often the exception that leads the way toward a greater and deeper understanding of the evolving selves we are always in the process of becoming.

I disagree with the political strategies of the right-wing settler movement in Israel but am interested in what their spiritual world-view happens to be because there is something for me to learn about their faith.  Equally here in the United States, I disagree with the political world-view of the right-wing Evangelical movement on certain core American principles, but nonetheless deeply admire their engagement with faith and community.  I admire the traditional formality of a Catholic Mass but am confounded by Vatican politics; I admire the personal relationship that Christian friends have with their Jesus while knowing I could never grasp the notion of a man as God.

Inside the Jewish community, I aspire to pray with as much regularity and fervor as I see among Orthodox friends; send our daughters to a Conservative movement camp; and know that I don't do nearly as much as my other Reform colleagues to heal the world through the spiritual work of Tikkun Olam.  That we Jews are as *plural* in our identity as we actually have come to be is one of the many prophetic realizations of Frederick Jackson Turner's theory of a new American frontier.  This continent effects us in the deepest of ways.

Well into the Twenty-first century, Orthodox Jews are working for fair wages; the Conservative movement is ordaining gays and lesbians; and Reform Jews are putting on tefilin.  These are the most welcome of developments.  And they are also no longer the exception but the result of an appropriate melding of aspirations into a plural and tolerant community that understands, always, that there is more that unites us than divides us.

With all this in mind I read Jonathan Mark's full-frontal attack on Reform Judaism in, of all places, a Jewish communal publication that is meant to represent the voice of the Jewish community of New York.  Weird stuff.  The tone is more like that of an angry letter to the editor than a reasoned column by a paid staffer of the Jewish Week.  And the wild generalizations are so off the mark that they hardly bear rebuttal.

So Reform Rabbi David Einhorn's being driven from Baltimore for his abolitionist views is worse than radical Islam?  So Reform rabbis activism in the passage of American labor laws at the turn of the 20th century is worse than radical Islam?  So Reform rabbis support for the creation of Hebrew University and the building up the Jewish state is worse than radical Islam?  So Reform rabbis working for better race relations in the establishment of the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress is worse than radical Islam?  So Reform rabbis getting jailed alongside other religious and civil rights leaders so that all American citizens can be free is worse than radical Islam?  So Ruth Messinger's work on behalf of victims of genocide and totalitarian regimes across the globe is worse than radical Islam?  So Reform rabbis insistence on equal rights for women and gays and lesbians in American Jewish leadership is worse than radical Islam?  So countless Reform rabbis who work in hospice care, labor as chaplains, staff day care and after-school programs, push their congregants to a deeper relationship to Torah, Worhship and Deeds of Lovingkindness are worse than radical Islam?

Jonathan Mark's claims are laughable.  And I don't know a single Jewish leader who is concerned with what he thinks.  We go about doing our work unimpeded by such ignorance.

The greater concern is why the editors of the Jewish Week even allowed it to be published.

22 February 2011

Fire Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck already was off his rocker.  Now he's gone through the floor and is screaming from the basement rafters. 

I understand that news and entertainment have long ago melded their efforts at shoring up the bottom-line.  But Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch's insistence on not firing this charlatan is something truly worthy of our outrage.

The idea of repairing our country is a worthy goal.  Beck's insistent blare of veiled anti-Semitism is now expanding from one individual--George Soros--to a plurality of American Jewry.  This needs to stop and our communal leadership ought to hold Ailes and Murdoch responsible until it happens.

Fire Glenn Beck.

20 February 2011

The Bomb

I read an interesting comment at the end of Maureen Dowd's column this morning--a quote from her pal Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic.  On the culture of leaving comments on articles posted on-line, Wieseltier said, “I’m not interested in having the sewer appear on my site.  Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually? Why does the technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?”

Understandable.  Over the weekend I watched some of the comments filter on to an article about Patrilineal Descent that had been published in the Forward and as usual in such circumstances, I found some comments to be thoughtful and heart-felt, while others were just plain mean.  The Jew on Jew mean thing has been around for a long time and it's always good to remind ourselves that the Sages said the 2nd Temple was destroyed because of "free and causeless hatred."  The particular intimacy of the Jewish national and religious tradition has a dark underside that can express itself too intimately and that's when one must be ready to defend the defenseless and hold the ethical line against those who would freely attack.

Jeffrey Goldberg has been writing about some of the vile comments emanating from the digital mouth of Israeli-American journalist Nir Rosen, stuff to make your skin crawl; and to Dowd's point and that of many others, better to take a breath and respond thoughtfully, with the deliberateness of the old print journalism, before throwing a digital word bomb. 

Anyhow, I tried to answer back some of the comments in the Forward comments section but that's not what I started writing about.

What I wanted to say was that yesterday's Shir L'Shabbat program at CBE was great.  Our sensational teacher Debbie Brukman has got to have the largest following of young children in Brooklyn--and especially important for her brand of Jewish education, these little kids show up with their instruments to jam with her.  Kids from 18 months and up cram onto rainbow rug moshpit to sing Shabbat songs with a fervor unseen in New York City since Max's Kansas City or CBGBs were all the rage.  It's a hot experience.

At one point as the kids were moving and singing, we paused to do a baby-naming.  I invited grandparents, parents, and the guest of honor into the center and started reciting blessings to bestow upon this little darling of baby the name of someone she never met but would wear, forever, as one of many countless links back in time and, if Tradition holds, on into the future.

Just then, one little guitar toting punk sidled up to me and demanded that our whole assemblage recite the Shma (even though we already had done so earlier.)  "I want to do it again," he said.  And so I shared his request with the 150 or so people present and as I looked around the room, I thought about how open our community is, how welcome people are to explore Judaism, how this open tent is necessary, critical, axiomatic for the future of the Jewish people to continue.  Shma makes us one with the One, I said to those gathered, and then we let it rip.  I suppose some of those saying Shma were born Jews; some matrilineal; some patrilineal; some neither; and others simply not sure where they're going.  But they're with us and we're with them--One.  Just like that.

I thought of one particular comment on the Forward site, from a reader who wrote, "I am considering conversion through Reform Judaism because I have always felt a connection to the Jewish people that is beyond the rational. My father's family was Jewish but my grandfather and my father married gentiles. I want to connect to the Jewish people, but some of the religious nonsense I read here is as bad as the fundy Christians and Muslims."

Pushing people away by the way we talk to each other is never helpful.  But welcoming them in so they can claim their identity is the real Jewish tradition.   Like that mosh-pit--the Bomb.

18 February 2011

Those Accursed Regenerating Golden Calves

 I suppose it makes sense, given how messed up things seem to be, that collective bargaining as a constitutionally guaranteed supported right since the National Labor Relations Act and the Railway Act--both either written or modified in varieties of forms before, during, and after the Great Depression--is being called into question by the exceptionally partisan new governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.  It's heady times all over the world as systems seem to be toppling and the chaos and mayhem ensues--sometimes in the form of a big progressive party like the one taking place in the Capitol Building in Madison all week or sometimes in the form of the horrifying bloodshed of Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Iran.

A few words of Torah may be moderately instructive, if reasonable people are willing to listen.

This week we read about the Golden Calf "incident," a word-choice I ironically put in quotes because, human nature being what it is, we certainly ought to have seen it coming--both in the time of the Israelites and in our own day as well.

In the time of the Israelites, there were many foreshadowings of the propensity for idolatrous behavior--the fact that Abraham himself came from and broke away from a deeply idolatrous culture; his own son Isaac's distancing from his father at various points along the way; Jacob's playfulness with Laban's idols and his almost naive, ongoing "rediscovery" of God on his own spiritual journey; Joseph's radical self-absorption, his dream-divining, and own story of personal suffering and triumph in order to understand that the dreams he thought were about himself were really about Someone greater.  It's that lineage that Moses is born into--and in coming of age himself in another deeply idolatrous culture, seeks to liberate a people not only from political but spiritual repression.  Those forty years spent wandering in the desert--the exact prescription necessary to cleanse the people of their wayward thoughts.  (Of course, dip your toe into any of the post-Pentateuchal narratives and you will discover that a non-idolater is hard to find.)

The Golden Calf is but a dramatic representation, writ large, of one such cleansing.  It's the heady, messy, ham-handed, momentary expression of power that, in the final analysis, is nothing but a dangerous vanity.

The Torah's Divine Author knows it's going to happen.  That's why the portion for this week begins not with the "incident" but with the run up to the incident--a carefully crafted delineation of how material objects and material wealth are meant to be accumulated for the purposes of building sacred space.  There is taxation; and the obligation of contribution to a greater whole.  And it is meant to effectuate a communal atonement of the people, to recognize our inherent humility before the collective, before God.  The rich and the poor are equalized by this service.

Called to assist God in this service is Betzalel, an all around good guy and pretty handy with the tools.  He is credited with being filled with the "spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight and with knowledge."  Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that Betzalel inherently had what it takes--he was not a quick fix.  Rather, his "wisdom, insight and knowledge" were expressions of a steady soul guiding a steady hand--characteristics we lack significantly in this old world today.  They connote reflection, patience, and the careful, plodding craftsmanship required to create holiness in our vessels of engagement with the Divine and with one another.

The Golden Calf--the polar opposite of this.  It's immediate, hastily accumulated, hastily rendered, and, as we may know based on Moses and God's speedy, decisively violent reaction, hastily destroyed.

A greater metaphor for our own day could not be found.

We seem somehow to have lost our way--casting blame for budget deficits upon the backs of those most vulnerable while cutting taxes for the wealthiest accumulators of financial and material gain.  There seems no moral core to our nation at the present time but rather a desperate lashing out at social and economic advances fought in the trenches no less heroically two or three generations ago than the very battles being fought and won and lost and won and lost in the streets throughout the world today.

People seemed so relieved last week to cogitate on Rihanna's dress, to fill their shopping bags with their own, like puppets on a string to businesses that have wrung taxation concessions from government more generous than any entitlement program being currently eviscerated that it's drown out the cries from the least capable of defending themselves against the hell-fire of greed that is afoot in the land.

Woe unto us and our forever regenerating Golden Calves.

Must we make the mistake again and again and again?  Does not drinking the ashes of our own penitence ever get old?

 Atop the Capitol in Madison is a golden statue--Forward, she's called.  That's where we need to go.  I for one swell with the pride that the first state in the land to fill its halls of governments with its citizens to say that the draconian cuts we are facing must be shared by all is the greatest living example of what we mean when we talk about "a government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Forward--toward the golden contributions of shared giving and shared destiny, not the selfish seeking of those lost in the desert, blinded by the temporal dusts of immediacy and self-satisfaction.

17 February 2011

Thursday February 17 Reading

The Forward this week has a forum on its Opinion pages about the Reform movement's 1983 decision on Patrilineal descent and I weigh in HERE.

Monica Davey and Steven Greenhouse of the Times report on public employee protests in Wisconsin HERE--an inspiring piece with great pictures of Capitol protests--very much worth a look.
Josh Nathan-Kazis continues his fine reporting with an article on engaging Indie Minyans, an effort that CBE is part of with its welcoming of Altshul.  You can read that HERE.

And finally, the Jewish Weeks writes about the URJ's initiative to fund web-based outreach innovations, where, proudly, CBE is mentioned.  Enjoy that HERE.

09 February 2011

Before Books Become Kindling

Before books become kindling, I want to share a couple of good stories with you.

Yesterday while meeting with a wedding couple, I learned that the bride-to-be was the granddaughter of  Czech Holocaust survivors.  Her grandmother was in the Theresienstadt concentration camp while her grandfather survived camps in Poland; and they eventually reunited after the war, made it to America, and started a family here.  In the course of the conversation I asked her if she had ever heard of Rabbi Leo Baeck, the esteemed Berlin rabbi and theologian who was in Theresienstadt and then led a triumphant teaching career following the war as well.  She hadn't.  Offered passage from Berlin to Cincinnati for a teaching position in 1941, Baeck chose to remain with his German community and accept deportation to the camp:  "As long as one Jew remains in Germany, my place is with him," is what he said.  I went to my bookshelf and took down Albert Friedlander's Teacher of Theresienstadt, his biography of Rabbi Baeck, and asked her to take it to Florida (where she and her fiance were headed to visit the grandmother) and find out if her grandmother had ever had an encounter with Rabbi Baeck.

My teacher from rabbinical school, Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory, was the grandson-in-law of Rabbi Baeck.  His widow Marianne Dreyfus is a Brooklyn resident, dear friend, and herself was in the Kindertransport (moving children from Germany to England) and is her grandfather's honorable keeper of the flame.

The other book I took from the shelf was Baeck's The Pharisees and Other Essays, published by Schocken (in English) in 1947, a copy of which I found at the Strand Bookstore in the mid-1990s.  I'm forever combing those shelves in search of gems on my visits to Union Square and the day I found this book there was one particularly memorable highlight--and I'm not talking about its discounted price.  On the inside cover was Rabbi Baeck's name, written in his own hand, confirmed by Stanley and Marianne when I showed it them with the immortal words, "Yes--that's Grandpa's signature!"

I immediately offered my find to Marianne for her collection but as you can imagine, she has a few copies.  So it has remained with me all theses years and I often have an occasion to tell the story, pass the book around, and let people hold it, a sacred expression of inspiration from an inkwell to a page over more than half a century.

Yesterday, showing it to a granddaughter of Czech survivors who had never heard of Leo Baeck until then was particularly gratifying and I'm eager to hear what comes of the visit to Florida.


Books, whether they themselves are from the flames of destruction or whether they are a protection against our own propensity for a descent into despair, are redemptive.  Lately, to lift my mood after too much worry and angst, I re-opened a paperback collection of Dorothy Parker's poetry, finding her macabre rhyming schemes to be just the tonic I needed to push me into February.

I hadn't realized until recently that in fact during the Second World War, United States servicemen received a copy of the Viking Portable Library's Dorothy Parker (with an introduction by W. Somerset Maugham)--a remarkable statement in its own right.  I have a small section on my bookshelf at home dedicated to the Jewish books issued to servicemen during the Second World War, including my dad's prayerbook and Bible that were sent to him courtesy of the Jewish Welfare Board, one of the last entities of true pluralistic cooperation among American rabbis until our current era.  Dorothy Rothschild (Parker's actual name) deserved, I figured, a place alongside these other small volumes.

I found it online and have been carrying it around for the last week or so.  Judy, a student in one of my Torah study classes and a trained librarian, held it in her hands Tuesday night and commented upon the fine quality of paper that was used in the 1940s.  Its acid levels were just right to ensure longevity, she declared.  It's a real jewel.

Parker dedicated the book to her then husband "Lieutenant Alan Campbell," (another half-Jew and screenwriter) a few years before their divorce (among the many reasons, his infidelities during the war.)  Speaking of which:
War Song

Soldier in a curious land
All across a swaying sea,
Take her smile and lift her hand--
Have no guilt of me.

Soldier, when were soldiers true?
If she's kind and sweet and gay,
Use the wish I send to you--
Lie not lone til day!

Only, for the nights that were,
Soldier, and the dawns that came,
When in sleep you turn to her
Call her by my name.

 I don't have a Kindle and don't plan on getting one, mostly because there's just too much to lose.

08 February 2011

Triumph In a Bank of Clouds

"And you will command the children of Israel, that they take you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to light the lamp always."  (Exodus 27.20)

Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov (1745-1807) says, "Only after a person has beaten and suppressed his Evil inclination can he enjoy the light of the Divine Presence."  Beaten for the Light.

Here we see Judaism as a system of discipline and practice.  Of a willingness to confront ourselves and even our demons--our worst manifestations--over and over again.  To uncover them.  To face them.  And then to literally beat them, wrestle them to the ground.  To prevail.

This requires not only an extraordinary amount of hard-work and inspiration but also patience in your execution of what it is to be a Jew and human being.

My Evil Inclination at times feels very great, unwieldy, difficult to tame.  I have been engaged with a bitter struggle with one aspect of it recently and I feel like I broke one of its limbs.  He--the Evil Inclination--is currently on the sidelines, nursing his own injury, sure to return to battle.  I hope to be ready for him again.

But as I was appreciating the triumph of this small internal battle, I looked up at the sky as I crossed West End Avenue recently and saw a bank of clouds hanging over the buildings and roads with a clarity I haven't noticed in quite some time.  It's beauty was uncommon--as if it turned out that a Magritte was realistic, a true representation of what we see. 

This small victory opened a window and the view was a relief.  Light passed through the clouds.  The blue sky was radiant.  I stood there, battered yet still standing. 

Beaten for the light.

"All the Great Teachers Are Dead."

Walking home in the cold rain tonight, wool hat pulled down over my brow, a cover of mid-winter wetness dampening the shoulders of my corduroy coat, I relished every step up toward the Park and then down Seventh Avenue, late at night, reminding me of Park Slope's second generation revival, in the early 1990s, when everyone who lived in Manhattan refused to come to Brooklyn and the lonely walked the street past midnight.

My clothes clung to my body like a uniform of youth, a posture, as it were, I am loathe to abandon; though the conventions of my position or professional stature mitigate otherwise.   I dress up for Shabbos--that seems about right.  Most everything else feels like a pretension I just can't summon.  That seems to be the way it's gone for the last thirty years or so.

Glasses fogging; feet sliding along; rain drip-dropping on my arms and shoulders, I said aloud to no one in particular walking along:  "All the great teachers are dead."

And then I named them, like a nocturnal botanist identifying the ghostly plants of my midnight meanderings:  Irv is gone; George is gone; Arthur's gone; and, Stanley's gone.  The men -- the teachers -- I relied upon to uproot the staid and unproductive and to implant within me the eternal and redemptive -- all gone.  Dead and buried, the remains of whom are the words they once shared; the books they've written; and, at times like this, the beneficent rain, their sustenance of the students they raised symbolized in the gentle gravitational pull of nature's intellectual irrigation system.

I saw in my own steps tonight the steps of a young man of eighteen or nineteen, or twenty-nine or thirty, or thirty-nine or forty--choreographing my next move as I've done a thousand times before--with a teacher's words on my lips, or their prescribed actions encoded onto my arms, or their end-goals mapped out, pointed out, destinationalized, as expressions of an exceptionally well-developed aspiration:  be true.

Be true.

I took a class in rabbinic school with Rabbi Larry Kushner.  When he was a young rabbi, he worked in Chicago with Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, of blessed memory.  The story that Rabbi Kushner told us rabbinic students is that when Kushner was working for Wolf and Wolf had invited some members of the Nation of Islam to come dialogue with the Jewish leadership at Congregation Solel in Chicago, some of the lay-leaders were "up-in-arms" about the engagement.  The question of the invitation to speak was brought before the Board of the Congregation, at which Rabbi Wolf was questioned about exactly whom was invited to speak. 

His reply?  "Mohammed and his Black Motherfuckers."

I have to tell you--just remembering that story walking down the street tonight, I laughed my ass off half-way down Seventh Avenue.  I miss you, Arnold!

My teachers never had patience for pretense; they thrived on telling their truths; and they constructed a world in which the fundamentals of their teaching and the values of our own Jewish tradition were inextricably bound.  They spoke with one voice:  Be true.

This winter I promised to never complain about the cold; never complain about the snow; and never complain about the rain.  I did this because the darkness I felt descending upon myself at the final realization that during the season that I turn forty-eight, it has become undeniably true that all my great teachers are dead and that is dark, cold, and terrifying thought--best tempered, of course, by humor. 

Some of the greatest laughs I've ever had, I've had with Irv and George and Arthur and Stanley and even Arnold, cantankerous old man that he was.  Some of the greatest laughs and some of the greatest truths--cleansing, cool, sustaining. 

Like truth.

07 February 2011

05 February 2011

We Are With You

Last night at services I spoke about the coming together of ancient and contemporary narratives, most significantly related to the moments when we read words from the prayerbook about the Exodus from Egypt while Egyptians themselves put their lives on the line to throw off a repressive regime that, paradoxically, has allied itself with Israel's democracy.

Can we pray the words and mean them?  Can we recite a liturgical mantra about God heeding the cry of the oppressed, inspiring us and moving us to freedom back then, in a distant past, and therefore see ourselves as part of a greater narrative of freedom for all people? 

Is the Exodus particular or universal?

These are the religious questions we ought to be asking ourselves at this pivotal moment in history when not only Egyptians but Arabs throughout the region are clamoring for the right to control their own destiny.  And for Israelis in particular and Jews in general, there is both an ancient truth and a contemporary reality that will continue to speak to us as we navigate our way through this.

The ancient truth:  the Jewish people's Exodus from Egypt speaks to the right of human beings to exist in freedom, worshiping a God of their choosing, in command of their own destiny in their own land.

The contemporary reality:  what will the dissolution of regimes that supported a cold peace with Israel mean when democratically elected governments seek to dismantle those peace agreements? 

We ought to support the struggle for freedom--a universal truth; but be ever-vigilant in protecting our self-interest. 

The Times reports on the Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization in San Francisco which supports the Egyptian uprising, but is also an organizing force behind the ill-conceived boycott and divestment movement against Israel, taking a position that many people correctly argue is actually meant to de-legitimate Israel.  Alana Newhouse recently exposed some of this idiotic thinking in writing about the Boycott Israel movement's targeting of the La MaMa theater for hosting an Israeli dance week benefit.

The grandiose narrative of revolution, ever-attractive, has to be tempered by realistic expectations, fragile alliances, and the slow, hard work of building real democratic movements.  A whole heap of chaos lies ahead. 

We woke up this morning to blown up natural gas lines in the Sinai, from which Israel receives 40% of its natural gas; and conflicting reports about assassination attempts on Omar Suleiman.  There is a long, long way to go.

As whole nations in the Middle East stand on the verge of being re-made, Israel is exposed for its own inability to make a lasting peace with Palestinians, a fact (whomever is to blame) that will add another potentially destabilizing element to events as they unfold.

I believe, from my pulpit in Brooklyn, that in moving forward we Jews must embrace the desire for freedom being expressed throughout the Arab world and the greatest reason for our making that argument is found in the shared truths of our own ancient and contemporary narratives.  More than three thousand years ago we liberated ourselves from a Biblical oppression in the land of Egypt and we continue to tell that story in our daily prayers to this day.  And less than 70 years ago, we dedicated ourselves to building a modern state as a free people in its own land--a beautiful and sometimes maddeningly imperfect democracy but a democracy, nonetheless. 

Our message to our Egyptian neighbors ought to be:  We are with you.  And you are with us.  Let's build democracy together, you in your land, we in ours.

01 February 2011

"Birds Singing of Fair Weather As They Crap"

Graveside Oration

Our late friend hated blue skies,
Bible-quoting preachers,
Politicians kissing babies,
Women who are all sweetness.

He liked drunks in church,
Nudists playing volleyball,
Stray dogs making friends,
Birds singing of fair weather as they crap.

--Charles Simic