Monthly Archives: May 2014

A Taste of Eternity: Letters from the Front

800px-US_Soldier_with_cattle_dogThe fifth of the Ten Commandments states: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12).

My brother and I decided to spend Mother’s Day with our late parents.

No, we did not visit the cemetery. Instead, we sat on the living room floor, sifting through boxes of memorabilia. Without my brother’s guidance, I would have avoided the memorabilia forever. My parents are present in my thoughts, dreams, and feelings; that bittersweet ethereal presence is enough for me. My brother, however, feels that each photo and letter carries their imprint. To honor them, we must witness each one.

As we witnessed this Mother’s Day, we did discover for ourselves a longer life. Letters written to and from our parents connected us across the generations, and with significant events in Jewish history.

During World War II, we learned, our uncle wrote frequently to his younger sister, our future mother. Uncle H, drafted into the U.S. army, found himself stationed in Africa. To his 18-year old sister, he spoke frankly: I’ve been seeing quite a bit of North Africa…don’t let anybody tell you different, it’s war torn.

In March 1943, he wrote: I saw that article about Hitler’s supposed death. It is strictly a matter of speculation as to whether he is alive or not. If he did die I hope it was in the same manner some of our people were forced to end their existences.

Uncle H hated Hitler, but had compassion for ordinary German soldiers, required to serve a terrible cause. He wrote: I’ve spoken to many Italian and German prisoners already. The are a nice lot generally speaking but apparently misguided. They are as one fellow remarked “typically GI.” You know, that’s the army expression for soldiers. It is just the fact that they’re fighting under another flag and for a cause of hatred and injustice. I thoroughly despise what any German soldier represents.

Uncle H applied those same democratic principles when he gave his sister dating advice: I was surprised to learn that you have discarded your democratic views in regard to Service men. The only difference between officers and enlisted men is rank. Under the skin they are all the same. Personally I have had very little if any respect at all for girls who would only go out with officers. It is against my principles and very anti-democratic.

No surprises here: I know the U.S. army had knowledge of the horrible crimes against European Jewry. I know that Uncle H was opinionated; that he was close with his sister; and that she was a tough-minded future policewoman. But, coming through the letters, this all seems like precious new information.

Uncle H, as I knew him, was funny and sardonic, a commentator on the human condition. And here he suddenly was, dropped into World War II, reporting just as I might expect. And here was my mom, a future student of political science, receiving his reports; pondering world events; bemusedly accepting his dating advice, though all potential dates were serving overseas.

I know Mom and Uncle H; I know how they thought and felt. As I imagine them in this historical situation, I see it through their eyes. My own life becomes longer. It extends backward into events taking place before I was born. I participate in them, borrowing sensibilities already familiar to me.

In the self-reflective journey of counting of the Omer, we pause this week on the quality of Netzach, eternity. The word netzach is used eight times in the Tanakh. In some places it refers to God, the unchanging one; in others, it describes a human experience of enduring long suffering. Netzach expresses a divine quality, a sense of time as it might exist beyond the boundaries of human perception. Netzach also expresses a human quality, the subjective experience of enduring for a really long time.

My uncle’s letters bring me into netzach.  Not the divine kind, eternity beyond the boundaries of human perception, but the human kind, a sense that something endures longer than one might expect. Today, my life seems to extend beyond its boundaries. Events I once thought mythical become a living part of my experience. For me, that’s a very human taste of eternity.

That’s how I feel about being Jewish in general. The sense that I am part of a community whose narrative extends 3,000 years into the past offers me a sense of eternity. This kind of eternity seems attainable. After all, it is only 30 Uncle H’s ago. But it also seems divinely soul-expanding. To reach it, I imaginatively join with with other minds, experiences, and stories. When I honor my ancestors in this way, my own life becomes longer.

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Posted on May 12, 2014

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

Don’t Pray, Communicate! A Book Review of Holistic Prayer

weiss_avi_webTo understand the newest book by Rabbi Avi Weiss one needs to tell a story that appears in the book, Holistic Prayer:

A rabbi was once informed that a crazed woman was in the beit midrash (the study hall, which is sometimes used as a small prayer room). “She is standing in front of the Ark, the Ark is open, and she is babbling and gesturing wildly,” he was told. “She seems to be mentally imbalanced. Perhaps you can go in and help her. The rabbi went in. As he sat quietly in the back, he could see that the woman was deeply immersed in tefilla. The rabbi overheard some of her words as she swayed and cried out: “Dear God, I know I was here just last week, but I am back because I need your help. My daughter is still not well. Please, please, in my hour of need, do not forsake me, do not leave me!” Understanding the privacy of her tefilla, the rabbi left the woman alone. Upon his return, he was asked, “So what did you do with the babbling crazy lady?” The rabbi responded, “This morning I got up, put on my prayer shawl, donned my tefillin and davened. But this woman wasn’t davening, she was talking to God. That’s a whole different world.” (Holistic Prayer, pg. 169)

The goal of Rabbi Weiss’ book is to take the reader on a journey. It is a journey that when finished will lead the reader to transition from a davening (praying) out of repetition to a conversation with God. The book is most appreciated by those who have a familiarity with the mechanics of daily Jewish prayer and have a comfort with the key terminology. It is to this audience that Rabbi Weiss challenges the reader to rethink what they think they know about prayer and to open up our hearts and minds to a reinvigorated and renewed understanding. For example, in discussing a key feature of traditional Jewish prayer, the set times allocated for it, Rabbi Weiss explains:

 “The idea that love is predicated on action is crucial to understanding tefilla and, more broadly, all of Jewish ritual. If tefilla is an expression of love, why should we be mandated to pray? Why not pray only when we feel like praying? In truth, however, we may not feel like praying for long periods of time. But if we’re obliged to pray, we make a decision to pray. By placing ourselves in the prayerful mode, feelings of prayer may surface… That is the basic idea of ritual. Ritual is an expression of our love for God. Its goal is by and large to do an action from which feelings may come. (pg. 77)”

holisticPrayer1In this journey of Holistic Prayer Rabbi Weiss weaves together a myriad of sources and references. His book is filled with ideas sourced from the Talmud, Halakha (Jewish law), Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and other traditional places. Yet, it also brings in ideas from thinkers not accustumed to finding themselves referenced in a work of the philosophy of prayer by an Orthodox rabbi. Examples of these out of the box thinkers include: John Powell, the Jesuit priest and author of The Secret of Staying in Love; the humanist philosopher Erich Fromm and the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. In the bringing together the wisdom from classical Jewish tradition and the larger world, Rabbi Weiss exemplifies the very best of the Modern Orthodox approach, in the model set forth by his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l.

I had the unique privilege of being a student in the rabbinical school he founded, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, while he was conducting his research that would become this book. In our year-long class on prayer Rabbi Weiss would convey his ideas and philosophy with us that would later fill the pages of Holistic Prayer. In reading this book I can not help but bring that experience to bear in my understanding this work. I not only read the words but I can hear them and visualize his excitement, passion and genuineness in conveying them.

In the preface Rabbi Weiss shares that his wrote this book because “for a long time, I have lovingly struggled with prayer.” When I read those words I had a hard time relating to them because as a student of his, someone who has been blessed to know him for almost 10 years, I have never experienced the man who has “lovingly struggled with prayer,” rather, I know a man who has a face that lights up when he is in the midst of prayer and who sways with an extraordinary amount of devotion and commitment. I think that is because this book is as personal for him as it is intellectually rigorous and spiritually rich. It records his own journey through his adult life with prayer. As someone who has at times also struggled with prayer I can very much share in that experience and it only makes this work more important for me and others who experience ups and downs in their own personal prayer life.

I believe this book is a must read for anyone who has committed to taking part in the life of traditional Jewish prayer, or who has ever experienced it, with all of its rigors and demands. It will inject your prayer life with a breath of fresh air and reframe the whole endeavor to provide new possibilities for enrichment and connection to God.

In closing the book Rabbi Weiss offers the following prayer:

“May the tefilla of Rabbi Judah HaLevi — of God and the human being searching for each other — be forever ingrained in our hearts.

I have sought your nearness, With all my heart I have called You, And going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me. (pg. 260)”

May we take up the call of Rabbi Weiss and catalyze our prayer to be a moment of going out to meet the Divine and in so doing discover God coming out to meet us.

Posted on May 9, 2014

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

On Mother’s Day

no_flowersYet another holiday about which I am ambivalent, Mother’s Day seems this year to have engendered rather more commentary than I can remember in past years. I have read several moving essays from women whose infertility has made Mother’s Day painful, as they are forced to watch the omnipresent cute pictures of babies and advertisements directed at heteronormative families seemingly composed of clumps of gooey gazes of young, pretty, thin (and mostly white) women at their offspring, neatly clad, and freshly scrubbed.

Aside from the commercialism of it all,  aside from the very real pain of women who want children and have not  been able to bear them, I wonder if this is the best we can do for women. While honoring one’s parents is a Jewish value, I’m not sure that Mother’s Day offers any real honor.

Of course I wouldn’t dare not show up at my own mother’s house, but as for me, I’d rather see our society make genuine changes to the way we treat women. I would consider it a far greater honor to make sure that no girl need fear rape in her high school or college than to get some paid-for gift every year. It would be a lot more clear to me that our society cares about mothers and motherhood if it made more effort to feed the children of all the mothers in it, and pay women the worth of our work—equal to what a man would make.

Of course, that’s sort of the point. It takes a lot less work to show pretty once a year, and make a few grand pronouncements about how motherhood is the most important job than it does to actually honor women. That would require some big changes in the way we do business, in how we live our lives, and would require more than one day’s consideration.

And I will say this, too. You can’t truly honor mothers if you don’t have genuine respect for all women: before, during, and after the years of her fertility, whether or not she chooses to bear children, whether or not she is able.

So if you really want to honor your mother this weekend, get off your duff and go make the world better for every girl, for every old woman, for any child born of woman, boy or girl. Go on: then you can be the hero your mother always told you you were. And that would be the best Mother’s Day present you could give her.

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Posted on May 7, 2014

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 Pope’s Kippah

So the Pope lost his kippah for a moment. I’ve been there. As a fellow bald man and kippah wearer I totally relate. This story just made me like the guy even more (click here is see the Pope’s wardrobe malfunction).

Thanks to my photographer friend, Bill Aron, for sending this my way. [No, Bill didn't take the shot. In this case he just knew a good shot when he saw one.]

On May 25, 2014 Pope Francis will visit Israel. He’ll be in Jordan the day before, and while in Israel, he will also meet with the Palestinian Authority. He’s been fairly deft at walking the gauntlet. His sticking with a populist message of helping the poor and of contrition for Church leaders’ crimes has made me a fan. I also like lines such as, “who am I to judge?

I have high hopes for this visit. Not for the politics of the moment, between Palestinians and Israelis, but I have hopes for a high profile religious leader modeling that religion does not have to be the central problem. In fact, it isn’t.

Know this, Francis is not the only one. There are many of us out there.

In the history of the world, religion has often been at the heart of wars and bloodshed. People were right to fear and resent religion. But things have changed and continue to progress.  Around the world, right now, the hot spots are driven much more by the usual culprits of greed for control, wealth, and power. Yes, religion still plays a corrupting role, there are extremist, but a) their role is weaker, and b) the voices of the peaceful who respect differences and are not threatened by them are growing.

The strength of religion in the 21st century lies in a moral voice that does not compel through dogma, but rather attracts and embraces through humility and modeling a recognition that everyone is created in the image of the divine.

Pope Paul, whom Francis canonized as a saint, declared Jews “our elder brothers and sisters in faith.” Last year, Pope Francis extended a similar sounding olive branch to “… so many Muslim brothers and sisters.”

It will take patience, humility, faith, and peacefulness, as well as a touch of joy, and hope to find a lasting peace—regardless of what politicians contrive—and the record for good politics right now is poor anyway. The Pope’s visit is not overtly political, but do not underestimate it’s potential. Even with stalled peace talks, there is reason to hope.

The wiser voices within the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam still believe in a time when “war and bloodshed will cease.” It seems that the secular voices gave up on that possibility.

Could it be that religion will lead the way to a more peaceful world?  I think, “yes.”

Posted on May 6, 2014

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Today Matters

Credit Charlie Kalech  j-town.co.il

Credit Charlie Kalech j-town.co.il

At a construction site at the Jerusalem bus station there is a multi-paneled chalkboard with space for people to fill in what they are grateful for.

If I were making the list today it would read, the ocean, the stunning weather, my children’s health. A shift in the carpool this morning gave way to an extraordinary view of the Pacific on the way to work. On another day, I might have not even seen it and concentrated on the flowers or trees instead. The weather today is oddly perfect for San Francisco. There is little chance we will have many more days like this. And despite their general good health, I know better than to believe in the false security that this is in any way a guarantee for my children’s future. I am grateful for the graces of the moment. For that which I see, appreciate right now.

We are counting the Omer. It is a strange practice, which I don’t fully understand. I can of course quote the meanings and explanations that the tradition gives but it remains a bit mysterious to me. Why the need to number our days, to account for the passing of time so very carefully?

But I know it is too easy to let time pass. Days go by without notice. One set of flowers, blends into a sunset, into a fight with a loved one, into a day at the office and errands and then a year goes by. Last week when we observed Yom Hashoah, I was struck by how in my remembered lifetime the pervasive presence of survivors has given way to the dominance of memory and recordings. Time, which once stood still in ghettos and camps, has gone by quickly. In my children’s lifetime the Holocaust will pass into distant memory.

Every day and every moment matters, but for these seven weeks, between Passover and Shavuot we stop daily and take a moment to mark the passage of time. We heighten our awareness of the ancient journey that Israelites took from slavery to revelation. Like the passersby near the Jerusalem bus station, we are given an opportunity to consider the gifts that we have. Noticing does not make the time go any faster or slower but it does help us appreciate what we have in the moment.

Posted on May 1, 2014

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