There are definitely times when I feel like I am single-handedly keeping Barnes and Noble in business. It was very dangerous when I lived walking distance from a store, because I’d go there several times a week, and almost always came away with at least one book in my hand.
I realized that as much as I love reading books, what I truly love is owning books. When I look at my overflowing bookshelves in my house and my office, I smile.
I had always wondered why that was the case, until Rabbi David Wolpe shared this thought from A.E. Newton a few weeks ago: “The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity.” So perhaps the many, many unread books on my shelves are not simply gathering dust. Perhaps all those unread books are there to help me to nourish my soul.
How so? First, unread books remind me that even if I gain some modicum of knowledge and insight, there will always be more to learn. In fact, Jewish learning even intentionally makes it impossible for us to learn everything — every tractate of the Talmud, the great collection of law and learning, begins on page two, never on page one. Why? To teach us that we should never assume that we have found all the answers.
Similarly, owning dozens (or hundreds!) of unread books is a very physical reminder that there is always more wisdom being added to the world. It is both inspiring and humbling to know that whatever we learn, there will always be new facts, new interpretations, and new ideas to discover.
Second, a library filled with unread books gives us the freedom to go browsing in the comfort of our own home or office — and we often overlook the value of browsing. As author Leon Wiseletier wrote beautifully in a piece in the New Republic:
When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations…[and] serendipity is how the spirit is renewed…
Too often, we search only for the information we need. We type in a Google search, and are very happy when we find the answer we’ve been looking for. But searching is limiting — we have to know in advance what we’re looking for. Browsing, in contrast, opens up our horizons, and helps us develop connections or inspirations that we may have otherwise missed.
So if you, too, have books that are now laying horizontally on top of other books because your shelves are too full, that’s a good thing. They are reminding you that wisdom and knowledge are an ever-expanding enterprise, and they are giving you the opportunity to come across insights you may have otherwise missed.
Unread books do not add to our store of information; to do that, we do actually need to read them. But unread books do add to our store of humility and the broadening of our worldview — and so even if they are never opened, they help our soul reach to infinity.
On Christmas morning, I’m reviewing the news online and I catch the Huffington Post’s summary of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Mass message. In it, he bemoans the lack of space in our fast-paced lives for God:
“Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him,” said the pope, wearing gold and white vestments.
“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full,” he said.
In the study sessions, the day-to-day conversations, the pastoral visits and other randomly occurring opportunities that I have with many people that touch on consciousness of the spiritual, I find a very different picture to the one that the Pope bemoans. Just this past week, when one of my congregants gave the d’var torah after reading from parsha Vayigash, she took a survey of the congregation that night that highlighted this very issue. At the moment in the Joseph story that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, he responds to their fear that he will seek vengeance on them. He tells them that, while they may have meant their actions to do him harm, God meant it for good. It appears that Joseph believes that every step of his path was intended by God in order to bring him to the position of influence that he now has, without which he would not be in a position to save his family from famine. My congregant rejected this understanding of the unfolding of events. But, in surveying the congregation, she found that most people believed that God does show up in the fabric of our everyday lives, but not in a manner that is engineering every step of our experience, implied by some of our biblical narratives.
And this is what I see in the conversations that I have – many questions and the search for a God that is part of the fabric of our lives, but not the God that is described in the ancient mind of the biblical authors. Unlike the Pope, I do not see a wholesale rejection of God, or lives too busy to engage in the questions. For sure, atheism is a very present strand of thought in our society. But that is just one stage in the evolution of our understanding. What I see is the rejection of outdated God-ideas, but many are looking for part two – the search for new language to replace those ideas that emerge from our actual, lived experiences.
Rabbi Irwin Kula makes precisely this argument in the video short he created, ‘Time for a New God.’ He seeks a new understanding of God and new conversations about God that can emerge from our most intensely felt life experiences. Each and every moment is a potential doorway into something that gets us beyond a mundane interaction with our world and with each other. For, he suggests, ‘the whole world is really just God in drag.’
Time after time, when I don’t start with the presentation of old God-ideas delivered by the philosophers of past centuries, but I start with the powerful experiences that we all have as part of life, and we then try to find language to express something of the ‘beyondness’ that the experience points toward but which we can’t quite encapsulate in words, I find common ground on which we can stand. From there, it is possible to explore the possibilities of reclaiming the word ‘God’ to reflect what the inner reality of those experiences might be. Or sometimes we’ll explore reclaiming the word ‘kedushah’ – holiness – as a doorway into noticing and elevating the importance of our most deeply felt experiences for directing, guiding, or informing our lives. Whether I am having these conversations with adults, who may not have visited the God-idea since their bar or bat mitzvah, or I’m having these conversations with skeptical teenagers who feel empowered when they learn that they can claim a God-idea that jives with their experience of life, the result is often the same. We don’t reach conclusions or serve up pat answers; but there is no lack of interest in exploring the questions.
And so, for many of us it is not a matter of finding room for God. Rather, through the invitation to let go of old God-ideas that no longer work, in order to explore new doorways that can speak to the world we live in today, its more of a matter of finding God in the room.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the opening scene from the Wizard of Oz –where the house spins wildly in the air and lands with a crash. In the next scene, Dorothy wakes up and learns that she is in Oz, opening an adventure. The scene that made me remember this childhood image was very real, and it is no adventure at all. The houses that spun and landed were real houses picked up by Hurricane Sandy just weeks ago. Unlike their fictional movie counterpart, these houses didn’t land intact. They broke into thousands of pieces, some tiny and some amazingly large, some sweeping through the nearby reedy marsh.
This was the scene in Union Beach, New Jersey, where I spent a day volunteering with a group from the Jewish Federation of Metrowest, NJ. Our community has adopted Union Beach and made a special effort to assist this devastated community less than an hour’s drive from my home.
The town manager outlined the extent of the devastation – 1600 modest middle income homes comprise this small, hardworking shore town, and virtually all were either flooded, badly damaged, devastated (needing demolition) or completely demolished by the storm. 50 houses were destroyed, while another 300 are beyond repair. The needs are enormous.
We worked on cleaning a marshland wildlife habitat adjacent to the shore. One street on the bay side of the marsh suffered a direct hit from storm surge, and every single house was destroyed. Much of the debris landed across the marsh. In one section we pried household plumbing and parts of walls out of the tangled marsh. We cut and removed sections of wooden framing from houses, alongside an entire outside deck. We discovered what appeared to be the pieces of an entire house along with its contents, uncovered piece by piece from the mud. A child’s toy truck. A refrigerator. A couch. A hat. A section of a kitchen table. A storage bin for toys. A mailbox attached to the post, #168. A box of love letters, the top one addressed, “Dear Honey-Bunny”, from thirty years ago. Photographs, some in albums, many alone in the debris, attested to whole lifetimes of family and special times. One baby picture looked eerily like my son as a baby. Each item brought tears to my eyes – this was their whole lives, and it could have been mine. I grieved for their loss.
The town manager told us that they don’t know how many people are currently living in the town. Many are sleeping on couches and floors with family, friends and neighbors. FEMA has yet to provide housing for any of the displaced residents.
The AmeriCorps team leader told me that she had just come from working in a section of New York that was a worse disaster than Union Beach. There is plenty of misery to go around in New Jersey and New York.
I wished I could cut just write checks to these homeowners to get their lives rebuilt. I thought of the politicians in Congress playing politics with the request for emergency funding that is facing opposition in the House. I felt sick about it.
I came home and told my son about our work. I was achy and tired, but glad I did it. He said, “Yea, but its only one day.” He’s right. The need is so much greater.
As I scrubbed the mud from under my fingernails and nursed my aching back, I thought of the politicians whose help is desperately needed. All the volunteers can’t do what our government can do to help these communities. As I drifted off to sleep I imagined a fantasy – every politician who must decide whether to fund the Emergency Fund as requested by local officials ought to have to spend a week sleeping on floors and couches in these cramped quarters, spending the daytime not debating, but digging, sawing, lifting, and removing debris. And then rebuilding—wouldn’t that be nice! Maybe if they got their hands dirty they would think twice about saying “no.”
After all, there is no place like home.
If you are reading this after Friday, December 21, 2012, it means you survived the Mayan Apocalypse!! Congratulations!!
For those who are unaware of the existence of the Big Day, the Mayan Long Count calendar, an extremely lengthy and complex calendar, began on a mythical creation date in 3114 BCE. After 5125 years, the calendar—which is linear rather than cyclical—reaches the end of 13 “B’aktun” cycles. This end date happened to be Dec. 21, 2012.
For many, this has become a catalyst for end of world theories. 12% of Americans believe the apocalypse will come on Dec. 21. Others are using the date as a source for non-Mayan apocalyptic beliefs. Some new Age/UFO followers are flocking to France to make sure they are on the last spaceship to leave earth.
So what ought to be the Jewish response to all this apocalyptic furor? Oddly enough, I think it should be the same as the Mayans’ approach. For, despite all the hoopla in the media, the Maya themselves did not see December 21, 2012 as the end of the world but merely as the end of a cycle; like a car’s odometer, the calendar simply resets to zero and starts over again. Judaism, too, holds a reluctant attitude towards apocalyptic thought. “Apocalypse” is typically defined as a literary work containing a revelation of hidden things given by God to a chosen individual about events to come. The only apocalyptic work to make it into the Hebrew Bible is the Book of Daniel. Other works, such as the Book of Enoch, Assumption of Moses, II Esdras (also 4 Ezra), Apocalypse of Baruch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Apocalypse of Moses, amongst others, never made it into the canon. Indeed, apocalyptic thought has been relegated to the background of normative Jewish thought over the past 2000 years.
The reason for this, I believe, speaks volumes about the way we perceive the world around us. Apocalyptic thought is based on the premise that the world we are living in is awful and irredeemable in its current form; that we need a cataclysmic divine intervention to redeem the world and take us to the end of days. Rabbinic Judaism, however, by and large has privileged a “this-worldly” view; while the world to come (olam ha’ba) is an important component of rabbinic theology, engaging in mitzvot in the present tense is prioritized.
In other words, our lives matter. In contrast to apocalyptic thought, which can lead either to depression about the hopelessness of the world we live in or hedonistic practices since this life does not really count, Judaism teaches that our daily lives hold the potential for meaning and even holiness if we choose to honor them in this way. So on December 21, and on all succeeding days, let’s join with the Maya in celebrating life rather than death. Let’s make the most of each day rather than anxiously awaiting a mythic tomorrow.
Each year when I read the Joseph narratives in Genesis I discover something new. It is one of the joys for me of studying Torah. Although I know how the story ends, I still read it as if I am looking at it for the first time and wonder how it will conclude.
Joseph and his brothers are finally reconciled after Judah, through his speech to Joseph, causes Joseph to reveal his true identity. Genesis Rabbah 93:4 beautifully describes the rhetoric employed by Judah to finally penetrate to Joseph’ s heart. Judah draws out Joseph as the one who draws out the sweet water from the deep well. He enables Joseph to finally reveal his true self.
“Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out (Proverbs 20:5). This may be compared to a deep well full of cold and excellent water, yet none could drink of it. Then came one who tied cord to cord and thread to thread, drew up its water and drank, whereupon all drew water thus and drank thereof. In the same way Judah did not cease from answering Joseph word for word until he penetrated to his very heart.”
“Counsel in the heart of a man is like deep water” is exemplified in Judah at the time when he approached Joseph on behalf of Benjamin, as explained elsewhere, whereas “a man of understanding will draw it out” was exemplified in Joseph.”
For the Zohar it is Joseph who draws out Judah, despite the fact Judah makes the speech. The Shem M’Shmuel asserts that that Joseph is teaching Judah, or perhaps better bringing to the surface, the necessity for Judah to have hachnaah submissiveness or deference to Joseph. Judah, from whom kingship will derive, must understand while he (or his descendants) will have the power of the king, they must also have the characteristic of submissiveness. Judah is willing to be submissive to Joseph to save Benjamin. As kings his descendants will need to be submissive to God. While powerful on the one hand, they are really only the slaves/servants of God.
This Shabbat many rabbis will discuss the murders of last week. Many will call for action from our state and federal governments. The nature of the Second Amendment will be debated among friends, politicians, and in our legislatures. I think one contribution of many we can make to this urgent discussion is that while the “right to” is extraordinarily important, we must also be submissive to God or a greater good that can impose limits on our rights.
Kabbalah is an attempt to understand the brokenness of the universe.The other night, my chevruta (Study partner) and I were reading a section of a work by the Magid of Mezritch, in which he about what it means to “rule” or have dominion.
In the version of kabbalah that the Magid is discussing, we understand God as being essentially unapproachable and beyond understanding. But there is a little piece of God, called the shekhina, which is just, just approachable, just barely comprehensible, by human beings. This, the lowest “level” of godliness, is a kind of conduit. If we do mitzvot, commandments, we help repair the essential brokenness of the universe, and we open a little flow – like a faucet almost- into the human world of time and stuff, that allows God’s animating principle to bring wholeness and blessing into the world. But this lowest level also has another tap – not just hot water, but also cold – if we don’t do mitzvot, or if we do evil, then this other tap is opened, and not only doesn’t blessing come into the world, but brokenness – the brokenness we create by not doing God’s will, does.
This is a roundabout way of saying that our actions affect the universe in profound ways, and are reflected even in the divine realms. The magid says that this brokenness comes because the sitra achra- the “other side” which plugs up blessing, says to itself, “Ana Emloch,” I will be king. This is interesting when you consider that the other name for the shekhina is malchut – dominion, or kingliness. The sitra achra is made up of several discrete parts, but when each one says, “I will be king,” the brokenness comes not because they wish to be king, but because they cannot join together – each one is a thing unto itself, alone, complete unto itself. But even more, each piece is complete unto itself, and thus doesn’t need anything else.
This, he says, is the negative aspect of dominion. In its utter completeness, and lack of need for others, it shuts out the very thing that could make it godly and truly whole.
There is a blessing after food, somewhat less known than the rather long bircat hamazon, which we say after foods that are sort of snacky and don’t really come under any other category. This blessing blesses God who, borei nefashot rabot v’chesronan, is the “Creator of many souls and their lacks.”
The late 19th-early 20th century rabbi known as the Chofetz Chaim explains the blessing in terms of a verse in psalms (89:3) olam chessed yiboneh “the world is sustained by kindness.” He says that the borei nefashot blessing is unique in thanking God for “having created numerous living things with their lacks” and that we say it because of the deep and essential importance of acknowledging that God did not create people to be self -sufficient. Rather, we need to remember that everything with a soul is in need, and that this is a good thing, because it means that we must reach out to one another, thus building into the very foundation of society the need for us to help one another, and for society to build “passing it forward” into its very structure.
We acknowledge God and bless God for creating us in need – because it allows us to help one another. What greater blessing is there than that? True brokenness is not lack – a lack can be filled. True brokenness is thinking that one is complete unto oneself and doesn’t need anyone else. That tendency to think of oneself as self-sufficient leads to the desire to dominate, because the truth is that when one doesn’t ask for help, one prevents blessing from entering, from other people, and from God.
I’ve always been suspicious of the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” crowd. Generally, the eternally sunny scare me. When do they let it out? Also, what does the good-tripping type do with out-and-out tragedies such as 20 first and second graders killed for showing up to school; the murder of 7 adults who cared for them, one of them the mother of the murder. How do you make lemonade out of that?
That is the only honest response I have. “God, WTF?! Here we are, all of us, most of us, trying the very best we can in life – and where are You?”
Yes, “What The F***!” is a prayer. Sure Psalm 13 says it differently, but the sentiment is the same. The prayer asks God, ‘where are You when I suffer, when the the world’s pain echoes through me like a deafening roar?’
How long, O Lord; will You ignore me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares on my mind, and grief in my heart all day? -Psalm 13:2-3.
When something troubling happens, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I get angry, angry at God. Anger at God is one of the most potent prayers I know. My friend Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu alluded to this in yesterday’s Rabbis Without Borders blog.
Of course, anger, red hot accusatory anger at God is not the entirety of Psalm 13. It opens with the startling finger-pointing accusation of God’s indifference, but it ends:
I will sing to the Lord, for God has been good to me.
I love this prayer. It allows me the honesty I need for the healthy relationship with God that I crave. Please don’t ask me to hold on to blind goodness and blessing, because then I feel especially lost and scared and angry when real trouble comes. But let me rail about: Murder, bloodshed, hunger, homelessness, parents burying their children, young girls in Pakistan being shot for wanting an education, women in the Congo being raped, and mind-bogglingly re-raped, their bodies part of the battlefield, and more, so much more…
God, if you let me say all that, let me spill my heart’s ache, well, then there is a lot left, and it’s good.
God, I am thankful for the health of my children, the gift of my wife’s love, the appreciation of my students, the feel of the ocean when I swim, the tightening of my skin as it warms in the sun, smiles, laughter, my dog, Matzah’s birthday, and I can go on and on.
I am filled with gratitude. Above all the troubles and trials of being human is a deep thankfulness for all that I have. Sometimes the world is upside down, and the troubles pile over the goodness. Expressing both my frustration and my joy is the only honest way to right the earth’s axis and move forward once again.
First we cry, then we act.
The murders that occurred on Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School are beyond my comprehension. How could something like this happen? As a parent of a seven year old, I just cried a upon hearing the news. The sadness I felt was overwhelming.
As a rabbi, I cannot even begin to offer a pat theology of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no explanation. Instead I raise my voice and my fists at God and yell, “Why? How could this happen?” I say angry, hateful things to God. I feel safe doing this because I know God can take my anger. God is the receptacle for my emotions, my deep sadness, anger, and terror, it all goes there. Why not? It has to go somewhere.
When I was done crying, I picked my daughter up early from a play date and got ready for Shabbat. Shabbat gave me a break from listening to the news and Googleing the latest information. I had some time to sit with my emotions. It helped.
The minute Shabbat was over, I was ready to act. The Ethical Culture Society in my town organized a vigil to end gun violence Saturday night. My husband and I canceled our plans for a fun night out, and joined the vigil. Sunday morning, I spent time signing petitions being sent to the president and my representatives in Washington calling on them to enact legislation to strengthen our gun laws. I donated to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence . We must outlaw semi-automatic weapons. There is no reason they should be in our hands. We must make it harder for a person to purchase a gun. I am all for background checks, waiting periods, licensing, continuing education in order to hold on to your license, and high taxes on guns and bullets. We enact many regulations to enforce public safety. It is past time that these regulations apply to guns as well.
If it were up to me, I would outlaw all hand guns. Unfortunately I know that will not happen. And I know that no matter how many laws we put in place people who really want guns will get their hands on them. But this should not stop us from making it harder! There are more gun deaths in the US than any other developed country. This is simply unacceptable.
I believe that we live in partnership with God. We both impact events. God was not able to stop this shooting from taking place. But God is here as a support structure to help us get through the aftermath. My role, and your role, is to do what we can on this earth to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Organize locally, call Washington, let’s do our best to get guns out of our homes and off our streets. It is time.
Two weeks ago the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in North America, issued a statement formally distancing themselves from the organization known as JONAH: Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. It was in 2004 that the RCA first suggested in an earlier statement that rabbis might consider referring Jews struggling with homosexuality to that organization.
In the time since 2004 numerous issues have arisen with the therapeutic practices conducted by JONAH and other similar organizations. Serious allegations have arisen about the abusive nature of the treatment and subsequent mental health issues that arise for the patients, including higher risk of suicide. These change therapy clinics are indeed facing tests in court in both New Jersey and California, including JONAH.
The RCA after consultations with experts in psychology and law as well as rabbinic guides publicly decided to distance themselves from JONAH. In so doing the RCA has made a not so subtle move towards recognizing that homosexuality might not be something that can be “repaired” or changed in an individual. While the RCA has just begun this process, two and a half years ago hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, educators and communal leaders declared publicly that homosexual Jews are deserving of dignity and respect.
It follows logically that if homosexuals are deserving of dignity and respect that would translate into equal protection and equal rights under civil law. Thus, a colleague of mine in Portland, Maine, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, recently published an opinion piece in the local paper celebrating the passage of same-sex marriage equality in Maine. Rabbi Herzfeld has received countless calls and emails thanking him for his thoughts and he has also received numerous concerns that what he advocates is a slippery slope. If he supports civil marriage equality for homosexuals then why not for polygamists, practitioners of bestiality, etc.
The slippery slope argument can be very persuasive and it can also be paralyzing. The fear of what might be next can inhibit any action at all. Indeed, one does need to carefully consider future implications of their actions but after careful consideration and the weighing of ethical, moral, legal and social responsibilities one must make a decision.
One also needs to remember that there is another slippery slope out there, one that is equally powerful. The slippery slope of denying privileges and rights to one group very easily leads to the denial of those same privileges and rights to the next group and the next group and so on. After all, it was this same slippery slope argument that played heavily in the polemic of individuals opposed to emancipation, civil rights and desegregation. We may look back at those arguments now and find them foolish but many, many Americans did not during the time.
While we carefully consider the slippery slope of increased rights and privileges to an ever expanding circle of groups and constituencies, let us also consider the slippery slope of decreased rights and privileges to an equally expanding circle of groups and constituencies. Which slippery slope would we fear more? Which possible outcome is more damaging to our national character: a never-ending increasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups or a never-ending decreasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups? This is the question we must carefully and honestly consider.
I do not have an easy answer for you to ponder on this question. My aim is to provide another frame by which to view the question and allow you to come to your own conclusions. The Jewish way is not always in readily packaged quick soundbites of an answer but rather with offering the questions to grapple and to wrestle with.
Like it or not, intermarriage is a fact in Jewish life.
And for the most part the Jewish community has learned to live with it. Sure, different movements deal with it differently. Sure, some congregations are more adept and accommodating. But from Renewal to Orthodox we no longer assume that a Jew by birth will marry another Jew by birth.
But as demographics shift in the United States, the nature of intermarriage is changing too. And the Jewish community will need to adapt if it hopes to continue to create spaces for these new Jewish families.
In particular, my concern is with multiracial and multicultural families. There is nothing new about Jews from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. There were Jews in Ethiopia centuries before there were Jews in Poland and Jews in India before there were Jews in Spain. Jewish institutional life in the United States, however, has largely been built on the presumption that Jews are white. And our welcome to interfaith couples has similarly assumed that intermarriages between one white Jew and one white non-Jew.
But interracial marriages are at an all time high in the Unites States, a trend that is expected to continue as the population becomes increasingly more diverse. And Jewish households are clearly part of this trend.
We will need to change our language and approach in order to live up to the welcoming image we have of ourselves. Having become accustomed to Jews who have blond hair and blue eyes or wear “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts, we need to be open to those with dreadlocks or who celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Because these new members of our extended community come from many different backgrounds, we cannot make assumptions about how they understand religion, community, or family. We will have to personalize our approach. We need to meet others who see Jews not just as a religious minority but as part of the white establishment. We need to broaden our own learning, so that we understand and appreciate the cultural challenges and gifts that they bring.
In the last year I’ve attended several b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that exemplify the power of embracing multiracial, multicultural Jewish families. At one service, the boy chanted from the Torah while wearing a Korean hanbok. Blessings were said in English and Korean as well as the traditional Hebrew. At another the bar mitzvah spoke of being half Japanese, half Australian and fully Jewish in a synagogue decorated with origami chains for the occasion. At another, the bat mitzvah took the occasion to also take on a traditional Japanese name sharing her multiple new identities with the congregation. In each case conversations had to be had about how to bring together multiple elements of identity into what is so clearly a Jewish setting. In each case, thought and respect were evident throughout.
These are the success stories, families who feel fully welcome, fully empowered. They are passing on Jewish traditions even as they expand them. They shine of an example of that to which we can all aspire.