Category Archives: Society

The Warrior Within

Synagoge,_Enschede,_Mozaiek“The true test of a warrior is not without – it is within.”Lieutenant Commander Worf, Star Trek: The Next Generation

Current events, recent readings in the yearly Torah cycle, and the inner work of preparing for Rosh Hashanah,the Jewish New Year, come together in this famous literary quotation.

The books of Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy) talk a lot about war: how to wage it justly, how to win, and how to march under the Divine banner.

Generally speaking, much of history is about war, territory, and the exploits of kings. Traditionally, kings have a motive for celebrating themselves. They have the funds to write, publish and circulate stories of their successes and, occasionally, their distresses.

The books of Bamidbar and Devarim do style themselves as historical texts, narrating events and offering snapshots of legal traditions. Some academic scholars credit the early Israelite kings for commissioning and overseeing the books. Perhaps that accounts for the books’ preoccupation with war and its philosophical justifications.

Current events are heavily focused on war, too. Governments, resistance groups, and advocacy organizations publicize sympathetic accounts of their successes and distresses, too. When we read about unfolding events, however, we recognize and try to respond to urgent needs for relief. Thus it seems appropriate, ethical, and results-oriented to focus on war – not odd at all.

As Torah attempts to tell a religious history, its focus on war seems to present war as a religious experience. Sociologist Max Weber theorized about the roots of this view. The spiritual covenant we prize, Weber argued, was not originally an agreement between the Israelites and God. Instead, it was a confederation agreement between the twelve Israelite tribes to support each other in times of war. But the army’s leader, figurehead, and supreme general could not be recruited from any particular tribe. The leader was God, Commander of Commanders. Thus, worship of a warrior God was important social glue in ancient Israel.

Weber’s contemporary, philosopher Hermann Cohen, saw the exact opposite. The true nature of the Israelites’ God, he wrote, was and is peace. God authorizes the priests to place the Divine name upon the people. This fifteen-word name, known now as the priestly blessing, concludes, “May God lift the Divine Face towards you, and place within you shalom” (Numbers 6: 24-26). For Cohen, God’s true face and most accurate name is “peace.” An essential, fundamental, spiritual yearning for peace holds us as we stumble through war’s posturing and politics.

Two views: war and peace as fundamental religious experiences. Sure, depth psychologists would say, both war and profound peace are numinous experiences. Unearthly and otherworldly, they yank us out of ordinary consciousness, showing us a different order of reality. No wonder some people speak of war as a religious experience, and others speak similarly of peace.

A midrash teaches that during the month of Elul, “the king is in the field,” i.e., God is especially close to us. Perhaps this month we can deliberately focus on our own inner tendencies towards war and peace. Where and when, in your relationships, do you find yourself poised for conflict? Where and when do you find yourself yearning to make peace? Both can be done with intention, grace and justice. And both should begin with reflection, consultation, prayer, and planning.

To adapt Worf’s words slightly, “The true warrior, and the true peacemaker, begin the work within.”

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Posted on September 8, 2014

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God at the Speed of Life

Most moderns live life on the run. You probably don’t need any reminder, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American claims just 17 minutes per day to relax and think. If you’re like most Americans, you’re running out of time just reading this post.

speed-of-lifeModern life has traveled far from the perhaps mythic ideal of Talmud’s sages, who set aside distractions for fully an hour before thrice-daily prayer (Talmud, Berachot 30b). Plainly they didn’t live at the pace of iPhones and split-second commodity futures trading. Ancient mystics who sat for hours in meditation never sat in rush hour traffic, late for a meeting, perilously low on fuel, while desperately needing a bathroom.

Spirituality and mindfulness, we’re told, need the spaciousness of time – yet precisely in all our society’s collective wealth and productivity, most multitasking moderns feel starved for time. Is it any wonder that spiritual wonder sometimes seems so elusive?

The upcoming High Holy Days challenge us to ask: Where is God at the speed of life? Maybe even more importantly: where are we at the speed of life?  Where are we when we race – whether literally in body, or in our minds? How can we answer these questions if we don’t bask in time-intensive prayer or regular meditation?

We fast-paced moderns can indeed answer these questions – and, for our spiritual survival and sanity, we must.

The Psalmist wrote, Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid – “I will keep God before me always” (Ps. 16:8). Centuries earlier, Moses encountered God in a common thorn bush (Ex. 3:2). Later, Moses was recorded to teach that ein od milvado – “There is nothing else but God” (Deut. 4:35). These teachings all offer a common promise: awareness of holiness “always” is in our reach “everywhere,” even in “common” contexts. Whatever we may believe or sense in our frenzied pace, tunnel vision, distraction or religious predilections, the God of “always” and “everywhere” must mean God also – even precisely – at our speed of life.

Nice words, but do “always” and “nothing else” really help at the speed of life? Panentheists like Rabbi Art Green offer that everything is part of God: we, our iPhones, traffic jams and everything are part of the unfolding of evolutionary Being, all of them flowing with the potential for holiness. But even if we can imagine it cognitively, few find panentheism especially moving (and I know none who even say “panentheism”) while going nowhere fast in traffic.

For me, the power of “always” and “everywhere” is less in theology than empowerment. By definition, “always” includes now and “everywhere” includes here – no exceptions. If so, then heightened awareness beckons not despite but precisely from daily life’s rough and tumble. When we forget – and we all do – it’s not because cosmic reality changed, but because we stopped paying attention.

As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, how we focus our attention can invest even the most routine daily experience – even sitting at one’s desk, or getting one’s teeth cleaned – with the power to elevate the seemingly ordinary. This is the high potential of “now.” Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid: “I will keep God before me always” – even in the dentist’s chair, even in traffic.

The lyricist of “Hello, Dolly!” knew that “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.” It only takes a moment to find our breath, notice a sunrise, smile at a passerby, or count a blessing. It only takes a moment to reclaim “now” – but make no mistake: this isn’t easy spirituality. Claiming a moment (then another, then another) is the teshuvah (spiritual return) to which we re-commit at Rosh Hashanah. Tools of spiritual life – prayer, study, meditation, reflection, good deeds – empower us to make Godly moments “always” and “everywhere.” What would the world be like if we all made a whole year of holy moments like that?

Try it next time you’re stuck in traffic.

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Posted on September 4, 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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Should We Care About People Not Like Us?

tikkun-olamThe context was a class on the gun violence epidemic in Chicago. I had finished the presentation by mentioning some of the grim statistics of people injured and killed by gun violence throughout the city. After the class an individual approached me and said, “Rabbi, why should I care if people who aren’t Jewish are dying because other non-Jews are shooting them?” I was, of course, flabbergasted by his question. It occurred to me though that while this person had the audacity to ask the question, many more people probably quietly think along similar lines, even if not exactly in the same formulation. The question remains for many: Why should I care about people who are not part of my community? Is there a Jewish mandate to care about others?

This is an important question primarily because those of us who do believe there is a value to caring for people who are not like us need to spend time unpacking that priority. It is always worthwhile to explore our own value systems and be able to more clearly and cogently articulate why they are so. People can turn to many different sources for inspiration and guidance, as a rabbi I turn to Jewish texts and to Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate over the Land of Israel and the great 20th century Jewish philosopher and mystic, in his work Orot HaKodesh links the commandment to “love God” with love of the world. A person who truly loves God cannot help but love the world and God’s creations. God as Creator saw fit to create each and every human being and was therefore deserving of His love, thus how could we not love all humanity?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the eminent leader of Modern Orthodoxy, articulated a philosophy in his essay, Confrontation, of existing in two “confrontations:” the universal human struggle to overcome wickedness and the things that bring humanity down and an equally powerful connection to our own unique covenantal relationship with the Divine. Neither confrontation is abrogated by the other. Both are vital.

The early rabbinic text, the Tosefta, states that “we [Jews] eulogize and bury the dead of non-Jews because of the ways of peace, and we console the mourners of non-Jews because of the ways of peace. (Gittin 3:14)” Maimonides in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, extended it further and stated it was a commandment to visit non-Jewish sick and feed the non-Jewish poor because “God is good to all and His compassion is on all His creatures” and “The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. (Laws of Kings 10:12)”

This is by far not an exhaustive examination of the subject. It also does not represent the entire spectrum of Jewish thought. There is a strand of thought that does diminish our obligation to care about those not like us. However, the objective here is not to present a complete exercise in the study of the subject from all angles but rather to make the case that believing there is an inherent value to caring about people who are not Jewish and devoting oneself to the betterment of all people is an integral part of Jewish tradition.

As our urban centers are plagued with gun violence (particularly in Chicago) and as people face numerous challenges related to poverty, access to quality education and discrimination we ought to be a part of the work towards a solution. We must be involved not just because it is the good thing to do but because it is very much the Jewish thing to do.

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Posted on July 18, 2014

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Should We Bring Back Arranged Marriage?

Just married Not long ago, a friend of mine posted an excellently snarky commentary about a new television show called, Married at First Sight. On this show, potential—I don’t know what you call them…”contestants,” perhaps?—fill out personality assessments and undergo “spiritual counseling,” and then four experts narrow down several hundred people to three couples. Then they get married. Without meeting one another first.

My friend was gleeful: what a train wreck! But after an initial shiver of dismay at yet another reality show, I thought to myself—y’know, is it really? It’s just bringing back the idea of matchmakers—what’s so shocking about that?

In earlier times, marriage wasn’t expected to be the way that individuals fulfilled themselves. We think of marriage this way now, but the truth is that we think of nearly everything this way—it’s one of the less admirable side-effects of a rights-oriented society (there are good things of course, too, but stay with me here, we’re not talking about those right now). Older societies viewed marriage in different ways, but the pattern tended towards viewing them as a way to join families (not individuals), a child-rearing project, sometimes a way to maximize economic resources (or if you were very wealthy, to concentrate them). When done well, compatibility of background and interest are taken into account, too.

In theory, this leads to much less of the “oh, my infatuation period is over, lets move on to the next high-excitement partner” problem. In a good marriage, where the daughters’ needs were taken into account by her parents (i.e. no child marriage, no large age difference between the future spouses, etc.—a lot of which is actually mentioned in traditional Jewish sources in those eras when marriages were, of course, arranged) that can mean that a lot of the silliness involved in modern courtship arrangements doesn’t happen. There is no problem with people worrying about the passion not being exactly as it once was, because love comes later, and passion is a bonus, if it happens.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are so many people out there—I see it at least twice a week in my Facebook feed—advocating that if you don’t “feel the passion” at every blessed moment, there’s something wrong and you should leave, whether it’s your job, or your spouse. But if we think about it, that’s kind of crazy: imagine deciding that when your child was old enough that you were no longer in the stage where you daftly stare into the baby’s face all the time and can’t get enough of smelling its adorable baby smell—imagine if people advised you to give away the baby at that point, because you didn’t feel the passion.

It’s the same for marriage (or your job, for that matter) the beginnings, where you gaze moonily at each other all the time, and can’t really think of anything else—that shouldn’t be the end point of the relationship, where you want to stay for years and years. Like the child, there need to be changes as your relationship matures -that’s not a failure of love any more than sending your child off to preschool—or college—is.

I’m not really advocating for parents to once again arrange matches between families—heaven knows I would likely have been appalled at anyone my parents were likely to pick for me. But there may well be something to be said for having someone who is not directly involved in the emotions of the process being the one (or more) who matches couples up—maybe it wouldn’t be a terrible thing for there someone looking out for long-term goals other than simply the excitement of anxiety and physical attraction in the early days of infatuation. Maybe it would be good for us to return—at least a little bit—to couples thinking of their partnering as something more than just the two of them—or, at least for the person matching them up to think of those things.  And while I don’t foresee a wholesale return to shadchans (matchmakers), the fact that there is a show in which people who want to meet someone else, and are willing to hand over their choice to people who might do a better job than they do—that’s something to think about.

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Posted on July 16, 2014

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I Am Orthodox: Why Labels Matter

A few weeks ago Elad Nehorai of Pop Chassid posted a provocative piece entitled, “Jews, It’s Time To Abolish The Word ‘Orthodox’“. This article made its way through my Facebook newsfeed at the time of its posting with people agreeing with his idea and those disagreeing. This conversation: The utility of labels and the cost/benefit analysis of the term “Orthodox” is one that I have been party to on numerous occasions. The discussion is usually colored by the intra-denominational tensions within Orthodoxy and where the people who are conversing fall in those larger debates. This question is often used as a tool to either bolster or tear down another person’s identity claims in order to delegitimize or add legitimacy to their approach and philosophy.

Gratefully, Elad does not engage in that conversation but rather opens us up to thinking about whether it is time to abolish labels that are unnecessarily divisive. He wonders whether embracing a label implies spiritual and religious stagnation (i.e. “I’ve made it!”). These are important questions. Yet, I do not believe the problem is the label. As people we live in a world ordered by labels and categories. The entire pursuit of taxonomy in the scientific fields allows us to delve further into the biological world. Taxonomy, the pursuit of classifying in order to understand, is not an inherently negative notion. It is a necessary fact of life and the way we as human beings think.

identitySimilarly, an undeniable part of the transition from pure science to humanities is one will have a harder time of achieving absolutely consistent definitions. There will be at times inconsistencies. Sociologically, different groupings of people, even within a similar religious culture, will use the same title and mean slightly different things. Thus, when one sees different types of Orthodox Jews claiming the title Orthodox and yet they have differences in belief or practice that does not ipso facto mean the label is worthless. There are a myriad of ways of broadly being Jewish and yet we do not say the term “Jewish” or “Jew” is meaningless because there are differences amongst Jews.

My main contention with this article though is the non-personal nature of it. What do I mean by that? In claiming that the title ought to be abandoned Elad (and others who say the same thing in conversations) disregard the meaning the title holds for people who claim it as an identity construct. It may not be helpful, meaningful or useful for you but that is not the same thing as saying it is therefore not helpful, meaningful or useful for anyone else. In fact, to do so is to be dismissive of other people’s identity and the way they form themselves in the world.

I am Orthodox. The Orthodox title is useful for me in conceiving of how I go about in the world. It is helpful for me in framing my particular sub-community within the Jewish religious world. It is meaningful for me to describe not the journey that I have completed (contrary to Elad’s claim) but rather the journey I am still on. Furthermore, as a person with some ancestral connections to the German Jewish experience, I find inspiration, motivation and wisdom from the intellectual vibrancy, spiritual probing and engagement with the world offered by figures such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l and Rabbi Dovid Tsvi Hoffmann zt”l among others.

The term historically arose as a pejorative for the traditional in a post-ghettoized Europe but that does not mean there are many, including myself, who have come to embrace it. The label may be home to intense intra-fighting but that has always been the case since the dawn of the label (e.g. the German Neo-Orthodoxy in contrast to the Hungarian Ultra-Orthodoxy debates of the 19th century). I respect the decision of those who choose to no longer identify with the label or who no longer find it helpful or meaningful but I ask that those same people respect my decision to maintain it.

Posted on July 4, 2014

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Please. Just Stop.

I do not want to write about the horrific deaths of the three Israeli boys. I had other things I planned to talk about this week, but I do not feel that it would be right to talk about anything else, anything more trivial.

I do not want to talk about horror, or violence, or the hollow feelings that watching the news over the past two days has left with me.

There is nothing, Not. One. Thing. I can do to ease the parents’ pain; to undo the senseless, vile, killing; to make anything about this situation in any way better.

Nor can anyone else, although many people are trying, in all the wrong ways: by creating Facebook groups calling for revenge, by killing a young Palestinian boy, by marching through the streets chanting for the deaths of people based on their ethnicity.

None of this will assuage one drop of the pain caused by these boys’ loss. It will not ease the fear felt by many parents, or even the more general fear of anti-Jewish feeling or actions by some Arabs. All that feeling seemingly must go somewhere, and I understand that people are desperately looking for a place to spend it, to get rid of their fear and horror and sick,sick, worry. But pouring it out in the streets like sewage bursting its pipe—how can this happen?

I don’t want to talk about this. About any of this. In addition to the sorrow of the loss of those children, I now feel harrowed by the horror of seeing racial violence in the streets of Israel, by Jews. In seeing some people, whom I otherwise had respect for, advocating its rightness. But I think we have to talk about it.

The family of slain Israeli teenager Naftali Fraenkel has been a model of dignity and yahadut (Jewish values) in their tragedy, saying it would be “horrifying and despicable” for the Palestinian boy to have been murdered in revenge, and the boy’s uncle, Yishai Fraenkel, said, “There is no difference between blood and blood. A murderer is a murderer, no matter his nationality and age. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any murder.”

Must we make the families of the murdered be our rebukers in their time of sorrow? What a terrible burden to place upon them.

How did we get to this place?

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Posted on July 2, 2014

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Corporations Are Not Religious

The Supreme Court gives corporations Freedom of Religion protection. Absurd.imgres-1

At the close of this season’s Supreme Court rulings, the justices voted that corporations had a right to exercise their freedom of religion. The vote was 5-4. Who would have guessed it?

The right-leaning judges of the majority argued that “closely held for-profit corporations” running on religious principles, such as Hobby Lobby, had a right to exempt themselves from federal laws that impinge their religious sensibilities.

The left-leaning judges challenged, but lost. “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.” (New York Times).

Are corporations people?

The Citizens United case, which allowed corporate money in campaigns, sure suggested “yes.” Now, I guess its clear. Corporations are certainly and absolutely persons. Persons, yes.  Perhaps more specifically, zombies. Consider: Corporations never feel pain, loss, or ever die (so vampires?).

While in recess, the Supreme Court should prepare for the onslaught of questions that will soon be rolling in. If corporations are persons, and persons have a right to practice their religion—thus exempting such religiously constituted corporations from having to provide federally mandated services, such as birth control in the case of Hobby Lobby—what constitutes religion?

What is a religion?

I’d like my Jewish corporation, which, on religious grounds is closed on Saturdays, to be exempt from one-seventh of its tax burden. Sure the company’s on-line store is open, but nobody is working (its forbidden on Shabbat). For us, to pay taxes that would be collected on Saturday would constitute our business as “working.” According to our rabbi, automated mechanisms set before Shabbat do not constitute working on Shabbat. You see the issue. I claim Religious Freedom for Jewish businesses that are open/not-open from sundown Friday to nightfall on Saturday.

noodledoodlewall

Is Pasta-farianism, a “real” religion, likewise recognized by the government, and thus protected? Would a company whose corporate leaders organized their for-profit business around the values of the Flying Spaghetti Monster be exempt from taxation of Rolling Rock? After all, the official website of the Pastafarians’ Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster clearly claims, “We are fond of beer.”

Would George Costanza, of Seinfeld fame, and his family be exempt from paying taxes on unadorned metal poles? The Festivus Pole is central to the celebration of Festivus (“Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us.”). Similarly, anything having to do with the “Airing of Grievances” or the “Feats of Strength” should likewise have Freedom of Religion protection for any individual or corporation that identifies itself as striving to live good, clean Festivus values.

My son, a musician, has left our synagogue and joined the “Rhythm of Life” Churchfirst established by Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck in the broadway musical, Sweet Charity:

“Daddy started out in San Francisco,Tootin’ on his trumpet loud and mean. Suddenly a voice said, “Go forth Daddy,Spread the picture on a wider screen.” And the voice said, “Brother, there’s a million pigeons Ready to be hooked on new religions. Hit the road, Daddy, leave your common-law wife. Spread the religion of The Rhythm Of Life.”And The Rhythm Of Life is a powerful beat, Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet. Rhythm in your bedroom. Rhythm in the street.” (1969 film version, with Sammy David Jr. as Daddy).

My wife and I are devastated, of course. As a Rhythm of Lifer, can he still be considered Jewish? Can he be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Most importantly, does his incorporated band have to pay the thousands of dollars they have incurred in noise ordinance fines?

I expect that the Supreme Court will need to answer these questions in the next session. Clearly the absurd is part of the Court’s new religion, so they’ll be no stopping them.

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Posted on July 1, 2014

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Requiem for a Suburban Shul

How do you close a synagogue? This is the question I have been confronting for the past few months as the shul I have served these past two years edged closer and closer to our final Shabbat this past weekend. I offer the following reflections of what I fear will be an increasingly frequent phenomenon in American Jewish life.req2

Once we concluded that it was no longer financially feasible to remain an ongoing synagogue, we—our board of directors, led by our President, our staff, and myself—made sure that we would move forward with transparency and dignity.  We sent a letter to all our congregants informing them of our situation and that we wanted to hear from them.  We gave them three options: 1) merge with another existing synagogue; 2) downsize to a small space and eliminate our overhead, including our religious school staff, and try to keep on going as a Havurah; or 3) close down and help members transition to new synagogues. After numerous conversations, it became clear that the vast majority of our congregants preferred option 3.

We spoke with a local Reform synagogue and a nearby Conservative one to apprise them of our situation and coordinated open houses so that our members could see what Shabbat services were like at each. We did not push affiliation at either venue but encouraged our members to make their own decisions, based on their individual needs, and to let us know once they did so we could keep the community in the loop. Once people began to make some decisions, we held a synagogue-wide meeting so that we could acknowledge the emotional trauma of closing down; let people know what others were thinking; and answer additional questions people had about the process going forward.

I also felt that it was important that we finish off our synagogue year with integrity. Though morale was low, our indefatigable religious school director and I made sure that we carried forward with our curriculum, including various innovative end-of-year events, and didn’t let talk about who was going where seep into our students’ in-class conversations. When the media got wind of rumors about our troubles—before any final decisions had been made about our future—we reiterated again and again that we were open and active through June and would get back to them if and when any final decisions were made. We also spent a good deal of attention planning for a Bat Mitzvah that was set to take place a week before we closed; focusing on the joy of this life-cycle event was a bulwark against the pessimism of our impending closure. We arranged for our three Torah scrolls to go to happy new homes, arranged for our Yahrzeit plaques to go to another synagogue where Kaddish could be said annually, and invited our congregants to come reclaim items they had donated or items that held personal resonance for them.

As we drew closer to our closing, we thought it best to have a farewell Shabbat service. We invited current and past members to attend, catered a Kiddush, and held a lovely tribute service.  We honored various groups with aliyot, from our founders to our teachers to those who cooked and cleaned for our events. We had our Bnai Mitzvah alumni help lead the Torah service and had our current religious school students end our service with a rousing Adon Olam. I also gave time during my sermon for people to share their memories and say their farewells. In my final address, I did not shy away from the sadness I, and many others felt, at our inability to live up to our potential. But I also thought it was important to acknowledge all those who had sacrificed so much time and treasure to make this a kehilla kedosha, a sacred community, these past fifteen years.  And I ended with a kernel of hope, suggesting the metaphor of a supernova:

“Kol Ami [the name of our synagogue] is like a supernova. A supernova is what happens when a star dies; it is an explosion so bright that it blocks out everything else around it. Similarly, sadness from Kol Ami’s closing is all we can think about right now, overwhelming us from finding anything positive to express. But the remnants of a supernova explosion, the elements that emerge after the explosion cools, form the very particles needed for the creation of new stars and planets.  Just as our world could not have been formed without a previous star exploding, it is my hope and prayer that we will take precious remnants from our history at Kol Ami and use them to form new planets of Jewish existence and engagement in the coming years. Every end is also a new beginning.”

The closure of any synagogue is tragic for its congregants and a loss for the broader community. While we have found new homes for most of our families, I worry about the empty-nesters in our midst who don’t want to start over with a new shul but yearn for the fellowship of the community they have come to enjoy. I also fear that our shul closure is the proverbial canary in a coal mine alert about the prospects for observant Jewish communities in suburban and exurban America.  But by attempting to close our shul with mindfulness and derekh eretz, I hope that we at least were able to mitigate some of the pain and anguish our congregants experienced.

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Posted on June 10, 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

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