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.

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.

syria
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

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Obamacare Cards Up in Smoke

I’m just afraid that history will repeat itself. On October 15th, 1965, the first person to be arrested for burning his draft card was taken in, tried, and sentenced to two years in prison. I just worry about the young, idealistic, political conservatives. What will happen to them?

DraftCardBurningNYC

On October first, just a few weeks away, open enrollment required under the Affordable Care Act, will begin. When the bill passed during President Obama’s first term and again when it was upheld by the Supreme Court, we were reminded that while this was a heathcare bill, it was not a panacea for our country’s health industry woes. We were told that premiums would rise, but that that there were triggers in place to curb that. We’ll see about that. In the meantime, early reports in states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and California suggest savings on premiums.

A cornerstone of the so-called Obamacare is that even young and healthy people, with little need of coverage will be required to purchase health insurance or pay a fine. It is their participation that helps control the cost, averaged out through the expanded pool of covered individuals. As a last ditch effort to have the Affordable Care Act fail, FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group, is asking young people to “burn their Obamacare card” as an act of resistance against what they see as a misguided and dangerous law. Why they would oppose healthcare for the uninsured and encourage playing with fire is worth asking, but in any case the stunt won’t work.

One small reason why this gimmick will quickly fizz out is because there is no such thing as an Obamacare card. FreedomWorks knows full well that young people could not possibly burn their Obamacare Card as they might romanticize their parents and grandparents burning their draft cards.  No matter, FreedomWorks will print and send you one.  Such is the existence of being funded in large part by brothers Charles and David Koch, famous for being active as right wing power brokers and parodied in last year’s comedy movie The Campaign with Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis. They can afford making things and quickly burning them.

freedomworks

We should be shocked by the hatred being advocated – a concretized violent act of setting something you don’t agree with literally on fire – this adds to a culture of violence rather than civilized debate.  But, we aren’t shocked, because we’ve habituated to baseless hatred and violent acting out.

So the non-existence of Obamacare cards is not a major impediment for the Koch brothers, but the nature of young people will be. More so than the rest of us the rest, young people hate phonies. What they crave is authenticity. They eschew the pandering nature of politics. As a high school teacher, I have come to admire and respect my students’ craving for the authentic in the world around them, especially from their leaders. In large part, the apathy of young voters comes from their disdain for politicians who they regard as two-faced, not saying what they mean and not meaning what they say. What they saw in President Obama in both his first and second campaigns was not just a younger ‘hipper’ candidate, but one who spoke as a statesman, willing to risk stirring the pot on issues of race, of war, of terror, and of course healthcare. Regardless of any particular disappointments, President Obama is still viewed positively by young people because they connect with his optimism and the candor of his speaking style. When the President spoke about his experience of racism after the Zimmerman trial, they identified with the vulnerability he shared. They credited the perspective as authentic, as valid, and true.

The creation of fake insurance cards to then turn around and burn in a protest as an echo of resistance of the Vietnam war will not hold the same validity and authenticity. On a philosophical level, how can we ask them to take seriously our calls for meaningful discussion about policy when we have raised them in a culture of us vs. them, and violence against ‘the other side’, albeit in this case symbolic? More specific to FreedomWorks, young people hate the contrived, and they hate it all the more when they can tell that it was suggested by their parents’ think tank.

Posted on August 13, 2013

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Empathy for a Convicted Aryan Brotherhood Killer

Todd Ashker

If we fail to treat others, even the worst among them, humanely, than it is we who ceed the ‘moral high ground’, and the greatest values of our country will be undermined.

California Prison Blues (Johnny Cash is dead and he ain’t comin’ to play at Folsom)

I woke up this morning feeling empathy for an imprisoned, convicted killer, an Aryan Brotherhood member, Todd Ashker of Pelican Bay State Prison in California. What the hell is wrong with me! He’s a killer. He’s an anti-semite. And, he’s joined three other gang leaders in the prison to start a second hunger strike against conditions in the California prison system. 600 inmates have joined them. These are men who have tried in court and found guilty of killing innocent people – they shouldn’t get to dictate terms.

Still, the conditions in solitary confinement have long been under the scrutiny of our legal system. “Conditions in [solitary] may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” wrote U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in 1995.

Recently, Israel approved the transfer of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of good-will before renewed peace talks begin. To be sure, these are some of the worst of the worst. Some have been imprisoned for more than 20 years. It must be painful for families to watch the killers of loved ones go free. How can we let them go?

NetanyahuTo this Netanyahu said, “There are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of them.”

Guantanamo Bay opened way back in 2002. It became an international symbol for America’s failure to exercise due process, a bedrock of it’s own legal system. Five years later candidate Obama said we needed to shut it down. Then in January 22, 2009, soon after his first inauguration, he signed an Executive Order that was to begin the shut down of the prison. He said, “We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world. We intend to win this fight. We’re going to win it on our terms.”

By his account, we have not reached the ‘moral high ground.’

Guantanamo

A Guiding Tale: In the worst cities that ever were, the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, there was murder, rape, theft – and those were good days. Of the inhabitants of these two cities there was only one, just one righteous man who did not murder, rape or steal.

“Stop what you are doing. Don’t do that,” He would say to his townsmen. They would just laugh. Still, every day, he would go out and plead with them to stop the evil, and end the pain they were causing each other. Every day they would laugh at him.

After years and years of his appeals to their better selves and their laughing at this lonely morally grounded man, one brute asked the man, “Old man, why do you come out here and tell us to stop every day, when you must know by now that we never listen to you?”

“At first,” said the man, “ I kept repeating my message to try and change your ways. I continued to say them so that you would not change me.”

The President said of closing Guantanamo, that we would ‘win it on our terms.’ I understand that to mean that the United States of America would not be cowed by terror, that the hideous acts of terrorists would not change the character of our country. Twelve years after 9/11, we are still a country that is unsure of the balance of security and privacy that we are comfortable with.

The President said that we would “win on our terms,” but without due process, and without humane care – even in prisons for the hardest killers in the system – “We may be human beings, but we cease to be humans.”

In every case, perhaps especially those cases that draw on our anger and desires for revenge, let us not become what we despise.

Posted on July 30, 2013

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The Passion/Compassion of the Jews

imagesEvery year on the 9th of Av it’s the same arguments in my head. Should I fast or not? On the one hand, the Temple was destroyed, and more. On the other, the State of Israel is reborn, and we Jews live in tremendous freedom. Besides, do we not look forward instead of back? The Judaism I practice helps me build toward a better future, not recreate the past. Between these poles I bounce all 24 hours long – and then, well then the fast is over, and I’ve made no resolution, no progress of how to mark the 9th of Av next summer.

“This is the Day of Destruction.” It’s a phrase my father uses to describe this date in Jewish History, the 9th of Av. Indeed, it was on this date that the First Temple fell (587 BCE) as well as the Second Temple (70 CE). Additionally, on the 9th of Av. It’s also the date of the negative report of the 12 spies that Moses sent (Num. 13-14), the date the Romans put down the Bar Kochbah Rebelion (132) and plowed over the Temple Mount (133) – All of the above constitute the 5 calamities of the described in the Mishnah Taanit 4:6 (200 CE). And there is more: The first crusade (1096), the expulsion from England (1290), the Expulsion from France (1306), and the Expulsion from Spain (1492). Closer to our own age, it was on the 9th of Av (Aug. 2, 1941) that Heinrich Himmler received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.” the following year the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began.

Such a day… Traditionally, the 9th of Av is marked by fasting from food and drink, not bathing, not wear leather, and abstaining from sexual relations. In synagogues we sit on the floor, and by candle light we read the Book of Lamentations, “Shall the women eat their fruit, the children that are dandled in the hands?” (2:20). Blood in the streets, dead babies, young and old dead in the streets.

Why such anguish? I ask the same question about the passion of Jesus? What is the religious point of dwelling in such torture, blood, and murder? Why should I stomach such Biblical torture porn – the gore of Lamentations and of Jesus’ brutal beating and crucifixion remind me more of movies I choose not to see than of the religions of Love which I see in Judaism and in Christianity.

I believe that the case of the 9th of Av echoes the Christian understanding of the Passion of Jesus. To bear one’s cross is to feel the the very human pain of loss and hurt and loneliness and betrayal. Feeling the full force of the worst day(s) of one’ life is a powerful human connection to the Jesus story. Yet to focus on the horrible things that happened to Jesus or to the Jews on the 9th of Av is only half of the point. Can’t I try to see it from God’s perspective? What does it mean to loose your children right before your own eyes? Can I also cry for God?

Why should I cry for you? Why would you want me to?” – Why Should I Cry For You, Sting (Soul Cages).

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin teaches that even when a criminal is hanged, God cries out ‘woe unto Me.’ Mankind is made in the image of the divine, and by extension whatever we do to others, it is as if we do it also to God. “When I injure my fellow man, I injure God.” -AJ Heschel.

This year, I see the 9th of Av as a day on which to feel the world’s pain: From the unrest in the streets of Syria and Egypt, the pain of strained race relations in the wake of the Zimmerman/Martin case, but also the acute sadness of friends in my circles who are mourning the deeply personal loss of loved ones. And everything in between. From broad and distant to particular and close by, my heart-strings are pulled by human tragedy. With every hurtful and hateful thing mankind is able to inflict upon each other, we diminish the image and the presence of God in the world.  When we give heed to the suffering of others, we also hear God’s lament, “woe unto Me.”  This, I believe is an important step in shedding Godly light into the broken places of our world.

candle

Posted on July 16, 2013

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Overheard but Under Listened

Captain’s log, Stardate July 2112:

Fascinating! Unearthing the massive data storage facility here in Utah must be very much like what finding the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran was like. What a snapshot into a previous era!

imgresIt’s 2112. This is the year that the rock band Rush imagined that the brotherhood of man would need to be set free from the tyranny of the Priests of the Temple of Syrinx. They imagined a man named Anonymous would find a guitar, make music and set humanity free. Well, they were partly right,  it was 2110 and her name was not Anonymous.

What our earliest human ancestors understood was that words have the power to build or to destroy. Thus, they attributed to their ancient understanding of the Divine the power of speech and thus creativity: “And God said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light (Gen 1:3). The great Chafetz Hayim, from whom we base our holy practice is Shemirat Halashon (guarding the tongue) understood that the right words lift people up. My favorite:

Yes. Yes. Yes! Yeeeeessss!

But when people are at their most vulnerable, the wrong words can shape the ego in ways that can take decades to undo:

You are so stupid.
What were you thinking!?
You’ll never be able to do that.
No.

Thank heavens we in the year 2112 know better. To be generous, our ancestors from the early 21st century began to understand that words indeed have meaning and real power, even if they were very bad at knowing which words were positive and which were negative. Their comical solution, amass large stockpiles of communication. Here in Bluffdale, Utah, the US National Security Agency built a then massive storage for email, phone records, and other digital information. The hope that they would someday be able to find meaning in their treasure proved greater than their laws protecting privacy. They stored Zettabytes and even Yottabytes of records. Alas.

In 2013, the now famous, Ed Snowden,helped bring brought data treasures to greater light. A mighty conversation about privacy took place.2013628172236962734_20 Indeed, as opined in the New York Times (The Service of Snowden, 6.27.13), history has treated his actions favorably. From our vantage in 2112, is is clear that the government and its contracted agents in 2013 did not know what they had caught in their massive data sweeps. Why else did they leave so many vital messages unexplored as unimportant? Consider the following unsent emails we have collected from those unearthed stockpiles:

I’m sorry.
I still love you.
Why me?
Will I find a way out?
I hope I can keep my home.
Please don’t take the kids.
I hope they find that son-of-a-bitch.
I really need that job.
I’ve never been so scared.
Why won’t somebody help me?

Every word has power. Everything we say has meaning.
In the 21 century they heard everything, but they never listened.

Captain’s log: sign off.

Posted on July 2, 2013

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Silence or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA

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The NSA Know-it-all (click to see in theweek.com)

Sooner or later, everything you say or do will be recorded.  The internet, like an elephant, never forgets.

I’m sure that I could have gone far in Miss America competitions, not the bikini part of course. Nobody needs that! I mean the interview part. I’m pretty good at saying partially interesting-partially idiotic things such as these gems from listmania’s 10 (True) Stupid Comments Miss America Contestants Have Made:

“My most important role model is Mother Teresa, because she’s just so awesome!”
“No, I don’t think the Miss America Pageant denigrates women. Well… maybe the ugly one…”
“I have always admired you, Mr. Parker. Especially your drive to get dogs neutral.”
“The world would be a better place if all blind people could see.”

The need to say something is so great that a person might just blab on and say something stupid, or worse. I’ve been present when someone asked a woman who was no longer a size zero, “When are you due?” And sure enough, the woman was not pregnant. I didn’t say that awful thing, but the horror of that moment stopped the earth it’s orbit. It was a long moment, seared into my neural pathways. In that pregnant pause one could hear the angels of heaven’s choir collectively gasp. Since that moment I never comment on a woman’s pregnancy, not even a “you look great!” I imagine a day when a friend’s water might break and will be on the phone with 911 for an ambulance, and I’ll say, “Oh, you’re pregnant?”

In the Mishnah (200 C.E.) Rabbi Shimon taught the following lesson: “I was raised among the wise, and I have found that there is nothing more becoming a person than silence” (Avot 1:17). (The literal translation reads ‘nothing is better for one’s body (tov la’guf) than silence).

Yes, silence is golden. I knew that, but I forgot it a decade ago when I was asked to volunteer at a charity golf event. I’m not a golfer. The deal was to ask each golfer at the tee of the ninth hole for another five bucks toward the charity or let me, the non-golfing rabbi, tee off for the player. imgres-1Everybody paid – golfers are dumb. In any case, another volunteer was stationed there with me and as it was, we quickly ran out of things to say. Why did I have to be leaning on the Par Aide golfball washer? Why, in that moment, did I have to be mindlessly playing, up and down, with its plunger? More importantly, why couldn’t I keep from speaking just for the sake of speaking?
“Why don’t any of these guys stop to wash their balls,” I asked? The horror on the face of the other volunteer, a woman I had never met, snapped the rewind of the previous five seconds and I realized just what I had said. Why don’t any of these guys stop to wash their balls? Did I say that? Shit!

indecent-exposureThe National Security Agency is listening to our phone calls and tracking our internet usage. Google Now (aka,Today) knows everything about us, and is learning to monetize your likes and dislikes, as well as every search you’ve ever done – ever! It seems safe to say that everything you say is being recorded and will live on forever as some horrid proof of Neitzche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence.
images-1Woody Allen: “Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.”

To my mind, there are two likely outcomes to the showdown that modernity is having between the right to privacy and the amassed personal data now available in digital age:
Just as the Beastie Boys would for their right to party, people are going to fight like mad for their right to privacy. It’s already happening.  Laws for privacy will stand, but we are so addicted to what interconnectivity can do for us that we will continue to willingly forfeit our privacy.
Some people will embrace that there is no such thing as privacy anymore. These people have never run out of things to say on a golf course or have have greater powers of denial than I.  They simply hope that technological security will keep one step ahead of the digital- ne’er-do-wells. It hasn’t and it won’t. The announcement that the Pentagon’s Cyber Command plans to form thirteen offensive teams by 2015 should dispel us of that naive mindset.

I’d like to suggest an alternative. We should become practiced in the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon, who taught that silence is healthy for us humans. Isn’t silence precisely the counterbalance to the pathology of needing to fill every moment with having something to say? Since the digital-age seems bent on preserving every idiotic thing we say along with the brilliant and quotable. I wonder about the moment in the not so distant future in which we have learned to accept that everything we say is heard and being recorded -will we also learn to be more intentional in what we say? Maybe then I’ll be allowed back on a golf course. Until then, the virtue of appreciating silence as wisdom is needed more than ever before.

Posted on June 18, 2013

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Rescuing Grace

I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”

Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).

Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).

We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia.reptilianbrain The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).

To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.

It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.

Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti

Degas_BallerinaWe are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.

GraceUnmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).

Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:

Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.

It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.

Posted on May 21, 2013

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Accidentally 1%

E Class“There will be no poor among you…” – Deut. 15:4

Last night I was stranded in a Mercedes E Class in the parking lot of my favorite vegan restaurant. It was the most expensive car in the lot by tens of thousands of dollars. Other than the new, sleek black Benz with the dead battery that I was sitting in, the newest car in the lot looked to be a late 90’s Subaru splattered with lefty bumper-stickers and a license plate that read “MS YOGA”.

I called Mercedes’ Roadside Assistant. Katie answered.

YOGA jpeg

“Mercedes Benz Roadside Assistance, this is Katie. Can I help you?”

“I’m in a loaner care from Mercedes Benz of Encino,” I told her, and then I explained that the cool car I had been driving for two days simply would not start.

“Oh, darn,” she said. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” and I believed her. She was upset on my behalf.

Sure there are fancier cars, but you have to understand that everyone inside the Follow Your Heart Cafe is perpetually working on being eco-everything, organic-everything, and decidedly against conspicuous consumption like luxury cars.FYH Though there is a prominently hung quote by His Holiness, the 14th Dali Lama extolling the wisdom of tolerance just inside the doors, nonetheless, I can confirm more than a handful of off-put faces through the restaurants’ windows. I felt I had two choices: A) Try and defend my predicament to every quizzical customer who entered or exited, or B) I could keep my head down and pretend to be on the phone.

I chose B. For the record, I waited just fifteen minutes, but that was long enough to reflect just how it is that I ended up stranded in front of the Follow Your Heart Cafe.

Here is the short version: My teenager crashed our Honda Civic – Nobody hurt. Thank God! The insurance company considered it totaled, wrote us a check, and I bought another Civic, a used one, from our local Mercedes dealer. They assured me that a nice, little old lady had traded it in for a new Mercedes. I drove it around, negotiated the deal, drank two free Diet Cokes from their lobby cooler and then I drove off with it. Two days later, my new-used Civic wouldn’t start. I called AAA to jump the car and while I waited I called the Benz place. “Will you fix it.” Long pause. Please, please, please. “Yes, drive it in.” Yes! I brought it in, they gave me a Diet Coke, but after twenty minutes they informed me that they couldn’t fix it for two days, so they offer me their loaner car in the meantime, a Mercedes E350.

The first place I drove to was my kids’ Jewish private school. My black Mercedes looked at home. As I step out of the car, I smile about the surprise my boys would get when they saw the car. I was still smiling as the driver in the Mercedes next to mine also stepped out. It was one of the school’s board members, and I’m pretty sure he sits on the financial aid committee that I’ve appealed to every year. He wasn’t smiling.

The next place I went was home. My in-laws were there visiting. Let me quote my favorite part of the conversation between my father-in-law and mother-in-law:
“Those Nazis make great cars.”
“Marshall!”
“What? I’d never buy one, but it’s a great car.”

As I sat in the Follow Your Heart parking lot I realized, that, “hey man” (if you’ve ever visited this retro hippie joint, you understand sounding like The Dude from the Big Lebowski and saying things to yourself like “hey man”). “Hey man, you’re lucky,” I said into my phone to no one but myself. “These are First World Problems.”

Of course it’s true. John Edwards turned out to be a well quaffed liar and cheater, but he was right, there are “two Americas”. In a recent Times’ opinion, Charles Blow cited two studies in this regard:

From 2009 to 2011, average real income per family grew modestly by 1.7 percent but the gains were very uneven. Top 1 percent incomes grew by 11.2 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes shrunk by 0.4 percent. Hence, the top 1 percent captured 121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery.” -Emmanuel Saez, professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent.The Pew Research Center, April 2013.

“For the poor will never cease to be in the land…” -Duet 15:11

Soon enough the tow truck Katie sent was behind me in the lot. I liked the driver, Henry, right away.

“Trouble with your car, Boss?” He said as we shook hands along side the beautiful dead tank.
We talked for the entire fifteen minutes it took him to jack it up, turn it backwards, and fill out the paperwork. I explain the whole crazy scenario to Henry. Tried to buy a used Civic but end up with a Mercedes. Henry said his wife drives a Civic, but that he drives a 68 VW Bug when not in his tow truck. “It got me back and forth from Compton twice this past weekend. No worries with that car,” he said.

I had a great time driving that car for a few days, even with the trouble it caused me. I was also happy to see the Benz hanging backwards off of Henry’s tow truck.

“Who is truly rich? The one who is happy with what he has.” – Pirkei Avot 4:1

There are at least two Americas. Some of us are duel citizens.

Posted on May 7, 2013

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Illness: Beyond the Boundary of Faith

Years ago, a Jewish woman, a 15-year survivor of cancer, came to me with a confession.
“Rabbi,” she said, “When I was getting chemo, the woman next to me said to bury a picture of Saint Jude (the saint of desperate situations) for good luck, so I did it. I was so scared. I bought a picture of St. Jude and buried it in my backyard.”
“Huh.” That’s official rabbi speak for “This topic does not appear in the Talmud.”

“So, there’s more, Rabbi.”

There is always more.

St. Jude

St. Jude

“Anyway,” she continued, “I told a different Catholic friend about burring St. Jude in the backyard, and she asked me, ‘did you bury him face-up or face-down?’ I told her ‘face- up.’ She told me that it has to be face-down. So what was I to do rabbi? My first friend insisted that St. Jude be face-up and the second one said face-down. So 15 years later, guess how many saints are buried in my backyard?”

You guessed it. There is at least one nice Jewish woman with two St. Jude’s buried in her back yard – And given the alternative she was worried about, thank God!

I shared this story this past Shabbat in a Torah Study group. I asked for help exploring the boundaries of sanctioned Israelite religion. Why on Yom Kippur would Aaron, the High Priest, offer one goat to God and another to Azazel (Lev 16)? Whether “Azazel” is a “desolate place,” or the name of a  “goat demon of the wilderness” – What does this non-normative practice tell me about the boundaries of my religion’s, Judaism’s, practice today?

I went on to share the odd story of the serpents God sent down to bite the Israelites that were wrongfully complaining. When they admitted guilt God told Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a pole, anyone who is bitten can look upon it and be healed.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When any bitten person looked upon it, he lived.” (Numbers 21:4-8).

The Ten Commandments are pretty clear, and they make the above two stories, and a handfull of others patently problematic:

  • You shall not have any gods before Me.
  • You Shall not make any graven images – not of the things of the heavens, not of things of the earth or the waters below.

My question is not a history question of the actual belief of ancient Israelites. I am not presently interested in the rich rabbinic commentary that explains these difficulties away. I am familiar with them – I love them, but my interest today is this:

Is there a thread that ties together these breaks in ‘normative’ practice?

There is: Illness.

My read on these texts, and my pastoral practice in desperate health issues is “Anything Goes.”

If you are in a dire situation – do you care to which god people who care about you pray to on your behalf? I say keep ALL the prayers coming. Bring in Mary if she’ll help. Send in Mohamed, Azazel, St. Jude, a picture of a snake etched in copper. Send in all the light.  If “it” works, wouldn’t you do it to save a life or to remove a serious illness?

We are taught that one should accept death rather than these 3 things:  Idolatry, sexual crimes, or murder. There is president to fudge on the first, and I’m fine with that.

To those of us open to a reality that is beyond rational explanation, don’t we also have admit some naiveté’ about how that mysterious reality is really accessed?

I’m aware of the slippery slope just before me. I’m not ready to put up a cross in the synagogue or replace the seats with prayer mats (still, yoga mats are finding their way into synagogues).  but I’ll defend a Jewish woman keeping two St. Judes buried in the backyard.

Our_Lady_of_Lourdes_Basilica

Our Lady of Lourdes Basilica

One person at the table asked, “How about the healing waters of Lourdes?”
“Funny you should mention that.” It was one of my dear friends, who has recently lost his vision. “Some Catholic friends of ours sent me some water from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes,” he said.  “I put on a few drops on my eyelids each night. After a few nights, I could actually make out the numbers on our bedside alarm clock. It was the first time in I don’t know how long since I could do that.”

For sure there are boundaries in Judaism. I’m not advocating any changes – but when illness faces us with the existential realities of life and death those same boundaries often become permeable and we would be foolish not to notice.

Posted on April 23, 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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