Monthly Archives: November 2011

The role of music in the healing of Gabrielle Giffords

Yesterday morning, in a weekly class on Jewish mysticism that I teach in the local community, we were concluding our study of the ten psalms that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav selected for the practice of the Tikkun haKlali – the Complete Repair.  Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was referring to a spiritual repair – healing at a cosmic level – in which all that was broken would be healed and the flow of Divine energy through the sephirotic system found in the teachings of Kabbalah would come down to us unhindered.

This system consisted of 10 Divine attributes which, together, form the kabbalistic Tree of Life.  There are a multitude of explanations and allegorical images used in kabbalistic tradition to try and convey something of the nature of these 10 attributes.  Among them, Rabbi Nachman spoke of 10 melodies – 10 kinds of sound resonance that, when unblocked, would vibrate in perfect harmony with each other, bringing perfection and wholeness to the world.

I sometimes liken the teachings of Kabbalah to that of theoretical or particle physics, not only because there are some truly amazing resonances between some of the teachings in each discipline, but because Kabbalah is very abstract and requires translation into something that we can respond to in the here and now.  Rabbi Nachman, by proposing a ritual practice of the recitation of 10 psalms, sought to provide a spiritual methodology by which even an individual could make a small contribution to the greater Tikkun by speaking words that he believed carried the resonances of the ten kinds of melody.  At the very least, these might help to release some of our own blockages as we seek to be more ‘in tune’ with ourselves and with others.

The last of the ten psalms is Psalm 150:

Hallelujah. Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in the firmament of His power.
Praise Him for His mighty acts; praise Him according to His abundant greatness.
Praise Him with the blast of the horn; praise Him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with stringed instruments and the pipe.
Praise Him with the loud-sounding cymbals; praise Him with the clanging cymbals.
Let every thing that has breath praise Yah. Hallelujah. (JPS, 1917)

In the context of Rabbi Nachman’s Tikkun HaKlali, this psalm literally vibrates with the sounds of the instruments played in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.  Rabbi Nachman taught about the spiritual importance of fostering joy, and the power of music and of singing to lift oneself up, even from the most difficult of circumstances.  Our study group considered the power of song and of music at multiple levels.

It was in this context that a member of our study group thought of the example of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the role that music and song has played quite literally in her physical healing.  If sound has the power to shatter glass, might it not also have a literal potential to heal, in addition to the emotional and spiritual sustenance that it can provide?

Rep. Giffords has been working with a music therapist, among others also tending to her treatment and recovery.  Music has had the power to tap into her memory, and assisted with regaining language mastery, as the music appears to help the brain to access new ways to communicate.  Her therapist, Morrow, explains:

“It’s creating new pathways in the brain … Language isn’t going to work anymore, so we have to go to another area and start singing and create a new pathway for speech…”

The article went to say, “Music is also linked to brains areas that control memory, emotions, and even movement. “The thing about music is that it’s something that’s very automatic — part of our old brain system,” Morrow said. “If I play a rhythm, I can affect the rest of the body. The body naturally aligns with a rhythm in the environment.”

Throughout my childhood I often accompanied my mother who would go and sing at Assisted Living and Nursing Homes.  And time and time again, I would witness residents who would not or could not easily speak or communicate any more literally return to full life when the music began.  Intentionally singing a repertoire of music that would be familiar from their youth, my mother would have residents singing along, moving their bodies – even getting up to dance.
The enormous power of music and sound, working at the physical, emotional and spiritual level, has always been evident to me.  It has been an integral part of my Jewish spirituality as I have found ways to access the meaning of our rituals and our prayers through the vehicle of the melodies we bring to them.  Rabbi Nachman understood this two hundred years ago.  We’re just beginning to tap into the potential that vibration, sound, and song have to bring healing to our lives.

Posted on November 16, 2011

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Rabbi Without Borders, Rabbi at the Border

I am a “Rabbi Without Borders” who is also a “Rabbi at the Border.”

Readers of this blog may know by now that a “Rabbi Without Borders” is a rabbi committed to testing the assumptions that the Jewish people have made about the various boundaries that define Jewish life, both individually and communally. We are not entirely without borders, of course…but each of chose to associate ourselves with CLAL and with RWB because we believe that life is much more interesting near the margins, and that our rabbinates are at their best when we are away from the easy, comfortable middle ground that might define our denomination (for example).

So what is a “Rabbi at the Border?” Quite simply, a rabbi who serves a congregation in El Paso, Texas! Living and working right at the U.S.-Mexican border (and I do mean “right at” the Border…I really can see Mexico from my synagogue) is different, in all sorts of ways. I am truly blessed to live in a place that reminds me, on a regular basis, of some of the key teachings of my faith with respect to hospitality and justice for all…and especially for gerim, which is usually translated as “strangers,” but which I think of as “people at the threshold.”

There’s a Jewish teaching which grounds me as a Rabbi Without Borders at the Border:

“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Num 1:1). This teaches us that only one who can make himself like that wilderness, ownerless and free, can acquire Wisdom and Torah” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 1:7).

Widsom and Torah, in other words, are available to us only to the extent that we can step away from that which is easy, comfortable, “ours.”

To live where I do, at the threshold between two nations and two languages, and to do so as a member of the paradigmatic threshold people — the “wandering Jews” — is sometimes a challenge, but always a blessing. I look forward to bringing bi-weekly dispatches from the Border, through the lens of an open, affirming, welcoming Torah whose ways are pleasantness, whose paths are peace!

Posted on November 15, 2011

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People First

snow in October in NJ

It’s been an interesting couple of months here in New Jersey. First, in August, an earthquake rocked us, and while it was fortunately a minor event in seismological terms, it scared lots of folks. I was in my office meeting with two women – as soon as we realized the quake was over we each, without a word, grabbed our phones to call our husbands. The seismic event became a people-to-people event, as we connected with each other, our loved ones, our friends, and the world. A friend from Israel was quick to write, having seen the posts on Facebook. She wanted to be sure I was ok. At the end of the day, what we remember most from that day not the earthquake itself, which was inconsequential, but the way we reached out to each other in an uncontrollable festival of caring and friendship.

Then Hurricane Irene hit later in August, and despite the meteorological observation that it was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit New Jersey, we still refer it as “the hurricane,” since its impact in our area was significant. Thousands of trees and limbs fell, doing their damage along the way. Floods filled basements, some homes, and many businesses. Many people went without power for several days, losing all their cold food, enduring the hot August week in stuffy homes. Nerves were frayed. But once again, what I remember most was the connections between people. We reached out to each other to see how we could help, offering hands-on cleanup, referrals to reliable contractors, and lots of emotional support. As our area ground to a near-halt in the aftermath, we remembered to be more patient and compassionate. We took lots of deep breaths and felt gratitude for the opportunity to recover and go on.

The old superstition that bad things happen in “three’s” seemed to be a predictor by the time we hit the last weekend in October. There we were on that Shabbat, celebrating a lovely bat mitzvah watching heavy, wet snow steadily fall throughout the day. It was beautiful. Like the earthquake, it took us by surprise, except this time, the awakening to the surprise was in slow motion. We had heard it could snow, but nobody took it seriously since it had been a temperate autumn until then. The leaves were still on the trees and it had just been 68 degrees a few days earlier; no way this could be a snow event worthy of worry.

We were wrong. I marveled at the calm of the bat mitzvah celebrants – if it had been December, the weather forecast would have created a flurry of activity, trying to decide whether or not to proceed. The party would surely have been postponed, or very sparsely and briefly attended. A foot of snow grinds all activity to a halt around here. But as this accumulation coated the trees, people smiled at the beauty, grateful that it was only October, and couldn’t really so bad as to stop the celebration. People were happy to be with one another.

As we left, we learned that we had miscalculated. It wasn’t so much that the snow itself made roads impassable this time—it was that the heavily laden trees couldn’t withstand the onslaught. Huge trees and limbs began gracefully falling by the dozens, then the hundreds, and then the thousands. The passageways home were blocked on many, if not most streets. We all struggled to get home. Some people had no way to get to their homes and had to find alternate shelter at hotels or with friends.

And then the power went out. Across our area tens of thousands of homes and businesses lost power for many days. Schools were closed, in some areas for a whole week, and even more in the worst areas. Live electrical wires were hanging across roads and driveways and many streets were blocked, making for crisis conditions. Many said that this freak storm dwarfed the impact of the recent hurricane (though folks who were flooded out in August might not have agreed).

What did we do? We reached out to one another, once again asking each other how we could help. Some helped neighbors and friends clear fallen trees, others offered shelter, many offered emotional support.

My house was amazingly spared of power outages both times. The necessary tree removal awaiting us is one thing; my friends living without power in the cold snap that followed the storm was another. We tried frantically to contact the members of our community, with limited success. Some spent the week at hotels or with out of town family, while working parents endured difficult commutes. Even the trains didn’t run for days – there were too many trees and wires down across the tracks. Many people remained in cold, dark houses, for a variety of reasons. But amidst the stress of this situation, there was a loving warmth that began to radiate as we found each other and shared space and support.

My husband and I hosted friends and then some congregants during that difficult week. It was a time for meaningful connection and tremendous appreciation for the value of caring relationships. Folks came to the synagogue to get warm or use the electricity, and the greatest resource we could share: caring. People complained to each other, shared their tales of woe, and then we reminded one another to be grateful for the precious gift of life. Yes, it was difficult, but it taught us about what is most important – not our things, but our connections.

We can be so fragmented these days – constantly on our computers and our phones, often rushing from one place to the next for activities that fill our days, and stress our souls. Ironically, all this social networking can separate us from our deepest selves, and from each other. These three unusual natural events reminded us that life is first and foremost about weaving connections between each other. When we came together on the Shabbat following the storm, we prayed with gusto, hugged one another, and thanked our Creator for the opportunity to care for one another, and to go forward enriched by the experience.

Posted on November 14, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Rabbi, The Philosopher and Aphrodite

The following exchange between myself and my students was a familiar one throughout my year long fellowship with Rabbis Without Borders (RWB):

Me: I’ll be away for a few days but I’ll see you when I get back.

Student: Where are you going?

Me: I have a fellowship with Rabbis Without Borders this year.

Student: Cool! Are you going to [fill in space with poverty stricken, war torn location]?

Me: No, I’ll be in Midtown Manhattan.

Student: Oh… O.k. Why is it called Rabbis Without Borders then?

Indeed, it is quite easy to conflate Rabbis Without Borders with the renowned organization, Doctors Without Borders. Yet, as you may have surmised, we were not delivering first aid care to the suffering habitués of Midtown Manhattan. Although, perhaps some emergency pastoral care would have been quite useful.

The objective of RWB (as I understand it) is to bring together rabbis from all different locations and denominations and facilitate meaningful conversations about bringing Judaism public: translating Jewish teachings and wisdom into a language that can be heard by people of all religions and no religion, throughout the public square, and impact culture, society and the public discourse and serve as a catalyst for positive steps towards that end. I often have said that another name for Rabbis Without Borders could have been Rabbis Without Accents. In other words, rabbis who are able to meaningfully and comprehensibly bring themselves and their teachings into the larger communal, societal and global conversation.

This endeavor, this striving to bring about positive change through the vehicle of the wisdom of the Torah is not a new one. In every age there have been individuals who have both existed firmly within the rooted tradition and within the sometimes fine, almost indiscernible space and sometimes 12-lane super-highway amount of space between “us” and “them.”

One such example is sourced within the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Avodah Zarah 44b. This source reflects a polemical confrontation between two distinct ideological worlds but also reveals fascinating insights. The Mishnah records:

שאל פרוקלוס בן פלוספוס את ר”ג בעכו, שהיה רוחץ במרחץ של אפרודיטי, אמר ליה, כתוב בתורתכם: +דברים יג+ לא ידבק בידך מאומה מן החרם, מפני מה אתה רוחץ במרחץ של אפרודיטי? אמר לו: אין משיבין במרחץ. וכשיצא, אמר לו: אני לא באתי בגבולה, היא באה בגבולי, אין אומרים: נעשה מרחץ נוי לאפרודיטי, אלא אומר: נעשה אפרודיטי נוי למרחץ. דבר אחר: אם נותנים לך ממון הרבה, אי אתה נכנס לעבודת כוכבים שלך ערום ובעל קרי ומשתין בפניה, זו עומדת על פי הביב וכל העם משתינין לפניה, לא נאמר אלא אלהיהם, את שנוהג בו משום אלוה – אסור, את שאינו נוהג בו משום אלוה – מותר

Proclos, son of a philosopher, put a question to Rabban Gamaliel in Acco when the latter was bathing in the bath house of Aphrodite. He said to him, “It is written in your Torah: ‘Nothing of the banned property shall adhere to your hand (Deut. 13:18):’ Why are you bathing in the bath house of Aphrodite?” He replied to him, “We may not answer in a bath house.” When he came out, he said to him, “I did not come into her domain, she has come into mine. Nobody says, the bath was made as an adornment for Aphrodite, but he does say, Aphrodite was made as an adornment for the bath. Another reason is, if you were given a large sum of money, you will still not enter the presence of one of your revered statues while you were unclothed or relieve yourself in front of it. But this statue of Aphrodite stands by a sewer and all people relieve themselves before it. In the Torah it is only stated “their gods (Deut. 12:2),” i.e. what is treated as a deity is prohibited, what is not treated as such is permitted.

Here we have the famed Rabban Gamaliel, one of the most important Talmudic rabbinic figures, situated in one of the most important Roman institutions, the bath house. And indeed it is not just any bath house but rather it is a bath house dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, pleasure, beauty and procreation. If this seems like a dissonant moment to you than you would be in a similar position as our antagonist, Proclos.

We can reason that Proclos, both by his name and by his designation as a son of a philosopher, is certainly not of the rabbinic community and also not a Jewish individual. By labeling him the son of a philosopher, the Talmud very much locates him within the cultural nexus of the Greco-Roman world in distinction from the very rabbinic and very Jewish, Rabban Gamaliel. This makes it all the more striking that the proof text by which Proclos summons a challenge against R. Gamaliel’s behavior is none other than the Torah itself. It is as if Proclos says to him, “Aren’t you living a hypocritical life? I’ve read your book and I know what you’re doing is wrong!”

Rabban Gamaliel does several things in response to the challenge set before him. The first one reveals to us precisely how R. Gamaliel understood himself. After Proclos finishes speaking, R. Gamaliel responds by saying “We may not answer in a bath house.” It is a Jewish legal principle that one may not speak words of Torah in either a restroom or a bath house or other places where the nature of the place brings people to wear less than an otherwise normal amount of clothing. By insisting on maintaining this practice, R. Gamaliel sends a clear message that he does not view his actions as being disjointed from his fundamental Jewish beliefs. He is not leading two separate lives, one public and one private, but rather the entirety of his life is bound up in his worldview.

Yet, nonetheless, he still was found in the bath house dedicated to Aphrodite. How could you possibly reconcile this belief with that action? Professor Moshe Halbertal of Hebrew University, in his essay in the book Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Judaism and Christianity (1998, Cambridge University Press), understood R. Gamaliel’s defense of his action to be that of laying forth the groundwork for a new paradigm for relations between “us” and “them.” By reshaping the way he saw the bath house; not as a Roman religious institution, but a decorative Roman cultural institution, he constructed a neutral space, where both Jews and others (in his case, pagans) could meet and interact.

In fact, the very ability for a person like Proclos to be able to have the opportunity to raise a challenge to a person like Rabban Gamaliel presupposes the existence of a conceptual and physical space in which they could meet.  Thus, it is possible to see the redefinition of the bath house by R. Gamaliel as the transformation of a particular cultural institution of the Roman world into a public square where a multiplicity of voices could be heard and be in dialogue with each other.

The wisdom of understanding that to be a person committed to specific religious convictions does not necessitate being only in or only out but that the genuine path lies in being a bit of both, is one that needs further cultivation and expression.

Rabbi Sacks with members of Harvard Hillel's a cappella group, Shani

Thankfully, we have women and men today in the Jewish community who serve as inspirations and role models for this path. I have had the privilege of hearing Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks twice now as he has come to speak at Harvard. During both of his visits, the respective lecture halls were filled to capacity. In the audience were Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, academics and professionals. Why did all these people from so many disparate backgrounds come to hear a rabbi? It can not just be on the basis of his rabbinic title alone for if that were the case I would have a standing room only audience for each of my classes! I believe it is because he translates the profound teachings of our tradition and transmits them eloquently in direct application to the issues most on the minds of people today.

We can look throughout Jewish history up until contemporary times and discover a history replete with people like R. Gamaliel and Rabbi Sacks. Those individuals who serve as guiding posts for living a Jewish life that impacts the broader world. The prophet Isaiah calls upon us to be a light unto the nations and the special thing about light is, as the Chasidic masters have taught, a little bit of light can dispel a whole lot of darkness. Whether you are a rabbi without borders or a rabbi without accents or simply a human being who wants to make their impact in changing the world for the better: Where is your light? How are you cultivating it and how are you using it to dispel the darkness in our society?

- Rabbi Ben Greenberg

Posted on November 11, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Guest in our own Tent

At this time of Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots, the question of social justice is certainly prominent. In this week’s Torah portion, God chooses Abraham precisely because his commitment to teaching social justice or righteousness and justice to his descendants.

The question can then be raised what exactly is the ‘social justice’ that Abraham practiced and which his descendants are to emulate. A midrash gives us one somewhat startling and playful response:

“For I have known him, to the end that hey may command his children and his household after him that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19).

“R. Aha said in R. Alexandri’s name: This righteousness (zedakah) refers to his welcoming of guests. R. ‘Azariah said in R. Judah’s name: First righteousness (zedakah) and then justice (mishpat): how is this to be understood? Abraham used to receive wayfarers. After they had eaten and drunk he would say to them, ‘Now recite Grace.’ ‘What shall we say?” they asked. ‘Blessed be the God of the Universe of whose bounty we have partaken,’ Abraham replied. If one consented to recite grace, he would [be allowed to] eat, drink, and depart. But if one refused, Abraham would demand, ‘Pay me what you owe me.’ ‘Why, what do I owe you?’ the guest would reply. ‘One xestes’ of wine costs ten follera, a pound of meat costs ten follera; a round of bread costs ten follera. Who will give you wine in the wilderness; who will give you meat in the wilderness; who will give you bread in the wilderness? ‘ Seeing himself thus driven into a corner, the guest would say, ‘ Blessed be the God of the Universe of whose bounty we have eaten.’ Hence righteousness is written first and then justice.”

Although initially responding to a linguistic concern of the use of both righteousness and justice, the portrayal of Abraham here can raise some eyebrows. If his guests fail to bless, Abraham would turn around and charge them as customers!

The midrash places Abraham’s commitment to righteousness in the center of his tent. Abraham is the paradigm of the one who welcomes guests and this is directly related to his understanding of God. Ethics and theology here are inseparable. Abraham’s recognition of God, his awareness he does not really own what he possesses and must be shared with others emerges out of this recognition of God as ultimate Master of the cosmos.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick extends this idea one step further. Welcoming guests goes beyond merely being civil and polite. Indeed we have probably all experienced guests who challenged our patience and graciousness and gave us pause as to why we had welcomed them into our home in the first place! However, it is precisely in being patient with those who are difficult is how we can emulate God who in the Torah’s eyes is also patient with us and our shortcomings.

However, in this midrash, Abraham requires his guests, after experiencing his generosity, to bless and thank God. While this may seem as an inappropriate imposition to our eyes, one Hasidic commentator has an interesting observation.

Abraham only asked his guests to bless after they ate and not before partaking of the food. They first experienced his generosity, and had allowed Abraham to fulfill a commandment as it were, of welcoming guests. While Abraham provided them material benefit, their receiving of it gave theological/spiritual meaning to Abraham. It was not their eating that allowed them to bless God, but rather their graciousness in receiving Abraham’s hospitality. Their receiving was a transformative act that opened them up to new spiritual possibilities. Lacking that graciousness, and the ability to receive Abraham’s hospitality, they would see Abraham simply as an innkeeper where they would have to pay for what they ate.

To be a proper guest is then being able to receive the gifts of others. To be a guest in the world in the model of Abraham is to share what we have received with our fellow guests of the world. The Abraham vision of social justice that emerges from this Midrash is one rooted in a theology that we are not the ultimate masters of our tents. We are all guests. We must both give and receive with graciousness and blessing. If we lose sight of being guests, we must still give, but it loses spiritual/theological meaning and only becomes another bill to be paid.

Posted on November 9, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Ten Hours in the Life of a Rabbi Without Borders

Bhagavan Nityananda

Indian guru Bhagavan Nityananda

Twenty early morning souls relax into the padded cushions that line the basement of the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies. I place myself in the back right corner and lean back into the plump fabric-covered pillows.

My gaze catches the glow that emanates from the room’s interior cavity. A life-sized picture of the host couple’s Indian guru greets me. We engage. His eyes follow me like Michaelangelo’s Mona Lisa and encourage my contemplation.

The dharma is presented by a visiting Hindu teacher. He reflects on the life of his beloved guru, Bhagavan Nityananda, with stories, humor and pathos. He recalls and recites the miracles created by his spiritual mentor. His tales enhance our way of modeling a superior spiritual life.

“The spiritual,” he says, “is about connections and coincidences, the relationship to the One and the flow of the mysterious.”

The chanting occurs in Sanskrit. Several people sing along, while I relax into the rhythmic tones and nest my face into my white pashmina scarf. My breathing is nonexistent to myself. God takes my inhalation and sets my heartbeat into a peaceful pace.

In time, the chanting changes and completes its round. The dimmer radiates more light. The 90-minute meditation session ends with a smooth finish. No one speaks; everyone moves.

Ten hours later, I stand before the Shabbat candles in the corner hallway at the Chabad House in Herndon, Virginia. I hear and embrace the giggling sounds of my four grandchildren and the rabbi’s five children as they relay race down the corridors. I quiet my mind for reflection.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Amidst the joy, I linger in the entryway in front of the gold-framed picture of the Rebbe and a portrait of the late young Chabad rabbi, Levi Deitsch, who died of cancer the year before. The Rebbe, the late Chabad rabbi and the nameless guru follow me into the Friday evening prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat.

Rabbi Leibel Fajnland faces the Holy Ark. The echo of his continuous Hebrew davening wafts through the many rooms of this sparsely furnished one-story school and learning center.
I receive his concentric prayers and whisper the mantra of my silent evening Amidah by heart. I enter into dialogue with the God of my ancestors.

I soften my eyelids. I close my eyes. I see into the light of my early morning soul again.

Posted on November 9, 2011

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Delaying Bar Mitzvah Till Age 25

A Serious Man

I run a pretty rockin’ Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah service.  I’ve officiated at several hundred of these events. I’ve been to hundreds more by some great Rabbis, but even with the warmest clergy, the best intended preparation programs, and helpful guidance of thoughtful books such as Putting God on the Guest List (by, Jeffrey K. Salkin), Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are missing the mark.

The original meaning of the celebration was that a child was entering puberty, and now was responsible for the commandments. Puberty can be a tricky time, no wonder so many wise traditions developed rituals for its arrival. Age 13 boys (and 12 for girls), is the average on-set of puberty. In the Mishnah (200 CE), this corresponded to having grown 2 pubic hairs (2 is for real, 1 eh, might just be shmutz), B. Talmud Niddah 52a. As a rite of passage, dealing with the physical changes of adolescents might be meaningful. However, we live in an age where people are rightfully creeped-out by almost anybody talking about sexuality with minors. Perhaps, especially clergy. So puberty remains the elephant in the room. Even dealing with the physical and hormonal changes of becoming a teen is a topic that most clergy wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

Because we collectively fail to connect what is really happening in the life of the teen, the celebration’s meaning, both the service and party, has been diminished. When a rite of passage looses its core it can become fairly comical, think Keeping the Faith with Ben Stiller and Ed Norton, or more recently the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man. Faux-Mitzvahs have been popping up over the past few years. These are celebrations for 13 year-olds of any religion that want to celebrate the way their Jewish friends are doing. And why not? Have you heard the joke: “That was more ‘bar’ than ‘mitzvah’?”

Keeping the Faith

I love the “today you are a man” speech. This kid doesn’t have a job, nor has he seriously considered how he intends on investing his 401k. Even being a little league star hardly counts as manhood. In truth, this kid is about to head into some fairly big ups and downs. Such is the nature of becoming a teenager: All the physical capabilities without the sechel (smarts) to navigate. Consider this insight from the Department of Health and Human Services:

With an immature prefrontal cortex, even if teens understand that something is dangerous, they may still go ahead and engage in the risky behavior. Recognizing the asynchrony of development of the regions of the brain helps us to see adolescent risk-taking in a whole new light. This broadened view of risk-taking and the concept of self-regulation are explored in the next section.

As my Head of School at New Community Jewish High School, Dr. Bruce Powell, says, “The car rental agencies have it right.” It turns out, you can’t rent a car until you are 25 years old, the accurate age of the end of adolescence. With brain scans, neurologists tell us that the frontal lobe continues to develop until the age of 25 (leave it to the free-market to figure it out before science). If we’re not going to deal with kids’ physical and psychic development at Bar Mitzvah, we might be wise to wait until the next, more politically correct milestone, maybe getting a driver’s license, or high school graduation. And if we want to hold onto the golden “today you are a man” line, might I suggest waiting till age 25.

Posted on November 8, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Welcome to the Rabbis Without Borders Blog

Welcome to the Rabbis Without Borders Blog on! Humm, “Rabbis Without Borders” sounds like “Doctors Without Borders,” so this must be blog about rabbis traveling around the world tending to people’s spiritual needs, right?

Well, not exactly. Rabbis Without Borders are rabbis who offer Jewish wisdom, wisdom from the Jewish tradition, in ways that can be helpful to you in your life. As rabbis, we want to use Jewish tradition to help you flourish in your life, to help you live and grow. The “with out borders” part means not that we travel around the world, but that we want to offer you wisdom from a variety of perspectives. There will be 10 different rabbis writing on this blog and each rabbi comes from a different stream in Judaism. Some of the rabbis will answer your questions on the weekly Torah portion. Some will answer your questions about what Judaism has to say about what is going on in the world today. Some will answer your questions about God and spiritual matters. And some will answer your questions about parenting, household issues, and navigating challenges in life. The Jewish tradition has wisdom on each of these subjects and many more. Our goal is to help you access that wisdom and use it in your life.

All of the rabbis writing here are Rabbis Without Borders Fellows at Clal- The National Jewish Center for learning and Leadership. Founded in 1974, Clal ( is a think tank, leadership training institute and resource center. For over thirty years Clal has led the way in building creative, compelling, pluralist Jewish community and life. Rabbis Without Borders is the next phase of this work.

Rabbis Without Borders ( Fellows have completed a year long intensive Fellowship which has pushed them to think out side the box. These are rabbis who use our ancient tradition in new and exciting ways. We are networked with each other and continually challenge each other to try new things. We are excited to partner with in sharing our ideas with you.

We hope that you find our thoughts to be meaningful and useful. We look forward to reading your comments and hearing your thoughts on our posts.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu
Director, Rabbis Without Borders, Clal

Posted on November 4, 2011

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