16 May 2013

If Not Higher

In his classic Yiddish story, "If Not Higher," the writer I.L. Peretz writes about the Rebbe of Nemirov who travels the countryside during the Days of Awe while his community recites the Slichot prayers in penitence in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  He disguises himself to look like a simple peasant and in his anonymity, he does good deeds for the poor while the community sleeps in during the quiet hours before the daily morning prayers--a kind of saintly substitution and, if you will, a more verifiable form of penance in a season when actions surely count for something--maybe even more than mere words of prayer.

I thought of this story--l'havdil!--yesterday when I pulled myself out of bed from a late night of Shavuot study, threw a baseball cap on my head, and came over to Shul to pick up several hundred meals for our daily delivery to families at the Red Hook Initiative and a housing project on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island--two of the several communities we have been helping to feed since Sandy.

The recipients of the meals were predominantly African American and Latino; native born and immigrants; and all were poor.  Inside of the Red Hook Initiative, the center was busy with clients learning English, getting job training and resume writing skills, and facing one another in counseling and health education sessions.  There was a palpable hunger for advancement in the room and quick expressions of appreciation for the food delivery.  So quick as to be barely noticed.

That's when I thought of the Peretz story.  Along with my driving partner, we were just two guys dropping off food.  Others were hungry and we had more food to deliver.  What did the Sages say?  The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah.  Indeed.

On the way out to Coney Island, I played the story in my mind.  I remembered the wood fire the rabbi chops and lights for the poor and the peasant clothes he wore.  I had forgotten the scornful Litvak who is converted to the rabbi's discipleship in watching his teacher's humble service.  Driving down Neptune Avenue, I remembered those first days after Sandy:  cars overturned; banks of sand piled above homes; soaked and frigid devastation.  A kind of apocalyptic hopelessness cast against the absurd carnivalesque shoreline.

Half a year later most yards are clean.  Mold still clings to the brick houses but a beginning, however halting, takes steps into spring and summer.

At the housing project, men and women, some leaning against walkers, others in wheelchairs and blankets, wait patiently for the meal to begin.  Wordlessly the other anonymous public servants take the food from us and nod in tired recognition of the ongoing, terrible, humbling and rewarding fact of it all.

CBE's Sandy Relief recently changed its name to CBE Feeds--a solemn recognition that we will continue to feed our neighbors in need as an expression of our core values as a community.  New York Cares sends of generous-hearted volunteers each day; CBE members and Brooklyn neighbors rise early Monday through Friday and fill our kitchen for three hours in a devotion that is among the most prayerful activity I have ever encountered as a rabbi.  Yesterday, while carrying boxfuls of food to the car I passed our chapel where from within I heard offerings of Torah, of first fruits, of a counting out of weeks in humble service to God.  Revelations from a mountainous altar at Sinai mingled perfectly with revelations from the altar of kitchen counter.  Who would dare say one is more pure than the other? That one such offering ascends higher than the other?

And on Sunday evening, in partnership with CAMBA, we open our Homeless Shelter which will run from May 19-June 27.  We have a few more slots, you know.  You can sign up here.

At the end of the Peretz story, the skeptical Litvak becomes a follower of the Rebbe.  Where does the great rabbi go each morning when he disappears during prayer time?  Heaven!  The Litvak knows the greater truth that in doing good deeds for the most humble among us, that we have the opportunity to do go where "heaven" asks us to go--"if not higher."

In the face of the other we have an opportunity to transcend ourselves and bring a greater sense of justice and kindness to the world.

I write these words as Shavuot comes to a close with a profound sense of gratitude to all those in greater Brooklyn community who have understood and incorporated into their daily offerings the care and feeding of our most humble neighbors.  May we continue to travel there--if not higher--together.

15 May 2013

"Let's Build No House!"

Women of the Wall should reject Natan Sharansky's offer to create an egalitarian prayer section in the excavations of the Kotel plaza known as "Robinson's Arch."  One of the most vitally important sites in all of Jerusalem, the excavations around Robinson's Arch (named for the British archaeologist who identified its significance in the early 19th century) the area remains a bastion of knowable science and ancient history at the base of a broader neighborhood weighted down and at more times than is necessary, is often intoxicated on the ephemeral ascents of Jewish, Christian and Muslim spirituality.

The knotted rope of triumphalist spiritual aspiration, which Temple Mount Jews seek to climb and build a Third Temple while Dome of the Rock Muslims pelt them with stones so that their God can rule forever, is a hanging rope of messianic insanity.

I believe in the God of history.

That is to stay, I'm naturally skeptical about what people tell me their faith tells them without weighing it against what we know by what we see, hold and touch.  Like an archaeological site.  Which is made up, in toto, of several faiths throughout the walled Old City, whose prayers too often clang in dissonant collision while historians with voracious appetites for provable evidence try to figure out what actually went on there, way back when.

As Nir Hasson ably points out in Haaretz, Robinson's Arch is simply too valuable a piece of history to hand it over for the sake of political compromise with the triumphalist and overly territorial rabbis of the Kotel Plaza.  The brave paratroopers who recaptured Jerusalem from the Jordanians in the Six Day War didn't stand at the Western Wall in order to bequeath to a leadership that would silence the spiritual aspirations of nearly 80% of the Jewish people.   Zionism, lest we forget, was meant to liberate us internally from such "orthodoxies" of faith and observance.

Gershom Scholem pointed out a generation ago that even prior to Zionism, the "Emancipation" of European Jewry into civil life necessitated a new paradigm--heterodoxies--of Jewish civilizational expression.  The denominations of Jewish spiritual life; Jewish cultural and political movements; and Zionism, of course, comprise the most obvious examples of such a vibrant and healthy diversifying of Jews.

One such way of being Jewish is organizing ones world view along an historical paradigm.  To be sure, one can still be a believer, be observant.  I count myself in that camp.  But one's feet walk on historical ground and one appreciates the balance among forces that are provable and knowable as well as unprovable and unknown.

To mar a site of profound historical and archaeological value in order to create yet another space for prayer seems an expediency whose only victory is in the short-term.

Rather, Women of the Wall, whose critical and heroic fight for civil spiritual rights in the Jewish state has the potential to galvanize the nation toward a new stage of spiritual growth, ought to dig in and demand of the government a simple division of the existing Kotel Plaza into three sections--men, women and egalitarian (or mixed.)  Further, it will, in time, plant the first step toward the reading of Torah and wearing of tallit and tefilin in the women's section if that is what a woman chooses to do in order to pray to her God.  A man who dares to tell her she cannot pray as she sees fit is free to pray in the men's section.

There's room enough now for prayer.  We need only make room.  And get on with the work of doing what it is our prayers demand of us:  to feed, to clothe, to make justice and peace.

Yehuda Amichai, one of my favorite Jerusalemites, perhaps said it best:  "So come, let's build no house and pave no road!  Let's make a house folded up in the heart and road rolled up in a coil in the soul, inside, and we shall not die forever."

Let's learn about the old roads before we build new ones.  And where the men need to make room for the women, let's use the power of the state as it was intended to be used by Zionism's founders--to liberate us not only from others but from ourselves.

06 May 2013

It Ain't Either/Or

What is with Either/Or constructs?

Why, as Ron Wolfson argues in the JTA, is the choice for American Jewry between synagogue programs and what Wolfson coins, in this generation's ongoing obsession with re-branding Judaism, "Relational Judaism."  Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal and now Relational Judaism.

Stating the obvious--synagogues should be putting people before programs--Wolfson trots out the old canard that Chabad Lubavitch, with its outreach model, meets Jews where they're at in a more effective way.  Though no one ever really has the data to prove that.  Except to anecdotally say that a rabbi was warm and inviting to some Jewish event or another.  And didn't ask for money.  At least at first.  Heck, I'd be willing to bet that there are more people influenced positively in the psycho-spiritual healing of their soul from the real messiah of world Jewry--Sigmund Freud--than from Menachem Mendel Schneerson.  There are more shrinks practicing the Jewish art of psycho-analysis than missionaries shaking lulavs in the public square.  Just saying.

But somewhere between the great wave of immigration a hundred years ago and today, the mass of Jewry has grown squeamish about fulfilling the mitzvah of supporting one's Jewish community financially.  The great spoiled child of post-modernity is the phenomenon that everything has to be free and meaningful, because, as Wolfson implies, meaning can now be downloaded onto an app, accessed on the go, and deliver timeless content anytime, anywhere.

Chabad has the luxury of not asking for dues because their rabbis don't inherit the massive institutions that prior generations of American Jews built in order to assimilate our great-grandparents, grandparents and parents into contemporary American life.  Synagogues in America have been one of the key generative organizations for acculturation, inter-faith dialogue, expression Jewish values in civic life, supporting Israel, and providing relief for Russian and Ethiopian Jews.  Making dues payment the eternal bogeyman for a generation reluctant to understand that it's part of a chain of tradition that sees obligation as the necessary corollary to Jewish identity is overstating the case and Wolfson, using another generational buzzword--transformation--sets up a false dichotomy between programs and relationships.

After all, Shabbat and Holy Days are programs, with their requisite rituals, prayers, songs, meals and Torah based learning.  Weddings, brises, baby namings and even funerals are programs, offering public events to engage multi-generational "audiences" in a "conversation" about Jewish life, Judaism, and the Jewish people.  Visiting Israel and engaging Israelis in the United States is a program, deepening relationships with the largest Jewish population in the world and coming "face-to-face" with the revived Hebrew language, spoken now by nearly 8 million people in a thriving land.

Synagogues have long been the whipping boy of American Jewish life when in fact the misallocation of resources lies elsewhere.  Do we need the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center fighting anti-Semitism?  Do we need 7 rabbinical schools in North America to graduate barely 100 rabbinical students each year?  Do we need Boards of Jewish Education in various cities if synagogues and day schools already have educators?  Do we need to spend millions in philanthropic dollars for studies and consultants when we already know what works:  meaningful relationships, affordable synagogue affiliation, Jewish summer camps, day schools and trips to Israel.  The second half of the twentieth century and now well into the twenty-first has led to one of most inexcusable misallocation of resources in Jewish history.  We owe it to the future to fix that now.

In fact, I might argue that the Jewish people survived for the better part of the last three thousand years because we knew how to thrive with less; we knew how to triumph in times of great oppression and restriction; we galvanized our existence around the greatest of ideas:  one God; revelation as law; care for the stranger and the oppressed; the rebirth of a language and the reconstitution of a people in its land after two thousand years.

It's not that our dues are too high or that our programs are bad.  The key to engaging another generation of Jews is to tell, over and over again and with enormous pride, that we have the privilege to be a part of one of the greatest stories in all of human civilization.

That's a program I'd pay dues for til I die.

04 May 2013


We need 27.

27 people is all out of synagogue community of nearly 1000 families and a broader community of thousands--to volunteer for one night of cooking a meal and sleeping over in our CBE Homeless Shelter between May 20 and June 27.

27 people.  We can do it!

This past Shabbat on both Friday evening and Saturday morning, I shared our synagogue's lessons learned from our volunteer efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  Since early November more than 2500 unique volunteers have cooked in our kitchen and delivered food and needed supplies to the thousands of those in need at the most extreme borders of our city.  From Red Hook to Coney Island to the Rockaways, we lived out the Torah's teaching that "if thy brother that dwelleth by thee grow poor," we are obligated to share food, drink, apparel and shelter as if it were our own lives we were satisfying.  The Sages were clear that a just society recognizes that "if you sleep on a featherbed, he ought not to sleep on a bed of straw."

While CBE's home in Park Slope was spared the devastation of Sandy, we learned by coming face to face with the perimeters of the city that poverty and inequality are real issues involving real people demanding our substantive and meaningful response.  In a word, we really are responsible for one another.  As the Talmud put it:  כל הקונה עבד עברי כקונה אדון לעצמו--he who acquires a servant acquires a master over himself.

The biblical critic Nehama Leibowitz points out, in a brilliant re-reading of this text, that embedded in the Talmud's concern for a humane attitude toward the Bible's laws concerning slavery are the seeds of progress which would eventually lead to the banning of the institution altogether.  When the laws mitigate toward a humane treatment of a slaves in an ancient institution, is it any wonder that the logical conclusion is the dissolving of the institution altogether?

The limits of the logic of justice?  Equality in society.

We move closer to this ideal in our own time when we take responsibility for the care, feeding and shelter of homeless men in Brooklyn.  Twelve men will be sleeping at CBE from May 19-June 27 and we will learn alot about their lives, their struggles and triumphs, their failures and successes, and be brought close to poverty's face in order to understand its dimensions and strengthen one in another in its alleviation.

Moses, God's messenger, in one of Judaism's most vitally important social justice teachings in the entire Torah, taught the people that "the poor shalt never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying, 'Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto the poor and needy brother, in thy land.'"

There you have it.

We are commanded to do it.  So let's do it.

We need 27.

You can sign up HERE.

03 May 2013

Science Wrapped in Hope

new growth = hope.  Grand Army Plaza.
I remember sitting with my sister and mom in a small hospital room, watching one of her four oncologists enthusiastically manipulate digital images on a computer screen, demonstrating the scope, dimension and aggressiveness of cancer cells that had spread into her spine and brain, indicating that the road ahead would be treacherous.  The most minuscule measurements opened up vistas of theoretical possibilities and in my own mind, there was the paradoxical pull toward what humans and science can know about the body and then, of course, the ethical dimension of what it means to subject oneself hypotheses, research and experimentation when the fundamental concern is survival.

So it goes.  I could see Mom begin to lose her agency at that moment, become a figure in a greater fight to cure cancer.  Her body a vessel, if sacred, in the pursuit of a truth that may save a future life but likely not hers.   She was always a very giving person; but it was never fully clear to us whether her willingness to subject herself to the last blasts of radiation and chemotherapy were her selfless contributions to the furtherance of human progress, a fear of death, or, perhaps, another season of baseball.  She never really said.

In April and May she crumbled, hobbled to her 79th birthday lunch a year ago today, quit her therapy soon thereafter following an incomprehensibly brutal reaction to the chosen chemicals' decimating onslaught, folded herself up in her bed, and finally let us make life comfortable for her as she spent June and July preparing to die.

These thoughts came rushing back to me yesterday reading Gina Kolata's health report in the Times about cancer research--the tracking of genetic patterns, the hope for new conclusions, innovative therapies, the possible extension of life on the way to a cure.  

I'll admit that there were moments, sitting in those rooms, pushing Mom through the antiseptic hallways, reading signs on the faces of oncological nurses and doctors and social workers, that we were mere puppets in a vast science fair, pressed like specimens between two glass slides, pinned against our will under the peering lens of a high powered microscope.  A plurality of powerlessness; in a word:  "statistics."

On the other hand, the body is nature and science is nature and everything comes from somewhere, even the toxic tools coursing through veins in apheresis labs across the country are nature, as it were, and so the other experiment going on was the unbridled determination of human research attempting to save and extend life precisely because it is precious, even sacred.

In this cool but glorious spring, with New York blooming in ways it seems I've never quite seen it bloom before, the trees seem to hold a clue to what I can only describe as the inexorable march of life that insists on moving, growing, spreading, reaching to a place beyond.  Cancer grows in its evil mutations, to be sure; but one cannot deny that it grows.  And in fighting the growth we array the forces of science, innovation and ingenuity to inhabit its growth, stop it even, so that other growth, the good mutations, can continue to thrive.  It's an endless battle, heroic even.  Where we fight for the underdog; where you hope for the good guys to win.  It's a classic struggle, cliche even.  Just the kind of story Mom loved.

The 49 year old with leukemia, whose life I'm trying to save because our stem cells match, made it through the winter.  But next week he needs white blood cells from me so it's back to the machine for a few hours, needles in my arms, a centrifuge humming in a clean lab, singing its machinated song of hope.

I kept wondering all April what I'd have given Mom for her 80th birthday today and realized just now what it would be:  white blood cells for a man neither of us have ever met.  Genetic material and science wrapped in hope.

01 May 2013

A New Offering

May was always Mom's month; not the least reason being that her birthday was May 3, making an early appearance at the top of the calendar and setting a tone for the rest of the count down until Memorial Day.  Unlike the beginning of May, which began with her birthday and a trip to the garden center and the purveyance of new plantings for her front yard garden--the end of the month meant a trip to the cemetery to see her father's grave, and plant hope there, too.

On my way to a wedding in the Village on Sunday, I walked past the garden behind the Jefferson Market Library and saw a gated garden in full bloom.  Like the phantom limb amputees struggle to face, I reached for my phone to take a picture and send to Mom, only to remember that this year she wouldn't make it to 80.  I surveyed the site, imagined her pleasure in the sunlight and the color patterns arrayed, and considered a victory for her legacy that 900 miles from where she's buried, she gets a garden, by proxy.

"One could say, following von Clausewitz, that the cemetery is a continuation of life by other means," wrote Vasily Grossman about the Vagankovo Cemetery in Byelorussia.  One can see trains pass between Warsaw and Berlin through the gates, he writes, evoking a European Jewry that is no more.

Describing those with buckets, spades and brushes who head to the cemetery on spring weekends to tend the graves, he writes, "Working in the air feels good.  It's satisfying to plant some flowers and to pull out a few weeds that have come up through the earth of the grave...Life is powerful.  It bursts through the fence around the cemetery.  And the cemetery surrenders; it becomes a part of life."

The time period between Passover, our freedom from slavery, and Shavuot, our celebration of receiving the Law, consists of 49 days, or seven times seven weeks of recognition that just as spring leads to summer, planting leads to bloom and of course, by implication, to full fade and ultimately death.  The Omer offering is mandated, by Torah, to be a "new offering."  Like the first fruits offered in late spring, it is meant to convey a newness that is radically unique, unlike anything ever offered before.  Which of course is rather terrifying if you think about it.  It's an offering heavily loaded with expectation, complicated, as these things often are, with a fear of disappointment, rejection, maybe even death.

Perhaps that is why there is a mournful presence to the seven weeks of the Omer counting, the meaning of which the Sages debate.  A plague that struck Rabbi Akiva; harsh and hurtful words used within the community; Roman persecutions--all to mitigate the idea that there is no effluence of newness in spring without an awareness of its eventual decline.

I am particularly tuned into this idea this spring as, paradoxically, my mourning for Mom recedes into spring and summer.  Her July yahrzeit is on one hand anticipated with relief.  It's been a long, hard year.  I am eager for a summer of teaching in Jerusalem, to lose myself in this new present, only to be confronted yet again in the fall, with the new moon of the seventh month of Tishri on the Hebrew calendar, with Rosh Hashanah's most challenging prayer, asking:  Who shall live and who shall die?

We cast this prayer as one in which God chooses but really, isn't it us?  Choosing to live.  Choosing not to die.

Eliyahu Dessler taught that at every moment of choosing, a person confronts her uniqueness.  Every choice is an opportunity to recognize that no one has made that exact choice, in that exact way, at that exact time.  "Since no two human beings are exactly alike, the choice that presents itself to this individual at this instant in time has a unique purpose which can be satisfied by no other person in the whole history of the universe.  It is absolutely new.  This is what the Torah calls the 'new offering.'"

Last May I took Mom for a walk on her 79th birthday, knowing she wouldn't make it to 80.  She was a sport about riding in her wheelchair, picking lilacs, mischievously plucking a tulip and fresh rosemary along our route.  It was warm in Milwaukee that afternoon and so we parked ourselves along Lake Michigan and baked a bit in the sun before heading back in the late afternoon for an early dinner.  We moved along in silence for few minutes, her eyes closed, holding a lilac branch, inhaling deep its new fragrance.

"What are you thinking, Ma?" I asked.

That I love lilacs, she said.  And this tulip isn't half bad, either.

As if she had never encountered them before.

"A new offering."