Author Archives: Tsafi Lev

Tsafi Lev

About Tsafi Lev

Rabbi Tsafi Lev, is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow. He is 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.

Google Glass in the bedroom?!

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Back in 2006 Justin Timberlake promised that he was “bringing sexy back”, but I guess he never got around to it because this past week we found out the profound function of last year’s most exciting invention, Google Glass. There is now an app. for having sex with your Google Glasses on so that you can see an image in your glasses lens of you having sex, but from the perspective of your partner’s link of his/her pair of web-enabled camera glasses. Do I really want to see myself having sex – while I’m having sex? Jon Stewart pointed out that this takes “Go F’ yourself” to a whole new, more literal level. It’s not just Google that is helping to drive away the sexy, apparently there is an Facebook app. to see which of your friends is “down” for a hook-up. Back in July, the New York Times reported in an article “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, too) that casual sex just seems to work for some college women (presumably, just as it has for men) who just don’t have time for a relationship – they feel it would take them off track with their studies and their career path. Regardless of which gender, I hope I’m not alone in finding this trend as incredibly ‘unsexy’.

I mention Justin Timberlake and his song SexyBack because I’m a romantic and I worry about humanity loosing it’s sexy. Sex, in the hook-up culture that we have developed seems like a commodity, something to gain, to acquire, instead of something to share. If only JT was successful – surely we rabbis have done nothing to bring the sexy back.

There is a classic joke about the man who, before his wedding, goes and asks the rabbis just what is permissible between he and his soon-to-be wife.

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“Go ahead, ask, ask,” the rabbi said.

The man asked question upon question, about whether one position or another was okay.  To each inquiry the rabbis responded, “Yes, that is fine, between a man and his wife, its all fine.”

The man was relieved and so he asked about more and more erotic things; about each, the rabbi said it was fine.  It was all fine until the man mentioned one last thing that he assumed would be fine like all the previous questions he asked.

“Tell me, rabbi, why is this last thing not permissible if all the other things were?”

The rabbi replied, “That last one is no good.  It could lead to mixed dancing!”

Serious Question: Can rabbis help us bring sexy back?

My colleague and friends, Rabbi Elliott Dorff, wrote about the values of Jewish sexual decision-making. He articulated 8 sensibilities that would apply in marital or even (gasp) non-marital sex:

1) Seeing oneself and one’s partner as the creations of God
2) Respect for the other
3) Modesty
4) Honesty
5) Fidelity
6) Health and safety (including emotional safety)
7) The possibility of a child
8) The Jewish quality of a relationship

It’s a beautiful list, I agree with each value, but it’s not sexy.

So Jewishly, where does that leave us regarding “sexy”?

Until modern Judaism becomes more adept, and willing, to talk about the value and beauty of sex in a relationship rather than some variable of self-gratification which is how I understand the current trend, we’re left with only some biblical verses that are only vaguely sexy, and only if you read them with the proper wink and nod:

“And he knew her.” (oooooo)

“And he took’ Sarah.” (oooooh)

“I have compared thee, O my love, to a steed in Pharaoh’s chariots.” (Steamy!)

Regarding Google Glass in bed: I suppose I can call it kosher under two conditions: 1) people keep from posting these things on the web, and 2) it doesn’t lead to mixed dancing.

Posted on January 28, 2014

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If Israel Boycotted the Winter Olympics

imagesIf Israel boycotted the Winter Olympic in Sochi, Russia next month would anyone really care? The games would go on without us. In fact, Israel’s Olympic Committee is sending three figure skaters, one speed skater, and one skier to the 2014 Winter Games. None of these athletes are expected to finish in the top ten. The spirit of the games is non-political and should stay that way, and so it should be in the academic world.

“Insignificant.” That was the reaction some had to the academic boycott of Israel by the American Studies Association last month. The boycott bars collaboration with Israeli institutions but not with the Israeli scholars. No American University has has signed on to the boycott, and at only 5000 members, the groups is tiny, especially compared to the American Association of University Professors at 48,000 strong. This last group states that “academic boycotts stifle academic freedom and are likely to hurt people who are not the intended targets.” Even the Palestinian Authority is officially against the boycott, “We are neighbors with Israel, we have agreements with Israel, we recognize Israel, we are not asking anyone to boycott products of Israel,” Majdi Khaldi, an adviser to Mr. Abbas, said in a New York Times interview on Monday. “The problem is two things: occupation, and the government of Israel continuing settlement activities.”

Some consider the ASA’s boycott as misguided leftist politics of people who don’t understand the real situation in Israel. Others bemoan a resurgence in anti-Semitic activity. It seems that the majority opinion of Israel’s supporters is the boycott is ultimately not that significant – yet.

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The Hillel chapter at Swarthmore has declared itself an “Open Hillel.”

Anti-Israeli politics and the American academic world has been in the news on yet another front. Hillel International, the national organization of Jewish students on college campuses, has barred its chapters from bringing in speakers who take a pro-Palestinian view.

In a manifesto, the Swarthmore Hillel chapter has proclaimed: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” But the president and chief executive of Hillel, Eric D. Fingerhut, responded to them in a letter saying that “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” 

The Talmud relates a relevant tale: Rav once had a complaint against a certain butcher. On the eve of Yom Kippur Rav said, “I will go to him to make peace.” The butcher, it seems, had wronged Rav in some way and Rav was giving the man an opportunity to reconcile prior to Yom Kippur. When Rav’s friend Rav Huna understood where Rav was going (and just how obstinate the butcher would be) he said, “Rav is about to cause (the butcher’s death).” Indeed, when Rav went and stood before the butcher, the latter was chopping away at the head of an animal. The butcher said, “You are Rav, go away. I will have nothing to do with you.” And, with the butcher’s next chop, a bone flew off, and struck the butcher in the throat, and killed him (Yoma 87a).

“Go Away.  I will have nothing to do with you.”

There is a common theme between the ASA’s position and Hillel’s: Non-participation, exclusion, a failure to listen to opposing positions. This is ultimately dangerous – especially on a college campus. There is no requirement to take the other person’s position, but disinterest in even listening to the a differing opinion, even one diametrically opposite one’s owe, can be disastrous.

As an educator, I commend the Jewish kids at Swarthmore for being smarter than the “adults” in charge.  Boycotting exchanges of ideas in the college setting makes as much sense as Israel boycotting the Sochi Games just because they don’t expect to place in the top ten.

For different opinions, see the cogent arguments of my fellow RWB bloggers, Rabbis Ben Greenberg and Alana Suskin.

Posted on January 14, 2014

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Is Torah Just For Jews?

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Unless we’re talking about jury duty, it’s generally nice to be noticed as unique and special; to be chosen. Except when it’s not. “God, I know we’re the ‘chosen people,’” Tevye said, “But can’t you choose someone else once in a while?” The question of being chosen, what academics call “the election of Israel,” is central on my mind lately. On the one-hand, I believe in the unique call of the Jews as Jews, and yet, I believe in the universality of Jewish wisdom as a gift for all. There is a tension here. If Jewish wisdom is such a gift for mindful and meaningful living, is it not for everyone? But, if the Torah’s wisdom is for everyone, what makes it “Jewish”?

On the selective side are famous passages such as this one from the 12th Century:
God gave Israel two Torahs – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. God gave them the Written Torah which includes 613 Commandments in order to fill them with good deeds and virtues. God gave them the Oral Torah to differentiate them from all other nations. Therefore it was not given in written form so the other nations will not be able to forge it and claim that they are the (also) Israel. - Bamidbar Rabbah, section 14.

And while we are unique, “chosen,” or better and more accurately, we “choose” to live in the values and rituals of Judaism, the enterprise of Judaism cannot succeed in a vacuum. Rabbi Heschel quotes Spanish Inquisition era Rabbi Joseph Yaabez, “If the non-Jews of a certain town are moral, the Jews born there will be so as well.”

The above tension between particularism and universalism is everywhere in Judaism. Every service, three times a day, we conclude with the two-paragraph Aleinu prayer. The first paragraph thanks God for the distinction of being Jewish, “God made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny.” The second paragraph puts forth a universalist hope, that our God and the timeless truths of our tradition would someday be embraced by everyone, “Reign over all, soon and for all time… On that day the Lord shall be One and God’s name One.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi A.J. Heschel says, “The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations…No religion is an island. We are involved with one another…Today, religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral, and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.” – No Religion is an Island.

The Jewish stance of the past, even the not so distant past, was rightfully suspicious of deep connections to the outside. It was dangerous to become overly involved with the outside world. Today, that same isolationism which perhaps served us has the real potential of suffocating us. To live in a disconnected way in a world that is deeply connected, deeply transparent, is to deny reality. The times have changed, and we can change with it without a threat to the essential fabric of what it means to be Jewish.

I feel compelled to share the Torah I have come to love with Jews and non-Jews alike. It is my firm belief that the wisdom of Judaism can strengthen the lives of the Jews I live and work with. I also believe that the self-same wisdom is helpful for the non-Jews in my life. I readily share it without expectation that Jews will all keep kosher or keep the lesser known rite of not mixing linen and wool.  Nor do I expect that non-Jews with whom I share Torah will magically become Jews. Preposterous. Instead, I expect that they come to understand my Jewish perspective, and see the value therein. Who is my Torah for? Ultimately, it is for me, but I like it so much I can’t help but try to share it.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on December 17, 2013

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This Old Freedom Train

In this country, and perhaps at this season of Hanukkah especially, we celebrate our Freedom of Religion.  We also celebrate our freedom “from religion.” imagine-no-religion

The secular laws that govern America intend to prevent any religious coercion or bias among us.  “We the people” have the right to practice or not practice any religion we choose.  Some might claim that the freedom from religion that Western 21st century encounters has led to a weakening of religion.  Within Judaism, for example there is actual debate over what do we mean by mitzvah – for several thousand years it simply meant “commandment,” as in “Do this” or “Do not do that;” within the Torah there are 613 of them. Yet, the Conservative Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary actually has a Mitzvah Initiative, which helps Jewish communities explore mitzvot as” an organizing principle of Jewish life.” There is an active conversation about the meaningfulness of being commanded (or not).

This willingness to question even central ideas, I believe, is a good thing.  Jewish leaders love to celebrate the plasticity of Jewish development over time, yet some bemoan change when it happens on their watch.

Holding on too rigidly to religious control does more to weaken religion than the American born “freedom from religion.” Consider two modern cases as proof: 1) The election of a right-wing Chief Rabbi in Israel has lead to a deepening disenfranchisement for secular Israelis from the value of religious observance. 2) Yesterday, a woman sued the U.S. Catholic Bishops over a miscarriage treatment:

“The lawsuit accuses the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops of creating health care directives “that cause pregnant women who are suffering from a miscarriage to be denied appropriate medical care, including information about their condition and treatment options.” – Chicago Tribune

The religious beliefs of the Catholic Bishops prohibited best medical practices from being offered.  As with the Affordable Care Act, religious communities want the freedom from offering the largest net of possible coverages or procedures, on religious ground. From the perspective of these selfsame religious institutions, their position is mistaken and will hurt them rather than help them in the long-run.

I believe that if religious groups offered health-care to all their employees and religiously funded hospitals could preform all safe procedure, even abortions, it would not weaken the religious perspective of those groups. People who adhere to the religious viewpoint of the institution would be strengthened in their faith as their actions were made out of choice rather than coercion by creed. What would emerge are developments in belief and developments in practices, which in the long-run strengthens the influence of religion.

In the liberal movements of Judaism we see this. What we “choose” to observe, celebrate, think, and feel as Jews is more and more born from freedom rather than obligation alone.  JewishsurveyPromo_639x300

Despite the changes in Jewish identity in America, 94% of U.S. Jews (including 97% of Jews by religion and 83% of Jews of no religion) say they are proud to be Jewish. Three-quarters of U.S. Jews (including 85% of Jews by religion and 42% of Jews of no religion) also say they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”  - Pew Research Center (2013).

The effect has been a changing Jewish landscape, but one in which Jews still strongly, with pride and even with numbers, identify as Jews.  We are more clearly then ever progressing from being “the Chosen People” to the “Choosing People.”

Posted on December 3, 2013

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Typhoon Haiyan and the Importance of Giving

“Shall we make Man in our image?”pic 3

A favorite rabbinic comment of mine reads Genesis 1:25 as a questions rather than the more commonly translated statement, “Let us make man in our image.”

“No,” say one group of angels. “They will steal, hurt, kill, and take advantage of each other.”
“Yes,” another group of angels argue. “They will be capable of love, compassion, and selflessness.”

And while they argued, God, with the tie breaking vote, and the only vote that matters, created mankind.

There is more to the tale, but at the heart of the above imaginings, is the question of the purpose of humanity. It seems that God believes that someday, enough of humanity will side love, compassion, and selflessness to make the existence of our species worthwhile. Put more poetically by Rabbi A.J. Heschel, “God is in search of man.”

Typhoon picWe are a species that can reason itself in or out anything. In light of the devastation of aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, we must ask ourselves again, “what is man for” if not to love and care for one another [and the rest of the planet and beyond... When my family blesses our Shabbat candles, we close our eyes and wave our hands three times. We say, "One for our friends, one for our family, and one for all the people in the world." Several years back one of my kids added, "and aliens if they exist." We’ve kept his amendment. Why not? If aliens exist, then let us bless them too.]

So, have you given to relief efforts in the Philippines yet? I ask this not in the usual “bleeding-heart” sort of way; I ask with a theological concern. I’m asking, because I’m not sure what it means to be human and not have your heart broken at the knowledge of mass suffering. And more; I wonder what it means to have your heart rent at cries heard and seen around the world, and not respond. I think that to feel the kind of pain that the news is sharing with us and not respond does some inner damage to the psyche, if not the soul. An important ingredient in human self-care is caring for others. So give, even though there are reasons not to:

What I can give is infinitesimal to what is needed? Can I make a difference?
I’m barely making it myself.
It is sad, but I give elsewhere.
The systems of giving and distribution are inefficient and corrupt. Such a small percentage reaches those in need.
Why give in the Philippines and not say, the Congo, Sudan, or Syria, Somalia, or the slums of Brazil?

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I suggest that part of being human is the sensibility of caring, of heartbreak, of empathy, as well as a desire for security and justice – not just for self, family, and tribe, but for the entire brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity (if not beyond that). We can rationalize all of our actions and inactions. If you know how to fix the system of giving to be be better and more efficient than what we have today, I implore you to fix it. If, like the vast majority of the developed world, your heart is breaking, but you don’t fit the above description, than give. Give to relief efforts for the sake of the victims, and for the sake of your own heart and soul. Giving, despite the above list and countless other reasons, is an act of heart. Giving in response to this disaster is an act of hope that says that you agree with God’s vote at the top of this blog, that we indeed should exist, that we can build towards a generation that “lives by justice and compassion.”

Here are three worthwhile places to give in response to the Typhoon Haiyan:AJWS

redcross-logo OxFam

Posted on November 18, 2013

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Corporate Greed Leads to Grandma’s Drug Problem

“Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay a total of $2.2 billion and plead guilty to a misdemeanor in a deal that would settle U.S. Department of Justice investigations into the marketing of antipsychotic Risperdal and other drugs.” – The Wall Street Journal.

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The Talmud records that the very first thing a person is asked upon death is the question, “Were you honest in business?”

Gordon_GekkoGordon Gekko taught us that “greed is good.” The central purpose of a corporation is to make a profit; not, by contrast, to make the world a better place. To prey on an unsuspecting population is reprehensible and abhorrent. The same actions, if made by a person, would not just be criminal, but the individual would be considered a dangerous sociopath. Yet, for some reason, we Americans accept this behavior from corporations.

Can you imagine what would happen if someone in your neighborhood admitted to pushing drugs on the elderly and making mountainous profits from it? The dealer would be incarcerated. They would take away his voting rights; and heaven forefend, his gun ownership rights. The sociopath would be serving a life sentence. The government considers corporations as individuals regarding freedom of speech (see the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Case), but the law gives corporations a privileged eye when it comes to crimes that help the company’s bottom-line at the expense of public safety.

Apparently, J&J encouraged the use of the anti-psychotic for off-label use. They worked with old-age homes and large pharmacies to push the drug as a treatment for dementia – an application the drug was never approved for. People are hemming and hawing about the clumsy launch of healthcare.gov; they point to it as proof of the issues of “big government” involved in healthcare, all the while ignoring a very real issue in health care: The greed of corporate America.

In his final interview before his death in 1972, Rabbi A.J. Heschel said, “There was an old idea in America, that virtue pays. And the idea was helpful to many people, until some of us discovered that crime pays even more. And it does. So why not commit a crime?” Many American corporation have made the switch from virtue to crime and considered the price of getting caught as simply the price of doing business. Apparently, the investing class accepts this reasoning, as evidenced by Johnson & Johnson’s stock dropping a mere 0.4% after their admission of guilt and $2.2 billion fine.
$2.2 billion dollars is a lot of money, but from Johnson & Johnson’s perspective, it’s just the cost of doing business. Their official response to the guilty plea and the fine was to simply put this behind them. “[This] resolves complex and lengthy legal matters, allowing us to continue focusing our full attention on delivering innovative health-care solutions for patients and their families,” said Michael Ullmann, the company’s general counsel (WSJ).

My concern is not with J&J or with JP Morgan Chase (see a previous blog), or any other corporation. No, my concern is with us, that we have come to accept theft and public endangerment from central corporations with little moral outrage. Greed and indifference are a dangerous combination. Heschel taught that “there is a drive for cruel deeds in all men, as there is a drive for goodness in all men. But you need more than a drive for goodness to overcome the drive for evil. You need some greater help. And that greater help, I believe, is a little fear and trembling and love of God.”

One might not need God to be good. Perhaps surprising to some, numerous Jewish text support this notion. However, corporations such as Johnson & Johnson show us exactly what lacking a strong moral compass can lead to.

Posted on November 5, 2013

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A Whole Lot of Love

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What if God took note of every mistake you made and considered it a glorious seed for a profoundly better future? God, it seems, is often counter-cultural. Whereas our society, often despite knowing better, constantly rewards achievement and success, God has an interesting track record of recognizing positive effort even when we are surrounded by failures of our own doing.

Take for example the Biblical character of Lot. Lot is Abraham’s nephew. Abraham, father of our people, looked after Lot when his father died. When Lot grew, in age and in wealth, Abraham gave his the choice of land – and where did Lot choose? He chose to live first near the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, and then he moved into Sodom, a city which would soon-after be known for its perversion of humanity and its disdain for God’s expectations for mankind (Gen. 13:12). Why would Lot choose to live among such people? Why, after being taken captive and rescued by his uncle, Abraham, did Lot choose to stay with them (Gen. 19:1)? Certainly, Lot is a flawed character – trying to appease a crowd that has gathered at your door to molest your guest by offering your two daughters is, even by Biblical standards, flawed (Gen. 19:8).

Juxtaposed with his uncle Abraham, Lot certainly seems to come up short, but is that not true for the rest of us? While Abraham might be the ideal, the rightful patriarch of ethical monotheism, Lot, who chooses to live with and among the flawed, the non-believers, and the sinners represents the rest of us. Lot, it seems, loves the townspeople of Sodom. He marries two of his daughters to them, and perhaps he even marries a woman from one of these sin ridden towns. Why else did she turn back to see their destruction (resulting in being turned to salt), and why else would he choose to live close by, still in view of those towns, even after God rescues him and two of his daughters (Gen 19:15-22)? It turn out, a lot of us are like Lot. We’re not perfect, and sometimes we cast out lot with the flawed and those whom we know are acting badly.pillar_of_salt

And here’s the real kicker with Lot: As misguided as Lot is, God sees fit to rescue him. God rescues Lot even after he repeatedly made the choice to live among the wicked and depraved people of Sodom and Gemorah. Clearly, his two daughters that were rescued with him had been raised in a culture where morality was “less evolved”. Believing they had no other choice, they got Lot drunk and raped him in an attempt to repopulate the tribe (Gen. 19:30-38). How perverse! How shocking!  And yet… And yet, despite all the depravity, it will be Lot’s offspring that produces the redeeming figure of Ruth, whose linage would lead to the heroic figure of King David, and by extension the messiah!

It’s nice to have heroes like Abraham. But what if we could never be as singularly brave, kind, or devout as Abraham? What about us who, when we are tested continually fail? What about those of us who are drawn to “the wrong kind” or are ourselves “the wrong kind”? God seems to love us also. After all, the future of Abraham’s descendants is inextricably tied to the future of the descendants of his bumbling nephew Lot. Maybe, being “too good” is not God’s liking anyway. Our sages say we should love God with our positive side and our negative side. Does that not presuppose an acceptance of our darker inclinations? Perhaps too much order, too many rules, too much reason and goodness was not God’s intention for us? The story of Lot suggests that Nietzsche was correct in saying, “You must must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”

God extends love not only to the near perfect in the world, such as Abraham. God loves the rest of us, just as He loves Lot even though he ties himself to the Bible’s most despicable townspeople. God’s love is a challenge to us. Can we love those who represent what we find to be most distasteful? Can we love ourselves when we know that we’re really screwed up? God can. God does.

Posted on October 22, 2013

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3 Times a year -THAT’S ALL!

Back in biblical times, Israelites would come to the great Temple three times a year, in the fall, and at the beginning and end of spring, corresponding to the festivals of Sukkot (now upon us), Passover, and Shavuot. The commandment was to “appear at God’s appointed place and celebrate – three times a year.” (Ex. 23:17).

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What if that is enough?  I have said from the pulpit on Yom Kippur that “if you are here today as your once a year, please go home and come back on Sukkot.” I meant it then, and still do. If your once a year is this heavy, often guilt laden burden, that is a tough nut to crack. Come back on Sukkot, better, come at the end of Sukkot, for Simchat Torah – there is dancing, and if you’re into it, drinking too. Plus, there is nature, and guests, and food. Yom Kippur has fasting.

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Of course, we are the not the people of the Bible, the “People of the Book.”  Rather, we are “the People of the Rabbinic Interpretation of the Book.” The rabbis who brought us our Judaism emphasized daily practice just as much as milestone moments designed after these pilgrimage holidays. To be sure, there is great power in the everyday.There is structure and meaning in taking note of the miraculously ordinary. Nonetheless, there is obviously great power in the extra-ordinary.

Imagine going to see your favorite musician or band. The last great concert I went to was a Soundgarden concert. When the boys cut their guitar chords and let the reverb ride out for a full 5 min. it was, fairly literally, a religious experience. Would it feel the same if I went to hear them every week? Every day? Three times a day?

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By analogy I am suggesting that rabbis and religious leaders need to distinguish the purpose of religious experiences. Some moments are for the well initiated, the regulars, the ones who feel comfortable in the service, any service. These people often enough have a sense of the divine in what others might perceive as ordinary (sitting, standing, reading). When some people try and connect this way and fail, they come away with a sense of “I guess I don’t read meaningfully enough, or sit powerfully enough, or I don’t sway with book in hand well enough.”

But there are other moments, ecstatic moments, that are created with music, with dance, with a good old-fashioned “happening” that draw on the power of the crowd, on swaying together, eating together, and just being together that is transformative. For many Jews who connect deeper in this manner, I am wondering out loud: Maybe three times a year is enough?

Posted on September 24, 2013

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This Yom Kippur Let’s Talk about Syria

I believe that pulpit rabbis have an obligation to frame issues of the day in a moral lens even when truth can be found on either side of an issue. Between a healthy respect for a separation between Church and State, a fear of alienating either the Left or the Right in congregations, and genuine humility (after all, he or she does not have all the answers), a rabbi could be left with little to say about the most important events. Some people like it this way; “rabbi you should stick to issues of spirituality.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Heschel responded to the silence of religion in the face of moral need. He said, “If the prophets were alive, they would already be sent to jail by [people who hold this position]. Because the prophets mixed into social-political issues. And, frankly, I would say that God seems to be a non-religious person, because, if you read the worlds of God in the Bible, He always mixes in politics and in social issues.”
Says the Jew to herself, “On the one hand.” And she replies to herself, “Yes, but on the other hand.” Such equivocation is cultivated by the Jewish debate-style of learning, but it is not always laudable. Sometimes its dangerous.

It once happened that that an aggrieved Jew told Caesar to send the Jews a goat to sacrifice at the Temple, a goat that would seem perfectly fine by Roman standards, but that the Jews would find blemished, unfit as a holy offering at the ancient Temple. The Rabbis wanted to offer it, despite its disqualifying blemish, to preserve good relations with the Romans.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said to them, “People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the altar.”
The rabbis then considered killing the person who brought the animal, so that he could not go and tell the Romans that the Jews did not offer the sacrifice.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said, “We can’t kill that one person, even to save the rest of the people. People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice should be killed.”
Rabbi Yochanan said, “The humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land.” [In this case his piety made it impossible to act at all.](Talmud, Gittin 55b-56a).

In this famous passage, Rabbi Yochanan laments “the humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus.” Why? What’s wrong with Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus? He’s pulled a classic, dare I say rabbinic, “on the one hand … on the other hand.” But, as Zekharya sees it, the sages are left with no ability to decide on how to proceed. At some point, as Tevye eventually discovered within himself in Fiddler on the Roof, “There is no other hand.” At some point, a position needs to be taken because real choices need to be made.

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Consider today’s topic: What should the US do about Syria?
Rabbi Heschel’s words regarding Vietnam forty years ago are just as relevant when we apply it to Syria today. Of course it’s a religious issue. What does God demand of us primarily? Justice and compassion. What does He condemn above all? Murder, killing of innocent people. How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people… In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”

I believe that there is a moral imperative for rabbis to speak about Syria, despite, no, because there is no clear right action. Who better to respond in a muddled issue than those who are specifically trained in the Talmud, a veritable encyclopedia of arguments from opposing moral positions. Even if the Yom Kippur sanctuary is not the forum for debate, it can be a starting place for thoughtful conversation.

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As a rabbi without a pulpit, it is easy to say what my colleague should do. So, let me take it a step further and wade in myself: It is my opinion that America should make a calculated but limited strike against known chemical weapons caches within Syria. I acknowledge that such an American response to Asad’s use of chemical weapons could incite greater instability in the region, and perhaps freeze our already chilly relationship with Russia. Still, in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation we find ourselves, I prefer the stance that says, at some point – and chemical weapons are that point – we can no longer ‘stand idly by.’

Sure some will call this naive- “Intervention in Iraq, in Lybia, in Egypt did not work. We should not insert ourselves into another country’s civil war, especially considering that those in Syria prepared to fill the power vacuum may be even worse that Asad.” Some will consider it hypocrisy – “So the US got to use Agent Orange in Vietnam, but now nobody gets to?” Feel free to agree with me or to point out where I’ve got it wrong in your comments below, but with that, a position is staked and our conversation has begun.

When the Temple stood, the rabbinic inability to take a difficult if principled stand caused “the Temple to be destroyed, our sanctuary to be burned, and us to be exiled from our land.” If contemporary rabbis fail to take difficult if principled stands, we risk not the Temple or the land of Israel, but something more: Relevance!

Posted on September 10, 2013

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A New Way to Prepare for the High Holidays

I’m advocating a new angle on Heshbon Nefesh, ‘soul’s accounting’, that we do in preparation to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Know Thyself

“Know thyself” – from a Greek Temple at Delphi

This soul work begins with the ancient Greek dictum, “know thyself”? Or, to put it more rabbinically, “know before whom you stand?”  I ask myself:  What am I afraid of?  Deep down, what are my real hopes?

An investment of time and focus in anticipation of the holidays elevates the experience. Without the prep-work, is there any doubt that 5 hour services could be a drag? It’s like showing up to the Olympic marathon having not stretched, not worked out, and perhaps not having run in an entire year (or more). The results won’t be good.

I base my approach on practices of the Penn Resiliency Project, of Positive Psychology – this soul’s accounting tackles our fears and hopes for the coming year head-on and in a practical way. Here are the steps:

For each of the categories of your life (friends, relationships with each family member, work, personal health, etc.) do the following:
1) List 3 things that you are most afraid will happen in the coming year. (I encourage you to be honest with your fears – just get the realistic and unfounded flow out of you).
2) List 3 things that you deeply hope will happen in the coming year.
3) List 3 things that are most likely to happen this year.

You’ve just put pen to paper about your worries and your hopes as well as what is most realistically going to happen – Reality is most often found in that middle ground between worst and best.

Now, list steps to take:
A) For each of your fears listed, give yourself 3 simple steps to take to prevent the worst from happening.
B) For each of the things you hope will happen this year, give yourself 3 simple steps that would help make that happen.

Having the opportunity to be honest about our hopes and fears, and creating realistic steps about how to prevent or coax them along, has a tremendous empowering effect on our spiritual preparation for the New Year.  It leads to greater joy and to greater optimism.

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Posted on August 27, 2013

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

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