Author Archives: Tsafi Lev

About Tsafi Lev

Rabbi Tsafi Lev, is the West Coast CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Student Director. He is also the Rabbinic Director of New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, CA, and a Lecturer for the Fingerhut School of Education Master of Arts in Education program at the American Jewish University.

Israeli Elections: True Confessions of a 21st Century Israeli-American

Israeli_municipal_elections,_2013You say you care about the Israeli election?  Me too, but how much do you know? How many political parties are represented in the Israeli election? Which party best represents your views?(You can take this quiz if you are curious to see if your assumptions about yourself line up).

First, let me say that I love America. I love America in a way that is statistically consistent with the majority of Americans (only 15% of Americans said they were following elections ‘very closely’ just one month prior to the 2014 mid-term election, only 36% of Americans actually voted).

Politics is a strange thing; we say we care, but do we really? Of the 561 bills passed by last year’s Congress, how many can you name? Me, I can’t name even one. I remember the spectacle of Washington the past few years; Republicans blocked Obama; Obama snubbed John Boehner by not inviting him to golf. It was all very House of Cards – great theater. D.C. is rightfully called Hollywood on the Hudson because Washington politics are as entertaining, and as forgettable as a Netflix series. Who is running for president in 2016? That’s pretty far in the future, but someone named Bush or Clinton is always a safe bet. I love America and I think the laws we live by are very important, just not important enough to capture my full attention.

Let me also say that I love Israel, but I couldn’t tell you which 13 political parties are currently represented in the Knesset without Googling it. Today is election day in Israel and either Bibi will win or ‘Not Bibi’ will win (His real name is Isaac ‘Boujie’ Herzog of the Zionist Union Party). But, winning doesn’t mean that either one will necessarily take over. It just means that the ‘winner’ will be given 40 some days to see if he can build a coalition of 51% by making pacts with other smaller parties. [For more, check out JTA’s Who’s who in the Israel’s elections or 5 things you need to know about today’s election.

I know that Herzog is willing to work closer with the Arabs and that Bibi no longer supports a two state solution, but where do they stand on religious equality, the cost of housing in Tel Aviv, or on health care? I don’t actually know. It isn’t too hard to find out more about what is going on in Congress, or in the Knesset for that matter, so why don’t I?

In my defense, not investing significant energy in something that I purport to care about is not a new issue, nor am I alone. Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th Century Spain) said that people fail to pay greater attention to vital things (for him, God) because we become so enamored with the most immediate cause and effect, that we fail to look at the larger picture. He said that we either grow so comfortable with our present situation that we fail to look beyond simply preserving our personal station. Or, he said, we become so downtrodden, that we again fail to look beyond our own discomfort.

Our focus day-to-day is on ourselves. Which means that we are capable of deeply caring about something larger, say God, America, Israel, without feeling obligated to pay a commiserate balance of attention, even to these vital, greater-than-self ideals and values.

SelfieThe 2006 Time Magazine Person of the Year was “You.” The internet, and specifically YouTube, were recognized for the powerful reflection of society that was then just exploding. The picture on the cover was a reflective mylar mirror. Just last week, ten years latter, the National Academy of Sciences published a study linking a rise in narcissism with a rise in aggression and violence. Other studies found a connection between narcissism and another growing plague, loneliness.

If I love America and I love Israel, why don’t I invest more time in learning and studying the minutiae of every bill and every election that shape my two home countries?

Hey, that’s a good question for my Facebook friends.

Posted on March 17, 2015

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Israel or America?

Should the Jews of Europe move? And if so, to Israel or to America?

imgres“To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”
– Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu after a second terrorist attack in Europe within just a few weeks.

After an a murderous terrorist attack in Copenhagen, killing a cartoonist, two policeman, and a Jewish man walking out of the main synagogue in the Danish capital , Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu went to the media and announced that it was time for the Jews of Europe to move home.

“Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe,” he said. “To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms,” Netanyahu said.

He said these things and I was confused. Anti-Semitism is hideous and frightening wherever it pops up, European anti-semitism terrifies some of us in a unique way – the Shoah (Holocaust) is still fresh in our collective psyche. Part of me thought, “Yes, get out of Europe. Go with Bibi. Go to our Promised Holy Land.” But there was another part of me, a darker, deeper place inside me that said, “Yes, leave Europe, but come here, to America – It’s safer.” These might be the voices you would expect from a duel American-Israeli citizen. But it also speaks to the popular narratives of modern Jewry. Where does Yentl (Barbara Streisand) go when she realizes that Europe, the old country, could no longer be home? America. At the end of Schindler’s List, after having ‘saved’ by Oskar Schindler, the group of Jews come upon a Russian soldier.
“Where should we go,” one of them asks.
The soldier answer, “Don’t go East, that’s for sure. They hate you there. I wouldn’t go West either, if I were you.” And, more or less, the credits roll as we watch the real survivors walk with the actors that portrayed them to place a stone at the grave of Oskar Schindler in Israel.

“I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that You have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” – Jacob’s prayer before reuniting with Esau who swore to kill him (Genesis 32:10).

Has the Jewish people become two camps?

There can be no replacement for our home:

כי מציון תצא תורה, ודבר ה’ מירושלים For the Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Holy Blessing One from Jerusalem.

And yet, we cannot ignore the importance, and historic roll of the Diaspera (those Jews dispersed in lands not our own). Judaism has been deeply influenced by the cultures in which we have lived – Even the Torah was given to us outside of the land, not to mention the encyclopedia of rabbinic thought, the Babylonian Talmud.

Some will argue, but I do not think all the Jews of France and Denmark should leave their homes. Freedom is work standing up for. And yet, and yet. The primitive, fear-driven part of my brain wonders: “Might it be that we have indeed become ‘two camps’ for the same pragmatic reasons that Jacob once divided his family? If one should be attacked, at least the other would survive.”

Posted on February 17, 2015

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“The State of the Union is …”

imgresEvery January I reflect on the lessons of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel famously said of King that “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” Together this pastoral duo was a strong moral compass for the nation, that inspired its citizens. Each man could articulate a vision of a better tomorrow, and more than that, they both believed that each of us could take steps to bring dreams to fruition. “By each deed we carry out,” Rabbi Heschel said, “we either retard or accelerate the coming of redemption. Our role in history is tremendous.”

January also brings with it the President’s State of the Union Address (this year it’s tonight, January 20th). It makes for depressing political theater, predictable applause lines and partisan standing up or sitting down. Representative Joe Wilson made some small waves a few years ago when he yelled, “You lie.” Alas, such is the state of politics lately. What do I want to hear in the State of Union this year?

Dr. King said that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” This year President Obama has been traveling campaign-style prior to delivering his State of the Union Address, an historical first for a president. We already know, based on what he tells us he’ll be speaking of, that we can hear more about his tax plan for the 1%, tax breaks for the middle class, and increased cybersecurity. Both of these points are politically expedient – its what most of us want to hear, but are these the points that will us to become ‘a more perfect union’? Heschel said that the task of a statesman, “is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interest.” In contrast to other predictable topics, President Obama has also announced a visionary and ambitious plan to make community college free. To my mind, a bold plan such as free community college does in fact begins to approach “statesman” status.

What do you want the President to turn our attention to? It is worth thinking about. Here is some of my wish-list. If I could, I would implore the president to please use his address to bring our country into honest discussion about:
1) Race relations. Dr. King led a great battle for civil rights, but enough time has passed to measure his success, and sadly, in large measure, blacks and whites in our great country still misunderstand and mistrust each other.

2) Food. Every citizen deserves safe, inexpensive, healthy food. All too often inexpensive, accessible food is also unhealthy food. Factory farming, unethical treatment of animals, and illogical farm subsidies for certain crops also needs changing.

3) Economy. There is tremendous income inequality in the world. By one report, in 2016 the top 1% will control 50% of the world’s wealth. This wild imbalance is a threat to the democratic process, and is a recipe for the exploitation of resources and workers in the name of profits.

4) Human Rights. Our world is still dealing with modern, actual slavery. Human sex trafficking is a significant issue, and so are the sub-human conditions in the mining of rare earth elements for our cell-phone and other gadgets. What do we stand for as a leading nation on this planet if we care more about the low price of smartphones rather than the people, often children, who are forced to mine the minerals necessary for their production? We are all complicit in this atrocity. Will call attention to what should be an unacceptable situation?

5) Gun Control.  The Constitution gives us the right to defend ourselves, but that does not preclude us from creating some common sense guidelines to protect our citizenry.  Every day there is a new senseless tragic story.  Yesterday’s heartbreak came when a nine-month-old baby was shot to death by his five-year-old broth in Missouri.

6) Environment. 2014 was the driest year in recorded history, and marine biologists are asking people to track tidal king waves in preparation for a ‘new normal’. Our oceans are facing catastrophic die-off. President Obama has recently staked out methane as a new emission to regulate, but there is so much more we need to do to protect our environment. Are we willing to invest time and money into a safer healthier planet for our children? Is fracking safe?

In 1967 Dr. King said, “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Beyond Vietnam.

In a 1963 telegram to to President Kennedy, Rabbi Heschel wrote, I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency…The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

The hour once again calls for ‘high moral grandeur’. Let this new year surprise us with an end of governmental stagnation and political point-scoring on both sides. The president has the opportunity to set the agenda of the big conversations we need to have. Frankly, with the House and Senate both in the hands of the same party, Congress has a real opportunity to lead as well.

And we too have a role in demanding and creating a better tomorrow. Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Dr. King put it this way, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” It begins by articulating your dream for this great country.

Posted on January 20, 2015

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Hanukkah: Noticing Beauty in Darkness

“To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.” -Walt Whitman.

Hanukkah is not just about Maccabees and a tiny jar of oil. No, Hanukkah is about finding hope and beauty despite the darkness of the season. Soon after taking over, the Maccabees were themselves corrupt, murderous, and formed problematic political alliances not so different than that which they fought against. As for the oil – Meh. It doesn’t do much for me. I’m more of a ‘part the seas’ or ‘burning bush’ kinda guy. Call me older fashioned. Famously, the Talmud asks, “Mai Hanukkah”, “what is Hanukkah”? A lovely conversation follows in which we learn to light our candles with an increasing sense of the miraculous and light (Hillel’s position) rather than with diminishing illumination (Shamai’s position). The nature of Jewish textual study is an invitation into the text, so as my contribution to the conversation I answer “what is Hanukkah” differently than either Hillel or Shamai. To me, Hanukkah is a commitment to bring kavod (honor, or weight) to the world around us.

The gold of the Old Temple was valued by its weight. Similarly, the ability to appreciate beauty around us is to endow it with value. Beauty is more than just an aesthetically pleasing quality. It requires a level of attention, appreciation, and wonder on the part of the person perceiving the beauty. The human capacity for kavod (to honor and appreciate) aligns nicely with the Positive Psychology human virtue of appreciating beauty.

How do we notice the beauty around us?

symetryThe question is all the more significant in the darkest season, hence the importance of Hanukkah. We most easily perceive beauty in panoramic perspective that sees connections or in the microscopic view that searches for the unique.

Beauty is found in powerful similarity, in repeating patterns, in balance and in symmetry. Similarities and patterns are found throughout nature but are easily ignored. The fact that such intricacies in nature are constantly around us but we fail to notice proves that beauty is more than something being endowed with a particular aesthetic. The ability to perceive requires our attention. The pattern of milk as it swirls in a hot coffee cup, the patterns of our veins and arteries in our bodies, the waves of the ocean, patterns of the galaxies of the cosmos are amazingly beautiful. There are days when we miss what is right in front of us. Hanukkah reorients us to what we value (kavod) and to the beauty that surrounds us.

Beauty is found not only in the interconnective patterns all around us, but also in our ability to perceive what is unique. Where are patterns broken? What makes something different than my first perception? Can I take time to appreciate “blue.” Beauty ask us to invest attention and to value not just ‘blue’, but to perceive the difference between periwinkle blue, cyan, baby blue, powder blue, Bermuda blue, azure, navy blue, turquoise, or cerulean.Unique

“Who is honored (mi mehubad)? The one who honors all life.”

Imagine seeing each person as a unique individual rather than like me or non-like me. Democratic or Republican. Young or Old. Jewish or Not-Jewish.

Regarding the unique character of every person, our sages put it this way:

“Here is the greatness of the Holy One Blessed One. Man mints many coins with one stamp, all of them the same as one another. When God minted every person with the stamp of Adam not one of them is the same. For this reason every single person must say “The world was created for me.” -Sanhedrin 37B.

Things you can do during Hanukkah to appreciate your capacity for kavod and your ability to appreciate beauty:

1) Each night of Hanukkah, after you light your candles, spend a few minutes thinking about what makes a particular person, object, or place so special. What are the unique qualities you find? Consider this person’s, this object’s, or this place’s connection to others. How vast a web of connection can you find? Share your thoughts with the people present if you’re lucky enough to light candles in this dark season with others.

2) This Hanukkah, find an occasion to say the Shechiyanu blessing beyond the first day. The blessing is said each time we do something for the first time or even the first time in a long while. Do something unique this week.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.shechiyanu

Praise to You, Eternal Blessing One: for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.

Posted on December 23, 2014

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Gratitude: Let it Grow, Let it Grow!

The human trait of Hakarat HaTov, literally “noticing the good” but often translated as gratitude, is a perfect character trait to find within us and to continue to cultivate more of, especially the week of Thanksgiving.

In the Passover Haggadah we are reminded of the word Dayenu, “it would have been enough.” This song is based on a Psalm that reminds the Jewish People: If God had only taken us out of slavery it would have been enough. If God only gave us the Torah, that would have been enough. But there was more. We were given the Land of Israel, the Shabbat, the Holy Temple, holidays to celebrate, food to eat, drink to quench our thrust. Any one thing would have been enough of a gift, but in fact we have so much!

In developing our gratitude it is helpful to be “grateful for the partial” (click for a video). So often we have a fine day until X, or Y, or Z happens, and then suddenly we forget all the perfectly fine things that happened. Hakarat HaTov, noticing the good, reminds us to accept the good as genuinely good, and not let the negative in our life so easily overshadow the positive. As it turns out, our brains are wired to notice unpleasant threatening stimulus, but we can also notice the good.

imgresI once heard a story of a Spanish sea captain who would put on his reading glasses every time he ate strawberries.

“Why do you do that,” his crew finally asked.
The captain replied, “I love strawberries. The difficult things in life always seem bigger than they really are, so I wanted the good things to appear bigger too.”

Making your Thanksgiving meaningful.

A) One time each day, take some time to consider something nice, good, or kind. It might be a loved one, a great song on the radio. It might be chocolate. Spend a few minutes thinking about it. Being “grateful for the partial” means noticing that this person, thing, or activity is somehow part of your life. Where do you feel this gratitude? Maybe a warmth in your chest? Perhaps a smile comes across your face. As it turns out, gratitude has a feeling.

B) This week, make a “gratitude list.” Actually write down 10 people, activities, or things that make your life better. Each time you sit to write your list, be sure not to repeat previous items. If it is possible, reach out to another person to share your gratitude – especially if they are involved or responsible for what you are grateful for.

Start now!! List 5 things you are grateful.  Share your list with others.  Invite them to add to the list, and watch it grow.

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Posted on November 25, 2014

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Do You Believe in Ghosts?

Recently a woman asked me if it was okay during her prayers to pray to her deceased mother. She said,”the first thing I think of when I start to pray is my mother. My friend told me that I was being a bad Jew because there was something, my mother, between me and God. Rabbi,” she asked, “Is there something wrong with my prayers?”

imgres-1This brings us directly to the question of Halloween, and what it is that we believe, or not, about ghosts. Years ago, I had a congregant whose son spoke to his beloved but deceased Bubby through a conch shell that she had given him. I once counseled a woman whose phone rang every day precisely at the same time. She was certain that it was her father calling. He had passed away several months before. Do we believe in ghosts? Why not? Religiously speaking, believing in a God you cannot see or hear or touch but still feel in deep relationship with, is even more complicated. So why not ghosts?

The Zohar, Judaism’s primer on mysticism, teaches that when a soul departs, the soul of the departed experiences three things simultaneously: a) The soul enters into the Mystery of the Infinite One. To my mind, it’s something like what happened to Yoda and Obi Wan Kanobi; they became one with the Force. b) The soul remains to comfort those who mourn. c) The soul enters into Gan Eden and experiences the delights that he or she enjoyed while on earth.

What I told the woman who asked me about praying to her mother is the following.
“I believe that your relationship with your mother is foundational in your understanding of the transcendent. I do not believe that you confused your mother with God, but that she is the closest access point you have to loving energy beyond our own realm.”

Fruma Sarah - Fiddler on the Roof

Fruma Sarah – Fiddler on the Roof

Do we believe in ghosts?
I’m not sure, nor am I that curious. It doesn’t make someone a “bad Jew” to answer this question with a “yes.” Tevye’s wife certainly believed in ghosts. I’ve performed several weddings where the spirit of late relatives, mothers, fathers, grandparents, were invited, and welcomed by name.

In the end, I am glad that my friend is still comforted by her mother in this different capacity, that a young boy with his conch shell still has an active connection to his deceased grandmother, and that at 3:15 every afternoon, when her phone rings, my former congregant still has her father.

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Posted on October 28, 2014

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Gratitude and Forgiving the Unforgivable

A while back I suggested a unique way of doing the chesbon nefesh (soul’s accounting) we are expected to do this time of year. The tools I suggested are useful year round, but they are timely during this season of Teshuva (repentance).

As I understand them, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) rests on two central themes: Gratitude and Forgiveness.  Whatever your observance, from marathon synagogue attendance to just fasting, or even nothing at all, give yourself the opportunity to consider your personal connection to these two themes.Gratitude, and Forgiving the Unforgivable

Gratitude: Most of us are thankful for family and friends, but what else?  Consider making a list (or take turns, one at a time, with a friend) of the multitude of things and experiences you are grateful for.  It tends to be the things past, say number 5 or number 10 that surprise us; a smile will appear on your face as your list gets longer and longer.

TASK: Make a Gratitude list:
A) List 100 things you are grateful for?
B) Share your list with someone.
As it turns out, sharing the sentiment of gratitude has a positive effect on both the speaker and the listener.

forgive-208824_640

Forgiveness: The power of forgiveness is radical.  Yes, forgiveness helps to heal relationships, but the ability to forgive, even when it is undeserved, has documented health benefits. One Harvard study back in 2004 looked at women who’s husbands had cheated on them. Those who (somehow) forgave, even though forgiveness was underserved, had better muscle tone, lower blood pressure, stronger hearts, and were healthier along other markers as well.

When we hold on to anger, we feel like we’re hurting the person that has harmed us. However valid the anger, and friends, there is much in the world to be angry about, we do quite a bit of damage to ourselves with the poison of anger.

TASK: Forgive and be Forgiven.
A) Approach someone with whom you were short-tempered, or someone who wanted more time and attention from you than you shared. Apologize and let him or her know that you’ll make a stronger effort next time.

B) When you consider “forgiveness” are you secretly hoping that someone who has hurt you will apologize to you? He or she may never do that. Try mightily to let go of the anger, even if your anger is completely justified. The truth is that the persons who have wronged us may never come around to making proper amends. For your own benefit, try to let go of the anger you have taken on because of someone else’s poor actions. To forgive might be the single most difficult thing, and simultaneously the most powerful thing, you can do for yourself.

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Posted on September 30, 2014

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The Four M’s

shutterstock_1994426Does the synagogue you attend speak your language? If you are not a synagogue goer, might you go if the folks there spoke your language? By language, I don’t mean Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, etc.

One of the central purposes of religion is to make sense of the world around us. “Religion,” from the Latin word “religare” means to restrain, to tie, to bind. Related to the word “ligament,” religion “binds” our ideas and experiences together into a cohesive worldview. Religious language is valuable only to the extent that your personal, most existential questions are dealt with, and in a manner that speaks to you.

Remember this scene of young Alvy Singer from Woody Allan’s Oscar winning Annie Hall?: Alvy Singer’s mother has taken nine year old Alvy to the Doctor.

Alvy: The universe is expanding.
Doctor Flicker: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if its expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom scolds: What is that your business? (To the doctor) He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson points out that while science has made great strides in increasing human knowledge on matters of the human scale, certainty about what we know decreases when we consider issues much larger or smaller than we have been evolutionarily conditioned to reckon with. He writes:

shutterstock_146880227“… We are limited to an intuitive sense that pertains to our range of size and our durations of time. For size ranges vastly larger than our own (planets, galaxies, space-time) or vastly smaller (molecules, atoms, atomic particles, and quanta), human intuition and logic is not reliable…[T]he only effective system of human relation and expression (constrained by our scientific knowledge) is the Four M’s: Math, Metaphor, Music, and Myth. Each provides a syntax and narrative to link our consciousness and existence to those realms of reality vastly larger or smaller than our own size range, or vastly shorter or longer than the time frames we are evolved to recognize and intuit.” – Ba-Derekh: On the Way – A presentation of Process Theology

Math, Metaphor, Music, Myth – Each of these four M’s is a language that can be used to discuss that which is much grander or much more minute then the everyday experience of humankind. Each language (each of the 4 M’s) can operate “religiously” by connecting what we cannot fully fathom to an expression that is more familiar and meaningful to us. And while each language helps us understand our place in the universe, we must acknowledge a lingering lack of certainty of the truths, or partial-truths, that each language helps us uncover.

I think it might be the case that each of us is hard-wired to have preconceived preferences among these four languages of meaning. I have students who prefer the language of math and logic. But, with imaginary numbers (such as infinity) and thanks to pioneering mathematicians such as Godel, even certain aspects of math, once considered the epitome of logical language, can be understood as limited, or merely theoretical. I have family members whose spiritual lives are fed by music. For me, I am focused on the lyrics, captivated by metaphor and myth (“all we are is dust in the wind”), rather than the notes or tones. For them, the harmonies and unexpected chord progressions thrill them to the point of goose bumps.

Religion as a Verb
What language do you religion in? Each of the four M’s has power to uncover partial truths. Each of us may prefer Math, Metaphor, Music, or Myth over the other three, but are we missing something vital when we ignore the other languages?

The Mishnah teaches, “Who is truly wise? The one who learns from everybody.” There is wisdom here, but a question lingers. If your synagogue (or the one you don’t go to) does not speak your meaning-making language, should you go elsewhere? Or, should you push yourself to find a bit a meaning in a foreign language?

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Posted on September 2, 2014

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What Should Your Rabbi Talk About?

Tisha B’Av (Aug. 5th), which commemorates the destruction of the Temple also marks the seven week countdown to Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks. What will the rabbi at the services you attend in seven weeks talk about? Israel? For sure, but what will she say? Immigration? Not so sure about that one—it might depend where you live. Will he suggest that you give yourself the gift of time away from your electronics, from what Joshua Ferris in his latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, calls your Me-machine? Your rabbi might say that, so politely nod, ‘cause he’s right.  Yes, you already know it. But then again, most of the great wisdom your rabbi can share is something you already know, but still find it hard to accomplish.

imagesWith seven weeks prior to your rabbi’s high holiday sermon, as rabbi tax-season now starts to ramp up, make him or her a suggested topic list. In fact, narrow it down for your rabbi, he or she might very well thank you. Better still, but certainly annoying (so worth it!!), agree with 10+ fellow congregants about 3 or so topics that you genuinely have questions about and let the rabbi know that y’all have some expectations for real answers to your collective real questions.

“Rabbi, what does Judaism have to say about the existence of my soul?”

“Rabbi, we’re curious about what Judaism has to say about a shift to greater nuclear energy?  Should we fully legalize pot in our state too?”

“Rabbi, what does Judaism say about my gay cousin?”

“Is heaven for real? Are there dogs?”

“Don’t tell me right away, Rabbi, not another ‘on one foot’ answer. Open your books. Ask your colleagues. I want Judaism to guide my life and to answer my questions, so take your time. If you speak to what really concerns me, if you tell me the truth, even a partial-truth as you understand from our vast tradition, it will be worth it! I’ll give you seven weeks.

Here is a topic you might consider suggesting. In this mid-term election year, how about articulating a strong, clear Jewish position on gun control? “Rabbi, should there be a limit on our Second Amendment right?” For most, school hasn’t started yet, so there is no school shootings to speak about. The problem with speaking about gun control after a school shooting is that one can be dismissed as reactionary. A place to start might be from the short piece by my colleague, Menachem Creditor, Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence.

There are many great topics, so suggest some to your rabbi—make the High Holiday experience relevant to your real concerns. So why did I suggest gun control? It was on my mind. Yesterday, August 4th, James Brady died. Mr. Brady was Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary when he was shot during an assassination attempt on the president. After that, Mr. Brady became a tireless spokesman on behalf of curtailing gun sales, and gun violence.

When he was pressing for the Brady bill, Mr. Brady dismissed as “lamebrain nonsense” the National Rifle Association’s contention that a waiting period would inconvenience law-abiding people who had reason to buy a gun. The idea behind the waiting period was to give the seller time to check on whether the prospective purchaser had a criminal record or had lied in supplying information on the required documents.

Mr. Brady said that five business days was not too much to make purchasers wait. Every day, he once testified, “I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and—damn it—I need help going to the bathroom. I guess I’m paying for their ‘convenience.’ ”  -New York Times (Aug. 4, 2014).

As I imagine it, when James Brady reaches heaven he is no longer in a wheelchair. He is greeted by his late family and friends, even President Reagan, who, thanks to the miracle that is heaven, is no longer limited by the Alzheimer’s he once had. Then, the two of them, guided by the gift of wisdom and eternity, amble over to Charlton Heston, who, while he lived played Moses in the Ten Commandments, and than later in life became the celebrated spokesman for the National Rifle Association. Brady and Reagan, together, pry Heston’s rifle “out of his cold dead hands.”

Posted on August 5, 2014

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The Nine Days

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siege and destruction of JerusalemAs of yesterday, Monday July 28th, we Jews have begun “The Nine Days.”

You may not know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t, part of me is glad about that. Let me explain my hesitancy.

The secular date July 28th doesn’t mean anything specifically Jewish, unless of course you are talking about July 28th 1998, the day which the Cleveland Jewish News recalls as the day “Monica Lewinsky receives transactional immunity so that she can testify against President Clinton”Jewish milestone indeed!!

“July 28th” is actually a Gregorian date. So really, how secular is it? But, that’s an issue for another time.

On the lunar-with-idiosyncratic-solar- modifications calendar, which is more often referred to as “The Jewish Calendar”, yesterday was not July 28th, but the first day of the month of Av. The ninth day of the month of Av, in Hebrew Tisha B’Av, is what my father calls “the day of destrrrrrrrruction.” After almost 50 years in America his English is impeccably clear, but you can tell when he is translating from Hebrew to English in his head when his R’s get elongated.

The Ninth of Av is indeed the day of destrrrrrruction. The day recalls the destruction of the First Temple, the Second Temple, the defeat by the Romans of our short lived Bar Kokhba rebellion, the 1290 Expulsion from England, as well as the end the expulsion from Spain in 1492. It’s a pretty crappy day (click here for observances for Tisha B’Av).

During the nine days, from the 1st of Av to the 9th, there is a sense of gloom and doom, which, during this time of war between Israel and Hamas is easy. Traditionally, during these nine days one does not see movies, go swimming, celebrate anything (except a Brit Milah, but even then the celebration is traditionally muted), eat meat, drink wine, or even launder cloths (9th of Av rituals).

My hesitancy in pointing out The Nine Days for those who don’t already know about them already is ultimately this: One sad day is enough. Our sages teach that all these terrible things happened on the same day so that our calendar would not be cluttered with sadnessso why extend centuries old grief? It is my contention that our troubles are numerous enough that we don’t need to extend ancient grief beyond the singular date of Tisha B’av.

But this year The Nine Days are different. Israel is at war. There are Israeli casualties to mourn and innocent, non-terrorist Palestinians to mourn as well. These are indeed “days of destrrrruction.” For Jews who, like me, do not usually observe The Nine Days, perhaps this year we should.

If you do not ordinarily observe The Nine Days, or, if the concept is entirely new to you, consider forgoing some everyday comfort you enjoy as an act of solidarity with those who are mourning personal loss because of war.

Give up one personal comfort every day, not including Shabbat, from today until the 9th of Av as an expression of your heart’s desire to reach out in consolation, comfort, and support (This year, the 9th of Av falls on Monday, August 4th at sundown).

Posted on July 29, 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